NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

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For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

NBA approves three rule changes, including reset of shot clock to 14 after offensive board

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The three rule changes approved by the NBA owners on Friday are not going to have a dramatic impact on this NBA season…

Until in a close playoff game in May it’s a little harder for a team getting offensive rebounds to just kill the clock. Or in that same playoff game, when clear path foul is called because an offensive player outraced a defender down the court.

As had been expected, the NBA’s Board of Governors — the owners — approved three rule changes for the coming NBA season. They are:

• The shot clock will reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound rather than 24 seconds. This has been experimented with in the G-League, the WNBA, and Summer League this year with some success. The goal is to speed up the pace of play, not letting a team get an offensive rebound then back it out and pound the ball for 20 seconds to kill time. Thing is, that was not much of a problem last season, as was noted at Nylon Calculus.

 

<em>Over 30 percent of offensive rebounds result in putbacks (the 0 Duration value on the graph) and 75 percent of offensive rebounds result in a possession that is five seconds or less. Only 6 percent of all offensive rebounds resulted in possessions that are 14 seconds or greater last year. Given that the league average for offensive rebounds was the lowest ever this past season at 9.7 per game, this rule would apply to roughly half a rebound per team per game last year.</em>

When fans will notice it, when it will have the intended impact is end-of-game situations — rather than a team grabbing offensive rebounds then killing the clock for 20 seconds, they will have to get up a shot, which will lead to the other team getting an opportunity.

• The league “simplified of the clear-path rule. The NBA’s old clear path rule was overly complicated and it led to things that looked like clear path fouls not being, and things that clearly were not being fouls. Here is the NBA’s explanation of the new rule, with some video help below.

A clear path foul is now defined as a personal foul against any offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity in the following circumstances: the ball is ahead of the tip of the circle in the backcourt; no defender is ahead of the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity; the player with the transition scoring opportunity is in control of the ball (or a pass has been thrown to him); and if the foul deprives his team of an opportunity to score.

As part of the clear path foul rule simplification, referees will no longer need to make judgment calls as to whether or not a defender was between (or had the opportunity to be between) the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity and the basket.  In addition, referees will no longer have to determine whether or not the defender was at any time ahead of the offensive player prior to committing the foul, nor will it be relevant whether or not a defender beat the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity into the frontcourt.  Further, plays of this nature will no longer have to originate in the backcourt (since transition scoring opportunities can originate in the frontcourt).

• The NBA expanded what is defined as a “hostile act” so that replay can be triggered more easily. Currently, to be a hostile act according to the NBA rulebook it has to be an altercation between players that is “not part of a normal basketball play” or where a player “intentionally or recklessly harms or attempts to harm another player.” Broadening the scope of this will give referees more chances to review off-ball or other altercations, and these are the kinds of serious situations the league should review.

Dirk Nowitzki likely to come off bench this season, coach Rick Carlisle says

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Dirk Nowitzki said something this summer rarely seen from future Hall of Famers who are the best player in their franchise’s history, he was willing to come off the bench.

It looks like Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is going to take Nowitzki up on that offer, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

That might have been happening at the start of the season anyway, as Nowitzki’s injured ankle is not 100 percent and you can be sure the Mavericks are not going to push him.

Nowitzki off the bench just makes more sense for the Mavericks. DeAndre Jordan is the starting center, Harrison Barnes is really a four (56 percent of his minutes were at that spot last season), rookie Luka Doncic is a ball-handling three, Wesley Mathews is finally healthy and should be the two guard, and Dennis Smith Jr. is at the point.

Then the bench is a throwback to Mavericks favorites with Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, plus Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell, and Devin Harris.

Nowitzki is going to get the grand farewell tour this season, as he deserves. He’ll start a few games, particularly his final one at home. But for the team this season, which has dreams of a playoff spot (as long a shot as that may be in the West), this is the best move.

 

 

Magic Johnson: I told Luke Walton not to worry if Lakers start slow with LeBron James

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The Heat started 9-8 in their first season with LeBron James. There were calls for Miami to fire coach Erik Spoelstra, maybe even from LeBron himself.

The Cavaliers started 19-20 in their first season with LeBron back. Coach David Blatt didn’t get off the hot seat until Cleveland fired him the next year.

How will Lakers coach Luke Walton fare coaching LeBron early this season?

Lakers president Magic Johnson, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“As I was talking to Luke [with GM Rob Pelinka], we said don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,” Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, said Thursday as the team’s brass met with the media. “We have seen that with LeBron [James] going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be really a good team.”

If the Lakers are committed to Walton, they did well to get ahead of the story. Last year, after LaVar Ball said Walton lost control of the team, the Lakers let the story get away from them.

These comments should also anchor Johnson. It’s one thing to soberly assess the situation, as Johnson can do now, and back Walton. It’s another to support the coach while dealing daily with the emotions of losing. Johnson can always look back to these comments as a reminder of his views if necessary.

And it could be necessary. The Lakers have some, um, interesting ideas about how they want to play. There could be significant growing pains.

But the Lakers seem ready to ride them out with Walton.

Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.