NBA

NBA's growing conference imbalance makes East as appealing as ever

Jay Asser 4/07/2017
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West migration: Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Picture: Getty Images.

Conference imbalance has been a point of contention in the NBA for years and the schism has only widened this offseason to the point the East has never been more inviting.

The poles in both conferences remain entrenched as Golden State’s ‘superteam’ rules the West and LeBron James continues to have a tight grasp on the East. It’s the pecking order and shifting star power behind the top dogs, however, that has thrown the league’s balance further out of whack.

Already this offseason, which is just three weeks old, the West has added three 2017 East All-Stars with Chicago trading Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Indiana dealing Paul George to Oklahoma City and former Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap signing with Denver.

Depending on Gordon Hayward’s imminent decision on whether to stay in Utah or migrate East to Boston or Miami, the West could potentially retain all their stars as well. That’s not even mentioning Carmelo Anthony’s interest in Houston, which would require him to either waive his no-trade clause or negotiate a buyout.

More moves are to come, but when the dust settles this summer, the West will be a gauntlet rich with talent and star power, resulting in even more of a slog for teams trying to climb the ladder just to ultimately get ousted by the Warriors.

That begs the question: isn’t the East the ideal conference to be? Logic suggests stars should be clamouring to head East to appease both personal and competitive desires, and yet that hasn’t been the case so far.

Granted, Butler and George didn’t have a say in where they went, but the latter already had plans to return home to the West Coast and join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency next summer.

Millsap, meanwhile, chose to leave a team that was the fifth seed in the East, for one that didn’t even make the playoffs in the West.

Though that decision was influenced by foresight and teams’ interest in the 32-year-old, it was Millsap’s call nonetheless.

Chris Paul, similarly, could have had his pick of cities to make his new home, yet stayed in the West by facilitating a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Rockets.

After seeing how the weight scales have significantly tilted as of late, the prospect of joining the Celtics or the Heat should look even better to Hayward.

From a winning standpoint, the only true threat in the East is LeBron, and both Boston and Miami could be the second-best team in the conference with the swingman.

Utah, on the other hand, with or without Hayward, aren’t likely to vault Golden State, Houston and San Antonio. And who knows how much-improved squads like Minnesota and Denver will fare.

The odds of a deep playoff run and a Finals appearances are heavily skewed in favour of sides in the East, and the conference could be blown wide open if LeBron heads West next summer, as rumours have suggested is a possibility.

Plus, it’s exponentially easier to be named an All-Star in the shallow East and in turn, receive more personal recognition.

It’s a combination of factors that should be hard to turn down for stars and eventually, it will become too tempting to resist.

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NBA

Indiana Pacers should have gotten more for Paul George

Jay Asser 2/07/2017
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Off the Pace: Paul George will head to Oklahoma City. Picture: Getty Images.

There must be something in the air in the Midwest that’s made general managers lose their minds.

Barely a week removed from witnessing the Chicago Bulls get fleeced for Jimmy Butler, the Indiana Pacers decided their Central division rivals shouldn’t have all the fun.

In a shocking move that took the entire NBA by surprise, Indiana pulled the trigger on a trade to ship out Paul George ahead of the start of free agency yesterday, ending their disintegrating relationship with the star swingman.

But it’s where the Pacers sent George and the meagre haul they received in return that’s baffling. After countless rumours linking the All-Star to the Los Angeles Lakers – his preferred destination in free agency next offseason – as well as Boston, Houston and Cleveland, the final destination was a mystery team: Oklahoma City.

Credit to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who came out of nowhere to bag George for a package of Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and… wait for it… nothing else. That’s right, no draft picks were exchanged. Not even a measly second-rounder.

The Brodie #OKC

A post shared by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard wasn’t in the most enviable spot. The cornerstone of the franchise had made it known he was bolting next summer for the West Coast, thereby forcing Indiana to trade him despite having little to no leverage.

In a vacuum, netting a fairly young scoring guard and a big man prospect who was a lottery pick just a year ago isn’t a horrendous return for a player that already has one foot out the door. Circumstances (and reports), however, suggest Indiana shunned better offers and, if true, Pritchard may have cut off his nose to spite his face.

Boston, who undoubtedly had the best assets to pull off a deal, reportedly offered Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and three non-Brooklyn or non-Lakers/Sacramento picks. That’s not as appealing for the Pacers as a package centred on next year’s Nets or Lakers selection, but it’s still better than what Pritchard settled for.

That’s not even the point, though. Let’s just say this was the final offer put forth by Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. It’s well known that Boston want to first secure Gordon Hayward’s signature before trading for George – for both salary cap and philosophical reasons.

If you’re Pritchard, why wouldn’t you wait to see where Hayward signs and then, if it is with the Celtics, put the pressure on for a better haul, knowing George would complete their ‘superteam’ blueprint? In the meantime, Oklahoma City’s offer wasn’t going anywhere.

Instead, Pritchard either was too inept to weigh up his options or made a decision that wasn’t strictly based on getting the most possible for George.

