Report: Lakers, Celtics discussed Howard for Rondo swap. Lakers deny it.

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UPDATE February 16: 2:31 am: It didn’t take long for this rumor to be shot down by one of the principles involved, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

The buzz started Friday night that the Lakers and Celtics had discussed a Dwight Howard for Rajon Rondo (there would need to be other players). And before you say “this is what you say before you make a trade” know that Kupchak is about as straight a shooter as there is. He spoke with Chris Broussard of ESPN.

 Kupchak said “I haven’t talked to Danny Ainge in weeks. I made the statement a week or 2 ago that we’re not going to trade Dwight Howard and that hasn’t changed.” Kupchak said at no pt this season has a D12-for-Rondo trade been discussed.

As discussed below, this trade really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Ken Berger is too good a reporter not to have gotten this from a reliable source but the Lakers have been clear on their intention to keep then re-sign Howard this summer. It’s hard to see them giving up on that to bring in Rajon, who has ruffled feathers with veterans in Boston and is undergoing an ACL surgery.  It didn’t pass the smell test, apparently for a good reason.

However, if the Celtics were negotiating with the Clippers and wanted to create some leverage, this is the kind of thing they would leak. Hypothetically.

February 15, 10:01 pm: On Friday, Dwight Howard said point blank that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told him he would not be traded at the deadline.

But this is the time of year when teams discuss all sorts of trade ideas. Some wild and seemingly unrealistic.

Like this note from Ken Berger of CBSSports.com — the Lakers have had preliminary discussions about trading Howard to their hated rival the Boston Celtics.

However, CBSSports.com has learned that the Lakers have engaged in preliminary trade discussions with an unlikely trade partner regarding Howard: their fierce rival, the Boston Celtics. The centerpieces of the possible deal, which hasn’t gained any traction, would be Howard and Rajon Rondo…

Other significant pieces would have to be involved, since Rondo’s $11 million salary is substantially less than Howard’s $19.5 million.

Some subsequent rumors after this reports said the idea was floated before Rondo got injured but died when his ACL tore.

Honestly, this doesn’t make a ton of sense — and Berger even admits that the Celtics have gotten the impression the Lakers are not trading Howard.

For the Lakers, you’d be throwing this season away trading for Rondo, who is out for the year and is about to undergo ACL surgery. Not that the Lakers current players haven’t seemingly thrown this season away all by themselves, but it’s different if management would do it. Plus, for the Lakers, they are trading away the guy they saw as the face of the franchise post Kobe. Is the temperamental Rondo really a better fit next to Kobe Bryant now? Is Rondo the guy you can build around long term?

It makes more sense for Boston — if they can get Howard to re-sign this summer. Which is no given, he has taken to saying he doesn’t want to talk about any of that until after the season. The Celtics would need assurances from Howard he would stay, then they still would have to give up someone like Brandon Bass and a younger player or pick just to make the numbers work.

I’ll add this, when the Lakers have made big trades (say getting Howard or Pau Gasol before that) they have come quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. This is not that.

Never say never, stranger things have happened in the NBA. But this is pretty much standing right next to never with it’s arm around it.

Smart money still says Howard is a Laker this season and next. Even if that frustrates some Lakers fans.

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson on how he’s spending retirement: ‘I’ve been smoking some pot’

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Last night, the Warriors honored their “We Believe” team, which upset the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Golden State’s coach that year, Don Nelson, and two of his players – Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson – were asked how they’re spending retirement.

Nelson:

I’ve been smoking some pot.

But I never smoked when I played or coached. So, it’s new to me. But, anyway, I’m doing that. And I’m having a pretty good time. It’s more legal now than it’s ever been, so I’m enjoying that.

The best part: Jackson – who previously admitted to playing high – raising his arms victoriously while Nelson answered.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes incredible chase-down block on Jayson Tatum (video)

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Look at this!

Jayson Tatum is barely in the picture as he takes off for the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still at the free-throw line and looking at Terry Rozier.

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Yet, Antetokounmpo still caught Tatum for the awesome block in the Bucks’ 98-97 win over the Celtics last night.

James Harden: Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant,’ shouldn’t be allowed to ref Rockets games

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In the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last night, referee Scott Foster called James Harden‘s third and fifth fouls – both offensive. The third came in the first quarter and sent Harden to the bench early. The fifth set up Harden to foul out a short time later.

Foster also called Chris Paul‘s sixth and disqualifying foul. Then, Foster gave Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni technical fouls.

In all, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. In the second half, he called 10 fouls on the Rockets and three on the Lakers.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” said Harden, who finished with 30 points to extend his streak of 30-point performances to 32 games, the second longest in NBA history. “I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [on the sixth foul]. It’s just who he is on that floor.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” Harden said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It’s impossible to escape the timing of this. Former referee Tim Donaghy received renewed attention this week as more evidence emerged he fixed games. Donaghy and Foster frequently spoke by phone while Donaghy was still an NBA official, which only raised suspicions about Foster. But he explained the calls as simply friends conversing.

Fair or not, Foster isn’t particularly well-liked within the league. Paul also made pointed comments about him last year.

Does Foster have a personal vendetta against Harden, Paul and the Rockets? Were Foster’s calls last night erroneous? I’m not sure.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a referee let his emotions interfere with calling a game fairly. It’s probably worth the NBA taking Harden’s concerns seriously and assessing them.