Articles By Athlon Sports
6. Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets
Had you told any close NBA follower that the Rockets got past the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs, without Beverley, a month ago… they wouldn’t have believed you. The 37-year-old Jason Terry did a shockingly good job slowing Chris Paul down during Houston’s historical comeback series win, and the Rockets are now in the Western Conference finals. Without Beverley’s maniacal defensive pressure to apply to MVP Steph Curry, though, things could end quickly for Houston. Terry is bound to show his age soon, and when the Rockets have to switch wingmen onto Steph, it should open up the offense for his passing genius.
5. John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall is one of the best players in the NBA, and he missed three games of a playoff series. After he fell on his hand in Game 1 (a dominant, 18-point, 13-assist performance from him, in which he led the Wizards to a 104-98 victory) he then missed the next three contests with a wrist injury. Paul Pierce’s heroics were enough to propel the Wiz to one more win—and nearly to two—but Wall’s absence was ultimately the weakness that Atlanta capitalized on. Wall came back in Game 6 and played another great game, but the Hawks had already taken control while he was gone.
4. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Love’s separated shoulder hasn’t had a terrible impact on the Cavaliers—not yet, anyway. They’ve been lucky enough with one big, generous baseline reality: They play in the Eastern Conference. Even without Love, LeBron James and Co. have had enough to get within three games of the Finals. An emboldened Tristan Thompson, conveniently enough, has filled in for Love and done a lot of tough tasks that Cleveland arguably needs more than their missing All-Star’s shooting and playmaking. Thompson has been a voracious rebounder and a relentless defender, looking like just about the best custodian James has ever had. The smart money, however, is on Cleveland missing Love’s modern versatility dearly if they land in the Finals.
3. Wes Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were in rare air for much of the season. Their offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency were both consistently in the league’s top ten, putting them in company with only two other squads who could claim that status: the Warriors and the Hawks. That had a ton to do with Matthews, their best defender and the NBA’s overall leader in made three-pointers at the time of his injury. Without Wes against the Memphis Grizzlies, point guard Damian Lillard struggled as Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Tony Allen took turns wearing him out. And without Matthews playing defense, Portland’s perimeter stronghold was downright porous.
2. Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks
The severity of Carroll’s injury is yet unknown. His MRI concluded that no structural damage has been done to the knee he landed awkwardly on in Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but we don’t know how effective he can be on a quick turnaround. The thing is, he needs to be extremely effective, as he has the hardest job on the Hawks’ roster for this matchup—and potentially the hardest job in the entire sport—in guarding LeBron. Without Sefolosha either, who’s out for the year with a broken fibula, Atlanta is suddenly looking almost optionless in the face of the King’s warpath toward a fifth straight Finals appearance.
1. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
The most important injuries in the playoffs are to men who didn’t play a minute in them. In fact, they don't even work for an organization that made the field. But the Thunder’s absence from this bracket has to be the biggest, most bothersome “what’s missing” feeling that’s making this spring feel somehow incomplete. When healthy, this is probably the most talented squad in the league. Now the franchise is undergoing a bit of change, with Billy Donovan hired as their new head coach in place of the outgoing Scott Brooks. Perhaps Donovan can manage the roster’s bodies well enough to help us avoid this sad lacking, a year from now.
— John Wilmes
Opportunities like this don’t come around too often. The Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the most storied franchise in all of sports, are usually riding high in the championship picture. Winners of 16 titles and 31 NBA Finals appearances, they’re pretty unseasoned with where they are now: the draft lottery.
The last time L.A. had a top-five selection? 1982. That’s when they scooped up James Worthy, who went on to be an integral part of the most famous iteration of the team, next to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It should come as no surprise that this year’s crop of draft prospects—and their agents—understand the rarity of this occasion. The money, notoriety and probably even the winning potential is far greater with the Lakers than it is with any other 2015 lottery team. Bad as they were this past season, the allure of playing for the purple-and-gold is massive.
Becoming a Lakers star, even when they’re terrible, means global appeal. Just ask Nick Young. Plus, things in the competition department can turn on a dime for them because of their ability to attract elite talent on the free agency market.
That might be why Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor are both making gestures that aren’t hard to read as meaning “I’d rather be the No. 2 overall pick, not the No. 1, and play for the Lakers instead of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Exhibit #1 is this tweet sent out shortly after the draft order was determined, by never-wrong league insider Adrian Wojnarowski, of Yahoo! Sports:
If Karl-Anthony Towns is determined to get to Lakers, it'll be interesting to see how agreeable his camp will be to meeting with Minnesota.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 20, 2015
Woj is not a speculator, or much of an opinionist. If he posts something like that, it’s likely a sort of subtle message being delivered through complex, trusted channels of the NBA power network.
Okafor, for his part, said this to Sports Ilustrated after the lottery: “I don't know that I should go No. 1… I don't care. I just want to go to the right environment for me and the right team. I think the hype about No. 1 is more for the fans.”
This could all be an incorrect reading of the tea leaves. But if clues like these continue to drop, don’t be surprised if you see this story expand quite a bit.
— John Wilmes
It wasn’t a terrific night for the New York Knicks. The NBA’s saddest big-market franchise lost 65 games last season, and the light at the end of their tunnel of failure was always the chance at a No. 1 overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The Knicks, instead, landed at fourth overall during last night’s lottery. In a draft class that’s better than okay, this is still a strong position. Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns are likely to go first and second, so New York will have—at the very least—a choice between two elite point guard prospects in D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, or March Madness standout Justise Winslow, a skilled and powerful wingman.
But what the Knicks fanbase wanted is what many fanbases yearn for on lottery night: A pick so good that even their questionable front office can’t mess it up. That’s what the Minnesota Timberwolves got, with the ping pong balls taking them to the top selection, where it would shock the league if they didn’t choose between Okafor and Towns. The Los Angeles Lakers, at No. 2, will probably take whichever of the two fantastic young big men Minnesota passes on.
