David Stern: Be careful where you step in punishing Popovich, Spurs

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Three times last season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the same game. He’s done it before then as well. And he is far from the only coach to rest multiple key players in a game — Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and other coaches have done it.

And while fans and media sometimes grumbled — “people paid good money to see those stars” — those moves always came without comment from the NBA.

But when Popovich rested his big three on Thursday night for a much anticipated, nationally televised game against the Miami Heat, fans were upset and David Stern stepped in with a statement.

“I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

This post is not a debate about whether Popovich did the right thing — I think he was well within his rights, our own Brett Pollakoff and plenty fans who tweeted me disagree saying Popovich needed to think of the league and the fans. That is a discussion for another day. (The game being competitive down to the final minute also has little bearing here.)

My point is this — Stern is about to change either NBA rules or at least how the rules are interpreted and enforced by going after the Spurs with some kind of fine and punishment. And once he does that he sets a new precedent that has to be carried out for every team all season long.

And everywhere Stern and the league step with this new rule there are landmines.

With a punishment to the Spurs, the league is saying Popovich’s move — resting healthy players at the end of a road trip even if they are tired — is bad for the overall business of the NBA and cannot be tolerated. While Stern has always been about marketing and league perception first and foremost, he has not ventured into telling coaches how to coach before and a punishment to the Spurs changes that.

David Stern may feel the fan’s frustration from Thursday but he has a lot of questions to think about if he is going to punish the Spurs:

• Why is this situation in Miami a violation of league rules when Popovich did the same thing in Portland last year and it wasn’t? More to the point, how is that line drawn? What is and is not a violation?

• Is it something that is not okay to do in November but would be permitted later in the season, say March? Is the disappointed 12-year-old who doesn’t get to see his favorite players in November justified in his anger but the 12-year-old who has tickets the final week of the season is not?

• Is resting players something that cannot be done for nationally televised games but is okay to do in other games? Does what market the game is in matter? To use the Spurs case as an example, was it wrong to do this in Miami on a Thursday but would have been okay in Orlando on Wednesday? (Be careful in saying publicly that the fans and ratings in big markets are more important that smaller ones.)

• How do you define what players can and cannot be sat? If it is wrong for Popovich to sit major stars like Duncan and Parker, what about if Bucks coach Scott Skiles sits Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to rest them next week. Is that different? What players can and can’t be sat out? Is this a burden that falls only on teams with superstar players?

• Stern can’t use the “competitiveness” argument because the Spurs almost won that game, this is about the NBA’s star system and Stern pretty much has to own up to that here.

• What happens when Popovich wants to rest Duncan and to avoid a league fine Duncan suddenly has a minor foot or knee injury? By just a few weeks into any season you could make a case for every NBA player having a minor injury they should rest.

Wherever Stern steps on this issue there are potential landmines. He can’t say its wrong to do this in Miami but fine in Portland or other smaller market. He doesn’t want to get into dictating who a coach can and can’t play, but this skirts up against it. There is no easy way to define it. If he starts trying to define it by being competitive the Spurs were that.

In the past the league did not take action in these situations. Stern is changing how the rules are enforced if he acts to fine the Spurs here, and he is setting a new precedent that is going to apply to every team in the league going forward. He better think this through. Carefully.

Or it might be smarter if he just walked away from it altogether.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.