5 up, 5 down: I want to trust the Trail Blazers so badly

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

A lot has happened since we last spoke, dear readers. The 2018 NBA All-Star Game came and went, I think the Cleveland Cavaliers traded me to New Orleans, and there seems to be a major shift in how people are thinking about the Houston Rockets as title contenders.

However, it’s all about the little things in the NBA — especially in the regular season — so let’s get into the broth and see what this soup is made of.

5 Up

The Portland Trail Blazers are third in the West

Look, the Blazers started off the season in typical fashion. They were up and down, finishing the 2017 calendar year close to .500. They’ve now been damn near unstoppable since mid-January, and they’re looking good despite having one of the most difficult schedules remaining — not to mention a bunch of outstanding tiebreakers.

Ed Davis has been great, Moe Harkless has jumped out of his funk and earned a starting role, and rookie Zach Collins looks like the big man of the future in Rip City. That’s without saying anything about Damian Lillard, who would be the Player of the Month in February if Anthony Davis weren’t playing on the moon.

The team looks and feels more confident in the final six minutes or so of games, a leap from what Blazers fans may have experienced earlier in the year. They’re still not close to the level of the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, but it’s entirely possible we could finish the year saying Portland is legitimately the third or fourth-best team in the West without batting an eye. Even if it all falls apart Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers, that feeling is different for Portland.

J.R. Smith threw soup at a guy

In no other league does this stuff happen. JR Smith, he of “You trying to get the pipe?” fame, came through for us once again. Where other leagues need their playoffs to produce attention-grabbing headlines it’s the dregs of the regular season in the NBA that lends us the best stuff. J.R. Smith threw soup at an assistant coach and, although it should probably be viewed through the lens of incorrigible workplace behavior, is actually sort of funny.

Plus, it’s rumored he threw chicken tortilla soup. That’s not even a Top 10 soup. Everything about this story was a curveball. Don’t tell me how your sport is better than this.

The response by the NBA to that Fox News lady

Some career potstirrer said some thinly-veiled, vaguely racist things about LeBron James over on a channel you would expect that sort of thing to come from. That’s not super surprising. What was heartening was how folks stepped up around the NBA to show the ignorance of Laura Ingraham. Everyone from Jaylen Brown, to Kevin Durant and Gregg Popovich had their opinion heard.

If anything Ingraham’s comments created an increased awareness and impact of LeBron’s charitable work, character, and community impact. What a master strategist.

Boban Marjanovic getting his shine

Boban is sort of an NBA Twitter mascot, and people want him to get some run despite playing for the LA Clippers. Marjanovic straight up took over a game against the Denver Nuggets recently, nearly matching the Nuggets in scoring during a 13-minute swing starting in the third quarter.

There’s been all kinds of stories about how Marjanovic is actually extremely efficient, but since he doesn’t get as much playing time as we’d like it’s hard to see those per-36 numbers tally out in real time too often. We got it against the Nuggets, which is all we ever hoped for.

We could always use more Boban. You know, have him really explore the space.

Sexy Sax Man

To be honest with you, I’d never heard of the Sexy Sax Man until the Sacramento Kings hired him to come out during a game against the Utah Jazz as a means of distraction during pregame lineups. Turns out this is a viral video from all the way back in 2011 (shoutout to the Kings for an Internet culture deep cut) and it’s pretty funny. I think the joke is mostly that the saxophone is a awful instrument. What’s the saying? “Play the saxophone. Go to jail. It’s the law.”

I think that’s it.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XrwpUZg8k4&w=560&h=315%5D

5 Down

They didn’t actually fix the All-Star Game

It’s nice that everyone collectively decided the All-Star Game was fun this year, but the league didn’t actually fix anything. What happened was the mid-season annual was just as boring and uncompetitive as it always is until the final period. Scratch that, if you look at the play-by-play it wasn’t actually a game until Paul George hit a 3-pointer for Team LeBron with SIX MINUTES LEFT. Team Steph was up by 13 points before that happened and it wasn’t anything to shake a stick at.

Divvying up players basically at random is sort of interesting but it didn’t “fix” anything. In the age of lifetime shoe contracts and $153 million extensions for the Mike Conleys of the league, I’m actually not convinced the All-Star Game needs to or should be competitive anymore. Don’t even play the game. Just do the 3-point contest and then have all the All-Stars compete in a Chopped tournament or something. I want to see what kind of appetizer Kyle Lowry can make out of haricots verts, gummy worms, dried herring, and Smucker’s Uncrustables®.

