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Fixing the NBA Playoffs

I didn’t write an NBA Bag on Thursday because I knew David Letterman was stepping down. I wrote an NBA Bag because I’ve been doing mailbags ever since I started writing this column in 1997 … and only because I loved Letterman’s “Viewer Mail” gimmick. So thanks for that, and thanks for everything else, David Letterman. If you hadn’t passed through my life in my formative years, I’d probably be doing something else for a living. And I like doing this. For the record, every NBA Bag has a 5,000-word limit, and you can submit your questions here. As always, these are actual emails from actual readers.

Q: It’s Wednesday afternoon. What’s that mean? Time for a Bill Simmons NBA mailbag! Since you had taken off last week I thought there was no way in hell you’d skip this week too. But after multiple checks throughout the day, what do I find? No mailbag! What were you doing all day, finger popping your [deleted]?
—Brayden O, Pittsburgh, PA

SG: Wednesday’s mailbag got bumped for the “Above the Rim” 20-year appreciation piece that I wrote with Rafe and Sharp. Besides, April 9 is Finger Popping Your [Deleted] Day, not April 2.

—Ric D, Brooklyn

SG: This guy was so angry, he couldn’t even spell “basketball” correctly.

Q: Hey [deleted], it’s April 3rd now and we’ve all gone over weeks without an NBA bag. It’s bad enough you skipped last week (for the Action Hero column), but now you can’t follow through on a promise for one on the 2nd? Yup, that’s our Simmons.
—Nathan, Lewiston

SG: Fine, fine. I won’t make the mistake of pushing Wednesday’s NBA Bag to Friday ever again. Heard you loud and clear. Look at all these deleteds! I don’t want to be known as a [deleted] finger-popping [deleted] [deleted] anymore. I’ll even throw in an extra thousand words free of charge.

Q: Did you see Mark Cuban fire shots at NFL’s possibly expanding 18-game schedule? Would the NBA would ever go nuclear and attack the NFL over concussions? Ads showing NFL players laying on the field unconscious with tag lines like “The NBA, our players actually remember their careers” and “The NBA, watch the top athletes in the world — guilt free.” They could also go the political attack ad route and flash quotes from former NFL players that blamed the league for their decline in mental health. Pro leagues have playfully disparaged other sports before in promoting their own league, but would the NBA ever go this far?
—Nick, Hamilton, ONT

SG: Kudos to Nick for coming up with my favorite idea of 2014 — the NBA spending $25 million on attack ads specifically to wound the NFL’s credibility and give the NBA a competitive advantage. But why stop at concussions and 18-game schedules? I’d throw in stuff like, “The NBA, Where We Don’t Replace Our Refs For 25 Percent Of The Season With Random Dudes Off The Street,” and, “The NBA, Where Our Players Don’t End Up Committing Crimes Every Other Week.”

Can all the Talented Weirdos Who Make Elaborately Weird YouTube Clips make attack ads and put “GRANTLAND NBA/NFL ATTACK ADS” in the subject heading so we can binge-watch them? Also, even if it’s beefing down, why can’t we go after baseball, too? What about ads pushing the NBA as America’s new pastime with messages like …

“The NBA — Our Games Don’t Take Four Freaking Hours To Play.”

“The NBA — The Sport To Watch If You’re Not A White Guy Over 50 Years Old Who Needs Help Getting An Erection.”

“The NBA — Our Best Players Don’t Get Suspended For Using PEDs … Because We Give Them A Crazy Amount Of Heads-Up For Every Drug Test, But Still.”

Q: Something we’re not talking about with Miggy Cabrera’s contract extension: Mike Ilitch is 85 years old. What does he care? He’s going to be dead by the time this goes bad. So what’s the age limit for owners, so we can’t have some octogenerian shouting “YOLO” and signing another Anna Nicole Smith contract?
—Ian, New York

SG: (Cut to the 89 remaining Milwaukee Bucks fans nodding glumly.)

Q: Is Joakim Noah the first “Point Center” in NBA history?
—Ed C., Chicago

SG: This guy wants a word with you.

(And really, Bill Russell was the first point center — when Bob Cousy retired in 1963, the Celtics retooled their offense around Russell’s passing because they didn’t have a pure point guard. In the six post-Cousy years, Russell averaged five assists during an era when assists counted only if the scorer caught the pass and immediately scored. During Boston’s next two title seasons in ’64 and ’65, Russell finished seventh and fifth in the NBA in assists per game. To put that in perspective, Joakim Noah is 26th right now. And by the way, this is like the 58th-most impressive thing about Bill Russell’s career. So … yeah. Bill Russell. Not good enough for LeBron James’s Mount Rushmore.)

Q: I never thought a player personifying his city like Allen Iverson did with Philadelphia could be matched but then Brandon Jennings signed in Detroit. Is there a new sheriff in town? I don’t know what to think anymore.
—Tyler, Burnsville, MN

SG: I spent the last 10 minutes trying to figure out this email. Was Tyler complimenting Jennings or insulting him? I better check Jennings’s monthly splits. Let’s see …

Before the All-Star Break: 17.6 PPG, 8.1 APG, 38% FG, 78% FT, 36.2 MPG
After the All-Star Break: 11.7 PPG, 7.3 APG, 36.6% FG, 63% FT, 30.3 MPG

Yup, he was insulting him. (Thinking.) Wait, you can’t insult the Motor City! How dare you! We’re only 10 days away from Detroit Week on Grantland! The guys from Kiss want a word with you.

Q: On the list of fake injuries that helped a team lose games over the final stretch of the season for lottery purposes, where does Pau Gasol’s vertigo rank?
—Ethan, Goleta

SG: Come on, that’s a real injury! Who would ever make up “vertigo” as a reason to sit your best player? Even Sam Hinkie wouldn’t have thought of that. You should look at this another way: It’s a fact that Kobe Bryant could have returned five or six weeks ago, only the Lakers decided they’d be better off holding him out until next season — even if it meant costing him about 600 points that he needs toward Kareem’s scoring record. You gotta love the NBA, a league with a lottery system so screwed up that even Kobe — the most maniacally competitive player since Jordan — looks at the big picture and says, “You’re right, I shouldn’t play.” Hold this thought for later.

Q: Have we ever seen a “superstar” player have his on-court production affected by his off-court antics more negatively than Paul George, at least in this era? Ever since the stripper story (in February) and the recent “catfish” incident (in March) became public stories, his numbers and impact for Indiana dipped drastically. It’s not the Paul George we saw in the first half of the season, not the top 3 MVP candidate. I know this stuff is sensitive, but we can’t ignore it when evaluating a slumping Indiana.
—Connor Harrison, Gainesville, FL

SG: I’m answering only because my readers keep asking if the off-court stuff affected George (and, by extension, the Pacers). He’s also acknowledged this stuff publicly, which makes it fair game. But you know what really happened? I think he just regressed back to being a slightly less efficient version of Paul George.

George’s 19 playoff games last spring: 19.2 PPG, 43% FG, 33% 3FG, 73% FT, 14.6 FGA, 5.5 3FGA, and 6.7 FTA . Slightly fewer 3s, got to the line twice as much, everything else was on brand.

George’s 2013 hot streak (October 29 through December 31, 30 games): 23.8 PPG, 47% FG, 40% 3FG, 86% FT, 17.3 FGA, 6.6 3FGA, 5.8 FTA. And it happened: We thought, PAUL GEORGE IS MAKING THE LEAP!!!!!!

George’s shooting slump (January 25 through March 31, 33 games): 19.2 PPG, 37% FG, 32% 3FG, 87% FT, 16.5 FGA, 5.8 3FGA, 5.8 FTA. Even after you make the “extra shots” and “once he made the leap, every defense concentrated on stopping him” excuses, that’s a pretty dramatic dip from a two-month hot streak. Maybe he caught fire, drifted away from who he was and is, predictably cooled off … and now he doesn’t know what he is. If you’re not consistent enough to carry a superstar’s burden offensively, but you’re eminently overqualified to be a role player, then what are you? How do you handle it? He seems trapped between those two worlds right now.

