The Extra Pass Wednesday Roundup: Talking tanking (or not) in Phoenix

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PHOENIX — After the Suns traded their projected starting center in Marcin Gortat to the Wizards in exchange for an injured player who might not play this season and a future first round draft pick, and did so less than a week before the start of the regular season, it doesn’t exactly send the message that Phoenix is all that interested in competing this season.

The leadership of the organization, from the president of basketball operations to the GM to the team’s head coach all had to talk to the players that remained the day following the trade to ensure that the message was clear: Develop, compete, and try to win as much as possible.

“I talked with them the next morning,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said about the trade before his team opened the season on Wednesday. “[Ryan McDonough] came down and talked to ‘em, [owner Robert Sarver] came and talked to ‘em. The main part was, you’re going to read a lot of stuff out there and hear a lot of stuff that we’re tanking, or this or that. Not once has anyone ever said, ‘Go out there and lose games.’ They want us to win every game we can, so we wanted to re-emphasize that with the players.”

Tanking, of course, happens at the organizational level, and happens by making trades like the one the Suns made involving Gortat. But no matter the circumstances, it never trickles down to the players or coaches, and Hornacek made it clear that things were no different in Phoenix.

“Is it a rebuilding process? Probably,” he said. “Does it benefit teams to have high draft picks? Yes, but we’re not just going out there throwing games to get that. I think that’s bad karma anyway to do that, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can, and try to win as many games as we can.”

After a fairly painless 104-91 opening night win over the Blazers, there’s no question that the team Phoenix is fielding is giving its all, at least in the early stages of the season.

The backcourt tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe carved up Portland to the tune of 48 combined points, 13 rebounds, and 15 assists. The Blazers had their reigning Rookie of the Year point guard in Damian Lillard pour in a game-high 32 points by himself, but besides a 28-point effort from LaMarcus Aldridge, no other Portland player finished in double figures.

The Suns got a monster game from Miles Plumlee, who came over from the Pacers in the trade for Luis Scola. He finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots, while playing close to 40 minutes as the team’s starting center.

Plumlee had a few post-up plays called for him once he got rolling — a product, Hornacek said, of his increased ability from a footwork standpoint after working with assistant coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison. And although he wasn’t expecting that, he appreciated the confidence his coach and his teammates showed in him after his strong start.

“With this team, I feel like I’m going to find easy things with Goran and Eric, so I didn’t focus on that,” Plumlee said. “But once I started getting a couple buckets and saw I had a little bit of an advantage with my speed, it was nice to see the ball come to my hands a couple of times.”

Bledsoe had a huge game offensively, even if he tended to over-dribble at times and didn’t exactly show the best court vision. He viewed his situation last season as being very similar to Plumlee’s.

“Me and Miles, we were a little bit kind of in the same situation,” Bledsoe said. “He was in Indiana playing behind some great players; Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi. Finally for Miles to get a chance to play man, he was just unbelievable.”

And as for the combination that Bledsoe and Dragic bring: “It keeps the defense on their toes,” Bledsoe said. “You saw it tonight.”

The Blazers saw it, and between the guard play, Plumlee’s breakout performance and P.J. Tucker’s contributions on both ends of the floor, the Suns looked like anything but a tanking team on opening night.

“We had a tough year here last year,” Hornacek said. “We’re trying to get back to where the Phoenix Suns belong, and that’s at the top of the NBA. It’s a good start for us, and I’m happy for our guys.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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Highlights of the first quarter of the Sixers win over the Heat, when Philly raced off to a 19-0 lead.

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Metta World Peace took the subway (the F train) into Madison Square Garden for the Knicks opener and tweeted out his Instagram of the experience. We thought a picture is worth a thousand tweets so we bring you the Instagram instead.

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Sixers 114, Heat 110: Take the defending champs playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Dwyane Wade who was held out to rest as a precautionary measure, put them up against the team projected by everyone to be the league’s worst on the road, add in a huge helping of disrespect, and this is the outcome you get. The crazy thing about this game was the fact that after the heat fell behind by 22 points in the first quarter, they actually led by eight with under five minutes remaining. But the Sixers closed on a 15-3 run to end it and come away with the improbable victory.

Oh, and rookie Michael Carter-Williams? He went nuts, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, and nine steals.

Suns 104, Blazers 91: We said plenty about this game up top, but here are a few additional notes that weren’t emphasized. P.J. Tucker was big as a hustle player, of course, but ended up with 18 points offensively, which included knocking down a couple of corner threes. The Suns’ defense wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but their guards caused havoc in the passing lanes and the bigs swarmed the post to make things difficult inside.

