PBT Top 10 2014

PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 1: LeBron James returns home

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The story had drama. It had behind the scenes intrigue. It had people tracking private plane flights online. In the end one party was left bewildered because they didn’t think it would really happen.

Another city rejoiced.

Nothing was a bigger story, nothing changed the balance of power in the NBA like LeBron James returning home to Cleveland.

Nothing could bolster the popularity of the greatest basketball player on the planet more than returning home like a prodigal son to the city where fans had burned his jersey years before. This move sold well for LeBron (polls showed his national popularity skyrocketed).

There certainly had been people around LeBron — specifically his friend and new agent Rich Paul — who had been working behind the scenes to grease the skids for a return for some time, but this was still a surprise.

How big a surprise? First, know that Miami up until the final week or so really thought LeBron would return — they had just been to four straight NBA Finals and won two, why leave that foundation? Why would LeBron return to an owner who thrashed him in a Comic Sans letter?

But LeBron and Dan Gilbert looked each other in the eye and made up.

Second, the Cavaliers were surprised — they didn’t have the cap room ready. They had to make quick moves and dump salary to have room to sign LeBron James to the max.

Once it happened, the other dominoes started to fall. Mike Miller and Shawn Marion became Cavaliers. Then came the big move when Kevin Love forced his way there in a trade that wasn’t bad for Minnesota — they got the last two No. 1 overall picks, including the much heralded Andrew Wiggins. (Wiggins was caught in the middle of this during Summer League and handled it about as well as one could. Credit to the kid.)

Know that this move was not all about coming home. It was also about upgrading the talent around him on the basketball court — LeBron saw having Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was not enough against the Spurs last season and the West was getting stronger. He needed an upgrade and more youth and athleticism around him. He’s got that with Love and Kyrie Irving.

This also was a power play — LeBron and the people around him have more influence and say in the Cavaliers organization than they did in the ship Pat Riley ran so tightly in Miami.

But that’s not the story that was sold — and that America ate up.

Despite all the early turmoil and drama around the Cavaliers — and as long as LeBron is there they will be under that microscope — this move was a huge, huge win for the Cavaliers.

Northeast Ohio is starved for a title and their own son from Akron is going to bring them some. Not one but multiple over the next five to seven years. It’s not going to happen in 2015, there is a lot of work left to do to round out that roster and get players who will buy into the system. But it will happen. The path to an NBA title will soon go through Cleveland.

PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 2: Tanking

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I do a fair amount of sports talk radio interviews across the nation, and through most of 2014, no matter what corner of the nation the station was located in, two topics almost inevitably came up. One was LeBron James and the drama that surrounded him in both Miami and Cleveland.

The other was tanking.

It has become part of the national conversation about the NBA — and the part that is an embarrassment to the league. The perception that a franchise would intentionally try to lose as many games as it could — even if the strategy made sense long term — was offensive to the American sports psyche. As the NBA moved through a fantastic playoffs in 2014 tanking was an ongoing parallel conversation. It was a PR nightmare for the league. It got to the point that the owners almost voted this summer to radically change the NBA Draft Lottery system to thwart the most egregious tanking. However, the owners backed away from that ledge at the last minute.

Let me be clear: No coach nor any player intentionally tried to lose a game. There is no evidence of this. Nobody is throwing games in a 1919 Black Sox sense.

Rather some organizations are intentionally putting a product on the court that is not going to win many games. There is logic to the plan. First, keep your draft picks and stockpile others in trades as you send out your veteran players. Next, be bad so your draft pick is as high as possible (the luck of the lottery will determine just how high). Play those young draft picks and inevitably be bad again — they learn on the job and you get more draft picks. Eventually you have a nice core of young talent for the future.

It sounds good on paper, you can sell that. But it’s ugly to watch in person.

Let’s be honest here — we’re primarily talking about the Philadelphia 76ers. Other teams have gone this route, but not like the Sixers.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has become the poster child of tanking. Back in June 2013 Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for a draft pick, which they used on the inured Nerlens Noel, who didn’t play a game in the 2013-14 season. Hinkie traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for guys that were not going to help then win games, plus some picks. This past draft the Sixers took Joel Embiid, a promising center but one not expected to play this season. Meaning the Sixers would be bad in the 2014-15 season — and they have been, they are 4-26 and again on their way to a top pick.

There are other teams, both in the past and currently, that have tried to be bad to get good. But nobody has tried to be this bad and been this naked about there intentions.

If you put a bad product out on the court people are going to complain.

It should be noted there was far more of an outcry outside Philadelphia than in it. Sure, there are some unhappy season ticket holders, but that’s not the norm. We talked with Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com for the PBT Podcast and she said that the first year fans were fully on board with the plan. Now the fans that are showing up to the arena are supportive of the players, but there is a growing exhaustion in the city with this much losing. They get what is going on, but the hope with this team seems very far off.

To be fair, in 2018 we’ll be saying Hinkie was a genius or a fool with this strategy, but it’s hard to know how it will pan out before then.

The question is how will the tanking perception and talk alter the NBA landscape going forward. There is always going to be a little of this — you need star players to really win in the NBA and the only way for middle to small markets to really land those elite players is through the draft. If they can be bad and increase their odds, they will. The Bucks did this in 2013-14 — they entered the season thinking they could be a playoff team, but when things went sideways they embraced being bad and got Jabari Parker for it. But this season the improving Bucks are a playoff team.

The Sixers are an ongoing conversation. And the question is in response will the owners change the lottery system to discourage that level of tanking in the future? And would that even work?

PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 3: San Antonio Spurs put on clinic in NBA Finals

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Father Time finally lost a foot race.