In the third slot are the Philadelphia 76ers. For all the moralizing soreness over Philly’s tanking ways, their war chest of assets and young talent is starting to look incredibly impressive, and the dawn of a winning day is starting to seem more imminent for the Sixers.
Behind the top four is a collections of teams who are either, like the Knicks, in need of nothing short of a Godsend with their shaky decision-makers up top (the Sacramento Kings at No. 6, the Denver Nuggets at No. 7, the Charlotte Hornets at No. 9) or who are on the verge of contending again, in need of nothing more than more internal improvement and extra piece of talent (the Orlando Magic at No. 5, the Detroit Pistons at No. 8, the Miami Heat at No. 10).
Here’s the full lottery board:
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. Philadelphia 76ers
4. New York Knicks
5. Orlando Magic
6. Sacramento Kings
7. Denver Nuggets
8. Detroit Pistons
9. Charlotte Hornets
10. Miami Heat
11. Indiana Pacers
12. Utah Jazz
13. Phoenix Suns
14. Oklahoma City Thunder
— John Wilmes
LeBron James is still the king of the NBA. Right?
His Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Chicago Bulls 4-2 in their last playoff series, despite Kevin Love being out for the season and Kyrie Irving’s injuries turning him into a hobbled, almost ineffectual version of himself. Derrick Rose and Co. were meant to be the biggest threat to James’ throne, but he ultimately looked fairly comfortable pushing them off of it.
Up next in LeBron’s challenge to prove he’s still the world’s alpha baller is the Atlanta Hawks, a team who made mutton of the Cavs all season and lit up the league with 60 wins and four All-Star appearances. Atlanta needed six games to thwart the malaise-struck Brooklyn Nets in the first round, however, and six more to beat the Washington Wizards despite a serious injury to John Wall.
While the Hawks are not facing any injury issues as damning as losing Love for the year, they have been slowed by body hurts and fatigue. None of their starters have operated with close to the same kind of efficiency as they did in the regular season, with point guard Jeff Teague having some especially noticeable struggles. There’s a lengthy debate to be had about whether the Hawks expelled too much of their batteries in the regular season, and don’t have enough left to prove themselves when it really matters.
Atlanta also comes into the series without Thabo Sefolosha, who’s out for the year with a broken fibula. Sefolosha is a seldom noticed reserve, but he happens to have guarded LeBron on the biggest stage possible before—in the NBA Finals, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012—and to have done it fairly well. That task will fall largely on DeMarre Carroll’s shoulders with Thabo out.
In order to beat the Cavs, who should be riding a formidable emotional train after their surprisingly authoritative putdown of the Bulls, Atlanta has to be a team they haven’t been in several weeks. Maybe they can be, but it’ll come as a surprise that you might not want to put your money on.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
— John Wilmes
Here's a look at the NBA teams that need the most out of this year's draft:
6. Detroit Pistons
In Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons have a promising man to build their future. But wise as their head coach and team president is, their circumstance is still thorny. Detroit already has a number of young pieces they’ll need to pay big money this summer or next, with Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Reggie Jackson at the top of the list. They’ve also been a poor destination for quality free agents for the better part of this century, and have a glaring hole at the wing spot. If they find the right small forward in this draft, the Pistons will have every bit of the core they want for the coming years, with youth across the lineup, so long as they can secure what they’ve already got.
Best fits: Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson
5. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have the one major piece that most other stalled teams would kill for: A bonafide superstar, in the mercurial character of DeMarcus Cousins. A slew of poor decisions aside from drafting and re-signing the hyper-talented big man, however, has left Sacramento in a bad way. The team is saddled with culture problems after giving Cousins as many coaches as he’s had seasons—and even more point guards—plus a number of weighty salaries owed to middling players. The only way that an organization as dysfunctional and clueless as this one can find their way out of so deep a hole is by getting lucky with the ping pong balls.
Best fits: Emmanuel Mudiay, D’Angelo Russell
4. Charlotte Hornets
The schadenfreude parade has long waltzed all over Michael Jordan’s post-Chicago Bulls career. The Hornets’ owner has made a number of questionable draft selections, including high picks spent on Adam Morrison and Sean May. Jordan’s greatness on the court was so staggering that you just knew the audience would turn around and satirize him for any failures he had off of it. But the hard truth, more recently, is that Charlotte has simply had rotten luck in the draft. Missing out on Anthony Davis after a historically bad season especially stands out as an instance of the basketball Gods seeming not to favor M.J.’s franchise. Jordan and Co. have had a better record in free agency in recent years, but what they really need to turn things around is a superman.
Best fits: Mario Hezonja, Kristaps Porzingis
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Who ever thought it could get this bad for the Lakers? It would often seem that Kobe Bryant’s squad exists just as a reason for him to keep his celebrity alive, these days, and that the organization’s front office has all but given up on the now, and staked their claim in a post-Kobe future made up of fertile draft prospects and big-name pickups in free agency. The former part of that equation involves the further development of Jordan Clarkson, and a hopefully resilient recovery from Julius Randle, who had a season-ending injury early on in his rookie season. Things can always turn around quickly when you’re the most storied team in the sport, but more steps toward a brighter tomorrow must start occurring today.
Best fits: Karl-Anthony Towns, Justise Winslow
2. New York Knicks
Tire fire, rubbish yard, pity party… choose your bit of negative hyperbole. The Knicks have been a mockery of themselves for the past two seasons, and Phil Jackson has a lot of work to do in repairing their creaky state. New York City will always be a draw for certain free agents, because it’s New York City, but the Knicks haven’t actually been able to land any top birds for some time. Jackson may be able to change that (he was able to convince Carmelo Anthony to stay, after all) but what he does in the draft is arguably more important. The team’s new, aging president needs to prove he has the vision everyone talks so much about by seeing something special in someone.
