The Inbounds: How the West will almost-but-not-actually be won

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Parity has become something of a naughty word around intelligent conversation about the NBA. Because parity is another word for “competitive balance” and that was the word the owners and league used to justify killing off 20 percent of the season last year. (When in truth the hard cap wouldn’t help a damn bit with that.) And when you start attacking something like that, you can attack all angles of it. One way that’s particularly en vogue is the idea that people don’t actually want parity. They want dominant teams. And that’s certainly correct for the casual viewer. But the real ideal, I think everyone can agree, is two dominant teams in both conferences, and competitive teams filling out the rest of the playoff spots, with two-to-three teams right there for the eighth spot who aren’t total and complete jokes. It’s impossible, because how are the dominant teams going to be dominant if they can’t completely dismantle the eighth seed? But we were pretty close last season, with the Jazz a pretty good team that just had no shot at taking out San Antonio.

Parity is fun. Because that first weekend of the playoffs, with dual quadruple-headers, you get eight competitive games. You want every series going seven, with every game tooth and nail. That’s just good sport.

And we’re pretty likely to have it this year. If we assume Miami, Indiana, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York in some order, you’ve still got Milwaukee (who’s going to be deceptively cohesive), Toronto, Atlanta (and we have no idea what Atlanta-minus-Joe is going to look like), and Detroit (no, I’m not kidding). (I have no idea about Chicago. They could be a top three-seed they could miss the playoffs. I have no idea. Check back with me in January.)

But the West is where it breaks into wide open spaces like a Southwestern desert or a mountain range.

The Lakers, Thunder, and Spurs will be in the top three spots barring injury, it’s pretty safe to assume that. San Antonio is one where you’re tempted to throw them back into the pack of wolves to fight for their lives, but we always doubt San Antonio, and they always exceed regular season expectations (as opposed to the mid-2000’s when they would meet disappoint in the regular season and then exceed postseason expectations). As good as Los Angeles and the Thunder are, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see the Spurs nab the top seed in the playoffs again, just as it shouldn’t shock anyone to see them bounced in any round, first through Finals.

But after that?

Memphis, Denver, the Clippers, Dallas, Minnesota, Utah, Phoenix, Houston, Golden State are all in the mix for spots No.4 through No.8. That’s assuming the Kings can’t put things together (the talent is there, the experience and cohesion is not), that Anthony Davis isn’t that good, and Portland’s still recovering from whatever happened last year. Think about that. I have to put up pretty strict “this possible-but-unlikely event cannot happen” rules jut to keep the entire Western Conference out of the playoff picture.

There’s two divisions of those remaining teams. The “Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs” and “Some Things Will Have To Go Right.” Let’s explore, and start by determining if they’re better than they were last year.

“Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs”

Denver: Did they get better: Absolutely. People will talk about the offensive step back with Iguodala in and Afflalo out, which completely ignores the fact that George Karl has assembled a top five offense nearly every year and that Iguodala is anything but an offensive zero, and that it’s not only possible but likely that Gallinari, Hamilton, Chandler, Fournier, Brewer, or Miller will take a step forward in shooting. Meanwhile, they’ve got JaVale McGee entering the second year in a system where he’s asked to do less defensively but more of what he excels at, and better perimeter containment with Andre Iguodala. They have depth, they have a strong team concept, and had a high number of things go wrong last season, yet still made the playoff as the sixth seed. There are those slotting the Nuggets in as high as the third seed, which I would lean towards, were it not for the Spurs postulate stated above.

Memphis: For years, the Grizzlies’ biggest weakness has been the bench. The starters go out, and disaster erupts. Leads would vanish, deficits would stretch, the offense would stagger drunkenly off a cliff. Last year, they improved in that area with Marreese Speights filling in for Arthur, and Dante Cunningham adding length and versatility, while O.J. Mayo was the spark. Mayo and Cunningham are gone, but Speights is back, with a healthy Darrell Arthur (or as close to healthy as you can get), and they’ve added Jerryd Bayless as the firebug combo-guard. Josh Selby showed wonders during Summer League. It’s Summer League. But if Selby can just be decent, the Grizzlies have a strong second unit, which means a team that fought through a lot of injury issues and still landed the fourth seed could be even better.

Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both coming off offseason surgery. But the Clippers get back Chauncey Billups and add Jamal Crawford to replace Nick Young. Eric Bledsoe will be healthy, and another year better. DeAndre Jordan is the biggest “must get better” player on the team. The Clippers may be more likely to backwards, but they’ve still got Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

“Some Things Will Have To Go Right”

Dallas: If you want to use that term “on paper” there’s not a better one than the Mavericks. They have playoff-starter caliber guys at every position. They’ve got experience, they’ve got youth and energy, they’ve got a Hall of Famer, they’ve got depth and a terrific coach. So what could trip them up? In short, there’s just a lot we don’t know know about them. How is Collison going to mesh? Can Mayo take a step forward? Can Shawn Marion and Vince Carter hold it together another year? How’s Elton Brand’s health? Which Chris Kaman are we getting? You can ask these type questions about any team in the league. You just can’t ask them as loudly or as forcefully in most cases. Dallas could prove to be horrible “Island of Dr. Moreau” type disaster experiment, or yet another “Huh. Whaddya know, Donnie pulled it off again.” We just don’t know.

Timberwolves: I would have to think the Wolves have to be equal odds to Dallas for making the postseason. Kevin Love’s the best power forward in the league, Ricky Rubio, if he can bounce back to at least 75% is in the top-half of point guards in the league. They have a lot of risks, like Brandon Roy. But they’ve also got depth, a great coach, and were right there before Rubio’s injury last season. AK47 doesn’t hurt and the rest of the bench has improved.

Utah: Made it last year. Didn’t get demonstratively worse or better. If anything, the depth is slightly improved. What worked last year should work this year. One or two outlier years from guys and they’re right there.

Phoenix: I have the most questions about the Suns, since if you look for “who’s going to take a lot of shots on that team?” and the answer is “Michael Beasley” you’re usually in trouble. But Goran Dragic can be an absolute killer, Luis Scola had a step back year but is still crafty as get out and Marcin Gortat is whatever you consider Marcin Gortat to be. The Suns are this year’s “Two-Face” because they could be absolutely terrific and admirable and awful in the same game.

Houston: There’s a lot of talk that Houston could be the worst team in the West next year. Even with the inexperience of the rookies, your core is Jeremy Lin-Kevin Martin-Chandler Persons- Patrick Patterson- Omer Asik. I’m not here to sell you on that team as a contender. I’m here to say there’s every reason to believe that if even one of the rookies is “pretty good” that that’s going to be a team within reach of the playoffs. Lin can be a disaster and they still survive. Asik can be awful and they still survive. They need some things to go their way, but they also need a lot to go wrong for them not to be in contention for a seed.

Golden State: Let me put it this way. If we factor injury concerns, the Warriors could miss the playoffs and even be a bottom-three team in the West. If the Basketball Gods get off their players’ cases and let them have their careers? There’s no reason the Warriors can’t get the fourth seed. With Dallas we have no way to know how they’re going to fit together. With Golden State, we don’t know if they’ll be allowed to. The players fit together when healthy. The coaching is a concern for putting the pieces together in the right order. But just as you can’t count on these players because of injury, you can’t count out this team because you want to predict how the body will react.

We’re looking at a West that could see absolute mayhem. Last year it took till the last three days of the season to decide the playoff order. We could have just as intense a race this year. And if you can’t get excited about that, despite the gap between these teams and the top, then you’re watching sports wrong.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.

Report: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.

Wizards: We’ll offer Bradley Beal max contract extension, won’t trade him if he rejects it

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The Wizards will offer Bradley Beal a max contract extension when he’s eligible Friday, new general manager Tommy Sheppard confirmed to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Washington will give Beal his choice of length. The maxes:

  • One year, $34,502,129
  • Two years, $71,764,428
  • Three years, $111,786,897

But that’s less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then re-signing. It’s even less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then leaving. And it’s way less than Beal could get if he becomes eligible for a super-max deal (either an extension next offseason or re-signing in 2021) if he makes an All-NBA team either of the next two seasons.

