Who Will Get “Brown’ed” Next?

Under normal circumstances, a “coaches on the hot seat” blog would seem rather premature in week three of the NBA season. Of course, a campaign in which a coach in the league’s biggest markets gets fired five games in hardly qualifies as ‘normal circumstances’.

After Mike D’Antoni made his debut on the Lakers bench earlier this week, it seems like a good time to explore some coaching candidates who may get Mike Brown’ed in the not-too-distant future. But before that, let’s take a quick look at some coaches who may have seen their team get off to slow starts, but remain firmly entrenched in their position.

Dwane Casey has seen his Raptors stumble out to a disappointing 3-9 start, but it’ll take more than 12 games to take the shine off his star in Toronto, particularly after an off-season in which the team was built to correspond to his style of play (Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields, John Lucas III, Dominic McGuire and even rookie Terrence Ross are all aggressive defenders).

Monty Williams’ Hornets have won just three of their first 10 games, but have contended with key injuries (Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis) and still hold a great deal of respect for their coach.

Finally, Kevin McHale can hardly be blamed for his team’s 5-7 start, given the upheaval that came out of the James Harden trade and his continued efforts to get familiar with the system in Houston.

Now, for the real hot seat candidates:

Randy Wittman
The Washington Wizards are 0-10 and the core of their franchise does not seem impressed. Blaming the coach is probably the over-simplified, patchwork solution, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Is it unfair to scapegoat Wittman, who still hasn’t been on the Wizards’ bench for a full season after taking over for Flip Saunders last January? Yes, but at the same time, something has to be done to shake up a team in desperate need for a change of pace.

Keith Smart
Another hire from this past January, Smart is a popular, likable player’s coach on a Kings’ team that likely needs more of a butt-kicker. Even though all seems well in Sactown for now after their upset victory over the Lakers on Wednesday, certain problematic issues persist. The 3-8 squad still lacks any semblance of flow, with ball stoppers like Tyreke Evans, John Salmons and Marcus Thornton all firmly entrenched in a ‘shoot-first’ mindset. Up front, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t appear any closer to grasping that whole maturity thing (and may never be), as evidenced by an early season run-in with Spurs’ broadcaster Sean Elliott that netted Cousins a two-game suspension.

Lawrence Frank
The Pistons probably weren’t going to be a play-off team this season regardless, but it’s tough to accept what has been a step back in a year of supposed growth around franchise cornerstones Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. Moreover, Frank’s recent moves have come under scrutiny, including some telling comments from his own players. Will Bynum and Tayshaun Prince are just two of the players who have indirectly called out their coach, bringing into question rotations, substitution patterns and timeout usage during the club’s 2-10 start.

Frank Vogel
Yes, my list includes a man who has led his team to two consecutive years of significant improvement and finished third in voting for the Red Auerbach “Coach of the Year” trophy last year. However, Vogel could well wind up a victim of his own success. His Pacers are 6-7 in the midst of a season that began with them expecting to contend for the Eastern Conference Finals. They aren’t exactly dead in the water, but problems do exist, such as Paul George’s inability to take charge as a consistent, go-to scorer in the absence of Danny Granger and the failure of George Hill and/or DJ Augustin to assert their play-making presence on the offense. And yes, that is Brian Shaw sitting on the bench ready to step into a head coaching role.

Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.

Lucas Finds An Unlikely Fit

John Lucas III doesn’t look the part of a third-stringer.

The diminutive point guard carries himself with pride and purpose, and talks excitedly about what he and the rest of the Toronto Raptors feel that they can accomplish this season.

“I came here because I see this as a place where I can contribute by helping some of the young guys and doing my part to keep things going in the right direction,” says Lucas. “We know that we can be a playoff team.”

Lucas’ current standing as a third-on-the-depth-chart floor general on the Raptors says less about his own abilities and more about the newfound depth that the club’s off-season additions have afforded them at the position. Kyle Lowry came over from the Rockets via trade in what was the team’s biggest move of the summer. With Jose Calderon already in tow, Lucas knew where he stood when he signed with Toronto in late July.

However, the soon-to-be-30-year-old doesn’t sound like a guy disappointed with his lot in life.

“I love it here,” Lucas says emphatically. ”I’ve been telling all my friends back home that Toronto is a mix of San Francisco and New York combined. […] It’s very liberal, very free-spirited – like San Fran, but then there’s the hustle and the go-go-go lifestyle, like New York. […] Plus, I’ve already gotten to know the team a bit and it’s a great group of guys here.”

For Raptors fans, it’s refreshing to hear from a player who is not only proud to play in Toronto, but carries high expectations and believes in the organization’s prospects.