Best fits: D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns
1. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets weren’t even a bottom-five team last season, in terms of wins and losses. When measured with a longer view in mind, though, it’s not hard to say that they’re in a perhaps worse position than anyone. A mismatched roster full of questionable contracts and personalities plus no superstar-level talent, Denver is as unanchored as they come. A new head coach may be able to complete the incredibly complex equation that is shaping this crew into one that could fight for the final playoff spot in the staggering Western Conference, but that’s the absolute ceiling here. A team this lacking in direction needs a godsend to change course for the better.
Best fits: Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow
— John Wilmes
The Houston Rockets are riding one of the craziest emotional highs you’ll see in the NBA. Looking dead and done in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers last Thursday night, down three games to two on the road and losing big in the second half, they began a nutty comeback that the league is still wrapping their heads around.
How did we get here? This is the most appropriate question after a whirlwind finish to a series that was about as predictable as divine intervention. The Golden State Warriors, Houston’s new opponent in the Western Conference Finals, are undoubtedly the favorites in the series. But, just as the Clippers’ surge of adrenaline after slaying the San Antonio Spurs turned them into a combustible element, capable of unusual things, the Rockets’ shocking conquest brings more than a dose of volatility into this series.
The Warriors killed the Rockets in the regular season, winning each of their four games by an average of 14.8 points. A 131-106 victory at Houston in January seemed especially damning at the time. But Houston is, in many ways, a new team now. Their historic comeback is the kind of experience that can galvanize a franchise for multiple seasons, and it came with emboldened performances from relatively new pieces like Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni.
The Rockets’ best weapon against Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Co. is not James Harden or Dwight Howard, the pivotal superstar duo whose faces always appear next to the headlines. It’s their depth, particularly with their bevy of lengthy wingmen, who catalyzed their revival against L.A. and who may be asked to take turns guarding Golden State’s world-class backcourt.
The Warriors, however, looked mighty impressive in their closeout of the Memphis Grizzlies, operating as close as they have to their 67-win excellence as they have in the whole playoffs. If they’re hitting top gear at just the right time, it’s likely that no amount of Houston momentum will be enough. Barring the improbable—a busy force these days—Golden State takes this series.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
— John Wilmes
Mike Conley’s “broken face game” will serve as a defining highlight of the 2015 postseason. So will Tony Allen’s “first-team, all defense” brilliance as a stopper and a lovable character, before injuries forced him out of the Memphis Grizzlies’ 4-2 second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors.
But after that, the NBA’s Tennessee franchise has a lot of question marks. The biggest, most pressing one is whether they can bring back All-Star center and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, who’s a free agent this July.
Gasol is the most important piece of what the Grizzlies do. Next to Zach Randolph, he makes up a front court that is big, plodding and skilled enough to usually force teams into a grinding style that goes against every trend of the modern NBA. Memphis had Golden State locked into such a battle, but MVP Steph Curry’s dynamism and Allen’s absence eventually led to the Warriors winning the series and finishing it with an exclamation point, claiming their final two victories by 20 and 13 points.
Which leads to the more philosophical question of whether Memphis needs to change their strategy. The 2015 “pace and space” version NBA is no coincidence; it’s the result of years of aggregated rule changes and systemic coaching reactions. Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” era with the Phoenix Suns was merely the germ of a revolution that sees its most recent torch-bearer in Curry and Co.
Continuing to play foil to the direction of the rest of the league is quite the undertaking, with or without Gasol. Memphis, in all likelihood, needs to supplement their thunder down low with some lightning on the wings. Having Conley, an elite point guard, is a good start. But what the Grizzlies should be seeking this offseason is versatile guards, who can shoot from deep without giving up much where Memphis butters their bread: defense.
— John Wilmes
A week ago, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like bonafide title favorites. On the heels of their shocking, impressive first-round slaying of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in seven games, they carried that momentum into a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets, including a 128-95 dismantling in Game 4.
Today, the Clippers are done. The Rockets came back and crawled out of their hole, becoming just the ninth team to ever overcome such a deficit. Sizzling as their first unit was all season—it was probably the best in the league—their short bench inevitably did them in.
L.A. had the series all but won in Game 6, as they were up by 20 for much of the second half. But Houston’s super subs Corey Brewer and Josh Smith ran amok on them as Dwight Howard protected the rim, and a 40-15 fourth-quarter scoring edge for Houston turned the series.
The usual ghosts are certain to follow the Clippers this offseason. People will claim that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have still never been to a conference finals, aren’t winners. DeAndre Jordan’s issues shooting free throws will be cited.
Make no mistake, though: This historical loss is a condemnation of Doc Rivers as a general manager. While Rivers is an excellent coach who gains the love and fire of his players like perhaps none other (and while he’s vastly overlooked as a tactician) his moonlighting duties as the roster’s transactional caretaker have been a problem for Lob City.
Rivers inherited all of his best players and has only managed to augment them with the likes of Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, Lester Hudson, Spencer Hawes and, of course, his son Austin. All have had redemptive moments, but none of these pieces have given the Clips anything like consistent depth, and the wear on Paul, Griffin and Jordan has been more noticeable.
What can Rivers the GM do to help Rivers the coach this summer? Rivers doesn't have a lot of financial flexibility if he re-signs Jordan, a free agent, to the maximum contract he'll demand this summer, and finding bench help on the market will be a struggle. For better or worse, these are likely the same Clippers you'll be seeing for a while.
— John Wilmes
Officially, there are three coaching vacancies in the NBA. The New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets are all on the lookout for new leaders after hitting the reset button.
Less officially, we’re headed for four. The Chicago Bulls are expected to part ways with head man Tom Thibodeau this offseason, and his availability is likely to beget a chain reaction in what’s been largely a holding pattern. With both Orlando and New Orleans waiting for Thibodeau to officially hit the market before they make a move, Denver is stuck with a field of wait-and-see candidates.
