Here are seven thoughts on what’s happening around the NBA, including the deadlocked Finals, the drama out of Utah, and what I’ve heard this past week in San Francisco:
1. The First Domino Falls in Utah
After eight years with the Jazz, Quin Snyder stepped down as head coach on Sunday, declaring the team needed a new voice. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell is “unsettled,” “unnerved,” and “disappointed” by the news.
The reaction seems a bit dramatic considering we’ve known since March that Snyder had rejected contract extension offers and could step down (possibly to become Gregg Popovich’s successor in San Antonio, according to Marc Stein). But now that it’s official, I read the latest news about his feelings as an indicator that his camp wants the world to know he’s not happy in Utah.
Maybe that means nothing at all. Mitchell might just want clarity about the team’s direction, and he might get it, stick around, and win a lot more games. The Jazz could do worse than continue to build around a 25-year-old All-Star who’s scored 50-plus points in a game twice in the playoffs. But following a sixth straight early postseason exit, Snyder’s departure could be the first domino of many that leads to an overhauled team next season, namely with Mitchell and/or possibly his teammate Rudy Gobert on the move. Change will happen. The magnitude is unknown. That’s why Mitchell is right to wonder: What the hell is going on around here?
Teams around the league are already buzzing about who might pursue Mitchell. Maybe New York, where Mitchell was born? Or Miami, where he trains every summer? Both teams could use a star. And both teams have assets. But any theoretical preferences of Mitchell’s don’t matter that much, given that he signed a five-year max contract extension in 2020 and still has three guaranteed seasons remaining. Any young team with valuable picks and assets, from the Magic to the Kings, could swing a trade for the star guard.
Just as Mitchell can explore his options, the Jazz will do the same. For years, Danny Ainge told reporters in Boston that no player was untouchable. I’ve heard stories about him privately telling players, draft picks, and new acquisitions the same thing. The goal was always to hang more championship banners, and the Jazz hired him to run their front office hoping he could deliver the first title in their 48-year history.
At a minimum, Ainge will gauge the value of every player because that is what he has always done, so Jazz fans should be prepared for potential major change.
Mitchell has plateaued a bit as a playmaker but he also hasn’t yet played with a true creator. Mitchell might find the best version of himself if he’s paired with a point guard like Cade Cunningham in Detroit or with Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana. Both of them provide size in the backcourt, can play with or without the ball, and are pass-first creators. But are the Pistons willing to give up the fifth pick? Are the Pacers willing to move off the sixth?
Mitchell is a high-level talent, but he’s only 6-foot-1 and we’re currently watching a postseason in which inferior defenders and smaller players are being hunted over and over. There’s no guarantee Mitchell is as valuable to any other team as he is to the Jazz: young, talented, under contract, and the face of the franchise. We’ll see whether he’s the next domino in Utah.
2. Does Anyone Want Rudy Gobert?
Or maybe the next domino will be Gobert. But the three-time Defensive Player of the Year will make an average of $42.4 million over the next four seasons, and despite his accolades he has plenty of skeptics around the league who view him as an expensive offensive liability. The argument executives often have made is that committing so much money to a defender who lacks creation skills is limiting from a team-building perspective. Gobert gets paid like a megastar but no matter how great he is on defense, he can never match the impact of other stars despite being paid around the same.
Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported last month that the Raptors have expressed interest in Gobert. I’ve heard those rumblings too. Sources have also indicated the Bulls are a team with interest in Gobert (and other centers on the market, including Knicks free agent Mitchell Robinson).
I could also theoretically see a team like the Grizzlies viewing Gobert as a worthy upgrade over Steven Adams. Maybe the Suns feel the same about him over Deandre Ayton. Or maybe the Celtics lose in the Finals and decide they can’t trust Robert Williams III to stay healthy, so Brad Stevens calls Ainge to offer Williams, Aaron Nesmith, Derrick White, and multiple firsts? Gobert in the Williams role could potentially unleash the best version of him that we’ve ever seen.
I can’t imagine many non-playoff teams wanting Gobert, due to his massive contract. But whether any contenders are willing to offer the Jazz what he’s worth is unknown. Just as another team may view Gobert as their final piece, Ainge might see him as a key cog of a reshaped roster that features more quality perimeter defenders. Now that Snyder is gone, it seems like the Jazz are finally headed for some long-overdue change. Buckle up.
