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With LeBron James gone, Eastern Conference set for a new champion

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The roadblock has been removed. With LeBron James gone, the path to the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference is open again.

Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and more are hoping to win the race to it.

James ruled over the East for eight years, making four straight trips to the finals from Miami and then moving back to Cleveland in 2014 and getting there every year since.

From Boston to Indiana, up north in Toronto all the way down to Atlanta, teams would emerge with what they thought was a title contender only to see James send them home for the summer.

Now King James has abdicated his throne and moved to Los Angeles, and there should be rejoicing in the land he left behind.

“It’s a new lease on life in the Eastern Conference,” said Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who faced a similar situation when he played in the East during the era of Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

“It’s great that LeBron has taken his talents out West because it opens up the doors for not only a lot of these young players, but these organizations now. Fresh blood, something new to kind of see who can compete for that Eastern crown.”

The Celtics nearly won it last year, falling to the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. They were without the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and now that the two stars are healthy and have rejoined Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and the rest of a deep team that made a valiant run without them, Boston is probably the favorite in the East.

But there’s intrigue beyond that, which rarely existed during James’ reign. Philadelphia finished strong in its first season with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons playing together, and now might get a full one with 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz joining them after his shoulder problems last season.

Toronto shook up a 59-win team by firing coach Dwane Casey and shipping DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in the trade for Kawhi Leonard, and Indiana bolstered a team that took Cleveland to seven games in the first round.

Any of them have a chance to get to the place that James wouldn’t let them.

“An appearance in the finals is going to be sweet,” Embiid said.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Boston – Depth of talent is not only tops in the East, but comes closest in the NBA to rivaling Golden State’s.

2. Philadelphia – If either Simmons or Fultz develops a jump shot to open things up more for Embiid, look out.

3. Indiana – Victor Oladipo has emerged as an All-Star and the Pacers are balanced behind him.

4. Toronto – If Leonard is fully healthy and motivated, Raptors added a top-five player to a 59-win team.

5. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to make the Bucks fun to watch in their new arena.

6. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal will give the Wizards plenty on the perimeter, but they need Dwight Howard provide a boost on the interior.

7. Miami – Heat won’t want to send Dwyane Wade into retirement without one final playoff appearance.

8. Detroit – A full season with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin together should be enough to get the Pistons back into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

9. Cleveland – Kevin Love and the remainder of the Cavaliers that James left behind should still be good enough to fight for a spot in the top eight.

10. Charlotte – The Hornets will host an All-Star Game in February. They’ll try to host playoff games in April.

FACING LONG ODDS

11. Orlando – Steve Clifford is the latest coach to try to mix a collection of young players into one that can defend enough to be a decent team.

12. Brooklyn – Nets made a seven-win improvement last season even while being dismal at defending and rebounding. Do either better and they can take another leap.

13. New York – Kristaps Porzingis remains out indefinitely while rehabbing a torn ACL, so new coach David Fizdale will give rookie Kevin Knox an early green light.

14. Atlanta – Trae Young may be exciting to watch, but he won’t be able to stop another long season of losing in Atlanta.

15. Chicago – The Bulls of Tom Thibodeau were veterans who always defended hard. The Bulls of Fred Hoiberg have been none of the above.

 

Report: Pelicans, Pistons, Kings NBA’s most active buyers in trade market

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The Pelicans are likely in a make-or-break season.

They can offer Anthony Davis a super-max extension next off season. If he signs it, he’d be locked up for five more years. If not, he’d head toward 2020 unrestricted free agency. New Orleans could keep an un-extended Davis through the 2019-20 season and hope for the best, but a trade seems inevitable if he’s not willing to sign the largest-possible extension next summer.

So, this season is the last before that moment of truth. And the Pelicans are just 15-15, tied for 10th in the Western Conference.

That’s why they’re on the far end of the trade spectrum.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

All three of these teams are understandable buyers:

Pelicans

New Orleans needs to upgrade around Davis before it’s too late. He has set high standards and placed the burden on himself, but he might eventually look around and realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

The Pelicans have drafted in the first round only once since 2012 (when they picked Davis), and they traded that pick – Buddy Hield – during his rookie year. They have all their future first-round picks and could again use one to get immediate help.

New Orleans could also move Solomon Hill (making $12,252,928 this season, $12,758,781 next season) to match salary, though he holds negative value on that contract. Several smaller expiring contracts could also prove useful.

Unloading yet another first-rounder could come back to bite the Pelicans, but they must impress Davis first. Secure him, and worry about everything else later.

Pistons

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years. They’ve missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons. At 13-13, they could fall out again.

Or they could bolster their roster to become more competitive in April.

