Key Long-Term Questions Facing Every Western Conference Playoff Team: Part 2
by 2 May 2017, 2:09 PM
Evaluating the key questions facing GMs of every NBA Playoff team
Last week, I did my best to ask (and answer) the one key question facing the top four teams in the Western Conference as they move through the rest of the playoffs and into the offseason. Three of these teams have advanced into the next round and taken a step closer to a ring. Secondarily, however, the Rockets, Spurs, and Warriors all were able to buy some time before awkward exit meetings, inevitable roster turnover, and the looming challenge of fighting boredom for 82 games before another postseason run. Unfortunately, it has become a matter of fact, for a few teams, that the regular season is merely a tuneup for what comes next. If the regular season is the infamous “are bonita fish big?” dinner from Stepbrothers, then the playoffs are the f’ing Catalina Wine Mixer – another level of Ferrell and C. Reilly hume. We’ve already observed this uptick during Round 1, with the Warriors Blazer-rattling defensive intensity, Kawhi’s brilliance when he’s willing to be selfish, and Lebron taking his game to another level against Indiana.
One team, however, did not share in the success of their counterparts at the top of the conference. After the Clippers rallied to win Game 6 in Salt Lake, the NBA looked headed for a rare upset-less Round 1, with the Clippers poised to take care of home-court and win Game 7. They Mutumbo-finger-wagged themselves however, and got beat badly on their home floor. It was a devastating loss for the Clippers and, in particular, for the legacy of their star point guard, Chris Paul. Because everyone and their mother has already written their opinion of the Clippers’ future, I’m just going to quickly propose my own little idea for the Clippers before moving into the offseason questions facing the bottom of the Western Conference.
With all of the passion embedded in professional sports today, fans tend to forget that each individual team is, in and of itself, a business with a profit motive and a high level of financial responsibility. Putting bodies in seats is the chief concern of every single franchise, aside from winning a championship. Perhaps no market stresses these businesses as much as Los Angeles, which now houses two football teams, two basketball teams, two baseball teams, a soccer team, and every Kardashian. With limited publicity for which to compete, the Clippers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Starting a rebuild now is unlikely, because the Lakers have already filled that niche and the Clippers can’t afford to risk what relevance they currently have. On the flipside, however, doubling down with the current setup is also unlikely to revitalize a fan base that has already started to give up on the team after years of incompetence.
The Clippers have a way out, though. It’s Seattle! With this week’s report that multiple NBA and NHL executives are now highly supportive of an arena and eventual franchises in Seattle, perhaps there is no better time for the Clippers to detach from their awful history and start fresh. No Donald Sterling, no Blake punching assistants, and no sharing a stadium with big brother. The Clippers could be the Kings of Seattle, whether a rebuild or a double-down is their menu of choice. Starved of basketball for years, Seattle fans are hungry to root, no matter if it’s for CP3 and Blake or a Doc Rivers-less gang of young guns. The Clippers would be the only show in a sports town that’s desperate for one, and the claustrophobia of the Los Angeles sports scene might need one less body, anyways. The ties to Microsoft through current owner Steve Ballmer only add pudding to the pie.
Let’s move on, though! Without futher ado, let’s check in with the rest of the Western Conference Playoff teams and ask the key long-term questions facing them. What are their GM’s thinking about? What are their fan-bases looking over? What decisions in the short-term will determine their success 5 and 10 years down the line?
Utah Jazz: #Stayward?
If someone would have told you three years ago that the entire future of one of the Western Conference’s best teams hung upon Gordon Hayward, it’s a safe bet that you would have scoffed at the prediction. But slick-back Hayward has quietly emerged into one of the best players in the league today and, as a result, carried the Jazz to new heights. The 27-year old has been an underdog his whole life, but has grown into a real leader who symbolizes everything about this Jazz team – gritty underdogs who do everything the right way.
