The Extra Pass: Central heat, plus Monday’s recaps

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No NBA head coach has been fired yet this season. Of course, “yet” is the key word there.

Given the performances and the high expectations of a few teams in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, that could be changing soon. Here’s a look at the tenuous positions of three coaches from that division, in order of seat warmth.

Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

Brown’s recent history might not play into his favor. If you’ll recall, the Los Angeles Lakers axed Brown just five games into the season last year, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t strike anyone as the patient type.

To say the Cavs have quit on Brown would falsely imply that they were ever committed in the first place. Cleveland is now a whopping 15 games under .500, and in their last five games, the Cavs have lost by an average of 16.4 points.

It’s one thing to be just plain bad (like Cavs GM Chris Grant’s drafting), but the Cavs are dysfunctional both on and off the court. There are reports of players getting thrown out of practice and threatening not to play, which doesn’t seem like much of a threat given the effort level from players like Dion Waiters.

New acquisition Luol Deng reportedly called the Cavs “a mess”, which isn’t exactly what you want to hear from a player who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Deng is right about the state of the Cavs, though, and sooner or later, someone is going to take the fall. Brown is in the first season of a five-year deal worth $20 million, with four years fully guaranteed. Is Gilbert ready to swallow his losses and pay Brown to go away? It’s not an easy decision, but it would be a surprise if Brown and Grant didn’t lose their jobs by the end of the year after this complete collapse. Get the bowties ready, Gilberts.

Maurice Cheeks, Detroit Pistons

The Central Division is home to many a failing team, and the Pistons were another that was supposed to contend for a playoff berth. While Detroit is sadly somehow still in the race, Cheeks has been largely unable to figure out how to make the frontcourt trio of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond work.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been vocal lately about Detroit’s lack of preparation and failure to maximize talent, which is a not so subtle shot at a coaching staff if you’ve ever heard one. Pistons GM Joe Dumars is on an expiring contract this year, so perhaps Gores will opt to clean house completely and let go of Dumars and Cheeks at the end of the season.

Unless Smith starts to figure it out and the clashes between he and Cheeks stop, it might be easier to just fire Cheeks and move on. Coaches are usually the first to go when things get bad, and for better or worse, the Pistons are tied to Smith long-term.

Larry Drew, Milwaukee Bucks

It seems as though the Bucks may be finally ready to accept temporary losing on an organization level, which could take them off the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.

That doesn’t mean that first-year coach Larry Drew will be safe or rewarded for his losing efforts, though. The Bucks should have never been quite this bad in the first place, and Drew has completely sunk the trade value of some of Milwaukee’s biggest names while also not giving some of his young players nearly enough playing time. It’s the worst of both worlds in Milwaukee right now, and Drew’s constantly fluctuating rotations seem to be driving everyone up the wall.

While management may be content with gaining a high pick in the draft this year, don’t expect owner Herb Kohl to sign off on a lengthy rebuilding process. The Bucks will want to be competitive quickly, and given this season’s performance and a pretty underwhelming track record, you have to think Drew’s job will security will be a bit shaky.

Don’t forget to factor in the success of a few rookie coaches around the league, either. Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer all came from three different backgrounds and experience levels, but each has earned praise at every stop. You couldn’t blame Kohl and company if they opted to take their chance on a new coach instead of sticking with the retread that led the team to what will likely be one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

D.J. Foster

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Wizards 100, Blazers 90: Washington got over .500 with this victory for the first time in seemingly forever, but perhaps more importantly took down one of the Western Conference elite for the second straight game. After snapping the Thunder’s 10-game winning streak on Saturday, the Wizards shut down the Blazers’ high-powered outside shooting attack in this one. Portland has built this season’s reputation on sharp-shooting from everywhere, but especially from three-point distance. The Blazers shot just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in the second half, and for a tea that’s second in the league in three-point shooting percentage, a performance like that will almost always spell disaster. — Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Magic 79: No surprise here, as the Magic have the worst road record in the league and improved (?) to just 3-22 away from Orlando on the season after this one. The second half was gross on both sides, but the Pacers outscored the Magic 39-29 over the final two periods, and that was more than enough to seal it. There were unremarkable performances all around, a clear reflection of Orlando not being very good, along with Indiana realizing it and playing down to its competition. — BP

