The good, and the so bad it’s ugly surprises of the NBA season

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We’re a week into the NBA season and some things are what we expected — the Lakers, Heat and Celtics are good; the Sixers are not; John Wall is dynamic; Kobe won’t talk about his injuries; and the Grizzles are making bad contract decisions.

But there are surprises, and not to go all Forest Gump but what fun life be without surprises? Good and bad. So here we are, the surprises.

The good surprises, like when your Xmas fund matures in Monopoly and you get $100.

The Portland Trail Blazers (4-1): We expected Portland to be good again — last season they were racked by injuries — but this fast start is more than we expected. The big key is they are beast on the boards. They are grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.7 percent of their missed shots (second best percentage in the league). Lamarcus Aldridge is scoring 18.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game, anchoring the inside. They have beat who they were supposed to beat, but that’s a step up from last season.

The New Orleans Hornets (3-0): This just in — Chris Paul is good. Really, really good. Dominant good, and now he’s got David West back knocking down 56 percent of his shots. The Hornets have beaten the Spurs, Nuggets and Bucks — three quality teams. They are doing it with defense, allowing just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. Emeka Okafor is really defending. We might be able to add them to the list of teams, along with Portland, that is regaining its “team to watch” status.

The New Jersey Nets (2-1): Do you see that record? 2-1? With come from behind wins? This team is not that good — the throttling by Miami is an indication of how far away from really good they are — but last season this team doesn’t win those two games. They’ve taken big steps forward. Derrick Favors is averaging 10 and 10 and he is barely scratching the surface. There is hope here New Jersey, which should come to fruition right about when the team moves to Brooklyn.

The bad surprises, like that new timing belt your car needs suddenly.

The Charlotte Bobcats (0-3): Last season they made the playoffs on great defense and just enough offense. This season they are 29th in the league in defense, giving up 111.2 points per 100 possessions. And it’s because teams are shooting very well against them, which has to drive Michael Jordan and Larry Brown just crazy. Gerald Wallace is not playing up to his own standards. (But Tyrus Thomas is playing efficiently, so go figure.)

The Milwaukee Bucks (1-3): They were a force at the end of last season (until Andrew Bogut’s injury, anyway), they added depth and got Bogut back and… their offense has been terrible. They are not shooting well as a team and making up for it by not getting to the free throw line. Despite having Brandon Jennings on their team they are playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, not getting many easy baskets in transition (last season they were not fast but they were middle of the pack). John Salmons can’t throw a pea in the ocean right now, they miss his scoring from the wing dearly.

The Houston Rockets (0-3): The Rockets are the worst defensive team in the NBA so far. Which is a weird sentence to type, but that’s the truth — they are giving up 112.4 points per 100 possessions, dead last in the NBA. This is a team that has good defensive players and now Yao Ming back defending the paint, and it’s ugly. So is the offense, which struggles to find a flow — they want to run with guards Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, but with Yao back they slow down and just look lost. It’s not pretty.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.