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Competitive balance in the NBA? Good one.

Why is it that even in the conference finals we can't seem to get an interesting game?

I was on my way to Tufts University this evening from Boston on I-93 when I saw a billboard on a vacant office building looking for lessees. It read: “Sitting in traffic? Not anymore if you work here.”

While I was neither sitting in traffic nor looking for office space at the time, the message was intriguing nevertheless. In fact, it got me to start thinking about the NBA and the shortcuts it has taken (If I don’t want to sit in traffic, I can just work here!”) to try and establish competitive balance. As a result, there is a complete lack of competitive balance present in the league today, something that David Stern and his cohorts need to address to stimulate interest in professional basketball here in the United States.

Amid playoffs in which five of the six matchups in the conference finals and semifinals could be sweeps, there is definitely a problem with the balance of the game. So let’s take a look at the plague of disparity around the league, shall we?

The MLB is the only sports league in the United States that doesn’t have a salary cap. And as long as the players association lives and breathes, there will never be a salary cap in baseball. That said, Major League Baseball succeeds where other leagues don’t in promoting a compelling, competitive league.

For one, the nature of baseball (and the construction of multi-game series during the regular season) is such that any team can beat any other team on any given day. In a three-game series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s a considerable possibility that Pittsburgh will squeak one game out during the set. In the NBA, when the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves meet, nobody’s betting on the T’Wolves and rightly not.

In addition, the MLB went about establishing two systems to help curb extravagant spending by big-market teams. It instituted a revenue-sharing program and imposed a luxury tax on high-payroll teams. While these policies don’t quite dissuade teams like the Yankees from blowing large sums on free agents, it does well to control spending near the middle (in terms of payroll) of the league.

But the NBA does have a salary cap. Isn’t the whole point of the damned thing to keep games close? In theory, it sure is. But keep in mind that the NBA’s cap is a soft one, and there are plenty of channels by which to circumvent the loose limit.

The most prominent of those is via Bird Rights, which allow teams to go over the payroll cap in order to re-sign free agents who have been with the team for three years or more. That’s why the Lakers are allowed to sign Kobe Bryant to a 3-year, $90 million extension despite with will be over $85 million in payroll next season with a projected $56 million cap. So that’s one way in which teams in big markets with rich owners can weasel their way to greatness. Needless to say, you wouldn’t see the Maloofs offer that kind of money to keep a player around on the Kings because they just can’t afford the salary itself or the accompanying luxury tax.

In addition, to continue the comparison to baseball, the dollar goes a lot further in the NBA game, so going over the salary cap is more valuable to success. In baseball, starting pitchers (who command very high salaries these days) go only one out of five games. And those position players who do play nearly every game, they are only expected to contribute three out of ten times from the plate and once in awhile on the defensive side (depending on the position).

In the NBA, everybody’s playing every game, and each of the five players contributes to every offensive and defensive set. Besides scoring and the other major stats, there are ways to help your team: setting effective screens, moving well without the ball, affecting shots, and denying your assignment the ball, to name a few.

For a practical illustration of this mess, look at the payrolls of the four teams left in the playoffs: $91,314, 026 (Lakers), $83,875,420 (Boston Celtics), $82,087,014 (Orlando Magic), $74,012,783 (Phoenix Suns). The salary cap this year is $69,920,000. So none of the remaining teams is working under the s0-called “limit.”

With all this established, let me go about setting a few suggestions for bringing true competition back to the NBA.

(1) Make the cap a hard cap.

Much like instituting a salary cap or removing the DH in baseball, this will never happen. Setting up a hard-cap system infuriates both conflicting parties: the NBAPA because in such a scenario star players would have to take major paycuts to make payrolls work and the NBA because all the luxury tax payments go straight to the league anyway.

Nobody really wants this except concerned fans. Not the Laker fans that think they’re devoted because they know who Pau Gasol is but the fans of teams like the 76ers who can tell you the stat line of every player from Andre Iguodala to Jrue Holiday for the past season. If it is so obvious that you need to shell out the cash like the four teams mentioned above to compete, there’s no way all 30 teams can never hope to contend for a championship; it’s just not feasible.

(2) Cut down on the teams that make the playoffs.

Right now the NBA playoffs are a bit, well, imperfect. There are 16 teams, four 7-game rounds, and over two months of 20-game blowouts. No one wants to see that. No one wants to see the Magic beat up the Bobcats in four circus games. Certainly, the thrill of an underdog upset like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007 is great, but you have to play the odds. That type of series doesn’t come around too often.

