One of the major takeaways from the NBA’s 2017-18 regular season—aside from the fact that Ben Simmons is really, really good—is that the Denver Nuggets will probably be a strong advocate for playoff reform.
By the skin of their teeth, the Nuggets missed out on qualifying for the playoffs. By losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final night of the regular season, the 46-36 Nuggets now have a date with the draft lottery, although they would have much rather have had a date with the Houston Rockets.
The Nuggets now become the poster child for the renewed advocating of playoff reform. Denver, you see, was eliminated from the playoffs despite having a better record than three Eastern Conference teams that qualified—the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.
The Heat and Bucks each finished the season at 44-38, while the Wizards were 43-39.
With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, the first round matchups have now been set.
If we’re lucky, though, this may be one of the final few times that we see the traditional playoff format in action.
During All-Star Weekend, Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed that the league was discussing playoff reform. Because of the relative imbalance of talent in the Eastern and Western Conference, the cries for a modified playoff system that would simply take the 16 best teams in the league have only grown louder over the years.
The two obvious issues with the ’Best 16 In’ approach is the travel concerns and the imbalanced schedule. Teams such as the Trail Blazers, Heat and Celtics could find themselves in the ‘nightmarish’ scenario of having to play a team that’s thousands of miles away. Particularly with the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the toll of traveling between Boston and Portland, for example, would probably catch up to a team.
In other words, the winner of a Game 7 between the Celtics and Blazers in the first round would probably be at a competitive disadvantage in the second. At least, that’s the prevailing sentiment.
While the concern is valid, it’s one that could only be addressed and resolved by doing a 2-3-2 format throughout the playoffs, or somehow figuring out a way to reduce the frequency of travel—not easy.
The other major issue—and it’s one that’s easier to fix—is the fact that teams only play 30 out of conference games. To make the system fair, each team would have to play at least 40.
Still, for want of allowing two teams from the same conference to play in the NBA Finals, the league is mulling its option.
I say: it’s about time.
To somewhat address the scheduling imbalance and the want to preserve the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format, the league revealed that they are also considering a ‘Modified Best 16 In’ playoff system in which the top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and then be re-seeded based on how they fared in the regular season. The concept would more or less mimic what was done for the All-Star game, whereby All-Stars were chosen based on their conference and then redistributed once selected.
Although the Modified Best 16 In system wouldn’t necessarily get a team like the Nuggets into the playoffs, it would help preserve the distribution of TV markets, something that’s important to the league. A world in which 10 of the 16 playoff teams are from one conference, after all, isn’t ideal.
Again, this approach would also allow for two teams in the same conference to compete in the NBA Finals—something that’s never been possible.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at what this season’s first round of the NBA Playoffs would look like if the league adopted either the Best 16 In or Modified Best 16 In format and compare it with what we’re getting.
Here’s what’s actually going to happen this season…
In Western Conference Playoffs…
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (4) New Orleans Pelicans
(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
In the Eastern Conference Playoffs…
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami HEAT
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
Now, compare it to what would happen in with the Best 16 In playoff format, where five of the matchups would feature an Eastern Conference team battling a Western Conference team…
Best 16 In Playoff Format…
(1) Houston Rockets vs. (16) Milwaukee Bucks
(8) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (9) Utah Jazz
(5) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (12) San Antonio Spurs
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (13) Minnesota Timberwolves
(6) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (11) New Orlean Pelicans
(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (14) Denver Nuggets
(7) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (10) Indiana Pacers
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (15) Miami Heat
For the most part, when people think about intercostal playoff battles, Los Angeles and Boston is usually considered to be the worst case scenario. The truth is, though, that Portland to Miami is the furthest possible distance between NBA cities. That route is the only one that features teams separated by over 3,200 miles. Los Angeles to Boston is just over 2,950.
Interestingly, Portland to New Orleans is over 2,500 miles, and Portland to any of the NBA’s three Texas cities is over 2,000 miles. In other words, Portland can, and in this year’s playoffs, actually will face a daunting travel schedule. They will actually play the Pelicans.
Game 1 is on Saturday.
* * * * * *
Generally speaking, Eastern Conference cities are in closer proximity than Western. If you started out in Boston, you’d only need to travel 500 miles to pass through New York and Philadelphia on the way to Washington, D.C.
Quite similarly, the furthest distance between two Eastern Conference cities is less than 1,500 miles—that’s about the distance from Miami to either Boston or Toronto.
