Linas Kleiza's Greek vacation has made him a new man

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Thumbnail image for Kleiza_Lithuania.jpgHe is scoring 19.1 points a game on 60.4 percent shooting, is getting to the line, has shown everyone what he is capable of on the World Stage and is the unquestioned leader of a team in the FIBA World Championships.

Kevin Durant? No, although their statistics are nearly identical.

It’s Linas Kleiza. The former Nugget and soon to be Raptor who is leading Lithuania up against the Americans on Saturday.

Kleiza was a nice backup guy for the Nuggets, but some who watched him then and now have a question: Who is this guy with the well rounded game and is putting up Durant-like numbers in Turkey?

Player development guru David Thorpe knows, and he isn’t surprised. Thorpe is the executive director of the Pro Training Center (as well as ESPN analyst) who worked with Kleiza a few years back and said he always had this in him.

“In reality what we’re seeing now is just the natural evolution of a guy asked to play the three but was only a guy allowed to shoot threes and dunk in [the Denver] system,” Thorpe said. “He was a much more fluid player than he was allowed to show.”

Denver had Carmelo Anthony and for much of Kleiza’s time Allen Iverson — they had dynamic scorers, better scorers than Kleiza. The result of that is what happened to him happens to a lot of players Thorpe said — they get put in roles that work for the team but do not show off or exploit all a player can do. There are plenty of players collecting NBA paycheck and living the NBA lifestyle in the same boat.

But Kleiza’s answer was different — he broke the mold and went to play for Olympiakos, the Greek powerhouse (along side Josh Childress, now of the Suns). There he got to both show off the variety of his game and gain confidence that he can be a leader and top scorer — he was one of the leading scorers in EuroLeague.

That is what he is bringing back to Toronto.

“I’ve always thought he was a starting level three,” Thorpe said. “He’s very explosive, very rugged and though a guy who can race the floor… He’s your classic mismatch nightmare because he’ll just pulverize smaller players with his strength but he can also hit the three.”

China struggled to find a matchup for him in the round of 16 at the World Championships. They didn’t want to wear out Yi Jianlian on him, so they went with a smaller player and Klieza just backed him down and hit little 8-footers over him. If you go bigger he is too quick and can get open on cuts and in transition, plus he can space the floor.

Team USA may be better suited than anyone to have answers for Kleiza, Thorpe said. Both Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are quick enough to stay with him on the perimeter but their strength and length will keep Kleiza from getting easy looks around the basket.

But it will not be easy, because if there is one thing Kleiza brings its toughness. He will scrap for what he wants.

Most teams that take on Toronto will face the same matchup challenges that the world has faced in recent weeks, Thorpe said. He added he thinks Kleiza could be the Raptors leading scorer next season or should at least be in the mix.

“He’s a very good three point shooter who can finish around the rim, has great hands and can take the punishment…” Thorpe said. “Not a lot of guys who can do all that.”

Report: Pacers to target Ricky Rubio, also talking to Pelicans about No. 4 pick

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Indiana would have been a tough out come the East playoffs, that is until Victor Oladipo went down (ruptured right quadriceps tendon). They still believe with a healthy Oladipo this coming season they can move into the upper echelon of the East. But they need some roster upgrades.

Specifically at the point guard spot. D'Angelo Russell‘s name has come up, but target, but Ricky Rubio seems to be their top target, reports Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

Unrestricted free-agent point guard Ricky Rubio will be a top target of the Pacers, according to multiple league sources. Rubio would replace point guards Darren Collison and Cory Joseph—both unrestricted free agents—and share the backcourt with Victor Oladipo, who ruptured his right quadriceps tendon this past season. Rubio is a worse shooter than Collison and Joseph, but would provide a significant defensive and playmaking upgrade to better complement Oladipo’s score-first style.

Rubio gets a bad rap from some fans because he’s not a great shooter. However, he’s developed into a good floor general who runs a team well, can defend his position, and still throws some stunning passes. He could help a lot of teams, the Pacers being one.

The Pacers also might try to move up in the draft.

The Pacers have also discussed a trade with the Pelicans for the no. 4 pick in the draft, according to league sources.

You could remove the phrase “the Pacers” from that last sentence and put 27 team names in there and it would be accurate. The Pelicans have shopped that pick all over the league.

One way or another, expect the Pacers to be aggressive this summer. They are a team that believes they are one player away and they have both the cap space and trade assets to get something done. They want to open their championship window.