In some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising considering the parallels between the player and his new team. For one thing, they are both underdogs – Lucas is a scrappy 5’11 ball handler (if Lowry is the bulldog among Toronto point guards, Lucas is more the chihuahua) who went undrafted despite leading Oklahoma State to the Final Four and has toiled in the CBA and NBDL. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been outside the playoff picture for five years and are never mentioned as players for marquee free agents.

For another thing, they both enter this season having made some strides in the previous campaign. In 2011-12, Lucas struggled to simply find a spot on the Chicago Bulls’ roster, getting cut and re-signed on two separate occasions during the season. He ultimately found a permanent role in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s groin injury and thrived, pouring in 25 points off the bench against Miami and helping the Bulls to an 8-4 record in the absence of their star (he didn’t fare quite so well in a disappointing playoff run).

For the Raptors, the gains were more modest. Under new head coach Dwane Casey, the club’s increased commitment to defence helped them to a one-win improvement in spite of playing 16 fewer games.

In spite of his current third-string status, Lucas can still be expected to carry a significant role within Casey’s system. He brings energy, character and intangibles, all of which fit within the club’s new culture. On top of that, he brings the type of reliable jumper (50% shooting and 13.7 points per game through three pre-season games) that the team so desperately needs in light of last year’s bottom third league finish in scoring average and field goal and three-point percentage.

For a second straight season, Lucas’ big opportunity may come from unfortunate circumstances surrounding a teammate. While an injury is always possible, a likely scenario also exists in a move involving Calderon. Long-standing trade talk concerning the Spanish veteran got even louder this summer, to the point where GM Bryan Colangelo publicly acknowledged it, admitting that ”you have to look at Jose’s [expiring] contract as something that would be a vehicle to accomplish [a deal]”.

Regardless of how things play out, Lucas with be ready to seize any opportunity as it presents itself.

Good Vibes in Raptor Land (No, Really)

Kyle Lowry called it a “new chapter.”

To Landry Fields, its “starting fresh.”

Even for head coach Dwane Casey, its a “chance to set new goals and aim towards new achievements.”

Call it what you will, but Toronto Raptors’ media day was rife with excitement, anticipation and, above all else, ambition for the season that lies ahead. Even the “P”-word, a term seldom heard within team circles in recent years, was being thrown around confidently, almost defiantly.

“This year, we really believe that we can make the playoffs,” says third-year power forward Ed Davis, who had grown accustomed to winning in high school and in college at UNC before enduring two postseason-less NBA seasons in Toronto. “[Last year,] we said it but I don’t think everyone bought into it, but this year they’re like ‘that’s what we want to do’. There’s no BS – everyone thinks we can make it.”

At the risk of getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back. At the beginning of training camp, hope springs eternal and just about every club likes their postseason prospects. Newcomers breathe life into each roster, rookies are being favorably compared to past legends, vets are being lauded for their off-season developmental strides and every team is on even-footing, record-wise.

As Casey puts it, “29 other teams also think they’re improved heading into the season.”

And yet, in Toronto, there is a level of evidence behind the self-belief that is hard to ignore. The foundation was set last year as Casey led a talent-thin club to an increased win total in 16 fewer games and instilled a defensive mindset that bumped the Raptors’ ‘D’ all the way up to 12th after finishing the prior season ranked dead last. This season is about infusing that blue print with the right group of players (even if ‘Plan A’ target Steve Nash didn’t come on board).

Lowry (‘Plan B’ to Nash’s ‘Plan A’) is unmistakeably a Casey guy – a defence-orientated physical force who will out-muscle most opposing point guards.  Fields, meanwhile, represented the expensive (three years, $20 million) fallout to the failed bid for Nash, but he could now serve as part of the solution at the small forward position and was identified by GM Bryan Colangelo as a potential glue guy for the Raptors.

“They both go a long way towards furthering what we’re trying to do here,” says Colangelo of the two new likely starters. “Kyle has shown a knack for setting a physical tone and has grown into a solid play maker, while Landry brings that character element we’re looking for and will really help bring some competition for minutes at the wing spots. […] It’s great to have both these guys on board.”

Rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are new additions in their own right, making their NBA debuts after being selected by the Raptors in consecutive drafts (2011 and 2012, respectively). Ross is part of what Colangelo identified as the team’s improved long range shooting, as well as a source of competition for entrenched starter DeMar DeRozan at the two-guard position. As for Valanciunas…

“On the court, I’m [always] hungry. I expect to win,” says the Lithuanian rookie, who was a bundle of nerves upon facing a big North American media scrum for the first time. “I’m a high energy guy. I like running down the court, I like rebounding, blocking shots. I like to play hard.”