The point here is that one could actually (and quite easily) make the argument that the playoffs would actually become more fair from a travel standpoint if Eastern Conference teams were subjected to the possibility of having the same daunting travel demands as as their Western Conference counterparts.
If, for example, the Knicks and Sixers played a playoff series, either team could opt to sleep in their own beds for the entire series.
By opening things up, Eastern teams would probably have to travel further distances more often, but in the majority of instances, their travel probably wouldn’t be any worse than what Western Conference teams already have to endure.
Of the five inter-conference playoff matchups listed above, Houston to Milwaukee (1,151 miles), Philadelphia to San Antonio (1,742 miles), Boston to Minneapolis (1,391 miles), Portland to Indianapolis (2,264 miles) and Cleveland to New Orleans (1,055) are all less miles than the distance between Portland and New Orleans. And that series is actually going to happen.
Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Phoenix could also find themselves in unenviable situations requiring them to cover a lot of miles.
Sure, the Eastern Conference teams might, too, but the probability is much less and could only be addressed by mixing the playoffs.
If the league opted for the Modified Best 16 In format, where it still chose eight teams from each conference (rather than the top 16 overall) it’s a very consistent story.
The result would be a minor shuffling of the teams at the bottom of the standings. The Nuggets would fall out, the Heat and Bucks would each move up one spot and the Wizards would get in as 16th.
As a result, the Rockets would play the Wizards instead of the Bucks, the Warriors would play the Heat instead of the Nuggets and the Raptors would play the Jazz instead of the Heat.
Houston would have to travel 1,408 miles to get to D.C. and the Raptors would have to travel 1,900 miles to get to Salt Lake City.
Neither of those distances is further than what the Blazers will have to travel to get to New Orleans, but they also aren’t much further than how far Western Conference teams normally have to travel, anyway.
The Warriors, in this instance, are an exception. Under this scenario, they would have to travel 3,100 miles to Miami. Being on the West coast, any matchup featuring an Atlantic or Southeast Division team, for the Warriors, would be similarly painful. But do recall that they beat the Pelicans in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs en route to winning the championship. And Miami isn’t that much further from Oakland than New Orleans.
Look, there are pros and cons to everything, and no solution is going to please everybody—not all the time, at least.
But if one of the arguments against reformatting the NBA playoffs is a concern about the potential of increasing the frequency of cross country travel, it might not actually be as big of a deal as many of us believe. Western Conference teams already have to face more daunting travel than their Eastern Conference counterparts, and at least by mixing the playoffs, the league would subject all teams to the same opportunity of brutality.
It might not be ideal, but it probably is fair. Or, at the very least, more fair.
Plus, at the end of the day, who wants to see an anticlimactic NBA Finals?
Ensuring that the two best teams get to compete for the championship is the pro that should probably outweigh the minor cons.
The only way to ensure that is to make the change that’s been a long time coming.
NBA Daily: The Grizzlies Are Stuck
The Grizzlies’ struggles of late would usually signal a rebuild, but Matt John believes that’s going to be harder than people think.
Grit-and-Grind is unfolding, and it’s unfolding fast.
After a blistering 12-5 start to the season, the Grizzlies are falling hard in the standings. The team has only won seven of its last 27 games – good for a record of 19-25 – which has them placed currently 14th in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference playoff race.
For a team that’s gone through pretty much nothing but turmoil over the past couple of seasons, it’s been more of the same this year. They butchered a trade over name confusion, a few of their core guys are out awhile – including one for the season – and they’ve even had a scuffle in the locker room.
It’s only going to get worse from here. The Grizz have lost nine of their last 10 games, and over their next several games, they’ll be facing the Celtics, Raptors, Pacers and Nuggets, five of arguably the best ten teams in the league. They’ll also be facing the Timberwolves, the Hornets and the Pelicans in that time, which won’t be a cakewalk either.
Memphis is currently five games in back of Utah for the eighth seed, and of all the teams vying for a playoff spot in the West, they have the lowest point differential with minus-2.2, which is fairly lower than the team that comes after them – Sacramento – with minus-0.8.
It’s not fun to watch a franchise’s most glorious era end so anti-climactically, but with everything that’s gone wrong for Memphis, it’s time for them to consider rebuilding. What’s unfortunate for them is that if they go for that route, things are going to get complicated.
Let’s start with what they owe Boston. Thanks to the Jeff Green trade back in 2015, the Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight protected pick this season. If that rolls over to next year, it becomes a top-six protected pick. If it rolls over to the year after that, it becomes completely unprotected.
