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

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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.

Why did Kyrie Irving request trade from Cavaliers? ‘I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do’

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Kyrie Irving said he requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he wanted to be happy and maximize his potential.

But why did he feel that couldn’t happen in Cleveland?

Irving hasn’t come close to directly answering that question, saying things like, “My intent, like I said, was for my best intentions.” Returning to Cleveland with the Celtics, Irving was again pressed to explain.

Irving, via MassLive:

Going forward, I kind of wanted to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to figure out and dive in and continue to dive into a narrative that they have no idea about and that probably will never, ever be divulged, because it’s not important. This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward. I don’t want to pinpoint anything. I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do. They continue to move on with their life and and continue to progress, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Perhaps, Irving is just following Dwyane Wade‘s advice and taking the high road. But that won’t ease our collective curiosity. Fans will continue to speculate about why Irving wanted out, and reporters will continue to dig into it. Reporting and speculation have both centered on LeBron James.

If Irving eventually wants to set the record straight – and he doesn’t sound interested, lending credence to the theory he wanted to leave LeBron behind – everyone will be all ears.

Cavaliers to honor Kyrie Irving with video during tonight’s game

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Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers, stated no regard for LeBron James‘ feelings about it and slighted Cleveland as a sports city.

Yet, when Irving returns with the Celtics for tonight’s regular-season opener, the Cavs will honor him.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The Cavaliers intend to honor Kyrie Irving on Tuesday night with a video tribute during Cleveland’s season-opening tilt against Irving’s Boston Celtics.

According to a team source, the video is a “thank you” to Irving intended to show appreciation for all he accomplished in six seasons here.

Irving had a fantastic six-year run with the Cavaliers, and he hit the biggest shot in franchise history to end Cleveland’s title drought in 2016.

But he’s now a sports villain there (not to be mistaken for a bad person). Let the fans enjoy unconditionally booing him for a night. There will be time to honor him when the wounds of his exit aren’t so fresh.

If I were the Cavs, this would be the video I’d show to commemorate Irving’s return:

LeBron James: I think Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial

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LeBron James left a job for a more appealing one in 2010. His previous employer, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, infamously published a letter that called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Most ridiculously, Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” Perhaps most hurtfully, Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

Remember, LeBron completed his contract with Gilbert’s Cavs then signed with the Heat. Gilbert’s reaction was beyond over the top.

It was also probably rooted in racial attitudes that persist since a time rich white men held complete control over the lives of young black men.

LeBron, via Mark Anthony Green of GQ:

Did you feel like Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial?

“Um, I did. I did. It was another conversation I had to have with my kids. It was unfortunate, because I believed in my heart that I had gave that city and that owner, at that point in time, everything that I had. Unfortunately, I felt like, at that point in time, as an organization, we could not bring in enough talent to help us get to what my vision was. A lot of people say they want to win, but they really don’t know how hard it takes, or a lot of people don’t have the vision. So, you know, I don’t really like to go back on that letter, but it pops in my head a few times here, a few times there. I mean, it’s just human nature. I think that had a lot to do with race at that time, too, and that was another opportunity for me to kind of just sit back and say, ‘Okay, well, how can we get better? How can we get better? How can I get better?’ And if it happens again, then you’re able to have an even more positive outlook on it. It wasn’t the notion of I wanted to do it my way. It was the notion of I’m gonna play this game, and I’m gonna prepare myself so damn hard that when I decide to do something off the court, I want to be able to do it because I’ve paid my dues.”

We’ve obviously come a long way since slavery, but the racism used to justify that evil practice lingers. In 2017, few want to be racist. Many more do racist things. Racism is basked into our society, and it will require thoughtful recognition of it to eradicate it.

Gilbert’s letter contained racial undertones, Gilbert attempting to assert a control of LeBron he didn’t rightfully possess. If Gilbert considered how his letter fit into historical context, maybe he wouldn’t have written it. Whether or not Gilbert intended to be racist matters only so much. He danced in racist tones to vilify LeBron.

Now, maybe Gilbert has progressed. He apologized to LeBron for the letter (while trying to woo LeBron back to Cleveland in 2014) and said he’s learning more about the level of racism in this country.

But there’s still an apparent lingering distrust by LeBron toward Gilbert, and LeBron saying he still sometimes thinks about the letter only enhances that. That could matter as LeBron heads toward free agency.

Gregg Popovich rants, calls President Trump a “soulless coward” after recent comments

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Every time he speaks, it seems President Trump says something that is outright, provably false — a lie, if you will. The latest came in a Rose Garden press conference Monday where, when asked about two fallen American soldiers in Niger, he said he would call and “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls — a lot of them didn’t make calls — I like to make calls when it’s appropriate.” It didn’t take long for representatives from the former Obama administration — as well as the most recent Bush administration — to come out and say Trump was flat-out wrong, noting the numerous calls, letters, visits to troops at the hospital and more (all of which is easily verified). Even by the end of the same press conference, when pressed by reporters, Trump back pedaled saying maybe Obama did make calls, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.”

That wasn’t near good enough for Air Force Academy graduate, frequent Trump critic, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. He called up one of the people who understands the intersection of sports and politics, Dave Zirin of The Nation, and ranted.

“But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families are so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words.

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner—and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers—is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this president should be ashamed, because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”

Popovich is a thoughtful man who highly prizes intellectual curiosity — he believes he needs to be worldly and understand it better just to properly lead a basketball team. If one is going to lead a nation — or, ostensibly, the world — one has to want to know about it, learn about it, respect its differences. Popovich has thought through things before he speaks. Trump does none of that, he goes by his gut and has no filter, and it makes him sort of Bizzaro Popovich. Which sets the Spurs’ coach off.

We can expect more rants from Pop, Steve Kerr, NBA players and a host of others over the course of the season. NBA players have been emboldened by Adam Silver and the league to speak out, and they will, knowing that with the NBA’s younger, more urban, and more diverse and global fanbase (compared to the NFL) they will not face much if any backlash.