Author: Kurt Helin

Chicago Bulls v Washington Wizards

PBT’s Christmas Day preview: Don’t think of it as a Knicks game, think John Wall showcase


Christmas morning should be a time of warmth, of love, of family, presents, smiles and laughter. It should be a moment of celebration filled with the very best of things in life.

New York Knicks basketball is none of those things. Not this season.

Which is why when you tune in at noon Eastern on ESPN (as well as Comcast Sportsnet Washington) you should think of this as a John Wall showcase. See it as a chance to enjoy one of the more underrated teams in the NBA — the 19-8 Washington Wizards.

Wall has fully blossomed into one of the top five point guards in the NBA, not because his jump shot improved dramatically (it is better, but not something that inspires fear) but because he uses his shot more judiciously, picking his spots. He is taking fewer shots and setting his teammates up more. Wall is averaging 17.8 points and 10.4 rebounds a game and he still puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams because he’s so fast with the ball in transition. It’s just that on the break he’s not putting his head down and driving to the rim, he’s setting up his teammates. Plus he remains one of the best defensive point guards in the league.

Wall’s defense is part of the reason the Wizards have the fourth best defense in the NBA (and best in the Eastern Conference) allowing just 99.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Knicks on the other hand have a bottom 10 offense and defense and have lost 15 of their last 16 games. Their star player, Carmelo Anthony, has missed time with a sore knee that clearly still slows him as he tries to play through it, and he is averaging 23.7 points a game with a true shooting percentage of .540 (just above the league average).

The transition to the triangle offense has been rough — the Knicks didn’t have the personnel to run it well anyway, but the guys they do have are not buying in. Guys realize they are not long for the Knicks roster and are trying to put up numbers rather than sacrifice to play in the system. Anthony has been part of the problem — he has been his old self, over dribbling and stopping the ball movement, taking contested shots. The team’s best player is not leading by example.

And the Knicks offense is better than their defense. Wizards players are going to get wide open looks at threes if they move the ball because the Knicks rotations are almost nonexistent.

The Wizards on the other hand are sharing the ball and getting balanced scoring — Wall is averaging 17.8 per game, Bradley Beal 15.1, Marcin Gortat and Paul Pierce are at 13.1, and Rasual Butler has been a present surprise at 10.8 a game. Watch him post up, that has become a real weapon for him.

The Wizards are the better team, a team that is a real threat to make the Eastern Conference Finals — they are balanced and playing well.

Barring a Christmas miracle that is what will overwhelm the Knicks and make this likely the least interesting of the five Christmas Day NBA games.

Five things to watch as NBA takes over Christmas Day

LeBron James

While you spend your Christmas morning/afternoon trying to hook your father’s new tablet up with wifi and show him how to download golf apps — be prepared for a frustrating experience, I warn you now — there will be NBA games on in the background.

Christmas Day has become the unofficial second opening day of the NBA season, when casual fans often watch their first NBA games of the season, so the league loads up with marquee match ups (or what they think will be marquee matchups, nobody expected the Knicks to be this unwatchable).

There are a lot of things to watch on Christmas Day — like if you get to watch Kevin Durant at all, as he is trying to return from a sprained ankle — but here are PBT’s Top 5.

1) LeBron James’ welcome in Miami. LeBron James is returning home… well his old stomping grounds anyway. The other city he deserted. And make no mistake, Heat fans feel like he betrayed them and left them as well. Remember all the national venom and negative press that came LeBron’s way after his poorly handled decision to go to Miami — “The Decision” followed by the “not one, not two, not three” pep rally? Heat fans were the people in his corner through all of that. They had his back, they cheered him wildly and welcomed him to the South Beach community. They celebrated four straight trips to the Finals and two titles with him.

Then he bolted them, too. So how will Heat fans react? There will be a video tribute to LeBron in Miami and while there may be some boos I don’t expect a lot of anger. The fact of the matter is Miami has more laid back lifestyle — they have the sun, the beach, the nightlife, the beautiful people and spicy foods and that is the city’s identity. It is not wrapped up in its sports teams like other cities. But know that they were hurt.

