5 Up, 5 Down: Team basketball is finally going to beat LeBron James, isn’t it?

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.
LeBron James looked like the destroyer of worlds. Right up until he didn’t. The Boston Celtics were all over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 despite LeBron being perhaps the main reason that Dwane Casey was fired from the Toronto Raptors.

Nothing in the NBA stays steady, which has made these playoffs supremely interesting even if some storylines — like the Raptors — seem to follow the path of years past.

Now we’re deep into the playoffs, with the conference finals taking shape and there’s more than ever to get to. So without further ado.

5 Up

The Boston Celtics beat LeBron James using good old teamwork

The Celtics have been great this postseason, and Brad Stevens has been praised both for his strategic game plan against major stars like LeBron James and for his in-game tactics. But while SLOBs are fun to watch when they’re drawn up by Stevens, the big thing that’s happening in Boston is just how well this team is playing together, unselfishly, in the face of this generation’s greatest star.

The Cavaliers dropped Game 1 by double-digits to the Celtics on Sunday, and it appeared Stevens finally had a plan for LeBron, who has been on an absolute tear during these playoffs. It felt representative of LeBron’s time in Cleveland — during both stints — that a roster with some talent wasn’t living up to their potential and instead had to be carried by James. Boston is a Team with a capital T, and the Cavaliers are not. It’s only one game, but it doesn’t look good for LeBron in Ohio.

LeBron’s photographic memory

While James didn’t have a good Game 1, scoring just 15 points, he did have perhaps the best moment on the podium with reporters after the game.

When asked about a sequence to open the fourth quarter in which the Celtics clearly got the better of Cleveland, James responded by perfectly recounting several possessions on each side of the ball.

It was uncanny:

The Philadelphia 76ers want to sign everybody

Who doesn’t want to sign LeBron or trade for Kawhi Leonard? The problem is not many teams can make those things happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Philadelphia 76ers. Reports out of Pennsylvania have the Sixers targeting James in free agency this summer, when they’ll have space to sign him.

Foregoing that, Philly is also apparently interested in trading for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. How that deal gets done without significantly hurting the Sixers is less clear, but the fact that Philadelphia isn’t going to stand pat this summer is exciting given the leap they took year-over-year.

Dwane Casey’s goodbye letter to Toronto

Just go read it. I’m not even going to try to do it justice.

Even SNL is bagging on Cleveland’s roster construction

The rosters around LeBron have always been oddly strange during his time in Cleveland, a fact lampooned in a cut sketch from Saturday Night Live with Donald Glover. The clip mostly focuses on this year’s roster and their uneven performances.

5 Down

Dwane Casey getting fired

Judging by the amount of coaches who voted for Brad Stevens to win NBA Coach of the Year, it seems very likely that Casey will win the award this season. Unfortunately, Casey is no longer employed after being canned by the Raptors following their playoff sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers.

Contextually it’s not that crazy to see Casey leave, although that in no way excuses the roster construction in Toronto. Because the Raptors don’t have the flexibility to get better, and because their pillars are stuck where they are in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the only way at getting better this year is to take a stab at changing the coach.

It’s just a complete bummer and in any case it still feels like the wrong move.

The Raptors, just generally

What is Toronto doing? They got one season of thinking an offense could work by fundamentally changing how DeRozan attacks the game, then got proven wrong when everyone reverted under pressure in the Cavaliers series.

If you think teams like the Portland Trail Blazers are in a tough spot, they aren’t the only one. Toronto is in an equally weird position, all capped out with nowhere to go.

It’s doubly disappointing that things didn’t work out for the Raptors because their fanbase is completely devoted, DeRozan and Lowry seem fun, and getting a non-traditional team in the Eastern Conference Finals is always more fun than watching two blue bloods duke it out. It’s not really clear where Toronto goes from here, even with a new coach.

If the idea is Toronto needs a better in-game tactician, I think there’s a real question about whether the next person in that position will be able to replicate the strategic-level things Casey did this season. That’s directly related to changing how the Raptors offense works, by the way, and dictates DeRozan’s efficiency and usefulness.

What a mess.

The discussion about Becky Hammon

To be fair, Pau Gasol did come out strongly against naysayers regarding San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. That’s excellent. But the fact that dudes think it’s still a good idea to speak from a position of ignorance while being primarily motivated by innately sexist thoughts about American sport is wild. When Hammon gets a job, it won’t be given to her, she’ll have earned it.

Ben Simmons‘ jumper situation

OK, just to recap: Ben Simmons’ jumper wasn’t really a problem this year until he ran into the Boston Celtics and Brad Stevens. They aren’t going anywhere, so Simmons will need to make himself some kind of threat outside of 12 feet just for the sake of gravity.

