Good news, bad news.
Good news: Congratulations to the Celtics, Cavaliers, Rockets and Warriors. You all made your Conference Finals.
Bad news: You are still a long way from your ultimate goal of winning the 2018 NBA Championship in this 100-plus game season of yours.
Eight playoff wins down, eight tough playoff wins to go.
Report for duty Sunday and Monday, and make sure you get plenty of rest in the meantime.
You will need it.
Head coach Brad Stevens was the franchise’s best hire this decade, and Kyrie Irving was the organization’s best acquisition, and Jayson Tatum was the program’s best draft pick, and Gordon Hayward may prove to be the team’s best free agent, but nobody, not nobody, on the Boston’s basketball squad has done more for the 2017-18 Celtics than Al Horford. He may be your last pick in the 2018 NBA All-Star Game, but he is No. 1 in the heart of Bostonians’ today. After schooling everyone’s Rookie of the Year one minute and toppling a probable All-NBA center the next, Horford proved he was the best all-around player in the second round of anyone wearing a Celtics or 76ers uniform.
The Game 2 defensive job he did on rook Ben Simmons, where he held ROY to one point on four shots, was pure genius. First, credit Coach Stevens for coming up with a game plan where he could put his 6-10, 240-pound center on a 6-10, 230-pound point guard who had no jump shot. The move allowed Horford to meet Simmons at the rim and keep him at bay for the rest of the series, while also giving Marcus Morris and Tatum a blueprint on how to defend Simmons as well. Then, when teammate Aron Baynes was resting after guarding Philly center Joel Embiid, Horford bodied up with the Sixers big man as well as anybody, again giving a virtuoso display. Couple those defensive showings with his stellar and versatile and space-creating offensive game, and Horford was simply unbelievable in helping the Celtics advance to the East Finals once again. Horford’s team-high postseason Player Efficiency Rating (21.4), team-high postseason true shooting percentage (.653), team-high postseason rebounds per game (8.7), team-high blocks per game (1.3) and 17.0 points per game, which ranks third on the team this postseason, are only a few more reasons that spotlight his impact thus far. Appreciate him, Boston! Appreciate him, basketball fans! Appreciate him, world!For this is a time that we sing the praises of one of the game’s truly great unsung stars.
There were two reasons why the Cavs had such an easy time dispensing with the Toronto Raptors last series in a 4-0 sweep:
1. The obvious reason was LeBron James played like the best player in playoff basketball that he is today;
2. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver. For those not paying close attention, Love and Korver were the second- and third-best Cavaliers all season long in this post-Kyrie Irving Era, with Love and Korver both posting respective SUPERGLOOO averages of 21.08 and 20.50 while averaging 28 and 22 minutes per game (our metric is based on Player Efficiency Rating, On-court and On-Off-court plus-minus numbers).
In the playoffs, Love and Korver have been even better playing more—33 and 26 minutes per game, respectively. In the Raptors series, Love and Korver were the second- and third-leading scorers, 21 and 15 points per game, while playing unique set-pindown games away from LeBron, giving the Cleveland attack a new look throughout the postseason. The various Cleveland sets made Korver impossible for defenders to follow and Love impossible to guard when he posted up or when he slipped outside for 3s. Together, the duo has gone from hot (a combined 30-for-75 for 40 percent in the first round) on three-pointers to downright blazing (20-for-42 for 48 percent in Round 2). They were staggering in the second round when Love and Korver posted a +17.1 net rating per 100 possessions as a two-man duo against the Raptors in 117 minutes together. By utilizing Love full-time at center, he basically forced opposing coaches into court confusion with their centers Myles Turner or Jonas Valanciunas, either causing chaotic switch-offs, mismatches or altering substitution patterns altogether.
Next series might not be as easy. After all, Boston Celtics do-it-all, All-Star center Al Horford can check Love on D. As for Korver, Horford was teammates with him in Atlanta when the Hawks were a 60-win team back in 2014-15. Still, if Horford spends too much time focusing on Love and Korver, that could mean less time spent on LeBron, which would be a mistake when the man is averaging 35 points himself in these playoffs on a crazy .625 true shooting percentage. Given time to game plan, the NBA’s best coach, Brad Stevens, will figure out on his own how to best stop LeBron without unleashing the shooters. After all, Boston cannot afford to let fourth and fifth options to get free, especially not after both J.R. Smith (.571 true shooting percentage in playoffs) and George Hill (.645) are also starting to form their very own dynamic duo of sorts in the backcourt. It truly does seem that Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, after 93 games this season, finally has some great combos to work with now. That five-man quintet right there, in 110 postseason minutes together, is posting 125.5 points per 100 possessions with a +17.5 net rating. Until the playoffs, Lue had not used the Love-LeBron-Korver-Smith-Hill combo once together. Better late than never, right?
