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5 Up, 5 Down: NBA is as good as it’s ever been and arguing otherwise is futile

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

The malaise of summer in the NBA is upon us. How has your vacation been? Mine was delightful. I got a lot done; I went to the coast; I generally tried to unplug. Is Kawhi Leonard still with the San Antonio Spurs? I hope they can figure that mess out, I love those guys together.

It’s a slow news cycle in the NBA these days, although it will pick up soon. That doesn’t mean that narratives aren’t abound, even if they aren’t necessarily ones having to do with actual basketball. Even the Los Angeles Lakers News Machine has downshifted a little bit, although that isn’t to say they aren’t still running through the gears.

Real basketball will start soon, and along with it real stories. In the meantime, there has been some fun stuff happening this summer that acts as a nice transition into the coming 2018-19 NBA season.

Let’s get to it.

5 Up

Lance Stephenson and LeBron James are friends now

LeBron James has been Lance Stephenson’s foil for nearly his entire career. When the two were battling out in the Eastern Conference playoffs year after year with Stephenson in Indiana, there was a clear rivalry between two. That rivalry always favored LeBron, which was great because Lance is an extremely wack dude.

Now they are both on the Los Angeles Lakers together and it appears that Stephenson is ready to take a supporting role in whatever way he can to appease James. Speaking to the Indianapolis Star last week, Stephenson said that he thinks LeBron is going to “sic” him on opposing offensive players. OK, then.

There is a considerable chance that things go south in Los Angeles for Stephenson. I just want to mark this moment in time when it appeared that both were ready to be friendly with each other. You know, just for hindsight.

Houston finally swapped Ryan Anderson

Yes, the Rockets were finally able to trade Ryan Anderson and his behemoth contract away from Houston. To what end, nobody is yet sure.

Anderson was sent to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for a package centered on Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight. How that benefits either team isn’t really clear, although Anderson is still a useful shooter from 3-point range. Mostly it seems like this is a source of relief not only for the Rockets, but for those of us who were wondering when Daryl Morey would clear those numbers from his books.

Phoenix won’t be ready to compete anytime soon and they did have some cap space to be able to absorb Anderson’s contract over the remaining length of his deal. The Suns were able to get out from Chriss and Knight, both of whom have not developed as anticipated. What this could mean to the larger NBA public is that teams are more willing to make deals with potential lateral benefit on paper as a means to get out of bad contracts signed a few years ago. I can hear Portland fans licking their chops from here already.

Joel Embiid learned how to shoot from YouTube

You can learn just about anything on YouTube. How to speak another language. How to become a photographer. How to use video editing software. Bushcraft, whatever the hell that is. It’s endless.

Joel Embiid apparently learned to be an NBA player thanks to YouTube. Fancy that.

According to the Philadelphia 76ers big man, decided to look up proper shooting form by Googling for videos of people shooting a basketball when he was living in Florida as a high schooler. Specifically, Embiid looked up how white dudes shot the ball.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Googling is a skill. Don’t @ me.

Ray Allen was told not to shoot 3-pointers

This story about coaches telling Ray Allen not to settle for 3-pointers when he entered the league is sort of the exact example you need to know that the NBA has never been as good as it is now.

My whole problem with the argument about comparing generations of the league — outside of the pure futility and boredom of it — is that the answer is so clearly obvious that today’s athletes would beat athletes from any other generation. They are bigger, faster, stronger, more nutritionally conscious, and trained with the latest advances in medical science and sports data.

Yes, it’s possible that given the chance, players from older generations would be able to adapt and play at a high level with this same benefit. But that’s not really what we are looking at is it? The conversation can’t devolve into some insane genetic experiment. Arguing over whether Bob Cousy could toast Kyrie Irving if only he wasn’t eating canned green beans his whole life is patently crazy.

As they stand, the only adaptations that modern players would need to adjust to in order to go play in prior decades is to the awful sneaker technology and the fact that you could foul guys harder and more often in decades past. You don’t think LeBron could handcheck a dude? You think James Harden, whose whole game is about bringing the ball low and gripping it as tight as he can as NBA players bat at it, couldn’t use his extreme deltoid strength to his advantage in the 1990s?

Then again, the whole “today’s athletes are bigger and stronger” sort of lends to the idea they’d be able to adjust to hard fouls and rule changes thanks to superior bodies and knowledge of the game.

The idea that Allen wasn’t supposed to settle for 3-pointers just 22 years ago it is outright hilarious, and exemplifies how far we have come not just as individuals watching the game but in terms of team strategy.

The rate of acceleration is exponential at this point. I can’t wait for the basketball singularity.

Klay Thompson’s whole summertime steez

Looking good, bro.