Meanwhile, Simmons has said his jumper won’t undergo a complete re-tooling despite the advice of guys like Kobe Bryant. That doesn’t seem like the best choice, and it’s actually sort of in contradiction with what his own coach said.

There’s no working around it, and enough teams are trying to make square pegs fit in round holds. If Simmons wants to be a point guard in the modern NBA he needs to be able to shoot a basketball. Any argument contrary to that is just noise.

Whatever is happening with Marc Gasol in Memphis

This felt like it sort of flew under the radar, but we’ve now had Memphis Grizzlies big man Marc Gasol apparently at extreme odds with his last two coaches. We heard about the back-and-forth between Gasol and now-New York Knicks coach David Fizdale. That was jarring enough, and followed a report we heard back in December that former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger apparently thought Gasol was trying to get him fired back when he was heading the team.

My gut tells me that Gasol isn’t a bad dude, but who is to say for certain? It’s also possible that Gasol is simply worn out in Memphis and doesn’t want to spend the twilight of his prime with a team that’s almost certainly in rebuilding mode. Juicy.

Spurs C Pau Gasol: Becky Hammon obviously qualified to be NBA head coach

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The first female full-time assistant coach in NBA history, the Spurs’ Becky Hammon became the first woman to interview for an NBA head-coaching position, with the Bucks.

That has sparked plenty of discussion about her, women in coaching and the wider notion of fairness.

San Antonio center Pau Gasol has jumped into the conversation.

Gasol in The Players Tribune:

But if you think I’m writing this to argue why Becky is qualified to be an NBA head coach … well, you’re mistaken. That part is obvious: One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.

Gasol goes on to shoot down a few arguments – that women aren’t capable of coaching men, that the Spurs hired Hammon just for publicity, that there’d be an awkwardness in the locker room.

The first is obviously bogus. Nobody’s coaching acumen is defined by their gender.

Why did San Antonio hire Hammon? I can’t get into anyone’s head, but Popovich has long insisted it’s just about her coaching ability.

Would there be locker-room issues? Gasol shoots down the most basic suspicion – noting that players and coaches change clothes in different spaces, anyway. But it’d be naïve to think there are no NBA players who’d say uncomfortable things about her in the locker room. Not that teams should accommodate those backward-thinking players. Just pointing out an issue.

I’d rather discuss what Gasol glosses over, though: Is Hammon qualified to be an NBA head coach?

She was an all-time great player in the WNBA then has spent the last four years as a Spurs assistant behind the bench. That’s a nice résumé, and her career is advancing accordingly.

But it’s unprecedented for an NBA head coach.

How much to value her WNBA experience is tricky, though an endeavor teams should undertake. The NBA has not only a different playing style, but a different lifestyle. NBA players, with high salaries and massive fame, face different issues than the rest of us. Maybe Hammon can and does relate, but it’s not simply due to playing in the WNBA.

She also hasn’t yet become one of the top three Spurs assistants who sit on the bench during games. Those three: Ettore Messina, James Borrego (since hired as the Hornets’ head coach) and Ime Udoka. Hammon sits behind the bench. Practically all NBA coaches who rose through the assistant ranks to become a head coach graduated to an on-bench role first.

Hammon faces obstacles her male counterparts don’t, and that she made it this far speaks to her ability. Perhaps, she’s a coaching prodigy who hasn’t gotten a chance to show her genius in a male-dominated profession. If so, a team should hire her as head coach.

But maybe she’s like most people, possessing some natural ability that must be refined with time and hard work. Four years as a behind-the-bench assistant isn’t typically seen as enough to become a head coach.

So, is Hammon already qualified to be a head coach? Maybe, and Gasol’s endorsement counts. But I definitely don’t find it to be as obvious as he states.

Golden State looks vulnerable. Can Spurs do anything about it?

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Steve Kerr has been frustrated in recent weeks with his team’s effort. Very frustrated. Walk into the shower, throw a bunch of bats on the floor and call them “lollygaggers” frustrated.

Golden State coasted the last month of the season, much of it without Stephen Curry, and went 7-10 in their final stretch of games. However, the Warriors problems go deeper than a lack of focus and being without Curry — Shaun Livingston has been banged up and not right, Andre Iguodala’s efficiency has dropped this season, and Draymond Green is still shooting just a tick above 30 percent from three. To name just a few things.

The Warriors look vulnerable.

But can the Spurs do anything about it?

