Change the cap rules to let teams keep aging stars

The Dwyane Wade Era is coming to an end in Miami, as Wade heads off to the Chicago Bulls for a 2-year, $47 million deal.  The most Miami was willing to offer was $40 million, after starting with an offer of $10 million, an offer that’s insulting in a world where role players and backups are getting multi-year deals worth more than that.

Many observers argued that Miami owed Wade, not merely as payback for his stellar play and the multiple championships he helped bring them over the years, but for all the salary sacrifices he’s made over the years to put the Heat in a position to win.  In 2010, Wade took less than the max so the Heat could add Lebron James and Chris Bosh. Then, at the end of the 2014 season, he opted out of the remaining 2 years of his contract, worth nearly $42 million, to give the Heat the cap space to re-sign LeBron James.  Famously, James bolted to Cleveland, and Wade ended up losing about $11 million, re-signing with the heat for $31.1 million.   In a great article entitled Pat Riley knew exactly what he was doing in letting Dwyane Wade leave the Heat, Tom Ziller argues that the reason the Heat first offered Wade an insulting $10 million a year and drew the line at $20 million a year for two years when Wade went out and got other offers, was that Riles didn’t want to soak up that much cap space in the twilight of Wade’s career.  He didn’t want Wade’s contract with the Heat to become the albatross that Kobe’s last contract with the Lakers became.  At the time Kobe got his, many commentators said it was important for the Lakers to show loyalty if they wanted to be able to attract other greats.  That loyalty may have earned them a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge during his free agency last year, but it wasn’t enough to get them even that, never mind a signing, with Kevin Durant during his free agency this year.

Meanwhile, stars like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are lauded for repeatedly taking less than they could get on the open market so their teams could add pieces around them to let them be competitive in the last years of their career.  Their team owners and fans get the benefit, while the stars pay the price.  Of course there is much talk that these stars will make it back via big cushy contracts with the teams after they retire, but such quid pro quo is illegal under the existing rules, so it must stay in the realm of wink-wink understandings.  Nonetheless, teams do seek to cultivate the reputation that they take care of those who were loyal to them during their playing career.

All of this is the result of a bad structure.  The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) protects owners from overspending for stars via a salary cap with steep fines for repeat violators of the cap, thereby protecting owners’ profits, at a cost to everyone else involved.  Given the structure, Riley’s decision not to reward Wade for all he’s done over the years makes perfect sense for the organization as a whole, even though it means a divorce with the face of the franchise and all that implies for the legion of fans who followed Wade throughout his illustrious career.  The alternative is the prospect of the misery that Lakers fans have endured the last few years, and will continue to endure for the foreseeable future.

It’s sad.  It sends the wrong messages about value and disposability.  It’s unnecessary.  And it could be easily fixed with the next CBA.

In order to fix it, all that needs to be done is to provide an exemption that would limit the cap hit for players who have been with their teams for some minimum number of years, say, 9 years or more.  Or maybe it’s an age limit, and only applies to guys over, say, 31 with 7 years of service.  Whatever.  The exact mechanics would take some careful thought to balance all the various interests, but it’s not rocket science.

For example, suppose the Heat could have signed Wade to a contract with at the existing max for the next three years of his career, but only, say, 70% of that would count against the cap this year.  If his max was around $25 million, then the cap hit to the team would be $17.5 million, or $2.5 million less than Miami’s final offer to Wade.  You could leave that same exemption in place each of the years of the contract, or it could increase as the player got older.

This would let teams keep their stars as they age.  It would improve continuity.  It would reward loyalty, and put an end to punishing guys who want to stay with the teams with whom they had their glory days.  It might even help teams keep their superstars earlier in their career, because players would know that that exemption would only be available to them at the end of their careers if they stayed with their existing team.  In fact, that lure might be the biggest lure of all for the owners to support the idea.  It could improve the chances that stars in the peak of their careers would do what Wade did, and take less to let the team pick up other players via trade or free agency.

Of course, there would be a downside potentially for stars who got traded early in their career, so there might need to be some tinkering.  For example, maybe a player who gets traded gets the same credit for years of service that a player who sticks with his team gets.  This might increase the odds of players agreeing to sign-and-trades rather than just walking in free agency, which would help teams reduce the threat of getting nothing for their stars when their contracts expire.  That would help with situations like Oklahoma City is facing now with Russell Westbrook.  KD’s leaving increases the chance that Westbrook might leave, and so OKC is having to look at whether to trade Westbrook now, while his contract still has some value, rather than having him leave next year for nothing.  And of course, KD might have worked with OKC this year to work out a sign-and-trade, for the same reason.  That would have put OKC in a better position to get something back of value.  Of course, the precise mechanics would be important, because you wouldn’t want a team to be able to prevent a player from going where he wanted by demanding too much of the receiving team in return.  Maybe the answer is that if the team the star is leaving rejects the sign-and-trade, then it costs the departing star two years before they are eligible for the exemption.  That would limit the loss and so wouldn’t choke off movement entirely.

Also, to keep these changes from keeping players trapped with the teams that hold their rights, maybe adjustments could be made that reduce the years of service requirement for players over a certain age who came to a team via free-agency.  There could easily be unintended consequences, so it would take some doing to get it just right, but the principle is clear.

So who pays the cost?  Who would object?  Well, on first blush it’s the owners.  This scheme “allows” owners to spend more money on players which, in a zero-sum world, means less money in their pockets.  And wasn’t the whole point of the last lockout and the CBA that resulted to let the owners keep more of the profit?  Well, there’s a counter argument which is that all these owners are incredibly wealthy – a number are billionaires – and if it’s a matter of allowing them to spend on the order of $8-10 million more per year to keep the faces of the franchise with the franchise, so be it.  That’s not going to break them.  And it might increase the value of the franchises themselves by amounts that dwarf that outlay.  After all, these teams are now worth billions.  And beyond that, the owners now get to pay their top stars less than an open labor market would bear for most of their careers, including their peak earning years.  So a provision that lets those stars get back some of that at the end of a storied career seems like the least a reasonable price to pay for that kind of labor constraint.

