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.

When NBA switches to Nike uniforms next season, Hornets will move to Jordan Brand

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There are not going to be dramatic changes to the look of the NBA when Nike takes over the apparel contract for next season, replacing Adidas. Instead of the Adidas logo, there will be a swoosh, sleeved jerseys will fade away, and some teams will modify their alternate jerseys, but the league is not getting a total uniform makeover next season. Things will look basically the same.

Except in Charlotte — they will not have a swoosh, they will have the Jordan Jumpman logo.

The why is obvious — Michael Jordan is the primary owner of the Hornets and, obviously, the guy the Jordan brand was named after. The Jordan Brand is part of Nike. The Hornets made the announcement this week buried in a press release about moving the fan shop at the arena, hat tip to Sole Collector for finding this. Here is what the release says:

The re-opening of the Hornets Fan Shop will coincide with the launch of the team’s new Jordan Brand uniforms as Nike becomes the NBA’s uniform provider beginning this season.  The Hornets will be the only team in the NBA wearing Jordan Brand uniforms, and with the agreement taking effect, the Hornets Fan Shop will have even more of the popular Jordan Brand Hornets merchandise than it has had previously.

While it’s not like the Lakers or Celtics are going to be changing up their traditional uniforms, even teams like the Hornets will keep a similar look under Nike.

What should be interesting to see is what the Christmas Day and All-Star uniforms look like under a Nike touch.

Allen Iverson breaks down MVP race (he’d give it to Westbrook)

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The polls are closed, and the voting is already in on the NBA Most Valuable Player race, however, we’re all going to have to wait until June 26 to find out the result. So the debate rages on, with playoff performances shaping the narrative.

Why not ask a former MVP and Hall of Famer?

Allen Iverson told Bleacher Report he would pick Westbrook for MVP. Then he broke down the candidates.

I just think (Westbrook’s) headed to doing something that we never thought would happen again [in averaging a triple-double throughout a season]…

[Kawhi Leonard]’s the best two-way player in the league, plays the game the right way. Well, if you play with Pop [Gregg Popovich], then you’re going to play the game the right way anyways. But he does everything on the floor to help his team win. Right there in the MVP race. In any other season, I think him or James [Harden]—LeBron [James], you could give it to him every year.

But this year, it’s just one of those years for Westbrook, and we should cherish it and love it for what it is, because we never thought this would happen again, just like we never thought nobody will score 100 points like Wilt [Chamberlain] again.

It’s one of them years like you’re supposed to give that to him hands down with the great season those guys are having. I mean, Isaiah [Thomas] has been playing the way he’s been playing. [Kevin] Durant’s been playing the way he’s been playing. A lot of guys are having MVP seasons, but this guy’s just having a special season.

The MVP debate isn’t over because there isn’t one right answer — Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard all have a legitimate case. One is not vastly superior to the other, and LeBron James should be in the discussion as well (but the late fade by the Cavs hurt him). That said, a lot of former players seem to side with Iverson in the Westbrook camp.

You should read the entire interview, Iverson talks about his crossover and if Isaiah Thomas should be called for it (you have to know how AI answered that), the evolution of the game, and much more.

It’s a great read. Regardless of who you think should be MVP.

Pat Riley: Friend talked me out of going Dan Gilbert when LeBron James left

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When LeBron James left Cleveland, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert released his infamous letter.

When LeBron left Miami, Heat president Pat Riley issued a classy statement.

The difference was nearly not as stark following Riley’s final meeting with LeBron in 2014 in Las Vegas.

Wright Thompson of ESPN:

Riley told his lieutenant, Andy Elisburg, to get the two championship trophies LeBron had won and pack them in their hard-shell carrying cases. Elisburg also brought charts and an easel for a presentation about the free agents the Heat would pursue. The day of the meeting, a hotel bellhop followed them with a luggage cart carrying the presentation and the two trophies. Riley brought wine from a Napa vineyard named Promise. It was the same label Maverick Carter had presented Riley with when they did the deal four years earlier. Riley respects Carter, and when he walked into the suite and saw James with agent Rich Paul and friend Randy Mims but no Maverick, part of him knew the meeting wasn’t sincere. He told Elisburg to keep the trophies and easel in the hall. James and his associates were watching a World Cup game, which they kept glancing at during the presentation. At one point, Riley asked if they’d mute the TV.

Riley flew home worried and got a text telling him to be ready for a call. About 15 minutes later, his phone rang and Paul was on the other end. The agent handed the phone to LeBron, who started by saying, “I want to thank you for four years …”

“I was silent,” Riley says. “I didn’t say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was. I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I’m glad I didn’t do it.”

The most shocking element of Gilbert’s letter wasn’t that he wrote it. People say dumb things, especially in the heat of the moment. But it was surprising nobody stopped Gilbert from publishing it. Of course, he runs the franchise. But nobody felt empowered to tell him it was a bad idea?

Riley was obviously fortunate to get that message and wise to heed it. But even he has let his disdain for LeBron leaving slip out a couple times.

John Wall doesn’t sound super enthused about Dennis Schroder’s summer-workout request

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The Wizards and Hawks are knotted in a 2-2 first-round series.

A subplot: John Wall vs. Dennis Schroder. They have a history – Schroder starting random trash talk and then telling a teammate to hack Wall’s recently injured wrist, according to Wall – and Wall stared down Schroder after a dunk in Game 2.

A sub-subplot: Wall’s and Schroder’s summer plans.

Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Wall, via Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“I’ve never heard of that going on in the middle of a series,” Wall said Monday after shootaround for Game 4 later tonight at Phillips Arena. “I’m not talking about it right now. I’m locked into a series competing with a guy that’s playing well for his team, competing for his team. That’s probably a conversation I’ll have later on, but I’m locked into Wizards versus Hawks.”

Aside from that, Wall tends to be a loner during the summer when he’s getting ready. He was supposed to work out with Damian Lillard a few seasons ago, but even that didn’t come to fruition. Teammate Brandon Jennings sensed that about Wall.

“I really don’t work out with anybody, to be honest,” Wall said. “Brandon said the same thing, ‘You’re the type of guy that don’t like to work out with people.’ I just always worked out by myself a lot.”

Maybe Schroder thinks Wall will see himself in the Atlanta point guard – a fearless young player trying to prove himself by standing up to established players. And maybe Wall does.

But I suspect Wall just sees Schroder as a pest.

If that’s the case, it certainly won’t change until this series ends.