Week That Was In The NBA

Best NBA Finals in 30 Years?

The Spurs have been nothing less than dominate during the Tim Duncan era.  Sixteen consecutive trips to the playoffs, four NBA titles, an organization renown for finding and developing talent others couldn’t and the best head coach in the game today.  A healthy Spurs team with its own veteran Big Three represents the ultimate challenge for LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

“This is probably the most anticipated Finals - in who knows – in 30 years,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern before game one.  “We have two teams who are no strangers to the Finals.  We have two teams that have more than one championship ring.  We have a group of players who are going to be in the Hall of Fame and we expect to have a heck of a series.”

While almost every NBA analyst trotted out before the cameras picked the HEAT to win the series ahead of Game One, the numerous fan polls suggested the Spurs were favored by those merely watching the game.  The Spurs didn’t disappoint their fans as the 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker was clutch once again and led his team to victory down the stretch in the opener.

Game Two saw the predictable bounce-back by the home team as Miami ran away with it late in the third quarter and Coach Popovich reeled in his stars to play another day.  The Spurs collapse was epic, but it would be a mistake to think a bad 15 minutes provides any indication of the future.

The series headed to San Antonio for the next three games with the HEAT needing to win at least one contest to survive.  Historically, the winner of Game Three in a tied NBA Finals wins the title almost every time and the Spurs came ready to play at home on Tuesday.  This time it was an epic collapse by the HEAT in the second half as the Spurs outscored them by 30 points over the final 24 minutes for the easy 113-77 victory.

A close game followed by two blowouts might suggest that this series has no direction, but despite the scores, we are witnessing defense at its best.  LeBron James has been smothered in the paint and forced to pass, rebound and shoot jump shots and it appears neither he nor his numerous (unbiased?) backers in the media can accept that San Antonio has figured out how to stop him from scoring.  James averaged 29 points on 51 percent shooting against the Pacers, but just 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting versus the Spurs and it is no accident.

Neither club will allow the other team's Big Three to win the game.  The Big Threes are cancelling each other out and it has fallen on the role players to step up.  In Game Two Mario Chalmers led the HEAT to victory with 19 points and Ray Allen chipped in with 13 off the bench and in Game Three it was Danny Green with 27 points and Gary Neal with 24 to lead the Spurs.

Tony Parker left Game Three with a sore right hamstring and is questionable for Game Four on Thursday.  The impact of the injury on the Final’s best point guard is unknown, but the Spurs did find a way to win Game Three without much of help from Parker.  Stay tuned, this series is far from over.

Denver Nuggets Upheaval

In the same week the Nuggets lost Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri to the Toronto Raptors, the team parted company with the 2013 NBA Coach of the Year George Karl.  On the Nuggets' website, Team President Josh Kroenke praised his departing management team.

“I appreciate everything Masai has done since re-joining the Nuggets in 2010,” Kroenke said. “Over the past two and a half years, he and I have spent countless hours working together to tackle some of the toughest challenges in franchise history. I have tremendous admiration for him as a colleague and will always consider him to be a great friend.”

“George has been an instrumental part of our success over the past decade, and we appreciate everything he did to keep us among the top teams in the Western Conference,” Kroenke said. “He is a Hall of Fame coach whose legacy in Denver will last for years to come. George is a legend in the game of basketball and I could not have more respect for him as a person and coach.”

Under Ujiri and Karl, the Nuggets just completed their best NBA regular season ever, winning 57 games, the most since they won 60 games as an ABA franchise in 1975-1976.  The 62-year-old Karl still has a year left on his contract with the Nuggets, so he can afford to take some time off if he chooses, but with 1,131 wins over his 25 years as an NBA head coach and a winning percentage of 59.9 percent, he should have opportunities to coach again almost immediately if he wants to.

Kroenke now has two huge holes in his management team to fill, but after failing to advance past the first round of the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, perhaps a dramatic change in direction was the right way to go.

Kobe Bryant in Season Opener?

The Lakers have a big decision on their hands on July 10.  While the impending Dwight Howard free agency is the topic of month, the Lakers need to decide if they believe Kobe Bryant will be healthy enough to play next season.  The two decisions could even be tied together.  If it starts to look like Howard will go elsewhere and Bryant’s return is dubious, the Lakers could get $20 million under the salary cap this summer by amnestying Bryant and then take another serious run at soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul.  The Lakers could have options in July, but Bryant is doing his best to take the option of amnestying him off the table.

HOOPSWORLD reporting on a story by Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com said, “Stitches removed, out of a cast and with nearly six weeks of rehabilitation under his belt since surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg, Kobe Bryant is still hoping for a return by the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2013-14 season opener.”

Bryant is the face of the Lakers franchise and if healthy enough to play, he is still a superstar player in the NBA.  No more crutches, a special shoe for walking and one of the toughest players to keep off the court because of injury, it would be foolish to bet against Bryant returning to action on the date he says it will happen.

Stern Says Changes Show the New CBA is Working

The NBA is awash in change.  Team executives have been fired, scouts and assistant coaches are on the move and there will be at least a dozen new head coaches next season.  Winning head coaches on the move include Denver’s 57-game winner George Karl, the Clippers’ 56-game winner Vinny Del Negro, Memphis’ 56-game winner Lionel Hollins, the Nets 35-19 interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo and the Hawks 44-game winner Larry Drew.  They join a long list of head coaches from losing clubs that are in transition this summer and several notable candidates fired during the past season.  All this before the draft, trades and free agency have begun to impact rosters.

“Everything that we have done in terms of collective bargaining is designed to level the playing field and allow teams that are well managed, no matter what their market size to be in the Finals,” said Stern once again.

“Our teams are making very long term decisions based upon the luxury tax and how they draft in accordance with that and that is all about management.  All of a sudden, you have got teams that think they can compete if they do a good job and in fact, I think that is a little bit behind the coaching changes that are on-going as well.  Teams think they are aggregating something, that they have a certain group of players that they want more out of and they think they are not getting (that now), so what you do is think about changing the coaches or you think about reconfiguring the roster or you think about having another general manager.”

All this movement bodes well for those who want to see a very active trade market around the draft and an exciting and unpredictable free agent period.  However, it will be easier to believe the new CBA is working as intended if teams like Miami, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, New York and the Lakers move out talent this summer to save on luxury taxes next season.

Remember to join us on Thursday night for Game 4 of the NBA Finals @Stlouiswings 595 Bay St, Toronto

Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the ACC since 2009.  You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

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