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Three things we learned on Monday: Chicago is Jimmy Butler’s kind of team

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It felt like some NBA games were not as high scoring as the Rose Bowl, but there were eight games around the Association on Monday. While you settle into work for the short week, here’s what you missed from the NBA Monday.

1) If anyone still wondered whose team the Bulls were: Jimmy Butler drops 52 on Charlotte. Rajon Rondo has been relegated to towel waving reserve guard (finally). Dwyane Wade’s left knee is swelling up — yes, you’re right to be concerned Bulls fans — so he sat out Monday night.

That unleashed Jimmy Butler — and made us wonder what this team would have looked like if the front office had followed through on its pledge to actually get younger, more athletic players and build around Butler last summer. Butler had the ball in his hands more, and some extra space to operate. The results were he torched a good Charlotte Hornets defense for 52 points on just 24 shots, going 14-of-15 from the free throw lone, and scoring 17 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls came from behind to win. Just in case you wondered who the Bulls’ best player was, or who the cornerstone of the future is in Chicago.

Butler did most of his damage coming off the pick-and-roll, then either getting into the paint or — more efficiently on this night — knocking down midrange jumpers from the elbow area. He also dished out six assists on the night — to be clear, he ran the P&R more effectively than Rondo has for the team. Nearly half of Butler’s possessions in this game came as the ball handler using those high picks. The Hornets — Nicolas Batum in particular — defended him fairly well but Butler was having one of those nights: he was 9-of-14 on contested shots, according to NBA.com.

There was a lot more to like about the Bulls on this night. With Wade out Doug McDermott got the start and the Bulls adjusted to how teams have covered him with guards (because he lived on the perimeter) and fed him some in the post. Denzel Valentine is getting some more run with Rondo on the bench, and he looked good in the first half (he rolled his ankle in the third and did not return). And the Bulls played better defense on Kemba Walker (27 points, he’s still killing it) and the Hornets late to get the win. The kind of win the Bulls need to hang on to a playoff slot (they are currently the eight seed).

The Bulls don’t need Rondo to win. They will need Wade come the playoffs, but this team can win while his knees get rest. The Bulls showed they could do it for a night, but now they have to try to carry it over against the Cavaliers and Raptors the rest of this week.

2) Bucks keep picking up good wins, like Monday over Oklahoma City. There are three teams in the NBA with a top 10 offensive and defensive rating, usually the sign of a contender: Golden State, San Antonio, and Utah.  The two surprises? Cleveland not being there (the Cavs defense is 14th in the league on the season, they have a malaise on that end at times but because they’re in the East it doesn’t hurt them), and that the Bucks were there until Monday — they fell to 11th on defense. The Bucks are legitimately good, while they may be 17-14 they have the point differential of a 19-12 team.

The Thunder are where they are this season because of Russell Westbrook, good rebounding, and a stout defense. The Thunder took that three-legged approach into Milwaukee on Monday. The Bucks had no good answer for the Westbrook question (does anyone?), he had 30 points but on 9-of-28 shooting. But the Bucks held their own on the boards (just one fewer rebound) and they went right at the heart of that defense — Milwaukee scored at will in the paint, to the tune of 54 points there. Led by 26 points on 19 shots from Giannis Antetokounmpo, he was 7-of-10 in the paint. Plus he was doing things like this:

The Bucks are not a threat to Cleveland, or likely even Toronto, at the top of the East. But this is a team on the rise playing well at both ends, and if they continue on this arc they will be a tough out come the playoffs.

3) Losers of five in a row, the Knicks have issues. Short term and long term. The Knicks felt like they hit rock bottom Monday night — an Orlando Magic team they ripped a couple of weeks ago returned the favor, shredding a bad defense for 115 points, led by 23 from Jodie Meeks (Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka each had 22).

New York is banged up, no Kristaps Porzingis is the big one (he has had to carry a heavy load this season, maybe too heavy for a physically still growing/changing player, they need to be careful with his Achilles soreness). There was no Joakim Noah, and they really do miss David Lee. But neither of those latter two are shoring up the defense — it was a game where the Knicks broadcast team was pointing out Carmelo Anthony‘s lack of defensive effort. They easily could have done the same thing for Derrick Rose. How bad was the Knicks defense? Coach Jeff Hornacek said this postgame:

“I don’t think our guys aren’t trying — maybe they’re not capable… Maybe play some other guys and mix the lineup somehow. We have to find someone to play some defense.”

When the coach is calling out a team’s effort — and he also questioned their toughness — things are bad. And Hornacek may have waited too long to do it. The good news is for all their flaws and problems, the Knicks are just half a game out of the playoffs in the East. Get healthy, get on a run and they can make it.

But the flaws in this roster showing up midseason lead to bigger questions about the future — what is the long-term plan? Signing Rose and Noah this summer signaled a win-now mentality — except they are not winning, they are 16-18. This team needed to be torn down and rebuilt years ago, but nobody had the cojones to do that in New York for some reason. The Knicks got lucky and Porzingis fell to them in the draft, but beyond that the rest of the guys they are spending on for years to come — Anthony and Noah — are not part of the long-term future. Rose has played okay, but are they going to re-sign a guy well past his prime?

What is the plan in New York? It’s hard to see one that looks to a Porzingis-led future.

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.

NBA coaches’ union: ‘We have the power and platform to affect change, and we will use it’

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr often speak loudly on political issues.

Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests around the country, the entire NBA Coaches Association is speaking out.

NBA Coaches Association:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In describing recent events of “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism” as “shameful, inhumane and intolerable,” the National Basketball Coaches Association has established a committee on racial injustice and reform to pursue solutions within NBA cities.

[Hawks coach Lloyd] Pierce played a leadership role in the NBCA’s weekend dialogue and has shown a determination to encourage the entire roster of coaches — not just those traditionally speaking on issues of race and equality — to be part of a movement of voice and action within the profession’s ranks.

Floyd’s death was a tragedy that has shaken the entire country. It has compelled many – including within the NBA – to speak out and act.

It is wonderful that people are standing up to injustice.

Coaches also ought to carefully consider how to use their union as a tool in that fight.

Per the union’s website:

THE NBA COACHES ASSOCIATION WAS ESTABLISHED TO ACHIEVE THE FOLLOWING GOALS:
  • To promote the profession of NBA Basketball Coach
  • To assist in securing for its members maximum salary opportunities, disability and retirement benefits and individual and group marketing opportunities
  • To act as a liaison between the NBA and its body of coaches
  • To organize regular meetings for its members where information and ideas concerning the sport of basketball and coaching may be exchanged
  • To create opportunities for coaches in radio, television, the internet, publishing, and other related activities, and for opportunities in international coaching clinics and international basketball
  • To maintain contact with and support coaches between assignments
  • To take advantage of current technology as it applies to the game of basketball
  • Provide a forum for the betterment of the NBA coaches profession

There might be a narrow way for the union to take action while fitting its mission. But as its letter says, the National Basketball Coaches Association has a “diverse group” of members. The union should be careful not to collect dues from members to spend outside its purview.

NBA coaches are people, not just coaches. I applaud each of them who choose to speak out. They do have the platform and power to affect change.

I hope they find the right way to do that.