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.

Did Suns deserve all 35 of their assists? (video)

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The Suns had 35 assists in their season-opening win over the Mavericks last night.

That’s their most assists since… their final game last season, when they also dished 35 assists against Dallas. But the Mavericks were tanking hard. Before that, Phoenix last had 35 assists with Steve Nash at point guard.

How did they Suns do it?

They moved the ball well and knocked down shots.

They also appeared be quite generous in scorekeeping.

The NBA defines an assist as a “pass that directly leads to a basket. … An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

Would you say all four of these assists led directly to a basket?

Many scorekeepers systematically award assists if the shooter took two or fewer or dribbles after receiving the pass. Those above plays are not egregious in league-wide context, though maybe a couple of them should be.

But this Deandre Ayton pass really stretches the limit (hat tip: Carter Rodriguez of Fear The Sword):

Again, maybe we just have to live with a hard-and-fast two-dribble rule. Even though Josh Jackson turned and hesitated a couple times while using both dribbles, this technically falls under the threshold.

But then explain this Trevor Ariza assist to Jackson, who took three dribbles:

That looks like more of an assist than some of the two-dribble plays above. So, maybe the standard is fitting the spirit of the definition OR a player shooting within two dribbles. That casts quite a wide net.

But remember, don’t cast stones at the Suns from inside a glass house. They’re not alone in their loose assist-granting.

LeBron James set to make debut for Lakers at Trail Blazers tonight

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PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.

It will be a happening.

It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.

Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.

“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”

The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.

“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”

James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.

“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”

The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.

The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”

The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.

“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

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This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.

Paul George: I would have signed with Lakers if Pacers didn’t trade me to Thunder

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Paul George didn’t request a trade from the Pacers. He merely informed them he’d leave in free agency and told people he’d sign with the Lakers, leaving it up to Indiana what to do about it.

The Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City, where George found a long-term home. He re-signed with the Thunder this summer.

Marc J. Spears of ESPN:

Paul George revealed to ESPN’s The Undefeated that he “would have been in a Lakers uniform” if he had never been traded from the Indiana Pacers. But after the Pacers dealt the five-time All-Star to the Oklahoma City Thunder instead last year, he fell in love with his new team and playing with Russell Westbrook before eventually agreeing to a four-year, $137 million contract extension this past offseason.

“It was 50-50 on deciding whether I wanted to come back home or if it was smarter to be in the situation I am in now,” George told The Undefeated. “But it wasn’t overstated. I wanted to play in L.A. That is where I wanted to go. Had that trade never went down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform.”

Even while with the Thunder, George spoke openly about the appeal of Los Angeles. Despite not meeting with the Lakers in free agency, he still called them tempting. He’s mostly just confirming what we already believed.

Remember, the Lakers could have traded for George last year. Instead, they banked on getting him without surrendering assets, and that gambit failed. Importantly, they still lured LeBron James, but they’re still searching for a second star.

This ought to reopen questions about whether the Lakers erred by not trading for Kawhi Leonard. Leonard reportedly has interest in Los Angeles (though maybe more in the Clippers), but the Lakers watched the Spurs trade him to the Raptors. Will Leonard similarly fall for Toronto and spurn his hometown team?

It’d be a mistake to assume Leonard will follow the path of George, who’s a completely different person. But it’d also be a mistake not to evaluate the precedent set by George and learn from it.