PBT Mailbag: How many games do you think Kawhi Leonard will play in Toronto?

Getty
9 Comments

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

The great equalizer in the NBA is ego. Not culture. Not the draft. Not talent. Not luck. Not location.

Ego.

We’ve seen it all across the NBA in recent seasons, really since the league started to use the selling of superstars as its main base. Influential players have made it their mantra to use leverage to influence roster moves. Michael Jordan did it when he was in Chicago. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal tried to use it against each other. LeBron James has done it his entire career.

The same can be said for former players, as well as executives and owners. The teams that continually end up in the bottom of the standings despite their best efforts often find their way there thanks to stubborn gatekeeping. You know the kind.

As executives, these former hardwood heroes sometimes baffle their fanbases. Against all logic (and probably their own professional scouts) they sign or draft a guy because a player seems like a pure scorer or a monster rebounder, devoid of advanced statistical analysis. It’s those same general managers, or perhaps owners, who hire former players to be head coaches with little experience. Jason Kidd and Earl Watson immediately come to mind.

There has been very little in the way of former stars succeeding outright when it comes to team building. Both current players and former, as we have seen, are often unable to divest their own ego from their position. With old school knowledge and bolstered confidence, many of these players wind up steering their teams in the wrong direction. Vlade Divacs and his menagerie of power forward, for example.

That is not to say that former stars can’t be successful executives and coaches. Steve Kerr won five championships as a player, and he had to go to the Phoenix Suns before he stopped off in Golden State. And in Phoenix, he failed. Kerr traded away much of the Suns’ core, including Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, and Raja Bell. He eventually left the Phoenix front office in 2010, turning to the Golden State Warriors in a role as coach without explicit executive power.

Perhaps that is one of the main reasons Golden State remains atop the league. Not only is the team managed by smart basketball people who clearly know their role, the team is unaffected by the types of players who — at least to our outward knowledge — try to significantly impact roster moves. Sure, Warriors players banded together to attract Kevin Durant a couple of years ago, but that was a no-brainer. The front office wanted KD, too.

I’m not sure if it’s a humongous black mark on the legacies of guys like LeBron and MJ, either as players or as front office folks. But there is an invisible hand in the NBA, one where the human element of superstardom affects real choices that may not always be the best for the product on the basketball court.

Putting together a functional NBA roster, especially one that is championship ready, is already akin to wrangling cats. Having to deal with and impetuous owner, or a former player GM still stuck in the 80s, or a star player who wants to team up with his AAU buddies makes it that much more difficult.

Then again, in a league that decided to sell the smiling face of star players, ego was always going to be the sword that cut both ways. The Cavaliers knew that. The Lakers know that. Hell, even the San Antonio Spurs know that now.

Kobe would have been a Charlotte Hornet; Steve Francis would have been a Vancouver Grizzly; Jon Barry would have been a Boston Celtic, all if not for self-empowerment fueled by ego.

This isn’t to put the idea of “ego” as purely negative, either. Surely, Russell Westbrook won the MVP two seasons ago largely in part due to his ego and knowing that he could carry a team all alone. Ego is often the driving force for what makes a player successful, and compartmentalizing it as separate from the player himself does nobody any good.

Next time you are thinking about your favorite team’s roster, think hard about how much ego either at the player, executive, or owner level has affected the direction of that franchise. It might be better than you think! Or, you might be a Knicks fan.

Let’s get to your questions.

John Z.

What are the Knicks and Lakers best options for Joakim Noah and Luol Deng? Are the Knicks and Lakers better off simply waiting out the final two years of Noah and Deng’s contracts until they expire, waiving and stretching them in 2019, or sitting tight for this season and then try trading them as an expiring contracts next off-season. In my opinion, the third option would only happen if either offers a protected future 1st round pick, at minimum.

The question for both of these teams is what they see themselves doing in the future and how their current salary cap figures factor into those future plans. We all know that major teams are waiting for the summer of 2019 to sign a bevy of free agents that will become available. It’s clear that by their current signings this season around LeBron James, that the Los Angeles Lakers are aiming directly for 2019. New York is more of a mystery, especially because Kristaps Porzingis might miss this entire season and that could put a damper on the Knicks’ free agent pitch.

Stretching seems to be the option people are jonesing for in this scenario, especially because both players are sort of in the same situation. Deng has two years left on his contract at around $18 million a piece, and stretching him (over five years if done before Aug. 31) could save the Lakers around $7 million dollars in cap space over the next two seasons.

The only problem is that if LA decides to stretch Deng then they will also have that cap hit for many years to come, well through LeBron’s first contract with the Lakers. Whether Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka want to have $7 million dollars of Deng on the books through 2022-23 is another question.

