Three Stars of the Night: Hello, Damian Lillard

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There’s nothing like a nice three-course NBA meal. The appetizer was fried something or other, as the Hawks burned the Bobcats with 57 percent shooting in a convincing 113-90 victory. The main entree involved the Knicks introducing the Lakers to the benefits of something called “passing” in a 116-107 beatdown. For dessert, Portland’s stud point guard Damian Lillard passed on the crème brûlée and ate up another one of France’s greatest imports instead in a 98-90 win over the Spurs. Here’s hoping you saved some room for the Three Stars of the Night:

Third Star: Tyson Chandler – (18 points, 5-for-5 FG shooting)

Unless you’re playing in MTV’s Rock and Jock basketball where there’s 10-pointers, there’s pretty much no way you should be able to score 18 points on just 5 field goal attempts. That’s the name of the game for Tyson Chandler, though. Chandler rolled hard to the rim and created contact, going to the line a whopping 14 times against a Lakers defense that rotates with the speed of a zombie stuck in quicksand. On the other end, Chandler did a decent job containing Dwight Howard and protecting the rim, but his value really showed after Carmelo Anthony left the game with an ankle injury. Nearly every successful fourth quarter possession for the Knicks generated from Tyson Chandler loosening things up in the high pick-and-roll, and his two back-tap offensive rebounds over Howard in the game’s final minute truly served as the dagger. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but this is the type of performance from Chandler we tend to take for granted.

Second Star: Carmelo Anthony – (30 points on 10-for-15 shooting in 23 minutes)

Anthony was absolutely cookin’ early on against the Lakers, helping the Knicks jump out to a huge 41-point first quarter. Melo dropped an insane 22 points in that first quarter (a career-high) and became the first player to score at least 30 points in 23 minutes or less since 2006. Anthony exited the game with a sprained ankle after a tough fall, but hopefully that won’t discourage him from putting his head down and getting to the rim like he has most of the season. Many hypothesized that the Knicks (and Anthony) would be better if he played at the 4, but I don’t think anyone saw this type of production coming. It’s very early for talks of titles or MVP awards, but it’s hard to argue that the Knicks and Melo aren’t, at the very least, contenders for both.

First Star: Damian Lillard – (29 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists)

How about that for a coming out party? Lillard has easily been the best rookie so far this year (get healthy and we’ll talk, Anthony Davis) and tonight he showed why. Young point guards can sometimes struggle to toe the line between distributing and scoring, but Lillard has a knack for picking his spots. His little step back jumper is a killer move, but Lillard’s control on drives to the rim is breathtaking to watch. The polished shooting stroke will garner most of the attention, but watch Lillard’s footwork sometime. He just utilizes space so well and rarely looks wild or out of control. It helped that Tony Parker had some tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back, but take nothing away from Lillard’s performance — he’s the real deal.

Rumor: Raptors trying to trade up in draft for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Raptors have major problems in the playoffs annually.

Is a coaching change enough to fix them?

Toronto already fired Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse after a highly successful regular season. Perhaps, major roster turnover could follow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a late lottery pick. The Raptors have no selections in this draft. So, acquiring one high enough to pick the Kentucky point guard would take plenty.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are stars. Toronto’s bench is stocked with solid young players. O.G. Anunoby is very promising.

So, the Raptors have pieces to move. The only question how much they’d package for a draft pick.

Toronto already has Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard. But Lowry is 32, and VanVleet will be a restricted free agent this summer. If they really believe in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Raptors should try to get him.

All that said, this is the time of year rumors – both credible and not – fly. So, it’s worth remaining skeptical while still considering the validity of what reputable reporters like Stein convey.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.

Report: Rudy Gay opting out of Spurs contract

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants to leave the Spurs, but he’s at their whims.

This doesn’t mean Rudy Gay will depart San Antonio, but he’s taking control of his future.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Gay’s option-year salary was $8,826,300.

I doubt Gay, who turns 32 this summer, will draw such a high starting salary on his next contract – though I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He could likely get a multi-year deal with a higher total value.

Or he could chase a ring elsewhere.

Remember, Gay gave up money to leave the Kings last summer. No matter how much the Leonard situation should make us rethink the Spurs’ culture, San Antonio probably isn’t “basketball hell.” Still, the Spurs clearly don’t look as appealing as they once did, and Gay has shown how much he values team quality.

Gay is coming off a nice season, and San Antonio might try to re-sign him. Danny Green has a $10 million player option for next season, which will swing whether the Spurs have the flexibility for a bigger move this summer.

Report: LeBron James’ camp likes Collin Sexton

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In 2014, LeBron James tweeted his fondness for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier. The Heat traded up to get Napier in the draft, but LeBron left for the Cavaliers that summer, anyway.

Could history repeat itself, this time in Cleveland?

LeBron has already talked up Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, but maybe LeBron and his camp want the Cavs to take a different point guard – Alabama’s Collin Sexton – with the No. 8 pick.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, via Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland:

The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.

LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.

That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.