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The Inbounds: Dwight Howard and the NBA’s arms race gone too far

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“Weapons are like money, no one knows the meaning of enough.”

– Martin Amis

In 2008, it was the Celtics getting both an aging Kevin Garnett and an aging Ray Allen. Then it was the Lakers getting Pau Gasol, commonly a sub-star due to his market at the time. Then came The Decision, Melodrama, the Joe Johnson trade, Deron’s choice, and Steve Nash becoming a Laker.

And now, this. Dwight Howard will be a Laker. The Lakers will start Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard.

This arms race has gone too far.

Maybe it was always too far. Maybe the Decision really was the worst thing that could ever have happened to the sport, maybe it was the Celtics that started all this and it was unavoidable thereafter. Maybe it was New York’s opulence and brazen assault on the cap that lead to this. But either way, here we are. It was always going to be like this, from the moment Howard made his list of teams he wanted to play for, following Carmelo Anthony’s model of electing where he wanted and then maneuvering to get it. He was going to go to a big-market team with talent.

But this much talent?

The Heat have the best player in the game, a Hall of Fame shooting guard, and a hyper-versatile power forward. That’s an amazing team in its own right. But it has weaknesses. It relies on role players. The Lakers, even without a great bench, have a Hall of Fame point guard whose passing skills are bested by no one, the second-best shooting guard of all time, the best center in the league, and a hyper-versatile power forward. Who’s also seven feet tall.

The city of Los Angeles now features two teams with the following players on roster: Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, and Chauncey Billups. This is out of control.

The rest of the league can’t compete with this superstar accumulation, but then, we’re really just talking degrees, aren’t we? There have really only been about five teams in title contention each year. But the differential is so much greater now. Since 2008, the following players have moved to the small selection of cities: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen (twice), Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard. That’s an absolutely insane amount of star power to shift towards a handful of cities.

What may be even more stunning is that this was Howard’s second choice. He wanted the Brooklyn Nets, and had to settle for the Los Angeles Lakers. But it doesn’t change the trend. And while the Hornets have done a masterful job at rebuilding, the league is still divided into haves and have-nots.

And this may be too much.

It’s not even the on-court results. We expected mind-blowing things from the Heat, and they were only very good their first season together, and great their second. The Lakers have a lot of miles and years on the bones, and will have severe problems with any injuries. No, there are a great many ways this team can fail, and no need to start the count towards 73 wins yet. But the idea is the same.

And we’re running out of weapons for teams to accumulate.

There are only so many stars in the league, and most of them have headed to one coast or the other. Eventually we’ll run out of stars and things will solidify for a while. Teams will be capped out and unable to make moves for a while. But after the lockout of 2011, which was supposed to help teams with retaining their stars and minimizing the damage to small markets, it would appear that plan has failed. The Hornets can be a good team, but will they be better than they were with Chris Paul? Will the Magic, even if everything goes right, be better?

No, but league ratings will be higher, jersey sales will skyrocket, ticket prices will soar. The league will be a bigger, more profitable place for everyone, and maybe that’s better than market equality, since it’ll at least stabilize the market. But if any other teams are to even compete for a championship, they have to do with efficiency and smart, under-the-radar moves that surprise. Development is a bigger element than it ever has been. The missing pieces is never going to come, because they’ve all already moved to their new location.

There just aren’t enough players left out there to share with the rest of the league.

The Lakers have more starpower than they’ve ever had in the history of their franchise. Think about that. Teams with the Captain and Magic had less star power than the currently assembled team. They managed to send out Andrew Bynum, to get Dwight Howard, and not give up Pau Gasol. The NBA’s premier franchise has not only put itself back in orbit, it’s the biggest ship in the cosmos. The NBA’s arms race has reached a new level, and it was all done within the confines of a new, more difficult CBA.

For two years, the Lakers have been embarrassed in second-round exits. You can consider this the reckoning. The Lakers don’t rebuild, and they don’t reload. They just absorb the brightest stars and add their shine to their own.

 

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

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