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Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.