As for the Blazers, they’re going to have a tough go of it this season if Nicolas Batum doesn’t bring it consistently to match the effort of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to give them that third offensive threat. There’s also zero bench on this team — Mo Williams finished 1-of-9 from the field, but no other reserve played more than 12 minutes or contributed much at all. Anyone predicting playoffs out of this team is wearing Rose (Garden) colored glasses.

(I know it’s the Moda Center now, and to that I say: Yeah, but still.)

Thunder 101, Jazz 98: This feels like how a lot of Thunder games are going to go until Russell Westbrook makes it back. Kevin Durant poured in 42 points, but was horribly inefficient in doing so shooting 9-of-24 from the field. He made 22-of-24 free throws which certainly helped, but the defense was locked in on him all night and it will be that way until he gets some help.

Odd night for Gordon Hayward, considering he’s looking for a monster contract extension before the end of the week. Just 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting in only 28 minutes of action.

Rockets 96, Bobcats 83: Say “it’s just the Bobcats” all you want, but Dwight Howard looked dominant, and all the way back from any health concerns that may have limited in him in the first part of last season. He finished with 26 rebounds (!) to go along with 17 points, and Omer Asik had 14 boards of his own alongside Howard in the starting lineup. The only thing that kept this game close was Houston’s 18 turnovers to just seven for Charlotte.

Kings 90, Nuggets 88: Denver almost spoiled the party in Sacramento, which featured a raucous crowd celebrating the fact that their historically terrible team wasn’t sold and relocated to Seattle. Ty Lawson’s missed layup with a second remaining prevented overtime, and the Kings came away with the opening night victory.

DeMarcus Cousins impressed with a 30-point, 14-rebound performance that was a game-best in both categories.

Warriors 125, Lakers 94: With this Lakers roster you are going to get up and down performances — Tuesday night was up, Wednesday was way down. Then they ran into the buzz saw of Klay Thompson, who had 27 points in the first half on his way to 38 points on 15-of-19 shooting. The Warriors exposed the Lakers defense to the tune of 120.1 points per 100 possessions. Or we can note they were 15-of-27 from three. It was a clinic.

Cavaliers 98, Nets 94: Andrew Bynum was back and although he was 1-of-5 from the floor his size had an impact in the 7:43 he was on the court — he was a +8, the second best on the Cavaliers. Cleveland had balance with six players in double figures. However, the key was defense for the Cavs, holding the Nets to 40.2 percent overall (the Nets helped that with poor ball movement and a lot of overdribbling). After the game Kevin Garnett reminded everyone what they have a ways to go and this will be a process in Brooklyn. With that payroll, an expensive process.

Raptors 93, Celtics 87: It’s not like anybody in Boston noticed the Celtics lost, they were a little busy celebrating something else. Boston was careless with the ball and it cost them — 22 turnovers. The Raptors were in control of this up 16 in the third quarter, but Jeff Green helped inspire a comeback (he had 25 points) but it wasn’t enough. Rudy Gay had 19 for Toronto and was the man in the fourth quarter to hold off the Celtics rally.

Pistons 113, Wizards 102: Detroit’s front line lived up to the billing on Wednesday — Greg Monroe had 24 points and 16 rebounds, Josh Smith had 19 points and was very active at both ends. Andre Drummond was 6-of-7 for 12 points plus 8 boards. The Wizards had no answer up front (Marcin Gortat played 16 minutes off the bench). Trevor Ariza was the only reason it was that close, he had 28 points. John Wall was 8-of-21 shooting overall and 3-of-13 outside 8 feet, that’s not going to get it done.

Knicks 90, Bucks 83: It was a tale of two halves. The Knicks owned the first half, 56-31, with Carmelo Anthony scoring 12 points on just 6 shots, and the Knicks played defense. Then the second half and he Bucks shot 52.4 percent and outscored the Knicks 52-34. The Knicks held on for the win and that’s what matters, but this wasn’t pretty or one they’ll want to remember.

Timberwolves 120, Magic 115 (OT): Kevin Love ladies and gentlemen. He finishes with 31 points — including the three that ties the game and sends it to overtime — plus 17 rebounds. Kevin Martin has 23 for Minnesota and seven players are in double figures scoring. Aaron Afflalo has 28 points for a feisty Orlando team that has some of the same traits as last season’s versions — they fight hard for coach Jacque Vaughn but don’t have the talent to win many games.

Pacers 95, Pelicans 90: You can credit Paul George with getting the Pacers to 2-0 to start the season. New Orleans led most of the game thanks to Eric Gordon (25 points) and Jrue Holiday (24), even though the Pelicans only shot 40 percent as a team on that strong Pacers defense. However it was the Pacers that made plays down the stretch, led by George who had 32 points on 19 shots. This was a one-point game with 31 seconds to go, but it was a George Hill three that was the dagger.

