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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.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
Brandon Dill/Getty Images
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.

 

Three Things to Know: Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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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) Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract. There were legitimate reasons the Pelicans were hesitant to give Brandon Ingram a contract extension last summer.

He was coming off a blood clot issue that, if it returned, would threaten his career. He wasn’t a guy who took or made a lot of threes. He had most of his offensive success in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball handler, how would he fit in coach Alvin Gentry’s offensive system that required ball movement and catch-and-shoot skills? How would he fit next to Zion Williamson?

Ingram made a leap this season and blew all those questions out of the water (except the Zion one, that starts to get answered next week).

Ingram is averaging 25.8 points per game and is shooting 40.6 percent from three on 6.2 attempts from deep per game. He has dramatically improved his jump shot, fit in brilliantly with Gentry’s system, and become the Pelicans’ best — and go-to — player. Exactly the guy the Lakers envisioned when they drafted him No. 2 out of Duke in 2016.

That peaked on Thursday night when Ingram dropped a career-high 49 on the Utah Jazz and led the Pelicans to a win that snapped Utah’s 10-game win streak.

This leap would not have happened if the Lakers had not traded Ingram, he was never going to be a comfortable fit next to LeBron James (even if Ingram has improved off-the-ball in Gentry’s system).

“[The Lakers] have such a rich history of winning, a lot of pressure goes on the shoulders of those young guys,” said the Clippers’ Lou Williams, who spent half a season as a teammate of then-rookie Ingram. “Different organizations have more of a patience to develop more guys. The Lakers want to win right away. So some of the pressure was deserved because [Ingram and Lonzo Ball] was high picks, and they should be good quality basketball players, but at the same time they’re young guys trying to figure it out.”

Ingram figured it out, but things might have been different, he might not have made this leap if Zion had stayed healthy. The Pelicans offense would have been different with the No. 1 pick (also out of Duke).

Forget the “what ifs” however — Brandon Ingram has made the leap and now the rewards should be flowing. NBA coaches should select him as a reserve for the All-Star Game in Chicago. He’s earned it.

Next summer, Ingram will get a max contract — almost certainly from the Pelicans. While New Orleans has not seen Ingram next to Williamson in a meaningful way (the preseason doesn’t count), it can’t afford to lose the restricted free agent and other teams will undoubtedly be lined up with max offers.

Ingram is about to get PAID. That comes with the respect he’s earned.

Ingram was also at the heart of the wild ending in New Orleans Thursday night. The Pelicans thought they had won the game in regulation on Ingram’s off-balance jumper with 0.2 seconds left.

Utah had just 0.2 left to make a play, which by NBA rule means it had to be a tip. The Pelicans packed the paint, but rookie Jaxson Hayes was called for holding Rudy Gobert as the Utah center attempted to free himself for the desperation tip-in (the Last Two Minute report in this game is going to be fascinating, but because there was a little hold — not enough to get called in this situation, but it was there — expect the report to back the refs).

The holding call was upheld after video review.

That gave Gobert a chance to win it by making two foul shots, but he split them, tied the game, and sent it to overtime. In the extra frame, Gobert fouled out on an Ingram drive (another very questionable call) and behind a final five points from Ingram — plus seven from Derrick Favors — the Pelicans got the home win.

2) We have a trade Hawks/Timberwolves trade… that sets up other trades. If one were to grade this trade as a stand-alone move, The Timberwolves would fail the test.

The first trade of the deadline season sees Minnesota sending Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham to Atlanta, and getting Allen Crabbe in return.

For Atlanta, they get a much needed backup point guard behind Trae Young (it’s a short-term fix, but they told a frustrated Young they would get him help). When Young is running the show and bombing deep threes, the Hawks have a respectable offense. However, when Young sits, the Atlanta offense scores far less than a point per possession (90.7 offensive rating) and those stretches end up costing the team games. Teague is a solid point guard who can organize the Hawks offense and keep things from dropping off a cliff while Young rests.

For Minnesota, this trade only makes sense if it’s seen as the precursor to a second trade (maybe involving Crabbe, who makes $18.5 million this season). It clears out a roster spot, something the Timberwolves needed to do to go big game hunting. They are still interested in Golden State’s D’Angelo Russell (to play with his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns) and but lose some flexibility in how to make that trade happen. Whether they should trade for Russell is another question — Wolves GM Gersson Rosas said he wants a playmaking point guard, not a scoring one, except that’s not Russell — but the Timberwolves are moving to try and make that a reality. It’s hard to judge this trade for the Timberwolves until we see what other shoes drop.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks remind everyone they are beasts of the East with a win against the Celtics. Boston has joined the long list of teams — pretty much 29 of them — that have no good answer to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak scored 32 points and pulled down 17 rebounds, and that plus Khris Middleton’s 23 was enough for Milwaukee to knock off the Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night. The Bucks have now won five in a row and remain on pace for a 70-win season (even if their GM says they will not chase a record number of wins).

Kemba Walker scored 40 points to lead Boston. The bigger concern for the Celtics is Jaylen Brown, who suffered a sprained right thumb against Detroit and sat this game out, plus he could miss more time.