The New Orleans Hornets and a matter of serendipity, not conspiracy

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Maybe they’re right.

Maybe the league, in the face of unfathomable depths of reason to avoid the concept like the plague (which I have outlined here), really did rig the 2012 NBA Lottery in order to help the Hornets after a rough year, or dot the i’s on the sale of the team to Tom Benson, or to make up for the Chris Paul trade intervention, or whatever. It’s possible. The league is capable of doing it, even of keeping evidence from leaking. It could have happened.

And if that’s the way you want to look at it, God Bless you. I’ve long said what makes the NBA great is the insanity of it all, not its greatness. We like to pretend it’s Jordan’s push-off and jumper, Magic’s Skyhook, Kobe’s lob to Shaq, the steal by Bird, the passion, the drama, the glory of championship greatness. But in reality? It’s DeShawn Stevenson’s neck tattoo, it’s Adam Morrison, it’s Looney Tunes halftime shows, and Carl Landry’s teeth getting embedded in Dirk’s arm. It’s conspiracy theories about frozen envelopes and vetoed trades. This is the tapestry of the league.

But for me? The only way I can look at the Hornets’ acquisition of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft is serendipity.

This is painful, but we must start here.

Anthony Davis desperately needed to not go to the Charlotte Bobcats. This is not another treatise about how terrible the Bobcats are, about them being “worst of all time” because they’re not. I’ve seen worse teams. This year. There are teams that played with less focus, less effort, less heart. The Bobcats are short on talent and ability and skill and lots of other things but that doesn’t make them irredeemable. It just makes them bad. I want to say that Davis not landing to them is the best thing for them as well, that they need a scorer like Bradley Beal or a game-changer like MKG on the wing. But I’d be lying. They need a franchise player, and the only one in this draft, even though I’m more bullish on this draft than most, is Anthony Davis.

But the thing I want most for rookies coming in, because I genuinely want them all to succeed, is that they find the right place for them. And that was not with the Bobcats. Davis needs three things. Stability, because all rookies need that, the possibility of success, because even if they’re terrible they need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and a point guard. Davis has an offensive repertoire which wasn’t showcased at Kentucky. But it’s going to take him a few years to work out the kinks and get it up and running. In the meantime, he needs a point guard who can run the offense and get him the ball. I think D.J. Augustin is a talented scoring guard who could contribute if he were to escape Charlotte. But he’s not a great fit with Davis. Don’t even get me started on Kemba Walker. It’s unfortunate, but maybe it’s for the best that Charlotte didn’t get Davis. And maybe the odds will work out and Beal, or Drummond, or MKG will be that player for Charlotte. God willing, because I’m tired of everyone dumping on a team down on its luck because it makes them feel better.

But no, those things I mentioned that Davis needs?

That’s New Orleans.

It’s stable. You can question that given the league’s reign over them as owners, but the fact is the owner of the Saints took over. That’s the shot in the arm they needed. Monty Williams and Dell Demps… survived! Do you know how improbable that is? If I were Dell Demps, I would have set my office on fire as my resignation this season. If I were Monty Williams… I would have turned into late-era Don Nelson. Let’s just say that.

But here they are. Demps, who has brought in high quality players, and diamonds in the rough. And Williams. I was livid when a Los Angeles writer said that the Lakers being challenged (and still winning!) by the Hornets was a disgrace. It was proof of how little many beat writers and columnists flip on league pass. Because you can’t have watched this year’s Hornets team and thought they were a disgrace. The hardest part of a losing year is getting the team to come out and give a crap. Would you, if you knew that winning meant nothing? But there the Hornets were. They were prepared. They were focused. They wanted to win. They didn’t, because they were without talent. They didn’t have enough good players, and their best player was out with injury. Now they’re reinvigorated.

Demps has been given the player he needs to build around. You don’t think Demps, who worked under R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, knows how to build around an elite big man? That’s the model.  And Williams is a relentless defensive coach, who has been gifted arguably the best defensive prospect in a decade. Davis is walking into a situation with a coach who knows how to use him. Pick and roll on offense, tenacious defense. Davis is in a great position to learn what he needs to and excel off the bat.