Zach Lowe stated in a recent podcast with Bill Simmons that the Grizzlies would prefer to fork over their pick to the Celtics now instead of potentially giving them another golden lottery pick as Brooklyn did. That makes sense if a rebuild is in their immediate future. However, if they continue to slump the way they have, giving Boston that pick might be even harder.
Besides the fact that none of their competitors in the West look to be slowing down, the playoff hopefuls in the East are also going to give it their all to make the playoffs. As it stands, Washington, Orlando and Detroit, who all have nearly identical records with Memphis, are all much closer to Charlotte for the eighth spot in the playoff race than they are to Atlanta for the 12th spot. In layman’s terms, they’re not in a position to tank, so don’t expect them to.
The only teams that are most definitely out of the playoff race are Phoenix, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and New York. Memphis finishing right after those teams could definitely be in play, which would mean they keep the pick, and Boston gets a chance at an even better one next year.
That might not be the best thing for the Grizzlies since Marc Gasol and Mike Conley aren’t getting any younger. Regardless of the Boston pick, it may be in Memphis’ best interests to trade both of them with how things have gone. If Marc Stein’s most recent reporting involving Gasol is correct, then that should be the case.
One whisper making the rounds: Marc Gasol can become a free agent at season's and, amid a growing belief around the league that he will indeed exercise that option, Memphis could be moved to explore trading Gasol now rather than face the threat of losing him without compensation
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) January 15, 2019
Trading Conley would not be hard. Now that he’s past his injury issues, he’s put up his usual numbers, has a manageable contract (relatively speaking) and could legitimately help someone’s playoff hopes. In Gasol’s case, not so much.
Gasol’s age appears to now be catching up to him. Like the Grizzlies themselves, he started the season on a tear. Over the first month and a half of the season, the 33-year-old looked as good as he’s ever been, averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, four assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals. He did this all while shooting 48 percent from the field, including 41.7 percent from three on 4.6 attempts a game.
Since then, he’s looked alarmingly average. Since the start of December, Gasol’s averaged 12.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, five assists, 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. His shooting percentages in that timespan are jaw-dropping, shooting only 39.6 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from three.
Gasol’s decline happening at the same time as Memphis as a team is not a coincidence. He is one of the two undisputed leaders of Grit-and-Grind. When a leader starts to slow down, the rest of the team follows suit.
That’s what makes trading for him, his $24+ million contract and his player option for next season a catch-22 for interested parties. If Gasol plays like he did during the first month-and-a-half of the season, odds are that he’ll opt out and look for his next payday on the market. If Gasol continues to play as he has from December up until now, odds are he’ll opt-in for next year for financial security.
Are teams going to give up that much for a half-season rental of a star or for a player who is past his prime who will be paid over $20 million?
There are teams who could definitely use a big like Gasol. The price tag and/or their cap situation may scare them out of trying to acquire him.
The Lakers, who have the contracts and young talent to make a trade for Gasol, could use an upgrade at center, but they’re probably not going to take their chances of letting Gasol eat up their cap space since they hope to bring in another star this summer via free agency.
The Raptors, who have similar assets as LA, could use Gasol as a potential upgrade over either Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas, but it’s very risky to mess with what’s working this far into the season for someone who is showing more and more signs of decline.
If Gasol really goes on the trading block, Memphis cannot expect much in return for him given his recent play. That’s not their fault. They came into this season hoping to keep Grit-and-Grind alive for as long as they could. If they had struggled despite Gasol’s All-Star level play at the start of the season, he probably would have been traded a while ago. If he and the team continued playing excellent basketball throughout the season, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. This all really is just a timeline of unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances culminating into an unwinnable situation.
Now, the Grizzlies could ride this out and not change a thing. Let what’s left of the Grit-and-Grind era fade into the sunset. By doing so, they’re risking letting Gasol walk for nothing this summer as well as giving Boston a better chance at a top pick. That pick they owe Boston could really go either way regardless of what Memphis does. The alternatives aren’t really that much better regardless.
No matter where they go from here, there’s one thing Memphis knows for sure.
Thank heavens for Jaren Jackson Jr.
NBA Daily: Lee Awaiting Opportunity, Staying Positive With Knicks
Drew Maresca has a chat with Courtney Lee about his situation with the New York Knicks and staying ready for when an opportunity comes his way.
Basketball if a fun sport that’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It brings people of all ages great joy, employs thousands and allows millions of fans to remove themselves from their daily lives and immerse themselves in the sport of their choice.