Here are Beal’s max salaries on an extension and projected max salaries on a new contract:

Season Extension now Re-sign Leave Super-max*
2021-22 $34,502,129 $38M $38M $44M
2022-23 $37,262,299 $41M $39M $47M
2023-24 $40,022,469 $44M $41M $51M
2024-25 $111,786,897 $47M $54M
2025-26 $50M $58M
Total $111,786,897 $218M $118M $25M
Average $37,262,299 $44M $39M $51M

*Beal’s super-max amounts would be the same on an extension next offseason or fresh contract the following year.

So, it’s hard to see Beal accepting an extension.

He’d get financial security. There’s always risk in waiting – injury, unexpected decline or something else.

But Beal is so talented and just 26. The NBA is also short on quality shooting guards. He’s in tremendous position to secure a max contract in 2021 free agency.

So, how will the Wizards react if Beal doesn’t sign right now?

Wojnarowski:

If Beal passes on the extension, the Wizards have no plans to engage in trade talks with two years, $55.8 million left on his contract, Sheppard said.

“He’s got two years left on his deal, and he’s from Missouri and we are going to have to show him,” Sheppard told ESPN. “We need to show him that we are about building this the right way, that we aren’t going to have character-deficient guys around him. We are going to surround him with guys he wants to play with. He saw that right away in free agency with us bringing back Thomas Bryant.”

They’re really going to pitch him on playing with Thomas Bryant. Thomas Bryant! And I like Thomas Bryant. He was a breath of fresh air for the Wizards last season, and they re-signed him for $25 million over three years. But he’s also still just Thomas Bryant.

The NBA is full of star duos. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant?

That’s supposed to tempt Beal to stay in Washington?

The Wizards will likely be bad next year. John Wall could miss the entire season, and his huge salary encumbered Washington’s ability to add other players. Beal has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. But after living through what will likely be a miserable season, how will he feel about Washington then?

Beal said the Wizards told him they wouldn’t trade him. Sheppard has now gone public with that message.

But Washington also pledged not to trade Otto Porter then dealt him to the Bulls a week later. Plans change. Sometimes, there’s posturing for negotiating position.

There’s still plenty left to unfold. Beal isn’t even yet eligible for an extension. Maybe he’ll shock me and sign one this summer.

If not, the Wizards likely face an uphill battle for keeping him happy enough to stay in 2021 free agency.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, asked teams for guaranteed sponsorship money

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Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers won the offseason.

Leonard got a max contract to play in Southern California, where he grew up and clearly wanted to return. He’ll also be joined by his desired co-star, Paul George.

The Clippers get both stars and early status as championship favorite.

But the process has left some bitterness with the teams that didn’t get Leonard.

The Raptors have spread word Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests. The Lakers reportedly feel they got played in their Leonard pursuit.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

This is me putting on my reporter’s hat here. People in NBA circles are talking about this right now. Allegedly, the uncle, Uncle Dennis, was asking for a lot of stuff from the other teams. Houses, planes, sponsorship, guaranteed sponsorship money, just as an example. They’re throwing this stuff out there.

I have no idea whether this is true or not. I’m not trying to cast any aspersions on Uncle Dennis. But people in NBA circles are talking about this as we speak.

This chatter is designed to make both Robertson and the Clippers look bad.

Robertson is painted as greedy and preposterous. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits teams from providing players with those types of special benefits. In fact, a team arranging a sponsorship for its player is specifically listed as salary-cap circumvention.

Still, I don’t have a huge problem with Robertson asking. There have been numerous suspicions of under-the-table payments. If that happens regularly, of course Leonard should want his cut. If that’s not really something that happens, it’s on the teams to say no.

But did teams say no?

This raises questions about what the Clippers did to lure Leonard. They reportedly looked into acquiring his logo from Nike so they could gift it to him contingent on him signing. (That didn’t happen, and lawsuits between Leonard and Nike are pending). They also previously got fined for arranging a sponsorship for DeAndre Jordan when he was a free agent.

If there’s credible suspicion or even just accusations from other teams, the NBA should investigate. But people should put their names behinds their accusations – at the very least to the league.

Without that, this just looks like sour grapes.