BY DAVID THORPE and HENRY ABBOTT
Just this morning, we published a story about the Clippers’ series-changing defensive adjustment that had befuddled the Jazz. Then, in keeping with a truly insane NBA day, that all changed with a report that Kawhi Leonard would be out with knee trouble, possibly for a while. Over a few hours we learned that Chris Paul, Scott Brooks, Donnie Nelson, and Stan Van Gundy were also all out in different ways and for different reasons.
The Jazz go from desperate to delighted
The Jazz were absolutely destroyed by the Clippers and are tied 2-2 with the Clippers entering Game 5 tonight. Yet at some sportsbooks, the Jazz are suddenly the team most likely to win the NBA title. That could change with health updates to CP3, Harden, or Kawhi.
Clippers are dangerous
In March, David suggested that Paul George could become the point guard the Clippers need. Now the Clippers’ season hinges on his leadership.
It might work. The Clippers are incredibly dangerous right now. They have been the NBA’s deepest team all year. If I were them I’d double down on the aggressive perimeter defense and dare the Jazz to figure out new solutions. (The Jazz don’t lose a lot, but when they do, it’s often because of turnovers.) Paul George is an elite defender, Reggie Jackson has a seven-foot wingspan. Alongside Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum, and Marcus Morris that’s a lot for the Jazz to handle. And everyone can sit if they get exhausted: Ivica Zubac, Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Beverley, and Luke Kennard have all already played in this series.
Of course the team is nothing like as good without Kawhi.
On the other hand, this is the first day in two years when the pressure is off. Losing is OK. They can just play their brains out and live with whatever happens.
Chris Paul out indefinitely
The Suns are better with Chris Paul, but he’s not everything. It’s entirely possible—likely even—that their Western Conference finals opponents will also be missing a star. No matter what happens, the Suns are well coached, bursting with talent, and adept at putting people in the right situations to succeed. David Thorpe went deep into their success in March:
From a distance, the story is easy: Chris Paul’s weird alchemy. Similar things happened on last year’s big surprise team in Oklahoma City. But that simple story is wrong. Without knowing what’s happening behind the scenes, the Suns’ story is not simply one of Paul’s play. All kinds of things are going well in Phoenix, including tons of things when he’s out of the game; this turnaround began in the bubble, when he wasn't even on the roster.
What’s tricky is the NBA’s method of handling sensitive information like Paul’s status.
We began this season with a 158-page memo, from the NBA to teams, outlining the league’s COVID protocols. Everything has been updated all season, most of the updates have not been made public, but we know the oversight is burdensome.
By the end of the year, it was hard to find anyone who could say how long LeBron would have to sit out when he attended a Tequila promotion event with Michael B. Jordan and Drake. It was definitely a violation—and this is a strict league that once suspended Richaun Holmes for getting a food delivery. By the time the league declared LeBron’s infraction was not especially dangerous, it was easy to see their point, and troubling that the people in the back room—who make a lot of money off LeBron and a lot less money off Holmes, seemed to be able to decide such things in secret. To many, it smacked of a double standard.
So when The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports “Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul has entered the NBA's health and safety protocols and is sidelined for an indefinite period of time,” that period of time points to a wicked NBA issue: They haven’t been straightforward about this kind of stuff. Paul is arguably the best player on the best team at the moment. He could be out for a minute or a year, and a title hangs in the balance.
In March, the NBA relaxed some of the protocols that were put into place in the fall, doing so in response to players and coaches choosing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But the league also cautioned at that time that "if an individual has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the previous protocols apply," which would mean that anyone with those symptoms "may be subject to quarantine" regardless of their vaccination status.
May be subject to quarantine?
Paul is the president of the National Basketball Players Association and personal friends with the NBA’s most important source of cash: Disney’s Bob Iger. Disney has a Chris Paul biopic in the works. Does any of that matter? We have to ask.
The Associated Press reports that Paul will be evaluated again on Saturday, and notes it has a source saying Paul has been vaccinated “and that may mean” a shorter suspension. Question for the NBA: Does it mean a shorter suspension?
This is the kind of day when fortunes will be made or lost in the sports gambling community. Prices are volatile! From a SportsBetting.ag press release: “After tying up the series 2-2, the series odds for the Clippers and Jazz was nearly even. Now, with Leonard's outlook grim, the Clips are +230 underdogs while the Jazz are -275 favorites to advance. Paul is entering the safety protocol for Phoenix, and all of the Suns odds have been removed from the betting boards as details are unknown. The Suns went from second in the NBA Championship odds to currently third, behind the Nets and Jazz.”
Also: every NBA broadcast is chock-a-block with gambling ads. An absolute fortune will be made and lost based on the length of Paul’s suspension.
We know the information system is not airtight because of how the information came to us: It leaked. To Shams. Whoever told Shams … who else did they tell? On what basis would we be confident they decided not to make a fortune with the intel?
And how are sportsbooks handling this? Josh Harris is a key investor in Caesar’s Palace. The NBA has a deal with MGM. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta is in TV ads slinging his online sportsbook. NBA billionaires have flocked to sports gambling. How do they--owners of sportsbooks--get to learn that Chris Paul is out? How does proprietary information move? What are the rules?
