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There is basketball outside of South Beach and L.A.: 10 things worth watching

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Yes, the Heat have the three biggest stars we have seen on a team since the 1980s. Yes the Lakers are the two-time defending champs and may have more talent than any team in the league.

We get it. You love them. We’ll talk about them plenty this season.

But there is so much more to this NBA season than the Heat and the Lakers. It’s going to be a fascinating year filled with highlights and experiments, players on the rise and others on the mend. A lot of teams with questions, a lot of answers to discover.

Here are just 10 storylines that have nothing to do with Miami or Los Angeles that you need to watch:

1. John Wall and the new look Washington Wizards. John Wall is as fast with the ball in his hands as anyone in the league right now. As a rookie. He is lightning. He is a game changing point guard surrounded by athletic wings and big men who will run with him. (Plus Gilbert Arenas, who could blend right in with that group or be a show unto himself.) Washington is John Wall’s team now, make no mistake, and while there will be some bad rookie nights, it will be hard to keep up with all the highlights this guy will provide.

2. The Orlando Magic, contenders. The Magic may well be the best team in basketball. Scoff if you want, but they were the best team the second half of last season, and two-rounds into the playoffs you thought they were on pace to return to the finals after sweeping aside the Bobcats and Hawks. Dwight Howard was a beast and Jameer Nelson had found a grove. Don’t let one series against a rejuvenated and hot Boston squad fool you, this team is very good and has a new focus this year. They will be near the top of the East, and they could win it all.

3. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento. Last year’s rookie of the year teamed with the guy who could win it this year. Evans can slash and run, Cousins is physically imposing, can get his shot off in the post or drain the midrange, and he can board. Cousins never should have fallen to No. 5. There will be rough patches, but watch as Sacramento becomes relevant again, a team on the rise.

4. Portland will remind you they were Oklahoma City before Oklahoma City. Two seasons ago, Portland was the young up-and-coming team that was next in line to become the best in the West after the Lakers. Then last season injuries decimated the team (more than 300 man games lost) yet they still won 50 games. Forget the Greg Oden saga, this team cold bounce back big with or without him. And watch for Nicolas Batum to have a huge year.

5. Josh Childress rises like the Phoenix. Everyone seems to have forgotten how smooth, how good this guy is. He was talked about as a possible sixth man of the year, a guy who could run and knew how to attack the rim. Then he took his talents to Greece for a couple years after lowball offers from the Hawks. Now he brings his game back to play along side Steve Nash, who is going to get him great looks. Childress (especially if he developed a jumper while on his European vacation) will be back to dazzling everyone.

6. Yao Ming is back. Yao Ming was the best center on the planet. (Before you say Dwight Howard was better, go check out the box scores of their head-to-head matchups.) He is 7’6” with a deft touch around the basket and who can step out and drain the midrange. He’s graceful with a high basketball IQ. He’s a good person and huge to the sport globally. With him healthy, the Rockets are threats in the West. Without him, they may miss the playoffs. He is that important, and everyone should have their fingers crossed for him.

7. Roddy Beaubois being the missing piece in Dallas. The Mavericks are good, deep, professional, and have been for years. But Beaubois can be their game changer. Their missing spark. Rick Carlisle sat on him for reasons we don’t understand last playoffs and when the guy finally got loose against San Antonio he almost won them a game single-handedly. He is the quickness, the energy Dallas needs. You’ll have to be patient on this one though, he will miss the first few weeks with a broken foot.

8. Al Jefferson comes to Utah. The people of Utah are convinced that Al Jefferson will be an upgrade over Carlos Boozer. Deron William has told Jefferson he will be an All-Star in Utah. He brings a more post-based game that may balance with Mehmet Okur (once Okur gets healthy) and he will bring some rebounds. He won’t bring much defense, but neither did Boozer. Some think this is an upgrade, we’re not convinced but it will be an interesting experiment. One Kevin Love wholeheartedly approves of, by the way.

9. Derrick Rose and the new look Chicago Bulls. Derrick Rose is dynamic, one of the most entertaining players in the game. You watched the Bulls last season and kept saying, “if they just had a guy who could consistently score inside…” Now it’s “hello Carlos Boozer.” There are a lot of questions, the biggest being can new coach Tim Thibodeau get Boozer and Rose to play good defense. Another is can Rose hit a three (he worked on it all summer but shot just 27.8 percent in preseason) to open up the floor. But this is a team that looks just half a step behind the top three in the East, but it thinks it belongs. And maybe it does.

10. Games decided because of technical fouls. The NBA is cracking down on complaining by players, but in doing so has taken the issue to the other extreme and created a problem where none really existed before. At some point early this season a game is going to be decided by a technical — a foul will be whistled in the last 20 seconds of a close game, an emotional player will have an outburst and some ref with an itchy trigger finger will call the technical and change the game. Or, some star will get tossed for nothing in the second quarter. By January the two sides — players and officials — will find a groove on this, but some games will be changed in the coming weeks.

Trust us. Just watch.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.

Coach Steve Kerr: Warriors on brink but ready to rally

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Steve Kerr gave his Golden State players a much-needed mental day off with time to rest their weary bodies, and he got back to work trying to figure out how to save the season against a powerful Thunder team that shows no signs of slowing down.

Back to the basics, back to doing the little things that got the Warriors this far.

After a record 73 wins in the regular season, the Warriors are on the brink as they go into Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night in Oakland trailing the Thunder 3-1 after a second straight lopsided loss in Oklahoma City.

No denying it’s a daunting task for the defending champs – especially given that MVP Stephen Curry is a far cry from being completely healthy.