The same can be said for Noah and the Knicks. Stretching Noah with two years left on his contract represents a similar amount of savings for New York, but he would be attached to their cap for many years to come. The Knicks already handed out a large contract to Tim Hardaway Jr., and Porzingis is due for an extension here soon. No doubt they will be wanting to put players around them.

Looking at projected salary figures for both teams in these scenarios — whether they stretch these players or not — it seems like they should have enough space to sign guys to build around their stars. But you can never have enough flexibility in the NBA, and I think bogging down cap space for half a decade to open up less than $10 million for next summer isn’t a gamble either are likely to make. The Lakers will be big players next season no matter what, whether via free agency or trade. Players will come to LA, as we have already seen. They don’t really need to have that extra boost in cap space thanks to the one-year deals they made everyone sign this summer.

New York’s build is on a slower path and two more seasons of Noah on the books isn’t that big of a deal. Then again, after Porzingis signs his extension it’s likely they will be toying with the luxury tax. Whether James Dolan wants to pay that for one year thanks largely to Noah’s contract is a big question.

Right now, it seems like they will likely just wait out both of those contracts.

Lamar

I saw LeBron KD and Draymond at Mastro’s in LA last night. Draymond seemed to be spending most of his time keeping an eye on KD and LeBron. Is he the Warriors’ official babysitter?
Sent from my iPad

This is why I started the mailbag feature: to break news about NBA players canoodling with each other over high-priced steaks. I also like that this is sort of a humblebrag about you being at Mastro’s yourself, Lamar. Kudos.

Even if we could verify this meeting actually happened, it probably wouldn’t mean anything. All NBA players hang out with each other all the time, usually in LA, over the summer. But if we wanted to make a big deal out of it, we could suppose that instead of Draymond keeping an eye on Kevin Durant, he is actually working together to try to figure out a way to end up on the Lakers with him in a couple of years.

Draymond’s contract is up after the 2019-20 season. And although the rumblings about Durant leaving Golden State are growing, there are smaller ones about how much Golden State will be willing to pay as their core ages. Perhaps Green decides that he wants to leave as well? It would be the ultimate heel turn for him to join up with LeBron in Los Angeles.

I’m not supposing this actually happens, by the way. I’m mostly just putting it out there for fun because your original question is sort of ridiculous. Draymond is a strong personality, but I don’t think anyone can influence directly what KD will do in the future. That’s solely up to Durant and the people who are mean to him on Instagram.

Michael

After a pretty good showing in Vegas … would it make sense for Portland to have Jake Layman start at the 3 and Al-Farouq Aminu at the 4 with Turner and Harkless in the second unit?

I realize that fans in Portland are hungry for any kind of championship after the Trail Blazers took home the 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League Title. I’m not going to take that away from you. But, we have to understand what the can take away realistically from Summer League, and it’s not much.

On a basketball floor, Summer League serves essentially two purposes. The first is to suss out who will be the 14th or 15th guy on your roster that you might be able to develop over the next three years into an end of the rotation player. More importantly, it’s to indoctrinate new draft picks into your offensive system and get them into game shape over the summer. It allows you first contact and basketball drill availability for top picks, who for many teams will play an important role in the upcoming season. If you draft a guy in the lottery and you need him to score for you each night during his rookie season, it’s best to get a head start.

Otherwise, the rest of it is for us basketball nerds. We go to hang out, network, and spy on 1990’s NBA stars losing $500 a hand at the blackjack table.

So back to your question: I’m not sure that we have seen Layman be aggressive enough to garner real minutes heading into the season. That’s not to say that it’s not a possibility given Pat Connaughton is gone, but from a readiness perspective I don’t see Layman taking that spot.

Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what GM Neil Olshey is up to. It seems like he is going to let Portland’s trade exception expire from the Allen Crabbe swap with the Brooklyn Nets, and that means their roster is likely going to be set lest they trade some of their bigger pieces.

What that probably means is that Portland is not going to rely on Layman more, but Moe Harkless. The wing rotation for Portland will probably be shorter, much like they do with their guards. Starters next season in Rip City likely won’t matter it because Aminu, Turner, and Harkless will all share that duty relatively equally as they swap across the rotation.

I don’t think that’s a good idea, but it’s in line with how Terry Stotts has managed his games before. Stotts likes a short rotation, and sliding laymen in there isn’t going to be his first priority.

Y’all got to come down. You won the Summer League Championship, go get a slice of pizza on Mississippi and chill. Layman isn’t your answer.

Then again, I (rightly) called Joel Freeland the worst backup big man in the NBA the year before he broke out and was super crucial for Portland in 2013-14. What the hell do I know? Maybe Slayman will average 14 points a night.

Casey

What’s the over/under on games played as a Raptor for Kawhi Leonard? Is it under 60?

This really depends on whether or not you think Leonard will be traded during the course of this upcoming season or if you think he will somehow re-sign with the Raptors.

