Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

New stats tools helpful in heralding league’s defensive best

Capturing defensive value and impact through analytics, most NBA numbers-crunchers will acknowledge, still is pretty challenging. Compared to how those folks feel about their ability to track, measure and assess a player’s or team’s offensive components, the other side of the ball remains an inexact science.

But the NBA clearly is trying, as evidence by the supporting info provided with the release of its All-Defensive teams for 2014-15.

Consider what was noted about San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard‘s finish as the first team’s top vote-getter. The league’s release read:

Leonard teamed with [Tim] Duncan to help San Antonio hold opponents below 100 points per game (97.0) for the 20th consecutive season. Leonard averaged career highs of 5.9 defensive rebounds and a league-leading 2.31 steals for the Spurs, who were 5.1 points better per 100 possessions on defense when he was on the floor than when he was off the floor, according to NBA.com/stats.

Most of those are old-school stats, no big deal. But the use of defensive rating and on/off numbers is an indication that even the so-called expert voters don’t have to guess, go by reputation or rely solely on anecdotal observations anymore.

Similar numbers were invoked supporting Golden State’s Draymond Green and Memphis’ Tony Allen as elite defenders:

The Warriors allowed a league-low 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that dropped to 96.0 with Green on the court and increased to 102.1 with him off the court. Memphis’ defensive rating was 8.7 points better with Allen on the floor (94.9 per 100 possessions) than with him off the floor (103.6 per 100 possessions). Green ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive rebounding (6.7 per game), and Allen finished third in steals (2.05 per game).

Also of interest in the announcement of the honors was the order of finish. The top three finishers in DPOY balloting – Leonard, Green and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan – all made the first team, but because positions are specified on the all-defensive ballots, Allen actually had the third-most points. First-team votes count two points and second-team votes count one.

With four guard spots available vs. two center spots, Allen had a better chance to appear on more ballots overall. Allen received 88 firsts and 31 seconds for 207 points, while Jordan went 84-19-187.

None of the breaks between first-team and second-team selections, or second-team and “others,” was close on points. But there were a couple quirky finishes. For instance, LeBron James received six first-place votes at forward to Duncan’s five, but missed a second-team forward spot on points, 64-47. Russell Westbrook got 13 first-place votes at guard, more than John Wall‘s seven, but also lost on points, 67-35.

Finally lucky, next challenge for Timberwolves is to be smart


VIDEO: Wolves owner Glen Taylor on winning top pick

It’s better to be lucky than good, the saying goes. But once lucky, it helps to be smart if one hopes to get or stay good.

That’s nobody’s saying, actually, but it is the challenge now facing the Minnesota Timberwolves and specifically Flip Saunders. Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations, a part-owner and the Wolves head coach, got lucky at the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday night largely by being the opposite of good. The Wolves were b-b-b-b-bad to the bone this season, diving to the bottom of the league’s standings (16-66) with the single-mindedness of a bomb squad. They got rewarded when their 4-to-1 bet came in.

Now Minnesota not only has the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft for the first time in its 26-year franchise history, it likely will become the first team in NBA annals to have on its roster the three most recent No. 1 picks overall: Anthony Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (’14) and either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns, the two big men projected as this year’s top prospects.

All of which guarantees nothing. Since 1995, only two of the 20 players taken No. 1 overall have won NBA championships: Tim Duncan (1997, five) and LeBron James (2003, two). Eight never made it to an All-Star Game (six if you don’t count youngsters Bennett and Wiggins).

Stockpiling top picks is less important, it seems, than seeing talent and fit where others do not with later picks. It’s a formula executed masterfully by San Antonio and, as Britt Robson of MinnPost.com points out in a piece citing past misguided Wolves decisions, it looks to be working well for current title favorite Golden State:

It is by now an infamous part of Wolves lore that the team passed on Golden State guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (twice!) in the 2009 draft, taking Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick and Jonny Flynn with the sixth before the Warriors gleefully snapped up Curry.

But it is more instructive to look beyond Curry on the Golden State roster to appreciate how shrewd drafting fostered the 67-win team that now leads Houston in the conference finals and is the favorite to become NBA champions this season. You can go back to 2005, when the Warriors plucked Monte Ellis in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Seven years later, Ellis had become such a dynamic scorer that Golden State offered him as the main bauble in a five-player deal that enabled them to acquire Andrew Bogut, the top pick in 2005 and a current anchor of their low post defense.

Or go to the 2011 draft, when the Warriors, choosing eleventh, grabbed the shooting guard, Klay Thompson, who made Ellis expendable. The Timberwolves picked second in that draft and chose forward Derrick Williams, who was traded away for peanuts (specifically, Luc Mbah a Moute, who lasted 55 games in Minnesota) two years later.

