The Extra Pass: Three players who are ready to start

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Let’s take a look at three players who were in action Tuesday night who deserve starting jobs sooner rather than later.

Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder

Reggie Jackson has understandably received plenty of praise in Russell Westbrook’s absence, but don’t sleep on Lamb’s emergence as a reliable scorer. With Thabo Sefolosha struggling to find his shot and Kevin Martin out of the picture, Lamb has stepped into a bigger role (22 minutes a night) and has provided OKC with a real spot-up shooting threat on the perimeter. Unlike Sefolosha, Lamb has the ability to score off the bounce and his much quicker release allows him to more effectively spread the floor.

Are the offensive upgrades enough reason to insert Lamb in the starting lineup over Sefolosha, who has familiarity and stronger defensive instincts on his side? Thunder head coach Scott Brooks catches a lot of flak, but he’s been more open to toying with different lineups and letting hot players stay on the floor. There’s still a lot of loyalty to guys like Kendrick Perkins, but not nearly as much as in years past. With that in mind, Lamb playing more than Sefolosha might not be so out of the question.

Sefolosha is on an expiring contract, so don’t be surprised if the Thunder start to work in Lamb as much as possible, even with Westbrook’s eventual return. He’s just a much more dynamic offensive player than Sefolosha is.

James Johnson, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s pretty incredible that a player who wasn’t on an NBA roster to start the season could swing the Memphis Grizzlies’ season, but here we are.

Johnson has been incredible in his 22 games with Memphis, averaging roughly 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2 steals and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Andrei Kirilenko is the only wing player to ever actually average those numbers over a full season, so you know Johnson is in good company.

Those numbers alone should warrant more than 22 minutes a night, especially when you consider who is blocking Johnson’s path to more playing time. At age 33, Tayshaun Prince is a shell of his former self on the defensive end, and his true shooting percentage of 41.7 is unpalatable for a team already starved for space.

Prince has had a storied career and deserves a lot of respect, but rookie head coach Dave Joerger might have to make the tough call and cut his playing time considerably in order to get Johnson some more burn. If the Grizzlies sneak into the playoffs and go against the likes of Kevin Durant or Nicolas Batum in the first round, Johnson’s 6-foot-9 frame and playmaking ability on both ends will be desperately needed. Prince just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

You can understand why Gibson comes off the bench for Tom Thibodeau. Protecting Carlos Boozer’s ego by keeping him as a starter makes sense, and Gibson’s defensive versatility allows him to play either the 4 or 5, which makes him perfectly suited to be a third big man.

Here’s the issue, though. Even if Gibson is the one finishing games in the fourth quarter, it’s still a shame to see him play less than 30 minutes a night on average. When you see Gibson’s chemistry with Joakim Noah and his vastly superior defense, you have to wonder if Chicago would be much better off playing Gibson as much as he can handle and giving whatever is left over to Boozer.

If the Bulls are going to amnesty Boozer this offseason anyway, it might be less of a priority to treat Boozer with kid gloves. Gibson is the superior player and he’s part of Chicago’s future where Boozer probably isn’t. Once he returns to the lineup, there’s no reason why Boozer should be playing more than Gibson going forward.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).

Warriors’ Bob Myers says he would ‘consider’ trading draft pick

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Even if the NBA decides to play a handful more regular season games upon return, the Golden State Warriors are going to finish the season with the worst record in the NBA (they have a 4.5 game “lead” for the worst record). That means they have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick, a 40.1% chance of a top-three pick, and a 47.9% chance of having the No. 5 pick.

Those same Warriors are returning next season with a healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, a team with title aspirations.

That’s led to a lot of speculation the Warriors would try to trade down, something Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob confirmed. Warriors president Bob Myers, speaking to NBC Sports’ Bay Area’s Monte Poole, said as much as any executive in his shoes would: He’d consider trading the pick.

“Yeah, we’re going to consider all that,” the Warriors president of basketball operations told NBC Sports Bay Area over the phone, before pausing for a moment. “Now, I don’t know if the headline is going to be that we’re trading our pick. So, be clear that I said ‘consider.’”

On the ProBasketballTalk podcast, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster said if he were in Myers’ shoes he would try to trade down, get a veteran, and land in picks four through six. There he can likely land a player such as Obi Toppin, Isaac Okoro, or Deni Avdija — players who should not go No. 1 but are better poised to help immediately. The problem for the Warriors, or whoever lands the top pick, is this is a weak draft at the top, depressing the value. Dauster described it this way: the top three picks in this draft would go 6-10 most years.

The 2020 NBA Draft Lottery and Draft Combine have been postponed, and the draft itself will get the same treatment soon (it has yet to be officially changed, but everyone expects it).

Until there is a lottery and the Warriors know where they land, it’s tough for Myers to do much more than plan. Just like the rest of us.