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Fixing what’s broken for four NBA teams


By Marc Stein


The games, if not always artistic, were ridiculously compelling. The stretch started a week ago with Kevin Durant’s 49-point performance in 48 minutes for the Brooklyn Nets against Milwaukee in a Game 5 instant classic and continued through Atlanta’s upset win over Philadelphia on the 76ers’ floor in Sunday’s Game 7.


It was night after night of tight scores, unforeseen comebacks and individual brilliance from too many stars to list them all, most notably Durant, Atlanta’s Trae Young, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul George, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and an unheralded find from the NBA G League draft combine for the Clippers named Terance Mann.


Yet chaos was a constant in daylight hours, too. The wild week delivered three more coaching changes to take the league’s total to seven, a full-on unraveling of the Dallas Mavericks’ hierarchy and a blockbuster trade last Friday from the Boston Celtics before anyone expected one.


Tuesday’s draft lottery -- where the top five picks went to, in order, the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic -- only added to the vibe that as much is happening off the court as on it in a season that, because of the pandemic, will uncharacteristically continue into July. To supplement this week’s long look at the Nets’ season (and future) co-written with my colleague Sopan Deb, here is a breakdown of the teams that generated the most pre-lottery curiosity:


Philadelphia


We already know Daryl Morey, Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, will try to trade Ben Simmons because he has previously tried. You’ll surely recall that Simmons was the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s efforts to acquire James Harden from the Rockets in January.


Yet Morey’s challenge is much tougher now — even tougher than completing a trade for Harden with his old team. Simmons’ trade value has sunk to a scary low, complicating matters in a more daunting matter than the assertion made by many league observers that Tilman Fertitta, Houston’s owner, could never bring himself to sanction a trade that would reunite Morey and Harden.


It is clear that Simmons badly needs a fresh start elsewhere with an organization that can make a run at rebuilding his shattered confidence. Yet I firmly believe, as grim as things look, that multiple suitors will emerge eventually, such as, perhaps, Toronto in a potential sign-and-trade involving Kyle Lowry. As hard as it was to watch Simmons’ free-throw shooting plummet to 34.2% in the playoffs — and his resulting unwillingness to register a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter of Philadelphia’s last four games against Atlanta — Simmons is just too good defensively to be shunned.


Dallas


In 21 years of ownership, Mark Cuban has never hired a general manager from outside the Mavericks’ organization. The only outsider Cuban has ever hired as coach, Rick Carlisle, stepped down after 13 seasons on the day after Cuban ousted Donnie Nelson, the team’s longtime president of basketball operations.


The case can certainly be made that the Mavericks, after failing to get out of the first round in six playoff appearances since winning a championship in 2011, needed a reboot almost as much as Philadelphia’s Simmons. Not like this, though. The sudden departures have only added to the perception of dysfunction in Dallas, since they followed reports of serious tension within Cuban’s decision-making cabinet after the Mavericks’ failure to turn three road victories over the Clippers into a second-round berth.


The onus is on Cuban, above all, to establish an organizational structure that is far more functional than it was because the Mavericks will need unity to correct the various team-building mistakes they’ve made since their 2011 title in trying to build around Dirk Nowitzki and then Luka Doncic. The retired Nowitzki rejoined the organization last week as a special adviser to restore some harmony, and Doncic has essentially pledged to sign a $202 million maximum contract extension when it is offered, but the clock will start ticking loudly for the Mavericks to set up their young superstar for true championship contention as soon as Doncic’s new deal is done.


New Orleans


The Pelicans (No. 10 in the draft lottery) appear to be in an even more precarious spot than the Mavericks, given the persistent rumblings that their franchise cornerstone — Zion Williamson — is indeed dissatisfied with the organization after two underwhelming seasons in the standings.


We still haven’t heard that from Williamson directly, but the worrisome chatter started during last season’s restart at the Walt Disney World bubble and became more prevalent this season. Although Williamson arrived one draft after Doncic in 2019 and thus will be eligible for his lucrative contract extension in 2022, it’s clear that David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is already under immense pressure to placate his franchise player and, no less important, get his next coaching hire right.


Griffin has made coaching changes after both of his two seasons in charge. He dismissed Stan Van Gundy last week after Van Gundy’s attempts to instill structure and defense as the replacement for the more offensive-minded Alvin Gentry flopped. It is likewise fair to wonder how it landed with Williamson when Griffin absorbed pointed public criticism in late March from veteran shooting guard JJ Redick, who said on his podcast after being dealt to Dallas that “I don’t think you’re going to get honesty from that office.” Redick and Williamson are former Duke players who bonded in their two seasons as teammates in New Orleans.

Boston.


As if the league’s various playoff games, ongoing issues with high-profile injuries and coaching changes hadn’t supplied enough drama in recent weeks, Boston livened things up further with a monster trade last Friday, agreeing to ship former All-Star guard Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City in a deal to bring back Al Horford.


The trade forced the Celtics to part with the No. 16 overall pick in the July 29 draft to entice the Thunder to participate, but Brad Stevens’ first major move since replacing Ainge as the lead voice in Boston’s front office had echoes of the trade-anyone approach that defined Ainge.


That it happened before this week’s annual draft combine in Chicago, where off-season trade talks typically begin to percolate, won Stevens points for being proactive. You can also safely assume that even the ever-friendly Walker did not want to be shipped to the rebuilding Thunder, who are expected to try to route him elsewhere in a subsequent trade — if they can overcome Walker’s recent knee trouble and the more than $73 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons.


The Times reported earlier this week that Ime Udoka, an assistant coach with the Nets, is about to replace Stevens on the Celtics’ bench.


TODAY’S PLAYOFF GAME

Eastern Conference Finals

Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks, 8:30 p.m. EST, TNT (Atlanta leads series 1-0)

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