Portland vs. Golden State: Five things to watch in the Western Conference Finals

Leave a comment

This Western Conference Finals matchup has some great storylines:

• Is Damian Lillard the real representative of Oakland? Lillard grew up not far from Oracle Arena — the place the Warriors are abandoning next year to move into a glitzy new building in San Francisco — and the Portland guard brings the kind of grit and toughness you’d expect from the city that also gave us Gary Payton. You can make the case Lillard is more Oakland that Curry/Thompson and their flashy game. He’s going to rep the city.

Stephen Curry vs. Seth Curry. Brother vs. brother for the first time in the Western Conference Finals will have Dell Curry flipping a coin.

The Western Conference Finals may feature more good storylines than close basketball. Give Portland credit, the team is not here by mistake — it just won Game 7 on the road in Denver. That’s impressive, and the Blazers have been the three seed in the West for two seasons in a row now. This is an outstanding basketball team.

This is also a terrible matchup for Portland.

Check out the latest ProBasketballTalk podcast where we break down this series in more detail, but here are five things to watch on the court when Portland travels to Golden State for Game 1.

1) Can Portland steal a game on the road before Kevin Durant returns? Stopping the Warriors offense when they don’t have Durant — which will be the case for at least Game 1 and likely Game 2 — is hard. They move the ball, cut hard off the ball, run a crafty pick-and-roll game, and just tear teams apart with Curry’s gravity as a shooter leading the way. Just ask the Rockets.

It gets even harder to stop them when they add the best player in the world to their rotation.

The Warriors offense is more predictable and runs a little slower with Durant, but knowing what is coming and being able to stop it are two different things. Durant will get his against anyone, and Klay Thompson or Curry can get going at any point as the defensive attention focuses on KD.

Lillard needs to go off in one of these first two and help Portland steal a game on the road in Oracle — get the work done early because things will only get harder. Lillard will have a slight advantage early in the series because Andre Iguodala likely will still start for Durant, and that gives Lillard a place to hide on defense and not work as hard (expect Moe Harkless to start on Curry). Warriors coach Steve Kerr will even want to cut back on Iguodala’s workload after the last series.

The Warriors will not play Durant in the first two games, and when he returns may depend on how threatened they feel in this series. If the Warriors hold home court in the first two, why play him and risk anything in Game 3?

When we see KD — and how much of the Hamptons’ five lineup we see — will tell you how concerned the Warriors are in this series.

2) It’s going to be a long series for Enes Kanter. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a terrible defensive reputation — especially in space against the pick-and-roll — Kanter has held up well on that end of the court. Give the man credit, his post and paint defense have improved and he has put them to good use.

He’s also gone against two teams that did not exploit his weaknesses enough. Oklahoma City just did not have the personnel to run a spread pick-and-roll. Denver did a better job and ran some Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll at Kanter, enough that Kanter was -28 in that series (in 245 minutes).

The Warriors will hunt Kanter. Relentlessly. Expect Kerr to go back to Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney as the starting center (with the other getting minutes), and those guys will set high screens for Curry and force Kanter out into space to defend it. The Warriors will show all the mercy of Daenerys Targaryen at Kings’ Landing. The Warriors will work to play Kanter off the floor.

This likely will mean a lot more Zach Collins for Portland. Collins is a good and improving player, but this will be a big ask in a tough series, especially when the Warriors go small.

3) Can Portland slow the Warriors offense? This ties into the Kanter note above, and this is where going against Golden State is just a bad matchup for Portland.

The Trail Blazers’ base defense is a drop pick-and-roll coverage — where the center stays back to protect the paint rather than come out and challenge the ball handler coming off a pick — and doing it without switches. With the right personnel, that defense can be effective, it’s what Milwaukee did this year, the difference being the Bucks are loaded with long, athletic defenders all over the court.

Portland is not. Give Curry and Thompson a little space off those picks and things get ugly fast. And the Warriors’ guards will have space.

Portland also does not generate turnovers with their defense, they were 26th in the NBA scoring 15 points a game during the season off opponent turnovers, which is down to 13 a game in the playoffs. If you don’t get easy buckets against the Warriors things get harder.

Portland isn’t a bad defensive team (16th in the NBA during the season, middle of the pack) but this is just a tough matchup for them in terms of style and personnel. Things could get ugly.

