June 4, 2016, 4:52 pm
The grind of the season and the pressure of the playoffs have brought us here; right back where we were a year ago. The route has been a little bit different, but we’re back. It’s at this point where we can get into some serious discussion of what works and what doesn’t when we try and predict the finals.
By now the teams are used to the scrutiny, especially when they’re seasoned squads like Golden State and Cleveland, but to suggest that it has only intensified now is an injustice to this season’s also-rans.
By the time the conference finals hit it’s a media circus for everyone. The spotlight is on every time you take the court and there’s plenty of time to analyze, overanalyze and second guess everything.
Given the time spent looking at Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Toronto, it’s time to look at what’s next. What could, should and might the future hold for the league’s final four and where do they go from here?
The theme for Oklahoma City right now is probably disappointment, but as the distance grows between the present and their Game 7 loss it will look more and more like hope. They were expected to lose to San Antonio and while they gained some support following that upset, were still major underdogs against Golden State. In a way, losing this year shouldn’t be more disappointing than any other year.
Except that they were up 3-1. It fueled some fun discussions about Golden State’s sudden vulnerability and for a minute it looked like the overwhelming favorites would be tossed aside. But you know how it goes and how it eventually went; everything was okay for the Thunder until it wasn’t. The sentiment of ‘I don’t see how OKC loses three straight,’ was en vogue until they were beaten in three straight. And then their season was over.
‘Choke’ is an awful word. It gets thrown around frequently by people who live to jam narrative elements into every sporting event they can. Not every loss involves someone choking; sometimes it’s two good teams playing each other and one happens to be ahead at some arbitrary time limit. Sometimes one team just beats another. So now what?
Giving up a series lead like that will sting, but the Thunder might be ready to get over that hump next year under Billy Donovan. And no matter the expense, the road forward has to involve Kevin Durant. This is the team that’s best equipped to topple the Warriors in the coming years, with all due respect to everyone else. Truth be told, I’d rather the Thunder face the Warriors for seven more games than have Golden State take on the Cavs.
For Durant the likely step is to go back to OKC on a short deal with an opt out to maximize his earnings, which makes a ton of sense for both parties. The Thunder are close. Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and a developing Steven Adams make for the type of foundation that you should be trying to join, not one you leave for the uncertainty of another situation.
There are many out there who think all the big stars should head east because it’s an easier road to the Finals. Granted, that’s probably true. It was painfully obvious that the Raptors couldn’t hang with anyone else in the conference semis. But if you go do decide to go eastward, there’s still the LeBron problem. I think the only teams out east that could beat Cleveland by simply adding KD are Toronto and Miami, with Boston and Atlanta being within the realm of possibility. This ignores the fact that adding Durant means opening up holes elsewhere on your roster, as well as the fact that Durant controls his own future.
Their strong postseason shifted the mood in OKC from uncertainty to hunger. At the beginning of the year, it was looking like KD might bolt for greener pastures. Now it seems like his return is a foregone conclusion while the team is left to sift through the tape to see how they were bested; how they can make sure it won’t happen next year.
For the Raptors, in keeping with Toronto’s proud sporting traditions, the mood has to be one of cautious optimism with underlying anticipation for total failure.
We’ve chatted about what they’re looking to do following GM Masai Ujiri’s end of year presser as well as after Bismack Biyombo said he’d be open to a hometown discount. The Raptors should be proud of their showing, as they’ve established both team and personal bests across the board and have dragged the team and city back to relevance after some dark, listless, time-wasting years.
Toronto feels like the league’s little brother. They’re the outsiders who don’t get to hang with all the cool kids, an identity that’s galvanized a ferocious fanbase thanks to some deft marketing and honest-to-goodness success. The brother who gets clowned for having a goofy rapper show up courtside, the one whose fans can be easily provoked by a bad call or an online poll; any perceived slight is a call to arms because they’re used to the short straw.
In many ways, the Raptors are easy to make fun of and the spotty performances that dotted these playoffs don’t help their case. But much like an actual little brother, people around the league took a moment after the final Crying Jordan was tweeted and gave Toronto their due. This was a season to be proud of. One to build upon.
It’s a path with many forks, as Toronto will be looking to take the most difficult leap in going from good to great. The team has many options this summer, with DeMar DeRozan’s contract chief among them. Ujiri has spoken about his desire to get the band back together, something the fans and players would love to see happen. But is it the right call?
For all the fun and goodwill this season brought to Toronto, it’s imperative that Ujiri wade through the sentiment when he needs to so this team can keep getting better. There’s a non-zero chance that this is where the Raptors max out with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan driving the bus. What happens then? Can DeRozan learn to be effective if his shot doesn’t fall? What if Jonas Valanciunas is just a huge tease? What if Dwane Casey’s offense allows for goodness but not greatness?
So there’s hope, and rightfully so. But there’s also those lingering ‘what-ifs,’ because there are major questions unanswered and the fine folks of Toronto have been burned so many times before. Game 7 against Brooklyn. Last year against the Wizards. The 2013 Leafs. Even the bat flip led to Game 6 against the Royals. They fight the desire to go all in, until they finally cave and are immediately handed a crushing defeat. Toronto is on the path to success, but Ujiri and company need to be ready to change course if need be.
So what does the road ahead look like for our finalists?
July 16, 2019, 8:45 pmRussell WestbrookPG, Houston Rockets
The Rockets and Thunder officially completed their blockbuster trade of Chris Paul, first round picks in 2024 and 2026, and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025 for Russell Westbrook on Tuesday.
