MVP favorites James Harden, Russell Westbrook in first-round showdown

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HOUSTON (AP) — While everyone must wait more than two months for the NBA’s MVP to be announced, the league will showcase the two front-runners for the honor in James Harden and Russell Westbrook when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder open a first-round playoff series Sunday night.

“I think the league is very prosperous because we’ve got some great players that are doing things that I don’t think any fan has ever seen, or they have seen and they probably can’t remember it because it’s been so long,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Putting up unbelievable numbers, unbelievable seasons and some great story lines. It’s good for the NBA. It’s great for business.”

The Rockets had the third-best record in the NBA and are eyeing a deep playoff run in their first season under D’Antoni after being ousted in the first round by Golden State last year. Oklahoma City is in the unfamiliar role of underdog after reaching the Western Conference finals last season before also being eliminated by the Warriors.

Most expect either Harden or Westbrook to take home the MVP trophy on June 26 after both players had stellar regular seasons. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game- all career bests – in helping Houston to a 55-27 record.

Harden had 22 triple-doubles and became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659) in a single season.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42, allowing the Thunder to withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency and secure the sixth seed.

Harden and Westbrook are former teammates in Oklahoma City and remain good friends, but neither seems drawn by the hype that this series is all about them. Harden cut off a reporter before he could finish his question about how the focus entering this series is on him and Westbrook.

“I don’t really care about the talks,” he said. “I just want to win.”

When prodded about what makes Westbrook so good, Harden provided some praise for the fellow point guard.

“Obviously he’s talented, really explosive (and) athletic,” Harden said. “He just goes out there and plays relentless.”

Westbrook acknowledged it will be “cool” to match up against his friend in this best-of-seven series.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “Something that we can talk about later on down the line. Definitely, it’s good.”

Some things to know about the Thunder-Rockets series.

GUARDING THE MVP

Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson have perhaps the toughest jobs in this series, as they’ll guard Westbrook and Harden. Both teams will certainly employ various tactics to slow down the other’s star, but Beverley and Roberson will be the first line of defense.

“Pat is probably the unsung hero,” D’Antoni said. “His edginess and what he has to do, he has to guard Westbrook … he is a big, big part of what we do.”

Beverley embraces the challenge.

“It’s going to be hard as hell,” he said. “He’s one of the most explosive point guards probably to ever play the game. But you know me. It will be fun.”

Roberson feels the same way about Harden.

“I definitely like a challenge, and I like to go against the best,” he said. “Go out there and prove we’re just as good, too.”

OKC’S REBOUNDING

The Rockets know a key to success will be limiting Oklahoma City’s rebounding. The Thunder led the league with 46.6 rebounds a game and tied for first by averaging 12.2 offensive boards.

D’Antoni has been drilling those numbers into his players’ heads for weeks, bringing it up repeatedly as soon as it looked like the Rockets would draw the Thunder in the first round.

“You’ve got to rebound,” D’Antoni said simply.

GORDON’S IMPACT

Eric Gordon is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists off the bench in his first season in Houston after five years with New Orleans. Gordon, who has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, appeared in 75 games, which is the most since he played 78 as a rookie in 2008-09. Gordon ranked fourth in the NBA with a career-high 246 3-pointers, after he hadn’t made more than 141 in a year in the first eight seasons of his career.

He takes pride in being a spark off the bench.

“We’ve got some guys that can make an impact, so we just want to press the gas,” he said. “If our first unit gets the lead, we want to (extend) the lead even more.”

This will be just his second trip to the playoffs after he appeared in just one series with the Pelicans, in 2015.

 

Winners, losers in the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston

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Here’s the hard thing about coming up with this list: There really weren’t big losers.

Unlike some of the other blockbuster trades this summer — Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Paul George to Oklahoma City — the trade of Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s first-round pick next draft didn’t have a clear loser. The Cavs did well in the short term and got themselves more flexibility, the Celtics may have set themselves up for future banners. So this list is heavy with winners. But here it is.

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers. Once it became public knowledge that Irving wanted out of Cleveland their leverage was gone. They went looking for a potential young star player in a deal — Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum — and were shot down at each turn. It looked like they would have to settle for a lesser package or bring Irving back to training camp and tell him to get along with LeBron James.

Then this deal came through, and it’s a clear “A+” for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lands an All-NBA point guard whose production next season will be close to what Irving provided, and Thomas plays with more of a chip on his shoulder. Also, the Cavaliers added what they desperately needed — a quality “3&D” wing in Crowder, a guy who can knock down jumpers and cover Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant (as much as anyone can cover them). On top of it, the Cavaliers get what will be a high draft pick — Brooklyn may be better but this is still no worse than the 5-6 pick — in a draft deep with quality big men.

Cleveland is still the best team, the team to beat in the East, and they got a key pick to help add youth and athleticism to the roster.

Winner: Boston in a couple of years. Boston’s argument it won the trade is simple — it got the best player in the trade. Thomas and Irving put up comparable numbers last season, but Irving is capable of defending (even though he rarely does, not even in the Finals last season). Irving is a couple of years younger, and because of his height will likely age better than Thomas. However, in giving up Crowder and the Brooklyn pick, the Celtics surrendered their best trade assets.

Cleveland is going to be a better team than Boston next season, but the Irving/Hayward combo with good role players around them has Boston poised to be even better in a couple of years, once guys like Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown develop. Boston is set to be next (providing they can re-sign Irving).