Probably not. San Antonio (without Kawhi Leonard, it would be a surprise if he came back now) doesn’t have the athletes. We saw it last year when these teams met in the playoffs and Leonard went down after Zaza Pachulia slid under him on a jumper, at that point the Warriors ran away with the series. The Spurs are not going to beat themselves, they will defend well and make smart plays, the Warriors are going to have to earn it — but Golden State should take the series fairly quickly.

Should. That’s the key, as Kerr said Friday (via Mark Medina of the Mercury News).

“They’re going to bring out the best in us or they’re going to completely expose us,” Kerr said after Friday’s practice. “One way or another, that’s probably a good thing for us.”

It’s probably going to be the former — expect the Warriors to flip the switch.

Here are the things you’ll see Saturday at 3 ET (on ABC) if the sleeping Warriors have awakened.

• Defensive energy and focus. This is what the Warriors have lacked mostly over the past six weeks — since March 1 the Warriors have allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the NBA. Not terrible by some standards, but last season the Warriors allowed just 101 points per 100, best in the NBA. In February of this season, when the Warriors focused for a while, they allowed just 102.3.

The defensive change needs to start from the team’s leaders — Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Durant played fantastic defense in the Finals last season, and remember on Christmas Day he did it again against the Cavaliers (leading to some around the team to try and promote him for the All-Defensive team). Then he seemed to check out on that end. He needs to bring his focus back, create some turnovers with his length, and protect the rim a little.

Green has been good but not dominant this season defensively, but that brings us to our next point…

• Draymond Green needs to take charge of this series. There’s a couple of reasons for this. One ties into our first bullet point above — he is the emotional leader of the Warriors. If they are going to snap out of their malaise, it starts with him. If he brings the defensive effort, others will follow.

More than that, Green has vital roles in this series.

Defensively, he will be matched on LaMarcus Aldridge for key stretches — and with Leonard out the San Antonio offense runs through Aldridge (and occasionally Pau Gasol). While Aldridge can shoot fadeaways or little hooks over the top of Green, historically he has struggled to do that efficiently against Green’s physical defense. It also just isn’t going to be one-on-one because the Spurs don’t have enough shooting to space the floor out and scare the Warriors if Aldridge passes out. If Green (and Zaza Pachulia, and David West) can make Aldridge work for his buckets, it becomes difficult for the Spurs to score enough.

On offense, the Warriors need playmaking Green to return and take on a bigger role. He needs to grab rebounds and push the tempo in transition, in the half court they need him to roll down the lane with the ball then kick-out to the open shooters. He’s more than capable of this, we’ve just seen less of it this season.

• Kevin Durant needs to lead — and that’s as much defense as offense. Last season during the Finals Durant was a defensive force, that won him Finals MVP as much as his offense. That continued through the first part of this season up through the Christmas Day game against the Cavaliers — he was playing so well some around Golden State tried to push him for Defensive Player of the Year (or at least a spot on the All-Defensive team). However, after that Durant seemed to coast a little on defense. He wasn’t the same. The Warriors need the earlier Durant back.

On offense, he’s going to get all the touches and shots he wants, Durant just needs to be efficient and a playmaker.

• Other scorers step up besides Durant. KD is going to get his, and Klay Thompson will knock down threes and put up numbers as well, but when the Warriors are clicking the ball moves, guys are cutting, and the role players get clean looks and join in the scoring.

Will a fresh and rested Andre Iguodala get some buckets on hard cuts to the rim? Will David West knock down some midrange jumpers? Can Quinn Cook continue to impress? Will the center by committee group of Pachulia/JaVale McGee/Kevon Looney/Jordan Bell pitch in buckets?

The Warriors will need them because the Spurs can still defend and will make life challenging for Golden State’s big three.

Three Things to Know: Who is in, who is out, games that matter in West playoff chase

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Where we stand: Insane West playoff chase explained (mostly). Back in 2014 — the year Taylor Swift was shaking it off and we were all trying to shake off hearing her again — the Suns won 48 games and missed the playoffs. It was unprecedented.

This season is getting close to that. Some team is going to win 46 games and miss the postseason in the West. After a wild weekend of games, here is where the playoff chase in the West stands and what to watch, in bullet point form:

• The magic number to get in is going to be 47 wins — reach that and teams will be invited to the dance. There are scenarios where 46 wins is good enough, but get to 47 wins and teams are safe.

• The Pelicans, Spurs, and Thunder are all at 46-34 and made up seeds 5-7 currently, the Timberwolves and Nuggets are both 45-35 and tied for 8-9.

