The Extra Pass: Why D’Antoni is the right man for the job; plus Sunday’s recaps

11 Comments

source:

You may consider this curious timing to take up for Mike D’Antoni, considering his Lakers just gave up 137 points at home to a Denver Nuggets team that can best be described as “meh.”

Believe it or not, though, pulling the wool over your eyes isn’t my intention here. Let’s be truthful: D’Antoni’s teams really are awful defensively. In 11 seasons, he’s coached an above-average defense in terms of efficiency just once. His defensive schemes aren’t ever any good, and they likely never will be.

That, understandably, doesn’t sit right with a lot of people. Rarely do below-average defensive teams make the playoffs, let alone go deep in them.

The Los Angeles Lakers, as many of their fans will be quick to remind you of, are all about hanging banners and winning rings. D’Antoni’s track record sure seems to be counter-intuitive to that.

But while we’re being honest here, let’s knock down those expectations a peg. The Lakers weren’t going to win a championship this season. Not with Steve Nash in this condition at 39 years old, not with Kobe Bryant coming off a devastating injury, not with Pau Gasol’s natural decline, and not with Dwight Howard leaving behind no reasonable way to replace his production.

No one was winning anything substantial with this roster – not even the great Phil Jackson, who surely would have a whale of a time coaching Nick Young.

That’s part of the issue with evaluating D’Antoni’s performance this season. What standards should he be held up to? Those set by past coaches and teams far more talented, or ones more in line with reality?

The Lakers have been entertaining, and not solely in just a trainwreck sort of way, as was originally anticipated. This is typically a fun brand of basketball to watch, but more importantly, it’s a style that’s hospitable to star players, Bryant included.

The Lakers move the ball. They feel empowered to take open threes. For the most part, they play pretty unselfish basketball, which is pretty much unheard of considering that nearly everyone on the roster is on an expiring contract and playing for their next job. There are defensive failures, naturally, but what did anyone reasonably expect?

From Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak’s perspective, D’Antoni has probably met his expectations so far this year.

The reclamation project of Kendall Marshall has been a huge success thus far. D’Antoni has a reputation as a point guard whisperer, and maybe it was Kupchak’s confidence in D’Antoni that made giving Marshall a two-year non-guaranteed deal a high-upside play that looks like it’s going to pan out.

That may not seem significant, but it’s a big deal for the Lakers. Most of the players currently on the roster, including Gasol, will be long gone next year. Finding cheap options that can contribute to next year’s team has to be the top priority, so long as we’re going to ignore the white elephants of tanking and taxes.

At least in that sense, D’Antoni is the perfect coach for the Lakers right now. For as unimpressive as his defensive resume is, D’Antoni has a history of unearthing diamonds in the rough. His offensive system can inflate numbers, and in turn, it can inflate the trade value of the players putting up those numbers. That’s important – arguably moreso than wins are at this point.

That won’t stop the pitchforks from being raised, of course. There is a tipping point with D’Antoni that’s been reached multiple times in the past, and bad defense usually reflects worse on a coach than a hapless offense does. There’s a reason D’Antoni has been fired before, and there’s a reason it will likely happen again.

But it shouldn’t happen yet – not so long as D’Antoni is helping to improve the Lakers’ future, one way or another.

-D.J. Foster

source:

This was the best video of the night — watch J.R. Smith on the left of the screen untie Shawn Marion’s shoe during Dirk Nowitzki’s free throw attempt. Marion plays the entire next possession that way before getting to tie his shoe.

The question on twitter after this… (keep reading)

source:

source:

Grizzlies 112, Pistons 84: This game was close for the first half (Detroit led by 5 at the break and got good play from their bigs) then the Grizzlies won the second half 61-28 as the Pistons shot just 30.8 percent in the second half and were 1-of-9 from three. The last 24 minutes were everything you feared about the Pistons — Josh Smith taking bad jumpers, Brandon Jennings was 0-of-7, and they didn’t defend. Jon Lauer came off the bench to lead the Grizzlies with 23 points, and a rare shout out this season to Ed Davis (not a good fit in the Grizzlies system most nights) who had 13 points in the fourth quarter to keep this a blow out.

