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May 2014

The Problematic Pacers

in NBA by
NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat

I’m not sure that Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals could have been more predictable.

A rousing Miami Heat blowout wasn’t expected because of anything that happened in Game 5, it was just that, after these past few months, this was exactly how everyone envisioned the Indiana Pacers’ season coming to an end. Following all of the drama and the stretches of incompetence, watching Indiana helplessly standby as LeBron James ripped them to shreds, their offense wilting under Miami’s pressure, seemed like a fitting end to a season that had been progressively building towards a massive letdown.

For a team that had already shown signs of mental weakness, being defeated in that fashion has to be indefinitely crippling.

The Pacers talked all season about the importance of having homecourt advantage for a Game 7 and they spent all season saying that they were built to take down the Heat. They had to survive a couple of scares just to get to this point, being taken to seven games by the paltry Atlanta Hawks in the opening round and losing Game 1 against the Wizards in Round 2, but they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and they had the homecourt advantage that they desperately wanted. After everything they went through on and off the court, they ended up right where everyone expected them to be as June approached.

But on Friday night, the Pacers were once again met with the devastating truth that has haunted them over the past few years: The Miami Heat are a lot better than them.

Indiana was an awesome team for most of this season. As hard as their style can be on the eyes, they deserve appreciation for their brilliant defensive work. Credit for the Pacers’ success could be spread amongst all of their starters and to their head coach. Armed with a smart scheme that took advantage of the individual defensive abilities of Roy Hibbert, Indiana had the best defense in the league, which is something to be proud of even with their offensive ineptitude.

In the Eastern Conference, which is littered with a number of teams that struggle mightily offensively, that defense was enough to make them dominant on most nights, and they even proved to be a problem for Miami during the regular season. Thus, even with minimal adjustments to their roster outside of the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, the Pacers gained confidence regarding their eventual post-season matchup with the Heat.

And yet, this series wasn’t all that competitive. Looking back, perhaps that is not all that surprising. In 2012, the Pacers put up a tough fight, but Miami was also missing Chris Bosh for most of that series, and last year it was Dwyane Wade that was not totally healthy when Indiana took the defending champions to seven games. But still, with Miami looking like they took a small step back this season, there seemed to be hope for Indiana in this series.

Instead, Indiana ran into the team that is perfectly constructed to belittle their biggest strength, a team designed to destruct the rigid defense that acts as their sole lifeline. As odd as it would seem having a flawed team like the Pacers in the NBA Finals, if they were playing the Thunder in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may very well have punched themselves a ticket to the final round. But Miami is just so ruthlessly efficient offensively that not even the league’s most dominant defense can slow them down, and with Wade and James both at peak form, Indiana’s clunky offense was no match for the Heat.

Some will say that the Pacers were built for a different era when smallball and pushing the pace was less popular, but I think this team could have reached the Finals had they come along not even five or six years ago, before Miami’s supreme trio came together. Had these Pacers been running into the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics in the Conference Finals over the past few years, a team that had similar struggles offensively and an equally great defense, Indiana’s edge in individual talent may have earned them a trip to the Finals – although I shudder to think what Kevin Garnett would do to Hibbert’s psyche.

But Indiana had no such luck. For three years running, their final game of the season has come against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It’s somewhat sobering, I suppose, that this group of guys, as flawed as they were, could come together to create a historically good defense, only to have LeBron crack the code time after time.

And their Game 6 loss on Friday night looked much worse than their two previous eliminations at the hands of the Heat. Whereas their last two losses created hope that they may be able to take down Miami in the future, this loss felt like this group had reached the end of their journey, and that there was no future for any Eastern Conference team so long as LeBron is around.

Lance Stephenson totally lost control after a series full of immature antics, leading Paul George to say “I don’t know” when asked about bringing him back next season. George Hill fell apart, struggling to even bring the ball up the floor at times. Roy Hibbert completed one of the most unbelievable individual collapses of all-time, failing to take control in a matchup he had previously owned for reasons that have to rooted with something off the court. And George, the player that looked like a budding superstar this time last year and the guy who was garnering legitimate praise as a top five player at the beginning of the season, had flashes of excellence mixed with occasional on-court sabbaticals, a sign that he is not yet on the level of his all-world peers.

Everyone in Indiana’s lockerroom bought into the idea that this was their best shot at dethroning the Heat, but somewhere along the line, things fell apart and their dreams were derailed. Now the Pacers enter the off-season with more questions than answers.

And even if they find those answers, given their luck, LeBron will probably switch up the equation.

A Blinded Keeper

in NHL by
corey crawford

My dog has been blind for about a year now. It’s a pretty heartbreaking thing to deal with. She can track down a french fry like never before, but she’ll occasionally lose her bearings and wind up bumping into things or, worse, she’ll stop dead in her tracks and stare blankly into the unknown, puzzled by what’s going on around her.

Though he’s not blind, I’m sure Corey Crawford knows the feeling.

That’s because the Chicago Blackhawks left him out to dry on Monday night. The Los Angeles Kings set up camp right in front of Chicago’s crease, sliding in front of Crawford’s view of the ice, obstructing any chance he had of stopping what has become a red-hot power play attack.

The Kings are far from an offensive juggernaut, but they control the puck well and can slice you up with tic-tac-toe passing all across the ice, and thanks to a punchless effort from the Blackhawks, they were able to dominate Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals as soon as the puck dropped.

It’s a shocking development. Though Crawford’s credentials can rightfully be questioned, the backline of the Blackhawks’ defense is the most vaunted in the league, led by a bruising pair of protectors in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook that usually seal off the most vaunted real estate on the ice. But on this night, they were caught in no man’s land, neither using their physicality to clear Crawford’s sightlines or their instincts to put their bodies in front of the puck.

This much was evident on the first of Los Angeles’ three first period goals in Game 4.

kings

With the Kings on the power play, you can see how little pressure the Blackhawks put on the puck, allowing the Kigns to pass it around to the slot, where Jake Muzzin, who has emerged as a powerplay marksman in the post-season, glides closer to the net. While Seabrook and Keith drift towards the puck, Jeff Carter slides untouched in front of Crawford, freezing Chicago’s goaltender in place as Muzzin lines up a perfectly placed wrister to the glove side.

This was a very familiar sight all night long. The Kings made the crease in front of Crawford look like the 405, with traffic jams and pile-ups galore, and the Blackhawks star defensivemen were never showed up to police it. They let a team that can struggle to score goals gain an extra advantage by distracting a goaltender who has had his own individual struggles to deal with.

Chicago’s lackluster defensive effort has put the team in an unenviable 3-1 hole. Though they recovered from this same deficit last season against the Detroit Red Wings, things are much different this time around, particularly after a game in which their normally stout and strict defense looked so hapless and uninspired.

The Blackhawks have the experience necessary to emerge from this series victorious, but unless they start making sure that their goaltender has a chance to do his job, the whole team will be sitting in place, staring into oblivion and wondering what went wrong just as Crawford was on Monday night.

Love Lost

in NBA by
NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

rubiolove1
Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

Who’s To Blame?

in NBA by
Orlando Magic vs. Indiana Pacers

If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.

But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.

Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.

I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?

The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.

There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.

Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.

0507-san-antonio-spurs-608
Spurs GM R.C. Buford hands Gregg Popovich his latest Coach of the Year Award.

While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.

Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.

We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.

The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.

Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.

It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.

Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?

It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.

Team USA’s Scrimmage Against The Dominican Republic

in Gallery/NBA by

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