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What’s in store for NBA’s biggest trade sacred cow, Celtics point guard Terry Rozier?

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DETROIT – Terry Rozier, as the running joke goes, is the NBA’s most unattainable player.

Celtics president Danny Ainge reportedly wouldn’t trade Rozier for Serge Ibaka, according to the actual report which sparked the gag. Didn’t trade Rozier for Kyrie Irving. Hasn’t traded Rozier for Anthony Davis.

And why stop there?

“Me getting traded for LeBron,” Rozier said, “and then Danny hangs up the phone.”

That’s Rozier’s favorite version of the joke. He can laugh along with it.

More so, he appreciates the subtext – that Ainge really does value him deeply.

“He’s one of the guys that believes in me most in this league,” Rozier said. “And I think that’ll allow me to wake up every day, just knowing that I can breathe easily and just play my game and be me.”

It’s a good mindset, as the next 16 months will test Boston’s and Rozier’s loyalty and usefulness to each other.

Satisfied backing up stars Isaiah Thomas and now Irving at point guard, Rozier is an important part of the team with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. He can help the Celtics win in the playoffs this season and in future seasons.

But how long will Rozier, who turns 24 Saturday and will be eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension this summer, remain content? He has declared he’ll become a starter in the NBA, but that almost certainly won’t happen in Boston as long as Irving is there.

“I know there’s a lot of teams I can start for right now,” Rozier said.

“It’ll be the right time soon enough. It’ll happen for me.”

Rozier has developed into one of the NBA’s top reserves. Victor Oladipo will win Most Improved Player, and Lou Williams will win Sixth Man of the Year. But Rozier should contend for spots on both ballots.

He already has 4.7 win shares this season – 3.3 more than last season. That’s tied for the fifth-largest increase from a previous career high. Here are the league leaders in win share increases from a previous career high – the previous high on the left, this season’s mark on the right, the increase in the middle:

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And Rozier’s 4.7 win shares rank sixth among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players:

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At 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Rozier is a dogged defender who really gets into his man. He primarily makes opponents uncomfortable on the perimeter, but he’s also comfortable mixing it up inside, where he defensively rebounds well for his position.

Rozier has also become a good 3-point shooter, making 39% of his 4.7 attempts per game. That shooting breakthrough has made all the difference in Rozier’s growth.

Can he take the next step and become a starting point guard somewhere?

“There’s an athleticism requirement at that position because of how dynamic those guys are,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Competiveness, skill and just an everyday mentality and mindset. And he’s got a lot of those things. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Athleticism? Rozier is fast, a high-flyer and definitely strong enough. Competitive? To a fault. Everyday mentality? “He never takes days off,” Stevens said.

Skill is the question mark.

Rozier isn’t much of a playmaker, a deficiency that would become an even bigger issue if he started. When playing with other top players, distributing matters more.

Rozier’s 5.2 assists per 100 possessions would rank last among starting point guards:

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(Jamal Murray, who starts for the Nuggets and also averages 5.2 assists per 100 possessions, plays with an elite passing center in Nikola Jokic.)

To be fair, Rozier’s assist numbers are negatively impacted by Marcus Smart. Rozier and Smart often share lead-guard duties off the bench, so each takes assist opportunities from the other. And Smart doesn’t space the floor well when off the ball, making it harder for Rozier when he has it.

But none of that excuses Rozier’s pedestrian passing. Steven often tells him to take more risks. Dribble more to engage defenses. Make higher-upside passes. Those aren’t dependable skills for Rozier yet – which is fine for a bench sparkplug. As a starter, it’d become a far bigger problem.

And then there’s blemish already hurting Rozier: He’s an awful finisher.

He too often gets out of control when he attacks the rim. He doesn’t have the touch on floaters. Though he can penetrate, it doesn’t bear much fruit.