From an eye-test standpoint, I thought George exhibited unusual confidence those first two months, taking and making hands-in-the-face, off-balance 3s right out of the Durant/Carmelo/T-Mac/Old-School Vince superstar playbook. But are we sure that’s who he is? What if he’s just an incredible athlete, an elite defender, an above-average 3-point shooter, an elite competitor, someone who isn’t remotely afraid of LeBron … and a streaky shooter who has his good stretches and his bad ones? What if there’s still another offensive leap for the 23-year-old George to make, only he’s one or two seasons away from making it? What does that mean for the Pacers in the short term?

Remember, he’s also playing without a slash-and-kick creator, and he’s playing for a contender that deliberately slows games down, limits possessions and relies on defense. Do I wish he went to the rack more over settling for jumpers? Absolutely. Young LeBron went to the line 10-plus times a game. Same for Young Wade, In-His-Prime Kobe, Young T-Mac (9.7 FGA in 2003) and Durant right now. George’s closest style dopplegänger is T-Mac, also a streaky scorer, but a more talented offensive player who got to the line whenever he wanted. George isn’t there yet. He’s a work in progress. And lately, he’s fallen into some bad habits — see Zach Lowe’s Indiana piece today — that have undeniably stilted his progress. The problem for Indiana is that Paul George is the guy from 10/29/13 to 12/31/13, but he’s also the guy from 1/25/14 to 3/31/14. They’re living in the same body. He’s not a finished product yet.

Q: Remember when the Celts were humming along towards a 2011 title run until a trade deadline deal sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and a pair of underwear? And how it made sense on paper but destroyed Boston’s team chemistry, killed Ubuntu, and shipped Rondo’s best friend all at the same time? Well remember when the Pacers were humming along towards a 2011 title run until a trade deadline deal sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner and a pair of underwear? What say you Sports Czar and King of body language?
—Mike, Chicago

SG: If I could create a pie chart of percentages explaining Indy’s pseudo-collapse, here’s what it would look like.

The Collective Slump (10%) — When’s the last time you watched anyone on the Pacers and said, “That guy’s playing great!” They’ve looked broken offensively for two solid months, for all the nuts-and-bolts reasons that Zach laid out today. Check out their post–All-Star break numbers. Yikes.

Identity Loss (25%) — Their play tailed off because they stopped pounding the ball inside, their defense slipped, their ball movement effectively disappeared, and they don’t get nearly enough easy baskets. David Aldridge’s last column:

“I just don’t know if we’re handling success and being out front the right way,” [David] West said. “When we don’t share the ball, we have 10, 15 possessions where we don’t make a single pass, and you’ve got four guys, or nine guys on the floor watching one guy, watching two guys, it’s on us.”

Whoa. It’s one thing for Hibbert to say stuff — he’s an outgoing guy and a reliably outspoken interview. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t give a shit. But for a cagey veteran like West to feed that stuff to Aldridge really says, Things are effed up now and I need to make it public because complaining about it privately hasn’t worked. And also — the concept of “handling success and being out front the right way” is a great one. Wasn’t that what derailed the mid-2000s Pistons? They won in 2004 and made the 2005 Finals because of defense, teamwork and consistency. When the ’06 Pistons ripped off that 37-5 start and sent four players to the All-Star Game, it was the worst thing that happened to them. They arrogantly developed an on/off switch that doomed them. Could that be happening here?

The Chemistry Thing (40%) — I’m the same guy who wrote a 700-page NBA book about the secret of basketball not having anything to do with basketball. So, yeah, I can’t help overanalyzing Indiana’s chemistry meltdown. Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Pacers were calibrated a certain way — grit and grind, defense first, stats don’t matter, the team is bigger than one person. Then they ripped off that early hot streak. Then George got some early MVP buzz. Then all the “THEY CAN BEAT MIAMI!” stuff started. Then the media started preaching the genius of Roy Hibbert’s verticality and pushing for Lance Stephenson to make the All-Star team. Then they signed Andrew Bynum (not exactly Gandhi in the clubhouse) and flipped Danny Granger (a beloved teammate) for Evan Turner (a 2014 free agent who hasn’t fit in).

