PBT Roundtable: Who gets the last couple playoff spots in the West?

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Welcome to PBT’s regular roundtable on issues around the NBA, where our writers weigh in on the topic of the day.

Today: The conventional wisdom is in the West the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Rockets are playoff locks (barring catastrophe). If true, who gets those final two slots?

Kurt Helin: I think Minnesota, if they can just stay healthy, is maybe the closest thing to a lock for one of those two spots. With Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in the paint they have a combination that pairs well together, then in the backcourt there is Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, a shot creator and a shooter. Add in Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger and some other depth and I like that team to get a spot. The final spot could go so many ways… but I’ll take Dallas. Jose Calderon’s more conservative style and Dirk Nowitzki’s touches will limit what Monta Ellis has to do in the offense, plus they have some solid rotation guys like Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert. But if the Trail Blazers or Nuggets got that slot, it’s not a surprise.

Brett Pollakoff: I’ll go ahead and use this opportunity to remind everybody that the Lakers aren’t going to be as bad as many have projected. While the health of Kobe Bryant is a huge concern, the reality is that there’s still talent on that roster. By all accounts, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will both be fully healthy by the start of the season, and the team managed to sign some veteran talent at bargain basement prices in Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar. Jordan Hill is healthy as well, and if Wes Johnson is ever going to make even a small leap in production given his talent, the time is now in Mike D’Antoni’s system. As long as Kobe plays even 60 regular season games for the Lakers, I like them to make the playoffs. And I agree on Minnesota for the remaining slot in the West — there’s too much talent there if they stay injury-free not to succeed.

If you want to ride with a sleeper, give me New Orleans — Eric Gordon back, along with Jrue Holiday and (begrudgingly) Tyreke Evans make that a backcourt to reckon with.

Darus Soriano: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Jazz and the Suns claim the bottom two playoff spo…hahahaha.

Okay, seriously, I’m taking a page from both Brett and Kurt and going with the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While I think both teams will have their issues defensively, they’re the two most talented teams outside that top six and both groups are in line to have a bit more injury luck next season than they did this past one. When you combine that with the fact that both teams are well coached (yes, Lakers’ fans, Mike D’Antoni is actually a good coach) while also having a chip on their shoulders after disappointing seasons last year, both squads have the right ingredients to rack up enough regular season wins to get into the tournament.

If I were to pick a dark horse team not already mentioned, I’d go with the Kings. I really like the addition of Greivis Vasquez as another point guard to share time with Isaiah Thomas and bring some steady playmaking to that spot by creating shots for his teammates. Plus, in terms of young talent, Sacramento has several nice pieces that, if they can finally put it together (I’m looking at you, DeMarcus Cousins) could make some noise by sneaking up on some of the more established western teams and be in the race past the all-star break

Dan Feldman: I too like the Timberwolves to get one of the spots. I think the Trail Blazers have been ignored in this discussion, and I consider them the safest team to be in the mix. With a young roster and a bench upgrade, they’ll almost definitely be better. The biggest question is whether one of the high-variance teams — Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets — nears its potential and passes Portland, Between the three, I suspect one will. If I had to guess, it’s the Pelicans, but I have to pause before picking against Dallas. Rick Carlisle had a rag-tag bunch at .500 last season, and adding a healthy Dirk Nowitzki is a major upgrade.

Rhett Anderson: Los Angeles guy here, a born-and-raised Laker fan. I want them to make the playoffs, but realistically it’s difficult for me to see that happening. Kobe is still Kobe, but he’s getting older and coming off a serious injury. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will be healthy, but Nash’s minutes are restricted by constant back pain even when healthy. I like the offseason additions (Farmar, Kaman) and Jordan Hill is developing well, but in the end it comes down to Kobe’s return. The team revolves around him, and without him at full strength in 60-65 games, a playoff spot would surprise me.

I agree with Minnesota as one of the final two, and if I had to guess from there it’s a tossup between Dallas (Nowitzki for a full season) and Denver (Faried’s development with the spotlight a little brighter now than before).

DeMar DeRozan: Talk of Raptors’ changes overblown

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri called for a “culture reset,” alluding to an offense less reliant on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan isolations.

DeMarre Carroll, traded from Toronto to the Nets, doubts the Raptors will change much.

Know who agrees with him? DeRozan.

DeRozan, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun:

“I think the media kind of blow it out of proportion like it’s going to be something dramatic, like a complete dramatic 180-degree change,” DeRozan said, who was back in Toronto helping out with the Raptors’ Basketball Academy at Humber College on Monday. “It’s not that at all. It’s just moreso locking in and understanding what it takes to win from every single position. Everyone just know from our failures, guys stepping up and being better leaders, not just me and Kyle but everybody. I think once we lock in and everyone holds themselves accountable, everything else will come around perfect. That’s all it is.”

DeRozan didn’t disagree when it was suggested more ball movement might be demanded this season, but he did say the anticipated level of change by many outside the team is completely out of whack with the reality. The offence is still going to run through himself and Kyle Lowry.

