Kurt Helin

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Leicester City ‘s NBA version: “We believe” Warriors of 2007

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The NBA doesn’t do upsets well.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s what baseball and analytics guru Bill James once said about the league:

That’s the real problem with the NBA … the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice … as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting.

He’s not wrong in the big picture — in the NBA favorite wins most of the time. That’s particularly true in the playoffs. That the best team wins may sound like the goal of any league, in reality we want random upsets, we like vulnerability.

We love seeing a Leicester City rise from obscurity to take the Barclay’s Premiere League and knock off the big money, big name clubs (you can watch them go for the title Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they face West Ham). Had you bet Leicester before the season you would have gotten 5000-1 odds they would take the Premiere League title. Now Leicester City on the doorstep of soccer history — arguably the greatest upset in sports history.

It’s not the same, but, the NBA has had a few great upsets.

The biggest playoff upset — the closest thing the NBA has to its own Leicester City — was the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors knocking off the Dallas Mavericks.

While Golden State is on top of the NBA world now, the Warriors of 2007 were in a very different place. Golden State had missed the playoffs for a dozen years before the 2006-07 season — they hadn’t made the playoffs since Chris Webber’s rookie season. That’s not easy to do in a league where more than half the teams make the postseason annually. Golden State had in Chris Cohan a man who would have been seen as the worst owner in the NBA and probably the worst owner in professional sports at the time had the Clippers’ Donald Sterling not been Secretariat at the Belmont with that title. Cohen had brought in the respected mad genius Don Nelson to coach his team that season, but he coached a team led by the mercurial Baron Davis and the unrepentant gunner that was young Monta Ellis. Midseason the Warriors made a big trade with the Pacers that brought in Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell.

Despite the new players the Warriors fell to eight games below .500 before a run the last six weeks of the season saw them finish 42-40. The Warriors scraped into the playoffs as the eighth seed that season, playing at the fastest pace in the league. Their offense was good; their defense was not impressing anyone.

Going into the playoffs, the team’s marketing department adopted the slogan “we believe” and it was on T-shirts and banners that filled the building. The loyal and starved fans in the Bay Area did beleive.

The Warriors were matched against the Dallas Mavericks — a 67-win team led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki (he had a 50-40-90 season), a team that had lost just five games at home throughout the campaign. They were serious title contenders expected to roll through the first round… like Manchester United through Leicester.

In a move that now seems like foreshadowing of the current Warriors, Nelson unleashed a physical small-ball lineup on Dallas featuring Davis, Ellis, Jason Richardson, Jackson, and Harrington — their tallest player was 6’9″. The Warriors put five guys on the floor who could handle the ball, five guys who could space the floor and shoot the three. They overwhelmed the Mavericks — the Warriors ran off Dallas makes, they were feisty with Jackson and Matt Barnes off the bench, and Dallas couldn’t deal.

People also can forget how good — and how much fun to watch — a focused and in shape Baron Davis could be. He had 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists in a Game 1 Golden State win. When the series returned to Oakland for game three of the series, the long-starved and passionate Warriors fans unleashed the full fury of Oracle Arena on Dallas. Golden State won games three and four at home and led the series 3-1. Dallas took game five of the best-of-seven at home.

Game six at Oracle is still talked about as one of the great moments in Warrior’s history. Jackson drained seven threes on his way to 33 points, and during a 24-3 Golden State run in the third he was draining long balls and the crowd was raising the roof off that building. More importantly, Jackson was physical and had gotten in Nowitzki’s head (he was just 2-of-13 shooting that game).

Golden State won — the first eight seed to beat a one seed in a seven-game series in NBA history. We Believe worked and was etched into the history of the franchise.

This is the NBA, upsets don’t last long — the Warriors were manhandled by the Jazz in the second round, and that was the end of that run.

But not before the Warriors gave us the most improbable upset in NBA history.

Rockets’ owner: “There’s no uncertainty” about Daryl Morey, he will remain with team

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Last week a report came out that after a disappointing 41-41 season that saw the Rockets barely scrape into the playoffs, there would be changes in Houston — and that could include respected and established general manager Daryl Morey.

Not true if you ask the Rockets’ owner, Leslie Alexander.

