Trade No. 1 pick? Deal for Kyrie Irving? Celtics’ Danny Ainge bets big on his convictions

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Danny Ainge believes in himself and his player evaluations. Unequivocally.

Almost every NBA team had Markelle Fultz at the top of their draft board. As one scout put it to me, “there is a clear No. 1 this year.” NBC’s college basketball guru Rob Dauster agreed and told us so. It was the consensus.

Ainge didn’t see it that way. Boston’s decision maker traded the No. 1 pick for a future first rounder and eventually took Jayson Tatum at No. 3, the guy he liked best in the draft.

Also through the summer, Ainge also sat on the biggest asset on the trade board — the Brooklyn Nets unprotected 2018 first-round pick — and didn’t use it to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler (or anyone else). It seemed untouchable.

Then Ainge threw it and another player other teams coveted — Jae Crowder (not to mention Isaiah Thomas) — in a deal to land Kyrie Irving out of Cleveland. Ainge paid a franchise-player level price for Irving, betting he can be the best player on a championship team.

Ainge likes Irving more than other teams do, he likes the flair in Irving’s game — no doubt Irving is an elite scorer, but a franchise player? One who defends and gets teammates involved? Look at what some scouts and executives told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report.

“I think it’s fairly clear he’s not (a franchise player),” says one team’s analytics director, pointing to the surprisingly soft trade market for Irving. “The league as a whole agrees he’s not.”

The scout calls Irving’s playmaking skills “plain vanilla” and “average for a starting point guard.” He says he would be surprised if Irving raised his assist average much in Boston…. And Irving is positively awful defensively, according to just about every available defensive metric—“a train wreck,” in the words of one Cavs official.

Ainge, like the rest of us, has seen Irving the great playmaker, and we’ve seen Irving play good defense (remember him on Stephen Curry in the 2016 Finals?). But franchise cornerstones bring that every night, not once in a while.

Ainge is higher on Irving than most of his front office peers, and he bet big on that belief that Irving will be the best of himself in Boston.

That sums up Danny Ainge’s summer: He has true conviction in his player evaluations, even if they go against the grain.

He has bet big on these assessments and convictions — and bet the Celtics’ future. This was a 53-win Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and it will have four new starters next season. Only four players from the previous year will be in camp with the Celtics next season, and the Celtics have gotten younger in the process in a historic way.

Boston still looks like the second-best team in the East come the playoffs (nobody should bet against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals until he loses one at this point), and they are poised to have next in the East if things come apart in Cleveland.

However, one of the three tests of whether this team is a contender is whether Gordon Hayward and Irving can mesh inside Brad Steven’s offense and become almost unstoppable on that end. Which is really asking, is Ainge right that Irving will buy into what Stevens is selling? Another big test is whether this Celtics team can get enough defense from Irving (and its developing players) to make up for losing Crowder and Avery Bradley in one summer.

The final, and maybe biggest question, is in a couple of years will we say Ainge passed on the best player in this class in Fultz to get a more polished but lower upside guy in Tatum? No. 1 picks are rare opportunities, Ainge gambled in giving his away, and if Fultz is what the Sixers and some other teams believe Ainge will have lost that bet.

You have to admire that Ainge goes with his convictions, that he’s not willing to just take the safe and conventional route. We love to watch risk takers, teams swinging for the fences are far more interesting than a GM just looking to hit solid singles every time at the plate.

But if Ainge missed on his evaluations in the summer of 2017, it could be a long while before banner 18 goes up in the Boston Garden.

 

L.A. Lakers will stay big, start Dwight Howard at center

Dwight Howard start
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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While it is easy to say the Lakers’ best lineups have Anthony Davis at center, the numbers say the Lakers are best playing big with another player at center and Davis at the four.

That’s how the Lakers will start the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — and Dwight Howard gets the call, the team announced.

This start was expected, especially after how well Dwight Howard played in the Denver series against Nikola Jokic.

It creates an interesting defensive choice for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat: Do they start Bam Adebayo on Davis and have Jae Crowder on Howard, or reverse that. Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player who may be the best one-on-one matchup in the league for Davis,  but does Spoelstra want to risk early foul trouble for his star center, and would it wear Adebayo down to have to work so hard on both ends. Expect Crowder to start on Davis and Adebayo to get the key minutes later in the game.