Mavericks 118, Hawks 109: We have an efficient Monta Ellis sighting — 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Combine that with Dirk Nowitzki’s 24 points on 14 shots and you have a Dallas team that shot 57.1 percent and scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Dallas pretty much was in charge of every aspect of this game. They’ll win a lot of games if we see more of efficient Monta.

Spurs 101, Grizzlies 94: San Antonio took control of this game with a 30-7 second quarter and while the Grizzlies made it close late this was an easier Spurs win than it looked. It was vintage Spurs with a balanced attack — six guys in double figures and the team shot 52.6 percent. Zach Randolph did not help himself earn a big new contract next summer as the Spurs front line dominated him (without Tim Duncan much of the second half). Z-Bo was 1-of-6 shooting for 2 points and Memphis shot 41.9 percent.

Bucking trend, NBA television ratings up both nationally, locally

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Traditional television ratings are down across the board — in sports, but also in dramas and comedies and just about every other category across the board. More and more people are cutting the cord, and even for people who still pay for cable/satellite, there are countless more options and streaming choices like Netflix that divide the marketplace. That’s why the people trying to pin the NFL’s rating declines on political issues miss the point — America’s most powerful sports league is not immune to market trends.

The NBA, however, is bucking the trend.

From The Business Sports Journal.

Nationally, NBA games on ABC, ESPN, NBA TV and TNT are showing double-digit viewership increases. The combined 15 percent jump puts the league’s TV viewership at its best mark heading into All-Star weekend since the 2012-13 season.

Locally, regional sports networks are seeing a 7 percent increase in ratings so far this season. SportsBusiness Journal analyzed ratings data for 27 U.S.-based teams across the NBA. Seventeen RSNs showed increases; 10 posted decreases. Information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available…

Overall, local NBA games on NBC Sports’ RSNs have seen a 16 percent jump this season. NBA games on Fox’s RSNs are up 5 percent.

The NBC regional sports networks are seeing a massive boost in part because of Boston, which has seen an 82 percent jump in ratings this season.

This is good news for the NBA, which recently signed a massive new television deal with its primary partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting.

Why the increase? Likely a number of factors. One, the NBA has a strong crop of young stars — and those stars are engaging fans on social media. The NBA also embraced technology and other media in a way other sports did not — you can see any NBA highlight you want on YouTube, try that with the NFL. The NBA was more willing to change with the times, but that still doesn’t fully explain why a sport with a younger demographic — more cord cutters — is seeing its ratings rise.

Anthony Davis on Pelicans if Cousins healthy: “We go to the Finals”

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On January 27, the Pelicans were 27-21 and had won seven-of-eight (including just beating the Houston Rockets), and they were solidly in as the six seed in the West. They looked like a solid playoff team in the West, and with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins they were going to be a tough matchup in the first round.

Jan. 27 was also the day it became official that Cousins had torn his Achilles and was done for the season.

It leads to a lot of “what ifs” in New Orleans. During All-Star weekend ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Anthony Davis about that and he was more optimistic than most.

“We could have gone through the playoffs. No one could really stop us as bigs. We go to the Finals if we went,” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in an interview over All-Star weekend.

“[Teammate Rajon Rondo] reminds us of it: ‘You guys are the two best bigs. I know what it takes to win championships; we got it.'”

Two quick thoughts here. First, no the Pelicans were not contenders. Second, I want Davis to think like this, to say this if I’m a Pelicans fan or in Pelicans management. The best players always think they can find a way to win.

The big question around the Pelicans now is how the Cousins injury impacts the future of GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry. Those two were under a mandate to make the playoffs or a housecleaning was coming, and they were clearing that bar before a catastrophic injury. Are they both back now? Neither? There are rumors out of the Big Easy they are leaning toward keeping Demps but dumping Gentry, however, it’s still unclear.

Also unclear, how much do the Pelicans re-sign Cousins for (they will) and for how many years? It’s going to be a hot summer in New Orleans one way or another.

Stephen Curry would love to captain Team Stephen again in 2019

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stephen Curry would love to be an NBA All-Star Game captain again next year, especially since the game will be in his hometown of Charlotte.

LeBron James would be OK with someone else taking his place, depending on who the top two vote-getters are, although his draft prowess led to Team LeBron beating Team Stephen 148-145 Sunday night.

And there’s a definite appetite for the NBA to televise the captains’ draft rather than conduct it clandestinely like it was this year.

“Televise it,” said DeMar DeRozan of Team Stephen. “Give the people what they want to see. I think everybody wants to see it. At the end of the day, every single person that gets picked, you are an All-Star, so it doesn’t matter where you really go, so I think televise it.”