Pacers 82, Cavaliers 78: It wasn’t pretty. To use the Rasheed Wallace classic, both teams played hard. But it wasn’t pretty. This was the kind of game you expect the Pacers to win in the postseason (well, except for the for the lack of crowd noise) — it was a grind-it-out win. They defended and held the Cavaliers to 34.2 percent shooting, or an offensive rating or 89.6 points per 100 possessions. Indiana just couldn’t shoot. Paul George led the Pacers with 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting, while Roy Hibbert had 15 points (on 12 shots).

Heat 102, Raptors 97: Moral victories suck, but Toronto should take this as one — they looked like the third best team in the East right now (which they are) and led entering the fourth quarter. Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and outplayed Chris Bosh for most of the night. DeMar DeRozan looked like an All-Star with 26 points and 7 assists, but he wore down in the fourth. That’s when LeBron James played like the LeBron James you expect — 10 of his 30 points came in the fourth quarter. Once again Beasley was key with 17 points off the bench, he’s becoming a real weapon.

Warriors 112, Wizards 96: Make that nine wins in a row for Golden State, the last five on the road. This one was tied at the half, but the Wizards have had some rough third quarters recently and the Warriors took advantage this time. Golden State started the second half on a 19-3 run and they led comfortably the rest of the way, shooting 50.3 percent on the night. The Warriors were led by 26 points from Klay Thompson, while David Lee had 21 points and 11 boards (10 of his points came in the key third quarter). John Wall had a strong first half but wasn’t a factor in the second and finished with 14 points (tied for most on the Wizards) on 11 shots.

Thunder 119, Celtics 96: It was the second night of a back-to-back after a tough game against Minnesota, yet this was the best the Thunder have looked in a week. You can thank Reggie Jackson for that, as he had a career high 27 points and played with a lot of confidence from the start (he opened the game 4-of-4 shooting). He seems to be growing into the role of starter with Russell Westbrook out. Boston got 19 a piece from Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, but this one was never close. Kevin Durant had 21 and never got off the bench in the fourth quarter.

Knicks 92, Mavericks 80: Dirk Nowitzki was right, Dallas didn’t look like a playoff team in this game. They looked flat. Even without an ill Tyson Chandler New York took the lead with a 21-5 run in the first quarter and held that the rest of the way, fighting back each Mavericks’ run. While Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 19 points it was the seven points late in the fourth quarter from Iman Shumpert that sealed the win the win. Dallas got 18 out of Nowitzki but the team scored just 35 points in the first half and seemed uninspired.

Nuggets 137, Lakers 115: Fast paced, high scoring, this was a little bit of a throwback to a 1985 Lakers/Nuggets game. Except much more sloppy. Denver took control of this game in the third quarter with a 17-2 run sparked by Ty Lawson (20 points on the night) and they got strong play off the bench with from Timofey Mozgov (who also had 20). Brian Shaw needs to play Mozgov and Kenneth Faried together more. On the other side, the Lakers continue to get good play out of Kendall Marshall — he had 17 assists and when he sat the Lakers offense loses all structure.

—Kurt Helin

Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta calls luxury tax ‘horrible hindrance’

AP Photo/Michael Wyke
2 Comments

No matter what Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said, the luxury tax clearly loomed over Houston’s entire offseason. It’s the biggest reason the Rockets fell back in their pursuit of the Warriors.

So, how does Fertitta explain his view on the luxury tax now?

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Fertitta:

It’s a horrible hindrance.

And if any of y’all ever want to really understand it, go do the math on it. I mean, it’s just brutal. You can take 5 million, and all of a sudden you look up, and it costs you 20 million.

And at some point, you have to be smart, and you cannot get into the repeater tax, which happens if you’ve been in the luxury tax three years in a row. And that’s something to really look at. And at some point, you have to do some things so you never go in the repeater tax. You’re just dead in the water, and it can ruin your franchise for years. So, it’s something you have to be cognizant of.

At the same time, a team is built is on superstars. If you have your top four or five players, you can always see other players move in and out.

Because it is a chess game playing with the luxury tax. That’s why there’s only three or teams in it.

