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Three things to know from All-Star Weekend: New format worked, for now

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LOS ANGELES — Our regular feature “Three Things to Know” usually wraps up and breaks down the news of the day in the NBA, but in this case we are stepping back to take in all of All-Star Weekend. Three Things will then be off this week until Friday (there are no games until Thursday night as the league takes a little break).

1) The new “captains pick teams” format may have worked as intended. But will it last? This much we can agree on: This was the best played, most dramatic All-Star Game we have seen in a while. There was some actual defense played, guys tried and played with a little pride, they played hard, we had a close and intense ending, and (unlike last season) the night featured something that resembled basketball. There was even a game-tying and game-winning shot.

The new format — where captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry (the highest vote-getters from fans) picked the teams playground-style — got the credit for the change.

“The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody,” said LeBron, who scored 29 points including the go-ahead bucket late, and was named MVP. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”

Was it really the format that led to the change? Tune in next year, and frankly the next few years, to find out.

First off, the players were genuinely embarrassed by the lack of defense and level of play in last year’s game, they talked about it afterwards in New Orleans and it was players’ union president Chris Paul who first pushed for the format change as a way to inject some energy into the game. To a man, the players and coaches talked about “changing the narrative” around the game.

The reality is the game was close, and often in the past when the All-Star Game was close late we got real energy and something resembling defense the final six minutes or so of the game. This year’s game was close, so the genuine energy late was not wildly out of character.

If the league had stuck with East vs. West (but upped the payout to winners and kept the new charity component) would the players have come out and played with this same energy and defense from the start to change the narrative anyway? My sense is probably, again they didn’t want to embarrass themselves again. We’ll never know for sure, but the format got credit for bringing a new energy to the game that may have been coming anyway.

The NBA is going to keep this format — although expect the player draft to be televised next time around — so we will see in Charlotte next February and in Chicago in 2020 if the change was about the format or just a conscious effort by the players to make the product better.

Either way, let’s hope it continues.

2) Donovan Mitchell, welcome to the spotlight. Utah’s rookie Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a game (and much more than that the past couple of months), has become the Jazz’s go-to scorer and shot creator late in games, and for my money is the current frontrunner for Rookie of the Year (with Ben Simmons a close second). Yet for casual fans Mitchell was flying under the radar — people don’t really tune in to see the Jazz play (they don’t get on national television much) and in a deep rookie class with big names the No. 13 pick out of Louisville was not one of the pre-draft hype guys.

People know who he is now — he took over the spotlight in Los Angeles for a while. He was featured Friday’s Rising Stars challenge, then on Saturday went out and won the Dunk Contest.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino (in college), it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell had plenty of style and flash in Los Angeles. First, he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Then he sealed his Dunk Contest win with a tribute to Vince Carter and one of his legendary dunks.

No player did more for his national profile over the three-days in Los Angeles than Donovan Mitchell.

3) Dunk of the weekend? Give that one to Larry Nance Jr. The newly-minted Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr. (he was traded from the Lakers at the deadline just more than a week before) may have come in second in the Dunk Contest to Mitchell, but he had the best dunk of the weekend. No doubt.

It was the double self-alley-oop off the backboard.

That was the dunk we’ll be talking about out of the weekend.

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.