Players raved about the new format of having captains draft the teams rather than the traditional format of East vs. West.

And James finally revealed his draft order: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, his former Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins, who missed the game due to a season-ending injury.

“I know who I like watching and I had a draft board. I had a process,” James said. “Some of it went according to plan. A couple of them fell through, but I was satisfied and happy with the guys that I got.”

James’ original roster was dramatically altered by injuries to Cousins, John Wall, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love, who all missed the game.

“Even with the four guys that got injured we were able to get four new guys that came in and played well for us.”

James was named the game’s MVP after making the go-ahead, finger-roll layup with 34.5 seconds left and scoring a game-high 29 points.

Where did he hide his draft board?

“Ain’t none of your business. You’re going too far, man,” James said with a laugh.

Curry didn’t divulge his draft order.

“As the draft kind of unfolded, you start to game plan around positions,” he said. “For me, I tried to get the best shooters. It was kind of cool to see both teams come together as me and LeBron were picking. So that part, that vibe of the format and having two guys select from your peers will be a fun show as it unfolds year after year.”

The All-Star draft led to interesting dynamics on court.

Curry chose his Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the trio had to play against Durant. James also chose Oklahoma City duo Westbrook and Paul George to play along with Kyrie Irving, who forced a trade away from James in Cleveland just last summer.

Irving and James had no obvious friction, even laughing and joking on the bench. Neither did Durant and Westbrook, who broke up in 2016 when Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Durant helped James smother Curry in the final seconds to prevent him from getting off a potential tying shot.

And then there was Toronto’s Dwane Casey coaching Team LeBron against Raptors star DeRozan.

“I think that having the captains and selecting the guys and being able to mix them up gave it a more authentic feel of kind of what us players want to be part of in an All-Star Game,” Irving said.

“It’s great to play with guys in your conference, East-West. But when you get a chance to have Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and you know they’re teammates already, and then you mix them with myself and Kemba (Walker), and LeBron, and you could see the mix and it just worked.”

 

Will Sam Hinkie ever be an NBA GM again?

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The buzz around the NBA is that Sam Hinkie would like to get back in the game. He’s a bright guy who is teaching graduate business classes at Stanford, he’s investing in and helping some startups in the Silicon Valley. Like smart people in every walk of life, NBA GMs have interests outside of just their profession. Hinkie can live a very good life outside the NBA world if he so chooses, but the buzz is he wants back in.

Will a team let him?

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report asked other executives about the potential of a Hinkie return, in a story about his legacy. There was caution.

One owner of an Eastern Conference team said (Hinkie’s 13-page, esoteric resignation) letter—which was not intended to be shared publicly—damaged Hinkie’s chances of being hired to run a franchise again as much as anything he did while with the Sixers. Still, sources both close to Hinkie and around the league said owners and executives routinely reach out to him for counsel. Several basketball operations vice presidents and owners said they would hire him, but they wouldn’t put him in charge.

Others believe Hinkie and The Process weren’t given a full trial, and that he didn’t do anything wrong as much as the league turned on him.

“They clearly changed the rules on Sam,” the longtime front office executive said. “That wasn’t all on him. If he lasts five more months, maybe it all looks different and he is given credit for what they’re doing now.”…

“Once you stockpiled all those talented players, was Sam capable of flipping the switch and becoming a real GM?” the second Western Conference GM asked. “Because you don’t hire the demolitionist to do the remodel. Those are two different jobs with two different skill sets.”

Hinkie gamed the system in Philadelphia — with ownership’s blessing, at first. Until the pressure from the league and other owners, and the weight of the losses, became too much. Jerry Colangelo came in and the writing was on the wall for Hinkie and “The Process.” Every team has “tanked” to improve draft position and gain financial flexibility at some point, but nobody was as naked and extreme in their ambitions as Hinkie’s 76ers. Most Sixers fans seemed to get it, but other owners didn’t like what it said about the business of the NBA.

The Process also worked — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz (who has yet to play but will make a difference) have the Sixers as an on-the-rise team that makes the playoffs this year. Whether they get there depends on Embiid’s health and if the right players can be put around them, but he started a process that works.

At some point, I expect a team will give Hinkie another shot, a team near the bottom of the standings in a smaller market with an owner ready to gamble. It may be, as the one executive suggested, Hinkie in some kind of executive role setting the tone while another “GM” handles the day-to-day and relationships, but I expect Hinkie will get his shot. He learned some lessons the first time around, and his model in Philly is not one size fits all (especially with the draft lottery changes that kick in for 2019).  But he deserves another turn in the big chair somewhere.