Expect Pelicans to take a European turn
The Pelicans have parted ways with Stan Van Gundy. The team was supposed to have Zion-infused offensive sizzle backed by a vastly improved defense. The latter wasn’t just idle promises.
SportsCenter @SportsCenterBreaking: Stan Van Gundy has agreed to a deal to become the next coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, sources tell @wojespn and @_Andrew_Lopez. https://t.co/KrDPbNKcCu
Instead of a stretch big—which would be perfect next to Zion—they went out and got Steven Adams. Instead of some offensive wizard like Mike D’Antoni the finalists for the job were Tyronn Lue and Stan Van Gundy. The Wizards ended up with the NBA’s 23rd-ranked defense. The offense was pretty good, but at its best when Zion was superhuman—often as the point guard—and ho-hum otherwise.
Here’s what we know: their front office has a deep appreciation for the European-style of basketball—more passes, more tactics, more movement—that is ascendant around the globe. GM Trajan Langdon was a star in Europe for years and still scouts heavily there. Vice President David Griffin hired David Blatt from Europe back when he ran the Cavaliers, and hired David Thorpe’s longtime assistant Ryan Pannone to run the Pelicans G League team, the Bayhawks, after Pannone spent six years in Europe.
TrueHoop sources speculate the next choice might be a former NBA player, supported by assistants steeped in the European style. One name to keep an eye on: Nick Nurse’s assistant coach Adrian Griffin. David once spent a week with Griffin when the latter was a top high school prospect and the two of them were at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. David says that even at 17 years old, it was clear he was a “very special person.” He's long been considered "ready" to take over a team.
Bucks attacking the wrong people
The Nets are bad at defense generally, but elite in spots: Kevin Durant is long, mobile, and can gobble up space. James Harden is a few years into being an elite post defender. You can do a lot of stuff against the Nets, but I’d avoid dribbling at Durant, or posting Harden … and the Bucks did both of those things over and over! What is happening?
Don’t forget the Hawks
Forgotten amidst all of the breaking news today is the Hawks game in Philly with the series tied. It’s hard to imagine the Hawks winning the East now that De’Andre Hunter is out for the playoffs—his versatility as a scorer and defender can’t be replicated there. Still, given Embiid’s trick knee, the absence of Danny Green, and Ben Simmons’ inability to score in the fourth period, it’s possible the Hawks will soon be playing at home, up 3-2, trying to close out the series.
No matter what happens from here, this much is a sure thing—Atlanta is for real as long as Trae Young is playing. Between his talent as a scorer and passer and the city’s attraction as a destination for free agents, the Hawks will be in similar spots for years to come. John Collins is 23 and can sign an extension, Hunter is 23 and was one of the most improved players in the league this season prior to his injury, and Young is 22, with 21-year-old Cam Reddish returning from injury in the fall.
Rest is a weapon, right?
What Kevin Durant did on Tuesday night was, in a word, breathtaking. He was Stephen Curry as a seven-footer. And he played all 48 minutes. Harden limped around for 44. Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller took a page from the TrueHoop line of thinking that states “rested players are far more likely to play great than tired ones.”
No chance it happens, right?
What’s more likely: Durant and Harden play Game 6 at less than 100 percent, and aren’t perfectly rested for Game 7 either.
Wizards: First decide whether or not to rebuild
There’s a case to be made for the Wizards to hire a known and successful coach to help push them solidly into the playoffs. They looked pretty good at the end of the regular season. The priority has to be a coach ready to get the best out of win-now stars Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. Mike D’Antoni comes to mind.
But first, it’s time for some brutally honest self assessment. Can a team with Westbrook and Beal really contend?
If not … are there big trades in the works? If the team is going to move Westbrook and Beal and add young talents and future picks to the young core they have now, do that before hiring a coach. The skillsets are totally different.
The Mavericks lose one of their three GMs
Mark Cuban’s team doesn’t operate like most NBA teams. An example: Henry once spent draft day with powerbroker agent Dan Fegan. When Fegan wanted to know what the Celtics front office might do with its pick, he called Danny Ainge. When he wanted to talk to the Thunder he called Sam Presti. Only in the case of the Mavericks did he call the billionaire in charge.
This is how it has been for the Mavericks. Cuban was involved in everything. He talked to reporters every day, he weighed in about transaction rumors, he campaigned the league office about individual calls of referees. (This is why it made little sense when Cuban said he was shocked by reports of pervasive sexual harassment on the Mavericks.)
So Donnie Nelson’s role has always been a bit tough to pin down. If Cuban is talking to agents on draft day … what was Donnie doing?
The optics of it only got worse with a recent report about the expanding role of Haralabos Voulgaris, a brilliant and brash former professional gambler who doesn’t seem too big on making his colleagues feel valued. Tim Cato and Sam Amick reported that it seemed, at times, like the Mavericks had two GMs—but that’s where they were even before Voulgaris. Two GMs is a lot. Three is certainly too many.
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