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NBA teams keep pushing the pace

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LOS ANGELES – Mike D’Antoni terrorized the NBA in his first full season coaching Phoenix.

He unleashed Steve Nash at point guard and took advantage of Shawn Marion’s and Amar’e Stoudemire’s athleticism as bigs. The 2004-05 Suns averaged 95.9 possessions per 48 minutes – the NBA’s fastest pace in half a decade.

With that personnel, running was an obvious choice, though credit D’Antoni for maximizing the style. As they’d come to be known, the seven-seconds-or-less Suns won 62 games and led the league in points per possessions.

But did D’Antoni suspect all teams could take advantage of playing faster?

“I was hoping they wouldn’t,” D’Antoni, who now coaches the Rockets, said with a smirk. “When we started, it was easy pickings for a while. Then, everybody kind of got on the same page. So, it’s hard now.”

League-wide pace is at its highest mark in 27 years:

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And it’s not just outlier teams driving the pace up. The league’s slowest team this season – Grizzlies (94.3 pace) – would have led the NBA in pace the year prior to D’Antoni’s first full season in Phoenix. That Suns team would rank just 23rd now.

Here’s every team pace (orange dots) with the 25th-50th percentile for each season (purple bars):

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Pace is hardly a perfect measure.

Good offensive-rebounding teams will have longer possessions, even if they shoot quickly initially. Teams that take a while to shoot can increase their pace with turnovers early in the shot clock.

No matter how a team plays offensively, sound defenses that force opponents to delay shooting will reduce pace. Likewise, bad defenses that give up quick shots will increase pace.

And most publicly available pace numbers – including those used here, from Basketball-Reference – are estimated. How many free throws end a possession (shooting fouls on missed shots vs. and-ones), end-of-quarter possessions where the team doesn’t get off a shot and team rebounds can throw off the estimate.

But this is a decent approximation, and the league-wide numbers are more telling. While certain teams might have their pace thrown by their defense, the league-wide mark better shows how often teams get quick shots against defenses generally trying to prevent those.

Teams have just realized how beneficial it is to go against non-set defenses. An early good shot is far better than trying to get a great shot from a set play.

Stan Van Gundy’s teams have usually had below-averages paces, and his Pistons rank just 20th this season (96.3). But even that is faster than anyone in the NBA played his first season coaching the Heat.

“I think all of us have tried to play a little faster over the years,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think I’m aware of anybody who’s trying to play slower.”

There was one exception when Van Gundy said that, though the Bucks since fired him.

“Guys are shooting with 19 or 20 seconds on the clock. I don’t understand why we’re so excited or intrigued with pace,” Former Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said while still on the job. “Are they good shots? Guys are taking bad shots. So, pace is going to be up.

“There are a lot of bad shots throughout the league at 19 or 20 seconds. So, we’re making a big deal about a stat that does not win championships.”

Kidd was right in one regard: Unlike many advanced statistics, a higher pace isn’t necessarily better. That’s sometimes confused by people who credit a team for its ranking in pace like they would for its ranking in offensive or defensive rating. Teams should play at a pace that best works for them. Its a measure of style, not quality.

D’Antoni’s Rockets rank just 11th in pace, and they lead the NBA in points per possession. Breakneck speeds worked well for Houston last year with James Harden at point guard. Now that Chris Paul is sharing the controls, a slightly slower attack is optimal.

But the general principles remain and have been embraced league-wide: Score in transition as much as possible. Attack defenses before they set. Take the first good shot rather than waiting for a great shot.

D’Antoni credited players for pace increasing. They are more athletic and shoot better than ever, allowing them to spread the floor and run. I’m not so sure how much player improvement has increased pace, as defenders are also more capable.

But offensive skill development has led to a decrease in turnovers. More players are comfortable dribbling the ball up court, and shooting has increased spacing, reducing congestion around the ball-handler. Turnover rates are way down from the 70s and 80s, when pace soared. Turnovers can end possessions quickly and create transition opportunities the other way – a double whammy for increasing pace.

That pace is rising despite fewer turnovers speaks to the significance of the trend.

Where will it end?

“Every generation has taken a step forward,” D’Antoni said. “Whether there’s a limit to that, we’ll see. But so far, we haven’t hit it.”

Report: LeBron James not planning to sit for elaborate pitch meetings in free agency

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LeBron James held court in Cleveland in 2010, listening to pitch after pitch as teams flew in to recruit the superstar during free agency. That approach became a model, and Kevin Durant followed it in the Hamptons in 2016.

