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In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.

FACING LONG ODDS

1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.

WHAT TO KNOW

LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.

 

Rumor: Tension between Chris Paul and Rockets over contract

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Chris Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 last season by opting in to facilitate a trade to the Rockets rather than opting out and signing somewhere for a max salary.

He expects to be made whole. And by most accounts, Houston understands the arrangement.

But here’s a rumor otherwise.

Undisputed:

Chris Broussard:

From what I’m told, there is tension now between Houston and Chris Paul. Because there was definitely some type of handshake, wink wink, “we’re going to max you out” last summer. But here’s the thing: Now, they’re not so sure. Houston, with good reason, doesn’t want to do that. But they’ve got an out, because they have new ownership. So, Daryl Morey can go to Chris Paul and be like, “I want to do it, but we’ve got the new owner doesn’t want to give you five years, four years.”

Former Rockets owner Leslie Alexander committed to big expenditures. New owner Tillman Ferttita has talked about his spending limits – for good reason. He sunk so much of his personal wealth into buying the team. He might not be able to afford outrageous luxury-tax bills.

Starters Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza will also become free agents this summer. Houston definitely wants to keep Capela. A large contract for Paul would be prohibitive.

Paul’s max projects to be about $205 million over five years. Already 33, he almost certainly won’t produce enough on the court to justify that amount. Players that age just decline and face greater injury risk.

But the downside of not paying him that much could be losing him. Even playing hardball could offend him given the circumstances that brought him to Houston. The Rockets are contending. A bad contract a few years down the road would be worth it if they win a title, and Paul is instrumental to that push.

This could be a delicate situation, and Morey can probe at least a little if he chooses. Would Paul be understanding of the ownership change? What options will Paul have better than a large, but sub-max, contract from the Rockets? Would Paul take a discount if Houston got his friend LeBron James?

But push too hard, and would Paul bolt to play with LeBron on the Lakers?

There has been too much insistence that Paul re-signing with the Rockets was assured to completely trust Broussard’s report. But it’d also be a mistake to completely ignore the possibility talks have broken down.

Hawks GM: We might have traded up with Bucks if their draft pick didn’t leak first

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Let’s pick up with the No. 16 pick in last night’s NBA draft.

The Suns were on the clock and planning to pick Donte DiVincenzo. John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

But then 76ers called Phoenix about trading No. 10 pick Mikel Bridges for the No. 16 pick and a future first-rounder. The teams agreed to the deal (causing this heartbreaking moment), and the Suns picked Zhaire Smith for Philadelphia.

The next three picks:

17. Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks

18. Lonnie Walker, Spurs

19. Kevin Huerter, Hawks

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk on 95.7 The Game, via ESPN:

“Last night, for instance, we had the 19th pick, and we’re coming down and we’re actually talking to Milwaukee on the 17th pick, talking about trading up to get a guy we like,” Schlenk said. “There’s were a couple of guys we felt really good about on the 19th pick, obviously Kevin [Huerter] was one of them, and it leaked who Milwaukee was going to take.

“So, all of a sudden, we were able to pull back out of that deal and keep the draft pick instead of packaging picks to move up because we knew that, two guys on the board we felt really good about and only one team in between us, so that was beneficial to us last night.”

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports and Jeff Goodman of ESPN reported the Bucks picking DiVincenzo at 9:18 p.m.:

The pick became official at 9:22 p.m.:

Clearly, Atlanta wanted Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo.”* Once they learned Milwaukee would take DiVincenzo at No. 17, the Hawks knew at least one of Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo” would be available at No. 19.

*I think there’s a good chance it was Walker, whom San Antonio picked No. 18.

That saved the Hawks an asset(s) and cost the Bucks an asset(s), though perhaps Milwaukee couldn’t have gotten DiVincenzo at No. 19. Maybe the Spurs would’ve selected him at No. 18.

Still, the Bucks didn’t protect their internal plans well enough. Maybe that’s an organizational flaw. But this also could have been a fluky sequence of events. Perhaps, after hearing Phoenix would take DiVincenzo, someone in Milwaukee felt comfortable sharing that the Bucks wanted him. Then, when he surprisingly fell, it was too late. The information was already out there – allowing Atlanta to stand pat.

Danny Ainge unwittingly leaks Celtics’ draft pick on call with Terry Rozier during live show (video)

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Terry Rozier takes solace in how much Danny Ainge believes in him.

But I didn’t appreciate how deep their bond went.

Appearing on Bleacher Report’s live draft show, Rozier was asked to predict the Celtics’ No. 27 pick. So, Rozier called Ainge to ask. Shockingly, Ainge answered – with Boston on the clock. Almost certainly not knowing the call was public and live, Ainge revealed the likely selection:

Good thing the Celtics stuck with Robert Williams. That would have been extremely awkward otherwise.

As is, it was only a little awkward. Williams said today he doesn’t like to be called Bob.

Report: Rival teams expect Paul George to consider 1+1 contract with Thunder

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Paul George has openly stated the appeal of playing for his hometown Lakers. He has also openly stated the appeal of staying with the Thunder.

That has created significant confusion about his upcoming free agency.

Could George find a compromise outcome?

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

More than one rival team has suggested to me that they expect George to strongly consider a two-year deal with the Thunder at $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20 that includes a player option to return to free agency next summer.

This makes sense on paper.

A 1+1 contract would give George more time to determine whether he and Russell Westbrook can win together in Oklahoma City without getting stuck there long-term if they can’t. The Thunder were starting to put it together when Andre Roberson got hurt. Perhaps, Roberson getting healthy would swing Oklahoma City’s fortunes.

George would also be eligible for a higher max salary in two years – 35% of the salary cap, up from 30% if he signs now. So, a short-term contract would allow him to maximize his potential earnings.

But George said he wanted to sign somewhere long-term this summer. He also suffered an extremely gruesome leg injury just a few years ago. He might not want to bypass guaranteed money to gamble for a little more later.

Are these rival teams just looking at the general outlook for a player in George’s position without considering his specific circumstances? Or do they know something? George could have informed teams he might become available in 2019 or 2020 so they should prepare.

I’m skeptical this is more than speculation by opposing teams. But the possibility that they’re basing their expectations on inside information makes this worth monitoring.