In this week’s HoopsHabit Hangout show, my fellow writers and I debate the Southwest with a division preview. Fans of the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, feel free to tune in!
No one can question that the Miami Heat were the better team in Game 7. But here’s my HoopsHabit article on why the San Antonio Spurs let this series slip away in Game 6
With their fifth NBA Finals appearance since drafting Tim Duncan, the question has to be asked: are the San Antonio Spurs a dynasty? Here’s my HoopsHabit article on what a fifth NBA title would do for the the legacies of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in general.
Now that the playoffs are just a few hours away, let’s take a look at the high-octane first round matchups in the Western Conference and make some predictions about the keys to each series and who will advance to the next round.
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets
The big headline here is obvious: James Harden, who has developed into a superstar for the Houston Rockets after being traded just a week before the start of the season, will face off against his old team in a potentially high scoring series in the first round. And most people are pretty excited about the way things worked out with the Rockets and Thunder squaring off while the Lakers moved up to the seven spot to play a long-time playoff rival in San Antonio. But I was actually really bummed the Rockets lost and dropped to the eighth spot in the West. Why? Because the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely advance in four maybe five games. This series will not be close. I know people fall in love with the stories that accompany playoff series, and I would love to see Harden come out firing and exact revenge for being given away so unceremoniously. But this is Harden’s first year being the go-to guy for his team, which he’s acknowledged himself. Just watch the last few minutes of the Rockets-Lakers game the other night if you have any doubts that Harden still has room to grow and needs to be more confident and clutch when his team struggles down the stretch. Oklahoma City owns the season series against Houston 2-1, which makes it seem like Houston has a remote chance here. But in the two victories, the Thunder won by an average of 26 points. In the one defeat, OKC lost by three. That doesn’t leave me very optimistic that Houston has a realistic chance of unseating the top seed in the West.
Keys to the series: Defense. Since Kevin Durant and company actually play defense and lead the league in blocks, the Rockets’ high-powered offense won’t be able to overshadow their weak defense in a seven-game series. The Thunder have another advantage because they know how Harden plays and Thabo Sefolosha is perfectly capable of limiting him even if he does get hot. And we haven’t even mentioned Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook yet. Do the Rockets have anyone even remotely capable of stopping these two from averaging 30 points a game? Is Jeremy Lin going to be able to stop Westbrook’s penetration? Does anyone have the size on the wings to slow down KD? The answer to both those questions is no. Harden and the Rockets’ 3-point barrage may carry them to one fluke victory, but I fully expect this series to disappoint many people’s high expectations.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 4 games
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers:
I wanted a Rocket-Spurs matchup. San Antonio is banged up and has had a hard time stopping James Harden this season, which could have extended the series and even lead to a possible upset if the Rockets caught fire and the Spurs continued to limp along. But I will say that a Spurs-Lakers postseason series is always good for the NBA’s ratings. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ recent hot streak doesn’t give me a lot of confidence they can knock off the Spurs in this first-round matchup. Yes Tony Parker hasn’t looked like himself lately and yes, Manu Ginobili’s health is as frail as a 70-year-old woman these days, but if they can manage these injuries, I don’t think the Lakers can compete here. As vulnerable as San Antonio seems right now, a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant has a very small chance of winning this series without help in the form of Spurs injuries and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol absolutely dominating the interior like we haven’t seen all season. Tracy McGrady may finally get his first playoff series win.
Keys to the series: Coaching, injuries and intangibles. Mike D’Antoni got coach of the month in the Western Conference for the month of April. I find that hilarious, because the Spurs have a HUGE advantage on the coaching front in this series. I’m calling this right now: Gregg Popovich will win a close game for his team (or Mike D’Antoni will lose one). As far as injuries are concerned, this series will hinge on whether or not Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can stay healthy. Steve Nash’s health may be a factor here, but if Parker and Duncan play like they have for the majority of the season, Nash’s presence won’t make much of a difference other than having a negative impact on the defensive end trying to stop Parker. As far as intangibles are concerned, this refers primarily to Steve Blake. Blake has been on fire recently, but can we expect that to continue against a quality team for a seven-game series? If LA wants to shock the world, Blake and guys like Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark have to step up and knock down threes. I don’t see that happening consistently enough to make up for Kobe’s absence though.
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors:
There’s legitimate concern that Denver is vulnerable with Danilo Gallinari out and Ty Lawson barely getting over that lingering heel injury just recently. But the Nuggets and all their interchangeable parts are built like Medusa: you cut one head off, three more take its place. They are the only team in the NBA that could challenge the Clippers for the title of “deepest bench in the NBA” and their up-tempo offense and home-court advantage will be too much for the young Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry may take a game or two on his own, but the Nuggets went 38-3 at home this year. THEY DON’T LOSE AT HOME. Denver won the season series 3-1 and the one game they lost was by one point on the road.