As the Raptors head east to kick off training camp in Halifax, its clear that the players have already “bought in”. It will take some on-court proof before the team’s long-suffering fanbase to follow suit, but the prevalent sight on media day was a squad that firmly believes in the direction in which they’re headed.

NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.

Sullinger, Jones And The Burden of Scrutiny

The smile on Jared Sullinger’s face was hardly indicative of the frustration he was experiencing upon being faced with the same health-related questions and criticisms he was hearing for the umpteenth time.

“Not really,” says Sullinger in response to whether reports of his back issues have been getting to him. “Most of [the reporters] have never even played the game before, so what can they say?”

One could argue that young NBA prospects have never been better prepared to endure the public scrutiny, attention and second-guessing that comes with their introduction to the pros. Of course, one could also argue that the degree of scrutiny, attention or second-guessing has never been higher.

Regardless, these are still young men in their early 20’s being forced to contend with a repetitive and often vaguely attacking line of questioning as they continue to position themselves ahead of next Friday’s draft.

On Thursday in Toronto, in what Raptors’ vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski called “a real heavyweight workout”, Ohio State’s Sullinger showcased his abilities against Baylor’s Perry Jones III, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and UNC’s John Henson. The common thread among all four is their status as prospective NBA big men.

But, at least in the case of Sullinger and Jones III, there is a common chip to be found on their broad shoulders.

Sullinger’s prickliness, in particular, was on display on Thursday, a surprise from a player with a reputation for being mild-mannered. But while some may be quick to chalk his moody, snappy disposition up to being an immature 20-year old, it may not be that simple.

Think about things from his perspective: you are coming off two successful years as the go-to guy with the Buckeyes and are now working towards draft day through continued battles with a group of rival power forward prospects while so many others shy away from competitive workouts. And yet, all you’ve encountered along the way is negativity – questions about your health, your draft stock, your decision not to go pro a year earlier and, ironically, reports of a potentially costly red flag from NBA doctors even as you participate in full contact drills.

Jones III, who has participated in several workouts already with Sullinger, can relate.

The athletic 6’11” forward boasts a muscular physique and 7’2″ wingspan, prompting many observers to expect more out of him that what he displayed in two years at Baylor (13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds). Despite playing a critical role as a scoring and passing threat out of the post on two talented Bears squads that also featured Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, questions about Jones’ motor were still rampant.

“I can’t worry about what’s being said about me or what people think I should do different,” says Jones. “[…] For me, it’s all about finding a way to block out a lot of what the critics are saying but, at the same time, also use it as motivation.”

Who’s to say that there isn’t any legitimacy to the criticisms being levied at this trio of prospects? It’s hard to see Sullinger’s injury reports being completely baseless and Stefanski wasn’t ready to extinguish the speculation when asked about the health of the former Buckeye (he would only say that “our doctors will look at everything”).

Meanwhile, the unpredictability of Jones, perhaps, best illustrated through the 20-year-old’s projected “Best Case / Worst Case” comparables on DraftExpress.com (best case: Rudy Gay / Josh Smith hybrid, worst case: Yi Jianlian).

At this stage, no one – not even Anthony Davis – is a sure thing. As with so many other drafts, there will likely be a player to fall through the cracks on account of over-evaluation.

If it turns out to be one of these men, it will represent yet another case of nitpicking taken too far.

Miami’s Role Players Got It Done

Nearly every game of the 2012 NBA Finals has been decided late in the fourth quarter – and things weren’t looking great for the Miami Heat as things got deeper into the final frame of Game 4.

LeBron James was hobbled with leg cramps and, despite a clutch three with under three minutes to play, required two bench stints late.  Dwyane Wade played through, but appeared to be slowed by some lower back soreness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, Russell Westbrook was playing like a man possessed, scoring 17 of his 43 points in the fourth.

Enter Mario “Mother—-ing” Chalmers.

Chalmers answered his point guard counterpart with 12 fourth quarter points (25 in total), including his team’s final five to preserve what was just a three-point, one-possession lead. His numbers were certainly boosted by Westbrook’s ill-advised three-shot foul with five seconds remaining on the shot clock (13.8 on the game clock), but the Kansas alum still had to convert his three crucial free throws to send his team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

On Tuesday, Chalmers filled the Shane Battier role. That is, the secondary Heat player to shine during these NBA Finals and, arguably, play as significant role as that of the Big Three. Battier was held to just one made three-pointer in Game 4, snapping a multi-trey streak in the Finals that had seen him make 11 shots from deep (compared to just four misses) over the first three games against the Thunder.

