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For Four Key Teams, the Off-Season Begins Early

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No playoff team seeded seventh has won an N.B.A. championship. That did not stop oddsmakers from listing the Los Angeles Lakers behind only the Nets as title favorites when the playoffs began. Nor did it stop the second-seeded Phoenix Suns from ousting the Lakers immediately.

The Atlanta Hawks’ five-game dismissal of the Knicks was the only surprise, based on seedings, among the eight series in the opening round of the playoffs, but you have probably heard my stance by now, via traditional or social media: Round 1 was bonkers even without results that could be classified as upsets.

The rapid demise of the defending champion Lakers was merely one source of chaos. After detailing many of them in Sunday’s column, let’s zoom in on four teams that have already been ushered into the off-season.

The first first-round exit of LeBron James’s 18-year career was an aberration on many levels.

The Lakers slipped so far in the standings largely because James (27) and Anthony Davis (36) combined to miss 63 games. James had never previously faced a first-round matchup against the 82-game equivalent of a 58-win team.

Losing early does come with a silver lining. With Davis ailing and little hope of a deep run, the Lakers were better off bowing out so their stars could have the longest recuperation period possible. To ensure that last season’s title at the Walt Disney World bubble is not the only one they win together, James and Davis clearly need the extra time to recover after the way they responded to the shortest turnaround from one season to the next (71 days) in N.B.A. history.

The Lakers’ larger problem is that James, who turns 37 in December, and Davis, whose durability has never been questioned louder, are not assured of being surrounded by more reliable teammates next season. We detailed in early April how the ballyhooed off-season acquisitions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Wes Matthews had not panned out. It got only worse after that for the Lakers’ role players; and the March acquisition of Andre Drummond proved even more ill-fitting.

The Lakers promised Drummond a starting role to secure his commitment in free agency, according to two people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. By Game 6, Drummond was rooted to the bench, receiving zero minutes in an elimination game. Worse, with such limited salary-cap flexibility to make changes, the Lakers likely must pay Schroder more than they’d like to in free agency — after Schroder turned down a four-year extension offer worth more than $80 million during the season — or lose him without the means to sign a suitable replacement.

The refusal to surrender Talen Horton-Tucker in trade talks for Kyle Lowry will likewise linger as another source of regret if Horton-Tucker, 20, doesn’t blossom next season or figure in a helpful trade. He earned only 48 minutes of playing time across four games against the Suns.

The Mavericks heard the best news they possibly could on the day after their first-round unraveling against the Clippers.

Luka Doncic all but announced on Monday that he would sign a five-year contract extension in August.

There was no grave concern in Dallas that Doncic wouldn’t sign a deal expected to exceed $200 million, which would be the richest rookie extension in league history, but the public reassurance won’t hurt given the daunting challenges the Mavericks face to put a better team around him.

They owe Kristaps Porzingis, a former Knick, nearly $102 million over the next three seasons, which makes him incredibly difficult to trade after a postseason in which he had a marginal impact offensively and, of greater concern, was punished defensively. The Mavericks surrendered two future first-round picks to the Knicks and signed Porzingis to a five-year, $158 million contract before he ever logged a second for them in the belief he would mesh well with Doncic and provide elite rim protection. Neither is happening after Porzingis sustained the second serious knee injury of his career (a right lateral meniscus tear) in last season’s bubble.

With limited flexibility to upgrade the roster, the Dallas Mavericks need Kristaps Porzingis to develop into the sidekick for Luka Doncic that they had envisioned. Credit…Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Tim Hardaway Jr. unexpectedly emerged as Dallas’s more dependable former Knick, prompting cynics in Dallas and beyond to increasingly mock it as “the Tim Hardaway Jr. trade.” I reported on May 27 that there was confidence within the Mavericks’ organization that they could re-sign Hardaway in free agency, but doing so would leave them without any wiggle room to make another splashy signing.

Mark Cuban, the team’s owner, made it clear he had no intention of making a coaching change despite Rick Carlisle’s sixth successive first-round exit since Dallas’s championship in 2011. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that the key figures in Doncic’s orbit next season will be mostly the same. Doncic’s conditioning and fourth-quarter freshness can certainly be nitpicked, but he averaged 35.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10.3 assists while being frequently hounded by the Clippers’ two-way menace, Kawhi Leonard. Can Dallas really ask for more?

Short-term improvement for the Mavericks thus could hinge on whether they can salvage Porzingis, who, at 25, at least seems to understand that he has to adapt to what Doncic needs.

“The game’s evolving,” Porzingis said. “The way I was playing in New York, a lot of post-ups, barely any teams do those kinds of things anymore, so my game has to evolve and I have to find ways I can be effective.”

Danny Ainge coached the Phoenix Suns for three-plus seasons before returning to the team he was most associated with as a player and becoming one of the game’s most successful executives with the Celtics.

