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Undoing the dynasty: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and how the Bulls blew a shot to become the Lakers

I can’t think of a more sobering highlight of the intertwining history of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers than Gar Forman’s 20th anniversary of Bulls employment occurring while Lakers fans prep for LeBron James.

Yes, Gar Forman’s first day on the job with the Bulls was August 1, 1998, less than two months after the last day of the dynasty. He was hired as a scout by Tim Floyd, of all people, making Forman the longest standing link to the darkest days in the franchise.

I mention LeBron James in relation to Gar because the Lakers’ answer to their own dark days is always to acquire arguably the game’s best player. You want to talk dynasties? In 70 seasons, the Lakers have won the championship more times (16) than they’ve missed the playoffs (10). When they do miss the postseason, they typically come back with a vengeance by acquiring one of the league’s best players.

The first time they missed the playoffs was 1958. They went 19-53, got the first pick in the draft, and took Elgin Baylor. Their next missed playoffs was 1975. They went 30-52 and traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They missed the playoffs in 1976 and then didn’t miss again until 1994, three years after Magic Johnson retired due to HIV. Two years later they signed Shaq to the richest contract in sports history. They essentially re-launched the franchise after 2004 by choosing Kobe over Shaquille, lost Phil Jackson, missed the playoffs in 2005, convinced Phil Jackson to return, and rode Kobe and Phil to two more rings.

And now, after missing the playoffs for five straight seasons (as many as they’d missed previously, all together), they’ve signed LeBron James.

The key difference between the Bulls as a franchise and the Lakers as a franchise is that the Bulls were a dynasty, but the Lakers are a Dynasty — big D. They’ve done this in three related ways:

  1. An unending pursuit of superstars

  2. An unwavering pursuit of championships

  3. Using the former to gain the latter and the latter to gain the former

Look at this list of the Lake Show’s owner, GM and coach year by year, and then add to that an imaginary fourth column of its star players. What the Lakers have done consistently as well as if not better than any professional American sports franchise ever is use the goodwill and victory-driven capital of one era to build the next.

When GM Max Winter resigned in 1954, owner Ben Berger lured recently retired star George Mikan into the front office. Mikan ran the team for three years and had a horrific coaching stint in the 1958 season, going 9-30, but that down year brought Baylor. Two years later the franchise moved to Los Angeles, but not before landing the #2 pick in the draft and taking West Virginia star Jerry West.

When Baylor and West got tired of losing in the Finals — they were 0-5 together in their first eight seasons — they signed off on a trade to bring three-time reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain on board. Three seasons later, Wilt and West led the Lakers to the franchise’s first championship in Los Angeles. West retired in 1974, and in 1976 — the year after trading for Kareem — the team moved coach Bill Sharman to GM and hired West as coach.

In 1979, West retired as coach, yet the franchise drafted Magic Johnson first overall. West replaced Sharman as GM in 1982, the year after team owner Jerry Buss signed Magic to a 25-year contract for $25 million. We’ll come back to Magic shortly, but keep in mind that as a high-ranking executive from 1982 to 2000, West oversaw the drafting of James Worthy, the signing of Shaquille O’Neal, the draft-day trade for Kobe Bryant and the hiring of Phil Jackson, meaning he had a hand in eight Lakers titles from 1985 to 2010.

Despite flirtations with other franchises, Kobe ended up remaining with the Lakers his entire career, from his draft trade in 1996 to his 60-point finale in 2016. Less than a year after Kobe’s retirement, the Lakers hired Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations.

For those scoring at home, since the 1948-49 season, the only seasons the Lakers have not employed in some capacity George Mikan, Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant are 1959 and 1960 (Elgin’s first two years) and 1975 and 1976 (Kareem’s first two years).

That's what I mean by Dynasty vs. dynasty. The subtext to all of the 20-year retrospectives that I and others have written about the Bulls since 2011 is the grim reality that six championships in eight years were a basketball dead end.

***

 (Bettman / Corbis )

(Bettman / Corbis )

To see the starting point, let’s jump back to 1981 and Magic Johnson’s historic 25 years, $25 million contract. When team owner Jerry Buss announced the deal, he said that he was already grooming Magic, then 21 years old, for a post-playing position with the club.

“He may even be my coach, or general manager,” Buss said. “Or maybe he’ll run the team and I’ll just sit back and watch. Magic is a bright kid and I plan to make him my protege, teach him the business aspect of sports. I realize this is a very unusual contract because we’re talking about a kid whose college class just graduated. But what it comes down to is that Magic is part of the family.”

Buss said that about Magic after two seasons — the first was a championship, the second was a three-game first-round sweep to a team with a sub-.500 record.

Now look at what Jerry Reinsdorf said about Jordan to Jordan in July 1996 — one month after MJ brought the Bulls back to the promised land with their fourth championship in six years — as Reinsdorf signed Jordan to a one-year, $30 million deal, the richest one-year deal in sports history:

“I might live to regret this.”

That quote was Reinsdorf’s clarification to author Roland Lazenby, to which Jordan replied: “Actually, he said, ‘Somewhere down the road, I know I’m gonna regret this.’ It demeaned what was happening. It took away from the meaning of things. The gratitude seemed less because of that statement.”

Again, Jerry Buss, about a 21-year-old Magic Johnson with one championship: “Magic is part of the family.”

Jerry Reinsdorf to a 34-year-old Michael Jordan with four championships: “I might live to regret this.”

