The Extra Pass: Handicapping the All-Star Saturday events

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A week from now the eyes of the basketball world will be on New Orleans for the NBA’s Damian Lillardapalooza. … er, I mean the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

While Sunday’s All-Star Game is the big show, I’ve always found Saturday night’s series of skill contests more fun than the no-D exhibition that is the All-Star Game itself. So, in the spirit of gambling (I guess), let’s take a stab at handicapping the three big events of All-Star Saturday night.

SLAM DUNK CONTEST

All predictions here must come with this caveat — they have changed the format this season to start with a freestyle round where everyone is dunking, then a series of head-to-head dunk “battles” to decide if the East or West wins. I have no idea how this will change the feel of the event and how the format will effect who wins it. That said, I’ll make a prediction anyway on who wins the “Dunker of the Night” as voted by the fans.

Favorite: Paul George, Indiana Pacers. There are three factors in his favor. First and foremost, the fans vote on the award and George is a popular budding superstar. This is a popularity contest to a degree. Second, he has done this before. George has been in the dunk contest and that matters because there is a distinct difference between an in-game dunk and an exhibition dunk and having done this before he should get it. Third, and most importantly, he can really throw it down.

Others at the front of the pack: Terrence Ross and John Wall. Ross won the Dunk Contest last year and did it without props — he knows how to win and we know he can throw down. Wall has the perfect combination of athleticism and showmanship to win the Dunk Contest, plus he is a name known by fans.

Dark Horse: Ben McLemore of the Kings. He was supposed to be the best shooter in the last draft but he has real hops and has shown some impressive dunks this year.

SKILLS CHALLENGE

Favorite: This is the hardest event to predict, but I’ll take Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns — he’s quick, he’s precise, and he grew up in a European system where they practiced the fundamentals more than most AAU coaches do stateside. Besides, the Suns deserve some recognition.

Others at the front of the pack: Watch out for the two rookies, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke. This is the kind of event that traditionally goes to skilled guys who are quick with the ball, your Tony Parkers of the world, and these two guys are both quick and skilled.

Dark Horse: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks… okay, I’m not sure he has a real shot at this, but I just want the Greek Freak to win.

THREE POINT CONTEST

Favorite: It’s got to be Stephen Curry. There are guys who have higher in-game shooting percentages but this is a contest about finding a groove and hitting big shots under pressure and nobody in the game right now does that better than Curry.

Others at the front of the pack: Really any of the guys in this group could get in a rhythm and win, but keep an eye on Marco Belinelli — he is knocking down 44.3 percent of his looks from beyond the arc this season, the highest percentage of anyone in the competition. Also don’t sleep on Kevin Love, who won this same competition two years ago and we know he can find a rhythm and win.

Dark Horse: I would say Kyle Korver, but somehow he isn’t there participating. I would say Klay Thompson, but somehow he isn’t there participating. You sense a theme here?

SATURDAY NIGHT’S BIGGEST WINNER

Kendrick Lamar.

He’s performing before the Slam Dunk Contest and he’s the only thing I know I’ll love all night.

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Nets 103, Spurs 89: The Spurs were without their big four (no Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard) yet they led in the first half by as many as 12 because they are the Spurs and they run their system. But eventually talent wins out in the NBA and Brooklyn just had more of it — although Alan Anderson may not be the first name you think of in Brooklyn he had the hot hand and had 22 points on the night as the Nets pulled away in the second half for the win.

Warriors 102, Bulls 87: Out of the gate Golden State just was not ready for the hard charging, aggressive style of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls — they only know how to play one way. But again, as in the Nets game, at some point talent wins out and Golden State has guys who can create on offense that the Bulls just do not — Stephen Curry had 36 points on the night as the Warriors came back to get the win. But it was closer and harder fought than the score indicates (the Warriors closed on an 11-2 run).

Space Jam 2 closer to reality: LeBron reportedly teams with Black Panther director

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Space Jam 2 starring LeBron James — and, we can dream, Boban Marjanovic as one of the new Monstars — could be filming next summer and in theaters in 2019 or 2020.

This has been in the works for a while. LeBron James’ production company has a development deal with Warner Bros. and a Space Jam sequel was always at the heart of it. While there had been rumors about the project for years, you knew there was some substance the talk when Warner Bros. extended its trademark on “Space Jam” a couple of years ago.

