NBA Playoffs, Magic Celtics: Game 4 a good a reason as any of why Stan Van Gundy's job isn't in jeopardy

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SVanGundy.jpgThe Magic were on the brink of franchise embarrassment on Monday night, as the Celtics were in command of the series with a 3-0 lead and came back to force overtime despite fantastic outings by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Orlando’s season could have drifted away had Paul Pierce found an open Ray Allen at the end of regulation, but Pierce uncharacteristically bobbled away a late-game possession and the Magic survived the overtime period to avoid elimination.

That possession though, and the overtime as well, were icing on the cake of a much-improved overall game for the Magic. The defense still has plenty of room for the improvement and some of the missed opportunities on offense were just painful, but Orlando looked to be a substantial step closer to the excellence they displayed in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the final months of the regular season.

As good as the Celtics have been, the Magic’s unraveling has been something of a wonder. It can’t all be chalked up to Boston’s top-notch defense, as some of Orlando’s underwhelming Conference Finals showing seems to stem from nowhere at all. The Magic played against quality defensive teams in the regular season, but none of those games have been quite as befuddling as the first three in this series, during which Orlando’s offense was shackled, weighted, and thrown into the ocean.

Even beyond that, the Magic were the second best defensive team in the regular season, but the Celtics have averaged a full +3.7 points per 100 possessions above the Magic’s regular season mark in defensive efficiency. Considering how ho-hum this Boston team can be on offense when Rajon Rondo isn’t inspiring epic poems of his exploits, that’s a troublesome and somewhat inexplicable number. Orlando has underperformed in this series, perhaps woefully so.

Reading through that narrative, it may sound shocking similar to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were a superb team in the regular season and still looked awfully strong in their playoff debut. Yet the team crumbled, and the first head to roll was head coach Mike Brown. LeBron received plenty of criticism for his Game 5 anomaly, but it was Brown’s reluctance to adapt the rotation that made the series against the Celtics far more difficult than it had to be. The Cavs still may not have won even if Brown’s performance had been flawless, but he was as culpable as anyone for the way Cleveland left the playoffs.

Yet you won’t — and shouldn’t — see anything in the coaching of that series that even remotely parallels this one. It may seem like Stan Van Gundy’s system is under fire, but SVG’s offensive adjustments in Game 4 showed why he’s still one of the best in the business.

With an understanding that guard penetration would be the key to unlocking the offense and that limiting Rajon Rondo’s effectiveness on the other end would ease his team’s defensive burden, Van Gundy devised an approach that could tackle both problems simultaneously. Whenever Jameer Nelson had the ball on the perimeter, he had the option of using two staggered screens to brush off Rondo. Rajon’s length and quickness had bothered Jameer throughout the series, and having not one, but two big bodies running interference freed up Nelson enough to pull-up from behind the arc or get all the way to the rim.

Plus, no one should discount how much running through screens can take out of a defender. Just ask any player who’s had the displeasure of defending Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, or Rip Hamilton about how exhausting it can be to chase shooters through screens all night. It’s not exactly the way that any player wants to spend their time on the defensive end. With Rondo asked to fight through several screens on pretty much every possession down the floor (another essential component of the plan was putting the ball in Nelson’s hands more often, which worked beautifully) while also running the Celtics offense, the burden of those dual responsibilities undoubtedly took a physical toll on him.

Running Rondo ragged, playing J.J. Redick major minutes, sitting the ice-cold Vince Carter during crucial moments in the fourth quarter — these are the reasons why Stan Van Gundy would have a job even if the Eastern Conference Finals had ended in a sweep. Among the most logical reasons to fire a coach is a distrust in them to make the right adjustments. That has never and will never be the case with Van Gundy. He makes mistakes — with sets, with the rotation, with certain play calls — but he’s a perfectionist that works tirelessly to correct those mistakes. He’s always tinkering, and his willingness to adjust is what makes him so valuable as a head coach.

Stan Van Gundy is not Mike Brown. Brown may not deserve the ridiculous amount of criticism he’s received over the years, but his inability to compromise — which is a bit odd to say for so amicable a coach — put his team at a disadvantage at inopportune times. The same is just not true of Van Gundy, and wouldn’t have been made more true if the Magic’s playoff run ended in a sweep. 

