Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Shane Battier

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.

Shaq’s list before leaving Magic for Lakers also included Knicks, Pistons, Heat, Hawks

1 Nov 1996:  Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O''Neal moves down the court during a game against the Phoenix Suns at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.  The Lakers won the game, 96-82.    Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport
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Shaquille O’Neal said he regretted leaving the Magic for the Lakers as a free agent in 1996.

So, why did he bolt Orlando?

It was an intriguing high-stakes saga, and agent Joel Corry — who helped represent O’Neal at the time — retells it with behind-the-scenes detail at CBSSports.com.

One part I found particularly interesting was the rest of Shaq’s list besides the Lakers:

The idea was this: Identify the teams that could get to at least $9 million under the cap without gutting the roster in order to offer a seven-year, $100 million contract voidable after three years, when Shaq would have Bird rights with these teams and could thus opt out to take advantage of his presumably increasing value. Also, if he left Orlando, his preference was to go to a big market. There weren’t many teams that fit all these requirements. This is the list we came up with:

  • NEW YORK KNICKS: This was a longshot from the start, as it was contingent on New York being able to trade Patrick Ewing. The Knicks also went after Jordan, who promptly re-signed with the Bulls on a one-year, $30 million deal. The market was there. But moving Ewing was never really an option. And when they signed free agent Allan Houston for $56 million over seven years, the cap situation just became unworkable. Nothing ever really materialized.
  • DETROIT PISTONS: Detroit was attractive because of 1995 NBA co-Rookie of the Year Grant Hill, who had already earned All-NBA honors in his brief pro career. Allan Houston was also starting to emerge, and the thought of putting Shaq with a scorer like Hill and a shooter like Houston was attractive. But when Houston made his move to New York, this pie-in-the-sky scenario went with him. Plus, frankly, the Pistons never really showed much interest in making a deal for Shaq happen. Detroit was out.
  • MIAMI HEAT: The Heat had the most roster flexibility and potentially the best cap situation of the bunch, but renouncing the rights to Mourning, who was also a free agent, to wipe out his cap hold of 150% of his 1995-96 salary was going to be a necessity. Mourning became a central barometer for all of our negotiations. Mourning had gone No. 2 in the 1992 draft, right behind O’Neal, and their careers had been linked ever since.People casually put them in the same conversation as big men, but Mourning wasn’t the player Shaq was. When Miami signed Mourning to the aforementioned seven-year, $105 million deal, not only did it end any chance of O’Neal going to the Heat, it also served as an easy benchmark contract for Shaq’s personal market.

    No way was O’Neal going to get a penny less than Mourning, and in fact, Armato was adamant that O’Neal get substantially more than Mourning for he did not see them as anything close to the same class of player.

  • ATLANTA HAWKS: While Atlanta wasn’t on our initial list, the Hawks quickly became a viable option when I, along with a colleague, took a call from current Los Angeles Dodgers CEO and President Stan Kasten about the Hawks’ interest in Shaq. Kasten, who was president of both the Hawks and Atlanta Braves at that time, indicated that the merger between Hawks owner Ted Turner’s broadcasting companies (CNN, etc.) and Time Warner would be able to generate significant ancillary income for Shaq.On the basketball side, he viewed Shaq as the missing piece to a championship in Atlanta and was comfortable offering him a seven-year deal averaging somewhere between $10 and $15 million per year. He was not, however, interested in breaking up much of his team to do so.

    This is kind of crazy to look back on, but in 1996, Kasten considered Mookie Blaylock and Christian Laettner to be the Hawks’ foundational players. They weren’t going anywhere. Two other players from a group consisting of Stacey Augmon, Alan Henderson, Grant Long and free agent Steve Smith also needed to be retained.

    This was the snag. After running all the numbers, Smith, an All-Star caliber player, was probably the odd man out, and we didn’t like the idea of losing Smith. Eventually, Atlanta, which had become a legitimate contingency option, fell completely out of consideration when it signed Dikembe Mutombo to a five-year, $50 million deal.

I suggest reading Corry’s account in full.

Suns GM: Phoenix will likely preserve most of $13 million cap space into season

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have more than $13 million in cap space remaining.

Don’t count on them spending it anytime soon.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

“I’d be surprised if we spent a lot of that cap space now or over the summertime,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “More likely, we’ll preserve most, if not all of it, and go into the season and look at either in-season signings or probably more likely in-season trades that are lopsided where we take back more money than we send out. There are a decent amount of advantages to operating as an under-the-cap team in terms of player aggregation and trades and things like that.”

There’s certainly a logic to maintaining cap space for in-season deals. But the value is far less this year, when multiple teams will have room due to the skyrocketing salary cap. If they have their eyes on getting positive assets in salary dumps, the Suns will have to compete with other teams — and settle for weaker positive assets.