Then slide up a year to the 2012 draft. The Warriors took their current starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, with the seventh pick. They acquired their current backup center, Festus Ezeli, with the 30th pick. And they grabbed their current power forward, Draymond Green — who just finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting — with the 35th pick in the second round.

After recounting Minnesota’s sorry history of botched personnel calls, Robson snaps back to the present. On the heels of two fortunate outcomes – getting Wiggins last summer for one final season of Kevin Love and landing the No. 1 pick next month – he says it’s now on Saunders to maximize return from draft positions where hard work and keen eyes get rewarded against long odds. Specifically, the Wolves need to upgrade from dead last in 3-point attempts and 25th in accuracy.

In his season-ending meeting, Saunders himself brought up the need to become better from long range, and, in answer to my question, said that one of the later draft picks could be a good way to remedy that need. The Wolves currently own the first pick in the second round (31st overall), as well as the 36th overall pick, acquired in the Corey Brewer trade.

[Curry] is the reigning MVP, and had a wonderful game in Tuesday night’s win over Houston. But the most important player on the floor was …Green, the 35th pick in 2012, who keyed the surge with his defense and quickness after Golden State went to a smaller lineup.

Saunders and the Wolves have been uncommonly bold and uncommonly lucky in the past twelve months. At this propitious moment, it is time for this franchise to be uncommonly smart with all of the resources at its disposal.

Blogtable: Advice for Doc Rivers?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEOAssessing the state of the Clippers after their ouster

> Your nameplate says Doc Rivers, President of Basketball Operations, L.A. Clippers. So tell me Mr. Rivers, what needs to happen this summer for your team to advance past the conference semifinals next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: First of all, remember it’s only a nickname, so my prescribed remedies aren’t Hippocratically approved. I already blew the “Do no harm” thing when I signed Spencer Hawes to that four-year deal last summer when I could have had Paul Pierce. Anyway, as much as I like Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick, I know they ought to be coming off the bench rather than starting – maybe then our backups wouldn’t look quite as motley. But we’re capped out with DeAndre Jordan about to get his max deal this summer, so I’ll need to sweet-talk some free agents to consider us on exceptions or minimum contracts, and that’s a hard way to plug two of the skill positions. Hawes? Hey, he’s low mileage, clean, a stretch-four willing and able to help (OK, ya got me. That is my early version of a Craigslist ad, because I’ve got to move him). As for Chris Paul, get out the bubble wrap; no way he’s playing 82 next season, when we need him at his healthiest in May.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: First, I’ve got to convince DeAndre Jordan to take our max contract offer and stick around and I’ve got to beat the bushes somewhere, somehow to get somebody to provide some offense at small forward. I really can’t afford to have my starter (Matt Barnes) go scoreless there in a Game 7.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’m seriously out of answers. I think I have to do something bold, but what? I don’t want to trade Chris Paul. I don’t want to trade Blake Griffin. And I don’t think I will do either. I don’t want to let DeAndre Jordan go in free agency. But something has to be done. Playoff meltdowns two years in a row is a screaming sign something is wrong and needs to be addressed, because this wasn’t about the disappointing bench or anything that requires tinkering. This is about an inability to come through in the clutch. My leaders, my best players, have let me down.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Clippers just need another crack at it. I know that sounds so routine and so simple, but that’s it, really. They’re a 50-win team in a tough conference that needs a break or two along the way, just like three or four other contenders in the West. They can’t make wholesale changes even if they wanted to. Doc needs to find some cheap talent the way the Rockets did with Josh Smith and Corey Brewer and what they got with Jason Terry  a role player with experience who can add punch off the bench.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I need Steve Ballmer to tell me focus on coaching and hire somebody else to manage the roster. That person then needs to re-sign DeAndre Jordan and find some way to undo the damage I’ve done to our bench, because we need help in the backcourt and up front. If there’s a chance of getting two or three rotation players (who can shoot and defend) for Blake Griffin, we should explore that. We can still have a top-five offense with shooting around Paul/Jordan pick-and-rolls, and we we need to have more than six players that can be trusted to keep a lead.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The first thing we have to do is take care of DeAndre Jordan. Get him signed and then lock him in the gym until his free throws roll off his fingertips like butter. He has to improve that part of his game if he’s going to be worth the $109 million deal he’s due to sign this summer. Then, I’m taking the carving knife to this roster and finding better supporting players to make sure we don’t stall out again in the conference semifinals. We ran out of gas physically and emotionally, which tells me we need a different breed of player to fill out the starting lineup and the playing rotation. There are upgrades needed all over the roster and they will be made this summer.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m recognizing, as I’m sure he does, that organizations win. It’s not just a matter of shoring up the bench. There was no way a franchise known for years as the worst in pro sports could instantly become NBA champion. You need everybody along the chain to be pulling in the same direction, and it starts with Rivers in his relatively new role of leadership. The way he responds to the disappointment can show the way forward.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogIt is so tempting to sit there and say the Clippers need to make major changes, in the afterglow of getting ushered out in the second round of the playoffs and half of California making “they’re still the Clippers jokes.” But I honestly don’t think the Clips were that far away. If the regular season ends differently, for instance, and the Clippers don’t have to play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the postseason, I’m guessing things would have gone differently against the Rockets. So I think you keep DeAndre, teach him how to shoot free throws, let Blake continue to develop, and maybe swap out Hedo Turkoglu for a more useful body, and then just see how things shake out next season.