2) How well will a rested Kobe Bryant play? Kobe Bryant was exhausted. You could tell when he shot 11-of-45 (24.4 percent) over his last two games and 33-of-113 (29.2 percent) in his last five games. Or you could just ask him. After the last two games he was up front in admitting he was fatigued. There was no reading between the lines. So Byron Scott rested him Tuesday vs. the Warriors — and the Lakers won. The Lakers are 22 points per 100 possessions better when Kobe sits this season. The reason isn’t Kobe’s play so much as the style of play he forces the team into — he dominates the ball, defenses load up, other players stand around and watch Kobe, and the Lakers become easy to defend. (The Lakers have been at their best when Kobe was doubled, because he passed out and other guys, who need open looks to hit shots, were getting open looks.)

Will a more rested Kobe have his legs and his jumper back? Will the Lakers have off-the-ball movement? Will it matter when Jimmy Butler is virtually inside Kobe’s jersey defending him. About the only thing you can be sure of from this game is Pau Gasol will show Lakers fans he had plenty left, if he was just healthy and used properly in the offense.

3) Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker. On a day of great potential one-on-one matchups, there may be none better than this point guard showdown — one we got to see in the Western Conference Finals last season. The matchup will be especially important if Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard don’t play (Durant is possible, he has missed the last three games but is not far from a return; however Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard, the Finals MVP, is not really close to coming back). San Antonio has survived a rash of injuries (including to Parker) and Popovich taking the concept of rest to a new level and still have an 18-11 record with the fifth best defense in the league. The Thunder are just now starting to get on track after injuries to Westbrook and Durant to start the season and while they are the 10 seed currently at 13-16 (2.5 games back of the eight-seed Suns) nobody doubts they will make the playoffs and be a legit contender once there.

Remember, once Serge Ibaka got healthy last playoffs the Thunder essentially played the Spurs even or maybe were a little better, they just couldn’t get out of the hole. The key to this game is which of the point guards dominates puts more pressure on the opposing defense, which one bends the other team’s defense out of shape and exploits it. Westbrook does that with pure athleticism and aggressive play — and he has played angry all season and is averaging 27.4 points, 7.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds a game. Parker does it with deceptive quickness and great guile, plus a team around him that is on his same page. This is going to be fun to watch.

4) Warriors and Clippers get nasty. This is the best rivalry in the NBA right now — these two teams just flat out do not like each other. It’s palpable. You could see it in last year’s Christmas Day showdown between these teams — there were multiple technical fouls and a flagrant on Blake Griffin at one point. That carried over to the seven-game playoff series between these teams. The Warriors have looked a little more vulnerable lately with Andrew Bogut out with an injured knee (and he will miss this Christmas showdown), but they still have the best record in the NBA (23-4), the best defense in the NBA, the best point differential in the NBA, and the best backcourt in the NBA with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They have a coach in Steve Kerr putting his guys in better positions to play to their strengths. There is nothing not to like about this team, save for Bogut’s knees. The Clippers have that high-powered offense still led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but the Clippers defense has been middle of the pack this season. Average. Actually, a little below average, they are currently 19th in the NBA at 104.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That could be trouble against the Warriors offense. But if it gets physical and chippy, that plays to the Clippers strengths more.

5) John Wall. He’s the best player you have not watched enough of lately. Wall has blossomed into a legitimate Top 5 point guard in the NBA. He is taking fewer shots because he’s become wiser about his shot selection, and with that his assists have gone up — he is now averaging 17.8 points and 10.4 assists a game. He still puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams because he’s so fast with the ball in transition, but he’s become better at distributing on the break and not just putting his head down and driving to the rim. He’s one of the best defensive point guards in the league. All of that should overwhelm the Knicks. The Wizards are loaded with three-point shooters — Bradley Beal tops the list — and the Knicks defenders apparently don’t believe in rotations, so if Wall kicks the ball out on his drives there should be plenty of big assists. Enjoy watching Wall play on Christmas Day, you just want to make sure to do it in the first three quarters because he may not need to play the fourth against New York.

Reports: Kevin McHale gets three year, $13 million extension to coach Rockets


Kevin McHale earned this.

After a fast start to the season for the Rockets the franchise has decided to give the Hall-of-Fame player a three year extension as coach, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by other sources.

The three-year deal is worth nearly $13 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. McHale had been in the final season of his original three-year contract and completed an agreement on a new deal on Wednesday morning, sources said.

He entered this season as a lame duck in the last year of his contract on a seat that was getting warm — management wanted to see a step forward yet over the summer the team lost quality NBA rotation players in Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. GM Daryl Morey had gone big game hunting in free agency (Chris Bosh in particular) and missed and now on paper the Rockets seemed poised to take a step back.