Westbrook and Harden and now officially reunited and will be performing massive pre-game routines at the Toyota Center. Meanwhile, the Thunder officially have Chris Paul on the roster and are free to move him if they choose. Watching how Sam Presti begins this rebuild process will be interesting, to say the least.
Source: Royce Young on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 7:25 pmJarrell BrantleyPF, Utah Jazz
The Jazz have signed rookies Jarrell Brantley and Justin Wright-Foreman to two-way contracts.
Brantley was selected 50th overall in this June's draft after putting up big numbers in four seasons at the College of Charleston. He averaged 4.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in two games at Summer League, though he also missed time with right hamstring soreness. Wright-Foreman, the 53rd pick out of Hofstra, fared a little better with 10.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals, though he also battled right knee/hamstring issues and left the team for personal reasons at the end of their Vegas run. There's not much fantasy impact here.
Source: Utah Jazz
July 16, 2019, 5:33 pmLonzo BallPG, New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Lonzo Ball (left ankle) said he'll be ready to go in "a week or two."
Ball missed the final 35 games of the season because of a Grade 3 left ankle sprain and bone bruise that he suffered in January. Last season also started off slowly as a preseason groin injury cost him a chance to open the year as a starter, and he was forced into sharing point guard work with Rajon Rondo and LeBron James when healthy. A fresh start in New Orleans, where Ball can play an up-tempo game as a franchise building block, should do him wonders. There's some injury risk here considering he's logged only 99 games through two seasons, but Ball's stat set — even with the poor efficiency — could support middle-round numbers. It sounds as though he'll be good to go for training camp.
Source: Andrew Lopez on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 5:26 pmBrandon IngramSF, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram (right arm DVT) said that he's "really close" to resuming normal workouts.
Ingram underwent surgery on March 16 and the Pelicans have been consistent in saying they have no long-term concerns about Ingram's health. We're fully expecting him to be ready for training camp, though you'll want to keep an eye out for further updates as camp approaches. Ingram's stat set has the same holes as always, but it's possible that this season he'll become a featured player and bludgeon his way to enough volume to make up for his weak spots. His outlook improves on what it would've been with the Lakers, but Ingram still looks like a player that will be overdrafted.
Source: Andrew Lopez on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 3:29 pmRichaun HolmesPF, Sacramento Kings
The Kings have announced the signing of Richaun Holmes.
Holmes is set to make $10 million over the next two seasons. He'll push for minutes in a crowded frontcourt, but if it's a true meritocracy then he should quickly rise to the front of the pack. Last season he was able to deliver standard-league value in only 16.9 mpg, so he's someone to target late in drafts on the expectation that he gets more burn in Sacramento. It's a potentially messy situation but we have faith that Holmes will make the most of it for fantasy purposes. For the Kings, it's a straight up steal.
Source: Sacramento Kings
July 16, 2019, 2:03 pmMarcus MorrisPF, New York Knicks
The Knicks have announced the signings of Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock.
Morris is on a one-year, $15 million deal while Bullock is coming in on a two-year deal worth less than $4.7 million annually, with a second season that isn't fully guaranteed. While both players began the offseason as potential standard-league targets, there's not much to see given the sudden depth of the Knicks roster. Morris will be one of five players who should mostly be playing power forward, while Bullock will slot into a busy backcourt and is already expected to miss at least a month of the season. New York's rotations are going to be a mess and we'd steer clear.
Source: New York Knicks
July 16, 2019, 1:43 pmReggie BullockSG-SF, New York Knicks
Reggie Bullock is expected to miss at least one month of the regular season, per SNY's Ian Begley.
Bullock, who initially agreed to a two-year deal worth $21 million, re-worked his contract to clock in at two years (with a second year that isn't fully guaranteed) for under the $4.7 million exception. There's no word on what exactly Bullock is dealing with, though he suffered from neck stiffness and plantar fasciitis in his right foot late last season. There's no need to monitor Bullock in standard leagues to open the year.
Source: Ian Begley on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 1:14 pmMarkelle FultzPG, Orlando Magic
Speaking to Sirius XM, Steve Clifford said that although there remains no timetable for Markelle Fultz (shoulder), he is making good progress.
Clifford said, "You know, right now we don't have a timetable for when he'll be back, but he's really doing a great job." Fultz simply wasn't ready to suit up, and even though we haven't really had any concrete updates on him since his last game on November 18, we're still expecting him to be ready to start the season. Fultz will make for a late-round flier on the chance that he finally gets healthy and puts it all together.
Source: Sirius XM NBA Radio on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 1:06 pmBlake GriffinPF, Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin (left knee) has been cleared to start light basketball activities after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in late April.
Griffin dealt with left knee soreness in the season's final games and missed the first two games of the playoffs. His issues were dealt with quickly after the season ended and he should be ready for the start of the season. Look for Griffin to come off draft boards in the early-middle rounds after he put up a career season last year, though there might not be much profit margin at that price. There's a definite 8-cat lean as well.
Source: Rod Beard on Twitter
July 16, 2019, 11:59 amNicolo MelliPF, New Orleans Pelicans
Pelicans forward Nicolo Melli underwent knee surgery and will not participate in Italy’s training camp at the end of July, ahead of the FIBA World Tournament.
This comes out of nowhere and the only relative information we have is that Melli will be re-evaluated on a week-to-week basis. The Italian big should be fine for the Pelicans training camp where he will compete for the backup power forward minutes as long as the surgery is not anything too serious.