The most interesting NBA news this week happened in the American capital, where All-Star point guard John Wall returned to play for the Washington Wizards.Here’s why John Wall matters. A surprise team could win the East this year – because none of the leaders in that conference is entering the playoffs with three stars.
All of the recent NBA champions have had at least three stars. The Warriors had four last year in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The Cavaliers had three in 2016 (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love). So did the Warriors in 2015 (minus Durant), as did the Spurs in 2014 (Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker), likewise the Heat in 2013 and 2012 (LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh), and so on and so forth.
Name a top contender in the East that has three stars. Not the conference-leading Raptors (whose stars are DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry), not the number 2 Celtics (Kyrie and Al Horford), not the Cavaliers (LeBron and Love) and not even the 76ers (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons), who are probably too young and inexperienced to survive three rounds after winning only 75 games the previous four seasons.
A general rule for the playoffs is that your team must rank in the top four – with homecourt advantage in the opening round – to have hope of reaching the NBA Finals. Because there are no lineups in the East with overwhelming talent, could this become one of those strange playoff years when a shocking underdog rises up from the bottom of the bracket? This is where John Wall comes in.
Weren’t the Wizards playing better without him? Wall has been Washington’s most important player since he arrived as the number 1 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. When he underwent knee surgery at the end of January, however, the Wizards won 10 of their next 13 games without him. Their second-best player, Bradley Beal, proved to be an effective passer. In Wall’s absence the Wizards shared the ball more freely – they ranked near the top of the league in assists – while Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky thrived. ``Everybody eats,’’ Beal explained happily in Wall’s absence.Then reality set in. The Wizards lost five of their last six games without Wall. Which reminded them of his importance.
Maybe Wall has learned something too. When he saw how well — and how happily — they were playing without him in February, it had to hurt him.
Wall is no dummy. He is capable of releasing the ball so that his teammates are more involved. Kyle Lowry made the same change to his game this season: His Raptors have risen to the top of the East because he is pounding the ball less and it is zipping around the court more effectively. If Lowry was able to make that crucial adjustment late in his career at age 31, then why can’t Wall do it age 27?
I’m not picking the Wizards to win the East. But they are my favored underdog – my ``dark horse’’ candidate.
There is a lot of evidence that Wall and Beal don’t particularly like each other, but that shouldn’t matter at this point in the season. Because they’ve learned from the last couple of months how much they need each other. Their on-the-court chemistry is powerful.Most important of all, they need to realize that this could be the best chance they’ll ever have to advance to the NBA Finals. The East isn’t going to be weak at the top forever. Next year the Celtics will regain Gordon Hayward, which will leave them with three stars. Markelle Fultz may turn into a third star for the 76ers – or maybe they’ll use their cap space to lure LeBron to Philadelphia. Or what if LeBron remains in Cleveland and the Cavaliers are able to trade their lottery pick from Brooklyn for a third star? What if the Bucks come up with a winning rotation around their 23-year-old Greek Freak?
With four games remaining in their regular season, the Wizards were seventh in the East. Usually you can dismiss teams of such a low ranking. But this is an unusual year, because none of the top four is a sure thing. In Wall the Wizards have a point guard who is fast, powerful and explosive, who should have been humbled by the success of his team in his absence, and who ought to have the energy to lead them defensively after two months in hibernation.
The Wizards have depth, size up front and the preferred blend of experience (this will be the fourth postseason in five years for Wall and Beal) and young athleticism (Wall is 27, while Beal and Porter are 24). So I advise you to keep an eye on them. And if they go on to threaten the Raptors, Celtics or Cavaliers in the opening games of the playoffs, you can say to your friends, ``I told you so.’’
Other comebacks. All-Star Jimmy Butler should be available soon for the Timberwolves, though they won’t have a hope of winning a round in the Western playoffs unless they finish sixth or better. (They need to avoid the Warriors or Rockets – but you already knew that.)
Hassan Whiteside missed nine games for the Heat with left hip pain. On Saturday, in his second game back, he complained that he didn’t play in the fourth quarter of a loss to the lowly Nets. You don’t usually hear players in Miami complaining out loud, to reporters, about their minutes. In Miami the players tend to behave (publicly, at least) like the members of a well-behaved family.
So keep an eye on Whiteside’s behavior as the games become more important. Especially since Miami is another provocative underdog in the East. The Heat haven’t lost by more than 6 points while going 6-3 over the last three weeks – which means they’ve been fighting hard every night.
Tyronn Lue was on the verge of returning as coach of the Cavaliers after leaving the team March 19 to deal with chest pains and other health issues. This is a big deal. Lue is one of those coaches who is able to relate to his players as people, which enables him to use their strengths (and hide their weaknesses) strategically during the games. The Cavaliers, with their lineup of young nobodies, is going to need all of Lue’s wisdom and leadership to deliver LeBron to an eighth straight NBA Finals.
One big name that has not returned is Kawhi Leonard. I continue to be shocked by all of the believable reports that he is not happy and wants to leave San Antonio – and you should be too. But if Leonard is able to get back for the playoffs, then the Spurs will be a frightening second-round opponent for the Rockets or Warriors.
Players of the Week. Usually this NBA award means nothing to me. But this week is different, because the top players turned out to be Victor Oladipo and Damian Lillard – the surprise leaders of each conference.
The Pacers, who were expected to miss the playoffs, are number 5 in the East because of their 25-year-old guard Oladipo. When they traded Paul George for him and Domantas Sabonis last summer, there was much laughter that the Pacers had been robbed. But they’ve actually won one game more than George and Oklahoma City – and it’s all because of Oladipo, who has become the favorite to win the Most Improved Player award while averaging 23.4 points, 4.3 assists and a league-leading 2.3 steals.
Then there is 27-year-old Lillard, who wasn’t an All-Star the previous two seasons. He entered this year promising to show better leadership defensively, with the result that his Blazers rank number 9 in the NBA on defense. Lillard and Oladipo, who take personal responsibility for the success of their teams, have emerged as two of the most important stars in the NBA.New Hall-of-Famers. Thirteen people were elected to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a strong list that includes NBA stars Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Ray Allen, Maurice Cheeks and Charlie Scott; the WNBA’s Tina Thompson and Katie Smith; Ora Mae Washington, a legendary African-American star from the earliest years of women’s basketball; NBA executives Rick Welts and Rod Thorn; college coach Lefty Driesell; and European star Dino Radja.
The induction of Radja is not to be taken for granted. For too long the Hall was welcoming in too many international coaches in the Hall of Fame and not enough international players. Jerry Colangelo, who oversees the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, has been aware of this disparity. The more that players from around the world are recognized, the better the Hall of Fame will be able to globalize the game.
I’ll leave you with these grainy memories of Radja’s European career …