 AP Photo/Mark Elias

AP Photo/Mark Elias

But the Bulls didn’t just miss out on becoming a Dynasty because of a feuding Jordan and Reinsdorf. For the final season of the greatest run in the modern era of professional American sports, Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippen were each locked in public, separate yet interconnected blood feuds with the Jerrys, all rooted in contract negotiations. Krause drew the visceral hatred — even Phil publicly called Krause “the only dark spot” on the 1997-98 season — but Reinsdorf’s leave-your-emotions-at-the-door approach actually cut deeper on a personal level, because Jordan and Jackson held an affinity and respect for Reinsdorf that did not extend to his general manager.

To put it plainly, those guys liked Reinsdorf, which made his approach to negotiations all the more injurious.

“He’s loyal, he’s honest, he’s truthful,” Jackson told Lazenby about Reinsdorf. “But there’s something about going in and trying to get the best every time. Winning the deal. When it comes to money, to win the deal. … He has actually said those things, according to people I’ve been close to, and those things really hurt, because most everybody likes Jerry Reinsdorf.”

***

The second three-peat Bulls splintered along several internal fault lines, so I think it’s tricky to blame any one person for the breakup. And considering that Phil Jackson originally planned to end his Bulls coaching tenure after seven years, which would have been 1996, Reinsdorf, Krause, Jackson, Jordan and Pippen could have all gotten along famously and Phil still could have decided to retire for at least a year after the sixth title.

But based strictly on the inherent power dynamic of a professional sports team, it’s difficult to look at the past 20 years of ring-less Chicago Bulls basketball as anything other than a result of the decisions made by ownership and management in 1998.

It’s easy to imagine a world where the goodwill and excellence of the 1990s Bulls led to a subsequent run of titles. Instead, in July of 1998, just one month after MJ dragged the Bulls to ring #6, Phil was retired and Jerry Krause’s two-year pursuit of his friend Tim Floyd of Iowa State was chugging toward fruition. That month, a reporter asked Jordan if hiring Floyd would be akin to pushing Jordan out of basketball.

“I think that’s exactly what it is,” Jordan said. “It’s very obvious that my feelings haven’t really been considered when they’ve made coaching decisions. Jerry (Reinsdorf has) always been a man of his own. He’s never really been influenced by too many people, and I wouldn’t expect him to be influenced by me. If that was the case, Phil wouldn’t ever have gone.”

And later:

“I don’t want to play for a college coach, and no, I don’t want to play for any other coach. I’ve always said that I want to play for Phil Jackson. That hasn’t changed. (Krause) made the stance on Phil Jackson, and that pretty much made the stance on me.”

 Getty Images

Getty Images

The next week, the Bulls hired Floyd as something called “director of basketball operations,” with Reinsdorf stipulating that, “Should Phil not return by the end of the lockout, Tim will succeed him as head coach.” Jackson and his agent found this comical, since Krause at the start of the 1997-98 season had told Phil, “I don’t care if (the Bulls go) 82-0 this year, you’re fucking gone.”

As for Floyd, his take on MJ was as simple as it was naive, considering Jordan’s public comments one week earlier that he would not play for Floyd, any college coach, or any coach other than Jackson.

“I know this much: I was not about to take this job if I felt it would affect, in any way, Michael Jordan’s return to the game,” Floyd explained.

Sure enough, Jackson did not return, and on January 13, 1999, with the NBA lockout ongoing, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. The dominoes fell from there in the most stunning roster changeover in NBA history:

  • January 15: Bulls name Floyd head coach

  • January 21: Bulls renounce the rights to six players including Jordan and Rodman and trade Steve Kerr to the Spurs

  • January 22: Bulls trade Pippen to the Rockets

  • January 23: Bulls trade Longley to the Suns

Incredibly and tragically, these 10 days ended up defining the franchise rather than the 10 years that came before them. The Lakers have always reloaded by either trading for or signing arguably the best player in the league (Wilt, Cap, Shaq, Bron) while also drafting franchise-changing Hall of Famer (Elgin, West, Magic, Kobe).

Yet in 20 years since ruling the sports world, the biggest veteran acquisitions the Bulls have pulled off are Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Ben Wallace, Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol. There are many reasons for this failure, but perhaps the most damning is the ongoing, league-wide perception that the organization did the dynasty years dirty.

“I think the biggest question (about the Bulls) that you think about has to be loyalty," said Illinois-native Dwyane Wade in May of 2010, as he and his future teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh were in the process of choosing their next team, heavily weighing both the Heat and the Bulls. “I see Michael Jordan is not there, Scottie Pippen is not there. … You know, these guys are not a part (of the franchise). That is probably one of the biggest things for me, because I am a very loyal person."

***

The irony is that in many ways, Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the most loyal owners in sports. He paid Jordan the two richest single-season contracts in NBA history. He hooked up Pippen ($67.2 million over 5 years), Longley ($30 million over 5) and Kerr ($11 million over 5) with lucrative sign-and-trades in January of 1999 that vastly increased their salaries despite getting barely anything of value for them. In the post-dynasty world, he spent heavily on extensions or long-term deals on Derrick Rose ($94.8 million over 5), Luol Deng ($71m/6), Joakim Noah ($60m/5), and Kirk Hinrich ($47.5/5).

The Bulls under Reinsdorf have also been spectacularly loyal to many retired players, most notably John Paxson, who has worked with the organization in various capacities since his retirement in 1994, meaning he has been with the Bulls since 1985 when he arrived as a free agent from the Spurs. Among the other ex-Bulls who played during Reinsdorf’s ownership years and went on to work for the team: B.J. Armstrong, Randy Brown, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Stacey King, Toni Kukoc, Pete Myers, Scottie Pippen, Bill Wennington, and of course Fred Hoiberg, who played for Floyd both at Iowa State and with the Bulls.