Either seems possible because Leonard’s been super erratic over the course of the last year. His business management team seems like a bunch of goobers if you ask me. They were trying to angle him into Los Angeles, and instead saw him swap sunny, no-income-tax Texas for a distant, cold, high income tax city where he doesn’t want to play and that’s not even in America. No glitz and glam for him — instead he’ll need an international phone plan and a green card. Top notch work, if you ask me.

Anyway, I’m going to set the over/under for games Kawhi plays in Toronto at 30.

That’s the amount of games there or thereabouts that it takes to get to the 2019 NBA trade deadline. It’s also triple the number of games that Leonard played for the Spurs last year, and if he reaches that mark it shows that he’s not holding out due to “rehabilitation”.

I think the most annoying thing about Leonard being traded to the Raptors is that we are going to have to continue to talk about him and his mismanaged brand image for the rest of the year. Him holding out — or whatever he was doing — in San Antonio last year got to be too much to talk about week in and week out. It just got boring.

But hey, we will see. Maybe in three years time he will be a Laker and starring in “Space Jam 3: Porky’s Revenge” and it will have all worked out for him. But perhaps not.

John M.

Which team doomed by their own ownership would you rather be a fan of if you were forced to pick between them? The Kings, where they have a billionaire owner who seems to mean well but who also makes crazy suggestions like playing 4-on-5? Or the Knicks, where you are pretty sure (but not that sure) that owning the team is part of some kind of tax dodge or at the very least, a Ponzi scheme for James Dolan?

This is a pretty tough question. Do I have to have lived in one of these two places? Is that part of the requisite fanhood? Because to be honest, I don’t really want to have spent any time in either of those cities.

If I had to, I guess I would pick Sacramento. That area of California is sort of beautiful and reminds me of where I’m from. New York’s reputation seems so over-inflated that there’s no possible way that it lives up to the hype. Any time someone tells me about New York City they always say things like “You can get any food you want at 2 am!” as if:

  • I wasn’t already from Portland where that’s already a thing
  • I’m not also in my 30s and can’t even eat Goldfish crackers without getting heartburn

I don’t need to be out boozing and eating Cambodian food until the wee hours of the morning. That may have worked for me in my twenties, but in my thirties I just want to be able to fall asleep before the next day rolls over. My friend just went to New York this last winter and said it was basically uninhabitable. She did meet Michael Che within an hour of getting into the city. But is hanging out with Michael Che single every night really worth it to be a Knicks fan? Probably not.

My point is that being a Kings fan would be much better, perhaps because of the lack of expectation. Only Millennials yammer on about those early 2000s Sacramento teams anymore. And while it would be nice to recapture those Chris Webber and White Chocolate days, nobody is saying that the Kings franchise has taken dip past its historical reputation. That’s pompous anyways.

Plus, eventually it seems like Vivek Ranadive might actually hire somebody competent to run the team. Ranadive’s goal, even if he did hire Vlade Divac, is to win. At least I think. To your credit, it seems like James Dolan mostly owns the team because the games are over before open mic nights start in the city and because guys from the Bronx will buy any new sports equipment that says NEW YAWHK on it.

And while his billionaire ego might push Ranadive to eventually hire someone useful to set his team in the right direction, it’s that same ego that means Dolan will likely never sell the Knicks. He will continue to hire yes-men while Knicks fans watch Kristaps Porzingis leave in 2025 for the Clippers or something.

Also: shut up about Allan Houston already. Allan Houston is like if Steve Smith wasn’t quite as good.

Keenan

How is Zach Collins projecting as a defender? Sometimes he looks elite. But his fouls are so high.

We don’t really know the answer to this question and it’s a big gamble that the Blazers took over the offseason by failing to re-sign at Davis. Collins had a surprising rookie season, but it was easy to see how well he played while paired with Davis versus without him.

Now that Davis is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Collins will be getting not only his own minutes from last season but much of Davis’s former workload. This time, he won’t have Davis to help him out when he blows rotations or ends up half a step slow. That’s not to say that he’s bad on D, it’s just that young big men take time to develop.

Portland is taking a lot of gambles this season already, especially given that they are set to let that trade exception expire. I’m not really sure if that’s the best choice, but they will have to rely on their young players in supporting roles like they’ve never done before.

I still think Blazer fans should be excited about Collins, and more interesting might be what he can provide on the offensive side of the floor when he plays more minutes. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t the offensive player Portland was thinking he would turn into after his first half-season in Rip City. He didn’t shoot as many jumpers off the pick-and-roll as we thought, and his post moves, while sometimes effective, are plodding. Nurkic can’t really shoot with his left hand, and against top defensive big men he really struggled.

