Hardwood and Hollywood

In Memoriam: The Teams Eliminated From The NBA Playoffs, Part 1

Good news friends: even though there are two more rounds of Playoff basketball to be played this Spring, the start of the 2017-18 NBA season is less than a half year away. That means as we’re quickly approaching the league’s offseason festivities, it’s the perfect time to evaluate what the teams already eliminated from the Playoffs will need to do to improve their outlook next year.

These are the biggest questions (and probably answers) related to each team already eliminated from the 2017 NBA Playoffs. We’ll tackle the Western Conference today and the Eastern Conference later in the week … deal?

Alright cool, let’s do it!

Portland Trailblazers: How optimistic should the Blazers be about the Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic trio? 

The Blazers acquired Nurkic and a 1st Round pick at the Trade Deadline for one of the Plumlee brothers (I don’t care which one it was, and I doubt the Blazers did either) and a 2nd Rounder. Portland went 14-6 in regular season games with Nurkic on the floor, a 57 win pace over an 82 game season. I doubt I’m alone when I say that I’m skeptical that the Blazers could win at that pace over a full 82-game schedule, but even still, they were a tangibly improved basketball team for the final two months of the season.

Before they upgraded at the Center position the Blazers were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league and on their way to the draft lottery despite career best seasons from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. After the swap, with Nurkic on the floor, Portland’s offensive rebound rate was 28.6, the best mark in the NBA. Nurkic himself was rejuvenated by the deal too; he was buried on Denver’s bench, playing less than 15 minutes per game from January 1st until the day of the trade, after Mike Malone smartly shifted the majority of the minutes to Nikola Jokic. Portland instantly relied on Nurkic, a means of taking some of the burden off the shoulders of Lillard and McCollum, and he responded by putting up 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists per night on top of adding a distinguishable toughness the Blazers were definitely lacking.

Portland could certainly push towards 50 wins next year and grab a four or five seed if the Clippers blow it up and if the Thunder can’t get Russell Westbrook the help he needs. Everyone — literally everyone on the Blazers roster — is under contract next season, so they won’t need to deal with any continuity issues. Terry Stotts will spend the offseason finding more ways to integrate and utilize Nurkic, and as has been the case over the previous three years, Lillard and McCollum will be back better than before.

Oklahoma City Thunder: What one kind of player do the Thunder need more to acquire over the summer? 

Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are making over $60 million combined next season, which is a major problem since none of those three are qualified to be anything more than the fourth, or maybe the third best guy on a team that is contending for an NBA Title. The Thunder will have open roster spots to fill this Summer, but they’re limited in what they could do. Their wishlist should include at least one more spot up shooting wing who can play a little defense, and a totally reliable back-up Point Guard … that’s not asking for much.

What the Thunder really need is a second superstar. Victor Oladipo attempted to masquerade as one last year, but it was pretty clear all season long that he was under-qualified. Without many trade assets and virtually no cap space, the Thunder are stuck with a squad that will look very similar to the one that took the floor this past season. On the bright side, this means that Thunder fans will get to watch Russell Westbrook average a triple double for an entire season again next year.

Los Angeles Clippers: Who are we more likely to see in a Clippers uniform next year, Blake Griffin or Chris Paul

If weren’t for Chris Paul, President of the NBA Players Association, working a wrinkle into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would allow him, or players with similar experience in the league as him, to sign a five-year, $205 million contract with the team they were currently employed by, then I would give the edge to Griffin remaining a Clipper over Paul without little hesitation. Paul carries himself much more like a guy who cares about his legacy and what winning a title for that aforementioned legacy than Griffin does. I could be wrong.

I also suspect that Paul will have a greater number of serious suitors than Griffin will if he actually entertains the idea of leaving LA. Even though Paul is a ball-dominant Point Guard and four years Griffin’s elder, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be more difficult to integrate a non-shooting, non-rim protecting, injury-prone Power Forward whose athleticism is in a noticeable decline, a problem since Griffin was an athletic marvel when he was at the peak of his powers. Paul remains an advanced stats darling and he still passes the eye test nine of ten times he steps on the floor. I’d feel safer putting my eggs in Chris Paul’s basket than I would Griffin’s.

Despite any concerns about his health, Griffin, like Paul, would be in for a massive payday if he re-signs with Los Angeles this summer or if he made the choice to sign elsewhere. His max deal in LA would be a five-year contract worth $175 million dollars, $45 million more than he’d make if he signed a four-year deal with anybody. Regardless of where he signs, Griffin will be making enough money to ensure that he will forever forget about the headaches that have come with all of the nagging injuries and the ugly Matias Testi incident last year.

Clippers management and ownership have made it clear they are completely committed to keeping the Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan trio together. They’ve clearly told themselves that there are historical precedents that indicate it’s wise to keep groups together that consistently win fifty-plus games in the regular season. Injuries happen far-too-often in the postseason and continuity often eventually wins out. The Spurs kept a Big Three in-tact for well over a decade and won a title over a decade after they came together. The Utah Jazz fell short of the NBA Finals time and time again in the late eighties and early nineties, but eventually got there two consecutive years in 1997 and 1998.

