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NBA Summer League Sunday notebook: Dallas’ Dennis Smith is turning heads

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LAS VEGAS — There is so much going on at Las Vegas Summer League — it’s not all just the Lonzo Ball story — and we can’t get to it all, so here are some thoughts from my notebook on Sunday, in the time-honored tradition of bullet points.

• Dallas’ Dennis Smith has been a Las Vegas standout — he has been maybe the most buzzed-about player through the first weekend by media and team officials. Sunday, the rookie out of North Carolina State had 25 points on 14 shots (3-of-5 from three), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and the numbers don’t tell the story. He’s a floor general.

Of course, Mark Cuban says he knew this was coming, but Smith fell to Dallas at No. 9 in the draft because of questions about his ceiling. Coming off an ACL he hadn’t shown a ton of explosiveness last year in college, but he has plenty of it here — in his first game he finished an alley-oop pass that few guys here could have gotten, let alone a guy 6’1”, then on Sunday he absolutely blew by Dragan Bender to get into the paint. He is strong and has been aggressive, fearless, and willing to set guys up. You never want to read too much — positively or negatively — into a couple of Summer League performances, but Mavs fans optimistic. He has turned heads in Vegas.

Check out some highlights of his matchup with Josh Jackson, who was less impressive with 15 points on 18 shots.

• Josh Jackson also got rejected by the rim Sunday (a battle he has lost before, kind of stunning for a guy with his athleticism.

• On the flip side, Boston’s Jaylen Brown threw down the dunk of Summer League so far.

• Portland’s Zach Collins has potential, but he’s got to get stronger. He tried to back down second-round wing pick Semi Ojeleye (who is stout) at one point Sunday to create space and it was like he bumped up against a wall, which led to an ugly fadeaway.

“He’s a hard-working kid, he listens, he pays attention, he does what he’s told,” Blazers Summer Leauge coach Jim Moran said. “I’m excited that when he kind of gets around our weight staff and kind of has the chance to hit the weight room and bulk up, he’s really going to be able to expand his game.”

Collins struggled with his shot Sunday, going 1-of-7, but nobody doubts that will come around. On the bright side, he has shown real mobility and put that to work contesting shots on the perimeter, plus he will put the ball on the floor and drive if guys close out hard on him at the arc.

“I feel like my defense is going to be there consistently because that’s an effort thing, something I can control,” Collins said. “I think I got a lot of good looks offensively, sometimes I was rushing it, I rushed a couple shots under the rim, I think I need to get to the basket a little bit more, but that will come.”

• Best stat line of the day goes to the Spurs’ Bryn Forbes, who had 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting, including 6-of-8 from three.

• He has been highly anticipated by Celtics fans, but Ante Zizic has work to do to find his way in an NBA-style game. He has a below-the-rim game that’s about skill, and that’s not easy to adapt to the speed and athleticism at Summer League (which is not NBA level). He showed some craftiness to his game, he hit a running hook and drew some fouls. He pulled down 11 boards and gets in good position, but got beat to some (even by teammates) who were just able to elevate higher.

For guys with his style of game, it’s tough to judge them at Summer League, which often resembles a glorified pickup game. The big men who stand out are bouncy. Zizic may fare better in a regular NBA setting, but it still looks like he has some work to do to figure out how to fit his style into a more athletic league.

“He’s going to be fine,” Jaylen Brown said of Zizic. “If he just does his job, starting the roll, rolls hard, rebounds the ball, I think he’s a good rebounder.”

Doc Rivers said Clippers knew Thunder wanted to breakup Westbrook/George combo

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Oklahoma City looked like a small market success story — they had Russell Westbrook (he stayed and re-signed for the max) and rolled the dice on Paul George, and then he stayed. It was a top-heavy roster (Stephen Adams makes a lot of money, too) but one that won 49 games… and then got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Portland.

That playoff loss seemed to show a ceiling for the Westbrook/George Thunder and had the franchise doing some soul searching.

However, in the wake of George forcing his way to the Clippers in a trade, rumors bubbled up that teams thought the Thunder wanted out of their expensive, non-contending team. Clippers coach Doc Rivers confirmed they knew that, speaking to Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times.

“We showed [Leonard] everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped, but we didn’t know if we could get him.”

Turns out they could get him, but the price was high — one the Clippers saw as worth it, but steep nonetheless. For the Thunder, that high price is the foundation of a rebuild.

How did the Thunder get there?

After Damian Lillard sank his “shot for Seattle” that sent the Thunder home for the summer, it seems all the soul-searching in OKC had them thinking about breaking it all up earlier rather than later. If they really felt this is as far as they could go with Westbrook and George — and it would have been tough to put a much better team around them due to cap limitations, either way this was a team that needed a lot of things to go right to get out of the first round — then it made sense to move on if the right deal came along.

