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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.

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.

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

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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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

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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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

Associated Press
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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.