Five Things We Learned in NBA Sunday: Don’t laugh at idea of Cleveland, San Antonio Finals

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while…

1) LeBron James drops triple-double, the Cavaliers feel like the class of the East. The Atlanta Hawks appear have taken their foot off the gas and are coasting into the playoffs (they are 5-5 in their last 10, although they did destroy Brooklyn in their last game). Then every time you watch the Cleveland Cavaliers they seem to be just a little bit better, a little more cohesive and comfortable. All this doesn’t mean too much — the last time the Hawks played the Cavaliers Atlanta took them to the woodshed. Still, it feels like the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East right now. You can pick apart the win over the Bulls Sunday — no Derrick Rose or Kirk Hinrich and it was still a single-digit game — but the Cavaliers just seem superior. Especially when LeBron is dropping triple-doubles, Timofey Mozgov is playing like a beast, and J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving and hitting half courters.

2) Consider this your 536th reminder the San Antonio Spurs are legitimate title contenders. You can’t read too much into one regular season game ever. This one included — this is not necessarily an indication of how a seven-game series turns out. That said, the Warriors had won 12 in a row, and the Spurs beat them handily, 107-92. It’s a reminder the Spurs are back if nothing else. The Spurs offense took apart the Warriors defense. The Spurs defense challenged the Warriors shooters — Klay Thompson was 3-of-11, Draymond Green 2-of-11. Yes, MVP frontrunner Stephen Curry was in the game but KAwhi Leonard was the best player on the court hands down. And Leonard did this to Curry to set the tone.

3) Paul George returns and suddenly the Pacers look far more interesting. Paul George returned from his horrific leg injury to the delight of Pacers fans, and every basketball fan everywhere. He scored 13 points, but with him in the lineup the Pacers throttled the Heat and with that tied Miami for the nine seed in the East, just one game back of eight seed Boston and one-and-a-half back of Brooklyn. The Pacers are still in this with 10 days left, and they just got a huge boost.

4) Could Memphis lose out on home court in the first round? After Sunday’s play, Memphis is the three seed in the West, and if you want to look on the bright side just one game back of Houston for the two seed. However, they also are just half-a-game game up on the five seed Clippers and one ahead of the six seed Spurs. (Portland is the four seed, with a worse record than all of them, but can fall no lower than the four seed because they won the Northwest Division. Why do we have divisions in the NBA again?) As David Aldridge of TNT pointed out, the Clippers have a soft schedule the rest of the way that includes a game against Memphis. Right there also the Spurs are surging. If Memphis continues its recent stumbles, they could end up the six seed in the West and starting the Western Conference playoffs on the road.

5) James Harden and Russell Westbrook dueled. Houston won because they are the better team. It seems we write this daily, but Russell Westbrook recorded another triple-double with 40 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. But as it has been of late, it wasn’t efficient, and it wasn’t enough. James Harden had 41 points, Dwight Howard was strong inside, the Rockets had 54 points in the paint (the Enes Kanter dillema), plus the Rockets had 26 points in transition. OKC did better in the second half and made the game intesting, but in the end it couldn’t stop Houston from doing what it wanted to do. The Rockets are just the better team and picked up the win to show for it. But this was fun to watch.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob: We won’t tank

Former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes
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The Warriors are an NBA-worst 12-43. Stephen Curry will eventually get healthy. Klay Thompson will eventually get healthy.

This is Golden State’s best opportunity to secure a prime draft pick.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob, via Mark Medina of USA Today:

By the way, we’ll try to win every game. I’m not really about, ‘Let’s lose every game so we can get the best pick.’ You try to do that, you’re messing with the basketball gods. So we don’t believe in that.

Former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk (now Hawks general manager) admitted to tanking in 2012. Golden State had to convey its first-round pick if it didn’t land in the top seven. So, the Warriors traded their consensus top player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut. Golden State lost 17 of its last 20 games, kept its pick and drafted Harrison Barnes.

The basketball gods were so mad, the Warriors went to the playoffs the next seven seasons and won three championships and two other conference titles.

Of course, Golden State will tank, which I define as any decision made – at least in part – to improve draft position through losing.

Management won’t instruct players not to give full effort. But tanking will show up in numerous other ways. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry’s and Thompson’s returns. Young players will get more minutes. If necessary, Steve Kerr might “experiment” with odd lineups not conducive to winning. Players often see these approaches, realize where the team is headed and lose focus late in lost seasons. That leads to even more losing.

Don’t get mad at Golden State for tanking. Hate the system that rewards it.

Though feel free to send a little animosity toward the Warriors for acting holier than though while tanking like everyone else does in a similar position.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely to miss an ‘extended period’ after shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
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Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

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Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

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For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.