Mavs lurking by No. 8 playoff seed.

March 27, 2013

In not-so-good news for any team chasing the Western Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed, namely the L.A. Lakers and Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks refuse to surrender their season. Even after falling at home to the playoff-bound Clippers on Tuesday, Dallas sits only one game behind the Lakers, even with No. 9 seed Utah. Less than 2 years after winning an NBA championship, head coach Rick Carlisle’s team has fought its way back, winning 10 of their last 14.

In fact, Dallas, 35-36, is only 3 consecutive wins away from shaving some of their ridiculous beards, as part of a pledge many of them made in February to not trim their facial hair until the team reached .500. (Well, their next 4 and 6 of their last 11 are against likely playoff teams, including 2 vs. the streaking Denver Nuggets, so maybe Dirk & Co. should expected to keep the ‘Duck Dynasty’ look.)

Before we go further, a quick look at the West’s fight for the No. 8 seed:

LAL: 36-35, 1-2 vs. Utah (0 left, head-to-head), 2-1 vs. Dallas (1)

UTA: 35-36, 2-1 vs. LAL (0), 2-1 vs. Dallas (0)

DAL: 35-36, 1-2 vs. LAL (1), 1-2 vs. Utah (0)

And remaining schedules

LAL: at MIN, at MIL, at SAC, vs. DAL, vs. MEM, at LAC, vs. NO, at POR, vs. GS, vs. SA, vs. HOU

UTA: vs. PHO, at POR, vs. BK, vs. POR, vs. DEN, vs. NO, at GS, vs. OKC, vs. MIN, at MIN, at MEM

DAL: vs. IND, vs. CHI, at LAL, at DEN, at SAC, at POR, vs. PHO, vs. DEN, at NO, vs. MEM, vs. NO

Of those schedules, the Lakers’ scares me least. Utah sees the fewest likely playoff teams (5), compared to L.A. and Dallas (both 6), but L.A. catches the breaks in timing. Milwaukee’s lost 3 straight and 6 of 8, so that one doesn’t scare me, nor does playing a San Antonio or Houston team (in the last 2 games of the season) that may be locked into its playoff seeding by then. Utah has 3 games remaining — Brooklyn, Denver and Memphis — against team’s fighting for home-court in the 1st round, and Dallas has 5. (The Lakers have 2 — Memphis and the Clippers — but both games are in their friendly, Staples Center confines.)

But given all that’s happened to Dallas this season, I find it amazing they’re even still alive. Their best player, future-Hall-of-Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki, missed the season’s first 27 games due to knee surgery — in which the Mavs started the year 12-15 — and has been limited just about ever since. Chris Kaman’s missed 14 games, Brandan Wright 18 and Shawn Marion 15. A remarkable 15 guys have started at least a game for Dallas, and 21 have logged regular season minutes.

Poor health aside, the team’s 2 most consistent players have been O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter. The hole Tyson Chandler’s departure left last season has yet to be filled, and only been exacerbated by the hole the departure of point guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry created. Darren Collison — 12.2 points, 5.2 assists and 47 starts — has been pushed out of the starting lineup for Mike James — yep that 37-year-old Mike James.

Think about it this way. According to 82games, their best 5-man unit, at least in terms of scoring differential, is James, 37; Carter, 36; Jae Crowder, 22; Nowitzki, 34; and Brand, 34. That unit’s scores 1.24 points per possession, the best of any Mavericks’ 5-man combination to log at least 30 minutes together, and yields only 0.97 points per possession to opponents, the best of any 5-man combination to play at least 40 minutes together. They’ve outscored opponents by 25 points in 49.2 minutes — again, a lack of shared time largely due to injuries. (Average age? 32.6.)

Of course this team’s not a threat to do anything in the postseason. Last year, OKC swept the defending champs in the 1st round, and that team drew core contributions from Kidd, Terry and Delonte West. So, unless Dirk were to go bonkers one night, Dallas would probably be swept again.

