Fixing What’s Broken for Four N.B.A. Teams

The games, if not always artistic, were ridiculously compelling. The stretch started a week ago with Kevin Durant’s 49-point performance in 48 minutes for the Nets against Milwaukee in a Game 5 instant classic and continued through Atlanta’s upset win over Philadelphia on the 76ers’ floor in Sunday’s Game 7.

It was night after night of tight scores, unforeseen comebacks and individual brilliance from too many stars to list them all, most notably Durant, Atlanta’s Trae Young, the Clippers’ Paul George, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and an unheralded find from the N.B.A. G League for the Clippers named Terance Mann.

Yet chaos was a constant in daylight hours, too. The wild week delivered three more coaching changes to take the league’s total to seven, a full-on unraveling of the Dallas Mavericks’ hierarchy and a blockbuster trade on Friday from the Boston Celtics before anyone expected one.

Tuesday night’s draft lottery will only add to the vibe that as much is happening off the court as on it in a season that, because of the pandemic, will uncharacteristically continue into July. To supplement Monday’s long look at the Nets’ season (and future) co-written with my colleague Sopan Deb, here is a breakdown of the teams that were generating the most pre-lottery curiosity:

Philadelphia

We already know Daryl Morey, Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, will try to trade Ben Simmons because he has previously tried. You’ll surely recall that Simmons was the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s efforts to acquire James Harden from the Rockets in January.

Yet Morey’s challenge is much tougher now — even tougher than completing a trade for Harden with his old team. Simmons’s trade value has sunk to a scary low, complicating matters in a more daunting matter than the assertion made by many league observers that Tilman Fertitta, Houston’s owner, could never bring himself to sanction a trade that would reunite Morey and Harden.

It is clear Simmons badly needs a fresh start elsewhere with an organization that can make a run at rebuilding his shattered confidence. Yet I firmly believe, as grim as things look, that multiple suitors will emerge eventually, such as, perhaps, Toronto in a potential sign-and-trade involving Kyle Lowry. As hard as it was to watch Simmons’s free-throw shooting plummet to 34.2 percent in the playoffs — and his resulting unwillingness to register a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter of Philadelphia’s last four games against Atlanta — Simmons is just too good defensively to be shunned.

Dallas

In 21 years of ownership, Mark Cuban has never hired a general manager from outside the Mavericks’ organization. The only outsider Cuban has ever hired as coach, Rick Carlisle, stepped down after 13 seasons on the day after Cuban ousted Donnie Nelson, the team’s longtime president of basketball operations.

The case can certainly be made that the Mavericks, after failing to get out of the first round in six playoff appearances since winning a championship in 2011, needed a reboot almost as much Philadelphia’s Simmons. Not like this, though. The sudden departures have only added to the perception of dysfunction in Dallas, since they followed reports of serious tension within Cuban’s decision-making cabinet after the Mavericks’ failure to turn three road victories over the Clippers into a second-round berth.

The onus is on Cuban, above all, to establish an organizational structure that is far more functional than it was because the Mavericks will need unity to correct the various team-building mistakes they’ve made since their 2011 title in trying to build around Dirk Nowitzki and then Luka Doncic. The retired Nowitzki rejoined the organization last week as a special adviser to restore some harmony, and Doncic has essentially pledged to sign a $202 million maximum contract extension when it is offered, but the clock will start ticking loudly for the Mavericks to set up their young superstar for true championship contention as soon as Doncic’s new deal is done.

The Mavericks are not pursuing marquee executives like Toronto’s Masai Ujiri or Danny Ainge, the former Boston president of basketball operations, to replace Nelson, according to a person with knowledge of the team’s intentions. Those executives would surely want more autonomy than Cuban is willing to cede. As I reported last week, Dallas is strongly considering elevating one of Nowitzki’s favorite former teammates — Michael Finley — to be the team’s head of basketball operations. The team is also looking at external candidates for the post, through a search firm, and plans to add to the group with an external hire even if Finley gets the job. Cuban needs to surround himself with as much versatility and experience as the Mavericks can muster, since he will always be the organization’s lead shot-caller and prefers to render the final say after consulting top aides.

New Orleans

The Pelicans appear to be in an even more precarious spot than the Mavericks, given the persistent rumblings that their franchise cornerstone — Zion Williamson — is indeed dissatisfied with the organization after two underwhelming seasons in the standings.

We still haven’t heard that from Williamson directly, but the worrisome chatter started during last season’s restart at the Walt Disney World bubble and became more prevalent this season. Although Williamson arrived one draft after Doncic in 2019 and thus will be eligible for his lucrative contract extension in 2022, it’s clear that David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is already under immense pressure to placate his franchise player and, no less important, get his next coaching hire right.