Heat 102, Pistons 96: The fact that Detroit can hang with Miami speaks to just how much trouble the Heat have with the very few teams that can throw talented big men at them in a given matchup. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe combined for 29 points and 23 rebounds, and helped the Pistons outrebound the Heat by seven. With points in the paint and turnovers basically even, it was up to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to ensure a Miami victory. Wade was especially good in this one, finishing with a game-high 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, to go along with 10 rebounds and five assists. — BP

Nets 108, Sixers 102: Brooklyn was playing without All-Star Joe Johnson in this one due to knee tendinitis, and Andrei Kirilenko was also sidelined to rest a calf injury sustained in practice. The Nets held a 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter, before the Sixers rallied and were within two with under a minute to play. Paul Pierce took on the scoring load with Johnson sidelined, finishing with 25 points on just nine shots, thanks to knocking down all 14 of his free throw attempts. — BP

Bucks 101, Knicks 98: Bad loss for the Knicks. They failed to bring the necessary energy on the road in a more-than-half-empty arena against the league’s worst team, and in a close game down the stretch, they paid the price. Brandon Knight calmly dribbled down the clock and hit the game-winning three with less than two seconds remaining, and Carmelo Anthony’s heave over two defenders at the buzzer failed to draw iron. Anthony finished with 36 points in the losing effort, 17 of which came in the fourth as he tried desperately to bring his team back. J.R. Smith had a strong game with 30 off the bench, while Knight finished with a team-high 25 points and seven assists for the Bucks. — BP

Spurs 102, Pelicans 95: New Orleans thought they had this one, up 14 early in the fourth quarter, then Tim Duncan and Tony Parker happened. The Pelicans were pick-and-rolled to death — the Spurs big would come up and drag defender Greg Stiemsma or Alexi Ajinca into the play, then Parker just carved them up, with 21 points on 13 shots in the second half (Parker had 32 for the game). Also in the second half Tim Duncan showed that young whippersnapper Anthony Davis who can block some shots, rejecting five in the half. San Antonio went on a 21-4 run early in the fourth quarter, made the key plays down the stretch and started off their rodeo road trip with a win. — Kurt Helin

Thunder 86, Grizzlies 77: Last week the Thunder beat the Heat going small and playing fast. Monday night they beat Memphis playing big in a slow, grinding kind of game that should have favored the Grizzlies. The versatility of the Thunder roster is impressive… plus that Kevin Durant guy is pretty good. Durant had 31 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, Serge Ibaka chipped in 21. Memphis missed Mike Conley orchestrating their offense, they are just not the same without him. –KH

Mavericks 124, Cavaliers 107: The defense in my regular Monday night pick-up game might well have been better than whatever that was Cleveland was doing — Dallas had a true shooting percentage of 67.8 percent and an offensive rating of 131.3 (points per 100 possessions). Dirk Nowitzki had 23 to lead six Mavs in double figures. Samuel Dalembert looked good with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Kyrie Irving had 27 points, Luol Deng hustled his way to 18 but the Cavs are just a mess. –KH

Nuggets 116, Clippers 115: For much of the night this was a fun power forward battle — Blake Griffin had 15 points in the first quarter on his way to 36 on the night. Kenneth Faried had his best night of the season getting 28 points with his hustle plays and strong baseline cuts. Then came the best ending of the season. First the Clippers were down one and looking to get the ball inside but when that failed J.J. Redick drove, drew the defenders and kicked out to Matt Barnes for a three. He drains it, Clippers up two. Then Denver gets one last shot and there is clearly miscommunication as the play breaks down, so Randy Foye ends up having to take a leaning three as the clock expires and… you can see the play above in our video of the night. Amazing shot. –KH

Raptors 94, Jazz 79: Toronto took control of this game when it went on a 14-4 run to start the second, something sparked by DeMar DeRozan, who had 12 of his 23 in the quarter. Toronto never fully pulled away but never gave up the lead. Jonas Valanciunas really outplayed the Jazz front line and had 18 points and 9 rebounds. Kyle Lowry left the game with a sore knee but said after the game it wasn’t serious. Let’s hope so. Marvin Williams had 23 for Utah. –KH

