It takes gumption to be a successful NBA head coach, and Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t be here without it. At 41 years old and nearly two seasons into a Big Three era that would terrify many grizzled sideline veterans, Spo staked his career and legacy on a new iteration of modern basketball, downsizing his HEAT team in the wake of a Chris Bosh injury and keeping them that way even once Bosh returned. The move in part fueled two straight title runs, along with a league-wide spacing revolution.
With these dilemmas more commonplace a few years later, it’s easy to forget just how huge of a risk this was at the time. Spoelstra was willingly giving up an edge in an area most basketball people were conditioned to associate with success (size down low), banking on the trade-off elsewhere being worth eschewing the traditional approach. That he did it all with the weight of perhaps the most intense scrutiny a team (and star player) had ever faced to that point in history on his back is all the more impressive.
The stakes are lower now; Spo’s success earned him what most would assume is a longer leash from Pat Riley, and with LeBron James back home in Ohio, he can sleep knowing his job isn’t in jeopardy if he can’t win the championship every year. But with a Bosh ailment again taking a big piece off his chessboard, Spoelstra is right back at it. And this time around, without two stars in their prime to pick up the load, his team’s showing might be all the more impressive.
In the East’s fifth spot, but just three games clear of ninth coming out of the break, Bosh’s heart-breaking injury had some people around the NBA believing Miami was no longer a legitimate threat in the East. The HEAT had a point differential more in line with a .500 team than a true contender, and while they’d kept things afloat surprisingly well during non-Bosh minutes while he was healthy, the trickle down to his replacements and primary facets of the team identity was a serious weight to bear.
So naturally, Miami is 10-4 since the news. They have the league’s seventh-ranked offense and its fourth-ranked defense, good for fourth overall on a per-possession basis.
A few bits of lineup creativity are at the heart of the success, one of which came before the Bosh news and has continued to pay dividends since. Amar’e Stoudemire has taken Hassan Whiteside’s place in a small ball starting unit that nearly defies logic with its success; the Goran Dragic-Dwyane Wade-Joe Johnson-Luol Deng-Stoudemire quintet is the best five-man unit in the NBA with at least 75 minutes logged since the break.
Stoudemire may not have a ton left in the tank, but Spoelstra is eking out every last drop. The opening stretches of first and third quarters make up the vast bulk of STAT’s minutes and are often his only appearances in a given game, and he’s only asked to do what he does best – dive to the hoop in pick-and-roll, post up mismatches and utilize all of the space four wings around him generate to do useful things. Even when spacing is imperfect, as it often is with Wade on the floor, three crafty ball-handlers and Stoudemire’s still-present ability to finish without much length around to challenge him has made him a viable roll man again:
Turns out he can still get up over the occasional guy his size, too.
Really, though, it’s the other guys who are flourishing most in these units. Dragic, Deng and Johnson are a combined 51.6 percent from distance in this exact starting lineup since Bosh has been sidelined, per nbawowy.com, a figure that’s at once unsustainable and representative of how open the average look is out there with so much free space available. It’s even more evident near the hoop – Miami is shooting 73 percent within three feet of the basket while these five play together, and lead the NBA in points in the paint as a team since the All-Star break.
How the starters are surviving defensively is anyone’s guess, and whether they can sustain it is a fair question. Deng has been a warrior banging against bigger guys on nearly a nightly basis, but Miami is surviving on pure guile at times. Their speed allows them to close to shooters effectively, and they’ve been worlds better than anyone could have expected at forcing teams to settle for midrange shots, particularly with Stoudemire on the floor. STAT’s lineups are somehow only allowing 60 percent within three feet of the hoop compared to Whiteside’s 57 percent on the season, likely in large part a function of an uber-conservative scheme that drops him way back against two man action and minimizes the damage he can do getting out of position.
The HEAT arguably has an even larger edge when the benches start to trickle in, however. Whiteside would surely be the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year if he’d been in this role since November considering there simply isn’t a second unit in the league adequately prepared to handle him physically.
Miami is second in offensive rebounding percentage since the break despite almost never playing two bigs together, in large part because they collect nearly a third of their own missed shots while Whiteside lays waste to helpless bench units. Rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have both impressed, the former as a versatile and effective defender and the latter as a sharpshooter canning a ridiculous 63 percent of his triples on over 26 minutes a night since the break. Johnson has been excellent since arriving via buyout as a plug-and-play option who fits Spoelstra’s tinkering style perfectly (he’s logged at least 100 minutes alongside seven different teammates already in just nine games).
Spo knows exactly what he’s got with this group: One high-caliber big man, one true point guard with a capable shot, two situational bigs (Stoudemire and Josh McRoberts) and an abundance of similarly-sized wings with varying skillsets.
Keeping them viable is a tightrope act, particularly to this degree. Dragic is the only player on the entire roster without whom the HEAT have been outscored on a per-possession basis since the break, a remarkable testament to the balance achieved despite a few glaring personnel holes many teams would flounder to account for.
Spoelstra is among the league’s most outside-the-box coaches on defensive assignments, a big part of the team’s success on that end since losing Bosh. In Monday night’s win over Denver, he kept Stoudemire glued to non-shooter Kenneth Faried exclusively (STAT didn’t play a second when Faried wasn’t on the court), alternating Deng and Winslow on the taller, rangier Nikola Jokic. Many coaches balk at a wing defender guarding a talented seven-footer, but Spo is rightfully considering the larger picture – will his team suffer more conceding a few inches of height to Jokic, or by asking a slower Stoudemire to chase a viable floor spacer around the perimeter all night and leave the paint unmanned?
The well might run dry at some point. Spo is asking a lot from guys with plenty of miles on their bodies, and one or two dents to the wing depth at any point could send the whole Jenga stack tumbling. There’s no way guys like Johnson and Richardson can keep burning up nets from deep at this rate, even if they’re mostly shooting open looks. Dragic may have lost a step this year despite functioning well in the scheme, and Wade’s health is never a certainty anymore.
Even if everyone’s whole come playoff time, the specificity of the postseason environment could squeeze out some portion of Spoelstra’s patchwork ingenuity as teams hone in on the weak links in his personnel. Miami has had success minus Bosh, but their ceiling against elite competition only goes so high if he can’t make it back on the court.
Just staying afloat this long would have been an accomplishment, though, and the way the HEAT have continued to churn out wins is a testament to both sides of the coin: Spoelstra’s ingenuity would be useless without player buy-in, and vice versa. An unexpected Bosh return could be both heartwarming and sneakily scary for some Eastern foe come late April; but even if not, all parties will look back on this season knowing no stone went unturned.
NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch
Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.
The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.
And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.
The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?
The Eastern Conference Arms Race
The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.
With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.
While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.
The Competitive Postseason Bubble
There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.
In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.
Out West, it’s more of the same.
Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.
The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.
Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.
The Three-Man Race for the MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.
But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?
Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.
As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.
The Anthony Davis Situation
The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.
So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.
The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.
The Battle for Zion
Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.
The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.
As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.
NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders
Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.
The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.
“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”
It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?
Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.
It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.
In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.
The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2
They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5
Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7
We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.
MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3
The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.
MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?
Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.
With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.
If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.
Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.
NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?
As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.
Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.
For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?
The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.
Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.
What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.
Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.
While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.
Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.
One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.
As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.
The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.
Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”
Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.
As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.
Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.
Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.
But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.