Win or Go Home is TNT’s mantra, which is a perfectly ominous warning because home court was a minefield during the first round of the NBA playoffs. Now that half the field has been cropped out of the playoff picture, here's a breakdown of what went wrong, right and where they’re going next, before we move on to the playoffs' second round.
Are the Raptors a “nice” team or are they on the rise as a contender? That’s the question that darts through the minds of observers who peeped their meteoric rise from the Tanking Toronto Raptors to Kings of the Titanic Atlantic Division.
In the Western Conference, would they even qualify as a playoff team? Their next progression as a team rests on the development of second-year guard Terrence Ross. Despite his furious finish in the Nets series, there weren’t many reasons to be overly optimistic.
However, up until Paul George’s third season there wasn’t much reason to believe he’d be an All-NBA player this soon either. DeMar DeRozan scraped the stratosphere this season after Rudy Gay was deep-sixed, but no orbiting championship contender is manned by a single superstar. In recent years, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Roy Hibbert and Bradley Beal have shattered the emergency case containing their potential and have shot for the moon.
Terrence Ross could be the Buzz Aldrin to DeRozan’s Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, against Brooklyn he was left floating in the abyss, averaging 5.0 points on 29 percent shooting and had his minutes jacked by the less athletic Greivis Vasquez, who showed out. The Raptors have touched the sky, but now it’s time for them to start aiming for the final frontier. Advancing deep into the postseason and going where no Raptor team has ever gone before.
“What we didn’t want to do was just compete for the eighth spot, then not even win a playoff game,’’ said Rod Higgins, president of basketball operations.
“We made the tough decision to change this team.’’
That was Higgins’ explanation in 2011 for dismantling the remnants of the Charlotte Bobcats’ only playoff team in a brief, yet tragic franchise history to that point. Three years later, every single playoff series was a defibrillator to the casual fan's basketball palate except the Heat’s skewering of Bobcats-on-a-stick. Optimism abounds in Charlotte, but when you peel back the skin and realize that they were a seventh seed in a horrific Eastern Conference that smelled like horse manure, it puts things in perspective.
So where do the Bobcats go from here? The most obvious improvement on the horizon for the Bobcats will be the impending transition back to their Hornets roots. In the interim, I’m just calling them the Uhhh… rather than the Slashes(Bobcats/Hornets) because that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I have Bobcats on the tip of my tongue before remembering that their abandoning Bob Johnson's vainglorious team nickname. Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson have a limited upward trajectory so the Uhhh… have to begin the next stage of their rise.
Besides the obvious free agency outlet mall, there’s also hope in the form of the lottery. The Pistons owe the Charlotte Uhhh… a top-eight protected first round pick in the upcoming draft. Joe Dumars giving up the ninth overall pick to Michael Jordan would be the ultimate nadir of his Pistons General Manager stewardship.
Unfortunately, neither of their former lottery picks, Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller, appear to be on the brink of being anything more than bodies in the starting lineup after scoring eight points each during the entire four-game sweep. There’s still work to be done.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Mark Jackson’s done wonderful things with Golden State, but clearly his standoffish behavior has created enemies in the Golden State front office. One of the misconceptions about Golden State is that they don’t play much defense. The Warriors are actually third in defensive efficiency during the regular season, but their offense would often descend into chaos when Curry wasn’t handling the rock. Jackson’s players love him, but the Warriors management thinks he’s prickly and that his offenses rely too heavily on isolation sets.
Steve Kerr is a Triangle acolyte, which is why he is Phil Jackson’s main target in New York. However, is he the coach to take Golden State to the next level? The Warriors can’t take chances with Curry, who can be an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
If the Warriors target a replacement, it has to be a veteran coach with experience. Someone who can maximize Steph Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. It won’t be Lionel Hollins, who treated the area behind the arc as if it was a radioactive shooting zone in Memphis, while arguing with management during his final season in Memphis.
That someone may be Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s success has been linked to his symbiotic relationship with Steve Nash in Phoenix and the Seven Seconds or Less Offense that relied so heavily on three-point marksmen.
Nash’s health prevented him from replicating their Suns success, however, Curry was created in a Nash petri dish and nobody can tell me otherwise, no matter how many times Dell vehemently denies the rumors.
The Bulls have the potential to be the most intriguing offseason franchise this summer. Carlos Boozer’s expiring contract makes him a valuable trade asset, but the Bulls are more interested in acquiring a free agent running mate that can take some of the burden for creating offense off of Derrick Rose’s shoulders. Most likely, Boozer will be outright amnestied allowing them the cap flexibility to pursue playmakers in free agency.
Lance Stephenson and Carmelo Anthony are the two possibilities for Chicago’s best case scenario.
Stephenson presents the grittiness on both ends that Thibodeau has ingrained in Chicago. He’s also the player Bulls fans hoped Jimmy Butler would develop into and should command approximately $10 to $12 million annually compared to the $22.6 million Anthony could earn elsewhere.
There are misconceptions about the NBA’s max contract under the new CBA. There is no specific amount set as the ceiling. Rather, a max guy can earn 105 % of his current salary in year one, plus an annual raise of 7.5 percent over five years if they re-sign with the franchise that has their Bird Rights, and four years, combined with a 4.5 % annual raise for max contracts signed with teams that don’t own a player’s Bird Rights.
Anthony is the inverse of Joakim Noah, but they’d be perfect complements for each other. While Anthony’s not as inept defensively as he was under D’Antoni, he’ll always be a below-average defender. Yet, the Bulls sorely need an instinctive scorer of Anthony’s ilk.