One could argue that even the conference-finals round is bad this year, but again, play the odds. This is atypical of the NBA playoffs. Cut the the pool that makes the postseason in half, and the league will have a lot more satisfied and less exhausted fans.

(3) Oust owners who aren’t in it to win it.

Nothing serves as a greater doomsday to a fan base than an owner to has ulterior motives for owning a basketball team. Guys like Donald Sterling and Bruce Ratner who use the franchise as leverage for their real-estate ventures are true parasites to the league and bad for the game. Get rid of them, somehow, or else you’ll have more teams that fail to ever be in contention.

I know these rules aren’t terribly practical (and simply “getting rid” of unsatisfactory owners would prove to be a nightmare: Are there objective qualities? Who gets the team? Etc.). But something needs to be done to protect the integrity of the league. If we keep seeing blowout after blowout and sweep after sweep in the playoffs, fans will start to lose interest, and no one wants that. Just try and represent the little guy a little better because I can’t stand seeing the Lakers win anymore.

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NBA Today: May 21

  • The Philadelphia 76ers and TNT broadcaster Doug Collins have agreed on a four-year deal for Collins to become the team’s next head coach.
  • The Nets, after saying they wouldn’t renew general manager/interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe’s contract this summer, have eliminated the former position altogether and have merged it with Rod Thorn’s president position.
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Celtics recreate the mystique of 2008

That face says it all for the Boston Celtics.

It’s October 2009. You’re a Boston Celtics fan. The season is about to start, and your team has just added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to a troupe of stars. Things are looking great, and you’ve already forgotten the exit in the conference semifinals during the playoffs.

Fast forward a few months, and things don’t look so great. Paul Pierce is playing poorly, Ray Allen can’t seem to hit a shot, and Kevin Garnett seems way past his prime. The one bright spot is Rajon Rondo, the point guard of the future. The team has blasted with disappointments, not the least of which is a home loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets. The quest for another title seems lost, and the days of the Big Three seem over.

No so fast.

Since this year’s playoffs began, the Boston Celtics have looked more like the champions of 2008 rather than the underachievers of 2010, and more than anything, it has been thanks to some intangible factors.

Foremost, there seems to be a newfound desire to win amid the team — and no Cetics player has embodied that shift in philosophy than Wallace. Often the butt of jokes about lacking effort and the object of criticism that he could be one of the best players of all-time if he tried, ‘Sheed has noticed the potential to come away with a title this year. All it took was a little prodding and nudging from his coach, Doc Rivers, to get him on the right path. Since Rivers’s encouragement, Wallace has been playing to win the game: taking quality open shots instead of chucking up three-pointers, playing inspired defense, and realizing the concept of teamwork that makes the Celtics run.

But the improvement in that area is not limited just to Wallace’s actions; everyone on the team seems passionate about the team’s success. Watching Game 2 against the Magic, whenever a player hit the floor after a foul, three or four other Celtics on the floor swarmed around him to help him up and scowl at the offender. It’s that kind of backing that can sway the outcome of close games.

So when Matt Barnes elects to help Rondo up after a tough foul, and Mark Jackson adeptly pointed this out, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not a display of competitive nature to help your opponent up even if it is “nice.” Barnes’s action is indicative of how the Magic just don’t seem in it to win it. It’s more of a game than a battle of life and death, as the Celtics see it.

And the competitiveness and passion translate into greater basketball success on the court: more offensive rebounds, better looks, grittier defense, and just more balls in the basket. When you are motivated to score, the form on your jump shot is that much sounder, the timing of your block attempt is that much more precise, and the finish of your dunk is that much more vicious.

The Celtics have figured this out, and the Magic still need to get on board; that’s why they’re down 2-0 going to the TD Garden for two road games.

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Lottery shocks, as usual; Suns fall badly to Lakers

Well, chalk up another shortcoming for the New Jersey Nets this year.

After a season of woeful play resulting in a 12-70 record, the Nets had the best chance at securing the NBA Draft’s top pick going into the lottery Tuesday night — they had a 25 percent shot.

Nevertheless, they will be limited to picking third next month. The second pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the No. 1 pick will go to the Washington Wizards.

Though a completely random process, the lottery sometimes seems a little unfair. Instead of going to the team that struggled under the guise of a totally disinterested owner, the first pick will, instead, fall into the hands of the Wizards, who are already paying a point guard on the roster $126 million over five years.

But those are the breaks, I guess. Maybe Derrick Favors or whomever the Nets choose will wind up being drastically better. Can’t I dream?

