Three for 3: The Fourth Quarter of the NBA Season

By: The Same Page Team

As part of our ongoing NBA coverage this year the Same Page welcomes you back to our Three for 3 feature. The concept is simple: We ask three of our contributors three questions about the NBA during the season and get three different answers. With the end of the season looming in April, we figured it was time to take stock of current events and get some answers. Now, follow along with Grant, Reynolds and Osubronie (bringing his talents from the basketball blog Game 6ix).

Which losing team has the most to play for / brightest future right now?

Osubronie: The Cavaliers are about to miss the playoffs again, yet NO ONE in Cleveland cares. There is no team in the NBA with a brighter future right now. It seemed that all was lost when Lebron made “the Decision” two years ago even as it threw the Cavs into lottery pick heaven for years to come. Maybe Dan Gilbert was on to something when he said that his team would win a championship before Lebron. Obviously he was wrong, although, Cleveland could win a ring before a lot of other cities and that’s for damn sure.

Clearly, David Stern rigged the 2011 lottery so the Cavs would steal select the number one pick away from Minnesota, just to get fans to stop complaining. His plan worked perfectly. Months later, no one cared about that guy who took his talents to South Beach because they had a new hero in Kyrie Irving. Winning fans over with his skills on the court and marketability with his Uncle Drew commercials, Kyrie became the first of many signs of hope in Cleveland. With the number four picks Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters joining the team in 2011 and 2012 respectively, saying the Cavs have a bright future was fair assessment by anyone.

As if having 2 or 3 potential NBA All-stars wasn’t enough, the Cavs have a ton of draft picks coming to them in the next few years. With a total of four guaranteed first rounder’s coming to them in 2013 and 2014, the Cavs could be building the most dangerous core of young players we’ve seen since OKC. Also, since the largest contract they have on their books is for Anderson Varejao (who was nightly pulling down 20-20 games before injury), the Cavs have a lot of options and potential to bring in an established superstar. But I know what you’re thinking and no way in hell Lebron goes back to Cleveland so STOP IT RIGHT NOW! With most of their fourteen games left on their schedule coming against non playoff teams, I really don’t think the Cavs care about how many games they lose/win. I do, however, know they care about their future, which is undoubtedly, the brightest in the NBA.

Grant: In the final month of the NBA season, teams with losing records are generally either gearing up for a final playoff push or evaluating for next season. The haves and have-nots of the NBA are pretty divided this year and it doesn’t look like any sub-.500 teams are going to be making it into the post-season. Therefore, my choice for the most interesting losing team with a possible bright future is the Minnesota Timberwolves. People forget, but before the season started, the T-Wolves were an in vogue sleeper choice to make the playoffs and were tagged as a team that might become the NBA’s most improved. Two Kevin Love broken hands (the same hand; he didn’t look like this) and a delayed Ricky Rubio rehab later, not to mention assorted Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko ailments and the Wolves are sitting at 23-42, only two games ahead of last place New Orleans in the Western Conference.

So why is this last month so important to this team you ask? Well friend, let me tell you. The Wolves infamously ‘insulted’ Kevin Love by not offering him a the maximum five year extension, of which teams can offer only one at a time, under the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). They seemed to be A) saving the extension for Rubio (slightly understandable) and B) hoping that Love would enjoy playing with Rubio so much that he would stick around, despite the slight (way more dubious). Love has missed most of the season because of his hand injuries, but may return for the final 8-12 games of the season. He also might not play until next year. This makes the final month for Minnesota absolutely critical, whichever scenario occurs. If Love returns, they can evaluate whether a core of Rubio, Love and Derrick Williams can co-exist and thrive. They can also get Love into the mindset of being dedicated to playing with Rubio and his otherworldly passing. If Love doesn’t return, the time period is still important because as it stands, Love is likely leaving after next season (assuming the Wolves deal him before he becomes unrestricted, but anything can happen with this guy). If that’s the case, the Wolves need to see if Rubio is the franchise guy they anticipate him being and giving him the keys to the car down the stretch will be a good test; he’s been on a minutes limit for most of the season but that’s been lifted recently and he has submitted some dominant performances. Now comes the consistency.

