It’s midnight, let the Dwight Howard madness begin

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Like a Disney fairy tale, when the clock struck midnight Dwight Howard has gotten what he always wanted, what he has earned the right to by playing out his contract:

He is a free agent. As of this moment.

For the next 48 hours — starting with the Rockets just after the official start of free agency at midnight as Sunday flipped to Monday and running for a couple days — six teams will come to Los Angeles and get their chance to make a pitch to Howard. All of them will offer him a max contract (the Lakers can offer more with his Bird rights) but this will swing more on other factors, not the dollars.

Anyone who tells you right now they know what Howard is going to do is selling something — nobody knows. Not even Howard. You can handicap the field, but the fact is he has wanted this moment, he has wanted teams to come recruit him, and he’s going to listen. He is going to savor this. And we know from experience Howard is not the most decisive guy ever, so this thing could go just about any direction.

Here are the teams walking in the door, in my perceived order of their chances.

• Houston Rockets. Howard’s leaky entourage is saying he is making a decision based on basketball reasons, and if that is the case Houston may well win this thing. The Rockets are a good team already with James Harden as the playmaker and good role players around him such as Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Add a healthy Dwight Howard to this roster and they are instant contenders. We can debate if they beat Oklahoma City or San Antonio, let alone the Heat or the best of the East, but they are in the conversation.

In addition, the Rockets have strong ties to the Chinese market (from the Yao Ming era and now with Lin), a lot of their games are still shown there, which would be good for Howard’s branding. Hakeem Olajuwon will be part of the group making a pitch to Howard.

The question is the offense — the Rockets will say they will feature him. And they will, to an extent. But this will still also be Harden’s team. For the Rockets to be truly effective Howard will have to run the pick-and-roll with Harden — last season Howard scored 1.29 points per possession and shot 79.6 percent as the roll man, he scored 0.74 points per possession on 44.5 percent shooting in the post. Whichever team lands Howard needs to use him more this way and keep him moving, not just posting up.

• Los Angeles Lakers. I can think of 30 million reasons the Lakers are not out of this discussion. Howard is a guy just coming off back surgery that impacted his play last season, and the Lakers can offer five years and $117 million (thanks to larger raises) than other teams can offer ($87 million). Yes, Howard is going to get a contract after this one and teams in Texas can sell the sales tax angle, but $30 million is a lot of scratch. It matters.

We all know the Lakers season went sideways fast last year and that nobody really enjoyed the experience. What the Lakers have to sell is three things. First, that last season was a one-off — injuries and a coaching change threw the chemistry off, but this team can be the team that went 28-12 in the middle of the season again and can challenge in the West. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will be part of the pitch to Howard and his relationship with Kobe is not as strained as some think. Plus, with Kobe out for the start of the season and slowed by his Achilles injury, Howard has the chance to take charge and make this his team, even if Mike D’Antoni is the coach.

Second, the Lakers will remind Howard that come the summer of 2014 only he and Steve Nash (for one more year) would be on the books — they plan to rebuild this roster around him. He is the future of the Lakers, and he can follow in the footsteps of Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq and win titles in Los Angeles. Third, the Lakers will sell Los Angeles — if he wants an opportunity to grow his brand through movies, television and advertising opportunities, L.A. is better than any other city on his list.

(If the Lakers do not get Howard, don’t bet on a sign-and-trade to help another team out. It could happen, but the Lakers would want picks and expiring contracts to help them rebuild, they are not taking Asik back from Houston.)

• Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban has built an organization that guys want to come play for and that is part of the pitch. They also have shown they know how to build a title team. Howard would play for a season or two with Dirk Nowitzki but soon the Mavericks have the room to completely reshape the roster and build around Howard. Much like he enjoyed in Orlando, he would be the main face of the franchise soon.

• Atlanta Hawks. Come home, come on home to Atlanta… except that Howard has never shown a desire to return and play in his native city. What they can sell is a max offer and the chance for him to be the face of a roster rebuilt around him — Al Horford and he would make the best front line in the NBA, and that size could challenge the Heat. The Hawks are a long shot but they are in the room.

