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).

Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.

Goran Dragic back with Heat after summer title for Slovenia

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MIAMI (AP) — A quick summary of the last few weeks in the life of Miami guard Goran Dragic:

He led Slovenia, his mother’s homeland and the place he calls home, to an improbable gold medal at the European Championships. The title game came against Serbia, his father’s homeland and a place where he still has relatives.

He was the tournament’s MVP. He received one of Slovenia’s highest civilian honors. He was brought to tears by a gift of a jersey from the mother of his idol, the late star Drazen Petrovic.

And through it all, the words of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra echoed in his head – winning a championship is usually more demanding mentally than physically.

“Now I fully understand what he means,” Dragic said.

It’s a lesson Dragic hopes to put to more use starting next week, when he returns to the U.S. and the Heat begin training camp. The only true point guard on Miami’s roster, Dragic is going to be a major key if the Heat are to return to the playoffs and contend in the Eastern Conference. And coming off his MVP showing at EuroBasket, the Heat hope his game keeps elevating.

“He looked sensational,” Spoelstra said of his point guard’s play at EuroBasket. “I’m so happy for him, so proud of that accomplishment, this most unlikely championship. Slovenia is a country of only 2 million. It’s smaller than the city of Miami. And to beat the powerhouses over there, but also to see how passionate Goran was about trying to lead this team to the title.”

Dragic averaged 22.6 points and 5.1 assists in the nine games. His 35 points in the title game was the high for the tournament.

He told Spoelstra in June he was all-in on trying to deliver Slovenia its first gold medal.

“He trained extremely diligently for this,” Spoelstra said. “And he competed and led at such a high level. You could just see the emotions pouring out of him. I talked to him on the phone after they won and he said, `This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”‘

The task that awaits in Miami won’t be easy.

The Heat had a strange season a year ago – starting 11-30, finishing 30-11 and missing the playoffs in a tiebreaker. Dragic averaged a career-best 20.3 points, and emerged as a locker-room leader as the year went along. He also did what he could to persuade Heat free agents like Dion Waiters and James Johnson to stay.

“It’s a lot of new challenges ahead,” Dragic said. “I’m looking forward to come to Miami and to battle for a title in Miami. Nobody gave us a chance, the Slovenian national team. Nobody is going to give us a chance in Miami. But I always believe. Why not?”

An estimated 20,000 people stood in the pouring rain to greet the Slovenian team when it arrived home. The medal ceremony after the championship game became Slovenia’s most-watched television event in the country, at least since ratings started being kept. Dragic was told 94 percent of the nation was watching.

“I’m just proud of him,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “And I’m proud that we have him.”

Before 1991, both Serbia and Slovenia were part of Yugoslavia. Hence, the family ties for Dragic still exist.

“Playing for my national team for the past 12 years, you’re always waiting to achieve something, and as soon as we won the final all the burden from my shoulders fell down,” he said. “I felt so happy. And, of course, on the other side, I have family in Serbia. But I was born in Slovenia … it was not a question that I was going to do everything to bring them a title.”