The challenge for the Lakers: Howard fouls a lot.

“Probably fouling,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said when asked what was at the top of the team scouting report for the Heat. “I think they are great at getting to the free throw line. If we can play with discipline, not give them opportunities to shoot free throws, set their defense, that will help us win games, because they are great at getting to the free throw line.”

Howard can’t mess that plan up for Los Angeles. But he’s going to get the chance.

 

Two men charged with taking over NBA player’s social media accounts, selling info

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — A Louisiana man and a Florida man allegedly gained access to professional athletes’ social media accounts and either sold the information or used it to extort payments, according to federal criminal complaints released Wednesday.

Trevontae Washington and Ronnie Magrehbi each face wire fraud conspiracy and computer fraud conspiracy counts filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.

The 21-year-old Washington, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, allegedly obtained usernames and passwords for multiple NFL and NBA players and sold access to the information.

Magrehbi, 20, of Orlando, Florida, allegedly obtained an NFL player’s email and Instagram account information and extorted money by publishing explicit photos of the player and threatening to publish more.

Washington and Magrehbi were scheduled to make initial court appearances Wednesday in their respective states. They were not alleged to have worked together on the scams.

Their alleged victims included two NFL players and one NBA player, all of whom lived in New Jersey at the time of the alleged crimes.

According to the complaint, Washington used a “phishing” scam — requesting login information purportedly for a legitimate purpose — to gain access to the accounts of one NFL player in 2018 and locked the player out of the accounts.

Washington also took over the accounts of at least two other players, and acknowledged to investigators after his arrest last year that he had sold access to players’ accounts for between $500 and $1,000 each, the complaint alleged.

Magrehbi also used phishing to take over the social media accounts of an NFL player living in New Jersey in 2018 who eventually paid him $500, according to the complaint.

A few days later, explicit images of the player were posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts and he was asked for an additional $2,500 to prevent the publishing of additional photos, the complaint alleged. The request came from a prepaid cellphone linked to Magrehbi, according to the complaint.

Court personnel for the Eastern District of Louisiana didn’t provide information on an attorney representing Washington. A message was left Wednesday at the Middle District of Florida seeking attorney information for Magrehbi.

Wire fraud conspiracy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Computer fraud conspiracy has a five-year maximum sentence.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis have two of top three selling jerseys during bubble

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The Los Angeles Lakers have the biggest, most popular brand of any NBA franchise. LeBron James is the biggest brand of any active NBA player, nationally and globally.

Combine them and it sells a lot of jerseys.

LeBron sold more jerseys during the NBA restart in Orlando than any other player, the NBA announced Wednesday, hours before LeBron and his Lakers tipped off in the NBA Finals. LeBron’s teammate, Anthony Davis, was third on the list. Here is the list released by the NBA.

Top 15 Most Popular NBA Jerseys

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
11. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
12. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
15. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

A few notes of interest:

• The sixth and seventh best selling jerseys were players who did not suit up in the bubble, Curry and Durant.
• Rookie Ja Morant sold the 15th most jerseys, making his first appearance on this list, while Zion Williamson did not make the top 15.
• Second is the highest Luka Doncic has ever finished on this list, his spectacular play in the bubble helped spike his popularity.
• These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from July 30 through Sept. 28.

Top 10 Most Popular Team Merchandise

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Chicago Bulls
4. Miami Heat
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Milwaukee Bucks
9. Portland Trail Blazers
10. Denver Nuggets

Lakers have historically easy path to championship*

Lakers star LeBron James
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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By the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James was feeling the stress of facing the mighty Warriors again. LeBron and the Cavaliers toppled a 73-win Golden State in 2016… only for the Warriors to add Kevin Durant. Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2017 Finals and was on the way to repeating. The too-often overlooked aspect of LeBron’s 3-6 NBA Finals record: His competition on that level has been EXCELLENT.

Not so much this year.

At least on paper.

