NBA quarter pole awards: Yes, LeBron is the MVP

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We are a quarter of the way into the NBA season, which is far too early to start talking about end of the season awards, playoffs or much of anything else.

I’m going to anyway.

Here are the awards in a few categories as we reach the quarter pole. We’ve got a long back stretch not to mention the final straightaway to go, but right now we’re starting to get a feel for the races (and some other random categories thrown in).

League MVP: LeBron James. A bunch of LeBron haters just read that then used my name in conjuction with some anatomically impossible acts, but it’s the truth — LeBron has been far and away the best player in the league so far. His PER is more than 8-points higher than the guy in second (Kobe Bryant, technically Manu Ginobili is closer but he has been out). Michael Jordan never had a PER this high for an entire season. He is averaging 29.7 points (on 56.4 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists plus a couple of blocks per game. He is getting to the free throw line more, his post game is better, his shot selection is better, his midrange jumper is improved… and he was already the best player in the league. Kobe and Kevin Durant can battle it out for a distant second with a lot of ground to close.

Best team in the league: The Miami Heat. Yes, the Chicago Bulls have played better team defense and have a better record, plus with the addition of Richard Hamilton their offense is vastly improved. Miami has had injuries (Dwyane Wade is still out) but their new up-tempo offense, the addition of Norris Cole and Shane Battier, plus getting Mike Miller healthy means they are still the team to beat. Miami made the finals last year and are better this year. The Bulls and Thunder can make a serious run at them, but watching the Heat get some easy buckets with their new offense makes me think they are still the team holding up the trophy at the end of the year.

Who are the dark horse contenders: Denver in the West, Orlando in the East: Denver is playing fantastic team basketball — fast and good on offense, with impressive ball sharing and balance. If they bring back some of Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith after the Chinese season ends, they get that much better.

Orlando (despite the off night in Boston) has the best center in the game and has surrounded him with shooters. They run the pick-and-roll well and Ryan Anderson is a perfect fit in the offense (he is four, the guy you want to help off of to Dwight Howard, but he makes you pay for that with his threes). They play good defense and know who they are. If they keep Howard and can survive the rumor mill, they are the team that could threaten the big two in the East in the playoffs (but most likely they are out in the second round, then will Howard stay?).

Most fun team to watch: Minnesota Timberwolves. The Clippers are the obvious choice here — and with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, D’Andre Jordan and the rest they certainly are a good choice. But I find myself gravitating toward Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and the Timberwolves. They are a team getting better every game and that makes them fun to watch.

Most disappointing team: New York Knicks. I thought going into the season they were the third best team in the East, but not only are they losing they look ugly doing it. Carmelo Anthony is not a point forward and Mike D’Antoni has ill-fitting pieces for his system. They need Baron Davis, and I don’t love Baron Davis as a savior. And somebody start using Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler better in the pick-and-roll, they are beasts. Honorable mention to the Celtics and Lakers.

Rookie of the Year: Ricky Rubio. This is shaping up as a two point guard battle, with Kyrie Irving as the other guy. And certainly Rubio has more talent around him to work with, but he comes in a much more polished floor general and a guy who can command a game. Plus his shot is better than we expected at 37.1 percent from three (the mechanics are still a little odd and shot-put like, but fixable).

Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden. It’s not close. There are the Williamses — Lou in Philly and Mo with the Clippers — who are playing well, but the only way Harden loses this is if Scott Brooks sobers up and moves Harden to the starting lineup.

Coach of the Year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia. This is one where there are few good candidates — Nate McMillan in Portland, Frank Vogel in Indiana, George Karl in Denver — and it is really open. But I’ll go with Collins, who has given Philadelphia a system that has made them the story of the young season.

Thing we’ve not liked this season: Sloppy basketball. The lack of training camp, the condensed schedules leaving less practice time, conditioning, it has all led to much sloppier basketball then we saw in years past. It feels like preseason games far too many nights. It’s not pretty to watch. The blame goes on everyone — owners and players — because they wanted as much money as they could after the lockout and gave us this ugly schedule with ugly, sloppy games. It’s hard to watch at points.

Report: Suns signing Cheick Diallo to two-year contract

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The Suns went old in the draft, picking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson at No. 11.

Phoenix will go younger in free agency with 22-year-old Cheick Diallo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Barring another move, the Suns have only the minimum available. Diallo will get $1,678,854 next season and $1,824,003 the following season.

The No. 33 pick in the 2016 draft, Diallo worked his way into the low end of the rotation during his three years with the Pelicans. He’s a hustle big, committed rebounder and athletic player. But at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not strong enough to bang with most centers. His skill level is low for power forward.

Phoenix will stick him behind Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky in the frontcourt. Diallo might receive situation minutes, but he must develop further to hold staying power.

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.