To fully appreciate the James Harden-Chris Paul dynamic, one must also fully realize how Eric Gordon and Clint Capela provide the cornerstone pieces that not only allows Harden and Paul to maximize their floor generalship, but also frees up the forward troops to 3-and-D their games. For starters, each of the four core Rockets was signed at great value to the Rockets, giving GM Daryl Morey leftover cache to lure other top-notch 3-and-D players to Houston to get the Rockets to top 10 defensive status. Harden ($28.3 million in 2017-18), Paul (S24.6 million), Gordon ($12.9 million) and Capela ($2.3 million) posted stellar SUPERGLOOO numbers (36.35, 32.95, 23.63 and 29.68) that easily made their worth well over $100 million, as opposed to the $68 million they are actually paid. Houston used that $50-plus million surplus to fund the deepest team in the West, which actually gives them a chance to dethrone the 2018 Golden State Warriors, who could go down as one of the greatest teams ever.
Next, by complementing combo guard Gordon with Paul and Harden, D’Antoni is capable of keeping two of those stellar guards on the floor at all times. With Capela as his rim-running center, D’Antoni gives each of those combo guards the ultimate pick-and-roll partner who concentrates on doing only five things every game: protect the rim, rebound, run the floor, set picks and roll to the rim. If that last part doesn’t work, repeat pick-and-roll again. No center does all five aspects better than Capela. As a result, each guard has a game that shines offensively thanks to the freedom given by others in this work of floor-spacing wonder (Harden, .611 true shooting percentage in both 2017-18 regular season and 2018 postseason combined; Paul, .601; Gordon, .568; Capela .648). Is it any wonder they have the NBA’s leading offense this season and rank 11th all-time in offensive efficiency? Is it any wonder that five Rocket forwards—like the aforementioned three guards—also average at least one made three-pointer a game and at a good percentage (Harden, 3.6 three-pointers per game at 36 percent in regular season and postseason combined; Gordon, 3.0 at 35 percent; Chris Paul, 2.5 at 38 percent; Trevor Ariza, 2.5 at 37 percent; Gerald Green, 2.5 at 37 percent; Ryan Anderson, 1.9 at 39 percent; P.J. Tucker, 1.5 at 38 percent; Luc Mbah a Moute, 1.0 at 36 percent. Money well spent, all the way around.
What can be said about the Hamptons 5 that hasn’t been said before? Well, how about this: Enjoy these Warriors while you can because they are, at most, a year away from breaking up the band. The quintet we have grown to love—or hate, depending on your perspective—are now in their fifth year together, if we are to assume this group originally performed under the band name Death Lineup back when Harrison Barnes was in this boy band. After all Death Lineup was what this quintet was called—a name coined by starter-turned-sub David Lee—until Kevin Durant replaced Barnes before the 2016-17 season.
The newly-reformed Hamptons 5—featuring Durant along with former Death Lineup members Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green—had staying power through the change. So, if we are to make that assumption—that Death Lineup begat Hamptons 5—then we can assume we now are in Year 5 of an expected six-year run together of the original members. For financial reasons, it is hard to see the Hamptons 5 lasting beyond next season, especially since luxury-tax penalties will escalate above the nine-figure line, starting in 2018-19.
Knowing that, we probably are witnessing the next-to-last postseason before our very eyes. Who knows, if ownership makes changes this summer (sign-and-trade for LeBron?) in anticipation of the 2019 big bill, this could be the last postseason that we see Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green share the same space.
Here are the deets: This summer, Warriors ownership pays approximately $52.1 million in 2017-18 luxury-tax overage ($17.6 million) and penalty fees ($34.5 million). But next year, using conservative 2018-19 estimates ($147 million payroll), the Warriors pay $121.3 million in luxury-tax overage ($26.2 million) and penalty fees ($95.05 million) because of the increased repeater tax they face for being a luxury-taxpayer three of the past four seasons. So assuming the dynastic Warriors ownership foots a $121 million bill, in addition to this summer’s $51 million bill, that is probably where the big spending ends henceforth because—with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green seeking middle-max contracts for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Golden State’s overage-and-penalty fees will not decrease in the foreseeable future, not as long as four All-Stars are earning super- and middle-max contracts.
There is just no way the Warriors—even in a new arena, with new television rights, with arena-branding revenue, with the League earning additional gambling revenue—can annually afford to pay the estimated $150 million in overage-and-penalties (off a conservatively estimated $160 million payroll once Shaun Livingston is released) and Thompson gets a middle-max. Not even the following year when Iguodala’s contract comes off the books because that is when Green gets his middle-max deal, sending the Warriors into $30 million overage and $115 million for $145 million in 2020-21 O&P.
The most likely scenario would be for ownership to break up the band next summer by getting someone to take Iguodala’s $17.2 million contract in 2019-20 by trading a first-round pick and prospects to bring O&P costs down to $52.5 million ($13.6 million overage and $38.85 million penalties). That would trim nearly $100 million from the bottom line during the 2019-20 season…and then, of course, it would escalate back up to nine-figure penalties again the following season when Green gets his max. Moral of this story? Enjoy these Warriors while you can, as they go for title No. 3 in year six together. It is only a matter of time—a year or two at most—until Hamptons 5 becomes a quartet or trio.