Blogtable: Lottery team that must get it right at the 2015 Draft?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEORelive the 2015 Draft lottery

> Which lottery team is under the most pressure to nail it on Draft night?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com No reason to scan the list or break a sweat on this one. It’s Minnesota. Whoever they pick – Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns – has to be a hit, a star, eventually an All-Star. This franchise can’t afford a Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden or Anthony Bennett at No. 1, not after waiting the entire 27-season history of the franchise for the right to select first in the Draft, not after a playoff drought dating back to 2004. And whichever of the two the Timberwolves select, he needs to be as good or better than the guy they don’t, because second-guesses have piled up higher than snow drifts at Target Center through the years. After having only two No. 1 picks even play for the franchise (Joe Smith and Olowokandi) Minnesota will have the top guys from the past three drafts — Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and this year’s choice — on its roster come October. Time to howl for the right reasons, Wolves.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com The Lakers. Nobody really wants to see Kobe Bryant‘s head literally explode from another losing season.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Like it’s possible to pick one. I could barely narrow it down to half the lottery. The Timberwolves have to nail it because picking No. 1 comes with a scrutiny that will never go away. The Lakers have to nail it because they have so little to build on heading to the future. The Knicks have to nail it because they have even less than the Lakers. The Kings have to nail it because it’s the first big decision for Vlade Divac as head of basketball operations. The Pistons have to nail it because it’s time to make a move up the East standings. The Hornets have to nail it because this season was a step backward and must be fixed. Against that backdrop, the 76ers already have a future even without knowing how the 2015 pick develops. Talk about strange.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comUh, is this a trick question? After getting squeezed out of the top three, and out of the Big Man Sweepstakes, the Knicks need to make this one count if only to justify such a stinky season. At No. 4 there’s really not much of a decision to make. Just take whomever’s left over between D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, because the Sixers at No. 3 will take one of them. Phil Jackson doesn’t need to overthink it unless he gets a sweet trade offer. Then it gets dicey.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Lakers have Julius Randle and, at the No. 2 pick, the easiest choice in the Draft. The Knicks don’t have any serious talent under the age of 30 on their roster, and, at No. 4, might have a difficult decision. It seems like Emmanuel Mudiay could be the best player available when they draft, but it’s not clear that he’d be a good fit for the triangle offense. This is the first top-five pick the Knicks have had in 29 years and Phil Jackson‘s record as team president doesn’t look so hot right now. That’s some pressure.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Los Angeles Lakers are off the hook with that No. 2 pick. You simply sit there and let the stud big man the Minnesota Timberwolves pass up fall into your lap. So that leaves the New York Knicks at No. 4 with all of the pressure on Draft night. They’ll have their pick of talented players but not necessarily any transcendent talent. The Knicks don’t have the luxury of just selecting the best available basketball talent at No. 4. They need to identify the one player who projects as both a true difference-maker and one who can come in and pay immediate dividends alongside whatever free-agent haul Phil Jackson is able to round up. But finding a role player at No. 4 won’t do it. The Knicks need to find a future star, an All-Star even, with this lottery pick.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: It’s the Lakers, because they’re used to winning, they expect to win again, and they absolutely need a transformational player to emerge from this pick. The other teams at the top of the lottery are not faced with such high expectations.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I can’t believe we’re here again, but right now, the answer to this question is the Knicks. They’re rebuilding, sure, but they’ve traded away some good assets — Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith — and haven’t really gotten much in return. They needed a home run in this Draft, with two potential franchise centers available, and now it looks as though they won’t get either one. Who can they get at the four spot? There are potentially terrific selections available, but the stakes are much higher. Considering this is their only first-round pick in the next two years, they need to get this right.

Blogtable: Who wins it all (and why)?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Who wins it all (and why)? | Advice for Doc Rivers? | Lottery team that must get it right?