*           *           *

The Phoenix Suns made me look pretty bad last night after posting my sincere admiration for Steve Nash.

They turned the ball over at an embarrassing rate, couldn’t find the range, and played defense like, well, the Suns of old. The Lakers took everything they wanted from their opponents in Game 1, and Kobe Bryant contributed a true playoff performance.

All that said (and I hate to ride the officials), there was certainly some questionable officiating over the course of the game. Kobe got his calls — that’s a given. But down low, on the perimeter, basically anywhere, the whistles were blowing in favor of the Purple and Gold.

Attribute it to home-court officiating at the Staples Center in part, but there was a larger factor. All year, the Lakers constantly berate and batter the referees after every call against them (regardless of validity) in one of the most unsportsmanlike trends in all of sports.

But it has its benefits.

When you continually pressure the officials after their decisions, they begin to doubt themselves, and you begin to establish some credibility for your case.

That the Lakers cashed in on their accumulated credibility was evident Monday night. And the dubious calls were so well-timed, in fact, that it played a significant role in Phoenix’s falling to a 20-point deficit.

Hopefully, as the series progresses, the officials work it out and stop coddling L.A.

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The NBA Draft Lottery

The Draft Lottery is always a suspenseful night for me. This year, it is even more so, as the Nets have the highest chance of coming away with the top pick this June.

If you’d like to see my take on what each lottery team needs going into the draft, take a look at this article I wrote for thehoopsreport.com. It lays out the top-five options for each and every lottery club.

http://thehoopsreport.com/article.aspx?id=499

Draft lottery reactions and a response to Lakers-Suns Game 1 after the lottery. In the meantime, I’ll be nervously jittering.

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NBA Today: May 18

  • The 2010 NBA Draft Lottery is tonight at 8 PM eastern on ESPN. It will be followed by Game 2 of the Celtics-Magic series at 9 PM, also on ESPN.
  • The Lakers took it to the Suns in Game 1 behind solid shooting and “compassionate” officiating.
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For Nash, a chance to cement his legacy

Steve Nash is one of the the finest competitors the NBA has ever seen.

There isn’t much Steve Nash can’t do.

The Phoenix Suns point guard is a wizard with the basketball, eliciting more “ooh”s and “ah”s on a nightly basis than one might expect from a 36-year-old hailing from Canada. Nevertheless, his gift for the game is palpable. And like so few others before him, Nash has managed to seamlessly integrate individual skills with the success of his team in the absence of even slight egotism or entitlement.

His passing ability is immaculate. Nash currently resides in eighth among the list of all-time assist leaders, and one more healthy season could allow him to supplant Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on that leader board. But the sheer number of dimes doesn’t tell the whole story. His assortment of behind-the-back, no-look, through-the-legs, side-winding, and alley-oop dishes has made him the envy of even the staunchest critics and transformed his Suns team into the best squad in the league to watch for six seasons and counting.

His pick-and-roll game is delightful. It is no less certain that Nash will thread the ball to a diving Amar’e Stoudemire after a well-set pick than it is that Rasheed Wallace will be whistled for a technical foul during the season, but that is what makes Nash’s talent so admirable. Despite the benefit of expectation, any defense will be burned by that play. Nash is so in tune with every move his power forward will make that the pass is simply unstoppable. He is so adept, that he ranks as possibly the greatest executor of this scheme, with the exception of John Stockton, maybe. But that’s not bad company, to be sure.

Nash’s dominance, though, stems not from just his exceptional distribution; instead, it is his collective dynamism and versatility that pave the way for his excellence. A key facet of that protean nature is his deadly yet gorgeous shooting stroke. Most of his long jumpers come off the dribble; give him an open catch-and-shoot look, and it is probably going in. Nash is so good shooting the ball, in fact, that ESPN’s John Hollinger went so far as to rank him the NBA’s best of all-time — above the greats like Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Larry Bird, who were much more renowned for their accuracy.

And that assertion was certainly grounded in stats, as all Hollinger’s analyses are. Nash is a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent free-throw shooting) and would have accomplished that feat a fifth time with another tenth of a percentage point on his free-throw average in 2006-2007. The other members of the club? Bird, Miller, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jose Calderon — and the only one of them to achieve it even twice was Bird.

Nash already overcame one barrier in dispatching the Spurs. Is this the year he comes away with a championship?

His free-throw stroke is one of the most admired in the sport. He calmly steps to the line, politely denies the ball from the referee, takes two empty-handed simulated attempts, then drills the actual ones 90 percent of the time.