Lastly, there is the loyalty Reinsdorf showed Krause, and the loyalty he has since shown both Gar and Pax, for whom 2018-19 will make a combined 55 consecutive seasons of Bulls employment.

Yet when it came to the three most critical pieces of the most dominant NBA run since Russell’s Celtics, loyalty took a backseat to business. After 1996, Reinsdorf and Krause feared that the Bulls would slowly decline the way the 1980s Celtics did in the early 1990s, and thought that being proactive about turning the page would keep the team relevant.

Instead, the franchise has been doomed by 20 years that have vacillated between supreme irrelevance and mostly mid-tier playoff performances. Oh, the dynasty has had its impact, both that has been largely financial, where the United Center keeps cranking out sellouts, the team keeps churning out merchandise, and new global sponsorships come aboard led by CEOs who want to bask in the glory years.

“The Bulls are an American legend, a pop-culture icon,” said Vice President Piotr Kicinski in November 2015 when his Cinkciarz, a Polish currency exchange company, began a partnership with the Bulls that is now locked in as a seven-year deal. “It means many positive things in Poland. My generation was brought up on the Chicago Bulls playing in the ‘90s.”

  John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

So yes, the dynasty still resonates. Yet incredibly, the Bulls have managed to remain deeply loyal to the dynasty years without actually benefiting from them. We haven't been able to sign a single top tier free agent on the strength of those six rings. The team’s best player since Michael and Scottie was Derrick Rose, who was only secured in the draft when the ping pong balls came our way despite only a 1.3% chance at the #1 pick. And like Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, Rose’s Bulls tenure ended in animus.

Gar Forman justified the Rose trade by saying it helped the team get “younger and more athletic,” the most infamous assertion by a Bulls executive since Krause’s “players and coaches alone don’t win championships — organizations do.” The link between these two comments is more than just thematic. Krause’s insistence that “organizations win championships” was driven by a hubris that turned that mantra into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That attitude led to him pushing Phil Jackson out the door. He replaced him with Tim Floyd. Floyd’s hiring pushed out Jordan. Floyd also hired his former Iowa State assistant coach Gar Forman on Aug. 1, 1998, and Gar has been winding his way up the team’s food chain ever since, getting his wings in 2009 as general manager, Krause’s former title.

Which brings us back to the Lakers. The day Floyd hired Forman, the Bulls had six championships. If you remove the Lakers’ Minneapolis titles, all of which came before the shot clock, on Aug. 1, 1998, the Lakers had six championships too.

Less than a year later, Jerry West hired Phil Jackson as the Lakers’s new head coach, setting the stage for the next five Lakers championships. In the Minneapolis days, the Lakers were led by George Mikan, DePaul University alumnus and former star of the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League. The Lakers beat the Bulls in the playoffs four times between 1968 and 1973. In 1979, the Lakers beat the Bulls in a coin toss for the right to draft Magic Johnson. And in both 2004 and 2007, Kobe Bryant took serious steps to joining the Bulls before being lured back to L.A.

 Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

But the history-altering event that stings most is the Lakers hiring Phil in 1999, an underrated seismic shift in the NBA landscape of the past two decades. Phil is a huge part of the reason that Kobe Bryant spent his entire career in the Purple and Gold, and Phil was only available because while the Lakers build generational success, the Bulls act like Orson Welles’s talented, tortured hero of “Citizen Kane.” One era of success built their mansion, and now they’re going to die in it.

The city of Chicago is a basketball pillar, with an NBA franchise whose glory should regenerate every 10 years. Instead, all we have are the memories. Every few years they give us a new coach and a new young talent. They sign the available free agents and pack the UC nightly.

And the marketing team rolls out a new slogan. And young fans buy young jerseys. And management tells us of “The great tradition of Chicago Bulls basketball.”

And they smile. And nod. And count the gate receipts.

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Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls” and proprietor of Chicago sports IG account @AShotOnEhlo. Say hey at @readjack.

Random Acts of Podcast EP 192

On this week's episode of RAOP, Amp & Devin bring back @__QNSx & @KingWilcox912 and chop it up about insecurities in relationships, tell stories of us getting whooped as kids, Kawhi being traded to the Raptors and a ton more other topics.

Also we answer voicemails from the listeners. Remember to send in your listener questions, #TheyNeedTheirAssBeat or #RealNiggaOfTheWeek submissions, email us at MAIL@RAOPodcast.com or call 424-260-RAOP to leave a voicemail.

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Follow Devin: @DevinDavinci

The Third Pick EP 12 - Blame Mariano
Ball Don't Lie Free Agency Special (ft. Al_Patron & @TreyBizzy)

Ball Don't Lie returns for an NBA free agency special! Joe Scott & Pierce welcome Al Patron & Alec on the pod to talk about LeBron's jump to LA, Boogie signing with the Warriors, the Bulls matching Zach Lavine's offer, the Kawhi Leonard saga and their thoughts on Drake's Scorpion!

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Follow Scott: @Scott_CEOofSUH
Follow Pierce: @HennyOmega
Follow Al: @Al_Patron
Follow Alec: @TreyBizzy

The Third Pick EP 11: Bane broke MPJ's back

Scott & Mariano recap the NBA Draft, the Bulls' selections of Wendell Carter Jr. at No. 7 and Chandler Hutchison at No. 22, and what it means for Chicago going forward. Plus, Deandre Ayton to the Suns, Michael Porter Jr. slips, and more!

Follow Scott: @Scott_CEOofSUH
Follow Mariano: @Mariannoo
Follow the Barber's Chair: @BarbersChairNet
IG/FB: @BarbersChairDigital

Is a third Warriors title in four years and back-to-back championships the turning point for Steph, KD's on-court relationship?
 NBA.COM

NBA.COM

When we look back at the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors team in 20 years time, this team could be overlooked in many ways. Future basketball enthusiasts might ponder of how good the Kevin Durant-era Warriors really were. They would see that it took four all-stars to sweep an all-time great in LeBron, and say that their title was an inevitability.

