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5 Up, 5 Down: It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that the Balls are at it again

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

There are many happy things happening in the NBA. Gerald Green is here and playing for the Rockets, something I never thought I would see. His hair is incredible, and the fact that Houston has things together and is somehow sort of likable despite combining Chris Paul and James Harden together is sort of unbelievable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love CP3 and Harden is a genuine talent, but their games can be sort of grating to watch night in and night out thanks to their flair for trickery. That’s a nice way of saying it.

In any case, much has gone on since we last talked over the holidays, so without further ado.

5 Up

Gerald Green shows the Rockets are serious

You could have laughed all you wanted to about Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey admitting that the team is obsessed with beating the Golden State Warriors. Because SECRECY and STOICISM helps keeps your opponents in the dark, right? Just ask any football coach locking down practices and turning on cell phone jammers.

But the Warriors are the big target, not only out West but in the NBA. It was always obvious. That’s why it sort of made sense that Gerald Green was a big hit for Houston after he signed with the team in late December. A complete shot in the dark showed that, yes, Morey was serious about being obsessed with beating the Warriors, even if it meant grabbing a former dunk contest champion off the couch to shoot a bunch of 3-pointers. Plus, it just might work.

The continued development of Kyle Kuzma

Our very own Dan Feldman wrote a nice piece about Kuzma recently as we continue to track his progression. Kuzma has stepped out of Lonzo Ball‘s shadow, and is no longer just the Lakers’ “other rookie”. Lakers fans have even become — gasp — reasonable in their All-Star voting, and at last count Kuzma was ahead of Ball and at 9th place in the All-Star ballots.

Gerald Green’s hair

Seriously, this deserved it’s own item on this list. Just look at this masterpiece that reportedly takes two hours to complete:

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Y’all know I had too! @sandrasbraids

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The Spurs tried to trade for Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving has been great for the Boston Celtics this season, and he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. But originally it was the San Antonio Spurs, not the Celtics that came calling for the All-Star guard.

Keep your skeptical hat on, but if Irving really wanted to play for Gregg Popovich that’s a maturation that would be in line with what we’ve seen in short work for Boston. As Kurt pointed out in the article linked above, it’s unclear how the Spurs would have been able to grab Irving and that it would be fascinating to watch a high-maintenance star like Irving play for Pop.

That time Kyrie responded to coaching feedback by saying “that’s No. 23’s job”

OK, let’s hope that maturation thing for Irving has legs to it because if not … yeesh. Irving manages to somehow be one of the most interesting boring dudes in the NBA. He’s an elite scorer and dribbler, but doesn’t have the kind of magnetic personality you expect to go along with the top player on a championship team with those traits. If he didn’t start espousing about the non-spherical nature of the planet Earth we’d probably pay a lot less attention to him.

But now this comes out? My ears are perked.

5 Down

LaVar Ball is at it again

Lonzo Ball’s dad says some dumb things as a means to market screen printed Gildan shirts that apparently have a high rate of never coming to your doorstep should you order one.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers have asked LaVar Ball to tone down his criticism of Luke Walton, which Ball failed to do recently in an interview with ESPN. Ball again criticized Walton, and those comments actually made Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle so incensed that he fired back at ESPN for following Ball around.

An interesting conversation has sprung up regarding journalistic responsibility — especially when Ball says so many things that are blatantly untrue — and the fact that simply publishing Ball’s quotes devoid of context, factual rebuttal, or opposing comments from those involved is likely not the best choice.

These jerseys

Refs not realizing this was a basket by Manu Ginobili

In case you missed this one, here’s what happened. Manu Ginobili attempted an alley-oop against the New York Knicks. The ball promptly went through the basket, and then Michael Beasley tried to take off and start the fastbreak.

Refs didn’t realize what had happened, and had to be convinced by Gregg Popovich yelling at them (even though Pop admitted he didn’t see the play, either) to take a look at the replay. Come on, man. Casual NBA fans already have enough referee fodder.

Ron Baker‘s got a broken face

Uh huh. Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.

That dunk that Anthony Davis slammed down on Ron Baker — who was valiant both in his attempt to stop Davis’ dunk and for taking a forearm to the face — resulted in a fractured orbital bone for the Knicks wing. We like to see big dunks but we don’t want to see people get hurt. Wait, is this a football blog?

Isaiah Thomas came back and then a bunch of dumb stuff happened

It’s nice that Cleveland Cavaliers guard Isaiah Thomas came back recently after a hip injury kept him out for most the season thus far. He’s played well, and the Cavaliers will definitely benefit from having him on the floor — if they don’t trade him before the deadline, of course.

The main issue is everything that happened after Thomas had his first game back against the Portland Trail Blazers. In playing that game, Thomas had to skip the second night of a back-to-back and thus miss a return game against the Celtics on the road. At his request, the Celtics didn’t run a highlight tape they had planned to put on the video board before the game, instead moving it to the next time the teams play in February. Boo hoo.

But if the hubub about that wasn’t enough, then Paul Pierce decided to jump in with conflicting opinions about whether he wanted the video shown at that Feb. 11 matchup. Pierce is having his jersey retired by the team that night, and initially said he didn’t mind if some attention was given to Thomas. The next day, Pierce was on a preview show and said that he actually did mind it, and would prefer if Boston gave him the Kobe treatment instead.

Thomas said he felt the whole thing was pretty stupid (my reading) and I suppose we will have to wait another month to see if emotions rise high again. Boston fans have to stop flaming IT, man.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

Michael Jordan NASCAR
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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.