We’ve played 20 games, let’s give out some awards

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There’s a lot of people around the league that say you don’t really know much until you’re about 20 games into an NBA season, then the patterns have established themselves.

Well, we’re about 20 games in now, one quarter of the season gone. Patterns are established. So…

Let’s give out some first-quarter awards to players and teams. Take stock of the league.

Most Valuable Player

1. Chris Paul (PG, New Orleans Hornets). This race is going to be interesting because the preseason frontrunners — Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — are around but kind of a step back right now. They are behind Chris Paul, who is healthy and back to being one of the league’s dominant players. The rest of the Hornets roster isn’t that good, but they look it when Paul is setting the table. We’re overlooking the Hornets recent slide — for now.

2. Dwight Howard, (C, Orlando Magic). The guy gets overlooked every season, but he is the anchor in the middle on a contending team. A defensive force. And before you say, “he doesn’t have enough offensive moves” I suggest you go watch his play again this season. Best he has played in his career so far.

3. Russell Westbrook (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant who? Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad but early on this season the Thunder have been Westbook’s team. He is attacking in transition, making shots, setting up teammates and has the second best PER in the league. He’s in the mix.

Others in the mix: Kobe, LeBron, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford and Deron Williams.

Biggest Disappointment (Player)

1. John Salmons (G, Milwaukee Bucks). This is very subjective because it is based more on expectations than anything. And Salmons is getting scapegoated here for a disappointing Milwaukee team. But the last two seasons he was the guy traded at the deadline that sparked his new team into the playoffs. Last season with the Bucks he scored 19.9 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, this season he is averaging 12.6 points on 36.9 percent. Injuries are a part of that, but still.

2. Yao Ming (C, Houston Rockets). Again hopes and expectations dashed by injury. Not that this is his fault, it’s just disappointing.

3. Tyreke Evans (G, Sacramento Kings). His reworked jump shot is no better than his old one so far, he is attacking less, and he is at the helm of the worst team in the NBA right now. Again, injuries play a pretty big role.

Others in the mix: Joe Johnson, Terrence Williams, Brendan Haywood… really, we could go on forever here.

Rookie Of The Year

1. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers). This would be a runaway right now. Not that other rookies haven’t been good, but Blake has been just a beast scoring inside, rebounding, running in transition. Oh, the highlight reel dunks are in there too.

2. John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards). We all knew he’s a blur with the ball, but Phil Jackson made a good point about him before the Lakers game Tuesday — Wall is just starting to figure out his spots on the floor in the NBA. Every scorer has his spots he wants to get to, Wall is just discovering his, and as he does his shooting numbers will improve.

3. Landry Fields (SG, New York Knicks). Steal of the draft. Out on the West Coast we saw plenty of this Stanford product and thought “he’ll make a nice rotation player in a few years” but he is starting for the resurgent Knicks, giving them 11 points and 7.5 boards a game, and is just playing smart ball. Some guys just get how to fit in the NBA faster.

Most Disappointing Rookie

1. Evan Turner (G, Philadelphia 76ers). He was supposed to be the guy with the NBA-ready game who could slide right in and play. Maybe not the ceiling of others, but he could play now. Or not. He’s not sure how to fit in the system, Doug Collins doesn’t seem to know how to use him, but if he would just make some shots (41 percent overall and 1 of 11 from three) things would look better.

Others in the mix: Nobody is really close to Turner here. Some slow starters but you see potential elsewhere that Turner has yet to show.

Most Surprising Team/Coach of the year

1. San Antonio Spurs/Gregg Popovich. We lump these two together because the coach of the year is usually the guy whose team surprised us the most by exceeding expectations. And so far that is the Spurs – we knew they would be good and solid, but so far they look like contenders. They are pressing the tempo with Tony Parker, forcing turnovers, and counting less on Tim Duncan and more on their fantastic guard play. We’ll see if they can stay healthy, but 20 games in they are the biggest surprise because they are such a threat.

2. New York Knicks/Mike D’Antoni. Hey, who knew — you can run an up-tempo offense in the East. Well, of course you can, it’s a matter of having the talent to do it, and with Amar’s Stoudemire and the fast-improving in the system Raymond Felton the Knicks now have it. Wilson Chandler and others are playing their roles well. The schedule has been soft, but they have been better than advertised so far.

3. New Orleans Hornets/Monty Williams. If one team is really going to fall from this list, my pick is the Hornets. Not because of Chris Paul or the players so much — although the roster’s limitations will catch up with them — so much as teams going through ownership turmoil just tend to crumble.

Just missing out: Indiana Pacers/Jim O’Brien.

Most Disappointing Team

1. Milwaukee Bucks. How does a team with Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Andrew Bogut and Corey Maggette have the worst offense in the NBA? Yes there have been injuries but this team has been flat out ugly to watch.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Injuries are the reason here — another season lost for Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s knees will never be right — but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hopes were high.

3. Houston Rockets. Again injuries, to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks have hurt. But even when they have played this team just has not molded together well.

Some quick hits on my other votes (well, if I had a vote):

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. (Kevin Garnett is close behind.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks. (Jason Terry will probably win it, and he has earned it, but I wanted to vote for someone different).

Most Improved Player: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers.

Marcus Morris explains his change of plans from Spurs deal to Knicks

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Marcus Morris‘ move built up some hard feelings around the NBA. Players have verbally agreed to contracts with one team only to change their mind before, but in this case the Spurs had made roster moves — including trading Davis Bertans go to the Wizards — to clear out space for Morris, leaving San Antonio in a tough spot when Morris changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs were pissed at the Knicks about this. Executives with other teams did not like the potential precedent the move set.

Morris offered his first explanation of what happened to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It starts here: Morris’ agent at the time Rich Paul negotiated a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency. Morris turned it down, and he admitted that was against Paul’s advice.

“All this stuff that (Paul) didn’t want me to go to the Clippers and didn’t want me to go against LeBron (James), that’s not true,” Morris said. “He never told me not to take the deal. For as long as I’ve known Rich — and that’s still someone I have love for and that’s still my guy — he has been great in terms of advice. He told me he wanted me to take the Clippers deal. He gave me his advice. It was my decision and I had to make the best decision for me and my family.”

Things moved very fast at the start of free agency (more than 50 contracts were agreed to in the first 24 hours) and that left Morris not wanting the music to stop without him having a chair. That’s when he accepted the two-year, $20 million offer from San Antonio. Morris said he didn’t expect another offer, but when the Knicks came through with one year, $15 million he wanted it and tried to be up front about the situation.

“I have a good relationship with those guys and I have so much respect for (head coach) Pop (Gregg Popovich), (general manager) RC (Buford) and (assistant GM) Brian Wright,” Morris told The Athletic. “The first thing that I did when I knew I would be going another direction, I called and made sure they knew. There was no shade. There’s no disrespect. I had great conversations afterward, and as long as I feel that I’m clear with them and gave them my truth, I feel good about moving forward.

“I was under the impression that I didn’t have anything left. I thought at the time that the Spurs deal was all that I had. The process wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go the right way.”

Morris has split ways with Paul as an agent, reportedly over this incident.

Morris has now essentially bet on himself. The Knicks are not going to win a lot of games, but Morris is going to have a significant role and should get a lot of touches. Have a strong season and he will enter a much weaker free agent class next summer as one of the better players in it. That could lead to a bigger payday. Plus he makes more per year now.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
PJ Tucker
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, or other guys positions, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.