• With their win over the Lakers Sunday night, the Jazz are officially in (with 47 wins, they cannot fall out due to tiebreakers). Seeding is still up in the air, they could land anywhere from three to eight (with eighth being unlikely but technically possible).

• After their loss to the Nuggets Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers are officially out.

• Monday night games to track: Oklahoma City at Miami, Memphis at Minnesota, Sacramento at San Antonio, New Orleans at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the big one is Portland at Denver.

• If Minnesota beats Memphis Monday (very likely) and Denver beats Portland that same night (less likely, but possible), then the Timberwolves and Nuggets will remain tied and play Wednesday for the eight seed — a play-in game. Denver technically is the nine seed by tiebreaker, but they control their own destiny — win out and they are in.

• Utah at Portland on the last night of the season could determine the three seed. That assumes that the Jazz beat the Warriors Tuesday, something that is no lock (although Golden State is locked into the two seed and not very focused right now). Utah will be on a back-to-back and it will be their third game in four nights, but this is a determined team right now.

2) Philadelphia gets to 50 wins and locks up home-court advantage in the first round. Read that again, because it’s harder to believe than alien abduction stories. Almost. This team won 28 games a season ago, 10 the season before that, 18 the one before that. Throughout the tribulations of “the process” Philly, on paper, looked like a team that could come be a force if things broke right — but for it to all break right that fast is mind-boggling. And that is without No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz contributing much.

Brett Brown deserves a lot of credit here. Throughout the years of losing, he had them playing hard and learning defensive principles. He built a culture despite the challenges. He is not going to win Coach of the Year this season, but the man has to be considered.

The Sixers may well finish with the three seed in the East (they currently are the three, one game up on the Cavaliers in fourth). Do that, get through the first round (against likely Miami or Milwaukee, which will not be easy), get Joel Embiid back, then beat the Celtics/the seven seed that knocks off the Celtics, and the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a completely reasonable path. And if you had said “the Sixers can make the Eastern Conference Finals next year” last April we would have put you in the asylum with the alien abduction people.

3) Mitch Kupchak is the new GM in Charlotte. It became official on Sunday, the North Carolina guy got the job with the North Carolina team owned by a North Carolina grad. This was the safe play for the Hornets. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play, or that it will not work out, but it’s the safe play. Kupchak brings a resume to the table the Hornets can sell — he’s got four rings as the Lakers GM — and a style and standing that will sell in the community. He’s got a good relationship with the owner, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot of good reasons to make this hire.

Kupchack’s GM record in Los Angeles is hit-and-miss. There were highs — the Pau Gasol trade, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers and helped them to rings), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court. In general, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft. Nobody should question his eye for talent.

However, in his final years in Los Angeles, there was a sense from some around the team that the game had passed him by. Kupchak completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). He expected there to be an amnesty clause in the new CBA and there wasn’t, and he though those contracts could be easily traded (it cost the Lakers former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell to move Mozgov). There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams. Not all of this was on Kupchak he was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and certainly the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss had the ultimate say on those moves. However, Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those decisions. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There are real questions in Charlotte for Kupchak to answer. The big one is a matter of direction for the coming years: do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons? Ultimately that is a decision Jordan must make, and in that market moving Kemba followed by a few bad years may sting more than the “tear it down” contingent realize, but it’s something where Kupchak needs to sway Jordan.

What does Kupchak’s hiring mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Mitch Kupchak reaches deal to become GM of Charlotte Hornets

Associated Press
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After going with the analytics, outside-the-box hire last time in Rich Cho, Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets are going old-school NBA with their next front office hire.

Former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has reached a deal to become the next GM in Charlotte, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the team.

“I’m excited to join the Hornets organization and I want to thank Michael for this opportunity,” Kupchak said in a statement. “I am well aware of the passion for basketball in Charlotte and throughout the entire state of North Carolina‎, and I am confident that we can build the Hornets into a successful team that our great fans can be proud of.”

There is no surprise here, Kupchak has been the frontrunner since the day it was announced Cho was out as GM. Kupchak and Jordan have a relationship forged through their ties to North Carolina and former coach Dean Smith.

Kupchak steps into a team with big questions hanging over it — do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons?

What does that mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Kupchak brings a resume that includes four rings won with the Lakers — including the smart trade for Pau Gasol, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court — plus he has a presence and demeanor that will play well in Charlotte. Also, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft.

There was also a sense in some quarters in Los Angeles that the game had passed him by. He completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). Kupchak was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and so how much of those moves were the brainchild the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss is up for debate, but Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those moves. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams.

Kupchak may be the safe choice for the Hornets, but that’s not necessarily bad.