Miami has to get bigger, better if they dream of a three-peat

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Odds makers already have the Miami Heat as the favorites to win the NBA championship again next year — 2-1 odds at Bovada online.

But if the Heat thought this title run was like climbing Mount Everest, wait until next year. The Bulls get Derrick Rose back. The Pacers are not going to get any shorter over the summer. And if the Heat get out of the East the Thunder will have Russell Westbrook again, or maybe it will be these Spurs or an improved Clippers team waiting for them.

Miami won the title but their flaws were exposed in the process — they need more size (at least off the bench) and they need some depth to do things such as rest Dwyane Wade’s knees more during the season.

The Heat are going to have to adapt and improve this summer if they want to three-peat.

And with the full force of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place now, improving is not going to be easy for Miami to do.

Even with the less-than-max salaries that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade took, the big three still have a cap number of $56.8 million next season — that gets them almost to the salary cap already. With the other guys that are locked in (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and others) the Heat are committed over the tax line and over the apron ($76 million even if every option were rejected, and that’s not going to happen). They will be limited in what moves they make.

After back-to-back titles and with limited options, don’t expect Miami to blow this thing up and trade Chris Bosh this summer. That said Pat Riley and the Heat brain trust have to be thinking now about what this team looks like in three years. He needs to be thinking about how to restructure  around LeBron  (he’s not bolting, sorry Cleveland), but don’t expect the drastic changes to come this offseason.

Miami will enter next year with roughly the same overall strategy as the last two seasons — LeBron, Wade and Bosh and try to put enough inexpensive pieces around them to get the job done.

There are clear areas that need to be improved.

First, they need to get bigger and have more toughness inside. The Pacers are only getting better and teams will try to go big against the Heat. Bosh defended Tim Duncan fairly well in the finals (Duncan scored because he is really good and has a plethora of counter moves). But the Pacers and even Bulls showed that size can be an issue for the Heat. Miami has to get bigger.

Chris Andersen helped fill that role somewhat this past season, and he came in on a 10-day contract — the Birdman is going to get a pay raise. The Heat would like to keep him but the most they can offer him is the roughly $3 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception (that’s the most the Heat can offer any free agent). The Birdman is going to want that money, but another team under the tax line can offer more and could snatch him.

To me, the Heat need to go after free agent Samuel Dalembert — a veteran, defense-first center who doesn’t take a lot of shots but is efficient when he does. He’s battled some injuries and he’s not young, but the Heat are not going to do better finding a fit than with him inside.

Other guys such as Jermaine O’Neal and Elton Brand are also out there. Or they could snag Spurs bench rider DeJuan Blair and give him more minutes (but there is a reason he rode the bench in San Antonio).

Next the Heat need to add some depth on the wing, guys that maybe can contribute minutes and will lessen the load on Wade but will play for the minimum. They have Ray Allen on the roster with a player option, it’s his call if he comes back and most likely he will. Certainly his game slipped this year (lowest PER since his rookie season) and he will be 38, but are they really going to find someone better for a minimum salary?

Could they lure Chauncey Billups to join their veteran core? What about a younger player like Xavier Henry?

The Heat also have a Mike Miller decision — they can amnesty him and save his $6.2 million salary, plus the tax. But if they do amnesty him it will not get their salary down to the point they can offer a larger mid-level to someone else, all he does is save them some money. Can they replace his production with a minimum player?

At some point in the next couple years Pat Riley and the Heat are going to make some bold decisions to keep winning. Wade is starting to show his age and Bosh is becoming marginalized in the Heat system.

But don’t expect that to come this summer — the Heat will come back next year with the same strategy that won them back-to-back titles, they just hope with some more depth and size to help out.

We’ll see if that is enough to get the Heat a three-peat.

Father: Trae Young choosing Klutch not about joining Lakers

Lakers star LeBron James and Hawks star Trae Young
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Hawks star Trae Young switched agencies to Klutch Sports Group. Obviously, that means he’ll leave Atlanta to join fellow Klutch clients LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers.

Right?

