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Tom Talks: NBA Playoffs. What’s not to like?

The NBA playoffs are carrying on without LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The NBA playoffs are carrying on without LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. TNS

For a popular sport, the NBA takes more hits than any other, and detractors feel obligated to speak in an outside voice about it even when they’re inside. Finally, they have evidence. Through the first two weekends of the playoffs, ratings are down 18%.

Part of the reason is unattractive matchups. The first round of the playoffs can feel like spring training, an exhibition, the warm-up band taking the stage before the stars do.

But then you get the Portland Trail Blazers-Oklahoma City Thunder first-round series, intense and full of talk. Seems as if the Thunder did more talking, but the Trail Blazers did more playing, winning in five.

Some fans would love to see the playoffs seeded so that teams in the always superior Western Conference wouldn’t have to feed on each other so early. But I like the playoffs the way they are. There are natural geographic rivalries; why abandon them? The Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets were going to play at some point. Let them play in the second round.

Another reason for the decline in ratings is the absence of LeBron James. LeBron had made the playoffs 13 straight seasons. (If that sounds like a record, it’s not. Tony Parker, the former San Antonio Spur, had made the playoffs 17 straight years until the streak ended when he became a Charlotte Hornet this season.)

LeBron, whom the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted in 2003, first made the playoffs in 2006. How long ago was that? The Carolina Panthers’ first pick in the ’06 draft was DeAngelo Williams, who has been out of football since 2016. The Hornets’ first pick was Adam Morrison, who has been out of basketball practically since he left Gonzaga.

Like LeBron or dislike him, we watch. We watched the Los Angeles Lakers this season because, for the first time, LeBron was a Laker, and wouldn’t he lift the young team? He wouldn’t. The Lakers lost 45 games, their president and their coach.

The NBA was the first league to market not teams, but players. To realize how successful the campaign was, the NFL copied them and so, eventually, did Major League Baseball.

The risk with emphasizing individuals is that when the league’s biggest star plays his final game of the season March 29 (in a victory against the Hornets), some fans stop watching.

I don’t understand the sport’s detractors. Is it the tattoos, is it because players are allowed to express opinions about subjects other than basketball, or is it the tired stereotype that players don’t hustle until the final five minutes?

Whatever it is, I don’t believe that people need to like what I like. If they did, local boxing would be jammed (and Christy Martin’s last Charlotte boxing card was), and blues CDs by dead people would be big sellers.

If you’re an NBA fan, you already know what I’m about to say, and if you’re a peripheral fan, you should know. The second round of the NBA playoffs is loaded.

The marquee matchup, of course, is Golden State against Houston. Last season, the Warriors trailed by double figures in games six and seven, but rallied to win both and thus the series. The Rockets were without Chris Paul in games six and seven; he suffered an injury to his right hamstring. But Golden State’s Andre Iguodala played only three games because of an injured knee.

The players who were there made this a tremendous series. And they will again.

The hot team is Portland. The Trail Blazers outplayed the Thunder, and Damian Lillard outplayed Russell Westbrook. Portland gets the Denver-San Antonio winner.

In the East, you have the Milwaukee Bucks against a Kyrie Irving-led Boston Celtics team that suddenly is playing well and together. And the Philadelphia 76ers, dramatic in the first round, play the Toronto Raptors.

This is good basketball. There’s always drama in a best-of-seven series, not all of it generated by elbows from Philadelphia center Joel Embiid. Elbows aside, I like the way the 76ers play. If you have a team that’s still playing, you realize early in the series that their opponent is evil, and have lots of time to talk about it.

So, you talk, and you watch, and then you watch more.

I love LeBron’s game. But the playoffs will be a thrill without him.

Talent should trump all in NFL draft

The Carolina Panthers have had a good off-season. They signed center Matt Paradis, defensive end Bruce Irvin and receiver Chris Hogan; resigned offensive tackle Daryl Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Love; and signed the roster of the Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham Iron.

What do they need in the NFL draft?

Talent. They need an offensive lineman, preferably a tackle, a pass rusher.

Signing Irvin is a nice touch. But the man is 31, old only in football years. As Carolina has insisted, it wants to get younger and faster, and not older and slower. Watch him. He can still play.

You know what the free-agent signings do? They enable the Panthers to, with the 16th pick in the draft, take the BAP (Best Available Player). Yes, the Panthers undoubtedly will invest at least one of their first two picks on an edge rusher and an offensive lineman. Yet, if they see somebody they prefer, they can draft him.

If Washington State’s Andre Dillard, who will start at tackle wherever he goes, is available, do the Panthers jump? He played in the Air Raid offense, so you know he can pass block.

What about Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams? He or Dillard ought to be there. I prefer Dillard.

