May 21, 2013 1:54 PM EDT
The Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder won their first round series, but fell short of reaching the NBA's Final Four.
The Big Questions:
- Can Jimmy Butler become a good starter or even better next season?
- Is ownership willing to amnesty Carlos Boozer in 2014?
- Will they get a few nice bench values like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli this summer?
- Do they cut Rip Hamilton to save money?
Notable Free Agents: Nate Robinson (Unrestricted), Marco Belinelli (Unrestricted), Rip Hamilton (Partially Guaranteed) and Nazr Mohammed (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Rounder, Own 2nd Rounder
The Lay of the Land: Even after Chicago shed so much of the bench depth that played a huge role in their 2011-2012 season, players like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli ended up doing a solid enough job in Derrick Rose’s absence for a full season. Having Tom Thibodeau and his system helps a ton, of course.
I cannot wait to see if Jimmy Butler can become a huge piece of the Bulls’ future because he has shown some incredible flashes this season. Since Luol Deng only has one more season under contract, Chicago does not have a ton of time to figure out whether Butler fits in better as a Deng complement, Deng replacement, or neither since 2014 would be their only chance in the near future to even have a possibility of cap space (if they amnesty Boozer). Considering we have not seen Rose play in such a long time, it would be surprising to see the Bulls make any big moves before seeing how everything fits together in the 2013-14 regular season. That said, some smart moves with their mid-level could make the team even more dangerous for a full season with a healthy Rose.
New York Knicks
The Big Questions:
- Will J.R. Smith re-sign with the Knicks?
- Seriously, will they be able to keep JR Smith?
- Can New York get a young guy or two in the frontcourt?
Notable Free Agents: J.R. Smith (Player Option), Chris Copeland (Restricted), Pablo Prigioni (Restricted) and Kenyon Martin (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Rounder (own 2nd Rounder held by Washington)
The Lay of the Land: Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams over the luxury tax line have an incredibly hard time improving. That change makes J.R. Smith’s decision so much more important since the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference would not be able to replace him easily if at all. Smith seems happy with the Knicks but would presumably be giving up a ton of money to stay and he has never gotten that big contract despite his immense potential.
Beyond Smith, the Knickerbockers have nine players under contract for next season not including Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland. Since they cannot receive players via sign-and-trade this summer, New York has to hope both will opt to return to the team for at least next season either by signing reasonable deals with the Knicks or by securing matchable deals with other squads. Considering all the money the Knicks already have committed for 2014 outside of him, even the looming opt-out for Carmelo Anthony next summer cannot dictate too many moves at the present time.
Golden State Warriors
The Big Questions:
- Can they retain both Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry without ruining their long-term flexibility? Should they?
- Would they be willing to trade any of their big expiring contracts for a talent upgrade and more money for 2014 and beyond?
- Can they buy a pick in the late first or early second round?
- If either Jack or Landry head elsewhere, can the team effectively replace them given their limitations as a luxury tax payer?
Notable Free Agents: Jarrett Jack (Unrestricted), Carl Landry (Player Option) and Brandon Rush (Player Option)
2013 Draft Picks Held: None (1st Rounder held by Utah, 2nd Rounder held by Orlando)
The Lay of the Land: After a successful season largely driven by strong years from their stars and quality depth, the Warriors will have to figure out if they can keep two pivotal rotation players. The team acquired Jarrett Jack heading into the last year of his contract and he had a fabulous year, garnering serious Sixth Man of the Year consideration. Carl Landry had a productive season and has a $4 million player option for next summer. Considering their ages (both turn 30 before the start of next season), this could be a chance for them to take a longer contract for the last time. That desire could take them away from the Bay.
The Warriors have cornerstone Stephen Curry locked up now, but will eventually need to pay Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes while enigmatic big man Andrew Bogut has one more year left before unrestricted free agency. Golden State should be less aggressive in retaining Jack and Landry if the players want the Warriors to commit to them for longer than the team is comfortable with considering those factors. Finally, the team could make the decision to give up possible space in 2014 by trading expiring deals belonging to Andris Biedrins and/or Richard Jefferson for quality players signed for more years. Considering the desirability of next year’s free agent crop and the oppressive nature of the luxury tax, they might be able to improve the team that way though it would limit their flexibility in future offseasons.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Big Questions:
- Do they re-sign Kevin Martin?
