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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Lowe’s five NBA things: The end of Jordan’s Bulls, a mystery team and a player in the MVP conversation

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The Last Dance” is over, but let’s lead off our five NBA things with some unfinished business:

1. Dishonoring a champion

With precious few exceptions, great teams have a life cycle. They gain experience, win a lot, age, and get bad. There are ways to mitigate the pain, but almost never to skip it. Sometimes one lopsided trade gives a great team rare access to a top pick — the chance to find a bridge superstar. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers of the 1980s acquired extra top-five picks they respectively used on Len Bias and Charles Barkley. The San Antonio Spurs‘ acquisition of Kawhi Leonard — with the 15th pick, not even all that high! — had a chance to stand as the all-time archetype of this sort of deal.

Other Finals-level teams get enough in return for aging stars — or make enough savvy trades and draft picks during peak years — to muddle around in mediocrity. Some muddle long enough to leverage one big move — the post-Barkley Phoenix Suns jumping on Jason Kidd, the Seattle SuperSonics turning Gary Payton into Ray Allen — into an interesting season or two. Most such success stories top out with good teams, not great ones. Almost always, real pain comes.

(The Portland Trail Blazers did even better pivoting from one early-1990s Finals core centered around Clyde Drexler to another that barely missed the Finals in 2000 with Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, and Arvydas Sabonis. They won at least 44 games — excluding a 35-15 campaign in the lockout-shortened 1999 season — until 2003-04.)

Even the post-Showtime Los Angeles Lakers dipped to 39 and then 33 wins before slapping together two good (and really fun) teams in 1994-95 and 1995-96 built around Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and Vlade Divac. They knew those teams would end up in the good-but-not-great bucket, and put all their chips in the middle to acquire Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the summer of 1996.

It must be tempting to cut bait on a championship-level core early in its descent instead of waiting until it’s obvious it can no longer contend. It is an opportunity to look smart any technocrat GM would relish on some level. But the chances of nailing that transitional rebuild are too small to justify ripping apart a champion with any nontrivial chance to win again. Doing so dishonors that champion. The management of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls — beginning and ending with Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner — dishonored that team.

The stubbornness of several main characters contributed to Chicago’s breakup, but it’s always on owners to use their hiring and firing authority — and their money — to solve those problems.

I have seen the argument that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the rest are better off for having their dynasty prematurely dismantled. They stay frozen in time as invincible.

I don’t buy it. The 1998-99 Bulls might have won a fourth straight title, setting themselves apart from every team since the 1960s Celtics. (Jordan’s cigar-cutting injury complicates this alternate history, but let’s assume he might have taken more care had he been planning to play.)

But even if they had fallen short, there is a certain dignity in an old lion battling until the end. There is honor in losing — in Kevin McHale dragging a broken foot up and down the floor in 1987, in Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Byron Scott tapping into every bit of guile to make one last run in 1991. There was even a perverted sort of honor in the Detroit Pistons walking off the court in 1991. Losing hurt so much, they could not bear to watch the aftermath.

There is a visceral thrill watching an aging champion rely on the advantages time has provided — toughness, shared experience, chemistry — to fight against time itself.

MORE: Replay “The Last Dance” Episodes 1 to 10

In cold terms, bailing out early is probably “smart.” There is downside in clinging too long. The Celtics risked that when they re-signed 36-year-old Kevin Garnett to a three-year, $34 million deal after an improbable conference finals run in 2012. They sunk into mediocrity the next season; only a once-in-a-generation confluence of factors unlocked the NBA’s version of the Herschel Walker trade with the Brooklyn Nets.

But every Boston fan accepted whatever downside in exchange for watching Garnett and Paul Pierce rage against the dying of the light. I bet Chicago fans would have swallowed the risk of a long-term megadeal for Pippen if it meant bringing the band back once more.

Sports is nothing without emotion, even emotion that runs against icy rationality. Champions deserve to play until they lose.

2. Damian Lillard-inspired panic

I love little moments when you see an NBA player — by definition one of the world’s best athletes — reduced to shrieking panic. The most common might be when a little guy finds himself switched onto a post behemoth. His eyes widen, and he screams for help.