This is shaping up to be a problem. Ujiri made this grand proclamation then brought back the same core – Lowry, DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey. This was the danger, that they were too comfortable with the status quo.

We’ll see how it actually plays out. DeRozan has a strong track record of improvement, and the Raptors might be forcing him to see the game differently by playing him at point guard.

But there at least appears to be a disconnect somewhere between the front office and players.

Rumor: Cavaliers trying to dump salary in Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cavaliers are reportedly prioritizing youth in a Kyrie Irving trade.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Another stated goal is to dump off some salary and reduce the luxury tax bill.

The Cavs – who reportedly lost more than $40 million last season – are on track to become the first team in NBA history to pay the luxury-tax repeater rate. They’ve led the league in payroll, racking up big luxury-tax bills, the last two seasons. They even pulled the rare feat of carving out max cap space (used on LeBron James) then getting about the luxury-tax line in the same season three years ago, finishing second to the Nets in spending that season.

Cleveland now faces a luxury-tax bill north of $78 million – which would eclipse its 2015-16 mark ($54 million) as the second highest tax payment ever, trailing just 2013-14 Brooklyn (nearly $91 million).

Most teams would never spend as much as the Cavaliers have the previous three seasons. Most teams would never approach Cleveland’s costs this year, which include $142 million in player salaries.

But most teams don’t have LeBron.

Remember, the Heat cutting corners on spending contributed to LeBron leaving Miami. And Cavs owner Dan Gilbert reportedly promised to spend unconditionally when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.

Is cutting costs the message the Cavaliers want to send as LeBron enters a contract year?

If so, they have a few candidates for shedding:

  • Tristan Thompson – three years, $52,408,695 remaining
  • J.R. Smith – three years, $44,160,000 remaining (just $3.87 million of $15.68 million guaranteed final year)
  • Iman Shumpert – two years, $21,348,313 remaining
  • Channing Frye – one year, $7,420,912 remaining

All those players, roughly in order of salary, contribute to winning.

The Cavs should have little trouble unloading those contracts in an Irving trade. He’s so valuable, teams will incur a lopsided financial deal to get him. They’ll just send Cleveland less talent to compensate.

It’s the classic dilemma – money vs. on-court success. Teams evaluate this tradeoff every day.

For the Cavaliers, there’s just the additional pressure of LeBron’s looming free agency.

Just a reminder, Russell Westbrook has a max extension sitting out there

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Russell Westbrook is entering the final year of his contract, he can be a free agent in the summer of 2018.

On July 1 the Oklahoma City Thunder offered Westbrook a designated player “super max” contract extension of an expected $200 million, which would kick in after this coming season. It’s a massive offer that would lock Westbrook into the Thunder through his prime.

He has yet to sign it.

He may not sign it, he doesn’t lose much waiting it out. However, the Thunder remain optimistic he will sign, according to Fred Katz at the Norman Transcript.

The deadline for him to sign is the day before the regular season begins, Oct. 16.

 No other team could offer the same deal if Westbrook were to hit free agency. He could still receive a contract that starts at 35 percent of the cap if he chooses to become a free agent next summer but would receive only five percent raises per season and could sign for up to only four years.

Yet, the reigning MVP has made the Thunder wait almost a month, already. And it could end up being longer — maybe forever, though the organization remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Westbrook signing for the long term before the start of the season.

Why Westbrook should wait is that this contract doesn’t make him that much more money than simply waiting the season out, then studying his options next summer and signing a max deal next summer.

The Thunder can offer Westbrook 35 percent of the cap right now thanks to the new designated player provision (that deal would start at just under $35 million a year),  however, after this season Westbrook will have been in the NBA 10 years, which means every team can offer him that  same annual salary starting next summer. What OKC can offer are slightly larger raises and one more guaranteed year. That year is nice if Westbrook doesn’t think he can get maxed out in five years, but he likely can. So the real advantage is the larger raises, and that has not been enough to sway guys in the past because it’s not that much money.

Westbrook and Paul George should make the Thunder very interesting next season — this will be an elite defensive team trying to figure out the offense. If they do, this team becomes dangerous, but that is still a big “if.”

If Westbrook and George lift OKC deeper in the playoffs than expected, both could choose to stay in OKC. If, however, this doesn’t work out as planned, Westbrook has more options if he doesn’t sign the deal yet — he and George, also a free agent next summer, could leave together or go their separate ways. Also, not signing the keeps pressure on the Thunder ownership to keep spending and moving to make the team better now, rather than cut corners and save money.

Westbrook can make the Thunder feel good and sign this deal, but if he wants you can’t blame him.

Important news: Nick Young has gotten over his fear of dolphins

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Where NBA players really make improvements is over the summer. They can get in better shape, work on their jumper, improve their handles…

Or get over their fear of dolphins.

Which is what the new Wizards guard did this summer. Remember these tweets from Young’s then fiancée a couple of years ago?

He’s gotten past that fear.

I gave these dolphins another chance we cool now

A post shared by Nick Young (@swaggyp1) on

Next, just needs to pick up a right with Golden State and show that to the Dolphins — they respect titles.