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D’Angelo Russell could transform Nets

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Two years ago, the Nets paid $20 million in luxury tax for an old, losing team that wouldn’t have its own first-round pick for the next four years.

Bleak is an understatement.

Yet, Brooklyn acquired a 21-year-old potential franchise player this summer.

The context isn’t as pretty.

Before D'Angelo Russell became available, he had to alienate his teammates by recording and posting a video of one discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé. He had to disappoint with his maturity and work ethic. He had to demonstrate that he wasn’t ready to carry a team on the court.

To get him, the Nets had to surrender their best player – Brook Lopez, who’s on an expiring contract. They also had to relinquish the No. 27 pick in this year’s draft. And they had to accept Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract, one of the NBA’s worst.

But the Nets still got Russell – a far more valuable player than anyone thought they would have at this point.

Russell needs development, on and off the court. He will test the culture Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are building. But Brooklyn faces little downside in betting on its ability to reach Russell – and immense upside.

Just because Russell didn’t set the NBA on fire by age 20 doesn’t doom him to obscurity. He has flashed enough of the talent that made him the No. 2 pick just two years ago. Point guards tend to develop later. He might still be a star in the making.

Though far from a sure thing, Russell is now the crown jewel of a young core that also includes Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and No. 22 pick Jarret Allen.

Again without their first-round pick this season, the Nets aren’t cleanly incentivized to turn all playing time over to the youngsters – which would usually come with the upside of more losing and a higher draft pick. So, Brooklyn added helpful veterans, leveraging their bad contracts.

Though overpaid (three years, $48 million remaining) and primarily the cost of getting Russell, Mozgov can still play. He should start at center.

DeMarre Carroll (two years, $32.2 million remaining) came with sweeteners (a first-rounder and second-rounder) from the Raptors, who just wanted to dump salary. The Nets need the draft picks, but they could also use Carroll in the wing rotation. Brooklyn even unloaded Justin Hamilton, forcing Toronto to eat his $3 million salary, in a clearly helpful deal.

The Nets also traded for Allen Crabbe (three years, $56,332,500 remaining) without getting a draft pick, a more curious arrangement. Sure, Brooklyn offset costs by sending Andrew Nicholson (three years, $19,911,007 remaining) to the Trail Blazers. But Crabbe’s trade value now is determined by his actual salary. Considering the immense luxury-tax savings for Portland, the Nets probably should have extracted a pick. They apparently just really like Crabbe, though. After all, they signed him to this contract with an offer sheet the Trail Blazers matched last year.

This summer, Brooklyn took its annual foray into high-priced restricted free agency with Otto Porter. Like with Tyler Johnson‘s and Crabbe’s teams before, the Wizards matched.

So, the Nets turned to a smaller, sensible signing. Their big addition in free agency? Tyler Zeller. Though merely a passable player, Zeller is a big upgrade at center, where Brooklyn had just a 31-year-old who looks incapable of playing huge minutes and a raw rookie.

Despite resources flushed away years ago, the Nets are trying to win as much as they can now while setting themselves up to win a meaningful amount later. They’re threading that needle pretty well.

Offseason grade: B+

Jamal Crawford says Lonzo Ball should not change his shot

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Lonzo Ball‘s shot has become a running gag around the NBA. During pregame warmups this season it looked like LeBron James and Joel Embiid mocked/tried to imitate it. TNT’s Inside the NBA was asking if it was worse than Charles Barkley’s golf swing, and the crew on that show mocks it all the time.

Ball is shooting 30.3 percent overall this season, and 23 percent from three. He’s shooting just 42.1 percent in the restricted area (it’s not just his jumper that is off). He’s shooting 37.5 percent on pull-up jumpers. He’s shooting 22.5 percent on shots when there is nobody within six feet of him (stats via NBA.com).

Is it time to tear down Ball’s awkward release and rework his jumper? Jamal Crawford, a guy who knows something about getting buckets in the NBA, said no, speaking on CBS Sports’ Flagrant 2 Podcast.

“No, I wouldn’t (change his shot). He’s done it his whole life. Even if he struggled, I’m sure he’s struggled, but when he makes 10 in a row you won’t change it then so I’d just keep it consistent.”

Crawford also said he sees a real star in Ball.

“Star. Absolutely a star. I love watching him play. He plays the right way. He doesn’t play for stats. He’ll give the ball up early when he could easily hold it to get an assist. He’s making the right play if it was a hockey assist he’d get 20 a game cause he’s always passing up early. He seems like a great teammate. If you look at all his interviews…he’s always well spoken he’s always about the team.”

Luke Walton has the Lakers players taking and making 100 threes at each practice, and he continues to encourage Ball to shoot his way out of this slump. Magic Johnson has said the Lakers would not change Ball’s jumper during the season.

But if Ball does not find a rhythm and is under 40 percent for the season on jumpers, come next summer the Lakers have some decisions to make. And tearing down and rebuilding Ball’s shot is a long process that will take more than one summer of hard work.

PBT Podcast: Celtics win over Warriors, all things Boston with A. Sherrod Blakely

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The Boston Celtics are for real.

In case you had any doubts, they ran their streak to 14 wins in a row by coming from 17 down – twice — to beat the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA, and it threw the Warriors off their game, something few teams have been able to do over the past few years.

Kurt Helin welcomes in A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston to talk about what this win means to the Celtics, why their defense is so good, how Kyrie Irving is fitting in, how young stars such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are rising up, and what is the deal with Marcus Smart. Also, there is a lot of Brad Stevens love.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.