Which is just what Fox 26 News in Houston did.

“There is no uncertainty,” Alexander said. “Daryl is with the team. We evaluate everybody, but right now things aren’t changing.

“There’s no uncertainty about his future.”

The Rockets will and should take a top-to-bottom look at the organization and what went wrong this season. If the issues there all tie back to locker room leadership and chemistry issues, then Morey should take stock of and alter his team-building methods. Chemistry matters and while not wholly predictable (nothing is) there are things that can be done, veteran leaders who can be brought in at the right price.

But that’s different from saying Morey’s job should be in danger. It shouldn’t be.

By the way, in the interview Leslie is wildly optimistic about his team’s chances against Golden State. He sounds like a proud father. He thinks James Harden is MVP worthy. I get that — I’m a proud father who likely would boast my 11-year-old-daughter’s club soccer team could hang with national champion Penn State on the pitch. The reality would be far different.

But let Leslie dream.

Phil Jackson: The Knicks are keeping triangle offense, he wants a coach he knows

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If you’re one of those people (and I’m in this group) who isn’t sold the triangle offense as Phil Jackson likes to run it can win titles the way the NBA is evolving, he has a question for you (us):

The rings argument is Jackson’s ultimate trump card — and he’s playing it because the Knicks are not moving away from the triangle. It’s staying, it’s going to influence their coaching search, and he would like to cut off criticism. Here are Jackson’s comments from Thursday, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“That’s what I was brought here for to do — build a system. That’s all part in package of what we’re doing.”

How that ties into the coaching search is you need to be one of Jackson’s guys.

“Only people I probably know will be in the interview process. I will reach out to make connections to some people. But I’ve been in this position, in the NBA over 50 years, and I’ve seen a lot of situations where coaches end up coming in without simpatico with the general manager and those things don’t work well,” he said. “So someone who has compatibility with what I do as a leader would have to be in sync with what we do.

“A lot of your speculations that people have thrown out really have very little bearing on what we do. If you want to save either paper space or speculation, limit your speculations, that’ll help out a lot.”

Kurt Rambis is still the guy Jackson wants, he feels they can work together. Jackson’s criteria means if you were dreaming of Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, or Mark Jackson you can move along, it’s not happening. It does mean maybe Brian Shaw gets an interview. Jackson likely calls Luke Walton, but people around the Warriors don’t seem terribly concerned he’d go to a place he has to run the triangle.

If all this talk of the triangle and the coaching search doesn’t thrill you, know that Carmelo Anthony is in your camp. Also from the New York Daily News.

Anthony said he voiced his opinion to Phil Jackson during his exit interview Thursday – leaving “no stones unturned”… Anthony said he wants an extensive process open “to whoever would come in here and make this a better situation.”

Anthony seemed to hint if there were not a greater effort to win now, he’d consider waiving his no-trade clause to go to a contender. But that’s down the road.

Jackson is right, having a system matters — more for the role players than the stars. In Jackson’s case, the triangle didn’t make Jordan/Pippen/Kobe/Shaq great; they would have thrived regardless of the system. It mattered for guys like Paxson/Longley/Fox/Fisher far more. It matters to have a system that gets everyone on the same page and where the players fit and buy in, but a lot of systems have done that and won rings.

What the Knicks need is talent — on the court and as a coach. The best guys they can get. Talent wins in the NBA. I’m more of a fan of fitting the system to the players, especially your elite ones. Jackson is going the other way. The question becomes can he get the talent that way he needs to make the Knicks a threat? Or even a playoff team?

Rip City Return: Blazers make playoffs despite doubters

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For the regular season finale, the Portland Trail Blazers passed out T-shirts reading “Never Doubt Rip City.”

Just in case there are still some doubters, the “never” is underlined.

The Blazers defied preseason expectations and made the playoffs, claiming the fifth seed in the Western Conference. They open their third straight postseason on Sunday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.

It’s almost as if the Blazers succeeded despite the cynics.

“One person picked as what, 15 out of 15 in the West? I mean, the list goes on. I think everybody felt disrespected, like that’s not what our season is gonna be,” guard Allen Crabbe said. “It was everybody’s goal since training camp that we were gonna play hard and it was us against everybody. Everybody stuck with that: We got better as the season went along and we had a helluva season.”

