NBA Summer League begins today in Orlando

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Here’s how you spot the hoops junkies (well, besides the kind of pasty skin tones): They’re the ones coming to this site, scanning past the latest LeBron James update to see what is happening in Summer League play.

Today is the hoop junkies dream — the Orlando Summer League kicks off play. Come Friday, the attention shifts from hot and humid Florida to the insanely hot Las Vegas for NBA Summer League. (And spare me the “it’s a dry heat crap, when it’s 100 degrees at 10 at night, it’s too [bleeping] hot.)

Summer League is about rookies and sleepers. We get to see the top draft picks in their first NBA action, how they handle a faster pace and more athletic defenders. We get to see what second rounders might stand out (Chase Budinger looked good at Summer League last year, and that translated to the season). It’s not ball at the NBA level (or even D-League, really) but it’s a step up from college.

We also get to see guys on the fringe of the NBA try to make a statement that they belong, guys who have played in Europe trying to show how their games have matured and are NBA ready now. Thing is, the real business of the Summer League is European scouts looking at American talent they want to sign — that is where the majority of the Summer League players end up.

You get to see all this in a very intimate setting. The beauty of Summer League is that the fans (and media) are very close to the action. It’s like watching NBA talent in a high school gym. NBA coaches and general managers are sitting in the stands. You can’t buy a Coke without bumping into a scout. And the whole thing is casual.

A few things to watch for in Orlando:

* Evan Turner and Derrick Favors squaring off Monday night. Two of the top three picks are in action. (John Wall debuts Sunday night in Vegas.)

* Butler’s Gordan Hawyward — is he really ready for this level of play?

* Can Darius Miles convince anyone that his knees are good for another run in the NBA?

* Can Rod Benson finally get a fair shake? The guy has NBA game. But he’s a blogger, and Internet sensation. Like any good blogger, he’s candid. It hasn’t helped. NBA front offices react like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer — they are frightened by your new technology. Will they see past it to the fact Benson can flat out ball?

* Mustafa Shakur got a look from the Oklahoma City Thunder and he looked good — an athletic, long player who can explode to the rim. Isn’t Oklahoma City’s roster filled with guys like that? He gets the chance to prove he belongs.

You can watch most of the games on NBATV.com. Also, for $14.05 you can stream all the games on your computer through NBA.com.

(Programming note: The entire ProBasketballTalk team will be in Las Vegas for Summer League. Why? Because we’re hoops junkies. Flat out junkies. We’ll bring you the highlights from Orlando, as well.)

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.