Exploring Minnesota’s Options At The Top Of The 2020 NBA Draft

With the 2020 NBA Draft just nine days away and a wealth of uncertainty regarding  its overall talent, top prospects and the teams making the first two picks, it’s time to start diving in.

This draft has had the reputation of being a bad one, and it’s partially true.  There are no sure-fire stars in this draft.  There’s a wealth of players who could become reliable role-players but no one wants to take them high over a player who out of nowhere becomes a star.  None of the consensus top prospects can actually shoot.  It has the bad label for a reason.

Picking high is not where teams want to be.  As it would be for most teams toward the top of this draft, trading down or out is likely Minnesota’s best option at No. 1 overall.  But trading down means someone else has to trade up, and if picking high isn’t a hot commodity, than trading up to do so is even worse.

There could be some candidates, though.  This mock, which will be revealed in parts leading up to Nov. 18,  has Charlotte getting him anyways (Hint hint), but if the Hornets wanted to secure themselves LaMelo Ball, moving up to No. 1 would ensure them of that.  What would a deal look like though?  Minnesota probably isn’t looking for future picks with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster – they should be a playoff team next year.  That means win-now pieces would be the asking price in return for Minnesota.  Charlotte doesn’t exactly possess that, with Nicholas Batum being the closest thing they have; his contract is an abomination and doesn’t really provide fair return though.  The Knicks and Pistons could also be interested in moving up.  Veteran help is a little easier to find in these spots, but Blake Griffin and Towns are problematic defensively, never mind Griffin’s own troublesome contract, injury history and the overall the lack of value for Minnesota in the deal.  New York would have to stack a couple players for it to be worth it for Minnesota, and even then a deal is underwhelming.

Moving way down the draft, Phoenix at No. 10 overall could want Ball to pair with Devin Booker in the backcourt, but veterans logical for Minnesota don’t totally exist on the Suns’ roster.  Orlando is another team that could present options at No. 15 overall – Aaron Gordon has been a long rumored trade candidate and would give the Wolves a nice defensive-minded player who can play next to Towns on the other end.  Is he worth the No. 1 overall pick in this draft?  Possibly.  Markelle Fultz had a nice year, but any hope for him to be their point guard of the future still seems slim. Picking Ball and pairing him with Nikola Vucevic’s passing would be impossible to guard, and Ball would give the Magic legitimate talent on the perimeter.  Gordon getting moved reduces the big man logjam in Orlando’s front-court, and gives Minnesota legitimate shooting and defense.

The value is the biggest question with the deal.  This draft isn’t great, which makes a player on Gordon’s level expendable for the first pick.  The Wolves need contribution right away – any rookie in any draft class is a question mark when it comes to that.  With Gordon, you know what you’re getting, you’re plugging a hole and increasing the talent on your team significantly.

Gordon opens up the discussion of Minnesota using the pick in exchange a star rather than a simple trade-down.  Stars that seem to be available this offseason could include Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo.  Beal is the best fit and the best player of the three, but Washington seems keen on keeping him and John Wall together for one last go-around since Wall’s contract prevents the Wizards from fully rebuilding.  What can Minnesota send that wouldn’t trigger a true teardown?  No. 1 overall and Jarrett Culver doesn’t do much.  If Washington is trying to compete as best it can, they aren’t going to want future picks loaded into a Beal deal.

Jrue Holiday could fit well in Minnesota and takeover as more true of a true point guard, moving Russell to the 2-spot where he can score. Holiday provides  good defense to a team that needs it, and him for No.1 overall straight up has momentum for being fair, depending on how New Orleans views this draft.  Both Ball brothers on the same team might be a scenario the Pelicans wish to avoid for publicity reasons, but replacing Holiday with the younger Ball brother isn’t a bad succession plan.

There’s nothing concise about Oladipo’s availability on the market.  He’s also the worst fit of the three next to Russell.  Neither are super high percentage shooters and both are most effective with the ball.  Plus, trading No. 1 overall for someone with Oladipo’s health record is risky.  An acquisition of the first pick for Indiana also doesn’t jive with the age and trajectory of their roster, which is one that just added Malcolm Brogdon last summer and isn’t too far away from being a contender.

Those are the most obvious moves for Minnesota that require trading out or down.  Stunners can happen (AKA, Oklahoma City), and the Timberwolves could gladly take an extra pick to makeup for the one they shipped out for Russell in February.  But the Wolves window is now, and if Holiday and Gordon are both off the table, Minnesota’s going to have to play the cards they’ve been dealt.

No.1, Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards, Georgia

The first pick of the 2020 NBA Mock Draft is Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. Ranked second on the big board (The second edition is coming soon, click here for the first), Edwards was the pole-sitter for most of the college basketball season until time allowed for a review of Ball.  Edwards is dynamic on both ends.  He just needs to put a lot of things together.

Edwards’ best skill right now is getting to the rim.  He’s a long 6’5 and possess hyper-athleticism, which can get the best of him at times but results in unstoppable drives to the hoop.  He’s not a player teams are going to be able to just throw a wing at and call it a day.  Defenders need quick foot speed, immense size and even some rim protection ability to stop him.

Edwards’ efficiency isn’t quite there yet.  He had too large of workload assigned to him at Georgia, thanks to poor point guard play.  Head coach Tom Crean tended to overcast him at times due to the unreliable backcourt.  That burden has created worries about his shot creation and shooting ability – which are both valid.  The jumpers needs to fall at the next level, and the concerning part is that his shot form isn’t exactly a mess.  

Still, 77.2 percent from the free throw line is an encouraging sign, and perhaps playing off someone like Russell won’t tire him out as much, leading to more jump-shots actually falling.

The fit between him and Russell might seem suspect, but Edwards is a good player off the ball thanks to his athleticism and knack for finding holes in a defense.  He can cut, catch, take a quick dribble and lay it right in.  He’s a menace in transition.

The Wolves desperately need a defensive presence.  Edwards has serious potential on that end thanks to his size and ability to move fluidly and quickly, but the results have been sub-par given expectations.  A lot of it could be chalked up as a simple lack of effort, with defense taking a backseat to his offensive load in college, but there does seem to be some awareness issues when not locked onto an opponent. 

Fine tuning is needed.  Edwards has every tool necessary to be a high-end defender in the NBA.  The Wolves should be able to get him there, especially since they’re going to need everything they can get on the defensive end of the court.

Edwards may not be the best player in this draft, but that doesn’t totally matter because this draft is anyone’s guess.  Minnesota is in the worst possible spot here.  Trading down or out would be a saving grace.

A Power Ranking Of NFL Contenders

The NFL season is approaching its halfway point, and the sample size we need to truly evaluate teams is large enough to where we can draw early conclusions about who is real and who is not.

This year, the league is not wide-open.  Instead, a bunch of good teams crowd the top.  Legitimate cases can be made for seven teams to win the Super Bowl.  Below is the argument for each.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are mostly here out of respect.  It would be cute and perhaps professional to give this spot to Seattle – whom the narrative has followed all year thanks to Russell Wilson’s undisputed MVP candidacy.  But it would also be unwise to not give Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City their due.  Mahomes is the most talented quarterback this game has seen, and the Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions.  They’re still ranked first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, despite seeming not nearly as dominant this season.  They’re taking care of bad teams and winning against good ones.  Their defense is still costing them at times, as evident in their 40-32 loss against the Raiders in Week 5.  The Chiefs may not feel like they deserve to be here, but they do.  Plus, Le’Veon Bell is still coming, which could make the best offense in football even better.  Seattle’s reinvention is scary, but their defensive issues could plague them.  Kansas City’s aren’t much better, but we’ve at least seen them be overcome in the past.

             2. Seattle Seahawks

Seattle might be the easiest Super Bowl shoe-in out of any team on this list right now because of the odd Kansas City resistance.  They’re most of the NFL media’s darling thanks to Wilson’s MVP-caliber season and the emergence of wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.  Defense be damned, Seattle is dotting up secondaries by actually treating Wilson like the quarterback he is.  Their lack of aggression over the years was justifiable until the arrival and ascension of Metcalf, who finally gave Wilson someone else to throw to aside from Tyler Lockett.  The duo has made Wilson an unstoppable force, as the Seahawks have shied away from their run-heavy tendencies to completely unlock their quarterback and offense.

Their defense is concerning though.  The newly-acquired Carlos Dunlap will look to help the Seahawks fill the void at pass-rusher, though one non-superstar’s impact could be limited.  Their ranking of 28th in defensive DVOA is the reason they fall behind Kansas City in this power poll – the closest team on the DVOA list that is as good as the Seahawks are is the Packers, who rank 22nd.  The teams that fall in between: Carolina, Cleveland, New England, Cincinnati and Atlanta – none of whom can seriously be called contenders right now.  Seattle is getting by, but it’s reasonable to wonder how sustainable that is, whether the offense keeps up its torment or not.

            3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Giving Tom Brady the best defense in the league by DVOA standards was a great idea for the Buccaneers and a bad idea for everyone else.

