Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Who is in, who is out, games that matter in West playoff chase

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Where we stand: Insane West playoff chase explained (mostly). Back in 2014 — the year Taylor Swift was shaking it off and we were all trying to shake off hearing her again — the Suns won 48 games and missed the playoffs. It was unprecedented.

This season is getting close to that. Some team is going to win 46 games and miss the postseason in the West. After a wild weekend of games, here is where the playoff chase in the West stands and what to watch, in bullet point form:

• The magic number to get in is going to be 47 wins — reach that and teams will be invited to the dance. There are scenarios where 46 wins is good enough, but get to 47 wins and teams are safe.

• The Pelicans, Spurs, and Thunder are all at 46-34 and made up seeds 5-7 currently, the Timberwolves and Nuggets are both 45-35 and tied for 8-9.

• With their win over the Lakers Sunday night, the Jazz are officially in (with 47 wins, they cannot fall out due to tiebreakers). Seeding is still up in the air, they could land anywhere from three to eight (with eighth being unlikely but technically possible).

• After their loss to the Nuggets Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers are officially out.

• Monday night games to track: Oklahoma City at Miami, Memphis at Minnesota, Sacramento at San Antonio, New Orleans at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the big one is Portland at Denver.

• If Minnesota beats Memphis Monday (very likely) and Denver beats Portland that same night (less likely, but possible), then the Timberwolves and Nuggets will remain tied and play Wednesday for the eight seed — a play-in game. Denver technically is the nine seed by tiebreaker, but they control their own destiny — win out and they are in.

• Utah at Portland on the last night of the season could determine the three seed. That assumes that the Jazz beat the Warriors Tuesday, something that is no lock (although Golden State is locked into the two seed and not very focused right now). Utah will be on a back-to-back and it will be their third game in four nights, but this is a determined team right now.

2) Philadelphia gets to 50 wins and locks up home-court advantage in the first round. Read that again, because it’s harder to believe than alien abduction stories. Almost. This team won 28 games a season ago, 10 the season before that, 18 the one before that. Throughout the tribulations of “the process” Philly, on paper, looked like a team that could come be a force if things broke right — but for it to all break right that fast is mind-boggling. And that is without No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz contributing much.

Brett Brown deserves a lot of credit here. Throughout the years of losing, he had them playing hard and learning defensive principles. He built a culture despite the challenges. He is not going to win Coach of the Year this season, but the man has to be considered.

The Sixers may well finish with the three seed in the East (they currently are the three, one game up on the Cavaliers in fourth). Do that, get through the first round (against likely Miami or Milwaukee, which will not be easy), get Joel Embiid back, then beat the Celtics/the seven seed that knocks off the Celtics, and the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a completely reasonable path. And if you had said “the Sixers can make the Eastern Conference Finals next year” last April we would have put you in the asylum with the alien abduction people.

3) Mitch Kupchak is the new GM in Charlotte. It became official on Sunday, the North Carolina guy got the job with the North Carolina team owned by a North Carolina grad. This was the safe play for the Hornets. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play, or that it will not work out, but it’s the safe play. Kupchak brings a resume to the table the Hornets can sell — he’s got four rings as the Lakers GM — and a style and standing that will sell in the community. He’s got a good relationship with the owner, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot of good reasons to make this hire.

Kupchack’s GM record in Los Angeles is hit-and-miss. There were highs — the Pau Gasol trade, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers and helped them to rings), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court. In general, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft. Nobody should question his eye for talent.

However, in his final years in Los Angeles, there was a sense from some around the team that the game had passed him by. Kupchak completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). He expected there to be an amnesty clause in the new CBA and there wasn’t, and he though those contracts could be easily traded (it cost the Lakers former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell to move Mozgov). There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams. Not all of this was on Kupchak he was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and certainly the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss had the ultimate say on those moves. However, Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those decisions. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There are real questions in Charlotte for Kupchak to answer. The big one is a matter of direction for the coming years: do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons? Ultimately that is a decision Jordan must make, and in that market moving Kemba followed by a few bad years may sting more than the “tear it down” contingent realize, but it’s something where Kupchak needs to sway Jordan.