Earlier in the game, it had been little-used guards Norris Cole and James Jones who helped stabilize a listless Heat squad that seemed to be lacking energy. All of their 11 combined points (in addition to 3-5 shooting from long range) came in a first half that was dominated by Oklahoma City. Cole’s driving lay-up shot late in the first quarter stopped the bleeding after what was a 10-0 Thunder run, while his three at the buzzer of the opening quarter provided some life to his team despite a double digit deficit and sparked a 16-0 Miami run (they never trailed by more than five the rest of the way).

Yes, it’s been the play of James, Wade and Chris Bosh that has gotten the Heat to within one victory of an NBA championship, but every title hopeful needs supporting role players to step up when the situation calls for it.

It turns out that the critics who suggested three players couldn’t win a championship were right; good thing that the Heat’s Big Three have had help.

Warts Begin To Show For Young Thunder

It’s a credit to Kevin Durant and co. that it’s taken as long as it has for the Oklahoma City Thunder to have come under scrutiny and to face legitimate questions about whether they are ready to win a title.

However, after leaving little room for criticism through three rounds of exceptional play and an inspired showing over the first two games of the NBA Finals, the team’s inherent inexperience finally began to reveal itself in Sunday night’s Game 3 loss.

A team’s performance is dictated from the top down and, for perhaps the first time this postseason, the Thunder didn’t get the spark they were hoping for from their franchise star. After owning the fourth quarter through two games, Durant’s foul situation left him timid offensively and looking decidedly out of sorts. He had as many made field goals in the final frame as turnovers (two) and missed his only two free throws of the quarter.

As bad as Durant’s crunch time scoring was, his defensive miscues may have proven more costly. The 23-year-old has gradually allowed himself to be goaded into a primarily one-on-one battle with LeBron James during the series, which contributed to his aforementioned foul trouble (he picked up his fourth mid-way through the third quarter and his fifth with nearly four minutes remaining in what was a six-point game).

That fifth foul was particularly ill-advised, coming on a hard-charging James without offering much resistance to his field goal attempt from in close.

Of course, Durant’s performance wasn’t without its positives (25 points, 11-19 shooting) and, to be fair, it isn’t as though he was the lone blue-clad performer to underwhelm. Late in the third quarter, with OKC still clinging to a nine-point lead, the club committed an inexcusable set of back-to-back fouls on Heat shooters beyond the arc. Over-zealous play on the part of Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher, who should certainly know better, gave Shane Battier and James Jones six free throw attempts (they converted all of them) and shifted momentum firmly towards Miami.

Westbrook, meanwhile, was another case altogether. After taking a defiant tone after Game 2 in expressing his unwillingness to alter his attacking style of play, the Thunder point guard’s strong resolve continued to cost his club. The UCLA product remained a ball stopper and rhythm killer, failing to get perimeter shooters like James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Fisher (combined 8-26 shooting) involved.

That Scott Brooks benched Westbrook for a five-minute stretch of the third quarter indicates that the 23-year-old’s individualism is becoming a problem for his team.

As is the case with so many young teams, turnovers also became a problem late for the Thunder (14 in the game, five in the fourth quarter). While they weren’t as costly as they could have been (Miami actually scored only two fourth quarter points off turnovers), they did rob OKC of a must-score possession with 16.2 seconds remaining and spoke volumes of a team that appears to be growing increasingly unsure of themselves.

To say that the Thunder are blowing the series is both overly simplistic and unfair to both Finals teams. After all, Sunday’s game saw them lose by just a six-point margin to a Heat squad that is playing some of their best basketball of the year (you can’t blame Durant for failing to stop James when no one in the league can do so).

Still, cracks in the Thunder’s veneer are beginning to reveal themselves and they could have significant implications over the rest of these NBA Finals.

The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[…] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.

Why The 2-3-2 Format Doesn’t Work

For a guy who has spent the past 25 years overseeing the development of the NBA into the major money-making entity that it is today, you’d think David Stern would be inclined to embrace progressive change. But ask him about the NBA Finals’ 2-3-2 format, and he ultimately harkens back to complaints from legendary Celtics head coach Red Auerbach about how play quality declines late in play-off series as jet lag and travel-related fatigue sets in.

These would be legitimate, viable concerns were they not about a quarter century out of date, made at a time when air travel was far from luxurious for tall, long-legged individuals and basketball players, in general, were not offered the cushy star treatment they currently enjoy. In addition to enjoying favorable treatment, today’s star player is better conditioned and is accustomed to an 82-game regular season grind across 30 NBA cities with numerous games occurring in back-to-back situations.

