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Escaping shadow of LeBron James’ tweet, Shabazz Napier seizing opportunity with Trail Blazers

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DETROIT – When Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to the 2014 national title, LeBron James – then with the Heat and months before free agency – tweeted:

That was atypical thinking. Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were generally rated higher than Napier, and Elfrid Payton also got drafted higher. Napier was commonly seen as a second-round pick.

Miami traded up to get him with the No. 24 pick, anyway. Though Heat president Pat Riley downplayed LeBron’s involvement in the selection, LeBron was clearly pleased.

But LeBron still bolted for the Cavaliers a couple weeks later, leaving Napier in Miami with an organization that wasn’t necessarily sold on him.

“I knew for a fact they picked me because LeBron,” Napier said. “Which is understandable. I would want to keep the best player on the planet, too. So, that sucked for me.”

Napier tried not to let it affect him, but he couldn’t help but notice how LeBron’s tweet loomed over his pro career.

“To everyone else, it was big. Whenever he says something, it’s big. And that’s because of the impact he has,” Napier said. “But, to me as a person, I always try to live in the moment. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, this guys said my name.’ He doesn’t make that big of an impact on my life.

“Unless it’s like my mother or something like that, no one else has a big impact on my life to make me feel a certain way.”

Napier said he lacked confidence throughout his rookie year, taking the blame for that and noting he was too immature. But he also clearly believes he deserved more than fringe-rotation minutes.

“I felt like they didn’t really give me an opportunity,” Napier said.

The next offseason, the Heat traded him to the Magic of practically no return.

“When I went to Orlando, I thought there was going to be an opportunity,” Napier said. “But there wasn’t, really.”

Napier’s production regressed, as his role shrunk even further. He didn’t look cut out for the NBA.

After only one year, Orlando sent him to the Trail Blazers – again, for no real return. In Portland, his role remained minor last season and to begin this season.

But Napier appears to be finally coming into his own.

Shooting more efficiently than ever while remaining pesky defensively, Napier ranks sixth among backup point guards in real plus-minus:

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Napier has made solid gains in most facets of his game, but the biggest change has come with interior scoring. At 6-foot-1, he struggled mightily in the paint against bigger NBA players. After shooting 39% his first three years, Napier has made 57% of his shots in the restricted area this season.

His 3-point percentage has also improved – to 40%, up from 35% his first three seasons. The outside-inside game is producing 9.4 points in 21.6 minutes per game, tilting defenses and creating passing lanes.

Napier can sometimes get overpowered defensively, but he makes up for it with a knack for getting steals.

Important for any Trail Blazers role player, Napier also plays well with both C.J. McCollum (+6.7 points per 100 possessions) and Damian Lillard (+10.9 points per 100 possessions).

But Napier might not be long for Portland.

The Trail Blazers already have $110,456,026 committed to just eight players next season, and that doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. The luxury-tax concerns don’t dissipate in 2019-20, when Portland has $110,128,053 committed to seven players (including rookie-scale options for Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, but not a probably re-signed Nurkic).

Considering their ability to stagger Lillard and McCollum as lead guards, the Trail Blazers might deem Napier a luxury they can’t afford. Heck, they might not even extend his $3,452,308 qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.

The way Napier is playing, he might fetch more in free agency. Plenty of teams could use him as a backup point guard, and someone could devote a nice chunk of its mid-level exception to signing Napier.

If he’s bound to leave Portland this summer, could the Trail Blazers preemptively trade him for return before Thursday’s deadline? They should consider it. Shedding him and a minimum-salary player (Pat Connaughton or Jake Layman) would allow Portland to dodge the tax this season.

But tied for sixth in the West at 29-25, the Trail Blazers are also trying to win this season. Having Napier helps. It’s unclear how a cost-cutting move would sit with Lillard.

No matter where he ends the season, free agency will be a big opportunity for Napier. After four years at UConn, he’s already 26. This could be his only shot at a major payday.

Portland coach Terry Stotts credited Napier with working extremely hard last summer in advance of a contract year. That’s why Stotts believes Napier has improved so much, though he recognizes another explanation.

“Probably, if you ask him, he’s given an opportunity,” Stotts said.

In that regard, Napier has finally found a team on the same page as him.

“Everyone talks about I’m playing better,” Napier said. “I think it’s just all about opportunity.”

Kyle Kuzma gets 28, Lakers hand Celtics fourth straight loss 108-107

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kyle Kuzma scored 17 of his 28 points in a phenomenal fourth quarter, and the surging Los Angeles Lakers sent the Boston Celtics to their fourth consecutive loss, 108-107 Tuesday night.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points in the sixth consecutive home win by the Lakers, who have won three straight and seven of nine overall during their best stretch of the season. Los Angeles nearly gave it away by missing four free throws in the final 20 seconds, but Marcus Smart missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics.

Kyrie Irving scored 33 points for the Celtics, who opened a four-game road trip by extending their longest losing streak in nearly two years.

Kuzma hit five 3-pointers and dominated down the stretch before Irving and Smart, who added 22 points, led the Celtics back.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed two free throws for Los Angeles with 5.7 seconds left, but Smart’s final miss over Caldwell-Pope’s defense allowed Los Angeles to snap a four-game losing streak in this hallowed NBA rivalry.

Kuzma, the Lakers’ impressive rookie forward from Utah, had his best offensive game of the month. He put the Lakers ahead during a 3 1/2-minute stretch of the fourth quarter with 13 points and a behind-the-back assist to Larry Nance Jr. for a dunk that brought Staples Center to its feet.

