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Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

Mavericks don’t use scandals as excuse for poor play vs. Lakers

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long week for the Dallas Mavericks. First Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for saying on Dr. J’s podcast that he told the team they would be better off losing. That was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell report of sexual harassment run rampant — starting with the team CEO — and a corporate culture on the Mavericks’ business side that allowed it this behavior to flourish. Then on Friday, Mavericks’ star rookie Dennis Smith Jr. was named in a report about players who took money from agents while in college.

Did all that bleed over to the slow start and ultimate 124-102 blowout loss to the Lakers Friday night?

“I don’t know, we had some good looks…” Dirk Nowitzki said of the impact of the scandals, adding the rust from the All-Star break may have impacted the team’s play more. “Once you’re out there, you don’t necessarily really think about what is going on off the floor. You’re in a zone, you play, you compete with your team, we just didn’t play hard enough, compete hard enough at times.”

“I’m not going there, I think this is just a situation where Los Angeles jumped on us and we didn’t have enough answers,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also blowing off the idea of the scandals getting in the players’ heads. “The guys we have in this locker room, we just have to show up the right way, and our level of force was not there.”

It’s difficult to say if the Mavericks did feel any impact from the controversies swirling around the team — they were already one of the worst teams in basketball (18-41, and they have been outscored by an average of 3.2 points per 100 possession). They have a bottom 10 offense and defense. A bad outing vs. the Lakers isn’t necessarily tied to everything outside the locker room, especially for a team in the middle of the Tankapaloza going on around the NBA (their owner said as much). Put simply, Dallas was already bad before the waves of controversies hit.

Cuban was right, even if it cost him — this team should tank, lose a lot of games the rest of the way, and work to get a better draft position.

The code words for that is “developing younger players.” Which Dallas is and should be doing.

They are also trying to evaluate their free agents coming up this offseason — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — to see if they are part of the future. How does Carlise divide up the minutes over the final stretch of the season to help make those decisions?

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete. Last year’s team went through a tough year, won 33 games, and was one of my favorite teams to coach because of the character of the guys — but this year’s probably been even more fun. All these undrafted guys are so grateful to be here, they want to get better, and do compete hard, and that’s an exciting thing….

“Nerlens won’t play tonight (Friday), won’t play tomorrow, but will be available Monday and I want to get him out there and see how he plays with some of our other younger guys. We’ve got to look at what this could potentially look like, because some of these guys are free agents and decisions will have to be made.”

The Mavericks also will learn how those players deal with scandals.

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