That still might be the right course if Phoenix doesn’t like any remaining free agents. (This removes one possible destination for Maurice Harkless, whose standoff with the Trail Blazers appears more likely to drag on.)

The Suns have 15 players — the regular-season roster limit — though John Jenkins and Alan Williams have unguaranteed deals. Phoenix could sign another low-priced player or two to compete in training camp, but that’s small potatoes. The Suns appear set to hoard their cap space.

The catch: This is also what cheap teams say. They hide their frugality by saying they’re maximizing flexibility. It’s impossible to tell the difference at this stage. So, keep an eye on Phoenix’s in-season moves.

Brandon Ingram far from soft, but going to have to get stronger to do what he wants in NBA

Los Angeles Lakers' Brandon Ingram shoots against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half of an NBA summer league basketball game, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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When you see Brandon Ingram in person, you can’t help but have your first thought be “man, is he skinny.”

When he starts to play then you see why he went No. 2 in last June’s draft to the Lakers — he has a smooth, fluid game, can shoot the three, good IQ,  he even ran the offense at points, and looked like a modern NBA four who can do a lot of damage down the line in the league.

Once he gets stronger. Teams at the NBA Summer League tried to cover him often with shorter but physically stronger players — the Sixers’ Jerami Grant, for example — and Ingram struggled with that. It will only get worse once real NBA games start.

Just don’t confuse his physical strength with being soft, scouts and coaches of other teams told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s a difference between being soft and being weak. He’s just weak right now. He’s not soft, by any stretch of the imagination,” a Western Conference head coach said of Ingram. “The kid is skilled. He’s got a good basketball IQ. He’s going to be more than fine. I think the Lakers got themselves a big-time player who is going to be around a long time.”

“I saw a good-looking prospect,” an Eastern Conference scout said of Ingram. “There were some games where he excelled, and there were some games where he struggled. But overall . . . he’s a matchup nightmare.”…

“Every time somebody got physical with him or leaned on him, he just wilted. He just kind of folded. And he was kind of like that the rest of the summer league,” a Western Conference assistant coach said of Ingram. “It’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the NBA. The summer league is not the league.”

It’s going to take Ingram a season or two to put his imprint on the NBA. He’s got to get stronger, and like every rookie he’s got to see how his game and skill set fits in the league. What can he do, what should he stay away from.

What you had to like if you’re a Laker fan is how hard he continued to play, how he got better as Summer League went on. Then he stayed in Las Vegas as was part of the USA Basketball select team, where he was pushed around by the Olympians and challenged by the other guys just starting in the NBA. It’s a great learning experience. Both those situations were also chances to bond with Laker star D'Angelo Russell, both on and off the court.

There’s a lot to like with Ingram. Now someone get that kid a protein shake.

 

Report: Some in Chris Bosh camp suspicious of Heat’s intentions

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 25:  Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat watches on from the bench against the Charlotte Hornets during game four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Pat Riley said he’s open to Chris Bosh playing this season.

Not everyone is convinced of the Heat president’s authenticity.

Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald:

Some in the Bosh camp remain angry and suspicious of the Heat’s intentions, wondering if Miami was motivated by clearing cap space. A Heat source insists this is not the case, that Miami wants him to play if doctors are comfortable with it.

An NBA-employed friend says Bosh very much wants to play and believes he should be cleared. If the Heat fights him on this, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bosh takes this issue to the players union

one issue that has been discussed is whether Bosh should come off blood thinners or continue taking them, according to a person briefed on the matter.

If Bosh comes off the medication this summer, there’s no reason why he couldn’t play.

But even if he stays on the thinners, Bosh has tried to convince the Heat to allow him to play while taking a new medication that would be out of his system in 8 to 12 hours, or by game-time, thus lessening or eliminating the inherent risks of playing a contact sport while on thinners.

It’s hard to believe the Heat have nefarious intentions — not just because they reportedly expect Bosh to play next season, but because a salary-cap workaround would likely fail.

If Bosh goes a year without playing (last game:Feb. 9), Miami waives him and a doctor approved by the NBA and players union says Bosh’s condition is career-ending, the Heat could exclude Bosh’s salary from team salary. He’d still get paid. He just wouldn’t count toward the cap.

So, the $75,868,170 Bosh is owed the next three years is protected. It’s just a matter of whether Miami frees cap space.

But even the Heat sitting Bosh for a year and convincing a union-approved doctor of Bosh’s inability to safely play wouldn’t be enough.

If Bosh plays 25 games for another team after an injury exclusion, his salary would be put back on Miami’s books. That might allow the Heat temporary cap room to sign someone, but with Bosh’s salary applied, their luxury-tax bill would be prohibitively enormous.

So, we’re probably back to the previous questions:

Can Bosh safely play while on blood thinners? Probably not, though there might not be total agreement on that.

Does Bosh need to continue taking blood thinners? That’s a much more complicated question. Hence, the lack of a resolution to this issue.