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Saturday Starting Five: Underground storylines before the season tip

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? Five underrated storylines as we head towards the season.

The Orlando Motivated Monstrous Machine

A team with Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and J.J. Redick comes into the season as almost a nondescript non-entity. A team that reached the Finals a year ago enters the season as an afterthought. And a team that annihilated its opponents in the preseason enters without a peep (because it’s preseason). So why is no one talking about the Magic? I’ve already breached this subject elsewhere, but let me sum up: due to the circumstances under which they won the East in 2009, and given the improvements made to the Eastern powers, the window has to be considered shut for the Magic as we know them.

But what if we don’t know them? A particular element of the assessment I made of the team as based on their physical makeup. There was no big signing, no huge trade, no substantial upgrade. Vince Carter got older, Jameer Nelson got Jameer-Nelson-ier, etc. The Magic are the same team they were last season, in terms of their physical makeup. But mentally? That’s where we might see some changes.

Most notably, even having only talked to Dwight Howard briefly this summer, I can tell you there’s something different about him. It’s not the workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, instead, it’s the way he’s reacted to the hype over the Miami Triad. That level of anger that we constantly seek from LeBron? Howard has it. And with Vince Carter having another year in the system, Ryan Anderson coming into his own, and Stan Van Gundy finally relenting and pushing Rashard Lewis to the three from time to time, it’s entirely possible that this team mentally is ready to come out guns blazing. Then again, coming out guns blazing doesn’t do them much good if they run out of bullets in May. This analogy must either end or include a played-out Arenas reference, so…

The Hard Line Between Fan And Fanatic

Putting LeBron’s return to Cleveland on national television was their second bad idea. Putting it in front of an actual crowd of Cleveland fans was their first. If LeBron’s Twitter escapade showed anything, it’s that there are people out there to which the common rules of decency we all share do not apply. There are those of us out there who simply have no problem with crossing that line between “Okay, the guy used to wear the same color jersey I like and now he doesn’t, and that sucks”  and “I am now going to venture into outright racism, but first let me make a stop in Death Threat Village Boutiques.” This situation is a time bomb, and for some reason, the league is convinced it’s just good television. Even if you think the odds of a Cleveland fan or fans going berserk at the game is infinitely too small to be worried about, why are you exacerbating the situation by marketing it? “Tune in to watch LeBron possibly have a molotov cocktail thrown at his head for switching zip codes!” Cheering and booing is a great part of sport. But the projection that has been emulated by Cleveland fans, blaming James for an array of ills he had nothing to do with is a dangerous element in a highly tense situation.

There’s hate, there’s sincere hate, then there’s whatever nerve James tapped into this summer, be it racial, ethical, cultural, or otherwise. There’s a time bomb and it’s ticking, set to go off when the King returns to Cleveland.

The Top Seed in the West Is Up for Grabs

No, seriously. The Lakers are winning the Western Conference Finals, of that you can be sure of, but the top seed in the West and thereby the best chance to knock off LA? That’s still in the air. The Lakers aren’t just going to coast the second half of the season, they may struggle out of the gate with Kobe Bryant still recovering, Bynum on the shelf, and whatever random injuries they pick up. Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, Denver if Melo sticks around, any of these teams could sneak in and take home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It wouldn’t be that hard to get past LA. It’s getting past everyone else that is the trick.

Again, LA may not win the West’s top seed because they know they don’t have to. Rest is more important than dominance. They no longer have to shoot for 72. The Heat are taking care of that runaway hype machine for them. And while they’re resting their bones, another team may set themselves up to try to have a Game 7 on their floor if push comes to shove. The rest is just prayer.

New Ownership Takes Direction

Ted Leonsis has lists of all the things he’s changing. New Warriors owner Joe Lacob is already making dramatic plans for change in Golden State. The Pistons will be under new ownership from a mogul. And the Hornets? Well, the Hornets are still George Shinn’s and no one is happy about it, least of all Shinn. The Warriors will be interesting from the perspective of whether they can defend at all with Keith Smart at the helm. Alternative approaches might yield some results there, considering the talent they have.

But New Orleans bears watching. If Shinn gets more desperate to sell the team, he may look to drop the value. Which would mean, you know, trading a superstar. Like Chris Paul. Oops. Meanwhile a new ownership group in Detroit may look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, then look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, and then things could get awkward.

Ownership changes create instability. The question will be how much, in a year that promises to be unstable regardless.

Exceptional Exceptions

There’s nothing in the NBA that can make up for the loss of a superstar. Back in the days of league-determined compensation, Cleveland and Toronto would have received picks, and, well… okay, that’s the thing. Riley managed to gut that team so completely to rebuild it they couldn’t even be punished with compensation. But the one thing those teams did get back is a big ol’ massive trade exception. Which is going to allow them to go in a few directions.

