Kurt Helin

LeBron James, DeMarra Carroll

PBT Extra: Hawks can give Cavaliers problems, but will they?

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The last time the Hawks and Cavaliers met, with both teams at full health (and after the mid-season moves by the Cavaliers) the Hawks torched the Cavaliers defense, scoring at a 119 points per 100 possessions pace. Atlanta won comfortably behind a balanced attack that exposed flaws (like lateral movement and help) in the Cleveland defense.

If I thought those Hawks would show up this series, I would pick them.

But over the final two months those Hawks have only shown up in little flashes. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, plus the size to score inside on the undersized Hawks starting front line. They have played better of late.

I’m picking the Cavaliers in six, just because I trust them more than the Hawks right now.

D’Angelo Russell will be drafted high, but some teams have questions

Ohio State v Indiana
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D’Angelo Russell doesn’t have doubts — he says he’s the best player in this draft.

NBA teams, some of them have doubts.

Russell is a top talent who is a lock to go top five in the NBA draft (likely top three) — he impressed me the first time I saw him play at the Adidas Nations tournament before his senior year of high school. He’s a big guard at 6’5″ and the guy can score — he scored 19.3 points a game at Ohio State, hitting 41 percent from three. And that’s not even what scouts like best about him, as Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated noted out of the recent NBA Draft Combine in Chicago.

Here’s what executives love about Russell: His passing. Russell has superior size, but it’s his ability to read defenses that stands out. Russell averaged 2.9 turnovers per game last season. Study the tape though, and watch how many picture-perfect fastballs bounced off teammates’ hands because they weren’t expecting them. Russell’s greatest strength is seeing a play develop before it happens.

But there are doubters as well.

Here’s what execs don’t love about Russell: His athleticism. More specifically, his lack of it. Russell is not a dynamic athlete. He doesn’t have the explosion of Emmanual Mudiay, the draft’s other top playmaking prospect. A common question is how Russell will handle more athletic opponents defensively.

Among the doubters, count PBT’s draft expert Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog.

“I’m not as high on him as a lot of people. A lot of teams have found ways to be successful in pretty much stopping him — in all aspects, whether it be distributing the ball or scoring…. In games against the top 60 we’re talking about a guy who was shooting 36-37 percent, even less from three, was getting his assists but also was turning the ball over a lot more…. On the bright side, in a big spot he wants the ball, very aggressive, always looking to make something happen.”

There are players and point guards who thrive in the NBA without elite athleticism — if you can see the play developing and make the right reads your feel for the game will be enough. Plus with his size you can play Russell at the two guard at times.

But the doubts are out there; there is not a consensus on what his ceiling will be. The Sixers reportedly love him; other teams are not as sold.

He’ll get drafted behind the two big men — Karl Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor — but whether he falls any farther depends on the outcome of the Draft Lottery Tuesday night. Is the GM of the team drafts third a believer or not?

John Calipari rumors will not die: He denies new report he’s interested in Pelicans job

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans
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Is there a federal law that says Kentucky coach John Calipari must be linked to any NBA coaching opening?

There’s an obvious connection between Calipari and the New Orleans Pelicans job — Anthony Davis. He’s a former Kentucky player who will lift this franchise up as long as they can hold on to him. Davis makes New Orleans the best open job on the market.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Calipari has interest in becoming the Pelicans’ next coach, replacing Monty Williams (who was let go last week).

Given the opportunity to reunite with star forward Anthony Davis, Kentucky coach John Calipari has made it known to New Orleans Pelicans officials that he’s interested in the team’s vacant head-coaching job, a source close to Calipari said Tuesday.

It didn’t take long for Calipari to deny the reports.

A couple thoughts here.

First, it’s not an accident that Calipari’s name comes up in so many coaching searches — people in his camp like to keep his name in the news this way, both to impress recruits and squeeze more money out of Kentucky. This pattern will continue from now until the zombie apocalypse.

Second, I doubt the Pelicans and Calipari could come to a deal. There’s a financial reason, which John Reid explains well at the Times-Picayune.

League sources said the Pelicans are willing to pay around $4 million to $5 million per season for Monty Williams’ successor…. But Calipari makes about $8 million annually and recently agreed to a one-year contract extension through 2022, which he hasn’t yet signed.