In the NBA, though, a stubborn lurker with a superstar is never someone to take lightly. And the fact they’re still hanging around, when everyone, myself included, wrote them off months ago, is really a testament to the guys in the locker room, starting with Carlisle.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


March 2, 2013

The way the Raptors are being run this year, an outsider would guess they’re pushing for one of the Eastern Conference’s top seeds, not preparing for another draft lottery. In January, Toronto traded Jose Calderon, promising youngster Ed Davis and a 2nd-round pick for Rudy Gay, due $17.88 million in 2013-14 and a $19.13 million player option in 2014-15. It was a cap-saving move, for Memphis, who unloaded one of the league’s unfriendliest contracts, acquired a nice young forward and maybe even bolstered their chances of short-term success.

Earlier this year, Toronto prematurely set the market on DeMar DeRozan, the 4th-year USC product, with a 4-year, $38 million extension he was probably unlikely to find on the open market. Now, Toronto’s presumably stuck with DeRozan and Gay, similar athletic types with limited outside shooting ability who need the ball to operate, through at least 2015. Hell, even Kyle Lowry, the team’s starter at 1-guard, is a slasher type, meaning a lot of guys who want to put up shots, but only 1 ball to go around in the Air Canada Centre.


The playoffs are out of the picture for the Raptors, now 23-36 and 5th in the Atlantic Division, who are riding a 3-game losing streak. Yet Toronto’s 7-6 since the Gay trade, with 2 wins against the Knicks, one at MSG, one in Indiana, and others against the playoff-bound Nuggets and Clippers. But 13 of the Raptors’ remaining 23 games come against likely playoff teams — they’ve only won 7 this season against above-.500 clubs.

The Gay, DeRozan and Lowry tandem could very well work — Gay’s averaging a team-high 20.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in his first 12 games with the Raptors, though he’s shooting a poor 38.4% from the field. DeRozan’s numbers are also respectable, at 17.9 points on 43.7% shooting. That’s a career-high scoring mark for DeMar, who’s also averaging personal bests in assists, rebounds, free throw attempts, free throw percentage, steals and minutes. Gay, though, is a 25.5% 3-point man, and DeRozan’s not much better at 26.1%.


Dwane Casey’s lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is actually +37 in 69 minutes of play; more specifically, the Raptors are +49 in net points with Gay on the floor, but -116 with him either on the bench or back in Memphis.

But these stats gloss over the main critique of the Gay trade, one I eschewed hours after the NBA signed off — that the Raptors are indeed better in the short-term with Gay, but at the expense of developing their young prospects, as in the departed Davis or Terrence Ross. And with limited cap flexibility and more wins, the chances of the Raptors bringing in fresh, young talent, either via free agency, trade or, most likely of all, high lottery picks, are all but gone.


Back to this year’s team. I always thought DeRozan, the No. 9 overall pick in ’09, was a consistent jumper away from developing into a franchise talent; now, I’m not so sure he has not reached his ceiling. Davis, the No. 13 overall selection in 2010, is gone, as is Roy Hibbert, arguably the Raptors’ best selection since Chris Bosh in 2003, whom the Raptors dealt Hibbert a few days after the draft for Jermaine O’Neal.

Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 Draft that’s only produced 3 All Stars, is pretty safely done in Toronto. Fans are regularly booing the 7’0″ Italian, probably because he’s shooting 40% from the field, 28.4% from 3 and making $10 million this season. Gone are the days when we compared Andrea to Dirk Nowitzki, who’s never shot that poorly in his 15-year career, and hello to the days where GM Bryan Colangelo openly tells reporters he’s ready to deal Bargnani, but then fails to find a suitor before the trade deadline. (In fairness, Bargnani, who averaged 21.4 points in the 2010-11 season, has missed 29 games due to torn ligaments in his right elbow.)