Portland needs players to space the floor, and Collins showed that he might be able to hit those LaMarcus Aldridge-type jumpers moving forward. He might be a player who can both dive and fade on the pick-and-roll, and that might make him more interesting offensively. It could be painful to watch the Blazers as they struggle for the playoffs this year, but they certainly should be interesting.

Luis

I am a huge Stephon Marbury fan and was curious, do you think he will get signed by an NBA team? I think he would be a great for for the Rockets and Spurs or even the Lakers. What are your thoughts? Will somebody sign him?

I think Stephon Marbury would be great on the Lakers. In fact, let’s add every weirdo NBA player that we think could still find five minutes off the bench for LA from the early 2000s.

Here’s the list I put together:

  • Vince Carter
  • Richard Jefferson
  • Jason Kidd
  • Antoine Walker
  • Latrell Sprewell
  • Gilbert Arenas
  • Robert Swift
  • Stromile Swift
  • Michael Redd
  • Bonzi Wells
  • Rashard Lewis
  • Stephen Jackson
  • Kenyon Martin

This question makes me think of the best tweet I saw from this past week. Here it is:

Marc

Why NBA referees are so unfair? Is there training camp for referees before the beginning of each season, like they do for the players?

I’m not going to clutch my pearls for the referees in the NBA. The fact is, it is true that some of their calls are inherently unfair. Bending the rules in the NBA is part of the game, and it takes an understanding of social context to know why some players get certain calls and why others don’t.

I think the real problem is how people still have a problem with that in 2018. The reality of the sport is that people want to see stars succeed. They want to see stars on their teams succeed, and in general NBA fans want to see stars they like succeed. It’s that ability to create cross fanbase allegiances that strengthens the bonds of the core NBA business.

Now, whether you think referees do a good job outside of “superstar calls” is another animal all together. The reality is that teams, whether they admit it or not, spend time teaching players how to account for the fact that there are only three referees on the floor at any given time.

Teams use the human element of NBA officiating to their advantage. It can be something as simple as a head kick or an over emphasized flail on a foul. In more complex examples, teams teach players to get away with certain things when they are positioned at specific spots on the floor thanks to blind spots.

There’s also a disparity of confidence created between officials and fans thanks in part to slow motion replay. We get to see every foul seven times over in 30 seconds, allowing us to judge each referee call nearly in real time. Referees don’t have that advantage, and it leads to people believing that they are bad at their jobs.

The reality is that referees are always going to be other human beings, and thus open to human error. The alternative is a game officiated by robots, and as much as I would like to see Doc Rivers scream until he’s red in the face at a floating drone while arguing a blocking foul, that doesn’t seem like the way to go either.

The NBA has some issues to clean up. The one that seems the most pressing when it comes to officiating is offensive players drawing fouls while illegally within a defender’s rightful place on the floor. They tried to get rid of the rip through move a couple of years ago, but the result was an impotent change toward making it a non-shooting foul. You shouldn’t be able to just throw your arms into the stationary arms of a defender. That should be an offensive foul, or perhaps a team technical foul.

But the Association isn’t the NFL, where you don’t know what a catch is and you’re not sure when a quarterback actually fumbles. In contrast, the NBA is doing okay and the problem is the rules are behind the physical ability of players and the data teams have gathered in order to use the officials to their advantage. They aren’t in a dire spot at the moment, so there’s no need to get worked up about them moving forward.

See y’all next week.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

NBA Power Rankings: Nobody is knocking the Celtics off the top spot this week

0 Comments

Most of the NBA’s eyes are on Dec. 15 and the coming trade season, but games are still being played and the Celtics are still looking dominant, which is why they top this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. The Bucks are back up to second, knocking the Suns down to third.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (20-5, Last week No.1). Fueling the Celtics’ historically good offense — they are on pace to have the most efficient offense in NBA history — is the 3-pointer. Boston is on pace to make more 3s than any team in NBA history: They are averaging 16.6 3s a game, which is on pace for 1,361. The 2020-21 Utah Jazz made 16.74 3s per game that season, but because of the COVID-shortened season they “only” made 1,205 total — Boston should smash that number. The Celtics are 2-0 to start a tough road trip, with the Suns, Warriors and then both Los Angeles teams left on the schedule.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (17-6, LW 3). Brook Lopez is having maybe the best season of his career, playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level on that end of the floor with a league-leading three blocks a game, plus pitching in 15.3 points a night — and the time to do that is a contract year. Nobody around the league thinks he’s bolting the Bucks, he’ll get an extension or sign a new deal in the offseason, but he’s getting a big raise from the $13.9 million he’s making now. Friday night in Dallas starts a string of 8-of-10 on the road for Milwaukee (they are 6-3 away from home so far).