Brad Stevens coached the Celtics for eight seasons and will now try to make the same transition Ainge did.

The move makes sense only because Celtics management is known to love Stevens and dread change. Ainge had a successful N.B.A. career as a player, coach and broadcaster before he took over Boston’s front office in May 2003. Stevens has only ever been a coach at the highest levels and will have to overcome even more skepticism about his preparedness for the job than he did when he left Butler University for the N.B.A. in July 2013.

Whispers in the past week that the N.B.A. coaching grind had begun to wear on Stevens, 44, are the most concerning aspect about the Celtics’ abrupt power shift. The front-office grind can be even more withering.

It should help Stevens that the well-regarded assistant general manager Mike Zarren is expected to expand his responsibility and lend considerable guidance. Besides hiring his own replacement on the bench, Stevens has to overcome limited flexibility to improve a roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that Ainge said in a February radio interview was “not good.”

I wondered at the time why Ainge was willing to put public pressure on himself to make in-season upgrades that he was ultimately unable to deliver. Chances are Ainge already knew, deep down, he would be stepping down at season’s end.

Trail Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey said on Monday that he planned to evaluate “20 to 25 candidates” to replace Terry Stotts as coach.

The expectation in league coaching circles nonetheless persists that Olshey already knows he wants to hire the former N.B.A. finals M.V.P. Chauncey Billups, an assistant to Tyronn Lue with the Los Angeles Clippers, to take over.

Other opportunities could materialize for the in-demand Billups, but his path to the Portland job opened up considerably when Jason Kidd, an assistant coach to Frank Vogel with the Lakers and Damian Lillard’s preferred choice to succeed Stotts, withdrew from consideration before the search really started. Kidd wanted no part of Lillard pushing him on a resistant G.M.

The onus, though, is on Olshey to mollify a frustrated Lillard, who is rapidly gaining on Washington’s Bradley Beal as the star some rival front offices want to believe they have a chance of pilfering. Referring to Lillard (or Beal) as a disgruntled star might be a step too far, but he appears to have begun questioning his well-chronicled loyalty to the franchise that drafted him out of Weber State. After Portland’s first-round exit to Denver, Lillard captioned a photo with a “How long should I stay dedicated?” reference borrowed from the rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle, who was fatally shot in 2019.

Lillard averaged 34.3 points and 10.2 assists per game against Denver. It’s hard to imagine him delivering more — or the tension fading fast after Olshey insisted that the Blazers’ early exit and regular-season defensive rating of 29th were not “a product of the roster.” Olshey’s unwillingness to take any blame for Portland’s fourth first-round exit in five seasons had people buzzing leaguewide about his blame-free stance.


The Scoop @TheSteinLine

June 7

June 5

Corner Three

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks had a painful collapse against Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers. How painful is a matter of opinion.Credit…Ashley Landis/Associated Press

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: This Dallas fan finds the 2007 first-round loss by the top-seeded Mavericks to No. 8 Golden State much more painful than the loss to Miami in the 2006 finals. How many upsets have we seen where No. 8 beats No. 1? — Mark Cunningham

Stein: I expected some Mavericks fans to quibble with my recent assertions, both in story form and on Twitter, that Dallas’s collapse(s) in its first-round series against the Clippers would land in the same ZIP code as the Mavericks’ fold in the 2006 finals against Miami after winning the first two games.

You’ve surprised me, though. I haven’t received any other messages (to my knowledge) that dredged up the Mavericks’ first-round pratfall in 2007 against the We Believe Warriors — which put Dirk Nowitzki in the uncomfortable position of having to accept the league’s Most Valuable Player Award after Dallas had been eliminated from the playoffs — as their low point.

It’s a good reminder that these sorts of sporting heartbreaks can hit everybody differently.

I noted in the piece I wrote after the Mavericks lost Games 3 and 4 at home to the Clippers, probably better than I did in a subsequent tweet, that the pain inflicted by any first-round series outcome can’t really compare with a defeat in the N.B.A. finals. Yet I am holding firm on my contention that the leads Dallas just squandered against the Clippers amount to another all-timer collapse, no matter what round they occurred in, because it wasn’t just a 2-0 series lead that slipped.

The Mavericks won the first two games of the series on the road, then took a 30-11 lead at home in Game 3 that had the Clippers’ Nicolas Batum feeling as though Los Angeles was “one or two plays away to almost get swept.” Then the Mavericks responded to their two home losses by winning Game 5 at Staples Center to set up a chance to close the series out at home with just one more win.

For all the shortcomings of Luka Doncic’s supporting cast, which have become a frequent talking point given the Mavericks’ inability to capitalize on Doncic’s historic production in the series, Dallas should have been able to advance to the second round if it was capable of winning three games on the Clippers’ floor. It will go down as a slice of ignominy that I suspect will endure, even if Doncic goes on to reach the same sort of championship heights Nowitzki did.