Griffin has made coaching changes after both of his two seasons in charge. He dismissed Stan Van Gundy last week after Van Gundy’s attempts to instill structure and defense as the replacement for the more offensive-minded Alvin Gentry flopped. It is likewise fair to wonder how it landed with Williamson when Griffin absorbed pointed public criticism in late March from the veteran shooting guard JJ Redick, who said on his podcast after being dealt to Dallas that “I don’t think you’re going to get honesty from that office.” Redick and Williamson are former Duke players who bonded in their two seasons as teammates in New Orleans.

Boston

As if the league’s various playoff games, ongoing issues with high-profile injuries and coaching changes hadn’t supplied enough drama in recent weeks, Boston livened things up further with a monster trade on Friday, agreeing to ship the former All-Star guard Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City in a deal to bring back Al Horford.

The trade forced the Celtics to part with the No. 16 overall pick in the July 29 draft to entice the Thunder to participate, but Brad Stevens’s first major move since replacing Ainge as the lead voice in Boston’s front office had echoes of the trade-anyone approach that defined Ainge.

That it happened before this week’s annual draft combine in Chicago, where off-season trade talks typically begin to percolate, won Stevens points for being proactive. You can also safely assume that even the ever-friendly Walker did not want to be shipped to the rebuilding Thunder, who are expected to try to route him elsewhere in a subsequent trade — if they can overcome Walker’s recent knee trouble and the more than $73 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons.

Ime Udoka, an assistant coach with the Nets, is believed to be at the top of Boston’s list to replace Stevens on the Celtics’ bench.

The Rest

Washington decided not to retain Scott Brooks as coach despite the steady guidance he gave the Wizards in their recovery from the team’s many coronavirus challenges and a dispiriting 17-32 start. His departure was even more curious given that Brooks is known as a coach who, in two different stops, has reached Russell Westbrook, which is no given for his successor. If the Wizards hire a current assistant coach, as many expect, how Westbrook reacts will be key given the two years and $91 million left on his contract.

Orlando management is said to prefer hiring a candidate with previous head-coaching experience, even with a roster full of younger players who will need time to develop. The Los Angeles Lakers’ Jason Kidd and Kenny Atkinson, who coached the Nets before becoming an assistant with the Clippers, are two names that keep coming up.

Indiana, in its search to replace Nate Bjorkgren after just one season, is even more likely to than the Magic to seek a coach with prior head-coaching experience. Terry Stotts, who just left Portland, continues to generate the most buzz.

In Portland, there is a growing belief that Jody Allen, the team’s owner, has a strong interest in Becky Hammon, who has been an assistant coach in San Antonio for seven seasons in her quest to become the first woman to serve as a head coach in any of North America’s four major men’s team sports. Neil Olshey, Portland’s general manager, continues to be relentlessly linked to Chauncey Billups, the former N.B.A. finals M.V.P. working as an assistant alongside Atkinson with the Clippers. As for the Portland star Damian Lillard, who initially voiced public support for Kidd before Kidd withdrew from consideration, we await an updated preference.

The Scoop @TheSteinLine

June 18

Former Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki tells @NYTSports that he is rejoining the organization as special advisor. Nowitzki’s first assignment at the request of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: Assisting the team in its search for a new head of basketball operations and then coach.

After just two seasons of retirement, Nowitzki, who turns 43 on Saturday, is holding off on taking an everyday role with the team. But he tells @NYTSports that — after the departures of Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle — he is assisting Cuban on Dallas’ search processes.

“Mark approached me and asked me to help out and of course I said yes,” Nowitzki told @NYTSports. “Any way I can help my Mavs, I’m in.”

Corner Three

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: Can you see a scenario where Luka Doncic signs a short-term contract extension this summer to keep pressure on Dallas to improve the roster? — Mauricio V. and Los Comisionados podcast (Winchester, Calif.)

Stein: I don’t.

Doncic will be eligible for the N.B.A.’s first rookie extension that crosses the $200 million threshold this off-season. If the Mavericks’ worst nightmare materialized and Doncic desired a change of scenery before playing out all five seasons, it would still make the most sense for him to lock in the most lucrative contract possible and force a move later.

Giannis Antetokounmpo just established that template in Milwaukee in December, when he signed his five-year, $228 million extension. After the injury-riddled season Anthony Davis just endured, how relieved must Davis be that he opted for the longest possible contract with the Lakers ($190 million over five years) after so much speculation about him possibly signing a shorter deal?