Philadelphia and Cleveland are in billboard wars

The recession hit us a decade ago, yet people are out here spending real American dollars on billboards to convince basketball players to sign with their team. Have you people learned nothing? You should be converting the money you spend on billboards into precious metals and panic rooms, both buried deep under your garage.

There’s nothing the city of Cleveland can do to convince LeBron James to stay there. On the other hand, there’s also nothing the city of Philadelphia can do to convince LeBron James to sign there. The factors that will influence The King’s decision this summer will be out of anyone else’s control because that’s the place LeBron is at in his career. It’s a function of things both having to do with basketball and not, and things for the current, future, and distant future.

If you want to spend money on something dumb send me an e-mail and I’ll give you my account number for my student loans.

Kawhi Leonard is STILL injured … and he has no new shoe deal

This is a recurring 5 Up, 5 Down topic that has to get retired. I would prefer this to end the old fashioned way, with Kawhi Leonard stepping on a basketball floor and becoming a complete hassle as he leads a team made of him, Patty Mills, and some 34-year-old rookie to the Western Conference Finals.

Instead, Leonard has been toying back and forth with returning this year, and there’s some questions about whether that has any influence on his shoe deal with Jordan Brand stalling.

Just get him back on the floor. Please. We’ve had enough injuries to stars, O Basketball Gods!

Marc Gasol seems … unhappy in Memphis

The Grizzlies are like the version of the Chris Paul Clippers that you didn’t actively hate. I mean, they ground you into a fine powder each game, but it was a kind of grinding you had to respect. Mike Conley is out, and despite some nice development by the Grizzlies young players, Memphis isn’t any good.

That’s taken its toll on Gasol, who said quite pointedly about that development that the Grizzlies are an NBA team and, “not the D-League.”

The Gasol era seems to be coming to an end in Memphis and indeed the whole fate of the organization seems up in the air given that Robert Pera could be selling his share of the team sooner rather than later. What a way to go out.

Kobe Bryant won an Oscar

Kobe is one of the greatest Los Angeles Lakers of all-time. He’s one of the best players in NBA history. He’s got five championships to his name. He’s also got an Oscar as of Sunday night after producing what amounted to a commercial about his retirement from the NBA.

Bryant hired one of the most well-known Walt Disney animators and John Freaking Williams to create his “Dear Basketball” animated short, which took home the trophy over several other nominations. The cartoon is part of Bryant’s big swing at career revisionism (which is working by the way) along with his “Musecage” series and “Canvas” shorts.

While “Dear Basketball” itself isn’t a specific reimagining of Bryant’s career, the Oscar he obtained for it is part of the larger move by Kobe to legitimize himself as a “storyteller”. His continued softening of the edges of his career is something to keep an eye on. No doubt this will only embolden him.

Five teams most likely to trade for Kyrie Irving before deadline

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Kyrie Irving wants a trade out of Brooklyn. Now. Before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

It’s no sure thing a massive trade like this comes together in less than a week, but it has spiced up what was a relatively flavorless trade deadline to this point (with all due respect to Rui Hachimura).

Irving’s trade request asks some tough questions of the team’s interested in him. The incentive to make a deal is obvious — landing one of the game’s biggest names and an elite shot creator averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 37.4% from 3. On the other hand is the long list of disruptions he has caused the Nets and other teams he’s been on, combined with the fact he is asking out in Brooklyn partly because they would not give him a four-year max contract extension. Does a team trading for Irving look at his track record and want to lock him up for that long? (To be clear, a team that trades for him is limited two a two-year, $78.6 million extension; he might want to re-sign with the team as a free agent, a risk for the team acquiring him.)

What may best sum up the trade market for Irving: Teams calling are more interested in what this means for Kevin Durant than Irving (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN).

Still, teams will be interested. Here are the top five worth watching.

1) Los Angeles Lakers

When reaching out to league sources in the wake of the Irving bombshell, the Lakers were the first name off everyone’s lips. Which makes sense because the sides discussed the idea last summer but never pulled off the trade. Now, more than halfway through the season, with the Lakers three games below .500 and sitting outside even the play-in tournament, there is a sense of desperation to do something so as not to squander an All-NBA season from LeBron James. Is that enough to get a deal done?

LeBron is trying to add some pressure.

The trade would, at its core, involve Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029), likely unprotected (although Wojnarowski reports the Lakers “privately expressing limitations on offering significant trade assets for Irving”).

