Trey Burke knows this is key year for Utah, his career

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Utah has become nearly everybody’s trendy pick to climb up into the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs, passing falling Portland (I’m included in that group). The way the Jazz played after the All-Star break — 19-10 record while holding opponents to 94.8 points per 100 possessions (89 points per game) with a great defense that turned heads around the league. After Enes Kanter was shipped to Oklahoma City and Rudy Gobert started at center, Utah was a defensive force.

Another change that mattered for that team — Dante Exum was made the starting point guard. He was a better defender and used less of the offense than Trey Burke, which meant more offensive touches for Gordon Hayward and the better playmakers on the team.

Now Exum is out for next season with an ACL injury, and Burke is being thrust back into the starter’s role. Entering his third NBA season after staring at Michigan, Burke knows this is a key season for him to prove he is a starting NBA point guard who can run a playoff team, something he talked about with the Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk.

“I haven’t hit the goals that I have for myself,” Burke said between fulfilling autograph requests and posing for pictures at a community fair. “But I feel like they’ve been two solid years. I’ve been learning a lot, especially over this summer and last summer. But I know I have a lot of room to improve and I’m willing to work on those areas….

“It’s always unfortunate to see that,” he said of Exum’s injury. “You don’t want to see that for nobody. But it’s a part of the game and unfortunately it happened to Dante. It’s something that I really felt like [this year] was a opportunity either way. But I guess people see it more as an opportunity now because obviously we play the same position. I have to be ready to step up again and just make plays for the team. I think the biggest thing for the team is just winning. I could sit here and talk about a lot of personal things, but as long as we’re winning everything else will take care of itself.”

Burke is eligible for a contract extension after this coming season. How he plays this season will determine if the Jazz are even interested in that or in moving him so Exum can have a clear path.

There are two personal things Burke needs take care of to get to the winning, at least at the rate the Jazz expect.

First is defense, he did get beat plenty out on the perimeter. That said, playing with Gobert to protect the rim and clean up his mistakes did help — when Burke and Gobert were paired last season the Jazz allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions (with Exum and Gobert it was 98 per 100). Burke can be better on this end of the court, but he’ll be in a better position to do so this season.

Second, and more important, is taking fewer bad shots. For Burke, less is more. Burke is confident in his abilities as a playmaker and shooter, but he makes poor choices too often (ones he got away with in college). Last season he took 38.8 percent of his shot attempts from three, and hit just 31.8 percent of them. He doesn’t get to the rim enough, his assist numbers are not great. The Jazz’s offense dipped a very slight 0.9 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break last season, but the ball was not in the hands of Exum to create plays as much as Hayward. And you saw the potential there. If Burke is going to be the guy with the ball in his hands, he needs to both make better decisions when he has it (make better shot choices) and cede some of that control to Hayward to make plays, or guys like Alec Burks to get their shots. Burke cannot be the offensive fulcrum.

Utah is going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch next season in the NBA — and it’s been a long time since we got to say that.

Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly may talk new contract next summer

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Sunday, the Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins to clear out a roster space for Markieff Morris. Cousins was signed last July to be the team’s starting center, but he tore his ACL in training and has not stepped on the court this season. It wasn’t personal, it was business, and under the terms of the CBA Cousins can continue his rehab in the Lakers’ practice facilities.

Cousins may be officially gone, but he could return next season to the Lakers, reports Joe Varden at The Athletic.

But the Lakers could re-sign him this summer, something both sides have expressed interest in pursuing, sources said.

This would be another one-year minimum contract deal, and it makes sense for both sides. Dwight Howard is a free agent and, after a resurgent (but not elite) season in Los Angeles, likely will get offers for more than the Lakers can pay him. JaVale McGee has a $4.2 million player option. Whatever McGee decides, the Lakers will be looking for another big man (and maybe two). Cousins could step right in.

What he can offer on the court coming off a torn Achilles and ACL remains to be seen, but the Lakers will not ask a lot of their centers. Cousins is a two-time All-NBA, four-time All-Star player who should still be able to give the Lakers some solid minutes in the paint.

The Lakers will keep their options open, but don’t be surprised if the two sides reunite.

Vanessa Bryant suing helicopter company after crash that killed Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant and Gianna Bryant
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Ever since Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash last month, we’ve been seeking answers about what went wrong during the flight piloted by Ara Zobayan. After all, Kobe Bryant had made helicopter rides such a normal part of his life.

Now, Vanessa Bryant – Kobe’s wife and Gianna’s mother – is suing the company that operated the helicopter for wrongful death.

Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times:

The complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. alleged that pilot Ara Zobayan, who also died in the crash, failed “to use ordinary care in piloting the subject aircraft” and was “negligent.”

“Defendant Island Express Helicopters’ breach of its duty and negligence caused the injuries and damages complained of herein and Plaintiffs’ deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects,” the lawsuit said.

Report: Ben Simmons back injury “isn’t a day-to-day thing”

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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the back injury for Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons “isn’t a day-to-day thing”.

Simmons missed the Sixers first game following the All-Star break on Thursday. He then left Saturday’s game in Milwaukee after playing just 4:44.

Over the weekend, Philadelphia ruled Simmons out for Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks and said he would undergo further evaluation. Per Wojnarowski’s report, that evaluation is ongoing and a course of treatment is yet to be decided upon.

Expect Philadelphia to lean on Raul Neto, Alec Burks and Shake Milton as primary ballhandlers while Simmons is out. None possess the size and skill combination of Simmons, but all have had moments throughout their careers. Neto drew the start in place of Simmons on Thursday. Burks was acquired at the trade deadline to give the team much-needed bench depth. Milton has flashed at time in his second season, after beginning his NBA career on a Two-Way contract.

Philadelphia loses Simmons while in a battle with the Miami Heat for homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The fifth-place 76ers are 1.5 games behind the Heat for the fourth seed, and two games ahead of the sixth-place Indiana Pacers.

Pacers: Jeremy Lamb suffers torn ACL, torn meniscus, fracture

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Kobe Bryant making two free throws after tearing his Achilles was one of the greatest moments of his legendary career.

On a day Bryant was honored, we learned Pacers guard Jeremy Lamb made a similarly gutsy pair of free throws during Indiana’s loss to the Raptors yesterday.

Pacers release:

During the second quarter of the Pacers game at Toronto on Sunday, Indiana Pacers forward Jeremy Lamb sustained a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, a torn lateral meniscus and a lateral femoral condylar fracture.

He will undergo surgery on a date to be determined. He will be out the remainder of the season. Any further updates will be provided after surgery.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb misses all of next season. This is just a devastating set of calamities.

At least Lamb has a guaranteed $10.5 million salary each of the next two seasons.

Indiana (sixth place, 33-24) will have an even tougher time winning a playoff series now. The Pacers could challenge in the first round, but they’ll almost certainly be significant underdogs.

They have depth at shooting guard, for what that’s worth. Victor Oladipo just returned. Justin Holiday is a solid reserve. Finding his lane at point guard, Malcolm Brogdon can move off the ball when T.J. McConnell or Aaron Holiday plays point guard.