Young’s father, Rayford Young, via Chris Kirschner of The Athletic:

He’s never been a follower. This whole thing with Klutch never had anything to do with going to play with the Lakers one day. They have a lot of people on their roster who aren’t with the Lakers.

“I would ask those fans who are fans of Trae or Atlanta fans to just look at his history. He knows this is a team effort, but he wants to have that statue next to Dominique (Wilkins) one day, man. I’ve told you this before, my son is 6-foot-1, but he thinks he’s the best player on the court no matter if LeBron is on the floor with him. Hopefully, it never backfires on him, but he’s got big balls and is very confident. He just knows what he wants to accomplish. I never think my son is going to join a super team unless they all come to Atlanta. He’s just got too much pride to do that. Maybe that pride will backfire, but who knows. My son has seen it happen here in Oklahoma City with (Kevin Durant). He wasn’t one of those who called him a cupcake, but he’s seen the backlash of something like that happen.”

Those are big words.

They don’t sound totally dissimilar from Davis, who insisted hiring Rich Paul didn’t presage leaving the Pelicans. Of course, Davis requested a trade within months and eventually steered his way to the Lakers. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry – who initially said that Davis hiring Paul didn’t signal Davis leavinglater admitted the hiring meant just that.

But a big difference: Unlike Davis, who altered a status quo that included repeatedly stating commitment to New Orleans, Young didn’t chang agents. Young stuck with Omar Wilkes, who switched agencies from Octagon for Klutch. (Kirschner more deeply explores the Wilkes-Young relationship.) While – especially in hindsight, but even at the time – Davis looked like he was at the very least preparing to move on, Young didn’t do anything that major.

Another big difference: Davis was just two years from unrestricted free agency when he went to Klutch. Young can’t unilaterally become an unrestricted free agent until 2023, and that’s only if he takes a one-year qualifying offer instead of a max contract – something nobody in his position has ever done. Far more likely, he’ll be locked into Atlanta through 2026.

At that point, who knows where LeBron (who’ll be 41), Davis (who’ll be 33) and the Lakers will be? Before then, the Lakers are short on trade assets outside LeBron and Davis after surrendering so much for Davis.

But to be fair, who knows how the Hawks will perform over the ensuing years? Young is already a star and showing frustration with a team that hasn’t come close to keeping up with his rapid ascension. Outside the most desirable markets, stars tend to be a little more impatient.

Which makes the Kevin Durant comparison interesting. Durant faced massive backlash for leaving the Thunder. He won multiple championships with the Warriors, but it’s unclear how happy he was in Golden State. How does Young – who’s from Oklahoma – internalize all that?

Ultimately, Young will chart his own course. Comparisons to other stars like Davis and Durant can be useful, but they don’t prove anything. Young’s father talking about his son playing for a super team only in Atlanta will inspire Hawks fans.

And, fairly or not, increase resentment if Young leaves.

Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan: NBA protocols ‘so frustrating and overwhelming’

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan
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The NBA produced a 113-page manual on health and safety protocols for the league’s resumption at Disney World. The multi-bullet-pointed section on ping pong includes:

No Doubles

Until directed otherwise by the NBA, players should play singles only so that they can maintain six feet of distance from each other.

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“The ping pong thing is ridiculous. To be honest,” San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said on Thursday. “Guys can’t do this, but we can do this and battle over each other. That part just don’t make no sense to me. I got through 10 lines of the handbook and just put it down because it became so frustrating and overwhelming at times because you just never thought you’d be in a situation of something like this. So it’s hard to process at times.”

DeRozan’s exasperation is completely understandable. The manual is long and full of scientific jargon in addition to rules that seem trivial.

But the NBA’s plan is logical.

Both basketball games and doubles ping pong are generally unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic. The big difference: NBA basketball games produce a lot of money. So, the league and players are willing to risk playing them.

The goal is to isolate players from the outside world and test them frequently, minimizing the chances of them playing basketball with coronavirus. There’s a risk someone gets infected anyway, so limiting opportunities for someone to spread coronavirus – like doubles ping pong or, more importantly, getting close to someone outside the bubble – are being minimized.

Is that enjoyable for players? Heck no. That’s why Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has doubts about players maintaining a strict bubble.

