J.J. Hickson is at the center of everything

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The Cleveland Cavaliers, as is, are among the best teams in basketball. That much is undeniable. And with how they’ve started the new year, they’re playing at a higher level than any other team in the league.

So naturally, Cleveland has been linked in all kinds of trade rumors, with targets ranging from Antawn Jamison to Troy Murphy to Andre Iguodala. Such is the nature of the trade deadline beast; the NBA’s artificially created evaluation point inspires the rich to get richer and the poor to clear cap and step out of the way.

But none of this is too much of a surprise. The Cavaliers were considered to at least be in contention for the Eastern Conference crown when the season began, and a few months later, they’re doing just that.

The Cavs’ rumored trade targets? Also not much of a surprise. Cleveland’s “need” for a stretch four is well-documented, and natural when you consider the Cavs’ other frontcourt pairings.

But the fact that the key to Cleveland going from a great team to a truly incredible one is J.J. Hickson? Can’t say I saw that one coming. Hickson has been a contributor since early in the season, but only in recent weeks has he made the evolution from athlete to basketball player. There’s always been potential, but it looks as though Hickson is making a legitimate breakthrough in his game. I wouldn’t say that the J.J. Hickson Era has begun just yet, but that’s apparently not a concern to other GMs in the league looking to deal with the Cavs. From Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

League executives who have been speaking with the Cavs and other sources also involved in talks say that whether or not the Cavs make a deal may come down to J.J. Hickson. Simply, several teams want Hickson included in any trade package and, to this point, the Cavs have been balking at many of them. Hickson is not untouchable, but the team has made it clear in talks that it would take a special offer to get him.

The Cavs had hoped to force some teams to make a decision on offers by this week, prior to the All-Star Game. But right now, executives say, the market is frozen as everyone is waiting for the first move. The Cavs, however, have stood firm to the position that they are willing to take on money past this season but unwilling to offer up their talented young forward.

Deals are supposedly in the works for the likes of a Jamison, a Murphy, an Iguodala, and it’s Hickson that’s gumming up the machinery. On paper, it’s a no-brainer, but what we have here is a savvy front office in Cleveland keen on capitalizing on Hickson’s production and potential. Or, perhaps even more preferably, Cavs GM Danny Ferry could end up with one of those players and Hickson; most of Cleveland’s trade partners are more desperate to move salary than the Cavs are to improve, giving Ferry quite the booster seat at the negotiating table.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?

 

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.