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Projecting final standings in wild West playoff chase

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It’s going to come down to the little things: a lucky bounce here, a sprained ankle there, a made three from the corner under pressure. Unpredictable things — but that’s not going to stop us.

And it’s going to take 46 wins to make the playoffs in the West (last season Portland got in at 41-41).

The West playoff chase is compelling because it is so deep and tight. Right now Houston and Golden State are playoff locks, but after that just 3.5 games separate Portland as the three seed and the Utah Jazz, currently 10th. With just under a month to go in the season, anything can happen.

I sat down and projected out the rest of the season, and here’s what I got, down to projected final record and remaining strength of schedule — it’s going to take those 46 wins to get into the dance (which may be too much for Los Angeles and Denver). But one bounce, one ankle could change this entire dynamic.

 
Rockets small icon1. Rockets: 64-18 proj. record; .483 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s going to be a coin flip at the end of the season between Houston and Golden State for the top record in the NBA. I’ve put Houston on top for a less-than-empirical reason: Houston wants the top seed, James Harden wants the MVP, and Mike D’Antoni will push for those things while the Warriors will not care about seeding. The Rockets will get what they want.

 
Warriors small icon2. Warriors: 63-19 proj. record; .447 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Warriors have by far an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Rockets, however, they also care less about getting the top seed and will rest guys down the stretch (such as Curry with this ankle, Andre Iguodala with his wrist, and Kevin Durant will get some nights off, too). Coach Steve Kerr cares far more about getting Iguodala and Jordan Bell back healthy than he does the team’s playoff seed.

 
Blazers small icon3. Portland, 48-34 proj. record; .538 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Trail Blazers are seventh in the NBA in defense on the season, and since the All-Star break they are second in the league giving up less than a point per possession — that (and the fact they have outperformed their point differential for the season) is why this team stays at the three seed. We know they can get buckets with Damian Lillard at the helm (especially in the clutch, where he’s been special), but it’s the other end of this floor that makes Portland more of a threat. This team not only gets home court in the first round, they could well win that and advance to the second.

 
4. Minnesota 47-35 proj. record; .474 remaining opponent winning percentage. One of the hardest teams to project from here on out because they don’t have Jimmy Butler, who got them buckets and solidified their defense. That said, in this scenario the T-Wolves get the four seed over OKC because they won the head-to-head tiebreaker (3-1). Butler or no there still a lot of talent on this roster — they need to keep feeding Karl-Antony Towns like they did Sunday against the Warriors — but the Timberwolves have a tough stretch coming up at the Wizards, at Spurs, then home to Houston. They lost two-of-three before the Warriors, if they struggle in the next three does it get into the head of a young team? Their schedule softens up after that.

 
Thunder small icon5. Oklahoma City 47-35 proj. record; .556 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s difficult to project where this team lands because they are so wildly inconsistent. Watch the Rockets destroy them as happened last Tuesday (attacking Carmelo Anthony mercilessly) and you think the Thunder will be in trouble against any team in the West in the first round, or just getting into the postseason. Watch them shred the Spurs as they did Saturday night and you’re reminded of the elite talent on this team and why they can be such a tough out in the playoffs. Oklahoma City is simply not as good as we thought preseason (especially without Andre Roberson), but they are good enough to make the postseason, and maybe make the second round depending on the matchup.

 
Pelicans small icon6/7/8. New Orleans 46-36 proj. record; .549 remaining opponent winning percentage. In a conference race this tight, why wouldn’t there be a three-way tie for the final playoff spot? There are too many scenarios to get into the three-way tiebreaker for this ending, so for the purposes of this projection, we will call them all even. Anthony Davis only missed one game with his tweaked ankle, this is a team that looks like its recent run was enough to get back to the postseason (the Pelicans are 7-2 since the All-Star break but only have outscored teams by 1.1 per 100 possessions, they’ve been a little lucky). They need a little more luck the rest of the way.

 
Spurs small icon6/7/8. San Antonio 46-36 proj. record; .566 remaining opponent winning percentage. If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, does the league even still hold them? This is the hardest team to project for a couple of reasons. First is they have the toughest schedule of any West team chasing the postseason, including two more against the Rockets and one against the Warriors. Second is Kawhi Leonard. He is reportedly going to return on Thursday vs. New Orleans, but for how many minutes? And how long does it take him to shake off the rust? If he gets back to form, both the Warriors and Rockets would like to avoid the Spurs in the first round, Leonard is that good, he changes everything. But the Spurs have to make it first, and that’s far from a given.

 
Jazz small icon6/7/8. Utah 46-36 proj. record; .489 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Jazz grab one of the last spots thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way — although they do have two against the Warriors remaining — and the fact they have had the best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, allowing well under a point per possession. Rudy Gobert would be the clear Defensive Player of the Year if he wasn’t going to have missed 25+ games this season due to injury. So long as Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio can generate just enough offense, the Jazz will make the cut.

 
Clippers small icon9. Clippers 45-37 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. That the team who lost Chris Paul last summer and traded Blake Griffin in the middle of this one is still in the playoff conversation is a testament to what a good job Doc Rivers has done as coach this season. Lou Williams is going to win Sixth Man of the Year going away, and DeAndre Jordan is still a force inside. But the Clippers have a tough schedule the rest of the way — two each against the Trail Blazers and Pacers that will be key — and almost no margin for error.

