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Three things we learned Thursday: Tim Hardaway Jr. upstaged Dwight Howard’s homecoming

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All of the eyes of the sports world are starting to focus on Houston because there’s some football game this weekend, and if you turned your attention there rather than listen to Charles Barkley being Charles Barkley Thursday, we can’t blame you. Here are the big takeaways from the day in the NBA.

1) Dwight Howard came back to Houston, but the night (and game) belonged to Tim Hardaway Jr. Let’s get the sideshow out of the way first: Dwight Howard returned to Houston, and he was greeted there like he was greeted when he first returned to Orlando and Los Angeles — he got booed. Although to be fair, it was a mix of cheers and boos this time around (not like Orlando or LA). Howard’s answer to Rockets’ fans was to score 24 points and grab 23 rebounds. He played like the borderline All-Star he has been this season.

But that wasn’t the story of this game.

Houston led by 20 points at home with eight minutes to go — this one should have been in the bag, despite their off night shooting — and then Tim Hardaway Jr. happened. The Hawks guard had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth to spark a comeback that ended with a 113-108 Atlanta win.

Houston giving up that lead to a team on the second night of a back-to-back is not the move of a contender. Which is where the Rockets want to see themselves. It’s a big win for a Hawks team trying to climb back ahead of Washington for the four seed in the East and home court in the first round. It was just one game, but it was an entertaining one if nothing else.

2) Breaking down the trade: Bucks send Miles Plumlee to Hornets for Roy Hibbert/Spencer Hawes. Just like nearly any negotiation, the only way to make a trade in the NBA is to structure it so both sides think it’s a win and out of this process with something they want or need. Thursday’s swap of big men between the Bucks and Hornets did just that, at least on the day of the trade.

For the Hornets, this is about some help and a reliable backup for Cody Zeller. He’s missed Charlotte’s last five games with injury, and the numbers are really simple: Charlotte outscores its opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and gets outscored by 4.4 per 100 when he is off the court. Or, Charlotte is 22-16 when Zeller plays and 1-10 when he doesn’t — including being on a four-game losing streak. Plumlee brings a poor man’s version of what Zeller does — he can set a good screen and roll hard to the rim, and when he does you have to account for him because he can finish. That opens things up for Kemba Walker. Plumlee crashes the boards and works hard on defense. He’s not a perfect answer to their problems of late, but he’s going to help them, and this is a team at 23-27 that is the current eight seed and is fighting to make the playoffs.

The Bucks mostly get rid of what they see as a mistake signing and get some financial flexibility. Plumlee is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract and he was struggling. The Bucks saw that contract as an anchor, and they ditch it for Roy Hibbert (on an expiring contract) and Hawes ($6 million player option for next season that he likely opts out of). The Bucks are the 10 seed in the East right now, a game back of Charlotte, but they don’t lose much on the court here, if anything. Greg Monroe’s having his best season as a Buck at center, and they have John Henson as his reserve. Hibbert and Hawes provide some veteran depth for Jason Kidd to play around with, but they aren’t going to get a lot of run (I can see Hawes and his ability to stretch the floor helping in certain matchups).

3) Magic Johnson will advice Jeanie Buss and Lakers ownership. That’s bad for Jim Buss. The Lakers have set a path to return to the top of the NBA — be bad and draft high, find their next franchise player (or at least a good core) that way. They’ve lived up to that two years in a row (drafting second both times, getting D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) while selling the Kobe farewell tour. How well they are doing on that path depends on who you ask, certainly they have a few quality young players, but how good those guys really are and how far they can take this team down the line are up for debate.

The key is the potential of a good Lakers team is years down the line at best, and Jim Buss promised the Lakers would be back to contending (or at least the second round) by this season. Buss is the favored son of the legendary Jerry Buss who the father left in charge of basketball operations, and the younger Buss promised a quick turnaround that was unrealistic in today’s NBA. He lived in the past, back when the Lakers could get elite free agents because they were the Lakers. Now they can’t even get meetings (Kevin Durant).

Now lead owner Jeanie Buss — the one person who can remove Jim from power, if she has the support of her other siblings — has brought in Lakers legend Magic Johnson as an advisor. Jeanie and Magic met last month and, according to ESPN, Jeanie was reaching out to people she trusted about the future direction of the Lakers. Magic has been a huge critic of Jim Buss, and the buzz is the other siblings in the Buss trust (there are six total, including Jim and Jeanie) are none-to-thrilled with Jim’s job performance and work ethic. They want to win, and the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA.

Which is to say, Jim Buss is in a world of trouble.

Here would be my concern if I were a Laker fan: That the Lakers completely abandon their slow build plan and trade quality assets for good-but-not-great veterans who can get them more wins now. Essentially, they become the Knicks. It’s not a path to the top. And based on Magic’s incipit Twitter account he lives in the past like Jim Buss — he’s tweeted the Lakers should get Durant or DeMar DeRozan or other guys they would loved to have chased but will not meet with them right now. If the Lakers go down that path they will be no better off. They need to build up a good young core that stars want to play with, then you can try to land one (see the Celtics, who got to 48 wins before Al Horford came on board).

No one can say what Jerry Buss would do in this situation, but based on his history here is my guess: Hire a talented young GM (who he could get at below market value) and let that man go to work. Let him pick up the pace of winning without sacrificing too much of the young core. That seems a wise plan, but who knows what direction the Lakers will go.

Knicks’ Joakim Noah has expected shoulder surgery to repair rotator cuff

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NEW YORK (AP) — Knicks center Joakim Noah has had right shoulder surgery to repair his rotator cuff, a procedure that could sideline him until training camp.

The Knicks say Noah had the surgery Wednesday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, performed by Dr. David Altchek.

The team didn’t give a timetable for Noah’s recovery, but coach Jeff Hornacek said late in the season that if Noah had the operation, the recovery time could be five months.

Noah had an injury-plagued season that ended early when he was suspended 20 games by the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. There are still 12 games remaining on the penalty that he will have to serve next season when healthy.

Noah had surgery on his other shoulder last season, limiting him to 29 games in his final season in Chicago before signing a four-year, $72 million deal with New York.

PBT Extra: Pacers offseason moves starts with Paul George question

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Larry Bird, when not delivering All-Star Game bids, should be spending his time lighting candles and praying in churches all over Indianapolis that Paul George makes an All-NBA team.

If PG13 makes the cut, Bird’s job this summer becomes more clear: Offer George the designated player max extension, get him to sign the deal, then get back to building a contender around him.

If George doesn’t make the cut, things get much tougher for Bird. I discuss all of it in this new PBT Extra.

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.