Three Things to Know: Blake Griffin is a Piston, now what for Detroit, L.A.?

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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) Detroit trades for Blake Griffin, but is that the smart move for the Pistons? What about the Clippers? It was a trade that caught the NBA off guard. The Clippers had listened to trade offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, but not “Clipper for life” Blake Griffin. He is simply the best and most important player in Clippers’ franchise history, the No. 1 pick they nailed that turned the franchise culture around (there is no Chris Paul, no “lob city” without Griffin being there first, and along with a push from Mike Dunleavy Sr., forcing the organization to act like adults). Besides, they just maxed out the injury-prone Griffin, who was going to take on that salary.

The Detroit Pistons in a deal that sent Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, a lightly-protected (top four only) first-round pick and a second rounder, too, to Los Angeles. The move even caught Griffin off guard.

What does it mean for the two sides?

For Detroit, even though they got the best player in the trade in Griffin, this is a desperation move for a team that wants badly to be in the playoffs and right now is on the outside looking in at the postseason. Stan Van Gundy is all-in with this lineup. If healthy, a Griffin and Andre Drummond frontline could be one of the best and most dynamic in the league — although both like to operate near the elbows or higher and both like space to work that will be lacking with this roster construction. Also, both are good passers. The problem is they don’t have many people to pass too — the Pistons are very thin now at the guard and wing spots — and because the two bigs soak up so much of the cap it’s going to be hard to put enough around them to make it work. It feels like the Michigan version of what we’ve seen in New Orleans (before Cousins’ injury), where even if the two bigs can play well together there is a ceiling on how good the team can be overall with those two massive salaries and one guard (Reggie Jackson, in this case) taking up so much of the cap.

For the Clippers, Jerry West and Lawrence Frank got the retooling they wanted. This was a cold-blooded but smart move. For this season the questions are will they trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams before the Feb. 8 deadline? If those two are on the roster it’s not unreasonable to say the Clippers can still make the playoffs in the West — Los Angeles is 8-8 without Griffin this season (only 17-16 with him), and in Tobias Harris they added an underrated small forward who can hit threes, create shots off the pick-and-roll, is good as a catch-and-shoot guy and should get a little more spotlight than he had. However, when Chris Paul and J.J. Redick both got out of town last summer without looking back the rebuild should have started, and while they are late to the party the Clippers should move DJ and Williams and get on with it. This doesn’t have to be a Hinkie-like bottom out rebuild, but it needs to be a complete one (including likely moving on from Doc Rivers). If it doesn’t happen at the trade deadline next week, it will happen next summer (no way Jordan stays as a free agent). It’s time. (And while maybe the Clippers could free up the cap space to go after LeBron James or Paul George this summer, I have heard LeBron is not interested.)

2) Jabari Parker returns to Bucks on Friday vs. Knicks. Last season, Jabari Parker was back. The former No. 2 pick was averaging 20.1 points per game and forming a dangerous scoring combination for the Bucks next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Then Parker tore his left ACL — for the second time in three years. From the moment it happened last February, Milwaukee said it would take about a year for Parker to return to the court.

Friday night, Parker will return to the Bucks rotation when Milwaukee takes on New York.

It will be interesting to see just how good these Bucks are come the postseason. Once Parker gets back into game shape, the Bucks will have a very good team on paper: A top-five player in Antetokounmpo, two other scoring threats in Parker and Eric Bledsoe, plus quality role players around them such as Khris Middleton and John Henson. If they can defend well for interim coach Joe Prunty they can be the team everyone at the top wants to avoid in the first round, the team capable of pulling off an upset. First, let’s just hope Parker can get back on the court and stay there.

3) There was action on the NBA court Monday: Celtics get game-winning three from Jaylen Brown to beat Nuggets. The off-the-court news overshadowed the games on Monday (as often happens around the trade deadline in the NBA), but there were games and one good one.

The Celtics were on the road in Denver and could not shake the Pistons late — despite Kyrie Irving scoring 10 of his 27 in the fourth quarter — and a runner by Jamal Murray tied the game up at 108-108. But then with :34 left, Boston’s Jaylen Brown nailed a corner three that proved to be the game-winner.

I generally like the idea of letting teams play out the final possession of a close game without a timeout (if you have a floor general you can trust to make the right play), however, with five seconds left this was different — Mike Malone and Denver should have called a timeout to advance the ball. After Denver forced the Irving miss Will Barton didn’t have the time to get up the court fast enough and get a quality shot off. The Nuggets had a timeout left, they should have taken it to advance the ball and get one clean look, as it was they settled for a rushed shot that had little chance.

 

LeBron says Wembanyama is an ‘alien’ and a ‘generational talent’

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There was a time when LeBron James was the “it” kid coming for the NBA — a freakish athlete like nobody in the league had seen. A player the size of Karl Malone with the quickness and skills of an elite point guard.