Among 163 players with at least 200 attempts in the paint, Rozier ranks dead last in field goal percentage (43%)

Still, Rozier brings enough tools – athleticism, competitiveness, defense and outside shooting – to create the rough outline of a future starting point guard. Court vision can take a while to develop. (The poor finishing is more worrisome, though at least Rozier’s ability to get into the paint is encouraging.)

“Every indicator would be that he’d continue to get better and better,” Stevens said.

That makes upcoming decisions tricky.

Locked into a bargain $3,050,390 salary next season, Rozier will also be eligible this offseason for a contract extension that would start in 2019. He said he’d appreciate an extension, as it’d show Boston’s faith in him.

But would he resist an extension to keep open his options to become a starter elsewhere? Will the Celtics even offer an extension?

That might depend on Smart.

He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, and Boston projects to have about just $9 million to pay him below the luxury-tax line without making other moves. The Celtics might decide Smart and Rozier overlap too much and let Smart walk or keep him on his qualifying offer. Or Boston could re-sign Smart, which could make Rozier the unaffordable luxury.

In 2019, Kyrie Irving will be up for a new contract. In 2020, Jaylen Brown‘s new deal would kick in. In 2021, Jayson Tatum‘s new deal would kick in. Al Horford (2019) and Gordon Hayward (2020) also have player options on their max contracts.

Perhaps, that leads to keeping Rozier next season while he’s still on his cheap rookie-scale contract then maybe even another year on his qualifying offer. Then, if he bolts for a place he can start and get paid more, at least the Celtics will have gotten several years of valuable production from him.

Or, if it’s headed down that path, could Boston do the unthinkable and trade Rozier? He’d return value, which could trump keeping him for another year or two then losing him for nothing. At some point, would Rozier welcome a trade to a team seeking a starter?

“I know it’ll work out if it’s meant to be, so I don’t really think about that,” Rozier said. “I’m just trying to seize the opportunity and, like I said, control what I can control and work my butt off every day, whether I’m the starter or coming off the bench.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo beats Celtics with late-game tip-in, series goes 2-2 (VIDEO)

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It was an exciting finish in Milwaukee on Sunday, where the Bucks took home a win on their home court to level the series against the Boston Celtics, 2-2.

The game came down to the wire, with 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon giving the Bucks the lead after a corner 3-pointer with just 33.5 seconds left. The Celtics responded with a sideline out of bounds play that resulted in Al Horford tying the game with free throws.

On their final possession, the Bucks again went to Brogdon, who missed on a layup driving to the left side of the floor. Luckily, Giannis Antetokounmpo was there to follow with the tip-in with just five seconds left.

Via ESPN:

Boston was unable to convert on a final play, and Milwaukee grabbed the win, 104-102.

Game 5 will be in Boston on Tuesday.

Report: Ime Udoka, Ettore Messina, David Fizdale to interview for Hornets job

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The Charlotte Hornets have a new GM in Mitch Kupchak. Upon taking the helm, Kupchak made short work of firing head coach Steve Clifford.

Now, the Hornets need a new coach and they have quite a few names to choose from.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Hornets will be interviewing current San Antonio Spurs assistants Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina along with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale.

Via Twitter:

All three have extensive coaching experience under their belts. Udoka played in the NBA for seven seasons and has been an assistant coach in San Antonio since 2012.

Messina is a four-time Euroleague champion as a coach, and a two-time winner of the Euroleague Coach of the Year award. He’s coached abroad and in the U.S. since 1989, and he’s been with the Spurs since 2014.

Fizdale coached the Grizzlies for two seasons. Before that he was a longtime assistant coach with the Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra.

Hornets star Kemba Walker said that who the team chose as GM would influence his decision to re-sign after 2018-19. Walker loved Clifford, so who Charlotte picks as coach could carry significant weight with Walker as well.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders. In fact, I would argue most of it is not.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts vs. the roster he has to coach?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did. The question for Blazers management is, if not Stotts then who is next? Who are they getting that’s better?

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.