Five Offseason Stories To Watch
The big news heading into the last week before free agency kicks off is, of course, the expected opt-outs from the Miami HEAT’s three All-Stars. It’s amazing how one NBA Finals series can change the HEAT from the most dominant team on the face of the planet to an old team that needs to get more help for LeBron James, but that’s how the story has gone for the HEAT since their demise at the hands of the formerly “old” and “boring” San Antonio Spurs. Teams across the league are trying to angle their way into a conversation about one of the very few stars available in this summer’s free agent crop, but the bottom line is that there will ultimately be more cap space created than there are stars to use it up.
• First of all, there’s LeBron James. If you watched any sports talk show over the last 48 hours you are already of hearing “experts” sound off on what LeBron is thinking and what it means that he is not scheduling meetings with teams next week. It’s pretty simple, really. LeBron James doesn’t need to meet with teams to know what’s on the table, and no, he doesn’t need to be in New York to get endorsement deals. Ask Carmelo Anthony how that theory worked out for him. LeBron is interested in competing for championships, and he is going to be well paid for doing that with whichever team he agrees to join. The Miami HEAT could have as much as $55 million in cap space, meaning they have plenty of room to re-sign LeBron and give him the supporting cast he needs to once again destroy the terrible Eastern Conference. That supporting cast will likely include, at drastically reduced rates, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
• Second, there’s the Houston Rockets. Team owner Les Alexander ignited the fan base when he said he will add a marquee player again this summer, and general manager Daryl Morey has already begun clearing cap space by dealing Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s not nearly enough, but it is a strong start. The ever-stirring rumor mill has connected Houston to interest in LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and even former Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry, but before they can hope to compete in the marketplace for a top-tier talent they are going to have to at least move Jeremy Lin’s contract off the books. As exciting as it is to think about LeBron or Love, in particular, joining Houston’s dynamic duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard, it might not be entirely realistic.
• The Dallas Mavericks are also once again in the hunt for a superstar to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki. The Tyson Chandler trade gave them back the formidable front line they had when they won the championship in 2011 to go along with what could be roughly $19 million in cap space and perhaps $33 million before hitting the projected luxury tax threshold. For some reason, however, the Mavericks have had little luck luring top-tier free agents to town, even when they’ve had money to burn. There’s no question Nowitzki and Chandler can still be a championship-caliber front line and Rick Carlisle is second only to Gregg Popovich in terms of the NBA’s top coaches. Monta Ellis also gives them a dynamic, high-scoring backcourt presence. Add someone like Anthony or James and the Mavs would be contenders once again, but that, too, seems unlikely.
• Carmelo Anthony is regarded by some as the other “big name” in free agency next to LeBron James, though the difference between the two is as wide as the distance between New York and Miami. In the right situation, Anthony could be a game-changer, but that’s not just any situation. Anthony needs a strong coach who will demand more from him, as well as a defensive-minded team to make up for his own shortcomings on that end of the floor. It’s possible that Derek Fisher could be that coach, and it’s possible that Knicks president Phil Jackson could put that kind of team in place this summer, but that, too, seems unlikely. Of all the big names mentioned heretofore, Anthony seems like the one most likely to change teams, and his best destination might just be the Chicago Bulls.
• Last but certainly not least, is Kevin Love. Minnesota Timberwolves president and head coach Flip Saunders made it clear that he doesn’t want to spend next season answering questions about Love, and would rather deal him than risk losing him to free agency. There was rampant speculation that Love would be moved on draft night, but that obviously didn’t happen. There have been protracted talks with the Golden State Warriors, who would love to switch Love for David Lee, but those talks have strayed and perhaps reached an impasse due to Klay Thompson not being included in Golden State’s package. Love, too, would be outstanding in Chicago, where his ability to spread the floor, score from anywhere and vacuum up rebounds would be a perfect complement to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Of course, the Bulls would need to sell Minnesota on Carlos Boozer’s ending deal, which could prove problematic. Still, Love is extremely unlikely to re-sign in Minnesota, so the reality is that Saunders will need to find a deal, and a motivated power forward with an expiring contract might be too tempting to pass up.
The Question of Consistency
In the modern NBA, trades and free agent signings are often considered to be the best approach to building a championship team. With every move, teams are expected to be immediately better and closer to winning a championship. Of course, the teams that are consistently among the NBA’s elite are not the teams that make the most moves, as attested to by the success of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. Even the Miami HEAT only managed to squeeze two championships out of the heralded “Big Three” they assembled prior to the 2010-11 season and that group included two of the top five players in the entire league.
The Golden State Warriors are now sitting at a crossroads, trying to determine if they should stay the course with a young group that has grown together over the last few seasons or make a radical change to try and expedite their rise to the ranks of the West’s contenders. The question now facing the Warriors is whether or not they should trade David Lee and/or Klay Thompson in an effort to land an All-Star who might better suit their style of play in Kevin Love.
Since drafting point guard Steph Curry in the summer of 2009, the Warriors have been on a steady upward climb, going from a 26-win team during Curry’s rookie season to the 51-win team they were this past season. At the heart of that growth has been the trio of Curry, Lee and Thompson. While it might be tempting to break up that trio with the arrival of new head coach Steve Kerr, there is something to be said for allowing the same core group to continue to grow together.
“I love Klay. I love playing with him as well as David Lee,” Curry said at his recent basketball camp. “Those are my teammates, the guys that I love. We’ve fought so hard the last three years together growing, and it would be very, very difficult to see that end. As great as Kevin Love is, it would be very hard to see your teammates and your brothers leave at this time. So we’ll see what happens, but it’d definitely be a tough situation.”
It would likely be a very tough situation, with the new player or players, presumably starting with Love, having to learn how to play with his new cast of teammates and the team as a whole trying to establish a new identity. If the pattern of the most consistently good teams in the NBA is a basis for comparison, as it should be, perhaps the Warriors are better served by allowing their new head coach to get a feel for what he has before they start mixing things up. Change for change’s sake isn’t always a recipe for success. In fact, it is often a recipe for disaster.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.