Kings 99, Bulls 70: This was a physical, chippy game where the Bulls could not get their offense going — then they got frustrated and started making mistakes. Then Joakim Noah got ejected. Then the Bulls unraveled completely and the Kings won going away. DeMarcus Cousins had 25 points and 16 boards and Isaiah Thomas added 19. Nice home win for the Kings. –KH

Lakers owner on Lonzo Ball: “He’s going to bring an element that’s very similar to Magic”

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play a minute of professional basketball in the NBA, but fans in Los Angeles sure are happy to have him on board as they get ready for a new era in team history.

An exciting run through the Las Vegas Summer League in 2017 certainly showed us that Ball is ready to meet the challenges of a rookie in the NBA.

Ball won the LVSL MVP award while posting averages of 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, and 7.7 rebounds per-game. Ball and teammate Kyle Kuzma also helped the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the championship game to close the tournament.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss is just as excited about Ball as fans in California are. Speaking on the Petros and Money Show in LA it recently, Buss compared the buzz around Ball to that of Kobe Bryant, saying, “No other draft pick, except maybe Kobe Bryant, has had this kind of excitement about him.”

Buss also has high hopes for Ball’s style of play.

Via Lakers Nation:

“There’s something special about Lonzo […] I think because he just wants to play basketball, he’s selfless. He has a certain charisma and I think the fact that his teammates at UCLA loved playing with him and all the nice things that they have to say about him, I think he’s going to bring an element that’s very similar to Magic Johnson.”

Whatever criticism of his father you want to muster aside, Ball does seem relatively at ease in Los Angeles and in the spotlight. While he will no doubt struggle as a rookie, as even the best do, but it is starting to look up for LA in the post-Kobe era now that Ball is in town.

They seem to have the right coach in Luke Walton to help develop him, and no doubt fans in LA will be hoping that Ball is a superstar sooner rather than later.

Blake Griffin on LeBron James: “I don’t see him coming to L.A.”

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Is LeBron James on his way out of Cleveland? Rumors have it swirled around The King’s exit from his kingdom as of late, which his camp has vehemently denied.

However, LeBron suffered yet another loss in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and his relationship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has appeared to sour. The history between the two is well-documented, and recently Gilbert failed to renew GM David Griffin’s contract, all without consulting James.

Meanwhile, the rumor has been that James prefers to land in Los Angeles, where he keeps a second home. James can play either with the LA Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers, which would allow him to perhaps add some of his favorite players — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, or Dwyane Wade. The banana boat crew, as it were.

But one player already in Los Angeles doesn’t think that LeBron is on his way to California.

Speaking on a recent podcast with the Sklar Brothers, forward Blake Griffin said he did not think that James would come to L.A. Instead, he thought the best place for James to land would be in New York with the Knicks.

Via View from the Cheap Seats, h/t Complex. The LeBron conversation starts around the 50-minute mark:

“Honestly, I don’t see him coming to L.A. period. Listen, again, I have no idea. I think something is brewing with him and his group of guys. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think something’s brewing and they’re going to try to make that work.”

“I could see him going to New York before L.A. I still think, when you go to the Garden, it’s a completely different feeling. The energy, there seems like there’s just a consistent buzz the entire game … even last year when you go play them, it’s still there.”

To give more context to this quote in case you aren’t able to actually listen to the podcast, Griffin is simply speculating based off of what he thinks could happen. He prefaces it by saying it is just a feeling, and my reading of his intonation makes me think Griffin believes there are too many roadblocks to get LeBron to Los Angeles. Couple that with an increasingly difficult Western Conference, and Griffin doesn’t think that The King will give up being able to get to the Finals every year just to come to L.A.

Given all that has happened with the Knicks over the last few decades, it also seems like a fair stretch to think the next best option would be to see LeBron in New York. Remember, with Steve Mills as president a lot of the people who torpedoed the Carmelo situation are still in place even with Phil Jackson gone. If LeBron does indeed want us to pair with Carmelo, or even if he is simply an influence on him as a friend, New York seems like an unlikely destination.