 
Suns small icon 3. Suns (16-8, LW 2). Chris Paul returns to the Suns lineup on Wednesday night after missing a month with a heel injury. Phoenix went 9-5 while Paul rested heel, with a +5.9 net rating that was fourth best in the NBA over that stretch. Really interesting test coming up over the weekend with the team just below the Suns in this ranking — games Friday and Sunday nights in New Orleans. The Pelicans are just on the Suns’ heels in the West, can Phoenix establish itself early as the team to beat to get the top seed out West, or is New Orleans more of a real threat than some give them credit for?

 
Pelicans small icon 4. Pelicans (15-8, LW 6). The conventional wisdom was that having CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson full-time in the Pelicans lineup would spell trouble for the team’s defense, but coach Willie Green has them playing the third-best defense in the NBA on that end. Of late, Zion Williamson is starting to contribute on that end — his athleticism made him a defensive force at Duke, but in the NBA he has been more of a target for offenses. That has looked better of late, and it helps that Zion can occasionally do this:

 
Grizzlies small icon 5. Grizzlies (15-9, LW 5). Desmond Bane remains out, but the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. is starting to have the expected impact on defense — the Grizzlies are sixth in the league in defense over their last six games (stats via Cleaning the Glass, and BTW the Griz are 5-1 in that stretch). The offense, carried by Ja Morant, continues to be in the top 10 in the league. This is just a reminder of how big a difference Jackson Jr. can make at the rim.

 
Cavaliers small icon 6. Cavaliers (16-9, LW 4). After beating the Lakers Tuesday, the Cavaliers are 11-1 at home in the Rocket Mortgage Field House, with a +12.2 net rating. However, on the road the Cavs are 5-8, albeit with a +1.3 net rating (they have been a little unlucky on the road). That matters because the win over Los Angeles was the first of 9-of-11 games at home. It also helps that Cleveland got Jarrett Allen back against the Lakers, he has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level when healthy this season.

 
Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (13-12, LW 12). While they had a nice recent win in Minnesota, Golden State is 2-10 away from the Chase Center this season with a -8.5 net rating. Their offense stumbles a little away from home (15th in the league), but the issue has been on defense where they are second worst in the league (and 12.8 per 100 worse than their defense at home). This matters because the Warriors have 7-of-8 coming up on the road, including games against the Bucks, 76ers, and both New York teams. The Warriors have recalled James Wiseman from the G-League after he got seven games under his belt.

 
Mavericks small icon 8. Mavericks (13-11, LW 11). Luka Doncic continues to play at an MVP level, but Jason Kidd knows he needs to reduce Doncic’s minutes at some point. He told Yahoo Sports: “For 82 games, it’s no way that he can play at this level, the usage is just way too high. No one can.” Tim Hardaway is providing some help since being moved into the starting lineup, scoring 21.3 points per game and shooting 52.5% on 3-pointers.

 
Kings small icon 9. Kings (13-9, LW 15). Sacramento fans were mocked for chanting “40 wins” after a good Summer League outing, but suddenly that number seems low for the feel-good story of the season. Based purely on point differential so far, Cleaning the Glass projects the Kings to finish with 49 or 50 wins, while the more nuanced formulas at fivethirtyeight.com suggest 44 or 42 wins. The Kings’ offense has come back to earth the last couple of weeks, but Mike Brown’s defensive lessons seem to be taking hold as the Kings have the third-best defense in the NBA over the last six games. Sacramento is heading out on the road for six games against the East.

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (14-10, LW 8). Maybe some home cooking will help turn around the Nuggets’ 26th-ranked defense — the stat that makes us question if they really are a threat in the West. Denver is tied for the most road games in the league, but after Portland on Thursday have 6-of-7 at home in the Rocky Mountains. If your question is, ‘does Denver struggle defensively in the halfcourt or transition?’ the answer is yes. Both rank in the bottom 10 in the league. The one bright spot is the fifth-ranked offense, which is led by Nikola Jokic, who is having another MVP-level season statistically (even if it is highly unlikely voters will give him a third-straight award).

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (14-12, LW 14). Are the Jazz the 10-3 team from the start and the season or the team that has gone 4-9 since? While Utah has dropped 6-of-8, they have been in those games with only one of the losses being by double digits. One pleasant surprise of late has been the play of rookie center Walker Kessler, who has averaged 7.2 points and two blocked shots a game coming off the bench in his last five games. The Jazz are 2-2 on a six-game homestead that wraps up this week with the Warriors then Timberwolves.

 
Nets small icon 12. Nets (13-12, LW 16). TJ Warren returned to the court Friday night and was rusty, as one should expect of a guy who has missed the better part of two seasons. That said, he looked solid and if he can shake off the rust and stay healthy he can bring some needed depth to Brooklyn — depth that is needed because some role players they expected more out of have not lived up to the hype. Joe Harris must still be bothered by his ankle issue as he is averaging 8.6 points a game and shooting 36.8% from 3, numbers far below his pre-injury production.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (12-12, LW 7). James Harden is back, but so much for being eased into things as he had to play 38 minutes in a 2OT loss to the lowly Rockets (a game where Joel Embiid fouled out). Harden was an understandably rusty 4-of-19 shooting in that game, but he made some passes and a couple of step-back 3s that reminded everyone how he juices an offense — which matters because over the past couple of weeks that’s been the weaker end of the court for Philly (23rd in the league over the last seven games). Maybe the Sixers can find their footing on the seven-game homestead that starts against the Lakers Friday.

