The Knicks, Carmelo, D’Antoni, and being set up for success vs. failure

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It’s panic time in New York.

Not across the board, mind you. There are always those that seek calmer seas, that urge for patience, that understand that all teams go through winning and losing streaks, and just because times are rough it does not mean you throw out the mustached baby with the What-Toney-Dougalas-Do bathwater. But in general? Yeah, it’s a four-alarm, women-and-Shumperts-first nightmare scenario down at ol’ MSG. The Knicks are losing, and worse, looking like a trainwreck while losing, despite the star power, despite the pay roll, despite the big market, and someone’s got to pay.

Can’t blame Amar’e, the problems go beyond him, and it’s hard to say he’s getting opportunities and blowing them. Can’t blame Chandler, he is what he is, and is doing what he was brought in to do. Can’t blame Toney Douglas, it’s not like anyone thought he was anything other than Toney Douglas. And you definitely can’t blame Melo. Because Melo is the star New York demands, Melo scores a lot of points, and Knicks fans had to defend the trade far too much to pin anything on the All-Star icon.

So naturally, it’s Mike D’Antoni’s fault.

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My wife worked at Starbucks for several years when she was younger, and soulless, uniqueness-crushing, overpaid-beans corporate overlords that you may think they are, they treat their employees fairly well for service industry. One of the things she took away from that experience was a tenet they use with their employees, the idea of being set up for success. It’s nothing new or original, it’s an old business edict that has been passed down and filtered (wocka-wocka-wocka) for the brewing behemoth. But my wife liked the idea so much she’s kept it with her throughout her career and it’s rubbed off on me as well. The concept is simple. You have to put people in a position that sets them up to use their talents and strengths to succeed, not place them into a set of conditions conducive to failure and hope they muscle through it. There are challenges in any situation, but you have to be given the tools and opportunity to thrive, not dropped into the ocean without a life vest and told to make your way to Pearl Harbor, good luck.

The Knicks didn’t so much drop D’Antoni in the water, as they asked him to do what he does best, climb mountains, gave him a bunch of climbing gear, rations, cold weather clothes and all the technology needed to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro and then when he reached the tree line, kidnapped him, and airlifted him and all his equipment to the desert, then said “Now, survive for a month and build an oasis using what you have. What? Adapt to your environment!”

D’Antoni’s a mountain climber. He’s not a desert survivor. He wants to reach the summit, not build Burning Man. And the result is a disaster that sets him up perfectly for failure.

Numbers are tricky. I read the other day that the Knicks have a better record at this point in the season than they did last year, with a worse overall roster. And if that’s the case, why is there so much panic? How can we pin the Knicks’ troubles on the roster and not D’Antoni if he had a better team last year and did less with them? That’s when the word “feel” comes into play. I’m all for advanced metrics. I’m for analysis and point differential and PER and Synergy and taking every single metric you can use to evaluate players and teams and combining that with as much anecdotal information as you can get. But there are times when you need to trust the numbers and times when you need to trust the eyes and discerning between the two is not so much as an art as it is trying to harness magic with an erector set.

All that said, the Knicks last year at this time were a much better team than what is being thrown out on the Garden floor each night.

If you’re building a Mike D’Antoni team, one that can win, with everything we know about him, here’s essentially what you need. Point guard with pure passing skills and a decent jumper. He doesn’t have to be Nash’s lights out 50-40-90 from the field, because D’Antoni’s offense is going to bump his numbers. We’ve seen it across the board over the years. You want a power forward who understands the pick and roll, who can operate from the elbow. You want a wing who can play shooting guard or small forward, and a forward who can play either spot. You want passers, but you want that point guard to be the primary ball-handler and creator. You need playmakers, because the entire system is built on options and decision making. What you do not want is a ball-stopper. And if you have a power forward who is very much the tip of the spear and not a great passer? You want someone who’s going to create opportunities for him without letting him swallow up usage like Godzilla.

“But what about defense?” you cry. “D’Antoni never cares about defense!” That riddle’s more complicated than it seems because while D’Antoni’s system never places defense first in front of offense, a large part of the problems involves the athletic bigs leaking out in transition after a miss to enable the fast break instead of crashing the boards. The focus on creating fast break opportunities diminishes the defense. But yeah, you’re going to want to bring in two key defensive proponents. A wing defender who can lock down the best perimeter weapon, and, essentially, Tyson Chandler. You want a big who can run the floor but is also a beast down low.

You want to share the ball. You want to light up the scoreboard. You want to play smart, efficient, and fast.

And D’Antoni had that team, or at least the foundation of that team.

Then, depending on who you believe, Isiah Thomas got involved, or James Dolan micromanaged.

The reality of Isiah Thomas’ continued involvement in the Knicks franchise is probably somewhere between two extremes. On one side, there are those that say he occasionally advises, remains a close friend of Dolan’s, and isn’t nearly the force he’s made out to be. On the other, he’s the one hosting stars at multiple events and at FIU over the summer, the one who constantly comments on players and who, according to multiple reports, is who pushed the Knicks into giving up the King’s ransom for Anthony. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

But it’s nearly impossible to believe that this was what D’Antoni wanted. He’s made the requisite comments of support, just as he did in Phoenix when Steve Kerr made the move to trade Shawn Marion for Shaq. Six months later, D’Antoni was gone. And just like then, the pressure and blame for the team losing has turned not on the roster gutting that was made in order to acquire an elite scorer, a genius in ISO, a big time player and a decent rebounder who is a horrid fit for D’antoni’s system has been placed on D’Antoni.