Still, it is interesting to hear the insight of other professionals in this context. It just goes to show you that even NBA players don’t know where LeBron is going to end up.

Report: Nerlens Noel switches agents in hopes of max deal with Mavericks

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Is Nerlens Noel worthy of a max contract? Not on your life.

But will he get it? That remains to be seen after reports that Noel recently fired his agent and will make the switch to Dan Fagen.

According to NBC 5 in Dallas, Noel has done just that and will be seeking a huge deal from Mark Cuban’s organization.

From NBC 5’s Newy Scruggs:

No other NBA clubs tried to sign the restricted 6-11 center. He has a one year qualifying offer of $5.8 million on the table but it’s not to his liking so he switched agents.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” is what Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told me back in July on NBC Sports Radio when I brought up the contract talks between Dallas and Noel. The NBA salary cap didn’t go up has high as many previously projected, so the summer of 2017 was not a bonanza some players hoped for.

Even with the increase in the cap, and with big contracts flying around for young talent, Noel has done nothing to prove himself worthy of an offer like that for the Dallas Mavericks. Yes, his advanced numbers from his third season in the NBA looked much better, and that was great news as young big men often take time to develop.

Yet the body of work for Noel is simply not there. Fifty games of good play over a 200 game career does not, or should not, earn you a max contract.

Then again, this could simply be Noel preying on Cuban’s need to rebuild.

With Dennis Smith Jr. at the helm, an aging Dirk Nowitzki, and the team that could soon be irrelevant in a increasingly tough Western Conference, Noel stands as a future franchise piece if he does indeed fulfill his potential.

The question now is, especially after how this summer has gone, do you pay upfront for potential talent to an extent that seems unreasonable to a fault?

I would still doubt that Noel ends up with that max contract, but some positioning here could earn him a few extra bucks.

NBA confirms Lakers under investigation for potential tampering with Paul George

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Paul George is not a member of the the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet.

The California native has one year to go on his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder after being traded there by the Indiana Pacers. Rumors have been swirling for months about whether George would stay in Indiana, a new city, or if he would bolt for his hometown in LA after the upcoming season comes to a close.

Even more rumors have said that the Lakers have felt confident enough that they are going to get George in the summer of 2018 that they weren’t grabbing him wasn’t considered so urgent that it was a matter of life or death.

Meanwhile, the NBA has confirmed that the Pacers have filed tampering charges against the Lakers, and that the league has hired an independent law firm to conduct the investigation.

From the NBA’s press release:

At the request of the Indiana Pacers, the NBA opened an investigation into alleged tampering by the Los Angeles Lakers. The independent investigation is being conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The Lakers have been cooperative and, at this point, no findings have been made. We have asked both teams to refrain from commenting all the investigation is ongoing.

The rumor first broke this weekend when Peter Vecsey published it on his Patreon.

Magic Johnson has spoken publicly about George, explicitly stating that he knows he is not supposed to tamper with players. However, on an episode of the Jimmy Kimmel show, Johnson did say that he would give a wink to George if you happen to see him.

Via Jimmy Kimmel:

“I had to go to school. I had to go to CBA school, salary cap school and tampering school. You can’t tamper with somebody else’s player.”

“We gonna say hi because we know each other. You just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’ll be wink-winking like, ‘You know what that means, right?’

Punishment from tampering charges are rare in the NBA but are not unheard of. In 2013, the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings were fined for name dropping Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

According to ESPN, Johnson is at the center of the investigation for tampering with George. If evidence is found, the punishment could be significant for LA, and could include future restrictions when it comes time to acquire George.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are denying the allegations filed by the Pacers, insisting that there is no evidence of tampering, and they expect to be cleared in the matter, a team source told ESPN.

If the league office’s probe can prove the Lakers were guilty of tampering with George while under contract with Indiana, Los Angeles can be punished in several ways, including a loss of draft picks, financial fines up to $5 million, future restrictions on acquiring George and possible suspensions of offending officials.

It’s still unclear at this point if anything is going to come out of this investigation, but it certainly does seem as though Los Angeles is confident that they are going to be able to sign George next summer.