Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews, left, celebrates after Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard missed a last-second shot at the end of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. Dallas won 96-95. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

Three things we learned Wednesday: Blazers struggles open door for Kings, Nuggets

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1) Portland is a mess, has lost 8-of-9, falls into a virtual tie with Sacramento, Denver. We’re deep enough into the season to say this: Barring a catastrophic injury, there are seven teams in the West that appear playoff bound. The top four that seem obvious — the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers — but also the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Thunder are all on pace to win 48 games or more and make the postseason.

Notice the Trail Blazers were not on that list. That’s because the team that came into this season with high hopes of building on their 44-win, second round of the playoffs effort a year ago is a mess. Portland played as bad a half of basketball Wednesday night as we have seen in the league this season, and the team has now lost 8-of-9. There seems to be a real chemistry issue — they don’t help each other on defense (which remains the worst in the NBA), and their ball movement has dried up on offense.

The end result of that was a loss at home Wednesday to the Dallas Mavericks. Portland was getting blown out early in this one — they shot 37.6 percent, had 11 turnovers, and were down by 24 at the half — then came back on the strength of Damian Lillard.

It wasn’t enough. Good defense by former Blazer Wesley Matthews on Lillard on the game’s final play caused the missed shot that gave the Mavericks the win, 96-95. No Lillard heroics this time.

Meanwhile, over in Salt Lake City the DeMarcus Cousins show rolled on — no ejections (or unejections) this time around — as he had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Kings to a 94-93 upset win over the Utah Jazz.

The result of all this is that Portland, Sacramento, and Denver are all in a virtual tie for the eighth seed in the West. On paper, the Trail Blazers should pull away from that group and secure the final playoff spot, but they are simply not good enough. Not with that defense. This could be a race that continues on into early April, that goes down to the wire, to see which team gets to be fodder for the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

One other note from that chase: Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to do so in the team’s first season in its new building in the heart of the city. Which means, if you’re expecting a Cousins trade during the season, you might as well be expecting “Suicide Squad” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Even moving Rudy Gay seems less likely — despite the fact they will get nothing in return when he walks this summer — because he’s their second-best scorer. As long as the Kings can sniff the playoffs, making it is the goal.

2) Russell Westbrook outduels Anthony Davis on an entertaining showdown. The results were what we expected: Oklahoma City beat New Orleans 121-110. But that’s not why we tuned in. We wanted the scoring showdown between Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. We were not disappointed. Davis had 34 points, but Westbrook had 42 (10 rebounds, 7 assists) as the pair put on a show.

3) Cavaliers pick up the win over Bucks, but they are going to miss J.R. Smith. Not sure why the schedule maker decided the Milwaukee Bucks needed to be involved in all of the league’s home-and-home series (or at least it seems that way), but after an overtime game on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers got an easier win Wednesday at home, 113-102.

It was Cleveland’s first game without J.R. Smith, who will be out indefinitely after needing surgery to repair a broken thumb. Tyronn Lue inserted DeAndre Liggins into the starting lineup — with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, and Tristan Thompson — and that group was +17 in 17 minutes of action. (Kevin Love is out with a bruised knee but is not expected to miss extended time.) The starters shot the ball well (65.2% eFG%), defended will, and owned the offensive glass.

The question is, can they sustain it. Tyronn Lue has leaned heavily on his starting five of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Thompson — that group has been on the court 300 minutes this season, no other five-man group more than 46 minutes heading into Wednesday night. The Cavaliers are still going to win games — they still have LeBron, Irving, and Love — and they will hold on to the top spot in the East, but it’s going to be an adjustment.

And they’re going to miss Smith in games like Sunday, when the Warriors come to town.

Timberwolves purchase Iowa Energy D-League team

Fort Wayne Mad Ants v Santa Cruz Warriors - 2015 D-League Finals Game Two
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Timberwolves have purchased the Iowa Energy and will begin a direct affiliation with the NBA Development League team next season.

The Timberwolves announced the agreement on Monday. Owner Glen Taylor is purchasing the team, which previously had a hybrid partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Wolves will become the 18th NBA team to have a direct affiliation with a D-League team.

It’s a growing trend across the league for franchises to use the minor league teams to help develop young players, coaches and executives and help players rehab injuries.

The Timberwolves were looking for a team close to the Twin Cities to allow for easy back-and-forth travel. Energy owner Jed Kaplan will remain with the team and partner with Taylor.

Denver reportedly claimed Mo Williams off waivers. Again. Then will waive him. Again.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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This is starting to make Vanilla Sky easy to follow.

