Associated Press

Three questions the Dallas Mavericks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 33-49, did not make playoffs

I know what you did last summer: The biggest move was drafting Dennis Smith Jr. at No. 9, a point guard who the Mavs are very high on (and who stood out at Summer League). They also re-signed the legend Dirk Nowitzki for two-years, $5 million per year, a discounted deal (with a player option for the second year). They also signed veterans Josh McRoberts and Jeff Withey,


1) Just how good is Derrick Smith Jr.? Franchise cornerstone good? Dallas is rebuilding, they make no bones about it. There is going to be a season (or two) of goodbyes to the legendary Dirk Nowitzki, but this is really like the Lakers the final season of Kobe Bryant — they were selling the farewell, but for the franchise player development was what mattered. (Dirk will likely get in the way of that less than Kobe.)

How fast that rebuilding goes will start with just how good Smith is. He fell to No. 9 in part because he was coming off surgery and he was not quite himself in college, and Dallas was thrilled they had him higher on their board. By Summer League Smith felt right and was one of the most explosive rookies out there. A lot of fan bases were wondering how he slipped past them and down to ninth. Some owners were asking that, too. Is this another elite point guard who slid down the board?

Rick Carlisle will start Smith from Day 1 and has used the word cornerstone with him. Smith should be able to score, but can he do it efficiently at the next level? Can he be a playmaker? How will he handle being coached by Rick Carlisle, one of the best Xs and Os guys in the league but because of that a guy who can be hard on point guards? There are a lot of questions and it’s going to be a process, but we will start to get a sense of just how good Smith can be, and with that just how quickly the turnaround in Dallas might go.

2) Nerlens Noel bet on himself, that might be good for Dallas but is it good for Noel? Noel was one of the many players who misread the market this summer. The previous summer big men were overpaid — Bismack Biyambo got four years, $72 million; Timofey Mozgov four years, $64 million — and the athletic, shot-blocking big man thought it was his turn. When free agency opened Noel was offered four years, around $70 million — I heard that from sources and there have been multiple such reports — but when Noel asked for the max the deal went away. He ended up switching agents and singing the qualifying offer for a fraction of that money, but he will be a free agent next summer.

Noel can be a defensive force and shot blocker in the paint, but he has a limited offensive game — he can set the pick, roll, and finish an alley-oop. Think poor man’s DeAndre Jordan. However, Jordan worked because he had Chris Paul feeding him passes and knowing how to use his picks — can Noel start to develop that kind of chemistry with Smith? If so, he may have more value to the Mavs next summer. However, to start the season Noel is expected to come off the bench.

One quick aside, I doubt Noel will find a deal as good as four-years. $70 million next summer either, unless he has a breakout season. The reality is that the market is going to be tight next summer (only about eight teams will have max contract money, not all needing bigs) and on the market will be DeMarcus Cousins, maybe DeAndre Jordan (he is talking extension with the Clippers), Brook Lopez and others. By the time teams turn to Noel, there may not be much money left. It’s not 2016 anymore.

3) Can Harrison Barnes take the next step and be a good playmaker? Heading into last season, the question was if Barnes was worth the big contract — he was good as a role player in Golden State where he got good looks because of the gravity of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but was he ready to be the No. 1 option? The answer was yes — Dallas ran a lot of the old Nowitzki plays for Barnes and it worked. Barnes averaged 19.2 points per game, had a solid true shooting percentage of 54.1%, he was fantastic shooting late in the shot clock, and he was one of the league’s better isolation scorers — nearly a quarter of his shots came in isolation and he average 0.93 points per possession that way according to Synergy Sports (a good number). He was also strong in the post.

The question for him now is can he be a distributor, too? Barnes told NBC Sports early last season he knew that was what he needed to do, but that this was something that would take game time to learn (you can’t simulate that the same way with drills). If he and Smith can develop chemistry and get guys like Seth Curry and Wesley Matthews (when healthy) good shots, this offense can start to click. The Mavericks are not going to be a playoff team, but if Smith and Barnes have some real chemistry they get there a lot sooner.

LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.


Giannis Antetokounmpo turns bad pass into ridiculous alley-oop (VIDEO)

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That is just not fair.

Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe threw an alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that was off the mark — high and behind him — but it just doesn’t matter. The Greek Freak gets up and throws it down.

It’s early, but it’s going to be hard to beat that one for dunk of the night.

League’s Last Two Minute Report backs referees (mostly) in Raptors/Thunder game

Associated Press

Anyone who watched the Thunder’s win over the Raptors Sunday afternoon in Toronto — especially the final few minutes — thought it was not referee Marc Davis and crew’s finest hour. There were missed calls and three-straight ejections of Raptors players, which all seemed rather hair-trigger (especially coach Dwane Casey, who was tossed for something a fan behind him said).

The NBA’s Last Two Minute report doesn’t see it that way — it says the referees nailed it.

According to the report, there was only one missed call in the final two minutes: Carmelo Anthony held Pascal Siakam as a pass came to him with 11.7 seconds left, and that should have been called.

What about the play that set DeMar DeRozan off and ultimately got him ejected, the drive to the basket with 33 seconds left (and the Raptors down two) where DeRozan thought Corey Brewer fouled him? The report said that was a good no call:

DeRozan (TOR) starts his drive and Brewer (OKC) moves laterally in his path and there is contact. The contact is incidental as both players attempt to perform normal basketball moves….

RHH shows Brewer (OKC) make contact with the ball and the part of DeRozan’s (TOR) hand that is on the ball. The hand is considered “part of the ball” when it is in contact with the ball and therefore, contact on that part of the hand by a defender while it is in contact with the ball is not illegal.

(I didn’t see it that way, I think the contact was more than incidental, and to me looking at the replay Brewer catches some wrist and impedes the shot in a way that was not legal. Just my two cents.)

The report does not cover the ejections, which are reviewed by league operations but not part of this report.

Three thoughts out of all this:

1) Raptors fans/management/players have every right to feel the calls went against them in this game. As for calls always going against them — as DeRozan complained about after the game — 29 other teams and fan bases are convinced the officials have it out for them, too. I never bought that.

2) The Raptors didn’t lose this game solely because of the officiating. Russell Westbrook was clutch down the stretch, the Thunder were part of it, and the Raptors had other issues, too (Serge Ibaka had a rough game, for example).

3) This loss also does not say a thing about the Raptors in the postseason (even if they went a little too much isolation at the end) — this was their third game in four days, they looked tired and flat at the end. That will not be the case in the playoffs.