There’s something about the negative reputation of the first round of the NBA Playoffs that’s bothersome. In an impatient sports world that just wants to get to the Finals, the path it takes to get there often gets overlooked.
With so many storylines surrounding this year’s opening slate of matchups, the association has so far delivered (and then some) with a highly competitive and highly entertaining start to the postseason.
As the remaining series close out this weekend heading into the conference semi-finals, there are plenty of moments to look back on.
Not that any team making the playoffs should be taken lightly, but surely many of us were stunned by the Chicago Bulls blindsiding the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first two games at the Garden. How about your reaction to the Milwaukee Bucks stunning the Toronto Raptors up north to begin their series?
If that didn’t do it for you, then the Utah Jazz upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers after Rudy Gobert went down 13 seconds into Game 1 had to, right? The Atlanta Hawks have even held their own against the highly touted Washington Wizards.
Too frequently we collectively predict first-round winners without giving the opposition any fair chance or consideration. Nearly everyone is guilty of it, but people have to realize that these are the playoffs. Regardless of whether teams enter on a six-game winning streak or on a four-game skid, it’s a brand new ball game after the regular season.
Scrolling through social media, you’ll find jargon such as “[Team X] should have blown them out” or “They barely got past [Team Y]. You think they’re worthy of being a contender?”
Sorry, but that’s a horribly generic and shortsighted take. Even the greatest of teams have been tested before making their way to the NBA Finals. Some teams are simply better matchups than others, so it doesn’t make sense to definitively use this type of analysis as a barometer for what may happen in later rounds. That, and each team in the postseason is highly motivated to achieve the same goal, so every series is going to be a hard-fought struggle (at least to some extent).
The intensity and gamesmanship between players is a staple of the playoffs, year-in, and year-out. On the court is one thing, but the subtle jabs while speaking to the press take it to the next level.
Just look at how Markieff Morris caught the attention of Paul Millsap by calling him a crybaby after Game 3. That series could now potentially go seven games.
After a dust-up in Game 4, Jimmy Butler dubbed Marcus Smart a fake tough guy and the Celtics have now won three straight after falling down two games to none.
Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley went at it all series long and spoke their peace on the matter after the Houston Rockets eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It doesn’t just stop at the players. Following up another loss on the road with his Memphis Grizzlies behind two games, David Fizdale presented some damning evidence to the media regarding unfair officiating. The “take that for data” quote was such a hit as soon as he left the room that it became a t-shirt less than 12 hours later.
Not only was it a memorable moment for the league but, more importantly, it galvanized his players and gave the team new life. Sure, they came up short against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, but they gave every ounce of fight in them until the final whistle. Fiz is certainly a made man in that city.
Fizdale was one of two coaches to get fired up over the referees. After that same game where Butler fired off on Smart, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg complained about how unstoppable Isaiah Thomas is when he’s allowed to pick up his dribble. After dropping Game 5 in Boston, he was irked when a reporter referred back to it and stormed away from the media area.
It’ll be intriguing to see the next moments at the podium in round two with new matchups and fresh rivals.
Blast From The Past And Budding Superstars
Joe Johnson’s re-emergence in the playoffs has been such a joy to watch. At 35 years old, the man Quin Snyder refers to as “Joe Jesus” has not one, but two clutch go-ahead shots against the Clippers on their own home floor. Don’t look now, but the Jazz could close this thing out Friday night and he’s an enormous part of that.
Before going down with an unfortunate thumb injury, Rajon Rondo was carving up his former team as a floor general. Tony Parker took it upon himself to lock in offensively to help his team. When the Hawks have needed him most, Jose Calderon has given Mike Budenholzer some crucial minutes. Even Deron Williams found the fountain of youth and looked like his old spry self for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their sweep against the Indiana Pacers.
These guys are proving that they still have a ton left in the tank. The future, though, looks as bright as ever.
It goes without saying that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a top five player in the NBA very, very soon. His sheer dominance in the Toronto series alone showed that. Dwane Casey made a lineup adjustment that “slowed down” the Greek Freak, but it only took a couple of games for him to get right back into the swing of things. P.J. Tucker said himself that he is nearly impossible to stop, and once Antetokounmpo develops that outside shot more, he’ll take an even further leap toward greatness.
There’s another star in the making down in Atlanta, though. As the Hawks go deeper into their youth movement, they’ve given the reigns to Dennis. He hasn’t disappointed one bit. In his first five games as a starter in the postseason, the 23-year-old is the fourth-youngest player in league history to average at least 24 points and seven assists per game on over 45 percent shooting from the field.
Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas are the only players to do this at an age younger than Schroder, but keep in mind that one of those three had started in a playoff series before. This is Schroder’s first series ever with that kind of responsibility. As for other point guard names that join him, Allen Iverson, Gary Payton and his rival John Wall have accomplished this feat.
It’s a small sample size, but the sky could be the limit for the up-and-coming Schroder.
NBA Daily: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch
Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.
The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.
A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.
The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.
Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.
1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona
Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.
This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.
Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.
2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV
The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.
In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.
He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.
3. Devonte Graham – Kansas
One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.
This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.
Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.
4. Chimezie Metu – USC
For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.
He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.
He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.
5. Tony Carr – Penn State
Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.
Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.
He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.
NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019
The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.
The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.
All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.
And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.
After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.
Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.
If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.
So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.
If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.
This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.
The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.
The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.
In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.
That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.
If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.
From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.
Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.
Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.
As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.
And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.
Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.
Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.
Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.
Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.
If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.
One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.
So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.
In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge.
So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.
Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.
Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.
This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.
There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.
Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:
$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience
Max/Near Max Guys
Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242
Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.
He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.
He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.
Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420
Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.
The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.
Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.
Above Mid-Level Guys
Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392
Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.
This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.
The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.
Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348
Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.
His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.
Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.
Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000
Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531
Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Mid-Level Or Below Guys
Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454
Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516
David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999
Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000
Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000
Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912
Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538
*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)