10 things about Modern Celtics-Lakers XX

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There are regular-season games, there are important regular-season games, and then there is Celtics-Lakers. On Sunday the two contenders will meet for the 20th time since the start of the 2007-2008 season, when the rivalry was truly renewed as Andrew Bynum emerged and the Lakers became good enough to justify trading for Pau Gasol, and the Celtics’ Big 3 first took the court together. It is the first meeting since the Celtics walked off the Staples Center floor in June, purple and gold confetti falling on them as the Lakers celebrated their championship after a fierce and ugly Game 7. Now the two will renew their rivalry, and although nothing in January will match the intensity of a Finals meeting, this will be as close as it gets.

So what are the factors in play Sunday? Here’s a rundown of 10 things in play when L.A. and Boston renew their historic rivalry.

1. The Old Gang

The players you know and love in this rivalry will all be on the floor. Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum. Kendrick Perkins. Lamar Odom. Rajon Rondo. Derek Fisher. All the relevant starters from 2008 and 2010 are starting Sunday, and all are healthy enough to play, which is good news. These players know one another, these players dislike one another, these players enjoy playing against one another. Garnett and Bryant provide fascinating contemporaries, both out of high school and legends on opposite sides of the court. The only players with relevant history in this rivalry who are missing are Sasha Vujacic, so he can get taken off the dribble by Ray Allen, and Tony Allen so he can vanish as the game continues. Part of the draw of this game is that it does feature not only the teams in the rivalry, but the full cast of players who have re-ignited it.

2. The Rondo effect

Rondo was dealing with a back injury in last year’s Finals and did not look full strength. This is no excuse, both sides had injuries to deal with, most notably Bynum playing on a torn knee tendon and Perkins out after tearing a knee up. But Rondo was not at full strength. Rondo also has dealt with injuries this season and has pretty much gone from injured list to playing brilliantly. His assist numbers have been pretty ridiculous this season, averaging 12.5 assists per game, and 50.4 percent of all assists for the Celtics, which is kind of insane.

Rondo’s best regular-season game against the Lakers was last Jan. 31, when he tallied 21 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and two steals in a painful loss. In the playoffs, Rondo’s best game was in the ’08 series, with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and six steals in a huge win for the Celtics. He also had a triple-double in the Finals last June. When Rondo plays well, it’s a decided advantage for the Celtics, who cannot guard him with Fisher and have to adjust by putting other players on him and sending doubles. That will open up things. Rondo needs to be huge for the Celtics.

3. The New L.A. Bandstand

While the starters are mostly the same for L.A. and Boston, the reserves are wildly different. L.A. will be missing Matt Barnes for the game, but Steve Blake is in place, and Shannon Brown is a much bigger part than he was when the teams met in 2008. Brown had a nearly mute series against the Celtics in the Finals, but the three games he played the most in were all wins for the Lakers. With Nate Robinson coming off the bench on the other side, the Lakers need Brown to make his mark with his suddenly blistering outside shooting and take the pressure off the rest of the offense. Blake provides a competent backup to run the point and another perimeter shooter. Blake has been erratic this season, brilliant at times and disappointing in others.

4. The New Green Gang

But the biggest changes are on the other bench’s reserve units. The Celtics feature the deepest team they’ve had behind the Big 3. With Shaquille O’Neal, Von Wafer, the aforementioned Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels healthy, along with Semih Erden and Luke Harangody getting minutes, the Celtics are able to make runs at different times with their bench units. If the Big 3 aren’t having a stellar game, the Celtics can still win with their bench, led in particular, by Davis.

5. The Drunken Seal Show

Davis plays a bigger and better part this season than he ever has. He’s leading the league in charges (estimated). He’s a top-notch defender in all areas, and his offense is as good as ever, hitting 37 percent from mid-range, and a career high 64 percent at the rim. Davis has brought energy and poise off the bench, and is a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Countering the Lakers’ size beneath with his awkward, falling style of scoring and tough defense (as well as spittle) will be a key for the Celtics.

6. Finally healthy

Bynum has been a beast since coming back from his umpteenth knee surgery. He’s playing well on both sides of the ball and he makes the Lakers a wholly different, and better team, as showcased in the Finals last season. He’s the difference-maker for the Lakers. With him in the lineup, rebounds are a nightmare for L.A. opponents. He’s matched up with Perkins, who is still trying to recover in his fourth game back, and against O’Neal, who’s no spring chicken. If Bynum comes out aggressive, he could bury the Celtics.

