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NBA PM: The Miami HEAT Deserves Recognition

In an era where tanking is often rewarded, Miami’s decision to compete for the playoffs should be applauded.

James Blancarte

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If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to recognize and congratulate the Miami HEAT, who gave great effort this season. This sounds like an unremarkable proposition on its face and yet it really is quite an achievement. The HEAT got off to a rough 11-30 start to the season and turned away from a league-wide trend. Fans and critics called for and predicted the team would purposefully lose (or “tank”). Miami did no such thing.

By ignoring that line of thinking, the franchise made a very real sacrifice. Despite having a real incentive to lose, the team stayed dedicated to winning, which weakened the team’s 2017 draft lottery odds. If they had landed a playoff seed, the HEAT could have sent a strong message to the league about not giving up and playing to win.

At their lowest point (11-30), the HEAT were winning 26.8 percent of their games. If the team had simply continued to win at that pace for the rest of the season, they would have ended the season with 22 wins. For perspective, 22 wins constitutes only two more wins than the team with the worst record this season, the Brooklyn Nets, and would have given the HEAT the second-best draft lottery odds.

Take a look at teams like the Phoenix Suns who made a decision as a franchise to not win and further improve their projected draft lottery odds. Their dedication to losing ultimately succeeded when they overtook the Los Angeles Lakers with the second-worst record in the final weeks of the season. How did the Suns get there? By implementing the classic tanking strategy of shutting down capable veterans and key contributors such as athletic point guard Eric Bledsoe, who also happens to be an entertaining player for fans to watch.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to follow the tanking trend and continued to sit seemingly healthy veterans and various talented younger players as the season went on. However, as the season came to an end, the Lakers that did play found ways to be productive. A couple of Lakers players spoke out about tanking, including Lakers forward Julius Randle, who had strong words on the subject.

“Me personally, I know my guys around me, we don’t believe in going out there and trying to lose games,” Randle said. “The basketball gods will come back at you. I believe in that. It’ll come back and haunt you, so you don’t do that. You got to treat the game with respect.”

Many Lakers fans were frustrated, watching their hold on next year’s draft pick (top-three protected) get worse with the team winning five of their final six games. Other fans were excited to once again see great effort, excitement and winning basketball, which are some of the traits normally associated with the Lakers — one of basketball’s most winningest organizations.

For Miami, it’s unfortunate that the team played so well the last few months of the season and yet still came up short. By passing on the opportunity to improve their own draft odds by tanking, the HEAT treated the game of basketball with respect, as Randle mentioned above. They ignored the league’s strong incentive to tank, a strategy that the Philadelphia 76ers have employed so heavily over the years that the phrase “The Process” has become a running joke of sorts.

What makes the HEAT’s failure to make the postseason even more frustrating is that other teams were tanking or resting players, which helped to prevent Miami from making the playoffs. The NBA was poised for a night of high-stakes drama, where making the playoffs would be based on who won and who lost on the final night of the season.

Instead, various teams opted to continue to tank or simply rest healthy players, leaving fans with a slate of games with essentially predetermined outcomes based on teams opting to not fully compete. The Brooklyn Nets, who rested six players from their final game against the Chicago Bulls, may be the most culpable of the bunch (they won’t retain their 2017 draft pick and thus have less of a motive to tank). By offering virtually no resistance, the Bulls were able to win a relatively easy victory and be assured the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

As mentioned above, the HEAT began the season quite poorly, and in that sense, have only themselves to blame for ending the season in this situation. Once the HEAT recovered from their early season struggles, they were a highly successful team. Beginning in January, they won 64.5 percent of their remaining games, a fairly remarkable rate of success given the circumstances.

Coming into this season, head coach Erik Spoelstra had his work cut out for him. Most of the offseason centered around speculation as to whether All-Star forward Chris Bosh would return from his unfortunate blood clotting issues. Bosh did his best to lobby the HEAT to allow for his return but he was ultimately forced to yield and sit the season out due to his serious health concerns. Moving forward without Bosh forced the team to rely on a variety of role players; a stark contrast for a franchise not far from removed from winning two championships and appearing in four straight NBA Finals.

To seemingly have a chance to win at a high level, center Hassan Whiteside would need to take a leap as a cornerstone player not just on defense but especially on offense. In addition, point guard Goran Dragic would need to thrive as the team’s primary ball-handler after sharing duties with the departure of three-time-champion guard Dwyane Wade. Also, second-year forward Justise Winslow (10th pick in the 2015 draft) would hopefully step up for the HEAT to remain competitive. Going into this season, the team had to hope for the development of these younger players and the success of their recent acquisitions.

Winslow failed to deliver after suffering a season-ending shoulder surgery, which put an end to a rocky season. However, Whiteside, Dragic and a host of less heralded players stepped up. Guard Dion Waiters, an offseason acquisition, had a turnaround season compared to his previous tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder and helped to nearly lead the team to the playoffs. In fact, the ankle sprain he suffered on March 17, most likely played a strong part in the HEAT’s ultimate failure to make the playoffs as the season wound down.

With a playoff berth off the table, what positives can be taken away from this season? Many analysts, fans and HEAT players applauded the phenomenal coaching job by Spoelstra and the collective effort of the team.

“This is probably, in my opinion, the best coaching job that [Coach Spoelstra] has done,” Udonis Haslem stated.

Looking forward, based on the projected cap space for the 2017-18 season, the HEAT will have up to $43.5 million in cap space, assuming that Bosh’s salary is cleared. With that much available cap space, the HEAT may be able to supplement the roster with significant additional talent. Prospective free agents might find the idea of playing for such a well-respected coach who maximizes the talents of those who play for him enticing (in addition to living in Miami and not having to pay any state income taxes).

Under Spoelstra’s direction, many players experienced a big jump in productivity, like forward James Johnson, guard Wayne Ellington and guard Tyler Johnson. In addition, undrafted rookie guard Rodney McGruder also served as a key contributor in his first season.

Johnson in particular was excellent this season. Johnson lost a significant amount of weight prior to the season and was given a much bigger role this season than he has had in the past, which he thrived in. Johnson can thank the HEAT (and himself) if he is able to land a substantial contract this upcoming offseason.

****

As alluded to, there are clear incentives to lose in certain situations to improve a team’s odds of getting a top draft pick in the lottery. Franchise quality players are few and far between and the ability to increase the odds of acquiring any of these players is hard for a franchise to resist. The above is meant to pay tribute to a team that bucked that trend, and perhaps logic, and prioritized culture, competition, entertaining its fans and respecting the game of basketball. The decision to compete may not help Miami on draft night, but there is value in not giving up and competing even when everyone else tells you to.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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