In a sign this movie is going to be a reality, LeBron has found a producer — the guy who last directed Black Panther. From the Hollywood Reporter:

In his first project since directing the record-breaking Black Panther, Ryan Coogler is teaming with LeBron James on the anticipated follow-up to the Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny hit Space Jam, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

Coogler will produce the Space Jam movie and Terence Nance – who created HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and directed the experimental film The Oversimplification of Her Beauty – will direct. Production on the Warner Bros. film is tentatively slated for 2019, during the NBA offseason. It will be James’ first starring role after a successful turn as a supporting character in the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck…

“I loved his vision” for Black Panther, James tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that when he was a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, there were no black superheroes. “So for Ryan to be able to bring that to kids, it’s amazing.”

That’s a good team to make a movie, although we are all curious about the script.

Not that the original Space Jam starring Michael Jordan was winning a writing Oscar, but the move was a cultural phenomenon. It had MJ going head-to-head with aliens in a battle for Earth. Kid me loved that movie, adult me re-watched it and…

I didn’t love it as much as Patrick Patterson, who wrote: “To make a sequel to Space Jam would be like trying to paint the Mona Lisa again. Sure, you can probably do it, but why the hell would you want to?”

A lot of the older generation will say that, but if it’s a good movie it will do better than Uncle Drew. (Which, honestly, was better than I expected.) It could be a marketing coup for LeBron, plus add to his legacy of NBA titles and gold medals. Not everyone can put “saved the earth from annihilation” on their resume.

Report: Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau ‘has no interest’ in trading Jimmy Butler

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Jimmy Butler reportedly requested a trade from the Timberwolves to the Knicks, Nets or Clippers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

For now, however, Timberwolves president and coach Tom Thibodeau has no interest in trading Butler and wants to try and return to the playoffs with him in the lineup, league sources said.

Minnesota is resistant to immediately honor the trade request, especially given Thibodeau’s tenuous status with owner Glen Taylor, league sources said.

That seems… untenable.

Butler and younger teammates like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had tension last season, as Butler came in and bristled at those who didn’t match his work ethic and competitiveness. Of course, that didn’t always sit well with those teammates. To be fair, everyone got along well enough for Minnesota to end a 13-year playoff drought. But how will Towns and Wiggins handle Butler’s intense and demanding style if they believe he’ll be gone in a year? And how would Butler react to even more resistance from teammates who’ve accomplished less than him?

Lame-duck leadership probably won’t work.

And Butler can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Chancing losing him for nothing – especially if the results next season underwhelm – would be a huge risk.

But my assessment considers only the overall health of the Timberwolves. The franchise isn’t a self-running entity. Rather, it’s a collection of individuals with their own agendas.

Thibodeau can be quite stubborn. Maybe he just doesn’t want to give into a trade request. That inclination could be pushed even further by a desire to impress Taylor, who reportedly isn’t sold on Thibodeau. The simplest way to do that is win, and Butler – chemistry concerns aside – is an elite player. He’d likely contribute more to winning than anyone Minnesota could trade for at this point.

Of course, this could be a bluff to maximize Butler’s trade value. If the Knicks, Nets, Clippers and other interested teams believe Thibodeau is inclined to keep Butler, they might offer more to pry him loose.

Cuban to donate $10 million to women in workplace programs as part of Mavericks’ harassment deal with NBA

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The environment for women on the Dallas Mavericks’ business side was described as “Animal House” or like a Mad Men episode. One employee reportedly watched porn at work and showed the pictures to co-workers. Reports of misogyny and predatory sexual behavior ran wild, and if women wanted to report it, well, former Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery was one of the worst offenders, and the head of human resources was just trying to cover it all up.

Franchise owner Mark Cuban said he was unaware, and now that lack of knowledge of what was going on under his own roof going to cost him. A lot.

When all of this became public, started by a Sports Illustrated investigation, the Mavericks hired an independent investigator and that was overseen by the league, not the team. The results of that were released in a report Wednesday, along with the restrictions on the Mavericks.

Cuban will contribute $10 million to “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.”

In addition, Dallas must:

• Provide the league office with quarterly reports regarding the recommendations outlined in the report and their implementation;
• Immediately report to the league office any instances or allegations of significant misconduct by any employee;
• Continually enhance and update annual “Respect in the Workplace” training for all staff, including ownership; and
• Implement a program to train all staff, including ownership, on issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Cuban had already hired Cynthia Marshall as a new CEO, and she implemented a massive overhaul to improve the organization’s workplace culture. The league requirements primarily follow up to make sure those steps take place and the situation is not allowed to slide back.

Cuban himself, however, was not aware of the situation, according to the report. From the NBA: “The investigators found no evidence that Mr. Cuban was aware of Mr. Ussery’s misconduct. None of the 215 witnesses who were interviewed stated that they informed Mr. Cuban of Mr. Ussery’s actions, the investigators found no documentary evidence of such a communication, and Mr. Cuban stated that he did not know about the conduct.”

The NBA did not take away draft picks from the Mavericks, keeping the penalties on the business side. The reports showed that the basketball operations side — including players and coaches — were not part of the problem and were not accused of harassment.

But there was plenty of harassment on the business side. From the NBA:

• The investigation substantiated numerous instances of sexual harassment and other improper workplace conduct within the Mavericks organization over a period spanning more than twenty years.
• That included improper workplace conduct toward fifteen female employees by the Mavericks’ former President and CEO Terdema Ussery, including inappropriate comments, touching, and forcible kissing.
• Two acts of domestic violence perpetrated by former Mavs.com reporter Earl Sneed, including one against a team employee.
• That there was a “lack of internal controls” and that “the Mavericks executive leadership team failed to respond adequately” to multiple situations.

That this was allowed to go on is despicable. You can be sure it had 29 other NBA teams looking at their business and making sure any issues were dealt with fast.

Reports: Jimmy Butler requests trade from Timberwolves; wants to play for Clippers, Nets, Knicks

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Tom Thibodeau went all-in on Jimmy Butler, trading Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and swapping first-round picks with Chicago (which became Lauri Markkanen) to land the All-Star wing. On the surface it worked, Minnesota got 16 games better and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, while Butler averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

However, in the locker room things were not smooth. Butler is a Tom Thibodeau guy, and Karl-Anthony Towns is not, and there was a disconnect and tension between the two stars. Throw in Andrew Wiggins regressing after getting a big contract and frustrating everyone, plus nobody being happy with Tom Thibodeau grinding the starters into the ground, and you had one unhappy locker room.

How unhappy? How frustrated is Butler heading into a contract year? In a meeting with Thibodeau Tuesday in Los Angeles, Butler asked to be traded, reports Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Butler may have wanted assurances he was the No. 1 priority of Minnesota in the future, but while he is a better player than Towns today Butler is also six years older, has battled injuries, and has Thibodeau miles on his body.

That’s why Timberwolves put a five-year max rookie contract extension on the table in front of Towns on July 1, he is the future. However, Towns has yet to sign it. The Butler situation is reported to be the key reason. Once Towns signs the deal, he is the player in Minnesota with the power, and that’s not ideal for Butler or Thibodeau.

The timing of this is brutal for the Timberwolves. Thibodeau reportedly doesn’t want to trade Butler — he bet a lot on him and is close to Butler, this is his biggest allies — but may not have a choice. Eventually. This likely will drag out beyond when training camp opens next Tuesday, which is going to be a mess.

If (when?) the Timberwolves trade Butler they are not going to recoup near what they gave up to get him, not even close, but they may need to get something back. Butler wants to go to the Nets, Clippers, or Knicks, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Minnesota is under no obligation to send Butler where he wants to go, they need to get back the best deal they can. However, leaking this could discourage other teams from jumping in with a big offer (not always, see Kawhi Leonard and Toronto or Paul George in Oklahoma City). Other teams — the Sixers, the Lakers — may well have interest and could even reach out about a trade, but both are more likely to want to get Butler as a free agent. (The Sixers have the assets to make an attractive trade offer if they wanted, the Lakers would have to trade Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball right now to make the financials work because all those veterans on one-year deals can’t be moved until Dec. 15.)

However, if the report that Butler is willing to talk contract extension with those three teams — which at its max is $29 million total less than he could sign for as a free agent with another team — it could encourage the Clippers, Knicks, and Nets to go big and try to get a deal done. This could move faster than expected. But probably not because Thibodeau wants to see if he can get the Minnesota locker room to sing kumbaya.

Either way, the drama in Minnesota has started before training camp has even opened. And media day next Monday is going to be awkward.