The reason Tampa Bay finds itself third behind Seattle and Kansas City lies in their sudden stutters in offensive production.  A good New Orleans defense shut them down in Week 1, and the Bears rejuvenated group did so in Week 5.  Those are both top 10 groups, but for an offense that probably should be the best in football given its overall talent, those games are a little concerning.  Seattle and Kansas City haven’t had teams shut them truly down yet through Week 7.

Still, the Bucs have to be taken seriously.  It’s extremely hard to bet against Brady for any reason, let alone when his roster (and most importantly, his weapons) are loaded.  Antonio Brown should only add to it, unless he doesn’t for non-football reasons.  Doubting Brady last year was reasonable – his ability to overcome a bad situation dissipated.  But Tampa Bay has put him in the best possible situation in 2020, and it could wind up with Brady playing for an unprecedented seventh ring.

            4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers and Brady were similar last season.  People claimed they were washed or weren’t as good as previously thought.  Neither had a good supporting cast of receivers.  Even though record indicated otherwise, they and their team’s performance was underwhelming.

Both have overcome it.  For different reasons, Rodgers and Brady have put last season’s narrative to bed, and while Brady’s bunch is ranked ahead of Rodgers’, the Packers quarterback’s season might be more impressive.

That’s because there’s no real reason for Rodgers’ supposed improvement this year. It’s practically the same Green Bay team aside from it being Matt LeFluer and his offense’s second year, which allows everyone to be more comfortable in it.  Aside from that, the Packers are running out the same weapons we complained about last year.  Green Bay’s rookies in the backfield haven’t been game-changers.  The defense still isn’t great, ranking 22nd in defensive DVOA thus far after finishing 15th last season.  

There’s only two real answers: Rodgers and the rest of the receiving core becoming more comfortable in LeFluer’s system (Most notably Robert Tonyan, who’s becoming the latest Green Bay tight end to be a favorite target of Rodgers) or the drafting of Jordan Love lighting a fire under Rodgers’ rear.  Both explanations are quite cliche and boring, but the shift of Rodgers looking washed to becoming a MVP candidate again lies in within one of them.

            5. Baltimore Ravens

Is Baltimore being treated on this list how Kansas City is amongst most?  Possibly. The Ravens, like the Chiefs, aren’t much different this year compared to last.  It’s just because their newness and shock value has wore off.  We know what to expect with Baltimore now.

And yet, we’re still sometimes let down.

The big game lack of success is real with the Ravens.  It starts with Jackson’s rookie season and the playoff game against the Chargers – where Baltimore managed just seven points and couldn’t top San Diego’s 10.  Jackson was reduced to a shell of himself and wasn’t able to affect the game in ways he typically does.  The same issue occurred in last year’s playoffs against Tennessee, where the offense failed to kick into gear despite torching teams all season. And just this year, Kansas City asserted their dominance in Week 3 on Monday Night Football in a game where Jackson didn’t stand a chance matching the Chiefs’ offensive firepower.

Sunday stands as a big test for the Ravens.  They face the 6-0 Steelers, who are forthcoming on this list.  It’s almost a make or break game for the purposes of this list for each team.  If Baltimore falls to the two toughest opponents on their schedule (KC and Pittsburgh), how can we take them seriously as contenders?  

             6. Tennessee Titans 

Arguably the most unexpected team on this list, the Titans recently had a two-game stretch where they looked like serious Super Bowl contenders.  They obliterated the Bills on that weird Tuesday night game in Week 5 and won in OT against the Texans – who had their best performance of the year – in back-to-back weeks before Pittsburgh’s defense shut them down in Week 7.  

It’s possible we’re overrating Tennessee due to the shock value they’ve provided us since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback.  Never before has Tannehill played as well as he has since being traded to the Titans, and the former Dolphins QB being anything better than average still feels a little off.  There’s a case it shouldn’t be – the Titans have given Tannehill better weapons (and better coaching, too) than he ever had in Miami.  Maybe this is just what QBs of Tannehill’s caliber need to succeed.  An awesome running back (Derrick Henry) and at least two awesome pass-catchers (AJ Brown and Jonnu Smith) certainly helps.

Even after last week’s contest, Tennessee gets the nod over Pittsburgh because of a slightly harder schedule (in terms of opponents and because of COVID-19’s effect) and a more dynamic offense.  The Steelers defense is the second-best in football per DVOA and that’s no statistical fluke.  But Tennessee subsequently ranks third in offensive DVOA, and riding with an offense that is getting above-average QB play rather than just average is a bet worth making – even if it is Tannehill at the helm.

             7. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s deficiencies were covered above, but they absolutely need to be included in the short list of contenders thanks to a ferocious defense that was consistently let down by the other side of the ball last year.  

Now, that’s not the case anymore, even though the Steelers rank 17th in offensive DVOA.  But for Pittsburgh’s chances overall, the offense still remains a viable question mark.

Despite the emergence of rookie Chase Claypool as the latest dominant Steeler wide-out, Ben Roethlisberger is averaging just 6.8 yards per pass attempt this year, ranking 26th out of 32 eligible quarterbacks per ESPN.com.  That’s not exactly ideal, considering that Claypool is just one of three legitimate receivers Roethlisberger has to throw to, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington also on the roster.  He’s got everything he needs to make up for any age regression, and it still doesn’t seem to be enough.

That said, the Steelers are 6-0 and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  The defense has proved it’s good enough to not just get the team to the average mark but well past it.  Defenses like that don’t come around often, and that exact formula has worked many times before.

The Unfortunate Realities of Dak Prescott’s Injury

The comments from Alex Smith say a lot about the injury Dak Prescott suffered Sunday.  Smith hadn’t established contact because he didn’t want to freak Prescott out.  He didn’t want him to think that he was heading down Smith’s terrifying and simultaneously unforgettable road.

Prescott isn’t in Smith’s situations – according to articles that have featured real doctors as sources – but he’s not exactly in a great one either.  This is not a hamstring, core muscle, collarbone or even an ACL – which is an injury that used to be a death sentence and thanks to technology has turned into just a one year deal.  Prescott’s ankle was turned the wrong way – his sock saving his and our eyes from his bone protruding from his leg.  This might be something Prescott can move on and recover from, but he’ll move on before teams – Dallas or not – do.

This unequivocally sucks for Prescott, but it does for the Cowboys too, no matter how you feel about their handling of Prescott’s contract.  Sure, this could be chalked up as karma to Jerry Jones and the rest of the Cowboys “front office.”  But Prescott’s injury robs them of the chance to truly and finally evaluate whether Prescott is their guy or not.  Some of their balking the past couple offseasons has been justified.  Even pre-injury, $40 million per year for Prescott seemed a little steep.  Jones is a businessman, and he’s looking at Prescott’s ask to be second-highest paid QB in football as preposterous when the player probably slides in somewhere between eighth and thirteenth-best in the league, depending on how you factor in rookies.

Yet, Prescott isn’t average.  He may not be an elite quarterback, but he’s above-average, and ridiculous pay-days are the going rate for guys that rank in that tier.  Dallas could be paying Kirk Cousins that money instead.

The Cowboys are about to find out what paying for average looks and feels like.  While Andy Dalton is only making $8 million this season, even the talented offense around him – and the good group on defense when healthy – isn’t enough to prop him up to a level where he can lead Dallas to their initial expectations for this season.  Dalton, especially in front of a Cowboys offensive line that has been a shell of itself, is what a potential and likely Prescott replacement looks like.  That should make the Joneses woozy.

The resistance the Cowboys likely had to paying Prescott was that they possibly wouldn’t get over the hump with him under center and with talent around him on both sides.  Now, Dallas doesn’t have that proof (or lack thereof it) heading into negotiations with Prescott after this season.  If Prescott and the Cowboys performed up to expectations this season, the franchise wouldn’t have a choice.  They’d have to pay up. If they fell short, perhaps it would have been smart for Dallas to part ways.  Now, the two are in a no-mans land neither saw coming.

Dallas certainly has more leverage now, as awful as that is to write.  Frankly, so does every other team in the league.  Prescott’s done for the season and won’t play again.  How good does a team feel handing over a massive, $100 million-plus contract to someone who – the last time he was in pads – had his ankle turned the wrong way with a bone piercing his skin?

That’s where this hits hard for Prescott – that’s what those tears represented Sunday as he was getting carted off.  Not only was it the burden of his brother’s suicide and the mental struggles he had after the tragedy.  Not only was it the grief he took for being vulnerable about it.  Not only was it that the relationship between him and the Cowboys seemed to be getting ugly.  It was that instead of one team feeling a certain way about him, 29 more had now likely joined.

Perhaps the offers will be there come spring.  It seems unlikely that teams will be ready to hand Prescott a multi-year, lucrative contract despite past performance, though.  It’s an injury that could make him never the same guy again.  Gordon Hayward has yet to return to his normal self after his devastating dislocated ankle and broken leg in 2017.  Though Prescott and Hayward have different injuries and play different sports, the trauma from it has seemed to be Hayward’s barrier since his return, along with other unlucky breaks.