(The inverse is the delight the offensive team takes in discovering that delicious mismatch. The entire Dallas Mavericks bench would sometimes stand, cackling and pointing, when Dirk Nowitzki pinned a guard behind him. They wanted to see the one-legged step-back just as badly as we did.)

During Golden State Warriors road games, you can hear the whole arena screech in terror when fans spot Stephen Curry about to pop open off a screen. When Damian Lillard gets rolling, he inspires the same primal fear:

DeAndre’ Bembry is at half-court when he spies that looming double-screen for Lillard and turns to shout at teammates: Get your asses up here, because this dude is about to jack a 35-footer!

Lillard’s stat line this season: 29 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 39% shooting from deep on 10 attempts per game, and a career-best 62% true-shooting mark.

Luka Doncic: 29 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds, 58% true shooting. Doncic has snared more rebounds; Lillard has shot better. Of course, the Mavericks have also won 11 more games than the Blazers. Given Portland’s injuries, I’m not sure that has much to do with any talent gap between the teams’ respective tentpole players.

Lillard has an under-discussed case for a lower-rung MVP ballot spot. I had him fourth when The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and I revealed our tentative ballots last month. Some voters — including Simmons — will disqualify Lillard because of Portland’s sub-.500 record. Fine. Winning matters, and everyone should approach the exercise in a way that feels comfortable for them.

For me, team record can’t be everything. It of course matters a lot. I don’t think I could ever put anyone from a team with fewer than 45 (maybe 48?) wins in my top three. Games don’t carry the same stakes below that level.

But the 2019-20 Blazers — down three starters most of the season — are roadkill with a league-average point guard in Lillard’s place. My ballot has room in spots Nos. 4 and 5 every few years for a guy having the kind of season Lillard is having in that sort of team context.

3. The Steve Clifford/Nikola Vucevic special

I swear, Nikola Vucevic gets at least one layup out of this every game:

This is a semi-improvisational read by both Vucevic and Markelle Fultz, who is very good firing this specific pass. The set calls for the Orlando Magic‘s power forward — Aaron Gordon — to screen Vucevic’s man in the paint as Vucevic rumbles up into a pick-and-roll with Fultz. Gordon’s pick should hold Vucevic’s man behind the play, opening a runway for Fultz.

Vucevic’s defenders catch on fast. They peek over their shoulders, checking for Gordon, and try to jump his screen. Vucevic counters by aborting the pick-and-roll, and slipping to the rim.

Vucevic is a genius at this, but it’s something Steve Clifford and his staff teach; Cody Zeller scrounged baskets out of this same cut under Clifford with the Charlotte Hornets. Clifford said he learned it a half-dozen years ago from Rick Adelman at one of Tim Grgurich’s legendary camps. Clifford had long admired Adelman’s ability to unearth new methods of attack from the elbows.

During a break, Adelman took Clifford onto the floor and demonstrated counters atop counters atop counters. This was one.

Adelman is ninth all time in NBA coaching wins with a record of 1,042-749. Among 87 guys who have coached at least 500 games, Adelman ranks 17th in winning percentage (.582). Three coaches ahead of him have barely cracked the 500-game mark: Mike Brown, Mike Budenholzer, and Tom Thibodeau. (Steve Kerr will join this group next season.) Several are linked to all-time dynasties: Phil Jackson, K.C. Jones, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach. A couple of others are basically even with Adelman in winning percentage.

Adelman was a nominee for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, and he should receive more serious consideration. He never won a title, but his teams in Portland, Sacramento, and Houston were damned good. His Minnesota Timberwolves teams — beset by injuries — were better than their records.

His fingerprints are all over modern NBA offenses. The Hall of Fame should celebrate stylistic innovators, even those who never won the ultimate prize. George Karl and Mike D’Antoni will get a lot of well-deserved support for this reason. (D’Antoni, of course, still has hope of winning a title.) Adelman is right there with them.

4. Rui Hachimura being mean

We obsess squeezing young players into templates: Is Hachimura a small forward or power forward? He’s not going to be the No. 1 option, so what elite skill does he have that will sing in a third/fourth-option role someday? Good questions, but with some players, they miss the point.

I’m really interested to watch Hachimura in Year 2, because he might be one of those guys who is just a basketball player — someone who sees the game, and can do a lot of things pretty well. He’s a smart cutter with decent vision, and that generally bodes well for young guys developing into good read-and-react passers. He has worked a lot as a screen-setter. He battles on the glass.

