Five things we learned watching the NBA on Christmas

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The NBA gave five Christmas day presents to the fans… which were really more like belated birthday gifts disguised as Christmas gifts because we should have opened the NBA season on Nov. 1. But we’ll forgive and move on, like we do with family around the holidays. We’re just glad to have the NBA back.

There were no real moments of enlightenment among the day of sloppy play. But we did learn a few things. Five things.

1. When the Miami Heat runs they are beasts, and they are running a lot more. Sunday Miami had 100 possessions (via Basketball-Reference) — nearly nine more per game than they averaged last year. The result was Showtime in Miami (and a blowout win).

This is what Erik Spoelstra wants to do all season, it’s why he studied the Oregon offense with Chip Kelly this summer. Despite having all those amazing open-floor finishers — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are as good as there are in the league — the Heat played at the 20th fastest pace in the league last season. If they bump that to top-10 pace this season they become a lot better. Which is scary.

2. The Oklahoma City Thunder are comfortable as contenders. The Thunder dealt with the weight of expectations smoothly on Christmas. They looked polished and like they were having fun.

By the way, that is why OKC got Kendrick Perkins — he threw Dwight Howard off his game and when you can single-cover Howard you can shut down the Magic (even if you are the Hawks). Perkins is going to matter against the Grizzlies and Lakers. He makes them better.

3. The Knicks have the potential to be a reasonable defensive team. The Knicks only played defense in spurts, and I think we can expect that all season. They were good early; the third quarter was a disaster. But on the second to last play they did a good job of taking away the Celtics’ preferred shots and leaving it to Marquis Daniels with the three (he missed). Then again, on the last play the Knicks got lucky because Bill Walker picked off his own man (Tyson Chandler) and left Kevin Garnett with a good look. Simply put, the better their defense the farther they go this season.

4. The Clippers are Chris Paul’s team now. This is not Blake Griffin’s team, this is Chris Paul’s team. Paul has the ball in his hands, he took over late. He was 4-of-4 shooting for eight points and four assists in the final six minutes of the game. There is a lot of work for the Clippers to do: Paul and Griffin have to develop more chemistry, Chauncey Billups has to clean up his shot selection, DeAndre Jordan has to not give up so many offensive rebounds chasing blocks. But when you have a guy like Paul who can take over games you win a lot. And the Clippers are going to win a lot this season.

5. The Lakers have some real grit. There were good signs out of a Lakers loss. Well, not if you watched the last four minutes there wasn’t. But in that game we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the Bulls (they play great defense and that Derrick Rose guy is impressive).

But the Lakers, minus Andrew Bynum, played good defense and fought back from being down. Josh McRoberts will do the dirty work and their rookie Devin Ebanks shows promise. Thing is, you don’t win an NBA title without some grit and while we don’t expect it out of the Lakers they showed it. That will serve them well.

The question is can they beat the elite teams? That has yet to be proven.

Report: Masai Ujiri’s salary about half what Phil Jackson’s was

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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James Dolan isn’t fixing the Knicks’ biggest problem – James Dolan.

But the owner took a step in the right direction a few years ago by pouring a ton of money into the front office. Of course, Dolan did it in the worst way. Offering a five-year, $60 million contract, he didn’t target general managers with proven track records of success. He hired front-office novice Phil Jackson, whose tenure was a wreck.

With Jackson out, will Dolan get it right this time?

The Knicks are reportedly interested in Raptors president Masai Ujiri, but it will be more complicated now, because Ujiri just signed a contract extension and the Knicks are still paying Jackson.

But can New York lure Ujiri from Toronto?

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

As a source close to MLSE ownership told me Wednesday morning: “Don’t even waste your time on this.”

But as one NBA source put it: “This is not fake news, the Knicks will be coming hard.”

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Ujiri signed a five-year extension worth $32 million last September

Bruce Arthur of the Star:

All that just makes the Knicks more desperate for a new saviour, and league sources indicate the Knicks are already confident Ujiri is coming to New York.

Despite the contract, sources indicate Ujiri can leave if he wants to leave. It’s really up to him.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

As for reports that the Knicks were interested in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, sources told ESPN that the Knicks have a deep respect for him, but he’s under contract and thus would require permission to speak to and compensation — likely draft picks — which the Knicks would be very reluctant to consider.

Dolan has the fortune to offer Ujiri a significant raise and buy him out of his Raptors contract. Money goes a long way in these negotiations, though it’s unclear how much Dolan would spend on a less-flashy name – and whether the Raptors want more than just cash.

Sending Toronto first-round picks as compensation would hurt the Knicks, but not as much as hiring another incompetent front-office head.

