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NBA Three Things to Know: Blake Griffin can still dunk, Clippers are legit

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Clippers ace first real test, silence Jazz. And if you think Blake Griffin doesn’t dunk anymore… The Clippers came into Tuesday night 2-0, and we all shrugged because they had beaten the Lakers and the Suns. It was little more than extended training camp. Blake Griffin had looked like a maestro running the Clipper offense, Patrick Beverley talked a lot, but how do we judge that against two of the worst defensive teams in the league?

Tuesday night the Clippers owned a good Jazz team in the second half, and Griffin dropped 22 points with nine rebounds and 6 assists — given their first test the Clippers aced it. Griffin set the tone in the first quarter with a throwback dunk over the best defensive big man in the game, Rudy Gobert. Tell me again how Griffin doesn’t dunk anymore.

Griffin has always been an underrated passer, but he has added a legit three-point shot to his arsenal this season, shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc so far. More importantly, he is now their best playmaker and they need him for Doc Rivers pass-and-cut offense to be effective — against Utah it was clear how much the Clippers missed Milos Teodosic to create with the second unit (Lou Williams was off and just 3-of-10 shooting, he has to lead that second unit now). Griffin has been at his peak to start the season, and he’s getting some help — DeAndre Jordan had 11 points and 18 rebounds outplaying Gobert, Patrick Beverley had 19 points and was 4-of-7 from three, and Austin Rivers added 16 against Utah.

Three games in, the Clippers also have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 86.1 points per 100 possessions. We’re going to take a wait-and-see on how good the defense really is — the Lakers, Suns, and Jazz are not exactly offensive powerhouses — but it’s a promising start.

From the opening of training camp the question with the Clippers was not “do they have talent?” because they had plenty, the real question was “can they keep that talent on the court?” There are a lot of guys with long injury histories on this team, starting with Griffin. When healthy, however, this is a good Clippers team. Very good.

2) Anthony Davis gives everyone a scare, but MRI is clean and he is day-to-day.
That sound you hear is GM Dell Demps, coach Alvin Gentry, and the entire city of New Orleans exhaling.

Just five minutes into Tuesday night’s game against Portland, Anthony Davis left it with a sore knee. He had banged it in knee-to-knee contact with Damian Lillard, then we saw it buckle a little in a position battle with Maurice Harkless, and we were worried — Davis has been his usual, brilliant self to start the season and the basketball gods have already robbed us of enough talent to start the season. They can’t have Davis, too.

They won’t. An MRI came back negative and Davis is considered day-to-day. Without him on the court DeMarcus Cousins took over scoring 39 points and grabbing 13 boards, and keeping it close. However, Portland closed the game on a 9-0 run, and with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining for 24 points in the fourth quarter it was too much for New Orleans to match. Portland got the 103-93 win, and the Pelicans fall to 1-3 to start the season (the Blazers are 3-1).

3) LeBron James takes over as Cavaliers point guard, he can play that, too. Isaiah Thomas will not step on the court in a Cavaliers uniform until 2018. Derrick Rose is out with a tweaked ankle. That left Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue with a choice: Start Jose Calderon or LeBron James at the point?

Is that even a question? Actually, it was when Lue started Calderon against Orlando, and Cleveland lost. Lesson learned. LeBron played the point Tuesday and was his MVP-level self: 34 points on 20 shots, 4-of-6 from three, and he racked up 13 assists.

Kevin Love had 10 of his 20 points on the night in the fourth quarter, and the Cavaliers moved past a game Bulls team for the 119-112 win.

This was also the game where J.R. Smith moved back into the starting lineup, but he stumbled shooting 1-of-8 from the floor in this one (he had missed shootaround with a sore back). Dwyane Wade was 5-of-7 off the bench and boosted a Cavs bench that could use it, scoring 11 points. Tristan Thompson also slid into the starting lineup for the Cavaliers in this one, but that was more about Robin Lopez being at center for Chicago and Lue wanting to match up. The Cavaliers are versatile and veteran enough to make all these changes and just keep on winning.

It also helps to have LeBron James.

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.