The Extra Pass: Central heat, plus Monday’s recaps

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No NBA head coach has been fired yet this season. Of course, “yet” is the key word there.

Given the performances and the high expectations of a few teams in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, that could be changing soon. Here’s a look at the tenuous positions of three coaches from that division, in order of seat warmth.

Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

Brown’s recent history might not play into his favor. If you’ll recall, the Los Angeles Lakers axed Brown just five games into the season last year, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t strike anyone as the patient type.

To say the Cavs have quit on Brown would falsely imply that they were ever committed in the first place. Cleveland is now a whopping 15 games under .500, and in their last five games, the Cavs have lost by an average of 16.4 points.

It’s one thing to be just plain bad (like Cavs GM Chris Grant’s drafting), but the Cavs are dysfunctional both on and off the court. There are reports of players getting thrown out of practice and threatening not to play, which doesn’t seem like much of a threat given the effort level from players like Dion Waiters.

New acquisition Luol Deng reportedly called the Cavs “a mess”, which isn’t exactly what you want to hear from a player who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Deng is right about the state of the Cavs, though, and sooner or later, someone is going to take the fall. Brown is in the first season of a five-year deal worth $20 million, with four years fully guaranteed. Is Gilbert ready to swallow his losses and pay Brown to go away? It’s not an easy decision, but it would be a surprise if Brown and Grant didn’t lose their jobs by the end of the year after this complete collapse. Get the bowties ready, Gilberts.

Maurice Cheeks, Detroit Pistons

The Central Division is home to many a failing team, and the Pistons were another that was supposed to contend for a playoff berth. While Detroit is sadly somehow still in the race, Cheeks has been largely unable to figure out how to make the frontcourt trio of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond work.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been vocal lately about Detroit’s lack of preparation and failure to maximize talent, which is a not so subtle shot at a coaching staff if you’ve ever heard one. Pistons GM Joe Dumars is on an expiring contract this year, so perhaps Gores will opt to clean house completely and let go of Dumars and Cheeks at the end of the season.

Unless Smith starts to figure it out and the clashes between he and Cheeks stop, it might be easier to just fire Cheeks and move on. Coaches are usually the first to go when things get bad, and for better or worse, the Pistons are tied to Smith long-term.

Larry Drew, Milwaukee Bucks

It seems as though the Bucks may be finally ready to accept temporary losing on an organization level, which could take them off the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.

That doesn’t mean that first-year coach Larry Drew will be safe or rewarded for his losing efforts, though. The Bucks should have never been quite this bad in the first place, and Drew has completely sunk the trade value of some of Milwaukee’s biggest names while also not giving some of his young players nearly enough playing time. It’s the worst of both worlds in Milwaukee right now, and Drew’s constantly fluctuating rotations seem to be driving everyone up the wall.

While management may be content with gaining a high pick in the draft this year, don’t expect owner Herb Kohl to sign off on a lengthy rebuilding process. The Bucks will want to be competitive quickly, and given this season’s performance and a pretty underwhelming track record, you have to think Drew’s job will security will be a bit shaky.

Don’t forget to factor in the success of a few rookie coaches around the league, either. Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer all came from three different backgrounds and experience levels, but each has earned praise at every stop. You couldn’t blame Kohl and company if they opted to take their chance on a new coach instead of sticking with the retread that led the team to what will likely be one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

D.J. Foster

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Wizards 100, Blazers 90: Washington got over .500 with this victory for the first time in seemingly forever, but perhaps more importantly took down one of the Western Conference elite for the second straight game. After snapping the Thunder’s 10-game winning streak on Saturday, the Wizards shut down the Blazers’ high-powered outside shooting attack in this one. Portland has built this season’s reputation on sharp-shooting from everywhere, but especially from three-point distance. The Blazers shot just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in the second half, and for a tea that’s second in the league in three-point shooting percentage, a performance like that will almost always spell disaster. — Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Magic 79: No surprise here, as the Magic have the worst road record in the league and improved (?) to just 3-22 away from Orlando on the season after this one. The second half was gross on both sides, but the Pacers outscored the Magic 39-29 over the final two periods, and that was more than enough to seal it. There were unremarkable performances all around, a clear reflection of Orlando not being very good, along with Indiana realizing it and playing down to its competition. — BP

Heat 102, Pistons 96: The fact that Detroit can hang with Miami speaks to just how much trouble the Heat have with the very few teams that can throw talented big men at them in a given matchup. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe combined for 29 points and 23 rebounds, and helped the Pistons outrebound the Heat by seven. With points in the paint and turnovers basically even, it was up to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to ensure a Miami victory. Wade was especially good in this one, finishing with a game-high 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, to go along with 10 rebounds and five assists. — BP

Nets 108, Sixers 102: Brooklyn was playing without All-Star Joe Johnson in this one due to knee tendinitis, and Andrei Kirilenko was also sidelined to rest a calf injury sustained in practice. The Nets held a 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter, before the Sixers rallied and were within two with under a minute to play. Paul Pierce took on the scoring load with Johnson sidelined, finishing with 25 points on just nine shots, thanks to knocking down all 14 of his free throw attempts. — BP

Bucks 101, Knicks 98: Bad loss for the Knicks. They failed to bring the necessary energy on the road in a more-than-half-empty arena against the league’s worst team, and in a close game down the stretch, they paid the price. Brandon Knight calmly dribbled down the clock and hit the game-winning three with less than two seconds remaining, and Carmelo Anthony’s heave over two defenders at the buzzer failed to draw iron. Anthony finished with 36 points in the losing effort, 17 of which came in the fourth as he tried desperately to bring his team back. J.R. Smith had a strong game with 30 off the bench, while Knight finished with a team-high 25 points and seven assists for the Bucks. — BP