But the more important point is that it isn’t a zero-sum world.  The Lakers may have pancaked their future, but they made a lot of money off of the Kobe retirement tour.  They’ll keep selling Kobe jerseys for years to come. What’s the value of all the merchandise sales to fans that have followed their favorite players since childhood that ends when that player leaves.  How much money do you think Miami is going to lose in sales of Wade Heat jerseys – not just this year, but for years to come – never mind all the other effects the loss of him will have on fan interest and loyalty?  I don’t know, but I suspect it’s not a trivial amount.  There are other forms of value as well, such as the effects on continuity within the organization and the knowledge and experience vets can share with younger guys.  You keep guys around not as cast-offs or cut-rate former greats, but as honored old heads whose wisdom and experience is respected and, critically, compensated.  You don’t rely on under-the-table pseudo-agreements.  And you don’t make suckers of guys who exemplify values that we claim we hold in high regard.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Wade does in Chicago, but I would have loved to see him finish out his career with the Heat.  I’m glad Timmy and Dirk are sticking with the teams they spent their entire careers with, but I wish their owners, not they, were bearing the cost.

So let’s get this done.

Your thoughts?




A better solution for handling the NBA injury problem

In an excellent piece just published on entitled Too many games: The NBA’s injury problem is a scheduling one, Baxter Holmes and Tom Haberstroh argue convincingly that the NBA is causing its best players to break down physically at an increasing rate, and that the schedule is the problem.  On a TrueHoop podcast on the subject, Brian Windhorst made the point that while it may be true, the odds of the situation changing are slim to none, because of the money involved.  Windhorst pointed out that during collective bargaining, only a few issues can be given top priority, and that in order to win a concession on that point, the players would have to give up something else, and questioned whether a reduced *likelihood* of injury would be likely to get players to give up a *certain* portion of their salary.  Most importantly, the idea of shortening the season to, say, 74 games would mean about a 10% reduction in revenues, at least on the face of it, since the notion that the NBA could squeeze the same amount of money out of advertisers and ticket-buying fans for 10% fewer games would seem like a stretch.

So the upshot of the discussion was that because of the money, the season is going to stay an 82 game season, and the problem of an increasing rate of injury due to overwork won’t really be able to be addressed by the NBA.  The losers will be the players who get injured, the teams whose prospects get derailed by the loss of their best players to injury at crucial moments (hi there, Clippers), the advertisers who find fans not watching because the stars are out due to injury, and the fans who are treated to games in which a number of players aren’t able to put out full effort because they are just too exhausted or hurt to go all-out for 82 games (except, of course, for Russell Westbrook).

But it seems to me like there are a number of possible ways to tackle the problem that produce win-win-wins all around.

Let’s first consider a small tweak, that shouldn’t be particularly controversial, and then a big one that may be.  Both could go a long way to improving the situation.

So then, first, the easy part. It should be noted that part of the problem is not just the number of games, but the frequency of games.  Playing on the second night of back-to-back games is notoriously brutal.  So one simple, though slight adjustment, is this:  get rid of two weeks of preseason play and make the regular season two weeks longer.  This should help get rid of up to half a dozen back-to-backs during the season.  Following this line of thinking, it should also be possible to start the preseason and then the regular season a week earlier, and let each team have two 4-day breaks during the season, much in the way in the NFL teams have bye-weeks.  These breaks would be a big help in allowing guys to recover from exhaustion.  It might even be good for the NBA as a whole, by stimulating fans to watch other teams play while their team is on their rest break.

But wait, you say!  A shorter preseason means less time for teams to work on strategy and execution.  Maybe so, but I’ve been watching the NBA for several decades now, and I can’t imagine that early season games would be so much more ragged than they are now for the loss of a couple of weeks of preseason nonsense.

This solution also would, I think, be likely to increase interest and revenue for the NBA.  Why?  Because to be honest, only the most die-hard NBA fans can stomach NBA preseason games.  For big stretches of preseason games, guys aren’t really trying and the best players play limited minutes, often with unusual lineups.  Yeah, maybe the shorter preseason gives teams less time to try out the guys who will make up the end of the bench, but there’s an NBA D-league to help with that, and various provisions could be made to allow practice squads or larger rosters for a couple of weeks into the season.  That part can be figured out.

In exchange for cutting out a couple of weeks of preseason, you now have an only slightly longer regular season, and NBA fans will spend more time, again, watching teams other than their home team play in games that mean something, at least to the extent that games in an 82-game regular season can mean something.  That’s a couple of more TNT Thursday nights and a couple more ESPN Friday nights, NBA-TV Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings on ABC (or whoever owns the rights going forward).  That is, more money for everyone, not less.

Ok, so that’s a minor tweak, and there should be room to fool around with it and make things a tad easier on the players.

Then there’s the bigger tweak:

Coaches can only play their players a maximum of 74 regular season games.  They must juggle DNP-rest games for every guy on the roster.  But they can only have at most two DNP-rest players in any given game, to avoid them from just totally writing off games against specific teams, and pissing off everyone who came expecting to see a real game.

This approach offers a number of advantages, aside from reduced wear-and-tear on the top players.  For one thing, it rewards teams who manage their available resources well, because now the ninth, tenth and eleventh guys on the bench start to have a bigger impact on your regular season record, because they are going to get a lot more playing time.  It adds a big element of strategy and planning, the specifics of which might be shaped by particular rules like, for example, a prior notice requirement about who will be rested, or some such.  By mandating the rest, it helps coaches who may know their stars need more rest but can’t convince said stars to take time off without generating a lot of resentment.

There’s another, even more compelling reason for this approach.  It’s not known what pattern of rest will be most effective at reducing injury.  Presumably, different training staffs will have different points of view on this question.  Some may think giving guys long stretches of rest will be best, others will want to give more shorter breaks more often.  Some of the data from wearable sensors may play into the decision making.  With 30 different clubs trying different approaches, we’ll have a lot of experimentation going on.  While the flip side of this will be that we may not have large enough sample size to definitively identify the optimal approach, trends will become apparent in the data that may help determine the best hypotheses about what works best for more definitive/controlled tests.  The bottom line is, this gives teams freedom to find what works best for them, and may lead to some very valuable discoveries on that point.

Of course, it may also let them find out what does not work.  For example, it’s likely that some coaches, particularly the less secure among them, may react by having their other top players play more minutes in games where key guys are out, which could potentially defeat the purpose.  Since injury has unpredictable aspects, and vulnerability to injury may accumulate imperceptibly over time, it may be tough to identify the impact of such a strategy early on, but if this were continued for several seasons, as above, trends might become apparent.  Again, data from wearable sensors may provide key insights along the way.

There are other impacts, likely positive.  By giving more guys the chance to start through the course of the season, and giving more minutes overall deeper into the bench, it would give guys who might otherwise not be able to develop their games to the same extent the chance to do so.  It would very likely make teams more resilient, deeper, and better as a whole, something that could pay dividends in the playoffs too.  It would increase the chance that guys could make the jump from mediocre to meaningful contributor, and could increase team cohesion and engagement, since everyone would be more important to the overall team success.  It would reward better coaching to a greater extent.  And of course, it would very likely increase the intensity  with which each guy who was playing could, and therefore would, play, making for more intense competition.