7. Tactical artillery

The Celtics have an uncanny ability to free up Ray Allen, a constant threat from the outside, for open three-pointers. They like to run him off multiple screens, often weaving an opponent back across the same screen just to free him up for a minute. Allen’s precision is such that when his stroke is on target, it seems superhuman. He buried the Lakers last year in Game 2 of the Finals, hitting eight threes. That came two years after he nailed seven against L.A. in a clinching Game 6. When the Celtics get Allen the ball in space and he’s hot, he can drive Lakers fans to tear out their hair.

8. Best Big on the Floor?

Gasol is thought by many to be the best big in the NBA. Against the Celtics, his smooth, fancy footwork is offset by the Celtics’ brutal physicality. He has the turnaround every seven-footer dreams of and is thought of by some to be a more important part of the Lakers’ offense than even Bryant. Denying the entry pass needs to be top priority for the Celtics. Fronting Gasol won’t work because lobs lead him to tiny soft lay-ins. The only solution is to challenge on the perimeter, then bring weak-side help to get him trapped. The Celtics can block him if they get him in traffic, where they almost never get called for fouls for some reason. But in the mid-post, Gasol can do serious damage.

9. The Great One

Bryant is having an up-and-down season, at times his same brilliant self and at times looking very much the aging star. Outside of the clutch questions, he’s gone outside the boundaries of the triangle offense significantly at times, going one-on-five and putting his teammates in an offensive coma. But then, it’s still Bryant. Bryant is due for an explosive game, and after a disappointing loss to the Kings, and after the debacle on Christmas, Sunday is right up his alley for a breakout.

10. All in the system

Boston’s greatest asset, even more so than their star power, is their defensive system. They bring help at the right times, challenge all shots inside, foul when appropriate, or available, or fun, and harass their opponent on the perimeter. The triangle offense creates problems for this with quick passing, but it also creates congestion which the Celtics can capitalize on. They like to isolate Lakers and make them go into forced shots, which often the Lakers’ long shooters are primed for. Odom will need to deliver off sharp cuts, and passing has to be at a premium. A lack of ball movement against the C’s, and the Lakers’ offense will drown.

Knicks deny rumor James Dolan looking to sell team

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Rumors that James Dolan is considering selling the Knicks — which elicits a “Hallelujah” chorus from Knicks fans — have been cropping up for a couple of years now. There were rumors he wanted to spin off the Knicks and Rangers into their own company to be sold. That’s just one, there are others — he confirmed he got a feeler $5 billion, but never a firm offer, for the Knicks — and each time he has shot them down.

This is no different.

On his latest Podcast, the Ringer’s Bill Simmons said he had heard that Dolan wanted to focus more on concerts/in-game experiences in Madison Square Garden and that the Knicks were “available.”

The Madison Square Garden Company released this statement (hat tip New York Daily News).

“The story is 100% false. There has been nothing. No discussions. No plans to have discussions – nothing.”

That’s pretty unequivocal.

While Dolan may entertain the idea on some level of selling the Knicks, until he takes concrete steps to do so — not rumors, but actual, documented moves — I’m not buying it. He’s sitting on a gold mine that keeps going up in value, despite how he manages it, so why sell now? Knicks fans that buy this rumor will likely end up like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.

 

 

 

Adam Silver: Multi-year rebuilding not a winning strategy

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CHARLOTEE – Former 76ers president Sam Hinkie undertook one of the most ambitious tanking campaigns in NBA history. Over a four-year stretch, Philadelphia went 19-63, 18-64, 10-72 and 28-54.

That incensed many around the league.

The NBA pursued and eventually enacted lottery reform. Despite his denials, many believed NBA commissioner Adam Silver pressured the 76ers to oust Hinkie. In many ways, the league is still shook by Philadelphia’s bold strategy to lose so long.

“I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding,” Silver said Saturday. “…There’s a mindset that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe, personally, that’s corrosive for those organizations, putting aside my personal view of what the impact it has on the league overall.”

Except it is a winning strategy.

The 76ers are proving that.

They’re 37-21 and led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players drafted with high picks earned through tanking. Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris using assets stockpiled through tanking. The 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a high salary because they had a low payroll, the byproduct of a assembling a roster of young, cost-controlled players acquired through tanking.

Few teams have ever planned and executed a multi-year tank. Most tanking teams entered the season planning to win then pivoted once that went sideways. Some teams decide to tank for a full season. But deciding in advance to tank even two straight years? It’s rare.

