Who will be the forwards on the Eastern All-Defensive Team?

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The NBA’s award races, usually a perfect topic for intense debate, might be a little anticlimactic this season. Barring a late surge by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James will almost certainly win his second consecutive MVP award. Dwight Howard is also a virtual lock to win his second straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. If voters go for the type of player who’s typically won the Sixth Man of the Year award, Jamaal Crawford is definitely the front-runner. Tyreke Evans has been a heavy favorite for the Rookie of the Year award for months, with only Stephen Curry giving him any real competition. 

To find suspense in the award races, one has to pay attention to the awards that usually don’t get that much attention. Personally, I think that the race for the two forward spots on the All-Defensive team is shaping up to be a doozy. There are lots of forwards playing great defense in the East, but only two of them will get first-team honors. Let’s take a look at some of the candidates:
Gerald Wallace:

The Bobcats have been one of the league’s most surprising teams this season, with wins over some of the league’s best teams. Like any good Larry Brown team, their success has been based on defensive execution. Wallace has been the backbone of that defense, playing 42 minutes a game, averaging well over a steal and a block each game, and grabbing a shocking 10.4 rebounds per game. The Bobcats are a top-five team in defensive efficiency, and “Crash” is the biggest reason why:
Josh Smith:

After a down year defensively last season, Smith has been his old shot-pulverizing self this season, averaging nearly two blocks per game and nearly as many steals. He’s been a key to Atlanta’s defense, who give up 7.6 less points per 100 possessions when Smith is on the floor. Smith has simplified his game on offense, but on defense he’s still as versatile and terrifying as ever. What might hold Smith back is that the Hawks are only 13th in defensive efficiency, and players on average defensive teams rarely receive official accolades for their defense. 
Anderson Varejao:

One of the league’s best pick-and-roll defenders, Varejao’s quickness for his size and hustle has allowed him to disrupt plays on the perimeter and rotate back to the paint to cut off penetration. Varejao has a reputation for flopping, but he’s rarely gone for the flop this season, preferring to jump straight up and contest shots at the basket. The Cavaliers have long considered themselves a defensive team, and Varejao is their most consistent defensive force. What might keep him from winning is that the Cavaliers have had some defensive problems without either Shaquille O’Neal or Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the lineup to defend the rim. 
LeBron James:

Varejao’s teammate obviously has name recognition, and finished second in DPOY voting last season. When a superstar gets a good defensive rotation, he typically gets rewarded with all-defense selections for years to come. LeBron’s chase-down blocks may be the most spectacular plays anybody is making on the defensive end, and James has also locked down opposing superstars during key stretches this season. James’ length and speed also allows him to do more subtle things on defense, like rotate into the paint and get back to close out on shooters without having to leave his feet. However, James usually doesn’t guard the opposing team’s best player for much of the game, and he generally conserves energy on the defensive end. It’s unlikely that both forward spots will go to players on the same team, and Varejao deserves the selection more than James. 
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute: 

With his athleticism, tenacity, and absolutely insane wingspan, Mbah a Moute is an absolute beast of a perimeter defender. He is capable of matching up against any opposing swingman, shooting guard, or forward and giving them absolute nightmares. Mbah a Moute is almost certainly the best perimeter defender in the East, and may well be the best lock-down specialist in the NBA. Scott Skiles’ Bucks are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, which has fueled their playoff hopes this season. Most of the credit for that is due to Andrew Bogut, but the Bucks are also a full 4 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Mbah a Moute plays. 
Unfortunately for Mbah a Moute, his offense might keep him from getting all-defense. Because of his limitations on offense, Mbah a Moute only plays 26.5 minutes per game, which might not be enough time on the court to get him noticed come awards time. 
Kevin Garnett:

KG has missed time due to injury, and has looked a step (or three) slow when he has played. But Boston is still the 2nd-best defensive team in the league, and KG and his pick-and-roll defense are still the backbone of their defensive system. KG’s not the defensive force he was just two years ago, but he’s still a huge asset on defense. 
Well, there you go. Six great defenders competing for two spots on the All-Defensive team, and I didn’t even mention guys like Andre Iguodala. There are two consolation prizes, but two of those guys will have nothing to show for the great defensive seasons they’ve had. 

WNBA recinds fines regarding protest shirts

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 13, 2016 file photo, members of the New York Liberty basketball team await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream in New York. The WNBA is withdrawing its fines for teams and players that showed support of citizens and police involved in recent shootings by wearing black warmup shirts before and during games. WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement Saturday, July 23, the league was rescinding penalties given to the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players for wearing the shirts–which was a uniform violation. The players started wearing them to show solidarity after shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
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LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and a number of Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets players wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in warmups after the death of Eric Garner in New York. LeBron and his then Heat teammates wore hoodies for a photo shoot after the Travon Martin shooting. NBA players have made other protest fashion statements, with no repercussions from the league.

