The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

22 Comments

We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using NBA.com stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

• Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

Jimmy Butler leaves game with apparently serious right knee injury

Associated Press
4 Comments

The Basketball Gods have not been appeased, and apparently have dealt the NBA another serious injury to a star player.

Jimmy Butler — Minnesota’s leader, an All-Star, and a guy having a fringe of the MVP ballot NBA season — went down grabbing his knee on this play against the Rockets Friday night.

Butler reportedly said “it’s torn” while being helped off the court.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau said it was a right knee injury that would be re-evaluated with an MRI tomorrow.

This is a non-contact injury that has the appearance of an ACL tear (hope that is not the case). Butler had ripped an offensive rebound away from Nene and was making a move to go back up when he went to the ground grabbing his knee.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game. He was selected an All-Star but chose to sit out that game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for running players into exhaustion with heavy use (ask Joakim Noah) and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other elite programs trying to keep players fresh.

This is troubling for a Timberwolves team looking to end an 11-year playoff drought — Minnesota is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. While tied for the three seed going into Friday night, Minnesota is just four games from falling out of the playoffs in a competitive West.

Jimmy Butler to Lou Williams on All-Star snub: put up $100K for 1-on-1 game

Getty Images
2 Comments

Jimmy Butler earned his spot on the All-Star team — he’s had an All-NBA, bottom of the MVP ballot level season. He deserved the trip to Los Angeles.

But when he got there, Butler didn’t play in the All-Star Game itself, saying he needed to rest. That frustrated a few All-Star snubs, and Lou Williams called him out on it.

Butler fired back before the Timberwolves took on the Houston Rockets.

“My thing is this, to Lou or anyone else who thinks they’re an All-Star, with all due respect, LeBron and them got $100,000 for winning, so if you got $100k to put up, you guard me I guard you, I’ gonna show you why. All this talk, put $100,000 up and I’ll show you why and where I’m at.” (That may have been paraphrased)

Butler earned his spot, he deserved to be there. He can do as he sees fit.

But if you’re not going to roll out there for even five minutes (LaMarcus Aldridge played four and nobody is saying anything to him), then give the spot up to someone else. You don’t need the $100K that badly.

Kevin Durant no fan of one-and-done, says he would have come straight to NBA

Getty Images
3 Comments

With the money funneled to future NBA players through agents in the spotlight thanks to a FBI investigation (one that doesn’t even get into the money from boosters and shoe companies), the one-and-done rule the NBA has for players sending them to college for a semester of cakewalk classes one year has come back in the spotlight.

The league and players’ union are discussing changing the rule — with some input from the NCAA. If they want Kevin Durant‘s advice, scrap the whole thing — he would have come straight to the NBA if he could have.

“You want these players to go out there and play on the biggest stage. The Final Four is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, in sports, and they don’t get a dime for it. I don’t think it’s right

“If they want to come out of high school, it should be on them. You know what I mean? You can’t control everything. So if they feel as though they’re ready, that’s on them. They want to make a decision on their life, that’s on them. If they don’t get drafted, it’s on them. You can try to control it, but you’re still not really doing anything.”

Would Durant have come out from high school rather than spend a season at Texas?

“Yeah, probably. I needed the money.”

The NBA is discussing changes, and they want to see the recommendations from Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA commission. But the league’s owners are not all on the same page.

“In terms of the NBA, we’re conflicted, to be honest…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said All-Star weekend. “And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA.

“On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18 using our G League as it was designed to be as a Development League and getting them minutes on the court there? And there is also recognition that for some of these elite players, there is no question that they can perform in the NBA at 18 years old.”

There seems to be some momentum toward a “baseball rule” compromise — players can come to the NBA straight out of high school, but if they go to college they have to stay for at least two years. Unlike the last time high schoolers were rushing into the NBA, most teams are far better prepared to develop young players and be patient with them. There will still be busts — there are even with guys who spent years in college — but teams are in better positions to make it work.

The other thing I would want to see: If a player signs with an agent out of high school, does not get drafted, give him the chance to go to college still. Some young men are going to get terrible advice (from family, AAU coaches, friends, a whole lot of people) and they deserve a chance to choose a better path.

Report: Hawks near buyout with Ersan Ilyasova; Bucks, Raptors interested

Getty Images
7 Comments

This is about as big a surprise as my wife crying during “This Is Us,” but it sounds like it’s about to go down.

The Hawks and Ersan Ilyasova are close to a buyout, reports Michael Cunningham at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Hawks and forward Ersan Ilyasova tentatively agreed to a buyout of the remainder of his contract, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Once Ilyasova accepts a buyout and clears waivers, as expected, he will be free to sign with any other team for the rest of the season.

Ilyasova’s contract expires at the end of the season and he is eligible to become a free agent in the summer. Earlier this month, Ilyasova invoked his right to reject the trade offers the Hawks presented to him.

Where might he land on the buyout market?

A lot of teams could use a 6’10” guy who can space the floor as a shooter. Ilyasova signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Hawks this season. He’s averaged 10.9 points per game, shooting 35.9 percent from three this season, and missed some time with a shoulder injury.

Ilyasova is solid as a spot-up guy but is more dangerous as a screen setter where he can pop out and space the floor, or roll and use his size inside. He’s also good at cutting and working off the ball, plus will get a team a few offensive rebounds. He’s not a game changer, but in certain matchups, he could help teams a lot.