Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) scores in front of Houston Rockets center Clint Capela during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/George Bridges)
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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.

PBT Extra: Despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double pace, James Harden is MVP frontrunner

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The NBA’s MVP race is down to two men. Sure, you can make a case for Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, some even want to throw Isaiah Thomas in the mix, but the best any of them is going to do is down the ballot in the final three slots.

The top two are reserved for James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

In this PBT Extra, I discuss that while Westbrook is on pace for a historic season — averaging a triple-double of 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists a game — it is Harden who is lifting his team to higher heights, and that very well could win the beard the award.

As Texas legislature considers it’s own “bathroom bill,” Adam Silver hints it could cost Houston All-Star Game

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks with the media during a press conference at Smoothie King Center on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — The 2017 NBA All-Star Game is co-existing with the start of Mardis Gras in New Orleans right now because of the North Carolina legislature.

When that state passed bill HB2, commonly called “the bathroom law,” the NBA owners and Adam Silver rightfully drew a line in the sand and said, in so many words, “we’re not bringing our All-Star Game to your city if that discriminatory law is on the books.” Of course, there was no way a Republican-controlled legislator and governor were going to cave on a red meat issue for their base like that one in an election year. So the NBA joined numerous businesses that pulled out of the state, as well as some musical acts planning concerts, and took their business elsewhere.

Right now, the Texas legislature is considering a similar bill.

Houston is considered a frontrunner to land the 2020 or 2021 All-Star Game, the NBA has opened the application process for those games and Houston is interested.

Could the bill kill Houston’s application before it even gets to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s desk? Silver is too smart a lawyer and negotiator to box himself in a corner and say there is no way Houston gets the All-Star Game if the law passes, but he made it clear it could.

“You know, I’m not ready to draw bright lines. Clearly, though, the laws of the state, ordinances, and cities are a factor we look at in deciding where to play our All-Star Games,” Silver said at his annual All-Star Weekend press conference.

“I think the issue is we’d have to look at the specific legislation and understand its impact. I mean, I’m not ready to stand here today and say that that is the bright line test for whether or not we will play All-Star Games in Texas. It’s something we’re, of course, going to monitor very closely. What we’ve stated is that our values, our league-wide values in terms of equality and inclusion are paramount to this league and all the members of the NBA family, and I think those jurisdictions that are considering legislation similar to HB2 are on notice that that is an important factor for us. Those values are an important factor for us in deciding where we take a special event like an All-Star Game.”

The 2018 NBA All-Star Game is headed to Los Angeles, and there is no concern that California is going to pass such a law. The 2019 game is officially unscheduled right now, but the NBA’s hope is to give it to Charlotte if HB2 is rolled back or eliminated. The uproar over the law is part of the reason the former governor Pat McCrory lost his re-election bid last November to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper.

“I have talked to Governor Cooper, the new Governor of North Carolina since he was elected, really to express our desire to return to North Carolina [in 2019] for our All-Star Game,” Silver said. “We have a team in North Carolina. We have a development team, soon to be a G-League team, in North Carolina. And 20 other teams will visit North Carolina this season. So we’d very much like to get back there.

“We had a discussion so I understood, certainly, his position, when he was running for office, was anti-HB2, the bill that ultimately led to our leaving. So I really was talking to him more to understand, from his standpoint, how he was hoping to move forward in terms of changing that law. My pain purpose of talking to him was to express our desire to return.”

The HB2 law covered a variety of issues, but what drew the most attention was that it restricts transgender bathroom use — you have to use the bathroom for the gender with which you were born. The law also superseded anti-discrimination ordinances put in by the city of Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, laws that tried to block discrimination against gays and lesbians. 

While any state has the right to put on the books laws it sees fit (within the framework of the Constitution), those actions can come with consequences. Just like Texas has the right to put the law on the books (not a sure thing, there has been pushback from the business community in the state), the NBA has the right to decide where it will do business. And bringing an All-Star Game to a city is a big economic boost — Charlotte lost an estimated $100 million in spending without the game, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Kevin Durant introduced as ‘OKC’s own’ (video)

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Kevin Durant attended the Three-Point Shootout, which was a perfect time to introduce the high-profile Warriors star.

It just happened in an incredibly awkward way.

Report: Former Magic teammates had ‘real issues’ with Serge Ibaka

Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka, of Congo, reacts after being called for a foul while defending a shot by Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 125-112. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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In trading Serge Ibaka to the Raptors, the Magic didn’t just get assets (Terrence Ross and a first-round pick) for a player who seemed increasingly likely to leave in unrestricted free agency this summer.

Orlando apparently also got rid of a headache.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Going from the winning Thunder to the lowly Magic probably didn’t bring out the best in Ibaka, and thats understandable, though not entirely excusable.

I also wonder how much of this was situational rather than anything Ibaka actively did wrong.

His presence forced Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green from their ideal position of power forward to small forward. That narrowed Mario Hezonja‘s path the the court. Any minutes Ibaka received at center cut into Bismack Biyombo‘s and Nikola Vucevic‘s playing time.

Both elements probably worked in concert. Ibaka disrupted the play of several teammates just by being there, which likely led to them giving him less benefit of the doubt about his attitude.

Don’t absolve Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, though. He built a roster overloaded with bigs. He asked for leadership from a newcomer who was third banana at best on his previous team and is entering a contract year. It’s not a huge shock this dynamic soured on and off the court.