The SuperSonics/Thunder probably did it their last year in Seattle and first in Oklahoma City. With Kevin Durant already on board, that netted them Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a decade of strong teams. Of course, that situation is complicated by the franchise leaving one market and getting a grace period in its new location.

Few teams have the resolve to set out to tank that long, let alone the four years the 76ers committed to the cause. Most teams that go young still add a veteran or two in hopes of winning sooner than expected.

Even Chicago, which knowingly took a step back last season by trading Butler talked big about that being a one-year ordeal. Chicago’s struggles this season were unintended, at least initially. The Bulls have obviously shifted gears, but that was only after failing to win early.

Chicago isn’t alone in major losing this season. Four teams – Suns (11-48), Knicks (11-47), Cavaliers (12-46) and Bulls (14-44) – are on pace to win fewer than 20 games. The last time so many teams won fewer than a quarter of their games was 1998, when a six teams – Nuggets (11-71), Raptors (16-66), Clippers (17-65), Grizzlies (19-63), Warriors (19-63) and Mavericks (20-62) – performed so poorly.

Does that mean the NBA’s lottery reform is failing?

“I’m certainly not here to say we solved the problem,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that while you point out those four teams, we have many more competitive teams this year than we’ve had any time in the recent past of teams that are competing hard, competing for spots in the playoffs, and great competition on the floor. So I think we’ve made progress.”

Silver raises a good point. Judging the shape of the league by only the bottom four teams is far too simplistic. There are a historic number of teams in the playoff mix. Maybe that’s because of lottery reform, which offers better chances of a top-four pick to teams that barely miss the postseason.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2018-19 teams are show by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15.

Eastern Conference

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Western Conference

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The 10th- through 14th-place teams in the Western Conference are historically good for their place in the conference. That matters.

But the sixth- through 11th-place teams in the Eastern Conference being in a tight race is because the top teams in that group are historically bad for their place in the conference. That matters, too.

There’s no simple way to judge this.

The glut of terrible teams this season is somewhat surprising because the draft projects to feature only one elite prospect – Zion Williamson. The new lottery rules give the bottom three teams each an equal chance (14%) of the No. 1 pick. The advantage of finishing with the worst vs. second-worst vs. third-worst is getting slotted higher in the draft if multiple of those teams get their numbers pulled in the lottery.

Maybe it’s just that four teams happened to be quite bad, and all four are committed to avoiding the fourth-worst record and just a 12.5% chance of the No. 1 pick.

Though tanking has undeniably worked for some teams, it’s probably bad for the NBA. So many games are uncompetitive. Fans lose interest.

But as long as high draft picks remain so valuable and tied to having a worse record, teams will tank.

“You understand now why there’s relegation, in European soccer, for example, because you pay an enormous price if you’re not competitive,” Silver said. “I think, again, for the league and for our teams, there’s that ongoing challenge of whether we can come up with yet a better system.”

Report: Some within organization believe Anthony Davis has played last game for Pelicans

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Anthony Davis only added confusion about where he wants to go next.

But there’s also the pesky matter of what the Pelicans star will do the rest of this season.

Davis has repeatedly said he wants to play. The NBA threatened to fine the Pelicans if they didn’t play him. So, they put him in the lineup… to get booed by New Orleans fans. His performance in four games since the trade deadline has been incredibly uneven, ranging from elite to dreadful. In the Pelicans’ last game before the All-Star break, Davis left the arena after suffering an shoulder injury. He played just five minutes in the All-Star game, fewer than anyone but 40-year-old Dirk Nowitzki

So, what now?

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

According to sources on both sides, there is no plan yet in place for how they will handle this after the All-Star break. The Pelicans and Davis (with Paul advising) are re-evaluating the best way to handle his playing time – again.

While sources say the situation has not involved the National Basketball Players Association to this point, that would change if New Orleans attempted to protect its monumental trade chip by sitting Davis for the rest of the season – presuming he wanted to play. Then again, maybe Davis decides that he’s better off training in obscurity while we wait to see where his next stop might be.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry called the situation a “dumpster fire.” New Orleans can’t just simply return to the status quo.

But who makes this call?

New Orleans just fired general manager Dell Demps to elevate Danny Ferry into the interim role. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson is seeking someone to run basketball operations and report directly to her, but she hasn’t made that hire yet. The league can obviously intervene, too.