VIDEOThe Starters make their picks for the West finals winner

> The _________ will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. And here’s why.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Boy, this is going to be a controversial pick: the Golden State Warriors. They’ve been the best team at both ends all season, they continue as that in the postseason. They have the MVP in Steph Curry, they have the versatility, they have the depth. They have the greatest home-court advantage in the league and they’ll get any Game 7s on that court. I’ll stop here, because we’re going to be at risk of redundancy as the rest of our crew weighs in.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Warriors. They have been the best team in the league from opening night till now and a relentless sense of purpose and who they are. They also passed a big test in the conference semifinals when the Grizzlies put them in a 2-1 hole and they came back to win three straight. The Western Conference finals promises to go the distance to seven, but home court makes the difference and this is a tougher test than anything that comes from the East.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Warriors. Why? The usual reasons. They score and defend. They have the best home-court advantage still going. The versatility of mixing lineups. And no one is better equipped to withstand four to seven games of LeBron James if it comes to that (which I think it will). Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson, with Andrew Bogut waiting inside. Golden State of the first six or seven games of the playoffs was vulnerable. Golden State since then, playing with much better focus, will be very tough to beat four times.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Warriors. They seem incapable of playing two bad games in a row, and of course it takes four to beat them. The other three remaining teams are all hopelessly flawed, at least more than the Warriors. Their balance on offense and their rotation quickness on defense seems just too much for anyone in the field. And as you know, the Warriors win titles every 40 years.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Golden State Warriors. Quite simply, they’ve been the league’s best team all season long, by a pretty wide margin. They had the No. 1 defense and the No. 2 offense (best remaining of the four teams). They have multiple defenders who can take on tough assignments and they move the ball well enough to take advantage of defenses that try to take their first option(s) away. They have home-court advantage, a 44-3 record at Oracle Arena, and, as we’ve seen multiple times already in this postseason, an ability to erase big deficits pretty quickly.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Golden State Warriors will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. They’re the best team in basketball, on both ends of the floor, and have been for so long now that I cannot remember who held that distinction before they did. The Warriors have the balance, depth, star power and a coach with a wealth of championship experience steering the ship. The MVP, Stephen Curry, has plenty of help and the Warriors have home court advantage on their side throughout the remainder of the playoffs. That’s always a solid recipe for hoisting a title.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The Warriors are in charge, though the Cavs have two things going for them: They’re suddenly playing lockdown defense, and LeBron has the championship experience that Steph Curry has yet to earn. Is that enough to make up for the front-line absences of Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao? Probably not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: The Golden State Warriors will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. Playing against the Warriors is like trying to run uphill while waist-deep in water. They have too much depth, too much talent, and as soon as they get ahead of you, they press down on the gas. We should also mention that at this point, the Warriors seem to know that they’re good. They’re playing with the confidence of a champion, which is something no coach can teach.

With days to spare, Cavs’ Irving skips practice for rest, treatment

With five days to go before the Eastern Conference finals begin in Atlanta, it wouldn’t have been shocking if the Cleveland Cavaliers’ entire squad had been held out of practice Saturday. But since most of their players did participate, point guard Kyrie Irving‘s lack thereof was duly noted by assembled media.

As the folks at Ohio.com reported:

[Irving] was held out of practice Saturday after reaggravating a left knee injury in Thursday’s closeout Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls.

An MRI on Monday revealed tendinitis in Irving’s knee. Irving has also been battling a right foot strain suffered in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

Cavs coach David Blatt said Irving saw the doctors again Friday. Blatt couldn’t give a definitive assessment of Irving’s status for Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks in Atlanta, but said the Cavs “hope” he can play.

“He going through a lot of treatment and we’re monitoring and just hoping that he progresses from here until game time,” Blatt said.

The All-Star point guard aggravated his left knee pain early in the second quarter Thursday when he stepped on teammate Tristan Thompson‘s foot. He exited and did not return, logging just 12 minutes in the 94-73 blowout.

Blatt said Irving will be listed “day to day” as the series against the Hawks nears. Just don’t count Sunday as one of those days – the Cavaliers are scheduled to take it off, returning to the practice court Monday.

Morning shootaround — May 16


VIDEO: Daily Zap for Friday’s two playoff games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry splashes on Memphis | Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 | Better days ahead for Wiz | Counting by 2’s in 3-point league

No. 1: Curry splashes on Memphis — On an almost nightly basis around the NBA, you’ll see this laughable sight: Some player who has no business hoisting shots from 3-point range, let alone some distance beyond that, will be heaving up ridiculous attempts from out-of-bounds on the sidelines. Or from halfcourt. The simple thought of “Planning to take that shot in the game, are ya?” never seems to cross their minds. But then there’s Steph Curry and a couple of his friends on the Golden State Warriors, who hoist the ball from such spots and have credibility enough to call them “field-goal attempts.” Curry was at it again while helping the Warriors oust Memphis for one of the berths in the Western Conference finals, per our own Shaun Powell:

There have been plenty of bubble-bursting shots in playoff history and while Jerry West‘s 60-foot runner in the 1970 NBA Finals is easily the Hindenberg of them all, was Curry’s three-quarters-length heave Friday one of the loudest pops heard since?