Mike D’Antoni, Scott Brooks, Scott Skiles, Vinny Del Negro and Alvin Gentry are all potential winners for any of these four slots. Thibodeau, the lead horse in the race for seemingly all coaching jobs, has also long been connected to the Los Angeles Lakers, where head coach Byron Scott is considered by many to be an honorary lame duck.
Many believe Thibodeau will end up in New Orleans, where he can build a new, elite defense around Anthony Davis (the most appealing young player the game has seen in some time) who he coached with Team USA last summer.
If this speculation becomes fact, the Magic would likely turn to Skiles or Brooks, both coaches who have had success with younger rosters. While Orlando is interested in Thibodeau, it seems more probable that he’d join a team looking to take the next step in their playoff contention, as opposed to an upstart roster.
Wresting Thibodeau from Chicago may take some sacrifice. His acrimonious relationship with the Bulls’ front office comes while he’s still under contract, and Chicago is a notoriously frugal franchise that wouldn’t want to pay multiple more years of his deal and not get anything back. We could see the rare—but perhaps increasingly frequent—instance of a coach trade this summer.
— John Wilmes
The Chicago Bulls had their best chance of the century, this year, to get through the Eastern Conference and fight for a title in the NBA Finals. But after an incredibly dispiriting 94-73 loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it would appear this iteration of the Bulls is all but done, and facing a ton of change this summer. The Bulls lost their series to Cleveland 4-2.
A year of rumors backed up by every major league insider says that head coach Tom Thibodeau came into the postseason with the likely impossible task of doing well enough to save his job. Not even making to the conference finals surely marks his death knell, as he and his front office have far too much bad blood to proceed with anything less than a championship as their olive branch.
Center Joakim Noah, long considered a cornerstone, never looked like the same player in 2014-15 after arthroscopic knee surgery last summer. It’s healthy to wonder whether he ever will. Noah is now 30, and having spent five seasons gutting out every hurt he could under Thibodeau, his body could be facing an early breakdown.
Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ breakout star of the year, is heading into restricted free agency. Keeping him around will cost a pretty penny, with many teams believed to be in the running to woo Butler with a maximum offer. If Chicago wants the breathing room to keep him and stay under the cap limit, they may need to trade someone off. All eyes point to veteran forward Taj Gibson, whose future was murky from the second the team brought rookie Nikola Mirotic over from Spain.
The one piece of good, solid news? Derrick Rose finally started to look like an elite impact player again in the playoffs. Building around him, Butler and an improving Mirotic going forward is a path that inspires some optimism.
— John Wilmes
Everybody’s got bad vibes with a former loved one. We’ve all come to blows with an old friend over how nostalgically, or not, we choose to reimagine the past. We’ve all lost a buddy or two as life takes us down different pathways.
Rarely, though, has the splitting of a bond been as public as that between Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. During a recent appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show, Webber went on to make some disparaging remarks regarding the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the Fab Five squad Rose and Webber played on together, at the University of Michigan. Webber kept saying he wasn’t referring to anyone specifically, but he was clearly referring to Rose, who works for ESPN and Grantland and played a large hand in the film’s production.
“I was disheartened by … whatever someone is trying to create our legacy,” Webber said on Patrick’s show. “Because that’s not the legacy. Don’t try to go back and act like you were smart and a martyr and all this. Don’t do that. Just tell the story and let people have fun and be like us.”
Rose fired back, shortly after, by way of Larry Brown Sports:
“One dude traveled then called timeout. One dude lied to grand jury and hasn’t apologized. One dude tried to circumvent the documentary to HBO. One dude ignored multiple requests from everyone involved after agreeing to participate. One dude played like (President) Obama and sat in a suite during Michigan’s recent title game. One dude slandered Ed Martin after all he did for him and his family. One dude is not in contact with the other four (which is all good). One dude has been doing a rebuttal doc for four years. One dude clearly is delusional and still in denial.”
Harsh, harsh, harsh. Here’s to hoping these two can find a more private way to rebuild the bridge between them… if that’s even possible anymore.
John Wall, Kevin Love, Tony Allen, Pau Gasol, Kyire Irving, LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Patrick Beverley, Paul Millsap — this is but a partial list of injury-afflicted players on the eight remaining teams in the NBA Playoffs. Some are gone for the year, while some are missing games and returning, and others yet are just playing on compromised bodies.
In total, though, this big snowball of hurt has made for a strange postseason product, often made up more by victories of attrition and off-court health than by the kinds of basketball conquest we like to romance over. The long-awaited series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, especially, seems like a dogfight defined by which side can better deal with their own maladies.
The situation begs a lot of questions, and a lot of analysis regarding current NBA trends in bodily maintenance. Many squads have gotten more strategic with the health of their superstars, opting to rest their best men for stretches throughout the regular season. In the case of someone like the Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard, the benefits of that method are clear. Howard has been a revelation this spring, flying around to complete improbable alley-oops and impact shots like he did years ago with the Orlando Magic.
In most other cases, though, no amount of rest can stave off lightning bolts of bad luck from above. And, to boot, the parade of injuries leads to questions about whether long bouts of relaxation throughout the year are making players less accustomed to the intense play of the postseason. Queries like these are often posed by ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
What it all amounts to is a gut check on progressive methodology. As close as we often seem to figuring out the optimal balance of healthy players who are also ready play as hard as they can, we seem as far as ever from that ideal today.
— John Wilmes
Who wants to watch DeAndre Jordan — or anyone, for that matter — shoot 34 free throws in one game?
That’s what happened Sunday night, in Game 4 of Jordan’s Los Angeles Clippers’ series against the Houston Rockets. DeAndre made 14 of his tries, giving him a measly 41 percent mark from the line for the night. The Rockets’ best defense in this game (a 128-95 Clippers blowout) was fouling Jordan away from the ball before possessions got underway, forcing Los Angeles into their worst possible scoring option.
