Seeming rash of injuries could shape NBA playoff picture

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On a court in Denver, Knicks fans watched Carmelo Anthony leave early to get to the locker room as his knee was clearly bothering him into another bad shooting night. Later he was on a plane back to New York to get fluid drained from that knee and other procedures to get him back on the court.

On a court in Atlanta, Lakers fans watched Kobe Bryant go down and twist his ankle on a final shot. He limped off the court but afterwards said he was out indefinitely.

Injuries that shape the playoffs are nothing new — remember Derrick Rose last year? — and there are not really more this season than any other. It just feels like it (as it does every year).

But a series of injuries old and new are going to shape the race up to the playoffs and then the playoffs themselves.

• Kobe Bryant’s ankle. This one could potentially keep the Lakers out of the playoffs, although I wouldn’t bet on it. Mostly because the wheels are coming off the Jazz (half a game back of the Lakers on Thursday) and they are not running away with a playoff slot with Utah having a tough schedule ahead. The door opens for Dallas a little, but just a little. Also, this is Kobe, who deals with injuries about like the Black Knight of Monty Python fame (“’Tis a flesh wound”). He will be back on the court as fast as his body allows. That could be a week, it could be three, but bet on the lower end of that scale. Still, in recent weeks the Lakers have run a tight 8-man player rotation and even with that when Kobe sits the Lakers offense has been unimpressive. They need to find some points, fast.

However, the Lakers could be in trouble even when Kobe returns. Los Angeles has been winning lately but the margin for error with this team remains small — it had to come from 25 back on the Hornets and beat the Raptors in overtime. That margin is a whole lot smaller against the Thunder or Spurs. Kobe has taken over the role of playmaker on the Lakers (with Steve Nash playing off the ball) and if he is half a step slow in the playoffs because of his injuries the Lakers will go from “long shot” to “never got out of the starting gate.”

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• Carmelo Anthony’s knee. He walked off the court during another unimpressive outing — much to the delight of Nuggets fans — because as much as he has tried to play through it for weeks, Anthony realized it was time something had to be done about his continuing knee issue. In the short term, he is flying back to New York and will get his knee drained. He’ll miss a couple games. That doesn’t really help the Knicks in their quest to retake the No. 2 seed from Indiana (or even stave off the Nets, the four seed that is 1.5 games back of New York) but it has to be done.

Because come the playoffs, if the Knicks are going to be the team that breaks out of that clump fighting to be the second best team in the East and to challenge the Heat, they are going to need the best of ‘Melo. He has to be healthy, he has to be on fire. Fluid buildup in the knee is a symptom of some other irritation, so if the Knicks stick around in the playoffs Anthony might need to have it drained again. But certainly the status of Anthony’s knee impacts the Knicks.

• Tyson Chandler’s knee. It looked scary when it happened and the tough-guy Chandler had to be helped to the locker room in Denver Wednesday night, but after the game he was walking without crutches and it didn’t seem to be serous. Which is great news for New York — besides Carmelo the other thing the Knicks must have in the playoffs is better defense than they have been playing of late. And that starts with the former Defensive Player of the Year. He has to be a defensive terror in the paint in the postseason for the Knicks to make a run.

• Danny Granger’s knee. The Pacers have a championship caliber defense, but they have a terrible offense. Danny Granger was their leading scorer last year and it was assumed that when he returned to the lineup the Pacers offense would pick up. It didn’t. Then Granger barely played and had to sit out again. Unless Granger can get healthy and the Pacers offense can find steady points — and stop taking those 5 minute breaks mid-game — the Pacers are not breaking out of the pack in the East.

• Derrick Rose’s knee. The Bulls are another strong defensive team whose offense was fully based around the former league MVP. When he went down in the first round of the playoffs last year the No. 1 seed Bulls were pushed aside by the Sixers. Without him all season the Bulls offense has been bottom 10 in the league. The theory goes that with him — even 70 percent of him — and the Bulls offense returning to good, they could be the team that beaks out of the pack in the East and gets a run at Miami. But Rose isn’t coming back until he is over the mental hurdles of trusting his knee, and if that means he misses the season he’s good with that. If he returns, we’ll see where the Bulls stand, they have struggled of late and need to get Joakim Noah and Luol Deng a little rest, too.

• Tony Parker’s ankle. The Spurs are the top seed in the West and Tony Parker was having the kind of season that could have him No. 3 on a lot of MVP ballots at the end of the season (if you put him in front of LeBron and Durant, you’re doing it wrong). As we have seen the last few years, the Spurs execution in the regular season can be countered some in the playoffs, but this year feels different — the Spurs are defending again and guys like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard are not just system guys but quality players. The Spurs have a real shot to beat the Thunder is seven games and get back to the finals, but not without 100 percent of Tony Parker slashing up the OKC defense. He is the guy that makes it all go for them in crunch time and if he is not fully ready for the playoffs the Spurs could see another early exit.

Malik Monk: I thought Knicks would draft me

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Malik Monk to the Knicks was predicted and reported as a possibility. And when the No. 8 pick came up, the Kentucky guard was still on the board.

But New York – then still run by Phil Jackson – passed on Monk to draft Frank Ntilikina.

