NBA’s only parity problems are perception, LeBron James

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When LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Miami in 2010, many bemoaned the end of competitive balance, complaining LeBron had guaranteed himself a title that year. When LeBron return to Cleveland in 2014, similar angst emerged: LeBron again worked the system to guarantee himself a championship.

Of course, neither the 2010-11 Heat nor 2014-15 Cavaliers won a title.

But the same hysteria took hold when Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors last summer, and maybe this time, the hand-wringers will be right. Golden State enters the 2017 NBA Finals as heavy favorites over the Cavaliers in a widely expected matchup.

Has parity suddenly ended, or did the handwringers just finally happen to get one right?

This is the first time in the last dozen years, as far back as Sports Odds History records go, where the preseason conference favorites actually met in the Finals:

Season Expected Actual
2016-17 Cavaliers-Warriors Cavaliers-Warriors
2015-16 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2014-15 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2013-14 Heat-Thunder Heat-Spurs
2012-13 Heat-Lakers Heat-Spurs
2011-12 Heat-Lakers Heat-Thunder
2010-11 Heat-Lakers Heat-Mavericks
2009-10 Cavaliers-Lakers Celtics-Lakers
2008-09 Celtics-Lakers Magic-Lakers
2007-08 Celtics-Spurs* Celtics-Lakers
2006-07 Heat-Mavericks* Cavaliers-Spurs
2005-06 Heat-Spurs* Heat-Mavericks

*Conference favorites weren’t available, but I used the top team in the title odds from each conference.

None of the biggest preseason title favorites in this era – 2010-11 Heat, 2005-06 Spurs and 2013-14 Heat – have won titles. (The 2016-17 Warriors, favored over the field, could change that).

You can’t call that a fair die will land on 2, watch it land 4-3-6-4-2 then claim to be all-knowing after the last roll. Or at least you shouldn’t be taken seriously if you do.

But, to a degree, that’s what’s happening here.

The perception of a predictable outcome is sweeping over the actual predictability. This season was never guaranteed to end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals. Both teams had to earn their way here. They were favored against the field for good reason, but they still had to avoid injury, chemistry issues and upstart challengers. Play out this season 100 times, and it doesn’t always end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals.

But it feels that way, because it’s an unprecedented third straight Finals matchup between the same teams.

Yet, is feeling clouding reality? These other three- or four-year periods featured just three different teams in the Finals:

  • 2012-14 (Heat, Spurs, Thunder)
  • 2008-10 (Lakers, Celtics, Magic)
  • 1996-98 (Bulls, Jazz, SuperSonics)
  • 1988-90 (Pistons, Lakers, Trail Blazers)
  • 1984-87 (Celtics, Lakers, Rockets)
  • 1982-84 (Lakers, 76ers, Celtics)

Is that really so different than the two teams we’ve gotten in the last three years?

Again, it feels way different, and I get that.

I’m just not sure how the NBA can reconcile the issue.

LeBron’s teams have been favored to win the East the last eight years. Once he got good enough to actually carry them that far annually, nobody has touched them. As long as he remains elite, his teams will be favored in most regards.

The West has been far less predictable, though Golden State looks poised for a lengthy run. As much as fans wants parity, they also want teams to have the inside track for retaining their own players. Now that they have so many good players – Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – the Warriors can keep their core together (as long as they’re willing to spend).

But it’s hard to stay on top. LeBron is 32, destined to decline eventually. Golden State’s payroll and egos could become too outsized to manage.

Just because the Warriors and Cavaliers feel inevitable doesn’t make it so. They have both been favored to win their conference and actually won their conferences precisely one year – this year. Don’t let recency bias trick you into believing it has always been and will always be this way.

Paul George-Gordon Hayward-Celtics rumor doesn’t add up

AP Photo/George Frey
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Paul George reportedly wants to play with Gordon Hayward. George is also reportedly willing to join his desired team (universally accepted to be the Lakers) by means that don’t guarantee the highest salary.

Could the Celtics – who are pursuing Hayward in free agency – leverage those conditions into getting George?

Adam Kauffman of 98.5 The Sports Hub:

I don’t what George would do, but it’d be a MAJOR financial disadvantage to go this route.

There a couple ways it could happen – George getting extended-and-trade or George getting traded then signing an extension six months later. The latter would allow George to earn more than the former, but even if he pledged to sign an extension, would the Celtics trade for him knowing he’d have six months to change his mind if he doesn’t like Boston as much as anticipated?

There’s a bigger issue, anyway. Both extension routes would leave George earning far less than simply letting his contract expire then signing a new deal, either with his incumbent team or a new one.

Here’s a representation of how much George could earn by:

  • Letting his contract expire and re-signing (green)
  • Letting his contract expire and signing elsewhere (purple)
  • Getting traded and signing an extension six months later (gray)
  • Signing an extend-and-trade (yellow)

image

Expire & re-sign Expire & leave Trade, extend later Extend-and-trade
2018-19 $30.6 million $30.6 million $23,410,750 $23,410,750
2019-20 $33.0 million $32.1 million $25,283,610 $24,581,287
2020-21 $35.5 million $33.7 million $27,156,470 $25,751,825
2021-22 $37.9 million $35.2 million $29,029,330
2022-23 $40.4 million
Total $177.5 million $131.6 million $104,880,158 $73,743,861

Firm numbers are used when it’s just a calculation based on George’s current contract. When necessary to project the 2018-19 salary cap, I rounded.

The Celtics could theoretically renegotiate-and-extend, but that would require cap room that almost certainly wouldn’t exist after signing Hayward.

Simply, it’s next to impossible to see this happening. It’d be too costly to George.

Dwyane Wade on why he exercised his player option: ’24 million reasons’

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Dwyane Wade said he wanted to see the Bulls’ direction – winning now with Jimmy Butler or rebuilding? – before deciding on his $23.8 million player option for next season.

While Chicago was actively shopping Butler (before eventually trading him to the Timberwolves), Wade opted in, anyway.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

This is most real answer answer you’ll ever see. Props to Wade for his directness.

This also speaks to the unlikelihood of him accepting a buyout, no matter how poorly he fits with the rebuilding Bulls now – though maybe he’d accept a small pay cut to choose another team.

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.