Everyone had written obituaries for the Tim Duncan Spurs — multiple times over the previous years — but that team died like Freddy Krueger. The Spurs under Gregg Popovich had spent the past several years reinventing themselves. Tony Parker was now the focal point of an offense that had the best ball and player movement we have seen in the NBA in decades. They had rejuvenated their defense behind a renaissance of Tim Duncan. They had found the needed injection of youth and athleticism in Kawhi Leonard. They had found role players like Boris Diaw that were a perfect fit for what they wanted to do.

The final ingredient was the Spurs came into last season angry and motivated after a gut-wrenching Finals loss to the Miami Heat the year before thanks to a Ray Allen three.

By the time the Spurs reached the 2014 Finals they were playing the beautiful game, just tearing teams apart with their passing. That continued with the Heat. San Antonio’s offense was unstoppable against Miami scoring 119.0 points per 100 possessions – the best offensive rating in any Finals since at least 1978 (which is when the NBA starting tracking turnovers).

San Antonio beat the Heat in five games, just dominating the last three. Miami had no answers. It was the Spurs fifth title in the Tim Duncan era and grew the Spurs’ legacy in the past 15 years to as great as any other franchise — the Lakers may have five titles as well but they could not come close to the sustained level of success of the Spurs.

“We’ll never play better than we did the last three games against Miami (in the NBA Finals) Won’t happen,” Popovich said earlier this season to PBT. “We can’t play any better than that at both ends of the floor. If we got to that level I would be thrilled.”

If they get back to that level, the rest of the NBA should be afraid.

 

PBT’s Top 10 NBA stories of 2014, No. 5: Donald Sterling scandal

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Donald Sterling’s racism has been established for years.

In 2014, we finally did something about it.

All it took was TMZ publishing secretly recorded audio of the then-Clippers owner telling his mistress not to bring blacks, including Magic Johnson, to games. Never mind Sterling’s far-more-heinous housing and employment discrimination. We apparently needed to hear Sterling first-hand – though the delayed response sure didn’t dim the outrage.

With the playoffs underway, Sterling took center stage.

Clippers players protested, and sponsors pulled out. Players throughout the league planned a boycott. The NBA had a crisis on its hands thanks to the awful owner nobody wanted to do anything about for years.

Commissioner Adam Silver stepped up, banning Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million.

Of course, that didn’t end the saga.

Sterling sued the NBA to keep his team. He conducted an interview that made him somehow look even worse. Every bit of legal maneuvering brought Sterling back into the headlines, another chance to discuss his misdeeds.

As the summer dragged on, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and the team’s players and sponsors contemplated their options. Could they get out of their contracts? Would they boycott?

Thankfully, Steve Ballmer rode out each legal decision and finally took control the team.

Sterling is gone from the NBA for good, but this incident will affect how the league does business for years.

It already has.

In an environment where owners’ handling of racial issues draws hypersensitive scrutiny, an email by Hawks owner Bruce Levenson – in which he bemoans the lack of white fans in Atlanta’s home arena – led to Levenson voluntarily agreeing to sell his share of the team.

Discovered in the same investigation: Hawks general manager Danny Ferry called Luol Deng an “African” pejoratively, using the descriptor as a synonym for two-faced. Worse for the league, Ferry was summarizing a scouting report from a Cavaliers employee, implicating yet another team for its inability to properly discuss race.

Ferry has taken a leave of absence and apologized, and he remains in exile. Levenson is still around, though his stake is still for sale. It’s fair to wonder whether either would have gotten by with slaps on the wrist if not for Sterling bringing this issue to the forefront.

Even less-notable comments by NBA owners on race – Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying he’d avoid a black person in a hoodie at night and Warriors owner Peter Guber typing “Hoodish” in an email (he says he meant Yiddish) – made national headlines.

That doesn’t happen pre-Sterling scandal.

The ramblings of an old man brought him down. In just a few months, the worst owner in sports was revealed to be worse than most of us considered, and he was summarily discarded. The NBA is flourishing without him, though some members of the league got caught in his wake.

Sterling is not missed, but his legacy is still felt.

PBT’s Top 10 NBA Stories of 2014, No. 6: Heralded and disappointing draft class

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The 2014 NBA draft class was hyped as the best in a decade – since 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and several other key contributors joined the league.

No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker were supposed to create a rookie rivalry, and selections late into the first round seemed to provide good value. This draft class claimed both star power and depth.

But the early returns are pretty dim.

The 2014-15 rookie class is on pace to produce the second-fewest win shares per league game ever. Only the 1957-58 class ranked lower in the stat, which – although meaningless as a number – is useful in comparing rookie classes across eras where the league’s size and schedule varied.

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(The league’s first few seasons are not included in the chart, because a disproportionately high number of players were rookies, and their high combined contributions would have distorted the scale.)

To be fair, it’d be reasonable to predict rookies tend to improve more within a season than other players. After all, they have the most to learn.

So, there’s still hope the 2014-15 class becomes more competitive between now and April.

However, some key rookies are either hurt or behind the eight ball thanks to previous injures. Most of the top 10 picks are out or have missed significant time:

1. Andrew Wiggins

2. Jabari Parker (injured earlier this month and lost for season)

3. Joel Embiid (injured before the draft and likely out all season)

4. Aaron Gordon (fractured foot last month and out indefinitely)

5. Dante Exum

6. Marcus Smart (missed 13 games due to injury)

7. Julius Randle (injured in his first game and lost for season)

8. Nik Stauskas

9. Noah Vonleh (injured in preseason and too far behind to contribute)

10. Elfrid Payton

This is why Wiggins is an overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year. It’s telling that his top competition, Nikola Mirotic, wasn’t even drafted this year. The Bulls rookie was selected in 2011 and signed with Chicago this offseason.

Don’t completely give up on the 2014 draft class, but it’s not too early to lower expectations.