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Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

Where do Blazers, Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts go from here?

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was a similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

Victor Oladipo says Cavaliers owner Gilbert’s comments added fuel to his fire

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Last summer, a frustrated Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said the Pacers “could’ve done better than it did” in the trade that landed them Victor Oladipo for Paul George from Oklahoma City.

Oladipo heard that. He remembered. And Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs when his Pacers took on the Cavaliers Oladipo was the best player on the court, finishing with 32 points on 19 shots (6-of-9 from three), six rebounds, and four steals. The Pacers took it to the heavily favorited Cavaliers and won Game 1 by 18. After the game, Oladipo was asked if his Game 1 performance and Gilbert’s comment were connected, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” Oladipo said after Game 1. “But that was so long ago. It came up recently, obviously, because we were playing the Cavs in the series, but I’m aware of what he said. Can’t control his opinion. All I’m focused on is myself and becoming the best Victor Oladipo possible.”

It would be very Kobe Bryant of Oladipo to use that comment as fuel — turn any perceived slight, real or imagined, into something to motivate you.

Except, Gilbert wasn’t really taking a shot at Oladipo — he was frustrated with Pacers management because the Cavs thought they had a deal for George. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and other reporting, the two sides were deep into talks for a three-team deal including Denver that would have landed the Pacers Gary Harris, Trey Lyles, and the Cavaliers first-round pick. The trade was far enough along that Gilbert was setting up a phone call with George, the player he wanted to put next to LeBron — Gilbert thought he had a deal. Then, from his perspective, the rug was pulled out from under him when the Pacers took the Oklahoma City offer instead. Gilbert’s comments were about that, not Oladipo directly. Not that it matters, it’s about perception and Oladipo can take it however he wants.

Looking at it now, the Cavaliers really could have used that trade. The decisions they made after it did not pan out nearly as well, and while Geroge broke out Playoff P and was the best player on the floor in OKC’s win over Utah, the Cavaliers were floundering in Game 1.

Instead, now LeBron James and the Cavaliers have an Oladipo problem.

Dallas, Chicago biggest winners in NBA draft tiebreakers

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When the league is so bunched up that heading into the final day of the season not one playoff matchup was set, there were bound to be a few teams tied when all things were said and done. In the final days of the season, that led to a lot of stories and flowcharts about possible outcomes.

After the season ended, all ties had to be broken to clarify the NBA Draft — and draft lottery. That happened Friday.

The biggest winner is the Dallas Mavericks — they won the coin flip and will pick No. 3 while the Atlanta Hawks will pick No. 4. For the draft lottery, the chances are split as close to evenly as possible, so the Mavericks have a 13.8 percent chance of getting the top pick while Atlanta’s chances are 13.7 percent.

The other big winner was the Chicago Bulls, who won the tiebreaker and get the No. 6 pick, while Sacramento will choose seventh. Both teams have a 5.3 percent chance of winning the lottery and getting Deandre Ayton the top pick.

Out of the lottery and into the playoff teams, Miami’s pick — which belongs to Phoenix — will be 16th, while the Milwaukee Bucks will go one later (if the Bucks had gone 16th their pick would have conveyed to the Suns, but now that rolls over a year). Next, San Antonio will choose 18th while Minnesota’s No. 19 pick will go to Atlanta.

Finally, the big four-way tie shook out this way: the Oklahoma City Thunder pick (which belongs to Minnesota) is No. 20, the Utah Jazz are No. 21, the New Orleans Pelicans (which belongs to Chicago) is No. 22, and the Indiana Pacers are No. 23.

So, here is your complete draft order heading into the lottery (picks 15 and beyond will not change):

1. Phoenix
2. Memphis
3. Dallas
4. Atlanta
5. Orlando
6. Chicago
7. Sacramento
8. Cleveland (from Nets)
9. New York Knicks
10. Philadelphia (from Suns and Lakers)
11. Charlotte
12. LA Clippers (from Pistons)
13. LA Clippers
14. Denver
15. Washington
16. Phoenix (from Heat)
17. Milwaukee
18. San Antonio
19. Atlanta (from Timberwolves)
20. Minnesota (from Thunder)
21. Utah
22. Chicago (from Pelicans)
23. Indiana
24. Portland
25. L.A. Lakers (from Cavaliers)
26. Philadelphia
27. Boston
28. Golden State
29. Brooklyn (from Raptors)
30. Atlanta (from Rockets)

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”