Danny Ainge says there are “no game changers” in this draft. In short term he’s right.

48 Comments

The 2014 NBA Draft Class — assuming that Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and the rest of the young stars declare — has been hyped as the best thing since 2003. That may turn out to be an overreaction.

After the three players mentioned above were eliminated the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, some in the media swung the pendulum too far the other way saying these guys are not going to make a big impact in the NBA, that they couldn’t handle pressure (based on one game at age 19). That was an overreaction, too.

The real question for this draft is how good are these players going to be in three to five years? That’s what teams are drafting them for, not their rookie season.

Boston’s basketball decision maker Danny Ainge has tried to play down draft expectations for a while — which is smart as he is going to draft high this year and bring in a big name and he’d like fans not to expect instant miracles he knows are not coming.

Ainge was saying that again in a live stream video on the Celtics Web site, transcribed by CSNNE.com.

“I’ve been saying all along that the experts on ESPN and so forth are blowing this draft out of proportion,” Ainge said. “First of all, we don’t even know who’s in the draft yet. There are a lot of underclassmen that are projected, so we’re prepared for those underclassmen that are projected draft picks but we don’t know who’s going to be in the draft.

“There aren’t any game changers in the draft. There are a lot of nice players and players that we’ll be excited to work into the development, but they’re not going to come in and turn our team around in one year or two years. But hopefully we’ll be able to get a couple of players this year that will be rotation players in the NBA for years to come.”

PBT’s draft expert, Ed Isaacson of NBAdraftblog.com and Rotoworld (check out Ed’s regional previews of the EastSouthMidwest and West), agrees with Ainge. To a degree.

“I think Ainge has the concept right saying there are no ‘game changers’ in this draft, though the phrasing may be a bit broad,” Isaacson said in an email. “Guys like Wiggins, Embiid, Julius Randle, Parker, if any or all declare, will certainly have an impact on any team they play for. Depending on the team, the impact could be felt much more right away. Ainge’s explanation though of his statement gets to the part where I agree — none of the players in this draft are the kind to change the fortunes of a franchise in a year or two. Not to say that they can’t be franchise players at some point in their career, but people expecting this group to take the league by storm when they get in are probably off base.”

Again, the question isn’t “can Andrew Wiggins lead the Bucks/Sixers/Magic/whoever to the playoffs next year?” The question is can he or Embiid or whomever be a franchise cornerstone in four years? Can that player, along with a couple other pieces, make your team a contender?

In that sense there very likely will be a couple of game changers in this draft. Just don’t expect them to play that way next year. (And no, that is not argument for keeping them in college longer so colleges and coaches can get rich off their free labor, those guys will develop faster into whatever they will be in the NBA than another year of limited practices against inferior competition.)

The problem for Ainge and other GMs of lottery teams is it will be impossible to put the expectations genie back in the bottle.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
4 Comments

The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

Getty Images
3 Comments

We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

Getty Images
8 Comments

This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

11 Comments

LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.