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Future @thebig3 champs

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5 Down

The Timberwolves have interest in Luol Deng, Joakim Noah

Watching the Minnesota Timberwolves is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. There is perhaps no way that things end up well for this team, and that’s not just because Tom Thibodeau seems hell-bent on the idea of bringing back old Chicago Bulls players that couldn’t even beat the competition in the Eastern Conference half a decade ago.

There is also some significant distance between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and adding Deng and Noah is really the icing on the cake for a team that is reported to have locker room troubles. Honestly, the Timberwolves are typically a fun League Pass team and this year seems to be shaping up to be no different.

Sign Keith Bogans. Sign Kirk Hinrich. Sign CJ Watson. Sign Mike James. Sign ‘em all, I say.

Manu Ginobili is no longer a Spur

Manu Ginobili deserves to go out on his own terms. The sun appears to be setting on the days in which the Spurs are perennially atop the Western Conference with seemingly little effort. Ginobili has put in his time, and is a future hall-of-famer. Now, it’s just a little sad to think of how many pillars in San Antonio are no longer there.

As a tribute, let’s watch my favorite Ginobili highlight.

Shaq once choked a teammate

Shaq has done an excellent job of rehabilitating his image, especially for someone who went through his entire career as someone who was seen as both captivating and a completely self-absorbed jerk. The fact that O’Neal has become a successful broadcaster during his post playing career, and the fact that he entered the league more than two decades ago has faded some of the opinions about Shaq that developed over the course of his career on the court.

That is, that Shaq was dominant but lazy, self-important to a fault, and unable to see his own value when paired against another all-time great. Again, much of that has been washed away through the sands of time, but the idea that he once choked a teammate as a member of the Phoenix Suns is a little disheartening.

The reality is that Shaq has been pretty wack ever since the Lakers rightly decided to stick with Kobe over him in 2004. This story isn’t endearing, it’s just disappointing. Watch us never talk about it again.

JR Smith is already unraveling

JR Smith was at one time a favorite of LeBron James. Who knows if that’s still the case, but James is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Smith is still stuck in Northeast Ohio. Meanwhile, it appears that Smith isn’t handling it well. The Cleveland Cavaliers guard allegedly chucked a fan’s phone as the fan was trying to record him for social media.

This is was not out of the ordinary for an NBA player — the filming, I mean, not the phone breaking — and the fact that Smith decided to huck this dude’s phone doesn’t bode well for what to expect from him in the coming season. We haven’t even started the preseason yet and already Smith is doing extremely Knicks-y JR Smith stuff.

Nevermind. I actually can’t wait.

These ugly gold-and-diamond LeBrons

Did Donald Trump design these? Good god.

Timberwolves’ Jarrett Culver on brother scoring 100 points in college game: ‘It felt like I was dreaming’

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Timberwolves rookie Jarrett Culver, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, was the biggest basketball star of his family.

Emphasis on “was.”

Culver’s younger brother, J.J. Culver, scored 100 points in a game for Wayland Baptist University (Plainview, Texas) on Tuesday.

Jarrett, via Kent Youngblood of the Minneapolis StarTribune:

“I left the gym and my phone just blew up,” Jarrett said. “Everyone is texting me, ‘Your brother, your brother.’ So I FaceTimed him. I was like, ‘No way!’ I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. It felt like I was dreaming.”

“I feel like I dropped 100 the way I was celebrating with him. I was super-excited for him. He deserves it.”

J.J. shot:

  • 22-of-29 on 2-pointers
  • 12-of-33 on 3-pointers
  • 20-of-27 on free throws

Obviously, it’s unconventional for a single player to take 62 of his team’s 77 shots. But it doesn’t seem this was designed in advance. Nor does it seem Wayland Baptist runs a wild scheme. J.J. just got hot early, and his teammates then decided to keep feeding him. Obviously, by the end, he was gunning for records.

How will Jarrett one-up his brother now?

Celtics’ Kemba Walker flips over-shoulder pass to Jaylen Brown, who finishes with spinning dunk

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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The Lakers aren’t Showtime 2.

Are the Celtics?

Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown ran one flashy fastbreak last night.

NBC Sports Boston:

Though Walker scored 44 points, Boston fell to the Pacers, 122-117.

Watch Bogdan Bogdanovic hit game-winning 3-pointer for Kings vs. Thunder (video)

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Another game, another Kings game-winning 3-pointer.

After Nemanja Bjelica hit a buzzer-beater against the Rockets on Monday, Bogdan Bogdanovic sunk the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Thunder last night. That stood as the game-winner once Richaun Holmes successfully defended Chris Paul on the other end, clinching Sacramento’s 94-93 victory.

The Kings have won three straight – over the Mavericks, Rockets and Thunder. The schedule softens over the next week and a half, giving Sacramento a real chance to rise in the Western Conference standings.

And if he keeps playing like this, Bogdanovic might find his way into a starting lineup.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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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) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant flat-out destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.