4) Klay Thompson will try to make life difficult for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unlike their opponents, when matchup up the Warriors have the advantage of a tall, smart, NBA All-Defensive Team level player in Thompson to throw at the great Portland guards.

Not that Thompson can stop Lillard or McCollum, whichever one he is lined up across from (expect him to start on Lillard but spend time on both). However, Thompson can make them work, make them a little less efficient. And the Warriors have the players to throw strong traps at Lillard to get the ball out of his hands while still having a good defender on McCollum. Especially once Durant returns to the lineup.

Portland will get buckets against the Warriors, they are too good not to — this is the third best offense in the NBA this past season. The concern for Portland is Thompson and Golden State can slow them down just enough they will not keep up with the Warriors’ offense.

5) How focused is Golden State? In the ultimate sign of respect, Kerr had the Warriors start the last series with the “Hamptons’ Five” on the floor. No messing around with a traditional center, the Warriors went straight to their best lineup because they realized the level of test in front of them. Houston had Golden State’s attention and respect from the opening tip and the Warriors’ rotations (and minutes load) showed that.

Golden State vs. Houston was seen as the real Western Conference Finals, the two best teams. The Warriors recognized the threat.

When the Warriors relax, when they don’t feel threatened, they can take their foot off the gas, not defend with energy, and get sloppy with the ball. They lose games because of a lack of focus. It happened early in the first round against a feisty Clippers team.

It could happen again against Portland, and the Trail Blazers are good enough to take advantage. The Warriors want to end this series and get as much rest as possible before the Finals start (on the road for them in Toronto or Milwaukee). The Warriors know they want to take care of business.

But will they? Or will the Warriors open the door just a little for the Trail Blazers and watch Lillard and company bust on through it?

It’s just one more thing to watch in this series.

Report: Nets debating whether or not to sign Kyrie Irving without Kevin Durant

AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Leave a comment

The Nets want to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn appears set to get Irving. Durant a much bigger unknown.

Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

The question is if they can’t land Durant, do they still want Irving?

It also has become an internal debate the Nets are having right now.

The Post has confirmed Brooklyn might have qualms about signing the enigmatic Irving if he isn’t bringing the injured Durant with him.

Irving brings chemistry concerns, to be sure. He’s mercurial, and his season with the Celtics raises legitimate questions about him leading a team.

But Irving is a major talent upgrade. To win at the highest levels, teams must assemble a lot of talent and hope for the best.

I’d also caution Brooklyn against assuming re-signing D'Angelo Russell would mean the team maintains its current culture. The Nets can’t freeze time. Situations change. People change. There’s no guarantee Russell on a lucrative contract and his teammates jell as well as contract-year Russell and his teammates did.

Keeping Russell might look like the safe route, but nothing is assured.

The other huge issue: Durant might not know where he’ll sign when Irving is ready to commit. The Nets could have to decide on Irving before knowing whether Durant will accompany him. At that point, would Brooklyn really spurn Irving and a chance at getting both stars? I can’t see that.

Really, with so much talk of Irving joining the Nets, I thought we’d already crossed that threshold.

Report: Bucks trading Tony Snell, No. 30 pick to Pistons

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For a team only lukewarm on paying the luxury tax, the Bucks are in a payroll crunch. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic will be free agents this summer.

That’s why Milwaukee was trying to unload Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova.

But if they re-sign their key free agents to multi-year deals, the Bucks could face more payroll/tax concerns in 2020-21.

That’s why Milwaukee is willing to deal Snell and its first-round pick for Jon Leuer‘s burdensome contract – which carries a slightly lower salary than Snell’s next season ($9,508,043 vs. $11,592,857) and, more importantly, ends one year before Snell’s ($12,378,571 player option for 2020-21),

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This trade lowers Milwaukee’s team salary by about $4 million next season and $14 million the following season.

The Bucks could stretch Leuer and reduce team salary by an extra $6,338,695 next season. But that’d also lock in a cap hit of $3,169,348 each of the next three years.

Milwaukee can make that decision later in the summer. It’ll depend what other free agents – especially Lopez, who has only Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights – command. Clearing extra money this offseason could be useful in multiple scenarios.