So now you have 25 percent of your team playing for new deals, a star who’s getting prematurely compared to LeBron and Durant, a defensive anchor who thinks he’s Bill Russell, Lance thinking he’s an All-Star headed for a meaty extension, and a subtle behind-the-scenes chemistry downgrade from Granger to Turner/Bynum. And as soon as things started going south a little, shit drifted out into the public. Larry Bird calling out Frank Vogel. Hibbert and George arguing in front of reporters. All of Hibbert’s quotes. Teammates arguing on the bench during games. West saying what he said. That’s the sign of real dysfunction.

Lance Has This (25%) — I’m going mostly eye test here. Admittedly dangerous. But in my early days, I always joked that Tim Wakefield was the Steve Sanders of the Red Sox — in other words, you loved having him around, but you never wanted him involved in crucial plots. If you modernized that joke for 2014, you’d say that Lance Stephenson is the Saul Goodman of the Pacers — you love having him around, but you never wanted him involved in crucial plots. I don’t think AMC’s spinoff show with Saul will work, and I don’t think the Pacers can make the Finals by leaning on Lance this much.

Initially, the whole thing was cute — Vogel relying on Lance to assume a little of the playmaking burden. But then something dangerous happened. Lance started getting “You know who’s quietly the key to Indiana’s offense right now? LANCE STEPHENSON!” and “You know who’s really blossoming into a good player? LANCE STEPHENSON!” attention. When the All-Star buzz started, that seemed like the invisible turning point. And it’s not just the fancy high dribbles, the no-look passes, the post-dunk staredowns and all the other look-at-me stuff that doesn’t feel Pacers-ish.

The biggest Lance-related danger (for me, anyway): In close-and-late games, when Indiana needs someone to make a play, Lance invariably shifts into “I got this” mode. Trust me — you’re not winning four straight rounds if Lance Stephenson has the “I got this” green light. Forget about Miami in Round 3. Imagine a 2-2 series in Round 1 or Round 2, with Indy struggling to keep home-court advantage in Game 5 against some overachieving underdog … and Lance says, “Hold on, guys … I GOT THIS!” Does any Pacers fan feel good about that scenario?

Now, you can flip this the other way and say, “The 2003 Spurs won a title partly because Stephen Jackson had the balls to occasionally say, ‘I GOT THIS!'” His swagger (I hate that word, but still) really helped them. This is 100 percent true. It’s also 100 percent true that San Antonio allowed Captain Jack to leave that summer, and that they never acquired another “I GOT THIS!” guy. Gregg Popovich didn’t want to walk that tightrope again. But with the ghastly way Indy is playing offensively right now, they might not have a choice.

To be fair, second-half swoons don’t necessarily mean you’re finished. (The 1995 Rockets or 2010 Celtics, anyone?) And 49 of the last 60 Finals teams (dating back to 1984) had a top-two record in their conference, so history sides with Indy regrouping here. But when you’re built unconventionally — winning with defense, chemistry, depth and unselfishness, but without an elite offensive player — it’s tough to say “They’ll be fine” when their four biggest strengths vanished. And we DO have a precedent for the swoon to keep going — in Indiana, no less. Remember when the Pacers went into the 2003 All-Star break with the East’s best record, peaked at 37-15 … then belly-flopped to an 11-19 finish and got stunned by Boston in Round 1? Hold on, I need a Truth flashback.

So, this isn’t a media-created story line just because it’s March and we’re bored. Two months ago, I couldn’t imagine there not being a Round 3 Miami-Indiana slugfest without a major injury intervening. Now? I could absolutely see Brooklyn or Chicago toppling Indy in a Round 2 rock fight. It’s in play. Stay tuned.

Q: Dane Cook and Dennis Rodman starred in a f-ing movie together? How is Simon Sez not talked about more? I thought comcast was making an april fools joke when I saw it in the free movie section.
—Sam Whiteley, Portland

SG: That can’t be true. (Searching.) Wait a second … Dane Cook and Dennis Rodman starred in a f-ing movie together! Where was I? Did I block this out of my mind? And how can I re-block this out of my mind????

Q: I know it’s impossible. But, for argument’s sake, the Knicks grab the 8 seed, and then beat the Heat in the first round, would that be the greatest sports upset ever? Would USA-USSR 1980 finally be outdone?
—Mike, New York, NY

SG: Settle down. Besides, it wouldn’t even be the greatest NBA first-round upset ever.