It’s also possible that Love comes back, realizes Rubio has surpassed him as the leader of the team and asks for a trade in the off-season. He could also not come back, forget how much he loves playing with Ricky and again, ask for a trade in the off-season, especially as Nik Pekovic is (likely) leaving town as an unrestricted free agent. Regardless, it’s the most important couple of months for the franchise since they dealt Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007.

Reynolds: Is it OK if I admit that I used to be a big time Portland Trailblazers booster? I’m talking back in those 2000-01 days, when Scottie Pippen was doing his sage-like routine, guiding a formerly aimless team with a deep bench into the Conference Finals. Good times (we can forget about what happened next). Portland has been all over the place in the last decade or so. First they were a mess, then they were the sexy pick to win the West, then they were a mess again. Their front office went from being one of the best, to being one of the worst, to being, well, I’m not too sure now. Somehow, much like the somewhat cyclical nature of their logo, the Blazers seem poised to be on the up and up again. Oh sure, they’ll probably never live down the Oden over Durant debacle of ’07, and the ghost of Brandon Roy’s knees is still probably hanging around, but they’ve got an All-Star big man in LaMarcus Aldridge just now coming into his prime, they’ve got a classic all-around glue guy in Nick Batum who is somehow only 24, and they’ve got this kid Damian Lillard. You’ll remember him as the eventual Rookie of the Year the Blazers got for dealing the undead Gerald Wallace.

Is everything perfect for Portland? Not quite. It still feels like there management situation is shaky (I had to double-check who their GM was, just in case), with the ever-looming spectre of Paul Allen, once thought to be one of the best owners in sports who now seems a bit crazy. The team’s bench is, let’s say, collegiate at best. And, as always, going all the way back to that ill-fated Sam Bowie pick, hell, going back to Bill Walton’s injured feet, their always seems to be bad vibes creeping around Rip City. Still, be that as it may, it is hard to forget the vision of Lillard to Aldridge on the pick and roll, with Batum gliding around the court (along with Wes Mathews at the 3 point line, and sure, even J.J. Hickson ready to do the dirty work) and think: you know, maybe these Blazers are on to something.

The future is very bright in Cleveland (again).

The future is very bright in Cleveland (again).

Heading into the final month of the season, which team has the most to lose?

Osubronie: Heading into the final month of the regular season, only one team doesn’t look worried but they should be. The Boston Celtics have played remarkably since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, but is it good enough to compete for the championship? Their own fans don’t even think so. The Celtics window as a contender is quickly closing and could be in serious trouble by ending this season off on a losing streak. While they have a playoff spot locked up, they really don’t want to 1) play against Miami in the first round 2) play on the road. The recent beating they got against Miami at home (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and their 12-21 record away from the Garden should provide proof for those two previous statements.

After another disappointing loss on the road in New Orleans and being only 6 1/2 games back of second seeded Indiana, home court advantage isn’t as far out of reach as it seems. Currently in seventh, their upcoming games against Miami, Indiana and New York (twice), will determine if Boston has any chance at going deep in this year’s playoffs. With Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce battling injuries and fighting Father Time, I can only wonder how much their basketball IQ can outsmart the faster, more talented players on opposite teams. After watching Anthony Davis leap over Garnett to hit the game winner the other night, that window is closing faster than they think. I’m sure Pierce and Garnett could play another year but will they and if so at what level? While they are averaging 18/4/6 and 15/7 respectively, I can’t see either of them having more than one deep run in the playoffs left. Then again there’s that old guy in L.A. who keeps proving me wrong too, so hopefully I’m wrong about these two.

Even with young stars, Avery Bradley (who could be the best defender in the NBA if Lebron didn’t exist) and Jeff Green (who lit up Miami for 43 points on Monday night), the road to the Finals is a steep uphill climb for the Celtics. If Boston can’t put together a decent run to end the regular season, they will lose more than just their remaining games. They will lose their home crowd advantage that makes them such a threat.