The most attractive one is to pick up  a monstrous expiring contract as part of  a multi-team trade that can net them picks, young players, and let them dump off the rest of their teams. These two squads need a clean slate, as painful as that is for fans, and this is the best way to go about it. When February rolls around, don’t be surprised if two teams that got rolled in free agency are heavy in discussions.

NBA’s new Larry Bird highlight video will blow your mind

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Larry Bird’s birthday was yesterday, and we celebrated with a couple highlight videos.

Then, the NBA released this video today – and it’s to good not to share.

It’s one thing to know Bird’s numbers. It’s another to see how spectacular of a scorer, passer and trash-talker he was.

Carmelo Anthony doesn’t want to talk about Phil Jackson’s ball-hogging critique (video)

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Phil Jackson bothered Carmelo Anthony with his use of the word “posse” last month.

How is the Knicks president agitating the Knicks’ biggest star this month?

Publicly criticizing Anthony’s playing style.

Jackson on CBS Sports Network’s We Need To Talk, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“He can play that role that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant played,” Jackson said. “That’s a perfect spot for him, to be in that isolated position on the weak side. Because it’s an overload offense and there’s a weak-side man that always has an advantage if the ball is swung.

Carmelo, a lot of times, wants to hold the ball longer than — we have a rule, if you hold a pass two seconds, you benefit the defense. So he has a little bit of a tendency to hold the ball for three, four, five seconds, then everybody comes to a stop. That is one of the things we work with. But he has adjusted to it, he knows what it can do and he’s willing to see its success.”

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Anthony, who is normally affable with the media, maintained a smile but began to walk away from reporters when asked about Jackson’s comments before stopping and continuing with questions. He then responded to a query about the timing of the Knicks president’s remarks and whether they were productive.

“I don’t even know what was said, to be honest with you. I just don’t even want to talk about that, what he’s talking about exactly. I want to stay away from that at this point,” Anthony said. “My focus is my teammates and winning. We’ve been playing great basketball, and that’s the only thing I’m focused on. Whatever Phil said, he said it. I have nothing to say about that.”

Maybe Anthony was ruffled for a different reason. New York had just got beaten and embarrassed by the Cavaliers, after all. But it sure seems Jackson’s comments played a part.

Jackson should have known about Anthony before re-signing him to a huge contract two years ago. This is Anthony’s style and long has been. He’s a scorer who sometimes limits ball movement (to far better effect than most ball-stoppers).

As Jackson noted, Anthony has somewhat changed under the Knicks’ triangle offense. Anthony is even deferring more often to Kristaps Porzingis.

Could Anthony go further? Of course.

I’m just not sure public criticism is the way to increase Anthony’s progress.

Jackson has motivated players through the media for years, and sometimes it works. But given Jackson’s previous lack of direct communication with Anthony, this probably wasn’t the ideal method to use here.

Anthony deserves a team president who does more than hold triangle seminars, entertain coaching only home games and critique Anthony in the media.

Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls signals to his teammates against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 31, 2016 in New York City. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler was in Milwaukee and hundreds of miles from his home of Tomball, Texas. He was trying to fit in with his new Marquette teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He had to change his playing style as he transitioned up a level.

And then it snowed.

“Unbelievable to me,” Butler said. “I don’t know if I was happy or pissed off that it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. I was incredibly cold.

“That was the biggest culture shock of everything. It was hard. But we got through it. We always do.”

He always does.

The Bulls wing called going from junior college to the Big East the most difficult step in his basketball journey. What he’s doing this year, it’s not easy. But Butler has overcome numerous other challenges.

A rough childhood, getting overlooked in recruiting, rising from junior college to top-shelf college basketball, climbing draft boards as a relatively unheralded prospect, carving out a role in the NBA, working his way into stardom.

Now, Butler – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2015 – is pushing himself into the NBA’s elite. He’s averaging 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game. He ranks third in real plus-minus, sixth in PER and fourth in win shares.

MVP? Another MIP?

Butler dismisses the “individual s—” with a grimace, but he’s taking to his elevated stature.

“I figured, ‘Why can’t I be up there with the best of them?'” Butler said. “And I continue to think that way.”

Butler didn’t always carry such confidence, and he doesn’t have to think far back to remember the days he lacked it. Jerel McNeal, Wesley Mathews, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder overshadowed him at Marquette. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer once dwarfed his presence on the Bulls.

“I wasn’t always a really good player,” Butler said. “I just worked harder than everybody. I just played harder than everybody.”