Instead, their championship odds were more in doubt than expected. A regular season full of injuries can do that. There wasn’t as many meaningful games in the regular season either. The season-long crawl to the playoffs didn’t inspire great basketball. Most often, the Dubs would flip the switch for a quarter or a half. It’s hard to look dominant when you coast most games. The rest of the league making a leap is/was cause for concern too. Repeating is a historically-daunting task though. Only a few teams have done it. It’s an accolade that's truly definitive of a dynasty, which they can now claim after a third title win in four years.

The 73-win Warriors team that failed to win the title showed how hard it is to win a title. That’s why last season's playoff run looked so much less sloppy for the Dubs. There was a sense of urgency to reclaim the throne, but also to integrate Finals MVP Kevin Durant into the team. They put egos aside for the good of the championship. It seemed clear that those emotions had finally boiled over this season.

Much of it stems from the dynamic between Durant and Steph Curry. Off the court, the two have competing signature sneakers, but on the court, they can be accommodating to a fault. Durant has the mindset of fitting in, and Curry has the mindset to make sure Durant feels included. This manifests often in close games, down the stretch, when one of the two need to make a play.

It came close to hurting them in the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets. Trailing by two in Game 2, Durant passed out of a mid-range shot on the break, and Klay put up a shot with no chance. It was clear they were tight. They lost a huge lead in Game 4 with an opportunity to take a 3-1 series lead, and as the Rockets crawled back into the game, the Dubs lost their focus.

The difference of play can be directly correlated to which MVP was managing the game. In the 3rd quarter, Steph went bonkers, scoring 17 points in the third. Then in the 4th, Durant soaked up most of the minutes, and took over for most of the possessions. As Houston forced them to play isolation basketball, the downside of the style was evident when the Warriors couldn’t respond to the success Houston had playing that way.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve figured it out. I would say there is stylistic tension, but not personal tension.”
— -Steve Kerr on the relationship of Curry and Durant.

The adjustment to play Curry-centric ball was clear after Game 5 of the Rockets series. “I think we’ll win our next six games,” Kerr predicted after going down 3-2 to Houston. Steph scored 29, and 27 points respectively in the next two games, but freed up room for Klay to score 35 in game 6, and KD to score 34 in game 7. In both games combined, Steph was +46, and KD was +23.

As the Finals took hold, and the relief of beating the best team left in the playoffs set in, something finally clicked. Whether or not Curry is the leading scorer, they’re playing at their best when he’s running around causing defensive breakdowns. One of the plays that came out of the Houston series was a sequence where Curry tries to create, drops off a pass, and relocates to the corner for an open 3.  

That change of play is what lead the Warriors to a sweep in the NBA Finals. Game 1 was certainly in the balance before overtime. Durant struggled shooting the ball, and had one of his worst games since joining GSW. Despite this, KD still lead the team with +17, scoring 26 points to match Steph's 29.

In Game 2, the two superstars were easily in their bag. Durant scored 26 on 10-of-14 shooting, and Steph scored 33, breaking the Finals record for three's in a game with 9. The blowout showed the level that this team can reach when they’re really clicking, and though LeBron almost took Game 1 on his own, Golden State got efficient games from both Durant and Curry.

The Cavs adjusted in Game 3, shutting down Curry defensively, holding him to 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting. They repeatedly trapped him when he came off pick and rolls, forcing him to pass the ball. This is a strategy the Cavs have gone to in their last three Finals matchups, but now that Durant is the second option, he can feast on the 4-on-3 situations that the PNR trap produces.

That’s what lead to Durant’s offensive explosion in Game 3, but KD got his shot in isolation play too. Steph spaced the floor, jacking up 10 threes, and despite hitting just 1 of them, his gravity created space that Durant and others could capitalize on. This is why Bob Myers signed KD, to be keep Golden State afloat when Curry can’t get it going (or gets shut down by design, as the Cavs often resort to).

It’s also why Durant agreed to join the team. Not to lead, or be led, but to be 1-B to Steph's 1-A. It cultivated with the cherry on top in Game 4. Durant had a 20-point triple-double, and led the team with +30. Despite Finals MVP still hanging in the balance, Durant was happy to keep feeding an already-hot Curry, who ended with a game-high 37 points.

Though Durant took home the award again, the dynamic seemed to have been solved in their last six games of the season. There’s a better sense between the two, and true adversity for the duo to build upon. The ups and downs of this championship season was far different than their inaugural season, and in the long run, this year should prove more valuable to their chemistry. So as the Warriors dynasty continues, it’ll be fascinating to look back and see if this Finals will be seen as the turning point for the franchise.

Ball Don't Lie ep. 20 - The Season Finale ft. @Al_Patron

It's the season finale of Ball Don't Lie! Author & creator Al Patron (@Al_Patron) joins the crew to wrap up the NBA season. Are the Warriors a dynasty, and how long will their window be open for? We also talk about the ridiculous of LeBron James stans and has the GOAT debate finally been laid to rest? Also what's our overall grade on the NBA, did Drake catch the biggest L in Hip-Hop history, and our final Goofy Mogs of the season.

Follow Scott: @Scott_CEOofSUH
Follow Joe: @FlowsAndolini
Follow Pierce: @HennyOmega

Barber's Chair Live - the Funeral of LeBron James
Barber's Chair Live - Uncle Drew in Theaters June 29th
Hoops N Brews #95: FINAL-LY MVP
The Barber's Chair WNBA Bucket Scale
 Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As WNBA loyalists, season openers spark sprinting out of the gates focused on the finish line. The last few years have unveiled that by coming to appreciate, embrace & thus enjoying the process, everything else becomes that much simpler. & the reality?

