Rockets, Hornets stunned by Lakers dropping out of CP3 race

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After weeks of work that had a trade to send Chris Paul to the Lakers — a deal that was consummated once only to have David Stern crush it — the Lakers unexpectedly walked away from the deal Saturday.

Why? We’ll take a stab at that in a second.

But first, the Lakers move left the Rockets and Hornets shocked and with their plans for the future blown up, reports Ken Berger at CBSSports.com.

The Rockets, who were supposed to get Gasol in the various versions of the ill-fated, three-team Paul trade, were said to be disconsolate over the breakdown in the talks. League sources said Houston’s plan had been to acquire Gasol and follow it up by acquiring free-agent big man Nene with a four-year, $60-$64 million offer.

As disappointed as the Rockets and Lakers were, the Hornets’ coaching staff and front office were said to be in “collective shock,” according to a person in touch with key members of the team. The breakdown of the Paul trade sent the Hornets scrambling for another suitor for the All-Star point guard, who has made it clear he wants to be traded or will leave New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent after the season.

For the Rockets, it’s unclear if that bid would have been enough to land Nene, who reportedly has a $70 million offer from the Nets (although some sources dispute that figure). The Rockets would have been in the bidding and would have had an imposing front like of Gasol and Nene. But now, they have Luis Scola and Kevin Martin still.

For the Hornets, there are still suitors for CP3 but will they get a package as good as Odom, Scola and Martin (plus Goran Dragic and a pick)? The league said David Stern wanted younger players to rebuild, but those quality players could have been flipped for good young players in secondary trades. Just getting good young players is hard, teams don’t like to give them up. Besides, Chris Paul would re-sign with the Lakers so they would make that trade, but that may not be the case with the Clippers, Warriors or Celtics.

As for the Lakers and why they backed out? Here’s my guess.

Jim Buss, the guy running the team now and son of long time owner Jerry Buss, wants to make a splash and put his stamp on the franchise. That’s why the sharp move away from the triangle offense to Mike Brown in the coaching search. That’s why long-time staff perceived to be “Jackson people” were removed from the organization last summer.

Buss wanted Paul and Dwight Howard. He was greedy. And despite what Lakers fans (and L.A. sports talk radio hosts) think, that was never going to happen. If the original Chris Paul trade went through, the Lakers would not have had the pieces to get Howard in a trade. The price for Howard has always been to take on Hedo Turkoglu’s disastrous contract (without D-12 the Magic go into rebuilding mode and Turkoblu is an anchor on that). The Lakers would have had Chris Paul and could have offered Andrew Bynum, but they had no way to take back Turkoglu, too. They would have already surrendered Odom and Gasol.

With Howard pushing his way out in Orlando now, Buss got a picture of the true price of Howard, realized he needed Gasol to get him, and it came down to choosing Howard or Paul. He couldn’t have the dream of both. And the choice there is always Howard — great bigs are harder to come by. Howard is your bridge to the post-Kobe Bryant era.

So he pulled out. And left the Rockets and Hornets in limbo.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.