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Three things we learned Thursday: Tim Hardaway Jr. upstaged Dwight Howard’s homecoming

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All of the eyes of the sports world are starting to focus on Houston because there’s some football game this weekend, and if you turned your attention there rather than listen to Charles Barkley being Charles Barkley Thursday, we can’t blame you. Here are the big takeaways from the day in the NBA.

1) Dwight Howard came back to Houston, but the night (and game) belonged to Tim Hardaway Jr. Let’s get the sideshow out of the way first: Dwight Howard returned to Houston, and he was greeted there like he was greeted when he first returned to Orlando and Los Angeles — he got booed. Although to be fair, it was a mix of cheers and boos this time around (not like Orlando or LA). Howard’s answer to Rockets’ fans was to score 24 points and grab 23 rebounds. He played like the borderline All-Star he has been this season.

But that wasn’t the story of this game.

Houston led by 20 points at home with eight minutes to go — this one should have been in the bag, despite their off night shooting — and then Tim Hardaway Jr. happened. The Hawks guard had 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth to spark a comeback that ended with a 113-108 Atlanta win.

Houston giving up that lead to a team on the second night of a back-to-back is not the move of a contender. Which is where the Rockets want to see themselves. It’s a big win for a Hawks team trying to climb back ahead of Washington for the four seed in the East and home court in the first round. It was just one game, but it was an entertaining one if nothing else.

2) Breaking down the trade: Bucks send Miles Plumlee to Hornets for Roy Hibbert/Spencer Hawes. Just like nearly any negotiation, the only way to make a trade in the NBA is to structure it so both sides think it’s a win and out of this process with something they want or need. Thursday’s swap of big men between the Bucks and Hornets did just that, at least on the day of the trade.

For the Hornets, this is about some help and a reliable backup for Cody Zeller. He’s missed Charlotte’s last five games with injury, and the numbers are really simple: Charlotte outscores its opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and gets outscored by 4.4 per 100 when he is off the court. Or, Charlotte is 22-16 when Zeller plays and 1-10 when he doesn’t — including being on a four-game losing streak. Plumlee brings a poor man’s version of what Zeller does — he can set a good screen and roll hard to the rim, and when he does you have to account for him because he can finish. That opens things up for Kemba Walker. Plumlee crashes the boards and works hard on defense. He’s not a perfect answer to their problems of late, but he’s going to help them, and this is a team at 23-27 that is the current eight seed and is fighting to make the playoffs.

The Bucks mostly get rid of what they see as a mistake signing and get some financial flexibility. Plumlee is in the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract and he was struggling. The Bucks saw that contract as an anchor, and they ditch it for Roy Hibbert (on an expiring contract) and Hawes ($6 million player option for next season that he likely opts out of). The Bucks are the 10 seed in the East right now, a game back of Charlotte, but they don’t lose much on the court here, if anything. Greg Monroe’s having his best season as a Buck at center, and they have John Henson as his reserve. Hibbert and Hawes provide some veteran depth for Jason Kidd to play around with, but they aren’t going to get a lot of run (I can see Hawes and his ability to stretch the floor helping in certain matchups).

3) Magic Johnson will advice Jeanie Buss and Lakers ownership. That’s bad for Jim Buss. The Lakers have set a path to return to the top of the NBA — be bad and draft high, find their next franchise player (or at least a good core) that way. They’ve lived up to that two years in a row (drafting second both times, getting D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram) while selling the Kobe farewell tour. How well they are doing on that path depends on who you ask, certainly they have a few quality young players, but how good those guys really are and how far they can take this team down the line are up for debate.

The key is the potential of a good Lakers team is years down the line at best, and Jim Buss promised the Lakers would be back to contending (or at least the second round) by this season. Buss is the favored son of the legendary Jerry Buss who the father left in charge of basketball operations, and the younger Buss promised a quick turnaround that was unrealistic in today’s NBA. He lived in the past, back when the Lakers could get elite free agents because they were the Lakers. Now they can’t even get meetings (Kevin Durant).

Now lead owner Jeanie Buss — the one person who can remove Jim from power, if she has the support of her other siblings — has brought in Lakers legend Magic Johnson as an advisor. Jeanie and Magic met last month and, according to ESPN, Jeanie was reaching out to people she trusted about the future direction of the Lakers. Magic has been a huge critic of Jim Buss, and the buzz is the other siblings in the Buss trust (there are six total, including Jim and Jeanie) are none-to-thrilled with Jim’s job performance and work ethic. They want to win, and the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA.

Which is to say, Jim Buss is in a world of trouble.

Here would be my concern if I were a Laker fan: That the Lakers completely abandon their slow build plan and trade quality assets for good-but-not-great veterans who can get them more wins now. Essentially, they become the Knicks. It’s not a path to the top. And based on Magic’s incipit Twitter account he lives in the past like Jim Buss — he’s tweeted the Lakers should get Durant or DeMar DeRozan or other guys they would loved to have chased but will not meet with them right now. If the Lakers go down that path they will be no better off. They need to build up a good young core that stars want to play with, then you can try to land one (see the Celtics, who got to 48 wins before Al Horford came on board).

