Five things we learned watching the NBA on Christmas

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The NBA gave five Christmas day presents to the fans… which were really more like belated birthday gifts disguised as Christmas gifts because we should have opened the NBA season on Nov. 1. But we’ll forgive and move on, like we do with family around the holidays. We’re just glad to have the NBA back.

There were no real moments of enlightenment among the day of sloppy play. But we did learn a few things. Five things.

1. When the Miami Heat runs they are beasts, and they are running a lot more. Sunday Miami had 100 possessions (via Basketball-Reference) — nearly nine more per game than they averaged last year. The result was Showtime in Miami (and a blowout win).

This is what Erik Spoelstra wants to do all season, it’s why he studied the Oregon offense with Chip Kelly this summer. Despite having all those amazing open-floor finishers — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are as good as there are in the league — the Heat played at the 20th fastest pace in the league last season. If they bump that to top-10 pace this season they become a lot better. Which is scary.

2. The Oklahoma City Thunder are comfortable as contenders. The Thunder dealt with the weight of expectations smoothly on Christmas. They looked polished and like they were having fun.

By the way, that is why OKC got Kendrick Perkins — he threw Dwight Howard off his game and when you can single-cover Howard you can shut down the Magic (even if you are the Hawks). Perkins is going to matter against the Grizzlies and Lakers. He makes them better.

3. The Knicks have the potential to be a reasonable defensive team. The Knicks only played defense in spurts, and I think we can expect that all season. They were good early; the third quarter was a disaster. But on the second to last play they did a good job of taking away the Celtics’ preferred shots and leaving it to Marquis Daniels with the three (he missed). Then again, on the last play the Knicks got lucky because Bill Walker picked off his own man (Tyson Chandler) and left Kevin Garnett with a good look. Simply put, the better their defense the farther they go this season.

4. The Clippers are Chris Paul’s team now. This is not Blake Griffin’s team, this is Chris Paul’s team. Paul has the ball in his hands, he took over late. He was 4-of-4 shooting for eight points and four assists in the final six minutes of the game. There is a lot of work for the Clippers to do: Paul and Griffin have to develop more chemistry, Chauncey Billups has to clean up his shot selection, DeAndre Jordan has to not give up so many offensive rebounds chasing blocks. But when you have a guy like Paul who can take over games you win a lot. And the Clippers are going to win a lot this season.

5. The Lakers have some real grit. There were good signs out of a Lakers loss. Well, not if you watched the last four minutes there wasn’t. But in that game we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the Bulls (they play great defense and that Derrick Rose guy is impressive).

But the Lakers, minus Andrew Bynum, played good defense and fought back from being down. Josh McRoberts will do the dirty work and their rookie Devin Ebanks shows promise. Thing is, you don’t win an NBA title without some grit and while we don’t expect it out of the Lakers they showed it. That will serve them well.

The question is can they beat the elite teams? That has yet to be proven.

Al Horford calls Celtics’ reported tampering allegations ‘ridiculous’

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The Celtics have reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford.

Horford opted out, and it seemed he could return to Boston. But more than a week before free agency officially began, a report emerged he’d leave the Celtics while expecting a four-year, $100 million contract elsewhere. He committed to the 76ers on the first day of free agency, getting $97 million guaranteed and up to $109 million over four years.

What did Horford make of tampering allegations coming from Boston, where Danny Ainge runs the front office?

Horford on The Dan Patrick Show:

It’s pretty ridiculous. But it is what it is. Danny – I love Danny. Danny was always really good to me. I know that he’s definitely frustrated with things didn’t work out with us.

Notice the lack of a denial.

But Horford is right: It’s ridiculous. Because the Celtics are hypocrites who locked up Kemba Walker before free agency officially began.

Though Boston’s specific complaints don’t hold water, there are legitimate issues with the wider landscape.

Rockets sign Ben McLemore

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The Kings couldn’t figure out what to do with Ben McLemore, the No. 7 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

Now, the Rockets will try.

