by Tracy Graven
Senior NBA Analyst
Well, it’s over.
NBA All Star 2018 has come and gone with format changes, defense and one of the most competitive All-Star games in recent memory.
While it evolved into one of the best, edge-of-your-seat games and will go down as one for the ages, it truly was a metaphor for the remaining two months of the NBA season.
It may last a tad longer than the Kentucky Derby, but it won’t seem like it with the breakneck style of play that the NBA has evolved into in the last decade.
Gone are the days of the Bad Boys. Showtime has exited stage left for a few years. The Celtics are a few shades away from their dynasty days. And the Bulls? Well they’re a couple bars above Fergie’s National Anthem performance when it comes to the front office.
It’s the year in, year out tango between Cleveland and Golden State. Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Draymond Green’s karate kicks and anyone’s crotch who gets in the way.
But as fans, that can get old and stale outside Oakland and Cleveland. And to be great, someone has to actually win it at least two years in a row - right Boston, Los Angeles and Miami?
So who’s going to knock the King off his throne in the East? Who will bottle up the Chef like he was on Sunday night as the season’s game clock runs down over the next two months?
I’ll look at three teams that may surprise you in that quest, and three who may have their scouts booking flights to Boise, Pittsburgh, Wichita and Nashville as the next eight weeks race by like a Mike D’Antoni fast break.
The Rockets have been my pick for 2018 NBA Champion since before the pre-season. Not only has James Harden made sobering improvements in his overall game offensively, but the myth that Chris Paul’s presence was going to cut into Harden’s shots has been laughable at best. Despite his early season injury, Paul’s veteran leadership and presence has been felt, and he may have just been the steadying voice in the Houston locker room that D’Antoni needed.
Plug in Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright, as well as the development of Clint Capela, and D’Antoni’s frenetic plan to outscore everyone on the way to a championship might be finally coming to fruition.
Fifth time’s a charm, right Mike?
Not to mention that this season’s Most Valuable Player Award was presented in everyone’s minds to No. 13 mere seconds after Russell Westbrook accepted the trophy last summer. However, with a 31.3 point, 9 assist, 5.1 rebound stat line through 50 games, he well-earned what’s coming to him this summer.
And if there’s a tie-breaker with Westbrook, there’s always that State Farm commercial where he says hell to the nah on the Backstreet Boys (shame on you, Trevor Ariza).
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Throughout much of the season, the Thunder have been about as predictable as any given day this time of year in Oklahoma. One day ready to tear through the league like an F5 twister; the next looking as frigid and stale as the Plains landscape they represent.
Credit Billy Donovan for somehow getting Carmelo Anthony and his ego to a point where he’s playing team basketball, instead of counting and expecting how many shots he can get per night. And, of course, credit ‘Melo as well. The maturation process is a shade behind LeBron James’ but it’s coming around. I haven’t seen this much open-mindedness and unselfishness from Anthony since he was coached by the great George Karl.
The integration of Paul George has been just as much a challenge because you get the sense that George has one eye on the L.A. situation and maybe even fleeting thoughts of trying to get other L.A. boys to join him (i.e. Westbrook, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and L.A. transplant, Hollywood producer, school-enrolling, home-purchasing LeBron James).
About eight years ago, I wrote that Westbrook is a barometer for the Thunder’s success. In 2018 and for the next eight weeks, that mantle goes to one Paul George of Palmdale, California.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has always pulled the rabbit out of the hat and done the impossible. Hopefully, this one doesn’t backfire. Despite the $205 million extension signed by Westbrook last fall, he can’t do it alone. Even the Energizer bunny runs out of batteries.
I would have liked to have seen Presti deal at the deadline for Kenneth Faried and/or Tony Allen to bolster the Thunder’s defense. Alas, crickets. But if the Big Three of Anthony, George, and Westbrook (again, only done alphabetically, Russ) can meld into a force, they might have a chance of putting a dent in the Warriors come May.
Seems an unlikely choice, I know, to include the Jazz in this mix when they are on the outside looking in at the eighth seed and a potential first-round dance with the Rockets.
Maybe I should recognize what the Denver Nuggets are doing or give my hometown Trailblazers a bit more credit. But you can’t discount what Quin Snyder has done with this franchise, through personnel changes and significant injuries in his time with the Jazz.
Granted, Salt Lake City was blessed with 13th pick and grabbed your 2018 NBA Slam Dunk champion from Louisville in Donovan Mitchell.
His 19.6 points per game leads a team with veterans like Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. He made Joe Johnson and Derrick Rose expendable - okay, Rose made Rose expendable. But Mitchell is the real deal and the player Utah was looking for when they selected the likes of Dante Exum (the Australian Kobe Bryant).
Factor in that the Jazz posted 11 straight going into the All-Star break and you’d have to agree that Snyder and Mitchell are giving Utah fans plenty to tap their toes to in the near future and going into the next few years.
What can I say? I’m a believer.
