Miami has to get bigger, better if they dream of a three-peat

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Odds makers already have the Miami Heat as the favorites to win the NBA championship again next year — 2-1 odds at Bovada online.

But if the Heat thought this title run was like climbing Mount Everest, wait until next year. The Bulls get Derrick Rose back. The Pacers are not going to get any shorter over the summer. And if the Heat get out of the East the Thunder will have Russell Westbrook again, or maybe it will be these Spurs or an improved Clippers team waiting for them.

Miami won the title but their flaws were exposed in the process — they need more size (at least off the bench) and they need some depth to do things such as rest Dwyane Wade’s knees more during the season.

The Heat are going to have to adapt and improve this summer if they want to three-peat.

And with the full force of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place now, improving is not going to be easy for Miami to do.

Even with the less-than-max salaries that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade took, the big three still have a cap number of $56.8 million next season — that gets them almost to the salary cap already. With the other guys that are locked in (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and others) the Heat are committed over the tax line and over the apron ($76 million even if every option were rejected, and that’s not going to happen). They will be limited in what moves they make.

After back-to-back titles and with limited options, don’t expect Miami to blow this thing up and trade Chris Bosh this summer. That said Pat Riley and the Heat brain trust have to be thinking now about what this team looks like in three years. He needs to be thinking about how to restructure  around LeBron  (he’s not bolting, sorry Cleveland), but don’t expect the drastic changes to come this offseason.

Miami will enter next year with roughly the same overall strategy as the last two seasons — LeBron, Wade and Bosh and try to put enough inexpensive pieces around them to get the job done.

There are clear areas that need to be improved.

First, they need to get bigger and have more toughness inside. The Pacers are only getting better and teams will try to go big against the Heat. Bosh defended Tim Duncan fairly well in the finals (Duncan scored because he is really good and has a plethora of counter moves). But the Pacers and even Bulls showed that size can be an issue for the Heat. Miami has to get bigger.

Chris Andersen helped fill that role somewhat this past season, and he came in on a 10-day contract — the Birdman is going to get a pay raise. The Heat would like to keep him but the most they can offer him is the roughly $3 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception (that’s the most the Heat can offer any free agent). The Birdman is going to want that money, but another team under the tax line can offer more and could snatch him.

To me, the Heat need to go after free agent Samuel Dalembert — a veteran, defense-first center who doesn’t take a lot of shots but is efficient when he does. He’s battled some injuries and he’s not young, but the Heat are not going to do better finding a fit than with him inside.

Other guys such as Jermaine O’Neal and Elton Brand are also out there. Or they could snag Spurs bench rider DeJuan Blair and give him more minutes (but there is a reason he rode the bench in San Antonio).

Next the Heat need to add some depth on the wing, guys that maybe can contribute minutes and will lessen the load on Wade but will play for the minimum. They have Ray Allen on the roster with a player option, it’s his call if he comes back and most likely he will. Certainly his game slipped this year (lowest PER since his rookie season) and he will be 38, but are they really going to find someone better for a minimum salary?

Could they lure Chauncey Billups to join their veteran core? What about a younger player like Xavier Henry?

The Heat also have a Mike Miller decision — they can amnesty him and save his $6.2 million salary, plus the tax. But if they do amnesty him it will not get their salary down to the point they can offer a larger mid-level to someone else, all he does is save them some money. Can they replace his production with a minimum player?

At some point in the next couple years Pat Riley and the Heat are going to make some bold decisions to keep winning. Wade is starting to show his age and Bosh is becoming marginalized in the Heat system.

But don’t expect that to come this summer — the Heat will come back next year with the same strategy that won them back-to-back titles, they just hope with some more depth and size to help out.

We’ll see if that is enough to get the Heat a three-peat.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone suspended one game for confronting referee

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Denver coach Mike Malone decided if he was going to get tossed and fined/suspended, he was going to get his money’s worth.

During the second quarter of the Nuggets’ Sunday loss to the Lakers, Malone ran onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Nikola Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach. As he should. Malone was suspended one game for “entering the court, halting play and making contact with a game official,” the league announced. Malone will serve his suspension tonight when the Nuggets face the Kings in Sacramento.

Mott also tossed Jokic when he entered the argument Sunday night, but the NBA rescinded the ejection saying Jokic earned a technical but should not have been thrown out. A lot of good that does the Nuggets now, who had to go more than half the game without their best player and lost (not that he changes the outcome of the game, but a comeback is less likely without him).

 

 

Kevin Garnett: Thon Maker “is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down.”

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Not to get to inside baseball on NBA journalism, but one fundamental truth is player trainers pump up their guys. There usually is some truth in what they say, but it is in their interest to spin the player the best way possible. On and off the record it happens. It’s like asking a political campaign manager about his candidate, you will only get the positive.

Kevin Garnett worked out and helped the Bucks’ Thon Maker this summer.

In just his second season, Thon Maker has been in and out of the starting lineup for the Bucks at center, and he’s struggled this season with a true shooting percentage of 48 getting him 4.5 points a game, and PER of 9.3. (Bucks fans are understandably disappointed, but this is a second-year player, some patience is required).

Garnett had Makers’ back in a Q&A with Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams.

Thon Maker reminds me a lot of myself. He loves the game. He’s a young, exuberant athlete who has a lot of tools—he has touch; he has agility; he has really, good feet. He has a really good shot from three-point all the way up to 19 to 21 feet. He has very good bones, as we say.

Thon is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down. He has the bones. He has the appetite to be able to chase something like that.”

Garnett may have the wrong young-stud Buck with an MVP in his future.

Maker has gotten KG comparisons for years, he’s a very mobile and athletic but thin big who can shoot from the wing… but the physical similarities are not enough. Maker is no KG. Not yet. Maker showed promise against the Raptors last playoffs but has not taken a step forward off that progress this season, looking far more prone to fouling than defending. The effort is there, but the maturity of game has a long way to go to catch up.

Garnett is right that Maker has the tools, and he is just in his second NBA season so patience is required, but there were concerns around the league before the draft if he had the makeup to put it all together and become a quality NBA player. That question is still out there, let’s get past it before we heap on accolades.