Josh Jackson

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With Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, Celtics continue ascent – just not as steeply as hoped

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Celtics landed the No. 1 pick and signed the top free agent to change teams.

Given that, it feels like their offseason should have gone better.

Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are nice, and I won’t lose sight of that here. But…

Boston traded down from the top pick to No. 3 to draft Tatum. Count me among those who believed there was a significant drop from Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball to the next tier – and the tier after that.

The extra first-rounder the Celtics acquired has also only lost value since the trade.

It’d convey from the Lakers if they pick 2-5 next year. But they added two players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, better than they were expected to get. Los Angeles looks less likely to stumble into a top-five pick – especially without incentive to tank.

If not the Lakers’ pick this season, Boston will get the higher of Sacramento’s and Philadelphia’s 2019 first-rounders (or lower if one is No. 1). The Kings signed a couple veterans, George Hill and Zach Randolph, to help them in 2018-19. Sacramento’s young players will be more developed by then, and mirroring the Lakers this year, there’s no incentive to tank. (Philadelphia is also on the rise, but the Celtics probably already knew that.)

There’s still a chance Boston winds up with a high pick – or even wins the trade with a middling additional selection. Tatum, as the Celtics have claimed, might be a better prospect than Fultz outright.

I originally thought the trade was about fair. Developments swing the pendulum away from Boston, though perhaps I’m overly colored by my relatively dim evaluation of Tatum. (I expected the Celtics to draft Josh Jackson when the trade was made.)

Boston’s next big move, signing Hayward, also comes with a major caveat. To get Hayward, the Celtics had to downgrade from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris.

The reasons are clear: Bradley is earning $8,808,989 in the final season of his contract. Morris is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million and $5,375,000.

Not only was that salary difference essential for clearing max cap space now, Bradley will enter unrestricted free agency with Isaiah Thomas next summer. The raises necessary to re-sign both likely would’ve pushed the Celtics higher into the luxury tax than they’re willing to go. Thomas and Morris should be affordable.

Morris is a fine player, but it looks like he’s caught between better combo forwards (Hayward and Jae Crowder) and higher-upside/younger combo forwards (Jaylen Brown and Tatum). How much will Morris matter in Boston?

Bradley certainly did plenty, defending the better opposing guard so the undersized Thomas didn’t have to. Marcus Smart can handle some of that responsibility, but that cuts into the time he can play in relief of Thomas at point guard and the time he can defend forwards.

Getting Aron Baynes for the room exception was solid. He might even start for the Celtics, eating up minutes against big starting centers. I suspect Al Horford will play center in most pivotal minutes, though.

Signing Baynes was one of Boston’s several respectable moves – drafting Semi Ojeleye in the second round, signing 2016 first-rounders Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic and paying to take a flier on Shane Larkin.

But the real needle-movers were signing Hayward, a 27-year-old versatile star, and adding a highly touted talent in Tatum. Even in the less-flattering greater context, those are huge additions.

Offseason grade: A-

Only two of 38 rookies surveyed say No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have class’s best career

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The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, believing he’d have the best career of anyone in his draft class. This year, Philadelphia traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 for the same reason.

Their fellow rookies – Simmons missed all of last season due to injury – aren’t nearly as enthused.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com conducted his annual rookie survey, polling 39 players who weren’t allowed to vote for themselves or college or NBA teammates. Thirty-eight responded to the best-career question:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers — 18.4%
Jayson Tatum, Boston — 18.4%

3. Josh Jackson, Phoenix — 10.5%
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas — 10.5%

5. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento — 7.9%

6. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia — 5.3%
Harry Giles, Sacramento — 5.3%
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 5.3%

Others receiving votes: Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn; John Collins, Atlanta; Jonathan Isaac, Orlando; Luke Kennard, Detroit; Kyle Kuzma, L.A. Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah; Malik Monk, Charlotte

Simmons might not have come to mind to players at the rookie photo shoot, which was for the most recent draft class. And rookies have tended to pick someone other than the No. 1 pick for this question. Anthony Davis in 2012 was the last No. 1 pick to lead voting. Simmons tied for fourth at 6.7% last year – behind Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield. Even Karl-Anthony Towns landed behind Jahlil Okafor in 2015.

But so few votes for Fultz – the consensus top prospect in the draft – is fairly stunning.

Dennis Smith Jr. received the most votes for Rookie of the Year, but at just 25.7%. A large majority of rookies picked someone other than the Mavericks point guard.

Lonzo Ball (71.8% for best playmaker) was the only player to receive a majority of votes in a category. Luke Kennard (48.6% for best shooter) and Smith (43.6% for most athletic), who each tripled second place, came close.

LeBron James reemerged as rookies’ favorite player after a three-year run by Kevin Durant. Maybe that Warriors backlash if finally catching up to Durant?

Report: Fearing LeBron James leaving, Cavaliers prioritizing young star in Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cavaliers are reportedly prioritizing youth in a Kyrie Irving trade.

Make no mistake what that means about LeBron James.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Cleveland is determined to get an elite young player for Irving, which means this: The trade plan the Cavaliers would have prioritized, with James committed for the long term — veterans to surround James and draft picks — isn’t in motion.

