How stacked were the 80’s, really?

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When LeBron James came out and said that he thinks it would be great if great players on bad teams were able to go to good teams because their teams didn’t exist anymore (but he didn’t say the word contraction!), everyone nodded along in agreement. When he hearkened back in the conversation to those classic days of old in the 80’s, everyone vigorously smiled as they remembered those perfect days where each matchup in the playoffs was epic, culminating with Celtics-Lakers, the mother of all loaded-team faceoffs.

Except, here’s the thing. the 80’s? Not quite so loaded.

It started off well, there’s no doubt about that. The Lakers won in 79-80 during Magic Johnson’s incredible rookie season, featuring the infamous game where Magic took over at center. That was against the Sixers featuring Julius Erving still with some legs and Darryl Dawkins, and you had Maurice Cheeks, Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones, and Lionel Hollins on that team. Even the Supersonics who the Lakers faced in the Western Conference Finals were pretty stacked, featuring Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, and Jack Sikma. Not any sort of superteam, but a very solid 56-win team.

The next year, the Lakers lost to the Rockets in the first round, who would go on to lose to Boston in the Finals, and featured Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, Robert Reid, Mike Dunleavy and Rudy Tomjanovich. That sounds pretty similar to the kind of team you’ll see now, with one great inside player and some decent player surrounding. What’s more, the Rockets’ record that season? 40-42. This good enough for fifth in the East, at two games under .500. And they made the Finals.

No one’s questioning Moses Malone, nor Calvin Murphy, an underrated star in the league. But this team wasn’t stacked. It just wasn’t.

In 81-82, the Lakers bested the Sixers in the Finals again, and downed a fast-gunning Spurs’ team in the WCF. That team featured George Gervin, Ron Brewer, and Mike Mitchell. You know, Mike Mitchell. Mitchell actually averaged and impressive  21 points and 8 rebounds as the third man on the Spurs. But does that sound like a stacked team? The Spurs also scored 113 points a game (3rd in the league), but gave up nearly 111 points a game (18th defensively in the league). Hard to argue that team’s going to do well in a league that has come to accept defense as the path to the championship.

How about 83-84, when the Lakers and Celtics met again and this time Bird would come out on top? The Lakers got to the Finals by beating a 41-41 Phoenix Suns team led by Walter Davis, Larry Nance, and a 31-year-old Maurice Lucas. Not exactly clash of the titans.

How did Boston reach the Finals? By beating the impressive 50-32 Bucks coached by Don Nelson. (Side note: A Don-Nelson coached team led the league in defense that season. Get your brain around that.) The stars on the Bucks? Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, and a 35-year-old Bob Lanier. Stand back! The marquee is too bright!

In ’85, the Lakers’ opponent before facing the Celtics again was an infamous team, the Denver Nuggets First in offense, 13th in defense efficiency (22nd in points allowed). One of the fastest teams ever as Denver pushed the ball that decade, the Nuggets were led by Alex English, Calvin Natt, Dan Issell, and Fat Lever. That’s a pretty stacked team, but that’s mostly because they put up so many points. It’s hard to throw out that team and say they could hang with some of the better defensive teams of this decade.

In ’86, the Lakers lost to a legitimately dominant Rockets team (who would of course go on to lose against Boston), that featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson thanks to some fortuitous drafting, along with Robert Reid and John Lucas. Boston meanwhile faced a Milwaukee team with Terry Cummings now next to Moncrief, with Paul Pressey, Ricky Pierce, and Craig Hodges. You could use this year as the closest example of having “stacked teams” abound.

And then there was the next year. The Lakers advanced to the Finals after sweeping the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics were 39-43 that season, four games under .500, with Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel, Alton Lister, and Mo Lucas hanging on. They produced just .4 points more than their opponent and were of course, swept from the playoffs by LA as if they never belonged. The Celtics meanwhile got past the Pistons as they started to emerge with their famous core.

How about 87-88, as the Lakers had to get past Dallas, who was third in offensive efficiency, but 15th in defensive. Mark Aguire! Steve Alford!Roy Tarpley! Sam Perkins! Get excited! The Celtics had run into a bit of a gauntlet, and lost to the Pistons, who would lose to the Lakers.

So during this monumental decade of basketball, you had two teams obscenely loaded with talent, the Lakers and Celtics. You had one team with some tremendous talent to start the decade (Philadelphia) and one at the end of the decade (Detroit Pistons). You had a few pretty good teams like Houston, Phoenix, and Milwaukee. You also had a lot of scrubs. Sounds a lot like… now.

And therein lies the problem with James’ statement. Contraction won’t magically make it to where Joe Johnson is the third man on a small-market club. It just means that teams like LA, Boston, NY, Chicago, and yes, Miami will have legendary teams (but not at the same time, only a few at once), and the gap between them and the rest of the league will increase. You want better competitive balance?  Two things: better revenue sharing and a more successful and complete minor league system to reduce the number of flameouts and busts. Contraction? It’s not going to bring us back to a magical era, because that magical era was only magical for a handful of teams.

(All numbers courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.)

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.

Klay Thompson back on practice court with Warriors Friday

Klay Thompson cleared
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The last time Klay Thompson was on an NBA court, it was Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals when an ACL tear both ended those playoffs for him and caused him to miss all of this season.

Friday, Thompson was back on the court.

The three-time champion and five-time All-Star cleared quarantine and was in the “Dubble” where the Warriors are conducting a two-week minicamp at their facility to help prepare for next season (whenever that starts).

It’s a good sign. When next season starts, the Warriors hope he, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green are all healthy and running at 100%.

Another good sign for the Warriors, Kevon Looney has been working out and reportedly looking good at the Warriors minicamp (take all the “he looks great” reports with a grain of salt, but the fact he is on the court is a good sign).

Looney played through injuries in those 2019 Finals, and has missed parts of four of his five NBA seasons due to injuries — he played just 20 games last season and had surgery on his core in May. It led to whispers around the league he may never again find his form as a quality role player. If Looney can stay healthy — coach Steve Kerr said he went “full bore” at the team’s first practice — he becomes a solid, athletic interior presence the Warriors need to balance their elite perimeter players.