The noise is still banging in the eardrums of the Grizzlies, who were simply stunned by the sequence in the final seconds of the third quarter, just when they were mounting a comeback to prevent elimination. The FedEx Forum crowd was buzzing and begging the Grizzlies to seize control of Game 6 for the first time all night. Jeff Green rushed downcourt attempting to cut the Golden State lead to three when he was blocked. Curry scooped the loose ball and threw a chest-shot in the opposite direction … from near his own three-point stripe … and the ball didn’t even have the decency to bank off the glass or wiggle inside the rim first. It was true. Splash. Damn. For a city steeped in music, Curry just played a lullaby and put all of Memphis to sleep. The arena became that hushed.

“In mid-air,” said coach Steve Kerr, “I said, ‘I think it’s going in.'”

Yes, after the season he had, and the playoffs he’s having, we’re all conditioned to feel that way about Curry now, that when he misses a jumper, from wherever, it’s a head-scratcher. He’s the rare player who never loses confidence, who won’t skip a shot because he clanked one or two. That makes him dangerous and drives the defense crazy. And every time he touched the ball after that 62-footer, the crowd groaned before he even flicked his wrist. They knew. You knew.

Curry made 25 from deep in this series and the Grizzlies made 24. Curry made eight (out of 13) 3-pointers in Game 6, the Grizzlies four. He was a one-man 3-point demolition crew, none more crushing than from 62 feet. The Grizzlies collectively caved in the fourth quarter after Curry’s groin-kick and their season was done. Meanwhile, Curry’s legend and the Warriors move on, to a place where the franchise hasn’t been in 39 years, four wins from the NBA Finals, bringing the requisite superstar necessary to win a title.

***

No. 2: Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 — It took one 10th of a second, maybe two, in which one of Paul Pierce‘s fingers still was in contact with the basketball to make it happen. But after the official replay review revealed the truth about The Truth, wiping out the corner 3 that would have sent the Hawks-Wizards game into overtime, Atlanta finally … finally … finally emerged from that Eastern Conference semifinals series to secure a spot in the conference finals. Our man Lang Whitaker was there to chronicle a little history:

Since moving to the Eastern Conference before the 1970-71 season, the Atlanta Hawks have made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals 15 times. But somehow, despite all those chances, things have never gone their way, and the Hawks have never been able to advance into the Eastern Conference finals.

Until Friday night. ATLast.

After a campaign where they surprised pretty much everyone during the regular season en route to winning 60 games and the Eastern Conference, the Hawks continued writing a new history by beating the Washington Wizards 94-91 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. For the first time in 45 years, the Atlanta Hawks have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

“I think the city really deserved this,” said Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, who led the Hawks with 25 points. “They needed this. I think we wouldn’t even be here without our fans.”

As with most things Hawks, it wasn’t easy and it nearly didn’t happen. Despite leading by 10, 81-71, with nine minutes remaining, the Wizards tied the game at 89 with 1:14 left to play. To take the lead for good, the Hawks turned to the very thing that defined them throughout the season: team basketball. Instead of going one-on-one, Jeff Teague found Carroll on backdoor cuts on back-to-back possessions, giving the Hawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

To be certain, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the Hawks should be considered “getting through,” but it’s still baby steps — during Atlanta’s dry spell, the Boston Celtics have been at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals 17 times. But after a summer of discontent for the Hawks, with general manager Danny Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence following making racist statements on a phone call, and then the franchise being put up for sale following an owner self-reporting racially charged emails, any type of good news would probably be embraced by Hawks fans. A 60-win season and trip to the Conference finals exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.

***

No. 3: Better days ahead for Wiz — There was no denying the disappointment for the Washington Wizards. As far as some of their players are concerned, losing in the semifinals is a Groundhog Day hell that officially meant no progress from their elimination two rounds deep a year ago. There’s a difference between knocking at the door as a team on the rise and knock-knock-knocking as a legitimate championship contender. But setting aside the emotions of Friday night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out some of the progress on which the Wizards can build, once they get over this:

[The] Wizards did something in this postseason that they didn’t do last year and that they didn’t do in the regular season. They put the ball in the basket. They were the most improved offensive team in the playoffs.

A team that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency in the regular season changed its identity and looked rather potent. Inefficient mid-range shots became 3-pointers, and 40 percent of those 3-pointers went in. It was like the Wizards finally discovered what the rest of the league has known for the last few years.

