NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio vs. Memphis

4 Comments

SEASON RECORDS
Spurs: 61-21 (No. 1 seed)
Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Tied: 2-2, with each team winning both games on their home court. Tony Parker missed one of the Spurs losses, Tim Duncan the other.

KEY INJURIES
Spurs: Manu Ginobili, the two guard from Argentina that is key to the Spurs chances injured his elbow two minutes into the final game of the season and did not return, an MRI Thursday will let us know the severity and time missed.
Grizzlies: Tony Allen, he missed the last two games of the regular season with a sore and swollen knee, but he will go for the playoffs; Rudy Gay, the best perimeter player on the Grizzlies, will miss the entire playoffs with shoulder surgery; Xavier Henry, the rookie backup two guard, has had knee problems and is out for the playoffs; Jason Williams, the backup point guard, is out for the season with back problems.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Spurs: Off. 109.4 (2nd in NBA); 102.8 (11th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY SPURS

Manu Ginobili: He would be on this list if he was 100 percent healthy, but after injuring his elbow in the last game of the regular season he is at the top of the list. The Spurs have modified their offensive attack this season to not focus as much around Tim Duncan in the post and rather have Ginobili and Tony Parker more the decision makers out on the perimeter. There are few guys who can penetrate like Ginobili, and when he does he’s a crafty, willing passer who sets up teammates as much as he takes his own shot. They need him and his health matters.

Tim Duncan: Okay, he’s not the focus of the offense anymore, but he is still central to what they do on defense (and he’s still scoring 13.4 points per game on 50 percent shooting, it’s not like he dropped off the face of the earth). In this series his defense will be key — he will get a lot of time on Zach Randolph and while he’s not going to stop him Duncan has to slow him. Part of that is making Randolph work on the defensive end (or if he chooses not to work, to exploit the mismatch). Look for Duncan to get a lot of touches.

DeJuan Blair: He is the physical enforcer down low for the Spurs, and he’s going to get called on to do a lot of the dirty work by Greg Popovich. The Grizzlies score more points in the paint than any team in the league (51 a game) and the Spurs have to make them work for those points, to not be efficient. Blair and his physical style will be a lot of that.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: Is there a better low-post scorer in the NBA? If so, not many. The Spurs have size but with Duncan and Antonio McDyess up front they are not young. Randolph had 23 points on 14 shots in the last meeting with the Spurs (with Duncan out) and they are going to need games like that from him again to have a chance.

Tony Allen: He is going to draw the defensive matchup on Manu Ginobili — we’re assuming Ginobili will play in the series at this point — and in that way will be key. The Spurs now focus their attack from their guards and Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. If he can disrupt Manu, it will put more pressure on Parker and George Hill off the bench. Allen and his teammates need to take away the three ball that has become central to the Spurs attack.

Mike Conley: He has had his best season as a pro, really earning the deal he was given last summer by the Grizzlies. But now he really needs to earn that paycheck. He needs to slow Tony Parker. What’s more, on offense he needs to feed the Grizzlies big men and not turn the ball over — points are not going to be that easy to come by this series and turnovers that lead to easy transition points for the Spurs would make them hard to catch.

OUTLOOK

Inside/outside. Which team can do a better job of taking away the other’s strength? Memphis wants to pound the ball down low — with Randolph they have one of the best low-post scorers in the league, his counterpart Marc Gasol provides another 11.7 points per game (and he has a midrange game you have to respect as well). The Spurs will counter with Tim Duncan, who is no longer the best defensive big man in the league, but he’s not bad, and the physical play of DeJuan Blair and McDyess. Tiago Splitter, who played much better at the end of the season, also will get key minutes.

On the flip side, the Spurs make a league-best 39.7 percent of the threes they take (about 21 a game) and the Grizzlies are not good at defending the three (opponents hit 36.9 percent, 24th best in the league). The Spurs generate a lot of their offense off the pick-and-roll with the ball in the hands of Ginobili and Parker, either with them driving or then kicking out for spot-up looks (almost 25 percent of the Spurs offense is spot-up looks, often those discussed threes). Tony Allen and Shane Battier need to be keys to defending those plays. Memphis has not been great this season at defending the pick-and-roll or closing out on spot-up shooters this season but they have to if they want to advance.

The real key to this series could be depth — San Antonio gets a lot out of George Hill, Gary Neal and Bair off the bench. Can O.J. Mayo match them?

PREDICTION

Memphis is about as tough a 1 vs. 8 matchup as we can recall. They have real strengths inside and are going to be a physical team that will leave bumps and bruises on whoever they face. The Spurs big men are going to have to work hard all series to both defend and secure rebounds.

But in the end, what the Spurs like to do on offense the Grizzlies don’t defend well, and without Rudy Gay the Grizzlies lack the scoring on the wings they really need to compete.

Spurs in 6.

Report: NBA cancels vote for in-season tournament, play-in tournament

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA had some big ideas about revamping its schedule – in-season tournament, play-in tournament and reseeded semifinals.

It seemed strange that the least radical of these proposals – replacing the conference finals with reseeded semifinals – gained no traction. Who disapproved of that yet supported an in-season tournament and play-in tournament?

Apparently not enough teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This vote won’t happen, because the proposal would lose. The official vote is merely a formality. The NBA knows too many governors would vote no, so not even holding the vote saves the league some embarrassment.

I don’t see how further study will help the in-season tournament. It’s just a bad idea. People won’t care about it. That’s why there have been so many suggestions for generating interest. It’s a losing battle.

A play-in tournament could work. There are several viable permeations. I buy that time to build consensus for that could be helpful.

These changes don’t have to take effect in 2021-22. The 75th-anniversary season just provided an opportunity for spin. If the NBA implemented the new schedule that season and it backfired, the league could drop it and claim it was a one-time alteration.

That window isn’t quite shut, but read the writing on the wall: Too few owners want these changes.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

Leave a comment

Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

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 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.