- Can they turn the Toronto lottery pick into an immediate contributor?
- Will they use the amnesty on Kendrick Perkins?
Notable Free Agents: Kevin Martin (Unrestricted) and Ronnie Brewer (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Rounder, Toronto’s 1st Rounder, Charlotte’s 2nd Rounder (own 2nd Rounder held by Minnesota)
The Lay of the Land: The same financial reality that led to the James Harden trade persists for Oklahoma City. While we cannot expect Kevin Martin to get paid an amount similar to his current $12.5 million, the Thunder do not have a ton of room to retain him with what could be a respectable market for an efficient scorer who can start or come off the bench. Fortunately, the Thunder have young guys on the roster who can try and take the role as well as a lottery pick from Toronto. These players could either take the role themselves or be used as assets in a deal to bring the right piece to OKC.
Sam Presti also has to make a decision on Kendrick Perkins because shedding the final two years of his contract would allow the team to be more creative in filling their more important holes in the rotation. That could be kicked down the road to Perkins’ final season (when Thabo Sefolosha becomes a free agent) but now is the right time to pull the trigger if they want a strong No. 4 after Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.
May 17, 2013 11:16 AM EDT
On Wednesday, as the Oklahoma City Thunder were knocked out of the playoffs, the Miami Heat moved on to their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook’s season-ending injury dramatically weakened Oklahoma City, but Miami did a far better job without Chris Bosh, their second most-important player, when he missed 10 playoff games last year. While the situations aren’t identical, the Heat are ultimately the measuring stick by which the Thunder should be judged. In that respect, Scott Brooks comes up woefully short in comparison to Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra, operating in the shadow of Pat Riley and LeBron James, has done an excellent job since losing to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. Not only has he managed the egos of the Big Three, he hasn’t been afraid to alter his team’s identity in order to find the right mix. In contrast, Brooks has pounded square pegs into round holes for years, refusing to make the adjustments necessary to win a playoff series against an evenly matched team. To understand how poor a job Brooks has done in Oklahoma City recently, let’s imagine what he would have done in Spoelstra’s shoes.
If Brooks were coaching the Heat, Joel Anthony would be the starting center. Anthony, a 6’9 245 defensive specialist, was a mainstay in the Miami rotation for four seasons. An undrafted free agent who clawed his way into the NBA, he is an excellent shot-blocker whose work ethic earned the respect of everyone in the Heat organization. However, his anemic offensive game was exposed in the 2011 playoffs, where he had a 7.9 PER. Spoelstra has steadily eased him out of the rotation ever since. Anthony has played only 17 minutes this postseason, going from a starter to end of the bench player in two years.
Anthony, like many defensive-oriented centers who can’t score, is less valuable in a more perimeter-oriented NBA. Spoelstra recognized this, moving to a smaller line-up with Chris Bosh at center. Brooks, in contrast, has faithfully stuck with Kendrick Perkins for years, despite ever diminishing returns. The 2012 NBA Finals, when Perkins couldn’t defend the smaller Heat players on the perimeter or punish them on offense, should have been a wake-up call. Instead, Perkins rewarded Brooks’ faith with a -0.7 PER in this year’s playoffs, the lowest mark in NBA history.
In a bizarro world where Brooks coached Miami, Mike Bibby would still be part of his rotation. Bibby started all 20 playoff games for Miami in the first year of the Big Three. However, his playoff experience couldn’t make up for his diminishing foot-speed. In their loss to the Mavericks, Bibby was a 6’1 spot-up shooter who couldn’t stay in front of JJ Barea; getting Barea a $20 million contract was one of the best assists of his career. Bibby, now out of the NBA, isn’t much worse than Derek Fisher. Fisher hasn’t had a PER above 10.0 in four seasons, yet Brooks has consistently given him as many minutes as he can handle.