To the objection that fans pay top dollar to see their favorite stars, and would be upset to go to a game only to find, say, LeBron James or Steph Curry on DNP-rest status consider that the whole point is to insure much stronger effort from each guy who is playing, for the whole season.  More to the point, if it could be shown that the reduction in games for each player reversed the trend toward more missed games due to injury, it would be possible to demonstrate to fans that on the whole the move increased the likelihood that they’d see the top stars playing.

This is relevant, of course, to the other major constituencies, the advertisers and networks.  The objection might be made that with fewer games with top stars in them, ratings might suffer.  But this is where analytics come in, as above.  The whole point of this solution is to *increase* the total number and quality of games that the best players perform in overall.  Blake Griffin missed a lot of time this year.  Kobe Bryant missed a lot of time over the last few years.  The list of lost games by big stars and key contributors goes on and on, and the Holmes and Haberstroh piece demonstrates both the problem, and the fact that it’s getting worse.  Given a big pool of data over the last few years, it will be possible very quickly – say in one or two years – to demonstrate whether the greater rest results in more, not fewer, games per player on average.  If so, then the corporate constituencies should be satisfied that a key problem has been solved.  More importantly, businesses like to reduce their exposure to risk wherever possible, and by reducing the risk of injury to top stars, sponsors, advertisers, and networks all would be reducing the risk of big losses due to unforseen prolonged injury of top players (and pitchment).

Of course, it would be predictable that teams would rest their top players against the weakest competition, meaning that ticket-buying fans of teams like this year’s Lakers or 76’ers might never get to see LeBron or Steph or KD or in fact the best of any of the top NBA players play.  Well, maybe so.  But wouldn’t that make those games more competitive, potentially giving the weaker team a better shot at winning?  And if there were a cap on the number of players who could be given DNP-rest each game, but every player would HAVE to get DNP-rest a certain number of games in the season, then teams would be spared games like those Spurs game the last few years in which all the starters somehow came up a bit gimpy all at once.  You could reduce the number of required DNP-rest games for guys who missed more than a certain number of games due to injury or other DNP causes – like Tim Duncan’s DNP-old of this year, but maybe not one-for-one to prevent coaches from holding out bunches of players simultaneously.

There are a lot more hypothetical objections that are likely to come up, and we can deal with them as they do.  The point is that this solution provides a template that solves both the money problem – teams still get the same gate and advertiser revenue because the total number of games is the same, and players get the same amount of money but get to play fewer games – and the injury problem.  All while increasing the importance of, to use a phrase in great favor in the Bay Area these days, strength in numbers.  It should be the kind of thing that both the players union and the owners could agree on in collective bargaining, and that other constituencies – fans, sponsors, networks – could be convinced improves the quality of the games and the longevity of the stars we all love to watch.

KD to the Clippers?

Editor’s note:  It’s been years since we’ve posted anything here, but the possibility of Kevin Durant changing places was too big a spur to stay silent.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of Kevin Durant going to the Warriors next year. Motivating the discussion in part is the idea that Durant, who will be a free agent this summer, badly wants to win and the Warriors would seem to represent his best shot at winning a championship.   From a financial standpoint, there are many who argue that the no-brainer move for Durant is to sign a one-year contract with the Thunder, run it back another year with Westbrook, then make a long-term decision next year when Westbrook will also be a free agent and the cap will balloon to even greater heights than it will this year. But maybe, the thinking goes, the second-round playoff flameout that is looming for the Thunder will drive a frustrated Durant to jump ship this year.

To get Durant and stay under the salary cap, the Warriors would have to part with a number of key players, but not their supposed “Big Three” of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. I say “supposed” because I don’t buy the “Big Three” notion. I think there is a Big Four, and the four include those three and Andre Iguodala. I count him as at least as central to the ability of the team to win a championship as either Thompson or Green, all three of them a step behind the game-changing baby-faced assassin.   Lose any one of those four and the team doesn’t suddenly become uncompetitive, but it’s margin for error drops precipitously. You just have to look at how they’ve played when Iggy has been out to see what I mean.

But ok, let’s avoid the quibble over Big Three or Big Four. Whatever. It looks like the Warriors could fit Durant in and still keep their Big Core. The cost would be the decimation of the rest of the roster. And the question of whether that’s something the team ought or ought not do has been the subject of much chatter.

Personally, though, I dispute the basic premise that Durant would be up for joining the Warriors. Sure it’s a possibility – it’s a great team, good guys, winning pedigree, great city.

But the problem is that it’s a no-win situation for Durant. If he goes and they win, well, that’s what they were supposed to do. And it’s hardly likely that even with Durant they can top what they’re doing this year, assuming they win the championship, which is a good bet, though not a sure thing. On the other hand, if the Warriors with Durant were to fail to win a championship, well, he gets a bunch of the blame. So win and it’s, “Meh,” or lose and you’re the goat. How is that more appealing than a situation with a great chance of winning, where he’d be seen as a savior in the event of a championship, but still wouldn’t be seen as a failure without?

Well, you ask, what team or teams might fit that bill? In one sense, Durant would make a whole lot of teams serious contenders. But there’s a difference between contender and favorite. The Thunder right now are dark-horse contenders. But favorite, or at least co-favorite? I’m here to argue that, if they do it the right way, the long forlorn Clippers of Los Angeles plus Durant become at least the co-favorite.

Before going into that, I should point out that in a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the very thoughtful and entertaining Joe House raised the possibility of the Clips as a Durant destination (and also noted the critical importance of Andre Iguodala).  Simmons dismissed the notion that KD could end up with the Clippers on salary cap grounds and just kept moving. But not so fast. Unless salary cap issues would prohibit Durant coming to the Clips, and I don’t think they do, then expense alone should not be seen as a deal-breaker.

It was recently reported that Clipper owner Steve Ballmer is the richest owner in sports, followed by fellow Microsoft alum Paul Allen. And let me tell you, Ballmer is into it.   He’s been spending a bunch to up the Clippers experience, and it shows. There are a lot of giveaways at games this year, more advertising around town, new offers for season-ticket holders, and Ballmer himself was so amped-up (as he is wont to get) about the new team mascot that he used a springboard to do a slam-dunk himself and gave away free Converse sneakers to everyone at Staples Center.