Come on, you know how Knicks-Heat is playing out: The Knicks will steal Game 2 in Miami thanks to Carmelo scoring 39 and Miami forgetting to flick their on-off button to “on,” followed by a two-day stretch in which every Knicks fan does the math and says, “Wait, we have three home games left, we have MSG, we’ll have Phil in the house, we have Carmelo, WE CAN DO THIS!!!!!!!!!” And then, Miami will annihilate the Knicks in Games 3 and 4 as every Knicks fan remembers, “Oh yeah, we have Mike Woodson and the league’s worst backcourt, I totally forgot!”

Q: Could you see Kevin Ollie being the next coach of the Thunder if they crash and burn in the playoffs? In your podcast with Kevin “The Servant” Durant, he spoke very highly of Ollie as a leader.
—Ricardo, McAllen, TX

SG: Had the same thought as I watched Ollie coach his ass off last weekend, then abandoned that thought last night when I remembered that OKC can still make the 2014 Finals because they’re such a horrendous matchup for the Spurs. (Then again, that’s the coolest thing about the 2014 playoffs — there’s a little rock-paper-scissors action going on. Everyone has someone they don’t want to play.) Anyway, I asked Durant in that podcast if he believed in the whole “veteran leadership thing.” His answer …

“Most definitely. Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us. He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. Just his mind-set, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that and we wanted to be like that. It rubbed off on Russell, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden — and everyone that comes through now, that’s the standard you got to live up to, as a Thunder player, and it all started with Kevin Ollie.”

Now, I can’t see the Thunder changing coaches unless they get bounced in Round 1. Not because they’d be unhappy with Scott Brooks, but because they’re too friggin’ cheap to pay two coaches. But Ollie is a super-intriguing name to file away, especially if OKC doesn’t win the title in 2014 or 2015 and wants to avoid “The Decision II” (Durant in 2016). It all started with Kevin Ollie. Hmmmmmmmm.

Q: If your Celtics don’t win the lottery and have the 5-8 pick who would you not want the Celtics to take? Being a Timberwolves fan, I’m praying the Lakers don’t take Aaron Gordon. Super athletic but can’t shoot at all.
—Tommy H. Mankato, MN

SG: My top six right now, at this very moment and not counting the 730 other times I’ll change my mind before June: (1) Andrew Wiggins, (2) Jabari Parker, (3) Joel Embiid, (4) Aaron Gordon, (5) Julius Randle, (6) Dante Exum. After that, I’d be depressed that the Celtics didn’t get a top-six pick. And we disagree on Gordon — he’s Shawn Marion 2.0 with a dash of Blake and a dash of Kirilenko thrown in. I came around on Gordon the more I watched him. Crazy athletic, good hoops IQ, super-competitive. I’m in. By the way, Marion 2.0 is no joke — we just got 15 years and counting from the Matrix.

Q: Isn’t the perfect ending to Steve Nash’s video series to copy Amber Waves’ Dirk Diggler documentary complete with brooding shots of Nash walking through the streets of L.A. and watching sunsets? For Steve Nash, the future is something to look forward to, not to fear. He is a creative man of many interests: film, poetry, karate, music, dance…He is a man of passion and mystery. He is a man of lust. Now that’s an ending. I can even see Nash as Diggler in the scene with D’Antoni as Jack Horner where Nash talks about how great it is to work with a coach who gives him freedom to run the offense as he sees fit, then D’Antoni interrupts to say, “No, I don’t.”
—Todd Grube, Houston, TX

SG: Now that’s how you get in the mailbag. If you write a funny email that organically plugs a Grantland project while somehow incorporating Boogie Nights, you’re in.

Q: I’m ready for your annual trade value column. This is where you’re going to explain why Goran Dragic and his cap friendly salary and slashing style are more valuable than Damian Lillard and his eventual max contract and poor percentage at the rim. I’m going to get mad because Damian is my guy and I’ll think you’re an idiot. Then I’ll come to grips with the fact that you’re right, I’m a homer, and watching my Blazers crawl to the finish line while the Suns seem to not go away only verifies your point. I suppose that’s why you’re a necessary evil. I don’t have to like it though.
—Jake, Gold Beach, OR

SG: That was this month’s winner of the Backhanded Compliment Award. I don’t know when we’re seeing the annual Trade Value Column — if I wrote it right now, I’d end up putting Anthony Davis first, second and third. Might be better off waiting until the summer when I can’t overreact to everything. I love overreacting. It’s one of my weaknesses.