Keys to the series: Home-court, experience and shot selection. As well as Mark Jackson has done since taking over the Warriors and even though Golden State’s hot shooting may help them win a game or two, don’t forget that this is the first playoff series for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes. Denver has been here before and looks poised for a playoff run even without Gallo. Then add in the fact that Denver doesn’t lose at home and that they lead the league in scoring (106.1 ppg) and fast break points (20.1 ppg) and it’s hard to see Golden State pulling off the upset. The Warriors score in transition as well, but most of those buckets come from threes, which don’t always stay consistent in the postseason. Denver scores in the paint and plays defense, two areas that are huge in the playoffs.
Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 6 games
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies:
This should be the best matchup of the first round, with the Grizzlies and Clippers going head-to-head for the second year in a row. Lob City advanced in a thrilling seven-game series last year and the teams are just as evenly balanced as they were last year. This is a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. The Grizzlies play stifling D and have an advantage in the interior with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Clippers are deep, fast and have the leadership of Chris Paul to guide them. I expect this to be a pretty close series and there will be plenty of lapses in scoring, but the majority of theses games will be exciting to watch down the stretch and come down to the wire.
Keys to the series: Tempo, bench production and turnovers. The Clippers want to get out and score in transition. The Grizzlies need to get out and score in transition. Chris Paul is a master of managing a game’s tempo and will play a huge role in this series against Memphis’ stifling defense. The Clippers have a lot of bench options for scoring like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, but they need to score on the Grizzlies’ D for that to be an advantage. Blake Griffin also needs to do more than just dunk, but that will be difficult considering his limited post game and the dominating interior defense he’s up against. The Grizzlies need Jerryd Bayless to continue to play lights out on the offensive end and they need to turn the Clippers over so they can score on the fast break. If Lob City limits the turnovers and can score more than 90 points per game, this will be a tough series for Memphis.
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games
Soon after Gregg Popovich announced he’d be resting his team’s stars for tonight’s game against Miami and sending them home on an airplane to prepare for San Antonio’s next contest, David Stern said the Spurs would be facing “substantial sanctions” for these actions. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were all sent home early and given a day to rest for a primetime game against Miami which was televised nationally on TNT. And since Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson are both currently injured, that meant San Antonio was playing without its best six players. Stern apologized to NBA fans, saying this decision was “unacceptable.” In his statement, it seemed that Stern was apologizing for a lack of competitive spirit in what should have been a matchup between two of the league’s best teams.
Let’s be clear, though. David Stern doesn’t give a damn about how competitive a game is between two contenders in November. What he does give a damn about, though, is how competitive a game is between two contenders on national television. Had this game not been televised, these kind of sanctions might not be happening. However, considering how often Popovich rests his starters and the fact that this would have been a great primetime matchup (and possible NBA Finals preview), it’s no wonder Stern is taking action.
Whether or not you agree with Popovich’s right to rest his starters or David Stern’s financial motivations is irrelevant. The fact is, Stern is probably in the right here. No matter what his motivation is, there are plenty of reasons why Pop can’t be pulling this kind of stuff in November. It doesn’t matter that the Spurs’ second string made it a game; what matters is TNT probably didn’t pull in the ratings it would have if Duncan, Ginobili and Parker had been on the floor. And since this game lost a lot of its luster with the news that the Spurs’ starters wouldn’t be taking the floor, a lot of people missed out on a good game. And in a league centered on competition and primetime matchups, sitting stars is frowned upon, but sending them home before the game to prepare for the next one? That’s just unacceptable.
Can you imagine a league where stars are consistently given the night off and aren’t even in the arena when their teammates are playing? That’s a league nobody would take seriously. These guys are paid millions of dollars a year to play a game. People pay a lot of money to see their favorite players live. If they’re old and aching, that’s fine. But there’s no excuse for these guys to be treated like prima donnas and not even show up to the game. And that’s the kind of precedent that would be established if Pop were allowed to continue to rest his starters like this.
Popovich is a tremendous coach and clearly knows how to manage his players in preparation for the postseason; his coaching San Antonio’s reserves to a near victory over the defending champions on the road is proof of that. But every team has older guys on their roster. You can complain all you want about Stern’s hypocrisy in allowing teams to tank for draft picks but coming down hard on this kind of stuff, but the fact is, there’s a reason the NBA’s profits have increased exponentially during his tenure as commissioner. The man knows how to turn a profit and whether you’re a businessman or not, resting starters as consistently as Pop does is not good for the NBA from a financial perspective. And no matter what Stern’s motivation is, as basketball fans, shouldn’t we be siding with him anyway? Yeah it’s hard to argue with Pop’s coaching decisions considering his immense success in the league, but how can we call ourselves true fans of the sport if we don’t support actions to enforce better competition? You can’t tell me Spurs fans were excited to hear their favorite players wouldn’t be suiting up (or even in the arena) for a nationally televised game against another title contender, regardless of whether or not the game turned out to be a good one. Because even if fans do see the benefit of resting the older guys, that kind of constant disappointment for Spurs fans (and anyone who enjoys watching good basketball games) needs to be put to an end. It’s only one game and Stern may be motivated by financial reasons, but we should be united with him in a demand for the spirit of competition to shine through.