“Well, it’s a sense of reality staring us in the face. We’re down 3-1,” Kerr said Wednesday. “Momentum can shift quickly in the playoffs. We’ve seen that the last couple years. Let’s take care of business at home, get some momentum back and we’ve got a chance.”

All season long, the Warriors have taken the best efforts from every opponent. The just haven’t shown the vulnerabilities that appeared the past two games in Oklahoma City, where Golden State lost back-to-back games for the first time during its record-setting season.

The flight home was hardly fun following Tuesday’s 118-94 defeat.

“It was not festive. It was quiet,” Kerr said.

The Warriors shot 41 percent and committed 21 turnovers that led to 18 Thunder points. Curry was 6 for 20 and missed eight of his 10 3-point attempts to score 19 points, sparking further talk that he’s far from full strength. The unanimous MVP has dealt with ankle, knee and elbow injuries this postseason alone.

Kerr isn’t about to put a percentage on his superstar’s health.

“I don’t do that. If he were struggling with anything, I would know,” Kerr said. “Nobody has said anything about Steph being 70 percent to me. Our training staff, relatives, friends, sources with knowledge of our team’s thinking, nobody has told me he’s 70 percent.”

Golden State will likely need a big night from Curry to get back in this.

Only nine teams in NBA history have rallied from being down 3-1 to win a postseason series, yet Kerr was quick to note, “I’m guessing most of them weren’t the defending champs.”

With the season on the line, first-year Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan expects the Warriors to bring their best while back in front of their home fans.

“Again, we have great respect for Golden State. We know how good of a team they are. You’ve got to get to a place after each game – what happened in the game, what do we need to get better, what do we do well, what are some changes or adjustments we need to make – and then you’ve got to move into the next one,” Donovan said.

“I just don’t believe that Game 5 is a continuation from Game 4. This is its own separate game and we’re going to have to go now on the road to play in a very difficult environment against a great team.”

The Thunder know full well how close they are but also that nothing will be given to them easily. They last reached the NBA Finals in 2012, losing in five games to the Miami Heat.

Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on the Warriors’ raucous home floor in Oracle Arena, where Golden State has lost just three times all season.

“Every game you have a sense of urgency, it’s the playoffs and you know what everybody’s playing for. We’ve just got to come out there and be who we are,” Kevin Durant said. “We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves. We have to go out, play the game, and play with passion and energy. And we know the whole crowd’s going to be against us and we have to stick together even more.”

The Thunder are playing with all the poise and passion on both ends, while the Warriors haven’t been able to hang around the past two games, in part because of uncharacteristic miscues.

“They’ve had a lot of frustration over the years. They’re healthy. They’re whole. They are determined, and they want what we have,” Kerr said. “We have a banner hanging up in here and we take great pride in that. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, and they’ve been close, but they haven’t done it, and they’re coming after us. They’re really getting after it and playing well and competing. We’ve got to stand up to that.”

Report: Bismack Biyombo could command $17 million per year in free agency

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates late in the second half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Last summer, Bismack Biyombo signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Raptors with a player option for the second year, following four unremarkable seasons in Charlotte. After his performance in the playoffs, it’s a no-brainer that he’ll opt out, and he’s in line for a huge payday. Perhaps bigger than most people expected, even with the rising salary cap.

An unnamed GM told the Sporting News‘ Sean Deveney that Biyombo’s price tag this summer could be $17 million per year:

“For someone like (Biyombo), I think when you look at a guy like Tyson Chandler and what he got from Phoenix last summer (four years, $52 million), that’s where you start for a contract,” one Eastern Conference GM told Sporting News. “But you factor in the cap spike and it’s probably going to be high, I’d say, $16-17 million. It’ll be a heck of a $17 million-per-year gamble.”

Honestly, $17 million a year seems low given what next year’s market is shaping up to be. He’s arguably the third-best center available, after Al Horford (unlikely to leave Atlanta) and Hassan Whiteside (a lock for a max deal somewhere). With the amount of cap space teams around the league will have, and the top-heaviness of the free-agent class (there isn’t much beyond Horford, Kevin Durant and Mike Conley), it’s a good bet that somebody will overpay for Biyombo, especially after a playoff run that’s seen him average 20.5 rebounds per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. Whether he’s worth that money is a different discussion, but he’ll get it from somebody.

Steve Kerr on Stephen Curry: “it’s not an injury”

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In the age of social media and spin, the idea of a nuanced answer — where there is some truth to a statement, but it is not the only reason for something — gets drowned out.

For example, let’s take the case of Stephen Curry‘s below-par performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder (he was 6-of-20 shooting with six turnovers in Game 4 and is 5-of-21 from three in the last two games). A report came out Wednesday morning saying Curry was only 70 percent following his knee surgery, which first led to a lot of silly “excuses” comments on Twitter. This led to Steve Kerr denying the injury, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s a radical idea: Curry’s struggles are a combination of things.

Yes, the improved, athletic, and lengthy Thunder defense is giving Curry problems. They are meeting him out high, often doubling off the pick-and-roll, and when that pick is set by Draymond Green Kevin Durant and his length is doing a great job of blowing that play up. Also, it is clear the physical exertion of guarding Russell Westbrook is wearing Curry down.

But also, he has lacked the explosiveness we saw lift him to a second consecutive MVP during the season. He’s had great quarters — the fourth and OT in Game 4 vs. Portland, and the second quarter of Game 2 vs. OKC — but he has not been the consistent force we are used to seeing.

Welcome to the playoffs, where if someone is a little bit off that gets exploited by the other team.

That is what is going on, the rest is just spin.