Trade No. 1 pick? Deal for Kyrie Irving? Celtics’ Danny Ainge bets big on his convictions

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Danny Ainge believes in himself and his player evaluations. Unequivocally.

Almost every NBA team had Markelle Fultz at the top of their draft board. As one scout put it to me, “there is a clear No. 1 this year.” NBC’s college basketball guru Rob Dauster agreed and told us so. It was the consensus.

Ainge didn’t see it that way. Boston’s decision maker traded the No. 1 pick for a future first rounder and eventually took Jayson Tatum at No. 3, the guy he liked best in the draft.

Also through the summer, Ainge also sat on the biggest asset on the trade board — the Brooklyn Nets unprotected 2018 first-round pick — and didn’t use it to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler (or anyone else). It seemed untouchable.

Then Ainge threw it and another player other teams coveted — Jae Crowder (not to mention Isaiah Thomas) — in a deal to land Kyrie Irving out of Cleveland. Ainge paid a franchise-player level price for Irving, betting he can be the best player on a championship team.

Ainge likes Irving more than other teams do, he likes the flair in Irving’s game — no doubt Irving is an elite scorer, but a franchise player? One who defends and gets teammates involved? Look at what some scouts and executives told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report.

“I think it’s fairly clear he’s not (a franchise player),” says one team’s analytics director, pointing to the surprisingly soft trade market for Irving. “The league as a whole agrees he’s not.”

The scout calls Irving’s playmaking skills “plain vanilla” and “average for a starting point guard.” He says he would be surprised if Irving raised his assist average much in Boston…. And Irving is positively awful defensively, according to just about every available defensive metric—“a train wreck,” in the words of one Cavs official.

Ainge, like the rest of us, has seen Irving the great playmaker, and we’ve seen Irving play good defense (remember him on Stephen Curry in the 2016 Finals?). But franchise cornerstones bring that every night, not once in a while.

Ainge is higher on Irving than most of his front office peers, and he bet big on that belief that Irving will be the best of himself in Boston.

That sums up Danny Ainge’s summer: He has true conviction in his player evaluations, even if they go against the grain.

He has bet big on these assessments and convictions — and bet the Celtics’ future. This was a 53-win Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and it will have four new starters next season. Only four players from the previous year will be in camp with the Celtics next season, and the Celtics have gotten younger in the process in a historic way.

Boston still looks like the second-best team in the East come the playoffs (nobody should bet against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals until he loses one at this point), and they are poised to have next in the East if things come apart in Cleveland.

However, one of the three tests of whether this team is a contender is whether Gordon Hayward and Irving can mesh inside Brad Steven’s offense and become almost unstoppable on that end. Which is really asking, is Ainge right that Irving will buy into what Stevens is selling? Another big test is whether this Celtics team can get enough defense from Irving (and its developing players) to make up for losing Crowder and Avery Bradley in one summer.

The final, and maybe biggest question, is in a couple of years will we say Ainge passed on the best player in this class in Fultz to get a more polished but lower upside guy in Tatum? No. 1 picks are rare opportunities, Ainge gambled in giving his away, and if Fultz is what the Sixers and some other teams believe Ainge will have lost that bet.

You have to admire that Ainge goes with his convictions, that he’s not willing to just take the safe and conventional route. We love to watch risk takers, teams swinging for the fences are far more interesting than a GM just looking to hit solid singles every time at the plate.

But if Ainge missed on his evaluations in the summer of 2017, it could be a long while before banner 18 goes up in the Boston Garden.

 

Fergie says she “tried my best” after national anthem blowback

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fergie is apologizing after trying something different with the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Grammy-winning singer said in a statement Monday. “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

Fergie’s slow, bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday night wasn’t particularly well received at Staples Center or on social media before the 67th edition of the NBA’s annual showcase.

A low chuckle rumbled through the sold-out arena after she finished the first line of the song with a throaty growl on “the dawn’s early light.”

Fans throughout the star-studded crowd reacted with varying levels of bemusement and enthusiasm while her languid, 2 +-minute version of the song continued. Although Fergie was on pitch, her tempo, musical accompaniment and sexy delivery were not exactly typical for a sporting event or a patriotic song.

Golden State All-Star Draymond Green captured Sunday’s mood – and became an instant GIF – when he was shown open-mouthed on the scoreboard and the television broadcast in apparent confusion over the unique vocal stylings. Green then chuckled to himself after realizing he was on TV.

