Kyle Korver
Associated Press

Three things we learned on Thursday: Cavaliers land Korver, here’s how he makes them better

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The biggest news in the NBA Thursday was off the court. Which on a night when Harden and Westbrook faced off is saying something. Time to break it all down.

1) Kyle Korver is headed to Cleveland, upping the arms race with Golden State. We’ve seen this in other sports — the 49ers and Cowboys back in the day, the Yankees and Red Sox more recently. Teams making moves that are mostly about one rival. In the NBA we saw it clearly in the 1980s — the Lakers and Celtics would make roster additions (Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson, etc.) aimed at the other and NBA Finals matchups. Sure, those guys helped against the Chicago’s and Houston’s and whoever else, but the move was mostly thinking ahead to the NBA’s biggest stage.

That’s what Cleveland landing Kyle Korver in a trade from the Hawks was. Cleveland only gave up the lightly-used Mike Dunleavy, a 2019 first-round pick (that very likely is in the mid to high 20s), and maybe a dead-weight contract like Mo Williams. That’s a steal. And make no mistake, that was aimed right at the heart of the Warriors. Korver is an upgrade for the Cavaliers, and let’s break down what he brings to the team that is already the defending champs.

• More three point shooting. The Cavaliers are already second in the NBA in three-pointers made per game and three-point shooting percentage as a team. That said, you can never have too much shooting — and of late the Cavs have needed it. With J.R. Smith out until sometime after the All-Star break (thumb surgery) and Kyrie Irving injured the last few games, the depth on the wing has been exposed. Korver helps solve that problem in the short-term and gives the team more versatility and matchup options come the playoffs.

• Korver is an upgrade over J.R. Smith. The Cavaliers are going to be without Smith until after the All-Star break (and maybe into March) following surgery on his thumb. Enter Korver, who can bring the catch-and-shoot that Smith has become deadly at, plus Korver brings other skills to the table: Few are better using screens than he. Korver is an underrated passer. Close out too fast on him and Kover will put the ball on the floor and get into the lane (where he has a surprisingly good floater). He’s going to fit in beautifully, and even Korver acknowledged it.

• Korver has slowed a little the last couple of seasons, but he’s still very dangerous. The combination of some knee/ankle injuries and the fact he is 35 have slowed Korver a little the past couple seasons. It’s particularly noticeable on the defensive end — Korver is not quite the player he was just a couple of seasons ago. That said, he’s still solid team defender, still shooting 40 percent from three overall, still a very high IQ player, and is still a significant talent upgrade.

• Korver’s already impressive shooting numbers are going to go up. We have seen this with Kevin Durant this season: An already amazing shooter goes to a team with more weapons, he gets better looks, and his shooting efficiency improves. Korver is going to feel the same thing as he slides to open spaces on the arc while Kyrie Irving and LeBron James drive the lane. Korver already is shooting 60.8 percent eFG% on catch-and-shoots this season, that number will improve. Also, he has it hit 49 percent of his uncontested threes this season — he’s going to see a lot more of those looks.

• I see your small-ball “death lineup” and call. If he wants in the NBA Finals — and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about with this move, a Warriors/Cavs rematch — Tyronn Lue can roll out a lineup of Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. When they run a pick-and-roll with that group, Golden State can try to switch, but LeBron’s a matchup nightmare who can drive/post up somebody, and who you going to leave to help out? I don’t know if that lineup defends as well as the Warriors death lineup — that’s the advantage of Draymond Green — but it will be interesting.

• Cavaliers GM David Griffin deserves some credit. He’s been amazing at securing pieces to go around his big three core the past couple years. Other teams had called about Korver, he came through with the first round pick the Hawks wanted and got the deal done.

• Is Korver a rental for Cleveland? Does it matter? They didn’t give up much, and this was a move about a ring this season. He’s a free agent this summer. But the question of Korver’s future in Cleveland is going to have to wait until July, because they need to see how he helps them in June before making a decision.