With more space to operate, [John] Wall made it clear why he was the No. 1 pick in the Draft five years ago. No matter how the opponent defended him, he made the right decisions and the right plays.

With Wall out of the lineup for three games, Bradley Beal stepped up and showed why he was the No. 3 pick in 2012. He stuck to Kyle Korver all series and scored inside and out.

And with an opportunity like he’s never had before, Otto Porter looked like a top-three pick too. He was a 3-and-D small forward, slowing down DeMar DeRozan in the first round and staying active off the ball on offense.

And suddenly, you realized that this team has a lot of talent. Young talent. Wall turns 25 in September. Beal and Porter each turn 22 next month.

Paul Pierce provided leadership, swagger, and the ability to space the floor as a part-time four man. And if he chooses not to exercise his player option for next season, he will be missed.

But whether or not Pierce is back, the Wizards will continue to build around their three young perimeter players and a defense that has ranked in the top 10 each of the last three seasons. And they now have the blueprint – more versatility at the forward positions – that can push them toward a top 10 ranking on the other end of the floor.

When you have a top 10 defense and a top 10 offense, you’re a title contender.

***

No. 4: Counting by 2’s in 3-point league — The Memphis Grizzlies are like pizza, if you think about it. Pizza is great. Pizza is welcome almost any time and any place, same as the Grizzlies are a hoot to watch and root for across the long, corner-three-loving NBA regular season. You slog along on a diet of what has become the same-old same old in this league – pesky perimeter guys buzzing around and feeling great about making 40 percent of their shots, as long as their toes are behind the right line – and then you spot the Grizzlies on the schedule. Hey, pizza! The problem with pizza, or in this case, Memphis’ pounding, bigs-based attack, is that it only gets you so far. Pizza is fun but it’s not welcome at the biggest events — holiday dinners, weddings receptions, fancy client meetings, The Finals. That’s not unlike the limbo in which the Grizzlies find themselves, unique and yet unloved, as far as the ring sizers go. Royce Young of ESPN.com evaluated Memphis’ style shortfall vs. Golden State:

The series was billed as style against style, with the Grizzlies’ traditional, two-big ground-and-pound against the Warriors’ contemporary all-purpose attack. And as it played out, it was the same old postseason story for Memphis: Enough to remain exceptionally competitive, but not enough to advance.

“The series was a good series,” [coach Dave] Joerger said. “It was about which style won out.”

The Grizzlies are very direct. They want to play inside-out, focusing everything at their two beastly bigs and reluctantly relying on the perimeter. But as Steve Kerr and the Warriors played their ace in the hole, cross-matching Andrew Bogut on [Tony] Allen, the Grizzlies didn’t have a countermove. More than any other team in the league, they are who they are. Their identity is forged in grit and grind, which unfortunately doesn’t include versatility and flexibility, hallmarks of today’s pace-and-space NBA.

“We have who we have,” Mike Conley said. “We have our personnel. We play through our personnel. We have big guys, and that’s what we have to play through our strengths. We can’t change that. We have to work with what we have. We’ve done a phenomenal job with it, but I think us going into next season, we have to find ways to free up guys on the outside, get guys that can get easy looks, try to open up and knock them down and get more opportunities for our big guys.”

The annoying narrative that still hangs around is that jumpers don’t win in the playoffs, that 3-pointers are a siren song of temptation, not of tried-and-true success. Well, no team is more interior focused and less reliant on jumpshooting than the Grizzlies …

The answer seems to be obvious. The Grizzlies have to adapt, have to adjust, have to evolve. They’ve played their stubborn way for five years now, and it’s produced admirable success. This is a unique roster that plays a one-of-a-kind style. Even more, this was probably the Grizzlies’ best team. They just couldn’t match the Warrior buzz saw, and that’s where lines get blurred. The Grizzlies had a terrific season; they also weren’t good enough. There’s something to be proud of in giving the Warriors hell; there’s also nothing tangible to take from it.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Pierce has 6 million reasons to return to the Wizards next season, but the challenge gets greater when you’re matched up with Father Time. … Change is coming in Chicago, writes our Steve Aschburner, with coach Tom Thibodeau‘s status in the air and Derrick Rose needing to recommit. … Some wonder why the Bulls’ alleged top candidate to coach next season, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, would leave just two years into his 10-year, $20 million contract. But the Cyclones’ athletic director expects Hoiberg to tackle the NBA challenge one of these days. … Uh oh: Phil Jackson allegedly maybe doesn’t like the idea of Isiah Thomas hanging around Madison Square Garden as president of the WNBA Liberty, according to the New York Daily News. … Golden State’s David Lee didn’t initially believe teammate Steph Curry when he told the veteran power forward the postseason would last long enough for him to play a role for the Warriors. Well, guess what?

