Miami Heat slowing it down, still winning

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There has been a stylistic debate about the Heat this season — should they run more or slow it down?

Frankly Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are fearsome both in transition and in the half court, but what works best for the team? I was in the camp that with the Heat’s pressure defense they should use that to create transition opportunities, easy fast break points where their tremendous athletes are unstoppable. And their eight-game winning streak came while running more.

But traditionally, good defensive teams (and the Heat are currently the second best defensive team in the league) want to slow the tempo down — if you can stop a team and give them fewer chances you can control the game.

That is what the Heat have done lately, notes Tom Haberstroh at ESPN’s Heat Index in a fantastic breakdown of the Heat’s transition offense.

Ending with the Kings win (Dec. 11), the Heat’s transition rate (percentage of offense generated from transition) had averaged 17.2 percent in their previous eight games, according to Synergy data. But the Heat have eased off the accelerator in their most recent five games, averaging just 11.5 percent with a season-low of 8.2 percent mark in Los Angeles. For perspective, the league average transition rate stands at 12.5 percent — or every eight possessions.

But the change of pace hasn’t slowed them down in the win column. After beating the normally high-octane Phoenix Suns by 12 points, the Heat methodically dismantled the Lakers 96-80 with just four points coming on fast breaks. And it wasn’t from lack of opportunities, as the Heat caused 12 turnovers while pulling down 39 defensive rebounds on the day.

Against the Lakers, the Heat’s three stars were all patient, passing up good shots for better ones later in the possession. As Haberstroh notes, that was not a luxury any of them had on their previous teams, where any kind of decent look for them was the best chance the team had to score. The Heat are adjusting.

What should be scaring teams around the league is this shows how versatile the Heat really are — if you try to run on them they can beat you that way; if you try to slow it down and grind it out they beat you that way. They drain a lot of the long-twos that every team tries to force other teams to take.

There are questions about matchups against long front lines and good defensive teams, questions that will not be answered until deep in the playoffs. But in the regular season, the Heat are winning at whatever pace they feel like playing at. And they look like the force everyone expected them to be.

Andre Iguodala: I broke my leg last year, but Warriors called it just a bruise

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Kevin Durant was reportedly in agony about not helping the Warriors deep into the playoffs. His teammates were reportedly frustrated he hadn’t returned.

Did Durant – who tore his Achilles just 12 minutes into his return after a month-long absence – feel pressured (internally, externally or both) to rush back?

Durant has yet to speak publicly on the saga, but Golden State forward Andre Iguodala can relate. He missed the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals against the Rockets and first two games of the NBA Finals with what the team called a “left lateral leg contusion” (fancy word for bruise).

Iguodala on The Breakfast Club:

We have a really good training staff. I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Our training staff is one of the best in the world. And I feel like they got him back. The tough thing is, when you’re an athlete and you’re hurt, everybody is looking at you sideways. And then it being his teammate is harder, because everyone is feeding stuff in our head. “When is KD coming back? When is KD coming back?”

Last year, it happened to me. I missed last three games of the Houston series. It goes to Game 7. We barely get out of that series. And now they’re looking at me like, “When are you coming back?” And I had a fractured leg. But it’s being put out there like, “You’ve got a bone bruise.” I’m like, “Nah, it’s fractured.” So, I’m fighting with the team. I’m fighting with people. I’m fighting with the media. And then my teammates ask me every day, “How you feeling? How you feeling?”

So, with K, he’s getting it from everywhere, too.

What do they always say in sports? “Oh, he’s a tough guy. He plays through injuries.” You’re validated as an athlete if you win a championship or how tough you were. If you sit out, it’s like, “Ah, he’s not tough.”

This is a damning assessment of the Warriors. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but Iguodala is alleging at least one of two things:

1. They misdiagnosed him.

2. They downplayed the extent of the injury publicly.

It could have been both.

A misdiagnosis is obviously troublesome. But downplaying the extent of the injury brings its own problems.

As Iguodala said, that only increased chatter about his return. With so many people talking to him about coming back, it’d be only natural to feel pressure to return. Iguodala is exactly right: Playing through injury gets players praised as tough.

Golden State misleading the public about the injury would also cause issues as the NBA embraces gambling. That opens the door for certain bettors to get inside information.

This sounds a lot like the Durant situation.

The Warriors can talk about how much they care about their players. But a pattern is emerging of injured players being put into peril.

It might be too late with Durant, but Golden State must address this.

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.