Anthony’s presence would instantly improve the offensive looks his teammates receive and in turn make everyone on the floor much better offensively as well. Derrick Rose’s penetration and kick duo with Anthony would make this tandem viperous to defenses.
There are obstacles in the way of both potential acquisitions. The Pacers can match any offer made for Stephenson because he is a restricted free agent and Anthony is a max-contract player. So the Bulls must get creative to fit Anthony’s salary underneath the cap.
There a dozen paths for the Bulls to take. They could decide against asking coveted Spanish forward Nikola Mirotic to remain overseas for another season, but if they can sign Anthony, their perennial perimeter and low post scoring woes may finally be solved.
Should Steven Adams be placed in Witness Protection next season? pic.twitter.com/WVX9IVDPeL
— DJ Meta Dunson (@CerebralSportex) May 5, 2014
Look at this face. Now tell me, he doesn’t conjure up images of an adult Damien from "The Omen". #StevenAdams pic.twitter.com/JBbPKmloo0
— DJ Meta Dunson (@CerebralSportex) May 5, 2014
Steven Adams' theme music. #TheOmen This is how he inspires vitriol w/o speaking or changing his facial expression. https://t.co/6aKigONQbC
— DJ Meta Dunson (@CerebralSportex) May 5, 2014
Ask former Portland resident Robert Bacote or Richard Beasley if the Steven Adams shove looked like a punch or a shove to them. The two aforementioned gentlemen have both filed lawsuits against Randolph alleging that he violently assaulted them during separate altercations in 2006 and 2011. Adams got off easy. Randolph’s been more physical with Blake Griffin that he was with Adams on Friday night.
Not only was Zach Randolph’s Game 7 suspension another drop into the NBA Church of Conspiracy Theorists collection plate, but it may have been the final impact play of his Grizzlies career. The 32-year-old holds a player-option for next season and may seek out the final big payday of his professional career. For a man that’s had to pay so many lawyer fees, that’s no small thing.
The Grizzlies have had quite a run over the last four years, but there always seemed to be a certain je ne sais quoi missing. Could Randolph go title-chasing elsewhere? That’s the mystery of the season. If Randolph isn’t in Memphis there’s a bright side. The return of Pau Gasol is entirely plausible. At least there are no worries about Pau going postal on anybody. If that’s the end of Z-Bo in Memphis, it was a wild ride. It couldn’t have ended more fittingly.
Ten years ago, after Derek Fisher’s 0.4 shot The Big Aristotle said something to the effect of “One lucky shot deserves another.” The karma from Troy Daniels’ game-winning Game 3 trey swung in the opposite direction as Damian Lillard curled around a screen, clapped his hands to signal the inbounder, squared up and sprung upwards to launch the series clincher.
Portland moved on, but the Houston Rockets are left with burning questions. I’ve never been a huge fan of Kevin McHale being the head coach in Houston. He doesn’t strike anyone as a creative X’s and O’s artisan. The return of Jeff Van Gundy and his defensive principles would be a welcome sight.
He reportedly has the support for one more season to tinker with the Rockets, but Daryl Morey has the difficult task of unloading Omer Asik’s expiring poison-pill-contract onto another team willing to swap talent.
James Harden also has to play more defense. Failing to hedge out on Lillard during the Rockets final defensive stand was an egregious error that can’t be excused. That play should loop over and over in his head during his workouts if he has any pride. If he’s not much improved on the defensive end next season, the Rockets should strike fear in him by generating rumors of Jeff Van Gundy’s return and show him what happened to Tracy McGrady’s scoring average in his grinding offense.
No Country For Old Men perfectly describes the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs showed plenty of life in their seven-game series loss to San Antonio. However, they’re heading in the opposite direction than the Hawks, Rockets and Warriors. Nowitzki is heavily relied upon as the leader of a roster that’s inferior to the ones we’re accustomed to seeing trot out . The sand is draining from his hourglass.
Credit goes to John Carlisle who maximized his limited roster by bringing Vince Carter off the bench as his sixth man. Yet, the Mavericks are being pushed towards the Western Conference cliff as the Phoenix Suns pull themselves up into Dallas’ blind spot.
Seven other teams were better than Dallas this season and only Memphis could potentially take a step back next season. Anthony Davis was absolutely incredible in the second half of the season and if he continues progressing exponentially in his third year, the Pelicans may find themselves positioned for a playoff berth. If the Mavericks want to avoid being the odd man out, acquiring talent is the objective. Contending in the West is the motive.
Josh Smith would have thrown his own mama down the stairs to play for the Mike Budenholzer Hawks. Let it fly was the Hawks gameplan for much of this season when they shot the second-most threes in the nation and Game 7 was the capstone of their “Live By Three, Die By Three” axiom. As a team, Atlanta shot 201 more three-pointers than they had during Smith’s final campaign with the team.
The Hawks shot a playoff-record 44 treys in the terminal of the series and attempted 32.9 in the series, tops among all postseason teams.
After years of groaning from the gallery whenever Smith would fire one of his patented grenade threes, Kyle Korver setting an NBA record for consecutive games with a three-pointer made, while shooting 47 percent from the field, was refreshing.
Mike Scott emerged as the non-superstar name to know from the first round. Not only did the irascible power forward give Ian Mahinmi a cleansing facial in Game 6, but he also scored 17 in one quarter of Game 5 and was vital to Atlanta’s near-upset.
Before the playoffs, general manager Danny Ferry said that the eighth seed was not his franchise’s goal and that they wanted, “more than that as a team.” That was almost as good as it gets.