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Five early season NBA trends to be thankful for

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We are 10 games or so into the NBA season and one thing is clear — this is fun. Not everything is fitting neatly into the preseason prediction boxes and that is the best part of being a sports fan.

We at PBT are thankful for a lot of things. All of you who read us, for one. That Rasheed Wallace is back in the NBA and yelling things at free throw shooters again. That some key players — Wednesday night it was Kevin Love and Nene — are getting healthy.

Here are five NBA early-season trends we are really pumped about:

1) The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are legitimate. While we may yet see a Lakers vs. Heat finals, but if that happens you want those teams to have to really earn it. Before the season started we thought a Lakers vs. Thunder Western Conference Finals was inevitable — Now the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers stand there as legitimate threats. Memphis is a physical, scrappy team built for the playoffs but they have reinvented their offense with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol more as playmakers for others. Also, lesson here for NBA fans and GMs is that continuity matters.

We knew the Clippers could put up points and entertain — Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are always a threat, and now Jamal Crawford has stepped up as a shooter and playmaker — but the question was defense. And could DeAndre Jordan step up his game? So far the Clippers have the second best defense in the NBA (if you go by points by possession) and Jordan is having a career year so far. If those hold, the Clippers are contenders.

2) The Knicks and Nets have brought quality basketball back to New York. There was a time when if you wanted to see entertaining basketball in New York you were better off heading to Rucker Park than Madison Square Garden. Not anymore. The Knicks are sporting the NBA’s best offense (111.7 points per 100 possessions) and they are top 10 in defense. Carmelo Anthony has been more than a scorer as the four, he has been a leader on both ends of the floor. Raymond Felton has been a star, a legitimate star. Plus, Rasheed Wallace.

Then there are the Nets — they are 6-4 so far and have been entertaining with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams leading the way. Plus Gerald Wallace is becoming a cult hero for doing things like trying to goad Kobe Bryant into taking free throws with his eyes closed. The Nets are not contenders, they are not the best team in New York, but they are respectable and playoff bound.

3) The Charlotte Bobcats don’t suck this year. The Bobcats — who won 7 games last season total — are 6-4 to start the season. Kemba Walker has taken a huge step forward with his game, Michael Kidd-Gillchrist brings nightly energy on both ends and Ramon Sessions is the sage, savvy veteran leader. There will be some regression, but this team is fun to watch, pushing the tempo with their athletic guards, and they have real hope now.

4) Small ball lineups are finding their way. A lot of has been made of small-ball lineups, but they work. Well, except in Boston but that’s not about size. The Knicks move Carmelo Anthony from the three to the four and they are 8-2. I think we all pretty much knew the Heat would be a force going small. Philadelphia is 7-5 without Andrew Bynum. Milwaukee is leading (and well could win) the Central Division with an undersized backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.

All of this is more entertaining than watching the Sixers throw the ball into Bynum in the post and see if he can back down his man and take a little jump hook.

5) That the Lakers are providing plenty of entertainment if not great basketball. Admit it, you like seeing the Lakers struggle.

Outside of some delusional Lakers fans — and there are more than enough of them in the world — nobody thought this would be easy for the Lakers. But man it has been a soap opera beyond imagination — a 1-4 start, Mike Brown fired as coach, his disaster of a Princeton offense out and Mike D’Antoni’s more instinctual offense is in. The Lakers defense is inconsistent. At best. Bernie Bickerstaff now has a higher winning percentage as Lakers coach than Pat Riley. And even when you think they are playing well and maybe starting to figure it out they can go out and give you 20 turnovers and lay an egg in Sacramento.

Through it all we’ve seen an efficient Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace knocking down threes while other teams have leaned on hack-a-Howard. It’s been fun to watch.

The Lakers are 6-6 and it feels like the 2010 Heat. A team that did eventually figure it out. But we’ll see if the Lakers can withstand the storm, get Dwight Howard fully healthy, and then we’ll see if they play good enough defense to really contend. Because if you look at the first thing we are thankful for, the Lakers road to contention has some big mountains in the way.

Who is next Pacers’ coach? Here are five names being mentioned early

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a score against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on April 29, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. The spurs would win the game 92-87 and the series 4-1.   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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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Who wants to be the Pacers next coach for three seasons? Five tops.