I felt the Wizards really missed the boat when it came to rumors about where DeAndre Jordan would land running up to the trade deadline. I mean, Marcin Gortat’s game has a nice blue-collar feel to it, but I would have liked Kelly Oubre better in a Clippers jersey and Jordan a dominating force in the center-starved Eastern Conference (all respect to Hassan Whiteside).
Eventually, the people that already haven’t are going to figure out the John Wall-Bradley Beal tandem and force the ball into the hands of the Jodie Meeks’, Otto Porters and Kelly Oubres of the world and that’s not going to win Scott Brooks any more championships that the like of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant did … and those are high-caliber guys.
They’ll make a nice run, but it’s time to face facts and if the Wizards want to be in the Top Four in the East for more than a few weeks, then it’s time for Ernie Grunfeld to pull out what he has left, show us if there’s anything in his bag of tricks and set Brooks up for success.
It’s a tall order.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
This is the team whose picture and logo are at the forefront of every definition when it comes to the words “franchise,” “leadership,” and “teamwork.”
That’s what makes it such a bitter pill to swallow that this 20-plus year era that began in 1996 when Pop - then general manager - assumed the role of head coach after firing Bob Hill and has re-written coaching history may be nearing its inevitable, yet incredible run.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been along for the ride since 2001 and 1999, respectively, but are due to hang up the sneaks any day now. While Kawhi Leonard has become the new face of the franchise and seems adept enough to fill the large shoes left by the likes of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, like Westbrook he will not be able to shoulder the load alone - no matter how many games off Pop gives him.
Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton may be the next seven-footer in silver and black, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. might be in a Spurs uniform longer than the four years his dad spent in one from 1997-2001.
For now, the Spurs sit on a potential first-round home court advantage at 35-24. But with the aforementioned Nuggets playing well and the Minnesota Timberwolves nipping at their heels, Spurs may not be enough to keep teams from taking down an aging San Antonio squad.
‘The Process’ is still in play, though Sam Hinkie isn’t in house to see it.
As ballyhooed as this team was at the beginning of the season, they’ve comfortably slid into the .500 mark just before a five-game streak prior to All Star. Five hundred. Average.
It’s a marked improvement over where they’ve been in recent season, without doubt. And average may still get you a playoff spot in the East. But it’s not enough to get past the Cavaliers, Celtics or even the Raptors. Not yet.
What Philly has done has made itself a sexier destination again. It didn’t hurt that the Eagles won the Super Bowl, either. The City of Brotherly Love is on a winning track again, but they’re still a few pieces away from elite status.
It doesn’t hurt that there are guys like Jackson, Ayton, and the (unrelated) Bridges boys on the board this summer. But I think the Sixers ought to be sending Milt Newton out anywhere Oklahoma’s Trae Young is playing. He would be the perfect complement to Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz once he comes back around.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
I expected bigger things from Magic Johnson in his first foray into being a participative NBA executive. Okay, he hasn’t really disappointed me other than his decision to draft Lavar Ball. No, that’s not a typo - when Magic selected Lonzo Ball, he got Lavar as part of the package and anyone could have told you that spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Mr. Interference is the epitome of one living vicariously through their sons’ achievements. Truth be told, the kids could be solid ball players without the distractive PR. But his overbearing demeanor could mean his dream of his son(s) playing for the hometown team may be short-lived. Yes, he is rumored to insist that LiAngelo and LaMelo must be signed by the Lakers or Lonzo will not re-sign with L.A.
That’s a lot of Balls. But Magic has brains.
Surely he’s learned that old adage - “You marry Lonzo, you marry the family.”
So, as everyone asks aloud … is LeBron James coming to the Lakers? Well, Isaiah Thomas is there. He couldn’t co-exist with him for the brief minute he was in Cleveland. If King James can’t stand IT, how will he handle Lavar? Quite simply, he won’t. And he likely won’t have to.
To further cloud the situation, Johnson has already put forth the perception that the Lake Show is focusing instead on the 2019 Free Agent market. Really? That reeks of handshake deals, in my opinion.
You have a chance at guys like James, Durant, George, Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins and you’re going to instead wait for Chandler Parsons, Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter and DeMarre Carroll? (Okay, maybe you want Klay Thompson - I get it).
My mind, conventional wisdom, and common sense tells me that Johnson is catfishing us. The old rope-a-dope. The same guy that paid a $50,000 fine for ‘tampering’ with comments about Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokuonmpo is now going to wait another year?
Uh uh. Nope.
Johnson’s a planner. He will execute those plans that are in his head. He’s a winner. And he will win, as an executive, by putting together his own Dream Team. And it won’t be through the lottery. It will be the allure of L.A. - where certain players are from. Where certain players already have homes.
What’s the alternative? That team in the other L.A. locker room that is dumping salary faster than people getting off of Harvey Weinstein’s speed dial.
Johnson won’t get trumped by the likes of Gillian Zucker, Michael Winger and Doc Rivers.
He just can’t say it right now - because even to Magic Johnson, $50000 is a lot of coin.
And by saving that $50000, he can hire better singers to sing the National Anthem in Staples.
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