Raymond Felton, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd

Knicks look very much a contender out-scoring Thunder in OKC

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What do you want from your title contender?

A superstar to lead the team? How about Carmelo Anthony with 36 points and 12 rebounds — nine offensive? He took over the league’s scoring title race with that performance.

Toughness inside? How about 19 offensive rebounds on one end and your big center Tyson Chandler contesting shots in the paint at the end on the other? (And that was without Kenyon Martin or Amare Stoudemire.)

Three point shooting? How about 10 in the first half and 15-34 for the game”

Quality play off the bench? How about 54 points and 10 threes?

Sunday the Knicks went into Oklahoma City and checked off a lot of boxes on the contender card, beating the Thunder 125-120 in a one of the more entertaining games of the season. That would be a dozen wins in a row for the Knicks as they have found their groove before the playoffs.

If you believe playoff statements can be made in the regular season, the Knicks made one this week beating a depleted Heat and an at-full-strength Thunder.

When talking about the Knicks as contenders, the hesitation was simply are not a good defensive team. There was never any doubt they could score but can they get stops? This game certainly didn’t alleviate that concern but it showed the Knicks can overcome it. On the season their defense is average (15th in NBA in points per possession) but in their 10 games before this they were allowing 1.5 points per 100 possessions fewer, which has them 8th in the NBA in that stretch.

Meanwhile, the Thunder looked beatable. Again. They have two fantastic scorers in Russell Westbrook (37 points on 27 shots) and Kevin Durant (27 points on 17 shots), but their system has a little isolation heavy and that makes them easier to defend. The difference in ball movement between the two sides was stark — the Knicks rate up there with the Heat and Spurs as the teams really sharing the rock right now.

This game was what the Knicks look like when the three ball is falling — they can score in bunches. In the first half it was the long ball that carried the Knicks — 10 threes and a total of 65 points by the break.

The other part of that was their bench. Jason Kidd was 4-of-6 from three for the game, J.R. Smith had 22, and Chris Copeland exploited his matchup with Nick Collison in the first half (Collison isn’t quick enough to cover him on the perimeter and Scott Brooks stuck with that matchup for way longer than he should have).

This was a close game — 110-109 New York with 4 minutes left — and it was the Knicks that made plays down the stretch.

It was Anthony driving baseline again, missing and getting his own rebound again and scoring. It was Tyson Chandler contesting and forcing Durant to miss a floater. It was a J.R. Smith stepback 20 footer then a possession later a 26-foot three off a broken play.

The Thunder made plays also down the stretch — Westbrook in particular with a steal and bucket, then a key three — but it wasn’t enough. When the Knicks offense is clicking they can just outscore teams. That’s what they did.

It felt like a playoff game and the Knicks have won again. They look ready for the postseason in 10 days and like a team that can do a lot of damage when it starts.

51Q: Will a few veterans make 76ers good enough to justify ousting Sam Hinkie?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 7: Jerry Colangelo (R) is introduced as special advisor to managing general partner and chairman of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers by general manager Sam Hinkie (L) and owner Joshua Harris (M) on December 7, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Will a few veterans actually make the 76ers good enough to justify ousting Sam Hinkie?

The Philadelphia 76ers are going to lose a lot of games this season. They will be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Again.

Now that reality feels even worse. The loss of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons to a broken foot for at least part of the season was a punch to the gut for Sixers fans who finally had hope “the process” was about to start to pay off with wins and promise.

Take a step back from this latest in an entirely too long list of setbacks, and a key question remains:

Are the Sixers now on the right track?

As a corollary to that, would the Sixers be just as good if Sam Hinkie were still the man in charge? Or has the father/son combination of Jerry and Bryan Colangelo steered the ship in the right direction? Did this team need established veterans to both guide the young players and create a better locker room culture?

We know where Bryan Colangelo stands, look at what he said on The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski:

Really, factually, there was a losing culture. There was a losing mindset….

And I think more than anything the mindset needed to shift. The mindset needed to change. And that’s why we’ve been talking about winning and doing everything to promote winning, promote a culture of excellence, to promote better thought process in everything.

Apparently, that means bring in more veterans. This season Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, and Elton Brand will be part of the mix with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and, eventually, Simmons. Those veterans are there to change the mindset and make sure the team wins more than the 10 games it did last season.

What Colangelo now preaches is what a lot of executives around the league said while Hinkie was the guy with the hammer in Philly. Those other execs understood the tanking — every franchise is willing to suffer a bad season or two in order to get a high draft pick — but it was the sustained level and intensity of the tanking that disturbed people. It was the cold turning over of the back end of the roster searching for a diamond in the rough rather than bringing in guys to help win a few games. Where was the Kevin Garnett in Minnesota leader of a young core? If a team is that bad for that long, doesn’t it seep into the culture, the DNA of a franchise?

One could make the case that happened in Philadelphia. That’s why Okafor was getting in fights, why Embiid wasn’t listening to staff and on down the line. Young players were developing bad habits, and while Brett Brown did all anyone could ask of a coach to turn that around, it takes a player or players to set the tone. Veterans can do that, although it takes the right veterans (ask the Lakers how it goes when Nick Young is the only veteran actually hanging out with a young core of players while better examples keep mostly to themselves).

