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.)

Report: Spurs pissed about Marcus Morris reneging to sign with Knicks

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Marcus Morris backed out of a two-year, $20 million agreement with the Spurs to sign a one-year, $15 million deal with the Knicks. (Don’t blame Rich Paul.)

Occasionally, teams allow committed players to look elsewhere. But that apparently wasn’t the case here.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

the Spurs didn’t like it.

“They’re pissed” is how one general manager described it.

Pissed at Morris? Pissed at the Knicks? Pissed at both?

I don’t blame the Spurs for being upset. They traded Davis Bertans in anticipation of signing Morris and watched other quality free agents go off the board. San Antonio settled for Trey Lyles.

At some point, Morris should explain himself. It’s a major breach of decorum to renege on an oral agreement in free agency. Why did he feel strongly enough about ditching the Spurs for New York to go back on his word?

The Knicks should also explain themselves. They got extra cap space when Reggie Bullock‘s spine injury shuttered his original deal. But poaching an already-committed player at least raises eyebrows.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, there’s nowhere productive to direct this anger. Shortening or eliminating the moratorium would help in some similar situations. But Morris agreed to terms then backed out all after the moratorium.

The Spurs just have to eat this one.

Report: Lakers feel they got played in Kawhi Leonard pursuit

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The Raptors reportedly felt Kawhi Leonard‘s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests of them before Leonard signed with the Clippers.

The Lakers, the other team that waited for and missed out on Leonard, also apparently has misgivings about the process.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

I’ve heard complaints in the days after the signing. I heard complaints from the Lakers that they got played. I heard complaints from the Raptors that Kawhi came in and asked for the sun, the moon, the stars then left them at the altar.

The implication: Leonard knew all along wasn’t signing with the Lakers, waited a week into free agency so other top free agents would commit elsewhere then announced his decision just to sabotage the Lakers.

I don’t think Leonard did that. That’d be so calculating and sinister.

But I don’t know. We really don’t have much insight into how the famously secretive Leonard operates. I can’t rule it out.

Also, if Leonard did execute a devious plan to spite the Lakers, it’d look a lot like his actual free agency went.

Of course, nobody forced the Lakers to wait a week for Leonard. There had been longstanding reports Leonard didn’t want to play with LeBron James. The Lakers could have followed the Knicks model of dropping the Leonard pursuit to sign other players.

This is the calculus small-market teams must do frequently. They often bow out of star races, lacking confidence about succeeding.

The Lakers (often incorrectly) believe they can get anyone.

In this case, they were correct to chase Leonard until the end. He’s that big of a prize. Leonard is arguably the NBA’s best player. He can transform any franchise. The Lakers could also offer Leonard his desired Southern California locale and an opportunity to inform an incredible top trio with LeBron and Anthony Davis. For better or worse, that differentiated the Lakers from the Clippers.

The plan just didn’t work. Getting to the Clippers was clearly Leonard’s priority. He convinced George to join him, even moving a meeting with the Lakers so he could meet nearby with George unseen. That probably adds to the Lakers’ suspicion.

I don’t mind the Lakers venting. It must have been frustrating to miss out on Leonard.

Most importantly, they took care of business in the aftermath. The Lakers signed some good role players, chiefly Danny Green.

Their roster would likely look better now if they never pursued Leonard. But that opportunity cost was absolutely worth the potential upside of landing Leonard.

Report: Celtics complained about 76ers tampering with Al Horford

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Kyrie Irving was thinking about leaving the Celtics in December, according to Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Rumors of Irving leaving Boston had gotten so intense by February, he practically admitted he was open to leaving. Even Celtics president Danny Ainge said he got the impression by March or April that Irving could leave. By early June, it was apparent Irving wouldn’t re-sign. By mid June, it was clear he’d sign with Brooklyn. Irving announced July 1, the second day of free agency, he chose the Nets.

Al Horford‘s exit from Boston came more suddenly.

He declined a $30,123,015 player option that had to be exercised by June 18. The Celtics were on board with that, hoping to re-sign him to a long-term deal, presumably with a cheaper starting salary but more overall compensation. But the same day, a report emerged he’d leave Boston. Horford reportedly believed a four-year, $100 million contract awaited him in free agency. On the first day of free agency, he agreed to a four-year deal with the 76ers that guarantees $97 million and could be worth $109 million.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The Celtics were, from what I am told, one of the teams that kind of stomped their feet about what they felt was tampering. Not with Kyrie, although that looked like it was lined up pretty far in advance. But with Horford. What happened with Horford – again, from what I am told – really upset the Celtics, that they were thinking they were going to be able to negotiate with him, talk to him about a new contract, and all of a sudden, it was like he already knew what his market was and was out of there.

The Celtics are hypocrites.

By June 26, Boston had become clear favorite to sign Kemba Walker. By June 29, he had reportedly told the Hornets he’d sign with the Celtics.

Again, free agency began June 30.

How does that happen without Boston tampering?

This is the game. Teams are generally clear to talk to players after the season, even though that’s technically against the rules. The Celtics cut the same corners as nearly everyone else. It’s ludicrous for Boston to complain about Horford’s departure, as if Walker didn’t arrive the same way.

The NBA hasn’t announced any fine for Philadelphia. But the league doesn’t announce all tampering violations.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is correct: This system is broken. The league’s tampering rules are vague and arbitrarily enforced. The NBA should set realistic rules then enforce them fully.

Rumor: Marcus Morris left agent Rich Paul over backing out of Spurs deal to join Knicks

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Thes are the facts on the ground: Powerful agent Rich Paul negotiated a two-year, $20 million contract for Marcus Morris with the Spurs, and he verbally agreed to it. The Spurs made a series of moves to clear out the cap space to honor that agreement. However, by the time the moratorium ended and players could sign deals, Morris had started to move on and soon reached a new, one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks. A few days later, Morris and Paul parted ways.

Now the rumors are starting to come in around how that went down.

The buzz at Summer League was Morris was disappointed with the market for his services, which he thought would be more robust. He took the Spurs offer that Paul set up, but when the Knicks came with $5 million more per year on a one-year deal — which makes Morris a free agent again in a much weaker class next summer — he wanted it. Paul, however, was not part of those talks and urged him to stick with the original Spurs deal, according to Marc Berman of New York Post.

Morris’ super-agent, Rich Paul, was not involved directly in Morris breaking his verbal agreement with the Spurs, according to a source, and the Knicks and Morris worked on a new deal together. The source reports Paul preferred Morris stick to his original agreement and the two are headed toward a breakup over the incident.

Morris’ move did not sit well with teams executives I spoke to at Summer League. Not because he backed out of a deal, that does happen (it’s not common, but it’s not unheard of), but because in this case the Spurs moved on from Davis Bertans and made roster moves to clear the cap space for Morris they would not otherwise have made.

Morris has made a bet on himself that there is a bigger, better contract for him next summer after he puts up numbers in New York (plus he gets $5 million more this season). We’ll see how that plays out.