Seeming rash of injuries could shape NBA playoff picture

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On a court in Denver, Knicks fans watched Carmelo Anthony leave early to get to the locker room as his knee was clearly bothering him into another bad shooting night. Later he was on a plane back to New York to get fluid drained from that knee and other procedures to get him back on the court.

On a court in Atlanta, Lakers fans watched Kobe Bryant go down and twist his ankle on a final shot. He limped off the court but afterwards said he was out indefinitely.

Injuries that shape the playoffs are nothing new — remember Derrick Rose last year? — and there are not really more this season than any other. It just feels like it (as it does every year).

But a series of injuries old and new are going to shape the race up to the playoffs and then the playoffs themselves.

• Kobe Bryant’s ankle. This one could potentially keep the Lakers out of the playoffs, although I wouldn’t bet on it. Mostly because the wheels are coming off the Jazz (half a game back of the Lakers on Thursday) and they are not running away with a playoff slot with Utah having a tough schedule ahead. The door opens for Dallas a little, but just a little. Also, this is Kobe, who deals with injuries about like the Black Knight of Monty Python fame (“’Tis a flesh wound”). He will be back on the court as fast as his body allows. That could be a week, it could be three, but bet on the lower end of that scale. Still, in recent weeks the Lakers have run a tight 8-man player rotation and even with that when Kobe sits the Lakers offense has been unimpressive. They need to find some points, fast.

However, the Lakers could be in trouble even when Kobe returns. Los Angeles has been winning lately but the margin for error with this team remains small — it had to come from 25 back on the Hornets and beat the Raptors in overtime. That margin is a whole lot smaller against the Thunder or Spurs. Kobe has taken over the role of playmaker on the Lakers (with Steve Nash playing off the ball) and if he is half a step slow in the playoffs because of his injuries the Lakers will go from “long shot” to “never got out of the starting gate.”

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• Carmelo Anthony’s knee. He walked off the court during another unimpressive outing — much to the delight of Nuggets fans — because as much as he has tried to play through it for weeks, Anthony realized it was time something had to be done about his continuing knee issue. In the short term, he is flying back to New York and will get his knee drained. He’ll miss a couple games. That doesn’t really help the Knicks in their quest to retake the No. 2 seed from Indiana (or even stave off the Nets, the four seed that is 1.5 games back of New York) but it has to be done.

Because come the playoffs, if the Knicks are going to be the team that breaks out of that clump fighting to be the second best team in the East and to challenge the Heat, they are going to need the best of ‘Melo. He has to be healthy, he has to be on fire. Fluid buildup in the knee is a symptom of some other irritation, so if the Knicks stick around in the playoffs Anthony might need to have it drained again. But certainly the status of Anthony’s knee impacts the Knicks.

• Tyson Chandler’s knee. It looked scary when it happened and the tough-guy Chandler had to be helped to the locker room in Denver Wednesday night, but after the game he was walking without crutches and it didn’t seem to be serous. Which is great news for New York — besides Carmelo the other thing the Knicks must have in the playoffs is better defense than they have been playing of late. And that starts with the former Defensive Player of the Year. He has to be a defensive terror in the paint in the postseason for the Knicks to make a run.

• Danny Granger’s knee. The Pacers have a championship caliber defense, but they have a terrible offense. Danny Granger was their leading scorer last year and it was assumed that when he returned to the lineup the Pacers offense would pick up. It didn’t. Then Granger barely played and had to sit out again. Unless Granger can get healthy and the Pacers offense can find steady points — and stop taking those 5 minute breaks mid-game — the Pacers are not breaking out of the pack in the East.

• Derrick Rose’s knee. The Bulls are another strong defensive team whose offense was fully based around the former league MVP. When he went down in the first round of the playoffs last year the No. 1 seed Bulls were pushed aside by the Sixers. Without him all season the Bulls offense has been bottom 10 in the league. The theory goes that with him — even 70 percent of him — and the Bulls offense returning to good, they could be the team that beaks out of the pack in the East and gets a run at Miami. But Rose isn’t coming back until he is over the mental hurdles of trusting his knee, and if that means he misses the season he’s good with that. If he returns, we’ll see where the Bulls stand, they have struggled of late and need to get Joakim Noah and Luol Deng a little rest, too.

• Tony Parker’s ankle. The Spurs are the top seed in the West and Tony Parker was having the kind of season that could have him No. 3 on a lot of MVP ballots at the end of the season (if you put him in front of LeBron and Durant, you’re doing it wrong). As we have seen the last few years, the Spurs execution in the regular season can be countered some in the playoffs, but this year feels different — the Spurs are defending again and guys like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard are not just system guys but quality players. The Spurs have a real shot to beat the Thunder is seven games and get back to the finals, but not without 100 percent of Tony Parker slashing up the OKC defense. He is the guy that makes it all go for them in crunch time and if he is not fully ready for the playoffs the Spurs could see another early exit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.