All this to say that “travel fatigue” no longer holds up as an adequate explanation for an archaic play-off format that seems to have no redeeming element beyond saving teams a few bucks in travel costs.

As the team with a better regular season record in a given play-off series (as the Lakers are in these NBA Finals), you have earned the added benefit of an additional home game and to be on your own turf should a decisive Game 7 be required. It seems like an unfair advantage, however, to award that team with the final two games in a series. As it stands, even if the Celtics were to claim their two remaining games at home, they would still have to win one of two games in L.A.

Compare that to the more traditional 2-2-1-1-1 set-up, whereby the Celtics – in keeping with the hypothetical scenario from the previous paragraph – would be heading home from L.A. up 3-2 instead of bidding farewell to the TD Garden. Meanwhile, if the Lakers can build on their 2-1 series lead over the next two games, they either win the series outright or head home with two opportunities to clinch the title.

In the World Series and Stanley Cup Finals, each team is afforded at least one potential series-deciding home game in the event of a seven-game series. In any potential Game 6, the team without home court advantage (in this case, the Celtics) hosts either with their backs against the wall or with a chance to clinch. In Game 7, the team with home court advantage would be guaranteed to host with the series knotted up at three games apiece. Now, in the NBA Finals, unless the Lakers triumph in Game 4, any series-deciding game will take place at the Staples Center.

It may seem a bit overblown to critique the distribution of home games over the course of a seven-game series when, regardless of who plays where in which game, there will still be four home games allocated for one team and three for the other. But even if you are to accept that the order of the games doesn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, it still seems strikingly illogical to not have consistency across the entire postseason.

Yes, the 2-3-2 format is exclusive property of the Finals and does not apply to any other play-off round leading up to it. When Los Angeles secured their spot in the Finals at the conclusion of their six-game Western Conference Final against the Suns, they did so in front of a hostile Phoenix crowd, a factor they won’t have to worry about once Game 6 of the Finals rolls around.

It simply defies logic to maintain a certain format through three rounds of play, only to abandon it once the ultimate, deciding series takes place.

So maybe none of it really matters. After all, through three Finals games so far, the road team has taken two. It certainly shouldn’t be the first item on Stern’s to-do list moving forward (I’ll save my officiating rant for another day).

But, there is something inherently unfair, outdated and inconsistent about the 2-3-2 format and it’s time to move on.

Marshall, Lillard Have Questions To Answer

Kendall Marshall and Damian Lillard are both point guard, but that’s where the similarities end.

Marshall is the steady floor general – a pass-first playmaker who had more assists (9.8) than points (8.1) per game last season as the creator for the talent-laden North Carolina Tar Heels.

Lillard is tougher to get a grasp on, based on his do-it-all career as the first (and, really, only) scoring option as a member of the mid-major Weber State Wildcats. What we do know is that he is a fast-rising competitor with an NBA-ready shot who is coming off a four-year college career.

Awkward as comparisons between the two very different players may be, they are inherently necessary for lottery teams who may be in need of point guard help, such as the Toronto Raptors.

Executive vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski, the designated team voice after draft workouts on Tuesday involving the two prospects, stopped short of drawing any comparisons, but highlighted their inherent differences in describing Marshall and Lillard individually.

“[Marshall’s] basketball IQ is very, very good and he sees the floor well,” says Stefanski of the North Carolina product.

On Lillard, the former Nets’ and Sixers’ GM focused on an entirely different set of qualities.

“He’s a tough kid – he competes,” says Stefanski. “He comes from a smaller school than these other guys and I think that’s part of his competition and his willingness to work hard.”

That’s not to say that Marshall isn’t tough, nor does it suggest that Lillard isn’t a smart basketball player. It does, however, speak to the difficulties of the whole draft process, particularly when agents typically don’t allow for one-on-one workouts between similarly-projected players.

For example, Marshall appeared in an afternoon session against lower-rated prospects like Devoe Joseph, while Lillard’s workout saw him fly solo.

While they didn’t go up against one another on Tuesday (in a literal sense, anyway), they are both battling heavy scrutiny over perceived areas of weakness through the draft workout process.

For Marshall, the Toronto stop marked his first workout coming off a wrist injury that was actually revealed to be an elbow injury.

“I fractured my elbow as well,” acknowledges Marshall. “The doctors never looked at it until about three weeks ago, so it was a late development. I wish I could’ve started my rehab earlier, but thankfully it’s not something that would’ve took surgery, so it’s just a matter of time.”

The 20-year-old isn’t in denial about the effects of the injury, but he is encouraged by its early progress and believes that he should be ready to go sooner rather than later.

