Trade No. 1 pick? Deal for Kyrie Irving? Celtics’ Danny Ainge bets big on his convictions

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Danny Ainge believes in himself and his player evaluations. Unequivocally.

Almost every NBA team had Markelle Fultz at the top of their draft board. As one scout put it to me, “there is a clear No. 1 this year.” NBC’s college basketball guru Rob Dauster agreed and told us so. It was the consensus.

Ainge didn’t see it that way. Boston’s decision maker traded the No. 1 pick for a future first rounder and eventually took Jayson Tatum at No. 3, the guy he liked best in the draft.

Also through the summer, Ainge also sat on the biggest asset on the trade board — the Brooklyn Nets unprotected 2018 first-round pick — and didn’t use it to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler (or anyone else). It seemed untouchable.

Then Ainge threw it and another player other teams coveted — Jae Crowder (not to mention Isaiah Thomas) — in a deal to land Kyrie Irving out of Cleveland. Ainge paid a franchise-player level price for Irving, betting he can be the best player on a championship team.

Ainge likes Irving more than other teams do, he likes the flair in Irving’s game — no doubt Irving is an elite scorer, but a franchise player? One who defends and gets teammates involved? Look at what some scouts and executives told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report.

“I think it’s fairly clear he’s not (a franchise player),” says one team’s analytics director, pointing to the surprisingly soft trade market for Irving. “The league as a whole agrees he’s not.”

The scout calls Irving’s playmaking skills “plain vanilla” and “average for a starting point guard.” He says he would be surprised if Irving raised his assist average much in Boston…. And Irving is positively awful defensively, according to just about every available defensive metric—“a train wreck,” in the words of one Cavs official.

Ainge, like the rest of us, has seen Irving the great playmaker, and we’ve seen Irving play good defense (remember him on Stephen Curry in the 2016 Finals?). But franchise cornerstones bring that every night, not once in a while.

Ainge is higher on Irving than most of his front office peers, and he bet big on that belief that Irving will be the best of himself in Boston.

That sums up Danny Ainge’s summer: He has true conviction in his player evaluations, even if they go against the grain.

He has bet big on these assessments and convictions — and bet the Celtics’ future. This was a 53-win Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and it will have four new starters next season. Only four players from the previous year will be in camp with the Celtics next season, and the Celtics have gotten younger in the process in a historic way.

Boston still looks like the second-best team in the East come the playoffs (nobody should bet against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals until he loses one at this point), and they are poised to have next in the East if things come apart in Cleveland.

However, one of the three tests of whether this team is a contender is whether Gordon Hayward and Irving can mesh inside Brad Steven’s offense and become almost unstoppable on that end. Which is really asking, is Ainge right that Irving will buy into what Stevens is selling? Another big test is whether this Celtics team can get enough defense from Irving (and its developing players) to make up for losing Crowder and Avery Bradley in one summer.

The final, and maybe biggest question, is in a couple of years will we say Ainge passed on the best player in this class in Fultz to get a more polished but lower upside guy in Tatum? No. 1 picks are rare opportunities, Ainge gambled in giving his away, and if Fultz is what the Sixers and some other teams believe Ainge will have lost that bet.

You have to admire that Ainge goes with his convictions, that he’s not willing to just take the safe and conventional route. We love to watch risk takers, teams swinging for the fences are far more interesting than a GM just looking to hit solid singles every time at the plate.

But if Ainge missed on his evaluations in the summer of 2017, it could be a long while before banner 18 goes up in the Boston Garden.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t believe in the NBA 2K cover curse

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Milwaukee Bucks superstar at Giannis Antetokounmpo will bless this year’s cover of NBA 2K19. It’s a big deal for the Greek Freak, who has come a long way since be a heralded prospect after being drafted in 2013.

Antetokounmpo is also apparently aware of the noted curse from the 2K franchise. That is, that former players who have been on the cover in years past have notoriously ended up in different jerseys shortly after getting selected for the honor.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, and Kevin Durant all left their respective teams shortly after being featured on the cover.

Antetokounmpo signed a contract extension in 2016 that runs through the 2020-2021 season. Unless something goes horribly wrong, there’s no reason to think that he will be gone anytime soon.

But is the cover curse real? People certainly seem to think the Madden one is.

Lakers fan paints another LeBron James mural in Los Angeles (PHOTO)

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There was already one LeBron James mural in Los Angeles. Several people decided to attack it with paint, ruining a nice gesture by a local artist in Venice and proving how annoying (presumed) Kobe Bryant fans can be.

Now, there is another mural in LA and this time it paid a little more attention to former Lakers legends. Hopefully this time around the subject matter will help stave off would-be vandals.