 

On the flip side, there are reasons, reasons beyond bad injury luck (sorry Doc), why the Clippers are annually falling short in the Playoffs. They’ve never been able to establish a steady bench or find a reliable fifth starter in that Small Forward slot. More importantly, and more damaging if you’re the Clippers, it’s almost impossible to play Griffin and Jordan together down the stretch in close games. Jordan is a liability at the free throw line but his rim protection is vital. Griffin can still score semi-effectively in the post late in games, but he doesn’t space the floor nearly enough and his defense continues to worsen as his athleticism disappears.

It’s definitely a possibility that Clippers could be without two-thirds of their Big Three at the start of the 2017-18 season. It’s just as likely that Carmelo Anthony could end up a Clipper and there will be a Big Four in LA. What I’m getting at is that it’s hard to forecast what exactly will happen this summer with a franchise that has been as unpredictable, both on and off the floor, as any other over the last two decades.


Memphis Grizzlies: Aren’t the Grizzlies in the same sort of position that the Clippers are in? 

They are somewhat similar circumstances, but there are two big differences: first, the Grizzlies two stars (Mike Conley and Marc Gasol) are both under contract for at least another three years and we have never heard the rumblings that maybe they don’t actually enjoy playing together.

Second, the Grizzlies haven’t ever had to deal with the title expectations that come with playing in Los Angeles and employing two stars who have appeared in more commercials than any NBA player aside from LeBron James over the last five years. The Grizzlies have benefited from this in a major way … to some degree, it has always kind of felt like the Grizzlies were overachieving even when they lost tough 1st Round battles, while it’s felt like the Clippers routinely underachieved even when they were just minutes away from playing in the Conference Finals.

The Grizzlies window never appeared to be as open as the Clippers window, but Memphis and Los Angeles have had roughly the same amount of Playoff success since Lob City was born in December of 2011. Since the 2011-12 Playoffs, the Grizzlies and Clippers have won the same exact amount of Playoff series (3) and the Clippers have only won two more Playoff games (24 to 22) than the Griz have in that span. The Grizzlies made a Conference Finals in 2013, a plateau the Clips narrowly missed out on in 2014 and 2015.


Utah Jazz: Should the Jazz pay big money for George Hill

Because there is no track record of big name free agents ever choosing to play in Utah, their best bet is to go all-in on re-signing Gordon Hayward before doing anything else — and at this point, it sounds like it would be an upset if Hayward decided to leave — go from there. Get your pseudo-franchise guy locked into a long-term deal, which means you’re pairing him with Rudy Gobert through the 2020-21 season, and figure everything else out after.

Hill would likely come back to Salt Lake City if Hayward returned as well … at least that’s what a statement like “Once I sit down and talk with him (Hayward), we’ll move forward from there,” seems to indicate. The Jazz will likely have to overpay to keep Hill, and that could make the Jazz front office uneasy when they consider that Hill is 30 years old and just finished a season where he missed 36 out of 93 regular season and postseason games. But that’s a small price to pay to avoid having a serious Point Guard problem, a death blow in an increasingly Point Guard heavy league that features Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, John Wall, Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and probably a dozen others that you could describe as “solid.”

Hill is a level below all of the players mentioned above, but he’s reliable, seasoned, effective on both ends, and most importantly, vital to Utah’s success. The Jazz were 33-16 in the regular season with Hill in the line-up this, a 55 win pace, and just 18-15 when he was sidelined. The Jazz had to rely on a Shelvin Mack/Dante Exum/Raul Neto trio that just doesn’t cut it in 2017, especially since their best perimeter scorer, Hayward, is as I described earlier, just a pseudo-superstar.

The Point Guard market isn’t booming over the Summer. Stephen Curry and Chris Paul are completely outside of the realm of possibility for the Jazz. If Kyle Lowry shows interest in playing in Utah (unlikely, but it’s actually a solid fit), the Jazz should make the effort to carve out the room necessary to bring him on board, even though it would mean they would be spending more money than they would on Hill on a Point Guard who is one year Hill’s elder and missed nearly as many games in the 2016-17 season as Hill did. A healthy Lowry changes Utah’s ceiling in a way that Hill couldn’t.

After those three Hill is the best Point Guard on the market. He’s preferable over Jeff Teague, especially at an somewhat even salary. If the Spurs are able to get in the mix for Paul or Lowry, Patty Mills could end up going elsewhere and he should own a starting job; that situation is one that Utah should definitely monitor. After that you’re left looking at Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison and (gulp) Derrick Rose. Play it safe, and play it smart … bring George Hill back, bet on Hayward and Gobert having another level that they can get to over time, and be pleased knowing you’ll likely be one of the four best teams in the Western Conference for the next five years by keeping this group in tact.

Houston Rockets: Was a possible concussion the cause of James Harden’s melt-down in Game 5 and stinker in Game 6 against the Spurs? 