Grant: The team with the most to lose in the next month is undoubtedly the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have been playing exceptionally well over the last six weeks or so and have leapfrogged Portland, Dallas and Utah and currently hold the eight seed in the West with a 36-33 record. The good play was jump-started by Kobe Bryant dedicating himself to passing (hey, even Wilt led the league in assists one season), averaging over 8 assists a game over a two week stretch, establishing Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison as off the ball threats again and burying the hatchet with Dwight Howard… or at least, they’re not yapping at each other in the media anymore, so that’s something. Since Pau Gasol went down with a foot injury, the Lakers have been noticeably more comfortable with what they’re doing, reinforcing some points I made here, mainly that Gasol was being misused and didn’t fit into Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

So the Lakers are looking good, but a Kobe Bryant ankle injury is cause for slight concern. A more pressing concern, odd as it might seem, is Gasol’s return. While getting an All-Star back in time for the playoffs might be a nice problem for many teams to have, the Lakers are playing well and throwing that Gasol wrench into the mix (mixed metaphor anyone?) may cause more problems than it solves. While Dwight Howard looks more and more like himself it doesn’t look to me like the Lakers have figured out a better way to incorporate Pau, and if this Laker team actually misses the playoffs after the big off-season they had, the Internet might explode. Does
Dwight Howard stay in town if they miss the playoffs? Does Pau ask for a trade? What do Steve Nash and Kobe do? As it stands, they sit a game and a half ahead of Utah (Utah has a game in hand) but are also just 2.5 games back of Golden State for the 6th seed in the West. There’s lots of time for teams to move up and down over the final 13-14 games but nobody has more to lose than LA.

Reynolds: Obvious answer, given the hype, is the Lakers. They’re on the playoff bubble, plagued by injury and staring at Father Time really, really hard (except Dwight Howard; he’s staring into space, I think). Since Dan already covered that base, I’m looking a little up the Western Conference standings at another team: Memphis. I know what you’re thinking and yes, the Grizzlies have done a lot right. Despite a new ownership group and GM coming in this season AND despite trading most of their bench and their presumptive best or second best player (Rudy Gay), they’ve managed to stay competitive in the weekly Hunger Game that is the Western Conference. So wait, why am I picking on the Grizzlies here? They’re still playing a fearsome version of basketball, that bruising style that knocked off the top seeded Spurs two years ago, they still employ the best big man tandem (Randolph and Gasol), some of the best perimeter defenders (Allen, Conley and Prince), and at least one youthful player eager to help out (seriously, free Ed Davis!).

The problem: this all means nothing if they don’t get out of the first round and seriously challenge, like they did two years ago (as a dark horse eighth seed, knocked out in the 2nd round by OKC in seven games), to get to the conference finals and beyond. They’re in 3rd place right now, and since the Spurs and OKC are automatic at this point, and the Clippers own their division, the Grizz have got to do everything they can to, at the very least, hold on to that 3rd or 4th spot and maintain some small semblance of home court advantage. Why is this so important? Three words: The Denver Nuggets. If there is a team capable of buzzsawing its way through the playoffs and the Grizzlies, its these Nuggets. Give the Nugs home court and they’ll have you sucking air, hands on your knees, praying for a timeout before the end of Game 1. Locking up third would get the Grizzlies the “Just Happy to Be There” Golden State Warriors (presumably) and while it would be fun to see the heady interior play of Z-Bo and Gasol against the wild free-jazz version of basketball played by Kenneth Faried and Dr. JaVale McGee, you had better believe that the Grizz want no part of that extra time in the mountains.

Seriously, no pressure Lakers.

Seriously, no pressure Lakers.

Which unheralded player has meant to his team’s success so far this season?

Osubronie: While everyone gushes over the Miami Heat’s current win streak (24 games and counting), the Denver Nuggets have quietly risen up the rankings in the West. Riding a 14 game win streak of their own, the Nuggets have beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies, and the Thunder (twice). While praise must be given to George Karl’s legendary coaching or their ability to outrun any team in the league, Ty Lawson has meant the most to his team’s recent success.

