D-Rose matters, but depth real key in Bulls/Heat showdown

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Everyone will want to watch the Bulls and the Heat and discuss how this is a preview of the Eastern Conference finals. It’s not.

Oh, these two teams will be there, you can bet on that. But after two rounds of the playoffs teams change and evolve — the Bulls and Heat that take the floor Thursday will be different than the ones that could face off about a month from now as the last two standing in the East.

Especially if Derrick Rose and Luol Deng don’t play Thursday. They are both game-time decisions as of this writing. Of course, the Bulls beat the Heat last Thursday because of their depth and defense, the two things that might matter more this Thursday than D-Rose.

Depth was the key Thursday when they clashed — Chicago’s bench outscored Miami’s 47-7. Shane Battier was a -34, Ronny Turiaf -17. One game +/- numbers can be misleading, but the Bulls depth was what won that game — Rose was rusty so Tom Thibodeau benched him for the overtime and the rest of the Bulls racked up the win. It didn’t matter what five were on the court, the Bulls moved the ball well, took 24 percent of their shots as spot-up jumpers and knocked the looks down. Kyle Korver was on fire, coming off baseline screens and moving to open spaces when his man had to help, he got and knocked down open looks all game. That is a formula Chicago can simply plug Rose into.

This game is not meaningless — it does matter for seedings. If the Bulls win, they lock up the top seed in the East. If the Heat win, they keep alive a chance of catching the Bulls for the top seed in the East. With a Heat win Chicago’s magic number would be three. Meaning basically the Heat would have to win out, the Bulls would have to lose their upcoming game against the Pacers and at least one more … all of which is to say it’s not likely.

Of course, the other question is do you want to be the top seed in the East? If you are you get a Sixers team in the first round that is easier than the seven seed Knicks (that’s the most likely matchups). However, the top seed also is on the Celtics side of the bracket for the second round. The Heat have lost a couple to Boston, although if anyone thinks Indiana is a pushover they haven’t been paying attention.

Whatever seed they want, the Heat have talked about trying to gain momentum heading into the playoffs, about executing better in the half court. Those are things they can come out of this game feeling a little better about. No statements are going to be made, but confidence can be found and built upon. And when they do meet, that feeling could matter a lot.

President Donald Trump awarding Medal of Freedom to NBA star Bob Cousy

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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WASHINGTON (AP) President Donald Trump is set to present basketball legend Bob Cousy (KOO’-zee) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is being handed out Thursday. It celebrates individuals with a wide range of achievements and is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 91-year-old Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member played for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963. He won six league championships and the 1957 MVP title.

Cousy is also known for speaking out against racism. He was an ardent supporter of black teammates who faced discrimination during the civil rights movement.

Cousy will be the second person to receive the award this year from Trump. Golfer Tiger Woods received the honor in May.

Report: Shelly Sterling, members of Clippers organization heard Donald Sterling audio in advance and didn’t act

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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In 2014, published audio of a racist rant by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling rocked the country.

It shouldn’t have. Sterling’s racism and sexism were well-established by then. But few cared. The audio poured gasoline on the fire and moved people to act. I wish it didn’t require that. But it did.

What if the audio didn’t become public through TMZ? Apparently, there might have been opportunity for another outcome.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The fact is Shelly and several people in the Clippers organization heard the recording and decided not to act on it or weren’t appalled enough to act on it. Maybe they didn’t understand how big a splash this tape could make.

It’s unclear when Shelly Sterling (Donald’s wife) and other members of the Clippers organization heard the audio. Maybe it was while TMZ was doing due diligence. If so, it was probably too late to change the course of history.

But perhaps it was when V. Stiviano – Donald’s girlfriend who made the original recording and was being sued by Shelly – was still the only one in possession of it. Stiviano was clearly upset with how things were going financially between her and the Sterlings. For the right price, maybe the audio would have gone away before becoming public.

I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. The world is better off knowing exactly who Donald Sterling is.

Yet, this leads to an incredible “what if?” What if the people who heard the audio in advance understood the magnitude, acted in Sterling’s best interest and paid to have the audio kept secret? Would Sterling still own the Clippers today?

Kyle Kuzma scores on own basket in Team USA-Australia game (video)

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The Lakers are desperate at center. They might even need Kyle Kuzma to play the position. He’ll have to work on, among other things, rebounding.

At least it usually won’t go as poorly as this play in Team USA’s exhibition win over Australia.

Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-