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.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.