But there is a colder side to the sport, one in which ability is overlooked in favor of intangibles. The NBA is, after all, a business. And like any business, office politics play a role. This is a side that we’re all at least marginally familiar with. We’ve all seen players traded or cut because they do not fit the team’s timeline or because they were brought in or drafted by the previous management team.
This is not to infer that there’s anything insidious about the business of basketball, but players are people with families and bills and routines just like the rest of us. Of course, teams have the right to operate as they see fit – after all, we’re talking about individual contracts worth between $385,000 and $37.5 million per year that add up to payrolls exceeding $100 million annually.
But often times, players are reduced to their contracts and cap holds rather than being valued for their contributions on – and off – the court. Players understand the business they’re in, but there’s something that feels wrong about the league’s politics when it supersedes the natural order – when effective players sit in favor of less qualified ones. This is probably most prevalent when a team fast tracks a rebuild.
And for the first time in what feels like forever, this issue is front and center in New York. To the delight of Knicks fans, the team has finally embraced the concept of bottoming out. Tanking is a notion the Knicks have toyed with and ultimately either balked at or botched nearly every season since 2001. They’ve instead chosen to side with short-term fixes over long-term solutions.
With Scott Perry at the helm this season as general manager, the Knicks are making smart, calculated decisions. They are playing their young guys, which allows for them to develop valuable experience that can’t be learned from the bench or in practice. It also has the residual payoff of more losses, which means better odds come the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery.
But losing is tough. It can cause fatigue within a fanbase, a roster and an organization. Dennis Schroder, backup point guard for the Thunder, recently spoke about his experience with the Hawks regarding this very topic with The Oklahoman.
“I wanted to be in a winning organization,” Schroder said. “You just can’t go out there and try to lose.”
Back in New York, no one on the Knicks sympathizes more strongly with what Schroder went through than Courtney Lee. Lee is in an unusual position. He is too good to get on the court for his team because playing him would result in more wins and less playing time for younger guys. But he’s relatively expensive for his age, counting for $12 million against the salary cap this season and he’s owed nearly $13 million for 2019-20.
Lee is 33 years old, but has played some of his best basketball in recent seasons. In fact, he averaged a career high 12 points per game just last season. Furthermore, he is a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep, and he is viewed as a capable defender, a good teammate and someone who doesn’t need touches to impact the game. And yet, he’s received nine consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions (including Thursday’s game against the Wizards in London).
Theoretically, the Knicks can point to the neck injury Lee suffered in training camp. There’s an element of plausible deniability there – he was hurt so he could still be hurt.
But Lee upended any such excuse following the 76ers game on January 13.
“I feel good,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “It happened back in training camp. I feel 100% now.”
Lee understands the business side of the NBA. He has played for seven NBA franchises in his 11 professional seasons.
“It’s not the first one,” Lee said with a chuckle regarding the DNPs. “I’ve been dealing with it, man. At this point you just understand what’s going on – the thought process behind it. The best thing I can do is just stay positive, keep cheering my teammates on and be ready for whatever happens.
“If it’s here getting in the game or getting traded somewhere, just making sure I’m staying in shape and ready to contribute. I just have to live in the moment. Have to tell myself to stay ready, stay prepared, stay in shape because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – that’s my mindset.”
And fortunately for Lee, he could reach the end of the tunnel sooner than later. The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the Knicks would like to double down on their youth movement. Moving Lee, Enes Kanter and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. would help the team open up the requisite cap space to offer a free agent a max deal this coming offseason.
Lee could easily find himself on a team competing for a playoff spot in the very near future. He would almost certainly help the Rockets, the Nuggets and the 76ers, as well as a number of other teams. But in the NBA, it’s never that straight forward. Teams must not only see the benefit of adding the player in question, but also feel compelled to deal with the other team’s front office. And teams know the Knicks want to go shopping this summer, so nothing is guaranteed for Lee.
One thing Lee has going for him that is far from guaranteed is transparency, which he receives from New York’s coaching staff daily.
“Coach Fizdale communicates a lot,” Lee said. “He’ll talk to me before the game (about the potential for DNPs) or he’ll touch base during the game. He does a good job with that.”
Fizdale has been open about his feelings toward Lee and the position he’s in.
“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said in an interview with NorthJersey.com. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing, they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like no, go play. And like he tells me every day ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’”
Lee has echoed those same sentiments all season long.
He’s just waiting to be given an opportunity to prove it.
NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong
Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.
The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.
Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.
Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).
In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.
In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.
Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.
“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”
Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.
“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.
When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.
“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”
Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.
Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.
Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”
Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.
After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.
“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”
As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.
Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.
Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.
“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”
The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.