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.)

Bucks, 76ers, other teams practicing with “4 point line” to improve spacing instincts

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Space is the name of the game in the modern NBA.

Milwaukee is thriving in part because of the addition of three-point bomber Brook Lopez (still weird to type that) and a coach in Mike Budenholzer who encourages his players to shoot from deep, opening up the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drive the lane.

How Budenholzer reinforces that spacing — adding a four-point line on the practice floor and color-coding parts of the court — is part of a fascinating story by ESPN’s Malika Andrews on how coaches are “gamifying” practices to get through to players. The 76ers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, and Bucks are the teams we know are using a four-point line in practice right now.

To explain how the Hawks’ 4-point line — which is painted onto the floor 5 feet beyond the regular 3-point line — helps his team, [Atlanta Hawks coach Paul] Pierce walks onto the court to physically demonstrate. The condensed version of Pierce’s 36-minute explanation, which is punctuated by wild gesticulation, is this: “Spacing changes the whole game.”

Atlanta targeted Young out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft lottery, with hopes of building an offense around his long-range shooting and passing skills. Because Young is willing and able to shoot off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point arc, defenders are forced to step out to defend him almost as soon as he crosses half court. Although he already had that range before he joined the Hawks, Young acknowledges that not everybody has the natural instinct to pull up from that deep, so it helps to have a visual reminder…

Lloyd not only wants Young to shoot from the 4-point line but to make plays from there, too. Expanding the floor outward, in turn, creates space in the paint for big men such as second-year breakout John Collins. If a guard like Young can initiate a play from behind the 4-point line, defenses are forced to cover more ground and, eventually, make difficult choices and compromises.

While Young is struggling with those deep shots this season — 24.1 percent from three — the principle is still valid, and just his and the Hawks’ willingness to shoot from there has stretched defenses (they just don’t have the talent and experience yet to exploit those defenses properly). It’s what Stephen Curry brings naturally to the Warriors (that team has the talent and experience yet to exploit defenses).

It’s not just the four-point line. In Philadelphia, the corner-three spot on the court is a different color, a reminder to players they want to be and shoot from there. In Milwaukee, there are five taped-off boxes on the court, each about the size a person takes up standing there, a reminder of where Budenholzer wants players to be in a five-out offense.

For young players raised on computer learning and video games, the color coding — what Brett Brown called “gamification” of the court — works as reminders. Ones that, ideally, carry over into games themselves.

Don’t forget, Boston reportedly “hawking” Anthony Davis, too

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If Anthony Davis hits the trade market — and that’s still an “if” because the Pelicans are pushing to win now, they are active on the trade market, and they will put a $235 million guaranteed contract in front of him next July, $40 million more than anyone else can offer — there’s been a lot of talk about how the Lakers are poised to pounce.

But don’t sleep on Boston — GM Danny Ainge has eyed Davis for a while and the Celtics have a lot of assets to throw in a deal. Something Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on the Woj&Lowe NBA trade season broadcast special recently.

“Boston has been hawking Anthony Davis for years. They always hoped that it would be—whether it’s the end of this season or the beginning of next before the trade deadline—that they would gather up all those assets, all those picks Danny Ainge has, young players, and they’d be the team to be able to get Anthony Davis.

“But now you have L.A., and if they get shut out in free agency, they’re going to have to take all their young players to try to use them to get Anthony Davis.”

If Davis becomes available, the Celtics and Lakers will be at the front of a very long line.

Boston would throw their best assets in a trade for Davis — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and draft picks — that may be more interesting to New Orleans than Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. (Boston could have four first-round picks in next June’s draft, but trading them is complicated because the draft is weeks before July 1 when the Pelicans make their offer to Davis, it’s possible to delay signing the rookies to keep them tradable but that’s not the norm; also if the Clippers miss the playoffs this year then Boston has their 2020 pick lottery protected).

Also, know that other teams are going to jump in with offers, the way Oklahoma City did with Paul George and Toronto did with Kawhi Leonard. New Orleans is obligated to get the best trade for New Orleans, not to send Davis somewhere he wants to go. If another team comes in with an over-the-top offer the Pelicans may jump at it.

Right now, NBA GMs are just watching what is happening with Davis like hawks. Or, maybe more accurately, vultures.

Not so fast: Austin Rivers reportedly will not sign in Memphis, other teams interested

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Austin Rivers is a below-average guard (his 7.1 PER this season is well below his 10.4 career average, and that was already troublingly low) and certainly was not the most popular guy in the Clippers’ locker room, but for a team in desperate need of guard depth, they could do worse. Especially for a minimum contract the rest of this season.

Which is why the rumors of Rivers to Memphis after he clears waivers from the Suns made some sense (Rivers was traded to Phoenix from Washington in the Trevor Ariza deal). Mike Conley is a borderline All-Star but behind him the Grizzlies are giving Shelvin Mack, MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden, and others regular run. Maybe Rivers could help.

But…

Rivers will not be signing in Memphis, reports the well connected Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian.

Contrary to today’s reports, a source with knowledge of the negotiation tells The Daily Memphian that while the Grizzlies considered the matter, the team is not signing Rivers. Unlike on Friday night, when early reporting seemed to reveal some internal confusion among the NBA teams involved in a proposed transaction, this seems merely to be a case of a premature report.

Even The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who first broke the news, has backed off.

There is not a huge demand for Rivers’ services, but some team in need of depth will role the dice.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse fined $15k for criticizing refs on behalf of Kawhi Leonard

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After the Raptors lost to the Nuggets on Sunday, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said:

“You can’t tell me that one of the best players in the league takes 100 hits and shoots four free throws, and they handed him two for charity at the end,” Nurse said in a two-part rant that will earn him a fine from the league office. “So he was going to have two free throws for the game with all the physical hits and holding and driving and chucking and doubling and slapping and reaching and all the stuff. It’s been going on all year. I do not understand why they are letting everyone play one of the best players in the league so physically. I do not understand it.

“Tonight was a very severe case of a guy who was playing great, taking it to the rim and just getting absolutely held, grabbed, poked, slapped, hit and everything. And they refused to call any of it. It’s unbelievable to me. Unbelievable to me. It’s ridiculous. The guy is one of the best players in the league and he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that, and they just turn their head and go the other way. It’s been going on all year.”

Predictably…

NBA release:

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has been fined $15,000 for public criticism of the officiating, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

This obviously doesn’t come close to putting the Raptors over the top for Leonard in free agency next summer. Los Angeles teams are still favored. But this bodes well for Toronto re-signing Leonard.

Not only did Nurse endear himself to Leonard, the coach might even help Leonard get a more favorable whistle going forward. If that happens, it’ll make the Raptors more likely to win and therefore more likely to keep Leonard.