Free Lou Williams?

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Kevin Love averages just 26 minutes a game, and the world is outraged. How could Kurt Rambis leave an elite rebounder and promising young big man on the bench for the pitiful Timberwolves? How dare he play Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, and Anthony Tolliver — all lesser talents than Love at this juncture — instead of the once and future rebounding king? It’s an injustice to Love, the Timberwolves, and anyone who is a fan of either.

Only, here’s the thing: if we’re trying to free Love from Rambis’ dungeon, we should probably be trying to jailbreak Lou Williams from his holding facility in Philly as well.

Williams, too, averages just 26 minutes per game, and if that persists, the world should, eventually, be outraged. So far this season (small sample size, rabblerabblerabble), Williams is averaging a remarkable 18 points per game on 10 shots, 46% shooting from the field, and just over four assists. He’s milking those 26-minute outings for all they’re worth, and if we extrapolate his numbers over 36, his scoring average jumps to 25. That per-minute scoring is 10th in the league among all players that average at least 20 minutes a night, which has Williams rubbing shoulders with a few guys named Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Martin. No big deal.

Lou’s situation is admittedly a bit different. For one, Doug Collins is new to the Sixers, and though a poster of incumbent point guard Jrue Holiday is probably on the wall in Collins’ bedroom (remember, he touted Holiday as a top-five PG this season), he’s still figuring out his roster. Given more familiarity with Williams, it’s conceivable that Lou’s minutes could resemble that of a starter by the end of the year. Additionally, Collins’ young tenure in Philly also means that there’s less of a precedent for injustice. This isn’t a long-standing issue, as is the case with Love.

It also doesn’t help that the two players are evaluated according to vastly different criteria. There are those who would hold Williams’ high scoring average against him, claiming point guard sacrosanct. How dare a player do what he does best! How dare Williams shoot efficiently from the floor and get to the line frequently in an otherwise distressing offense! He’s one of them combo guards, and apparently, we don’t serve their kind here.

Putting up gaudy scoring totals shouldn’t mean everything, but it still has to mean something. Perhaps we’ve come so far in our rejection of scoring averages as a definitive measure of a player’s worth that now we give them less justice than they deserve. Scoring still matters. Shot creation still matters. And Lou is making it all happen whether with the Sixers’ second unit and starters alike. Over the first five games of the season, Williams has been the Sixers’ top guard, but the possibility of him overtaking Jrue Holiday for the starting job — and the corresponding playing time benefits — remains slim. I know Lou has had his chance as the starter before, but is it so odd to think that a player could really start to come into his own at 24?

And for that matter, what did Holiday ever really do to take the job from Williams in the first place? Both are similarly effective playmakers, only Williams is able to better complement those abilities with his scoring. Both have an excellent handle, but Lou is able to use it to create shots for himself as well as his teammates. Both are defensive sieves, and don’t let Holiday enthusiasts, enamored by his height and long arms, convince you otherwise. Neither is a particularly effective defender, and both have plenty of work to do in their defensive development.

Jrue is 20, and a promising long-term prospect. Some may have been too willing to invest in Holiday’s stock late last season, but he’s athletic and talented. I’m just not sure we should write off Williams just yet, or naturally assume that Holiday will be the better player when all is said and done. We shouldn’t base too much off of a mere five games, and don’t misunderstand my intention: I’m making no call for immediate action. In fact, benching Holiday now could completely nuke his confidence and destroy any aptitude he’s shown up to this point. But should Williams’ numbers hold and Holiday’s hover around their currently decent but unremarkable level, switching their roles should be considered a legitimate possibility. I’m not sure it will be, but it should be.

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).