So what about the money?  Per Basketball Insiders, the Clippers are $11.6M over the cap this year, with a total payroll of $96.3 million, and have $84 million committed in salary for the 2017-2018 season. Blake Griffin ($20.1M), Chris Paul ($22.9M), DeAndre Jordan ($21.1M), and JJ Redick ($7.4M) account for nearly $72M of that $84M on the books for next year. About $5.8M of the remaining $12M or so is set to go to Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Cole Aldrich, all of whom hold player options. Johnson in particular ($1.2M) seems like a good bet to opt out because his play this year and the league-wide demand for active swingmen suggest he’s due for a raise. That $82M doesn’t include Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green, or Luc Mbah a Moute, none of whom are under contract for next year.

Next year, the salary cap is expected to rise to about $92M, and the max that a free agent could sign for is $25.1M. Say Johnson were to leave to seek greener pastures, and they signed Durant for the max. That would put the payroll at around $108M for nine guys: the starters – Paul, Griffin, Durant, Redick, Jordan – and a bench of Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers, C.J. Wilcox and Cole Aldrich (who’s a lot better than you think if you haven’t been watching Clipper games). That starting five is a beast, but the bench won’t get it done. Maybe it takes on the order of another $10M to sign enough talent to bolster that bench, bringing the grand total for the whole roster to $118M. A big number. Yeah it is. That’s $26M over the tax. And the Clips would be a repeat tax offender, which would push what they owe up even more, but how much more is not clear. I don’t know all the vagaries of the repeater tax, and it’s complicated. See for a good discussion of the complexities. The bottom line, however, seems to be that even as a repeat offender for a couple of years, the penalty the Clips would face might not be overwhelming.

So, back to the big number. $26M over the cap to field a credible bench behind what almost certainly would be one of the most imposing starting fives in the league. Yeah, that’s a lot. But consider the Cavaliers who, in their quest to get a ring, are $22M over the current cap this year. Dan Gilbert has a net worth of $4.5 billion, and that team is in Cleveland, OH. Ballmer, who paid $2 billion for the Clips, has a net worth nearly five times that of Gilbert, and his franchise is in the center of the fountain of money and media known as Los Angeles, CA. And my impression is, he’d really like to win a championship.  And if he did, he’s probably got several dozen ways to make back that excess money spent to assemble the team. In fact, my guess is he’s probably got some kind of plan to develop any number of online and mobile platform offerings based on this team that will monetize the spit out of it.

And consider the alternative to going to that level to put Durant on the Clippers. If he decides not to pursue it, does he have a realistic chance to win a championship any cheaper than that?  I doubt it.   It is hard to see any combination of players with the Clips core four that makes them at least a co-favorite to win it all, nor any combination of trades and free agents that put them there.

So comes the question, did Steve Ballmer buy the Clippers for $2B only to shy away from spending at the same level that Dan Gilbert is willing to take on in Cleveland Ohio in order to give himself a realistic shot at owning an NBA champion and talk of the league. Is he willing to field a talented also-ran team rather than go for the big prize so he can save a dozen or two million dollars?  Me, I don’t think so.  I bet they give it a try.

Having dispensed with the notion that it is out of the question from a financial point of view – it may be reaaaallllyyyy expensive, but Ballmer’s reaaaallllyyyy rich, and the value of a champ is reaaaallllyyyy big – then we have to ask, does Durant really make the Clips at least co-favorites to win it all, if so, would he think it would give him his BEST shot, and lastly, even if it were, would he be up for it?

First, the fit. Let’s think about this for a minute. For the last two years, the Clippers have had one of the most efficient offensive starting five in basketball. That’s with guys like Matt Barnes (underrated in my opinion), Paul Pierce (great if it’s 2011), Lance Stephenson (great if it’s 2013), Wesley Johnson, and so on at the 3. No knock on any of these guys, all of whom are credible NBA players, but it’s hard to envision any of them, or anyone comparable, being a key starter on a champion this year or next. Durant has labored for years on top-heavy teams with critical holes in the lineup, and knows what that’s about. You’re always straining to cover up the problem area in crunch time, when stacked, disciplined teams are taking away best first and second options.  Ask LeBron about that, too.  He’ll tell you about that frustrating, sinking feeling as you watch it slip away because, as a group, you just don’t have quite enough.

The Clips have four to a straight, but they need a three to complete the wheel. They have the perfect point guard to feed great scorers the ball in perfect position, one of the top three three-point shooters in the league by percentage at the two, an explosive four with a great handle and an effective midrange game, and a great athletic, rebounding and defending five. A three, a transcendant three, is really all they need to be an utter beast. There are three transcendant threes in the league right now, and their names are Lebron, Kawhi, and Kevin.  Add one of those three to the Clippers core four and you have a dominant team.  Not a second round flameout, not a “we can beat good teams when we get hot” pretender, but a bona-fide championship threat.

Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Hard to imagine a stronger starting five anywhere in the league.   Would it make them a favorite to beat a deep and talented Warriors team comparable to the 2015-2016 edition? Maybe, or maybe it “only” gets them to the level of co-favorite.  But it would represent the most compelling roster in the league to challenge them, and the talk of the league. KD fits perfectly in the hole the Clips have. Griffin and Jordan are in their peak prime years. Paul and Redick are in the late stages of their peaks, with every indication that they’ll remain potent for at least the next couple of years. The team is at that point where anything less than a championship isn’t going to satisfy them. They’ve been knocking on the door of the Western Conference finals for several years now, and have the air of a team that wants to go all-in to finally get over the hump. They’re ready to make the kind of sacrifices that Paul Pierce, KG and Ray Allen made, or Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made to have LeBron with them.  That is, they’re past the point, I think, of wanting personal glory because they know there is no personal glory when the team fails.  In short, they have a bunch of guys in much the same frame of mind as KD about what matters most. KD puts them over that hump.

What of some of KD’s other possible landing spots? Certainly the Spurs have a great roster, a great pedigree, a great coach, and a great organization. They’re a serious team of no-nonsense guys focused on team play and championships. But their point guard is aging and though Patty Mills has a lot of pop in his game, he’s not at the level of the top point guards in the brutal Western Conference. More importantly, Kawhi Leonard plays the three, and is, as noted, one of the three transcendent players in the league at that position. One possibility is a small-ball lineup with KD at the four and LaMarcus Aldridge at the five, but neither guy has shown a burning desire for the pounding those positions entail. Another possibility is to shift down a slot, letting Kawhi play the two, or have KD and Kawhi as a swapping, positionless kind of wing duo, but it feels like a lot of duplication of talent. That said, great players can make it work. We have no idea how long Pop plans to stick around, but if he stays, it’s hard to imagine anyone better at helping them figure it out. So San Antonio’s a possibility, sure. But it does lack the kind of perfect fit that the Clippers roster offers.