There seems to be less situations like Hayward’s and more that trend toward positive outcomes, though.  Though they also play different sports, Jursurf Nurkic and Caris LeVert both had horrifying leg injuries and returned back to their peak, albeit one much faster than the other.  Then Cowboys receiver Allen Hurns had a similar injury in 2019 and returned to his peak the season after.  And then there’s obviously Smith, who had a different injury, different complications and ultimately a different situation completely than the others but rallied.

Still, signing someone after an injury similar to Hayward’s and Prescott’s is a risk.  In the Celtics case with Hayward, they signed him and then the injury occurred.  They were tied to his rehab and ultimately his lack of return to form.  With Prescott, teams can choose not to bind themselves to that.

That could put him in a situation similar to the one Cam Newton was in this offseason.  Teams won’t bite big until they see it – until they confirm injuries haven’t derailed the players career to the point where its irreversible.  A one year deal for Prescott – no matter who it’s from – is low risk for teams no matter what the cost is.  No one gets locked in at big money.  If a team signs Prescott, it probably won’t be to bench him.  That way, they money doesn’t go to waste whether it produces results or not.

Prescott’s injury unfortunately brings his future contract down to the Cowboys level, and potentially well below it.  In the worst way possible, this broke right for Dallas.  They wanted Prescott at a much lower price, and they’re probably going to get it.  The question is whether teams around the league challenge them on it.  The reality is that every team – Dallas or not – is taking a leap of faith in doing so.

How The Lakers Won The 2020 NBA Finals

For all the excuses being made about the Los Angeles Lakers run to the 2020 NBA title, the event itself is still quite stunning.  Sure, the Lakers missed out on playing the crosstown Clippers, who were widely seen as the title favorites entering the year and held that distinction throughout.  Sure, they didn’t have to face Giannis Antentokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who would have presented serious problems for LeBron James’ team and arguably would have matched up better with LA than Miami did, even though the Bucks fell to the Heat in the second round.  Sure, James and the Lakers got practically a whole offseason’s worth of time off before beginning the playoffs and winning the title.  And sure, the Heat had one member of their crunch-time five practically miss the entire NBA Finals and another miss two games of it.

But the Lakers also had these things going against them: Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee playing legitimately big minutes en route to the title.  The bubble’s eventually toxic atmosphere and the mental toll it exhibited on those left in it for the season’s final days.  The loss of the franchise’s icon of Kobe Bryant back in January, and the weight that fell on everyone in the organization.  

This title counts – unequivocally.  Below are the reasons the Lakers won these Finals.  They also help explain why the 2020 championship matters.

Anthony Davis took matters into his own hands

One of the biggest keys for the Lakers and Davis in this series was to put Bam Adebayo in situations on the court he wasn’t comfortable in.  Adebayo’s height disadvantage against Davis was paramount.  Davis made sure he towered over the Heat’s young, bouncy center in any way possible throughout the series.  Davis could pull-ups and jump-shots from practically anywhere on the court against Miami and Adebayo.  No one could contest it.

Davis also used his size to get the rim, a part of his game that’s unprecedented among almost anyone in league history.  What seven-foot center is doing stuff like this?

Even though Davis didn’t have Miami’s best option on him above, would things really have been different with Adebayo on him?  Sure, Adebayo’s switching is the best part of his game, but once again, the size advantage Davis has likely would have mattered more.

Davis had a serious case for Finals MVP.  There was no wrong answer – though the unanimous ballot in favor of James was surprising.  Not only was Davis a monster on offense, but his presence defensively halted Miami’s offense in the close-out Game 6 Sunday night.  Throwing Davis right in the middle forced Miami’s drive and kick to rely solely on threes, which resulted in Goran Dragic going 0-4 and Jae Crowder going 1-5 from beyond the arc.

Given that there was little room between Davis and James, the real MVP of the Finals might have been Lakers head coach Frank Vogel instead.

The Lakers got hot shooting the ball, and every night, a third-best player emerged

No matter what the circumstances were, it’s quite incredible the Lakers third option throughout these Finals was never Danny Green.  That’s was exactly what Los Angeles paid him to do last summer, and he ended up turning in a six game average of 28.9 percent from three.  The Lakers still won.

That’s because playoff Rondo emerged.  That’s because Caldwell-Pope turned into the guy we always hoped he’d be in Detroit.  That’s because Frank Vogel got those two to buy-in, and play for the team and not themselves.

Rondo’s three-point shooting was the biggest x-factor.  While it was still a mere 33.3 percent, that’s competent instead of below-average or detrimental.  This allowed Rondo to be effective without the ball in his hands – a revolutionary change from the regular season.

Rondo owning the ball wasn’t a bad thing, either, representing another change from the regular season.  He put up 5.5 assists per game as the secondary playmaker to James.  He got the ball to those who needed it.  He was, in essence, a perfect backup point guard.

If one was going to pick the Heat in this series, they’d point to LA’s reliance on guys like Rondo or Caldwell-Pope – both of whom would likely be the seventh or eighth-best player on Miami’s roster.  

Caldwell-Pope instead turned into a three-and-D monster.  Well over half of his shots were threes in the Finals (63.3 percent), and he turned in three 15+ point outings in six games, all while keeping his usage percentage at an impressively low 18.3 percent.

None of these performances were the reason the Lakers won.  But it certainly gave James and Davis some breathing room.

The super-stardom of the Davis and James duo overpowered 

Davis possibly deserving the Finals MVP shouldn’t discredit James’ performance.  Game 5’s war with Jimmy Butler was one of the best games he’s ever had in the playoffs.  His threes in the third quarter kept the Lakers in it, and Butler just won the battle.

After being passive late in Game 3, James adjusted and dominated.  His constant drives to the rim in Game 6 were unstoppable.  Game 1 had more to do with Miami’s injuries, but James at times made it seem like the Heat didn’t have a chance regardless. 

Davis was a two way menace in the series.  His Game 2 made the series feel like it was over, given Miami’s injuries and overall lack of answers.  With Adebayo out, Davis used his athleticism to hang around the rim more – an area where Adebayo would’ve stood more of a chance.  The former Hornet/Pelican missed five shots, and tipped in every ball that fell off the rim.  It was a completely dominant performance – one that you’d wish to see from somebody like Joel Embiid more.

The no-show in Miami’s Game 3 win likely hurt his Finals MVP case.  After Game 2, the performance could be understandable, but James never took a game off against the Heat.  Davis did, and it likely cost him a single vote.  

Game 6 won’t make any headlines, considering that the Lakers won the title by blowing Miami out, but Davis neutralized the Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll that initially hurt the Lakers early in Game 1 by hunkering down just below the free throw line and denying any lanes with his long arms.  Miami ran the set once Sunday night and it failed .  That was the end of the Heat’s use of it.

These Finals proved – as they usually do – that stars matter.  Davis and James proved that if you have them two, nothing else you have matters.  They’re good enough to make up for whatever else the roster has.  Could it have been easier?  Sure.  That might be something the Lakers address this offseason after swinging big and missing on Kawhi Leonard last summer.  But James and Davis proved this year that they don’t need it.  They’re that good.

Injuries

Like last season, injuries had an unfortunate and profound effect on the Finals.  The losses Miami suffered in Game 1 gave the series a bit of an inevitability.  Reports that trickled out during the game indicated Dragic was likely not returning (making his Game 6 appearance a miracle).  Adebayo was guaranteed to miss at least Game 2.  After the drubbing early in the series, it felt like Miami really had no chance, making Butler’s Game 5 performance that more special.

Essentially, it’s hard to say that the injuries might have mattered.  After watching the destruction that Davis and James reeked, it really seemed like Miami wouldn’t have had a chance regardless.  It’s possible they could have forced a Game 7, in which anything could happen, but that’s hard to imagine after the no show from them in Game 6.

To those that will look for ways to discredit this title for James, you can’t bring up the injuries or the “easy” path the Lakers had.  Butler legitimately out-dueled James in Game 5.  Miami beat Milwaukee not totally out of luck but out of work and effort on the defensive end.  The Clippers – sure, the Lakers might have gotten lucky there.  But with the way Paul George was playing, and the lack of answers Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac had for Nikola Jokic, would that series really have been won by the Clippers?  It’s fair to say Adebayo did a good job against Davis in the Finals compared to what the Clippers bigs would have looked like.

The case to dismiss James’ fourth ring needs to have these arguments propping it up: 1) James had five months between the regular season and playoffs – the length of a normal offseason.  2) Anthony Davis was a top-three MVP candidate and arguably outplayed him in the Finals.

You can’t use injuries.  Recent Finals that have been heavily affected by injuries don’t have the same reputation.  We don’t undervalue Golden State’s first title in 2015 because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love got hurt.  We consistently talked about Kawhi Leonard’s quest to be one of the few players ever to be the best player on three different title teams this season, which means counting his 2019 Finals win and performance last year against a banged up Warriors group.  Nobody batted an eye at that.