I’m extremely uneasy about making Davis a healthy scratch for nearly two months in the midst of an excellent season. But even just four games of him playing has been so ugly. Pelicans fans don’t want it. The Pelicans probably don’t want it. After his injury scare and dealing with the fallout of his trade request, Davis might not still want it.

Does the NBA? That’s the big question. Davis is a national draw. In a league where every game is available streaming online, that matters. The controversy surrounding Davis only adds to the intrigue.

In the end, the interested parties – New Orleans, Davis, NBA – will choose among the uncomfortable options. But at least this part of the saga will end in fewer than two months.

Then, the bigger questions about Davis’ future will kick into high gear.

After All-Star glamour, Kemba Walker returning to mundane reality of carrying Hornets

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CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker just started a basketball game alongside Stephen Curry, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The NBA’s biggest stars came to his city. World-class entertainers performed throughout the weekend.

“It was amazing, man,” Walker said. “It was amazing.”

Walker will start his next game on the same court, but it’ll be alongside Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller. Walker’s 27-30 Hornets will face the Wizards in a battle for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Most celebrities will have long cleared out.

Except Walker.

Walker remains as the face of the Hornets, a role he has embraced despite the franchise’s mediocrity. When his name emerged in trade talks last year, he said he’d be “devastated” to get dealt. He has made Charlotte his home and was so delighted to play host for yesterday’s All-Star game and all the accompanying festivities.

His reality here otherwise has been markedly different. In his eight seasons with the Hornets, he has never had an All-Star teammate. Not a single one.

Here’s every player in NBA history who played his first eight seasons without an All-Star teammate (seasons, including partial, with each team in parentheses):

Player Teams
Kemba Walker (2012-2019) CHA (8)
JaVale McGee (2009-2016) WAS (4), DEN (4), PHI (1), DAL (1)
David Lee (2006-2013) NYK (5), GSW (3)
Monta Ellis (2006-2013) GSW (7), MIL (2)
Ben Gordon (2005-2012) CHI (5), DET (3)
Andris Biedrins (2005-2012) GSW (8)
Zach Randolph (2002-2009) POR (6), NYK (2), LAC (1)
Eddy Curry (2002-2009) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Jamal Crawford (2001-2008) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Elton Brand (2000-2007) CHI (2), LAC (6)
Adonal Foyle (1998-2005) GSW (8)
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1997-2004) VAN (5), ATL (3), POR (1)
Erick Dampier (1997-2004) IND (1), GSW (7)
Lamond Murray (1995-2002) LAC (5), CLE (3)
Glen Rice (1990-1997) MIA (6), CHA (2)
Grant Long (1989-1996) MIA (7), ATL (2)
Herb Williams (1982-1989) IND (8), DAL (1)
Larry Drew (1981-1988) DET (1), KCK/SAC (5), LAC (2)

Of that list, just Walker, David Lee, Elton Brand, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glen Rice became All-Stars in their first eight seasons. Walker’s three All-Star appearances lead the group.

Just three of those players – Walker, Andris Biedrins (Warriors) and Adonal Foyle (Warriors) – spent that entire time with only one team.

So, obviously Walker is the only player in NBA history with a first eight seasons like this – All-Star himself, one team, no All-Star teammates.

I asked Walker whether he felt playing with another star was a missing piece of his career.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said, pausing as if he were truly contemplating then shaking his head and shrugging. “I don’t know.”

If Walker wants to play with other stars, he’ll have an opportunity this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Some teams pursuing Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson will strike out. There will be opportunities for Walker to land with better teams. The Bronx native has poohpoohed the Knicks, but there are many other possible destinations.

There’s something to be said about staying in Charlotte, too. Walker is probably already the greatest player in Hornets history, and another contract with them could cinch it. For a player who’s relatively underpaid, a five-year max-contract projected to be worth $190 million could be quite appealing. Walker could continue to stand alone in a league where stars frequently switch teams and join forces. That probably won’t lead to championships, but that isn’t the only way to define success.

“He’s made this franchise relevant,” LeBron James said.

Still, that has translated to only two playoff appearances for Walker, both first-round losses. Charlotte landed in the lottery the last two years and has a 55% chance to return there this season, according to 538. The Hornets are capped out with unappealing contracts, so significant progress soon seems unlikely.

But with All-Star Weekend behind him, the last All-Star left in Charlotte is focused on a stretch run with the Hornets.

“That’s what we do,” Walker said. “We play basketball. And for us, if we really want to make a push, we’ve just got to be locked in. So, I’ll try to my best to get some rest, recover a little bit from this weekend and keep it going.”