On the historical front: Golden State’s upset of Dallas in 2007 was the first upset for a No. 8 seed against the top seed since the N.B.A. instituted a best-of-seven format for the first round in the 2002-3 season. Memphis did it to San Antonio in 2011 and Philadelphia repeated the feat in 2012 against Chicago — but only after the Bulls lost Derrick Rose to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Game 1.

Q: Don’t show interest in Terry Stotts unless you’ve let Nate Bjorkgren go. — Wes Johnson (Indianapolis)

Stein: This Pacers fan responded with dismay to the reports over the weekend, including one from me, that Indiana had interest in Stotts after he was ousted by the Portland Trail Blazers — but before Indiana actually had an opening. I totally get the dismay, too. It can be a cold, cold league sometimes, and this is definitely one of those times.

Bjorkgren has been in limbo since reports of friction in his first season as Pacers coach surfaced in early May. It was difficult to imagine then how Bjorkgren, as a rookie coach whose most notable prior head coaching experience came in the G League, could survive such open discussion of behind-the-scenes tumult.

Kevin Pritchard, Indiana’s president of basketball operations, only added to the uncertainty in a virtual news conference on May 24 when he said he was “not committing either way” about bringing Bjorkgren back for Year 2. The working assumption in league circles since that statement was that the Pacers were trying to determine through back channels if they had a shot at hiring a proven coach, like Stotts, before determining Bjorkgren’s fate.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to let Bjorkgren go and then strike out on top targets, which would only add to their drama while Nate McMillan, abruptly ousted by Indiana after last season, has the Atlanta Hawks unexpectedly competing for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. It is not inconceivable that Bjorkgren could end up staying, perhaps with a reshuffled staff, but the optics are undeniably unseemly.

Q: Cheers to all the N.B.A. intelligentsia who fooled us into thinking Nets-Bucks was going to be a series. — @yagofidani from Twitter

Stein: Count me among the guilty. I thought Milwaukee took a significant step forward by sweeping Miami in Round 1. I thought the Bucks, with the additions of Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker, were as well suited to guard the Nets as anyone. I certainly thought that losing James Harden to a hamstring injury in the opening minute of Game 1 would hurt the Nets more than it has.

It’s too soon to write off the Bucks as the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday, but the prospect of the Nets losing four of five games — to anyone — is difficult to imagine when they are moving the ball the way they are. Ditto when Blake Griffin looks reborn as a role player and defender, and when the unheralded Bruce Brown and Mike James have been so solid.

The lingering nature of hamstring injuries is such that the Nets have to brace for the idea that Harden could miss the rest of the series, or longer, but they are functioning as well as possible without him. I will leave it to someone else to predict that a loud home crowd is enough to inspire the Bucks to disrupt that.


Numbers Game

JaVale McGee, center, is tied with Danny Green for the most championship rings among current players still alive in this year’s playoffs. Credit…Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

0

None of the eight franchises remaining in the N.B.A. playoffs have won a championship since the league’s 16-team playoff format was instituted in 1983-84. Seventeen of the N.B.A.’s last 22 championships have been won by the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio, Golden State and Miami, as neatly noted here by my former N.B.A. bubble neighbor Ben Golliver of The Washington Post.

8

Only eight players left in the playoffs have won an N.B.A. championship ring, according to my pal Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press, but none with their current team. Philadelphia’s Danny Green and Denver’s JaVale McGee have won three rings each. The Nets’ Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard and Rajon Rondo of the Los Angeles Clippers have two rings apiece. The Nets’ Kyrie Irving, Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard and the Clippers’ Serge Ibaka are one-time champions.

3

The first round of this season’s playoffs was just the third time since the N.B.A. expanded to four playoff rounds in 1975 that both teams from the previous N.B.A. finals failed to reach the second round. It also happened in 2007 (Miami and Dallas) and 2015 (Miami and San Antonio), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

4-0

Coach Tyronn Lue improved to 4-0 in Game 7s after the Los Angeles Clippers beat Dallas in Sunday’s series decider. The Clippers are just the fifth team in league history, in 31 tries, to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home, and Lue’s willingness to make major adjustments was a key factor. Lue essentially removed his starting point guard, Patrick Beverley, from the rotation after the first two games, and went small by installing 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum as his starting center in Game 4. Lue also restricted his original starting center, Ivica Zubac, to three minutes in Game 7 after Zubac had been repeatedly torched on defensive switches throughout the series by the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic.

10,982

The Clippers, who operated with the league’s smallest building capacity of the 16 teams that reached the first round of the playoffs, hosted a crowd of just 7,342 fans for their Game 7 win over Dallas. The Mavericks hosted the league’s biggest crowd of Round 1 for their Game 6 defeat on Friday night with a chance to close out the series: 18,324 fans (10,982 more than the Clippers).

355

The N.B.A. has announced that 355 players have applied for early entry into the N.B.A. draft. Only 60 players will be drafted on July 29.


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