There’s a domino effect to playing Fisher so much. While Reggie Jackson barely played as a rookie, Norris Cole was given the opportunity to grow into a role in spite of his mistakes. Both were backup PG’s drafted at the end of the first-round in 2011, but Cole hasn’t had to waste time behind a guy who can’t play. In their first two seasons, Cole has played over 1,000 more minutes than Jackson, whose still getting his legs under him as an NBA player. Jackson could have an an Eric Bledsoe-like breakthrough next season, but he still would have lost playing time to Fisher if Westbrook had been healthy.
Of course, even if Brooks had been as flexible as Spoelstra, the Thunder might not have gone further in any of the last three years. A coach can only do so much; in a seven-game series, the best team almost always wins. The real concern isn’t that Oklahoma City lost to Dallas, Miami and Memphis in the last three years, but how they’ve done so. They were knocked out 4-1 all three times. That tells you the coaching staff isn’t having success making adjustments against a better opponent, probably because Brooks never makes any. When you’re down 3-1, why not alter your starting lineup? What do you have to lose?
When the Heat faced the Pacers last season, Spoelstra emptied his holster trying to survive without Bosh. He used a different starting lineup in each of the first four games, before settling on a small-ball mix that often had Battier and LeBron James defending the Indiana big men. It’s easy to forget now, but after a 94-75 drubbing in Game 3, the grand experiment in Miami looked doomed. If Spoelstra had stuck with Anthony and Bibby the same way Brooks stuck with Perkins and Fisher, the Heat would have lost. Without Bosh, their margin for error was narrow enough for poor coaching to make a difference.
If Westbrook had stayed healthy, the Thunder would have been the odds-on favorite to return to the NBA Finals. That doesn’t mean Brooks is a great playoff coach; it means having two Top 10 players in their prime makes his job a lot easier. When evaluating coaches, it’s important to be process-oriented rather than results-oriented. Brooks has consistently left points on the board in each of the last three seasons and has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes. Worst of all, his refusal to adjust his rotation reveals a potentially fatal flaw in how he evaluates players.
Whenever he’s asked about Perkins and Fisher, Brooks points to their contributions in the locker room. However, it’s nearly impossible for an unproductive player to be a team leader, especially one keeping more talented players on the bench. How can you hold others accountable if you don’t hold yourself to the same standard? Fisher and Perkins can talk about sacrifice and playing for the team, but it rings hollow when they don’t practice what they preach. James Harden, an All-NBA player, came off the bench for the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins can’t swallow his pride and do the same?
It’s one thing for a coach to not play the match-up game well; it’s another when he can’t bench a player because he’s worried about his ego. There’s a reason Spoelstra so tirelessly preaches “family” in Miami. At some point in the last three years, he’s had to ask all of his players to sacrifice either playing time or shot attempts for the good of the team. In Oklahoma City, Harden is the only player whose ever had to sacrifice. Does Westbrook need to be attempting 3.7 three-pointers a game when he shoots them at only 32 percent? That’s inefficient basketball. You can’t beat Miami playing like that.
Replacing Brooks after a 60-win regular season might seem rash and unfair, but it would hardly be unprecedented. The Pistons fired Rick Carlisle in 2003, the Bulls let go of Doug Collins in 1989 and the Lakers removed Paul Westhead in 1982. For a coach, growing a young team takes a different skill-set than getting a team through the playoff gauntlet. Sometimes, a front office has to take a PR hit for the long-term good of the franchise. The Thunder made a business decision and parted ways with Harden nine months ago. Now, they need to be just as cold-blooded with Brooks.
May 14, 2013 1:19 PM EDT
A friend once asked me to explain the point of watching an NBA game in its entirety. After all, he said, games are usually decided in the last five minutes. I told him that when you have a large sum of money on the line, every possession is important. Everyone remembers the final five minutes, but they aren’t always the most decisive stretch of a game, even if it goes down to the wire. In a long playoff series, as two teams begin to know each other in and out, every five minute stretch is important. A playoff game can be lost at the start of the first quarter as easily as it can at the end of the fourth.