Gasol plans to play in Cavs-Bulls Game 6

CHICAGO – For Pau Gasol, it’s a no-blink showdown of history vs. urgency.

The Chicago Bulls’ All-Star big man has had, by his own count, three hamstring strains in his 14 NBA seasons. One sidelined him for a month. Another put him out for more than two weeks.

The third? That’s the one he’s dealing with right now, and he’s only five days removed from having to exit Game 3 of the Bulls-Cavaliers Eastern Conference semifinal series due to the pain and limitations stemming from it.

But Game 3 probably feels as if it’s a month ago to the Bulls and many of their fans – Chicago’s 2-1 series lead has turned into a 3-2 elimination predicament – so if Gasol and his team’s medical staff can just convince that balky left hamstring that it’s had plenty of rest and treatment …

Y’know what? Doesn’t matter. Gasol said Wednesday that he will play in Game 6 Thursday night at United Center.

“I mean, right now it’s win or go home,” the 7-footer told reporters at the Bulls’ Advocate Center practice facility. “There’s nothing left but tomorrow’s game. What percentage I’ll be able to play? I don’t know, but whatever percentage I will be, that’s what I’ll give.”

Gasol, after doing a light workout Tuesday, said he felt no ill effects in his leg and he upped his rehab Wednesday to run a little harder, get up some shots and work through some basketball plays. He has not tried to jump yet and sounded as if his goal is shorter stints than his usual 32-34 minutes.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday that having Gasol’s length, his shooting and passing abilities and his know-how – even on a limited basis – could be helpful if his team hopes to force a Game 7 Sunday back in Cleveland. The team with the rebounding edge has won each game and Gasol, in the paint, is Chicago’s best shot at getting easy baskets when one of its chronic scoring droughts hits again.

While Gasol was officially listed as probable in the Bulls’ injury report, there was no mention of guard Derrick Rose. The point guard suffered symptoms in his right arm from the shoulder stinger he had late in the series opener, but Thibodeau said Rose was fine Wednesday.

Gibson-Dellavedova ruckus rocks The Q


VIDEO: GameTime crew breaks down Gibson-Dellavedova altercation

CLEVELAND – Taj Gibson said he gave Matthew Dellavedova a look before things really got out of hand Tuesday night. “A look like, ‘What are you doin’, this is basketball, this isn’t wrestling,’ ” the Chicago Bulls forward said.

Didn’t matter. Within minutes, Gibson had been banished from the court at Quicken Loans Arena and had a towel thrown at him as he headed through a tunnel, exiting in a clamor worthy of a World Wrestling villain.

A ruckus that started with Gibson and Dellavedova, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ backup point guard, rapidly engulfed both teams and the sellout crowd early in the fourth quarter. Gibson and Dellavedova had banged a couple of times already, colliding in pick-and-roll switches and vying for rebounds, when it happened again with 10:25 remaining

The 6-foot-9, 238-pound Gibson pushed down Dellavedova, who stands 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. Lying face down under the basket, the Cavs guard sended Gibson’s left leg between his, down near his ankles. So he clamped down, making it difficult for the Bulls player to move.

That’s when Gibson, claiming only to be freeing his leg, jerked his foot loose in what, in the primary camera’s view, appeared to be a swift kick to Dellavedova’s backside (or undercarriage).

Or as LeBron James, who was watching from the Cleveland bench, described it: “They kind of get tangled up a little bit, and then [Taj] kicks him in the ass. That’s what happened. And the skirmish starts after that.”

Gibson’s version differed considerably.

“I didn’t kick him at all,” he said. “He just leg-locked me. It got chippy at the end, of course. I tried to pull my leg back. It looked like I kicked him from the way and the force I was pulling my leg out, but … I have to deal with the consequences. They ejected me. I have to deal with whatever the league passes out. But I didn’t kick him at all.”

Gibson was assessed a flagrant-2 type foul, which carries an automatic ejection. The Cavaliers, with their fans fully engaged, rode the emotions of the moment to a little spurt that put them up 92-77 before James re-entered.

But Chicago righted itself enough to outscore Cleveland 24-14 the rest of the way, in spite of going down a second big man (Pau Gasol sat out his second consecutive game in the series with a strained left hamstring.)

“Both teams kind of swarmed the situation and made it bigger than what it was,” Gibson said. “Nobody threw any punches. I’m just sad I couldn’t finish the game and help my team.