I was never a fan of the bulky, cocky point guard but over the past year, Ty Lawson has earned my respect. By taking the lead of this team on and off the court, he has in turn evolved as a player. Although he does have an amazing supporting cast in Kenneth Faried, Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala and Danillo Gallinari, Lawson’s averages of 17 points and 7 assists are separating him from the bunch. Posting career highs in points, assists, and steals, Lawson has been the catalyst to Denver’s success. Judging by the way he has played against rival, and much more lauded, point guards Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Chris Paul, Ty Lawson has Denver primed to go much deeper than most people thought in this year’s playoffs.

Grant: The unheralded player that has helped his team the most this season is actually two players… which I know is cheating, but bear with me. Danny Green and Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs have helped the league’s best run franchise (you’re waiting in the wings OKC) sustain their unbelievably consistent run of team success during the Tim Duncan era, never winning less than 50 games (except for in the lockout shortened 50 game 1998-99 season, when they had a .748 winning percentage, which extrapolates to roughly 62 wins over a full season).

Duncan has looked like he found the fountain of youth this season, putting up his best statistical season in the past three and looking like his old self on the defensive end. The Spurs are sitting first in the Western conference for the second straight season, Tony Parker was putting up MVP numbers (if LeBron didn’t exist) before an ankle injury and the Spurs were generally looking like a tough out for any Western Conference team. How did they achieve this with a nearly 37 year old Duncan, a 35 year old Manu Ginobili and an injured Parker? It’s due to the Hall of Fame coaching of Gregg Popovich (nothing new) and as usual, Pop’s ability to find the perfect supporting cast for his squad. Splitter was drafted years ago (2007), stashed in South America/Europe and has evolved into a high energy big man with great passing ability and defensive presence. This has taken a lot of pressure off Duncan and allowed for his resurgence on both ends of the court. Danny Green emerged once last year’s excellent rookie Kawhi Leonard missed time with an injury and Manu missed his yearly 20 games. Green has provided excellent defense, unselfish passing but has been especially lethal from 3 point range, averaging 2.3 makes per game and shooting at a 43% clip (good for 7th in the league, just one percentage point behind Steve Nash, possibly the most efficient three point shooter ever) and tied with James Harden and Damien Lillard for 7th in the NBA in total three pointers made. If Parker/Leonard/Ginobili can come back to full health for the playoffs, the Spurs are going to be tough for anyone to beat. The Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder all get more press, but the Spurs have four championships since 1999 and always seem to fly under the radar on their way to victory.

Reynolds: Larry Sanders? Look, this was a tough question. I broke it down like this: The Bucks traded their best (and most injured player) Andrew Bogut for noted defensive sieve Monta Ellis. They then paired the undersized Ellis with fellow gunner Brandon Jennings. This was an experiment that, despite some creative offensive sets, was doomed to fail. But this is old news now. Here we are in 2013, and there are the Milwaukee Bucks, a couple years removed from the aborted Fear the Deer campaign, hanging onto 8th place in the East. Sure, their roster is like a bizarre Frankenstein monster of broken parts: Ellis and Jennings play the same way, newly acquired J.J. Redick is a better version of Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Luc Mbah a Moute (almost made it through without looking up the spelling) still has zero offensive game. But then there is Larry Sanders.

I’m not going to go full-on Zach Lowe here and refer to him in all capitals, but when reading about or watching the Bucks, Sanders definitely jumps out at you. Check the game logs: how many games of four, five, six blocks? Of double-digit rebounds? Of multiple steals? Of high efficiency shots? Look, we don’t even have to get super technical about the defensive wizardry of Sanders. Even simpler is this: on a team filled with a bizarre mix of shooters and gunners, you need a wild defensive guy like Larry Sanders to cover the court like a solar eclipse.

Oh yeah, plus this. Man, now I want to play basketball with Larry Sanders.

Screw it: LARRY SANDERS!

Screw it: LARRY SANDERS!

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