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Pistons kicked the can down the road – heedlessly

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In their seminal set of transactions this offseason, the Pistons upgraded to a better, cheaper version of their previous shooting guard.

The bill – Marcus Morris already used as down payment – will come due next summer, when Avery Bradley becomes an unrestricted free agent. Will Detroit be better equipped to handle his free agency than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s this year?

That’s the bet the Pistons are making.

They had a breakthrough run to the 2016 playoffs, where they were the youngest team to qualify. But their ascension got sidetracked around Reggie Jackson‘s injury-plagued 2016-17 season. There’s a good case the point guard’s injuries contributed to his ineffectiveness, Andre Drummond‘s regression and the chemistry problems that plague losing teams.

The result: The Pistons had to face Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s restricted free agency with the luxury tax breathing down their neck and most of their players’ values in the gutter. Rather than spend its way out of the hole, Detroit kicked the can to next summer.

In the meantime, the Pistons got Bradley, who will earn about half of Caldwell-Pope’s salary this season. Bradley, two years older, is also better than Caldwell-Pope right now.

But the swap cost Detroit Morris, who was traded to the Celtics for Bradley. It also cost the Pistons Caldwell-Pope – though it didn’t necessarily have to.

They rescinded Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer after getting Bradley, clearing Caldwell-Pope to sign a one-year, $17,745,894 deal with the Lakers as an unrestricted free agent. But Detroit could have strengthened itself by keeping Caldwell-Pope restricted – even without actually trying to re-sign him.

If Caldwell-Pope accepted his $4,958,374 qualifying offer, the Pistons would have gotten another quality contributor at a bargain price for this season. They could have easily stayed under the tax with him earning so little. Would he have been somewhat redundant behind Bradley? Yes, but teams need backups, and Caldwell-Pope would have been a heck of a backup and trade chip. He would have held the right to veto trades, but any team dealing for him would’ve likely put him in a better position entering free agency. Barring a trade, Detroit would have entered next summer with both Bradley’s and Caldwell-Pope’s Bird Rights – doubling (or so) the odds of re-signing a quality shooting guard long-term.

If Caldwell-Pope signed an offer sheet elsewhere, it would have been required to be for at least two years (not including option years). So, that Lakers contract would not have been allowed. Whichever team signed Caldwell-Pope would’ve therefore likely been out of the running for another starting shooting guard next summer, easing the Pistons’ ability to re-sign Bradley.

As is, Detroit doesn’t have Caldwell-Pope this season, will have Bird Rights on only one starting-caliber shooting guard next offseason and will face a deeper pool of teams courting Bradley.

Rescinding Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer, clearing the way for his one-year, bet-on-himself contract with the Lakers was a huge favor to him. He didn’t have to lock into a multi-year deal in a market he found unfavorable. He’s earning more than triple what he would’ve on the qualifying offer while still getting a crack at unrestricted free agency next summer. There’s valuing in doing right by players who don’t quite fit the long-term plan.

I’m just not sure the Pistons are in a strong enough position to do a favor that big rather than exercising their collectively bargained rights. Graciously letting Caldwell-Pope walk just puts more pressure on everyone else.

Without Morris, the Pistons will need Stanley Johnson to step up this season. Tobias Harris can man one forward spot, but Johnson – the No. 8 pick in 2015 – is the ideal choice for the other. Johnson struggled his first two seasons, but he’s just 21, and it’s far too soon to close the book on him. Though I wouldn’t want to rely on him making a jump, Detroit has little choice.

The Pistons won’t be forced to lean on Stan Van Gundy’s other two first-round picks, power forward Henry Ellenson (No. 18 last year) and shooting Luke Kennard (No. 12 this year), quite as much. Detroit hedged with more experience – and expensive – veterans.

Langston Galloway might live up to his three-year, $21 million contract. But he’s just one forgettable season split between New Orleans and Sacramento away from the Knicks pulling his qualifying offer and the Pelicans signing him to just a two-year, $10,634,000 deal with a player option. It seems likely Detroit went well above market rate to sign the combo guard, a disturbing trend.

The Pistons got power forward Anthony Tolliver cheaper, for one year with the $3.29 million bi-annual exception. But that also means they can’t use the bi-annual exception again next year. Using the bi-annual exception this summer is not necessarily flawed. The Pistons knew it’d be useful now, and there’s no guarantee it would be next offseason. But preserving resources for the future seems to barely be a consideration for this franchise.

At least they convinced Aron Baynes to decline his $6.5 million player option, granting them more maneuverability. He was left with the $4,328,000 room exception in Boston.

Winning creates flexibility, as players on winning teams hold more value. Perhaps, Jackson getting healthy creates a ripple effect in Detroit that – with these new additions bolstering the roster – sparks a revival.

But the Pistons are poised to face the same luxury-tax issues they had with paying Caldwell-Pope this summer with paying Bradley next summer. Except Bradley will start free agency unrestricted, meaning Detroit will have even less control of the situation.

The Pistons just hope they win enough this year to confront that issue from a position of greater strength.

Offseason grade: C-

LeBron, Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics

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LOS ANGELESLeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.