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NBA AM: Blow It Up? OK, Then What?

Should the Clippers try to re-tool the roster? It sounds easier than it may be.

Steve Kyler

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Blow It Up? OK Then What?

The LA Clippers again faced an early exit in the postseason, making it five straight years of 50-plus win regular season basketball, only to be home in early May. Injuries have played a huge factor in the Clippers’ woeful playoff runs over the last five years, however, the popular narrative coming out of this season is that this group has run its course. This may be true. The question facing the Clippers is what other choices do that have?

Re-Signing Chris Paul

Some have suggested that it’s time to move on from the Clippers core, which starts with point guard Chris Paul. Paul has until June 29 to decide on his final year—a $24.268 million contract option. The prevailing thought is Paul will opt out of the deal and seek a new maximum deal from the Clippers that would clock in at five years and just about $205 million.

Some have argued the cap money would be better used elsewhere, but the truth of the matter is the Clippers have $59.748 million in cap commitments for next season. They also face a $36.4 million cap hold on Paul, a $32.06 million hold on forward Blake Griffin and a $14.17 million hold on guard J.J. Redick. Between the cap commits and the cap holds, the Clippers won’t have any meaningful cap space.

So, let’s say the Clippers decide to pass on Paul and Redick, but keep Griffin. That leaves roughly $10 million in cap space to find a replacement starting point guard in free agency? None of the elite guards are coming for that kind of salary.

If the Clippers opt to retain Paul, but not Griffin or Redick, their cap picture changes to roughly $5.8 million in space.

There is no scenario in which re-signing Chris Paul doesn’t make the most sense for the Clippers, if only to get him under a contract and potentially trade him at some point the future, assuming he does not demand a no-trade clause, which is likely.

Some have suggested Paul should move on to a playoff team closer to competing, such as the San Antonio Spurs.

If Paul leaves the Clippers, he is eligible for a new four-year deal worth $152 million, A full $53 million less than a Clippers deal. The Spurs, as they sit today, have $73.476 million in cap commits, leaving them with roughly $28.5 million in cap space. That also assumes that Pau Gasol opts out of his $16.19 million deal. That’s tough math for the Spurs and even more so for Paul, would not be able to get a maximum deal.

Monetarily, leaving $53 million on the table would be foolish for Paul, who turns 32 years old on Saturday. Signing a four-year deal at 32 puts him at 36 years old at contract’s end and extremely unlikely to command another maximum deal. Fans love to talk about leaving money on the table, but $53 million is a small fortune, not smaller annual raises.

Re-Signing Blake Griffin

Much of what was just said about Paul is true of Griffin. He too has until June 29 to decide on his $21.3 million player option, an option he will not likely exercise. Griffin becomes eligible for a five-year deal worth almost $175 million if he remains with the Clippers. If he leaves, he’d only net a four-year $130 million deal elsewhere.

As much as Griffin has struggled with injuries, when healthy, he is still one of the more potent players in the NBA. Some point to durability, but some of Griffin’s injuries have been fluky in nature. It’s not as if the same problems are recurring over and over, he has had new issues that come with the game.

The problem with not re-signing Griffin is the Clippers couldn’t use the money elsewhere. It really is a case of signing him or losing him for nothing, and given that losing him wouldn’t open any meaningful cap money, is there any scenario in which you don’t keep the player?

Beyond the spite of getting a guy off the roster, there is nothing practical in not keeping him. After all, the Clippers have won 50-plus games over the last five years. Losing Griffin for nothing makes that even harder to accomplish, especially considering there is no one on the roster that can come close to what Griffin produces when he’s healthy.

Re-Signing J.J. Redick

So, if the Clippers have to re-sign Paul and Griffin, then why not re-sign Redick? Like with Paul and Griffin, if Redick walks, the Clippers don’t open cap space. They would have to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.

So, this is a pure economics question. Do you simply eat the cost to fill the roster spot with a quality player versus a replacement that may not be as effective?

The Clippers had this issue last summer when it was time to re-sign Jamal Crawford, who netted a three-year $42 million deal. They can either pay the expense, which had no meaningful cap consequence or try to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.