2) Korver is just the first domino to fall in Atlanta. Coach/GM Mike Budenholzer has clearly realized that with Al Horford bolting this summer his Hawks are a third-tier team in the East at best — they may have won five in a row right now, but they certainly don’t match up with Cleveland (before the trade) and weren’t going to beat Toronto or Boston either in the playoffs. Horford already scarred this team when he left last summer, and they decided not to get burned in free agency again.

Korver is gone. Thabo Sefolosha will be gone. But the big one — the All-Star player bringing real returns — is Paul Millsap and all reports are now out of Atlanta that he will be on the move as well. It’s going to take a big package to get him, and the Hawks can play different teams off each other — just some of the teams mentioned are Sacramento, Philadelphia, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, but the big gun is Toronto — and get a quality package in return. But those dominos are going to start to fall.

Enjoying that homecoming, Dwight Howard?

3) Russell Westbrook and James Harden put on a show. Oklahoma City tried their best to take James Harden away — he was 6-of-16 shooting, although he did get to the line enough for 26 points — but the key to the Rockets win is that Harden has some real help and trusts those guys. You saw it on the final play: OKC is not going to let Harden beat them, Steven Adams doubled him, so Hard found Nene wide open, and he was fouled by Jerami Grant and Nene iced the game at the line.

(Was he fouled by Grant? Thunder fans will tell you no. Grant certainly got some ball, and I don’t see a lot of contact, but I’m curious what the Two-Minute Report will say, those guys have all the camera angles.)

The bottom line is this: Westbrook had 49, and he is all the OKC offense — you may not love all his pull-up three choices, but he hits those plenty (think Celtics game) and he’s their best option. Harden has more help 12 dimes and more help — Eric Gordon had 22, Nene 18, and the Rockets had five players not named Harden in double figures. The Rockets know how to play off each other and get shots — for example, notice that sometimes Gordon/Ryan Anderson/Trevor Ariza spot up about three feet (a full step) behind the arc, because they know Harden will find them and it makes the close-out by the defender harder. The Rockets have figured out how to make this all work.

But man, what a show. I would love this as a playoff matchup.

Rajon Rondo strangely runs behind Rick Carlisle during play (video)

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This would be ignored – still odd, but ignored – if it weren’t for their history.

But Rajon Rondo running behind Rick Carlisle during the Mavericks’ win over the Bulls raised a couple eyebrows in curiosity and drew a few chuckles. What was Rondo doing?

At least Carlisle explained why he didn’t call timeout before Wesley Matthewsgame-winning 3-pointer. The Dallas coach had Rondo in mind.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Mike D’Antoni: “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center on November 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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 Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less Part 2 in Houston, but it may be closer to Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate vision.

The Rockets are 32-12 with the third-best offense in the NBA (Toronto and Golden State), and it’s an analytics wet dream of threes and shots at the rim. It’s all come together because James Harden bought in. Steve Nash ran the offense brilliantly but differently — Harden is as good or better with his style (which gets him to the line more often).

The brilliant Howard Beck at Bleacher Report got everyone to talk about the Rockets rapid rise and how it all came together. It’s must read. Plus there are some brilliant quotes, starting with Harden about D’Antoni pitching the move to point guard:

“I thought he was crazy,” says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard….

Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”

“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” (Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”

But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.

Harden is MVP-level good. What’s more, the Rockets are knocking on the door of contender good. The pedestrian defense isn’t there yet (18th in the NBA for the season, 15th for the month of January), questions about depth and if young key cogs like Clint Capela can grow into the roles the Rockets need them to, and there are the health concerns considering the histories of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

But the Rockets are dangerous right now and could reach the Western Conference Finals this season if healthy and things break right (their style and athleticism would be a tough test for the Spurs).  And the story of how it all came together is fascinating.

Carmelo Anthony on talk with Jackson: “We didn’t break bread….It was a short conversation”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 25:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden on December 25, 2016 in New York City. 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 Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t long. It wasn’t outwardly contentious. But you can bet it was colder than the weather outside Madison Square Garden in January.

Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony sat down and talked about Anthony’s future with the Knicks Tuesday, with Anthony reiterating again he doesn’t want to be traded. And since he has a no-trade clause and two years on his deal after this one, he has the power.

Anthony seems done with the entire topic and is ready to move on. From Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“The conversation was not that long. We didn’t break bread,’’ Anthony said. “We didn’t have hours of conversation. It was a short conversation.”

This entire topic came up when Phil Rosen — a Phil Jackson confidant who swears he’s not a surrogate — penned an article saying Anthony was willing to accept a move to the Cavaliers or Clippers (or maybe the Lakers). The move felt like a classic Jackson mind game move where Anthony was forced to respond to it — and Anthony seems done with the drama.

“I’m done asking why,’’ Anthony said. “My focus is playing ball at this point. My focus is these guys. That’s all I care about at this point. Making sure these guys stay strong and positive and have their head on right and not be a distraction to them.

“I’m committed [to the Knicks]. I don’t have to prove that to anybody. I don’t have to keep saying that and keep talking about it. I know for a fact people know that and people see that.”

Anthony is ready to move on, is Jackson? Or do we see another mind game move coming?

Anthony isn’t going anywhere, not in the short term. Even if Anthony would entertain a trade to those mentioned, markets, you think the Cavaliers would like to give Kevin Love‘s minutes and some of LeBron James‘ touches to 33-year-old Anthony? You think Doc Rivers would swap 27-year-old Blake Griffin for ‘Melo? Anthony is expensive and while he can still score the other limitations in his game make it very hard to trade him.

Jackson is the master of convincing guys to do what he wants and think it’s their own idea, but I have a hard time seeing that happening with Anthony.

Kevin Durant reflects on “AAU basketball” of Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder

Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden
Associated Press
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If MVP voting took place today, James Harden and Russell Westbrook would be in a photo finish for the win — they are the clear first and second choices in that race. Third could well be Kevin Durant, who is having a strong and efficient season in Golden State (it’s who Dan Feldman and I said we would pick third during the PBT Podcast, although certainly guys like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard and others are in the mix).

Remember when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden were all on the same team? The NBA’s ultimate “what if?”

Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News got Durant to reminisce about those days (the Warriors play the Thunder and Rockets this week).

“It’s easy to say we were supposed to be together for the rest of our careers, but it didn’t play out like that,” Durant said. “I think all three of us will have memorable careers. And it’ll be a journey we’ll always remember, something that’s different and unique, playing with two different guys who are doing incredible things in the league right now. But when you look back, think about the fun times instead of what could’ve been.”

Could they have ruled the NBA for a decade?

“No. We never looked at it that way, like we could be best of all-time,” Durant said. “It was really AAU basketball, man. We were just having fun. We weren’t listening to anyone on the outside, media, none of that. It was just pure fun. When we did hear something about the group, it was like, what is this? That was so foreign to us because we never paid attention to it.”

It was Harden that was traded — he wanted and deserved the max, the Thunder has spent on Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. They weren’t willing to pay the costs — the luxury tax bill would have come calling — to keep all three. The other side of that debate: Could Harden have continued happily in his sixth man role? This guy dominates the ball now (he leads the league in time of possession this season), would he have stayed coming off the bench to win?

“I think he’d have stayed in that role. I think so,” Durant said. “He’d have still been a really great player. You look at it, a lot of people wouldn’t have looked at him as a Sixth Man. He’d have been better. I think he’d have been better. Obviously I’m sure he loves what he’s doing now, but if we would’ve won a championship, I think the perception of him would’ve just been as a great player. ‘He’s the heart, he’s what makes us go.’ That’s what his label would’ve been, instead of just Sixth Man. He would’ve probably been the best Sixth Man that ever was.”

Maybe, and maybe that would have been enough. It’s all moot now.

But what if?