Not much that happens within the first two weeks of the WNBA calendar matters in the scheme of things simply due to inevitable roster turnover, the unfortunate reality that is injuries & quite simply, ever-expanding basketball acumen. In the meantime, while there hasn’t been much content from our end until now, you can rest assured this analysis has been born of watching each & every game at least twice.

Thus, the WNBA Bucket Scale.

Your resident hoops junkie Smoove votes twice daily, once before the sun rises & again after, ranking teams 1-12 based on the eye test, film study, statistical analysis & just natural instincts.

Let’s take our first peek

LEGEND

Flexes: Qualities the team has shown it can consistently showcase nightly.
Focus: Opportunities for growth
MVP: Most Valuable Player (at time of publication)
X-Factor: Player currently projecting potential to push team to the next level.
Pulse: Player you can look to during any crucial moments of the game to determine whether the team will sink or swim

  I.            Connecticut Sun

  •   Flexes: Depth, continuity, elite coaching, rebounding,
  •   Focus: Free throw shooting, consistency, leadership.
  •   MVP: Teammates Thomas
  •   X-Factor: Jonquel Jones     
  •   Pulse: Chiney Ogwumike

The Sun have shone since the lights came on & there doesn’t seem to be much anyone else can do about it. Curt finally got through a preseason undefeated, beat his mentor Brian Agler & former employer Los Angeles Sparks, all the while doing what Minnesota has done the last five seasons: impose their will & wait for someone to make them uncomfortable. Free throw shooting hasn’t mattered (yet) but it will & has been shaky to start. Morgan Tuck has also yet to be fully unleashed which leaves to beg whether there’s still another gear for this potent pack of powerhouse hoopers.

 

  II.            Los Angeles Sparks

  •   Flexes: Continuity, decision making, post play.
  •   Focus: Perimeter shooting, rebounding.
  •   MVP: Chelsea Gray/Nneka Ogwumike
  •   X-Factor: Odyssey Sims
  •   Pulse: Candace Parker

Weathering the storm of a single post player has to have the Sparks riding high & Brian Agler still has yet to meet rookie Masha Vadeeva, Cappie Pondexteris trying to find her way & Karlie Samuelson has proven more useful than Sydney Wiese yet is out of the league. Again. Everybody Loves Brian.

III.            Seattle Storm

  •   Flexes: Youth, athleticism, three-point shooting
  •   Focus: Consistency, rebounding, turnovers, focus
  •   MVP: Breanna Stewart/Jewell Loyd
  •   X-Factor: Alysha Clark
  •  Pulse: Natasha Howard

The defense hasn’t been elite but it hasn’t needed to be. Dan Hughes claims to have focused on getting the team to perform offensively but that never truly was the case with Sue Bird on the floor. The biggest difference to this juncture has been the presence of Natasha Howard. Her addition has not only soothed the injury to Crystal Langhorne that would’ve been devastating in years past but also frees Stewie up to not have to cover everyone else’s defensive deficiencies then also grab the board. Dope to see Stewie getting more time on the wing as well. Just because a player can play the post doesn’t mean stick them there. Great coaching means making teams adjust to you. Not the other way around.

IV.            Washington Mystics

  •   Flexes: Three-point shooting, elite coaching, defending the three
  •   Focus: Health
  •   MVP: Elena Delle Donne/Ariel Atkins
  •   X-Factor: Lara Sanders/Tianna Hawkins
  •  Pulse: Kristi Toliver

Mike Thibault went against the grain to create a roster he thought would be ready to contend & also welcome Emma back with open arms next season & all signs pointed towards the pieces being in place to make a confident run. But injuries are part of the game & quite frankly, shit happens. Natasha Cloud was playing out of her mind in her bench Swiss Army Knife role before coming down with kidney stones & word on the tweet is that Elena Delle Donne could miss another week. Staying afloat in this 2018 season could prove Thibault’s most difficult assignment yet.

 V.            Phoenix Mercury

  •   Flexes: Size, weapons, continuity, free throw shooting
  •   Focus: Defense, defense, defense.
  •   MVP: DeWanna Bonner
  •   X-Factor: Briann January
  •   Pulse: Brittney Griner

An entire starting lineup of players for Phoenix is now entrenched in bench roles. [Lei Mitchell (7), Vonnie Turner (4), Steph Talbot (24), Camillierock Little (34) & Angel Robinson (8) started for stretches last season & thus the Mercury were expected to sprint out of the gates. Being the second oldest team in the league & incorporating essentially three completely new pieces to a potent starting lineup, the best is yet to come with this time. Having just beaten Minnesota & Atlanta, that might be tough on the rest of the league.

VI.            New York Liberty

  •   Flexes: Tina Charles, guard play
  •   Focus: Three point shooting, efficiency on offense.
  •   MVP: Connecticut Connection (Charles, Nurse, Hartley)
  •   X-Factor: Marissa Coleman
  •   Pulse: Shavonte Zellous

Katie Smith was very likely either Zellous’ vet in her rookie season in Detroit & even if she wasn’t, being the point guard of a team with championship aspiration, Smith likely had an intimate relationship with the kid who now is the most veteran player on her roster in her first season as a head coach & you can see their influence on each other. As this league continues to grow, situations as such breed confidence & opportunity. Something the Liberty are chasing now finally having their entire roster in the fold & the most impactful, pro-ready rookie. Marissa Coleman’s addition could prove vital to this team’s success as neither Kia nor Kiah seems ready to do what it takes to hold down the five spot on a consistent basis. That 6’2 frame, playing similarly to how she & Alyssa Thomas played at Maryland could prove problematic for Lib opponents.

