What to expect from LeBron and the Heat?

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You’re busy, so I’ll save you some time: a championship.  They’ve won two straight, basically their entire squad is coming back, and their best guy is the most dynamic and exciting player since Michael Jordan.  The Heat have all the tools they need to make a run at a three-peat – but even with them all in place, the bigger question is: who might stop them?

The way I see it, there are 6 teams that could have a chance: 4 longshots and 2 serious threats.  Let’s start with the East.

EASTERN 

The Bulls: Chicago is a good team without Derrick Rose, and a title contender with (the old) Derrick Rose.  But how deep can they go in the postseason? Thing is, Rose’s most recent relevant data points are from 18 months and a horrific knee injury ago.  He looked great in the preseason, but it’s far too early to see how his knee will hold up long-term: it’s just been too long since we’ve seen him play a full year.  Time will tell, but Rose’s return makes me hesitate – right now, the Bulls are a longshot to stop the Heat.

The Nets:  Again, too soon – but for a different reason.  The team hinges on Deron Williams and Brook Lopez: a great combo, but Lebron’s supporting cast (Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier – the list goes on) far outstrips its counterparts in Brooklyn.  Depth is key, and the Nets don’t have Miami’s lung capacity.  As for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they’re not getting any younger, and I’ll be surprised if their presence tips the scales in the Nets’ favor.

The Pacers: Though summertime roster moves did bolster their bench, Indiana is the only team of these three that remains largely unchanged since nearly beating Miami in the East Finals last year.  A missed assignment here, a blown call there, and one or two plays could have made the difference for the Pacers going to the NBA Finals.  Paul George and Danny Granger should continue to emerge, Roy Hibbert should continue to dominate (just ask Tyson Chandler), and with C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland the bench is stronger.  We’ve actually seen this team play the Heat, and nearly beat them.  All in all, in the East the Pacers have the best preseason shot at upending the Heat.

WESTERN 

The Spurs: Another team we’ve seen play the Heat and nearly beat them, plus I’ve learned my lesson in the past: never count out Gregg Popovich, and never say Tim Duncan’s too old.  Obviously at some point Duncan will be too old, but the man just keeps putting up rock-solid numbers and defense year after year.  Besides, he’s not the brains of the operation anyways – Tony Parker’s running point, and Pop’s the reason for the dynasty.  History teaches me not to bet against those three pieces, so watch out for the Spurs.  (Playoff sweeps are telling – just ask the Grizzlies) Can San Antonio beat the Heat? Maybe – probably not, but they came very close last year and they could likely again be one of the last few standing.

The Rockets: Two words: Dwight Howard.  The D’Antoni/Kobe/Dwight circus show was wearing thin in L.A., and it’ll be interesting to see how Dwight fits into the Rocket’s culture. Last year was miserable, and now he’s got a fresh start, a new city, and a great young core with Chandler Parsons and James Harden.  But again, we run into a common theme this year: the unknown.  Howard alters teams and defenses with his presence, but he’s never played with these guys under this system in this city with this coach and this organization.  Signs are positive, but there’s just no way to tell this early – so far it’s all he-said she-said guesswork.  Can they beat Miami in seven games?  Not right now.  So much hype, and to even get there they’d have to move past…

The Thunder: Kevin Durant is a killer, simple as that.  He’s the deadliest player not named LeBron James.  He has zero conscience from three; he’s Magic Johnson’s awareness with Bob Cousy’s handles and Reggie Miller’s stroke.  Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson – their guard play is phenomenal.  Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins round it out inside, but the key is the guard play.  If the Thunder have an advantage over the Heat, it’s depth on the wing.  If they can exploit that, throwing bodies at LeBron enough to tire him out and slow him down just enough, OKC could have the best chance to beat the Heat (unless the Pacers get them first, in which case whatever will Sportscenter talk about in June??).

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Honorable Mention: Clippers, Warriors.  Both electrifying teams, great fun to watch, but missing some pieces.  Clippers need a stronger paint presence (DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a high-flying trapeze act, not game-changing forwards); the Warriors need some time to gel, and for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to play off each other – watch out for Golden State in the next few years.