Monk, who wound up being drafted No. 11 by the Hornets, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“Me, my agent, everybody in my agency, my family — we thought we were going to New York,” Monk told the Daily News last week after a posing for his Panini trading card. “It was here, my agent is here (based in New York), a great agent, everybody thought it was going to be here. Went to dinner with (Jackson), had a great workout, everything was positive.”

Naiveté and/or wishful thinking by someone who had never been through the draft process before? Perhaps.

But Monk’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, is quite experienced.

What did the Knicks do to make the Monk camp believe they’d draft him? Misleading in those situations can grate agents, though if Jackson did that, at least New York eradicated the problem.

Report: Kyrie Irving and LeBron James didn’t meet in Miami

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Another day, another disputed rumor involving LeBron James.

This time it’s one about him meeting with Kyrie Irving in Miami.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

I just got off the phone with folks about an hour ago. They said LeBron James and Kyrie Irving never met at all. They were both in the city of Miami. But, I was told, it is quite possible to be in the same city and not see each other. They never met. They never talked.

Whether or not they’ve already met, Irving and LeBron might need to address their problems soon

The Cavaliers might not have their high asking price for Irving met before the season, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert already discussed the possibility of Irving returning. LeBron and Irving might have to reconcile a future as teammates.

Malcolm Brogdon: Charlottesville was white supremacism and terrorism

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Rookie of the Year and Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon – who played four years at the University of Virginia, which became the epicenter of white-nationalist protests – was asked about the events in Charlottesville and his thoughts on the statue of Robert E. Lee.

Brogdon, via Sports Illustrated:

It was pretty shocking. To see this happen at a place that I call home is sort of jarring for me.

But, if I were to be honest, the level of hate and blatant racism that still dominates the minds of so many Americans today, it’s not shocking to me. I think at the end of the day, you have to call it what it is. I think this is white supremacy, and I think it’s domestic terrorism. I think we live in a country where we go overseas, and we fight other people’s wars, and we fight terrorism overseas internationally. But we don’t want to fully acknowledge the terrorism that goes home domestically.

So, I think it’s a shocking event. But it’s not surprising sort of the hate that is still around.

My thoughts about it have never changed. I’m a person that thinks things should not be glorified that did not do the country any justice. For example, these statues stand still, but all they do is divide people. At this point in time, I think that America needs to be unified. And the statues are clearly something that’s not unifying people. It’s going to continue to create a divide within our communities. And I think they have no place in our society right now.

Kudos to Brogdon for calling spades spades.

Racism is still a problem – not one we’re comfortable discussing, which only exacerbates the problem. It must be acknowledged to be solved.

“Terrorism” is too often a term we reserve for only crimes committed by Muslims. A white supremacist driving his car into a group of counter-protestors – killing one – is almost certainly designed to terrorize them.

But I disagree with Brogdon that the statue should be removed because it’s divisive. It should be removed because it glorifies someone who led a war against the United States to protect the racist institution of slavery.

Unity is nice, but unifying around what? Brogdon might find that the people who agree with his call for unity have a different vision than he does.

Jazz mitigate loss of Gordon Hayward well, but that’s still a devastating departure

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Jazz traded up to draft a player who is already exceeding expectations.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz made a savvy trade to land a starter before free agency even began.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz executed several nice value signings.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

In what was otherwise a smart offseason, there’s just no way around Utah losing Hayward – a 27-year-old star at the critical wing position. Hayward’s importance to the Jazz is self-evident in the effort to re-sign him – a max offer, a billboard, multiple players flying to San Diego for a final meeting. His departure to the Celtics derails what had been a promising ascension.

Two years ago, the Jazz were the only team with four 25-and-under players – Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood – who posted at least six win shares.

Last year, the Jazz were the only team a pair of 26-and-under players – Hayward and Gobert – who posted at least 10 win shares.

Though Favors’ and Hood’s progress was sidetracked by injury, Utah still made another step forward with Hayward and Gobert becoming All-Star caliber. If Favors and Hood got healthy, they could have joined Hayward and Gobert – and Donovan Mitchel (who was drafted No. 13 this year then impressed in summer league) and Ricky Rubio (who was acquired for just a likely low first-round pick thanks to the Jazz’s excess cap space to close the 2016-17 fiscal year) – in a core that was growing into a legitimate Western Conference power.

Alas, Hayward bolted for Boston, which threatens even more in the Eastern Conference.

The Jazz rebounded as well as can be expected. They preemptively got Rubio for just a lottery-protected Thunder pick, allowing them not to re-sign George Hill and deal with the 31-year-olds frequent injury troubles. Mitchell has quickly drawn rave reviews. Thabo Sefolosha ($5.25 million), Jonas Jerebko ($4 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.2 million) are all on favorable salaries – and each have unguaranteed seasons tacked on for next year, making their deals even more team-friendly.

Those players could join a deep rotation that already includes Gobert, Favors, Hood, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Dante Exum. And here’s a little secret: Gobert – not Hayward, the team’s lone All-Star – was Utah’s best player last year. The Jazz aren’t falling off the map just yet.

Their defense might be even better. They could win even more than the 51 games they won last year if healthier.

But their offense will suffer without Hayward’s creation (which could hurt their defensive rating, if they’re defending after makes less often), and their ceiling is far lower. Guaranteeing Ingles $50 million during his 30s is probably an overpay that will also limit flexibility, though at least his salary declines annually.

The Jazz did a good job of handling losing a star. But losing a star isn’t good, and I’m grading results.

Offseason grade: D+