Winner: Kyrie Irving. He wanted out of the immense shadow of LeBron and he got it — and he still landed on a contender. In Boston, he is the most marketable player and while the team has other stars — Gordon Hayward, Al Horford — none are the kind of dominant force of nature that LeBron is. Kyrie will get plenty of time in the sun, he will get great opportunities in Brad Stevens offense (better sets than he was running in Cleveland), and he will continue to win.

Irving may have wanted to be the star, but he didn’t want to be the one-man show on a bad team. Now he’s in a good place.

Loser: The Los Angeles Lakers (maybe, or any other team with dreams of signing LeBron next summer). LeBron James still more than likely bolts Cleveland next year. But Cleveland got a little closer to keeping them with this trade. Isaiah Thomas brings buckets at the point guard spot plus he plays with a chip on his shoulder that this team could use (the Cavaliers coast too much during the season). In Crowder the Cavaliers land the kind of wing player they need to match up better with Golden State. If they want to pick up a role player at the trade deadline, Ante Zizic could be part of that package. More importantly, that Brooklyn pick could be used to bring in a high draft pick player LeBron likes, or it could be traded to get a veteran that LeBron wants to play with.

LeBron wants to add rings to his legacy. If this trade helps him think Cleveland is where he can best do that, he could stay. I wouldn’t bet on it as likely, but the odds LeBron stays in Cleveland after next season got just a little more likely.

Winner: Koby Altman. I couldn’t bring myself to put Dan Gilbert here, it was still a stupid decision to show David Griffin the door. But give due credit to the man who replaced Gilbert, Kobe Altman. He just orchestrated a brilliant trade that keeps the Cavaliers as the favorites in the East next season and gives them more flexibility going forward. It was a master stroke, getting a guy in Danny Ainge known for hoarding assets to give up two of his best shows Altman knows how to do his job.

Winner: NBA Fans. Opening night, Oct. 17, the first game of the NBA season is the Boston Celtics visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving is going to get booed mercilessly. Isaiah Thomas (if his hip is healthy) will be looking to put on a show for the new home fans. It’s going to be glorious.

It may not have tilted the balance of power in the East, but it made the conference far more entertaining to watch this season.

LeBron James on Kyrie Irving: “Nothing but respect”

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Kyrie Irving is now a member of the Boston Celtics. Tuesday’s trade sent Isaiah Thomas to Ohio to join forces with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Irving gets to head east to Boston.

On paper, many believe Cleveland appears to have received the better side of the deal. I’m not absolutely certain that’s the case, as the Celtics were able to get a point guard on an extra few years while simultaneously giving themselves some flexibility in the years to come.

The Cavaliers should be in good shape, especially if Thomas’ hip is A-OK. They beefed up their wing depth with Jae Crowder, and added a 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets that will help them either draft in LeBron’s absence next summer or trade for another star this year.

Meanwhile, LeBron himself took to Twitter — as did many other NBA players — to respond to the trade.

In a tweet sent out on Tuesday night, Lebron said he had nothing but respect for Irving.

Via Twitter:

Well there you have it. We still don’t know whether James is going to stay in Cleveland past this summer, but we have to assume they are again favorites to make the Finals this year.

We will have to wait until the season starts until we find out whether Irving can make an impact on that arc with his new team in Boston.

Andrew Wiggins fires agent shortly after negotiating $148 million max deal

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Is Andrew Wiggins still going to sign a $148 million max contract extension? Probably!

The big question now will be whether in his previous agent, Bill Duffy, will receive a commission for negotiating that contract.

According to a report from ESPN, Wiggins filed paperwork with the NBA to separate his association with Duffy and representing firm BDA Sports.

The move comes as a shock to many in the NBA sphere, as it certainly is an oddity to release one’s agent directly after negotiating such a large new contract offer.

Meanwhile, it appears that Duffy has already contacted the players association to discuss his rights in a potential tampering case.

How juicy.

Via ESPN:

Duffy, the chairman of BDA Sports and one of the league’s most prominent player agents, told ESPN on Tuesday that he had recently been made aware of rival agencies and potential start-up enterprises who were recruiting Wiggins with inducements that included no commission fees on contracts.

“We are disappointed that Andrew made this decision, especially after a three-year partnership where we worked closely with Andrew and his entire family,” Duffy told ESPN. “Unfortunately, tampering is a common problem in our industry, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve already been in contact with the NBPA to discuss my rights in this matter. Obviously, whenever Andrew signs the max extension that we negotiated with Minnesota, we will work with the NBPA to make sure that our interests are protected.”

Wiggins and the team still have yet to formally agree to the extension, so it’s not really clear what will happen for any of the parties involved.

But if the recent Paul George tampering case and the Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade isn’t enough to make you think the NBA offseason is completely wild, this one ought to do.

How NBA players reacted to the Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas trade

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The NBA is easily the best professional sports league in the United States. Was that ever up for debate?

After this offseason, it certainly is not. That also appears to be the opinion of several NBA players after Tuesday’s trade between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers saw Kyrie Irving head east and Isaiah Thomas pair up with LeBron James.

It is crazy to think that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference decided to swap star point guards with each other, and that is just the latest in a series of wild events here in the summer of 2017.

We’ve had players sign big new contracts with new teams, tampering charges being filed, and players dunking on local streetballers from speedboats.

What more could you ask for?

Here’s how the NBA responded to the news of the trade between the Celtics and the Cavaliers on social media.