VII.            Atlanta Dream

  •   Flexes: Pace, defense, offensive rebounding,
  •   Focus: Putting the ball in the hole
  •   MVP: Angel McCoughtry
  •   X-Factor: Layshia Clarendon

  Pulse: Tiffany Hayes

Layshia Clarendon was a WNBA all star this past season. Brittney Sykes could've stolen rookie of the year. Imani McGee-Stafford is the most talented 6'7" big is only allowed 5 minutes of court time I've ever seen in my life. Yet somehow, Atlanta has shown us that this team is its own biggest threat as the identity is stil developing. Nicki Collen is going to be an absolutely amazing head coach & game manager. Darius Taylor is one of the brightest stars in the game. But one has to begin to wonder what's in the water in Atlanta. Consistency alludes every coach they've had thus far.

VIII.            Dallas Wings

  • Flexes: Potent offense, youth, rebounding
  • Focus: Efficiency, taking care of the ball, fouls
  • MVP: Liz Cambage
  • X-Factor: Kaela Davis
  • Pulse: Skylar Diggins-Smith

Always wondered what the Wings would’ve looked like had they played more through Courtney Paris in the post & now, having Cambage back in the fold, even though Aerial Powers, Theresa Plaisance, & Glory Johnson have yet to play a game in its entirety, Fred Williams squad has shown it can get it done in stretches on both ends of the floor. The question will be consistency. Replacing two of last season’s beloved rookies with WNBA caliber players with proven international experience speaks voumes.

IX.            Minnesota Lynx

  •   Flexes: DEFENDING CHAMPIONS, FOUR OLYMPIANS & THE GREATEST WINNER THE WNBA HAS EVER SEEN.       Continuity, experience.
  •   Focus: Defense, bench, taking care of the ball
  •   MVP: Sylvia Fowles
  •   X-Factor: Danielle Robinson
  •   Pulse: Seimone Augustus

What exactly is wrong with the Lynx? It amounts to the changes in the offseason. Will take an in-depth dive later but it boils down to having to figure out a brand new bench on the fly. The only players not starters returning did not play. Rotational players have to learn the Minnesota way, including one player who wasn’t even in the league last year. Still, the Lynx are defending the ball well & while not blocking immaculate block or steal numbers, they don’t foul often. If Reeve’s crew can stop throwing the ball away & get some shots on goal as opposed to turnovers going the other way, they’ll be fine. Hard to lose on a buzzer beater (twice already this season) when the game isn’t close late. 2-7 still looms.

  X.            Chicago Sky

  •   Flexes: Not fouling, getting to the line, equal opportunity offense, sharing the ball, rebounding.
  •   Focus: Taking care of the ball, efficiency
  •   MVP: Allie Quigley
  •   X-Factor: Stefanie Dolson/Cheyenne Parker
  •   Pulse: Courtney Vandersloot

The Sky have proven to the most volatile team in the league & from here down, the team’s struggles mostly lie in the fact that their roster lacks the presence of a proven WNBA winner or generational talent that guarantees a nightly advantage. That is exacerbated by the fact that Stefanie Dolson has been slowed & subsequently missed games due to injury then Allie Quigley, the closest thing to a proven W winner you have goes down. All the while still waiting on two of your most important players. Nevertheless, Stocks has this team playing basketball the right way & believing in each other. All is well. The job is to get better & nothing comes fast but a crash.

XI.            Las Vegas Aces

  •   Flexes: Size, speed, fastest pace in the league.
  •   Focus: Scoring efficiently, three-point shooting, defending the three, free throw shooting, taking care of the ball.
  •   MVP: Nia Coffey/A'ja Wilson
  •   X-Factor: Kayla McBride
  •   Pulse: Kelsey Bone/Dearica Hamby

Halftime breaks have either made or broken the game for the Aces. The journey to contention is a steep one but Bill Laimbeer’s crew has shown much more effective, competent & competitive than anything we saw in San Antonio last year. The best part of it all is that Vickie Johnson gets to see what it’s like up close & personal. That first seat isn’t for everyone but VJ seemed out of her element last year. Imagine Nia Coffey if she’d been moved to the wing last year, as she should’ve. OH! & Moriah Jefferson still hasn’t played a game yet.

XII.            Indiana Fever

  •   Flexes: Youth, taking care of the ball,
  •   Focus: Efficient offense, defense, getting out in transition.
  •   MVP: Candice Dupree/Kelsey Mitchell
  •   X-Factor: Natalie Achonwa
  •   Pulse: Tiffany Mitchell

 Another team that could use an infusion of talent that’s currently sitting on the sidelines. Candice Dupree is a player who absolutely should’ve been on an Olympic roster to this point & has won at the highest level but all required less of her than she’s used to. Having to show up nightly emotionally, physically & statistically to show the rookies the way likely isn’t where she saw her career at this juncture but that’s why we’re not in control. Moe Johnson’s return gives this unit another weapon to match their impressive rookie class. Pokey’s crew will be fine but as last season showed, patience will be crucial.

 

Smoove’s Dishes of the Week

 

Player Awards

Point Guard: Chelsea Gray, Los Angeles Sparks
2-Guard: Jewell Loyd, Seattle Storm     
Wing: DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury
Pivot: Tina Charles, New York Liberty
Post: Liz Cambage, Dallas Wings
6th Woman: Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun
Rookie: Kia Nurse, New York Liberty
Coach: Curt Miller, Connecticut Sun

Tweet of the Week

Dimes of the Week

Here's a highlight tape of the best point guard in the league, since we delayed your invitation to the BCN WNBA season.