What does Kupchak’s hiring mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Mitch Kupchak reaches deal to become GM of Charlotte Hornets

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After going with the analytics, outside-the-box hire last time in Rich Cho, Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets are going old-school NBA with their next front office hire.

Former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has reached a deal to become the next GM in Charlotte, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the team.

“I’m excited to join the Hornets organization and I want to thank Michael for this opportunity,” Kupchak said in a statement. “I am well aware of the passion for basketball in Charlotte and throughout the entire state of North Carolina‎, and I am confident that we can build the Hornets into a successful team that our great fans can be proud of.”

There is no surprise here, Kupchak has been the frontrunner since the day it was announced Cho was out as GM. Kupchak and Jordan have a relationship forged through their ties to North Carolina and former coach Dean Smith.

Kupchak steps into a team with big questions hanging over it — do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons?

What does that mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Kupchak brings a resume that includes four rings won with the Lakers — including the smart trade for Pau Gasol, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court — plus he has a presence and demeanor that will play well in Charlotte. Also, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft.

There was also a sense in some quarters in Los Angeles that the game had passed him by. He completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). Kupchak was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and so how much of those moves were the brainchild the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss is up for debate, but Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those moves. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams.

Kupchak may be the safe choice for the Hornets, but that’s not necessarily bad.

Report: Hornets close to hiring Mitch Kupchak as president, general manager

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The Hornets reportedly offered their general-manager job to Mitch Kupchak.

Unsurprisingly, the man whose last major moves were signing Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million) hasn’t found a better offer elsewhere.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kupchak is apparently getting a loftier title than he had with the Lakers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Charlotte Hornets have made significant progress in contract talks with Mitch Kupchak to become president of basketball operations and general manager, and a formal agreement is expected to be reached soon, league sources told ESPN.

Kupchak will keep assistant general manager Buzz Peterson in a front-office role, and Kupchak ultimately will add his own personnel changes to the team’s management and scouting structure, league sources said.

All along, Kupchak was expected to keep Peterson. Hornets owner Michael Jordan, Kupchak and Peterson all played at North Carolina. This is yet another indicator Jordan overvalued the Tar Heel connection when choosing Kupchak.

Maybe Kupchak is up for the daunting task in Charlotte. He built multiple Lakers title teams. But if he hadn’t gone to North Carolina, would Jordan have hired him? Will Kupchak’s college choice make him any better in this role than if he played at, say, Kansas?

It won’t matter now. The Hornets are full steam ahead with Kupchak.

Report: Lakers have “given up” on trading Deng, won’t include picks, young star

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When Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to oversized deals a couple of summers ago, part of their logic was they could include them in trades to bring an elite player to Los Angeles — these were big contracts but for useful players who could be moved. It was a terrible misreading of those players and the market. For the Lakers to move Mozgov last summer they had to attach former No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell (a guy the Lakers were ready to move on from after drafting Lonzo Ball, but still this is a high pick they had to throw in to make it work).

The Lakers aren’t adding enough to the mix to move Luol Deng and are likely not going to be able to trade him, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on their Full Court Press show (transcription via Lakers Outsiders).

“You talk to teams around the league, no one is bailing the Lakers out with Deng’s contract. They’re not. Teams have asked for multiple first-round picks. They’ve asked for Brandon Ingram. They’ll ask for Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers have essentially given up on the idea that they can trade Deng.”

The Lakers shouldn’t move their future picks (they can’t deal anything to 2020), they need to keep building their foundation.

However, the Lakers need to move Deng to create the cap space for two max contracts next summer, which is still the goal (even if they are a longshot to land LeBron James). Not being able to trade Deng for an expiring contract means the Lakers will have to waive and stretch him, or as Eric Pincus cleverly suggested extend him a couple years, then waive and stretch him to lower the annual hit (but it will go on longer).

Even if the Lakers do that, they will still need to trade Jordan Clarkson (something Wojnarowski said they are confident they can do) and trade, or just let walk, Julius Randle. The Lakers also could not bring back Brook Lopez orKentavious Caldwell-Pope (both free agents), and they would need to let go of Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Tyler Ennis. That’s a lot of good depth gone from the roster, essentially leaving the core (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Larry Nance Jr.) with the two max contract guys (if not LeBron, how about Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins?).

