The Extra Pass: Five teams to watch closely as the trade deadline nears

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With just more than 48 hours left until the NBA’s trade deadline, it feels like the biggest deals may be behind us — Rudy Gay and Luol Deng have already been moved. Rumors are swirling, but the feeling around the league is it is all a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Still there are a number of teams trying to make deals. While there are more hoping to get something done, here are five teams to watch as they are pushing hard to make something happen in the next two days.

1) Denver Nuggets. They are trying hard to move Andre Miller, who has landed deep in Brian Shaw’s doghouse, and there are certainly a lot of teams that could use a veteran point guard who can start or come off the bench. He is popular in the locker room, his teammates love him. The Nuggets are likely just holding out for the best possible deal here but it’s hard to imagine they keep him past Thursday. The other name to watch is Kenneth Faried — the Nuggets have been shopping him around pretty hard. They aren’t sure he is worth what he is going to get offered as a restricted free agent, so they are trying to move him and let that be another team’s problem.

2) Philadelphia 76ers. They have three players they want to move — Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes — and what is more important they are $11 million under the salary cap so they can absorb more salary than they send out. They are the most flexible trade partner out there. The problem is Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie wants draft picks in exchange for his players or to take on some salary and teams are incredibly reluctant to part with picks this year. So we wait. Hinkie has not been the kind to cave so we could get through the deadline without a deal, but more likely somebody comes around and presents a deal Hinkie likes.

3) New York Knicks. Their activity stems from this fact: Carmelo Anthony is going to opt out of his contract this summer. He said over All-Star weekend his “first priority” is to remain with the Knicks but he needs to see a plan that will return the Knicks to contender status. Most of that plan will be “look at all this cap space in 2015” but they are trying to make moves now, specifically they want to add a point guard in the face of Raymond Felton’s struggles. The Knicks are calling everyone; they desperately want to make a move (even if it means bringing back Jeremy Lin). The problem is they don’t have picks they can dangle to tempt teams (not for five years, anyway), and the only tradable player they have is Iman Shumpert (other teams keep asking about Tim Hardaway Jr. but New York refuses to move him). The Knicks are trying, it’s just the reality of them getting a deal done is far less likely than flexible teams like the Sixers.

4) Phoenix Suns. They are one of the few potential buyers on the market, and that gives them some leverage. The Suns have been the NBA’s biggest surprise this season and now they want to continue that — at 31-21 they are just 1.5 games ahead of nine seed Memphis, so the Suns want someone to help solidify them as a playoff team in the West (and make them more dangerous in the first round). Also, they have four firsts round picks and are willing to part with one in the right deal — and that deal might yet be for Pau Gasol. That would be the biggest deal of the deadline, by far. The Suns have the expiring deal of Emeka Okafor ($14.5 million) plus those picks to make it work (the problem has been the Lakers demanding one of the Suns two higher ranked picks and Phoenix is only offering something much smaller if any pick at all, they don’t really want to help a team in their division). If it is not Gasol, look for the Suns to make some kind of deadline deal, they may be rebuilding but they are now in for this season and want to make the playoffs.

5) Boston Celtics. It’s not just Rajon Rondo — although he can be had, you’re just going to have to give something of real value up to get him. Boston decision maker Danny Ainge is rightfully concerned about his ability to re-sign Rondo in the summer of 2015 (not that Rondo is looking to bolt, he just wants to keep his options open) and if Ainge can get something for Rondo in a deal he’ll consider it. However, I expect Rondo to be a summer move (after teams have seen him play more post ACL surgery). Instead, look for Brandon Bass to be on the move — he is the kind of solid big that can help a playoff team immediately but isn’t much use to Boston right now. Also, if Ainge can find a sucker… er, team to take on the two years left on Gerald Wallace’s contract he would do it in a heartbeat.

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.

Harden on fit with Westbrook: ‘When you have talent like that, it works itself out’

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It was the question everybody asked about 30 seconds after they heard Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul (after the initial shock of the deal wore off):

Do Westbrook and Harden, two of the most ball-dominant, isolation heavy players in the NBA, actually fit together?

Harden says yes. Of course, what else is he going to say, but he was earnest about it in comments to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle at the Adidas and James Harden ProCamp event last Friday.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out. You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”…

“It works,” Harden said. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

That is essentially is what Mike D’Antoni said, and what Rockets GM Daryl Morey is betting on.

Will Westbrook, and to a lesser degree Harden, be willing to make sacrifices and adjust their games? It is the question that will define the Rockets’ season.

My prediction: The duo works it out on offense and becomes one of the hardest teams to stop in the NBA. They will work it out. However, having to play Harden and Westbrook together on defense for extended stretches will cost Houston in the playoffs earlier than they planned.