If Durant wanted an up and coming team, he might take a look at the remarkable job that Portland has done, and see the potential there. They have great surrounding talent with a hole right in the spot Durant plays. A lot of versatility, a great coach and a mountain of cap room to fill out the roster. And I get the sense Durant may prefer smaller, down-to-earth towns to glittering metropoles.   But Portland is still young, with not many crunchtime playoff reps among the bunch of them.  Damian Lillard, great as he is, duplicates a lot of what Russell Westbrook can bring to the table, but without the overpowering athleticism and fury. More importantly, as comments KD has made of late indicate, he’s past the point of wanting to be on a developing, young team. He wants to be surrounded with established, serious guys who have been through some wars and are all-in on winning it all.

Memphis might get a look from Durant, what with how they’ve hung in to the five seed while bodies drop like flies all around. But there’s no telling if Mike Conley’s coming back, and the heart of grit and grind, Tony Allen and Z-Bo are very much on the steepening downsides of their career arcs. And besides, while I love the way Memphis has been a home for guys who march to the beat of their own drummer, I’m not sure KD would be cool with that much volatility on one roster. Houston may make a pitch, and he may give them a look, but of late there is a high degree of static and a distinct lack of stability around that franchise that would probably give him pause.

Or he could look East, to where the road to the Finals is somewhat less daunting than it is out West. Boston, Toronto, Miami, and Atlanta all make some sense as teams with strong supporting rosters with good schemes, good coaching, and organizational stability.  Toronto in particular has a great situation because they have the best point guard of the bunch in Kyle Lowry.  A strong case could be made for each. If Cleveland could find a way to shed Love or Kyrie they might have the money to make a bid, but it’s hard to see how right now.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there is no other roster in the league into which KD would fit as perfectly as he would with the Clips. CP3 would love nothing better than delivering a steady diet of passes right into KD’s shooting pocket, and the number of weapons around him would make it easy. Blake’s a great passer, though I have to admit that the phrase “moves well without the ball” doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of him. But when he’s healthy, he’s still a top ten player in the league, with great versatility. If the Clips could hold on to Jamal Crawford, then between him and Redick they have the needed floor spacers, and a great rim runner, shot-blocker and rebounder in Jordan.  Imagine a small-ball lineup with Griffin at the five and Durant at the four to challenge the Warriors end of game “death lineup”.  Think about how the Clips could have at least two of the three of Paul, Durant and Griffin on the floor nearly every minute of a game, and possibly every minute in big games.  Every position on the floor would be solid around KD. It might come down to the question of what kind of bench the Clips could cobble together with the little money they might have left over after spending the max on KD.

What stands in the way then? Well, it might be the Clippers themselves. Recent articles have suggested that the Clips may well be the most hated team in the league. A combination of a perception by others of entitlement that hasn’t been earned, a reputation for whining that has been earned, and a frank lack of chemistry among the principles (something Sam Cassell bluntly alluded to on the inaugural episode of Kenny Smith’s exercise in self-congratulation masquerading as a podcast) might all turn KD off. Blake and DJ are younger guys who still seem to want to enjoy themselves on and off the court, while CP3 is serious as a heart attack, and no one will ever confuse JJ Redick with Nick Young. Los Angeles is a town with a lot of distractions, and we don’t have any indication that KD would care to be at the center of the media universe, rather than a small town that lives and dies with its local club.   Still, with the possible exception of Toronto, I don’t see any team in the league that hasn’t done it already that seems as serious about scaling the mountaintop as are the Clippers. In Doc Rivers they have one of the five head coaches who’s won a ring. And more than anything, if KD comes, and they get there, he’s rightly anointed as the guy who got them there. He’s the savior.  He’s The Man.  With a deep-pocketed owner like Ballmer and the free-agent draw of playing and living in LA, there’s every likelihood they could set the groundwork for an extended run.

The world is KD’s oyster right now. He’ll have his pick of almost every team in the league. Maybe he’ll pick them, and maybe he won’t, but don’t dismiss the Clips without thinking long and hard about it. My guess is, KD will at least do that.



one of the best discussions about basketball i’ve heard

big ups to henry abbot and david thorpe at espn for one of the most interesting and informative discussions i’ve heard about basketball i’ve heard


david thorpe and henry abbot talk about the mechanics of the pick and roll

Clippers court disaster…again

while thinking about the deal that sends the kitchen sink from the clips to the hornets in exchange for chris paul, the following line from j.a. adande’s piece on espn  today  leapt out at me: ” Paul has meniscus damage in his left knee similar to the injury that led Brandon Roy to retire.”

oh man.  the curse of the clips rears its ugly head again.  so many commentators are saying that if you have the chance to do something special and pair two superstars you have to do it.  but it says here the clips are giving up too much to roll the dice, namely *both* eric gordon and minny’s 2012 unprotected first-round pick.  paul is said to be willing to extend his current contract an extra year to give the clips at least until 2013 to make this work.  the reasoning from the l.a. side is that having paul  will entice griffin to re-up, and that if griffin re-ups that will entice paul to stay.

but let’s think about this for a second.

you are facing a double injury risk.  if either paul, who already has knee problems, or griffin, who throws his body around with frightening – if exhilarating – abandon, gets hurt, what then?  what are the odds that they both end up re-upping?  and remember, given the compressed schedule this year, with sometimes three games in three nights, depth is going to be at a premium, and we *are going* to see a lot more injuries this year, particularly among 1) older players, 2) players who rely on explosiveness (griffin, paul), and 3) players who are already working with damaged parts (paul).  then consider that the  clips do what people think the revised roster can do, and they end up in the playoffs despite one of the two big guns getting hurt (i’m assuming that happens late in the year, not early).  then their own first-round pick is past the lottery, and unlikely to be anything like the kind of player they could get for minny’s pick.  eric gordon would be gone, along with that pick.  if things play out as it looks like they might, no eric bledsoe around to help spell paul and protect his knees.  no backup plan  (i’m not counting on randy foye or on mo williams), and no more assets/depth.  no kaman expiring contract.  nada, unless you count an overpriced ball-stopping caron butler or an overpriced deandre jordan…neither one is getting you the kind of reinforcements you need to contend.  now, given a scenario that includes an injury to one of the two, does griffin re-up?  paul?  you sure?  i’m not.

so to me, it’s looking like a huge gamble.  it’s a gamble i take in a second if the package includes gordon **or** the minny first-rounder.  it’s the kind of gamble you can take if you are the lakers, and can still attract marquee free-agents if it goes south on you…but if you are the clips, and knowing the injury curse of the clips, no way you should be including both…and shame on david stern for forcing the poor clips to empty the entire closet (word is the “league” wants bledsoe included).