“I mean, I didn’t say anything to him. We all react. But this is basketball – we can’t fight. I don’t know why guys always take to that kind of fuss, like they’re gonna do something. I just tried to pull my leg back. When you’re on TV, everything always looks different. But I just try to play basketball. I’m just frustrated I couldn’t finish the game.”

Gibson downplayed a hard screen he had set on Dellavedova to start the play and didn’t ‘fess up to any extra contact when shoving him for rebound position. The Cavs guard does tend to bounce around with kinetic energy, so it wasn’t clear if his reactions to Gibson’s bumps were entirely legit or accentuated.

But James felt Gibson had set the tone on a previous Aaron Brooks-Gibson pick-and-roll.

“It was a couple plays before that that kind of transpired that. Taj threw Delly across the lane a few plays before that on another box-out,” James said. “The same thing happened again: They ran a high pick-and-roll … and we switched. Taj elbows Delly in the back of the head and puts him on the ground.”

And that, James said, was when Gibson kicked his teammate.

Referee Joey Crawford assessed the flagrant-2 foul, reviewing the play while the crowd saw it five or six times on the massive videoboard at The Q – and reacted angrily with each replay of the alleged kick.

Gibson didn’t have much time to give his version to the referees. “Once that official makes a decision, that’s what it is,” he said. “It was really hard to get an explanation when it’s so loud in there. And we’ve got our security, Eric Buck, he just grabbed me and we tried to get off the court in a timely fashion.”

James said he made sure that no Cavs players left the bench area, which by NBA rules would bring certain suspensions from the hotly contested playoff series.

James added: “We just want to play ball. We know there’s going to be some games where it’s going to be physical. My message to my guys is, just play basketball. We’re going to protect ourselves, obviously. J.R. [Smith], Double-T [Tristan Thompson], they all came to the aid of Delly.”

Dellavedova is one of James’ favorite teammates, so the superstar’s protectiveness of his underdog Australian hustle player was understandable.

“Anyone who starts something with Delly, seriously, Delly doesn’t bother anybody,” James said. “He doesn’t even bother himself, so how’s he going to bother somebody else?”

Gasol out, Irving in as Bulls, Cavs cope

CLEVELAND – The cautious route vs. the gutsy route: the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers were taking different paths toward the same desired destination, a spot in the Eastern Conference finals, in some key players’ handling of injuries.

The Bulls went into Game 5 at Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday night without All Star big man Pau Gasol for the second consecutive game due to a strained left hamstring. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were counting on an increasingly gimpy Kyrie Irving, whose sprained right foot has led to a sore left knee since he began favoring the initial injury.

Gasol, 34, stretched and tested his left leg Tuesday morning before the Bulls’ shootaround and was only able to run at about “40 percent” effort, he said. Still to come: running at full speed, changing directions, jumping and exploding off that leg.

“Still some stuff I need to get done in the next 48 hours to be able to play an NBA game,” Gasol said. “I feel it’s improving. We’re doing everything we can to get me on the floor as soon as possible.

“By the tests that we did, clinically, it’s not a terrible strain. Otherwise it would put me out for a while. … Right now we’re just staying positive. Everyone’s working hard so I can be out there the sooner the better. Because we’re in an urgency situation.”

Gasol said he suffered hamstring strains – one per leg – twice previously in his 14-year career. One put him out for a month, the other sidelined him for two-and-a-half weeks. This one, which he first noticed in Game 2 and aggravated in Game 3, comes at an especially inconvenient time.

“Very difficult,” Gasol said of sitting on the side while the Bulls try to win the best-of-seven series against the Cavaliers. “Not to play at this time when we need everyone on the floor that we can possibly have, this is hard. I feel I can make a difference on the floor and help the team have a better chance.”

Irving, 23, feels the same way and is playing through his foot and knee discomfort. Cleveland’s All-Star point guard has left no wiggle room in recent days – he was playing, not sitting – so it would seem to fall to coach David Blatt, his staff and the Cavs’ medical staff to make sure a) Irving isn’t doing further damage, and b) his limitations aren’t hurting the team on the floor.

“I really feel we have been as conscious and as considerate of his physical state as possible,” Blatt said before the game Tuesday. “If [Kyrie] said to me, ‘I can’t go’ or ‘I don’t feel I can do this,’ we would be the last people to push him to do so. The results of his tests are such that, he has issues but they’re not issues that endanger him in terms of being injured going forward.”

Some diminished contribution from Irving still is better, apparently, than what some different but totally healthy Cleveland player can give them.

“His best in the worst of conditions is invaluable to us and we want to get that from him,” Blatt said. “I’m not going to stop playing him just because perhaps he’s not playing at 100 percent of his normal level. Because still what he’s giving us is extremely important to us.

“I won’t play him if he’s too badly hurt. Or if we’re in a situation where it endangers him going forward.”