Via Twitter:

This LeBron piece was done by another Venice muralist, Gustavo Zermeño Jr., who posted photos of his work. In it, LeBron is seen looking up at Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

No doubt that should satisfy some Lakers purists around the area, at least enough to keep them from throwing white paint all over it and ruining and impressive piece of artwork that took the artist a long time to create.

Lakers fan should just be happy that LeBron is in their state.

Clippers sign free agent Luc Mbah a Moute for second stint

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LOS ANGELES — Luc Mbah a Moute is back with the Los Angeles Clippers, signing a free-agent deal.

The 31-year-old forward averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.18 steals in 61 games for Houston last season.

Mbah a Moute played two seasons for the Clippers from 2015-17, averaging 4.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in 155 games, including 137 starts.

He was selected 37th overall by Milwaukee in 2008 after three seasons at UCLA. Besides the Clippers and Rockets, Mbah a Moute has played 10 seasons with Milwaukee, Sacramento, Minnesota and Philadelphia.

Terms of the deal announced Thursday were not announced.

DeMarcus Cousins relishing fresh start in Golden State

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins spent his first eight seasons in the NBA chasing two things – peace and the playoffs.

After signing with Golden State as a free agent, the four-time All-Star center has no doubts he’ll finally find both, and that those will help dispel the notion that he’s a bad teammate.

“Just a chance to play for a winning culture,” Cousins said Thursday. “I also have a chance to play with some of the most talented players of this era. Those two things alone, that pretty much sums it up.”

Looking relaxed while sitting on a stage next to Warriors general manager Bob Myers, Cousins was at ease during a news conference at the team’s practice facility.

Golden State’s fiery big man seems content in his new surroundings and wants the hardware to show for it.

“Every guy said let’s go get another championship,” Cousins said. “They are a well-established team and they could have easily been like, `No, we don’t need him.’ But they were excited like a team that’s never accomplished anything.”

While his signing in Golden State drew mostly groans from around the NBA, Cousins didn’t need much persuading to join the two-time defending champions. He has never played in the postseason, is coming off Achilles surgery in January and didn’t attract much attention in free agency until signing a $5.3 million, one-year contract with Golden State.

From the Warriors’ side, it’s a case of the rich getting richer. They’ve won the championship three of the past four seasons with an attack heavy on perimeter shooting and defense. In the 6-foot-7-inch, 270-pound Cousins, they now have a dominant presence on the low block as well.

“It’s a different dimension,” Myers said. “It’s not something that we’ve ever had as far as a low-post threat since I’ve been here. I’m excited. I hope he’s excited.”

Cousins averaged 25.2 points and career highs in rebounds (12.9), assists (5.4) and minutes (36.2) with New Orleans before getting hurt. He has been frustrated by the tediousness of rehab but is being cautious in his approach.

“I’m progressing weekly, which is a positive,” Cousins said. “As far as a timetable . to be determined. I have to be smart about it. I’m in a unique situation as well where I’m not needed right away. Time is kind of on my side so I have a chance to get to 100 percent.

“Making it to the playoffs won’t be an issue for this team obviously. Once the basketball part comes, everything else will take care of itself.”

A throng of media attended the news conference, flanked by 150 young fans who were taking part in a basketball camp held by Warriors. Cousins answered questions from two of the youngsters who were eager to know who his favorite players were growing up.

The 27-year-old with a quick temper and a history of piling up technical fouls at a rapid rate showed a playful side when he joked about the possibility of fighting with new teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, two players with whom he’s had on-court issues in the past.

“Might as well,” Cousins said as the crowd laughed.

Cousins turned serious at one point when asked about reports that he had been offered a new contract by New Orleans before signing with Golden State.

“Only me and (Pelicans general manager) Dale Demps know what was said on the phone that night,” Cousins said. “We both know the truth and I’ll leave it at that.”

As for his new team, Cousins has assimilated quickly. He played with several members of the Warriors while winning a gold medal as part of Team USA during the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Me and Draymond clicked right away,” Cousins said. “We’re two goofballs that like to joke around a lot. Same with KD and same thing with Steph (Curry). It’s a great group. I think we’ll mesh well.”

Until he is medically cleared to play, Cousins will continue to rehab and learn coach Steve Kerr’s system. He’ll also reach out to the Oakland community, something he made a quiet habit of while in Sacramento playing for the Kings.

“I get out in the `hoods,” Cousins said. “I want to go to the worst, the grimiest places. That’s where I want to be. Those are usually the kids or the communities that kind of get left behind or forgotten about. I feel like I was in that situation at one point. That’s where my mindset is and that’s what I stand for.”