But when WNBA players wore black warmup shirts in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-violence protests, the WNBA came down with fines for the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury ($5,000) and players involved ($500) for uniform violations. That led to a lot of backlash — including among WNBA players. Some refused to answer basketball questions with the media after recent games.

Saturday, the WNBA rescinded the fines. As they should have.

The women’s players’ union supported the move, via a statement from the director of operations Terri Jackson.

“We are pleased that the WNBA has made the decision to rescind the fines the league handed down to the players on the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the league to ensure that the players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported.”

I want a league — for men or women — where player’s individuality and statements can be made — I don’t want the NBA to be the button-down, cookie cutter NFL. Let the players be themselves. And if players want to weigh in on the biggest social issue of our time, they should. Without fear of repercussion.

Good on the WNBA for coming around to that.

Meyers Leonard says he hopes to be ready by start of Blazers’ season

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 8: Meyers Leonard #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers takes credit for a foul call during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on December 8, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Meyers Leonard could be poised for a big season in Portland. His minutes jumped last season because he provided spacing. With Portland adding Evan Turner on the wing to go with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, any big who can stretch the floor is going to get run, and Leonard has turned himself into a stretch four.

Leonard just hopes he can show what he can do at the start of the season — he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery. Here is what he told the Associated Press.

“My hope is to be ready right around the start of the season,” he said. “It’s a progression, first introducing rebounding, grabbing stuff overhead, then one-on-one, three-on-three, extending to the full court. We’ll see. You just never know.”

Leonard had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in April (they could have used him in the playoffs), and the timeline then was to have him back around the start of the season. Before he was shut down, he proved enough to get a four-year, $41 million contract extension with the Trail Blazers this summer.

The Trail Blazers will start Al-Farouq Aminu at the four, and Moe Harkless can certainly play there too (I’m far less sold on the future of Noah Vonleh). Leonard wants to get back before someone starts to steal any of his minutes.

Pelicans sign Jones for 1 year, Frazier for 2 years

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a play as Cody Zeller #40 of the Charlotte Hornets looks on during their game at Toyota Center on December 21, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The New Orleans Pelicans say they have signed free-agent forward Terrence Jones and re-signed guard Tim Frazier.

A person familiar with the negotiations says Jones, a four-year veteran, signed a one-year deal Friday for the NBA minimum of about $1.14 million, while Frazier has signed a two-year deal worth about $4.1 million. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Pelicans have not released contract terms.

The 6-foot-9 Jones, who was Anthony Davis‘ teammates on Kentucky’s 2012 national championship team, has spent his first four NBA seasons with Houston, posting career averages of 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Frazier played in 16 games for New Orleans late last season, averaging 13.1 points, 7.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 29.3 minutes per game.

Deron Williams says he is recovering well from sports hernia, will be ready to go at camp

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 01:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 1, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Deron Williams will be back with the Dallas Mavericks next season — and be ready to go by the start of the season.

He’d like to say he’d be back for the next few seasons, but coming off a Sports Hernia injury his options were a little limited. However, his recovery is going well he told NBC Dallas in an interview from American Century Championships celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe (which you can watch this weekend on NBC).

“Feeling really good. It’s healing pretty well, I’m doing a lot of work on and off the court. I haven’t got the full-go clearance yet, but that’s coming soon. I’ll be ready to go definitely by the time training camp rolls around.

“I’m running, I’m jumping a little bit. I’m just not going crazy. I kind of have to wait for August 1 for that, to go see the doc and get the go ahead. But it’s not much restriction right now.”

Williams averaged 14.1 points and 5.8 assists per game for the Mavericks last season and was solid at 32. His efficiency slipped a little (to be expected as he is on the wrong side of 30 and has plenty of miles) but he played well for Dallas.

Dallas signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal. Williams was hoping for a little more security.

“I was happy to come back. Would have liked a little longer deal but I’m back for one year and hopefully can build on last year and improve. I think there’s room for a lot of improvement. Hopefully I can stay healthy. I think that’s the biggest key but I’m excited about this year and this team.”

The one-year deal is more about Dallas than Williams — they could see a significant shift in plans when Dirk Nowitzki steps away (he inked a two-year deal but the second year is only $5 million guaranteed, so he could be in his final run if he wants).

Dallas added Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut from the Warriors to a starting five that also includes Nowitzki, Williams, and Wesley Matthews. If they can stay healthy — no little thing with that group — it’s a quality starting five that coach Rick Carlisle is going to love.