“It felt pretty good,” replies Marshall when asked about the arm after Tuesday’s workout. “Obviously there’s still some soreness, some pain, but I’m able to get through it. My conditioning isn’t where I want it to be, but it’s still at a good level so I’m excited about moving forward from here.”

For Lillard, it’s a question of competition – specifically how the level of competition he faced at Weber State will translate in the pros. The Wildcats, after all, went 14-2 in the notoriously weak Big Sky Conference last season before dropping the Conference championship 85-66 to Montana. Although, to be fair, the loss can’t be blamed on the 22-year-old, who tallied 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the game.

While Marshall played with three other potential lottery picks (Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller), Lillard feels that he was able to develop a multifaceted game by being a do-it-all player. He does, however, acknowledge that it’ll be nice to take a slightly scaled back role on a more balanced NBA club.

“That’s something I’m looking forward to,” Lillard admits,” not having a huge responsibility and having to carry a team. I can show off other parts of my game.”

With no point guard expected to go in the top five and only two likely to be lottery picks come June 28, the ‘one’ isn’t exactly a strong position heading into the deep 2012 draft. No wonder, then, that the two top players at the position both face significant unresolved questions.

How Marshall and Lillard answer those questions will speak volumes of their maturity and preparation as NBA players.

Why I’m Cheering For Miami

If you’re looking for insightful projections into just what will happen once the NBA Finals kick off in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, you can find the two cents of many Hoops Addict correspondents here. This piece comes less from the perspective of an NBA analyst and more from a fan of the game, as well as its narrative.

The fundamental storyline of these Finals leans heavily in favor of the Thunder. Among the leading men of the two clubs, Miami’s LeBron James is the hated villain for a generation of fans unwilling to forget his painfully misguided “Decision”, while OKC’s Kevin Durant is the anti-LeBron – a down-to-Earth superstar that quietly re-upped with the franchise that drafted him while James and co. were doing this.

There are, however, two main issues with this overly simplistic outline of what will be a multi-layered series. Not only is it an outdated take that fails to account for James’ recent growth as both a player and a person (as well as the exceptionally unique pressure he faces), but it fails to acknowledge the rest of what are two diverse, varied rosters of interesting players.

But first, a few words on James. Much has changed since he turned the better part of the country against him and the Heat by taking his talents to South Beach. His tone-deaf demonstrations of self praise and premature celebration have been replaced by a hoodie-wearing symbol of support for Trayvon Martin in precisely the type of socially conscious display that superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been famously loathe to engage in.

On the basketball side of things, he has been lauded as a great teammate who is leading by example in both selflessness and worth ethic. While LeBron critics may choose to focus in on his disappearing act during the 2010-11 postseason, his 2011-12 playoff stat line currently reads 30.8/9.6/5.1.

At the same time, while the public perception of the 27-year-old may not have changed much, there might be at least a partially enhanced understanding of just what it’s like to be in his shoes. A Newsday story from last week features the now-famous words of teammate Shane Battier explaining what life is like for LBJ:

“He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.”

James’ team-first approach may have been helped along by his inherently likable supporting cast. Dwyane Wade has officially ceded top dog duty his younger and more physically imposing teammate, but he retains far-reaching popularity that has pretty well remained untainted by anti-Heat backlash.

Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was maligned as the undeserving member of the “Big 3″ before finding success this season by growing comfortable in his third-option role and even serving as an emotional rallying point in his Conference Finals return.

Outside of the three dominant personalities of the Heat, several character guys round out a roster of players who seem to genuinely enjoy each other. Battier has lost a step, but continues to be a valuable glue guy and reigns as a much-respected veteran in the locker room. Ronny Turiaf and Juwan Howard aren’t getting consistent minutes, but they both offer visible support from the bench.

Meanwhile, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller have all learned how to best complement their superstar teammates while not being afraid to get their own looks (Chalmers, in particular, has no problem taking open shots in clutch situations).

No disrespect to the equally (if not more) likable Thunder, but this is LeBron’s time. Lost in the digital, 24-hour news cycle age is the pure simplicity of watching the greats win. Durant (and, to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook) may well be among those greats, but he’s also just 23 with plenty of prime years ahead of him. With James turning 28 later this year, he is firmly within what should be his prime.

When he earns himself an NBA championship ring (even if he doesn’t win six, or seven, or eight…), we will have all been witnesses.

Clippers Ride Their Reserves Into Round Two

As the Los Angeles Clippers pursued their first playoff series victory since 2006 and just their second since 1976, you had to know that entry into the second round wouldn’t come in routine fashion.