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WRAPPING UP 

The Pacers and the Thunder have the best shot at beating the Heat.  Indiana nearly beat them last time, and come back this year with more experience and a deeper bench.  The Thunder have the guard depth to counter LeBron, but that may not make a difference anyways with the Heat’s top-to-bottom array of weapons.

Bottom line?  The Pacers can beat the Heat, as can the Thunder, but it will take each team’s perfect stretch of seven games (because there’s no way the Heat lose in less than seven) to do it.  Miami, on the other hand, has the athleticism, depth, leadership, and firepower to win again.  That is what to expect from LeBron and the Heat – another championship.  They are not a perfect team, and they can be beaten – but in the end, the most likely scenario I see is LeBron & Co. with Miami’s first franchise three-peat.

Timberwolves working on (max?) extension for Andrew Wiggins

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Andrew Wiggins is eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth $148 million over five years. The Timberwolves could even include a clause that increases Wiggins’ compensation up to a projected $153 if he makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year next season.

Jerry Zgoda of the StarTribune:

The Wolves have until October to complete a negotiation that shouldn’t take all that much negotiating if Wiggins accepts a contract that’s expected to approach $150 million.

Timberwolves president/coach Tom Thibodeau appears to be talking just generally about an extension. Zgoda brings up a max offer. It’s unclear whether Zgoda is reporting or supposing Minnesota has offered/plans to offer that much.

I’d hesitate to offer Wiggins the full max.

He’s a high-volume scorer with below-average efficiency (carrying enough of a load where that tradeoff is helpful). But his rebounding and defense lag WAY behind where his athleticism suggests those skills should be. For someone who dominated the ball, he’s not much of a distributor.

On the other hand, Wiggins is just 22 and possesses the physical tools to grow into a complete player. It’s reasonable to bet on him getting there, and an extension should be based on what Wiggins will do in future seasons, not what he has done already.

Plus, a max salary is the only allowable rate for a five-year extension. Offer any less, and the Timberwolves would be limited to a four-year extension. Do they really want to face his unrestricted free agency – in the midst of his prime – a year sooner.

It’s not as if they’d lose him now by forgoing an extension, though. Wiggins would be a restricted free agent next summer, and Minnesota could always extend a maximum qualifying offer, which would mean any offer sheet must be for three or four years (not including option years). The Timberwolves would also have a five-year max contract on the table (which would carry the same terms as a five-year max extension signed this offseason). Wiggins could accepted the $9,846,619 one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but that would be an unprecedented risk with so much money on the table.

Minnesota can all but guarantee locking him up for the next four seasons (including the final year of his rookie-scale contract this year). A max extension would secure him for the five (six if it doesn’t include a player option).

Ultimately, I’d lean toward offering Wiggins less than a max extension. It’s a tight market with the salary-cap stagnating in coming years, and a max offer sheet might not be available to him in restricted free agency. The Timberwolves could evaluate him another season and offer Wiggins the max next summer if he deserves it. If Wiggins wants security now, he can take a slight discount. That might come with complications down the road, but so would overpaying a one-dimensional player. A five-year max extension wouldn’t be terrible – if Minnesota doesn’t grant a player or early termination option.

By the way, don’t worry about another Kevin LoveRicky Rubio situation. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to sign two designated-player rookie-scale extensions, so the Timberwolves could still offer Karl-Anthony Towns (who more clearly deserves it) one after giving Wiggins one.

Celtics add toughness with Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris

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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris are happy to be coming to Boston at the same time, if only so they don’t have to play against each other.

Baynes signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Wednesday, and he already has a familiar face in the team’s locker room: Morris, who was acquired in a trade for Avery Bradley on July 7. Baynes said Morris “brings a lot of toughness” to the court, and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren said the 6-foot-10 Australian can do the same.

“Red Auerbach said, `Get the instigators, not the retaliators,”‘ Zarren said before introducing Baynes to the media. “He’s definitely an instigator.”

The two former Pistons shared the day, with the Celtics announcing Baynes’ signing an hour before a media call with Morris. Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the team and the only remnant from the New Big Three era, needed to go to clear the salary cap space for prize free agent catch Gordon Hayward.