This isn’t to say Anthony could never work under D’Antoni. Using him as the tip of the spear along with Amar’e Stoudemire would work fine. As long as there was a single guard to make it work. A single point guard to initiate the offense, to run the pick and roll, to make the defense respect the ball handler, to run the offense. There isn’t. And because of the gap between Melo and everyone else, there’s deferral. “Get the ball to Melo and let him work.” That’s the polar opposite of everything that has made D’Antoni successful in the past.

The response is usually that the coach needs to adapt to his personnel. Two problems with this. One, the Knicks have. They play slow. They play in a half-court set. They run the ball through Anthony. D’Antoni has done what should be prescribed if you had Anthony, Stoudemire and a bunch of scrubs along with non-offense Chandler. The problem is that team is not built to succeed. The only system that fits this particular team? The triangle. I’ve never been a proponent of the triangle. It’s never succeeded without Phil Jackson. It’s never succeeded without Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, two singular once-in-a-lifetime talents who also had no problem breaking the offense in tiny pieces when they wanted to. But Anthony is just the player to do just that. Chandler low, Stoudemire at the elbow, Melo on the perimeter. It fits snugly. And yet the only man that can run it is staring at moose in Montana and enjoying a heaping helping of peyote. (Not really, but that’s how you prefer to envision Phil, isn’t it?)

The other popular line of thought is that D’Antoni simply isn’t successful. But the Suns were a perennial 50-win team with D’Antoni running the team he wanted, when he was set up for success. You can point to Steve Nash all you want, but Nash wasn’t Nash in Dallas. It was a relationship that transformed the Suns, between personnel and D’Antoni, and D’Antoni was as involved as anyone in building the roster. Right on down to making players like Boris Diaw into key cogs.

So what’s the answer for New York? Baron Davis could help. For all the problems with Davis, he posted 8.7 assists per 36 minutes last year on a dreadful Cleveland club and a 40+% assist rate. Iman Shumpert’s development will help. More time will help. And the Knicks won’t be this bad continually. The Wizards, for example, got a win this week and then followed it up with a competitive showing against Denver. The Knicks will have a run.

But as the Knicks family begins to etch out D’Antoni’s tombstone, the Denver Nuggets enter town Saturday night as the kind of team D’Anoni would do wonders with. The Nuggets had a wealth of options after the trade, and fine-tuned it to what was best for George Karl. They set up Karl to succeed and the returns are impressive. Meanwhile, look at what’s happened since the trade. An uninspiring finish to the season. A dreadful sweep to the Celtics. Donnie Walsh bailing. And D’Antoni left to answer for decisions he didn’t make. Consider the following from the New York Post:

“They traded chemistry for celebrity,’’ one Walsh confidant said. “It wasn’t a basketball trade.’’

“I just miss the energy and free-spirited way the team played,’’ one person close to Walsh said of the pre-Melo Knicks. “On any given night, it was anyone’s game to be hot.’’

via Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni should not be fired over team’s 6-9 start and their ugly loss to the woeful Milwaukee Bucks – NYPOST.com.

 

That’s the team that D’Antoni wanted to coach, that he needed to coach. That roster, even minus a few players but with Chandler added, would not be here. We evaluate trades in terms of winners and losers, even though the returns take time to sort out and it’s all dependent on what direction the teams are headed. But a few things are clear as we head into Saturday night’s visit of the Nuggets to MSG.

Carmelo Anthony won, getting what he wanted and none of the scorn LeBron James took on.

And Mike D’Antoni lost the worst thing for someone in a work environment. He lost being set up to succeed.

Report: Russell Westbrook expected to miss Rockets’ first few playoff games

Rockets star Russell Westbrook and Thunder star Chris Paul
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
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Rockets guard Russell Westbrook could miss playoff games with a strained right quadriceps.

That’s no longer just a mere possibility.

It’s an expectation.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Though the Rockets could only put a timetable on when they will next evaluate Russell Westbrook’s strained quadriceps muscle, the expectation is that he will be out for the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer, a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking said on Thursday.

The Rockets will face the Thunder in the first-round, and Westbrook missing games would be a major blow.

Both teams have similar median levels. But Oklahoma City is steadier. Houston has a higher ceiling (championship level) but a lower floor – which drops even further without Westbrook.

The Rockets re-engineered their team around Westbrook, going super small so he serves as the only player who doesn’t space the floor with 3-pointers. That gives everyone more room to operate, and the explosive Westbrook has taken particular advantage. Even if he returns during the series, lingering leg issues could really limit him.

James Harden is good enough to lift Houston to playoff relevancy. Role players like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington can still contribute. The Rockets have plenty of guard who can step into larger roles – Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore.

But Westbrook takes this team to the next level.

The Rockets traded a valuable set of draft picks last summer to upgrade from Chris Paul to Westbrook, who looked more durable. Ironically, Houston must now face a rejuvenated and healthy Paul, now on Oklahoma City, with Westbrook sidelined.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.