Notes from a Summer League Monday: Sign me up for the Dante Exum fan club

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LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas Summer League is a three ring NBA circus. There are two simultaneous games and the sideshow of agents, coaches and players just hanging out and talking. There’s a lot to take in, a lot of stories to tell.

Here is some stuff from my notebook for Monday.

• You can sign me up for the Dante Exum fan club. The guy has a real star quality about him and his game.

Monday was the first time I have seen him play in person and there is a lot to like. He has this loping dribble that he can turn into quick step to drive or to set up a pass (call it a wicked hesitation dribble). Exum is tall for a guard and that combined with a fantastic floor vision leads to some very smart passes other guards do not see (and also a few rookie passes he will learn he can’t make against this level of athlete). He is very quick on the dribble and can get into the paint. He struggled a little with his shot Monday night but his form looks good. Utah may really have something with Trey Burke at the point and Exum at the two (or Exum may take his point job).

• There were a lot of Jazz fans who made the trip to Sin City, and they love them some Rodney Hood. With reason. He showed off a sweet stroke and hit 7-of-10 from three on his way to 29 points against the Bucks. It was a shooting exhibition. He’s not going to create his own shot but he did a nice job losing his defender then getting off his shot in a small window. On a team with Burke and Exum a guy who can knock it down like Hood has real value.

• Andrew Wiggins is a physical freak of nature. I know, you knew that, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. We already showed you his highlight dunk, now check out his block of 7’0” Nerlens Noel.

It wasn’t just those two highlight plays, either. He ran down a Sixers fast break and knocked the ball out of bounds from a Philly guard before he could get a shot off. He had a couple steals because nobody thought he could get into that passing lane. He’s got a lot to learn about how to harness and use that athleticism, his dribbling and shot need polish (he was 2-of-6 on shots outside the paint), but there is a lot to like.

Let me put it this way, even seasoned NBA observers are left shaking their heads on some of his plays.

• Russ Smith looked good for the Pelicans, he could make a nice change-of-pace guard off the bench (a lot of teams carry three point guards, he could be in that mix). New Orleans might be a place he could latch on.

• I said this yesterday but it bears repeating: Sim Bhullar is a massive human being. Seriously. Massive.

• A nice game from Nik Stauskas Monday — 6-of-8 from the field for 15 points. If he shoots like that for the Kings he gets run.

• Mathew Dellavedova has been maybe the best point guard in Las Vegas. Not in terms of pure talent, but because he can run an offense and always seems to make the right play. Summer League is where players come to get noticed and often point guards don’t want to just organize and run the offense. Dellavedova is doing just that. He got into the paint and can finish (3-of-4 in the paint in this game) also got a nice outside catch-and-shoot motion, which could come in handy with that LeBron James guy on the Cavs now.

• One of the most fun matchups Monday: Cleveland’s Will Cherry vs. Philadelphia’s Casper Ware. To lightning quick, dogged point guards who just went back and forth. Both got overlooked because they are under six foot but both are the kinds of guys who could latch on with an NBA team as a third point guard, said Sixers Summer League coach Chad Iske.

“He doesn’t see them as physical limitations,” Iske said of Ware’s height, which is generously listed officially at 5’10”. “He doesn’t think there is anything he can’t do. And he is so strong.”

• Jabari Parker is skilled but he isn’t used to dealing with the length of someone like 7’1” Jazz center Rudy Gobert inside and got blocked a couple of times because of it. Parker has some nice moves but he doesn’t come off as NBA ready yet as had been projected.

• Gobert had a really nice game with five blocks and 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting.

• You can hear the Utah coaches yelling at Gobert to work on the “rule of verticality” every time he is defending in the post — “go straight up Rudy” ring out through the arena.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.