 
Hawks small icon 14. Hawks (13-11, LW 19). The reports of friction between Trae Young and Nate McMillan are not new, those rumors have been all over the league all season, nor are the questions about whether Young will adjust his game to fit better with Dejounte Murray next to him. With those two guards, John Collins has become an afterthought in the offense on too many trips down the court and the long-simmering rumors of a trade for him seem to both be heating up and have some validity this time. The question is what will the Hawks seek in return? The Hawks have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including both New York teams and a tough test Monday in Memphis.

 
Clippers small icon15. Clippers (14-11, LW 9). Kawhi Leonard is back and, right on cue, knocked down the game-winner in his first game. The Clippers have done a great job with their role players keeping their heads above water — their most-used five-man lineup of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, George, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac has a +15 net rating. The Clippers also have a +18.5 net rating when Leonard and George are on the court together. Now they have to just stay healthy and give this roster a chance to build some chemistry and good habits going forward, then we’ll see what they’ve got.

 
Raptors small icon 16. Raptors (12-12, LW 13). Is this ranking too low for the team with the fifth-best net rating in the East? Maybe, but the return of Pascal Siakam has not sparked a middle-of-the-road offense — since he came back Toronto is 2-3 with an offensive rating a couple of points worse than their season average. Siakam is putting up numbers (24.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists a game) but as a team Toronto is just not efficient shooting the ball and it holds them back. Maybe the Raptors two games over the weekend in Orlando will be a chance for the Raptors’ offense to find a groove.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 18). Damian Lillard is back in the lineup and the Trail Blazers’ offense just looked more fluid, the spacing and ball movement was better in the win against Indiana. Portland had gone 2-5 without him for this stretch, he is too critical to a team with little margin for error to miss much time. The guy Portland could use to get back next is Gary Payton II to help their defense — they are 24th in the league in defense for the season, but that has been worse of late (28th in the NBA over their last seven games). Unfortunately, there is no timeline yet for his return from core muscle surgery this offseason. Portland’s win over Indiana was the start of a four-game homestead that precedes a heavy road stretch through the start of the new year.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers 10-13, LW 24). The Lakers are 8-3 in their last 11 games, with a top-10 offense and defense, but it was evident how critical Anthony Davis is to all that in the Lakers’ loss Tuesday in Cleveland (when Davis left the game in the first quarter due to “flu-like symptoms”). As pointed out at The Athletic, during this streak the Lakers have been running a lot more Davis/LeBron James pick-and-rolls (they leaned on it late in the win over the Bucks), and they are doing it closer to the top of the key, not out above the arc.

 
Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (13-11, LW 10). Bennedict Mathurin isn’t the only rookie standing out in Indiana (although he is one of the clear top-two rookies so far this season), former Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard dropped 31 points with 13 assists on the Warriors this week in a Pacers’ upset win. The recent struggles with the Pacers (they have dropped 5-of-8) had some league executives hoping Indiana would revert to its plan to trade veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, but the team is two-games over .500 and still the fifth seed in the East — if they stay in the playoff mix, convincing ownership to make that trade becomes very difficult.

 
Heat small icon 20. Heat (11-14, LW 21). The Heat remain a mystery. Jimmy Butler returned last Friday and immediately started draining clutch shots in a statement win against the Celtics, reminding everyone why a healthy Heat team is a threat in the postseason. Then they turn around two nights later and lose to a Grizzlies team resting four starters. Two nights after that they fell to the banged-up and not-very-good Pistons. The good news is that on Tuesday night Victor Oladipo made his debut this season, if he can stay healthy and provide some bench support it would be a massive boost to Miami.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (11-13, LW 17). Kyle Kuzma trade rumors popped up this week and it presents Wizards ownership and management with a question: Do we like where we’re at and should we keep Kuzma and try to re-sign him this summer and see how far the Bradley Beal/Kristaps Porzingis/Kuzma core can go; or, do we sell high on Kuzma and start thinking about the future because we don’t think this team can win a title? History suggests the Wizards will keep Kuzma at the deadline — they just maxed out Beal, they don’t want to blow this up. But if the Wizards are not going to pay up and re-sign him — he will opt out of his $13 million for next season and likely get something closer to $25 million a season — then they have to consider the trade.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (11-13, LW 22). Knicks management is reportedly working the phones heading into the NBA trade season, but not so much to make a blockbuster move, it’s more looking to send out a player or two — Evan Fournier, maybe Immanuel Quickley — to clear up a roster logjam. Tom Thibodeau finally leaned into Quentin Grimes at the two — he is their best defender on the perimeter — and with that Fournier has largely fallen out of the rotation. The Knicks aren’t going to get a lot back for him, but they would love to get off his salary. Interesting test against the Hawks Wednesday.