Even the five-month layoff case has its flaws.  We don’t hold James’ first Miami title in a state of flux because the season was only 66 games instead of 82.  Nobody says that Tim Duncan has only four rings instead of five because of the 50-game 1998-99 season.

It’s hard to say whether 16 games less or 32 games less (in the case of 98-99) equals five months of rest.  There’s no science to drill that down.  Plus, everything else going on throughout the 2020 season and its playoffs could make the mental task of this title more grueling, completely negating the positive effect of the five month layoff.

In the end, we should evaluate the injury what-if from Miami’s point of view, not the Lakers.  We – and Heat fans – will always fall back on “If they were healthy in the 2020 Finals”, which is in the same regard that Cavaliers fans hold 2015 in and Warriors fans hold 2019.  Instead of saying that the Lakers got lucky, say the Heat got unlucky.  No matter what, arguing about it doesn’t matter.  James still isn’t the GOAT quite yet.  But he’s much closer than anyone on the Michael Jordan bandwagon would ever hope he’d be, and soon, it’s going to become undeniable. 

It Could Be A Whole New NBA Finals Now

The Lakers could not afford Game 3’s loss to Miami Sunday night.  Rumors swirled about Bam Adebayo’s availability prior to tip-off after the neck injury he sustained in Game 1.  Even without Adebayo and Goran Dragic, who’s return at any point in the series seems unlikely, the Heat have ways to win.  Jimmy Butler made that quite clear.

The Heat’s 115-104 win makes the return of Adebayo much more viable – giving them a massive weapon to truly unveil at some point in these NBA Finals, even if it be in a Game 5 down 3-1 in the series.  A re-arrival from the bouncy center in Game 4 should put the Lakers on edge.  Not only does Adebayo pack another punch offensively for the Heat (he would have been a major asset in Game 2 offensively, where Miami didn’t have enough to counter onslaughts from Anthony Davis and LeBron James) – he offers the best defense Miami has against Davis.

That isn’t saying too much though.  Davis was still a problem in Game 1 when matched up with Adebayo.  He couldn’t replicate the incredible stronghold he put on Giannis Antentokounmpo in the second round.  Davis pulled up for jump-shots instead and drained them.  The wingspan advantage of five inches made up well.

Almost subconsciously, the absence of Adebayo was there in Game 2.  Davis missed five shots, putting up 32 points and 14 boards.  It felt like 50 points and 20 rebounds instead.  The Lakers maintained a double digit lead while Butler willed himself to 25 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists.

Davis cost himself and his team in Game 3.  The Heat really did nothing different from a defensive standpoint with Adebayo out.  In fact, they got lucky Davis didn’t have another Game 2 performance.  Two early fouls saw his minutes decreased.  He had four by the halfway mark of the third quarter.  The Lakers shifted their offense away from him late, likely scared of having him foul out after going on a run and leaving the offense in shambles.  James was good again, but there was a strange passiveness from him on both ends of the court late in the game.  While Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma chipped in off the bench, James can’t be feeding those guys when down just a few possessions late, even if they’re cooking.  Miami’s had just as little of an answer for James as they have Davis this series.  He should have taken advantage.

Now, the Lakers go into Game 4 holding just a one game advantage in the series with Adebayo possibly back in the mix.  Every game Adebayo didn’t play had to be a win for the Lakers.  The matchup advantage was too good for Davis, and Sunday night he squandered it.  Game 1 proved that Adebayo might not be as impactful on Davis as we thought coming into the series, but he likely won’t be allowing a Game 2 type performance.  That’s all the Heat need.

Adebayo’s biggest impact in a potential return is on the offensive side of the ball.  Game 2 was a poor man’s Game 3 from Butler.  He just wasn’t special enough, and didn’t get any sliver of help.  Adebayo can be a major contributor there.

There seems to be pessimism about Dragic’s potential return in this series.  He and Adebayo’s pick-and-roll destroyed the Lakers before their injuries occurred in Game 1.  Dragic was unstoppable getting to the basket, and Adebayo’s athleticism on lobs resulted in tip-in and after tip-in.

If Adebayo is back in Game 4, a good way to get Butler some help would be to swap Butler in for Dragic in the PNR.  Los Angeles will have nightmares about the mid-rangers Butler consistently sank on them in Game 3, and Adebayo will get one of LA’s bigs moving their feet rolling.  That play will force help from Lakers defenders inside, and Adebayo’s a savvy enough passer to make kick-outs to Jae Crowder and Tyler Herro, among others.

Sunday night’s loss was a scary one for the Lakers.  It shouldn’t be surprising if Miami can tie it in Game 4.  They’ve got confidence now, no matter who is on the court for them.  Butler’s on a roll, and he’s too competitive to die out fast.  Those parameters are present whether Adebayo is in the lineup or not.  If he’s playing, a 2-2 series tie almost feels inevitable.  That provides even more time for a potential Dragic return.  If Butler’s play sticks through all of that, Miami quickly evolves into a team that now just needs two wins, not four, and suddenly, them raising the trophy feels a lot more feasible.

2020 NBA Finals Preview

The Miami Heat are doing exactly what the past five NBA Champions have done.  We just haven’t realized it till now, after they’ve pulled upset after upset in the 2020 playoffs and are just four wins away from pulling off another en route to a NBA title.

Their formula throughout these playoffs has changed over and over.  That was the key that drove the Raptors to their Finals win last year and Golden State to all of theirs in years prior.

Miami’s firepower simply overwhelmed Indiana in the first round.  Then, a ridiculous defensive effort uprooted the league’s best regular season team in the conference semi-finals.  Boston followed, and subsequently squandered thanks to a different Heat menace taking over almost every night.

Miami has answers to almost every question brought to them.  What happens when the threes aren’t going in?  Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and even spurts of Bam Adebayo can go get their own shot.  What about a bad night from Butler?  Remove him from the list above and there are your counters.  The opponent wants to stop interior shot creation?  Good luck helping off Duncan Robinson, Herro, a once steaming hot Jae Crowder and Miami’s other group of wings from beyond the arc.

Aside from injuries, the biggest reason why Toronto beat Golden State last year was their ability to have multiple creators on the floor at once.  Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were crafty guards.  Kawhi Leonard was Kawhi Leonard.  Pascal Siakam was an athletic marvel who was hard to stop.  Danny Green was lights out.  Their big men were switchable enough that they weren’t played off the floor.

Miami is a sibling of that Toronto team, and it’s why they’re in the Finals.  It really shouldn’t be shocking, despite the fact that they’ve been picked against routinely.  It makes sense that Miami is here.  This is no walk in the park for the Lakers.

Los Angeles has the two best players in this series and that’s about it.  It’s – obviously and unsurprisingly – been enough throughout the entire regular season and playoffs.  LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been purely unstoppable against Portland, Houston and Denver in all three rounds.  The biggest reason the Lakers have continued to win is because those teams had no counterpunch strong enough to overcome LA’s star duo.

Miami probably doesn’t either, but they have the best personnel out of any of the Lakers’ previous opponents to limit the punch Davis and James can bring.  Lowering the strike reduces the counter.  

The Heat are capable of doing that.  They made a trade before the deadline in February to address this very issue.  Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are the exact type of guys you throw at James – not to stop him but to at least make him work harder and differ more.  Butler also exists as an option, as does Derrick Jones Jr., whose minutes should increase in this series for the exact task of guarding James.  That’s four bodies the Heat can rotate in and out, and it gives them the ability to switch everything possession-by-possession if they so choose.

The Heat need to go down swinging with a switch-everything, wing-heavy scheme against James.  Their zone defense has been impressive and pesky throughout the playoffs, stalling Boston on multiple occasions throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.  But Boston only had one zone-breaker in Gordon Hayward, whose injuries limited his real impact.  There was too little aggression from the Celtics, and it cost them the series.

James has been a force throughout the bubble, getting to the rim like it’s no one’s business.  His performance to close out the Western Conference Finals in Game 5 illuminated that.  Denver had no answer.

The best way to beat a zone is to be aggressive.  As Brad Stevens told his players against Miami, you have to “step in.”  James isn’t going to have trouble doing that.

More concerning for the Heat’s zone is what it gives up down low.  The three point line and baseline tends to be wide open when the scheme is deployed.  With a single big on the floor, Los Angeles can put Davis, JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor in the dunker spot and get lobs.  With two bigs, Davis could be stretched out to the perimeter, and Howard or McGee can occupy the spot, leaving Miami vulnerable and forcing them to play Meyers Leonard for the first time in these playoffs.

The Lakers big lineup, which worked well against Denver thanks to Howard’s stunning lockdown of Nikola Jokic, is only viable against a zone for the Heat though.  If they go to it against any other scheme, they have the size advantage, but not the math advantage.  The extra big the Lakers play is overmatched by a Miami shooter, who’s going to be able to knockdown threes.  Los Angeles could score every time down low and still be outscored with the way Miami has shot the ball throughout the playoffs.

