We’re now less than a month away from the start of the 2017 NBA playoffs, and it’s time to start thinking about what exactly everybody’s going to be playing for between April and June. And that’s a list that extends far beyond just the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
The topic for this week’s Four Corners roundtable: Who’s got the most at stake this coming postseason? Individual players, coaches, teams, general managers — which entities have the most riding on the outcome of the 2017 playoffs?
Here are our picks. Let’s hear yours in the comments.
He’s 5-foot-9, if that, and arguably a top-five MVP candidate. That alone is ridiculous and deserves to be celebrated. Nobody under 6 feet tall has ever been this good. His 29.2 points per game rank second behind only Russell Westbrook, he’s been the league’s best fourth-quarter scorer all season, and he owns a better Player Efficiency Rating (26.9) than LeBron James.
Oh, and he’s doing it all for $6.6 million. He costs the Boston Celtics a quarter of what the New York Knicks are paying Carmelo Anthony, a third of what the Los Angeles Lakers are paying healthy scratch Luol Deng, and half of what the Sacramento Kings are paying Arron Afflalo. And he’s actually slated to take a pay cut next season.
So, what’s at stake for the NBA’s best bargain? Just a max contract and the direction of a franchise.
Thomas has been rock solid for Boston since arriving at the 2015 trade deadline, leading the C’s to a pair of playoff appearances. But he’s struggled to find his rhythm once he got there, shooting a combined 37.6 percent, in part because he’s been the sole focus of opposing defenses. The Cleveland Cavaliers handled him with bigger defenders and double teams in a 2015 sweep, and the Atlanta Hawks outscored the Celtics by 8.7 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the court in last year’s first-round exit. He’ll be the primary target of whichever team draws the Celtics this season, too.
Only this year, the stakes are higher. The C’s should enter the playoffs as either the East’s second or third seed, with home-court advantage in the first round. They’ll be expected to not only advance for the first time under head coach Brad Stevens, but to compete for an Eastern Conference Finals berth.
If Thomas falters again, and Boston falls short as a result, the front office has to consider whether the 5-foot-9 dynamo can lead them to their next championship. If not, they have to question if a $200 million max contract is wise for Thomas, what the trade market might be for him with one year left on his current deal, and whether they’re comfortable moving forward with the likes of Markelle Fultz as their potential No. 1 overall pick in this June’s NBA draft.
But if Thomas can lead the Celtics to the conference finals — and, even better, challenge the Cavs for East supremacy — Danny Ainge and company will feel a whole lot better about handing him that max deal, making him the face of their franchise and continuing to try building the next title team around him. — Ben Rohrbach
Mike D’Antoni shouldn’t have anything to prove. Not so much because he’s silenced all his critics by 2017, but because most who know enough about the man to form an opinion have already sealed their Suns-scorched take.
To those on his side, D’Antoni’s move to open up the lanes and up the scoring ante 12 seasons ago as coach of the Phoenix Suns was vindicated not by the championship victory of the 2016 Golden State Warriors, but by the work his Suns teams — all of which were felled by legitimate injury and/or suspension excuses — did at the time.
To them, the successes of those Suns teams validated D’Antoni’s tastes for 3-point shooting and quick play as much as the triumphs of those that sprung up around them — that era’s Mavericks and Spurs clubs — in the same way that recent champions in Cleveland, Miami and San Antonio owe a debt of gratitude to Seven Seconds or Less. D’Antoni’s “stylings” are now the style, so much so that each year’s champion can’t help but tip its cap to the guy who reminded many of us that basketball could be fun.
To his detractors, D’Antoni’s legacy was settled when the 62-win Suns were bounced from the Western Conference Finals in 2005, or when he left the Suns as a first-round loser in 2008. His legacy was ensured when his move to encourage Linsanity (or escape Dolanity) couldn’t survive New York’s star system. Or when he failed to reach Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant (who grew up idolizing D’Antoni, the Italian League star) in Los Angeles.
To them, D’Antoni’s all-out system only works when it has a sublime, MVP-level star pushing the tempo: Steve Nash, or Stephen Curry. And even that, with Nash a championship-less retiree and with Curry having blown a 3-1 lead in last year’s Finals, isn’t enough. Teams can shoot a lot of 3-pointers in the modern era, they’ll submit, but all-out Seven Seconds or Less-play doesn’t work unless a superstar is behind it. Call it the explainable Triangle Offense.
This is why 2016-17 has to be it. The Houston Rockets, despite some midseason rumblings, would still rank as “out of nowhere” should the (current, and likely) No. 3 seed make a play to topple the Spurs or Warriors in the second or third round. “A play” would stir the echoes among those who had forgotten they had a negative opinion to share about D’Antoni.
