Kurt Helin

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LeBron James likes idea of shaking up All-Star Game format. “Why not?”

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Stephen Curry is good with the change. Now so is LeBron James.

Starting this February, the NBA is trying to put a spark into the NBA All-Star Game. No more East vs. West, instead they go playground style with the top vote-getters in each conference acting as captains who will select the rest of the team from the All-Star pool (starters voted in by fans/players/media, the reserves picked by the coaches).  The teams will now play for charity.

LeBron is good with that, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I don’t see it as a bad idea. We had to do something. The All-Star Game has been pretty bad the last couple years just from a competition standpoint. Trying to switch it up. Just like how the dunk contest was at one point it was great, then it wasn’t so well, so they had to kind of switch it up. Then it got good, then it got bad and you switch it up again. You see what happens. It’s hard to say if it’s good or bad yet. We haven’t done it yet. February isn’t here yet so no one knows how good or how bad it’s going to be. But I like the change. Why not?”

Exactly, why not? LeBron is right, the All-Star Game itself the past couple of years (and, frankly, longer but it has gotten worse) has been tedious at best. Not that anybody is expecting NBA Finals level of play, but guys try harder on defense at my weekly pickup games — and we’re not there to play defense. The league needed to try something, it partnered with Chris Paul and the players’ union to come up with this, and it’s not a bad idea.

It will be way better if the league turns the picking of players into some kind of show — on TNT before a game, or at least on Twitter with the captains (probably LeBron and Kevin Durant or Curry) going back and forth. Make it really schoolyard (and suck for the guy picked last).

But at least this is something, as LeBron noted. If this doesn’t work, then try something else, but at least don’t just keep doing what no longer works.

 

Report: Joel Embiid agrees to five-year, $148 million max extension with Sixers

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Joel Embiid has trusted the process all the way to the bank.

The Philadelphia 76ers have bet big that Embiid is going to be healthy.

The Sixers have agreed to a five-year, $148 million extension with the big man at the center of their rebuilding efforts, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN(and since confirmed by Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia).

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has agreed to a five-year, $148-million designated rookie scale maximum contract extension, league sources told ESPN.

The designated exception — termed “The Super Max — allows Embiid to earn a higher percentage of the salary cap — and potentially millions of dollars more — if he meets criteria over the course of the deal, including, making All-NBA teams, winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, or the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. If Embiid meets the super max criteria, he could earn an as much as $178 million on the contract, league sources said….

The deal will include some salary cap protection for the 76ers should Embiid sustain injury that causes him to miss significant playing time, league sources said.

Joel Embiid reacted like you or I would have to $148 million.

I’m curious what those protections are for the Sixers, because the agents want to spin this as a max extension but you can be sure Philly covered its bases. There was a quickly removed report that Embiid would only get half that money if he didn’t meet certain criteria in terms of games played, however, we don’t know what those benchmarks might be (or what numbers really are in the contract). Zach Lowe put it this way.

In three NBA seasons, Embiid has played a total of 786 minutes across 31 games. He has been plagued by foot issues, then had last season cut short with surgery for a meniscus tear in his left knee. He hasn’t played in a game since Jan. 27. He has just been cleared for 5-on-5 action but has yet to play in a Sixers preseason game. They are hoping he is ready by opening night.

That said, when Embiid has been on the court he has looked like a max player. He averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game (despite a minutes limit), he was a defensive force in the paint, and the Sixers were outscoring opponents on the court. With him and Ben Simmons (back from injury and looking good in the preseason) plus No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, there is real optimism in Philly because of all this.

And the Sixers can keep adding to the roster — they have a lot of draft picks stockpiled and they will still have about $40 million in cap space next summer to chase free agents (in what will be a tight market that can buy them a lot of talent).

Three questions the Los Angeles Lakers 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: 26-56, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: The Lakers had the lottery gods smile on them and were able to draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2, but that was far from the only move they made. They traded Timofey Mozgov and his massive contract, plus DeAngelo Russell to Brooklyn and got back primarily Brook Lopez. The Lakers also added Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart in the draft, then were able to snag Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency on a one-year contract. Veteran Corey Brewer is now a Laker and will come off the bench. The Lakers also lost Nick Young to the Warriors.