The Heat give themselves a chance to win by avoiding the zone.  If they deploy it,  Frank Vogel should immediately go big.  Erik Spolestra is too smart to let it hurt the Heat, so he’ll likely adjust right after, forcing both sides back to square one: man-to-man defense and switching.

Miami’s personnel against Davis is intriguing but also troubling.  Adebayo was a brick wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, which was seemingly impossible given the Greek Freak’s seven foot frame against Adebayo’s undersized 6’9 (Which, as written here, probably says more about Antetokounmpo’s still-lingering issues) stature.  But Adebayo stood taller, and sured up any remaining doubts about his defensive ability.

Davis is a bit of a different cat.  Adebayo’s a better switcher than he is a rim protector, even with the second round performance, meaning he can contain Davis when he’s away from the rim.  But he’s the shot creator and jump-shooter Antentokounmpo isn’t.  With the back-to-back MVP, there was never a reason to worry about tight close-outs or contesting a jump-shot.  That aspect of Davis’ game is what makes calling him a big man tough.  He’s really a wing who feeds in the post.

Then you still have to worry about Davis’ post-up game.  Doubting Adebayo at this point seems silly, but so does doing the same for Davis.  Miami doesn’t really have a bigger option that’d be more effective, so they’re just going to have to strap in and ride with Adebayo.

Miami’s second-biggest advantage in the series is that while James and Davis are clearly the top two players in the series, there’s a decent case that the Heat have the next seven or so.  Butler, Herro, Robinson, Crowder, Dragic, Adebayo, Iguodala and even Kendrick Nunn or Derrick Jones Jr. are all probably the third best player on the Lakers right now.  The Heat’s depth is still outstanding.  The Lakers instead have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

If there’s a case for Miami to go zone, it’s that giving up the three point line doesn’t matter that much against the Lakers.  Danny Green is having a tough postseason shooting, which is unfortunate given the expectations the Lakers had for him.  At the same time, Green tends to be good every other postseason, and after last year, this was coming.  The rest of their shooters are average – Miami is going to be willing to let Markieff Morris and KCP shoot.  The Rajon Rondo shooting streak has to die at some point as well.

In terms of overall talent, Miami probably has more.  But the playoffs are about stars – the Lakers are living proof of that.  While the Heat are capable of limiting the damage Los Angeles inflicts, Crowder’s long been overrated as a LeBron-stopper, Iguodala is old and Butler has to save himself for offense.   Adebayo would be an interesting guard on James, but then who’s on Davis?

It takes a special group to bet against James.  The Warriors were that.  That’s why they were picked every year from 2015-2018 against his teams, and that’s why they won three times out of those four.  

Miami doesn’t quite breach those waters yet.  With a series win, they will.  With a strong fight, they still could.  At this point, it’d be stunning if they didn’t put up a true fight.

Prediction: Lakers in 7

A Dumb MLB Season Is About To Get Dumber

Consider everything abnormal, truly insane or simply stupid about the 60 game MLB season.  Two teams that had close to or exactly half their rosters sick with COVID-19 at one point had to sit out of the season for two weeks and get healthy.  The San Francisco Giants came within one run and one loss of miraculously making the playoffs.  The league leader in ERA came in at 1.63, with the top five all finishing below 2.10.  Yu Darvish has a legit NL Cy Young case.  Three full-time batters hit over .340.  The Seattle Mariners weren’t horrible.  The Miami Marlins are in the playoffs, and overcame an outbreak of the virus on the way there.  If the regular season was dumb – and it certainly was – then MLB’s playoffs are about to be even dumber.

You can first pinpoint this with the amount of teams in the postseason, and baseball’s plan to narrow those down.  Eights teams in each league will play a three game set against the highest or lowest seed available (No.1 vs. No.8, No.2 vs. No.7, etc).  The variance of sixty games is mightily high.  MLB has decided to carry that on in the utmost way into its postseason.  Whoever wins Game 1 of the Wild Card round just has to win one more time to move on.

That could produce massive upsets, which certainly makes for great TV and entertainment, but doesn’t exactly ensure that the sport’s best teams are playing for the championship.  You could argue that was never MLB’s plan this year – the loss of revenue from playing just 60 games and a lack of fans is obviously massive; driving up TV viewership could have been their only goal.  But what a three game series in the first round of the playoffs does is put teams in a funky spot when it comes to evaluation and planning for years to come.  Shouldn’t MLB be trying to foster real competition between its best teams?  Nothing makes for better TV than a great game between two awesome rosters in the playoffs.  

Baseball rarely produces a championship from the its best team though.  Even in 162 game seasons and a normal playoffs, the variance is too high.  But MLB is truly embracing that now, putting its teams, players and employees at risk.  How are the Blue Jays supposed to feel if they win the World Series?  There’s a worry that their young team comes crashing back down next season, because they can’t get it done for a season that’s 2.7 times longer than the one they just had.  What about the Marlins?  That’s a poor team that could get tricked into believing in themselves with a deep playoff run, then spend a bunch of money over the offseason, stink in 2021 and be out not just lost gate revenue but millions on players they probably shouldn’t have paid for.  The Giants almost made it into October.  Regardless of what their success could have been, they could have easily torn the team down in the offseason as its core is on average 30 years old.  That wouldn’t be a great look for a team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs.

MLB is playing with fire here.  There are excuses – or asterisks – for most of the teams in the playoffs if they happen to win the World Series.  The Dodgers?  No fans to put pressure on their necks.  No real stakes considering the short season.  The Braves?  Their bullpen only had 60 games worth of stress on it, not 162, giving them more strength for the playoffs.  The Cubs?  A 33 year old with 104 ERA+ in the two seasons before 2020 is a Cy Young candidate thanks to 12 starts and a 28 year old career minor leaguer who threw a no-hitter in his 27th MLB game ever saved their pitching staff and season.  The Padres – well – the Padres are just awesome, and no one has seen this as stunning.

Lets switch leagues.  Like San Diego, the Rays were built for this and are likely going to be contenders from now on, so they have a lack of an asterisk aside from the variance 60 games brings.  The short season allowed the Twins still-shaky rotation to not be a major problem and nip their success.  The same can be said about Cleveland’s offense minus Jose Ramirez, or the Yankees’ pitching.  Houston’s in the postseason thanks to MLB’s seeding travesty and their weak division.   Toronto and the White Sox follow similar patterns to San Diego and Tampa Bay: you could see it coming – both teams will be here for awhile and the only question those teams have to answer is whether they can be consistent over a much longer season.

This isn’t advocating for you to not watch the MLB postseason.  It’s just a warning that whatever is about to transpire may not be deemed truly representative of the sport.  Teams will be celebrating as they move on and win, but upstairs, it’ll create headaches for those in charge.  

The 2020 MLB season mimics life quite well.  It seems as if we’re in an alternate universe just waiting to be transported back, but life is still actually going on, and we’re kind of having our time wasted right now. 

The Vikings and Rams Have Traded Places

It should be every single NFL team’s job to make their quarterback’s life easier.  A QB’s life is already hard enough.  To succeed in the NFL, you need to be one of the 15 most important athletes in sports.  Nothing is harder than playing quarterback, let alone being average or better at it.

The list of quarterbacks that are average or better is small, which leaves the majority of the NFL in a precarious spot.  Don’t have a quarterback?  Well, you’re in rough shape.

But there are ways for teams to not put themselves in that pickle and not be dragged down by their quarterback so much.  The Rams and Vikings are two teams that have had to combat this in the past few seasons, and their up-and-down success is proof that it’s no easy task.  The effects of taking on such a project are showing this year – one team for the better, and one the worse.

The loss of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was concerning for Minnesota coming into the 2020-21 season.  Not only was he a home run hire for Cleveland and their needs, but Stefanski had made his living with the Vikings turning Kirk Cousins into a serviceable quarterback – one that could get his team quite deep into the playoffs.  Stefanski did this by heavily utilizing the play-action scheme, which was effective thanks to the emergence of Dalvin Cook as one of the NFL’s best running backs.  Cook baited defenses hard, which opened up the field for Cousins – a passer who’s notoriously not been able to make tight throws downfield.

The key was to not make Cousins have to do too much, and Stefanski didn’t.  Cousins posted a 12.9 percent mark in the NFL’s Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rating in 2019-20 – a stat that measures how often a QB throws into tight coverage.  That mark was the sixth-lowest in the NFL last season, though the true rank is even closer to the bottom as players who didn’t have the same sample size (David Blough and Delvin Hodges for example) ranked above Cousins on the chart.

This was a good thing.  Cousins isn’t talented enough to make “aggressive throws.”  Keeping that percentage low was Stefanski’s job, and he did it well.  He’s already doing a similar thing with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.

The play-action helped reduce Cousins’ aggressive throws dramatically.  In 2019, Cousins and Stefanski passed out of those sets 130 times, tenth most in the NFL.  Cousins averaged 9.5 yards per attempt out of the scheme, a good number overall and given his limitations.  It was quite effective.