Butler developed his skills. He gained fame and fortune.

He just never lost his work ethic.

As he continue to practice and study, he learned how far that could take him. Butler has made the last two All-Star games and last three All-Defensive second teams. Now, he’s recognizing his own potential.

“Your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said.

That confidence is spreading.

Say whatever you want about how he has handled his rise into stardom, Butler continues to rise. He deserves more credit for his jump from star to superstar, maybe one of the most difficult leaps in sports. But his continued evolution has warped expectations.

Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade first noticed Butler at Marquette, their shared alma mater. Could Wade envision then Butler turning into an NBA player?

“That was hard to see,” Wade said.

What about once Butler got into the league? Did his star potential show?

“No, didn’t see that,” Wade said.

Then Butler’s leap to superstardom surely must have also caught Wade off guard, right?

“I won’t say surprise,” Wade said. “He’s playing with the talent he has.

“He’s not doing nothing overcomplicated. He’s not crossing people, making them fall. He’s not jumping over tall people. He’s playing his game. He’s getting to the basket, hitting the mid-range pullup, doing things like that.”

Unfortunately for Butler’s MVP chances, he’s doing it in a year so many other players are posting unworldly numbers. His combination of 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game have been matched over a full season just 56 times in the NBA’s 70-year history. Do that in the right year – especially with Butler’s efficiency: shooting 47.2% from the field, 35.1% on 3-pointers and 88.9% on free throws – and Butler walks away with MVP.

But this season, four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Butler – are on pace to hit that combination scoring/rebounding/passing combination, which would be a record. To win MVP, Butler must fend off those other three and Chris Paul and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and…

Still, Butler has a more realistic chance of making history given his humble entry into the NBA. The No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, he could o become the highest finisher in MVP voting in his lifetime who was drafted so low. The current bar is seventh in MVP voting, done by both No. 35 pick Draymond Green and undrafted Ben Wallace.

Butler could also break records with his sustained improvement.

Several Most Improved Players – Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis,* Bobby Simmons, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Rony Seikaly – received votes for the award after winning it. But none seriously contended for a repeat. The closest was 1990 winner Seikaly, who finished 12th in 1997 – with a single vote.

*Ellis received is the only player to receive MIP votes in multiple seasons after winning it. He won the award in 2007 and then made his way onto the ballot in 2008 and 2010.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a strong frontrunner for 2017 Most Improved player, but Butler belongs in the mix.

To cherry-pick one measure among the many that showcases Butler’s improvement, his PER has risen from 21.3 each of the last two season to 27.8 this year. Only Terry Rozier and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made bigger jumps from their previous career-high PER to a new career high this season (minimum: 200 minutes each season):

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Butler’s ascension has invited greater leadership responsibilities, an area that drew immense scrutiny last season.

Chicago traded Rose and watched Noah walk over the summer. Newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo declared the Bulls to be Butler’s team.

The pressure was on, and Butler appears to be delivering.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg, who drew public criticism from Butler last year, called him a “great leader.” Butler again asked Hoiberg to coach him harder before this season, and his teammates have noticed.

“Is he hard on himself? Is he hard on guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Yes. He’s supposed to be hard on them,” Wade said. “But I think he’s as advertised.”

That’s because Butler continues to show his genuineness.

“He has a little different personality,” Wade said. “You come in, and everybody talk about it. He’s in the locker room singing country music and all these songs that most people ain’t used to listening to.”

That’s Butler from Tomball, Texas.

He’s now on an effectively max contract, in commercials and headed toward an even higher level of stardom on the court.

Yet, he remains relentless in his approach.

“I’m about right now,” Butler said. “Every single day, what can I do right now to get better for tomorrow – and that’s not even promised. What can I do right now to finish out the day right?”

Did Draymond Green hit Blake Griffin in the nuts? (video)

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Stephen Curry nutmegged DeAndre Jordan in the Warriors’ win over the Clippers last night.

Did Draymond Green do something similar to Blake Griffin – except with his hand rather than the ball and connecting rather than going between Griffin’s legs?

At first glance, that swipe at the ball didn’t look so sinister.

But then you watch Griffin’s reaction.

And you read about Griffin’s response. Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

And you consider Green’s reputation.

Really, that’s why we’re addressing this. With another player, it probably gets glossed over. But Green long ago lost the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever happened on that play, Green frustrated Griffin all night. Green had 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting with five rebounds, four assists and two steals and helped hold Griffin to 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting with seven turnovers and four fouls.

Griffin had this nice dunk over Green, featuring some hands to the face:

Otherwise, Griffin was left with a loss and Green’s parting shot.