Now the “it” guy is Victor Wembanyama, the 7’4″ mold-breaking big out of France — and LeBron is impressed.

“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, well he’s more like an alien,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Suns in Las Vegas. “I’ve never seen, no one’s ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but it’s fluid and as graceful as on the floor…

“His ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers on the post, step-back 3s, catch-and-shoot 3s, block shots. He’s for sure a generational talent. And hopefully he continues to stay healthy, that’s the most important for him personally, and as you could tell he loves the game. He was smiling a lot while playing the game last night. I think it was the two best players in the draft on the floor last night and they both did their thing.”

Wembanyama is projected to be the No.1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, just ahead of point guard Scoot Henerson, who scored 28 points with nine assists of his own leading his G-League Ignite to a win over Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92. Wembanyama scored 37 points in the game, hit 7-of-11 shots from 3, had five blocks and a few other shots changed because of his length (7’11” wingspan) and the threat of his block.

Wembanyama and Henderson face off again tonight in a second game between the Ignite and Metropolitans 92 just outside Las Vegas in Henderson (9:30 p.m. ET on NBATV).

Wembanyama will play, with his agent telling ESPN there are no plans to shut the No.1 pick down to avoid injury and protect his draft status. “He’ll never agree to that. He wants to compete and get better,” Bouna Ndiaye said.

LeBron looked back on his time as the “it” player and said simply, “thank got there wasn’t social media” at the time. It’s a different world now, but game still recognizes game.

And LeBron recognizes it in Wembanyama.

LeBron tells Adam Silver he wants to own expansion team in Vegas

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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The odds are good that Las Vegas will get an NBA expansion team. Eventually.

But when it happens, LeBron James wants to be in the Vegas ownership group — and he made that pitch directly to Adam Silver after the Lakers exhibition game in Sin City against the Suns on Wednesday.

“I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now, I believe. But he probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players,” James said, via the Associated Press. “So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”

Silver is in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting an exhibition game between the Bucks and Hawks this week. But LeBron doesn’t need to worry about Silver seeing this request. He probably already has.

The widely held belief around the league is that the NBA owners will not entertain expansion until a new CBA and a new television/streaming rights deal are locked in (driving up the franchise prices), things that will take a couple of years. Expansion talk may come after that, and maybe there will be two new NBA teams by the end of the decade.

“We are not discussing that at this time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of expansion last June. “As I said before, at some point, this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.”

If and when expansion happens, Las Vegas, along with Seattle, are the clear frontrunners to land teams. Most importantly, both cities have NBA-ready stadiums and fan bases to support the franchises, and their mayors are on board.

LeBron would be the face of an ownership group. While LeBron himself is a billionaire, Silver had called reports of a $2.5 billion expansion fee per team “low.” And that’s not including all the other start-up costs that come with a team.

But if the NBA is coming to Las Vegas, don’t be shocked if LeBron is involved.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.

DeMarcus Cousins looking for NBA return: ‘I just want a fair shot’

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins can still help a team. He did it last season, first in Milwaukee because they needed depth (Brook Lopez was out following back surgery) and he gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. Then, the Bucks let him go for financial reasons and the Nuggets picked him up to play behind Nikola Jokic and he was again a solid reserve, with 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Cousins, however, has not landed with a team heading into this season, with teams more concerned about his character and influence than his game. Cousins told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports he has learned from his past mistakes and wants another chance.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player…

“I think the misperception of me is that I’m this angry monster that just goes around bullying people, beating people up, uncoachable, and a cancer in the locker room,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s all false. I played for coach [John] Calipari, a legendary coach. I was more than coachable. Steve Kerr would attest to that and coach Malone. Obviously, you can always go back to my time in Sacramento. I was a young kid. I was still figuring this business out. I was ignorant to a lot of things. I handled a lot of things the incorrect way, but I’ve also learned from those mistakes…

“So, to hold my time in Sac over my head, I think that’s unfair. I believe we all should have a chance to grow and change and actually have that change be embraced. I just want a fair shot.”

Cousins also said he is working out daily to be ready when the phone rings and understands he is now a role player.

It will ring. At some point an injury will happen and a team will turn to Cousins to be that solid backup big they can give 15 minutes a night (or, a team will realize they need more size than they currently have on their roster). Center has become a bit of a mercenary position in the NBA, one where teams often look to fill roles on the cheap so money can be spent on perimeter players, and teams think low-risk with those spots. Fair or not, Cousins is not seen as low risk.

But his stint with the Warriors before the bubble (and before he tore his ACL) and last season with the Bucks and Nuggets show he can fit in on an established team and contribute. Eventually, he should get that chance.