Getty Images

Three things we learned Thursday: Knicks, Bulls battle for NBA title of “most off-court drama”

Leave a comment

Here’s what you missed around the NBA on Thursday, while you were out fighting fires while wearing a jet pack.

1) Which team has more drama right now, Bulls or Knicks?
Before the season we asked, “Which team will be better, the Bulls or the Knicks?”

Midway through the season, maybe that question should have been “Which team will have the most off-the-court drama at midseason?”

Usually, the Knicks would run away with this. Phil Jackson has — rightly and finally — decided he needs to build this team around Kristaps Porzingis, and that KP and Carmelo Anthony are on different career paths. So Jackson has started his mind games to get Anthony to waive his no-trade clause and be happy going out of town. Except Anthony isn’t going to take a deal to go to Orlando or Phoenix, he wants to play with his banana boat buddies on a contender. Which basically means the Cavaliers and the Clippers (the Celtics have been mentioned as well). Except the Cavaliers are not interested in a Kevin Love for ‘Melo swap because they are not stupid. That leaves the Clippers, who would have the exact same reaction if Jackson came looking for Blake Griffin. However, a trade involving Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and J.J. Redick might interest Doc Rivers. Here’s where this gets interesting: If Redick is part of the deal I don’t think the Clippers get better — people underestimate how important his shooting and spacing is to that team. His 3&D game fits better with Chris Paul‘s drives, DeAndre Jordan‘s rim runs, and Blake Griffin overall. Lose Redick and Crawford and I think the Clippers get worse. If the Clippers could figure out a way to add Anthony to their core four then — if healthy, always the caveat with this team — they might make things interesting for the Spurs and Warriors. The questions are, would Doc Rivers really trade his son, and does Phil Jackson want Anthony out of town so bad he’d settle for a Crawford/Rivers/pieces to make the salaries workd?

And despite all that, the Bulls may lead the drama train. After blowing a 10-point lead in the final three minutes to lose to the Hawks Wednesday night, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler went off on a rant, saying that too many players on the team didn’t care about winning enough. They were looking at you, Nikola Mirotic and Michael Carter-Williams. But then on Thursday, Rajon Rondo fired back defending the young players.

View this post on Instagram

My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn't have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn't change the plan because it didn't work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can't win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it's the leadership.

A post shared by Rajon Rondo (@rajonrondo) on

Rondo likely is not all wrong here (at least if you talk to people around the team), but how he delivered it will ensure he is gone soon enough (if not moved by the trade deadline, look for a buy out right after). He was already on his way out of the rotation because guys such as Jerian Grant were playing better and Rondo is a shell of his pre-injury self, this just made it official. Wade and Butler ultimately win this war because they are the better players and Butler is the franchise’s best player and future. But this is going to make Friday’s shootaround interesting. The chemistry and fit of this team on and off the court is a mess, and as with all things Bulls the problems point right back to the front office. But they are likely not going anywhere, as Sean Highkin of The Athletic told us in a recent PBT Podcast. Which ultimately will mean the Bulls will keep on being the Bulls.

2) The All-Star Game reserves were announced, and Joel Embiid leads your list of snubs. The coaches have voted (they pick this group), and here are your All-Star Game bench players for 2017’s game in New Orleans in a couple of weeks.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Guard: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City)
Guard: Klay Thompson (Golden State)
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento)
Frontcourt: Draymond Green (Golden State)
Frontcourt: Marc Gasol (Memphis)
Wild Card: DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers)
Wild Card: Gordon Hayward (Utah)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Guard: Isaiah Thomas (Boston)
Guard: John Wall (Washington)
Frontcourt: Paul George (Indiana)
Frontcourt: Paul Millsap (Atlanta)
Frontcourt: Kevin Love (Cleveland)
Wild Card: Kyle Lowry (Toronto)
Wild Card: Kemba Walker (Charlotte)

The biggest snub has to be Joel Embiid. The fans voted him in as a starter, and even the people not voting for him have to admit he’d be fun in this setting. However, as I wrote the other day, you have to remember who was casting the ballots: Coaches. What do coaches value? Guys who play every day, guys who have improved over their careers, and guys with high hoops IQ and subtlety to their games. That’s Millsap, it’s not Embiid. But Embiid still had a great sense of humor about it.

Chris Paul would have been an All-Star except for his injury. The biggest snubs in the West were Damian Lillard (Portland), Rudy Gobert (Utah), Mike Conley (Memphis), C.J. McCollum (Portland), and LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio). Besides Embiid, the biggest snubs in the East were mostly bigs to make way for six guards: Kristaps Porzingis (New York), Andre Drummond (Detroit), Dwight Howard (Atlanta), and Hassan Whiteside (Miami).

3) Russell Westbrook drops 45 in win, but Thunder suffer big loss because Enes Kanter hates chairs. Apparently.

Russell Westbrook was doing Russell Westbrook things on Thursday night, dropping 45 on the Mavericks and getting OKC the 109-95 win over Dallas.

But that wasn’t the big news out of this game. During it, a frustrated Enes Kanter punched a padded chair, but in doing so fractured his forearm.

He will be out 6-8 weeks. This is a blow, Kanter was mentioned in Sixth Man of the Year awards talks midseason because the Thunder are 5.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense when he is on the court. Over his last 10 games, he’s averaged 17.2 points a night on 57.4 percent shooting. The Thunder don’t have anyone nearly as good to replace him, but look for more Steven Adams, as well as Joffrey Lauvergne to get some run.

One other side note: The Thunder are currently on pace to win 49 games, if this injury knocks that down to 46 wins on the season, could it cost Russell Westbrook the MVP award because the Thunder didn’t get to or near 50 wins (while James Harden‘s Rockets will be pushing 60 wins)? Way, way too early to say, just throwing it out there.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

View this post on Instagram

@malcolmbrogdon @jusanderson1

A post shared by جيلين براون (@fchwpo) on

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.