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Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP of late

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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) Anthony Davis has historic night against Suns, Pelicans win sixth straight. Phoenix’s Devin Booker would have been the star of the game most nights — 40 points on 18 shots, plus 10 rebounds.

Monday night it wasn’t close to enough. Continuing a run of insane play, Anthony Davis went off for 53 points on 29 shots, grabs 18 rebounds, and had five blocked shots.

More importantly, Davis led the Pelicans to a 125-116 win that they needed (their sixth straight) in a tight playoff chase in the West. The Pelicans are up to the five seed as of Tuesday morning (just 1.5 games out of the three seed, but still just two games clear of the nine-seed Clippers and being out of the playoffs in the tight West).

Since Cousins went down Davis has been playing at an MVP level (and will get serious bottom half of the ballot consideration from voters). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Davis has 196 points and 72 rebounds total in the past five games (39.2/14.4 per game average). The last guy to put up those kinds of numbers in a five-game stretch? Shaquille O’Neal in March 2000.

This run of play by Davis is going to make the All-NBA ballot interesting:

Not so fast with the forward thing, my friend. Davis has been brilliant both of late and all season, but is he having a better season than LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo? The All-NBA ballot is specific: Two guards, two forwards, one center. So far this season, Davis has played 60 percent of his minutes as a forward, 40 as a center, but the center numbers are climbing fast with Cousins out. If voters choose to classify Davis as a forward (and the NBA has some say in this, by whether he’s made available as a center on the voting list), then one of LeBron/Antetokounmpo/Davis gets screwed and pushed back to the second team. If Davis is the first team center (as he was last season), the Joel Embiid gets pushed back to the second team. It’s not going to be an easy call for voters.

2) Rockets recover from a sluggish start, surge to beat Jazz and extend win streak to 13. Houston had one of the tougher back-to-backs in the NBA: The high altitude combo of Denver Sunday night followed by the Utah Jazz the next night.

Didn’t matter, they kept on rolling. Utah had the lead early as the Rockets looked understandably sluggish (and the Jazz are playing well), but Houston found its groove later — Mike D’Antoni went extra small against Rudy Gobert and put Luc Mbah a Moute at center, where he went 7-of-7 and finished with 17 points — and the Rockets won. Their win streak is now at 13 and they remain on top of the Western Conference (one up in the loss column on those pesky Warriors).

James Harden had 26 points on 13 shots, plus pulled down 11 rebounds, and he combined with Chris Paul dominated the game.

Although the best play of the night? Chris Paul tries to dribble the game out in the final seconds, high fives Harden’s mom courtside, and gets called out of bounds because she’s out of bounds.

Utah has dropped two-of-three out of the All-Star break and remains 1.5 games out of the playoffs in the West (but still have the easiest schedule of anyone in the conference the rest of the way).

3) Kawhi Leonard is coming back to the Spurs lineup in March (we think), and that changes everything. After a week of “what is going on with Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs?” questions, and the inevitable “is this the start of a divorce?” speculation, we learn that Leonard is coming back — both to the Spurs now and the court this March (knocking on wood).

Leonard isn’t already all the way back, but after three weeks of meeting with doctors for second opinions in New York (it leaked the team said he was medically cleared, but I have no idea why the team would leak that and damage the relationship), Leonard is going to practice with the team starting soon. The goal is to get on the court in March, play his way into shape, and be ready to go for the playoffs.

If Leonard is back for the playoffs and back to being his MVP-level self, the Spurs just become a much more significant threat in the West. (They’re not a contender, but they will be dangerous and would no longer be the team everybody wants in the first round).

As for the overblown speculation about Leonard’s future and relationship with the Spurs, I can think of 50 million reasons that gets smoothed over. Leonard is eligible to be offered a “designated veteran” supermax extension this summer (the same deal that Stephen Curry and John Wall got). It would mean an extra guaranteed year and as much $50 million more than any other team can offer — no player offered this full deal yet has turned it down, and I doubt Leonard would be the first. Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge came to Gregg Popovich last summer when he demanded a trade, Pop smoothed it over and Aldridge is an All-Star. He will do the same with Leonard.