The fifth-seeded Heat are among the lowest lowest seeds ever to reach the NBA Finals. Miami (44-29) outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in regular-season/seeding games. That’s the lowest margin for a Finals team in the last 20 years outside the 2018 Cavs (+0.9).

And it’s not as if that’s just an East-West issue. The Lakers’ road through the Western Conference looked remarkably similar to LeBron’s challenge while he dominated the East for eight years – i.e., not that imposing.

Los Angeles’ postseason opponents’ margins per game during the regular season/seeding games:

  • Trail Blazers: -1.1
  • Rockets: +3.0
  • Nuggets: +2.1
  • Heat: +2.9

Not including themselves, the Lakers avoided the top five teams! The Bucks (+10.1), Celtics (+6.4), Clippers (+6.4), Raptors (+6.3) and Mavericks (+4.9) all had better margins per game than Houston.

Still, at the very minimum, the Lakers must win four series to win a title. In the NBA’s early days, that was just two.

The 1957 Celtics won the championship by beating the Syracuse Nationals (-1.4) and St. Louis Hawks (-0.1). That’s all it took!

Even for dominant teams, each additional series is an opportunity for something to go wrong. So, the Lakers have it tougher than many prior champions. It’s difficult to compare across eras, anyway.

But since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, this is an incredibly soft-looking run.

The Lakers’ playoff opponents have an average margin of +1.7, which would be second-lowest for a championship team in this format. The 1987 Lakers’ opponents had an average margin of just +1.0.

Simply averaging opponents’ margins probably isn’t the best method, though. What does it matter whether a championship team faces a team barely over .500 or a team with a losing record in the first round? An eventual champion usually easily dispatches either. The more significant differences in opponent quality come in later rounds.

So, I created Postseason Strength of Schedule Score (PSSS) for title teams since 1984.

For each championship team, I multiplied the margin of their top opponent by four, the margin of their second-best opponent by three, the margin of their third-best opponent by two and the margin of their worst opponent by one then added the totals. (There is room to quibble with the ratios. I chose this for simplicity.)

The higher the PSSS, the more difficult the schedule.

The 2020 Lakers would have the lowest PSSS (23.7), narrowly behind the 1987 Lakers (23.9) but way below everyone else:

For what it’s worth, the Heat would have the highest PSSS (72.8), topping the 1995 Rockets (68.9):

The big asterisk over this entire discussion: It’s impossible to assess a team’s overall level at the exact time of a playoff series. True in a normal year, it’s especially difficult this year with a long layoff and bubble weirdness.

Yes, the Heat outscored opponents by just 2.9 points per game in the regular season/seeding games. How much does that have to do with Miami’s current ability, though? The Heat have looked awesome in the playoffs.

Maybe they’re particularly resilient in a way that helps in the bubble. Maybe young players like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have developed far beyond where they were in the regular season, which ended more than half a year ago. Maybe in-season acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala lifted Miami after the Heat built most of their regular-season record.

There are infinite reasons Miami might not be the team suggested by its regular-season/seeding-game record.

Ditto Portland (which got back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and developed momentum while winning the play-in), Houston (which looked gassed when the regular season was halted) and Denver (which, honestly, might have gotten worse with Will Barton hurt and so many players recovering from coronavirus).

That said, regular-season success tends to be a strong predictor of postseason success. There’s still something to the Lakers’ playoff competition.

The Lakers would’ve been lauded for beating the Clippers and Bucks. So, shouldn’t the Lakers get more credit for beating the teams that beat the Clippers (Nuggets) and Bucks (Heat)?

There’s certainly an argument to be had. But it’s also plausible that, even though Denver and Miami won each series, the Clippers and Bucks were still better teams overall. Milwaukee had matchup issues with the Heat that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested against the Lakers. Though the Nuggets deserve credit for winning, if the teams played again fresh – even knowing the results of the series that happened – the Clippers would be favored. The Clippers definitely had a higher ceiling, and maybe they would’ve come together during a longer playoff run.

Or maybe they would’ve gotten even sicker of each other.

It’s impossible to know. All we can say: The Lakers beat the teams in front of them. That’s a great accomplishment. They have prevailed where other favorites have faltered. Every NBA title is hard to win.

Some are harder than others, though.