But hopefully, players abide by the rules designed keep them safe… and highly paid. Whether or not they read all 113 pages, participating players are signing up for this.

Second bubble for other eight NBA teams? Not so fast

Warriors star Stephen Curry
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The eight teams teams that didn’t qualify for the NBA’s resumption at Disney World – Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors – are reportedly considering a second bubble in Chicago.

Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports:

K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

A safe operation, like the one at Disney World, comes with two major drawbacks:

1. It’s expensive. Accommodations, frequent coronavirus testing, transporting equipment to the site – it adds up.

2. It’s burdensome for participants. They’ll be separated from family and friends in order to limit coronavirus exposure points.

But the campus in Disney World is happening for one reason: Money. Finishing the season will generate a lot of money for the NBA, especially national-TV money for the playoffs.

Will a second bubble produce enough money to justify its existence? I doubt it. These eight teams are done with meaningful games. Maybe it’s worth fulfilling local TV contracts, but that’s a narrow needle to thread. The product would be lousy.

Players on these eight teams will reportedly receive the same share of salaries as players going to Disney World. If that becomes no longer guaranteed unless reporting to a second bubble, perhaps players would be compelled to go. But it’s hard to see much enthusiasm – especially among impending free agents, who should protect their health. Any notable players with injury concerns, like Golden State star Stephen Curry, would also likely be held out.

Many people within these eight teams want to keep playing. There’s concern about a long layoff and a natural desire to do something to improve. But the continuing 22 teams will have historically short layoffs. Extra rest might be an advantage. It’s a completely unprecedented situation. Nobody knows which group – the 22 teams or the eight teams – will be better-prepared for next season.

Amid that the uncertainty of the benefits – and the very clear and high costs – there’s plenty of reason to doubt a second bubble gets off the ground.

But the plan’s supporters have at least enough momentum to make it a discussion.

Grizzlies’ Ja Morant says he added 12 pounds of muscle, will ‘prove people wrong’ at restart

Ja Morant
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Ja Morant has taken advantage of the NBA’s hiatus, adding 12 pounds of muscle to help absorb contact when the NBA’s likely rookie of the year fearlessly attacks the basketball.

And the Memphis Grizzlies point guard knows exactly what he wants when he leads his team to Orlando.

“Going out there to win, prove people wrong,” Morant said Thursday in a Zoom video call with reporters.

Morant, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft, already has taken advantage of Zion Williamson missing much of the season to make his case as the league’s top rookie. Morant is the Grizzlies’ leading scorer averaging 17.6 points in 59 games played compared to just 19 for Williamson with the Pelicans.

With Morant leading the way, the Grizzlies won four of their final six before the NBA stopped play March 12. Memphis goes into Orlando’s seeding games sitting in the eighth spot in the Western Conference with a 3 1/2-game lead trying to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017.

Morant, who turns 21 on Aug. 10, didn’t just spend his downtime during the coronavirus shutdown spending time with his family and baby daughter waiting to hear when the NBA would resume play.

Nope, Morant said he worked in the weight room and gym adding the 12 pounds of muscle since a loss to Orlando on March 10. That helped fend off worries that the season – and all the work he had put in – was over.

“I just took it as an opportunity to get even better, even though I didn’t know how it would play out,” Morant said.

The extra pounds not only make Morant stronger, but the guard listed at 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds when play stopped expects he will be able to absorb contact better.

“Able to use my body more, get through different screens,” Morant said. “That’s why I’m just looking to do, go to Orlando to be able to do the things I’ve been doing before but better.”

The added muscle is noticeable, at least to his teammates. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said a couple Grizzlies were talking about Morant being bigger Wednesday.

“Gaining strength has been a priority of his and continues to maintain his supreme athleticism,” Jenkins said.

Morant went into his rookie season recovering from arthroscopic surgery to clean up his right knee before the 2019 draft. The time off means he has no pain in his knee, which is easy to see when he’s on the floor.

“Feel like I’m actually leaving the floor easier and jumping higher,” Morant said. “I’ve just been taking this time to just focus on my body, make sure everything’s good so when it’s time to go out and play, I’ll be fine.”