5 Up, 5 Down: At this rate, we won’t have any All-Stars left to play the game


5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

How do we even start this week? There’s too much to cover, and I got snubbed from the All-Star Game yet again. Expect to see me send out many crying laugh emojis over Twitter as my compatriots get picked before me as replacements.

It seems like we’ve been trudging along toward the trade deadline since I ran out of candy from my stocking. Winter is typically like this where I live in the Pacific Northwest, but the experience has been worsened by the fact we’ve had extreme highs and extreme lows atypical for this part of the NBA season. I assume this is because the regular season heard us talking about how the offseason in the NBA is so much better and decided to do something about it. So without further ado.

5 Up

Blake Griffin got traded to Detroit, of all places

This is like a trade that happens between two teams you don’t control in NBA 2k around six years into a MyGM mode career. It’s weird, and insane, and would totally never happen in real life. But here we are, and Griffin is now a member of the Detroit Pistons. There’s lots of early talk about how this could be a path to mediocrity for Detroit and that it’s probably better than the alternative. I’d be OK with that. I’d just like this to avoid the most likely scenario, where an aging Griffin doesn’t play more than 60 games each year and it becomes very sad.

LeBron James isn’t likely to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers this summer. Perhaps the Pistons can shed some cap space and get LeBron to head to the Motor City? I’m just looking at all our options here in our new video game existence.

The Atlanta Hawks have Hot Sauce from And 1 Mixtape dropping fans

The Hawks have been doing this for some time and these videos just keep getting better and better. I know people like the Big 3 but maybe we should all just be getting back into And 1?

The Hawks have random fans try to guard Hot Sauce. 😂

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Joel Embiid: All-Star

Look, there was a time where it seemed likely that Embiid would never play enough games to give us a glimpse of what he could be. He was ripe to be another Greg Oden, so getting him into an All-Star Game was paramount. He’s now there, and he deserves to be. This is one of the best things to happen, even if Philadelphia fans are slowly becoming obnoxious after years of ineptitude.

Whatever happened with that Nikola Mirotic trade

So by last count, the Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans thing fell through because he smartly didn’t want to give up some guaranteed money via a player option. That’s the right move, but the fun part is understanding that if newsbreakers were tweeting that the deal was getting done, it must have been some kind of late-game shock to have Mirotic refuse. He’s been just sitting there as the most obvious candidate for a trade for months, and we got so close to seeing him switch jerseys. This league, man.

David Blatt’s troll backfiring

A bunch of people on Twitter and in comment sections didn’t quite seem to understand the circumstances when former Cavaliers coach David Blatt opened his mouth and served himself up on a platter for the basketball world to see. Cleveland had just let an opponent score 148 points, and so Blatt — coaching an all-star game — decided to say on TV that he hoped his own team did not let that happen to them. His opponent then scored 151. Blatt’s comment, meanwhile, was unprovoked. It was also at an All-Star game, so Blatt knew the chances of being hoist by his own petard.

“It was at an all-star game, it didn’t count!”

Exactly. That was why it was so funny.

5 Down

Everyone is injured

Hide your wife, hide your kids, they’re injuring everybody out here. Just since I started this column Kevin Love decided to up and break his hand. He’s going to miss the All-Star Game. John Wall is getting knee surgery. DeMarcus Cousins is done for the year. If you were an NBA GM right now you’d be considering what brand of packing tape to buy so you could bubble wrap your franchise star up until March. Someone pause the game, open the menu, and turn injuries to OFF.

We didn’t get to watch the All-Star Game draft

Look, it’s understandable from the NBPA’s part that they’d like to protect the reputations and feelings of their players. It’s just that from a basketball fan perspective, that’s undeniably wack. Save for Joel Embiid, each one of these NBA All-Stars is making huge money in team salary alone. That’s not even counting endorsements. Like that gif of Woody Harrelson wiping his tears with money from “Zombie Land” any player getting selected last for the All-Star Game should have his feelings assuaged by millions of dollars. This is also why I never pay attention to the “X player is a TOUGH GUY MURAGHH” talk. Ok, so are they tough guys or are they too sensitive to get picked last in gym for the first time since 5th grade?