This year, to be able to make sure that we hopefully get back to the Western Conference finals, we were going to have to be in it around many millions of dollars. And I am here to win championships, and I’m not going to let 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make a difference. Because if you do win the championship, that’s easy money back.

Now, if we’re in the luxury tax every year and we’re barely getting into the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, then I’m going to go find me a new general manger.

Let’s be clear: Fertitta will spend a significant amount on the Rockets this season. They’re over the luxury-tax line and will very likely remain there once the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season. Fertitta greenlit one of the league’s largest payrolls.

But his arguments about the repeater rate are lacking.

Teams pay the repeater rate when paying the tax for at least the fourth time five seasons. It doesn’t matter how far over the tax they were in those prior seasons. So, while Houston – which has a completely clean repeater clock – wants to avoid paying the repeater rate down the road, incremental savings this season won’t matter for that. Unless the Rockets avoid the tax completely, which is highly unlikely, this season will count as a tax-paying season.

Houston’s key losses – Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – left for one-year contracts elsewhere. Keeping them would have been expensive this year, but they would have triggered no additional costs later.

Again, re-signing those forwards would have pushed the Rockets’ payroll extremely high. It might be reasonable for Fertitta to place his spending limits where he did. But it should have nothing to do with the repeater tax.

It’s OK if Fertitta doesn’t know the exact ins and outs of the luxury tax. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey does and handles it. But the degree to which Fertitta is willing to pay the tax is so important to Houston’s title chances, it’s worth assessing everything he says about it.

“Horrible hindrance” and “just brutal” speak loudly.

Kawhi Leonard lays out roadmap for Raptors keeping him

AP Photo/Eric Gay
3 Comments

Kawhi Leonard laughed at his own answer to a reporter questioning how Leonard would describe himself to a Toronto market that doesn’t know him. “It’s just more questions you have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you a whole spiel. I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.” Leonard talked about his excitement for getting traded to the Raptors, a “great organization” in a “great city.” He smiled big while posing for pictures.

Most importantly, he described what it’d take for Toronto to re-sign him next summer.

“By winning games,” Leonard said, “this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”

The Raptors can do that.

They’ve won at least 48 games the last five years, peaking with 59 wins last season. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and a deep supporting cast should rank near the top of the Eastern Conference again.

But will Toronto win enough – especially in the playoffs, where disappointing results have become the norm – to get Leonard to sign on the dotted line?

For now, Leonard wants to focus on the present, including his current thoughts on Toronto: “I want to play here.” That means not meaningfully reflecting publicly on his time with the Spurs other than to say he has no regrets. It means not addressing Los Angeles rumors.

“If you’re looking in the future, you’re going to trip over the present,” Leonard said.

The present looks bright for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry re-signed last summer. DeMar DeRozan made clear how badly he wanted to stay. Leonard is in Toronto now.

At one point during today’s (delayed) introductory press conference, Raptors president Masai Ujiri interjected without being asked a question.

“Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” Ujiri said, his voice rising far louder than the low-talking Leonard’s had all morning. “I think that’s old. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves.”

And, at this point, believe Leonard when he said winning is the key to re-signing him. Maybe he’ll still leave, but winning gives Toronto the best chance to keep him.

“I came here with an open mind,” Leonard said. “I want to do great things.”

Raptors right to swing for fences with Kawhi Leonard

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSports.com’s 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.

The Raptors are one step closer.

To seriously contending for a championship? To actually rebuilding?

We’ll see.

But Toronto is racing toward a resolution, one way or another.

Last offseason, the Raptors positioned themselves for a breaking point in the summer of 2020. They gave Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka three-year contracts, matching the timeline of Jonas Valanciunas‘ contract ending. The hitch was DeMar DeRozan‘s huge deal, which ran through 2021. If it reached the point Toronto president Masai Ujiri wanted to retool in 2020, perhaps DeRozan wouldn’t be as appealing on the trade market. Keeping DeRozan – central to the Raptors’ identity – could have been even more limiting.

So, Ujiri got ahead of that potential problem by trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20-protected first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

The move was extremely risky. Leonard missed nearly all of last due to injury. He can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he’s reportedly eying Los Angeles.