Maybe he was put off by having to abide by Ainge’s timeline or his resistance to put his best assets on the table, or just wanted to exile George to Oklahoma, which is the antithesis of Los Angeles.

The bigger factor, however, may have been sending George out of the Eastern Conference so as not to strengthen a direct competitor.

All of these reasons are terrible and considering the Pacers may as well go into a full rebuild now, doing anything other than accepting the best possible offer is nothing short of a disaster.

It’s a weird way for this saga to end. Indiana didn’t have the foresight to trade George at February’s deadline, before managing to create somewhat of a bidding war among George suitors this summer.

After all that, they came full circle and made their life more difficult than it had to be.

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NBA

Mason Plumlee hoping to make Denver Nuggets his home

Jay Asser 1/07/2017
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Mile High: Mason Plumlee. Picture: Getty Images.

After playing for three different teams through his first five seasons in the NBA, Mason Plumlee hopes he’s found a more permanent home at his latest stop.

The 27-year-old centre hits restricted free agency today, but the 27 games he played with the Denver Nuggets in the second half of last season could be enough to give Plumlee a sense of belonging amidst a young, budding core that provides the franchise with a bright outlook.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. Mid-season trades rarely are.

Despite enjoying a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers, with whom he was averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0
assists, Plumlee was sent along with a second-round draft pick and cash to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder in February near the trade deadline.

The trade somewhat blew up in the Nuggets’ face, with Nurkic enjoying a rejuvenation in the northwest. Plumlee, meanwhile, played nearly five minutes fewer per game with his new team and saw his role reduced.

It wasn’t the first time Plumlee experienced being shipped to a new city and forcibly started over. In the 2015 offseason, he was dealt from Brooklyn, who drafted him 22nd overall in 2013, to Portland.

The transition was a positive one for the big man as he appeared to find his place in an up-and-coming Trail Blazers squad, only to be on the move once again a season-and-a-half later.

Stability may certainly be a factor, but Plumlee’s eagerness to
remain in Denver stems from a desire to continue developing alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and others.

“It was great. It was unexpected. It was the first time that I’ve experienced being traded in the season – when I went from Brooklyn to Portland it was in the summer – so it was very different,” Plumlee told Sport360° in Dubai earlier this week, while hosting a basketball camp in collaboration with Duplays and East Sports Management.

“But I enjoyed my time in Denver and even though we missed the playoffs, we were a better team after the trade. I enjoyed it and I look forward to growing there.

“There’s a lot of talent there, man. I think we can do some really special things if we keep the core together and grow.”

Plumlee, of course, doesn’t have the final say on where he ends up next season. As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets hold his rights and can match any offer sheet Plumlee signs with another team.

Considering how much the Nuggets parted with to acquire him, especially in hindsight, it’s reasonable to believe the sentiment of his return is mutual between Plumlee and the franchise. That shouldn’t stop him from at least exploring his options and testing the market to extract his first big contract since signing a four-year, $6.4 million (Dh23.5m) rookie deal.

For most 27-year-olds coming off the rookie salary scale, landing the most money would be a priority. Winning is great and all, but there’s still time later in a career to fill any championship void. For Plumlee, however, being part of a successful team is one of the most important factors in his decision-making.

“The biggest thing is winning and the people. It’s such a long season, the NBA is 82 games, and over half the year you’re spending with these people – whether it’s coaches, team-mates, front office – you want to like who you’re working with and feel you have a common goal. You’d think it would be easy to find that but it’s not,” he said. “So I look forward to playing with a team that is trying to win championships and competing for that.”

If Denver do bring Plumlee back, likely at a starting annual salary of at least $10m, they’ll continue to have two of the best passing centres in the league.

Jokic led all NBA centres with a 26.6 per cent assist percentage – a figure which was fractions behind the likes of stars Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Golden State’s Draymond Green – while Plumlee ranked sixth at the position at 18.7 per cent.

No player is more important to the Nuggets’ present or long-term prospects than Jokic and after playing alongside the versatile offensive engine, Plumlee is full of admiration for his team-mate’s unique abilities.

“He’s so ball-friendly,” Plumlee said. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s very comfortable whether that’s scoring, passing or handling. You aren’t going to make him unc-omfortable and he’s going to make good decisions for the most part.”

Passing has never been a question for Plumlee. His lack of rim protection and shooting though, are threatening to further diminish  his impact in a league which values floor spacing more than ever.

Despite attempting just 15 3-pointers in total through five years, Plumlee, who also shoots free throws at a lacklustre 58.2 per cent clip for his career, will eventually have to extend his range.

Whether it’s with the Nuggets or another team, more triples should be on the way sooner than later.

“We’ll get some up this season,” Plumlee said of shots from beyond the arc. “Even more important for me is being able to go to the line and be 70 to 80 per cent from the free throw line. I think guys who you can depend on down the stretch in every facet of the game are very valuable and I embrace being on the court at the end of the game, so that’s something that’s going to have to happen if I want to continue being in that position.”

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