But McHale has got them playing defense — they are giving up just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA and 5.6 points per 100 better than last season. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff deserves a lot of credit for that defensive growth.

That defense has propelled them to a 20-7 record despite not having Dwight Howard for extended stretches. The Rockets have added some of the depth they lost by bringing in Corey Brewer from Minnesota in a trade. The Rockets are also considered the frontrunners to land Josh Smith as a free agent once he clears waivers (5 p.m. ET Dec. 24, although a decision isn’t expected on where he plays next for a few days).

McHale is one of the good guys around the league, quick with great stories from his legendary Celtics days, and he generally is upbeat (for a coach). But he showed this year he knows what to do on the bench, and he’s now been rewarded for it.

Reports: Josh Smith agrees to sign with Rockets once he clears waivers

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons

Houston has been the front-runner to land Josh Smith for a few good reasons. First, Smith and Dwight Howard have a strong relationship. Second, they could offer more money than the minimum (they had the bi-annual exception at just over $2 million a season. And they have minutes — starting power forward Terrence Jones is out right now, and even when Jones returns Smith could (and reportedly was told would) start.

All that was good enough to convince Smith — he has chosen Houston, something first reported by Adrain Wojnarowski at Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by other reports.

Smith had wanted to be on a contender and while other teams came calling the fit and the fact that the Rockets are 20-7 and have James Harden playing at an MVP level was enough.

This is a low-risk gamble by the Rockets — it’s not costing them much and if it doesn’t work they have the depth to cover for him once Jones gets healthy. This move, along with the recent trade for Corey Brewer, could add some quality depth to a Rockets team that has to be considered potential contenders in the West. Of course, the problem in the West is six or seven other teams can legitimately make that same claim. For the Rockets these moves are seen as a leg up in a conference with no margin for error.

The question is what Smith will they get? How much of his recent struggles were about the challenging fit and situation in Detroit? This is a guy with a below league average PER not just this season but the last two.

Look at it this way: Detroit just convinced its owner to eat $27 million just to dump Smith and walk away. That is not something you do if you think the guy has anything left in the tank of value.

Look at Smith’s shot chart for this season.


That is a lot of red. Stan Van Gundy weaned Smith off his addiction for ill-advised threes, but the problem was he wasn’t making the shots closer to the basket that used to be where he had value. Smith is just now missing from everywhere. Maybe he plays better, maybe he shoots better in Houston, but I want to see it before I believe it.

That said, he’s a defensive upgrade, he can grab boards and should be able to pitch in. If it doesn’t work out, this is just $2 million next year and both Jones and Donatas Motiejunas can eat up the minutes if Smith doesn’t work out.

Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao tears Achilles, done for season

Minnesota Timberwolves v Cleveland Cavaliers

This sucks.

Cleveland’s starting center Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles tendon in the third quarter of a Cavaliers win over Minnesota, something first reported by Brian Windhorst of ESPN and since confirmed by multiple other outlets.

This is what the Cavaliers feared after the injury happened. Varejao was averaging 10 points a game on 55 percent shooting, plus he grabbed six rebounds a game. He’s often the big setting the pick for LeBron James out high, those two have a strong chemistry.

Varejao landed awkwardly after going up near the basket Tuesday night and immediately went to the ground, where he stayed for several minutes with his teammates around him. He was eventually carried back to the locker room unable to put any weight on his leg, and was seen leaving the arena on crutches an in a boot.

For the 32-year-old Varejao, this will be a very difficult injury to come back from. It could spell the end of his NBA career.

It’s also going to be rough on Cleveland on the court. In the short term expect the Cavaliers to start Tristan Thompson, who has played well of late, in what is a smaller lineup. The only other option right now is to give Brendan Haywood minutes — he has barely seen the court this season (four total minutes in the last seven games) and is really more contract trade bait than player to the Cavs. There is Louis Amundson on the bench, too.

Which means expect the Cavaliers to really step up their efforts to trade for a big man. They have been working the phones all season going down the ladder of potential trade partners, including guys like Timofey Mozgov in Denver, Kosta Koufos in Memphis, and now Brandan Wright in Boston. All to no avail.

That needs to change soon now. The Cavaliers defense already struggled without rim protection in the paint, and while Varejao’s numbers were not great this season — the team is 5 points per 100 possessions better when he was off the court — he was still by far their best option.