In explaining why he let a popular and well-respected coach in Frank Vogel go, Pacers president Larry Bird says he doesn’t think a coach should be with a team more than five years because the voice and message gets stale. You hear that Gregg Popovich, your message is stale. As a side note, no doubt that coaches’ agents heard Bird’s words — they want a place their client can succeed and stay long term, Bird seemed to take part of that equation off the table.

So who is up next in the big chair for the Pacers? Not Kevin McHale, but besides him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Indy Star had five names she has heard, let’s take a close look at them.

• Mike D’Antoni. Forget the year’s thing, the real reason Frank Vogel is out in Indiana (and about to make another team’s defense much better) is he wouldn’t play small and fast lineups as much as Bird wanted. That will not be an issue with Mike D’Antoni, who is currently under contract as a Sixers assistant. Before you say “his team’s stink on defense” remember that his Suns teams were middle of the pack in defensive rating (back then fans and most media members were just starting to talk about pace and per-possession stats, all they saw was the points allowed per game by the Suns). Yes, his first two seasons with the Knicks and his Lakers teams struggled defensively, and that is certainly not D’Antoni’s focus, but part of the issue with those teams’ defense was the personnel.

I believe D’Antoni can coach a contender in this league, but it comes with the caveat that you have to give him his players to fit with his system. He needs to win his way (he tried to adjust in Los Angeles, but that was a disaster all around). If Bird brings him in, he needs to put together a D’Antoni roster.

• Mark Jackson.
The former Pacers star guard helped develop the talent that is winning championships and setting records in Golden State. And he certainly was willing to play fast while getting them to defend. However he comes with concerns: How involved he was in the details of running the team was questioned by Warriors management, he clashed with multiple assistants, and he created an “us against the world” locker room mentality where “the world” included management. Bird has to be sure this someone he can work with.

• Brian Shaw. His Denver teams played fast — third and fourth fastest in the NBA his two seasons there. Of course, they didn’t defend very well, didn’t execute well, and Shaw struggled to relate to younger players, but they did play fast. The Nuggets let him go to bring in someone they thought could develop a better culture (Mike Malone). His assistant coach resume is impressive (being on Phil Jackson’s staff with the Lakers), did he learn and gro from his first time in the big chair?

• Randy Wittman. This is a head scratcher. Not because the gruff Wittman can’t coach — he knows the game and got his teams to defend — but he prefers to play big and slow, and when forced to go smaller and faster this season in Washington his team struggled. If Bird wants to play fast, Wittman is an odd choice. But if he wants and old-school coach, this is his guy.

• Mike Woodson. Another bit of a head scratcher if Bird wants to play fast, but Woodson’s Hawks teams got better each season he was there. The offenses weren’t creating — remember “iso Joe?” — but his teams defended and played smart ball. He could get the job done; the Pacers would play smart under him.

If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Pacers’ assistant Nate McMillan, a former NBA head coach and someone comfortable with the Pacers players and organization. It would be a smooth transition, and his teams would play faster.

But is he — or any of these guys — an upgrade over Vogel?

NBA releases names of all players invited to NBA Draft Combine, Ben Simmons not on it

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 15:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils brings the ball up the court against the Georgia Southern Eagles during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 15, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft Combine has become more and more like the NFL’s version: There’s a lot of talk, the top players don’t take part in the drills, the player interviews are what matter most, and at the end of the day most players don’t actually move up or down that much based on the results.

The leading example of this: The NBA released the names of all the players invited to the combine this season, and projected No. `1 pick Ben Simmons of LSU isn’t on there. He has chosen not to attend. Anther top 10 player in Dragan Bender will not be there, but he has a valid reason as his team Maccabi Tel Aviv is still playing. This year more top names than normal will be in attendance, with the most notable absences from people we know will be in the draft being Dejounte Murray and Domantas Sabonis.

One player who will draw a lot of eyeballs is Zhou Qi, the 7’2″ center out of China, who scouts have not seen much up close. He may not participate in scrimmages.