The Lakers likely will try to trade for Cousins or George at the deadline, but right now the Pelicans and Thunder are not moving those guys. The Lakers will have to wait to land them this summer.

Los Angeles also could sign just one max contract player this summer, then re-sign Randle or bring back Caldwell-Pope (or another non-max free agent) and count on growth. That likely does not make the Lakers instant contenders, but then again would adding Geroge and Cousins do that?

 

Three Things to Know: Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. What will he do with it?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. The #FreeJah movement got what it wanted on Thursday — Jahlil Okafor has been traded, and landed in about as good a situation for him as could be found, Brooklyn. The trade is Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and the Knicks 2019 second-round pick to Brooklyn, while Philly gets Trevor Booker.

The Sixers needed to move on from Okafor, the former No. 3 pick, he was not part of their future and was wasting away on their bench. Okafor did not play well next to Joel Embiid (in limited minutes) or Nerlens Noel, who also is gone. Okafor has a throwback game that is not the direction the NBA has moved with its bigs — he doesn’t have to be guarded more than 10 feet from the rim, he plays below the rim, and he struggles defensively both in space and protecting the paint. But he can score around the bucket.

Okafor is going to get his chance in Brooklyn, there are minutes to be had because the center spot is thin (Tyler Zeller has been starting, Jarrett Allen could be part of the future but is a project, and Timofey Mozgov is basically out of the rotation). The question is what will Okafor do with his second chance? He has to prove he can be an efficient scorer — through his career in Philly his true shooting percentage of 53.9 is basically league average. He has to be a better playmaker passing out of the post when doubled, and he has to be stronger on the boards. Assuming his defense is what it is at this point and not going to improve much, he needs to show he can be the efficent offensive force we saw at Duke, not the rather meh player he’s been at the NBA level. Guys like Zach Randolph and Enes Kanter have made nice careers playing below the rim and not defending much in the NBA, but they are incredibly efficient on offense. That’s what Okafor needs to be. Do so and he will find a nice contract next summer (probably in Brooklyn). Don’t and the market for him will be slim.

I like this trade for Philly, Booker adds solid depth up front off the bench. The Sixers didn’t give up much — neither Okafor nor Stauskas was part of their future — and they get another pro’s pro veteran who can come in, play with energy, be a glue guy and help them both make the playoffs and be a difficult out once there. Pair him with Richaun Holmes off the bench and you have a solid rotation that works for Philly.

2) If this Lakers/Sixers game is what we see in the NBA Finals in four or five years, I’m good with that. This game was fun, played at a good pace and with long, young athletes figuring their game out. There was a lot to like. The young and playoff-bound Sixers had Ben Simmons with a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists) although he turned the ball over four times and didn’t do a great job getting the Sixers into their game plan and sets early in the clock. Joel Embiid was a beast with 33 points. Robert Covington (19 points) and Richaun Holmes had good games for the Sixers as well, but Philly came out flat (down 13 in the first quarter) and, like a lot of young teams, tends to play to the level of their competition. Philly has lost back-to-back games to the Suns and Lakers, the kinds of games playoff teams win.

With the Lakers, Brandon Ingram is turning the corner. He wants to be the team’s closer, and showed why Thursday on national television.

As for the game winner, we all thought Lonzo Ball was going to take this shot, right? With the game tied 104-104, Brandon Ingram passed the rock to Ball who was wide open in the right corner — where Ball is 0-of-6 shooting on the season. Ball said earlier in the season he would have taken the shot, but this time he drove past the Joel Embiid closeout, got close to the paint and sucked all five Sixers defenders in with him — then Ball whipped the pass to a wide-open Ingram at the arc. Ingram shot it like a closer, like the guy with the killer instinct he wants to be.

I’ve written here before in recent weeks (and posted on Twitter) that Ingram is making big strides. He’s still got to get stronger, but he’s confident now and uses his length and more strength than people realize to get his shot. He had 21 points in this game (on 21 shots) and still goes more in isolation than I would prefer, but he is starting to develop into the key cornerstone piece the Lakers hoped for.

3) And the Oscar goes to… Andrew Bogut for the flop of the season so far. Either this was a great flop, or Andrew Bogut was shot by the second gunman in the grassy knoll. Either way, no way he went flying like this based on the contact involved — but it worked. Bogut got the foul call.