Detroit is fairly locked into this expensive team, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The Pistons are stuck, somewhat by choice, playing for the present. They might as well make it count.

They could dangle Stanley Johnson if they don’t plan to re-sign him in restricted free agency this summer. The 22-year-old could fetch a better, older player.

Detroit has little breathing room below the luxury-tax line, and as much as owner Tom Gores wants to make the playoffs, I doubt he’d pay the tax on this team.

Kings

Sacramento (15-12) is the NBA’s brightest surprise. After missing the playoffs 12 straight seasons – the NBA’s longest active postseason drought – the Kings are eighth in the Western Conference. They also already traded their 2019 first-round pick.

It’s time to go for it.

Sacramento’s priority should be building long-term around a young core led by De'Aaron Fox. But there’s still room to focus on satisfying this season, especially with no first-round-pick fallback if the team slips.

The Kings are the only team still with cap space, and they have $11,024,578 of it. They also have several veterans on expiring contracts – Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234), Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) and Ben McLemore ($5,460,000). That opens a lot of possibilities.

Maybe Sacramento can get a helpful and not-too-old, but overpaid, player on a multi-year deal from a team looking to shed salary? Prime example: Wizards forward Otto Porter.

Bradley Beal foils Celtics’ foul-up-three plan, forces OT (video)

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Foul or defend?

Though it’s always worth it for teams to consider how they can incrementally improve their odds of winning, the debate over strategy when leading by three points late probably gets too much attention. Teams up by three points late almost always win, regardless.

But the rare cases of a team overcoming a late 3-point deficit are so memorable.

Take last night, when the Celtics – up three – intentionally fouled Bradley Beal with 13 seconds left. Beal made the first free throw, missed the second, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. It was a heck of a play that forced overtime.

It didn’t pay off for the Wizards, who lost in overtime. But it paid off for us, as the extra period produced this awesome sequence.

Report: Knicks undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier will have higher salary than 20 of 30 2018 first-round picks

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Allonzo Trier took a winding road to the Knicks – grade-school acclaim, failed drug tests at Arizona, going undrafted – but he’s thriving now. Trier is scoring 11.3 points per game, one of the highest marks ever for an undrafted rookie in his first professional season.

About to run out of NBA service days on his two-way contract, Trier is cashing in.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The most the Knicks had to offer Trier over two years is $6,933,100 through the bi-annual exception – $3,382,000 this season and $3,551,100 next season. It sounds as if Trier got that and Begley is rounding.

That’d put Trier’s 2018-19 salary above 20 of this year’s 30 first-round picks. Not bad for an undrafted player.

Trier gets buckets. I still have questions about the 22-year-old’s all-around game, but he has proven himself an NBA contributor. New York did well to reward him and keep him on the roster the rest of the season.

The Knicks are essentially buying flexibility next summer by paying Trier so much now. They’re gearing up for 2019 free agency – most notably, Kevin Durant – and value cap space.

If Trier plays well enough, New York can always exercise his team option and keep him for next season. If not, the Knicks can decline the team option. At that point, they could make Trier a restricted free agent or renounce him entirely to maximize cap room.

Even if he completes this contract, New York can still make Trier a restricted free agent in 2020. It’s a lot of team control.

This comes at a cost, in addition to Trier’s salary, of waiving potential trade chip Ron Baker. Baker’s $4,544,400 expiring contract could have been useful in a trade, though the Knicks’ reluctance to add future salary limited options for utilizing Baker’s contract.

Baker will be best remembered for New York rushing to give him that absurd deal on the first day of 2017 free agency, breaking his face when Anthony Davis dunked on him and sucking on a contact lens then trying to put it in his eye.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slaps Malik Monk for premature-celebration technical foul (video)

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Malik Monk ran onto the court to celebrate Jeremy Lamb‘s game-winner last night.

One problem: The game wasn’t over.

Lamb’s jumper put the Hornets up two with 0.3 seconds left, and the Pistons were trying to inbound. Officials called a technical foul, and Detroit made the free throw. But Charlotte still held on for the 108-107 win.

The situation created a few tense moments, though. While officials reviewed the play, Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slapped the back of Monk’s head a couple times.

Zach Aldridge of WCCB:

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure those slaps were playful until Jordan and Monk smiled afterward. Jordan is an intense competitor. He once punched then-Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice. I bet there was an element of actual warning behind Jordan’s slaps, even if they were mostly joking.

Why did only Monk receive the treatment? He drew the most attention for running onto the court – but just because he stayed at least somewhat near the bench. Bismack Biyombo was practically at halfcourt! Ashley Holder:

It’s amazing Biyombo escaped the owner’s wrath. Does Jordan know how much he’s paying Biyombo?