Toronto does have some young pieces to be excited about, though. The 6’11” Valanciunas, 20, played overseas last year and is seeing his first NBA action, averaging 7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 52.2% shooting in 21.4 minutes. Of course we’re only judging him off 40 games, so it remains too early to tell, but watching Jonas physically dominate Tyler Zeller on Wednesday, you do not have to worry about the ‘soft’ label that typically accompanies European bigs transitioning to the NBA. (But a lot of guys have manhandled Zeller this year.)

The rookie Ross, 22, is only seeing 16.4 minutes a night, but scores 6.4 points on 40% from the field. Personally, I would like to see Ross acquire some of Alan Anderson’s minutes; Anderson, 30, is averaging 11.3 points a night, but getting 24.6 minutes and has a below-average 12.6 player-efficiency rating. And I’m not so sure Anderson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, though only in his 4th year in the league, is part of Toronto’s long-term plans.


Amir Johnson, Toronto’s starting 4, is playing up to his $6 million contract. Aside from leading the team’s ‘Harlem Shake’ video, Johnson is compiling career-highs in points, 9.8; rebounds, 7.2 (also a team-high); free throw attempts, 2.5; and minutes, 27.6, all while shooting 55.5% from the field. Johnson’s been in the league 8 years now, but is only 25, meaning Toronto has a frontcourt to build around, with him and Jonas V.

In trading Calderon, the Raptors not only lost an $11 million expiring deal, but also their only consistent threat from distance, at 42.9%. As a team, Toronto’s 20th in 3-point percentage, at 34.9, and 16th in points scored, at 97.1. Defensively, Casey’s unit is equally mediocre, good for 17th in the NBA, at 98.6 points allowed per game. And they’re 28th in total rebounding, though that will improve with more minutes for Johnson and less for Bargnani.


Skipping ahead to this offseason, Toronto holds the cards on Lowry, who has a $6.2 million team option. But the Raptors are stuck with bad contracts in Linas Kleiza, who’s likely to pick up a $4.6 player option since he’s only appeared in 20 games this season; Landry Fields, Toronto’s ‘big-name’ offseason signing who’s making $5 million but only averaging 4.7 points a game; and Aaron Gray, who’s played in 32 games and has a $2.6 million player option.

In all, Toronto has about $70 million committed to 12 players next season, assuming Lowry’s option is picked up, which is likely enough to put Toronto in luxury tax territory. It may even get worse in 2014-15, when Gay’s deal ascends to $19+ million and the poison year of Fields’ contract, designed to discourage the Knicks from matching the offer in the summer of 2012, reaches $8.5 million.


This team, as constructed, is good enough to slip into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeding next season, assuming full health, for the first time since 2007-08. But I would still bet against Toronto winning a playoff series, not until Gay’s deal is off the books and Toronto can start over with more cap-friendly faces, something the Raptors have not done since 2000-01.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: PHOENIX SUNS

February 26, 2013

The way this organization is run raises eyebrows. After Phoenix officially severed ties with head coach Alvin Gentry in January, Lindsey Hunter, 42 and a 1st-year player development coordinator, not one of the team’s long-tenured assistants, was named the interim replacement. Since GM Lance Blanks made the surprise appointment, two-long time assistants, Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, have left the team, presumably for good.

Since 2010, when the Suns fell to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix has let Amar’e Stoudemire walk in free agency, signed Hedo Turkoglu to a lucrative deal, traded Turkoglu to Orlando for Vince Carter’s massive contract, traded Dragic and a 1st-round pick for Aaron Brooks, and then signed Dragic in free agency.


Then, there’s Phoenix’s draft history, where they’ve frequently opted to sell 1st-round picks to pad the team’s cap number. In 2004, the Suns drafted Luol Deng, only to trade him, much like they did in 2005 with Nate Robinson, 2006 with Rajon Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez, and 2007 with Rudy Fernandez. Deng and Rondo have since been named to All Star teams, and Rondo’s arguably a face-of-the-franchise type.

