Griffin, Irving headline pool of players for Rising Stars game

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The NBA is trying to change the fortunes of what used to be the overlooked and uninteresting All-Star weekend Rookie Challenge (where the rookies played the sophomores).

This year TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal are picking teams playground style (Team Shaq and Team Chuck) from a pool of rookies and sophomores — and the pool is a deep one, the league announced Wednesday.

Blake Griffin — last year’s Rookie of the Year — will be joined by the two clear frontrunners for the award this year, Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio. I thought because he was a starter on Sunday’s big game Griffin would beg off this event, but the league has twisted his arm and gotten him to play.

The other sophomores in the event are: DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings), Landry Fields (New York Knicks), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz), Greg Monroe (Detroit Pistons), Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs), Evan Turner (Philadelphia 76ers), and John Wall (Washington Wizards).

The other rookies will be MarShon Brooks (New Jersey Nets), Brandon Knight (Detroit Pistons), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Markieff Morris (Phoenix Suns), Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kemba Walker (Charlotte Bobcats), and Derrick Williams (Minnesota Timberwolves).

Those guys will essentially (not literally) line up against the gym wall and be chosen one-by-one by Shaq and Barkley. That will make a mixed team for the Friday night of All-Star Weekend in Orlando.

If you’re looking for snubs from the list, Norris Cole and Jimmer Fredette come to mind, but not sure I’d bump any of those rookies on the list off for them.

This game will take place Feb. 24. The All-Star Game itself is Feb. 26. The reserves for the All-Star Game (all chosen by the coaches) will be announced on Thursday.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.

Kings’ rookie Marvin Bagley III out 10-14 days with left knee bone bruise

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The No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, Marvin Bagley III is having a solid season. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game coming off the bench. He’s got a good 59.2 true shooting percentage and the 6’11” big man gets most of his buckets at the rim or at least in the paint although he can hit threes when he steps out there (taking one a game but hitting 35.7 percent). He’s lost on defense, as most rookies are, but there is some potential there.

The Kings are going to have to get by without him for the next 10 to 14 days due to a bone bruise in his left knee, the team announced Friday night.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sacramento loss to Golden State, when Bagley was battling for a rebound and landed awkwardly. He got a bucket out of it because he was “cherry-picking” after not being able to run back down the court, but he waved to the coaches and asked out after scoring. Bagley left the game, had to be helped to the locker room and did not return.

With Bagley out expect to see a lot more Justin Jackson. Harry Giles III has been out of the rotation of late but he could potentially get a little run, too.

Kings troll Stephen Curry with moon landing video during player introductions

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Well played Sacramento.

Golden State came to town Friday night and during player introductions the Kings ran a video on their jumbotron of the moon landing to troll Stephen Curry.

Curry this past week said on a podcast that he didn’t think we landed on the moon, later saying it was obviously a joke but he would take NASA up on their offer of a tour of their lunar labs.

Curry can laugh at himself and gave the Kings and “A for effort” with the video.