The question remains, would things be that much different in Philly if Hinkie were in charge? In terms of perception, maybe, but in terms of wins? In terms of direction?

Any success the Colangelos have will be built on the foundation of Hinkie and his process. They may not think of him as a “basketball guy” but the Colangelos owe Hinkie — he took the slings and arrows while compiling a treasure chest of picks other teams covet. The Colangelos are certainly more transparent, or at least give that impression by meeting more with the media and selling their vision. The Colangelos certainly have better relationships with agents and other teams than Hinkie, who was not beloved. It was certainly Joshua Harris and the Philadelphia owners — likely with a push from Adam Silver (although he denies it) — who grew weary of the losing and wanted to make the change.

But all of that is very different from saying this year’s Sixers will win a lot more games because Hinkie was pushed out the door.

Hinkie is now living the good life in Palo Alto, California, with his family. He’s relaxing (as much as he relaxes). At some point he will get another shot, he will be brought in as an assistant GM somewhere if he wants it.  And like anyone who does any job, he likely learned a lot about how to do it better through his struggles.

Do the veterans and maybe a couple of wins justify ousting Hinkie? The question is largely moot — the deed is done. Hinkie is gone in Philly.

But he shouldn’t be forgotten — this is his roster as much as anyone’s. Whether you like how it was put together or not.

Report: Clippers owner Ballmer will spend “whatever it takes” to keep Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, center, responds to reporters while Chris Paul, left, and DeAndre Jordan laugh during the team's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Playa Vista, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Associated Press
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Is this the season the Clippers break through? They have been one of the eight best teams — usually one of the top five — for several years now, but that has not been enough to get them past the second round of the playoffs. A combination of injuries and running into superior teams has gotten in their way.

This season they will start as the fourth-best team in the league according to most NBA power rankings (including ProBasketballTalk’s), but they will still be third best in the West. If things play out according to that script, it would mean another second-round exit.

The difference is next summer Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can be — and almost certainly will be — free agents (both have early termination options). If there is another second-round flame-out, can the Clippers keep them?

Owner Steve Ballmer is committed to spend whatever it takes to keep them in Clipper red, white, and blue, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Most importantly, according to Clippers insiders, is his commitment to keeping both Griffin and Paul long term no matter what it costs.

Do both want to stay? That’s impossible to predict nine months out. But it’s hard to imagine either finding as good of a set up as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds.

Take a moment to step back and realize just how much Ballmer has changed the Clippers’ culture in three years from what Donald Sterling would have done. If Sterling still owned the team we’d be asking if he would open his pocketbook to spend to keep his two big stars in the same summer, and even if he was would that be enough or would both players be looking just to get away.

Now it’s harder to make a case that either wants out — and that includes the idea that Griffin will bolt to go home to Oklahoma City and play for the Thunder next to Russell Westbrook. Few players have taken advantage of the Los Angeles lifestyle and opportunities as Griffin, who is an executive producer of one television show making a pilot and has worked on a career as a comic.

As for the inevitable Griffin/CP3 trade rumors, take them with a whole box of kosher salt.

As for the idea that they’d make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they’d re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There’s no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights’ money spikes the salary cap up more than $100 million next summer.

Griffin and Paul will be free agents next summer. Whether they stay in Los Angeles or leave will depend in part on how this season goes and the prospects for them and the Clippers after this season. It’s possible they leave.

But with Ballmer willing to open up his bloated checkbook, it’s much easier to make the case they both stay put.

Matt Barnes says he’s been warned for chewing gum, using bathroom during national anthem

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 19:  NBA players Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick attend the David Yurman in-store shopping event to celebrate the launch of Men's Faceted Metal Collection at David Yurman Boutique on March 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman)
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman
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The NBA has long taken a hard stance on the national anthem.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was infamously suspended for sitting during the national anthem 1996. The league has a specific rule  – which it doesn’t plan to change – that states, “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

That makes it more difficult for the NBA and union to compromise on national-anthem protests – especially because precedent has set a strict tone on the rule.

Kings forward Matt Barnes on The Vertical Podcast with JJ Redick:

They don’t want you chewing gum. They told me, take the gum out of your mouth.

I was using the bathroom. They said you can’t miss the anthem. I’m like, “Man, I had to pee.” “Next time you’ll be fined.” I said, “Ohh, OK.”

I doubt NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to punish players for demonstrating on behalf of important social issues. But he’s also behold to the team owners and corporate sponsors, and he must enforce the league’s rules.

It’s a fine line, one that the NBA’s prior warnings on national-anthem conduction make even more difficult for Silver to walk.

Maybe the solution is raised fists? Kneeling, like Colin Kaepernick, would seem to violate the “stand” requirement. But if players are on their feet and in place, would the league really deem a raised fist an undignified posture?

Joel Embiid to start in Sixers first preseason game

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Here’s a little bit of good news for beleaguered Sixers fans:

Joel Embiid will start the Sixers first preseason game next Tuesday. Embiid was the No. 3 pick and a very highly rated prospect coming out of Kansas, but foot injuries sidelined him the entirety of his first two seasons. Now he’s healthy and going to get a start next Tuesday, according to coach Brett Brown.

This will be a process. It will be two steps up and one step back all season for Embiid, but at least he’s healthy enough to take those steps now.

Now the focus shifts to when Ben Simmons will be able to take his first steps.