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Detroit Pistons still struggling to find a groove

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) In their final game before an unusual four-day break in their schedule, all the Detroit Pistons needed to do was win at home against a struggling Sacramento team.

A victory would have given the Pistons their first four-game winning streak of the season and sent them into the layoff on a positive note. Instead, Detroit blew an early 11-point lead and lost 109-104 on Monday night.

“They just seemed like they wanted it more,” forward Marcus Morris said.

The Pistons are having a hard time finding a groove in 2016-17. The loss dropped Detroit to 21-25, and the Pistons remain caught up in a logjam of mediocrity in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Heading into Tuesday night, there were six teams in the East between 23-22 and 20-26, all scrambling for the last few playoff spots. Detroit was 1 + games behind the No. 8 slot it occupied last season, when the Pistons made the postseason for the first time since 2009.

There’s still plenty of time for the Pistons to climb in the standings, but for a franchise that’s trying to build excitement in advance of its move from Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit next season, missing the playoffs would obviously be a step back.

“We play 82 games. They’re all crucial,” coach Stan Van Gundy said recently. “You’ve got to get wins – and enough of them, or as many of them as you can. I don’t think one stretch stands out from another stretch.”

Van Gundy was making the claim that at this point in the season, no one game or set of games is necessarily more important than any other. As if to prove his point, the Pistons beat conference rival Washington at the buzzer on Saturday night for their third straight win, then squandered a good chance when they lost to Sacramento .

Detroit has been building around center Andre Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson. The Pistons were without Jackson for the first 21 games of the season because of his knee problems, but they actually went 11-10 without him. About a week after his return, Detroit went into a tailspin, dropping eight of their final 10 games in December.

Jackson and Drummond are both scoring less this season. Jackson’s average has dipped from 18.8 points a game to 16.9, and Drummond’s has fallen from 16.2 to 14.2. The Pistons are averaging only 9.9 offensive rebounds, down from 12.5 a season ago. The drop in second-chance points has been similar, from 14.9 a game (second-most in the league last season) to 12.7.

Detroit’s schedule has been grueling at times. The Pistons have played 24 road games – nobody in the East has had more. Their four-day layoff this week should offer a chance to rest and refocus, but it’s an odd break.

“I don’t know why our schedule’s the way it is, but it’s sort of messed up,” Van Gundy said.

The Pistons have looked better in January. They salvaged a 2-3 record on a tough road trip out west, and their first game back home last week was a 118-95 rout of Atlanta in which Detroit outscored the Hawks 42-18 in the first quarter. The Pistons followed that up by beating the Wizards 113-112 on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Morris. It was an emotional victory over a Washington team that has been playing well.

Then, an eminently winnable game against Sacramento slipped away. The Kings have won only two of their last 10 games, and both were against the Pistons.

“We’ve got to come out and we’ve got to approach every game the same way,” Morris said. “For some reason, against Sacramento, I don’t know what it is, our toughness is not there. … We just beat a couple good teams that are on good runs, so we’re capable. The good teams in the league, they take care of business.”

Lakers’ recruiting pitch for Paul George leaks

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LeBron James doesn’t want elaborate pitches in free agency.

Paul George never said that, though.

So, the Lakers are apparently planning to put some showbiz into their recruitment.

Robin Lundberg of Sports Illustrated, citing a “Hollywood source,” revealed a Lakers pitch for George. The direction:

Less Morgan Freeman/Denzel Washington, and more Jamie Foxx. A bit more edge an attitude to their voice, and a bit less aspirational

The text:

When you were just a kid

In your room
Dreaming from Palmdale

We were dreaming too.

While you dreamt, we built – built for your arrival

And while we dreamt, you built too
Becoming one of the world’s greatest.

Life’s most powerful dream are the one we realize ourselves.

The ones that turn us into legends.
That kid from Palmdale always knew it
Now the world will, too

Who wrote this, noted storyteller Kobe Bryant?

My bigger question: Did or did not the Lakers, who’ve gone to great lengths to make their interest in George known, want this to leak before the official start of free agency?

Report: No divide between Chris Paul and Rockets over contract

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That rumor of tension between Chris Paul and the Rockets over his contract?

Sam Amick of USA Today:

As for the recent report from Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard that there are rising tensions between the two sides because Paul wants the full max and isn’t sure if he’ll get it, two people with knowledge of the situation refuted the idea there is any friction between the sides.

Remember, everyone who leaks something has an agenda. But I find this report far more credible than the initial rumor.

Paul’s max projects to be about $205 million over five years. That’s a lot to commit to a 33-year-old, but Paul took a discount to facilitate an opt-in-and-trade to Houston last year. He expects to be made whole.

Until Broussard’s report, all indications were the Rockets would appease him. Barring more information, that should remain the expectation.

Report: LeBron James not planning to sit for elaborate pitch meetings in free agency

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LeBron James held court in Cleveland in 2010, listening to pitch after pitch as teams flew in to recruit the superstar during free agency. That approach became a model, and Kevin Durant followed it in the Hamptons in 2016.

But maybe once is enough.

Durant announced months ago he’d stay with the Warriors. And now LeBron – who could definitely leave Cleveland – is making clear he doesn’t want the hoopla, either.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

sources close to the situation tell ESPN that he has no intention of hearing elaborate pitch meetings from teams.

league sources believe he and his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini have enough understanding of the stakes and NBA landscape to handle the process without much fanfare.

LeBron is still haunted by The Decision. He’s a great player and philanthropist and does plenty to connect with fans. Yet, people still dislike him purely because of how he changed teams eight years ago.

If I wielded as much power as LeBron, I’d want suitors wining and dining me. He wants to avoid more backlash.

This will probably look similar to 2014 – LeBron’s agents hearing out teams then LeBron meeting with only the most serious options, though the final announcement will likely come via Uninterrupted rather than Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets and 76ers are commonly viewed as the favorites for LeBron. This approach makes it less likely for a longshot to emerge – though, for what it’s worth, we don’t know those four teams are his favorites right now.

Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.