AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn

51Q: Who’s the second-best team in the East — and does it matter?

10 Comments

We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

The Bulls have just Taj Gibson left from 2011. The Celtics have only Avery Bradley left from 2012. The Pacers are down to just Paul George from 2013 and 2014. The Hawks have already moved on from three starters (Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Al Horford) from 2015. The Raptors are largely in tact from 2016, but for how long?

LeBron James hasn’t just won the last six Eastern Conference titles. He has torn apart his conference-finals opposition.

LeBron is going for a seventh straight conference title this year, and his Cavaliers are heavily favored to get it.

Toronto will take another stab at unseating Cleveland, and a new-look Boston appears formidable. But the rest of the East lags well behind the Cavs.

LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form an untouchable trio in the conference. Tristan Thompson is an excellent fourth wheel, and assuming J.R. Smith eventually signs, he’ll fit well as a 3-point sniper and push Iman Shumpert into being an effective sixth man.

But there are cracks in the foundation. Cleveland is short a reliable backup point guard after losing Matthew Dellavedova to the Bucks and Mo Williams to retirement. Several key contributors – Channing Frye (33), Mike Dunleavy (36), Richard Jefferson (36) and Chris Andersen (38) – are old. This is where LeBron’s Heat teams got into trouble, asking too much of over-the-hill veterans no longer capable of providing quality depth.

Again, though, it didn’t matter until the Finals, if it did at all. Miami still won the East all four years LeBron played there.

LeBron been so dominant within his conference, there’s virtue in second place.

The Raptors should probably be thrilled with repeating last season’s results (a franchise-best 56 wins and their first two victorious best-of-seven playoff series). With Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas returning, it’s possible not to slip. A healthier DeMarre Carroll could even make Toronto more threatening, though losing Bismack Biyombo hurts.

The Celtics should be better with Al Horford, a true-way contributor built for the playoffs. A solid core with Horford, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, a treasure trove of extra draft picks and plenty of cap flexibility have Boston well-positioned for the next several years. If that means finishing second in the East this year, that’s an excellent step in the right direction – one that could help the Celtics lure their much-coveted next star.

Other teams – like the Pistons, Hawks, Pacers and Hornets – should be over the moon with losing to the Cavs in the conference finals. That’d be a major breakthrough for those upstarts.

But it’s still likely to be Cleveland in the end – even if there’s room for false hope first. LeBron’s teams have fallen short of the No. 1 seed most years of his NBA Finals streak. They’re just good enough to win in the playoffs regardless.

LeBron is 72-20 Eastern Conference playoff games and 18-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series the last six years. His Cavaliers had won 17 straight Eastern Conference playoff games before dropping its guard against Toronto last season. Cleveland still regrouped to dominate the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals and advance to face the Warriors.

The Warriors could be even better this year, with Kevin Durant joining Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But Golden State might not even be the most likely team to win its conference. The Cavs are that much ahead of their Eastern Conference foes.

Everyone is fighting to face Cleveland in the conference finals – to be the last team standing in case. In case LeBron gets hurt, in case the Cavs’ shooters go cold, in case Kevin Love fits out, in case…

In case the longshot pulls through.

But we know the resounding favorite.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

Getty Images
1 Comment

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
3 Comments

It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
5 Comments

It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.