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.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-