It’s all about the dead-money contract of Mo Williams, and the Sixers and Nuggets trying to save a few bucks. Everything starts with Williams being owed $2.2 million this season, however, he decided he didn’t want to play anymore and didn’t show up to Cleveland’s training camp. The Cavaliers kept Williams on the roster — and more importantly the financial books — in case they could use his salary in a trade. Which they did, shipping him to Atlanta as part of the Kyle Korver deal. Atlanta quickly traded Williams to Denver, because the Nuggets wanted to add $2.2 million to their payroll and bring them closer to the salary floor. However, the Nuggets didn’t want him on the roster, so they waived him. Then the Philadephia 76ers claimed Williams off waivers — that moved them closer to the salary floor and negated the Nuggets savings. But we’re not done yet, the Sixers didn’t want Williams soaking up a roster spot, so they waived him.

And now we’re back in Denver, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

That would be Alonzo Gee, who they have already signed to one 10-day contract (he can have two before Denver has to make a decision on keeping him).

Why are Denver and Philly doing this? To save a little money. The NBA doesn’t just have a salary cap, it has a salary floor that is 90 percent of the cap, which means this season it is $84.7 million. Teams that don’t reach the floor — and with the fast rise in the salary cap last summer, there are a few teams in this boat — have to pay the players on the roster the money they are short of the floor (for example, if a team is $10 million, short of the floor, the $10 million gets divided up among the players on the roster). For Denver, they can shave $2.2 million off that bill by being the last team to waive Williams. Philly wanted the same thing.

Salary cap guy Albert Nahmad explained on Twitter who saved how much with all these deals.

Will Philly just claim Williams again? They can, Nahmad explained why they probably will not.

What would be funny now is another team to step in and claim Williams. Okay, it’s not really that funny.

Report: Magic offered first-round pick, Nikola Vucevic to Heat for Goran Dragic

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 26: Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat goes to the basket against Elfrid Payton #4 of the Orlando Magic on opening night on October 26, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. 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 Manuela Davies/Getty Images)
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We already knew the Magic were interested in Heat point guard Goran Dragic.

Orlando has an excess of power forwards and centers (or players who should be at those positions) – Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green – and have been better with an offense-first D.J. Augustin starting and Elfrid Payton coming off the bench. Dealing a big man for Dragic would be logical.

This isn’t that.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Orlando, according to league sources, recently tried to engage Miami on a Goran Dragic deal in which the Magic were said to be offering center Nikola Vucevic and a future first-round pick.

Dragic is on the wrong side of 30 and due more than $54 million over the next three years. The Magic are 18-28, 4.5 games and four teams out of playoff position.

Why would they want a player like Dragic?

Orlando should focus on building for future seasons, which means not swapping first-round picks for veterans. There will probably be better avenues for a point guard upgrade offseason. If not, the Magic can always get a solid point guard for one of its bigs and a first-rounder. There should be no rush to pursue a deal like that now, because a late playoff push is impractical.

Perhaps, the protections on the pick are strong enough to make this deal palatable for Orlando. But this just reeks of general manager Rob Hennigan mortgaging the future to show progress now, even if that’s foolish for the organization.

Miller family transfers ownership of Jazz to trust that will keep team in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 4: General view of the former EnergySolutions Arena which has been renamed Vivint Smart Home Arena, where the Portland Trail Blazers will play the Utah Jazz on November 4, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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 Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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Since Larry Miller died back in 2009, there have been some around the league that thought the Jazz might eventually be sold out of the family, most likely to an owner looking to move them out of Utah. The Miller family has denied that vehemently, and there has been not even a step that direction, but it’s easier to kill Freddy Krueger than an NBA rumor.

Monday, the Miller family killed that rumor for good, taking an unprecedented step that will keep the Jazz in Utah for a long, long, time.

Gail Miller has transferred ownership of the Utah Jazz and Vivint Smart Home Arena into a Legacy Trust that will keep the Jazz in Utah for what she said would be “generations.”

“As a family, we have always considered the Utah Jazz a community asset and it has been our privilege to serve as stewards of this team for more than 30 years,” Miller said. “There have been many opportunities to sell and move the franchise, but from the day Larry and I purchased the Jazz our goal was to keep the team in Utah. The Legacy Trust will help to ensure this commitment is kept for generations to come.”

The Miller family will continue to manage the trust (along with a board of directors) as well as the Jazz the organization. However, the Miller family will not profit from the running of the team as it had before. That eliminates the profit motive for selling the Jazz.

“As a family and company, we have always been committed to doing things the right way and working to achieve our mission of enriching lives and giving back,” said Miller. “This trust and our new corporate structure will continue this important legacy in perpetuity and represents our commitment and deep love for the State of Utah.”

Jody Genessy, Jazz writer for the Deseret News, added these notes from the press conference for the announcement.

This is a huge win for the fans in Utah. It’s also a win for the NBA — billionaires buying up teams with the promise/idea of moving them is not good optics for the league. Adam Silver has favored stability (he was one of the key reasons the Kings are still in Sacramento), and this is a step in that direction.