Will Ujiri land in New York? There are so many mixed signals, but it appears the Knicks at least have a chance.

Report: James Harden recruited Chris Paul to Rockets throughout season

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Chris Paul to the Rockets seemed to come out of nowhere.

It didn’t.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

According to one NBA executive, James Harden, the Rockets’ all-star guard, had been recruiting Paul throughout the season. An executive from another team said Harden had already told a fellow NBA player that Paul’s going to Houston was a done deal.

This is how the league works now. James Harden continues to be a enthusiastic recruiter, and that’s a huge asset to the Rockets. It goes toward explaining why Houston general manager Daryl Morey has bestowed so much faith in Harden.

The NBA has simply decided nothing players do constitutes tampering. So, Harden was free to convey Houston’s message to Paul – and this went beyond the typical bonding of two stars. The Rockets had to orchestrate a complex series of transactions, including getting Paul to waive most of his trade bonus, to make the deal work. Harden was part lead recruiter, part middleman communicating with the front office.

Getting Paul was truly the Harden-Morey partnership at its finest.

Report: Thunder have planned Blake Griffin pursuit for months

russell westbrook blake griffin
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The Clippers sound confident about re-signing Blake Griffin in the wake Chris Paul going to the Rockets.

But L.A. will have competition for the star forward – from the Nuggets, Celtics (depending how their primary plan goes), Heat and Griffin’s home-state Thunder.

Royce Young of ESPN:

It’s a shame for the Thunder they backed off their plan to sign Griffin last summer, signing Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to contract extensions, only to resume it a few months later.

Letting Adams and Oladipo hit unrestricted free agency would have given Oklahoma City an additional $22,514,699 in cap flexibility while maintaining Adams’ and Oladipo’s Bird Rights. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to offer Griffin a max salary, but dumping Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and either Doug McDermott or Domantas Sabonis would’ve projected to get the Thunder there. In that scenario, Oklahoma City could have also exceeded the cap to re-sign Adams and Oladipo after inking Griffin.

Alas, the Thunder are now limited to dumping contributors that make the team appealing to someone like Griffin in the first place or executing a sign-and-trade. But a sign-and-trade gets complicated. Adams’ salary alone isn’t enough to return Griffin on a max, and it’s not even clear the Clippers – with DeAndre Jordan – would want Adams (though losing Griffin could initiate an even greater rebuild that includes trading Jordan). And again, the Clippers reportedly want to keep Griffin rather than go this route.

This was all foreseeable, though some surprising factors worsened the consequences of the extensions for Oklahoma City.

Griffin seemed more certain last summer to stay in L.A. The 2017-18 salary cap appeared on track to be higher. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t raise cap holds for first-round picks until next year. So, Adams’ deal projects to save the Thunder just $6,425,000 over the next four years relative to a max offer sheet – a paltry sum in the face of the potential cap flexibility lost this year by extending him instead of waiting to re-sign him.

The Thunder making moves earlier than necessary and salary-cap developments turning those plans especially imprudent – where have I heard this one before?

Report: Gordon Hayward will meet first with Heat in free agency, then Jazz, then Celtics

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Gordon Hayward is arguably the biggest available prize in free agency, and his dance card for the first couple of days in July is filling up.

Miami and Pat Riley will bat lead off in a series of meetings, reports ESPN.

Gordon Hayward will take his first free-agent meeting with the Miami Heat on Saturday, a source told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano. Hayward will then be traveling Sunday to meet Utah on Monday, with Boston coming after that…

Sources previously told ESPN the Jazz regard the Heat as no less a threat to lure Hayward away than the Celtics, whose interest in the former Butler star has been anticipated for some time, largely thanks to the presence of Hayward’s college coach, Brad Stevens, on Boston’s bench.

For the record, there are rumors it’s Miami Saturday, Boston Sunday, Utah Monday, then he will take some time to make a decision. I’m not sure the order matters that much.

Hayward is an All-Star level player at a position of need for a lot of teams out on the wing. He averaged 21.9 points per game last season, shot 39.8 percent from three, can put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker for himself and others, plus can defend everything from stretch fours to point guards (he’s not a lock-down defender, but he is good). Hayward is the kind of versatile player teams need to compete in a modern NBA. He’s an elite wing player who is about to get paid like one.

The question is by whom? Around the league teams are convinced it will be one of those three, but which one depends on who you talk to. The Jazz seem confident they can retain him, where others seem confident he’s got one foot out the door. Only Hayward truly knows, and he’s wise to not speak on it and take the meetings. (If he takes his time deciding that could impact the chase for Blake Griffin, Miami and Boston reportedly have interest if they don’t land Gordon, but that can’t be Gordon’s concern. He has to do what’s right for him in his own time.)