Report: Anthony Davis intends to receive full trade bonus

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The Lakers are reportedly on track to trade for Anthony Davis on July 6 – the date an important distinction in determining the Lakers’ cap space.

The other key question: Will Davis take his full $4,063,953 trade bonus?

The Pelicans will pay the bonus. It will count against the Lakers’ cap.

Especially considering Davis requested a trade, New Orleans could have pressed him to waive the trade bonus in order to accommodate him. Likewise, the Lakers – his desired team – could have made the deal contingent on Davis waiving the trade bonus.

Ramona Shelburne on ESPN:

My understanding is he doesn’t intend to waive that. He’s due the four million dollars, and he’s going to keep it. But again, as you just noted in that monologue, things can change.

If he takes the full bonus, Davis’ salary next season will increase from $27,093,018 to $31,156,971. And good for him. He earned the trade kicker in his contract.

This also supports agent Rich Paul’s contention that he puts Davis’ interests first while representing Davis, not catering to fellow client LeBron James. Because while the extra money is nice for Davis, this hurts LeBron’s Lakers.

The Lakers now project to have just $24 million in cap room. They can still get a helpful player or two, but $28 million would have gone further.

I wonder whether the Pelicans prefer to pay Davis’ bonus. Though a $4,063,953 check is nothing to sneeze at, tying up the Lakers’ cap space has value with New Orleans getting so many future draft picks from Los Angeles. Maybe the Pelicans have already made Davis getting his full bonus an essential aspect of this trade.

If not, the Lakers have a week before the Davis trade can become official to pitch free agents. Perhaps, if they line up certain free agents and show him the spending power of that extra money, Davis would waive all or some of his trade bonus.

But I wouldn’t blame him if he wants his money and puts the onus on the Lakers to build a strong team, anyway. That’d sounds a lot like another Paul client.

Kawhi Leonard leaving NBA-champion Raptors would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen

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Many Raptors fans hoped Kawhi Leonard would use yesterday’s championship parade to declare his plan to re-sign with Toronto.

They got a laugh and not much else.

But they can be heartened – or maybe eventually heartbroken –a by this: Stars almost never switched teams immediately following a title.

Before this year, there have been…

  • 49 Finals MVPs who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 147 All-Stars who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 124 All-NBA players who won a championship. Only one switched teams that offseason.

In 1998, Scottie Pippen got signed-and-traded from the Bulls to the Rockets. He was neither an All-Star nor Finals MVP that year, but he made the All-NBA third team. After leaving Chicago, he never achieved any of those accolades.

Leonard checked all three boxes this season – Finals MVP, All-NBA, All-Star. He looks poised to take over as the NBA’s best player for the next few several years.

It’d be unprecedented for someone like him to bolt.

The most productive player to leave a championship team immediately after winning a title? It might be Tyson Chandler, who posted 9.4 win shares for the 2011 Mavericks then got signed-and-traded to the Knicks.

Even while missing 22 games amid load management and minor injury, Leonard posted 9.5 win shares last season.

Here’s how Leonard compares to the players with the most win shares in a title-winning season who began play elsewhere the following year:

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Of course, Leonard isn’t bound by history. He’ll make his own decision. If he wants to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, Knicks or anyone else, he can.

But players just usually stick with a champion. LeBron James said he might have re-signed with the Heat if they won the 2014 title. Kyrie Irving was unhappy after the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship but didn’t request a trade until they lost in the 2017 NBA Finals. Shaq and Kobe coexisted peacefully enough until the Lakers stopped winning titles.

It’s just hard to leave a team that has proven its ability to win a championship, and Leonard would have that in Toronto.

Report: Al Horford opting out with Celtics

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Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.

This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)

Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).

Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.

The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.