There’s a terribly athletic defensive tackle from Michigan, Rashan Gary, who almost certainly will be an edge rusher in the NFL? You like him?

What about edge rusher Brian Burns of Florida State?

Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat has slid out of the top 10 in some mock drafts, and could be around when the Panthers pick. A heart condition was detected at the combine.

Yet the man is a 6-foot-5, 260-pound testament to speed.  He ran a 4.41 40. I don’t care who you are. He’s faster than you are.

Why has he dropped? He’s dropped not merely because of the heart condition, but because somebody always drops. If he drops to No. 16, the Panthers ought to catch him. That should be automatic. If they elect to move up to grab him, that works, too.

About surprises: The most common mock draft pick for Carolina, according to NFL.com, is Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, who is solid in every way. Last season, the most common mock-draft pick for Carolina was Texas-El Paso guard Will Hernandez.

Carolina drafted 24th, and took Maryland wide receiver D.J. Moore. Hernandez went to the New York Giants – at 335 pounds, he’s a hog molly – with the second pick in the second round. He’s started at guard since.

Some people act as if there are stone tablets with the name of an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman on each, and this is whom Carolina has to take in rounds one and two. There are no rules.

If the Panthers want to take a quarterback in, say, the second round, they can. If Will Grier, the quarterback from Davidson Day and West Virginia, is available in round two, he’s a legitimate pick.

Cam Newton obviously is and will be Carolina’s quarterback. He was a changed Cam Newton before he reinjured his right shoulder last season. It was evident that Newton respects Norv Turner, the veteran offensive coordinator who last season was in his first season with the Panthers.

Newton released the ball more quickly, and disdained the long passes for which he was known, quickly looking for secondary receivers and incrementally moving his team down field.

If Newton is healthy, and reports say he is, I want to see him in season two of this offense.

Next month he’ll turn 30, prime time for a quarterback. Why not begin to groom his eventual replacement? Instead of signing a retread quarterback who was dumped by his former team, or a late-round pick who might never play an NFL down, why shouldn’t the Panthers use their second-round pick to find their guy?

I’m not a proponent of Grier because he’s local. I’m a proponent of Grier because he can play.

Another interesting second-round pick would be Mississippi receiver A.J. Brown. Yeah, he might be gone. Also, the Panthers collect receivers. But they don’t have one like Brown. He’s 6-4, weighs 226 pounds and runs a 4.4 40.

The draft is fluid and full of surprises.  What’s true today might not be true Thursday at 8 p.m. That’s the beauty of it. Some mock drafts are valid. Some writers and broadcasters have a great feel for what the team they cover will do. About other teams, they often look for tendencies.

 We – fans, the media – fall for players even though, until checking their highlights, we might never have seen them play. And if our team doesn’t take our guy, we go public with our complaints (even though we often disguise our real name). If our team takes a different player, and that player emerges as a star, well, we liked him all along.

Kemba deserves NBA playoff exposure – and success

The Kemba Walker sweepstakes have, as far as we know, had a slow week.  The NFL draft is consuming. I’d love to know how much playoff basketball Walker watches, and how often he envisions himself in the uniform of one of those teams he sees on TV.

Selfishly, I hope Walker stays with the Hornets. I also hope the Hornets demonstrate to him, and to a lesser extent the season-ticket holders debating whether to renew, that they have a plan, and here’s what it is.

Even if Walker returns, they can’t win without an influx of talent.

I can envision Walker with the Utah Jazz, a team with some nice pieces and a good coach. You imagine him in the backcourt with Donovan Mitchell?

I wonder if Walker watched the fifth and deciding game in the Portland-Oklahoma City series.

The star of the series was not Westbrook. The star was Lillard. Both play point guard, the same position Walker does.

Lillard is 28, same as Walker. Lillard was drafted sixth in 2012, Walker ninth in 2011. Lillard is listed at 6-3, Walker at 6-1. Lillard is, on Wednesday, the talk of the NBA world. Walker is a guy who had a very good season.

Lillard went for 50 points Tuesday in the deciding game against the Thunder. As the game clock wound down, he put up a 37-foot shot that was in the air so long you could’ve gone to the kitchen, grabbed a beer and returned before the ball landed. The shot was, of course, good. Lillard hit 10 3-pointers, and Portland won 118-115.

Lillard averaged 25 points (ninth best in the NBA) and 6.9 assists this season, Walker 22.5 (10th best) and 5.9. Lillard shot 44.4% from the field, Walker 43.4%. Lillard shot 36.9% on 3s, Walker 35.6%.

We’ve seen Walker unstoppable, seen him slice through the lane and go to the basket fearlessly. We’ve seen him score 50 points. We’ve seen him score more.