Hayward was spectacular in the Clippers series, putting up 23.7 points per game on 44.7% from 3, with a smooth 117 offensive rating to boot. Only eighteen players in NBA history have ever matched those numbers throughout a series – and three of them did it this year: Hayward, Lebron James, and Kawhi Leonard. Hayward, of course, flew under the radar in comparison to James and Leonard, while having a similarly outstanding impact on his team’s ultimate series victory.
Despite Hayward’s greatness in Utah and the team’s resulting success, his impending free agency decision will be one of make-or-break proportions for the franchise. With Rudy Gobert already locked up and one of the most stable front offices in the league, the Jazz (with Hayward) seem poised to contend in the West for years to come. Likewise, Quinn Snyder has done a superb job with this group, surrounding a young core (including Hayward and Gobert) with a group of wily veterans who do it for the culture.
Is Utah’s emergence in the West enough to dissuade Hayward from the allure of Boston’s young core and the chance to reunite with former Butler coach, Brad Stevens? Or, what about Miami, touting one of the best cultures in the league? Hayward’s decision is certainly the most important of his career. Whether he stays or goes will not just shape his personal legacy, but it will affect the state of the Jazz organization for years to come.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Is Russ willing to change?
You can tell how bad things are by the fact that, in taking notes for this article, I made the header “Russ” instead of “OKC.” The question is not if Russell needs to change his game, but if he is willing to do it at all. As KD waltzed to the Bay this summer, Russ and the OKC brass clearly shifted their goal of a championship to something much shallower: empty stats and MVP hype for the man himself.
Russ’ emergence to the top of statistical leaderboards and twitter feeds was likewise matched by regressions, across the board, from OKC’s key secondary parts. Steven Adams took a massive step backwards this season after looking like one of the best young centers in the league during last years’ playoffs. Adams’ role this season was, essentially, a catcher. He caught passes from Westbrook and tried to dunk them. Now, of course, this is a lot of what is expected/desired from a center of Adams’ build… but it is the level to which he is becoming robotic in this role that ought to deeply trouble Thunder fans. As a result, Adams saw his offensive rating drop nine points, his True Shooting % tumble, and got to the line at the lowest rate of his career.
Similarly, Victor Oladipo, coming off a great season in Orlando, was brought in to hopefully create a one-two punch with Westbrook. Sadly, however, there was no room on the pedestal to share with Russ. Aside from “here, you take it” shots gifted to ‘Dipo from a tired Westbrook, he did not have nearly the role in the offense that Billy Donovan envisioned for him. In his lone season in OKC, Oladipo posted career lows in Player Efficiency Rating, Usage Rate, Box Plus-Minus, and Value Above Replacement Player. Perhaps the lack of a role for Oladipo can be attributed to the coaching staff, but anyone blaming Donovan should note that Russ’ impact is felt there as well. He practically neutered Billy Donovan over the course of the season, implementing his isolation basketball and selfish unselfishness in lieu of the long, attacking, and imposing system ordered by Donovan in last year’s playoffs.
For the Thunder to truly contend in the West, Russ will have to drastically change his on-court style. It’s no coincidence that Russell’s March 22nd performance against the 76ers, in which he took only six field goals and dished out fourteen assists, was also the game in which OKC posted its highest offensive rating of the season.
ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2017
Memphis: Does the Grit and Grind style perpetuate a low ceiling?
First off, it’s important to note just how shocking the Grizzlies’ success has been. On first glance, the roster seems adequate for an above-.500 season, anchored by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. But that second glance (that second glance, man) reminds us that this roster is “straight out the D-League,” to steal a quote from fellow SQ NBA Writer Sam Gordon. Look no further than the fact that Andrew Harrison, James Ennis, and Wayne Selden played significant playoff minutes — no knock against these guys, but, yeah, actually, kind of a knock against these guys.
