51 Q: Besides Sixers, who else is tanking?

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By now, we know the Philadelphia 76ers’ program. They’re entering year three of the Sam Hinkie era, year three of #TrustTheProcess, year three of completely disregarding the idea of being a competent NBA team in the name of collecting assets. It’s a controversial strategy, but a logical one for what they’re trying to accomplish. They’ve been a lightning rod around the league for arguments in favor of lottery reform and other preventative measures to combat this blatant lack of competitiveness. But the problem isn’t as widespread as it seems: a look around the league heading into the season shows most of the bad teams at least trying to be better, even if they won’t be successful.

The closest thing to another all-out tank job looks to be the Portland Trail Blazers, who lost four out of five starters, including LaMarcus Aldridge. In their place, they’ve loaded up on prospects. The highest paid player on their roster (until next year, when Damian Lillard‘s massive extension kicks in), is Al-Farouq Aminu, making just over $8 million. Moe Harkless and Tim Frazier figure to be rotation players on this team. With the core of a perennial Western Conference contender gone, GM Neil Olshey is instead opting for a more palatable version of the Sixers’ model. It helps their watchability that they already have a franchise player in place in Lillard. Around him, for now, they’re just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping to hit on a few fringe players and pick up extra first-round picks by taking back bad contracts (their cap room is almost unlimited). It’s a sound plan for where they find themselves in a post-Aldridge existence, but it’s going to be ugly, at least for this season.

Most of the rest of the teams that might have been seen as tanking have made legitimate moves to get better. The Lakers have a stated goal of getting back to contention soon, which is absurd, but they’re not going to purposely lose in what will likely be Kobe Bryant‘s final year. They made a few big offseason acquisitions of legitimate NBA rotation players, including Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams, and have No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell and a healthy Julius Randle in the fold. If everyone is healthy, they’re going to be at least competing to be in the group of teams just outside of good enough to seriously compete for a playoff spot in the west. Ditto the Kings, who added Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli. Everything could go to hell in a second for them — it’s always in play there — but at least on paper, they figure to be better.

Even in the notoriously inferior Eastern Conference, there are going to be more teams shooting for 30 wins than the Knicks’ 17. New York had a solid offseason of signing veterans and taking incremental steps to being a normal basketball team. The Nets, as mediocre as they may be, have no incentive to tank since they don’t have their own pick in next year’s draft. The Pacers are getting Paul George back. The Pistons should be better with a roster that actually fits Stan Van Gundy’s style.

That’s not to say some teams won’t pivot strategy during the season when they see that a playoff spot isn’t happening. The Nuggets are a prime candidate. Right now, they’re a strange mishmash of quality veterans and completely unproven youngsters that, on paper, should be worth a solid 35 wins. If they decide to blow it up, though, it will be easy to move the contracts of Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Denver already took a step towards this youth movement by unloading troubled point guard Ty Lawson and handing the keys to No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay. A rookie point guard is always a tricky proposition, even when it’s someone as talented as Mudiay, but at least for now, he has competent teammates that will at least be competitive every night.

Charlotte is another team with a lot of variance in how their season could shake out, and Rich Cho has never been afraid to shake things up. It’s not impossible to imagine a world where they’re competing for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference; it’s also not impossible to picture them winning 20 games and having a fire sale in February. Nicolas Batum, just acquired this summer from the Blazers, is a prime candidate to be moved to a contender as a rental if the Hornets’ season falls apart.

For as much attention as the act of tanking gets in the conversation around the NBA, there are only two teams actively engaging in it from the start. A look around the league’s lower tier shows most teams taking steps to improve, at least in theory. Whether they will or not is a different story, but at least they’re trying.

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.