So it was natural, then, that securing a date with the Spurs in the Western Conference semis required a full seven games and a win on the road in the deciding Game 7 with the Clippers’ star tandem (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) hobbled. Leave it to L.A.’s previously perennial laughingstocks to slumber through three fairly uninspired quarters of the decisive game, only to unexpectedly come alive with a 27-16 fourth quarter eruption to seal the series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

In a way, it brings to mind the achievements of their lovable loser brother-in-arms from the soccer world, Manchester City, who rallied with two injury time goals on Sunday to win their first English Premier League championship in 44 years.

Although Paul is being credited with legitimizing the club after an off-season trade from New Orleans and Griffin continues to be one of the NBA’s foremost must-see players, they were nowhere to be found when the Clips went on their difference-making run. Instead, it was the unit internally known as “the Goon Squad,” the unlikely quintet of Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young and Mo Williams, that turned what had been a one-point deficit to start the fourth into a 71-61 advantage during what was a 15-5 run.

Going back to the beginning of the season, there was no guarantee that any of the five men would even be in Lob City right now. Martin opened the 2011-12 season in China after signing a one-year deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers during the lockout (he was free to sign with Los Angeles on February 3). Evans was a free agent without many suitors (he wasn’t even offered a contract by his former team, the bottom-feeding Toronto Raptors). Bledsoe began the season on the sidelines while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and, like Williams, faced heavy competition for minutes in the backcourt from Paul, Randy Foye and Chauncey Billups. Young was one of several talented headaches the going-nowhere Washington Wizards.

But for a 6:14 stretch in the club’s biggest game of the season, all five men put any talk of the Clippers being a three-man team (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) on the back burner (not to mention all the flopping / whining talk targeting the team). Instead, they’ve offered up hope of depth, which will be a key issue going into their second round encounter with the firing-on-all-cylinders Spurs.

We don’t know the extent of Paul’s groin woes or Griffin’s sprained knee, but anything less than 100% will be problematic. Paul will need to be at full health to keep Tony Parker in check, while a healthy, explosive Griffin would have a big opportunity to exploit San Antonio’s weakness in playing above the rim.

Once again, then, the secondary Clips will have a chance to come up big. Evans will be asked to bang down low against Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair, while Martin will have to get his mid-range game going (he did on Sunday with 11 points on 5-7 shooting). Bledsoe will be critical in easing the pressure on Paul and may even get the bulk of the Parker assignment. Young and Williams, meanwhile, will look to offer long range shooting options, while also trying to keep San Antonio’s impressive group of young supporting players (Danny Green, Gary Neal and James Anderson) at bay.

You won’t see many folks projecting much more than maybe one victory for the Clippers in their second round tilt (including in our own, well-written series preview). Of course, those same people probably wouldn’t have projected a team needing  to rely on significant, Game 7 production from Martin-Evans-Bledsoe-Young-Williams – and to get it.

The Year Of The Coach

Last fall, once the lockout was settled and the shortened, 66-game schedule was set into motion, much analysis hinged on the nature of the schedule and its effects. Would young teams hold a distinct edge? How prevalent would injuries become? What damage would the dreaded back-to-back-to-back sets do?

While the slate was certainly grueling and claimed its fair share of casualties, it also brought out the best among the NBA’s coaching fraternity, rewarding those who best managed their roster through the trials and tribulations of 66 games in 120 days.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls reigned atop their respective Western and Eastern Conferences at season’s end and earned No. 1 seeds in the postseason. Popovich, who earned his second career Red Auerbach Trophy on Tuesday as the 2011-12 Coach of the Year, masterfully controlled Tim Duncan’s minutes and incorporated a slew of no-name role players, while Thibodeau, the previous Auerbach recipient, kept his Bulls committed even as Derrick Rose suffered through an injury-marred campaign.

Pops helped his aging star stay fresh and survive the grind by keeping Duncan to a career-low 28.2 minutes per game while resting him through eight contests (including being tagged with a “DNP-Old” in March). In his place, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and, most recently, Boris Diaw filled the void up front. While Popovich was managing Duncan’s minutes, he also eased the burden on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli by successfully incorporating under-rated assets like Danny Green, Gary Neal, James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard. Through two postseason games vs. Utah, only Parker has averaged more than 30 minutes, while nine other Spurs have played 13.5 or more minutes per game.

In Chicago, Thibodeau has been facing the music after leaving Rose in the game in the final minutes of a Game 1 blowout over Philly, a decision which led to the reigning MVP’s season-ending ACL tear. However, the second-year coach also oversaw a 50-win Bulls team that led the league in both opposing points per game (88.17), as well as their own rebounds per game (46.67).  That being said, the club’s first Rose-less playoff effort was underwhelming and ‘Thibs’ will be critical in helping Chicago bounce back as the series shifts to Philadelphia.