All that said, passing and shooting do not complete Nash’s offensive game, as his intangible skills are just as pivotal to his success as his ball handling. Nash is so focused on the game that he never misses a beat. He is constantly aware of the position on the floor of each of his four teammates and each of his five defenders. He knows exactly where to put the ball at any given time, when to put the team on his back and control the offense, and how much time is on the clock — that all comes second nature to Nash.

More crucial than all of that, though, is his unremitting desire to win. That is represented well in his willingness to play hurt (with a gushing nose or swollen eye), his willingness to take the last shot, and his overall stoic demeanor on the court.

So where has all this gotten Nash as an individual? He, of course, boasts two league MVP awards, from 2005 and 2006, and fell just short of securing a third straight in falling to his former teammate Nowitzki. He is also hailed as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Nonetheless, as he and the Suns prepare to square off against the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, there is a conspicuous scarlet letter that continues to brand Nash.

He has never won an NBA championship.

In fact, he has amassed the most career playoff games (112) of any NBA player without even making it into the NBA Finals. Amid all the talented players in the league right now, there is no honor more important to a player’s patrimony than the number of titles he secures for himself. As LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to wrestle for the crown of league’s best player, the one fault of LeBron than holdouts accentuate is his lingering failure to come away on top when it counts.

When Nash and his crew take the floor Monday night, the hunger for a win will be more evident. Clear underdogs against the juggernaut Lakers, the Suns will have to play flawless basketball to dethrone the defending champs, and Nash will have to play a prominent role.

In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon, Nash downplayed the importance of individual regalia.

“At this stage of my career, the only goals worth chasing are team goals. To win a championship is still the greatest thing to play for and the greatest motivator. So it’s a fantastic situation right now, where this team that wasn’t expected to get here is here and we got a real chance,” he said.

If Nash and the Suns can come out on top, the fruit will be that much sweeter. After all, they are coming off an improbable series sweep over the San Antonio Spurs, who had previously plagued the Suns in the postseason this decade.

Ousting the Lakers, knocking the championship monkey off his back, and finally enshrining himself in the peak tier of NBA greats in the process?

That’s an accomplishment worth being selfish about.

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NBA Today: May 17

  • As if they’d ever admit it, the Bulls are reportedly not discussing an arrangement that would bring both LeBron James and John Calipari to the Windy City.
  • The Golden State Warriors will begin the sale process in earnest Monday, when they will begin taking bids for the team.
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Redemption, thy name is Wallace

How quickly the Boston Celtics have gone from league laughingstock to Eastern Conference superpower in their oft-doubted pursuit of an 18th career NBA title.

In impressive yet shaky fashion, the Beantown Green disposed of the Orlando Magic, previously undefeated in the playoffs and winners of every game in the last month. That’s a hell of a way to show what they are still capable of.

Rasheed Wallace was a factor in Boston's win? Really?

Not getting nearly enough credit for their series win over the coddled Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are showing fans, pundits, and, most importantly, opposing teams that they can still make a successful run.

To be fair, though, the outcome was looking bleak. After middling performances during the regular season, Boston sidled up on everyone by blowing out the Miami Heat — a feat that not many perceived as very impressive. Accordingly, everyone was expecting LeBron and his pals to deliver a swift kick to the Celtics’ bum and oust them from the playoffs.

Not so fast. While the Celtics have seen dips in offensive output and field-goal percentage since the regular season, they have simultaneously rediscovered the defensive prowess that propelled them to a championship just two years ago.

During the regular campaign, Boston surrendered 95.6 points per game to their opponents, ranking them a solid fifth in the league in that category. Since the playoffs started, though, they’ve completely shut down opposing teams, giving up only 91.7 points per contest in their first two series. That ranks second to only the Orlando Magic, who did, well, magical things on defense against the Bobcats and Hawks.

Accompanying that defensive improvement for the Celtics is a drop in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and a noticeable rise in turnovers forced on defense. That successful effort on the long ball is exactly what the team needs to contend with the Magic; it is no secret Orlando shoots the triple with unmatched abundance, so if Boston can be effective in its close-outs and perimeter defense, it can hinder Orlando’s production severely.

Why do I mention all this defensive jargon about the Celtics? Well, they excelled on that end of the ball on Sunday, and that was the primary justification for the Game 1 victory.

First of all, Boston was superb in containing Dwight Howard on the inside. And that is due in large part to the play of Rasheed Wallace off the bench. Since Doc Rivers publicly criticized his play following Game 1 of the series with Cleveland, Wallace has come back with much more inspired basketball. While it hasn’t always translated into success on the offensive end (he only scored five points in Games 3, 4, and 5 of that set), he has shown a greater commitment to defense and a more evident passion to win overall.

If you watched the game Sunday, you could see how frustrating Wallace was to Howard on defense. He denied the entry pass, pushed and shoved aggressively, and forced him into turnovers and errant shots. Giving up quite a bit of weight to Superman, ‘Sheed used his length perfectly to shut down one of the league’s most dominant interior forces.

Kendrick Perkins isn’t half bad on the inside either, but he is often in foul trouble. Rivers will call upon Wallace to play key minutes on the defensive end, so if he can duplicate his Game 1 showing, he will put the Celtics in great position to advances to the NBA Finals.

On display, too, was the Celtics’ containment of the other half of Orlando’s offense — the three-point ball. After every kick out or skip pass to the open shooter there was a Boston defender already en route to close out. When they start to miss from deep, they begin to take more threes off the dribble and in traffic, which causes problems. That commitment and effort translated into a paltry 23 percent from long range for Orlando. The Magic will never win a game if Howard can’t score and they can’t hit their three-point attempts.

The one concern for Boston following the Game 1 win is Orlando’s back-court production. Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter combined for 43 points on 17-36 shooting, as both were aggressive and rewarded in driving the lane. Kevin Garnett looked more vulnerable than ever in the pick-and-roll game on defense, which is a primary reason Nelson and Carter were so successful going to the rack. That said, their scoring is a small price to pay for the fine defense on Howard and the three-point shooters.

After a month of smooth sailing, Orlando is now the team on the hot seat. With that decisive win, you have to consider Boston the favorite from here on out. The Magic will need to respond in kind by forcing the issue on the inside with Howard. If he can wreak any significant havoc near the rim, shots will start to open on the perimeter. As long as they take easy three-pointers, they will eventually fall, and that’s what they need to emerge victorious.

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What does Shaq have left to offer?

Is it a good idea for Shaq to return for a 20th season?

Nearly immediately after his Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs, Shaquille O’Neal straightforwardly dispelled any rumors that he might retire this year, saying, “I still have 3.7 years left.”

As he prepares to play in his 20th NBA season, is it still worth it for Shaq to put forth that effort for half the year? After all, over the last few seasons, his production has seen a fairly steady decline from his glory days in Los Angeles to his injury-hampered campaign with Cleveland in 2009-2010.

That said, he’s still a capable defender: the Cavaliers were going to look to him as their primary defender for Dwight Howard in the conference finals before their unfortunate exit. Furthermore, despite worsening numbers, he is rather impressive from an efficiency standpoint. His PER was eight hundredths of a point shy of 18 (three above average), and his field-goal percentage (56.5 percent) and per-40-minute lines (20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists) were not half bad.

Notwithstanding the fairly productive minutes, he is a liability to the teams he plays for. First of all, he demanded the ball way too much for someone with questionable importance to his team’s offensive scheme. His usage rate of 22.8 was over a point higher than that of Brook Lopez, the focal point of a bad Nets offense.

Moreover, he simply doesn’t play enough minutes or games to be a factor, especially as a starter. The Diesel averaged only 23.4 minutes a game with the Cavaliers this year, a six-and-a-half point decrease from the previous year in Phoenix. Furthermore, excluding the anomaly that was 2008-2009, Shaq hasn’t played 60 games in a year since his first season in Miami. By basically promising his team that he is going to miss over 20 games, he puts the franchise in a bad situation when they need to struggle to find effective minutes at the center position.

Aside from his play on the court, though, Shaq will expect to cash in on a lucrative contract based on his past accolades and not what he can offer to his team at present. While he will surely not get a deal resembling anything like his five-year, $100 million contract he signed with Miami, he will be the beneficiary of a higher rate than younger centers at his level of production.

Lingering still is the question of whether he will start for his next team or come off the bench. His current level of health and fitness are better suited for the latter option, as he won’t be expected to put up big minutes on the floor. But how many teams are going to be willing to pay Shaq’s price for a backup center? In addition, this is a guy who has started all his life. In 1170 career regular-season games, the Big Cactus has only come off the bench in 10 of them. Will he be able to cope with a diminished role and importance to his roster, or will he break down like Allen Iverson did when he was faced with that dilemma? If there’s one thing we know about Shaq, it is that his ego is as large as his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame. I doubt he’ll be able to handle the second-string role.

So Shaq can play for three or more years if he wants to, but he should probably cut his losses. He has already accomplished way more than anyone could hope to in the NBA, so it is best for him to call it quits now before he further tarnishes his sterling résumé.

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