Five Takeaways from NBA Tuesday: Durant’s return to D.C. all about Westbrook

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Wednesday night is the night everyone had circled on their NBA calendar — LaMarcus Aldridge returns to Portland, and DeAndre Jordan comes to Dallas to hear the wrath of spurned Mavericks fans. But Tuesday night provided some real entertainment, here is what you missed on a Tuesday night around the league:

1) Kevin Durant’s return to D.C. overshadowed by his hamstring injury, Russell Westbrook. Durant got his wish — Washington fans didn’t try to recruit him with fawning cheers and over-the-top adoration Tuesday. Instead they booed him. Not in the full-throated, lusty way DeAndre Jordan will be greeted in Dallas Wednesday, but there were some boos. And a lot of fans not quite sure how to treat him now. As you would expect, KD played well in the first half, putting up 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 17 minutes.

But Durant didn’t play the second half due to a strained hamstring. He will have an MRI on Wednesday, and while this is likely not serious hamstrings can linger and Durant could miss a little time. Him leaving at the half took some of the air out of the “KD is in DC” balloon, that storyline felt tired by the end of the night.

As we saw last season, with Durant out it was the Russell Westbrook show. OKC led by 18 at the half and cruised home to the 125-101 win. Westbrook had a triple-double —22 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists in 28 minutes — while Dion Waiters had 25 points on 10 shots to lead the Thunder in scoring.

2) Memphis trades for Mario Chalmers. We have our first trade of the season. Memphis has looked stagnant on offense, in need of shooting to space the floor and more playmaking. The fact that Mario Chalmers has struggled with both those things in the past year — he is 1-of-11 from three this season — didn’t slow Memphis from thinking he could be the guy to help them turn things around.

Memphis acquired Chalmers and Long Beach State’s own (and PBT favorite) James Ennis for Beno Udrih and Jarnell Stokes in a deal consummated Tuesday. The Grizzlies tried to get a third team involved in the trade, but when nobody materialized it went through straight up. We’ll see how Chalmers fits in behind Mike Conley in Memphis. Chalmers struggled without LeBron James next to him in Miami (a lot of Chalmers’ threes used to be open catch-and-shoots off LeBron passes) but he’ll have to find that stroke again to help the Grizzlies because he’s not a great defender, and while he can put the ball on the floor he’s not a great finisher in traffic. And right now, because of the lack of floor-spacing shooting, there is a lot of traffic in the paint for the Grizzlies. 

For the Heat this is a great deal as they save cash against the luxury tax.

3) Robin Lopez is in midseason “hating the mascots” form. Lopez may be playing on another coast this season, but that doesn’t mean the Knicks’ center has had a change of heart about mascots. Just ask the Raptors’ mascot.

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4) The Pelicans finally get a win — and lose Anthony Davis to injury. Somebody in New Orleans has angered the basketball gods because they continue to rain down injuries on the Pelicans like no other team in the league. New Orleans took control of their game against Dallas with an 18-0 run in the second quarter, in part sparked by Anthony Davis who had 13 points in that quarter alone. But then Davis didn’t play the second half due to a “hip contusion” the team announced, saying that X-rays were negative, but he was held out as a precaution. After the game coach Alvin Gentry said Davis would undergo more tests to see exactly what the issue was, and Davis’ status for Wednesday when the Pelicans take on the Hawks is not known. This doesn’t appear to be serious, but the 1-6 Pelicans can’t afford another injury with key players such as Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole already out and point guard Jrue Holiday on a minutes limit. 

5) Kobe Bryant sits out first game of season, D'Angelo Russell joins him on the bench in the fourth quarter. Kobe had said he wanted to play in all 82 games this season. He knows it’s likely his last go around, and he knows a lot of people pay to see him play, he wanted to live up to that. But his back tightened up on him before the Lakers took on the Heat in Miami and Kobe was scratched from the game, his first of the season. It’s unfortunate, but seemingly unavoidable as well — at age 37 and with a ridiculous amount of mileage on his body, Kobe is just going to have to miss some games. Hopefully not many, however, he is officially listed as questionable for the Lakers’ game in Orlando on Wednesday. What will his film crews shoot now?

More interesting in this game may have been Lakers’ coach Byron Scott’s decision to bench rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell for the fourth quarter. For a team that should have player development as its top priority this season — even above wins right now — taking minutes away from a rookie trying to adjust to the NBA games is counterproductive. He needs to be in fourth quarters and learn from those situations — Nick Young played the entire fourth quarter. Scott said after the game he didn’t put Russell back in because the game got blown open, but as noted by Baxter Holmes of ESPN it was a three-point game when he left the court. More troublesome, after the game Russell was asked if Scott talked to him about why he was benched and the answer was no — smart move or not Scott has to teach, not let the kid figure it out for himself. Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times suggested this was a tough love response to Russell, who is not putting in the extra time working with coaches that Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are. I say teaching a guy to put in that effort is part of developing a player, and the tough love approach doesn’t work for everyone. We will see in this case. But to me this is another sign that Scott and the Lakers organization as a whole are not practiced nor adept at player development, something they haven’t had to do until recently. And it’s something they had better figure out. 

Report: NBA deprioritizing playing regular-season games for local TV

Steve Kerr and LeBron James before NBA game
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The NBA is financially incentivized to play more regular-season games to satisfy local-TV contracts.

How does that square with resuming play – currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic – with a play-in tournament and playoffs?

It doesn’t.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to one source, getting some teams to a magical number of 70 regular-season games had been a goal, but in the last week has taken on less of a priority.

This stoppage is going to cost the NBA a lot of money. There’s no way around that. Not every source of revenue can be preserved. It’s about finding the optimal setup.

Importantly, canceling games could allow the NBA to reduce player salaries through force majeure. Of course, the union would consider that action when negotiating how to proceed.

LeBron James advocated for playing some regular-season games before the playoffs so everyone could get back into shape. But Steve Kerr called it very unlikely the Warriors would play another regular-season game. Perhaps, playoff-bound teams like the Lakers will play tune-up regular-season games while Golden State – the only team officially eliminated from the playoff race before the hiatus – doesn’t. It’d be a little odd to have such different formats, though. (Then again, these are odd times).

Considering this report, we ought to give more credence to the idea that Kerr knows something about the NBA’s plan and that the regular season is finished.

Lakers update that all players ‘currently symptom-free of COVID-19’

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Nearly two weeks ago, the Lakers announced that two of their players tested positive for the coronavirus. “Both players are currently asymptomatic, in quarantine and under the care of the team’s physician… All players and members of the Lakers staff are being asked to continue to observe self-quarantine,” the Lakers said at that time.

On Tuesday, the team provided an update saying nobody on the team is showing any symptoms after a couple of weeks of quarantine.

“All Lakers players are currently symptom-free of COVID-19. The team will continue to follow the health and safety guidelines set by government officials, the Lakers and the NBA,” the statement said.

The Lakers’ players who tested positive were never publicly identified (in fitting with HIPAA regulations).

A total of 10 NBA players — plus five members of staff associated with teams — have tested positive for the virus that has upended life in the United States. None reportedly have had to be hospitalized. Players such as Marcus Smart and others have recovered and free from the virus.

The NBA remains suspended, with the league hoping to jump-start the playoffs in June, possibly with all the teams in one location.

Report: NBA won’t hold draft until after season

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The NBA draft is scheduled for June 25. Most expect that date to change as the coronavirus pandemic causes postponements around the world.

Apparently, the draft will come after the NBA season – whether the season is completed in a modified format or just cancelled.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I think everybody in the league feels it’s almost impossible to have a draft if you still have a season that’s ongoing.

You can’t have a draft while teams are still playing. You can’t have some teams able to do trades because their season’s done and then some teams unable to do trades because they’re still playing.

It doesn’t strike me as difficult to hold the draft before the season ends. Teams wouldn’t be allowed to trade current players. The restriction would apply across the board, just like the interrupted pre-draft process. That’s not ideal, but compromises must be made amid this chaos.

Importantly, holding the draft sooner could appeal to both sides of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It’d be an opportunity to hold a revenue-producing TV event. Obviously, drafted players wouldn’t attend a mass gathering. But with sports fans starved for content, people would watch the selections. A handshake with NBA commissioner Adam Silver is only a small part of the festivities.

The National Basketball Players Association should also push for an earlier draft. Prospects want information sooner so they can prepare for their next step – whether that’s the NBA, returning to college or playing overseas. That said, the union has bigger priorities than potential future members.

So, it’s easy to see why postponing the draft has gained momentum, even if that’s not a no-brainer solution.

Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell headline televised NBA video-game tournament

Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell
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The NBA season isn’t returning any time soon.

So, the closest thing you’ll get to live basketball on television is a video-game tournament between NBA players. The bracket has been revealed.

The Boardroom:

1. Kevin Durant (Nets)

2. Trae Young (Hawks)

3. Hassan Whiteside (Trail Blazers)

4. Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

5. Devin Booker (Suns)

6. Andre Drummond (Cavaliers)

7. Zach LaVine (Bulls)

8. Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

9. Domantas Sabonis (Pacers)

10. Deandre Ayton (Suns)

11. DeMarcus Cousins (previously Lakers)

12. Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

13. Rui Hachimura (Wizards)

14. Patrick Beverley (Clippers)

15. Harrison Barnes (Kings)

16. Derrick Jones Jr. (Heat)

I have questions:

  • How does Hassan Whiteside have the same rating as Donovan Mitchell and a higher rating Devin Booker?
  • Does being extremely online bode well for Kevin Durant?
  • Is Donovan Mitchell, who spent his coronavirus isolation playing video games, in the best game shape?
  • Will Zach LaVine redeem himself?
  • Will players use their own teams? If so, will Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both use the Suns, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley both use the Clippers? If not, the most interesting aspect of this tournament – to non-esports aficionados – could be reading way too much into which teams players pick.