He’s an eager midrange shooter with good touch, and has hit 83% at the line. He could become a solid 3-point shooter — at least on open catch-and-shoot looks.

Best of all: He’s already an aggressive post-up brute against smaller players.

Hachimura scored well posting up guards, per Second Spectrum. That’s an important skill for any high-volume pick-and-roll screen-setter, since those plays produce occasional switches. Hone some inside-out passing, and a Hachimura post-up could emerge as a handy weapon.

5. The 2019-20 Utah Jazz, preserved as a mystery

I would read a (short) book about the 2019-20 Utah Jazz, though I fear an anticlimactic ending in the wake of news that Bojan Bogdanovic‘s season is over.

Utah fired a warning shot to the West by snagging Mike Conley, but the Jazz sputtered to a 12-10 start. Their offense appeared stilted and uncertain — caught between their old identity and whatever new one they sought. A revamped bench centered around Joe Ingles failed.

Then Conley got hurt, Ingles returned to the starting five, the schedule softened, and Utah took off: a blistering 20-3 stretch. The Jazz remade their bench. Out went Dante Exum, Jeff Green, Ed Davis, and Emmanuel Mudiay; in came Jordan Clarkson via trade, and the frontcourt pairing of Georges Niang and Tony Bradley via internal promotion.

Utah alternated brief winning and losing streaks when Conley returned in January — first as a reserve, then as a starter again — before catching a rhythm just when the league suspended the season. (You might recall the Jazz were at the center of that whole crisis too.)

Quin Snyder had figured out some things about Utah’s rotations, as Snyder tends to do; Conley was in the midst of by far his best stretch of the season; and the new bench obliterated opponents.

Bogdanovic’s wrist surgery stalls all that until next season. He is more indispensable than everyone but Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — a catch-and-shoot gunner who doesn’t need the ball as much as Mitchell, Clarkson, Conley, or Ingles (even if he can handle it some!) with enough size to jostle against opposing power forwards. Without Bogdanovic, the entire structure of Utah’s team wobbles.

It might not seem so at first. Utah can plop Ingles back into the starting five, and have Royce O’Neale — shooting 39% from deep over the past two seasons — defend most power forwards. Problem solved? Not really. Bogdanovic attempts about the same number of 3s per 36 minutes as O’Neale and Ingles combined. He gets more respect from defenses — way more than O’Neale gets.

Bogdanovic is spicier than O’Neale attacking off the catch, and a better one-on-one scorer than Ingles. That is not his primary job, but the more guys you have that can work off the bounce in a pinch, the better you fare against elite defenses and ticking shot clocks. Bogdanovic ran about 11 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, the highest mark of his career, per Second Spectrum. His efficiency wavered, and he’s very much a shoot-first ball handler; Bogdanovic dished dimes on only 8.4% of his pick-and-rolls that led directly to a Utah shot (or turnover), the 13th-lowest such rate among 203 players who have used at least 100 ball screens, per Second Spectrum.

But he’s crafty, and can shoot over most wings:

He’s a skilled post threat who punishes switches; Utah scored 1.33 points per possession anytime Bogdanovic shot out of a post-up or passed to a teammate who fired right away, tops among all players who have logged at least 50 post touches, per Second Spectrum.

Utah loses real juice without Bogdanovic. O’Neale won’t spend as much time hounding elite wings — his best skill on defense. Utah gets smaller, shallower, and more homogeneous in the type of perimeter players in its rotation.

Slotting Niang into Bogdanovic’s starting spot would mimic the team’s healthy starting lineup (while breaking up the Niang-Bradley duo), but Niang is overtaxed in that role.

Snyder will find some workable solutions, but we have to wait until next season to see what the apex version of this Utah roster can do. In the meantime, Gobert will be eligible for a five-year supermax extension. (His current contract runs through 2020-21; any extension would kick in for 2021-22.) Gulp. We’ve seen teams trade players arguably around Gobert’s tier — Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins — rather than pay them a supermax worth 35% of the salary cap (wherever that is going to be in 2022).

Gobert is also eligible for a four-year, non-supermax extension that would average around $30 million per season.

The Jazz stay compelling.

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