Surely, you’ve heard this one before. Since the days of Shaquille O’Neal, teams have been using the “hack-a” strategy against offenses they otherwise can’t stop — especially in playoff games. The technique seems to be gaining more steam than ever lately, though, and discussion about the prospect of banning the method altogether has also picked up considerably.
Currently, the league penalizes teams who deploy the tactic with less than two minutes remaining on the clock, by way of technical foul. The question, now, is why that tax shouldn’t exist for the rest of the game.
Not only is the hack-a lifestyle an unsportsmanlike one, but it’s also hard and boring to watch. Nobody tunes into basketball for intentional off-ball fouls, or for a slowed-down version of the game that involves more standing around than pick-and-roll.
It’s easy to say that the fix for this issue lies in a few select players, like Jordan and Houston’s Dwight Howard, simply getting better at free throws, and thus taking the strategy away from the opposition. But some things, no matter how much work is put in, are bound for that kind of change. The game will always have more big men who can’t shoot than those who can, just like it will always have point guards who don’t lead the league in blocked shots.
Hack-a is a strange glitch in the rulebook, and closing the loophole that allows its exploitation would be a service to the game.
— John Wilmes
One of the most appealing NBA head coaching jobs is now open. The New Orleans Pelicans have parted ways with head man Monty Williams after five years, leaving the chair on Anthony Davis’ bench unoccupied.
Pelicans ownership had created a mandate within the organization: If the team didn’t make the playoffs this past season, it was known that Williams and general manager Dell Demps would both be out of a job. Apparently, meeting that requirement was still not enough to save Monty.
The Pelicans didn’t win any games in their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors, but getting there alone turned some heads after they won a season-long battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final spot in Western Conference bracket. The Pelicans finished the year with a 45-37 record, an 11-game improvement from the previous season.
"My focus today is to appreciate the great journey over the last few years," Williams said, in a written statement given to the AP. "I need to thank my coaches and players because we take pride in our accomplishments as a group in progressing in the right direction and making the playoffs through the challenges of a long season.”
As for who’s up next for the Pelicans, one name stands out among the crowd of possible candidates: Tom Thibodeau. The Chicago Bulls coach is still dealing with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, but rumors about his inevitable dismissal have only grown in recent days.
The prospect of Thibodeau, one of the top defensive minds of the game, going to work with Davis is a tantalizing one. But since he’s still under contract with Chicago, who would be wise not to simply fire him and let him go for nothing, it may take a trade for New Orleans to land him.
We’re still weeks from any of this speculation taking life, but this storyline deserves monitoring as the coaching carousel gains steam.
— John Wilmes
6. Kevin Love’s season-ending injury
The Cleveland Cavaliers could still win the championship. They do, after all, have LeBron James on their roster. The best athlete in the game can win you games in ways you didn’t know existed before, as he demonstrated with his clock-beating shot to tie Cleveland’s series with the Chicago Bulls, 2-2, this past Sunday. But the Cavs are now in a dogfight they didn’t see coming, battling against their own health and depth issues without Kevin Love, whose suddenly separated shoulder could be the turning point for a franchise. Whether the perennial All-Star uses the injury as a source of emotional solidarity with his team, or takes it as an omen that things were never meant to be, remains to be seen.
5. A vulnerable version of the Golden State Warriors
A 67-win season was one of the best campaigns within recent NBA memory. MVP Steph Curry led an offense that had too much shooting, creativity and cohesion for anyone to handle all year, and Draymond Green was the anchor to a hyper-intelligent defense that was just as good. But the Warriors, despite their most recent 101-84 blowout at the Grindhouse, are in a tooth-and-nail 2-2 battle with the Memphis Grizzlies. Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and — of course — Tony Allen have taken away the space and timing Curry and Klay Thompson are used to. Marc Gasol has made Andrew Bogut look out of his depth. The NBA’s juggernaut squad of the season has been tested, and perhaps sooner than we thought they would be.
4. Blake Griffin, point guard edition
Without Chris Paul for the first two contests of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets, many suspected the Los Angeles Clippers were quite screwed. What most of us failed to recognize is that even without Paul, the Clippers have one of the game’s most skilled playmakers: Blake Griffin. Collecting 13 assists as part of a stunning triple-double in Game 1, Griffin led the Chris-less Clippers to a 1-0 series lead. They haven’t looked back, now leading the series 3-1 after an impressive 128-95 smashing in Game 4.
3. Randy Wittman having tricks up his sleeve
Maligned by the media all season long for his unimaginative sets, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman has made full use of his roster this postseason. Implementing a small ball lineup with Paul Pierce at power forward and a surging Otto Porter Jr. at the three spot, he’s given point guard John Wall his best position to thrive in. And even without Wall, who recently fell and suffered a very untimely wrist injury, Wittman has dug deep into his bench to find what he needs — forgotten man Will Bynum played crucial minutes down the stretch of Saturday’s thrilling 103-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Now we’ll see if Wittman has enough left in his toolbox to get the Wizards through this 2-2 struggle.
2. Austin Rivers’ sensational play
Son to coach Doc Rivers, Austin has been the subject of mockery for months. Nobody likes nepotism, and the young Rivers looked like he was out of the league before Los Angeles signed him, and like the only way he still had a job was through family favors. Skeptics are eating feasts of their words these days, though, as the reserve guard has proved to be an invaluable piece of depth for his team. Shooting 49 percent from the field, including a red-hot 48 from beyond the arc, he’s made it possible for the Clips to preserve Chris Paul for future rounds.
