The Nets, “Community,” and the darkest timeline

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In the Community (Thursdays this…. sometime in the coming months… on NBC!) episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the writers took the ol’ alternate timeline theory and spread it out like a Nuggets fast break. The concept is simple. The cast of man characters are at an apartment, sitting around a table. The door buzzer buzzes with the arrival of the pizza guy. Someone has to go all the way downstairs to get it. The main character, Jeff, rolls a die to determine who will go get the pizza. Abed, the so-meta-it-hurts character who is constantly referring to how the characters are interacting in a show, comments that Jeff has now created six alternate universes (there’s actually seven, since Jeff is purposefully excluding himself by rolling the die). The rest of the show goes through what happens in those six varying timelines.

Observe:

Now some things happen in almost every timeline (Britta trying to sing “Roxeanne” and getting shut down by Jeff, Jeff getting injured, etc.) because some things are inevitable, but the branching system of scenarios speaks to the consequence of both decision and random, unstoppable luck.

And this is a lot like what is happening with the New Jersey Nets at the moment.

There are two ways of looking at this. Either they already rolled the die, so to speak, prior the season, in not acquiring Dwight Howard before the Magic took him off the market (or “off the market” if you’re into that kind of thing), or they’re facing rolling the die this season with whether they can get him at the deadline or not.

If the die has already been cast, this is, in fact, the darkest timeline.

Brook Lopez? Broke his foot. Kris Humphries? Shoulder injury. Deron Williams? Can’t shoot, and looks like he’s just about checked out… five games in. The rest of the roster? Abject disaster. They won their opener against Washington, after being down 21. That should have been a sign right there, and says more about the Wizards than the Nets. Since then it’s been a steady string of beatdowns.

And that’s how insane all of this can be, with the way teams can shift dramatically within the course of a matter of days following a decision. This is one of the few elements of the NBA that are actually a reflection of real life, where similarly any decision you make can impact the next and the next. In essence, a butterfly flaps its wings and the Nets lose Deron Williams after having traded the farm for him.

Let’s explore some possibilities.

Reality 1: The Nets neglected to trade for Howard when they had a chance, and now that Lopez is injured leading to a deep hole for them to dig out of and more wear and tear for Williams handling the load along with the short-term injury to Humphries, the result is Howard becoming turned off by the prospect of the Nets and not approving a trade there. He either departs in free agency or via trade to Los Angeles or Dallas. The result? The Nets are crushed beyond all reason and are somehow left with an even worse team than they had the year they were epic bad back in 2009. It was an inherent risk when trading for Williams before he sought out the Nets, essentially gambling that you could build around Williams, then striking out on the big name addition.

Reality 2: The Nets pulled in a third team back in mid-December and the result is Deron Williams and Dwight Howard anchoring a new Nets team. With just those two and a pile of bones, the Nets are able to make a steamy delicious basketball stew going into their first year in Brooklyn. This is obviously not our reality.

Reality 3: King is somehow able to pull of such a trade between now and the deadline. Nets fans have reminded me approximately 700 times that King loves to involve three and four teams in a trade, somehow never commenting on the fact that very rarely has he been established as the winner in such a trade. But let’s say he’s able to. From there the question is whether just Deron Williams and Howard, along with either Humphries or Marshon Brooks (it’s assumed one or both would have to be moved in any deal), along with likely Hedo Turkoglu (who’s actually playing surprisingly well this season) is enough to make a foundation to convince Williams and Howard to stay. Let’s say it does. The Nets become perennial contenders with Howard and Williams, though facing the same struggles as the Knicks in regards to building a team around the two guys with little else (again, besides Humphries or Brooks, and potentially Anthony Morrow if they hang on to him).

Reality 4: The same as the above happens but the half-season run ends with the Nets narrowly missing the playoffs, Howard decides he hates the cold and he and Williams both book it in free agent, leaving millions and millions of dollars on the table. (Nets fans call this “the impossible nightmare” due to the money they would have to surrender.) The Nets in this scenario lose everything they gave up in the Utah deal (picks, Derrick Favors, Devin Harris), and whatever they give up in the Howard trade (picks, Lopez, and having to take on Turkoglu’s salary) and wind up with nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. They have all the cap room in the world but will have struck out on the following players in free agency or trade talks: Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard.  At that point you’re running out of All-Stars to try and buy yourself. This is, in fact, “the darkest timeline.” And the monkey probably steals King’s pen.

Reality 5: The Nets suddenly turn things around. Williams get healthy and back in form, and puts together an MVP season. Alongside Kris Humphries who heals and Brook Lopez who not only recovers at full strength, but actually learns to crash the glass, the Nets take off like a rocket, shocking the world by not only making the playoffs as the sixth seed, but upsetting the New York Knicks in the first round! After this heartwarming season, Dwight Howard is so sold on the team, that he not only signs with New Jersey, but takes less money up front in order to allow the team to grow. This is the Nets version of Troy and Britta getting together. Also, you’d have to be high to think this happens.