3. Steph Curry Is a Pick-and-Roll Problem
A transcendent shooter like Steph Curry presents an inherent issue for a defense when he’s utilized in the pick-and-roll. Play drop coverage, and Steph can easily pull up from behind it. Pressure to get the ball out of his hands, and he can find an open teammate with an advantage. Switch the screen, and he can roast any defender one-on-one.
Boston has found success in recent years by switching screens. But Curry is a switch killer because he’s a points machine when he isolates. This postseason, Curry is scoring an incredible 1.3 points per isolation when he tries to score, according to Second Spectrum. That number is identical to what he’s averaged since 2017-18, ranking first over rivals like Chris Paul, LeBron James, and James Harden. Though he isolates infrequently due to the nature of Golden State’s motion offense, there’s no one better at it.
The Celtics have dropped on 31 Curry pick-and-rolls so far this series, or 15.5 times per game. That’s a bigger commitment to one defensive strategy than any opponent has deployed against Steph pick-and-rolls this postseason. The Grizzlies switched 11.7 times per game. The Nuggets dropped 10.6 times per game. The Mavs switched 10.2 times per game. But nothing has worked because Steph has an answer for every defense.
Perhaps Boston will continue dropping and hoping its defenders can fight hard enough through the screen to bother his shot. But switching might prove more useful, like it did toward the end of Game 1 since Steph isn’t always scoring. Sometimes he drives to the basket, meets a second defender, and passes to a non-shooter or at least to a less efficient scorer than the future Hall of Famer.
Or maybe, Ime Udoka decides to start blitzing Curry in the pick-and-roll to force the ball out of his hands. Pressuring Steph often doesn’t work since he’s mastered the short-roll pass to his screener. We’ve seen it time and time again since the infancy of the Warriors dynasty.
The Celtics also generally don’t blitz. They haven’t done it in the series against Steph yet, and they’ve logged only 96 such plays throughout the entire season and playoffs combined. Just the Thunder, Magic, and Jazz logged fewer blitzes this season. But the Celtics have also allowed the second-lowest scoring efficiency in the league when they blitz, at 0.85 points per pick-and-roll. Against the Warriors, they’ve done it only once and it was against Jordan Poole as the ball handler, who tried to find Kevon Looney on the roll but was picked off by Payton Pritchard.
Udoka might be saving the blitz for later in the series. It’s unreasonable to expect a team that has been riding an eight-man rotation since February to run out to the perimeter on every play for an entire series against Curry. It may not even be the best choice, since the Warriors have shredded it in the postseason. But if Curry keeps beating the drop in the pick-and-roll, and keeps scoring in isolation, the Celtics will need to try something else that could empower their long, athletic defense.
4. What Happened to Al Horford?
Horford scored a team-high 26 points and hit six 3-pointers in Game 1. The Warriors sagged off him as if he shot jumpers like Draymond. But in Game 2, Horford scored just two points and didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer. Green and Co. were more attentive to Horford from the game’s opening tip.
During the first play of the game, Green immediately tried to rip the ball away and caused a jump ball. It was symbolic of the entire game, with the Warriors pressuring Horford. In Game 1, the Warriors often lost him in transition, allowing him wide open shots. But in Game 2, Golden State picked him up early and didn’t give him an inch.
In Game 1, Horford caught 18 passes behind the 3-point line and turned eight of them into shot attempts. But in Game 2, he caught just nine and shot none, according to Second Spectrum. The Warriors were in his airspace all game.
Green and Klay Thompson were Horford’s primary defenders. Neither strayed too far from him when he was spotting up in the corner for 3s. Even with the Celtics targeting Steph in pick-and-rolls all game, the Warriors trusted him on defense without over-helping and he succeeded in forcing difficult attempts.
In Game 1, Celtics role players like Horford, Derrick White, and Pritchard all shined. But in Game 2, they struggled in part due to the fact that Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart didn’t have the same passing lanes that they did before. The Warriors had cleaner rotations, better effort, and Draymond was back on track. With the series headed back to Boston, it’s on the Celtics to adjust.
5. The Trail Blazers Want a Star
League sources say the Blazers are exploring trades for veterans who can help Damian Lillard lead the team back to the postseason. The Blazers have the seventh pick in the draft, so that’s their most obvious asset to use in potential deals. But they also have a bunch of young players that could be used in trades to accomplish the same goal. On top of that, Portland also pathways to create max space to sign a major free agent outright.
Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine are potential targets, according to sources. Lillard befriended Beal through their experience with Team USA, and the Wizards star has a player option for next season. So he could make his way to Portland either as a free agent or via trade. Though Beal and LaVine present some similar defensive issues as CJ McCollum did next to Lillard, either of them would undeniably make the Blazers better with their shot-creation.
Sources say another player to keep in mind is Hornets forward Miles Bridges. Pistons forward Jerami Grant is often mentioned as a target for the Blazers, but the same logic applies for Bridges. Much like Grant, Portland desires a wing who can provide versatility on the wing plus secondary scoring. The difference is that Bridges is a restricted free agent while Grant is under contract.
One other player frequently mentioned to be on Portland’s radar is Atlanta’s John Collins, who is a lob threat that could provide more defensive versatility than Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers have a surprising amount of ways to pursue big names aside from dealing their lottery pick. They have a $20.8 million trade exception, Eric Bledsoe’s lightly guaranteed contract ($3.9 million), a rising talent in Josh Hart, and future picks. There’s also a potential sign-and-trade with Nurkic, or more drastically, flipping Anfernee Simons, a 22-year-old coming off a career-best season and entering restricted free agency.
All of these players and assets could be used to acquire a star, or multiple pieces. The Blazers won only 27 games last season and Lillard is coming off abdominal surgery. But the front office is chasing big fish, so there’s at least one silver lining.
6. Could the Kings Trade Down?
League sources say the Kings are looking for a win-now player with the fourth pick, whether they draft one or deal the pick to acquire one. Trading out of the draft is a possibility, but so is moving down. Sources say Sacramento is willing to move back for a lower pick and a player who would fit into the same trajectory as De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, and Davion Mitchell.
With so many possibilities, it’s hard to imagine what the deal would look like. Could it involve acquiring the sixth pick and Malcolm Brogdon from the Pacers? Or maybe T.J. Warren in a sign-and-trade? How about Josh Hart and the seventh pick from Portland? The Spurs have a ton of good young guys nearing the end of their rookie contracts. Plenty of teams can make competitive offers if they choose, which should lead to plenty of buzz ahead of draft night.
7. How Do the Sixers Counter?
Watching the Celtics make this Finals run, I keep thinking about the teams in the East that will try to get by them next season. Milwaukee’s path is obvious: Getting Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all healthy and surrounding them with a tweaked supporting cast.
Philadelphia’s path isn’t so obvious with James Harden holding a player option for next season, and the team owning limited assets after dumping so many to acquire him. Unless a big-market team like the Knicks swoops in to offer Harden a full max contract, it’d be surprising if he doesn’t return to the Sixers. It’s not as if Harden and Joel Embiid struggled together. They were the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll duo.
Harden has a player option worth $47.4 million and must opt in by June 30. That’s more than he’d be able to earn in the first year of a max deal if he signs as a free agent ($46.5 million). Ideally for the Sixers, Harden will play on his expiring contract and have a “prove it” season.
If Harden thrives, he’ll get paid another $200 million on an extension. If he fails, then the Sixers will avoid overpaying for a soon-to-be 33-year-old who’s past his athletic prime. If the Sixers keep Harden and he fails, then in a couple of years it could be Embiid demanding a trade. Daryl Morey can’t screw this up, and if Harden is retained he needs to seize his chance to contend for a championship.
Embiid is ready. He was an MVP candidate for a second consecutive season, and he keeps getting better. He just turned 28, so there’s plenty of time for him to add even more to his game. Sources say Embiid is already working this offseason on perimeter attacks and finishing with touch at the rim.
Embiid and the Sixers hope he can become even more dynamic bringing the ball up the floor himself on the break and driving in the half court. This season, Embiid shot 59.8 percent on the break as the ball handler, according to Synergy Sports. That’s an incredible number. But it came on just under one shot per game. The Sixers rarely asked Embiid to bring the ball up on his own.
If Embiid expands his perimeter skill set, it could alleviate pressure on Harden and Tyrese Maxey to be the sole creators. If the burden is spread between more players, then that means Harden won’t need to be his former superstar self.
But for the Sixers to be in the Finals at this time next year, they’ll need Harden to be much better than he was this postseason. Embiid will take another step forward. Harden needs to prove he can also carry his weight.