That doesn’t mean Westbrook is headed to Brooklyn, the sides likely will engage a third team in the deal (San Antonio has cap space, and the Lakers have talked to the Jazz) to take on Westbrook in exchange for draft compensation. However, putting together a trade that works for everyone gets difficult, which is why one never happened this summer.

It’s obvious why the Lakers want to do this trade. Irving playing next to Lebron and Anthony Davis makes the Lakers potential contenders in a West where nobody has run away with the conference (even if Denver is trying).

It’s less obvious why this is the best option for the Nets.

In a direct swap, Westbrook — even with the added depth of a quality young role player — is a dramatic drop-off from All-Star starter Irving. Plus, in a straight-up Westbrook for Irving deal the Nets take on more salary, adding $56 million to a luxury tax bill already at $109 million (numbers via Bobby Marks of ESPN). Whether the Nets would be more enticed by a three-team trade depends on the other team and players involved, but if the Nets are going to hold on to Durant they need to find a way to stay a contender, and that won’t be easy to do in any trade with the Lakers.

2) Phoenix Suns

The Suns can make a trade work in a couple of different ways, but they all center around Chris Paul heading to Brooklyn — a big name but a player whose game has fallen off this season at age 37. The trade likely would involve either Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson — both of whom need to be paid after this season — plus some picks headed to Brooklyn.

The Suns need half-court scoring, and an Irving and Devin Booker backcourt would be a force that could get Phoenix back in the mix at the top of the West. Would soon-to-be new owner Matt Ishbia be willing to pay big and go into the tax for Irving in future years? Would the Nets consider CP3 and some depth at the four enough to pull the trigger?

3) Dallas Mavericks

It’s no secret the Mavericks are desperate to find a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić, who is wearing himself out carrying this team. It’s also no secret that coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. Is that enough?

A trade can be constructed by sending former Net Spencer Dinwiddie back to Brooklyn along with just made available Dorian Finney-Smith, plus draft picks (there are reports the Mavericks are also hesitant to go heavy on draft picks in an Irving trade). Marc Stein reports that Dallas might want to unload one of its longer contracts in a trade, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. or Dāvis Bertāns.

Would some combination of those players plus a few picks be enough to interest Brooklyn? Is Dallas interested in signing Irving for the long-term, a four-year deal this offseason? Those questions could hold up the deal.

4) Miami Heat

Miami was on Irving’s leaked “places I would be willing to be traded” list last summer. Considering the Heat have struggled this season (despite the better play of late) and their struggles at point guard, it’s easy to see Miami’s interest.

However, it’s difficult to make a trade work. The Heat would want to send back Kyle Lowry, but there likely is little interest from Brooklyn in taking him on (he has a fully guaranteed $29.7 million on the books for next season). The Nets might want Tyler Herro, but he is in the poison pill year between signing his extension and it kicking in (the trade numbers going out and coming back are different for Herro under the CBA, making a trade very difficult to pull off).

Would the Heat want to sign Irving long-term? Is he a fit with the Heat culture?

You know Pat Riley will make the call, he’s always aggressive and wants to win now. But he’s not putting a player over the franchise, and he won’t give up too much to get a deal done.

5) Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are always aggressive as a front office, they need point guard help (someone who can create in the backcourt), and the owner is more than happy to spend if it means winning. The Clippers are loaded with mid-level salaries — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged to make a deal work. They also have good young players to temp the Nets, such as Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Is another high-priced mercurial star prone to missing time what the Clippers need right now? They will make calls, but it feels like a long shot.

Brooks given one-game suspension for shot to Mitchell (who was fined)

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
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Dillon Brooks did earn a suspension for hitting Donovan Mitchell in the “groin,” but he got off light.

Brooks was suspended one game and Mitchell got a $20,000 fine for their altercation during the Cavaliers’ win against the Grizzlies on Thursday night, the league announced.

“Brooks initiated the altercation by striking Mitchell in the groin area in an unsportsmanlike manner,” the NBA said in a release announcing the fine. “Mitchell then escalated the situation by throwing the game ball at and pushing Brooks, after which both players continued to physically engage with one another.”

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Brooks will serve his suspension Sunday against the Raptors. The one-game suspension is going to cost Brooks $78,621 in salary.

It’s difficult to watch the video of the altercation and not think that it was an intentional act by Brooks. As such, a one-game suspension seems soft and certainly isn’t sending a message of deterrence to other players. After the game Thursday, Mitchell fired shots at Brooks for the act.

The two teams do not meet again this season.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.