I’m not a medical professional, so this isn’t my area of expertise. Luckily, my friend Collin Stucko goes by the nickname “The Doctor” so I turned to him for some input on the situation:

“When my friend Sonny reached out to me for my medical expertise regarding the James Harden situation, I was excited to be able to once again put my doctoral experience to work for me. As previously noted, although I am not a doctor in the legal sense of the word, I do have an impressive resume of medical experience and things like that, which make me a self-proclaimed expert when it comes to analyzing the play of high caliber athletes and how their on-court performance can be impacted by injuries.

So in order to really take an in depth look at the James Harden’s possible concussion and how it may or may not have impacted his abysmal performance in Game 6, we first need to understand what a concussion is, because a vast majority of people are completely unfamiliar with the injury when asked to described what it is. “It’s when you get your bell rung” is a common answer amongst the majority of old school football coaches, and they aren’t totally wrong – In fact, they are right… kind of. Think of your skull as the ‘bell’ and your brain as the little thing that hangs inside the bell and strikes the side to make the ringing sound – also known as a “clapper” by those familiar with the inner workings of bells – as your brain. Now here is where the comparison between bells and concussions stops. In a bell, the clapper is made to strike the side of the bell and produce a beautiful elegant ringing sound. Your brain however, is not made to bounce against the inside of your rock hard skull. In addition to not being made of brass like most bells, your brain is unquestionably the most important organ you possess because it quite literally makes you, you. It is filled with a totally unique mix of chemicals, neurons, transmitters, DNA, and likely lots of other important stuff that is paramount to the continued success of day-to-day life for all of us. When you get a concussion from a heavy blow and your brain bounces like a ping pong ball off the inside of your head, the chemicals that regulate things up there get thrown off balance, and that is REALLY bad. That is why there has been such a notable uptick in concussion prevention, monitoring, and treatment across all areas of pro sports, specifically the NFL.

I do think James Harden was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Let’s say he has a concussion, knows he has a concussion, and decides to sit out game 6. Injury or not, he would have been crucified. As a superstar, the fans and media expect you to play and bring your best, especially in critical playoff games late in the series. If Harden sits, his already less than ideal image becomes even less marketable. The Harden camp of course knows that, and as a natural competitor, I would be shocked if James didn’t want to play and compete as well.

So at this point, the decision to play has been made. Do the team doctors know he has a concussion? I think they likely suspected it but decided it was an issue best left unexplored unless specifically told otherwise. Of course, no one told them to dig because if they did, the results of his concussion tests would likely be made public and he would be required to sit. And I also believe it to be likely Harden himself told them he was fine, as athletes tend to do.

And in Harden’s mind he probably was fine. Hell, if I had a $200 million sneaker contract and a 4 year, $117 million dollar NBA contract, I would probably feel pretty invincible too. Seriously, try telling anyone with 9 figures in the bank what to do – I’d be willing to bet they don’t really care what your opinion is and they will likely do whatever they want. I know that would certainly be my stance.

But then the unthinkable happens for team Harden – he comes out and makes a complete and total fool of himself and almost single handedly losses the game for his team. He can’t shoot, he can’t pass, and it appears if he may be having some difficulties thinking and processing the information that is presented to him. Again, these are the telltale signs of a concussion. Watching him saunter through the game with an inexplicably befuddled look on his face was enough for this Doctor to come to two possible conclusions. Either the man had a concussion or the Monstars swiped his talent for the upcoming Space Jam 2 movie.

Now if I’m right and it was a concussion, the league needs to take a long and hard look at this, and see what transpired behind the scenes. However, if this was the Monstars, we need to be on the lookout for other players being inexplicably plagued as the playoffs continue. An influx of unordinary poor performances would likely mean the Monstars are back, and that’s something all of us fans need to be concerned about.

But for the sake of this, we’ll assume we’re just dealing with a concussion. So if Harden was concussed, why did he go out after to a bar and a strip club after the game?

Now to most of us, rest makes sense when we need to recover from some type of ailment. However, most of us don’t have 9 figures in the bank. I think Harden’s mentality following this game as essentially “F*!k It”. He knew he sucked. He knew he likely had a concussion. He knew he was about to get heavily criticized by everyone from media, fans, coaches, and owners. He knew his season was over and in his hazy and concussed noggin, he reached the only possible conclusion he could, and it was to say I don’t care what anyone has to say and I’m going to go unwind at throw some money at strippers.

I’m sure his agent, publicist, doctor and many others told him this was not an advisable plan. But again, have you ever tried to tell someone with hundreds of millions of dollars what to do?  I picture the well-dressed agent scolding Harden for his poorly timed decision to go to the club, and Harden sitting there with a blank concussed look on his face, starring deep out into space, and thinking about the fat wad of bills he’s about to stuff down the G-string of some 21 year old with daddy issues.”

Boy, am I glad we settled that.

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Sonny Giuliano

Contributor at Hardwood and Hollywood
I'm a wanna-be NBA historian, the pride of Elba, New York and the greatest racket sport player you'll ever meet. I write about the NBA, NFL, WWE and other relevant pop culture topics as well. My parents taught me never to talk to strangers, but if you ever want to engage in a friendly sports debate, you can follow or harass me on Twitter @SonnyCG.

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