Q: I can’t think of a scenario where Frank Kaminsky isn’t at least useful in the NBA. Seven feet, can shoot it from anywhere, quick, good free throw shooter, good intangibles. I spent 30 minutes trying to find him in the top 100 NBA prospects, but could not. Am I missing something?
—David Moore, Charleston


(See, I love overreacting. But seriously … this guy couldn’t be an effective big off the bench for a contender? The Spurs couldn’t figure out how to use a 7-footer who shoots 3s, plays with his back to the basket and doesn’t do anything else? Watching Kaminsky dismantle Arizona like he was Pau circa 2006 whupping on Lithuania  in the World Basketball Championships or something — that was absolutely delightful. I loved it.)

Q: What would be the most IMPROBABLE BUT FUN thing that could happen in the 2014 NBA Playoffs?
1. “The Heat are swept in any round”
2. “Knicks enter as 8 seed and beat Indiana or Miami”
3. “Phoenix goes to the Conference Finals”
4. “It gets leaked that Prokhorov offered 5 hookers to each Net if they won the East.”

What are we missing?
—Mauricio, Santa Monica

SG: You missed the comedy of NBA TV getting stuck with every single Indiana-Charlotte game. Has that ever happened before? An entire series getting the NBA TV hammer?

Q: LeBron is currently 10/1 for MVP betting. Talk me out of this.
—Sean, Dublin

SG: One second.

Q: Who is the next NBA MVP not named Durant or LeBron? I suspect it’s Anthony Davis. He can dominate on both ends of the floor in a LeBron-esque manner, and is barely 21. Does he have the potential to carry a Pelicans team of the mid/late 2010s (with an inevitably weak supporting cast) the way LeBron did on the Cavs a decade earlier?
—James Newmyer, Prague

SG: Absolutely. Zach Lowe covered it on Tuesday. Davis is the safest bet. But let’s be clear — LeBron and Durant are owning the rest of this decade. Durant is JUST hitting the beginning of his prime, at age 25, and coming off this insane three-month stretch after Christmas (from 12/27 through 3/25):

42 Games, 39.3 MPG, 35.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 6.1 APG, 52% FG, 40% 3FG, 86% FT

That’s more than half a season! Are you kidding me?

I sucked it up and looked through every conceivable three-month stretch of Larry Legend’s career — he never caught fire like THAT. Not even during the last three months of the ’85 season, when the Legend basically averaged a 31-11-7 in the 50-40-90 range, with at least four or five buzzer-beaters and the famous 60-point game against the Hawks in New Orleans. By the way? He’s the greatest forward of all time. And Durant’s half-season streak tops any half-season streak Bird ever had. We’re four years away from wondering about the next MVP. At least. But to answer James’s question, the Brow is definitely the first pick. I’d also throw Blake Griffin, Steph Curry and Thon Maker in there. Thon Maker? Thon Maker.

Q: I almost died when I read the title of this TED talk: “Dan Gilbert: Why We Make Bad Decisions.” Unfortunately, it’s not the Cavs owner, just a namesake. But imagine if it were!
—Francois Aube, Montreal

SG: I think there’s still time.

Player A: 21.6 ppg, 6.4 APG, 41.7 fg%, 32.4 3-point%
Player B: 21.3 ppg, 8.9 APG, 42.8 fg%, 33.5 3-point%
Player C: 21.1 ppg, 6.2 APG, 42.8 fg%, 36.6 3-point%

Player A is Steve Francis Year 3.
Player B is Stephon Marbury Year 3.
Player C is Kyrie Irving Year 3.
—Kyle B., Indy

Q: Look at this.
Player A: 20.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 1.3 spg, 3 tpg, 45.3 fg%, 35.4% 3fg.
Player B: 21.1 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 spg, 2.7 tpg, 42.8 fg%, 36.6 3fg%.