The process of building out the franchise’s roster long term has accelerated with Irving’s trade request. The Cavaliers have witnessed James’ exit strategy twice — once to leave Cleveland and once to return — and the Irving trade request has left them unwilling to squander the opportunity to replenish young assets on a roster that could be crippled in a post-James Cavaliers era that is stocked with high-priced veterans.

The Cavaliers find themselves far more fixated on a young star, including New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Phoenix’s Josh Jackson and Denver’s Jamal Murray, league sources told ESPN.

This is not the strategy I’d take.

The Cavaliers are as much on the cusp of a title as any other team can be while these Warriors exist. It’s so hard to reach that point, I wouldn’t downgrade even a faint chance at a championship this year for a boost in rebuilding back to this point in some vague future. The Cavs, without shame, could go the entire career of whatever player they get for Irving without contending for a title. They know the opportunity is in front of them right now.

If LeBron committed to Cleveland long-term, I’d prioritize players who could help the next 2-3 years. If he won’t commit long-term, I’d push all-in for this season – one last chance to win a championship with LeBron. That means targeting players whose value is mostly derived from the upcoming season – players on expiring contracts and older players. (The Cavs already missed on the player who, by far, best fits that mold: Paul George.)

LeBron might be less likely to return to a team ravaged by 2018 free agency and aging, but a title this season would last forever. It also might be harder for him to leave a defending champion.

The Cavaliers’ actual strategy seemingly has a clearer effect. If LeBron hasn’t made up his mind, this could push him out. He might even be leaning toward re-signing with the Cavs. But that becomes far less appealing if the team stocks up on young players not ready to win.

Ultimately, LeBron must bear the weight of Cleveland going down this path. He allows rumors about the Lakers to linger unchecked – even feeding into them. If he wanted the Cavaliers to build around him, he could signal his commitment. Instead, he has only expressed his dismay – directly and indirectly – with their offseason.

I think this is largely about power – LeBron wanting the Cavs to commit to him without him committing to them. They do all the heavy lifting of building a roster for him, and he might return, or he might not. It’s a game they’ve played before, and one I’d play again. They seem tired of it.

It’s technically not too late for LeBron to privately pledge loyalty and send the organization on a different trade route. This report might even be from Cleveland, trying to light a fire under him. But it seems extremely unlikely for LeBron to become suddenly committal.

And then there’s Irving. The Cavaliers want a young star? Good luck finding someone better than Irving. Porzingis, Tatum, Jackson and Murray all offer more team control – and that’s extremely important, especially if Irving is unhappy in Cleveland. But the Cavs would be surrendering talent in all deals besides Porzingis – plus the chance Irving rescinds his trade request in a post-LeBron world.

Maybe the Cavaliers should just keep Irving another year and hope the distractions remain mild enough that the team can still compete for a title. If LeBron returns and/or Irving still wants out, they could always trade Irving next summer.

Right now, Cleveland has a shot at the 2018 championship and a 25-year-old four-time All-Star. It seems the Cavs are fine losing both.

Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson doesn’t think he’s being traded to Cleveland

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Josh Jackson hasn’t even played in an NBA game and his name has become the focus of trade talks.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ top priority in the kings’ ransom they are asking is a top young prospect. Call it “what if Lebron leaves” insurance. Which is why when the Cavaliers talked to the Suns, the name of Jackson — the No. 4 pick who showed athleticism and promise at Summer League — came up. The Suns have since told Jackson he would not be traded.

Jackson was asked about it recently in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio (hat tip Clutch Points).

“I think if that was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now. A little talking to my agent, not really checking social media, because that’s not the way to go. People just say whatever. I handled it the same way I tried to handle Draft Night. Coming in, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I still don’t know what is going to happen. I’m going to make the most of whatever situation I’m presented with. If I’m traded to China, whatever, I’m gonna come out, I’m gonna be happy, just try to make the best of it.

“I was kind of in the dark a little bit. But I got a feeling that the trade wasn’t going to happen.”

In theory, the trade could still happen, but so long as the Cavaliers demand Jackson it is off the table. The Suns might be willing to throw in Dragan Bender instead of Jackson, but that will not get it done for the Cavaliers.

It’s the same around the league, which is why the Irving trade talks continue to bubble but with no real action.

Mavericks’ rookie Dennis Smith Jr. signs with Under Armour

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No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz signed on with Nike, as did No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum, plus De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball wore just about everything but vintage Ponys at Summer League as his dad pumps his Big Baller Brand line.

But Dennis Smith Jr., the Dallas Mavericks guard who was a standout at Summer League, will sign on with Under Armour, reports Nick DePaula for ESPN.

Dennis Smith Jr. checks all of those boxes, leading Under Armour to sign the Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard and No. 9 overall 2017 draft pick to a three-year footwear and apparel endorsement deal worth as much as $2 million per year with incentives, according to sources. The brand plans to incorporate him immediately as one of its key featured basketball players right out the gate.

“I am definitely excited to be a part of team Under Armour as I get ready to go into [training] camp for my rookie year,” Smith Jr. said. “Under Armour is an explosive brand in basketball right now, and I’m excited to join Stephen [Curry] and Seth [Curry] and the team at UA in making our mark together.”

Under Armour also signed No. 3 pick Josh Jackson.

Smith is a good signing by Under Armour. He will be in the running for Rookie of the Year, he is an athletic and aggressive point guard who will have the ball in his hands and be asked to create. He could be one of the stars of a deep rookie class.