They have a point guard, in Jarrett Jack, who can run the offense and feed Davis. He’s excited to have Davis and wants to win. Jack’s a professional and not a diva. But it’s not just those two. Davis won’t be expected to score 18 a game. He’s got Eric Gordon. (For those of you raising his impending free agency, stop. No one goes loose off their rookie contract, the money’s too important, and anyway, you think with a legitimate chance to win next year, the Hornets are letting Gordon walk?) They have scoring balance. And this is before the No.10 pick and adding Damian Lillard or Kendall Marshall or Terrence Jones, or whoever. The Hornets are set up perfectly.

You can choose to think that makes it all the more suspicious that they wound up with Davis. But they had better than a 1-in-10 shot at Davis. They set themselves up success and better yet they’re in a position to set up Davis for success.

You can see a dark cloud on the horizon, I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for a team that didn’t make things wore for itself in the middle of misery. I’m loathe to throw out “Shawshank Redemption” lines because another writer has made that his trademark. But watching Monty Williams beaming on lottery night, this was the only thing I could think of.

“Monty Williams. Crawled through a river of (expletive) and came out clean on the other side.”

You can call it conspiracy. I call it the universe throwing us a bone in this darkened, injury-filled, lockout year.

Blake Griffin enjoying resurgence a year after trade to Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Blake Griffin doesn’t need to jump over any cars to be a hit in the Motor City.

A year after arriving in Detroit with his career at a crossroads, a more earthbound Griffin is doing all he can to shake the Pistons out of their decade-long malaise.

“He does a little bit of everything for us. Probably one of our better pick-and-roll players, passers, scorers, leader by example, just so many things,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “His basketball intellect, for me, is one that’s been the most impressive of our players. I didn’t know that about Blake, because when you think about him, you think about the high-flying dunker and the muscular guy in the post, but there’s a lot more to that than just his dunking and athleticism.”

A month shy of his 30th birthday, there are fewer above-the-rim highlights but Griffin’s first full season with Detroit has been one of his best. He’s averaging a career-high 26.3 points per game while making strides as a perimeter shooter, and he earned his first All-Star selection since 2015.

Most importantly, he’s been able to stay healthy, and although the Pistons still have a losing record, they’re in the playoff race, largely because of Griffin.

“As a player, you always believe in yourself,” Griffin said. “I knew I had another level to go to, and being healthy was part of that. … But the beginning of the year, my goal isn’t to only make the All-Star team. It’s much more than that.”

In July 2017, Griffin agreed to a $171 million, five-year deal with the Clippers, the team that drafted him with the first overall pick in 2009. Less than a year later, he was abruptly traded – from glitzy Los Angeles to a Detroit franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. It was a risky move for the Pistons, given Griffin’s high salary and the fact that he has only three seasons with more than 67 games played. They gave up a first-round draft pick in the trade, and when they missed the playoffs anyway, that was the end of Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as coach and president of basketball operations.

For Griffin, it was an inauspicious start to the Detroit portion of his career, and there’s been frustration this season as well. The Pistons are 26-30, tied for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference. Even if they do make the playoffs, they don’t look like a team ready to make a run.

But for Griffin individually, the season has been a significant step forward. The man who once pulled off a two-handed dunk while jumping over the front of a car is a bit less of an athletic sensation in Detroit, but the blue-collar elements of his game are still plenty effective. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Griffin can muscle his way to the basket and draw fouls, and he gives the Pistons another tough rebounder alongside Andre Drummond. Griffin is also leading the team in assists.

“I think for me, my job is to make his game as easy as possible on the offensive end. When I get him open, he usually makes the right plays,” Drummond said. “It’s a nightmare for teams. You’ve got to really pick your poison, who you really want to get going, and it’s scary when we both get it going.”

Griffin has expanded his offensive repertoire to include the 3-point shot in recent years. He has already made a career-high 134 3s this season, shooting a credible 37 percent from long distance.

“It helps a lot, especially in today’s NBA, with everybody spacing the floor a little bit more, and playing with a guy like Dre, who’s so effective inside,” Griffin said. “To be able to give him a little bit more space is a good thing. I always see guys working to expand their range, and when you do, you see them add years to their career.”

When Griffin joined the Clippers, he added some legitimacy and excitement to what had been one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises. Now the Pistons are a team that could use some buzz. The results recently have been mixed: Griffin has been terrific, but the team as a whole has remained mediocre.

