NBA reporters like to speculate on the Finals matchup the league office wants and might even manipulate to achieve. The talk is always about how devastating it would be to television ratings, sponsorships and marketing if you had a Finals between teams in middle or small markets with no recognized superstar.
Nothing could be worse than, say, Memphis Grizzlies vs. Atlanta Hawks, moderately popular franchises from neighboring states who have no marquee players.
“If it were Memphis and Atlanta, there would be heart attacks,” Bob Ryan said on ESPN’s Sports Reporters.
Pro basketball prospers most when teams with vast fan bases are in the Finals. David Stern was endlessly frustrated by the Knicks keeping New York out of the TV picture.
But he could barely hide his glee over LA, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Miami being in the Finals, and Portland, Sacramento, Orlando, Indianapolis being out. He could live with an occasional San Antonio, as long as it was matched with a glamorous coastal power like Miami Beach, all the more so when it had the game’s greatest player, LeBron James.
There were even suspicions, widely discussed in NBA media rooms, that referees were influenced by Stern’s desires. The closer the Finals came, the more we scrutinized the box scores to see if, indeed, the Lakers were getting more foul shots than their opponent.
It’s too soon to have a reading on Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, but it’s probable he doesn’t want to see Atlanta-Memphis unfold, as could happen.
Atlanta, in fact, came out of the All-Star break as the most dominant team in the East, holding a solid 6-7-game lead over their pursuers from Toronto, Chicago and Cleveland.
And while Memphis trails the Golden State Warriors for top seed in the West, the Grizzlies are regarded by Ryan, Charles Barkley and other hoops cognoscenti as the more dangerous postseason threat. Versatility is their edge, allowing them to match up with anyone. They have low-post power (Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph) to go with perimeter marksmen (Mike Conley and Courtney Lee both above 40% on 3-pointers).
What the Grizzlies lack is that elusive intangible, chemistry. The coach, Dave Joerger, has a testy relationship with the very goofy owner, Robert Pera. Divided command is rarely a good thing. Joerger, burdened as he is, inspires little confidence.
The Warriors, by contrast, are chemistry majors and the ultimate finesse team, which no one wants to be. We expect our champions to be strong and bad-ass, endlessly attacking. These Warriors are not into hand to hand combat. Their backcourt, the Splash Brothers, flick an endless array of soft rainbows from the open spaces beyond the 3-point line.
Warriors point guard Steph Curry is midseason Most Valuable Player and arguably the greatest shot-maker ever. Their off-guard, Klay Thompson, would be the best shooter on any other team.
The Warriors and Hawks, a team with even more deadeye snipers than the Warriors, were the surprises of the first half. Neither made it to the second round of last year’s playoffs.
In his first season as an NBA head coach, Golden State’s Steve Kerr injected offensive strategy into a team that under predecessor Mark Jackson was already schooled in defense. The Warriors this season lead the league in field-goal shooting and field goal defense. Kerr is quick to credit Jackson: “I inherited a 51-win team.”
The Warriors led the NBA with a 42-9 record at the break, but that doesn’t mean they win the West. Their lack of low-post force could make them easy prey for the Grizzlies, who will benefit from the “let-’em-play” mentality that the refs invariably adopt for the playoffs, for the good of the television public. A free-throw show is no show at all.
Not that the NBA suits will be all that ecstatic if Golden State is in the championship round. Southern California is preferred over Northern California. It’s all about TV coverage and media buzz of all kinds, and the Wine Country is short on that.
Unfortunately, with the Lakers reduced to long-term irrelevance and the Clippers always a work in progress, there won’t be a Hollywood ending to this NBA season.
However, there could be a dramatic Hollywood-worthy charge from Oklahoma City, thanks to clever maneuvering at last week’s trade deadline. Enes Kanter brings a much needed inside game to go with Serge Ibaka’s. Kanter had 20 points and 12 rebounds and was a +36 in Sunday’s 25-point victory over Denver. Also helpful is a new point guard, D.J. Augustin, who provides capable backup for All-Star MVP Russell Westbrook.
The team’s other superstar, Kevin Durant, is out for a while with what appears to be relatively minor surgery to replace a pin in his right foot. If Durant and Westbrook can be healthy together, the Thunder could make plenty of noise in the postseason.
The sleeping giant remains reigning champion San Antonio. Coach Gregg Popovich is playing possum again, often resting his Old Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But it’s the young Spurs who seem strangely rusty. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is shooting 43 percent, Danny Green 42, Patty Mills 39.
It’s possible that Pop can summon the old magic when needed, but it’s more likely he settles for watching his protégé, Mike Budenholzer, put Spurs East into their conference finals. Budenholzer has installed an exact replica of the pass-first Spurs, but with younger, faster legs and more shooting accuracy.
What the Hawks lack is a superstar or even a big-time rebounder. They put four deserving players on the All-Star team, but they don’t have a Tim Duncan, without whom the Spurs would not be the Spurs.
The East has better teams than last year, but all remain seriously flawed. The Toronto Raptors are second seed without playing much defense or passing very well. How would Silver like Toronto in the Finals, with its mostly-hockey fan base?
The Chicago Bulls would be the best in the East if their best players were healthy – biggest of ifs. Joakim Noah, The Great Defender, is in and out of the lineup, and Derrick Rose, former league MVP, could be lost for the season after undergoing his third “procedure” (as the medical professionals like to call it) on his right knee.
When the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers just before the All-Star break, Rose scored a season-high 30 points, looking like his old self. But in the next three games he shot a horrid 8 for 34 with 10 turnovers. Clearly, the wobbly knee (torn meniscus) was ruining his once sublime game. Sadly, it’s unlikely he will ever be close to what he once was.
As for the Cavs, they sagged early but are playing well lately (17-2), boosted by trades for center Timofey Mozgov and guard J.R. Smith, and King James growing ever more powerful in his new old home. James is 30 and playing like he has no time to lose. He’s exerting his will on and off the court. Curry no longer looks like a lock for MVP.
James has chemistry with point guard Kyrie Irving, if not yet with power forward Kevin Love. But even if Love is not the scorer he’d like to be, he’s averaging 10.4 rebounds and is making outlet passes to keep the offense running at high speed.
And as out-of-touch as coach David Blatt may be, he’s having some influence on defense. The Cavs are 12th in points allowed, and their defense improves with the arrival on Monday of designated bruiser Kendrick Perkins.
So we head into the stretch of a not very meaningful regular season (how much does home-court really matter in the playoffs?). At this point the most likely Finals looks like Memphis-Cleveland. Hey, it could be a lot worse. Don’t take it personally, Atlanta.