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Energetic and blossoming Kelly Oubre injecting life into Wizards

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Jerome Williams – who played for the Pistons, Raptors, Bulls and Knicks during a nine-year NBA career – scrimmaged his high-school players a few days per week while coaching Findlay Prep, a basketball factory near Las Vegas. As assistant then head coach, Williams worked with several future NBA players, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In those scrimmages, Williams often wanted to show his young charges what it was like to play against a professional.

But as he neared 40, Williams needed advantages. So, he subtly steered practices toward sprints before entering scrimmages.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was the first to notice Williams’ trick.

“Kelly would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re just trying to wear us down, because you know you’re getting ready to get it,'” said Williams, now 44. “He’d always come back with something to just let me know he’s seeing what I’m doing and it wasn’t going to work. He was intense.”

Then, the games started, and Oubre again separated himself from all the future pros who passed through Findlay Prep. He went hard at Williams, unafraid to foul or even play with anger toward his coach.

“Kelly was, by far, the most intense,” Williams said. “Other guys would have it in spurts. But for a whole season, every day, he was looking forward to the challenge.”

Oubre has carried that attitude to the Wizards, who badly need it. He’s a young, athletic, energetic, feisty, developing bright spot in Washington’s malaise of a regular season.

He’s also the Wizards’ most valuable trade chip with the deadline approaching. And he’s eligible for a contract extension next summer, though his new deal would begin in 2019-20, when John Wall, Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Ian Mahinmi are already due a combined $107,593,645.

Does that leave room for Oubre long-term? Short-term, in a year the Wizards hold lofty playoff aspirations, would they prefer someone more polished?

Those overlapping questions will dictate the forward’s future in Washington.

“If I worried about the money, man, my heart wouldn’t be in it,” Oubre said. “So, I’m not worried about anything about the money. I’m just happy I’m on this team.”

The Wizards are happy to have him.

The story of their season: With an established core, they’re coasting. Washington is an underwhelming 26-21 with numerous disappointing showings against bad teams. Effort ebbs and flows, particularly rankling coach Scott Brooks, who stuck a decade in the NBA as a hustle player.

In this environment, Oubre stands out.

“He brings it every night,” Brooks said.

Oubre’s teammates appreciate the spacing his improved 3-point shooting provides. After making less than 30% of his 3s his first two seasons, Oubre is hitting 40% this season. That’s the biggest improvement from prior years to this year in the NBA. Here are the leaders with prior 3-point percentage on the left, current 3-point on the right and difference in the middle (minimum: 100 attempts in both prior seasons and this season):

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That plus incremental improvement elsewhere could land Oubre on some Most Improved Player ballots. His defensive awareness has gotten better, but he’s still prone to getting lost. He attacks closeouts more often, but running him off the 3-point arc lowers his efficiency considerably. He looks to make more plays for his teammates, but that has led to more turnovers.

Oubre has certainly improved, but there are still too many rough edges in his game for me to call him one of the NBA’s three most improved players. However, the growth he’s showing appears to be part of the messy process of a player pushing his boundaries as he develops into a genuinely good player.

For now, Sixth Man of the Year votes could be more attainable. Oubre is tied for seventh among eligible players in win shares:

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That’s plenty of potential accolades for someone who seems to appreciate the attention. Oubre has described his eye-catching fashion style as, “I think I’m a rock star.”

“When he wears his clothes and outfits, he swears he’s the swag champ,” Wall said.

Wall said he usually doesn’t see Oubre’s game outfits until arriving to the arena, because Oubre is always on the first bus – going early to put in extra work.

Even his fashion flows into someone who plays with an edge. Oubre’s fiery has already shown several times during his fledgling career.

“He’s not satisfied. He’s not content. He doesn’t feel entitled. He wants to get better,” Brooks said. “I like that about him.”

Brooks also likes Oubre’s fit with Wall, Beal and Porter.

That four-man unit has outscored opponents by a whopping 19.2 points per 100 possessions. Only a Warriors foursome (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia) has performed better while playing so much (315 minutes).

The Wizards’ quartet has excelled with Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris or Ian Mahinmi at center. The lineup is stretchier and switchier with Morris, but it’s just a matter of degree. Wall and Beal are Washington’s best players, and they belong on the court. As versatile, semi-interchangeable forwards, Oubre and Porter spread the floor offensively and allow more switching defensively.

“It’s just a matter of helping the big out on the boards,” Beal said. “We’re all tough and take pride in our defense.”

The Wizards might sometimes be lethargic, but these players take pride in their toughness. It’s almost as if these lineups bait the idle players into a higher gear.

For Oubre, it’s the opposite challenge. Many of his mistakes are born of over-aggression. That’s why he started meditating 5-10 minutes daily.

“I’ve slowed down,” Oubre said. “I’ve been moving at my own pace. I’ve kind of just taken everything that came at me.”

But make no mistake: Oubre isn’t losing his edge.

“That’s who I am,” Oubre said. “I have a lot of energy 24/7. I’m just blessed that I do.”

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.

Report: NBA could resume with group stage

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A fundamental conflict for the NBA:

  • The more traditional of a season – all 30 teams playing 82 games, four rounds of best-of-seven series – the league completes, the more more money it will make.
  • The more teams involved in a resumed season, the higher risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the league.

That’s why the NBA is considering a middle ground – resuming without teams far outside playoff position.

But how would the league structure a format for 20 teams?

Maybe a group stage to replace the first round of the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.

Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say.

As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups.

Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on.

Based on the current standings, the tiers would be:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

As far as ways to resume with 20 teams, this isn’t bad. The draw – whether random or top-team choice – alone would be a revenue-drawing TV event.

The ninth-place (Wizards) and 10th-place (Hornets) teams in the Eastern Conference might argue they should be included over the 11th-place (Kings) and 12th-place (Spurs) teams in the Western Conference. But Sacramento and San Antonio have better records than Washington and Charlotte. If there were ever a time not to stress conference affiliations, it’s now with the league preparing to resume in a single location.

There would be increased risk for top teams getting knocked out early if their group is challenging. They’ve already lost home-court advantage. But there’s also chance of upset in a regular playoff series. Besides, downside could be mitigated by allowing the top teams to draft their groups* and using regular-season record as a tiebreaker.

*This could even be done in reverse – i.e., the top teams selecting which lower-tier teams not to put in their own group.

The Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers could rotate selecting lower-tier teams to avoid. Once three top-tier teams have nixed a team, that lower-tier team would be placed in the fourth top-tier team’s group. Each group would still be required to have one team from each tier.

Or maybe the top-tier teams could even rotate sticking lower-tier teams into a specific top-tier team’s group. The Bucks could use their first selection on placing the 76ers into the Lakers’ group, for example.

There are many possibilities how to structure a group draft.

If the NBA locks into resuming with 20 teams, the other 10 teams would be incentivized to vote for whatever system generates the most revenue. Those 10 votes could boost any proposal that would otherwise be doomed by teams trying to clear their own path deep into the playoffs.

This system would satisfy players on marginal teams – like Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who want to play only if the games are meaningful. It’d also allow the worst teams just to be done.

The draft order and lottery odds would have to be re-considered with a 20-team group phase. Though that’s a minor issue, it’d involve every team. Again, self-interest would creep in.

This idea has some rough precedent. In 1954, the playoffs began with three-team round robins in each the East and West.

The bigger question is how many NBA teams should resume? But if the best answer is 20, this is the best format I’ve seen.