Contenders, pretenders, wish-it-would-enders — taking stock of the NBA at the break

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Welcome to All-Star Weekend, when the NBA takes a break from playing games to talk about trades. And hear about the great parties that the players went to. Then talk about more trades. Then watch an exhibition with less defense than a Cavs-Raptors game.

For the rest of us, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are two-thirds of the way through the season. We pretty much know who the top teams are. We know who the guys in the running for MVP are. We know who has packed it in.

So let’s break it down.

Title contenders.

Boston Celtics (40-14). No coasting into the playoffs this season. Boston has improved in a couple key areas from a team that came within a quarter of winning it all last season. The Celtics are deeper along the front line (even if everyone seems injured at one time). Secondly, Rajon Rondo is doing a better job attacking the space that teams have been giving him (hoping he would take the jumper). They are still the best defensive team in the NBA.

San Antonio Spurs (46-10). Nobody expected this. But the Spurs altered their attack — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are now the focal points, Tim Duncan works off them rather than being the hub. It works, they are the third-most efficient offense in the league. And they can still defend. They also have gotten great depth from George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner.

Miami Heat (41-15). Before the season we said we knew they could score, the question was how well would they defend? Fourth-most efficient defense in the league. Impressive. They look every bit the contender… during the regular season. We’ve got questions about how they match up with real size in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers (38-19). Yes, they lost to the Cavaliers. Yes, they have played poorly for stretches this season. Yes, they look old and not athletic enough at times. But scouts keep saying the team most likely to beat the Lakers is the Lakers. They’ve won two titles and if the sleeping giant wakes, they will be a force. Again.

Trying to crash the title party (teams that are close):

Chicago Bulls (38-16): New coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing great defense. Derrick Rose is having a season that has him in MVP contention. And we have yet to see them all healthy at once for any stretch. We don’t know how good they can be, but if the offense (18th in the league in points per possession) isn’t more consistent, they are out in the second round.

Dallas Mavericks (40-17). Their record means you have to take them seriously, and they are winning because they are deep with good talent. But when the rotations shorten in the playoffs, that depth doesn’t help as much. Will a handful of great players beat a bunch of good ones? In the NBA playoffs, usually.

Orlando Magic (36-21). I’m putting them in here because they have the best big man in the game and a quality defense. But I’m not sold. They will need to play better and more consistently than I have seen in the past few weeks.

Just end the season already.

Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46). We knew they would be bad, losing not only the best player in the game but also Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal. The 7-9 start to the season was a mirage, but we didn’t know the desert would be this vast. Then they get hit by the injury bug — Anderson Varejao is out for the season and Mo Williams misses extended time. But they’ve beaten the Lakers.

Toronto Raptors (15-41). Chris Bosh is gone and this is Andrea Bargnani’s team. That’s really worked out well.

Minnesota Timberwoves (13-43). Why are they even here? Their rebuilding is done. Actually, they have a couple pieces to build around, including double-double machine Kevin Love, but there is a long, long way to go.

Sacramento Kings (13-40). Another team with a couple quality pieces to build around in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, except they can’t get along. And Paul Westphal seems unable to guide them. Or get them to listen.

MVP candidates

LeBron James (Miami Heat). He is the two-time defending MVP playing on an elite team. Still the best player in the game. And although his per-game numbers dropped a little, we’re still talking 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. The Heat have become his team on the court.

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). He announced his presence with authority dropping a career-high 42 on the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, but he was being mentioned as an MVP candidate before that. Personally, I don’t think he’s there — he’s still not efficient enough for my tastes — but many voters are in love with the story.

Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets). To me this should be the guy. Just him being back running the show — with an efficient 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game — has turned the Hornets from a squad that looked lost last season into a solid playoff team in a deep Western Conference. He is the best point guard in the game and the player most valuable to his team.

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic). He’s not going to win. I don’t know why, but voters are not into him, maybe because he’s a center who can make it look so easy. He’s the best defender of the paint in the league, he has become an efficient offensive player with a variety of moves, and he’s a beast on the boards. Guy is a complete player and the best big in the game. He deserves serious consideration.

Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Still leads the league in scoring  (28.9 points per game) on a team that is still entertaining to watch. The slow start shouldn’t hold his candidacy back. Problem is, we expected this team to take a leap forward this season and it hasn’t, and although that is not Durant’s fault, he will lose votes because of it.

Other awards:

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks
Most annoying, never-ending story line: Carmelo Anthony trade talk
Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
Player Most Wasted By Coach: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Lopez Twin: Still Brook (New Jersey Nets) by a country mile

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.