With hefty, hefty paychecks already due to Gasol, Conley, and Chancun Parsons through the 2019/2020 season, the Grizzlies don’t have much flexibility to move things around. Perhaps their best bet (if a full-on rebuild is out of the question) is to hope for Parsons to return to pre-injury/pre-Cancun form and contribute the 15/7/5 that his max contract this offseason seemingly promised. Dave Fizdale is, as proven during this postseason, one of the most electric young coaches in the league and clearly a guy who can get a lot out of a little. And that’s probably what happened this season, as the injury-ridden Grizzles gritted and grinded their way to a 43-39 season and a 7-seed.
Is that enough? I say no, but Gasol and Conley are old enough that they’d probably prefer to, at least, be in the playoff conversation every year instead of sit through a rebuild.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ier8E1L7OII
One thing that can become a quick fix and point of focus for the Grizzlies this offseason, however, is their pace and style of play. Of course, more than anything, they just need to stay healthy, but the Grizzlies also screwed themselves with simple mathematics this season. Playing at the third slowest pace in the league, the Grizzlies connected on the second-lowest amount of total field goals in the league this season, in front of only the Dallas Mavericks. It’s very difficult to win with consistency and longevity in today’s NBA when you only score 100.5 points per contest, which, again, was the second-worst figure in the league.
Grit and Grind is, of course, engrained in the culture of the organization and is one of the most fun styles throughout the league. While abandoning it would potentially destroy the well-strung fibers of the organization, Fizdale must make small tweaks wherever he can to bring his Grizzlies into the 21st century. Without some stylistic and philosophical changes, the Grizzlies oft-depleted core will never be able to keep up with the league’s rapidly emerging space-and-pace powerhouses. Though Memphis fans may hate to hear it, their existing circumstances necessitate an extremely low ceiling.
Portland: Mix it up, or run things back?
The Blazers are in a rather unique position right now, sporting an above-average roster, an explosive yet potentially fatally flawed pairing of stars, and three picks coming up in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft. For Portland, the key question is really not a bad one, but certainly a difficult decision to make. Doubling down on the current roster configuration would likely mean using the picks, counting on Jusuf Nurkic’s return as a legitimate third star to put alongside Lillard and McCollum, and running this team back for the next few years with the hope of a Wizards/Warriors/Raptors-style improvement. This team can clearly score the basketball and, perhaps, with a few defensive tweaks, can find a way to keep CJ and Dame on the floor without an open-door complex. Perhaps one or two of their draft picks is a home run and, with CJ, Dame, Allen Crabbe, Nurkic, and Player X, the Blazers become a legit contender. Perhaps they’re a 5-seed. Such is life in the 2017 NBA.
The other option for Portland, however, is to package their draft assets and a young player or two and try to take a shot at Jimmy Butler or Paul George. While the fit may not be perfect, the opportunity to pair a top-3 backcourt with either of the top wings in the league has to be enticing for GM Neil Olshey. This swing-for-the-fences approach would certainly have Blazers’ fans thinking title, but also was the exact type of move that Boston declined to make at the deadline. Boston didn’t honestly believe that George or Butler was enough to move the Celtics past the Cavs in the East, so they decided to sit on their treasure trove of assets and buy more time before truly making their push at Lebron’s throne. Perhaps the Blazers would be best sitting out this one as well – Dame and CJ are still only 26 and 25, respectively.
Yet another option, however, would be for the Blazers to move on from the Lilllard-McCollum backcourt entirely. Though the decision to move on from one of them (likely would be CJ) would be devastating for fans, it, perhaps, is the best way for Portland to raise its ceiling enough to truly contend. When on the floor together, they really can’t defend anyone – and this defensive deficiency likely keeps their ceiling too low for a title. Perhaps a guy like Butler could mask some of these defensive problems, but so could getting rid of McCollum in exchange for a host of assets and, hopefully, a big 2-guard that can hide Damian defensively.
The Blazers are at a crossroads right now, caught between four consecutive playoff appearance, a bright future, and the pretty obvious fact that they aren’t close to a championship team right now. Where do they go from here?
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