But the loss of Stefanski has resulted in the loss of the play-action, and could be the reason for Minnesota’s 0-2 start.  While the defense was somewhat expectedly picked apart by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, the offensive side of the ball should have been Minnesota’s strength this year.  That has not been the case.  The Vikings are fresh off an 11-point showing against the Colts, and while they did put up 34 against the Packers in the season-opener, Cousins only attempted 25 passes (completing 19 of them, which is quite good).  The completion percentage, and yards-per-attempt (surprisingly) were impressive, but for Cousins to throw that little when Cook only carried the ball 12 times – albeit in a shootout – shows a lack of trust from the coaching staff in his ability.

It’s clear the group isn’t copying Stefanski.  So far this season, Cousins has only thrown out of the play-action ten times in two games, which ranks 26th in the NFL out of 35 players with more than one passing attempt.  That’s turned into just 58 yards, or 5.8 yards per attempt.

Adjust these numbers for a 16 game pace and they aren’t pretty.  If Cousins keeps throwing out of the play-action as little as he has in the first two games, it would amount to just 80 play-action passing attempts over the course of the season, dramatically lower than the 130 mark posted in 2019.

In addition, Cousins’ aggressiveness rate has risen to 21.6 percent so far in 2020, ranking as the sixth-highest in football.  Keeping that number low for Cousins is a key to his success, and the Vikings haven’t done it thus far.

Continuing to win and have success with an average quarterback is hard.  Minnesota is undergoing serious change in a lot of areas within their team, including coaching.  That can make the task of elevating a QB’s play even more challenging than it already is.  That said, another team has figured it out this season after encountering Minnesota’s 2020 struggles last year.

The Rams were one of the most disappointing teams in football in 2019-20.  Their 9-7 record felt much worse, thanks to the fact that the Super Bowl runner-ups missed the playoffs and watched their franchise running back crumble before their eyes.  Jared Goff regressed, and Los Angeles looked like a team whose future was bleak despite holding a team to 13 points in the Super Bowl the year before.

Head coach Sean McVay has been regarded as revolutionary, but his schemes and principles are quite simple.  That could be the product of Goff being his quarterback – things must be simple and easy for him to succeed.

The Rams ascent to being one of the best teams in football during the 2018-19 season was rooted in making things easier for Goff.  Los Angeles had a thumping run game with Todd Gurley and one of the league’s best defenses behind Aaron Donald.  Gurley’s 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns made defenses key in on him and not Goff, causing play-action to be an extremely effective tool for the Rams.  According to Football Outsiders, Los Angeles possessed the league’s highest play-action percentage in 2018-19, with 36 percent of the team’s plays coming from the scheme.  That resulted in the league’s second-best result via play-action, as the Rams averaged 9.4 yards per play.

Last year saw no change in the usage of play-action from Los Angeles, but a decrease in its effectiveness occurred.  Goff’s yards per attempt out of play-action dropped to 8.06, and the former No. 1 overall pick looked like a shell of his 2018 self, missing passes across the field and sinking the Rams offense to 16th in Offensive DVOA – perfectly average.

Why the decrease in effectiveness?  Gurley’s regression and constant injury nag led to a 1.1 yard drop in his yards per rush attempt, and a one-third reduction in total touchdowns.  A lesser running threat reduces the success of play-action – why should linebackers and the rest of the defense bite on the hand-off when the running back poses no real threat?  The Rams offensive line didn’t help Gurley or Goff out – it was a group that was either inexperienced or washed.  Goff needs a clean pocket to operate in – when things get chaotic or messy, it can lead to bad decisions from him.  A half-percent increase in interception rate articulated those troubling choices well.

To rebuild Goff’s production – and ultimately the offense’s as a whole – the Rams had to get back to basics this season.   The running game ranks third in the NFL thus far, averaging 172 yards a game.  Malcolm Brown has elevated into the lead half-back role, and has carried it quite well.  Back-up Darrell Henderson, in addition to rookie Cam Akers, have complimented the former Texas running back nicely (Henderson led the Rams rushing attack in Week 2).  Los Angeles has continued to stay creative with its speedy receivers, as Robert Woods has gotten four carries on end-around plays – Cooper Kupp also got 15 yards on a sweep motion against Philadelphia Sunday.  

The rush has predictably made things easier for Goff out of play-action.  The Rams have passed 31 times out of play-action this season, the second-highest total in the league.  Goff’s yards per attempt are lower than one would hope for at 8.7, but Los Angeles hasn’t needed anything more from him thanks to a 2-0 start.

Minnesota and LA have the same problem at the helm of their offense, and they’ve both been able to fix it in the past.  A season after one team found the answer and the other struggled, the roles have been reversed.  The answer laid within in the Rams, and now it’s Minnesota’s turn to find it.

The Clippers And Bucks Need To Panic

There are a lot of cliches and philosophies that don’t apply to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks right now.  “It’s year one.  Give it another year.” is a classic.  “This team is young.  They’ll be back more experienced.” is another.  “You can’t fire the coach after all he’s done in the regular season.  It’s not fair.” is how you know you’re either in denial or know if the coach is gone, then you’re gone soon too because he has the owner by the collar.

Typically, making panic, win-now moves doesn’t work out too well.  Keeping a long term outlook as opposed to a short-term one is what front offices do – it’s what helps keep them employed.  Panicking, which requires the dumping of assets, often supplies one season’s success instead of multiple down the road.  Why win one championship when you could win multiple?

But the Clippers and Bucks don’t have years.  They have a single year.  At the conclusion of whenever next season begins, each of their respective superstars have the chance to leave if they so choose.  Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are all free agents next offseason, and barring a miraculous colliding of forces, it’s impossible for all three to be coming off a championship when they enter the market.

Which means change for the two franchises has to come in the meantime in order to lessen the odds that they’re forced to construct major teardowns at the end of next year.  Change also means severely deviating from core principles.  That’s a scary task to endeavor.

Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer are typically regarded as good coaches.  If they’re on your bench, your team is generally going to have a certain level of success.  Rivers has championship pedigree from his title in Boston in 2008 and has been known for gritty, overachieving teams in the Clippers post-Big Three era (During it, not so much, but it wasn’t his fault the combination of owners were overtasking him as GM and head coach).  Budenholzer is the classic modern coach, known for encouraging his offenses to move the ball, shoot threes and attack the rim while instilling religious switching defensively.  

But both made egregious mistakes throughout the playoffs and perhaps even before it – mistakes that could be fireable offenses.

While it worked quite well in the regular season, it was clear that the Miami Heat were going to pose a problem for the Bucks.  The Heat – statistically – were the best three point shooting team in basketball this year.  Milwaukee’s defense gave up a ton of shots – open or not – from behind the arc and still finished as the best defense in the league by far per defensive rating.  This was the case because Budenholzer’s defense relied on paint protection, which unsurprisingly dominated thanks to Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo and yes, Budenholzer’s principles themselves.  They did some historic things.  But Miami changed that quick.

Simply, the Heat weren’t a different team every night.  They weren’t surprised by what Milwaukee was bringing to the table.  They had time to study it and think about how to expose it.  If they couldn’t get the job done in Game 1, then they could come back in Game 2 and try something new.  They also didn’t have a ruckus crowd cheering against them when rising up for shots.  They weren’t traveling on planes the day before games.  They didn’t have to adjust their eyes to a new arena and backdrop behind the hoop every night.  They were simply playing in a gym.

Because of that, Miami was hitting three after three because every single Buck went under screens or dropped so far into the paint that their feet were on the baseline while Milwaukee’s head coach sat there and did nothing about it.  This occurred for two whole games.

Obviously, Budenholzer isn’t responsible for Antetokounmpo’s injury, which hindered him in Game 3 and kept him out of Games 4 and 5.  But he’s also not responsible for the fact that Antentokounmpo’s style of play isn’t exactly keen to the playoffs, and that the back-to-back MVP has no semblance of shot creation or three-point shooting in his game.

The Bucks aren’t just Budenholzer’s fault.  It’s also partially Antetokounmpo’s, for reasons we’ll discuss later.  But the problem with Budenholzer’s actions in the second round is that his lack of adjustments – which could have consisted of simply going over screens instead of under them – didn’t even give the Bucks a chance.

Sure, it’s common to continue what works best for you in the regular season in the playoffs.  But the concept of going over or under screens isn’t some wizard-y technique or scheme.  This is basketball 101 stuff.  It’s not that hard of an adjustment to make.

Habits are habits, and sometimes those can be tough to break, but when your season is on the line and nothing else is working, that’s when things have to change.

While Antetokounmpo failed at busting Miami’s wall and couldn’t offer any counter on the offensive end, Budenholzer could have salvaged some of the series, and perhaps let Boston or Toronto lock Antentkounmpo up to the point where it became the Bucks downfall.  But Budenholzer stood and watched it crumble against the Heat early.  For that, it should probably cost him his job, because the Bucks can’t afford to let this happen again.  

In Los Angeles, Rivers will likely be harder to fire because of the ring he’s won.  But his errors could be considered more costly, not only because the Clippers second-round loss to the Nuggets not only added another blemish onto his playoff resume, but the reason for their downfall can be rooted in an issue that didn’t just arise once Denver was his team’s opponent.