Irving led the Celtics back within two points late, but Kuzma and Julius Randle came up with big baskets on offensive rebounds. Smart then hit two free throws for Boston with 19.2 seconds left after Josh Hart missed two for LA, trimming the lead to 106-105.

Clarkson hit two free throws, and Terry Rozier hit a twisting layup with seven seconds left before Caldwell-Pope’s missed free throws.

Lonzo Ball missed his fifth consecutive game with a sore left knee for the Lakers, but they’ve developed a solid offensive approach in the absence of the rookie point guard. Replacements Tyler Ennis and Alex Caruso contributed little offensively, but Clarkson had another outstanding playmaking game, and Randle contributed 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Irving staked Boston to a lead early in the fourth quarter, but Kuzma erased it with a pair of 3-pointers and the behind-the-back pass to Nance.

 

Lakers: Lonzo Ball out for Christmas, following week

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The NBA has scheduled the Lakers, through thick and thin, the last 19 Christmases.

So, it helps when the large-market franchise with the massive fan base is at least interesting.

Lonzo Ball makes the Lakers more interesting. Unfortunately, he’ll be sidelined against the Timberwolves tomorrow.

Lakers release:

Lonzo Ball, who was injured in the second quarter of last night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, had an MRI today. Results of the MRI revealed a shoulder sprain in his left shoulder. Ball will be out for tomorrow’s game vs. Minnesota and will be reevaluated in one week.

Tyler Ennis will likely see a bigger role, and combo guard Jordan Clarkson can spend more time on the ball. The Lakers still have young talents like Brandon Ingram (who’s status is uncertain for tomorrow) and Kyle Kuzma.

But Ball brings a level of intrigue unmatched by any other Laker. He was just the No. 2 pick, and his unconventional style lends itself to a fun, up-tempo style. Of course, his attention-grabbing father, LaVar Ball, also draws interest into Lonzo.

The Lakers (11-20) probably aren’t playing for meaningful on-court success this season, anyway. But Ball will be missed by the national audience watching tomorrow’s game.

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: Nine wins in a row and Boston’s time might be now

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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) Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum have Celtics thinking their time is now. The conventional wisdom coming into the season was Boston was a year away. They weren’t going to be good enough defensively (after moving Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder), their young stars such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown needed another year, and it was going to take time for Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to develop the kind of chemistry needed to go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

After a stretching their win streak to nine games Monday night with a 110-107 win in Atlanta — a day after the Cavaliers melted down and lost there — the Celtics are sounding a lot like Zack de la Rocha: “What better place than here, what better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now.”

Irving sealed the win scoring 8 of Boston’s final 11 points to top off his 35 on the night. All game he was carving up the Hawks in a two-man game with Horford that has become fierce already, or he would just put on a scoring clinic himself.

The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA so far, allowing just 95.9 points per 100 possessions. They have done it by holding teams to 47.7 percent eFG%, limiting the number of threes allowed, and doing a good job contesting midrange jumpers.

When Gordon Hayward went down it thrust rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year man Jaylen Brown into the spotlight and many thought before they were fully ready. Nope, they are ready and their play is another key to the Celtics nine-game win streak. Against the Hawks, Tatum had 21 points, including a key late-game three.

The Cavaliers at some point will start to play like they care, and they will figure out some of their defensive issues, but they also have some serious systemic defensive problems (a lot of minus defenders are going to have to get heavy minutes for them). It’s early, but Boston’s time might well be now, not a year from now. This team is well ahead of schedule.

2) The speculation game…. is LeBron James frustrated? And if so, at what exactly? Not long after the Celtics won their ninth in a row, LeBron James posted this meme to Instagram.

Mood…

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

It’s a meme from Arthur meant to express frustration.

So what is LeBron frustrated about? That the Celtics are hot and look like a real threat to the Cavaliers? That Boston and its new players have come together quickly as a team while the Cavaliers look dazed and confused on the court? That Kyrie Irving has looked brilliant this young season and seems to have made a good decision for himself?

In the comments, Damian Lillard said: “This post hella funny.”

Also in the comments, Isaiah Thomas wrote, “Need me to handle somebody cuz?” No, I think he just needs you back on the court sooner rather than later.

3) Nike making substantive changes to jerseys after series of high-profile tears to them. LeBron James had his jersey split open on opening night on national television, right down the back. Later that night, Tyler Ennis of the Lakers had his jersey tear and basically come apart after a not-that-hard pull on it from an opponent. Last week it was Ben Simmons whose jersey tore apart after a not very aggressive tug from an opponent. Then Kevin Love just ripped his own jersey with no problem. The new Nike jerseys have looked like old football tearaway jerseys.

Monday night Nike — which took over the NBA apparel contract starting this season on an eight-year, $1 billion deal —  released a statement to ESPN’s Darren Rovell saying changes were coming to the jerseys.

“…we have worked hard to create the most advanced uniforms in the history of the NBA. They are lighter and deliver great mobility and sweat wicking characteristics, and the feedback from players has been overwhelmingly positive. However, during gameplay we have seen a small number of athletes experience significant jersey tears. We are very concerned to see any game day tear and are working to implement a solution that involves standardizing the embellishment process and enhancing the seam strength of game day jerseys.”

Exactly what form all this will take, and how long it will take to get the players is not known, but this is a good step. As the physicality of the NBA season picks up as it moves along (as it always does), this problem would have gotten worse.