****update****  – this just in…espn reporting that the paul-to-clips deal dies because the clips feel the price is too high….GOOD ON YA CLIPS…finally…a smart move…hold out…

the celtics could not have screwed up worse

it’s really pretty amazing how bad the celtics closed the season.  they had a legitimate shot at the number 3 spot in the east, i.e. avoiding cleveland until the finals (if they made it that far), and a getting a first-round playoff matchup against the bogut-less bucks…but no…in a stretch of twelve days between april 2 and april 13 (yes, that’s 12 days, not eleven) they managed to post losses to the rockets, the knicks, the wizards, and the bulls (never mind tonight’s meaningless loss to milwaukee in which they rested the three green amigos).  that’s unconscionable!  the hawks had even left the door open by themselves losing a gimme against detroit and one against charlotte, although other than that they took care of business against the pancakes left on their schedule.  now, despite their record, the rockets are actually a tough team that brings it every night, so maybe that’s excusable…but the knicks, wiz, and bulls?  what, the celts frontline was overmatched by jo-no and brad miller?  well, perhaps the bostons couldn’t be bothered to put out, figuring that either way they were going to have to get through both orlando and cleveland, both on the road, in some order (barring a hawks upset that i doubt anyone is banking on), so why waste energy now?  or maybe they have some reason for thinking miami would be a better matchup than milwaukee, though bogut’s injury happened on april 3 so it seems hard to believe that they could think they’d have an easier time with the heat than with a depleted bucks squad.  no, the only thing i can figure is those boys are running on fumes, and frankly, it seems to me they are facing the legitimate possibility of not making it out of the first round…don’t get me wrong, they’re still the favorite in the first round, but do they have anyone who can contain dwayne wade?  i don’t think so.  give the heat a puncher’s chance, and plan on it going at least 6, possibly 7.  then assuming they stagger past miami, the worn out old men get to face a cleveland squad that will be looking forward to continuing the, um, conversation that garnett was having with lebron at the end of their most recent match.  i really cannot wait to watch that.  the cavs are going to hand those guys their leprechaun heads.  i am particularly looking forward to seeing how much fun rasheed has leaning against the diesel, earning all that money they’re paying him.

is tonight’s lakers-nuggets a must-win for l.a.?

still much excitement left in the western conference between now and the end of the regular season.  case in point: tonight’s contest between l.a. and denver.  for denver, the game matters a lot in terms of where they’ll end the season in the western conference rankings, and in particular whether they’ll have home court advantage in rounds one and, possibly, two of the playoffs.  for the lakers, tonight’s game is important, but for a more subtle reason.  in the event they make the finals, it may affect on whose court the close-out game gets played.  of course, if cleveland is the eastern conference’s entry in the finals, it’s irrelevant.  but if orlando can beat cleveland, then the fact that orlando trails l.a. by only one game in the loss column as of today may be important.  the lakers have two games against quality opponents remaining with five left to play (denver and portland, with what should be “easy” games against the clips, twolves, and kings to fill it out), while the magic face only one, cleveland, with four to go (the others being the knicks, indiana, and philly).

to my mind, orlando, despite the weaker record, is well-positioned to upset the king and his court.  orlando has a very clear offensive structure and a nasty d.  in contrast, cleveland strikes me as a bunch of guys more than a team per se.  guys with talent, to be sure, but i’m never quite sure what they’ll go to when tested, whereas with orlando you get the sense that they have a much clearer sense of their go-to sets, of what they’re (all) going to do when things get tight.  of course, in cleveland, the go-to set consists of handing the ball to lebron somewhere beyond the 3-point line, and see what happens.  very often, what happens is good, ’cause he’s so hard to stop.  beyond that, in a weird way, maybe it’s hard to set up a defensive scheme for a club with an amorphous O like cleveland.  that said, orlando plays a very well-run, diversified offense.  they’re strong, and they’re deep, and every player seems very clear on his role.  i don’t get the sense that when things get tense they’ll start to question what they’re doing, while i think that cleveland may.  the bottom line is, while cleveland may be a favorite, i don’t count them a big favorite against orlando, and i would not in the least be surprised to see orlando return to the finals…

if that happens, the lakers may need to win out during the regular season to be sure that the finals end in staples ctr.  tonight’s game against denver represents their toughest remaining challenge, and so maybe, in an odd way, the lakers need to see this game as a must-win.

we’ll see…

western conference playoff wish list

well, with three to five games left to play, the western conference playoff rankings are still up for grabs, although a little stratification is setting in.  the lakers are five games ahead of everyone in the loss column, and have five left to play.  the 2, 3 and 4 teams right now (dallas, denver, phoenix) all have 27 losses, with the 5 (utah) with 28.  then there’s a huge drop-off of two games in the loss column for 6-8 (portland, san antonio, ok city).  looking at the schedule and the standings, i have a clear wish list.  i’d love to see portland beat dallas at portland on friday night.  after that dallas has the clips and sacramento, and then a toughie at home against san antonio to close the season.  if portland (or san antonio) can beat dallas, and if phoenix can win out (a tall order: they play @ok city, houston, denver, @utah), then phoenix would take the 2 spot no matter what else happens (since they’d have dealt denver and utah losses).  my dream scenario has dallas in the 3 spot, with denver and utah beating each other senseless in a first round matchup.  assuming dallas and phoenix can win their first rounders (no guarantee of course), that gives phoenix the best possible chance of getting to the conference finals…

oh…you say, i’m showing my lakers bias?  yeah, i guess so…in that scenario, i frankly think the lakers have a tougher test in the conference semi-finals than in the conference finals.  i admit it…i’d like to see l.a. have to face either denver or utah, not both.  that said, denver is a shadow of its former self right now, probably atttributable in part to the loss of george karl, but also due to kmart’s absence and the birdman’s decline.  well, they do say watch what you wish for…

any way it works out, it should be interesting, and fun…but speaking for myself, i want to see as many phoenix games as possible, and that’s not just because i think the lakers can handle those guys, but because i think they are still one of the most enjoyable teams in the league to watch.  they play hoops, not wrestling, and in the playoffs, i prefer watching hoops to watching wrestling.

miami in the driver seat in the bottom half of the east draw

for those interested in how the bottom half of the east draw is going to finish up, all i can say is, the schedule tells the tale.