But Leonard is just 27 and only one season removed from being an MVP candidate. He could lift Toronto to a championship this season. He could re-sign. The upside is so high.

The downside is starting a rebuild that probably would have come anyway.

First, the Raptors will give it their best shot this season.

They re-signed Fred VanVleet – the driving force behind their excellent bench – to a two years, $18 million contract. That likely assures aying the luxury tax for the first time since 2004, though there’s still time to shed salary before the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season.

Greg Monroe was a very nice addition at the minimum. If all goes well, he might even allow Toronto to dump Valanciunas’ salary.

And don’t forget about Green, who’s a solid contributor on the wing, not just a throw-in with Leonard.

Firing Dwane Casey to hire first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse was another risk. I wonder whether Ujiri would have done it if he knew he’d acquire Leonard later in the summer.

The Raptors could be excellent this season and beyond. They could be excellent this season then fall off dramatically. They could be far worse this season and stay down a while.

But after years of strong regular seasons and playoff disappointments, it was time to change the status quo.

Fortune favors the bold.

 

 

Offseason grade: A

Heat camp arrives, and Goran Dragic says he’s more than ready

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MIAMI (AP) — This time last year, Miami’s Goran Dragic was already tired and the season was just getting started.

It’s very different now.

When the Heat hold their first practice of the season Tuesday, Dragic expects to be as rested and ready as he’s been for any training camp in years. The point guard who went to his first All-Star Game last season wore down as the year went along, in part because of the grind he put himself through last summer while leading his native Slovenia to the European championship.

This summer, he played less – and is hoping that pays off this season.

“I feel amazing. I feel great,” Dragic said. “I think one of the smartest moves I made was retiring from the national team, because I feel energized and pumped for this season. I always kind of hit a wall toward the end of a season, but I feel like this season is going to be a totally different story.”

At 32, Dragic is Miami’s third-oldest player – among those in the Heat locker room, only Udonis Haslem (38) and the entering-his-final-season Dwyane Wade (36) have seen more birthdays. But Dragic is still a starter, still a very intregal part of everything Miami envisions for this season, and is coming off a year where he averaged 17.3 points.

“The band is still together,” Dragic said. “I’m very happy that I’ll be part of this last dance with Dwyane.”

The biggest malady Dragic was dealing with at the end of last season was tendinitis in his right knee, something that bothered him for several weeks. He still led Miami in scoring during its five-game playoff appearance against Philadelphia, averaging 18.6 points.

He wasn’t the only Heat starter ailing when last season ended. Josh Richardson was playing through a bad shoulder, Hassan Whiteside had knee problems, James Johnson had a sports hernia and Tyler Johnson‘s thumb needed surgery. The Heat – who are one of the many teams that have been talking to Minnesota about a trade for Jimmy Butler – are hoping some health luck comes their way this season.

“I think we’re going to be good,” Dragic said.

If nothing else, he’s not coming into this season as harried as he was last fall. Dragic has been back in Miami for about a month, after spending most of his offseason in Slovenia. A year ago, the European championships meant Dragic was still playing right up until the start of Heat camp.

It wasn’t a popular decision in Slovenia for Dragic to stop playing for the national team, which didn’t qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and now faces an uphill climb if it’s going to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“But it was the right decision for me,” Dragic said.

The Heat sat out this past June’s NBA Draft in part because of the deal they made in 2015 to bring Dragic to Miami. The package sent to Phoenix included two first-round selections, the first of which was used this year at the No. 16 overall spot. The other will be used in 2021.

The price was steep, and the Heat aren’t complaining.

“I’d much rather have Goran Dragic than those two picks,” Heat President Pat Riley said.

Dragic is hoping to give Riley even more bang for his buck this season.

The All-Star nod – even though it came as an injury replacement – was particularly meaningful for Dragic, and he felt that last season was one of his better seasons anyway.

His goal for this season is simple: Be even better.

“I want to be at a high level for as long as possible,” Dragic said. “If you come into a season without goals, you’re just going through practice and it doesn’t mean anything to you. But if you set goals, you’re pushing yourself. And for me personally, my goal is to have a better season than I did last year. I don’t want to drop a little bit at the end this season. I want to be energized, fresher, more consistent the whole way this time.”