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: James Harden, Khris Middleton nearing return to court

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers
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Two of the East’s top teams are about to get key stars back.

Milwaukee has been without Khris Middleton all season as he recovers from off-season wrist surgery. Philadelphia has been without James Harden for a dozen games with a right foot tendon sprain. Both are nearing a return, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Milwaukee has a 14-5 record and sits as the two seed in the East, but they have done that on the back of the best defense in the league, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. The Bucks’ offense is 18th in the league overall and bottom 10 in half-court possessions, an area Middleton should help shore up.

Philadelphia has gone 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and has the best defense in the NBA over that stretch. The question becomes can the 76ers continue to defend like that when Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns? Players such as B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and Tobias Harris have stepped up in recent games, can they continue that with shifting roles?

While there are questions, the Bucks and 76ers are about to get better, which should worry the rest of the league.

Myles Turner says he’s staying focused, tuning out trade rumors

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Myles Turner heard his name come up all summer in trade rumors, particularly to the Lakers in a massive Russell Westbrook swap. It never happened as the Lakers would not throw in two first-round picks to seal the deal. Since the season started, the trade rumors around Turner have not stopped, with the Clippers mentioned as having interest.

Turner is trying to ignore all of it.

That was especially difficult on a recent swing through Los Angeles, and Turner spoke to Law Murray from The Athletic about it.

“Nothing changes,” Turner told The Athletic.”Just go out there and focus on getting wins for this team. That’s just where my focus lies. You can’t pay attention to outside noise … doesn’t change anything, bro. All I can do is go out there and play my game.”

Every player says some version of that, but Turner has lived up to it. Able to play his natural spot at the five without Domantas Sabonis sharing the paint (Sabonis was sent to the Kings in a trade that brought back Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana), Turner is averaging a career-high 18 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, while shooting 39.7% from 3. Plus, Turner remains an elite rim-protector, averaging 2.6 blocks per game (second in the league).

Turner is playing the best basketball of his career, coincidentally as he heads into summer as a free agent.

Whatever team trades for him will have to pay him next summer impacts Turner’s trade market, as does the fact that the Pacers are a surprising 12-8 start — Indiana is reportedly not as eager to trade Turner. If a team wants to trade for him, they are going to have to overwhelm the Pacers.

Turner has hinted he likes the idea of a brighter spotlight than he has seen in recent years, but in the end money will talk. Turner has kept his head down and his play this season has earned him more of it.

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.