 
Nuggets small icon10. Denver 44-38 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. Denver has found a nice young core in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, and their offense is top 10. However, their 23rd ranked defense (once you remove gargage time stats, via Cleaning the Glass) is going to leave them on the outside looking in when all is said and done. They have two games against Minnesota and one against Portland remaining, win those and the dynamic changes.

Rumor: Spurs won’t trade Kawhi Leonard to Western Conference team

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants the Spurs to trade him, ideally to the Lakers or Clippers.

Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports:

He is not going to Los Angeles…or any other destination in the Western Conference, sources are telling GetMoreSports.com.

Leonard has some leverage in that he can tell any non-L.A. team that he has no interest in signing an extension after his current deal expires in a year, and that may end up diminishing the value of offers Eastern Conference teams are willing to make.

But if you think that bothers Popovich, you don’t know Popovich. The guy would gladly take 75 cents on the dollar for Kawhi if he could ship him out of the West — even if that upsets Kawhi.

There are two choices here:

The Spurs are a well-run organization that will manage this crisis as effectively as possible.

or

The Spurs will outright refuse to trade Leonard to a Western Conference team.

It can’t be both.

If the Spurs trade Leonard, they should take the best offer they get – no matter who makes it. Teams like the Celtics and 76ers have better assets to dangle. But if the Lakers and Clippers are the only team with assurances Leonard will re-sign next summer, they could offer more, even assembling a package from a shallower pool of assets.

The Spurs shouldn’t worry where Leonard lands. But that doesn’t mean they won’t worry where Leonard lands.

Report: Celtics believe Kyrie Irving happy in Boston

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Chris Mannix reported Kyrie Irving, when he played for the Cavaliers, told teammates of his desire to play for the Knicks. In the same discussion, Mannix speculated on the Celtics’ fear of Irving leaving in 2019 unrestricted free agency. Asked about his future in Boston, Irving gave a cryptic answer.

There’s just no good way to resolve this until summer 2019. As Irving knows, a contract extension is illogical. The largest extension he could sign, beginning July 1, would be four years, $108,053,240 ($27,013,310 annually). If he waits until 2019 free agency, he could re-sign for a projected $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – and even more if he makes an All-NBA team next year. In that case, his max would project to be $219 million over five years (about $44 million annually).

So, the Celtics must ride this out – or trade Irving before he gets to free agency. How do they feel about his future with Boston?

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

A league source said Friday that the Celtics believe Irving is happy in Boston and would like to be with the team long-term, but that there are no certainties.

This is probably correct. Irving clearly wanted out of Cleveland, so him longing for a spot on the Knicks made more sense then. Overall, Irving seems happy in Boston. A noncommittal answer from someone whose brand is mysterious ideas doesn’t set off alarms.

That said, also file this under: What else are they supposed to say? The Celtics maximize Irving’s trade value if everyone believes he’s happy and not a flight risk who should be preemptively traded.

The Celtics must closely monitor Irving’s satisfaction with them. If it seems he might leave, they ought to look hard at trading him first.

But it really seems the Celtics aren’t anywhere near that point. If they are, they’ve bluffed well.

J.R. Smith’s Game 1 Finals jersey up for auction

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It was the moment that defined the 2018 NBA Finals.

The score was tied with 4.7 seconds left when George Hill missed his second of two free throws, but J.R. Smith made an impressive play to get the offensive rebound — then tried to dribble out the clock like the Cavaliers were ahead.

Now, you can own Smith’s Game 1 jersey — the one he was wearing when he made a play so thoughtless LeBron James broke his own hand punching a whiteboard in frustration over it. It’s available on the NBA auction site. The bidding goes on for three more days, until June 21.

As of Monday morning, the current bid is $3000.

A Warriors’ fan is going to buy this thing, not a Cavaliers fan. They are still trying to repress this memory.

Kevin Durant’s dad wrote him a nice letter for Father’s Day

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Kevin Durant and his father didn’t have the best relationship growing up. Wayne Pratt, father of the Golden State Warriors star, left Durant and his family when the sharpshooting Finals MVP was just one year old.

Pratt was in and out of Durant’s life, and eventually they reconciled. Now, Pratt is important part of Durant’s career and business decisions.

As several players decided to celebrate their fathers and the national day of recognition on social media, it was actually Pratt who decided to write a letter to his son. In a post on The Undefeated, Pratt spoke about how he was grateful to have Durant as a son and to have reconciled with him.

Via The Undefeated:

I regret missing out on your first day of school, your first haircut, holidays and the first day you picked up a basketball. But I thank God daily for creating the opportunity for us to reconnect. I’m so thankful for you opening your heart at such a tender time. Every parent-child relationship has its ups and downs and we are no exception. I feel fortunate that we have learned how to successfully navigate life’s mistakes. Thank you for forgiving me and allowing us to have the great relationship we have today.

Go back and read the full letter, it’s worth it. Seeing the vulnerability between two grown men living a real, complicated, and adult situation like this is humanizing. Plus, it appears to have had a positive ending for Durant and his pops.

Hope all you dads out there had a good one on Sunday.