No one can say what Jerry Buss would do in this situation, but based on his history here is my guess: Hire a talented young GM (who he could get at below market value) and let that man go to work. Let him pick up the pace of winning without sacrificing too much of the young core. That seems a wise plan, but who knows what direction the Lakers will go.

James Harden came to Rico Hines run at UCLA and just destroyed people

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Elite NBA defenders, with a team and a game plan behind them, can’t slow down James Harden.

So imagine what happens when he shows up for an open run.

One spot a lot of NBA players head in the summer to get some games in is Rico Hines’ games at UCLA. Harden showed up and, well, you know what comes next. Via Ball is Life.

The man is so smooth, so under control, and just able to get buckets however he wants. It’s just fun to watch. Unless you’re an opposing coach.

Could Kevin Durant return from torn Achilles, play for Nets this season? Maybe…

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Every case is different, but many players return from a torn Achilles in about nine to 10 months. Kobe Bryant pushed and did it in eight. Other players will take a full year.

If Kevin Durant returned in nine months it would be March, enough time to get in game shape and be ready for the Nets’ playoff run.

There’s a growing sense from teams we could see just that scenario, and Spencer Dinwiddie talked about it with Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Though Nets GM Sean Marks refused to rule Durant out for the season, the feeling within the league is trending toward him potentially playing this season.

“I know KD is taking the rehab process ultra-serious. He wants to come back as soon as it’s appropriate, and healthy and the right decision for him, and then also subsequently that would also be the right decision for,” said Dinwiddie, who points out that even a slightly-diminished Durant could still be a superstar.

“The beautiful part about this is, the man is 7-foot and one of the best shooters of all time. At worst you get Dirk [Nowitzki], and Dirk was a monster. So we’re ready for him to come back whenever he wants to and whenever he’s ready to do so, and we know that he’s going to be a phenomenal major piece of our roster.”

Durant is an intense competitor who wants to get back on the court. He pushed to get back from a calf injury and play in the NBA Finals only to suffer the Achilles tear. He’s smart enough to be sure he’s all the way back before he steps on the court, if that means he sits out a full season so be it. However, he absolutely could return this season.

If he’s back, the Nets go from interesting team to potential threat to the Bucks and Sixers at the top of the conference. Durant was the best player in the world the past couple of years and he could return to that status quickly, and lift Brooklyn up with him.

Will Toronto give Pascal Siakam a max extension?

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In his third year in the league last season, Pascal Siakam made a leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, became a shot creator, played quality wing defense, and he was a key part of the Raptors earning the right to have a parade and hoist a championship banner. He earned that Most Improved Player trophy.

Siakam is Toronto’s future after a summer where Kawhi Leonard left.

Siakam also is eligible for an extension right now.

Should the Raptors give him the max of five years, $170 million? A number of executives around the league told Frank Urbina of Hoopshype that Siakam may be worth that number.

A Western Conference coach agreed: “With Toronto in the situation that they’re in, no longer having Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, Pascal Siakam may be a safe bet for them and they may want to give him a max extension to lock him up. I’ve been impressed with his development; he’s improved into a highly, highly serviceable player who’s very efficient and does a lot for that team. From the outside looking in, it seems like he’ll be able to continue his development too. He seems highly motivated and very grateful to be in the situation he’s in and he doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Is “highly serviceable” worth the max? The two players who got that money this summer were Ben Simmons in Philly and Jamal Murray in Denver. Most of the GMs spoken to for the article would try to extend him for less than the full max.

“I think they’re going to try to extend him,” one current Eastern Conference GM said. “I haven’t talked to Toronto, but he’s obviously a huge piece for them, helped them win a championship, he’s getting better, he’s young, he’s athletic and he can shoot. They’re going to try to extend him. Do I think he’s a max player? No. Do I think he’s a good player? Certainly. It’ll come down to what he thinks he’s worth, and I’m sure his agents have called around to see what kind of offers he could get if he enters restricted free agency.”

Another Western Conference executive agreed that he’s not worth the max, telling HoopsHype: “Out of Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Buddy Hield, [the main candidates remaining for a rookie-scale extension], I don’t think any of them will get the max or deserve the max. If I was running each team, I would force them to play it out. In some situations, keeping their cap holds is so much more beneficial. You should only extend if you get a below-market-value deal or if it’s a no-brainer extension.”

If the Raptors come in at less than the max with an offer, Siakam may just want to play out this season and head into restricted free agency next summer. If he has another strong season, when he hits the market in a down year for free agents he may find a team willing to make a max or near max offer and Toronto will have to match or let him walk. Essentially, Siakam would bet on himself.

We’ll see if Toronto and Siakam’s people can find a number that works for both sides, the deadline is Oct. 21. The sides are talking, but its more likely this rolls into next summer.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.