• Golden State Warriors. There were questions for a while if they would even get in the room, but once in they have a hard sell. The basketball argument is that him in the post with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson raining threes, they are contenders. The hard part is they can only make this work as a sign-and-trade, one that would have the Lakers taking back Andrew Bogut and some other pieces (Thompson?). As I noted above, the Lakers are more likely to just go with what they have and bank cap space for a 2014 roster reboot if Howard walks, they are not going to go for an in-division trade (same goes for the Clippers rumors). But the Warriors will get to make their pitch.

So when will we know? There is a buzz that Howard wants to make his decision early, not mull it over for a week. That said, this is Howard, so who knows? Anytime between July 3 and July 10 he could make his call. Your guess on when is as good as mine.

Report: Suns inform Josh Jackson he will not be part of any Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cleveland Cavaliers want an elite young player back in any trade of Kyrie Irving.

The Phoenix Suns have come up as a trade partner, because of Eric Bledsoe‘s salary, fit with Cleveland if Irving is gone, and the fact he and LeBron James share an agent.

And those suns have an elite young player — Josh Jackson. Taken fourth in the last draft, Jackson showed fantastic athleticism at Summer League, disruptive defense, the ability to make plays around the rim, and while his jumper needs some work there is genuine promise.

Which is why the Suns are not going to include Jackson in any Irving trade.

If the Suns are involved in an Irving trade, it’s likely as part of a three-team deal. Bledsoe would still go out, and Phoenix might be willing to throw in young players such as Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, depending on what they got back.

That is the key — the return. Phoenix is rebuilding, Bledsoe is their best trade chip, and if he is going out the door, they are going to want real quality back in return. They are not in this to be a salary dump location, the Suns are going to want young players who can make a difference and picks. Most of the trade scenarios floating around in public forums use Phoenix as the dumping ground in the three- or four-team deals, just know that is not going to happen. The Suns want value for their best trade asset.

Rumor: Are these the new Cleveland Cavaliers Nike uniforms? (PHOTOS)

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Nike will be taking over the NBA uniforms for the 2017-18 season, and now it looks like we have some leaked photos of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new look.

A photo posted to Twitter on Tuesday showed a mannequin dressed in what appears to be Cleveland’s new wine-colored uniforms.

Nike released some information about their new uniforms recently, including the naming conventions which will be associated with certain editions of team uniforms. Those editions are called The Association, The Icon, The Athlete’s Mindset, and The Community.

The wine edition of the Cleveland uniform would fall under the category of the Icon.

Via Twitter:

Those certainly seem to go along with some of the uniforms that were released during Nikes original release. It’s also hard understand why someone would have a full dress mock up on a mannequin with the Nike logo on it, especially as it is so close to what we have seen from Nike.

Conrad over at Sports Logos has been kind enough to mock up what the Cavaliers uniforms should look like for both the icon and association additions.

Via Sports Logos:

What do you think? I am liking them so far.

Mike Muscala signs 2-year, $10 million deal to remain with Hawks

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ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Hawks have re-signed power forward Mike Muscala to a two-year, $10 million deal.

The 6-foot-11 Muscala, who was an unrestricted free agent, could play a bigger role as he returns for his fifth season following the departures of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard.

Muscala set career highs by averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 70 games, including three starts, last season. He scored in double figures in 20 games and ranked second on the team by making 50.4 percent of his shots from the field.

The team announced the signing Tuesday.

More AP NBA: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

With Allen Crabbe in Brooklyn, what do the Blazers do now?

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Allen Crabbe is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, this time for good.

The Portland Trail Blazers a traded Crabbe to the team that signed him to a massive four-year, $75 million restricted free agent deal in the summer of 2016. In exchange for Crabbe’s services, the Trail Blazers received Andrew Nicholson, a struggling young big man who the Blazers will reportedly waive using the stretch provision.

The move gets Portland closer to the tax line, shaving off and estimated $43 million off of their luxury tax bill. That’s the primary motivation for this trade of a young, talented 3-point shooter and it sort of begs the question: Just what are the Blazers doing?

To understand the Crabbe trade in context, you have to go back to last summer. Portland was in the hunt for several big name players, including Pau Gasol, Hassan Whiteside, and Chandler Parsons.