Fans in Oklahoma City have never had to sit through an NBA rebuild, the team that showed up from Seattle may have won only 29 games that first season but had Kevin Durant and Westbrook and was already a team on the rise. After that, the team has never won fewer than 45 games, had one Finals trip and years of contention. There’s going to be some ugly basketball in OKC for a few years, we will see how that market reacts.

League executives reportedly think Clippers are better than Lakers, but by how much?

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best two-man duo on the NBA.

If this were a classic game of NBA Jam, everyone would pick them to win it all.

However, NBA basketball remains a 5-on-5 sport where rotation players, depth, and fit all matter. A lot. Especially for contenders.

In that context, the Lakers’ Staples Center roommates — the Clippers — are better poised to win it all. The Clippers have Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and a team that was both tough to play against and made the playoffs before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George showed up.

Don’t take my word for it, Ethan Straus of The Athletic polled some NBA executives about the Lakers and Clippers and got this response:

Everyone agrees that it exists, but to varying degrees. In league circles, Lakers skepticism has burbled about for some time, before and after Anthony Davis awkwardly made his way to Los Angeles. Questions of fit and chemistry persist, and many are noting just how many games LeBron James has played up to this point. Like the Warriors, the Lakers are also lacking in perimeter defense, in a league where it seems to matter more than ever….

Shoulder injuries are unpredictable and George will be out for a lengthy stretch. Given that Kawhi Leonard already only plays so many games, the Clippers might struggle to keep pace in the standings. As one executive put it re: the Los Angeles gap, “There is a big gap in likelihood of winning the title. Not sure about reg season wins.”

What makes the Clippers the favorite going into the season is not simply Leonard and George, it’s that they have two of the elite two-way wings in the NBA, and those kinds of players at that position have a great track record of playoff success. The Clippers should be a strong defensive unit that can throw a lot of different looks and players at teams, but also one that can score efficiently. Then they bring Williams and Harrell off the bench for a jolt of energy and scoring. Doc Rivers knows how to coach and meld a team. There’s a lot to like.

There are a lot of questions with the Clippers, there are just far more with the Lakers — nobody really trusts their role players to all fit well, there’s coaching staff turnover, and then there’s the question of whether LeBron’s injury last season was a one-off fluke or the start of a trend for the 35-year-old.

The Los Angeles squads are not alone, every contender this season has some serious questions to answer. It’s what makes this season so fascinating and different from recent ones.

Klay Thompson on Trump: “I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians”

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Klay Thompson has said it before and is saying it again:

He’s pissed at what President Donald Trump said and did in the wake of the destruction hurricane Dorian brought to the 700-island nation of the Bahamas, where at least 51 people died (that number is likely very low, with more than 1,300 people still listed as missing).

Thompson has deep ties to the Bahamas. His father Mychal — a former No. 1 NBA draft pick who was a member of the Showtime Lakers — was born there. The Thompson family has long had a special relationship with the island, with Klay having spent a lot of time there in his youth. Klay felt the need to defend the Bahamas after the Trump Administration did not grant “Temporary Protected Status” to the people fleeing the destruction on the island so they could come work and live in the USA until it was safe to return.

Thompson spoke to Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians,” Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re gang members and criminals? I’ve known Bahamians my whole life. Yes, there are criminals in Nassau. But there are criminals worldwide. When you lose everything, your home, your loved ones and thousands are dead, and then you generalize a whole population, I thought it was very very ill advised and bad timing. That language really (ticked) me off.”

Trump, while not granting “temporary protected status” to the people of the Bahamas fleeing the destruction from Dorian, said “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

“He’s wrong about the gang affiliations over there,” Mychal said. “There are people over there that are good people. Hard-working people. So he was wrong with that statement. I don’t think (other) Americans have misconceptions about Bahamians. We don’t have gang problems and that type of hard problems in the Bahamas. We have people who are in need and in poverty. But for the most part, Bahamians are great people and help each other out in times of need. That’s what they’re doing right now.”

Klay and Mychal, through their family foundation and a golf fundraiser with proceeds going to Bahamas relief, think they will donate about $1 million to the relief effort.

It’s going to take billions of dollars and many years for the Bahamas to return anywhere near its former self. The Thompson family is raising money, but more importantly, is raising awareness. It’s the start of a long, long process.

Thompson himself continues his recovery from a torn ACL suffered during the NBA Finals, an injury that will keep him out for much, and potentially all, of next season.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.