Reality 6: The Nets did trade for Howard back in early December, but the match between he and Williams was so terribly bad that it flamed out after one year. Deron Williams re-signs, but Howard heads elsewhere in a sign-and-trade. Bizarre.

The point in all this is that so much of the Nets’ future depends on how December 9th through mid-March go. The Nets have to manage to not scare off Howard, and to pull off the trade, and have it work out, in order for everything to fall into place. But at least they have a management that is actively pursuing rolling the die. Because the worst thing you can do is be a bystander and watch as chaos unravels your world without your having had any say in the matter.

“Evil Dwight and Evil Der-on!”

Watch Zion score 35 leading Pelicans to statement win over Suns

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson apologized for his 360-degree, one-handed slam dunk that angered the Phoenix Suns at the end of a game that the New Orleans Pelicans were already going to win.

Still, the crowd-pleasing play symbolized Williamson’s potential to rise above the disappointments of previous seasons and live up to the extraordinary hype that followed him into the NBA.

The dunk contest-style jam capped a season-high 35-point performance for Williamson, and the Pelicans beat the Suns 128-117 on Friday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

“That was a little out of character for me,” Williamson said of the game-ending dunk, after which players and coaches from both teams swarmed around one another angrily as officials frantically stepped in to separate them.

“I got carried away a little bit. I admit that,” Williamson said. “But I was in that locker room when my brothers were down because the Suns sent us home (from the playoffs) last year. That’s a tough moment to be a part of. So, in that moment got carried away. I admit that.”

Williamson missed all of last season – his third in the NBA – with a foot injury and came into this campaign having missed more games in his career than he’d played. Lately, he’s resembled a dynamo, averaging 29.5 points during a six-game Pelicans winning streak – all while New Orleans star forward Brandon Ingram has been out with a foot injury.

Jose Alvarado came off the bench to add 20 points for New Orleans, which had to hold on in the opener of a two-game series after the Suns hit 15 of their 22 made 3-pointers in the second half to erase a 16-point Pelicans lead.

CJ McCollum had 18 points for the Pelicans, who have won six straight and 11 of 13, and afterward questioned the Suns’ indignance over Williamson’s dunk.

“They got to get back on defense if they don’t want us to dunk the ball,” McCollum said.

Before Pelicans coach Willie Green took his first head coaching job in New Orleans, he was Suns coach Monty Williams’ assistant, and they remain close friends.

Both coaches downplayed the heated exchanges.

“That stuff doesn’t bother me at all, man,” Williams said. “It’s part of basketball. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was a bunch of guys out there yelling and screaming and not even pushing. Just everybody trying to stand their ground.”

Green, who briefly had to be held back by assistant coaches, called it, “Just a little brush up. Nothing major.”

But Phoenix guard Cameron Payne explained why the Suns reacted angrily.

“There was just no sportsmanship and we don’t really like that,” Payne said. “We do the right thing. I felt like they should’ve done the right thing and they didn’t. We didn’t take it well.”

Larry Nance Jr. had 17 points and nine rebounds for New Orleans, while Jonas Valanciunas overcame a 4-of-16 shooting night to finish with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Deandre Ayton had 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 24 points for the Suns (16-10), who lost for the fourth time in five games to fall 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans (17-8) atop the Western Conference.

“This is not us,” Williams said. “We’re just giving up way too many points in the paint and in general. … I’ve got to get the guys in the game that are going to be physical and smart enough to handle the pressure that they give you in the paint.”

New Orleans led 85-69 when Naji Marshall hit the first of his two 3s in the second half, but Devin Booker and Damion Lee responded with back-to-back 3s and the Suns kept chipping away with accurate perimeter shooting.

Torrey Craig‘s 3 tied it at 105 and Payne’s deep 3 put Phoenix back in front 108-107.

But McCollum responded with a 3 and Williamson intercepted Booker’s pass and bolted the other way for a forceful one-handed dunk with 3:59 left. New Orleans did not trail again.

The game was a rematch of the first round of last season’s playoffs, which Phoenix won. Intensity was high and the crowd engaged from the outset, heartily booing Paul as he handled the ball on the opening possession.

“There’s tension there all the time,” Alvarado said. “Every game we play them is going to be physical, really locked in. . It’s always going to be a playoff game to us because we’re never going to let that go until we eliminate them.”

Alvarado scored 13 points in his first six minutes after coming off the bench, hitting three from deep in that stretch and also going 1-on-1 along the baseline against the 11-inch-taller Jock Landale and spun in a layup.

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged the start of a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in the extra frame — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.