1. Rajon Rondo’s epic fail
There just isn’t any precedent for what happened with Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks. Once lauded as one of the game’s most ferocious competitors, Rondo dialed in his time in Texas, looking demonstrably bored and upset as his difficult side rose beyond boiling point. Coach Rick Carlisle and team management were so beguiled and disappointed by his performance through two playoff games that they benched him for the rest of the year, citing a bogus back injury as the reason. Rondo’s heading into free agency this summer, and Dallas wants no part of a future with him. Whoever does sign him will be hoping for a time machine; Rondo in 2015 hasn’t shown us anything worth the money.
— John Wilmes
The best basketball going on right now is between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. A seeming culmination of a year of excellent play in the Western Conference, the teams’ opposing styles have sparked a lot of debate about the state of the game.
The Warriors’ 67-win campaign has pointed the way for the frontier of the league, taking a “pace-and-space” philosophy to its natural endpoint. It’s not so hard to do that when you’ve got Steph Curry and Klay Thompson; the Splash Brothers are, perhaps, the best shooting backcourt in the history of the sport. Both players’ ability to shoot their team to victory from beyond the arc has taken the Warriors offense to staggering heights. Curry’s creativity with the ball, to boot, has made them downright historical.
They mostly didn’t rack up their wowing efficiency marks against defenses as good as that of the Grizzlies, though. Memphis’ relentless, hyper-smart defense on Golden State has taken away both the pace and the space from the Warriors. Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Courtney Lee have hassled Curry and Thompson all series long, frazzling the duo to an uncharacteristic 14-of-46 mark from deep, or just 30 percent.
Golden State trails 2-1 in the series, and in the eyes of many analysts, they’re fighting for more than just a berth in the Western Conference Finals. Their offense, while amazing all season long, looks challenged as it faces the task of winning playoff games without a go-to option in the post. Reviving David Lee off the end of the bench might be an option for variety inside, and a less predictable perimeter attack. Or, Steph and Klay might just snap out of their slump, and start draining shots under greater duress than what they’re used to.
Either way it turns out, the winner of this series will carry the flag for their style, and potentially point the way toward lasting strategic trends. It’s pace and space versus grit and grind.
— John Wilmes
The Chicago Bulls, tied 1-1 with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, looked to jump ahead in their second-round series. The tug-of-war match saw its ending come with the most memorable Windy City shot this side of Michael Jordan, as Derrick Rose hoisted up a three-pointer over Tristan Thompson that felt like the culmination of all of his struggles. Through three seasons thwarted by health issues, Rose and his fans always hoped for a silver living as shiny as this game-winner, which put the Bulls up 2-1 in the series after a 99-96 victory, and set the United Center on fire:
Paul Pierce’s career continues to find new acts. Once the face of the Boston Celtics’ franchise, he’s now made himself even more of a legend as a nomadic warrior of clutch moments, for various Eastern Conference contenders. Last year it was the Brooklyn Nets, and now it’s the Washington Wizards. Washington faced a steep challenge without their best player in John Wall, but The Truth set them free. Like Rose’s shot, Pierce’s went bank. ESPN’s Chris Broussard asked him if he called bank moments after this game-winner, and Pierce replied: “I called game!”
This bananas weekend wouldn’t be complete without a counter-attack. Rose’s iconic moment felt almost too good to be true, and all the more so after LeBron followed it up with one of his own. A strange Sunday afternoon game, in which both teams went through huge droughts, was defined by fatigue and unpredictable bursts of offensive adrenaline. Ultimately, it was the game’s reigning king who came out on top in this dogfight, which is quickly becoming one of the most emotionally draining series we’ve ever seen. Here’s James’ game-winner, the third buzzer-beating shot of his storied playoff career:
— John Wilmes
This Sunday is Mother’s Day. You should think of the woman who brought you into this world fondly: Give her a call, send her some flowers, perhaps even have a meal with her if she’s not too far from your area code. Be a nice son or daughter.
Whatever you do, though, don’t bring her near Matt Barnes. The Los Angeles Clippers forward crossed the trash-talk line this past Wednesday, when he had some crass words for the mother of MVP runner-up James Harden of the Houston Rockets.
What exactly was said? Who knows. It did spark some nostalgic moralizing from Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, though. "I heard about some of that stuff. You don't say anything to [mothers],” he said following the contest. “If you got something to say, say it to the guy you're playing against. I never thought of talking bad to Magic [Johnson's] mother. It's hard enough talking trash to Magic.
“We all talk smack. But my goodness, that thought never even crossed your mind… from what I heard, that's just not right. I came from an era where everybody talked smack and there was a lot of stuff going on. Not like that. It was much more: 'I'm going to kick your ass, what are you going to say about that?' Go from there.”
The last time a second-round rumor circulated about somebody’s mother at this level, it involved LeBron James, Delonte West, an affair, and a Cleveland Cavaliers season that ended on a strange, sour note just months before James infamously took his talents to South Beach.
While the tension between Barnes and Harden certainly hasn’t gotten to that intense of a place, this subplot does make the Clippers-Rockets showdown all the more heated and interesting. How the two players relate in Game 3 of their 1-1 series in Los Angeles, tonight, will be worth observing.
— John Wilmes
It’s not a good day for Washington Wizards fans. After All-Star point guard John Wall led them to a sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the first round, and a judicious 1-0 lead over the Atlanta Hawks in the second, he’s been all but called for the season.
Thursday, the team announced the severity of Wall’s wrist injury, sustained in Game 1 against the Hawks. Wall has five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand. The Wizards have made no official ruling on their star, but it’s becoming easy to see a grim version of events in the short-term future: Without Wall for the next week or so, they’ll be too overwhelmed by Atlanta to win another game, and their season will end swiftly.
Wall’s team reports that his wrist swelled up substantially after he fell on his hand, and that the swelling has yet to even go down enough for them to make a proper evaluation. It would seem that the only reason Washington is not saying Wall’s out for the season is because of how hard of a pill that news would be to swallow. After looking like dark-horse title contenders for weeks, the Wiz are now facing the prospect of having their hopes dashed by a prickly twist of fate.