Luol Deng retiring by signing with Bulls

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Luol Deng will be remembered for being the subject of then-Hawks general manager Danny Ferry’s racist statement and signing an exorbitant contract with the Lakers.

It’s a shame.

Deng was a very good player on some strong Bulls teams. He’s returning to Chicago to say goodbye.

Bulls:

Deng’s prime was cut short by health issues. He played hard in big minutes with Chicago, including deep playoff runs, and was never the same after leaving there.

But he made an All-Rookie first team then had eight more good seasons with the Bulls. He made two All-Star games, providing steady defense and nice complementary offense. We only remember Deng as leaving something on the table because he entered the NBA as a teenager and it feels like someone still so young should have continued to thrive.

As he began to decline, Chicago traded him to the mess that was the post-LeBron James Cavaliers. Then, Deng left for the post-LeBron Heat. Deng had some good moments in Miami, but his body was continuing to break down.

The four-year, $72 million contract in Los Angeles followed. He just couldn’t play effectively anymore. That wasn’t his fault. Blame should fall onto Mitch Kupchak and his crumbling regime for signing Deng to that deal. The Lakers bought out and stretched Deng, who will collect paychecks from them through 2022.

He spent last season with the Timberwolves, barely playing. At 34, he’ll return to the Bulls for what’s surely an unguaranteed contract then waiver.

Deng played 15 years in the NBA. His prime last eight years and peaked at All-Star status. Don’t dwell on the woulda/coulda/shoulda. Appreciate what’s in front of you.

That’s a fulfilling career.

Most NBA GMs pick Clippers or Bucks to win 2020 NBA title in annual survey, Lakers third

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The top of our 50 best players in 5 years list:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Anthony Davis

3. Luka Doncic

Apparently, NBA general managers hold similar views. Though they answered a slightly different question in their annual survey on NBA.com, the polled general managers had the same top three:

If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee — 86%

2. Anthony Davis, L.A. Lakers — 7%

Luka Doncic, Dallas — 7%

Antetokounmpo won this category last year, but with just 30% of votes. An MVP season will certainly spark consensus.

The Bucks forward is the first player to claim a majority of votes in this category since Anthony Davis in 2015. Davis’ reign was short-lived. Karl-Anthony Towns claimed the top spot the following two years (though with just a plurality of votes).

Other interesting results:

Which team will win the 2020 NBA Finals?

1. LA Clippers — 46%

2. Milwaukee Bucks — 36%

3. Los Angeles Lakers — 11%

Also receiving votes: Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers

I’d favor the Clippers (though not over the field) followed by the Lakers. But the Bucks have an easier path from the East. They also don’t engender the resentment the Lakers do.

Who will win the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year?

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 68%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 29%

3. Darius Garland, Cleveland — 4%

Which rookie will be the best player in five years?

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 68%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 18%

3. Cameron Reddish, Atlanta — 7%

Also receiving votes: Jarrett Culver, Minnesota; Darius Garland, Cleveland

Will Zion Williamson win Rookie of the Year? Will he have the best career of this rookie class (which is essentially what the second question asks)? Neither are locks against the field. But I don’t understand naming another rookie ahead of the generationally athletic and productive No. 1 pick.

Yet, a full third of responding NBA general managers did just that. Wild!

I’m guessing (hoping?) some just wanted to give a contrarian take. Show me the general manager who’d actually trade Williamson for Morant, Reddish, Culver or Garland.

Who is the best head coach in the NBA?

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio — 55%

2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami — 17%

3. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee — 10%

4. Steve Kerr, Golden State — 7%

Also receiving votes: Steve Clifford, Orlando; Doc Rivers, LA Clippers; Quin Snyder, Utah

There’s nothing crazy about these results… except last year’s leader – Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who received 47% of the vote – got no votes this year. That’s a steep drop, especially for a category that isn’t even about performance this season. The best coach probably doesn’t fluctuate that much annually.

Only perception did, which says something about how long to hold onto these survey results.

Buddy Hield calls Kings’ extension offer ‘insult’: ‘Name one big free agent that came to Sacramento’

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Buddy Hield hinted about leaving the Kings in free agency next summer if they don’t sign him to a contract extension by Monday’s deadline.