But how about this year? Headed into Monday’s games, the Suns are 18-39, good for last place in the Western Conference. Phoenix is 2-8 in its last 10, 12.5 games out of the No. 8 playoff seed and losing by, on average, 5.6 points a night. Known in previous years for their up-and-down, ‘seven seconds or less’ offense, Phoenix is 22nd in the NBA in points scored, at 94.6 per night, and also 22nd in points allowed, at 100.2. Hunter’s leading scorer is Goran Dragic, his point guard, at 14.2 points per.


Phoenix’s only go-to scorer on this roster is Michael Beasley, himself a ball-stopper with a checkered past, who averages 10.3 points per in 21.8 minutes. Beasley, a former No. 2 overall pick in 2008, is averaging career-lows in points, field goal percentage (39.5%), rebounds (4) and minutes.

Otherwise, Phoenix’s roster is full of nice, second-tier role players — Dragic; Luis Scola, 12.9 points per game; Jared Dudley, 11.4; Marcin Gortat, 11.4; Shannon Brown, 11.2; Markieff Morris, 7.4; and the recently acquired Marcus Morris, Markieff’s twin brother. P.J. Tucker has started 26 games at the 2-guard, but has limited range and only averages 5.5 points per in 22.9 minutes. Now in his 17th year in the league, Jermaine O’Neal’s putting together a solid year, averaging 7.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-high 17.41 PER in 16.7 minutes.


Kendall Marshall, the team’s lottery pick in 2012, is now getting the backup point guard minutes, with Hunter at the helm and Sebastian Telfair traded Thursday to Toronto, but has an abysmal 5.7 PER in 23 appearances. But with Dragic locked up through at least 2014-15, and a player option for 2015-16, Marshall has ample time to develop in a backup role. Wesley Johnson, a former lottery pick in Minnesota, has struggled in 25 appearances, but his $4.3 million cap figure comes off the books this summer. O’Neal, an unrestricted free agent, may contemplate retirement, and Tucker, the team’s only other notable expiring, has an $885,000 team option I’d assume Phoenix extends.

Looking at next year, Phoenix has about $47 million on the books already, not counting the $7.2 million and $7.3 million the amnestied Josh Childress will receive in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively. Phoenix should also return Channing Frye, a stretch 4 with established 3-point range, who’s missed the entire season due to an enlarged heart. The Morris twins both show promise as athletic 4’s, and, at the very least, Gortat, who’s openly questioned his role in Phoenix and was the subject of deadline rumors, and Scola are trade chips with affordable salaries that expire in 2014 and 2015, respectively.


The problem in Phoenix may very well be the culture. The firing of Mike D’Antoni following the 2008 season signaled more of a commitment to defense, but winning altogether has been difficult to come by since, with the exception of Phoenix’s trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2010. Fixtures of those successful Suns teams, namely Steve Nash, Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, are long gone with no clear replacements.

Phoenix, at 32.5%, is 29th in 3-point percentage, with Dudley, 38.7%, their only consistent threat from distance. The Suns, -2.0, are 22nd in rebounding differential. Defensively, at 46.9%, the Suns surrender the league’s 3rd-worst opponent field goal percentage, and they’re dead-last in opponent’s 3-point percentage, showing just how much of a liability their perimeter defense can be, even minus the aging Nash. The Suns have actually attempted 12 more 3’s than opponents this season, but have converted 60 less.


Phoenix’s next move, as is the case with many teams I’ve covered for these 30 in 30 reports, is finding its next Steve Nash, its next face of the franchise. Dragic is a nice piece, maybe even a starting 1-guard on a playoff team, but he’s not that guy, nor is Dudley, Brown, Scola or Gortat. Phoenix needs scoring and defense; in other words, Phoenix needs a lot.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



February 9, 2013

The Dallas Mavericks are certainly happy their Western Conference counterpart L.A. Lakers are approaching new levels in futility, or their disappointing season, unlikely to end with a postseason bid, would be grabbing a few more headlines. Headed into Friday’s games, the Mavericks stood at 21-28, 7 games below .500, 4th in the Southeast Division and 5 games out of the No. 8 seed. A year and a half ago, this team was atop the NBA throne, but now, after a first-round playoff exit last year, you would be hard-pressed to argue the Mavericks’ brass hasn’t wasted the latter part of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, barring a free agent coup, ala Dwight Howard, this summer.