Plus, if they aren’t going to televise it, why even have a draft? Nobody is asking for the teams to get mixed up between conferences. That’s not the way the All-Star Game becomes more competitive or interesting. Who told the NBA that? Here I am, all worked up over the worst event during All-Star Weekend. Do we have any self-destructive Cavaliers news to calm me down?

The Cavaliers want NBA players to give them money

Cleveland reportedly had a deal fall through for George Hill because Hill wouldn’t agree to a potential buyout should LeBron James leave this summer. Good for Hill. As Dan pointed out earlier, this has happened before. Ty Lawson did this very thing when he went from Denver to Houston, losing $12 million in the process. If Cleveland doesn’t want to pay the price, they don’t get the spoils. Asking players to straight up give them back money they owe under contract is ridiculous.

The whole Kawhi Leonard fiasco

I don’t even know what to think about this one. I don’t put a lot of credence into the back-and-forth about Leonard wanting out of San Antonio. The first guy to say he wants off the Spurs was LaMarcus Aldridgea notoriously finicky star — and even then Gregg Popovich could convince him to stay. Leonard wanting to leave the guy who turned him into an NBA Finals MVP is crazy. Injuries and pain can aggravate your emotional state, but I just don’t buy it. Not yet. More concerning is that Leonard’s injuries are racking up and that he’s still not playing. Again, I’m not concerned for his long-term health just yet, but the fact that San Antonio could squander a Top 4 seed in the West if they don’t get him back would be a major blow as the Spurs’ championship window begins to finally close.

The All-Star Game winners get more money now (but it doesn’t matter)

The NBA upped the money to the winners of the All-Star Game by $50,000, and cut the losing money in half. First of all, this isn’t that much money to top-level stars. Joel Embiid would probably dig $100,000 but that’s only 12 minutes of regular season play to LeBron James. This needs to either be a whole extra grip of cash, or there needs to be a catch to it. The NBPA stands in the way of most of the fun options — like having the losers pay money out of their own pockets right there on the floor after the game — but there are some left.

What about bonuses for each block? $15,000 per swipe ought to do it. Or statistical team bonuses for multiple key defensive indicators. Keeping true shooting percentage under a level equals $100,000 to each player, say, and they could stack. With all that sweet gambling money coming into the NBA in the future, the league could afford it.

All I know is you can’t give NBA players what amounts to student loan debt after taxes get taken out. NBA players have watches more expensive than that.

Lonzo Ball on college basketball: ‘Everybody knows everybody’s getting paid. Might as well make it legal’

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The logs of payment by Andy Miller’s former agency to high school and college basketball players leaked today.

That has sparked discussions about the entire system, and Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball has a thought.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Simply, I don’t believe Ball about not getting extra compensation at UCLA. That sounds like he caught himself going further then he wanted and attempting to backtrack.

I can see why Ball wouldn’t want to admit getting extra benefits. He still knows people at UCLA, and an NCAA inquiry based on his comments could hurt them – and his reputation at UCLA.

But NBA players should be outspoken on this issue. They have the power to apply pressure on the NCAA’s cartel system, in which schools collude to limit compensation to athletes. As long as that system remains, college players lose out, getting only under-the-table scraps, while coaches and administrators hoard the major money.

Good for Ball for pointing out the farce. It’s easy to stop caring once players reach the NBA and gets rich, but NBA players are uniquely equipped to shine a light on the NCAA’s problems.

Michele Roberts: Cap smoothing was ‘disgraceful request’ by NBA

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In 2016, new national TV contracts pushed the NBA’s salary cap from $70 million to $94.143 million – a larger jump than over the entire previous decade. Free agents cashed in majorly that summer.

But now, the cap is leveling off. It went up to just $99.093 million last year and is projected to reach only $101 million this year and $108 million next year. With so many lucrative long-term 2016 contracts still on the books, free agents the following few years haven’t gotten and won’t get comparable compensation.

The problem was predictable, and the NBA proposed a solution at the time – cap smoothing.

Players get 49%-51% of Basketball Related Income (BRI) each year, the precise amount determined by formula. The salary cap is set so teams’ payrolls collectively reach that range. (There are procedures if teams fall short or pay too much.)

