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The Extra Pass: Handicapping the All-Star Saturday events

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A week from now the eyes of the basketball world will be on New Orleans for the NBA’s Damian Lillardapalooza. … er, I mean the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

While Sunday’s All-Star Game is the big show, I’ve always found Saturday night’s series of skill contests more fun than the no-D exhibition that is the All-Star Game itself. So, in the spirit of gambling (I guess), let’s take a stab at handicapping the three big events of All-Star Saturday night.

SLAM DUNK CONTEST

All predictions here must come with this caveat — they have changed the format this season to start with a freestyle round where everyone is dunking, then a series of head-to-head dunk “battles” to decide if the East or West wins. I have no idea how this will change the feel of the event and how the format will effect who wins it. That said, I’ll make a prediction anyway on who wins the “Dunker of the Night” as voted by the fans.

Favorite: Paul George, Indiana Pacers. There are three factors in his favor. First and foremost, the fans vote on the award and George is a popular budding superstar. This is a popularity contest to a degree. Second, he has done this before. George has been in the dunk contest and that matters because there is a distinct difference between an in-game dunk and an exhibition dunk and having done this before he should get it. Third, and most importantly, he can really throw it down.

Others at the front of the pack: Terrence Ross and John Wall. Ross won the Dunk Contest last year and did it without props — he knows how to win and we know he can throw down. Wall has the perfect combination of athleticism and showmanship to win the Dunk Contest, plus he is a name known by fans.

Dark Horse: Ben McLemore of the Kings. He was supposed to be the best shooter in the last draft but he has real hops and has shown some impressive dunks this year.

SKILLS CHALLENGE

Favorite: This is the hardest event to predict, but I’ll take Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns — he’s quick, he’s precise, and he grew up in a European system where they practiced the fundamentals more than most AAU coaches do stateside. Besides, the Suns deserve some recognition.

Others at the front of the pack: Watch out for the two rookies, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke. This is the kind of event that traditionally goes to skilled guys who are quick with the ball, your Tony Parkers of the world, and these two guys are both quick and skilled.

Dark Horse: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks… okay, I’m not sure he has a real shot at this, but I just want the Greek Freak to win.

THREE POINT CONTEST

Favorite: It’s got to be Stephen Curry. There are guys who have higher in-game shooting percentages but this is a contest about finding a groove and hitting big shots under pressure and nobody in the game right now does that better than Curry.

Others at the front of the pack: Really any of the guys in this group could get in a rhythm and win, but keep an eye on Marco Belinelli — he is knocking down 44.3 percent of his looks from beyond the arc this season, the highest percentage of anyone in the competition. Also don’t sleep on Kevin Love, who won this same competition two years ago and we know he can find a rhythm and win.

Dark Horse: I would say Kyle Korver, but somehow he isn’t there participating. I would say Klay Thompson, but somehow he isn’t there participating. You sense a theme here?

SATURDAY NIGHT’S BIGGEST WINNER

Kendrick Lamar.

He’s performing before the Slam Dunk Contest and he’s the only thing I know I’ll love all night.

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Nets 103, Spurs 89: The Spurs were without their big four (no Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard) yet they led in the first half by as many as 12 because they are the Spurs and they run their system. But eventually talent wins out in the NBA and Brooklyn just had more of it — although Alan Anderson may not be the first name you think of in Brooklyn he had the hot hand and had 22 points on the night as the Nets pulled away in the second half for the win.

Warriors 102, Bulls 87: Out of the gate Golden State just was not ready for the hard charging, aggressive style of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls — they only know how to play one way. But again, as in the Nets game, at some point talent wins out and Golden State has guys who can create on offense that the Bulls just do not — Stephen Curry had 36 points on the night as the Warriors came back to get the win. But it was closer and harder fought than the score indicates (the Warriors closed on an 11-2 run).

Jazz guarantee more than $1 million to No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboy, a rare commitment to someone drafted so low

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 18:  Joel Bolomboy #21 of the Weber State Wildcats handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 18, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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In the first five years of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, two players drafted in the 50s received a $1 million guarantee the same offseason they were selected.

This year, the list has doubled.

The Cavaliers guaranteed $1 million to No. 54 pick Kay Felder, and No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboyjust signed by the Jazz – will get even more.

Bolomboy’s $600,000 salary this season is fully guaranteed, and $452,625 of his salary next season is guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders. That’s a grand total of $1,052,625 guaranteed on a three-year contract.

Only Tornike Shengelia (No. 54 pick in 2012 from Nets) and Kris Joseph (No. 51 pick in 2012 from Celtics) got more as players picked in the 50s who signed the same offseason under the current CBA. Both received two fully guaranteed seasons.

Bolomboy successfully leveraged a salary-cap environment relatively more favorable to second-rounders than first-rounders. If Utah didn’t make him such a favorable offer, he could’ve accepted the required tender and become a free agent within a year – with numerous potentially offering him a contract. The Jazz, with more cap space than they know what do with, probably didn’t mind paying Bolomboy a little more to secure him at what’s still a low rate for the next three years.

This likely wraps up any preseason competition in Utah for a regular-season roster spot. Bolomboy becomes the 15th Jazz player with a guaranteed 2016-17 salary, so he’ll almost certainly stick beyond the preseason – another plus of this contract.