Here is the full list of attendees:

Ron Baker (Wichita State)
Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt)
Cat Barber (North Carolina State)
Malik Beasley (Florida State)
DeAndre Bembry (St. Joseph’s)
Ben Bentil (Providence)
Jaron Blossomgame (Clemson)
Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia)
Jaylen Brown (California)
Robert Carter (Maryland)
Marquese Chriss (Washington)
Elgin Cook (Oregon)
Isaiah Cousins (Oklahoma)
Deyonta Davis (Michigan State)
Cheick Diallo (Kansas)
Kris Dunn (Providence)
Henry Ellenson (Marquette)
Perry Ellis (Kansas)
A.J. English (Iona)
Kay Felder (Oakland)
Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
Michael Gbinije (Syracuse)
Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut)
A.J. Hammond (Purdue)
Josh Hart (Villanova)
Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
Brandon Ingram (Duke)
Demetrius Jackson (Notre Dame)
Justin Jackson (North Carolina)
Brice Johnson (North Carolina)
Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)
Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)
Dedric Lawson (Memphis)
Jake Layman (Maryland)
Marcus Lee (Kentucky)
Caris LeVert (Michigan)
Thon Maker (Orangeville Prep/Athlete Institute)
Patrick McCaw (UNLV)
Isaiah Miles (St. Joseph’s)
Jamal Murray (Kentucky)
Malik Newman (Mississippi State)
Georges Niang (Iowa State)
Chinanu Onuaku (Louisville)
Marcus Paige (North Carolina)
Gary Payton III (Oregon State)
Jakob Poeltl (Utah)
Taurean Prince (Baylor)
Zhou Qi (Xinjiang, China)
Malachi Richardson (Syracuse)
Wayne Selden (Kansas)
Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State)
Diamond Stone (Maryland)
Caleb Swanigan (Purdue)
Melo Trimble (Maryland)
Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)
Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa)
Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall
Troy Williams (Indiana)
Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)
Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV)

Steve Kerr on if Stephen Curry will play Saturday: “Probably not”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench during the second quarter of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 01, 2016 in Oakland, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Two days before Golden State heads into Portland for Game 3 of its second-round series, the Warriors practice ended with a relatively intense scrimmage.

Stephen Curry was a bystander.

Well, not exactly, he was working out with a trainer on another court, but he didn’t play in the scrimmage. And he likely will not play on Saturday in Game 3, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, via Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com.

Though Curry’s status has been upgraded from definitely “out” to “probable” for Game 3 against the Trail Blazers on Friday at Moda Center in Portland, it’s more realistic that he’ll return for Game 4 on Monday.

Asked if Curry could be cleared for Game 3, coach Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “Probably not.”

That fits with the original timeline, which was two weeks.

The Warriors are up 2-0 in the series, and regardless of the outcome on Saturday they will want Curry back on Sunday. If the Trail Blazers win at home this becomes the same scenario Golden State faced against Houston, wanting to make sure the Warriors win one game on the road they bring back the once-and-future MVP to the lineup.

Even if the Warriors win Game 3 and have a 3-0 lead, if they can bring Curry back they need to. With all this time off he’s going to be rusty (he looked it in the one part of Game 4 against Houston he did play) and the Warriors need to make sure he shakes that off before the Conference Finals, when the Warriors will need him at full strength regardless of opponent.

Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” retirement announcement to be made into short animated film

In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant waves good bye to the fans after an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in his last appearance at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif. Renamed SleepTrain Arena, the facility has been the home of the Kings since it opened in 1988. The Kings won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season behind Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, losing to the eventual champion Lakers in Game 7 of the conference finals. The Kings will play their last game at the aging building, Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and begin play next season at the new Golden One Center built in downtown Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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What’s next for Kobe Bryant after his retirement tour?

Apparently a little more focus on his retirement tour.

Kobe announced his retirement just after Thanksgiving via a “Dear Basketball” poem on The Players’ Tribune. Now Bryant and his new “storytelling” production company have teamed up with Sports Illustrated to turn that poem into an animated short film. From the press release:

Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated Group and NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s new production company, Kobe Studios, along with Believe Entertainment Group, announced an exclusive multi-platform video production and development project devoted to Dear Basketball, Bryant’s poetic tribute to the game. The collaboration includes the world premiere of Dear Basketball the animated short film on SI.com as well as a series of exclusive SI Films mini documentaries taking viewers behind the scenes of the animation process. Dear Basketball is targeted to premiere in the fall on SI.com….

“Dear Basketball is the perfect tribute to something I’ve loved for so long. Glen and John are two legends in their industries, so to partner with them on the creative process is a dream come true,” said Bryant. “Working with Sports Illustrated on this special project is an amazing opportunity to hopefully inspire fans all over the world.”

I have no idea what a poem about basketball turned into an animated short film is going to look like, but it should be interesting. It’s got to be better than that last Sponge Bob movie.

I guess this is a logical first step for Kobe in this kind of production, playing off his brand and into a topic where he should be very comfortable. I’d sit here and be snarky about it, but we all know we’re going to watch it, right?