Rockets:

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The link in the Rockets tweet leads to an inaccessible page, which is pretty fitting.

McLemore has talent, athleticism and size. He probably doesn’t have as much talent and athleticism as it seemed when he became a lottery pick. But he still has some. He also plays shooting guard, a common position of need throughout the league. Maybe Houston can find a way for the 26-year-old to become productive for the first time in his career.

It’s a low-risk bet considering the cheap cost, and the upside probably isn’t that high. But it’s still an interesting attempt considering McLemore’s stature when he entered the league.

Report: Clippers tried to trade for James Harden before landing Paul George

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Kawhi Leonard tried to recruit Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Leonard eventually got Paul George to join him on the Clippers.

Two other stars the Clippers tried to land? Bradley Beal and James Harden.

Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Clippers inquired about Washington’s Bradley Beal and Houston’s James Harden, according to league sources, but neither star was available.

Beal fits the most obvious parameter of an available star: He’s on a bad team. But the Wizards aren’t interested in trading him. For most of the summer, they didn’t even have a general manager to negotiate a potential deal.

Harden is the far more interesting target. The Rockets have built around him, but they reached a rough spot with Harden and Chris Paul. Houston could have viewed that as the end of the road. The Clippers parted with an elite package for George – five first-round picks, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. That’s the kind of offer that can open many doors. Instead, the Rockets went the other way by acquiring Russell Westbrook.

Still, a Leonard-Harden pairing would’ve been quite interesting. Both work best as offensive focal points, not contributing much off the ball. Harden’s defensive deficiencies would’ve put more pressure on Leonard. But the talent level would’ve been astronomical.

I think the Clippers are just happy with Leonard and George, who fit better together and still carry elite talent.

Report: NBA opens investigation into tampering following ‘tense’ owners meeting

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Kyrie Irving (Nets), Kemba Walker (Celtics) and Derrick Rose (Pistons) appeared to have their next teams lined up before free agency officially began. The Celtics reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford. Several other players agreed to terms so quickly after free agency began 6 p.m. June 30, it’s impossible to believe the deals weren’t pre-arranged.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said free-agency rules should be revised and enforced.

The league will also investigate.

Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN.

In the midst of it, Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s longtime general counsel, issued an evenhanded but sobering message to the room, multiple sources said.

Buchanan told the governors that as partners they were entitled to expect all teams to abide by a common set of enforceable rules for free agency — and that the league office would come back with a proposal for a revised set of rules that would then be strictly enforced. He asked the group if they were comfortable with the league “seizing servers and cellphones,” a line that stuck with many in attendance, according to sources who recounted the scene later.

It’s unclear whether this investigation will be punitive, exploratory or both.

Teams and players are absolutely violating the written rules. Some teams occasionally get punished. The rules are arbitrarily enforced, which is unfair. This investigation could lead to widespread punishment, though proving which teams did and didn’t tamper would be difficult. If it goes this route, expect uneven enforcement.

I’m with Silver: The rules should be enforced. An easy way to do that is writing the rules to match what currently occurs. As much griping as everyone does, the system mostly works. It’d work even better if everyone were on the same page about what is and isn’t allowed. So, this investigation could uncover details of how free agency actually happens. Then, the rules could be tailored around that.

This is clearly trending toward allowing contact with free agents sooner. That’s already happening, anyway. And billionaire team owners sure don’t want their privacy invaded for strict enforcement of a more-prohibitive system.

Tricky questions remain, though.

How will the NBA handle players tampering with each other? That’s forbidden by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but Silver has practically said he’ll allow it. And it happens plenty. I’d prefer it becomes officially allowed. Having unenforced rules can lead to selective enforcement.

When will teams and free agents be permitted to contact each other? Seasons end at different times, depending how far teams advance. Even with the starting period moved up, some teams will still seek an edge.

So, there’s no perfect solution.

But there are obvious problems with conditions now. It sounds like the NBA might finally be addressing them.