It should be noted $4 million to $5 million nay not be enough to land Tom Thibodeau either, he makes $4.5 million a year now but Orlando would offer more.

The other issue with striking a deal in New Orleans is power. Dell Demps is entrenched as the GM and is the guy driving the coaching search, but if Calipari comes back to the NBA he will want player-personnel say. He’s not getting that in the Big Easy.

But keep the Calipari rumors coming.

Quote of the Day: Bradley Beal doesn’t want anyone to win the NBA title

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards - Game Six
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That’s the best answer.

One-handed John Wall was not enough to lift the Wizards past the inconsistent Hawks, so Washington is golfing for the summer. Except for Bradley Beal, who is still bitter about being home and is not taking out the clubs just yet.

You have to like that in a player. It bodes well for the Wizards’ future. (So would Randy Whittman using some of these playoff lineups that worked so well during the regular season.)

PBT Western Conference Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Trevor Ariza
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SEASON RECORDS

Warriors: 67-15 (first place in Western Conference)
Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
(The Warriors swept season series 4-0 (and won every game by double digits.)

KEY INJURIES

Warriors: Marreese Speights will miss at least Game 1 with a calf injury and could well miss much more of the series.

Rockets: Patrick Beverley had wrist surgery and is out for the postseason. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels has a fractured elbow and will be out for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (in first two rounds of playoffs)

Warriors: 107.4 points scored per 100 possessions (2nd in NBA); 98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (5th in NBA).
Rockets: 105.9 points scored per 100 possessions (6th in NBA); 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (12th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Who can defend the three ball? These are the No. 1 and 2 teams in the playoffs in made three pointers per game — sorry Phil Jackson, but the teams that lean heavily on the three are doing quite well this postseason. Both of these teams have the three pointer as a central part of their offense, and the defense that can better defend the arc will have taken a big step toward winning.

That favors the Warriors. During the regular season, the Warriors defended the three-point line well — they allowed 21.4 three point attempts a game (seventh fewest in the NBA) and their opponents shot 33.7 percent (fifth lowest). In the playoffs the Warriors have done even better — 17.5 shots allowed and a 29.4 shooting percentage. During the season, the Rockets allowed 22.8 threes a night (middle of the NBA pack) but teams shot a league-low 32.2 percent. In the playoffs, teams are still shooting 32 percent against the Rockets, but they are taking more shots, 27.6 per game (part of that is skewed by the shootouts with Dallas).

One other advantage for the Warriors: When Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or Draymond Green get chased off the arc, they can drive to the basket or pull up in the midrange and knock down shots. Harden can do that for the Rockets, but guys like Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, and Pablo Prigioni are far less versatile that way.

2) Can Klay Thompson slow James Harden? If James Harden wants to prove his point about the MVP race — that he deserved the honor because he did more for his team — he has the stage to do it. But it’s not going to be easy. Klay Thompson is a good man defender and he draws the primary assignment. Beyond that the Warriors will switch nearly every pick with another good defender, nobody helps and recovers as well as them defensively, and they have Andrew Bogut in the paint to clean up messes. It worked during the team’s regular season meetings — Harden shot 24.1 percent from three and had fewer shots in the restricted area (and more from the inefficient midrange) against the Warriors than he did on average. If Houston is going to win this series, Harden needs to be the MVP.

3) Dwight Howard has to be key for Houston’s offense. Dwight Howard had a good series against the Clippers, despite being matched up against the ultra-athletic DeAndre Jordan (who is a good defender). Howard needs to be more than good this series. Sure, Andrew Bogut is a quality defender, too, but not near the athlete Howard faced last round. Howard is going to be involved in a lot of pick-and-rolls with Harden, and he has to blow up the usually reliable Golden State defense. He needs to be aggressive and if he can get Bogut in foul trouble things will open up for Houston somewhat. Howard also needs to be fantastic defensively — move his feet to blow up pick-and-roll plays, plus defend the rim.

PREDICTION

Give the Rockets credit — they have made the plays when they’ve had to, their role players have stepped up, and they are playing their best basketball of the season. But this is a rough matchup for them. The Rockets have played at a faster pace than any other team in the playoffs, but now they face a team that will thrive at that tempo. Golden State is more diverse offensively and better defensively, plus they have depth and will not wilt as the series goes on. It’s been an impressive run by the Rockets, but this is where it ends. The Warriors in five.