“A play,” with star James Harden still surrounded with so many uncertain parts, would work for the believers, as well. To travel this great a distance with reclamation projects like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson carrying so great a load, with Lou Williams added midstream, with Clint Capela taken out for a month, with Patrick Beverley as fitful as ever? A deep run among the greats for Houston would remind, if not clarify.
Because, again, both sides made up their minds long ago when it comes to the subject of Mike D’Antoni.
Luckily for each side, the Warriors and Spurs didn’t quite leave the atmosphere before falling prey to injury and fatigue. Luckily for them, the postseason will allow for perhaps D’Antoni’s easiest road toward that supreme Finals stage, and the opinion reinforcement that will no doubt follow. — Kelly Dwyer
Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors to have fun playing basketball while winning lots of championships. Unfortunately for him, that choice also created a scenario in which any failure to win, no matter the circumstances, would make his decision look foolish and ineffective to a significant portion of basketball fans. Controversial free-agent moves don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
It’s therefore no comfort to Durant’s reputation to say that, as long as he stays injured, the Warriors have no real shot of winning a title. If he doesn’t take the court in the playoffs, plenty of haters will say he should have pushed himself and lacks the single-minded will to excel through injury. If Durant plays and feels the effects of injury, he’ll be open to blame for any elimination, even if it’s clear his health was the difference between winning and losing. If he returns healthy, he’ll just play out the same alpha-dog issues that attended his move last July.
This whole rigamarole isn’t especially fair to Durant the human, but such matters never are. If anything, it’s a reminder that the supposed easy way out — joining an established contender — really just opened Durant up to far more scenarios in which he can be criticized. Thankfully, the best players tend to find the road to excellence even when so much blocks their path. — Eric Freeman
The Los Angeles Clippers
It almost seems too obvious, but there it is, staring you in the face, plain as day and impossible to avoid. This is the sixth year of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan era, and the fourth year of Doc Rivers coaching that trio, and for a variety of reasons — controversial calls and Kevin Durant, a staggering collapse and a lack of depth, busted quads and hands — this star-studded crew hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs. With the principals aging and the story getting stale, the stakes seem clear as ever: if this isn’t the year, then there might not ever be one.
Paul can opt out of his contract come season’s end, though it seems likely (and has been widely rumored) that no matter how the playoffs unfold, he’ll re-up in L.A. for the longest, most lucrative contract possible under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, which he helped shape — and in very veteran-star-friendly ways — as the president of the National Basketball Players Association. Griffin’s got an early termination option, too, and has reportedly also expressed interest in re-signing. But what if the Clips again flame out in Round 1, this time at the hands of the very good, very deep and very feisty Utah Jazz? Or what if they knock off the Jazz, but fall in heartbreaking fashion to a vengeful top-seeded San Antonio Spurs squad … or, even worse, once again get smoked by a Golden State Warriors side that has spent the last few years shattering the Clips’ dreams at every turn?
Might yet another enervating, disappointingly familiar conclusion lead the Clippers’ stars to change their minds? Might it change Rivers’, or owner Steve Ballmer’s, about the long-term potential of bringing CP3 and Blake back?
The questions extend beyond the Clips’ two top guns. Starting shooting guard J.J. Redick will hit unrestricted free agency, as will veteran reserves Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass and Alan Anderson. So could starting small forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and reserve center Marreese Speights, who own player options for next season.
Of the top nine players in Doc’s rotation, only Jordan, Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford are definitively slated to return next year. The latter two heard their names prominently featured in rumors before last month’s trade deadline. Jordan, an All-NBA and All-Star center with two years left on an attractive pre-cap-boom max contract, would represent the Clips’ best chance at netting a significant return in trade if L.A. did decide to make real changes after another pre-conference finals exit.
If the breaks once again favor the Clips’ opposition without any new evidence suggesting that this team really can get over the hump and into the title picture, no potential means of reconstruction seems beyond the pale. Anything and everything would figure to be on the table.
Or, y’know, things could finally go the other way.
Paul continues the tremendous play that would have had him in the All-Star Game and MVP conversation had he not hurt his thumb. Griffin returns to the level that had him looking like the best non-LeBron power forward in the world two postseasons ago. Jordan collapses opponents in the pick-and-roll and anchors the defense. Everybody else makes shots, and everybody stays healthy.
The Warriors never quite get right even after getting Durant back. The Spurs’ lack of backcourt depth comes back to bite them. The Rockets’ long-range shooting runs cold, the Jazz aren’t quite ready for prime time, and the Clippers finally click enough come springtime to make the Finals, convincing everybody who needs convincing that they really have been for real this whole time; they just needed a little bit of luck to prove it.
An exorcism and the elation of a championship run, or the end of an era that produced a lot of wins and even more heartbreak. It kind of feels like the Clips are headed for one or the other this postseason. The stakes don’t get much higher than that. — Dan Devine
Source : Yahoo Sports