Portland was expected to reach the playoffs last season – and did – with a starting lineup that included Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez. But Matthews’ late-season Achilles injury messed with the team’s chemistry, and they were eliminated in the first round by a strong Memphis team.

Going into this season, the playoffs seemed a longshot.

All the starters except Lillard departed in the offseason, and coach Terry Stotts was tasked with assembling a cohesive unit around his talented point guard. One oddsmaker predicted Portland would win about 26 games.

Lillard and backcourt partner CJ McCollum went on to pace a group that finished the regular season 44-38. The Blazers won seven of their final nine games to close out the regular season.

“It’s going to be tough like it has been all season long. They’re a really good team,” Lillard said about the Clippers. “But we know that we have a chance. So we’ve got to go out there and be ourselves, lock in and be ready.”

In the finale Wednesday night against the Nuggets, a 107-99 Portland win, Lillard broke Matthews’ franchise record for 3-pointers and now has 828 for the Blazers. He averaged 25.1 points, becoming just the third Portland player to average more than 25 -along with Clyde Drexler and Kiki Vandeweghe.

“His four years here have been remarkable,” Stotts said. “He just continues to shine – sometimes you run out of words.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points in his first year as a starter, giving Portland its first backcourt duo with an average of 20 or more points apiece in a single season.

The Clippers present an intriguing matchup with the recent return of Blake Griffin. Los Angeles won six straight before Wednesday night’s 114-105 loss at Phoenix, with the fourth seed already sewn up and Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford left at home.

Whoever wins the first-round series will play the winner of the series between the defending champion Warriors and the Houston Rockets, a rematch of last year’s conference finals.

It is the first time the Clippers and Blazers are meeting in the playoffs. The Clippers won the season series against Portland 3-1.

“We’ve been underdogs since the jump,” Lillard said. “There’s no pressure on us. I’ve already seen some people talk about the Clippers and the Warriors in the second round. So there’s no pressure on us, we’ve just got to go out and play.”

League says Thon Maker is eligible for NBA Draft

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Thon Maker is going straight from high school to the NBA. Sort of.

The NBA is good with it, ruling Thursday that Maker met the requirements of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to be draft eligible. ESPN’s Chad Ford broke the story, since confirmed by the league.

To be draft eligible a player has to meet two requirements:

1) Be at least 19 the calendar year of the draft. Maker is already 19.

2) One NBA season had to have taken place since the player graduated from high school. Maker graduated from high school last year, but then chose to go to a prep school in Canada for a fifth year rather than go to college.

Being draft eligible and being draft ready are two different things. Maker has a lot of potential — he’s 7’1″ with a 7’3″ standing reach and he plays more like a point forward than a traditional big.

But he is raw. Not sushi raw, I mean just pulling it off the fish-hook raw, which is why teams consider him a second rounder (maybe some team takes him late in the first, but don’t bet on it). I saw Maker play in person more than a year ago at Adidas Nations, and you can see the potential in his game — he could be a big who fits with the way the NBA is trending — but he was so skinny and so incredibly raw that it was too early to say just how good he could ultimately be. When I bounced that impression off an NBA scout recently, the response was “not much has changed.”

PBT’s NBA Draft expert — and Rotoworld writer — Ed Isaacson saw Maker play far more recently and sent this analysis:

“It’s easy to see why some people instantly like him due to his size, 7’0, with an over 7’3 wingspan, as well as his the energy he plays with on the floor. Still, even though he looks like he has added some weight and strength, his frame still has a long way to go if it’s going to fill out. Even if his name has been known and lauded by many at the high school level, his game has never come close to matching the hype. Though he often has a big size advantage in the low post, he rarely dominates, especially when matched up against other high-level high school players. He can also knock down mid- and long-range jumpers, though the consistency isn’t there yet, and while Maker is a decent ballhandler for his size, he’ll often try to force drives right into the defense. Maker is at his best when he can get out in run the floor in transition, usually heading straight to the rim for a lob pass. Even if he continues to develop his skills on both ends of the floor, his understanding of the game is still way behind. He will be a project for any NBA team that picks him, and I don’t know if he’ll ever meet the early hype on him.”