 

Report: Chris Paul demanded trade after Rockets’ second round loss

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Things apparently aren’t as bad as they have seemed recently between James Harden and Chris Paul.

They’re worse.

Paul demanded a trade after the Rockets’ playoff exit because that relationship couldn’t be salvaged, Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reports.

Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said.

The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise…

“There’s no respect at all, on either side,” a source told Yahoo Sports. “They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.”

Rockets GM Daryl Morey denied that Paul is available in an interview on the Dan Patrick Show today.

“We were the best team down the stretch. We’ve spent a lot of time putting together two superstars. We’re trying to add a third,” Morey said. “Going backward from that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.”

Paul is not easy to play with, just ask Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. Paul is one of the highest IQ and most competitive players in the league, but that leads him to be relentless on teammates, continually pushing and correcting them, and that led to tension in Los Angeles.

Harden, who is the reigning MVP and finished second two of the previous three years (and that likely will be three-of-four after this year’s results are released), is a guy who is not going to put up with that.

At the heart of the issue is style: James Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul prefers a more fluid offense. Coach Mike D’Antoni, the guy who does not have a contract beyond next season (extension talks faltered), gives a lot of leeway to Harden. Paul, among other players, complained to D’Antoni about that. Nothing changed.

Still, it’s not going to be easy to split this duo up.

As a tandem they have made the Rockets the second best team in the West for two years running, and if not for CP3’s hamstring injury in 2018 they might both have rings. Do the injuries to Kevin Durant (who might leave the Warriors anyway) and Klay Thompson change their perception and approach to this relationship? Together they are a serious threat to win a title and they know it.

There’s also the practical matter: Trading Paul is going to be very difficult and might require the Rockets to throw a sweetener (a pick or young player) in the deal to get it done. It’s not that CP3 is terrible — he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season, and he remains the best floor general in the game — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and most importantly is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. That’s a lot of money to take on.

The Rockets are rumored to have talked to teams seeking a point guard (Phoenix, for example) but sources have said there has been little traction on any deal. And again, Morey denied he was available (which he would do whether or not that was true).

Just as the door to the Finals through the West swings wide open, the Rockets are stumbling and may not be able to walk through it.

Report: Knicks, who have No. 3 pick, to work out Darius Garland

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Duke forward R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in the upcoming NBA draft. He wants to join the Knicks. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

Perfect match?

Maybe not.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

Maybe this is just New York doing its due diligence. The Knicks could also be trying to drum up trade interest among teams that want Garland.

But this feels a little like 2015, when Jahlil Okafor was the consensus No. 2 prospect for most of the pre-draft process but D'Angelo Russell emerged late as the Lakers’ No. 2 pick.

Barrett is a flawed prospect. He didn’t hit jumpers efficiently at Duke. His decision-making is suspect. He’s too left-handed dominant. He rarely uses his defensive tools. There’s a lot to like, to be sure. Barrett has nice size, athleticism and physicality. He’s a good ball-handler and playmaker. He seems built for a leading role.

But it wouldn’t shock me if a team likes Garland more. The point guard is a knockdown shooter with the ball-handling and footwork to get that shot off. He needs work as a distributor and lacks Barrett’s defensive potential.

Garland might not be as good as Barrett right now. But Garland’s path to success might be a little more projectable.

Harrison Barnes declining $25,102,512 player option with Kings

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Harrison Barnes‘ salary was so high, he became a talking point in the debate about WNBA salaries.

But he’s so confident he’ll get a better deal, he’s leaving $25,102,512 on the table with the Kings.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Kings project to have about $60 million in cap space – likely more than they know what do with.

They could re-sign Barnes. By trading for him last year, they indicated they value him more than the rest of the league does.

Even if he settles for a lower salary next season than his player option called for, this could be the 27-year-old Barnes’ opportunity to secure a long-term deal. He’s a solid outside shooter and, even if he’s better at power forward, capable of playing small forward in a league thirsty for wings.

Sacramento could definitely use a player like him.

Can the Kings lure someone better, either this summer or – if they keep their books clean – a future year? Unless way overpaid, free agents have tended to avoid Sacramento. But the rapidly improving De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are leading a turnaround.

Barnes’ free agency could be a good litmus test for the Kings’ reputation now. Can they convince him to continue his role on a rising team? Will they have to pay a premium to keep him? Or does he just want to leave?