Player A is Isaiah Thomas. Player B is Kyrie Irving.
—Aamir Shakir, San Francisco

SG: My counter to Kyle and Aamir …

Player A: 21.1 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.6 rpg, 43.1 FG%, 36.6 3FG%, 20.1 PER
Player B: 21.3 ppg, 6.9 apg, 3.3 rpg, 43.8 FG%, 29.1 3FG%, 21.6 PER

Player A? Kyrie. Player B? Devin Harris in 2009.

(YES! I just won the “Who Could Freak Cleveland Fans Out The Most With a Blind Player Comparison To Kyrie Irving” Contest!!!)

Q: What is your opinion on Vivek Ranadive’s “V Plan” to stop tanking?
—Lawrence Faulkner, Sacramento

SG: Put it this way — if I bought a small-market team, gave my polarizing young head case a massive extension, overpaid an injury-prone free agent to become the sixth power forward on my roster, told my local TV cameras to shoot my reactions as much as possible during our home games, then traded for one of the league’s worst contracts who doubled as the least popular player in the advanced metrics community at the time, I would not have the balls to call this “The B.S. Plan.” Just kidding, Vivek. But you might want to check the Internet.

Q: Could you please make sure that near the end of the NBA season you tease us with a breakdown of what your Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament would look like?
—Scott Scattergood, Korea

SG: I thought the lopsided 2013-14 NBA season vindicated the Entertaining As Hell Tournament premise. Right now, we’re headed for a 50-win Western team missing the playoffs (my guess: the Suns) as well as the reprehensible 35-win Knicks reprehensibly sneaking into the reprehensible no. 8 seed.

When the 2014 Suns can miss the playoffs and the Knicks can make it, we’re fundamentally doing something wrong. When the Sixers can blow 26 straight games, then win at home to break the streak as their mortified fans don’t know whether to cheer or cry, we’re fundamentally doing something wrong. When the 2014 Hawks say, We’d rather fall into the lottery than make the playoffs, we’re doing something fundamentally wrong. Such a frustrating season. I love watching 10 teams, tolerate maybe five others, and don’t want any part of the other 15.

OK, so here’s how the EAHT would play out if the season ended on Wednesday (before Thursday’s games). Remember, here’s the premise: The top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then it’s a single-elimination tournament for the last two playoff spots.

First-Round Winners: No. 1 Memphis over no. 16 Milwaukee (“Welcome to Tru TV!”) … no. 2 Phoenix over no. 15 Philly (Sam Hinkie: “Hey, Thad and MCW, it’s OK to try in this one”) … no. 3 Minnesota over no. 14 Orlando (yes, ’Sota could absolutely blow this game) … no. 13 Boston over no. 4 Denver (OUR FIRST UPSET! LET’S GO CELTS! HERE WE GO GREEN!!!!!!!) … no. 5 New York over no. 12 Utah (with the Knicks nearly blowing a 22-point lead as every Knicks fan melts down on Twitter) … no. 11 Lakers over no. 6 Atlanta (17 assists for Nash, 35 points for Kobe) … no. 7 New Orleans over no. 10 Detroit (34 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocks for the Brow) … no. 8 Cleveland over no. 9 Sacramento (triple-OT!!!).

Lingering first-round thoughts: Can you really go wrong with a single-elimination tournament featuring Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Carmelo Anthony, Boogie Cousins, both Gasols, 40-year-old Steve Nash, the Celtics and Lakers jerseys, and a triple-OT game between Sacramento and Cleveland? And also, Kobe could have returned a month ago, only it made little sense for him to risk his aging body on a lottery team. But if he could win three win-or-go-homes to make the playoffs? That dude is coming back. Is the league more fun with Kobe playing or not playing? You tell me.