THREE QUESTIONS THE LAKERS MUST ANSWER:


1) The Lonzo Ball effect is real, but can he score enough for it to thrive and really change the Lakers culture?
Ball is one of those guys who has “it.” Not only do other players want to play with him, when they are on the court with him his run-the-floor, pass-first ethos infects everyone. Big men get out in transition knowing they will get rewarded. Guys make the extra pass. Luke Walton has a point guard in Ball who could bring the Warriors’ feel and style to Staples Center. The Lakers just feel different this season.

However, Ball has to score some to make it all work. He is always going to look to pass first, but teams are going to play him to do that and dare him to shoot — not just wide open jumpers, but on the drive. They are going to try to force him into floaters and midrange shots that are not yet a comfortable part of his arsenal. Ball has to hit some threes (which he is capable of doing, despite the funky release), and learn to score better at the rim when he attacks, he has to be a threat to score for his passing to have the desired effect.

Ball was not a heavy usage guy in college, and that’s not likely to change now — if he gets up to scoring a fairly efficient 10 points per game average this season that would be a win. The good news is as Summer League wore on teams more and more played him to pass, he adjusted and became more confident as a scorer (he had one 30-point game). That’s Summer League, and NBA defenders are longer, more athletic, and smarter, but if Ball can show that kind of development on the offensive end over the course of an NBA season it will be a great sign.

2) Is anyone going to play any defense? Last season, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The season before, the Lakers were dead last in the NBA in defense (109.3). The season before that, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in defense (108). The season before that the Lakers were 28th in the NBA in defense (107.9).

See a pattern here? The Lakers can run the court and whip the ball around on clever passes all they want, if they can’t get stops it’s all moot. With young players such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma getting heavy minutes this season the Lakers are not going to be great defensively, but they have to start getting better.

Some of the roster changes this summer will help with that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong defender on the wing, and in a contract year he will be motivated to improve his reputation on that end (because wing defenders who can shoot threes get PAID). Brook Lopez isn’t a high-flying rim protector, he’s in trouble trying to defend in space if there is a switch off a pick, but he’s smart in the paint about being in the right place at the right time. He will help the Lakers’ paint defense.

Any culture change on defense will have to start with Luke Walton and the coaching staff — if the Lakers want to be a team that runs, they have to get stops. Walton has to make defense a priority and pull guys not hustling on that end. Then the players have to buy in, play the system, and put in the work — and if the Lakers do all that they probably still are bottom 10 in defense this season. But they need to start to see a change or nothing else will work.

3) How do Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and the rest of the potential Lakers young core develop? If the dreams of Lakers fans and management — landing two big-time free agents next summer — are going to come true, the team has to do two things. First, clear out the cap space (which will likely involve dumping the Luol Deng contract before July 1, which would require sending out a sweetener like Randle or Nance or another nice young player in the trade).

The other thing is the young core of players on the roster has to develop to the point that “Superstar X” looks at the Lakers and thinks he can win there. Lonzo Ball and the culture change is just part of that, the other guys have to develop as well. Those players have the skills to be NBA players, but can they translate that into production on the court?

Brandon Ingram is at the top of the list of guys to watch. He has gotten stronger, he is more confident and aggressive — and he is shooting 26.7 percent this preseason. Small sample size and it’s preseason, but it’s a concern. He struggled with this last season, and his shots need to start going in (his form has always looked good). His defense needs to improve as well.

Beyond that, can Julius Randle (a better defender than he gets credit for) develop to the next level on offense and be able to be a threat stepping away from the basket. Kuzma has been a surprise both at Summer League and through the preseason with his hustle and suddenly sharp three-point shooting, will that continue or is his shooting a fluke? Can Zubac get stronger, develop a more diversified post game, and find a role as an old-school center on a running team? And the list goes on and on. Historically, the Lakers as an organization have never been great at developing talent (as opposed to the Spurs, for example) because they didn’t need to be, but in the modern NBA they have to figure it out. We’ll see if the Lakers can live up to that challenge.