in general, you can get a rough sense of whether and how much a team will move in the standings by looking at the schedule and counting the number of teams they have to play with better records (or, just better teams – use your own judgment) than them.  then do the same for the other teams vying for that playoff seeding.  if they’re close, don’t count on too much movement, unless the teams are dead even in the standings.  if there’s a big disparity in strength of schedule, maybe things are going to change. this doesn’t mean they’ll beat every “inferior” team and lose to every “superior” team (for example, just tonight indiana beat utah, philly topped atlanta, and, as i write this, the lakers are getting their heads handed to them by durant and the boys), but it’s a good rule of thumb.

in general, if you look at most teams, you’ll find that their remaining schedule differs by one or two “tough” games from those of their other contestants with ten to twelve games remaining.

not so for the heat.  for them, it looks like a cakewalk from here.  in the remaining ten games on their schedule, they have only a single game left against a team with a better record.  that would be the bucks, who the heat meet in milwaukee tonight.  after that, it’s a wasteland, with “tests” coming from toronto, detroit, indiana, minny, philly, detroit again, the juggernaut that is the ny knicks, philly again, and finishing up, at home, with the mighty nets.  true, six of the ten are on the road, but come on.

compare that to what the team in front of them, the aforementioned bucks, have to face.  after miami, they get: memphis, the clippers, cleveland (at cleveland), charlotte, phoenix, a possibly desperate (or possibly out-of-it) chicago bulls, then breathers against new jersey and philly, and then a nice triplet against boston, atlanta, and boston again, which should be especially fun as both boston and atlanta will be battling for playoff positioning.  so, even if we assume the bucks can take care of business against charlotte and  memphis (neither one a pushover), and we write off the clips, bulls, philly and nets, that still leaves five games against top teams.

the story is similar with toronto.  the traps will be facing denver, cleveland, boston and atlanta, in addition to miami, charlotte and that maybe-hungry-maybe-not chicago squad.  meanwhile, charlotte has a schedule more similar to that of the heat.  the bobcats toughest contests other than a game at home against atlanta are homers against toronto and milwaukee, roadies in new orleans and houston (who will play you tough always, anywhere, no matter what), and a couple against chicago.

so, given the strength of schedule, i don’t see even the surprising bucks holding on to that 5th place seed, despite the fact that right now they’re a full three games in the loss column ahead of miami and charlotte.  not to say they can’t hold on, just to say i don’t think they will.  that said, there is this caveat.  i haven’t seen them play lately, and if josh smith is right, they’re playing great ball.

so, my prognostication: miami fifth, milwaukee sixth, then charlotte and toronto last, with chicago still on the outside looking in…of course, charlotte might also be able to hop over milwaukee if they can win every game they “should” and don’t have a brain fart at the end.  with a larry brown team, it could go either way…great preparation, but too much stress.  that said, this charlotte team may be the perfect group of guys for larry brown…neither wallace nor jackson is liable to get too wound up by larry’s angst, and they set the tone.

anyhow, it should be interesting…not, of course, that i think any of the four can get to the second round, with the possible exception of a puncher’s chance going to whoever draws the celts.

nba haves and have-nots

well, with many of the big name free-agents having made verbal committments to teams, the view of the coming NBA season is beginning to take shape.  and it should be interesting and, if you’re a fan of one of the privileged few teams with a shot, a lot of fun.

the biggest trend is the divergence between the fortunes of teams that can realistically compete for a championship, and those with – let’s be frank – no hope.  what we’ve seen is no-hope teams letting great players go to top teams, trying to cut costs while they lick their wounds.  some of them may be planning to try to come back in one or more years, but most don’t look like they have much hope…


because the best players out there are willing to play for the mid-level exception on teams with a realistic shot to win the title.

and that’s a short list: l.a., boston, cleveland seem like real threats, with outside shots in orlando and san antonio…with the recently reported signing of hedo turkoglu, pencil portland in as a dark horse, though realistically it seems like it will take them a couple of years to advance to the top tier, all that talent notwithstanding.

at the top of the list, there’s the lakers.  they’re going to have such an overwhelming talent advantage.  ron artest gives them something they’ve lacked for a long time: an imposing physical presence on defense.  while you might get some argument from gerald wallace’s ribs and lungs, there was not much in the middle for l.a. that made teams feel like they really didn’t want to wander into the paint.  unlike boston, who have two or more bodies converging, and usually making contact, with anyone who tries to get to the rim, the lakers frontline would frequently move out of the way when someone went hard to the rim.  that’s probably because guys didn’t want to foul out.  as the aforementioned gerald wallace learned, andrew bynum was willing to play that role, but too often in important games he couldn’t manage to stay on the floor long enough to make a difference.  odds are the young man, who seems smart and motivated, with a pleasant streak of nasty in his game, will learn quickly, and will improve.  but all that notwithstanding, in ron artest, the lakers now have a guy who will take it real personal if opposing teams are getting an easy path to the rim.  more importantly, they have a guy who can match lebron james and paul pierce physically at the 3.  trevor ariza is a quick, smart and committed defender, but he’s not going to wear out the tough 3’s in the league…he’ll stay with them, but he won’t beat them down.  artest will beat them down.  i’ll never forget watching him playing for sacto against a lakers team that had more talent but got pushed around nonetheless by the boys from the california capitol.

and i suppose it has escaped no one that in kobe, lamar (assuming they resign him) and artest coach phil jackson has a trio eerily reminiscent of jordan, pippen and rodman…but jordan pippen and rodman never had the likes of a pau gasol and andrew bynum to go with them.  if phil’s health holds up and if everyone stays a) professional and b) healthy, this could get ugly for the rest of the league.

meanwhile, the other cream of the nba crop all added key personnel, even if it doesn’t look like any of it will be enough to keep up with what l.a. has done.  jefferson in san antonio gives that team needed athleticism, without sacrificing the discipline that is its hallmark.  vince carter adds explosiveness to orlando and makes their starting five one of the best in the league…only problem there is, after you get past their big 4 of nelson, howard, lewis, and vince, the cupboard starts to look a little too bare…the departure of four guys who played important roles in the playoffs – turkoglu, courtney lee, marcin gortat, and rafer alston – is going to take a toll at some point, even if they get nelson back at full strength for the year.

as for boston, a lot hinges on the big ticket.  if he can bounce back physically (and if espn’s bill simmons can be proven wrong in his theory that garnett’s physical breakdown may at this point be irreversible) and if the lizards can convince rasheed to join them, they’ll look like a beast.  hard to see anyone doing much in the paint against that squad.  i’m among those who think that if garnett had been healthy we would have seen a repeat of lakers-celts in the finals, and at least right now, don’t see any reason why it won’t happen next year if the C’s stay healthy (big if).  they just have more experience, defensive toughness, savvy and composure than any of their rivals.  and they look to be deeper too.

