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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.

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.