In Wall’s place, Ramon Sessions started Game 2, and will presumably maintain the role of his replacement going forward. Sessions performed admirably, scoring 21 points, but he cannot be expected to terrorize defenses and offenses alike the way one of the very best players in the game was doing. Atlanta tied the series in convincing fashion Tuesday night, 106-90.
So while it may be too early to say that Wall and his team’s season are over definitively, such a conclusion does seem like the most likely course over the next week or two. Nobody, not even the Hawks, likes to see a promising playoff run end this way.
— John Wilmes
6. Anthony Davis, Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors
Anthony Davis’ playoff debut was not a disappointment. He might not have won a game against the talent-wealthy Warriors, but he did everything within his vast powers to stop them. Any of his four performances could be sincerely chosen in this slot, but his 36-point, 11-rebound effort in his final fight against an inevitable fate was an especially alluring bit of action from the 21-year-old. It shouldn’t be long before he swivels around to the other end of the table, and is playing the role of fearsome overdog.
5. John Wall, Game 2 against the Toronto Raptors
26 points, 17 assists. Wall erased any doubts about who the superior team was in this contest, which was the spark that led his Wizards to a clean sweep of the Raptors. Perhaps the game’s most underrated point guard, Wall stepped into an NBA defense with an ease to suggest it was his kitchen, and made judicious decisions about who in his lineup to feed as he distributed to men left open by the swarms of bodies his elite speed demands when he takes it to the hole. If you want to learn how to play the position perfectly, watch film from this outing.
4. Blake Griffin, Game 1 against the Houston Rockets
With Chris Paul sitting out and taking care of a hamstring he pushed to the limit against the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers were left for dead by many against Houston. But Blake Griffin went as hard as one can go against an unsuspecting Rockets squad, and put together a triple-double for the ages as he point-forwarded his team to a shocking upset. His 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists were the numbers of a man with a skill set that goes way beyond the supreme dunking that he’s known for. Griffin reminded the league that he’s an all-around wunderkind in this game.
3. Steph Curry, Game 3 against the New Orleans Pelicans
The lengthy, explosive Pelicans were a bad matchup for the indomitable Warriors, and many expected them to steal a game or two against the odds-on favorites to win the title. That prediction seemed to be coming true in Game 3 of the first-round joust between the two teams, as New Orleans put their foot down and carried a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter. Then, the MVP became the MVP all over again. Curry scored 17 points in the closing quarter and overtime to lead the Warriors to a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, capping a colossal comeback with a double-take three-pointer through a crowd in the corner, which sent the game to an extra period the Warriors had full control of. You’re never too far behind when you’ve got Steph.
2. Mike Conley, Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors
Twitter was calling it “The Broken Face Game” before it was even close to over. Conley stormed into the roaring Oracle Arena with no loss of confidence, despite playing for the first time in nearly two weeks and nursing a bludgeoned mug behind a plastic mask. He scored nine quick points for the Grizzlies and set the tone after Steph Curry’s MVP ceremony, putting the bay area on alert. He gave Steph trouble all night defensively, and hit an emphatic three-pointer late in the game, himself, that all but put the game out of reach. This showing could be a turning point in the championship equation.
1. Chris Paul, Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs
One leg, no problem. Paul tweaked his hamstring amidst the most memorable game of the season, but it didn’t stop him from leading the Clippers to a victory over the defending champion Spurs that felt like a title-winner. His game-sealing floater with just a second left will populate highlight reels for the next decade, and instantly goes down as the most iconic image in the career of the NBA’s most underappreciated floor genius. Paul’s always had the hearts of those who understand the intricacies of the game — now, he’s got an emotionally charged moment to corral fans beyond the sport.
— John Wilmes
It’s not the first time it’s happened: On the heels of Steph Curry’s emotionally exhausting MVP reception, the Golden State Warriors laid an egg. Dropping Game 2 of their second-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, 97-90, they looked flummoxed. It was Golden State’s first home loss since the Chicago Bulls beat them there in January.
A lot of their being off had less to do with too many feelings, though, and more to do with how the Grizzlies took to the battle straight to the Warriors’ face.
Speaking of faces, Memphis starting point guard Mike Conley, Jr. returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a facial fracture after a brutal collision against the Portland Trail Blazers, and put in an inspiring performance. With a plastic mask over his blood-red eye and plate-infused tissue, he led his team with 22 points, and his defense on Curry helped hold the MVP to just 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting.
Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ ceaseless Grindfather, did his part by injecting swagger into the visiting team’s efforts. The day before the contest, he said Curry’s offensive mastery was “nothing I ain’t never seen before,” and he was quick to remind the world of his own accolades after several important plays last night. “First-team, All-Defense,” he said repeatedly:
Now tied 1-1, this series is a sudden hotbed of intrigue. With personalities this big, stories aren’t lacking — but the one you can expect to hear time and time over is about the state of NBA basketball. The Warriors represent the zenith of its pace-and-space evolution, begat more than a decade ago by Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns. And Memphis, of course, opposes that with a steely, hard, half-court style that favors post-ups and methodical clock-winding. It’ll be thrilling to see which iteration wins out.
— John Wilmes
The defending champion San Antonio Spurs are gone from the playoffs. After a cruel twist of fate that saw them face the Los Angeles Clippers in a first-round series that felt like a title bout, they’ve experienced their earliest exit in years.
Coach Gregg Popovich knows that the premature end to their season isn’t necessarily a referendum on the state of his team, but he also knows that change is an inevitable phenomenon. With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all facing free agency — and with Tim, Tony Parker and Manu all still getting closer to retirement — a shakeup in the Spurs’ nucleus seems like a real possibility.