meanwhile up in cleveland, lebron’s got some needed help, experience and physicality in the middle in his new big caddy: shaq (wish i could get royalties for coining the big caddy: shaq, but the big man has the right to his own name and nicknames).  but the upgrades in the other top teams will be too much for the land of cleve unless the cavs can pull a tall (preferably quick) lanky defender who can get his own shot.  there were/are a number of such guys in this year’s free agent crop – turkoglu, ariza, artest, odom – but the first three are all spoken for already and it’ll be a shock if the fourth, odom, doesn’t re-sign with the lakers.  the situation makes me think that lebron’s going to have to wait a few years to get his ring, and maybe even to get to the finals again.  here’s hoping he doesn’t sustain the kind of psychic damage that jerry west did, running year after year into the brick wall that was russell’s band of leprechauns.  lebron’s physical advantage is so great that you have to give cleveland a punchers chance, especially if they can get the top seed in the east and only have to play orlando *or* boston and not both in the playoffs.  still, i think the cavs have to rate behind boston, and maybe neck and neck with orlando in the eastern sweepstakes.  of course, if garnett turns out to be as fragile next year as he was this year, then give cleveland much better than a puncher’s chance…in the conference finals…lord help them against the stacked lakers.

the most intriguing move and the most intriguing non-move (so far) come from two western conference bridesmaids: portland and denver, respectively.

portland seems to have gotten exactly what it needed in turkoglu: an experienced guy who can take some of the ball-handling load off of brandon roy, who can get the ball anywhere on the floor and be a threat with it, who can get his own shot or make the right pass (especially over the defense), who will create match-up problems for most teams, especially when lamarcus aldridge is on the floor at the same time and most importantly, should be a great fit in terms of temperament on a team of guys who are proud and talented but not boastful.   and man, what  a deep, varied, and athletic bunch they are.  i think they’ll be one of the most fun teams to watch next year.

despite all that though, portland is a team that may need a year or two to work out how to beat the lakers in a conference finals, assuming they get that far.  and san antonio and denver are likely to have something to say about that.

denver however, may have taken a big step back, simply by having failed to take a step forward.  their big advantages this year were physical dominance and a newly poised offensive approach thanks to chauncey billups.  but the problem with billups, as started to become evident in the playoffs even though it was disguised to a degree by denver’s overall approach, is that his experience and ability can’t make up for the loss in phyical potency that inevitably comes with age.  it reminds me a little of rick “big daddy” reuschel when he took the giants to the ’89 world series.  an experienced guy who could dominate games against good teams, but struggled against great hitters and great teams, simply because he didn’t have the ability, at 40, to overpower the juiced up mark mcgwires and jose cansecos of the world.  basically, he couldn’t mix in a slowing fastball with his other stuff against those guys, and so ultimately couldn’t threaten them.

to me, that’s where chauncey is now.  he’s the perfect fit for a group of mostly young, strong but less than disciplined guys, but at crunch time, particularly against teams with quick guards, he may be at a bigger and bigger disadvantage.  in fact, l.a. is probably the nuggets best matchup because they have a guy at that position in derek fisher who’s not going to be able to outquick or outmuscle chauncey.  but with artest now in the mix, denver’s ability to physically dominate the rest of the floor against l.a. is substantially diminished.  and artest is going to match up very well against carmelo…in fact, it’ll be interesting to see if carmelo can maintain his poise against artest  in a hotly contested series against l.a., if it comes to that.

but, getting back to chauncey, it’s hard to see how he’ll stand up well against improved portland or san antonio squads, both of which have quicks at the 1.  we’ll see.

after the top six: l.a., boston, cleveland, orlando, san antonio, and portland, things start to look grim around the league.  one interesting stat will be teams’ combined record against the top six.  i may need to keep track of that next year…i’ll be impressed if any team not in that group can do better than .400 against it.  denver has the best chance of coming close, and given the number of teams in the league, the probability of one unexpected team fluking into a good record against them may be better than 50:50, but i kind of doubt it.

for the rest of the league, it’s hard to know how they’re going to keep their fans motivated to keep coming to games, other than to see the home boys try to put up against a fight against top six teams.

new york under d’antoni will undoubtedly be fun to watch because of the style.  ditto golden state (who, parenthetically, i think will be a lot *less* fun if they land amare stoudemire because i think his attitude will poison the team…the man should have a stronger sense of hunger and committment, as opposed to the idea he seems to drag around that he’s already arrived somewhere) .  and dallas fans are so in love with their team that they’ll show up and fantasize that they’ve got some kind of chance when the reality is that they’re going to be well-coached also-rans.  nuggets fans will have a chance every night but are likely to end up on the short end against the good teams, as already mentioned.  jazz fans will get what they’ve always gotten, well-prepared tenacious teams that will do well but won’t be able to get over the hump, and they’ll probably accept that.   in oklahoma city, they’ll root for the young guys and won’t worry much about today, thinking instead about someday a couple of years down the line.  one team that should be fascinating to watch is the charlotte bobcats, particularly if they get ai.  brown is the kind of coach who can get his team to play a sticky kind of game that will make it tough even on the best teams, and he may just have the talent to make it work this year.  in fact, if i had to pick a darkhorse candidate for the eastern conf semis next year, it’d be the bobcats.

but in atlanta, philly, chicago, phoenix, houston, new jersey, miami, new orleans, detroit, indiana…what’s there to look forward to? mediocrity or worse, and years of treading water (ok, in dwayne wade miami gets to watch something much better than mediocrity, but it says here there is no way miami can reach the conference finals, and serious doubts about the semis).   and don’t even get me started on toronto, milwaukee, the cloppers, the twolves and the rest of the scroungers making up the bottom rung.

nope, it’s going to be a long year watching top teams overwhelm everyone else, wondering who might be able to slip into the conference semi’s in the east and, if denver falters, in the west.  but once the conference semi’s start, well, now that’ll be interesting.

but already i think the default scenario for the 2009-2010 season is:

lakers (champs)

boston (eastern conf champs)

cleveland (eastern conf runner up)

orlando (eastern conf semis)

charlotte (? eastern conf semis)

san antonio (western conf runners-up)

portland (pushing san antonio to seven in conf semis?)

denver (western conf semis)

obviously, injuries or huge trades could change the situation, but for right now, i’ll start there.