 
Thunder small icon 23. Thunder (11-13, LW 25). Jalen Williams is starting to find his way as a rookie, and we saw it last week with his 27-point game against the Spurs. It was a game where Shai Gilgeous-Alexnader was out and Williams had the ball in his hands more, but he took advantage of the opportunity and showed a tremendous feel for the game for a rookie. The Thunder have started their five-game road trip 2-0, but it doesn’t get easier with Memphis, Cleveland, and Dallas ahead.

 
24. Timberwolves (11-12, LW 23). One of the bigger misses in my preseason projections was the Minnesota defense — with Rudy Gobert I thought it would be top-10 in the league and help rack up wins while the team figured out if Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns can play together. Instead, Minnesota is 16th in the league in defense and it hasn’t gotten any better of late (despite Anthony Edwards going on a steals tear). With Towns missing a month or more with a calf injury, the fit questions are also on hold. Starting on Friday in Utah, Minnesota is on a five-game road trip through the West, including a couple of games against Portland.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (9-14, LW 20). Trying to shake things up, Billy Donovan put Alex Caruso and Javonte Green in the starting lineup replacing Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams, and he may stick with that for a while (although Williams was back with Green out vs. the Kings due to knee soreness). Donovan is searching for something to spark the offense, which remains bottom 10 in the league despite a roster with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. As the Bulls continue to struggle, the trade rumors around the team continue to grow (other teams are interested in DeRozan but Chicago is more willing to part with Vucevic).

 
Rockets small icon 26. Rockets (7-17, LW 27). Jabari Smith has found his stoke. The No.3 pick had a rough start to the season, but over his last 10 games he is averaging 14.2 points per game and is shooting 42.2% on 3-pointers (on 6.4 attempts a game). He has been fantastic on the catch of his shoot because of his quick release, something that pairs well with the slashing of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. After Thursday’s game in San Antonio, Houston has seven games in a row at home.

 
Hornets small icon 27. Hornets (7-17, LW 26). Steve Clifford has his squad putting out a strong effort every night, which is worth noting considering how hard injuries have hit this team (LaMelo Ball has played in just three games, Gordon Hayward has missed 13 and Terry Rozier eight). The Hornets have not just rolled over. With a void in the offense Kelly Oubre Jr. has stepped up as a gunner and is averaging 22.4 points a game over his last 10, and while he’s not terribly efficient doing it no doubt Oubre Jr. is comfortable taking all those extra shots.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (7-19, LW 28). If you’re looking for the silver lining, the fact Cade Cunningham is out (many around the league think for the season, although that is not official yet) means the Pistons have put the ball in the hands of rookie Jaden Ivey and he has shown promise. Ivey is averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists a game (that’s the most dimes per game of any rookie). The Pistons are still showing some fight, picking up a win against a Heat team that hasn’t consistently shown the grit of of Detroit this season.

 
Magic small icon 29. Magic 5-20, LW 29). The Magic are finally healthy in the backcourt, with Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony returning to the floor this past week. However, that guard depth did not spark a win and the Magic have dropped nine straight, although all the losses were to teams with records of .500 or better. This is just a tough patch for the Magic and the young core is learning lessons the hard way. However, we can’t go a week without a Bol Bol highlight, how about coast-to-coast for the slam against the Raptors.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-18, LW 30). The losing streak has reached 11 straight (second longest in franchise history) and it’s tough to find bright spots at this point (other than Spurs fans watching Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson highlights). One might be the play of backup center Charles Bassey, the second-round pick a year ago out of Western Kentucky, who is averaging six rebounds a night off the bench in San Antonio. The Spurs host the Rockets Thursday night, which is their best chance to break the streak this week.

Chris Paul expected to return to Suns lineup Wednesday vs. Celtics

Phoenix Suns v Miami Heat
Megan Briggs/Getty Images
0 Comments

The Phoenix Suns did more than keep their heads above water for the last month without Chris Paul, they went 9-5 with a +5.9 net rating that was fourth best in the NBA over that stretch.

That doesn’t mean they are better off without him, and on Wednesday night against the Celtics he is planning to make his return, something Monty Williams hinted at and Chris Haynes of TNT/Bleacher Report confirmed.

Paul, 37, had seen his performance slip a little in the 10 games he did play before going out with his heel injury, averaging 9.5 points and 9.4 assists a game but on 36.8% shooting. Rested and healthy, the Suns are hoping to see those numbers rebound closer to what he did in previous years.