If Lopez signs for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to start at about $9 million), the Bucks could maintain Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic then exceed the cap to re-sign those three. But Milwaukee would be hard-capped at a projected $138 million. Stretching Leuer could help the Bucks stay under that line.

If re-signing Lopez requires more than the mid-level exception, Milwaukee could open about $14 million in cap space by waiving George Hill and renouncing all its free agents besides Middleton and Brogdon. Stretching Leuer would open even more cap room to spend on Lopez.

If Lopez leaves, the same math applies to an outside free agent who could get the mid-level exception or cap room.

This extra maneuverability comes at a cost, though a reasonable one.

Snell, who fell from the Bucks’ rotation, could be the Pistons’ starting small forward next season. Detroit was desperate for wing depth. Though Snell isn’t the biggest wing, he adds size to a group comprised of Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Langston Galloway.

The No. 30 pick is a helpful piece to the Pistons, who also have the No. 15 pick in tomorrow’s draft. But this is a weak-looking draft that thins considerably before the end of the first round.

Milwaukee also had to take Leuer, who has been ineffective for years.

Detroit gets helps now with Snell and potentially later with the No. 30 pick. In between, that extra year of Snell’s contract looks burdensome.

The Bucks are just happy to have it not be theirs.

Report: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson to star in ‘Space Jam 2’

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
3 Comments

LeBron James‘ first three picks in the All-Star draft reserve round: Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard.

Like many things LeBron does, that sparked theories about him recruiting stars to the Lakers. Casting for ‘Space Jam 2’ is another generator of recruiting speculation.

So, the overlap here will surely only intensify conspiracy theories.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Davis – who tipped his involvement in the film while still with the Pelicans – is already headed to the Lakers.

But Lillard is reportedly set to sign a super-max extension with the Trail Blazers, and Klay Thompson will reportedly re-sign with the Warriors.

Still, if Lillard and Thompson get a taste of Hollywood and enjoy it…

Report: Lakers didn’t negotiate Anthony Davis trade date with Pelicans for initial agreement

Harry How/Getty Images
5 Comments

With the Lakers’ trade for Anthony Davis, timing is everything.

The Lakers and Pelicans are reportedly set to complete the deal July 6. By making the trade then rather than July 30, the earliest the No. 4 pick could be traded as a signed player, the Lakers lose significant cap space.

With the later trade, the Lakers could use about $33 million of cap room then execute the deal with Davis getting his full $4,063,953 trade bonus.

With the earlier trade and Davis reportedly intent on receiving his full trade bonus, the Lakers project to have just $24 million of cap room.

That $9 million difference keeps the Lakers from getting a max free agent or reduces their spending power for role players.

Maybe the Lakers completely understood the ramifications of finalizing the trade July 6. It takes two teams to agree, and perhaps New Orleans – which would have faced complications flipping the No. 4 pick, not gotten him into summer league and had cap space tied up through July – refused to do the trade later.

But it sure doesn’t sound as if the Lakers knew what they were doing.

Ramona Shelburne on ESPN2:

If this was really their plan, they want to have a third star, this should have been central to the conversations with the Pelicans. And my understanding is that it was not, that it went all the way down the road and it was more, it has been described to me as, the Lakers called back – after everything had been discussed – about this.

It’s not necessarily too late for the Lakers to use max cap space and get Davis. They’re reportedly scrambling to include Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones in the trade.

But Wagner, Bonga and Jones have either positive or negative value. If they have positive value, the Lakers are surrendering even more in this trade. If they have negative value, the Lakers must surrender even more value – in the form of sweeteners – in the trade.

This could all be worth it. A team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a third star will be a championship contender next season. That matters most.

But if the Lakers handled this better, they could be in a stronger position to build around their stars. Though stars matter most, supporting casts also factor.

Or maybe New Orleans would have refused if the Lakers requested a July 30 trade date during initial negotiations. We’ll never know. But considering their massive haul, I suspect the Pelicans would have acquiesced if Los Angeles pushed. Perhaps, it would have taken a small additional asset going from the Lakers to New Orleans. But I can’t imagine it requiring more than that.

Now, by waiting until after to agreeing to terms with New Orleans, the Lakers have lost so much leverage. Their desperation shows, and preying teams – Pelicans or otherwise – will look to take advantage.