Three Things to Know: Who is in, who is out, games that matter in West playoff chase

Associated Press
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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) Where we stand: Insane West playoff chase explained (mostly). Back in 2014 — the year Taylor Swift was shaking it off and we were all trying to shake off hearing her again — the Suns won 48 games and missed the playoffs. It was unprecedented.

This season is getting close to that. Some team is going to win 46 games and miss the postseason in the West. After a wild weekend of games, here is where the playoff chase in the West stands and what to watch, in bullet point form:

• The magic number to get in is going to be 47 wins — reach that and teams will be invited to the dance. There are scenarios where 46 wins is good enough, but get to 47 wins and teams are safe.

• The Pelicans, Spurs, and Thunder are all at 46-34 and made up seeds 5-7 currently, the Timberwolves and Nuggets are both 45-35 and tied for 8-9.

• With their win over the Lakers Sunday night, the Jazz are officially in (with 47 wins, they cannot fall out due to tiebreakers). Seeding is still up in the air, they could land anywhere from three to eight (with eighth being unlikely but technically possible).

• After their loss to the Nuggets Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers are officially out.

• Monday night games to track: Oklahoma City at Miami, Memphis at Minnesota, Sacramento at San Antonio, New Orleans at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the big one is Portland at Denver.

• If Minnesota beats Memphis Monday (very likely) and Denver beats Portland that same night (less likely, but possible), then the Timberwolves and Nuggets will remain tied and play Wednesday for the eight seed — a play-in game. Denver technically is the nine seed by tiebreaker, but they control their own destiny — win out and they are in.

• Utah at Portland on the last night of the season could determine the three seed. That assumes that the Jazz beat the Warriors Tuesday, something that is no lock (although Golden State is locked into the two seed and not very focused right now). Utah will be on a back-to-back and it will be their third game in four nights, but this is a determined team right now.

2) Philadelphia gets to 50 wins and locks up home-court advantage in the first round. Read that again, because it’s harder to believe than alien abduction stories. Almost. This team won 28 games a season ago, 10 the season before that, 18 the one before that. Throughout the tribulations of “the process” Philly, on paper, looked like a team that could come be a force if things broke right — but for it to all break right that fast is mind-boggling. And that is without No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz contributing much.

Brett Brown deserves a lot of credit here. Throughout the years of losing, he had them playing hard and learning defensive principles. He built a culture despite the challenges. He is not going to win Coach of the Year this season, but the man has to be considered.

The Sixers may well finish with the three seed in the East (they currently are the three, one game up on the Cavaliers in fourth). Do that, get through the first round (against likely Miami or Milwaukee, which will not be easy), get Joel Embiid back, then beat the Celtics/the seven seed that knocks off the Celtics, and the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a completely reasonable path. And if you had said “the Sixers can make the Eastern Conference Finals next year” last April we would have put you in the asylum with the alien abduction people.

3) Mitch Kupchak is the new GM in Charlotte. It became official on Sunday, the North Carolina guy got the job with the North Carolina team owned by a North Carolina grad. This was the safe play for the Hornets. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play, or that it will not work out, but it’s the safe play. Kupchak brings a resume to the table the Hornets can sell — he’s got four rings as the Lakers GM — and a style and standing that will sell in the community. He’s got a good relationship with the owner, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot of good reasons to make this hire.

Kupchack’s GM record in Los Angeles is hit-and-miss. There were highs — the Pau Gasol trade, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers and helped them to rings), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court. In general, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft. Nobody should question his eye for talent.

However, in his final years in Los Angeles, there was a sense from some around the team that the game had passed him by. Kupchak completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). He expected there to be an amnesty clause in the new CBA and there wasn’t, and he though those contracts could be easily traded (it cost the Lakers former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell to move Mozgov). There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams. Not all of this was on Kupchak he was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and certainly the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss had the ultimate say on those moves. However, Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those decisions. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There are real questions in Charlotte for Kupchak to answer. The big one is a matter of direction for the coming years: do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons? Ultimately that is a decision Jordan must make, and in that market moving Kemba followed by a few bad years may sting more than the “tear it down” contingent realize, but it’s something where Kupchak needs to sway Jordan.

What does Kupchak’s hiring mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.