Now that all the facts of one of the most shocking trades of the offseason have come pouring in, I thought it was important to separate fact from fiction to determine what NBA fans should think about James Harden leaving Oklahoma City. Was Harden greedy? Or was this OKC’s fault?
In short, it was OKC’s fault. You can gripe about how Harden turning down a $55.5 million deal over four years is selfish considering he’ll only be getting $60 million over four in Houston, but there are a few facts to consider. For those who say that Harden doesn’t deserve a max deal, that’s just downright foolish. Harden was a top 25 player in the league last year, and although many claimed he reaped the benefits of playing against the other team’s bench, often with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s just not true. Harden led the Thunder past the Mavs in crunch time during the postseason last year. He delivered critical blows to a Lakers’ squad that couldn’t keep him from getting to the basket and the free throw line. His consistency balanced out Westbrook’s poor shooting streaks. His chemistry with his brothers in OKC was palpable. He was the third best player on his team, but a lot of championship teams have needed a third, underrated player who could give up shots but still be effective with his minutes like Harden. And even if you disagree with all of that, about half the league would have given Harden a max deal if they had the cap space.
So how is all that OKC’s fault? After all, they did offer him a pretty sweet deal that wasn’t far behind what he’ll be getting in Houston, right? Wrong. Harden originally wanted a five-year deal, but OKC went with four, which would allow him to trade him if they wanted to when the time was right. Much like the Celtics did with Rondo, they tried to convince Harden they wouldn’t trade him if he just agreed to a smaller deal now. They wanted him to take less money with no guarantee he’d stay in OKC for the extended future. When Harden refused and held out for the max deal he deserves, OKC management declined and immediately shipped him off to Houston. And since Houston wants him to sign an extension, Harden will probably get a five year, $75 million deal. Which, as I’ve said, is what he fully deserves.
I was originally disgusted with Harden’s decision to turn down that kind of money and break up OKC’s dynamic young group with so much chemistry. But then the facts came out. And the truth is, this wasn’t his fault. This is on Oklahoma City, a team that said they didn’t want to offer Harden a max deal because it would put them over the luxury tax. But considering their extensive profits last year, paying the measly luxury tax is a small price for keeping a championship-contending group intact.
Like the rest of the nation, I was struck by the three stars of Oklahoma City standing arm in arm as the clock ran out in the NBA Finals last year. That moment was a sad one, but because of the youth of those three, it also seemed like the perfect moment to reflect on later, a time when this talented young dynasty finally broke through and won their first title. Now that moment is wasted. We’ll never see that dynasty happen now. Durant might win a title, but OKC’s path to the Finals will be nearly impossible without the chemistry and bench scoring Harden brought to the team. Kevin Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb will be a fine prospect one day, but neither one of them will provide the chemistry Harden brought. None of them will fit in with Durant and Westbrook the way Harden did. And no one can replace the fan favorite beard that became a trademark symbol of the special unity the Thunder shared. Oklahoma City effectively stepped down as favorites to win the Western Conference and ruined their title chances, possibly for good, by shipping Harden away. The Lakers and Spurs now seem poised to send the Thunder home disappointed once again. Because as talented as Durant and Westbrook are, Harden was an instrumental part of their championship-contending team last year.
As for Harden? He’ll never get the chance to redeem his disappearing act in the NBA Finals last year. He’s extremely talented and I think he can step up as Houston’s top scorer, but he won’t lead the Rockets to a championship. He won’t have a shot at a title in Houston. We will never get to see what might have been with the young Thunder dynasty. We’ll miss out on some truly epic Finals between the Miami Heat and OKC squad hungry for revenge. All because OKC didn’t want to shell out some extra money to continue sporting one of the most exciting, talented and profitable teams in the league. All because their financial motivations outweighed the desire for a championship. This team certainly could have afforded to keep Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka together. Yeah, they got draft picks, but what message does that send? That it’s ok to change the lineup of a team THAT WAS IN THE FINALS LAST YEAR as long as you leave some light at the end of the tunnel? That saving your organization a measly amount of money for one year is worth wasting your chances at a repeat appearance in the Finals or a few potential championships? You can’t blame Harden for asking for what he deserved. This one’s on Oklahoma City.