But maybe once is enough.

Durant announced months ago he’d stay with the Warriors. And now LeBron – who could definitely leave Cleveland – is making clear he doesn’t want the hoopla, either.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

sources close to the situation tell ESPN that he has no intention of hearing elaborate pitch meetings from teams.

league sources believe he and his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini have enough understanding of the stakes and NBA landscape to handle the process without much fanfare.

LeBron is still haunted by The Decision. He’s a great player and philanthropist and does plenty to connect with fans. Yet, people still dislike him purely because of how he changed teams eight years ago.

If I wielded as much power as LeBron, I’d want suitors wining and dining me. He wants to avoid more backlash.

This will probably look similar to 2014 – LeBron’s agents hearing out teams then LeBron meeting with only the most serious options, though the final announcement will likely come via Uninterrupted rather than Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets and 76ers are commonly viewed as the favorites for LeBron. This approach makes it less likely for a longshot to emerge – though, for what it’s worth, we don’t know those four teams are his favorites right now.

Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.

With momentum gone and interest down, NBA finally will give out awards tonight

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When the NBA season ended, there was a passionate debate to be had about the end-of-season awards.

Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year? James Harden was the MVP favorite, but what about LeBron James and his monster season? Did Rudy Gobert play enough games to win Defensive Player of the Year? Not only was picking the Coach of the Year hard, narrowing the list down to three for the ballot out of the seven or eight candidates was brutal.

NBA fans — and NBA Twitter — had roiling debates over all those topics. Fans backed their man and defended their positions and media members who announced their votes — as we did — had to defend those choices. As they should.

That was mid-April.

Now, the NBA fandom has moved on — the Finals are over, the draft just happened, and everyone’s focus is on free agency and the possibility of a Kawhi Leonard trade and where he might land.

So now, finally, more than two months after the regular season ended, the NBA will get around to giving out its awards at its second annual awards banquet Monday night (televised on TNT, starting at 9 p.m. ET). The league will hand out the official awards for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved, Sixth Man of the Year, Executive of the Year (voted on by other executives), and a series of fan-voted awards (Best Style, Dunk of the Year, Block of the Year, Clutch Shot of the Year, Assist of the Year and Handle of the Year).

The league needs to do something about the timing of the awards show, they have lost all momentum getting around to it now.

I get it, the NBA wants a big awards event and broadcast that can be televised (the league just used to announce them during the playoffs via press release, with the recipients getting the award at a playoff game in their home arena, if there was still one). The NFL does a great awards show, but they have a natural (if too long) two-week break between the AFC/NFC finals and the Super Bowl, which allows them to have their event at the peak of interest for the sport.

The problem for the NBA these are regular season awards now given out 10 weeks after the regular season ended.

The NBA is entering the phase of the calendar that is its most popular — free agency. The draft draws interest as the unofficial start of this off-season, as teams start to reshape their roster. Trades and player movement — and the rumors and breakdowns around them — draw more interest than the NBA Finals or the games themselves (just check the traffic at any NBA website, including ours). Fans of all 30 teams are invested in playing armchair GM and, along with the media, second guessing every move they make to build that roster. (By the way, that second guessing is just part of the job for a GM, they can’t have family members on burner Twitter accounts trying to defend them.)

There’s no easy answer here for the NBA as to the timing of the awards show. There isn’t much of a gap between the end of the regular season and the playoffs and pretty much every player or coach who will win an award is prepping for the postseason at that point, they don’t want to fly to Los Angeles (this year) or New York (last year) for chummy banquet with their soon-to-be rivals. As this year showed, when the conference finals run seven games there isn’t much of a gap there before the Finals start (and again, key players will be involved in the Finals every year).

Where the league has it is the most convenient place on the calendar.

It’s just too late. The momentum of the regular season is gone, the attention of fans has turned to free agency, and this just feels like an odd break.

But Monday night the NBA is getting around to it. And we can try to revive old debates, they will just die out fast in the wake of free agency talk.

LeBron James’s son Bronny Jr. just misses breakaway dunk. At 13.

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LeBron James is spending his summer like a lot of fathers of children who play AAU basketball (or other travel team sports) — going to gyms, local and sometimes not so local, to watch his son play.

And Bronny Jr. can ball.

At age 13, he can almost dunk.

Gotta love LeBron’s reaction.