We never got to see the Clippers in full force this season.  They were riddled with injuries at times, and Kawhi Leonard continued his stringent load management regime.  But there were times everyone was healthy, and there were brief glimpses of what this team – which was considered a title favorite – could be.

But it just never came.  We never saw it.  The Clippers never had a stretch where they truly felt like the best team in the league.  We just assumed they would get there.  Golden State spoiled us with their switch flipping, and it’s a testament to how good those teams actually were.

The Clippers letting us down falls heavily on Rivers as head coach.  Even when the pieces existed for the Clippers to go on a run and impress us all pre-bubble, it never happened.  The team never elevated to the level it could have or should have defensively.  That lack of effort created bad habits for the playoffs – Los Angeles thought they could get away with the same effort they had in the regular season against Denver in the playoffs.  That changed fast, and before the Clippers knew it, bad defensive effort turned into a Game 7 after being up 3-1 in the series.

Rivers didn’t help himself in Game 7 either, for reasons more comparable to Budenholzer.

Already finding himself struggling to motivate a team to play off-ball defense, Rivers watched the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic eviserate every hedge or double thrown their way.  If Clippers defenders doubled Murray after a screen, he found a way to dump it into Jokic – who was able to do whatever he pleased with it – or get the shot off.  If defenders dropped off Murray and doubled Jokic, it left Murray open for a shot that you likely didn’t want him taking down the stretch of a big game, given his playoff hot streak.

The easy counter to all of this – Murray’s shooting, Jokic’s passing from the roll to open defenders thanks to lacking off-ball D and Jokic’s barreling toward the paint or settling for easy rainbow jumpers – would have been to simply not hedge or double anyone and just play man-on-man defense.  But Rivers never pivoted to that, and instead watched Jokic and Murray pull Denver away by 20-plus points.

There were issues with playing man-to-man.  It was not Montrezl Harrell’s series – the free agent to-be was completely played off the floor on the defensive end.  He was too small for Jokic and constantly got lost in basic switches – a sign of the Clippers lacking defensive diligence in the regular season.  Ivica Zubac just didn’t have the athleticism to hang with the silky smooth Serbian.  Murray was also hitting everything he took, which displayed an impressive elevation of play from the young Canadian.  There was a chance no one was stopping him.

Still, Rivers could’ve put George or Leonard on Murray, which was the tactic that worked early in the series and had the Clippers up 3-1.  But that never happened, thanks to what seemed to be conditioning problems for the team as a whole.  Perhaps they weren’t ever prepared for the defense the playoffs require.

That ultimately falls on Rivers.  While George and Leonard were horrible in the fourth quarter and missed every shot under the sun, bad quarters from even the best players can happen.  Game 7 happened to be an inopportune time.  Leonard isn’t a choker and doesn’t deserve some of the criticism that came his way – the guy has won two Finals MVPs for two different teams and was probably on pace to do it again.  Anyone who believes Leonard chokes in the playoffs has short-term memory, because a slew of games just over a year ago proved that to be false.

George is a different story.  This was test-case No.3 of him severely struggling in the playoffs.  Obviously, the environment of the bubble is a lot to deal with in addition to everything else going on in the world right now.  George acknowledged that his head wasn’t totally right at times throughout the Clippers’ stay in Orlando, but as ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned, it’s not like every other player isn’t going through the same thing.  In addition, it doesn’t seem like George’s teammates are too sympathetic of his struggles as well.  It’s probably time for us to lower our expectations for George as a playoff performer and simply as a viable co-star in general.  Time and time again, he comes up short, and it really, really hurts his team.

George’s inability to step up in the fourth could hurt Rivers’ case more.  By the time Game 7 hit, expecting the former Thunder and Pacers star to be the savior seemed unreasonable given how the playoffs had gone for him.  That meant Rivers needed to extract all the defense possible out of the team, since the burden would eventually fall on Leonard to produce late in the game.

The Bucks and Clippers firing their coaches might be a bit risky heading into seasons so important.   For all the gripes raised about the Clippers lack of chemistry, bringing in someone other than Rivers means installing a new system and building new relationships between coach and player.  With Rivers back, Los Angeles can at least learn from their mistakes in the 2019-20.  The Bucks face a similar problem with Budenholzer – what if the new guy isn’t the right fit, and Milwaukee is worse than they’ve been in previous seasons (Which has still been quite good – making round three is hard)?  In that case, Antentokounmpo is out whether he adjusts his game or not, and he’ll likely be justified.

Yet, if you sit Rivers and Budenholzer down and ask them what happened, any answer that doesn’t blame themselves feels scape-goatish, and probably makes you wonder why you shouldn’t fire them right then and there.

There are changes that need to be made in both franchises that don’t have anything to do with who’s on the bench.  As mentioned above, even if Milwaukee adjusted defensively, got a healthy Antentokounmpo and was able to beat Miami, problems were on the horizon.  First, an adjusted defense still wouldn’t have made up for Miami’s performance on that end, where a combination of Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala not only walled Antentokounmpo off but stopped him in man-to-man sets.  Crowder simply went head-to-head with the two-time MVP and won, despite being five inches shorter.

Teams are able to figure out how to defend Antetokounmpo drives once they have the time to prepare for it.  In the regular season, a team is playing Dallas – per se – two nights before Milwaukee, have an off day and then have an 1.5 hour practice to prepare for Milwaukee’s basic sets, rather than creating a complicated defensive scheme involving walls to stop Antentokounmpo.  It was easy for the Bucks to ride him in the regular season – no team had time to get as creative as it takes to stop him.

Miami did though, because they took care of Indiana in timely fashion and had only one opponent to focus on during their off period.  The playoffs are a conglomeration of information and personnel bull-rushing the opponent with everything it has.  Teams key in on every rotation, every play and every lineup of their lineup and know how to stop it.  That just doesn’t occur during the frantic regular season.

When Miami hit Antentokoumpo with the wall in addition simply to absurd effort and overall defense, he froze because he didn’t have a counter.  There’s no off-the-dribble shot creation in his game, because his jump-shot has proven weak even after an offseason of work in 2019 and because his handle just isn’t that tight (Which, to be fair, is a tough skill to master when you’re that big – we need to appreciate Kevin Durant more).

It’s likely time for a shifting in Antentokounmpo’s game, at least in the playoffs.  There’s no doubting that Antentokounmpo is an unstoppable force in the paint, even though he doesn’t play like a center.  He gets to those spots by driving instead of posting up, but his presence on tip-ins and plays around the rim is still unguardable on both ends.  No one’s been as dominant inside the paint in terms of points and rebounds since Shaq.  The numbers Antentokounmpo puts up are staggering.

So in this case, does Shaq need his Kobe Bryant?  Connect the dots.  Bryant was one of the game’s most gifted scorers ever – any shot was his, whether it be off the dribble, off the catch, driving, you name it.  Shaq couldn’t get those shots.  Neither can Antentokounmpo.

Obviously, only one player in the NBA currently exists that’s better than Bryant, and he isn’t teaming up with Antentokoumpo any time soon.  But the point remains that Antentokounmpo needs a creator next to him – someone that’s more efficient and simply better than Eric Bledsoe is on the offensive end.  He’s not only got to be a good enough passer to get Antentokounmpo entry passes, but also be a player good enough to help push Milwaukee to the Finals next year.

Chris Paul figures to be on the move once again, and while he’d be perfect for the Bucks (Rumors have already linked Milwaukee to him), there’s practically no trade that exists that would make sense for both parties.  Oklahoma City is clearly entering a rebuild, and wouldn’t want to take back an Eric Bledsoe-type as he carries a $16.8 million cap hit next year and will be 31 by the time the season starts. Milwaukee moving anyone else would be a surprise, as they represent themselves as core pieces or don’t have the salary to cover for Paul’s $38.5 million cap hit.  The Bucks lack assets too – Donte DiVencenzo is the only Buck that would make sense for the rebuilding Thunder, but his rookie deal is only worth $2.9 million next year.  Him and picks doesn’t satisfy the CBA.

Paul is a hard one for Milwaukee, and other options are limited.  Goran Dragic would be a beautiful fit, but the free agent will likely be cashing in this offseason after a renaissance year in Miami.  Paying him and Bledsoe is a tough swallow, and if the Heat make the Finals, him leaving seems like a reduced possibility.  Milwaukee could also look at Fred VanVleet, though his price level will topple Dragic’s largely.  

The poor free agent class makes the trade market more appeasing, though non-CP3 trades have their limitations too.  It would be odd to see them do so after the season they just had, but if Toronto decides to blow it up and move veterans, Kyle Lowry would make sense as a passer and creator for the Bucks offense.  Rumors have existed about Victor Oladipo’s unhappiness in Indiana, though he may not be the passer Milwaukee needs to unlock Antentokoumnpo.  Plus, if the Bucks wanted a Pacers guard, they probably should have just kept the one they let go last summer.  