Second-Round Winners (re-seeding): No. 13 Boston over no. 1 Memphis (MASSIVE UPSET! BRAD STEVENS LOVES TOURNAMENTS!!!!! RONDO WITH A 17-19-16!!!!!!) … just kidding, no. 1 Memphis over no. 13 Boston (golf clap for the C’s) … no. 2 Suns over no. 11 Lakers (final score: 129-125, and I gotta admit, I came damned close to picking Kobe, Nash and Vertigo Pau) … no. 8 Cleveland over no. 3 Minnesota (here’s the textbook 2014 T-Wolves game in which they score 70 points in the first half, then blow a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, choke the game away on a Dion Waiters Heat Check, then lose in the last 10 seconds because someone other than Kevin Love took the final shot, followed by Love taking his jersey off on the court and angrily flinging it into the stands as Rick Adelman turns maroon) … no. 7 New Orleans over no. 5 New York (38 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks for the Brow!).

Lingering second-round thoughts: I really, really, really, really, really enjoyed pretending to watch all of those games. Look at what we accomplished already. We convinced Kobe to come back. We figured out a new and improved way for the Knicks and Timberwolves to torture their fans. We rewarded the Brow for turning into a franchise guy — now he has something to play for other than the lottery. Same for that goofy Cavs team that floundered for four months and needed a mini–Ewing Theory situation with Kyrie Irving to find itself. I like our Final Four. And we ended up with four spectacular second-round games. You’re enjoying this!

Final Four Winners: no. 1 Memphis over no. 8 Cleveland (too much Big Spain, too much Z-Bo, too much Mike Brown), and no. 7 New Orleans over no. 2 Phoenix (the Brow! The Brow! THE BROW!!!!!!!!!!!).

Lingering Final Four thoughts: This was beautiful. The Grizzlies earned a playoff spot they deserved anyway; they’re 29-12 since January 9. The Brow pulled a 1988 Danny Manning and single-handedly dragged his boys to glory. And we ended up with a better no. 8 seed than the freaking Knicks. The only downer: Phoenix got bumped from The Show. But hey, if you can’t fake-beat New Orleans at fake-home, then you don’t fake-deserve to make the fake-playoffs.

All right, so we found our last two playoff teams. Now what? The more I think about it, the more I think (a) the EAHT should end after three rounds (it doesn’t make sense to have a championship game), and (b) we should just dump conferences and go with an NBA Sweet 16 for the actual playoffs (like Kirk Goldsberry posted two weeks ago).


So, why not? Why wouldn’t we want an extra week of rest for the best playoff teams? What’s wrong with 14 single-elimination playoff games over one action-packed week? Why not open the door for a late-peaking team? Why avoid a scenario in which someone like Kobe says, “You know what? I’m coming back,” instead of, “There’s no reason for me to come back”?

And doesn’t re-seeding 1-through-16 for the actual playoffs, NCAA-style, make more sense than what we’re doing now? You’d still have your best team in each conference on opposite sides of the bracket, only someone like Indiana couldn’t be rewarded for hiccuping down the stretch. Instead of getting gift-wrapped the below-.500 Bobcats in Round 1, the Pacers now get Noah, Thibs and the Bulls. Good luck going on cruise control in THAT series.

How would the EAHT affect tanking? I’m throwing out my fourth different idea for this one … what if we blew up the lottery format and reinvented it with three tiers:

Worst Six Teams: 9 percent chance of winning
Worst Teams 7 through 12: 4 percent chance of winning
Worst Teams 13 through 16: 2 percent chance of winning

Wait, that’s only 86 percent. Hmmmmmmm … let’s give each of the 14 playoff teams 1 percent odds. That’s right, we’re putting everyone in! TRY TANKING NOW!!! We run the lottery for the first four picks, then the draft goes in reverse order of record from the fifth pick on. You really think Philly is casually blowing 26 straight under this revamped system?

Oh, and Adam Silver? You’re shopping your next slew of media rights packages right now to ESPN/ABC, Turner, Fox and everyone else, right? And you’re thinking about adding a third package that includes a Saturday-night regular-season bundle, right? Wouldn’t it make the most sense to combine that bundle with the Entertaining As Hell Tournament into a third, mack-daddy package? Conceivably, Disney would pay more for the same deal it already has; same for Turner and its current deal; then a third party comes in (Fox Sports? NBC? Maybe even … gulp … Google or Apple TV?) and grabs those Saturday-night games and the Entertaining As Hell Tournament? Thank you and please drive through. I’m turning everything over to the O’Jays.