After a forceful finish, Fergie finally got big cheers when she shouted, “Let’s play some basketball!”

The Black Eyed Peas singer, born Stacy Ann Ferguson, is from nearby Hacienda Heights, California.

Famed basketball commentator Charles Barkley joked that he “needed a cigarette” after Fergie’s performance during the TNT halftime show.

Former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal leaped to Fergie’s defense, saying: “Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it. Leave her alone.”

Others on social media weren’t as kind, with criticism of the performance outpacing the positive reviews.

 

Did Lakers help keep LeBron James in Cleveland with trade?

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When the trade went down between the Lakers and Cavaliers before the deadline — sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus Cleveland’s 2018 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) — it caught the NBA by surprise.

The first reaction for a lot of people to the deal? This opens up as much as $70 million in cap space for the Lakers this summer (depending on other moves with players such as Julius Randle). Los Angeles could sign two max players — LeBron James and Paul George. Why would Cleveland help Los Angeles open up room to steal LeBron.

The Cavaliers didn’t see it that way — they knew they had to make a major shakeup or LeBron was gone. At that point, does it matter where? So in a series of moves, Cleveland GM Koby Altman radically remade the roster around LeBron. The goal was to energize them back into being the team to beat in the East, and from there make it hard for him to leave as a free agent. Since the trades, the Cavaliers are 2-0 and LeBron has clearly been reinvigorated, plus they will add Kevin Love back in a few weeks.

Altman’s plan seems to be working, one executive told Mark Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

I had heard from sources for a while LeBron to the Lakers was not likely (Paul George is another story, that door remains open). As Spears notes, the Lakers did not have an All-Star in Sunday’s game. Even if LeBron and PG13 went to Los Angeles, that team was third or fourth best in the West next season. LeBron is in full on legacy mode and wants to win rings. Los Angeles is not the place to do it.

Houston is interesting (and it’s still a team I hear some execs think has a real shot), but the gutting or role players on that roster to make it work would be a concern. Maybe a dark horse such as Philadelphia can emerge. However, if LeBron can lead this newly-energized Cavaliers team to the Finals again (his eighth consecutive trip there), they get a high draft pick with the Brooklyn pick, then LeBron gets a commitment from Altman and owner Dan Gilbert to keep spending and being aggressive, where is he going to be closer to a title than at home?

Lou Williams trolls Jimmy Butler for resting during All-Star Game

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Jimmy Butler was in Los Angeles and enjoying his well-earned All-Star slot on Team Stephen.

Well, except for the actual playing basketball part. Butler did not set foot on the court during the All-Star Game at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

Lou Williams, the Clippers’ guard who likely would have been near the front of the line for an open All-Star roster spot in the West (likely second in the queue behind Chris Paul), but instead took part in the Saturday Skills Competition then had Sunday off, trolled Butler for it on Twitter.

This seems more good natured than genuinely bitter.

Williams will roll with it, but his point’s a valid one — if you’re an All-Star, at least play a little and give the people what they want. Get out there for five minutes or whatever. LaMarcus Aldridge only played four minutes, no big deal.

If you’re not going to use the roster spot, give it up to someone who will.

Report: Raptors won’t sign Vince Carter if he gets bought out

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Of returning to the Raptors, Vince Carter said, “It’ll happen one day.” It sounds as if the Kings would buy him out if he wants.

Will he end the season with Toronto?

Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050:

After speaking with a few team sources, I can confirm that they’ve had internal dialogue and debate about the idea of bringing Vince Carter back. It’s something that they wanted to do over the summer. That’s why they made him an offer, something that I’ve reported in the past. And it’s also something that they’d be open to in the future, perhaps next year in some capacity. But they’ve decided now is not the right time. And I think the consensus seems to be there’s so much going on right now, and they want this season to be about this team, their accomplishments and their playoff push and not the sideshow that I think would come with a Vince Carter return.

The Raptors (41-16) are on pace for their best record ever. They’re excelling offensively and defensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are spearheading a more dynamic offense that spurs hope for more playoff success.

Toronto is probably correct to save the Carter reunion for another year – though it depends who else is available. That 15th roster spot could be useful. If Carter is the best player who’d sign, the Raptors should sign him and deal with the hoopla.

But it’s not clear whom they could get or whether they could even get Carter. He hasn’t sounded like someone who’d forgo guaranteed salary to play for the minimum.