While he and Wizards continue to shoot down the noise, Bradley Beal’s time in Washington still feels numbered as the ceiling on a team with him and John Wall is pretty low.  Like Oladipo though, Beal’s strength isn’t passing, which would be problematic in the playoffs with Antentokounmpo at center.  Plus, Milwaukee’s lack of young assets makes a deal unlikely.

Finding a trade partner in the West is near impossible, as every team in the conference will be looking to contend next year.  That said, Jrue Holiday was almost dealt at the trade deadline in February, and the Pelicans could look to go all-in on their youth with a new head coach.  A call to Portland could be placed about CJ McCollum, but once again the lack of point guard skills rings true.  In addition, that would be two win-now teams dealing with each other.  A deal for McCollum probably means Khris Middleton is in the deal back to the Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee doesn’t have many pivots, which is what makes this season so frustrating and its end such a disaster.  While Antentokounmpo has things he needs to change, his coach didn’t give the team a chance to overcome those deficiencies these playoffs.  If the Bucks need serious change over the course of the next year– which Antentokounmpo seems willing to give them – then a change on the sidelines is necessary.  

All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact he is a Buck next season, which the front office controls, not him.  An unwillingness of Antentokounmpo to sign long-term could force the Bucks hand to move him, and with the lack of true fixes characterized above, it might be hard to blame them for doing so.

The Clippers have more potential fixes but an even worse future if they don’t work.  If Milwaukee is forced to move on from Antentkounmpo and start over, they’ll at least get a haul in return and have assets-galore.  Los Angeles has the opposite, as they’ll be left with nothing after giving up the largest trade haul in NBA history for George and in theory Leonard.

In addition to simply trying on the defensive end and not rolling out bone-headed schemes, Los Angeles probably needs some more proven size.  Even with simple defensive schemes, Jokic was torching them in the series, as he does most bigs in the league.  Harrell’s effectiveness may not have cost him his roster spot but certainly did cash, so he could be back, but the combo of him and Zubac just didn’t work against Denver’s flashy center.  Philadelphia figures to be active this offseason, and Al Horford, despite the contract, would be a nice addition if a trade could be worked out.  Atlanta could look to move one of Clint Capela or Dwayne Dedmon, as both are making starter’s money and would never play together.  If Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s relationship is too strained, the Clippers could look into a deal with Utah for one of the league’s best defensive players, though the Jazz’s asking price would likely be massive and require assets the Clippers don’t have or would be unwilling to part with (George).

Marc Gasol is a free agent, and if Toronto pivots toward more of a tear-down, he could be looking for a new team.  Derrick Favors could make some sense as well, though he was extremely productive for the Pelicans last season and they could bring him back.  Aron Baynes and Serge Ibaka could be names that also make sense – though Ibaka might be out of the price range.

The Clippers have options because they’re Los Angeles and they have two stud players.  They’re also more motivated – or perhaps more panicked – than anyone because of the implications involved.  A title has to be secured, but in order to do so, the first issue worth addressing is making sure that the players know what it takes to get there.  For that to happen, leadership and accountability must be present, and it wasn’t last season.

Nuggets-Lakers Preview

The Denver Nuggets are starting to feel a bit inevitable.  It’s a wild proclamation for a team noted for its prior postseason shortcomings and talent that was good but not quite good enough.  But they’re a bag with a bunch of toys.  One night Jamal Murray can kill you with incredible shooting and shot-making.  The next Nikola Jokic can dot your defense up with sick passing, flat-footed rainbow jump-shots or pure size that’s about as close to Shaq as we’ve ever seen.  Even Michael Porter Jr. can appear out of nowhere and use his shot creation skills to put you down a few points.

These playoffs, Denver has turned itself back into the team it was during the 2018-19 season, utilizing the creativity it holds.  Jokic isn’t only feeding guys around him, he’s creating for himself because he’s just bigger than everyone else.  Jokic’s ability to do that contributed heavily to the team’s upset of the Clippers in seven games during the second round.   In addition, when you have Murray not only being a bit more consistent with his postseason performance, but elevating his play to a level where it affects winning at a greater rate than in the past, it kind of made the Nuggets unguardable, and simply better than the Clippers.

Denver might have gotten a bit lucky.  The Clippers blown 3-1 lead was mostly their own fault, thanks to embarrassing defensive effort and a lack of adjustments made by head coach Doc Rivers.  Those are the type of mistakes the Lakers likely won’t make, or at least we don’t think they will.  That was said about the Clippers – who should’ve beat the Lakers in a potential Western Conference Finals – and look what happened.

But the Lakers might actually be better suited to take Denver down.  While Jokic and Murray went to a level that seemed unprecedented, the Clippers didn’t have the best personnel to defend one of them.  Montrezl Harrell was played off the floor thanks to his height disadvantage with the Serbian stud.  Ivica Zubac was the Clippers counter to Harrell’s struggles, but he didn’t have the feet to keep up with the surprisingly fluid and athletic Jokic.  

Anthony Davis had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year.  He was the anchor of a Lakers defense that stunned everyone with a finish in third place in Defensive Rating.  That effort is why he finished third on this MVP ballot.

The Lakers rim protection has been phenomenal this year in addition to the Davis.  The revitalization of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee’s steadiness has somehow worked.  Unlike most teams, who fear Jokic because of the lack of size on most rosters, the Lakers are the most equipped team in terms of the sheer amount of bodies they have.

Murray is a much bigger issue for them, given their personnel.  That’s frightening, considering what he did in round one and in Game 7 against the Clippers.  But the Lakers were faced with a similar titanic force in their first round series against Damian Lillard, who entered the matchup fresh off the seeding games’ MVP award.

LA handled Lillard by simply out-producing him instead of pressuring him defensively.  Without Avery Bradley, and at the time Rajon Rondo, the Lakers didn’t have someone they felt great about sticking on guards like Lillard – no one on that roster was going to limit damage.  Instead of trying to stop Lillard, they attacked Portland’s weak defense with their stars, LeBron James and Davis.  Expectedly, those two were insurmountable.  Lillard’s eventual injury also helped.

The Lakers work on James Harden in the second round was impressive, and could offer a solution against Murray.  Doubling Harden completely shut down the Rockets offense, as he was their primary initiator and creator.  Houston’s offense is meant for him to do one thing and practically everyone else do another singular thing (stand around and shoot threes).  The lack of creativity with Harden locked down killed their flow.  Their only other option was putting the ball in Russell Westbrook’s hands, which predictably didn’t go so well.

The problem with the Lakers treating Murray like Harden is that the Clippers’ downfall was rooted in doing just that.  Throughout Game 7, the Clippers hedged Murray after every screen or doubled Jokic when he rolled.  Rivers’ lack of an adjustment, in addition to reckless off-ball defense, cost the Clippers the series.  Denver picked apart the Clippers doubles, which should scare the Lakers.  They’re likely back to square one with defending Murray, which results slapping a combination of Rondo and Alex Caruso on him.

James and Davis should make the Lakers problems with Murray not matter.  They made that the case in the first round against Lillard.  But the Clippers superstar duo couldn’t overcome it last round, which creates a .500 track record in these playoffs of teams stopping flaming hot guards with offense instead of defense.  The Lakers are going to be the tiebreaker regardless of how this series turns out.  

But with James and Davis, it really shouldn’t matter.  This is James’ series.  Fresh off what he’ll likely perceive to be a MVP snubbing, James should be able to dominate Denver.  Their best bet is Jerami Grant, who’s a lengthy, athletic defender but probably doesn’t have the strength to limit James.  Paul Millsap has finally came along – the Nuggets could utilize him in switches against the runner-up MVP as his strength will be greatly needed.  Still, Millsap’s foot-speed is lacking.  Gary Harris is a bit slight, but could be another option if James expectedly torches the other two.

Davis is in a tougher spot.  Jokic isn’t a good defender, but he’s not the black hole he’s been in years past, and like it does offensively, his sheer size helps.  Davis should play conversely of how he did against Houston.  Instead of getting down in the paint, posting up and hitting easy shots, dragging Jokic out to the perimeter, making him defend mid-rangers, three-pointers and drives from the versatile Davis has to be the Lakers game-plan.  Force Jokic to shuffle his feet, move and work hard defensively.  Posting up allows him to sit back and use his size.

That should be enough for the Lakers to get this series done.  But the Clippers failed us in that regard, and it puts a sudden unease over this prediction and the series as a whole.  The good news is that the Lakers were able to learn from their crosstown counterparts, and James isn’t one that’s going to bow down and not take an opponent seriously.  Then again, you could have said the same about Leonard.

If Denver can do this – once again – it goes down as the most stunning run to a NBA Finals ever – the bubble environment be damned.  If the Nuggets win the Finals, then place an asterisk on it all you want.  But there were basketball reasons it happened – not just personal, mental or situational reasons.  If basketball prevails once again this series, however, then the Lakers are going to be back in the Finals, and everything might just feel normal again.

Prediction: Lakers in 6