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Playoff Preview: Three Questions about Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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On the surface, this 3 vs. 6 seed matchup shouldn’t be close. Oklahoma City won 55 games (and played better than that based on point differential), has two of the top five players in the NBA, and in Enes Kanter may have the Sixth Man of the Year (he’ll finish in the top three in the final voting). Meanwhile, Dallas scrambled to make the playoffs and needed the defense and energy of a rookie — Justin Anderson — to get them over the hump at the end.

But the more one delves into the matchups, the more this looks like a series where Dallas can give Oklahoma City some problems. Not enough to win the series, but enough to make the Thunder work a lot harder than they expect to, and enough to put doubt in everyone’s mind (including Kevin Durant‘s, which could have huge implications come July 1).

Here are three questions that will be key to this first round Western Conference showdown.

What devious plan does Rick Carlisle have in store for the Thunder? Remember the first round in 2014, when the on-a-mission Spurs took on the poor, overmatched, outclassed Mavericks team. Except that behind an incredible game plan from Carlisle and a veteran team — Dirk Nowitzki is going to go to his grave knocking down midrange shots — the Mavs pushed the Spurs to seven games. It was (arguably) the toughest series the Spurs had in those playoffs.

This has a bit of that feel. Carlise is a wizard — in the Hogwarts, not Washington, sense. Oklahoma City has weaknesses to attack — Enes Kanter on defense, Dion Waiters, the small forward position — and the only Xs and Os guy on Carlisle’s level in the league is Gregg Popovich (and, maybe, Brad Stevens). Talent, more than coaching, tends to win in the NBA, but this is a series where coaching could make a difference. Russell Westbrook is going to see a lot of defensive looks (not just a steady diet of Wesley Matthews), and some of them will get him thinking. I’m not questioning Billy Donovan as a coach, but welcome to the playoffs rookie.

Can Oklahoma City get the tempo up and take advantage of their athleticism? If this series is a track meet, Dallas players can start booking tee times for April 25 — the day of Game 5. Whatever Rick Carlisle’s game plan is, you can be sure it includes slowing the game down to a crawl. Dallas (like every other team in the league) has no answer for Westbrook in the open court. Or Kevin Durant. One advantage for Dallas: Their guards — Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton — take care of the ball. They had the second lowest team turnover percentage this season. If Dallas is going to win games, they need to defend well in the half court and take away easy buckets for the Thunder. Controlling the tempo — and ideally, frustrating the Thunder — will be huge for Dallas.

Will the Thunder be able to execute in the clutch? The biggest knock on former Thunder coach Scott Brooks? His team is unimaginative and too predictable — Westbrook and Durant isolations — in the clutch, and it cost them games. So in comes Billy Donovan and… meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Thunder have struggled late in games. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have been outscored in the fourth (by 50 points). After the All-Star break, the Thunder were involved in 15 games that were within five points in the last five minutes of the game (the standard NBA definition of crunch time) and in those minutes Durant and Westbrook took 69 percent of the Thunder’s shots. If you’re predictable, you’re defendable. And while I just talked about the offense, it’s the Thunder defense in the clutch that has been worse. Oklahoma City was 3-12 in those 15 close games.

Dallas will grind the series down as much as they can, and if the Thunder are truly the contenders they believe they are, they need to execute in the clutch to win these games. The Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll, as dangerous as it can be, is not enough.

Prediction: Thunder in six. Maybe OKC is better than I think, maybe they thrash Dallas (that’s more likely than a Mavs series win). But expect Dallas to make them work for it. That said talent will win out. And the Thunder have way more of it.

 

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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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.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-