Getty Images

Toronto secures No. 1 seed in East, but road likely goes through LeBron

2 Comments

MIAMI (AP) — It only looks like parity.

Consider it an April tradition: A new postseason, a new No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. This time, it’s Toronto doing the honors – the Raptors’ win over Indiana on Friday makes them the seventh different club in the past seven years to get the top line on the East bracket, following Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Atlanta, Cleveland and Boston.

It’s an unprecedented run of top-seed diversity for the NBA, at least since the league started seeding by conference in 1973.

Of course, those top seeds usually find out that finishing ahead of LeBron James in April is much easier than ousting him in May.

“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a 6 seed, or a 3 seed, or a 2 seed, or an 8 seed,” James said. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.”

So make no mistake, the East still goes through James.

He is trying to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive season. James’ teams are 24-2 in East series as the higher seed, 6-2 in East series as the lower seed. And while the Raptors will be the favorites, there will be a certain amount of skepticism until someone knocks James off his perch atop the conference.

“What he does in a playoff series is very unique,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said.

It’s been almost predetermined for the past few years, regardless of who’s seeded where, that James’ team would be the one winning the East.

But this year, it might not be so simple.

The Raptors are enjoying their best season in history, with a franchise-record 57 wins and counting and now knowing that the road for anyone to win the Eastern Conference title will go through Canada. But while the Raptors haven’t exactly been sprinting across the finish line there have been some teams hitting their best stride, namely Cleveland and Philadelphia.

And when the East bracket is set, the Raptors know plenty of pundits won’t be penciling them in for a trip to the NBA Finals, even with the knowledge that Kyrie Irving – who has had some incredible playoff moments with James and Cleveland in recent years – won’t be playing for Boston in these playoffs because of knee surgery.

“We really just have to maintain focus on ourselves and not worry about who says this, that, what happens,” Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “All we can do is focus on our team, our organization and the things that we do. We don’t really care to be talked about. We just go out there and have to prove what we need to prove.”

Thing is, in the East this year and with all due respect to the way James has been playing of late – so well, he has said he would vote for himself as the league MVP – it’s hard to envision any team being fearful of any other.

With the exception of Milwaukee, which was swept 3-0 by Miami, every team in the East has beaten every other playoff team in their conference at least once during this regular season. The Cavaliers are 15-10 against the other East playoff-bound clubs; the 76ers are 10-16 against the other East qualifiers.

Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.

“Eastern Conference basketball,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, “it’s the height of competition.”

The West seems much easier to forecast.

Houston has separated itself from everyone, and Golden State – which has been decimated by injuries, but is hopeful of having Stephen Curry back by the second round – is probably still going to be thought of by many as no worse than a co-favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive time.

The East probably has more teams capable of reaching The Finals.

But beating James four times is not going to be easy for any of them, regardless of home-court advantage.

“Toronto’s having a heck of a year, (so is) Boston and everything they’re doing with a lot of injuries themselves, and I think some of the teams in the middle and back of the pack are interesting,” Budenholzer said. “But until somebody beats whatever team LeBron’s playing for, it always feels like the team that he’s playing for is the team to beat in the East.”

 

Report: Lakers eager to use LeBron James at center flanked by top four young players

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Why did the Lakers, after securing LeBron James, sign Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson? Their explanation leaves plenty to be desired.

What will the Lakers do with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma now that none of those four are being traded for Kawhi Leonard? Their plan there is far more intriguing.

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

LeBron at center is a dangerous weapon. The Cavaliers showed it more during the 2017 playoffs – to positive effect.

But LeBron isn’t Draymond Green, who makes Golden State’s Death/Hamptons Five Lineup function. Green possesses a unique combination of rim protection and – through his ball-handling and especially passing – ability to get into offense quickly. LeBron isn’t as good at protecting the paint, and though he’s lethal in transition when he wants to be, he’ll be fighting years of slow-down habits.

I also wonder how much LeBron embraces the physical toll of playing center. The Lakers have only JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Mo Wagner at the position. Are they banking on LeBron playing there a significant amount during the regular season?

LeBron would likely accept the role more enthusiastically in the playoffs. But Ball, Hart, Ingram and Kuzma will be tested – at least initially – by the heightened level of play. I’d be wary of overly relying on that lineup.

But this is the best way for the Lakers to get talent on the floor and overcome spacing concerns. I’m absolutely excited to see it in action. Whatever concerns I have about it are only multiplied with other potential Lakers lineups.

Report: Nuggets lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. undergoes another back surgery

Getty Images
3 Comments

Michael Porter Jr. underwent back surgery in November, missed nearly his entire freshman season at Missouri then slipped to No. 14 in the draft amid injury concerns.

The Nuggets have been noncommittal about their plans for Porter, but they’ve given an eyebrow-raising update.

Nuggets release:

Michael Porter Jr. has undergone surgery of the lumbar spine at The Carrell Clinic in Dallas, Tex. The Procedure was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett. There is no timetable for his return to basketball participation.

Porter is a talented forward with the length and skill to make a major impact as a scorer.

But, as this latest surgery underscores, drafting him carried terrifying risk. Denver will have to bear that for a while.

Report: Dirk Nowitzki to re-sign with Mavericks for $5 million

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
2 Comments

Dirk Nowitzki is set to play his 20th season – breaking Kobe Bryant’s record for most seasons with a single franchise and tying Kevin Garnett, Robert Parish and Kevin Willis for most seasons in the NBA.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks declined Nowitzki’s $5 million team option, but he was never signing elsewhere. He was either going to retire or play for Dallas.

Once he decided to return, the only question was money.

The Mavericks declined Nowitzki’s option to maximize their flexibility for upgrades, namely signing DeAndre Jordan. Once Yogi Ferrell agreed to an absurdly team-friendly contract, Dallas had enough cap space left to give Nowitzki his team-option amount. If necessary, he would have taken the $4,449,000 room exception.

Nowitzki has had a great career, and this could be his farewell tour. But he also remains a helpful rotation-level player. Though he’s a defensive liability, his outside shooting as a big goes a long way toward floor spacing.

Report: Mavericks re-signing Yogi Ferrell for less than qualifying-offer salary with second year unguaranteed

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
2 Comments

The Mavericks expected Yogi Ferrell to accept his qualifying offer.

Turns out, they’ll keep him on an even more team-friendly deal than the one he could have unilaterally signed.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This is an awful deal for Ferrell.

As reported, he’ll earn between $2,548,077 and $2,760,417 next season. That range is less than his qualifying offer – which would have paid him a fully guaranteed $2,919,204 next season.

That reduction is acceptable if Ferrell got something in exchange – but he gave Dallas the concession by adding an unguaranteed second year. If he plays well, the Mavericks will keep him at a cheap salary. If he doesn’t, they’ll waive him for no cost. They have all the control.

The promise of the backup shooting guard job is probably just lip service. Teams don’t stick by that if the player struggles. If he produces, he would have gotten the job anyway.

Dallas has plenty of point guard types – Dennis Smith Jr., Luka Doncic, J.J Barea, Jalen Brunson and Ferrell. Rick Carlisle uses two of them simultaneously often enough that Ferrell should land in the rotation. But it’s far from a lock.

With this deal, Ferrell is taking all the risk and the Mavericks are getting all the upside.