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) Paul George loves Los Angeles, but after his current team sweeps city does he want to go there? It’s the siren song of leading your hometown franchise vs. a team built to win right now. Paul George has a decision coming up this summer, and both sides made their case in the last 48 hours.
There was plenty of fodder for the “George wants to play for the Lakers” camp this week — buzz that started with his agent telling the Pacers exactly that last summer. (George seemed disinterested in the Clippers when it was brought up.) The best example of what playing in L.A. could offer was George draining a three against the Lakers Wednesday then running over to hug his mom courtside. Also, there was no shortage of quotes from George about how much he loves his hometown.
“It was awesome,” George said of his welcome in L.A. after his current team, the Thunder, thrashed the Lakers by almost 40. “For one, just being home, being in front of friends, family, and then just the respect, the love, the recruitment. It was awesome. It was awesome to get that love.”
On the other side, there’s the game on the court. The Thunder are winning, and the young Lakers look years away from contending even with a superstar. George got a view of that firsthand this week. Oklahoma City kept up its hot streak — the win over the Clippers Thursday 127-117 was the team’s eighth in 10 games — which should lead to plenty of optimism in the “George is going to stay with the Thunder” camp.
“If (the Thunder are) trending, if we’re going in the right direction, if I feel there is something that we’re building, and there’s a foundation — it would be kind of clueless, just stupid on my behalf to up and leave.”
George hasn’t made his call about next summer yet, he seems torn and is being patient. Westbrook is all in for Oklahoma City, having signed his max extension. Carmelo Anthony almost certainly opts into his $28 million final year (that money isn’t out there for him as a free agent). Meanwhile, George is playing it LeBron style, keeping all his options open and waiting until the summer. (The financial dance for the Thunder to keep George is a tough one for GM Sam Presti and ownership — they maxed out Westbrook, they would need to max out George, and everyone expects Anthony to opt in, sending the Thunder deep into the luxury tax, maybe too deep for a small market. No matter what ownership says.)
It’s not championship or bust to keep George in OKC, but the Thunder’s slow start dug them a deep hole. OKC is currently the fifth seed in the West and may well climb up to fourth, but they are four games back of the three-seed Spurs who just got Kawhi Leonard back, and the Rockets are out of reach. If the Thunder are the four seed it means a challenging first-round series (likely against the Timberwolves), then in the second round would be the Warriors. If Oklahoma City gets spanked by Golden State in that series it sends a message, if OKC pushes the defending champs hard it’s another.
George is going to wait and see. But we do know he loves Los Angeles.
2) Giannis Antetokounmpo ahead of LeBron James in first fan All-Star voting returns. It is a testament to what a superstar the Greek Freak has become: He, not LeBron James, would be one of the two captains to pick All-Star teams if All-Star voting ended today. In fan voting so far, Antetokounmpo is just 7,336 votes ahead of LeBron (with more than 85 million votes cast for each), but it’s a lead.
Just as a refresher: The NBA has thrown out the stale old East vs. West All-Star format for this year’s game — Feb. 18 in Los Angeles — and gone to a playground-style picking of teams format: The top vote-getters in each conference will be the captains and they will make the picks (from a pool of All-Stars). They can choose anyone from either conference — Durant is free to pick LeBron instead of Curry. Fan votes combined with select media will choose the starter pool of two guards and three frontcourt players from each conference (consider those media votes Zaza Pachulia insurance, fans almost voted him as a starter last season). The coaches will pick the seven reserves from each conference.
If the voting ended today (and the media agreed) the frontcourt players from the East would be Antetokounmpo, James, and Joel Embiid, paired with guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan. Kristaps Porzingis is not far behind Embiid, and Victor Oladipo is close to taking DeRozan’s spot as a starter.
Out West, the starters voted into the pool would be Durant, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins (yes, two Pelicans). The guards are Curry and James Harden. Draymond Green and Paul George are within striking distance of Cousins, while Russell Westbrook is third in the guard voting.
Voting is open through Jan. 15.
3) Warriors without Kevin Durant beat Rockets without James Harden. Do I even need to write “don’t read anything into this?”
No Durant or Harden throws a preview of playoff defensive matchups largely out the window (although overall the Rockets did a good job sniffing out the Warriors backcuts and floppy actions that usually lead to easy buckets). Aside the missing stars, Gerald Green went off for 8-of-15, and while that may give the Warriors something to think about it’s also not sustainable for Green (although someone on the Rockets always seems to step up).
Plus, we are more than four months away from a playoff series between these squads — both teams will evolve between now and then.
Basically, this game felt like a one-off. It was familiar only in Golden State’s pattern of owning a game late — the Warriors took over the final nine minutes to win 124-114. Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 57 points. With that the Warriors keep their perch on top of the West secure. But that’s about it.