Beyond the need for some kind of change in the roster, it’s simply a cost to the Clippers at the point they’ll be at after re-signing Paul and Griffin. Unless Redick gets insane with his asking price, re-signing Redick is simply money, something Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has said he’d be happy to spend.

Parting Ways With Doc Rivers

So, let’s address the elephant in the room—can the Clippers go anywhere with Doc Rivers as the head coach? That’s a real and debatable question.

The problem with Rivers is that he carries the reputation of a championship coach, the problem is he’s won just one championship and he did it with three Hall-of-Famers on the roster at a time when the East wasn’t ruled exclusively by LeBron James.

Out west, Rivers isn’t Gregg Popovich, but he’s far better than most coaches. What gets overlooked about Rivers in L.A. is that he’s won 217 regular season games in four years and did it with a ton of injuries to major players.

So, let’s play the same game with Rivers as Griffin and Paul, let’s say the Clippers move on and pretend that losing him would have zero impact on whether Paul or Griffin would re-sign. Who replaces him?

Would the next guy fare any better with the durability issues? Rivers isn’t a great X’s and O’s coach, but he won 62.2 percent of his games this year. Sure, guys like Tom Thibodeau, Lionel Hollins, and Scotty Brooks were fired after similar regular seasons, but in those cases, the front office lost faith in the coach. Rivers is the front office in L.A.

The Rivers conundrum is like many of the other decisions facing the Clippers. They could replace Rivers and retool the entire front office, as well as the coaching staff. That might make some frustrated fans feel a little better, but it would not guarantee the team would be any better, and Ballmer would add $22 million in additional expense to the pile to make the change.

The Bench

So, if the above holds true and Paul, Griffin, and Redick are back because it makes the most sense to keep them, then the Clippers face their annual problem of how to fill in the bench.

This is where the Clippers have routinely struggled, outside of the constant that is Jamal Crawford, the Clips have not been very good at fielding a bench, and it’s because they never have money to spend. Paul Pierce is retiring, so he’s gone. Marreese Speights is believed to be opting out for a bigger payday. Luc Mbah a Moute is likely opting out, and one of the guys the Clippers would be smart to try and retain.

The good news is the salary cap exceptions go up as part of the new labor deal, so there will, in theory, be more money to spread around. With the Clippers likely getting up over the NBA’s luxury tax line, they will need to be creative to fill in the bench and this is where the Clippers need to hit on something.

A Big Trade

The last piece to the puzzle is a trade. While fans would love to see Griffin signed-and-traded to get something for him, there is no value in that for Griffin other than being able to land on an over-the-cap team, and there is no leverage to force that.

However, there is some leverage with Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks and Anthony are headed for a messy divorce this summer, and while the Knicks will ultimately decide to trigger a trade, Anthony can control where with the no-trade clause in his contract.

The Clippers and the Knicks discussed an Anthony trade in January and were unable to get a third team involved to make the math and the players work. This scenario likely gets revisited.

The problem for the Clippers is the players they could move – Austin Rivers, Crawford, Wes and Brice Johnson are not attractive pieces at all, especially not to the Knicks.

The question is whether the Clippers can find a third team this summer that would take future picks in exchange for playing middleman on a deal? It’s far easier to find such a trade partner in the offseason given the roster flexibility and cap room teams will have in July.

If Anthony gives the Clippers a gift and says the Clippers are the only team he’d agree to a trade with, things get better for the Clippers. They’d still have a depth issue on the bench, but would have a core of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and Anthony, and that’s as solid a roster on paper as anyone else in the West—if they fit and stay healthy.

As much as the Clippers runs have been frustrating, in context, winning 50-plus games every year with the injuries the Clippers have endured is pretty impressive. When you factor in that the Clippers are actually a national draw (they not only sell tickets, but often land on national TV), there are worse situations in the NBA. While the goal of every team should be to compete for a championship, having the base layer the Clippers have to work with is better than most in the NBA. While it’s frustrating to watch a team fail in the postseason like the Clippers have, they are not that far away from being an upper-tier team.

What would the Clippers have looked like if Blake Griffin stayed healthy? While that is an annual question these days, some teams in the NBA would love to have the Clippers’ problems, and while blowing it up sounds great, it’s easy to forget that rebuilding a team is a brutally slow process. Just ask the Magic, Suns, Sixers and Kings.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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NBA

The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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