Five biggest surprises from Summer League

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The Las Vegas Summer League has its champion, its MVP, and its standout players. Before we move on from Las Vegas however, let’s take a look at one more group:

The surprises.

The players we didn’t expect to perform well, or otherwise did something unexpected. Here are the five guys on my list.

• Russ Smith (New Orleans Pelicans). Summer League often becomes the world of point guards trying to get noticed by shooting the ball. Big men with good post position go hungry while guards pound the ball into the ground then cross-over, step back and fire away. Not Russ Smith, the Louisville guard playing for the Pelicans was a real floor general. Yes he scored 16 points a game but he had 6.4 assists a game as well in Vegas. There are adjustments to be made for him to stick in the league long term (more than four turnovers a game) but he was a second round pick who looks like a guy who could give the Pelicans some steady minutes at the point as a reserve.

• Glen Rice Jr. (Washington Wizards). We’ve covered the Summer League MVP more than once here at PBT, but he has to go on this list as well — we didn’t expect him to put up these kinds of numbers for Washington (25 points a game and did it shooting better than 50 percent until a rough last outing dropped him to 46.9 percent). He and Otto Porter showed some real chemistry together and look for Randy Wittman to give them a chance when the games matter to prove that pairing can have success outside Vegas.

• Ivan Johnson gets ejected. I’ve been attending NBA Summer League since it was in the Pyramid in Long Beach and I don’t remember ever seeing a player get ejected before (it may have happened, but I don’t recall it). Ivan Johnson changed that. A day after a classic interview with Basketball Insiders where he said exactly what he would do to anyone who got in front of him, Johnson (playing for the Mavericks) got frustrated with a non-call against the Hornets and used some words we can’t reprint here and that got him sent to the showers. Johnson is the one guy banned from the Korean league for life, at least nothing went that far.

• T.J Warren (Phoenix Suns). Warren was one of the best scorers in college last season but there were questions about whether his game could translate to the NBA. Well, it can if he gets out and runs in transition then scores at the basket — Warren averaged 17.8 points a game and shot 54.4 percent. Warren landed in the right place with Jeff Hornacek and the up-tempo Suns, if he gets out and runs with the bench players, and can keep finishing like he did in Vegas, he’ll get some points.

• Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers). Another guy from our standouts list who re-appears here because, well, who expected anything out of Bennett? After missing last summer with a shoulder injury then having a historically bad rookie season for a No. 1 pick, Bennett showed up to Vegas in shape and ready to work — he averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. More importantly, he was in shape enough to play hard and physical for a full quarter. He still needs a lot of polish to his game but he looked like a guy who can be a rotation big man, which is more than you would have said much of last season.

Report: Kevin Love called out in emotional Cavaliers team meeting

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Having lost 8-of-11, a Cavaliers team meeting where the players got to vent seemed inevitable. There isn’t one person in that Cavaliers locker room that doesn’t deserve some blame for how things have turned.

However, Kevin Love apparently became the whipping boy.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a fiery team meeting in the practice facility locker room prior to Monday’s practice, during which several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness that led him to leave Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City early and miss Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.

The more things change, the more things are always Kevin Love’s fault.

According to the report, the majority of the team seemed to accept Love’s explanation. Love left the Cavaliers ugly, nationally televised blowout at the hands of the Thunder in the first half and did not return due to what was described only as an illness. He did not stay around for the end of the game. I’m not about to speculate on how ill he was or was not, what matters is that his teammates were not buying it. When a team is losing finger-pointing is almost inevitable, and Love has gotten more than his fair share of it in Cleveland. At least he stood up for himself.

Team meetings may allow a pressure release in a locker room, but they almost never result in any kind of meaningful change. We’ll see what if anything changes in Cleveland.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.