NBA Summer League: Where Chris Copeland comes to shine

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The NBA Summer League season continued on Sunday with seven more games of players looking to reach the next level by way of a couple solid exhibition games in lovely Las Vegas. It doesn’t seem like anyone is a can’t miss signee quite yet, but the odds began to favor a few players that have begun to stand out as games extended to both the Cox Pavilion and Thomas & Mack Center.

Chris Copeland continued his run of impressive play for the New York Knicks as the 6-foot-8 power forward formerly of Colorado scored 17 points and swatted two shots in a 25-point loss to the Phoenix Suns. Copeland wasn’t on the radar of hardly any American basketball fans considering the former Colorado Buffalo has spent the past few years bouncing around overseas in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Spain, but he’s looked like a hidden gem thus far in Vegas.

The 28-year-old is an undersized power forward as far as NBA standards and doesn’t quite have the tenacity most are looking for from undersized bigs at the next level, but he’s proven to be a pretty good player in this setting through the first couple of Knicks games. If an NBA contract doesn’t await, he shouldn’t have any trouble making plenty of money in Europe next season — while probably moving up from the Belgium league, to boot.

Some of the other standouts from Sunday night included the following layers:

  • On the other end of the court from Copeland was Deshawn Sims, a former D-Leaguer who has also spent time playing in South Korea, Puerto Rico and Greece prior to joining the Phoenix Suns’ Summer League entry. Sims wasn’t nearly as good as Markieff Morris — who was clearly the best player on the Phoenix roster — but showed some nice things on his way to 16 points, three rebounds and two 3-pointers to boot. Diante Garrett and Marcus Landry, brother of Carl, also played well. Landry scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds whereas Garrett narrowly missed a double-double with eight points and 10 assists.
  • Damian Lillard had what might’ve been the most impressive Summer League debut for a rookie this season. The Portland Trail Blazers’ first round pick scored 25 points and dished four assists while fellow first round pick Meyers Leonard put up a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Luke Babbitt was also impressive for the Blazers with 19 points and 10 rebounds — while shooting 4-of-9 from behind the 3-point line, no less — though Wesley Matthews struggled to seven points and three turnovers in less than 15 minutes of playing time.
  •  The rookies on the other side of the ball weren’t quite as impressive in defeat, but the New Orleans Hornets have some solid players in Vegas. Austin Rivers got off to a bit of a bad start with 14 points on 3-of-13 shooting and Xavier Henry’s 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting was less than impressive, but it was fun seeing Denzel Bowles do his thing with 18 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.
  • In the second game of the day, Josh Carter might’ve helped make a name for himself when his Denver Nuggets played the Dallas Mavericks. The former Texas A&M standout was inserted into the starting lineup and responded by showing his shooting is where it needs to be for him to play in the NBA by hitting three of his five attempts from beyond the 3-point arc to tally 15 total points.
  • Dallas Mavericks guard Dominique Jones played very well on his way to 32 points and eight rebounds, but he unfortunately was unable to show he has the pass-first mentality some had hoped for to allow him to play the point guard position. As far as this year’s picks were concerned, Jae Crowder showed the hustle he’ll need to exhibit this fall on his way to nine points and five rebounds — though his inability to score efficiently (4-of-12 from the field) probably didn’t help his cause.
  • The Toronto Raptors looked awful on their way to just 59 points on Sunday afternoon, but it was a welcome sight to see Chris Wright on the court. Wright played for the Golden State Warriors last season, but was a surprise addition to the Raptors this offseason as it was expected he’d be able to compete for a roster spot this fall. The athlete still trying to figure out his basketball skills scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds despite shooting 3-of-9 from the field.
  • The team that held Toronto  to just 59 points was the Miami Heat and, though it looked like the majority of the flaws were simply due to inefficient offense, the Heat brought a pretty talented backcourt to Vegas. Terrel Harris and Norris Cole, both of which can count themselves as NBA champions, combined to score 14 and 13 points respectively — while Harris added four steals to boot.
  • Kawhi Leonard was the expected standout for the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday afternoon while Cory Joseph showed some signs of potential, but the team’s third-leading scorer was a bit less likely. Longtime Austin Toros center Eric Dawson was given the start for the Spurs on Sunday and delivered a solid performance with 12 points, 13 rebounds and and a block while showing that he might have a chance at making the Spurs roster as an end of the bench big man.
  • The Atlanta Hawks — the team the Spurs beat — didn’t have a ton of bright spots but Keith Benson again showed that he can play with heart that wasn’t seen enough during his rookie season. The slender forward from Oakland (Mich.) scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds while fellow former D-Leaguer Brad Wanamaker had nine points and eight rebounds. John Jenkins, the team’s draft pick, wasn’t as stellar as some had hoped with 13 points and three missed 3-pointers.
  •   The Cleveland Cavaliers are without Kyrie Irving due to a freak injury and unfortunately first round draft pick Dion Waiters was unable to impress in his absence as the guard went 3-for-11 and finished with just 10 points. The team’s other draft pick, Tyler Zeller, was quite a bit better with 14 points and five rebounds … though nothing he did was overwhelmingly amazing.
  • The Charlotte Bobcats missed out on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist due to a sore knee — called precautionary — but the team still had plenty of players on its current roster in the game. Kemba Walker scored 13 points with four assists, Bismack Biyombo picked up six points to go with his eight rebounds and Byron Mullens had a solid nine and eight.
  • The NBA D-League Select Team shocked the world on Sunday night as they mostly dominated on the way to an 85-78 victory over the Washington Wizards. The roster is perfectly made for head coach Eric Musselman‘s defensive system and it showed as they looked like they might blow out Washington. Andre Emmett led the team with 17 points and four assists while Jerry Smith had important 11 points — the majority of which came in the third quarter as the D-League squad came back.
  • Washington was led by Bradley Beal as the third overall pick scored 20 points on 15 shots — including going just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc — but the team didn’t seem to go to him enough early if they were trying to win. One bright spot might’ve been Earl Calloway, who played with Tomas Satoransky in Spain this season, but his 12 points and six rebounds weren’t enough to outweigh four rather costly turnovers.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the rest of the teams play on Sunday to see if any new stars are born.

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.