In the regular season, coaches think long-term, not short-term. They get their best players rest and keep their rotation as stable as possible, in order for everyone on the roster to get comfortable with their roles. An 82-game season is a marathon, not a sprint; it’s more important to be consistent from Game 30-60 than it is to win Game 45. That dynamic changes in the playoffs, as every coach starts to act like Tom Thibodeau and manage games solely for the present, not the future. They shorten their rotation and play the match-up game, trying to create an edge on a possession-by-possession basis.
Micro-management, however, doesn’t necessarily make games any closer. This season, the average margin of victory in the second round is 11.5 points. Some of that margin is padded by two blowouts in the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls series and cheap points given up on the free throw line at the very end, but the broader point still stands. More often than not, the team that controls the action all game long will end up winning. The collapse of the Golden State Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their series is the exception that proves the rule. Before that, NBA teams were 392-0 in playoff history in the same situation.
Nevertheless, the last few minutes have an outsized hold on our collective memories. We remember the most notable moments of a series, condensing hours of action into a few “decisive” seconds. We remember Michael Jordan’s shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, not the shots he hit in the first 47 minutes. Jordan had a 28.1 career playoff PER while playing 42 minutes a night. He was great not because he hit the big shot, but because he hit all of the little ones. Over the course of his NBA career, he missed 26 game-winning shots. There are no guarantees in the final moments, even with the greatest closer in basketball history.
The first four games of the Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder series have come down to the fourth quarter, but important things were happening in the first three quarters. While Oklahoma City’s execution at the end of games has been lacking without Russell Westbrook, the route to the end has been slightly different in each game. Both coaching staffs have been subtly making adjustments back and forth, altering their rotations and trying to find the most effective line-ups. Over the last three games, Lionel Hollins has had better luck with his adjustments, most of which were not made in the fourth quarter.
The big storyline of Game 4 was the adjustment of the Thunder to the Grizzlies' starting line-up. The Thunder shrunk the floor when both Tayshaun Prince, a reluctant three-point shooter, and Tony Allen, a non-shooter, were in. Memphis’ offense isn’t very explosive normally, much less playing 3-on-5. They were -11 with their starters in the first 11 minutes of the game and were lucky to break even at the start of the second half and overtime. They won because Hollins eventually went to a more explosive line-up, with Jerryd Bayless in place of either Allen or Prince. Bayless, who gives them another shooter and playmaker, was +18 in Game 4.
Nevertheless, if the Grizzlies had lost in overtime, the end of regulation would have stuck in everyone’s head. After Kevin Durant tied the game on a brutally efficient drive to the rim with six seconds left, Memphis had a chance to set up a final shot. In years past, Rudy Gay would have been their closer. Gay, an athletic 6’8 220 small forward with an effective step-back jumper, could always create a decent 1-on-1 shot at the end of games. As a result, he has an impressive number of career buzzer-beaters under his belt. But with Gay in Toronto, Hollins drew up an easily snuffed-out Zach Randolph isolation.
Not having Gay in that last six second sequence cost the Grizzlies, but their lack of shooting would have been the biggest reason for a loss. Since they have to stagger the minutes of Randolph and Marc Gasol in order to keep at least one on the floor, they have to maximize the time when they are playing together, the foundation of their best offensive line-ups. As skilled as Gay is off the dribble, he shot 31 percent from beyond the arc in Memphis and couldn’t space the floor for their two star big men. Going forward, Hollins has to find more time for Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, his two best wing shooters, in those minutes.
Nor is having a great closer enough to win an evenly matched series, as Oklahoma City is finding out. Durant is averaging 32 points on 49 percent shooting in the playoffs; he gets points as easily as anyone in the league. The problem is that he has to carry too huge an offensive load over the course of a game without Westbrook and James Harden. Their role players don’t get enough points within the flow of the offense and Brooks’ fairly questionable rotations have backfired without three star players. Durant can’t carry Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher by himself, not over a seven-game series against the NBA’s best defense.
