Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns

The Extra Pass: 2013-14 Western Conference All-Star reserve picks; plus Sunday’s recaps

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After selecting the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves on Friday, it’s time to tackle the Western Conference. Once again, we’ll defer to the last ballot returns for our starters, which are decided solely by fan vote. Here’s the projected Western Conference starters:

West Starters (Fan Vote)

Backcourt: Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry

Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin

We’ll know if this holds up very soon, as the starters will be named on January 23rd.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the format, the reserve picks include two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wildcards to fill the 12-man roster. On to the picks:

West Reserves

Backcourt: Chris Paul and James Harden

Curry was last season’s most notable snub, fans appear to have corrected that oversight by making him a starter over Chris Paul (the two were close in the vote after the last round, although with CP3 out injured it seems unlikely he slides back into the start spot with last minute votes). Paul is an easy and obvious choice here — 19.6 points and 11.2 assists a game, true shooting percentage of 57,8%, PER of 27.4, shooting 35.6 percent from three. Whether he is healthy enough to play remains to be seen, but he should get the nod.

Harden’s stock has gone down a bit since the focus shifted to the flaws in his game (particularly on the defensive end), but he’s still unquestionably one of the league’s most dynamic scorers.  Harden is averaging a 24-5-5 line for the season, and no player who has ever done that has been left off the All-Star team.

Frontcourt: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan

It’s a murderer’s row out West, but Love is averaging 25 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists a night. No player in NBA history who has averaged those numbers has ever been left off the All-Star team, and Love won’t be the first.

The days of Aldridge being on the cusp of All-Star bids are over. This season he’s averaging career highs in points per game (24.1), rebounds per game (11.3), assists (2.9) and PER (23.2), and even if that wasn’t enough for some reason, Portland’s spectacular first-half pushes him way over the top.

Duncan is having a down year by his lofty standards, but his per 36 minute averages of 18.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.8 AST and 2.4 BLK are plenty deserving. Duncan is still the best player on one of the conference’s best teams, and no coach is going to snub one of the league’s greatest players ever in what could be his final season.

Wildcards: Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard

You may think Nowitzki is here based on reputation, but his production has been unreal yet again this season. Nowitzki’s points per 36, PER, true shooting percentage, assists and steals are all above his career averages — an incredible feat for a 35-year-old forward. It’s scary, but this first half of the season could be the best shooting performance of Nowtizki’s career. Dallas would be completely lost without him, and it’s hard to see the conference’s coaches leaving him off.

Now here’s the tough one. All of the reserves listed above are plenty deserving, but the last wildcard spot is going to be a free-for-all. It’s incredibly close, but I’m giving the nod to Damian Lillard over the other contenders. Portland deserves plenty of representation, and all of Lillard’s game-winning shots have to be factored in along with his solid per game averages of 21.4 PPG, 5.8 APG and 3.8 RPG.

Just Missed The Cut

Tony Parker is probably Lillard’s toughest competition for the last wildcard spot, and it would be somewhat surprising if the coaches didn’t defer to the veteran when the numbers are so close. While it’s hard to be too upset either way, Lillard has been the more prolific and efficient scorer this season of the two, and he’s had more memorable moments. Ultimately, this might not matter much, as whoever gets left off will almost certainly be an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant.

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis should both be All-Stars every year for many years to come, but it’s just too tough of a team to crack this year. Cousins is hurt by the quality of his team, as per usual, while Davis has the double-whammy of missed games and a non-playoff team holding him back. If the West’s frontcourt wasn’t so deep and the backcourt wasn’t so banged up, Cousins would have a legitimate argument for the wildcard spot. That’s just not the case, though.

If Russell Westbrook had played in more than just 25 games and wasn’t projected to be out until the All-Star break, he’d be a lock with averages of 21 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds a game. Again, like Cousins and Davis, this may be the last All-Star game Westbrook misses for a long, long time.

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Lakers 112, Raptors 106: Nick Young returned after his one-game suspension to lead the Lakers in scoring with 29 points on 13 shots in just over 30 minutes of action, over a Raptors team that had been playing better lately since trading Rudy Gay to the Kings. Young scored 15 of his points over the final 12 minutes, and for Toronto, this game will go down as a missed opportunity — the team led by 19 points in the second quarter before they lost focus and slowly let L.A. back into the game.

Magic 93, Celtics 91: Someone had to win a game between two teams that couldn’t possibly seem less interested in winning, and on Sunday, it was the Magic. Orlando hadn’t yet won in 2014, and the win over the Celtics snapped a 10-game losing streak. Boston, meanwhile, has now lost 11 of 12. Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

Thunder 108, Kings 93: Kevin Durant followed up Friday’s 54-point effort with a more subdued but just as deadly 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots in 32 minutes of action. OKC led by as many as 24 points in this one, and since it wasn’t much of a game, go read Sam Amick’s piece on DeMarcus Cousins which details how the Kings franchise is stuck with covering for his continued pattern of deplorable behavior.

Spurs 110, Bucks 82: Gregg Popovich told reporters before tip-off that he expected his team to play as if they were facing the defending champion Heat instead of the league’s worst team in the Milwaukee Bucks. The Spurs largely did that, outrebounding their opponent by 18, shooting 56.6 percent from the field, and getting out to a lead of 13 points in the first quarter to remove all doubt as to how this one would turn out as soon as was reasonably possible.

Suns 117, Nuggets 103: The frustrating thing for the Nuggets on this night was the fact that they were beaten by the Suns from top to bottom. Not only did Phoenix’s starters get off to a fast start in scoring 34 first quarter points, but the reserves finished the job by putting 33 on the scoreboard over the game’s final 12 minutes. Four of the Suns’ five starters sat the entire fourth period, while Channing Frye, who led all scorers with 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting, appeared in the fourth for just two and a half minutes.

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.