Spurs 102, Pelicans 95: New Orleans thought they had this one, up 14 early in the fourth quarter, then Tim Duncan and Tony Parker happened. The Pelicans were pick-and-rolled to death — the Spurs big would come up and drag defender Greg Stiemsma or Alexi Ajinca into the play, then Parker just carved them up, with 21 points on 13 shots in the second half (Parker had 32 for the game). Also in the second half Tim Duncan showed that young whippersnapper Anthony Davis who can block some shots, rejecting five in the half. San Antonio went on a 21-4 run early in the fourth quarter, made the key plays down the stretch and started off their rodeo road trip with a win. — Kurt Helin

Thunder 86, Grizzlies 77: Last week the Thunder beat the Heat going small and playing fast. Monday night they beat Memphis playing big in a slow, grinding kind of game that should have favored the Grizzlies. The versatility of the Thunder roster is impressive… plus that Kevin Durant guy is pretty good. Durant had 31 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, Serge Ibaka chipped in 21. Memphis missed Mike Conley orchestrating their offense, they are just not the same without him. –KH

Mavericks 124, Cavaliers 107: The defense in my regular Monday night pick-up game might well have been better than whatever that was Cleveland was doing — Dallas had a true shooting percentage of 67.8 percent and an offensive rating of 131.3 (points per 100 possessions). Dirk Nowitzki had 23 to lead six Mavs in double figures. Samuel Dalembert looked good with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Kyrie Irving had 27 points, Luol Deng hustled his way to 18 but the Cavs are just a mess. –KH

Nuggets 116, Clippers 115: For much of the night this was a fun power forward battle — Blake Griffin had 15 points in the first quarter on his way to 36 on the night. Kenneth Faried had his best night of the season getting 28 points with his hustle plays and strong baseline cuts. Then came the best ending of the season. First the Clippers were down one and looking to get the ball inside but when that failed J.J. Redick drove, drew the defenders and kicked out to Matt Barnes for a three. He drains it, Clippers up two. Then Denver gets one last shot and there is clearly miscommunication as the play breaks down, so Randy Foye ends up having to take a leaning three as the clock expires and… you can see the play above in our video of the night. Amazing shot. –KH

Raptors 94, Jazz 79: Toronto took control of this game when it went on a 14-4 run to start the second, something sparked by DeMar DeRozan, who had 12 of his 23 in the quarter. Toronto never fully pulled away but never gave up the lead. Jonas Valanciunas really outplayed the Jazz front line and had 18 points and 9 rebounds. Kyle Lowry left the game with a sore knee but said after the game it wasn’t serious. Let’s hope so. Marvin Williams had 23 for Utah. –KH

Kings 99, Bulls 70: This was a physical, chippy game where the Bulls could not get their offense going — then they got frustrated and started making mistakes. Then Joakim Noah got ejected. Then the Bulls unraveled completely and the Kings won going away. DeMarcus Cousins had 25 points and 16 boards and Isaiah Thomas added 19. Nice home win for the Kings. –KH

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.

Danny Ainge: Celtics would have drafted Jayson Tatum No. 1

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After trading down from No. 1 to No. 3 in the draft, Celtics president Danny Ainge said Boston would probably still get the player it would’ve picked No. 1.

The Celtics selected Jayson Tatum No. 3. Would they have taken him if they held the No. 1 pick?

Ainge, via CSN New England:

Yes, we would have picked him with the first pick. But the draft was very even, we felt, at the top all the way through maybe five or six. And it was very difficult. There was a lot of players we liked in this draft.

I believe that the Celtics saw the top several picks as similar. I also believe, but don’t know, that they would’ve drafted Markelle Fultz if they kept the top pick.

I’m also curious, considering how the process unfolded, whether Ainge had Tatum or Josh Jackson in mind when making his initial statement. Regardless of whether he was thinking Jackson, Tatum or both, Ainge couldn’t reasonably back out of his claim now.

For what it’s worth, I would have seen Jackson (No. 3 on my board) as a reach at No. 1. I see Taytum (No. 9 on my board) as a reach at No. 3, let alone No. 1.

Warriors break record by paying $3.5 million for draft rights to Jordan Bell

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The Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss in 2010. Last year, the Nets paid $3 million just to move up 13 spots in the second round to get Isaiah Whitehead.

The Warriors surpassed that amount, previously the record for spending on a draft pick, to buy the No. 38 pick from the Bulls and get Jordan Bell last night.

Marcus Thompson of The Mercury News:

Golden State also bought the No. 38 pick last year to get a player I rated as first-round caliber, Patrick McCaw, whose rights cost “just” $2.4 million. McCaw had a promising rookie year and even contributed in the NBA Finals.

Bell – whose draft rights drew the maximum-allowable $3.5 million – could achieve similar success. I rated him No. 31 but in the same tier as other first-round-caliber prospects. He’s a versatile defender, capable of protecting the rim and switching onto guards. He’s obviously not nearly the same level, but Bell is in the Draymond Green mold defensively. Bell’s offense doesn’t come close to Green’s, though. Bell could fill a role sooner than later when Golden State needs a defensive-minded sub.

The Warriors have generated massive revenue during their dominant run the last few years. Now, they’re putting some of that money back into the on-court product. Success breeds success – especially when the owners don’t just pocket the profits.