Come back every Monday for Smoove's WNBA Bucket Scale rankings.

Barber's Chair Live after Game Two of the NBA Finals

Check out Barber's Chair Live after Game 2 of the NBA Finals! Pierce and Scott are joined by Rico (@PLAYBOIRICO), the host of Rico's Playhouse, to discuss the Warriors' blowout of the Cavs, Steph Curry staking his claim to Finals MVP, and our predictions for Game 3. Plus a little Power, Game of Thrones and The Wire talk. This game was so bad we couldn't help ourselves.

We do not own any footage used in this video. All footage is owned by ESPN and the National Basketball Association.

Music by Hooksounds.com

Barber's Chair Live after Game One of the NBA Finals (feat. @Mariannoo)

Check out Barber's Chair Live after every game of the NBA Finals on YouTube! Scott (@Scott_CEOofSUH), Joe (@Flowsandolini), Pierce (@HennyOmega) and special guests will talk about the game once the final whistle blows!

Tonight, it's Game One of the NBA Finals. Mariano Bivens (@Mariannoo) joins the boys to dissect Game One, including JR Smith's bonehead play at the end of regulation, Steph's magnificent game, LeBron's first 50-point playoff performance, Kevin Durant's struggles, and whatever the hell LeBron and co. showed up to the game wearing.

Ball Don't Lie: The Commute ft. @readjack
The Warriors are going to their fourth straight Finals, but what the hell is wrong with them?
 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors are back in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, but not without overcoming the Houston Rockets in a 7 game series for the ages. We saw the best assembly of singular talent, against a group that was built perfectly combat it. And though everything had seemed to turn to Houston's favor, talent eventually won out. But despite the Warriors innate dominance and the legitimate talent in Houston, there’s still something awry in Golden State.

The Dubs flash there brilliance most every game, but rarely do it for the span of entire games. It’s not always been this way though, it’s seemed to have started just this season. Though it’s counter intuitive to how we think of dynastic teams, the Warriors are just content to play below their standard until change is necessary. Luckily for them, most teams peaks don’t reach Golden States standards.

Similarly, their lack of respect for their opponents has also troubled them throughout the season. There isn’t “appropriate fear,” a concept that head coach Steve Kerr has harped on constantly, like there was in their last three seasons. Sure they may go over strategy before the game, but the players often size up their opponents as they’re playing, which so often leads to evaluations at halftime and thus their dominant third quarters.

These issues damn near bit the Warriors in the ass against the Rockets, though. After a game 1 of relatively great focus, and a solid offensive game plan, the Warriors cruised in game 2. Though stealing home court advantage kept out the criticism for the moment, their lack of urgency stayed the same. Even as their playoff starter, Andre Iguodala, was sidelined with injury through games 4 through 7, the effort continued to wane.

On the brink of taking a 3-1 lead in game 4 at home, the Dubs lost their 10 point lead at the start of the 4th quarter. The 3rd quarter of game 4 saw an offensive explosion from Steph Curry, but his 17 points would become overshadowed by the mere 12-point quarter the team had to follow it up. The Dubs were caught sleeping, refusing to realize that these games aren’t sure things. Had they made any more of an effort for those 12 minutes, they could’ve dodged a game 7, but it’s a hard thing to change at this point in the season.

I don’t think the players are the only ones to blame for the close call though, some of the onus has to be given to Kerr. They made a big effort in game 1 to hunt switches and let Kevin Durant attack; an uncharacteristic style for Golden State to play but one that was effective. Houston was able to make adjustments though. They let KD attack on isolation plays, and played as physical as possible on the splash brothers, thereby decapitating ⅔ of their 3 headed snake. KD was more than happy to get his buckets, scoring 38 points, as the Rockets beat the Warriors at their own egalitarian game.

 ESPN/NBA

ESPN/NBA

It's not that surprising to see Kerr make his adjustments after a game though, rarely do they happen mid game. Occasionally a speech to spark the engine, but he likes to play it game by game. It’s just infuriating when he chooses to go down with the ship, especially when his most infamous blunder came in game 7 of the 2016 Finals. But Kerr finally showed his urgency in games 6 & 7. He cut the rotation down to 8 players, the starters with Kevin Looney, Jordan Bell, Nick Young, and Shaun Livingston off the bench. Maybe going to that rotation earlier could’ve ended the series quicker, or maybe playing the last card early could’ve given Houston a mental edge.

Regardless of the issues surrounding this team, they’re manageable, and aren’t systemic. It’s a matter of circumstance that the players can play without serious consequence or concern. The key to their problems is making sure they don’t become sewed into the fabric of the teams culture.

Ball Don't Lie ep. 19 - All that for a drop of blood?
Steph Curry heard the noise, looks to end the Rockets' playoff run
 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It was pretty tiring the last few days, the chatter about the Warriors game 2 loss. My dad’s constant worrying, “Ehh, I don’t know Jules.” All the while I was confident they’d bounce back in a major way, suspecting the catalyst to be Steph Curry after the good old fashion smacking they took in Houston.

The biggest reason for my lack of concern was the Warriors did what they needed to do. Starting a playoff series on the road for the first time in the Steve Kerr era, they needed one of the first two to expel the Rockets home court advantage. But other than their season opener against Houston, the Dubs have rarely lost in anything other than a blowout. When they’re competing, it’s rarely a close game, and their plan coming into game 3 was to compete.