The Mavericks have a front office to reconstruct, major organizational tension to move past and will have little financial flexibility to make significant roster changes if they stick with their long-held plan to re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. So I know what you’re getting at: Doncic has reason to be concerned about the team’s ceiling in the Western Conference if it can’t help Kristaps Porzingis establish himself as a viable sidekick — or find a trade partner willing to absorb Porzingis’s contract as he enters the third year of a five-year, $158 million deal.

None of that, though, is justification to take the risk of leaving astronomical figures on the table. Not even if Doncic is looking at the conference finals with understandable envy given the way Atlanta and Phoenix have fortified their rosters around Young and Deandre Ayton, Doncic’s rivals (and friends) from the top five of the 2018 N.B.A. draft.

Q: Have you ever jinxed anyone in your career as badly as you just did Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns with last week’s newsletter? Move over, Madden video game cover jinx and Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Make room for the Stein jinx. — Ryan Taylor (Queen Creek, Ariz.)

Stein: I did the weekly N.B.A. power rankings for ESPN every Monday during the regular season for 15 years and heard frequently from readers — sometimes playfully and sometimes less so — that I had jinxed their teams by ranking them too high.

I don’t really believe in jinxes or curses, but I have often played along and poked fun at myself in the past. This situation is different. The “jinx” you’re referring to was Paul’s placement in the league’s health and safety protocols on the day after my newsletter was published detailing the best postseason of his career. It was too sudden and serious, in other words, for a lighthearted approach, since Paul was the first player leaguewide to be forced into isolation away from his team during these playoffs.

My pal Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports and Turner Sports reported on Sunday that the Suns anticipate Paul being cleared to rejoin the team sooner rather than later, though he will miss Tuesday’s Game 2. This is only his second career trip to the conference finals in 16 seasons, which was the inspiration for a newsletter top devoted to Paul and his opportunity, after so many past playoff disappointments, to finally have the last word.

Q: How can it be official? The current season is still going on. — @DannyNaeNaed from Twitter

Stein: This question was posed on Friday after Boston announced a trade with Oklahoma City headlined by Kemba Walker’s departure to the Thunder and Al Horford’s return to the Celtics.

The 2020-21 season is indeed ongoing, but trades are permitted between eliminated teams starting with the day after their final game — provided the players involved do not possess an expiring contract or a contract that could be terminated via player or team option.

Numbers Game

332

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving played only 332 minutes together this season even once you include the Nets’ 12 playoff games. That’s roughly 8.2 percent of the team’s total court time (4,062 minutes) as tabulated by my longtime colleague Mike Mazzeo.

39

The Los Angeles Clippers’ Terance Mann scored 39 points in a series-clinching victory over Utah, becoming just the sixth player in league history, in his first or second N.B.A. season, to reach that total in a Game 6 or a Game 7. The other six (Rick Barry twice, Dave Bing, Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo and George Mikan), as listed here by Stathead, are all in the Hall of Fame. Mann scored only 25 points combined through the first five games of the Utah series and had 9 points in the Clippers’ Game 1 loss at Phoenix in the conference finals.

3

We’ve seen three instances in these playoffs of teams winning a series after falling behind 2-0: Milwaukee in the second round against the Nets and the Clippers in their first two rounds of this postseason against Dallas and Utah. Since the current 16-team playoff format was instituted for the 1983-84 season, teams are 19-215 overall (for a winning percentage of .081) after losing the first two games of a series.

4

Four of the league’s longest-tenured coaches when the season began have left those posts in the past month: Dallas’s Rick Carlisle (13 seasons), Portland’s Terry Stotts (nine seasons): Boston’s Brad Stevens (eight seasons) and Washington’s Scott Brooks (five seasons). San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (25 seasons and counting) and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (13 seasons) still rank as the league’s longest-tenured coaches; Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Utah’s Quin Snyder (seven seasons) are now next in line.

35

Mike Brown, an assistant coach with the Warriors who doubles as head coach of Nigeria’s national team, is conducting a Nigerian training camp this week in Oakland with 35 invitees from outside the N.B.A. The following week, Brown said, he will welcome in 10 or so Nigerians currently playing in the N.B.A. to join the 10-to-12 players selected from the opening week. Brown is trying to amass enough roster depth for two tournaments, since the league’s agreement with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, precludes players under N.B.A. contract from playing in more than one international competition in the off-season. Nigeria will play in the AfroBasket tournament shortly after the Tokyo Olympics.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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