That’s the fundamental problem with judging individuals by team success. In a seven-game series, the best team, not the best player, will almost always win. While the best player will have the edge when he is in a great situation, like LeBron James in Miami, that doesn’t mean the best player in a series will always be able to carry his team to victory. Basketball is a team sport; the “Green Lantern Theory of the NBA” doesn’t hold. To return to the baseball analogy, it doesn’t matter who the closer is if there isn’t a starter who can get him a lead headed into the ninth inning.
Over time, the mythology surrounding the closer position has overshadowed reality, in both basketball and baseball. Mariano Rivera is widely considered the best closer in baseball history. From 1997-2011, with Rivera in the bullpen, the Yankees won 97.2 percent of the games where they lead in the ninth inning. That sounds impressive, but from 1961-1964, before baseball began using set closers, the Yankees won 97.3 percent of their games when leading in the ninth. It’s the same in every sport. Execute on both sides of the ball all game long and the final moments will care take of themselves.
May 06, 2013
If the Grizzlies and Pacers can't dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against the Heat. Only the 2011 Mavericks have forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, the postseason record of the Heat with their Big Three healthy is 24-3.
Apr 25, 2013
The best teams in the NBA can spread the court on offense without sacrificing much on the defensive end because of the versatility of a star forward. That’s what makes LeBron James and Kevin Durant so scary; the best two players in the league just happen to play the most important position in the game.
Feb 18, 2013
Everyone always talks about how different he is from the average person, but Michael Jordan at 50 sounds like every other 50-year-old. He’s not totally sold on the young kids today and he isn’t sure they would have been as successful back in his day, though that's the wrong question entirely.
Feb 11, 2013
With “flexibility” the buzzword in the NBA’s new economic climate, the most sought-after players are those with surplus value -- true stars on max contracts and young players on cost-controlled deals. Those are the only players the Thunder have long-term deals with and is how they will sustain their model.
Jan 11, 2013
Franchise relocation is a race to the bottom that pits city against city, which owners of all four major professional sports leagues in North America have used to their benefit.
Dec 27, 2012
As crazy as it sounds, there’s a good chance the James Harden trade becomes the best thing that ever happened to Kevin Durant. With Harden in Houston, Durant has become more of a playmaker, the next step in his progression as a player.
Dec 12, 2012
As we move forward with “Amnesty 2.0,” we will see the fascinating possibilities that the provision brings even as the number of teams and players left dwindles with time.
Nov 30, 2012
In order for the Thunder to take the final step as a franchise, they must address the decision-making of Scott Brooks over the past two playoffs. With James Harden gone, they can't afford to be outcoached.
Oct 28, 2012
Since dealing Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2007, Sam Presti has made every decision with the goal of amassing high draft picks in mind. Trading James Harden, while painful, was the next logical step in that process.
Oct 15, 2012
The Thunder will again be title contenders, but the Northwest Division is impressive in its depth as the Nuggets, Jazz and Wolves will again be in the playoff chase while the Blazers aren't too far off in their rebuilding process.
Sep 24, 2012
If James Harden wants to know what his future will look like depending on whether he remains with the Thunder or signs a max deal elsewhere, all he has to do is look at the careers of Joe Johnson and Manu Ginobili.
Jul 19, 2012
The Heat, Thunder and Lakers appear to be a cut above the remainder of the NBA, but how do the 27 other teams rank?
Jun 29, 2012
Whle the Pistons, Blazers, Bobcats, Nets, Thunder and Bulls headline the 'Great Drafts', the caboose of 'Bad Drafts' is comprised of the Cavaliers, Suns, Bucks, Wolves, Heat and Knicks.
Jun 28, 2012
The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.
Jun 21, 2012
The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.
Jun 19, 2012
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-draft expectations, while there are two main paths for prospects to underachieve.
Jun 12, 2012
Even if the emphasis is always on the stars, there is a joy of The NBA finals in seeing which unheralded college players like Norris Cole and Daequan Cook have reached the pinnacle of the sport.
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