Five players most likely to win the MVP Award

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Last season, we entered the year with a wide-open MVP race that could have gone a lot of directions, but in the end Russell Westbrook and James Harden had put up such ridiculous numbers they stood out at the top (although Kawhi Leonard was lurking).

This season, we are back to that wide open race — the tectonic shifts in players moving to teams with other superstars this summer has changed the race. Here are the five guys that have the best shot at winning the award.

1) LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s a four-time MVP — and finished in the top three in voting for eight straight seasons until he was fourth in 2017 — who has been so consistently dominant his biggest challenge is we have become accustomed to his greatness. He averaged 26.4 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, and 8.7 assists last season and it was greeted with a shrug. However, with Kyrie Irving traded to Boston and Isaiah Thomas likely a spectator until January, James will have to carry more of a load during the regular season. If the Cavaliers continue to be the dominant force in the East (as is likely), James will get the credit, and that could propel him to MVP No. 5.

2) Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the reigning MVP and earned it with a historic season becoming only the second player to average a triple-double for the season — 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. The addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder roster will mean Westbrook’s counting stats will decline, but if he can lead this team to a No. 2 or 3 seed in the West with at least 57 wins, and he can show true leadership making sacrifices and getting everyone involved, he could pick up a back-to-back MVP win as well.

3) Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. He led a 61-win Spurs team last season averaging 25.5 points per game, but his legitimate case for MVP was that he was the best defender of anyone in the group (and the Spurs had the best defense in the NBA). He doesn’t tout himself for the award (or for anything), but if he puts up similar numbers again and the Spurs are right there with the Thunder and Rockets for the two seed in the West, Leonard again will be in the mix to win the award. The one question has become will he be healthy enough, after he sat out all of the preseason with a chronic quad issue.

4) Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors. He is a former MVP, the Finals MVP from last season, and the best player — sorry Stephen Curry — on what should be the most dominant team in the NBA this season. The MVP award has often gone to the best player on the best team, which has Durant as the favorite among the Las Vegas oddsmakers. He averaged 25.1 points and 8.3 rebounds a game last season, and likely will have numbers close to that. The one thing that could hold him back is voters fatigued with the Warriors winning everything and looking for a narrative they find more interesting.

5) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. He burst into NBA superstardom last season when they put the ball in his hands, made him the defacto point guard, and he responded with 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. There is almost nothing he can’t do on the court, and he only continues to improve. The key for him is not his jump shot (which is slowly improving), but rather will the Bucks take another step forward — this has been a “two steps up, one step back” team for a few years now. If the Bucks are stagnant or worse this season, it is bad news for Antetokounmpo’s MVP hopes (and maybe Jason Kidd’s job). However, if the Bucks move up the ladder in the East and are winning 50+ games, the Greek Freak will move into serious MVP consideration.

Just missing this list: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving.

Rajon Rondo out with sports hernia, could miss month

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The Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo backcourt experiment will be put on hold for a while.

Rajon Rondo has a sports hernia, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters before tipoff of a New Orleans preseason game on Sunday (one where Anthony Davis dropped 37 on the Bulls). Because Rondo will see a specialist Monday, the coach refused to put a timetable on Rondo’s return, but Mike Helfgot of the New Orleans Advocate got some idea of one.

Gentry said a timetable for Rondo’s return should become more clear when he sees a specialist in Philadelphia on Monday, though sources familiar with the situation said the initial expectation is Rondo will be out for approximately four weeks.

“I’m not a medical doctor,” Gentry said. “We’ll see what happens after he sees a specialist.”

Jrue Holiday, who had been playing the two with Rondo on the court, slid back over to the point and was joined by E’Twaun Moore in the starting rotation — a backcourt that provides much better shooting, something the Pelicans need to space the floor around Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Rondo’s injury likely means more run for Ian Clark, which would not be a bad thing for New Orleans.

Gentry praised Rondo for something the young players in Chicago loved him for last season — leadership. Rondo has taken to the mentor role with young players, a quality a lot of teams could use. However, the Pelicans are in a win-now place — or there likely will be major coaching/front office shakeups, with roster shakeups to follow — and more shooting in the starting lineup will not be a bad thing.