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5 up, 5 down: LeBron is going to the Finals … again

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

The best thing that happened this week was clearly LeBron James getting to yet another NBA Finals. It’s hard to top that, especially when you consider the Cavaliers’ roster makeup and the overall management of that franchise during his time in Ohio. Thankfully — mercifully — the Conference Finals are over, and now we get to watch LeBron go up against the Golden State Warriors in a repeat of the past three season-ending matchups.

It’s not necessarily what many wanted, but it’s what we’re getting and it feeds the narrative. There’s a lot of angles to take as we move toward the Finals, many of which we’ll cover here in the coming days on PBT, but personally I’d much rather see LeBron go up against the Warriors than any other team.

So without further ado.

5 Up

LeBron is headed to yet another NBA Finals

Eight straight is just crazy. The pure willpower of LeBron James on Sunday to push the Cavaliers passed the Celtics in Game 7, all without Kevin Love due to a concussion was an absolute masterpiece. I was already partial to calling LeBron the greatest player of all-time, largely because of his dynamism as a player and because of his playoff record.

What LeBron has done this season, with one of the worst Cavaliers teams we’ve seen in a while (think about that) is nothing short of incredible. Game 7 was a crowning achievement, individually, for LeBron in that regard, as he scored, passed, and rebounded his way into yet another NBA Finals appearance.

Bo Churney Memorial Fund

Bo Churney was a former writer for several outlets, including ESPN, Turner Sports, and Hardwood Paroxysm. A pillar of Atlanta Hawks Twitter, Churney sadly took his own life last week. Friends quickly decided to set up a memorial fund for Churney to benefit an LGBTQ charity in the Atlanta area. As of writing, the fundraiser has more than $21,000 pledged.

Bo will be missed. While his death is a tragedy, his legacy will live on in the memories of those he affected while he was with us and through the donation made in his name. If you’d like to donate, you can do so here.

LeBron vs. the Warriors … again

Is this the storyline you wanted? If not, tough. The Golden State Warriors are headed to the NBA Finals once again, this time to take on LeBron James and, uh, Jeff Green? All kidding aside, did you really want to watch a hampered Houston Rockets team with a limping Chris Paul take on a Cleveland team that has been so wildly inconsistent it would be difficult to predict their performance game-to-game in the Finals?

Warriors vs. Cavaliers is not necessarily great for the NBA or the casual fan, but it was going to be hard to escape the inevitability of this matchup after the summer of 2016. We’re going to have to live with Golden State’s dominance and LeBron’s ownership of the Eastern Conference until something major happens to either party. Stay tuned this summer, by the way, because we could be in for a treat in that department. Meanwhile, we get to see what kind of resistance LeBron can offer to the juggernaut that is Golden State for one more year.

Kawhi Leonard staying in San Antonio?

I honestly just want this saga to end. It’s weird, and sad, and it’s glacial pace reminds me of a mid-2000s San Antonio Spurs offense. Teammate Danny Green recently told ESPN that he thinks Leonard wants to stay with the Spurs, although what that actually means is up for debate. It could just be public leverage for San Antonio to fix … whatever it is Leonard is upset about. But at least it’s something.

Give us a healthy Kawhi in San Antonio next season, please.

Suns grab No. 1 overall pick

The idea that the NBA wants it’s best markets to win the lottery is sort of ridiculous, especially when you consider how modern team ownership works these days. The league has flourished while the Clevelands and San Antonios have taken over, all the while multiple New York teams are absolutely dreadful and half the time a Los Angeles squad is unwatchable.

Phoenix has been in a bigger rut than many realize. Outside of of 48-win season in 2013-14, the Suns haven’t been good during this decade and they don’t have a clear path back to the top. They’re always rumored to be considering runs at big free agents or trades that would net them a star (Kevin Love every summer) but that typically happens after a team has a few key draft picks on the roster. There’s a glut of talent at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft, here’s hoping Phoenix makes the best of it.

5 Down

The Mavericks front office is in trouble again

This one is gross. Not grosser, I guess, just gross in that these types of stories continue to come out of the Dallas Mavericks front office. If you’re not caught up, the Dallas Morning News published a story which accused a former top account executive in the Mavs ticketing office of showing co-workers porn, rubbing himself, and creating a hostile work environment.

Dallas has hired several top HR execs and compliance folks in the wake of the big Sports Illustrated piece about their “Animal House” front office atmosphere. That won’t stop old stories from coming to light, and people keep on talking about Mark Cuban’s team from days past.

Chris Paul’s hamstring

Feel how you want about Chris Paul, but his hamstring injury is a major bummer for anyone who wanted a little bit of variety in their NBA Finals matchup this year. The Houston Rockets, surprisingly, gave the Golden State Warriors a bit more than they could handle as the Western Conference Finals got underway, and Paul was a major reason for that.

But without Paul on the floor, the Warriors had an easier path to a Finals appearance. Game 6 back in Oakland on Saturday and was a blowout for Golden State, and now the story around Paul might always be about how he was injured when his teams needed him most.

Phoenix missed out on trading for Kristaps Porzingis

Phil Jackson should have stayed in Montana. His rep can’t keep taking these hits.

The thing Larry Brown said to Trevor Ariza

The right mix between feel and hard analysis in basketball is what separates good teams from great ones, and bad teams from terrible ones. It makes all the difference in the NBA, as it does with coaching. Former New York Knicks coach Larry Brown is a Hall of Famer, but he seriously erred when he told Trevor Ariza in his second season to never shoot a 3-pointer.

Ariza was not a good shooter coming out of UCLA, and the NBA contextually was not as 3-point crazy as it is today. But still, asking a wing player to never shoot would seriously hamper any kind of offense in the 3-point era. It’s just … weird. We now know how important Ariza is to the Houston Rockets not only as a defender but as a 3-point shooter, so I guess you can’t trust everything every Hall of Fame coach has to say to you. Thank goodness Ariza revived his career in Los Angeles.

Paul George‘s agent is doing some politicking

NBA players love Russell Westbrook, but I tend to not believe anything out of an NBA agent’s mouth when the summer months start to heat up. There’s too much at stake, and most of the time agents are simply angling for some kind of leverage we may not yet be privy to.

That’s how I am approaching the recent news that says Paul George’s agent is telling folks that the Thunder wing wants to stay in Oklahoma City. Whether that’s true or not is sort of irrelevant at this point in time. It’s May, and a lot of things will change as the season continues to wrap up and people start to get into draft and free agency mode. We have heard a lot about where George wants to end up in the summer offseason, so this is just another story to add to the list.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri