Yale’s Townsend back home with bright future

The 6-7 forward is back on the court after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

      
 

 

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Serge Ibaka Proving to Be Complementary Piece to Oklahoma City Thunder Future

As it turns out, Serge Ibaka isn’t suited to be the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s primary weapon. 

With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out, the Thunder needed Ibaka to take charge and keep the team afloat. Instead, the 25-year-old hasn’t looked comfortable in his new featured role, and he appears to have taken a back seat to guard Reggie Jackson. 

In an unlikely turn, it has been Jackson, not Ibaka, that has benefited the most from the absence of the team’s two best players. He leads the team in scoring with 20.1 points per game, and he has emerged as the go-to guy during crunch time. 

Meanwhile, Ibaka’s 2014-15 numbers are eerily similar to last year’s statistics, despite the absence of Durant and Westbrook. He is averaging just two more shots per game than he was attempting last season. 

Making matters worse, OKC’s forced switch to a primarily zone defensive scheme has limited one of the league’s best shot-blockers. After leading the league in total swats for the past four seasons, Ibaka is rejecting just 1.9 shots per game. 

It’s kinda taking away my position for blocked shots,” Ibaka said, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “I’m more concerned about shooters, corner guys, threes, it’s taking me away from my timing and blocked shots.”

 

Focus On Threes

Ibaka’s insistence on straying outside of the paint hasn’t just occurred on the defensive end. With the team lacking healthy outside shooters, Ibaka has spent quite a bit of time firing from behind the arc. 

In 15 games this season, he has already attempted more threes (63) than he did all of last year (60). In fairness, he’s also converted more as well (23-to-20). That trend is expected to continue, even when Durant and Westbrook return, per Slater

“I think it continues,” head coach Scott Brooks said. “He doesn’t necessarily have to live out there and shoot 10 a game. But three or four a game is a good number for him.” 

Ibaka is averaging 4.1 treys per game. He’s converting 37.1 percent of those attempts, which is down slightly from last year’s 38.3 percent conversion rate. The team’s desire to make Ibaka more of a stretch 4 has come at the expense of his work in the paint. 

According to BasketballReference.com, 366 of Ibaka’s 978 attempts last season came at the rim (roughly 37.4 percent). This season, he has taken just 35 of his 215 shots around the basket (16.2 percent). It’s great that he’s broadened his offensive horizons but, as Slater points out, Ibaka may enjoy the outside a little too much.

He’s fallen in love with the long ball. And even as teams have started to gameplan against it, sticking closer and closing out harder, Ibaka has failed to take advantage and get to the basket. His shots in the paint and at the rim have declined a ton.

Ibaka’s desertion from the paint would be less of an issue if the Thunder had a proven scorer in the post to take his place. However, Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison aren’t reliable weapons on the inside. 

 

The James Harden Quandary

In 2012, the Thunder were forced to pick between Ibaka and James Harden to be the team’s third wheel. Inevitably, they opted for Ibaka’s elite rim protection over Harden’s dynamic scoring. The team signed Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension and later shipped “The Beard” to the Houston Rockets

With Ibaka struggling to emerge as “the man,” it’s only right to wonder where the Thunder would be if they chose to keep Harden instead. 

After all, Harden has hit the ground running since coming to H-town and becoming the Rockets’ franchise guard. He’s been a top-five NBA scorer the past two seasons and currently sits third in that category with 25.2 points per game this year. 

While Harden lacks Ibaka’s ability on the defensive end, there’s no denying he can carry a franchise. In his first season with the Rockets, the former Arizona State standout led a team of predominantly young and unproven prospects to the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

If Harden could make the playoffs with the likes of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, what could he do with Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson? At the very least, he’d improve an offense that is dead last in the NBA in scoring (89.6 points per game).

In a lot of ways, Reggie Jackson is having the season that Serge Ibaka should have been having. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out, the skids were greased for Ibaka to break out. Instead, it became blatantly obvious that the big fella is better suited to be a supporting cast member than a leading man. 

That’s not a knock on “The Serge Protector.” Players such as Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen have made Hall of Fame careers out of being more sidekick than superhero. Ibaka still has the potential to be a great two-way forward and future All-Star. 

However, Ibaka’s failure to step up while James Harden’s star continues to grow is a painful reminder of what could have been. The Thunder needed Ibaka to be every bit of the hero that Harden has proven to be, and they have found out the hard way that he just doesn’t have it in him. 

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Direction and Future of Miami Heat Both Riding on 2014-15 NBA Season

The Miami Heat have a lot riding on the next two seasons.

No, they aren’t and won’t be title contenders—a fact of life Heat fans grew accustomed to during LeBron James’ stint in South Beach—but this is still a sensitive period in team history. The conditions that could give rise to the next Heat champion are being created now.

Despite a 6-5 record and a ceiling that probably isn’t much higher than 45 wins, there is quite a bit at stake for Miami. The key is the free-agent class of 2016.

That summer’s crop of available talent looks, at the moment, to be one of the strongest in recent history. It’s a group that could turn around a franchise, several franchises really, overnight. This is an area in which the Heat have some experience. And they appear poised to strike.

Owner Mickey Loomis suggested as much this summer in an open letter to fans, per the Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman.

We are laser-focused on the present and the task at hand of defending our Eastern Conference championship with the East being described as ‘wide open,’ while also positioning ourselves for maximum flexibility and maneuverability in the future.

“Maximum flexibility” isn’t an overstatement: Miami’s books are squeaky clean after 2015-16. According to HoopsHype, only Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts are under contract for 2016-17, while the team has an option on rookie Shabazz Napier and James Ennis. All told, the Heat have just over $28 million committed. With new TV contracts expected to increase the salary cap by as much as $15 million, the Heat will have plenty of money to spend that summer. And plenty of attractive targets too.

The head of the class is Kevin Durant, who will be 27 when his current contract expires, and at that point, he could—with apologies to James and Anthony Davis—be the most dominant player in basketball. While many analysts figures that Durant will head home to D.C. if he decides to leave the penny-pinching Oklahoma City Thunder, the Heat have a robust track record of attracting top talent. Miami is warm, beautiful and has the good fortune of being located in a state that doesn’t have an income tax.

But even if Durant passes on Miami, there are a surfeit of other options that could, in tandem, immediately elevate the Heat back to contention.

The summer has superstars. Chris Paul, who will be 31 at the time, and Dwight Howard, who will be 30, will each be 2016 free agents if they opt out of their current deals. LeBron James seems a long shot to finish his career anywhere but Cleveland, but James, along with new wing man Kevin Love, will both be unrestricted free agents that summer if they accept their 2015-16 player options.

There are stellar supporting cogs as well. Joakim Noah, a defensive dynamo who would form a devastating frontcourt combination with Bosh, will be 31 that summer and out of his contract with the Chicago Bulls. The perennially underrated Al Horford, who will turn 30 in the summer of 2016, would make a fine consolation prize. Fellow centers Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert—both of whom carry red flags but tantalizing potential—could also be available.

Mike Conley, Nicholas Batum and Lance Stephenson—all squarely in their primes—could be on the market as well.

But while the Heat have a lot of factors in their favor in any free-agent chase—Miami itself being the key selling point—that’s not enough. They need a team, or a system, that convinces NBA stars they can win in South Beach.

And that’s where the next two seasons loom large. It’s the time when the Heat can make their case to the 2014 class: If you want rings, you can’t beat Miami.

To prove their case, the Heat need to demonstrate one important thing: that Chris Bosh is still one of the NBA’s top talents.

It’s simple: Bosh just needs to play at a much higher level than he has. There aren’t a lot of stars who are clamoring to team up with centers who shoot 41.5 percent from the floor—as Bosh has in the season’s first 11 games—or average 8.7 rebounds a night.

It’s imperative that Bosh return to the early-season form that had some calling him a dark-horse MVP candidate and maintain it for the next 19 months. In order to do so, the stretchy center will need to focus on taking higher quality shots. This means a continued emphasis on the three—where Bosh is on pace to set a new career high in attempts—but coupled with a new commitment to playing in the post. Only 22 percent of Bosh’s attempts have come from within three feet of the hoop this season, per Basketball-Reference.com. That figure needs to be a lot higher.

Outside of Bosh, Miami’s superstar appeal is flawless. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has already proven that, with sufficient talent, he can craft a system on both sides of the floor that allows his players to thrive. The city of Miami has demonstrated that it’s an attractive destination for the young and super-rich. Pat Riley can build a fine supporting cast.

The remaining puzzle piece is that the player on Miami’s roster making superstar money starts playing like it. When he re-signed with the Heat this summer, Bosh was billed as a bridge between one era of Heat champs and the next. Things can change fast, but at the moment, the center appears to be a liability.

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Why you can’t worry about Kevin Love’s future in Cleveland

(When you cover Cleveland sports with multiple writers, there’s bound to be some parallel thinking and redundancy. Andrew had his take on Kevin Love and I wrote this one independently.)
On Monday, Scott wrote up a the rumor that Sam Smith put in a post at Bulls.com. Now, I’m not out here to accuse anyone of making anything up, because there’s really not much incentive for Sam Smith to do such. I’m also not all that interested in dissecting his use of the word “indications” to try and figure out if he actually heard anyone say that Kevin Love is considering opting out and heading to the West Coast. In the end, if you start trying to trace the source of this rumor or even attack the reporter who put it in his “NBA NEWS AND NOTES” section, you’re missing the point. The point is that nobody knows what Kevin Love is going to do at the end of this season, including Kevin Love himself.

Nobody knows what Kevin Love is going to do at the end of this season, including Kevin Love himself.

Look no f

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Kobe’s future plans won’t change with one win

The Lakers’ slump finally came to an end, but Kobe Bryant was resolute on his no-trade clause and coming retirement.

      
 

 

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Kevin Love Rumors: Updates and Buzz Surrounding Star’s Future with Cavaliers

Kevin Love is still figuring out how to jell with his new Cleveland Cavaliers teammates amid the best opportunity he’s ever had to win an NBA championship, never mind qualify for the playoffs.   

Even with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving at his side, though, Love may reportedly be having second thoughts about taking his talents to Cleveland—or at least won’t be doing so for more than one season. 

An opt-out clause in Love’s contract following the 2014-15 NBA campaign may lead to a return to Los Angeles, exchanging his Cavaliers jersey to become a Laker, according to Sam Smith of NBA.com:

It’s not going to get as much discussion during the season, but one of the biggest issues for the Cavs is that both LeBron James and Kevin Love own opt outs after this season. LeBron James basically cannot afford to go anywhere after his return to Cleveland. But watch out for Love. Indications are he will seriously consider the opt out and has his eyes on a return to Los Angeles, where he attended college and where the Lakers long have had him on their free agent wish list.

Ethan Strauss of ESPN had an interesting take on the situation:

Such a move would disband Cleveland’s rockstar trio before it reaches its potential. With such high expectations to deliver a Larry O’Brien Trophy for a city on such a major sports championship drought, there is a lot for Love to adjust to.

Love also stands to make more money in renegotiating a lengthy deal with the Cavs or elsewhere.

This quote from Love embodies what he and his teammates face on a nightly basis, via CBS Cleveland’s Daryl Ruiter:

The Cavs haven’t been lighting it up. They’re off to a 2-3 start ahead of Monday’s showdown with the New Orleans Pelicans. However, there is plenty of season left for all the promising pieces in Cleveland to come together.

If Love truly is considering bailing out and returning to the City of Angels, that comes with considerable risk, as opposed to playing with two of the best players in the game with his current squad. Just after joining the Cavs this offseason, he said he was committed long-term to staying in Cleveland.

Love is still at a career crossroads and entering his prime, so it makes sense that he’s not ruling anything out at this point. If and when he, James and Irving put it all together, perhaps his mindset will change.

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Kobe Bryant Doesn’t See Additional Contracts or Teams in His Future

All professional sports careers have an expiration date, and Los Angeles Lakers megastar Kobe Bryant seems to have a good grasp on both the time and location of his.

The 36-year-old cannot envision himself on any other team, nor can he imagine extending his playing days beyond the limits of his current two-year contract.

“It’s not going to happen,” Bryant told USA Today‘s Sam Amick when asked about the possibility of switching teams. “It’s not going to happen. You go through the good times, you’ve got to go through the bad times.”

This is not a new sentiment for the Mamba.

He recently told Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, “I’m extremely loyal to the Lakers,” and reaffirmed that commitment by adding, “I bleed purple and gold.”

You could run those words under a microscope a thousand times and still not come up with any wiggle room. Bryant knows what he wants, and what he wants seems to be an NBA future in the same setting as his legendary past.

But that is not enough to stop the speculation that the combination of his ticking basketball clock and the Lakers’ long road back to relevance could lead him to seek out greener pastures elsewhere.

“I still cannot see Kobe riding it out for two more years in L.A. no matter what he says,” Bulls.com’s Sam Smith wrote. “They could get a little better next summer adding a free agent, but this is just the start of a long rebuilding process.”

It would take a miracle to move Bryant before the end of his deal. Not only could that spell a public relations disaster for both parties, it also assumes a team would be willing to sacrifice assets for a 19-year veteran set to collect $48.5 million between this season and next.

A Bryant trade is not happening. But the idea of him eventually finding a new home in free agency has been harder to dismiss.

Of course, that means Bryant would have to want to continue playing after this contract expires. Amick asked if Bryant could see himself doing just that, and he responded it by saying, “Nah, not really.”

He did leave some wiggle room there, as he should have. It’s impossible for him to know where his mind and body will be two years from now.

He will need to see whether he is capable of still performing at a high level. His 26.5 points-per-game scoring average might suggest that he can, but those numbers lose some of their luster when combined with his 39.4 field-goal percentage and the Lakers’ 1-5 record.

Besides, there is no guarantee those statistics will still appear the same in 2016.

So Bryant will have some questions to answer over the following two years. And considering how many people are willing to answer them for him, he will probably face the same inquiries over and over.

Some may never take his words at face value. But all of us should cherish his next seasons just in case he is telling the truth.

 

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Bulls and Jimmy Butler Face an Uncertain Future After Failure to Reach Extension

CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler is going to get paid next summer.

The Chicago Bulls failed to reach an extension with the fourth-year shooting guard by Friday’s deadline, setting Butler up to be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015. It’s a risky decision, a gamble that Butler isn’t going to play himself into a hefty contract this season. And in this market, that’s a bet the Bulls will probably lose.

Butler has maintained all along that he wants to be a Bull, and there’s no doubt that the organization values him highly. Certainly, defense-obsessed head coach Tom Thibodeau would hate to lose his best perimeter defender.

“Jimmy knows how we feel about him,” Thibodeau said before the Bulls’ Friday home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. “This is all part of the process. He’s earned the right [to test the market], he’s put himself in a great position. In the end, it’ll all work out.”

The Bulls’ efforts to lock up Butler at a discount were unlikely to be successful in any case, but after the Utah Jazz agreed to a four-year, $42 million extension with Alec Burks earlier on Friday, per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, any chance that Butler would sign for less than eight figures annually was dead. The market for wings with two-way ability is set, with Klay Thompson signing for four years and about $70 million (via ESPN.com’s Marc Stein), Kawhi Leonard holding out for a max deal and Gordon Hayward getting a four-year, $64 million deal this summer. As a restricted free agent in 2015, Butler will undoubtedly get offers in that range.

2014 Rookie-Scale Extensions for Guards

Player Team Contract
Alec Burks Utah Jazz 4 years, $42 million
Kyrie Irving Cleveland Cavaliers 5 years, $90 million
Ricky Rubio Minnesota Timberwolves 4 years, $55 million
Klay Thompson Golden State Warriors 4 years, $70 million
Kemba Walker Charlotte Hornets 4 years, $48 million

Chicago can match any offer sheet Butler signs with another team, but there are risks to letting him test the market. The Bulls lost Omer Asik to restricted free agency in 2012 when the Houston Rockets exploited a CBA loophole to sign him to a contract that would have been brutal to match.

The Dallas Mavericks got creative this summer as well, stealing Chandler Parsons from the Rockets with a three-year offer sheet for max-level money with an opt-out clause after two years. If a team really wants Butler, there are ways to make it hard on the Bulls to match, no matter how much they value him.

The league’s new television deal poses another risk for the Bulls. The new agreement doesn’t kick in until 2016, but both the NBA and the players’ union have talked about possible strategies to smooth over the salary cap increase to prevent it from jumping dramatically from 2015 to 2016.

It’s still unclear whether this will become a reality, but the possibility of a higher salary cap next summer will increase the maximum amount a team can offer Butler. If the Bulls had signed Butler now, he’d be locked in at a number that may look high now but will be much more of a bargain in 2016 when the league starts seeing that extra TV money.

Not that the Bulls would be unable to absorb a max extension for Butler. They’re slated to have around $63.4 million on the books next summer, which will put them $3.1 million under next year’s cap, according to Larry Coon’s latest projections. A contract for Butler that starts in the $16-17 million range annually wouldn’t kill the Bulls, but it would make it substantially more difficult to add more talent using the midlevel and biannual exceptions without going over the projected $77 million luxury-tax line, something Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf would like to avoid.

But the Bulls need Butler. They were able to trade away defensive ace Luol Deng last season because they had Butler waiting in the wings to take on that role. If they let Butler walk next summer, they lose their best wing defender with no clear successor. The closest thing they have to an in-house replacement is second-year forward Tony Snell, who hasn’t shown he is ready to be a day-to-day contributor.

The reluctance to offer Butler a max or near-max deal isn’t without reason. Despite his defensive gifts, he has yet to show that he’s a consistent offensive player. After a terrific 2012-13 campaign in which he shot 38.1 percent from three-point range, his shooting took a step back last year. But he was terrific this preseason before the thumb injury that has sidelined him for the first two games of the season, averaging 15.8 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting from the field. At 25 years old, it’s still safe to bet that he isn’t a finished product as a scorer.

It’s a gamble Butler made when he decided to test restricted free agency. He’s confident he’ll play himself into a max deal.

“I love my odds,” he said before the game. “I think this team is really good, championship caliber. I’m going to produce. I’ll just bet on myself.”

Year GP MPG FG% 3P% FT% PPG RPG APG SPG
2011-12 42 8.5 40.5% 18.2% 76.8% 2.6 1.3 0.3 0.3
2012-13 82 26.0 46.7% 38.1% 80.3% 8.6 4.0 1.4 1.0
2013-14 67 38.7 39.7% 28.3% 76.9% 13.1 4.9 2.6 1.9

All NBA contracts involve a certain amount of risk, weighing what a player’s performance so far makes him worth against what you think he’ll give you in the future. When the Bulls signed Derrick Rose to a five-year, $94 million extension in 2011, they didn’t know he’d miss most of two consecutive seasons with knee injuries. They gave him the contract based on his talent coming off an MVP campaign. Even though two years of the deal have turned out to be sunk costs, there was no question it was the right move at the time, and they’d do it again under the same circumstances.

Meanwhile, extensions they gave to Joakim Noah in 2010 ($60 million over five years) and Taj Gibson in 2012 ($33 million over four years) look like outright steals compared to what they’d get on the open market today. When the Bulls have bet on their young talent to grow beyond their current value, they’ve been right. When they let Asik hit the market, they got burned. Losing Butler the same way would be a huge setback for the organization, one that could have been easily avoided.

The Bulls will probably keep Butler. They can match any offer, and he’s too valuable to lose. But by not extending him now, they made a gamble that could very well come back to hurt them next summer.

Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. 

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Utah Jazz Future as Bright as Its Depth Chart Is Murky

The Utah Jazz have stockpiled a lot of young talent over the past couple of years. They’ve taken full advantage of the benefits attached to losing by building with first-round picks. 

Trey Burke, Alex Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood—all of these guys were personally hand-picked by Utah management in the draft.

And there’s a lot to like about each individually. The Jazz missed on Paul George in 2010 and Kawhi Leonard in 2011, but for the most part, they’ve done pretty well for themselves based on the hand the lottery dealt them.

But now they’re looking at a core with Hayward, 24, the oldest guy of the bunch. The Jazz won just 25 games last year, and though we’ll likely see some encouraging improvements in 2014-15, it’s probably going to be another long, losing season.

Utah will have some personnel decisions to make soon with regard to their rebuilding plan. And here’s the fear—that the Jazz end up committing to a roster that’s ceiling is capped by logjams and limited individual upside. 

And it starts at point guard, despite the Jazz having two promising options at the position. 

Utah went with a worry-about-it-later approach by taking Exum, a point guard, one year after Burke. And the fit isn’t overly convincing. 

You’d imagine the ultimate goal here long term is for the two to play together, which means that Exum must play off the ball, given Burke stands just 6’1″ and probably wouldn’t fare to well at the 2. 

But by playing Exum off the ball, it forces him to play to his weaknesses as a shooter and away from his strengths as a playmaker.

And it takes away from what drove his massive appeal in the first place—Exum has the potential to be a monster mismatch at the point. Not at shooting guard, where he’ll have the ball less and likely draw bigger defensive wings.

As long as Burke is on the floor, Exum‘s playmaking opportunities will be limited. 

“I think I’m still comfortable at the point,” Exum told Jody Genessy of the Deseret News following one of his summer league games. “I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn’t get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games.”

Based on the look of things, it seems as if the Jazz plan on grooming Burke, who’s clearly more ready to run the team right now, as their floor general moving forward. 

A skeptic with regard to Utah’s strategy might argue that Exum is losing valuable early reps to a guy whose ceiling is a few stories lower. Burke might help the Jazz win more games in 2014-15, but is that worth jeopardizing the development and possible future of a potentially more rewarding player in Exum down the road?

You worry that Burke’s presence will prevent Exum from ever taking off and that Burke himself will eventually hit the wall. One of the reasons why eight teams passed on him in a weak draft was because of his lack of perceived upside.  

The frontcourt situation in Utah is also somewhat murky. Management recently made the decision not to extend Kanter, a likely result of his questionable fit alongside Derrick Favors, whom the team is heavily invested in.

Favors and Kanter have had some issues gelling together. It’s not surprising—both of them live in the paint and essentially crowd each other’s space. That’s why coach Quin Snyder has had Kanter working on his three-ball—to stretch the floor and give each big man a little more room to score.

But anyone who’s watched Kanter over the years knows that’s not his game. 

Regardless, he should draw plenty of interest next summer on the restricted free-agent market, but with Favors at the 5 and promising center Rudy Gobert waiting to blow up, the Jazz might want to pocket that money and save it on a different need. 

If Utah decides it doesn’t feel it’s right to lose a starter for nothing, it will likely be forced to overpay and commit to a frontcourt that lacks natural cohesion.

Moving back to the backcourt, the Jazz will also have a decision to make on Alec Burks, who has until midnight October 31 to agree to an extension or he too will become a restricted free agent next summer.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe shared what he believed will take to lock him up: 

A four-year, $28 million extension might seem an overpay given Burks’s record, but it could turn into the new TV-deal version of those $4 million–level extensions teams gave Thabo Sefolosha, Quincy Pondexter, and Jared Dudley. Those deals weren’t home runs, but they provided good value at most times, and can return actual assets in trades.

The Jazz must decide whether to pay around $7 million a year today or risk him erupting in 2014-15 and drawing much greater interest as a free agent. 

If Utah does bring back Burks, and it eventually ends up moving forward with Burke as the long-term answer at point guard to pair with Hayward, who’s making around $15 million a year, and Favors, who’s making $12 million, then chances are this is the same core Jazz fans will be looking at in a few years.

It looks promising now, but relative to the brutal western conference, is this a group we should expect to make significant noise even in two or three seasons?

They could have room to sign a quality restricted free agent, but the Jazz haven’t exactly been known for luring them in recently. 

This is a fun team to watch and one that’s only going to improve. Burke looks poised for a more efficient season, as does Hayward, who spent time with U.S.A. basketball this summer. Favors took a step last year. So did Burks. 

But now the big question—how much upside do each of these guys have left in the tank, and will their fit together in Utah make it possible for them to reach it?

Hopefully, the Jazz don’t find themselves stuck in nowhere land—not good enough to compete for the playoffs, not bad enough to land a top draft pick and not attractive enough to bring in any impact names. 

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Tested by the Past, Erik Spoelstra Takes on Challenge of LeBron-Less Future

MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra always appreciated the unique nature of the opportunity, not just for someone with his unconventional beginnings, but for anyone. That was apparent from the official opening of the Big Three era, and even several weeks later, just before Christmas 2010, when he was chatting casually on the court of the U.S. Airways Center, after a comfortable victory against the Phoenix Suns

By then, the Heat had recovered from a surprisingly rocky beginning and had begun to roll, with 13 victories in 14 outings, on their way to 21 in 22. By then, Spoelstra had already survived two flashpoints when, if he’d been in some other organization, he might have been relieved of his responsibilities for some perceived greater good: the first coming as the Heat were recruiting LeBron James and Chris Bosh over the summer, and the second after “Bumpgate” and reports of a player insurrection accompanied a 9-8 start.     

And there would be plenty of controversies and supposed calamities to come, with failures in two NBA Finals sandwiching two championships. Still, through it all, Spoelstra rarely appeared shaken, let alone stirred. That self-security seemed to stem from a simple, soothing realization that the former video coordinator shared that night in Phoenix: “The way I look at it, I’ll be able to look back in 25 years and know that I coached this team.”

When no one, anywhere, ever expected him to.   

On the whole, over the course of four seasons and postseasons, he would coach that team quite well. 

Of course, now he now longer coaches that team, not the one that polarized this country and countries beyond like few others in modern sports history. Yes, he still coaches the Heat, now entering a seventh season, longer than all but one of his peers, Gregg Popovich, has been in a current coaching spot. But this is merely a basketball squad now, not a societal statement. It won’t be leading SportsCenter anymore; the question is whether, at the end of this season, it can lead an improved Southeast Division, one that includes the playoff-tested Washington Wizards who visit Miami on Wednesday night.     

The stakes for Spoelstra are still high, even if the spotlight has dimmed, the outsized expectations have shrunk and the rows of reporters have receded, after more than half the roster departed. Eight members of the 2014 Eastern Conference champions aren’t around anymore. Two, LeBron James as well as James Jones, are in Cleveland. The other six aren’t in the NBA anywhere, with two in China (Toney Douglas, Michael Beasley), one in legal trouble (Greg Oden), one working for ESPN (Shane Battier), one hoping to pass a future physical somewhere (Rashard Lewis) and one (Ray Allen) expected to leave his Miami house to return to the NBA somewhere at some point—maybe to the Cavaliers, but not to the Heat, at least not according to what he’s long been telling his teammates of the past two seasons.  

Spoelstra’s still in South Florida, seemingly on even more solid ground, with his two closest confidantes (David Fizdale and Dan Craig) elevated to stronger positions on the coaching staff, and Pat Riley involving him even more in the team’s personnel process. Yet some of the skeptics also remain, those who missed his first two seasons, when he took underwhelming rosters to the playoffs, or dismissed his role in the past four NBA Finals trips, when he evolved as a strategist and psychologist in order to better accommodate his top-tier talent. Those who will always believe, contrary to all common sense, that coaches of talented teams need to do little but roll out the balls. 

No one, anywhere, is saying he can do just that now.   

And even his admirers, such as former NBA coach Doug Collins, are wondering how he will confront his current circumstances. 

“The big thing for Erik now is he’s got to find the best way for this particular team without LeBron to win basketball games,” Collins said Monday, on an ESPN conference call. “It’s going to be a different offense. It’s going to be a different defense, and you’ve got a lot of different dynamics.” 

Spoelstra still doesn’t like to make much about himself, which is why his begrudging participation in a recent front-page Sports Illustrated profile—penned by the same writer to whom James dictated the “Coming Home” essaywas such a surprise. Instead, he habitually characterizes himself as just a cog in Miami’s machine, an embodiment of the Heat’s greater organizational philosophy. The tenets of continuity and stability are not only prized above all, but now vigorously promoted as the franchise tries not to slip into the same sort of abyss as Cleveland, and other sports franchises, after losing a megastar. The leftovers are calling themselves “Heat Lifers” now, as the standard-bearers for the “Heat Nation,” with Riley stepping out of character to tout the current roster on website videos and Alonzo Mourning providing voiceovers for television commercials, telling fans of a franchise that “hangs banners” that it’s “time to plant our flag.” 

“Well, the thing about it is you know with Miami, the blueprint is in place,” Collins said. “You know, Pat Riley has been there, Erik Spoelstra has been there 20 years. They call it the Miami way. This is the way we do things.”

It’s a way meant to stand out even more in light what Spoelstra has come to call the “microwave society.” The coach has used that “Spo-ism” since the start of camp, to explain how the NBA is beginning to resemble other enterprises, from the NFL or major corporations, with the constant turnover making it more difficult to create and sustain a culture.

“You put something together,” Spoelstra lamented, “and you’re not sure how long it will last.”

By contrast, his own career was on a slow cooker, at least until Riley anointed the understudy as the replacement in 2008. Spoelstra has worked for Heat since the summer of 1995 and Pat Riley for all but a month of that, and he has seen many remain in the organization for a similar length of time. He has acknowledged that, in NBA team-building, such stability “doesn’t guarantee you anything, but at least it gives you a head start.”

With eight new players, including three rookies, two reclamation projects (Shawne Williams, Danny Granger) and a key piece who missed the entire preseason (Josh McRoberts), he’ll now try to turn the league on its tail. 

Is he excited by the prospect of surprising so many? 

“It’s really reinvigorated a lot of us, but it’s not like going for three straight (championships) wasn’t invigorating,” Spoelstra said. “Come on. Let’s not take it too far. It sounds good as a storyline and everything, but let’s face it, that was electric. But yeah, you see potential with this team. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to come together.” 

Even with Riley trying to preserve cap space for the blockbuster summer of 2016, when the market will be flush with free agents as well television-related cash, it appears that he’s given Spoelstra a few more tools than in his two seasons prior to the formation of the Big Three. 

Then, the newbie head coach managed a 90-74 record.

In 2008-09, the Heat went 43-39 while trading their second-best player, Shawn Marion, at midseason for Jermaine O’Neal; relying heavily on rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley; and granting 21 starts apiece to Yakhouba Diawara and Jamario Moon. Even so, Spoelstra said it didn’t take long to determine what that team could do, because Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, both in their primes, provided a steady pulse.  

“Dwyane was phenomenal, coming off of the Olympics,” Spoelstra recalled. “Our main focus was to try to build a top-5 defense, and offensively we would just figure it out, and if it was close enough in the fourth quarter, Dwyane would just take over and will us to a win. It was that simplified a process. And we really did have a defense that got stronger and stronger and stronger as the season went on. But he was sensational. Particularly in the fourth quarter, in those big moments.”

Then came 2009-10, the bridge season to Riley’s courtship of James and Bosh. Virtually everyone on the team, including Wade and Haslem, was on an expiring contract, which raised reasonable concerns about whether so many potential short-timers would commit to each other. 

“In transition,” Spoelstra recalled. “[We had] a lot of free agents, but a lot of competitive Type-A personalities that didn’t want to just mail in the season. So they also understood that we would have to do it together and not just play for your contract. It helped the type of guys that we had.”

It is fairly remarkable in retrospect, especially considering that the immature Michael Beasley, benched in the final game of the first round, had been Miami’s second-most reliable scorer throughout the season.

Wade, however, tired of carrying so much. That summer, he sacrificed so the Heat could welcome two new stars. You know the rest. And, certainly, Spoelstra knows more about coaching than he did then. Few coaches in history have ever been fed to hotter flames. 

How much better prepared is he now, to put pieces together?

“Just being six years in that seat,” Spoelstra said. “Because of the nature of our team the last four years, you’re playing over 100 games, so many more experiences. You know, it’s a long season, you have two months extra each year. That experience is invaluable.” 

To some, that would seem to put in him in an enviable position: greater experience, less pressure. He has appeared a bit more relaxed, along with the organization as a whole, and not just when he was taking smiling selfies with Riley and Fizdale on Corcovado Mountain during the preseason trip to Brazil. The burden of perfection has been lifted, at least from the outside. 

“Nah, there’s always pressure,” Spoelstra said. “Every single one of us in this business. It’s self-induced for everybody. It really is. Regardless of whether it’s perceived that we’re under the radar or not, no coach ever feels like you’re getting a free pass. Not when you’re in this seat.” 

Never fun?

“No,” he said, smiling. 

With a career record of 314-189, he still sees room for growth. You will get a concurring opinion from some of those who have played for him, even those who like him personally; when there’s been grumbling about him professionally, it’s generally been about communication breakdowns, and come from those with unsettled roles in the rotation. Spoelstra says he still wants to learn how to better manage teams and personalities, how to better build a culture, how to better get everyone to buy into the same goal.

As the season starts, he appears to have some allies, starting with Wade, who may not be what he was, but looks like he can be more, at least in terms of availability, than he was last season. They have had their spats, some private, some—such as in Indianapolis during the 2012 playoffsquite public. Now, Spoelstra says they are “probably” closer than they’ve ever been, dating back to their initial collaboration in 2003, when Spoelstra was Wade’s dedicated skills trainer. 

“It literally is like a family,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been around each other for 12 years. I mean, you’re gonna have everything. Exhilarating times, times where you are not on the same page, times where it’s tough. But also, there’s no textbook on it, because 99 percent of the coaches and players have never been together that long. That cycle usually changes every two or three years. It’s different for us.”

Even though they’re in the same place. Still standing, while trying to move forward. 

“Right, right,” Spoelstra said. “We’re the Heat Lifers. When you say that, it’s like, ‘Yeah, you are, too.’” 

Wade is not only still at his side, but pulling more teammates aside. The 10-time All-Star hasn’t typically embraced a vocal leadership role over the course of his previous 11 seasons, largely balking at babysitting the “goof troupe” of Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook and a less mature Mario Chalmers during Spoelstra’s first two seasons as head coach, and stepping even further back to allow the louder James to lead as the latter became increasingly comfortable in the Heat culture. But several times this preseason, Wade’s been spotted instructing between plays, and on the bench, often with an arm around a player’s shoulders. 

“He’s known that this team really needs it,” Spoelstra said. “He’s embraced it. And I think he’s at a point in his career where he sees the impact of it, more than he ever has. It’s really been powerful, how he’s been leading so far.”

Where they’re going? 

Nobody, from reporter to player to coach, really knows. 

Which means, in 25 years, this too might be quite the tale to tell. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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