CP3 remains one of the best floor generals and high IQ players in the league, and with Devin Booker forms one of the more formidable backcourts in the NBA. While the Suns are 16-8 and sit atop the West, they are not making a deep playoff run and returning to the NBA Finals (as they did two seasons ago) without Paul.

Report: Knicks active in trade talks involving Quickley, Fournier, Reddish, Rose

New York Knicks v Miami Heat
Eric Espada/Getty Images
0 Comments

Their big summer acquisition Jalen Brunson has been everything the Knicks could have asked for this season. Yet New York sits at 11-13, ninth in the East, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and a bottom-10 defense.

They need an infusion of talent but also to open up space on a crowded roster. Leon Rose and company are working the phones heading up to Dec. 15 (when most players signed this summer become available), reports Fred Katz at The Athletic. The interesting names that pop up: Evan Fournier, Immanuel Quickley, Cam Reddish and Derrick Rose.

They fielded calls on Fournier leading into last winter’s trade deadline and then again over the summer. He has two seasons, including this one, remaining on his contract and hasn’t touched the court in three weeks. But it’s not like they’re desperate to send him out of town. The Knicks have not shown any interest in attaching draft picks to Fournier just to move him, league sources said…

They also have communicated that they are willing to attach Quickley or Reddish to Fournier to make a trade work, league sources said.

The Knicks have discussed with other teams various types of Quickley-related deals. In discussions where the 23-year-old is the standalone piece going out, New York has targeted a future first-round pick, league sources said. The team is overflowing with guys who could justify playing time. Moving on from one of the guards could free up space…

A deal where they send out two players and bring back one or something of that ilk is possible, as well, but as of now, they have made it clear to other teams that their goal is to free up space on a crowded roster.

It’d be a surprise to see Rose traded, other than as salary filler in a bigger deal. Somewhat the same as Reddish — the Knicks had to attack a first-round pick to get Reddish in the door, but he’s never been part of Tom Thibodeau’s plans and they couldn’t get one back for him in a trade now.

There is understandable interest in Quickley, the third-year point guard out of Kentucky averaging 10 points a game, but will a team send New York a quality first-round pick to get him? Is there a playoff-bound team looking for depth at the one willing to give up a first-rounder to get it? A team that does trade for Quickley would have to be committed to him and pay him going forward — Quickely is extension-eligible after this season.

The Knicks have been bold the past couple of deadlines looking to bring in what they thought would be quality rotation players. This season they may be more sellers, looking to create roster space in the future.

NBA adds Maurice Podoloff Trophy for team with best record

Image courtesy NBA
0 Comments

ASSOCIATED PRESS — There’s now another trophy for NBA teams to chase.

The league announced Tuesday that the team with the best regular season record will now receive The Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named for the first commissioner of the NBA.

And that name strongly suggests that another trophy tweak is coming – since until last season, the league’s MVP trophy was named for Podoloff. Denver’s Nikola Jokic received the Podoloff Trophy when he won his first MVP award in 2021; when he won MVP again last season, he also received a crystal ball amid a leaguewide redesign of many trophies.

The new Podoloff Trophy has a crystal ball cut into 82 panels – a nod to the 82-game regular season – and sits atop a pedestal that combines the structures of the Eastern Conference posts and Western Conference rings.

The league also unveiled several more redesigned trophies Tuesday. The Joe Dumars Trophy for sportsmanship, The Red Auerbach Trophy for coach of the year, The Twyman-Stokes Trophy for the league’s best teammate and the NBA Executive of the Year Trophy all have new looks. Each features an embedment inside a 15-inch crystal net structure.

“Winning the first NBA Sportsmanship Award and being the trophy’s namesake are among the greatest honors of my career,” said Dumars, who is now an NBA Executive Vice President and the league’s head of basketball operations. “The reimagined trophies represent the enduring legacy of past recipients and are a fitting way to honor those who will continue to raise the standard of excellence in our game.”

Last season, the league changed the look of the NBA’s championship trophy, The Larry O’Brien, with the golden ball atop it now tilting in a different direction than the previous version and with a rounded base instead of the square one that the trophy had for decades.

It also made design changes for many other awards, including the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy along with the Eastern Conference and Western Conference championship trophies – naming them for Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson, respectively. The league also added two new prizes last season, the Larry Bird Trophy for East finals MVP and the Magic Johnson Trophy for West finals MVP.

All the trophies handed out at All-Star weekend, including the Kobe Bryant MVP award, were also redesigned last season. The league also began issuing divisional championship trophies, naming them for Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Atlantic Division), Wayne Embry (Central), Earl Lloyd (Southeast), Willis Reed (Southwest), Sam Jones (Northwest) and Chuck Cooper (Pacific).