The New Orleans Hornets and a matter of serendipity, not conspiracy

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Maybe they’re right.

Maybe the league, in the face of unfathomable depths of reason to avoid the concept like the plague (which I have outlined here), really did rig the 2012 NBA Lottery in order to help the Hornets after a rough year, or dot the i’s on the sale of the team to Tom Benson, or to make up for the Chris Paul trade intervention, or whatever. It’s possible. The league is capable of doing it, even of keeping evidence from leaking. It could have happened.

And if that’s the way you want to look at it, God Bless you. I’ve long said what makes the NBA great is the insanity of it all, not its greatness. We like to pretend it’s Jordan’s push-off and jumper, Magic’s Skyhook, Kobe’s lob to Shaq, the steal by Bird, the passion, the drama, the glory of championship greatness. But in reality? It’s DeShawn Stevenson’s neck tattoo, it’s Adam Morrison, it’s Looney Tunes halftime shows, and Carl Landry’s teeth getting embedded in Dirk’s arm. It’s conspiracy theories about frozen envelopes and vetoed trades. This is the tapestry of the league.

But for me? The only way I can look at the Hornets’ acquisition of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft is serendipity.

This is painful, but we must start here.

Anthony Davis desperately needed to not go to the Charlotte Bobcats. This is not another treatise about how terrible the Bobcats are, about them being “worst of all time” because they’re not. I’ve seen worse teams. This year. There are teams that played with less focus, less effort, less heart. The Bobcats are short on talent and ability and skill and lots of other things but that doesn’t make them irredeemable. It just makes them bad. I want to say that Davis not landing to them is the best thing for them as well, that they need a scorer like Bradley Beal or a game-changer like MKG on the wing. But I’d be lying. They need a franchise player, and the only one in this draft, even though I’m more bullish on this draft than most, is Anthony Davis.

But the thing I want most for rookies coming in, because I genuinely want them all to succeed, is that they find the right place for them. And that was not with the Bobcats. Davis needs three things. Stability, because all rookies need that, the possibility of success, because even if they’re terrible they need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and a point guard. Davis has an offensive repertoire which wasn’t showcased at Kentucky. But it’s going to take him a few years to work out the kinks and get it up and running. In the meantime, he needs a point guard who can run the offense and get him the ball. I think D.J. Augustin is a talented scoring guard who could contribute if he were to escape Charlotte. But he’s not a great fit with Davis. Don’t even get me started on Kemba Walker. It’s unfortunate, but maybe it’s for the best that Charlotte didn’t get Davis. And maybe the odds will work out and Beal, or Drummond, or MKG will be that player for Charlotte. God willing, because I’m tired of everyone dumping on a team down on its luck because it makes them feel better.

But no, those things I mentioned that Davis needs?

That’s New Orleans.

It’s stable. You can question that given the league’s reign over them as owners, but the fact is the owner of the Saints took over. That’s the shot in the arm they needed. Monty Williams and Dell Demps… survived! Do you know how improbable that is? If I were Dell Demps, I would have set my office on fire as my resignation this season. If I were Monty Williams… I would have turned into late-era Don Nelson. Let’s just say that.

But here they are. Demps, who has brought in high quality players, and diamonds in the rough. And Williams. I was livid when a Los Angeles writer said that the Lakers being challenged (and still winning!) by the Hornets was a disgrace. It was proof of how little many beat writers and columnists flip on league pass. Because you can’t have watched this year’s Hornets team and thought they were a disgrace. The hardest part of a losing year is getting the team to come out and give a crap. Would you, if you knew that winning meant nothing? But there the Hornets were. They were prepared. They were focused. They wanted to win. They didn’t, because they were without talent. They didn’t have enough good players, and their best player was out with injury. Now they’re reinvigorated.

Demps has been given the player he needs to build around. You don’t think Demps, who worked under R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, knows how to build around an elite big man? That’s the model.  And Williams is a relentless defensive coach, who has been gifted arguably the best defensive prospect in a decade. Davis is walking into a situation with a coach who knows how to use him. Pick and roll on offense, tenacious defense. Davis is in a great position to learn what he needs to and excel off the bat.

They have a point guard, in Jarrett Jack, who can run the offense and feed Davis. He’s excited to have Davis and wants to win. Jack’s a professional and not a diva. But it’s not just those two. Davis won’t be expected to score 18 a game. He’s got Eric Gordon. (For those of you raising his impending free agency, stop. No one goes loose off their rookie contract, the money’s too important, and anyway, you think with a legitimate chance to win next year, the Hornets are letting Gordon walk?) They have scoring balance. And this is before the No.10 pick and adding Damian Lillard or Kendall Marshall or Terrence Jones, or whoever. The Hornets are set up perfectly.

You can choose to think that makes it all the more suspicious that they wound up with Davis. But they had better than a 1-in-10 shot at Davis. They set themselves up success and better yet they’re in a position to set up Davis for success.

You can see a dark cloud on the horizon, I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for a team that didn’t make things wore for itself in the middle of misery. I’m loathe to throw out “Shawshank Redemption” lines because another writer has made that his trademark. But watching Monty Williams beaming on lottery night, this was the only thing I could think of.

“Monty Williams. Crawled through a river of (expletive) and came out clean on the other side.”

You can call it conspiracy. I call it the universe throwing us a bone in this darkened, injury-filled, lockout year.

Rumor: Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert might not offer LeBron James no-trade clause in next contract

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The Cavaliers’ three deadline-day trades appear to have invigorated LeBron James, but a key issue remains as LeBron’s player option approaches: Dan Gilbert still owns the Cavs.

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

“LeBron wants to be in charge of everything, which is what puts him at odds with Dan,” one source said. “Dan wants to be in charge of everything.”

The belief is that Gilbert, having reasserted control after chasing out Griffin, will rebuff James’ request for a no-trade clause, or any other measures that give him leverage. And that will be enough to drive James away.

“Dan Gilbert’s not going to do what it takes to keep him,” the same source predicted. “Not a chance in hell he’s going to give him a no-trade clause, or let him dictate contract terms.”

LeBron’s no-trade clause might have been useful this season. When things got particularly bad in Cleveland, he affirmed he wouldn’t waive it. I doubt the Cavs would have dealt him regardless, but he made it a certainty.

But a no-trade clause was relevant only because LeBron signed a multi-year contract due to salary-cap rules relevant in 2016. With those no longer pertinent, he might go back to the 1+1 deals he first signed in his return to Cleveland. That’d give him an implicit no-trade clause, as those contracts are treated as one-year deals until the option is exercised, and players on one-year contracts who’d have early or full Bird Rights after can veto any trade.

Still, Gilbert taking this stance would matter if LeBron wants to sign long-term. An official no-trade clause would also carry over to LeBron’s next team if he approves a trade or in the second year of a 1+1 if he opts in. The implicit no-trade would not.

That could be enough for LeBron to demand the official no-trade clause – not just for the possibility it’s useful, but to show he can get it. He seems unwilling to give an inch. It’s about respect.

It also might be about stubbornness – both LeBron’s and Gilbert’s. This would be a ridiculous battleground for LeBron’s Cavaliers tenure to end on – just give LeBron whatever contract he wants – but it wouldn’t be the first ridiculous showdown between Gilbert and LeBron.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.