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.

Craig Sager to get third bone marrow transplant thanks to anonymous donor

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Legendary TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager talks with Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sager is on a one game assignment for ESPN. 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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Craig Sager couldn’t be in Rio covering the Olympics for NBC, his cancer wouldn’t allow it. That didn’t stop Team USA from reaching out to him before they left. Or from Nike designing a sweet pair of shoes for him.

Now there is good news on his battle against leukemia — he will have a third bone marrow transplant, according to his son Craig Sager II.

This is fantastic news for a man and family who have been through a lot. Hopefully, this treatment is a step forward for Sager, a man beloved by everyone around the NBA.

Report: With Joffrey Lauvergne trade, Mitch McGary likely done with Thunder

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16:  Mitch McGary #33 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on March 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  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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The Oklahoma City frontcourt is crowded. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams will start, and they will have Nick Collison, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, and now Joffrey Lauvergne behind them.

Which likely means Mitch McGary‘s done as a member of the Thunder, according to Royce Young of ESPN.

McGary has battled injuries his two seasons in the league and got on the court for only 72 minutes total last season for the Thunder (he played in more games and put up solid numbers in the D-LEague). He was not part of the future there regardless. He’s an undersized five trying to play the four and what he brought as a rookie — energy — was not enough as a sophomore.

McGary will make $1.5 million this season. He may be tough to move because he’s suspended for the first five games he’s eligible to play next season for failing the league’s drug policy (five games is the standard suspension for testing positive for marijuana three times). Maybe a team looking to develop players will give him a shot, but there is little trade value for him.

Dwight Howard is shooting 19-footers to improve his free throw stroke

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If you can knock down a 19-foot shot, then a 15-footer should be easier. Right?

Apparently that — and just basic muscle memory — is the latest attempt to improve Dwight Howard‘s free throw shooting. And, he seems to be knocking down those shots.

It’s not hard to see the logic in this approach.

The challenge is form and reps are not the problems for Howard — or DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond or others — when it comes to hitting free throws. Anyone who says “why don’t they just practice the shot” doesn’t pay attention, these guys put in a lot of work on the shot. Pregame and in practice (I’m Los Angeles based), Jordan probably hits 65 percent from the line. At least.

The problem is mental. That can be a tougher hurdle to clear. Maybe taking 19 footers and knocking them down will have Howard feeling more confident at the stripe this season.

But we’re going to need to see it to believe it. Just like we’re going to have to see a rejuvenated Howard in Atlanta before we believe this season will be different from the last few.

Report: Veteran big man Jason Thompson agrees to deal in China

BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 15:  Jason Thompson # 34 of Sacramento Kings in action during the 2014 NBA Global Games match between the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings at MasterCard Center on October 15, 2014 in Beijing, China. 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 Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Until this season, Jason Thompson had never been to the playoffs. He spent seven seasons in Sacramento before getting traded to the Warriors last offseason, and then signing with the Raptors midseason when Golden State waived him to make room on the roster for Anderson Varejao. His NBA days appear over, at least for now. International basketball reporter David Pick reports that Thompson has agreed to a deal to play in China.

Since the CBA’s season ends in March, Thompson could theoretically join an NBA team for the stretch run next year. But he didn’t appear to have much interest on the free-agent market this summer.