He and Sacramento remain apart in negotiations. The Kings have reportedly offered $90 million over four years. Hield reportedly wants $110 million over four years.

So, Hield is intensifying his rhetoric.

Hield, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“I just know where my value is at, and I’m not going to budge for nobody,” Hield said. “I work hard. I come in here every day and I do my job.”

“It’s not frustrated, I’m just speaking to my heart,” Hield said. “I feel like people get mixed up with being frustrated. I’m just speaking what I believe and what I think. Like I said, there are 30 teams out there. If they don’t want to give me what I think I deserve, some team will give it to me. They’ll have the ability to match, or they’ll have the ability to let me go.”

“The goal is to be here,” Hield told a larger contingent of media. “I love Sacramento, but if they don’t want me here, if they don’t feel like I’m part of the core. … I like respect and loyalty, and I feel like I’m part of the group that’s getting the team back to where it needs to be.”

“Name one big free agent that came to Sacramento,” Hield said in the scrum. “I’ve been here three years trying to grow the program, grow the organization, and I feel like I could be rewarded close to that. But that’s just me. That’s my gut feeling.”

Hield, via Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee:

“I see it like an insult,” Hield said. “I feel like I’m worth more than that. If you say I’m your guy and you want to build around me, I just need you to show it. Actions speak louder than words. If you’re just talking and not showing nothing, I’m not going to respect it. I love playing here. I want to be here. This is my home. I’m trying to buy a house here, but everything is on stall mode because I don’t know if they’ll really commit to me.”

“I don’t know if things are going to get done,” Hield said while standing in front of his locker with more than a dozen reporters gathered around and three team staffers hovering nearby. “If it don’t get done, me and my team will look for something else — probably another home. Until then, we’ll see if they really want me here.

Chris Webber re-signed with the Kings in 2001, when he was the biggest free agent on the market. But that was back when they were good. They’ve been in a long rut since.

Sacramento appears on the verge of breaking through now. That’ll make the team more attractive to free agents.

Of course, Hield is a big part of the Kings’ rise. They might fear disrupting chemistry if he’s unhappy without an extension. He’s clearly trying to prey on that potential concern. That’s his leverage.

But Sacramento has far more leverage. Without an extension, Hield would be a restricted free agent, the Kings able to match any offer he signs. He can’t unilaterally leave next summer.

Hield could accept the $6,484,851 qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. But that will be a stronger free-agent class, and Hield will be 28 then. That’d be quite risky.

The Kings also have another good young shooting guard in Bojan Bogdanovic. That gives them even more leverage with Hield.

There’s just not much Hield can do now except make waves through the media. So, that’s what he’s doing.

If he doesn’t get an extension, will it get worse? Sacramento should be wary of that. However, there’s also a chance the perceived slight motivates Hield into even better play. That’d be the Kings’ gain, because – again – they can still pay him next summer with no risk of losing him until 2021 at the very earliest (and that’s only if Hield is willing to take an unprecedentedly risky route with the qualifying offer).

There’s still plenty of time for Hield and Sacramento find common ground. He’ll likely keep applying pressure until a deal is reached or the extension deadline passes.

Did JaVale McGee feign injury to set up open dunk? (video)

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I’m extremely reluctant to accuse anyone of faking an injury, but…

1. It’s JaVale McGee, who has a history of antics.

2. There’s no obvious cause of an injury.

3. McGee recovered incredibly quickly.

If he weren’t actually hurt, this was an illegal play by McGee. Healthy offensive players can’t run off the court like that. The penalty is loss of ball, but I don’t envy officials who had to determine whether the injury was real.

It’s also inconclusive whether McGee established himself in-bounds before catching the pass it. It’s close.

Another debatable point if McGee did this deliberately: Did he waste a clever play in the preseason? Even a sharp defender, Draymond Green, understandably lost track of McGee once McGee limped off. Or was the preseason the only time to have fun like this?

What is clear: The Lakers had another nifty play in their exhibition win over the Warriors last night. LeBron James switched hands mid-air to throw a kickout pass to a wide-open Danny Green: