Associated Press

Three things we learned Monday: Don’t say the Sixers suck anymore

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We know you spent Monday night mesmerized by the LeBron/Hamilton send up, so here is what you could have learned watching a full slate of NBA games…

1) Sixers have won four in a row at home, 3-of-4 overall. You can stop mocking them now. The Philadelphia 76ers are a real basketball team.

Not a real good team, mind you, they remain last in the Eastern Conference. But they are a competitive team now — and one on a winning streak. With Monday night’ s 101-94 win over Miami the Sixers have won consecutive games for the first time since March 2015 (it didn’t happen last season). They have won three-of-four overall and four in a row at home. If you want to get overly optimistic, they are 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the East. But that’s a bit much. Still, they are no longer the worst team in the NBA (that honor goes to Dallas), and every night they put up a fight.

Philadelphia has the guy in the lead of the entirely-too-early-to-discuss Rookie of the Year race with Joel Embiid, who is averaging 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game in limited minutes every night. Monday night “The Process” faced off against Hassan Whiteside — who somewhat quietly is having a monster season — and held his own.

Embiid has work to do — his moves still can be a bit stiff, like the guy spent the last two years practicing them against chairs and 6’2” coaches. The big man is getting 35 percent of his looks off post ups and is shooting just 42 percent on those, which is pretty average but below where he can get (stat via Synergy Sports). Embiid is shooting just 57.1 percent in the restricted area right at the rim, a little below where the Sixers want him to be. That said, he is dangerous as a roll man after setting the pick — he has an eFG% of 64 percent in that situation, in part because he can knock down the three. Embiid is 11-of-22 from three this season.

Here is the stat that matters: The Sixers are nine points per 100 possessions better when Embiid is on the court (and around Christmas the team will look at raising his minutes limit of 25). When he gets help from veteran Gerald Henderson (19 points vs. Miami) or Nik Stauskas, the Sixers can put up some points. At least enough to be competitive and win some games.

The little hot streak the Sixers are on likely comes to an end with their next four games being against Memphis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto. But you can bet they will be competitive in those games, too.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo is killing it as a point guard for the Bucks. This season Jason Kidd put the ball in the hands of his Greek Freak and turned him loose — and it has worked. Don’t take my word for it, ask Orlando as Antetokounmpo dropped a triple-double on them with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists (he also had five steals and three blocks).

On the season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, shooting 49.3 percent, and he has the PER of an All-Star at 24.8. On the downside, he is shooting just 16.7 percent from three, his midrange jumper strikes fear in no one, and teams are going under picks on him and clogging the middle. Still, you see the room to grow. You could tell in the win Monday that he is the leader — when he plays with energy, particularly on defense, the rest of the team follows.

As a side note: Maybe the most interesting lineup Kidd rolled out Monday (and one that had a 16-2 run early in the fourth) was a small ball with Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic, and Michael Beasley as the bigs. Jabari Parker is playing too well to do that all the time, but it was a good change of pace.

3) Gregg Popovich wants the Spurs to respect the game. The Spurs won Monday night, beating a depleted Dallas team 96-91 at home. But that didn’t stop the postgame Gregg Popovich rant — and we love nothing more than a Popovich rant.

Popovich said before the Laker game last Friday that this early in the season he doesn’t watch video of other teams — he only watches the Spurs, he wants to get his own house in order then he starts to worry about who else is out there. The Spurs are 11-3 and on a six-game win streak, the house seems pretty tight. But Popovich is right — they didn’t respect the game Monday night. That, more than just about anything, will set Popovich off.

Marcus Morris explains his change of plans from Spurs deal to Knicks

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Marcus Morris‘ move built up some hard feelings around the NBA. Players have verbally agreed to contracts with one team only to change their mind before, but in this case the Spurs had made roster moves — including trading Davis Bertans go to the Wizards — to clear out space for Morris, leaving San Antonio in a tough spot when Morris changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs were pissed at the Knicks about this. Executives with other teams did not like the potential precedent the move set.

Morris offered his first explanation of what happened to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It starts here: Morris’ agent at the time Rich Paul negotiated a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency. Morris turned it down, and he admitted that was against Paul’s advice.

“All this stuff that (Paul) didn’t want me to go to the Clippers and didn’t want me to go against LeBron (James), that’s not true,” Morris said. “He never told me not to take the deal. For as long as I’ve known Rich — and that’s still someone I have love for and that’s still my guy — he has been great in terms of advice. He told me he wanted me to take the Clippers deal. He gave me his advice. It was my decision and I had to make the best decision for me and my family.”

Things moved very fast at the start of free agency (more than 50 contracts were agreed to in the first 24 hours) and that left Morris not wanting the music to stop without him having a chair. That’s when he accepted the two-year, $20 million offer from San Antonio. Morris said he didn’t expect another offer, but when the Knicks came through with one year, $15 million he wanted it and tried to be up front about the situation.

“I have a good relationship with those guys and I have so much respect for (head coach) Pop (Gregg Popovich), (general manager) RC (Buford) and (assistant GM) Brian Wright,” Morris told The Athletic. “The first thing that I did when I knew I would be going another direction, I called and made sure they knew. There was no shade. There’s no disrespect. I had great conversations afterward, and as long as I feel that I’m clear with them and gave them my truth, I feel good about moving forward.

“I was under the impression that I didn’t have anything left. I thought at the time that the Spurs deal was all that I had. The process wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go the right way.”

Morris has split ways with Paul as an agent, reportedly over this incident.

Morris has now essentially bet on himself. The Knicks are not going to win a lot of games, but Morris is going to have a significant role and should get a lot of touches. Have a strong season and he will enter a much weaker free agent class next summer as one of the better players in it. That could lead to a bigger payday. Plus he makes more per year now.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.