Beyond the Conference leaders, coaches have wielded – and will continue to wield – significant influence in the play of their club. The Spurs are up against the Jazz and head coach Tyrone Corbin, who has quickly transitioned past Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan on the strength of a front line that includes Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and building blocks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, as well as the play of a re-energized Devin Harris. The Bulls, meanwhile, are deadlocked through two games at 1-1, with Doug Collins serving as the opposing Sixers’ emotional impetus. Since taking over from Eddie Jordan after Philly suffered through a 27-win campaign, Collins has led the club to consecutive playoff appearances.

Popovich and Thibodeau finished 1-2 in Coach of the Year voting, but it wasn’t for a lack of other worthy candidates. Frank Vogel engineered a balanced, cohesive (albeit star-less) group of Pacers to their best record since 2004-05. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy navigated his team through the Dwight Howard saga (of which he was centrally involved) and has kept them believing in themselves without Howard in tow. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and OKC’s Scotty Brooks continued to massage the egos of their respective superstar talents and helped boost them by incorporating an improved group of supporting players. Even Rick Carlisle, who didn’t exactly get his Dallas Mavericks off to the type of title defense they had hoped for, helped establish a team-oriented defensive identity that (somewhat) made up for the loss of newly-named Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.

In a season that challenged coaches to balance their rotations and navigate their key players through a demanding grind, it’s fitting that some of the league’s best withstood the challenges. If you’re looking to examine the best coaching minds in the NBA, you could do worse than starting with Popovich and Thibodeau.

 

Postseason’s Subtle Impact Players

They aren’t quite the kind of world-renown superstars that can be easily identified by just their first names, ala LeBron, Kobe, Dwayne, Dirk, Carmelo and Dwight. They also aren’t primed to win the NBA scoring title (Kevin Durant) or reigning as league MVP (Derrick Rose).

However, they could still shift the balance of this year’s playoffs and, potentially, represent the difference for their clubs between a deep run and a first round exit. Here are a few of the prospective game changers that could shape the postseason.

Tony Allen
Arguably the league’s best perimeter defender, Allen is a major part of the reason that the Memphis Grizzlies are viewed as a potential wild card in the wide open Western Conference. He will be of particular value in a first round tilt with the L.A. Clippers, as he will get the bulk of the defensive assignment on Chris Paul, but could be switched off to defend Caron Butler, Nick Young and even Blake Griffin.

Ramon Sessions
Going from filling a back-up point guard role on a lottery-bound Cavs team to a starting job with the Lakers might have made Sessions the biggest trade deadline winner. After improving his points and assists averages out West, he’s offered every indication that he can be a meaningful contributor to the Lake Show this postseason. L.A. will either meet Dallas or Denver in first round action, meaning that Sessions will be matched up against either Jason Kidd or Ty Lawson. In either scenario, the 26-year-old should hold a distinct edge at the position.

Jameer Nelson
No one has stepped up to fill the Dwight Howard void in Orlando quite like Nelson, who has averaged 16.6 points and 7.6 assists per game since Howard’s season – and, possibly, his Magic tenure – came to a close at the end of March (note: I excluded an April 22 game in Denver in which Nelson played just two minutes). Nelson isn’t the only Magic player who could take charge, but he’s historically seen his scoring rise in the postseason (14.9 career playoff scoring average to 12.4 in the regular season) while other void-filling candidates on the Magic like Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson have seen their scoring decline come the NBA’s second season.

Al Jefferson
It’s been a long journey back to the playoffs for Jefferson, who will snap a seven-year drought this spring. He will lead a hungry Utah Jazz team that relies heavy on its young rotation of talented bigs that, aside from the former Celtic, includes Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. As the underdog No. 8 seeds heading into a series against the No. 1 San Antonio Spurs, Jefferson and his frontcourt cohorts (the Jazz own the league’s third-best rebounding average) offer one of the few distinct advantages held by Utah. They may be able to own the paint against Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter.

Avery Bradley
It would seem overly simplistic to suggest that Boston’s turn-around this season could be credited to the insertion of Bradley into the starting five if the numbers didn’t back it up. Since the University of Texas star stepped in for Ray Allen at the shooting guard spot on March 25, the club has gone 13-4 in Bradley’s 17 of 18 games started. At a time when 14 of the previous 15 Defensive Player of the Year winners have been big men and, outside of Allen, elite perimeter defenders seem to be on the decline (Shane Battier, Metta World Peace), Bradley seems to be staking his claim at the next great stopper on the wing.