But Detroit won four of five heading into the All-Star break, and if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they’ll have Griffin to thank.

“He’s thinking the game. He’s a couple steps ahead,” Casey said. “I’ve had a lot of great forwards, power forwards, and he’s right up there with the best, whether it’s Dirk (Nowitzki), (Kevin) Garnett, Detlef Schrempf – just a lot of great players that I’ve been around. He’s right in that category.”

 

Hawks GM: “If we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka (Doncic)”

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It was the Draft day trade that shook the NBA last June.

In a deal made agreed to before the picks were made, the Atlanta Hawks traded Luka Doncic, taken No. 3, to Dallas for Trae Young (taken fifth), and the Hawks got the Mavericks 2019 first-round pick (top five protected). It forever linked Doncic and Young in the minds of fans (fair or not).

Doncic has gone on to become a historically good rookie — averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, he is the Mavs best player, is the runaway Rookie of the Year, and is already a star (who fans almost voted into the All-Star Game) — which has led to a lot of criticism for Atlanta in some quarters for not keeping the pick and Doncic. That despite the fact Young has played well after a slow start (20 points per game with 35.9 percent shooting from three in his last 20 games) and the Hawks got another pick in the deal.

On the Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said that the team would have drafted Doncic if they kept the pick (hat tip Real GM).

“Not a lot of people know this…if we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka. We had worked with his agent, he did a physical with us that morning in New York…but then Dallas came in an hour or so before the draft. I told them all along that it would take another lottery pick for us to slide back, and that’s when the conversations got started.”

Interestingly, Schlenk added that the team’s analytics department, projecting into next season, played a big role in the deal getting done.

“Our analytics staff was predicting Dallas to finish 8th this year,” added Schlenk.

As of right now (and before the lottery shakes things up), the Mavericks are projected to pick ninth. If that remains, Dallas has a 20.2 percent chance to jump into the top four with the new lottery odds. Otherwise, the pick will go to Atlanta.

Despite Doncic’s play, it’s too early to fully judge the trade. How good will Young become? How high is Doncic’s ceiling? What happens with the future first-round pick, and who will the Hawks get with it?

For a rebuilding team like the Hawks, a second lottery pick to move back a couple of spots can make sense — so long as the guy your trading doesn’t become a superstar. Doncic may become that. Atlanta was higher on Young than many teams, and he has rewarded that faith of late, but how good will he ultimately be? It’s not quite a Sam Bowie pick, but some fans may ultimately see it that way if Doncic’s star continues to rise. However, as Schlenk explained, there were logical reasons to make the trade.

One last look back: Best dunks of All-Star Weekend (VIDEO)

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Defense? That’s one thing that rarely makes an appearance All-Star weekend.

Combine that with the game’s best athletes and what you get are three days of insane dunks.

The NBA put this together, the best dunks of All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Enjoy.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: ‘Recruiting process is really going alright…I’m trying’

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LeBron James went out of his way to say he was not recruiting guys on his free-agent heavy All-Star Team.

Bradley Beal had no such hesitation, he tried to recruit guys, as he told Chase Huges of NBC Sports Washington.

“The recruiting process is really going alright. It’s going alright. I’m trying,” Beal said. “This is new for me. I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing what guys are looking for.”

Beal was too smart to name names — that would have brought a fine from the league — but he said some guys asked if he was happy where he was, while other guys he talked to about the possibilities in Washington.

The problem is while the Wizards will have some cap space after trading Otto Porter and Markieff Morris (and assuming they don’t pick up the option on Jabari Parker) but they will be nowhere near the max cap space needed to land the elite free agents at the All-Star Game (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, etc.). Even the second-tier All-Star free agents such as Khris Middleton will get max offers. Same with players who just missed the game, such as Tobias Harris.

If the Wizards renounce free agents they can get to $9 million in cap space, stretch and waive Ian Mahinmi and they can get to $18 million. That’s the top end. Meaning the Wizards will have room to make moves for good rotation players, but with John Wall‘s supermax extension kicking in at $38 million next season flexibility is limited. Genuine upgrades will be hard to come by.

Predicting what Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld will do next summer is a fool’s errand, but Beal is doing his part to try and bring more talent into Washington.