Three Stars of the Night: Go-Go Goran and a Game-Winner

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We had a pretty good slate of games on Thursday night, didn’t we?

The Knicks grinded out a combined 14-for-44 showing from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith for a tough win against the Celtics, the Raptors had a little late game magic of their own against Orlando, and in the nightcap, the Suns stayed undefeated in the Lindsey Hunter era by upsetting the Clippers. We’re all about synergy, so we have stars for three games. To the stars:

Third Star: Rajon Rondo – (23 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists)

If Paul Pierce could catch the ball he may be a little higher, but so it goes. Rondo’s triple-double performance was pretty impressive, and his deadly mid-range jumper kept the Celtics alive late in the game. It’s a common misconception that Rondo “can’t shoot” but he’s actually just limited to where he can shoot. Rondo shoots over 50 percent from 16-23 feet, living on little pull-up jumpers from the elbow. If there’s a criticism of Rondo’s game this year (and there always is), it’s that he hasn’t been aggressive enough in going to the rim. There’s some weight to that — Rondo has barely shot more attempts at the basket than from 16-23 feet, but against the Knicks, he took it right to the rack with more frequency. Although his fourth triple-double this season wasn’t enough wasn’t enough, it’s hard to point the finger at Rondo for Boston’s failures this season.

Second Star: Goran Dragic – (24 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds)

With no Chris Paul to worry about, Dragic was masterful on the offensive end, often securing switches in the pick and roll and then blowing right by a big ill-equipped to stay in front of him. Dragic’s 19 point first half made the upset seem attainable for the Suns, and the momentum kept rolling after that. When Dragic is aggressive and looks to turn the corner, he’s capable of big scoring nights. You can count the good defensive performances the Suns have had on one hand this year, but defense often led to offense, and Dragic was the generator of most of the positive action all night. Dragic and the Suns are playing like they’ve started a new season (not like the Lakers, like an actual new season), and it’s hard not to feel good that they were rewarded with a win. They very clearly played harder than the Clippers did, but it was Dragic’s skill that made sure the effort wasn’t in vain.

First Star: DeMar DeRozan – (22 points, 7 assists, game-winning shot)

What a fourth quarter for DeRozan. After a lackluster performance through three periods, DeRozan started to get his jumper to fall in the final frame, and it led to a 14-point fourth quarter when the Raptors needed it most. Tying his career-high in assists (yes, it’s 7) was a nice bonus, but DeRozan’s spot as the top star was secured in a tie game with just four seconds on the clock. Witness:

Report: Spurs hearing out Kawhi Leonard trade offers, including from Lakers

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The Spurs shot down Kawhi Leonard trade offers before the trade deadline. They brushed off Leonard trade offers earlier this offseason.

Then, the already strained situation got even worse.

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers. He met with Gregg Popovich this week in San Diego, reportedly directly telling the president-coach he wants out.

What are the Spurs doing now?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers are in that mix.

The Spurs can try to mend their relationship with Leonard. They could even use a super-max contract – projected to be worth $219 million over five years – to aid that process. They don’t have to trade him.

But the clock is ticking toward tonight’s draft, teams using their cap space in other ways and Leonard’s 2019 free agency.

San Antonio has no choice but to get more aggressive in handling Leonard’s future. This is a small step in that direction.

Report: Nets to buy out Dwight Howard

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The Magic, Lakers, Rockets, Hawks and Hornets all grew tired of Dwight Howard.

The Nets did it in record time.

After acquiring Howard in a trade from Charlotte yesterday, Brooklyn is moving toward shedding him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

In the trade, the Nets dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s $16.72 million salary for 2019-20. Now, they could get a reduction on Howard’s $23,819,725 expiring contract. Brooklyn is doing a great job of unloading bad money.

Next year, the Nets will have their own first-round pick for the first time in six years. Though he has declined considerably from his Hall of Fame peak, Howard can still play some. Brooklyn didn’t need him interfering with its tanking and culture.

Instead, the Nets can focus on developing Jarrett Allen and losing enough to secure the best draft position possible.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Howard surrenders and where he goes. Again, he can still play. But the league is moving away from traditional centers, and he’s high maintenance.

Report: Cavaliers not planning to trade Kevin Love, no matter what LeBron James does

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The Cavaliers spent considerable time bemoaning a Kevin Love trade last summer falling through.

Will they deal him this offseason?

The No. 8 pick and Love are Cleveland’s best assets for upgrading their roster around LeBron James. If LeBron leaves, moving Love could jumpstart a rebuild.

But apparently the Cavs are now projecting attachment to Love, either way.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are not actively shopping All-Star forward Kevin Love heading into Thursday’s NBA draft, multiple sources told ESPN on Wednesday. Furthermore, regardless of what decision LeBron James makes about his future in Cleveland, the Cavs have interest in keeping Love next season, sources said.

File this under what else are they supposed to say? Even if the Cavaliers want to trade Love, insisting they won’t maximizes his trade value, forcing other teams to offer enough to pry him away.

But I also believe this accurately reflects the Cavs’ plans.

They just seem so determined to compete if LeBron leaves, and Love is their only other star. Love proved himself worthy of being the best player on a good team with the Timberwolves. (They were playoff quality when he played. They just completely fell apart whenever he sat.) In Cleveland, Love has fluctuated in his ability to bend his game around LeBron. If LeBron leaves, that’d no longer be a problem.

But Love will turn 30 before the season. He has declined out of his athletic peak, and I’d bet against him ever nearing his Minnesota levels again. And the other Cavs stink. It’s hard to see a LeBron-less Cavaliers team, even with Love, competing for the playoffs.

If LeBron stays, keeping Love makes some sense. With his $24,119,025 salary for next season and $25,595,700 player option for the following year, he probably doesn’t hold elite trade value. He doesn’t match up well with the Warriors, but good players who do come at a major cost.

Report: Lakers call meeting to warn employees about tampering

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Magic Johnson got the Lakers fined for tampering while still holding a ceremonial title. Once he actually took over the front office, he really got to work tampering. He got warned for blinking at Paul George on national television. Then – due to general manager Rob Pelinka’s communication with George’s agent and Johnson’s previous warning – the Lakers received one of the largest fines in NBA history. Johnson himself got the Lakers fined for praising Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The league investigated and cleared assistant coach Brian Shaw for tampering with George.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the Lakers’ previous transgressions have put them under tighter scrutiny.

The Lakers just want this to end.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Lakers co-owner and governor Jeanie Buss called the meeting, which was led by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.

Sources said Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke to a large group of team employees, warning them about tampering.

Other employees received written notices on the matter that referenced possible termination as punishment for anyone who does not adhere to NBA rules.

Tampering often takes much more benign forms than a president or general manager recruiting a star player before free agency. It could be an offhand comment by a coach, an overzealous ticket pitch or a speculative article on the team website.

If Johnson’s and Pelinka’s tampering increases the Lakers’ odds of landing a star, that’s just the cost of doing business. If a lower-level staffer tampers, that’s an avoidable mistake.

Really, it’s comical this meeting is even newsworthy, and that’s a product of the Lakers’ previous violations.

But, as they pursue stars, they don’t want to chance the league imposing any additional restrictions.

So, the Lakers, in some ways are right back where they started.