Portland, never a big free agent destination, missed out on all three, instead having to panic at the last second. The Nets extended a huge offer sheet to Crabbe on July 7, the same day that Portland agreed to a similarly huge contract with Evan Turner.

With their free agent targets gone, Portland had to do the next best thing: retain talent.

After signing Turner, the Blazers matched Crabbe a few days later. They also signed contracts with Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless, and extended C.J. McCollum. Between Turner, Leonard, Harkless, and McCollum the Blazers have committed $62 million to just four players in 2017-18. That’s after wiping Crabbe’s $19 million off the books.

There’s little doubt President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has been trying to find trade suitors for Crabbe once he got past the RFA trade moratorium. Likewise, the team seems to have soured on Leonard, coming off of a shoulder injury and who told NBC Sports last season that he didn’t feel fully healthy until the end of winter.

The team was massively disappointing compared to their magical run in 2015-16. Still, there hasn’t been reason to panic in Oregon given that Olshey’s plan with this team since last summer was to swap their assets for a powerful starting lineup.

That plan began to flounder when Crabbe didn’t play up to expectations and when Leonard and Harkless didn’t show continued growth on expectations from seasons past.

Crabbe is an excellent 3-point shooter, but he is also thought of as a potentially great defender. In 2016-17 he looked lost at times on defense, especially when it came to defending top-level players or when he was in weak side situations off the ball. His value plateaued.

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That’s to state nothing of the rest of the team’s performance, specifically by Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu was vastly important to Portland’s bottom-feeding defense, but he became a liability as a 3-point shooter, allowing teams to help off of the pick-and-roll involving Lillard and McCollum. Turner, never a good fit on paper, didn’t really figure out how to play with the team until he returned from injury later in the season. Rumors around Portland have been that Turner has been favored over Crabbe to remain with the team because of the ball-handling relief he could bring to Lillard and McCollum. Jusuf Nurkic came at the deadline, and was a savior for the team until he fractured his leg late in the year.

Portland’s first cause for concern came during June’s draft. Olshey, flush with three first round draft picks, a burgeoning guard in Crabbe, and several players with deflated trade value, could not find a suitable deal. Olshey had to settle, trading two of his first round picks to move up and take Gonzaga’s Zach Collins as Leonard’s replacement.

That move signaled that Portland’s assets weren’t as valuable as Olshey was hoping they would be. Part of that is due to the performance of the players involved, and part was due to the lower standing of Portland’s draft picks. There’s also something to be said about the NBA’s cap not expanding to the level teams projected, making the salaries of Turner, Crabbe, Leonard, and Harkless less palatable.

This is how we end up with a talented but flawed young player like Crabbe getting moved for a salary dump.

No doubt Olshey’s expectation when he matched — which was the right thing to do, by the way — was to use him and his picks in a future deal to return a third or fourth piece to the starting lineup for Portland. But the tone has swung, and now many are suggesting it was commendable that Olshey did not have to include a first round pick in order to offload Crabbe. That is really a head-scratching way to look at things, and a huge swing in expected value.

Portland is in a tough position given that none of their recommended moves from last year seem to have gone their way. Still, Olshey has been a good GM for the Blazers. He spun wheat into gold by trading for Robin Lopez, and grabbed Nurkic, a potential franchise building block center when he’s healthy for a non-championship caliber big man in Mason Plumlee. He locked down Aminu on a descending salary deal. He has done quite a bit.

Portland still has the ability to be a trade partner in deals including Carmelo Anthony, which could net them usable players or potential future assets. But what is getting harder to understand is how Portland is going to get any better outside of the roster they have now given salary considerations, team fit, and ceiling.

Drastic internal development or relenting on either Turner or the Lillard-McCollum backcourt pairing are likely the only two realistic ways the Blazers will be able to make a dent next year. Or perhaps fans in Portland can hope that Olshey will be able to work his magic yet again and turn one of their role players into a playoff spot.

The 2017-18 season has been weird enough as it is. Portland can head south of their competition or finagle their way to the postseason. At this point, neither would surprise me.