This gives him security as he tries to develop into a player worthy of a second – presumably higher-paying – NBA contract.

Report: Hawks told Paul Millsap they won’t trade him

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 06:  Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks is introduced prior to Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 6, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Hawks tried to trade Paul Millsap this summer, according to Zach Lowe of ESPN.

After agreeing to terms with center Dwight Howard, Atlanta wanted to put Al Horford – not Millsap – at power forward. But Horford was also a free agent, and he left for the Celtics. So, the Hawks settled for keeping Millsap.

Apparently, they’ll stick with him.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

according to sources near the situation, Millsap has been assured he’s not going anywhere.

Teams often tell a player he won’t be traded. They don’t always mean it.

Most players perform better when they’re not worried about being dealt, ironically, increasing their trade value. Of course, trading a player you told wouldn’t be traded could infuriate him – but that’s no longer your direct problem. He’s gone at that point.

Millsap can opt out next summer, when he’ll be 32. Does Atlanta want to pay him $149 million over the following four seasons? It might take his max to retain him. Millsap is a two-way star, and plenty of teams will covet him. But there’s major risk in paying someone that old.

It could be better to trade him preemptively, especially if the Hawks take a step back and want to continue their youth movement. They already traded starting point guard Jeff Teague for a first-round pick to elevate 22-year-old Dennis Schroder. Howard would be a curious fit, but exchanging Horford for him was already puzzling.

If Howard is providing the best-case scenario of help and Schroder is ready for his bigger role, sure, ride it out with Millsap. But if Atlanta’s season goes south before the trade deadline, I’m not so sure the Hawks will honor their reported commitment to Millsap.

Report: Thunder almost definitely won’t trade Russell Westbrook this season

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook negotiated himself a raise of more than $8 million and chalked it up to loyalty.

Is the feeling mutual?

The Thunder can trade Westbrook six months after he signed his contract extension, which make him eligible to be dealt Feb. 4. The trade deadline will be a few weeks later.

Would Oklahoma City trade its franchise player during that narrow window?

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Sources close to the situation say the Thunder’s view on Westbrook is to see what he can do as the single focal point of the team and plan to keep the noise out of the equation until next summer.

sources close to the situation have said, there is almost no scenario in which the Thunder look at trades with Westbrook this year.

Building around Westbrook is certainly the Thunders City’s first choice. According to this report, they’ll give that route at least a full season to work.

But is there truly no worst-case scenario for the season’s first few months that would convince Oklahoma City to abort the plan early?

The Thunder became accustomed to winning big with Kevin Durant. It’s one thing to know they’ll take a step back after his departure to the Warriors. It’s another to live it every day.

Oklahoma City doesn’t want to lose Westbrook in 2018, when he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. One reported plan is trying to sign Blake Griffin next summer, and that would certainly require Westbrook’s continued presence.

It’d also likely require the Thunder winning at a reasonable clip next season. Griffin probably isn’t leaving the Clippers for a crummy team, even if it’s to his native Oklahoma.

Winning will also be a key ingredient in persuading Westbrook to stay. Absent that, the other way to get value from him is trading him, and he’ll be more valuable if traded in February. Teams will covet the extra half season and playoffs with him on the roster.

Of course, that also applies to the Thunder. If Westbrook can help them reach the postseason and maybe even make some noise in it, they’ll gladly ride him.

But if the playoffs become a far-fetched dream by the trade deadline… I’m curious just how devoted Oklahoma City remains to Westbrook in that scenario.

Did the Clippers change their name?

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 04:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers helps Chris Paul #3 get up from the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on November 4, 2015 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Clippers rebranded themselves with a new logo and uniforms last year.

Did they also give themselves a new name?

Mike Chamernik of Uni Watch:

The Los Angeles Clippers not only changed their name, but they did it a year ago. No one has seemed to notice. Yes, they are still known as the Clippers. The L.A. Clippers.

L.A.

As in, that’s their location name. Not just an abbreviation.

The proof is everywhere. The Clippers refer to themselves as the L.A. (or, sometimes LA) Clippers on their own website, and on their various social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. NBA.com refers to them as the L.A. Clippers in stories, transactions listings and site menus, even when mentioning the Los Angeles Lakers (who still go by the full city name). And now, ESPN.com has all references to the city name as LA, both on the team’s page and in standings and schedules.

One of my key pieces of evidence is the team’s media guide (PDF), which says copyright L.A. Clippers.

Chamernik presents a compelling list of evidence, but the Clippers’ silence on the issue – they didn’t return his requests for comment – is odd. Teams usually trumpet any rebranding with grandiose announcements and contrived rational.

Look at this line from the Clippers’ new-uniform announcement: “In addition, the silver lining seen in the Clippers wordmark signifies the renewed collective optimism of Clipper Nation.”

If they want to be L.A. rather than Los Angeles, why didn’t the Clippers tout their edgy and modern new name style? That’s more believable than silver lining representing the collective optimism of the fan base of one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports.

Whatever peculiarities have accompanied the rollout of this apparent renaming, the proof is in the pudding – and that seems to say they’re the L.A., not Los Angeles, Clippers.