Baynes and Morris join a team that earned the No. 1 seed in the East last season but lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals in five games. Baynes, who averaged 15.5 minutes last season for a team that missed the playoffs, said coming to Boston was “a basketball decision.”

“Hopefully, I’m a piece that helps them bring the puzzle together,” he said. “You always want to be able to play more. I didn’t see myself having much bigger a role than I’ve had the past two years.”

An undrafted free agent who won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2014, Baynes averaged 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in his five-year career. He played in 75 games last year for the Pistons, starting two, averaging 4.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.

After working out at the team’s facility in the morning, Baynes came out to greet children at a basketball camp taking place on the practice court. A noted BBQ enthusiast who tweeted out a request for recommendations in the area, Baynes said he hadn’t tried the local offerings yet.

“There’s a few lobster rolls around here,” he said.

Morris averaged 14 points last season in Detroit, where he was a mainstay in the starting lineup. He saw the Celtics up close while watching his twin brother, Markieff, play for the Wizards in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston last year.

Morris said coming to Boston cushioned the blow of being traded.

“How can I be upset about being a Boston Celtic?” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a competitor. I want to play against the best. I want to play for championships.”

Morris said he reached out to longtime Celtics star Paul Pierce after learning he was traded.

“He said I’m going to love it,” said Morris, who like Pierce went to Kansas. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Adam Silver on sports gambling: “My sense is the law will change in the next few years”

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This isn’t new ground for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He has called legalized sports gambling in the United States “inevitable” and advocated in the New York Times for the federal government to put in a framework to control it. He’s not been shy about telling the heads of the other major sports leagues what he sees coming. Mark Cuban has Silver’s back on this one.

The commissioners of the four major sports were all on hand for a panel called “GameChangers: Creating the Future of Sports” in New York on Wednesday, and Silver’s position hasn’t changed, reports ESPN.

“My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States,” Silver said when asked about gambling.

He also stressed the importance of in-game wagering to fan engagement, noting, “People want to bet throughout the game … It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.”

I’m not sure about “the next few years” timeline. I would rather be forced to watch The Emoji Movie than try to predict what the current Congress will do, but with its current conservative makeup legalizing sports betting seems unlikely.

But in the next decade or two… it feels like Silver may be right. The Supreme Court is taking up the case of whether the federal government can block states — in this case, New Jersey specifically — from allowing sports gambling. That could open the door for other states to follow.  Governments state and federal will not see it as a moral issue so much as a new revenue generator — they can tax it. So it will happen. Eventually.

With that Silver is right, professional sports leagues need to be prepared for that reality. The NBA seems to be out in front of that, ready to ride the wave when it crests. For now, they are just paddling around waiting for the right wave to ride.

Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis: “My prediction is John Wall will sign his extension”

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John Wall is one of the handful of NBA players who qualifies for the new designated veteran “super max” contract extension — and the Wizards want to give it to him. A four-year, $170 million extension of his current deal is on the table (it would kick in after the two years, $37 million on his current contract).

Wall has yet to sign it. He said at the time it was offered he wanted to talk about it with his family and see what the Wizards did this offseason. He’s not unhappy, he just wants to be sure before he locks himself in with Washington through his prime.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post he thinks Wall will sign.

Maybe, but there’s not a lot of motivation for Wall to sign right now. Wall can bet on himself that he will make the All-NBA team again next year — there’s a deep class of guards but if he stays healthy he stands a good chance — at which time he’s still eligible for a designated veteran “super max” contract extension that would be five-years, roughly $200 million (and would kick in after the one year on his current deal).

That delay would also keep pressure on the Wizards to find ways to improve the roster. Washington is largely capped out and didn’t make any major moves this summer other than re-signing Otto Porter to a max extension (they matched a Brooklyn offer sheet). Washington is good, likely the third or fourth best team in the East, but a notch below Cleveland and Boston right now. Wall wants to push them to get another star and help Washington move up into contender status — he pushed for the Wizards to chase Paul George and have him replace Porter (a deal that was never going to happen, but you can see what Wall is thinking about being one star player short).

Ultimately, I think Leonsis is right, Wall will sign. It’s just a matter of when. Does he take this deal now, or wait until next summer and do it?