With cap smoothing, the NBA would have set an artificially lower cap for 2016-17. Players would have gotten less than 49%-51% of BRI in salary, but presumably, the league would have distributed the difference to players after-the-fact. That way, all players – not just 2016 free agents – would cash in.

But the players union rejected the plan.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has looked back longingly, wishing the union approved. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, um, has not.

Roberts, in a Q&A with Paul Flannery of SB Nation:

When the salary explosion happened and you rejected the smoothing idea that the NBA proposed, has anything that has happened in the last few years caused you to reconsider that stance?

No, in fact it’s completely confirmed the correctness of that position. I delight and the players delight in reading about some of these contracts because they know they absolutely deserve it.

There was going to be no smoothing of the owners’ profits at all. They were going to enjoy real money that reflected where we were financially as a game. Why in the world would players pretend that the game was not making as much money and therefore have smaller contracts?

It was an absurd suggestion, I thought personally. But what we did to make sure it wasn’t just Michele’s instinct was hire two separate economists to tell us whether this was something that was going to be of value to our players in the long run.

Independent of each other and not knowing what either of us felt, they both came almost saying, “Are you kidding? Why would you do this?”

I don’t have any regrets at all. I don’t think a single player does either.

Not a single owner came up to me and suggested that they thought we should do this. The league did. But I didn’t see any chorus of support from any of the owners. I thought it was a disgraceful request.

It’s impossible to evaluate whether Roberts was right without knowing the particulars of the NBA’s smoothing plan. That has not leaked.

She implies the league proposed artificially lowering the cap (which, again, is determined by formula based on revenue) for the first year or two of the new national TV deals without offering the players something in return. I find that hard to believe. At minimum, it seems likely the NBA would have distributed the rest of the 49%-51% of BRI to players not earned in traditional salary.

Not that that would have been enough for the players to favor cap smoothing.

Players’ salaries are sometimes based on their previous salaries under cap rules. If only a portion of players’ NBA-provided income was considered official salary, that could have debilitating long-term effects.

Perhaps, the NBA could have accounted for that. But it seems there was little negotiating here. The league made a proposal, and the union rejected it.

I’m not sure which side benefited, and evaluating that becomes even more difficult when dividing the sides into competing interests.

For argument’s sake, let’s say rejecting cap smoothing led to more money for players. That largely went to 2016 free agents. What about all the players still under contract that summer? They didn’t get to reap the rewards.

What’s a better measure – the amount of money players collectively gained by rejecting cap smoothing or the percentage of players who earned more money by rejecting cap smoothing? There’s no easy answer.

And there’s more than just money at stake. Most significantly, a lack of cap smoothing allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. How many players prefer that never would have been possible?

I’m just not as convinced as Roberts rejecting cap smoothing was the right call. At minimum, negotiating a cap-smoothing compromise could have worked.

Many players already under contract in the summer of 2016 have been waiting their turn for a huge payday. But wait until many of them find out their windfall wasn’t just delayed. It’s not coming. Then, some of Roberts’ constituents might question her insistence that rejecting cap smoothing was correct.

Paul George says he wants to sign with team for long haul

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Paul George is enjoying his time with the Thunder. He also likes the idea of playing near his hometown in Los Angeles.

How will George pick between the two in free agency?

One idea: Sign a short-term contract with Oklahoma City.

He’ll be eligible for a higher max-salary tier in two years (35% of the cap, up from 30%). He’d also get to play more with a prime Russell Westbrook while still having an out if the 29-year-old point guard drops off. George would likely remain with Carmelo Anthony next season, too, as Anthony likely opts in. That’d give the Thunder more time to jell and show what they can do.

It’d also give the Lakers’ young core time to develop. If a prolonged test run in Oklahoma City fizzles, the Lakers would probably look even more appealing in a couple years (provided they keep open or can create cap space).

But George doesn’t sound interested in such a plan.

George, via Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

“I’m not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something,” he said. “The only way it’s going to be done. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I’m there for a duration.”

George can always change his mind, and he isn’t bound to follow his public statements. But he’s quite open about revealing his thought process. I respect that.

This statement doesn’t hint at any particular team. He could sign long-term anywhere.

But it speaks to the stakes of his upcoming free agency. Any team that wants George better sign him this summer. He probably won’t be available again.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.