But we’ve never seen Walker do it in a game that clinched the first round of the playoffs. We’ve never seen him win a playoff series.

Did you see Lillard’s teammates swarm him after the winning shot? That was nothing but adulation and joy. The Trail Blazers were moving on. They get to do it again, and if they beat the Nuggets or the Spurs, they get to do it against the Warriors-Rockets winner. They get to do it when the NBA is at its best and games count most.

I hope Walker someday has the opportunity to show, in a playoff game, all that he can do, and I hope it’s in Charlotte.

At the moment, all the Hornets can offer Walker, aside from a boatload of money, is hope.

Panthers HQ headed to Football City, USA?

The Panthers aren’t going to generate $3.8 billion, an S.C. Commerce Dept. estimate, in 15 years by moving their headquarters to York County. Many employees will choose to stay in Charlotte. Some will stay downtown.

What the move will do is offer reams of positive publicity. Where’s York County? Ah. York County is where the Panthers practice and train.

Dallas and Minnesota also have training facilities that are a catalyst for development.  I’ve been to the Viking Lakes project in suburban Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Vikings work. On the 200 acres there are, or will be, retail, residential, a hotel and, being Minnesota, water.

Fans want to be close to the NFL stars they see in the stadium and on TV. No other U.S. sport has that kind of pull.

Carolina's training camp at Wofford has always been a great opportunity to see players and collect Marriott points. If you’re a fan, go. It’s quaint. Wofford, the alma mater of Panthers founder and former owner Jerry Richardson, has been great to the team. And Richardson and the team have been great to Wofford.

But, outside of Green Bay, Wis., nothing about the NFL is quaint. No matter what players say, they’d rather train in their town and stay in a hotel that adjoins the practice facilities than they would in a dormitory 70 miles away.

I didn’t know Rock Hill called itself Football City, USA, until I read it in Wednesday’s Charlotte Observer. I figured Football City, USA, would be in Alabama, Florida, or Texas.

But having the Panthers near town will enhance Rock Hill’s football credibility. The team’s headquarters complex will be a destination.

What’s that worth?

Short takes: Rich Cho deserves more credit

▪ Rich Cho, the former Charlotte Hornets’ general manager, missed on some high first-round draft picks. I wrote about it. He asked a coworker why I was sore at him. I wasn’t sore at him. I was sore at his draft choices.

The Memphis Grizzlies last week hired Cho as vice president of basketball strategy. It was a good hire. If we only remember the draft choices on which Cho missed, we’re not being fair to the man.

Cho acquired Jeremy Lamb for a second-round pick. Nobody had seen much from Lamb. Lamb has become an asset, sufficiently valuable that the Hornets might no longer be able to afford to keep him.

Cho also saw greatness in Kemba Walker before others did, and signed him to a four-year, $48-million contract. That contract might be the most team friendly in the league.

We like to simplify. The guy was tremendous. The guy was terrible. Cho, a very bright man, was neither…

▪ I love the draft. There’s no better way to acquire talent. Miss on a high pick, and the men who made it won’t keep their jobs long. Hit on it, and they’re golden…         

▪ There are not enough roster spots in the NFL or NBA for all the players with NFL and NBA talent and drive. The NBA has the 28-team G League. The NFL had the Alliance of American Football. If you have any doubt about the AAF’s talent level, check the rosters of NFL teams.  When the league disbanded, players scattered, and the NFL was waiting for them. How many will make NFL rosters nobody knows. But they’ll have a shot. 

The most intriguing of the six AAF players the Carolina Panthers signed is receiver Rashad Ross, who played at Arizona State and, in the AAF, for the Arizona Hotshots. When the league went out of business, Ross led the AAF with seven touchdowns. He’s 29.

The AAF was a second-chance league.  Since Ross has played for eight NFL teams, and had two separate gigs with Washington, maybe it’s a 10th-chance league. Some of the players might parlay the work they did in the AAF into an NFL job. Maybe Ross will be one of them… 

▪ Did you see undefeated welterweight Terrence Crawford Saturday against Amir Khan? The ending was unfortunate; after an inadvertent low blow, Khan could not, or chose not to, continue. But Crawford controlled the fight. He’s 35-0 with 26 knockouts. Man, he is entertaining…

I think he beats Errol Spence Jr., equally undefeated, if they fight. But the fighters have different promoters, who appear not to like each other, and fight for different networks, ESPN for Crawford and Showtime and Fox for Spence.

What a waste…

▪ Duke continues to raid my native state. They signed all the Jones, first Tyus and then Tre, from suburban Minneapolis, and on Friday they signed Matthew Hurt of Rochester’s John Marshall High. Hurt is 6-8 and so, so smooth. He can move, shoot, go to the basket and hit tough shots that for him look easy…

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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