Monday, Popovich said the team ''will probably look considerably different.” San Antonio is rumored to covet Texas native and Portland Trail Blazers superstar LaMarcus Aldridge, who has shown something less than exuberance toward the prospect of staying in Oregon lately. The Spurs could also make a run at Memphis Grizzlies big man Marc Gasol, though he appears less likely to leave his team.
The franchise’s No. 1 priority, in any event, would appear to be transition. Retaining Leonard seems like their top job this summer, but how they supplement the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year as they head into a new era is a question of grand proportions. Aldridge or another big-name recruit could pair with him for the new iteration of Spurs supremacy, but Popovich and his staff could of course also find their next killer where no one else is looking, as they’re wont to do.
Duncan was a clear top overall pick in the 1997 draft, but Ginobili and Parker were plucked from international obscurity as the 57th and 28th picks, respectively. The last time the Spurs made a particularly splashy move on the free agent market was… never. Don’t be surprised if their makeover comes not from contract fireworks in July, but from more unseen places.
— John Wilmes
In unsurprising news, the NBA has honored Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry with the 2015 MVP trophy. The announcement was made, officially, on Monday, which is also when his team formally held a press conference for Curry.
And although Steph’s reception didn’t make the same cultural waves as Kevin Durant’s “you’re the real MVP” address to his teammates and mother last season, it was certainly an emotional occasion. “Pop,” Curry said through tears, to his father Dell Curry, a former 16-year pro himself. “You were the example of what a true professional is on and off the court. I remember a lot of your career, and to be able to follow in your footsteps… it means a lot to me, and this is special.”
Steph also received some playful joshing from teammate and consummate Warriors mouthpiece Draymond Green, who asked when the new MVP would be supplying his roster with presents. Green referenced a story about about Kobe Bryant giving his teammates nice watches after winning the award, told to him by Warriors assistant and former Bryant teammate Luke Walton.
“I don’t know what kind of watches they were, but, I’ll beat that gift,” Curry said, and the undertone was obvious: I’m going to get you guys the present of rings, he all but said.
And so while Curry’s press conference was certainly touching, it also held more than a touch of the clinical air that has pervaded Golden State’s season. Under the leadership of Steph and head coach Steve Kerr, they’ve been a team on a ruthless mission, and their best player winning the league’s top individual honors seemed more like part of their procedure toward a championship than a culmination or a final step.
The Warriors continue their warpath tonight as they try to take a 2-0 series lead against the Memphis Grizzlies. We’ll see if the new MVP and Golden State can keep their undefeated 2015 playoff streak alive.
— John Wilmes
After three knee surgeries and almost 200 missed games, Derrick Rose has been forgotten by many as the one-time top threat to LeBron James’ throne over the Eastern Conference — which he and his team have represented in the NBA Finals for four straight seasons.
LeBron last squashed a Rose-led Bulls team with the Miami Heat in 2011, after Derrick became the youngest MVP in league history and led his team to 62 victories in Tom Thibodeau’s first year on the job as head coach.
A lot’s changed since then. James has won the MVP twice more, and Rose has been supplanted as the game’s brightest young point guard by Steph Curry, the winner of 2015’s award. But Chicago still stands as the biggest in-conference threat to LeBron, and the semi-finals matchup between the Bulls and his Cleveland Cavaliers is the most intriguing showdown of the Eastern season.
Much remains to be seen after a spate of regular season games between the two sides that didn’t reveal much — various injuries, and midseason trades, meant neither team had their ideal lineup or momentum at the same time. The most mysterious factor of the series, though, is how Cleveland will fare and adjust without starting forward Kevin Love, who’s out for the year after separating his shoulder.
Young Tristan Thompson has been a nightmare for the Bulls on the glass and will be asked to keep that up as he fills in for many of Love’s minutes. But Cleveland’s offensive versatility will suffer without the hyper-skilled big man, and Chicago should be able to take advantage.
Jimmy Butler can’t stop LeBron (no one can), but he can give the game’s best player enough trouble to limit his overall impact. A lot will fall on the plate of Kyrie Irving, and on Rose’s with the task to stop him. This will be a trying challenge, to be sure, but in the end Chicago will simply have more.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
— John Wilmes
Chris Paul has long been one of the NBA’s best players. But Saturday night, he ascended into the echelon of timeless legends. His inspired, hobbled performance in the Los Angeles Clippers’ Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, 111-109, goes straight into a pantheon including iconic showings from Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. If you didn’t see his game-winner, you missed one of the sport’s finest moments:
Taking down the defending champions may feel like an accomplishment grand enough to end a successful season, but there’s still a long road ahead of the Clippers. Now Paul has to lead L.A. against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Paul has a compromised hamstring, and his partner in crime Blake Griffin spent many of his resting minutes against San Antonio with copious amounts of ice strapped around his knees.
The Clippers’ shallow bench nearly undid them against the Spurs, but the elite talent of their front six was ultimately enough. Houston’s goal, after a swift five-game dismissal of the Dallas Mavericks, will be to continue wearing down the Clippers. Without the hounding Patrick Beverley (out for the season with a torn wrist ligament) to make Lob City truly pay for their injured leader, the Rockets will have to get creative.
Expect Houston’s bevy of terrific wing defenders to take turns exhausting Paul in the series, who may miss Game 1 tonight — he’s listed as day-to-day. Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer should be able to challenge CP3 in a way that the veteran Jason Terry, Beverley’s primary replacement, cannot.
Houston’s best weapon in their quest to take the Clippers’ worn-down bodies to the end of their year, though, may be Dwight Howard. While he’ll often have his hands full with the indefatigable DeAndre Jordan, he’ll also be expected to make life difficult for Griffin at the rim, and open up the court for James Harden as a pick-and-roll partner.
If the Clippers had a week to get right before this series started, they’d be the overwhelming favorites — that’s the status you earn for knocking off the champs. But they’ll have to beat their health issues, in addition to the formidable Rockets. This one’s all but a toss-up.
Prediction: Clippers in 7.
— John Wilmes