As Draymond Green put it, “We allow one of those a series...We’ve had our one. Now it’s time to lock in.” Green has probably been their most consistent player too, but without the big scoring numbers, his floor game will rarely receive high praise or serious criticism. But in a series against the NBA’s #1 offense, he knows the pressure in on Golden States scorers to really show up.

That might sound ridiculous when considering Kevin Durant dropped 37 in game 1 and 38 in game 2, but 30+ points from KD is a lot different than 30+ from Curry. At their best, the Dubs have Curry creating shots for himself and then creating shots for his teammates. Keeping Steph off the ball on offense is easier to defend because the Rockets can switch off on pindowns, and get more leeway when holding him on the actions.

Keeping the ball in Curry’s hands when they run their motion actions or pick and rolls above the arc is inevitably going to cause a defensive breakdown because of his gravity. The Rockets are much better suited to have KD initiate offense, and to guard KD in his post-up isolations as the offense tends to stagnate. So when the defense turned up in the 2nd half, so too did the Warriors offensive movement.

Curry was getting to the rim repeatedly in the 3rd quarter, the first two layups were gimme’s. Oracle was starting to get loud. As Steph started to feel it, he was relentlessly attacking James Harden’s defense, first taking him off the dribble, then straight ghosting him on a back cut in transition. It was his 4th straight layup, and I looked to my parents and told them “He’s making a three next time down.” Next thing you know, a 30 foot bomb and a shimmy to boot.

But his biggest shot was his floater that prefaced his public address to Oracle. He faked Trevor Ariza out of his shoes, and threw up a shot over Clint Capela. Classic Curry. Then he yelled out, “This is my fucking house!” Surely this had been brewing since his offensive struggles in Houston. But it had been a while since we’ve seen a flurry like this from Steph. This was his response to the noise. Just a friendly reminder what he’s about.

Ball Don't Lie ep 18 - Same Old, Same Old
Hoops N Brews Ep.89 "Kevin Love Has One Moment"

On episode 89 of @HoopsNBrews, @Pavyworld & @reeltpj talk the Rockets losing game 3 in historic fashion to the Warriors, the Cavaliers game 3 performance, if the Cavs can comeback to beat the Celtics, the NBA draft and more.

Celtics aren't scared of LeBron, Cavaliers
 Michael Dwyer/AP

Michael Dwyer/AP

After taking a haymaker from LeBron James in the 1st quarter (with 21 in the 1st quarter and 42, 10 boards and 12 assist) and Kevin love having 22 and 15) the Celtics were able to withstand a triple-double from the King and a 22-point, 15-rebound performance from Kevin Love to take a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference Finals series with the Cavs going into Game 3 on Saturday.

Six players on the Celtics scored in double figures in Game 2, led by Jaylen Brown's 23 points, and a strong second half from Boston, outscoring Cleveland by 20 and making every hustle play. The swaggerless starting backcourt of the Cavaliers, on deck to make $35 million next year, scored 3 points on 1-11 from the field in a combined 53 minutes.

JR Smith played hungover, and after going 0-7 from the field, he let his frustration out on a dirty play, pushing Al Horford in the back in midair and earning himself a flagrant one. This nearly sparked a brawl with Marcus Smart, who would've thrown a punch if not for Tristan Kardashian grabbing his arm. JR instantly looked shook diggity talking tough while walking away (he probably got flashbacks of Nate Robinson body slamming him and remembered his hands are trash because smart wanted ALL the smoke.) Woj even called JR fugazi in an article years ago claiming he wanted to be from Newark badly but was a nice kid from the burbs. JR vs Smart is a matchup to watch in game three, as the latter will trail JR on screens and make it tougher for him to get off a shot.

Tristan Kardashian let Marcus Morris yell in his face like he was Kris Jenner on national TV. To quote Stephen Jackson "Straight sucka shit, he's a wannabe that doesn't know what he wants to be". He's Canadian Reggie Evans with an $82 million dollar contract.

The Cavs' lack of perimeter and interior defense is getting exposed this series, giving Boston an edge as they head back to Cleveland. Just like their Cavs, this crowd just doesn't have the same intimidation factor anymore. I'm sure JR and the other role players will shoot better, but their personnel has issues guarding the Celtics on the wings. Boston's entire starting 5 can shoot from multiple spots on the floor and take you off the dribble. It wouldn't surprise me if Boston stole a game in Cleveland.

If you look at Twitter you already see Bron stans abandoning ship. The Cavs are about to be in salary cap hell. The 8th pick they got from Boston in the Kyrie trade isn't enough to convince LeBron to stay. Rodney Hood, a free agent at the end of the year, has looked confused and hesitant on both ends of the floor the entire playoffs. Jordan Clarkson, who looked decent early on in the season with the Lakers, is playing like the moment is too big for him currently. Larry Nance isn't even in the rotation.

Bron stans are going to follow the drinking gourd wherever he goes, but for now we'll see what else this series provides us. LeBron is going to show up and dominate, but these Celtics don't fear him or this team. After the deadline JR Smith claimed "we got a fuckin squad now", but so far everyone but LeBron have disappeared. Ty Lue saying the Celtics "gooned it up" was lowkey calling his squad soft, and the fact that multiple players on the Cavs praised coach Brad Stevens and Smart to the media shows disarray on the horizon.

The Ricky Davis-era Cavs might be on deck soon, and I don't feel bad watching Cleveland's demise. Their fan base lost their minds thinking they were a dynasty. Those jabroni's better throw on that 2016 championship DVD because they're about to be irrelevant and lottery bound for the foreseeable future. If the Celtics win Game 3 I think the Cavs panic and get swept. Boston is 37-0 all-time when up 2-0 in a series ,and while LeBron is great, this team is full of mis-matched parts and its hard to see them digging out of an 0-2 hole.