The most cited reason for this team’s demise has been the departure of Tyson Chandler, who anchored the middle of the Mavericks’ championship defense before signing with New York. Dallas is 28th in the league in points allowed (103), 15th in opponent’s field goal percentage, 23rd in opponent’s 3-point percentage and 14th in rebounding. Gone are key championship components like Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson; since arrived are O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Dahntay Jones, Chris Kaman, Brandan Wright and a host of young guys.


I was high on Dallas coming into the year. Collison is a more than capable point guard who formed a dynamic duo with Indiana Pacers running-mate George Hill, but the absence of Kidd, 7.9 points and 8.2 assists per game in Dallas’ 2010-11 championship campaign, and Terry, 15.1 points and 4.1 assists that year, has been more difficult to overcome than expected, especially from a leadership perspective. Collison, 12.7 points on 48% shooting and 5.3 assists, is far from terrible, but lacks the big-time shot making ability of Terry and the distributor skills of Kidd.

Mayo, 18 points per game, has been the Rick Carlisle’s primary option, given knee surgery that’s kept Nowitzki out of 29 games and under minute restrictions in most others. Carter, 12.8 points in 25.2 minutes, has been a pleasant surprise, showing he still has something left at age 36; his 17.0 PER is tied with Shawn Marion for tops on the team among players who have appeared in at least 45 games (Wright, 7.2 points in 32 games, is No. 1 among all players at 20.4). And scoring is not a big issue for Dallas, even minus Dirk — they’re 9th in the league at 100.6 points per game, 11th in field goal percentage, 10th in 3-point percentage, 11th in assists and tied for 5th-fewest in turnovers.


But Dallas is stuck as a franchise — they’re not good enough to contend with the top teams in the West, nor are they bad enough to accumulate and develop steady lottery picks. The team is slim on young talent — after Collison and Mayo, rookie Jae Crowder has flashed potential as an inside-out 3, and Bernard James could develop as a workhorse big, but not much else. (Crowder, 5.5 points per game on 37& shooting and a well-below-average 11.1 PER, probably has a higher ceiling.) And Wright, a former lottery pick, has upside as an athletic, versatile big with 6’10” length, but has yet to catch on with 3 different teams, a dangerous prospect for a 25-year-old.

And the team has essentially no trade assets, with the Feb. 21 deadline fast approaching. Carter is the one guy other teams seem to be calling about, given his production, shooting ability and inexpensive contract, but trading Vince would bring little of value in return and hardly move the needle financially. If Dallas could package Carter and Shawn Marion, due $9.3 million next year, for an expiring deal or two from a desperate contender, that could free up enough space for a Dwight Howard max deal this offseason. (These prospects are complicated, though, as recent reports say Marion would refuse to report, if he’s traded to a ‘bad’ team.)


Dallas has $48 million on the books for next year, should the Mavs extend affordable qualifying offers to Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois, who’s struggled to see the floor this year, and Mayo pick up his $4.2 million player option, which could be unlikely considering his scoring ability in a weak free agent class, meaning Mark Cuban’s team is comfortably below the cap (and Cuban, for what it’s worth, would not hesitate to throw some of his millions into the NBA’s luxury tax jar). But the problem in going after Howard, even if Dallas is rumored to be a frontrunner to land his services, is what do you offer him? Surely Howard’s chances to win are better in Los Angeles, who can, by the way, pay him more money since they own his bird rights. The only piece Dallas can throw at Howard is Nowitzki, who’s 34, battling thigh problems and coming off knee surgery.

Conclusion: Barring a minor miracle this offseason, it’s going to get worse for Dallas before it gets better.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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