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Pelicans stay one small step ahead of their shortcomings catching up to them, per usual

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

On Feb. 16, 2017, I published an article about how difficult it’d be for the Pelicans to get Anthony Davis a star teammate.

Three days later, they traded for DeMarcus Cousins.

How did that happen? A few months before Cousins became officially eligible, the Kings got got squeamish about giving him the super-max extension both sides had seemingly agreed upon. Sacramento lacked the organizational prowess to navigate a difficult situation by doing anything other than rushing to trade Cousins, who was still under contract for another season-and-a-half. In the process, the Kings tanked Cousins’ already-limited value even further. New Orleans had Sacramento target Buddy Hield and was willing to surrender a future first-rounder.

The Pelicans were in the right place at the right time.

That wasn’t the case this summer, when Cousins left New Orleans for the Warriors. And maybe that’s OK.

The Pelicans are a fringe playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. They couldn’t necessarily afford to wait on Cousins’ torn Achilles to heal. Every win matters to them – especially as they move toward inflection points with Davis.

Though I’m grading only this offseason, we can still note how New Orleans’ prior errors made the Cousins timing so tricky. Better-positioned teams wouldn’t stress him missing the start of the season if it meant getting a star at a big discount (though, to be fair, we don’t know whether Cousins would have accepted the taxpayer-mid-level-exception salary he’ll earn in Golden State from the Pelicans, who could have offered more).

It was a similar story with Rajon Rondo, who signed with New Orleans last year after finding an unwelcoming market. Because of their lackluster roster, the Pelicans offered the starting job Rondo coveted. So, he took a one-year deal, exceeded expectations then left for a raise in a glitzier market this year.

New Orleans replaces Rondo and Cousins with Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle. Whether or not that’s an upgrade is difficult to discern and made the Pelicans’ grade the toughest to assign this year.

Rondo fit well into New Orleans’ ball-movement system, and he stepped up defensively in the playoffs. But the Lakers’ offer to him ($9 million for one year) was steep. Still, Payton must take significant steps forward to match Rondo’s production. Maybe the 24-year-old will.

The Pelicans surged after Cousins went down last season, including sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round. So, in a sense, Randle is just an addition. He, Davis and Nikola Mirotic should form a nice big-man rotation with varying skill sets.

But Randle (two-year non-taxpayer mid-level exception with a player option) and Payton (one-year, $3 million) are locked in for only one season. If they play well, New Orleans will just have to hope everything lines up again next offseason. If they struggle, New Orleans will have even bigger problems.

In the meantime, the Pelicans have enough to deal with. They traded their 2018 first-round pick to get Mirotic last season. Randle got the entire mid-level exception, and Payton got nearly all of the bi-annual exception. That meant filling out the roster with several minimum contracts containing varying guarantees. Signing Tyrone Wallace to an offer sheet was a nice idea, but the Clippers matched, leaving New Orleans with Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Darius Morris, Troy Williams, Garlon Green and Kenrich Williams. Maybe there’s a diamond in the rough.

That’d be nice for the Pelicans, who know all too well about playing from the rough.

They just keep trying to plug holes, because it’s too hard to build a strong foundation around Davis. New Orleans might have done well enough this year, but the same issues loom next year.

Offseason grade: C

Three Things to Know: Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Trae Young has seen the future and it’s dropping 50 on Heat. Way back on Dec. 10, when Trae Young and the Hawks were in Miami, Young slid a pass to Alex Led for a bucket that put the Hawks up six inside a minute. That should have been the dagger and Young reacted that way, waving his arms to say the game was over.

It wasn’t. Miami came back to win in OT.

Jimmy Butler took to Instagram to taunt Young about it postgame.

Fast forward to Thursday night, the return of basketball after the All-Star break, when the Hawks and Heat met up again. Young looked rested after a few days off, he looked motivated, and he dropped a 50 spot on the Heat on 12-of-25 shooting, 8-of-15 from three, to spark an Atlanta win.

This time it was Young who took to social media.

You can talk all the smack you want Trae, you earned it.

Miami is 4-6 in its last 10, going back to before the break, which is an issue for a team now up just one game in the loss column over Philadelphia, and with that the right to be home for the first round of the playoff. Indiana is only three back. Jae Crowder moved into the starting lineup, Bam Adebayo had 28 points and 19 boards in a monster night for him, but it wasn’t enough. There was too much Trae on Thursday night.

The Heat have the league’s sixth toughest schedule the rest of the way, they need to find some wins down the stretch or risk fading in the East playoff picture.

2) Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson officially out for the season. Neither of these players being out the rest of the way is a surprise. Nor is it much of a blow to their team in either case, both teams were looking past this season. Still, on Thursday we learned two NBA stars had been sidelined for good.

Kyrie Irving had tried to play through shoulder bursitis — that’s what he called it, while other reports called it “a deterioration” — earlier this season, opting for a cortisone shot over surgery. That worked for nine games, but he sprained his knee and needed time off, then when the shot started to wear off the realization hit.

Thursday, Nets GM Sean Marks made it official, Irving would have a “shoulder procedure” and is done for the season. As our own Keith Smith pointed out, with Kevin Durant sidelined the entire season coming off a torn Achilles, it was never about this season in Brooklyn. More time on the court for Irving gaining chemistry with his new teammates would have been nice, but it was not a requirement.

How good the Nets are going to be next season will be debated. They have good role players — Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris (if they re-sign him) — to go around Irving and Durant, but how much will they get out of their stars? They will need vintage KD to have a shot against teams such as the Bucks, and that’s a lot to ask a 32-year-old coming off a torn Achilles. Durant looks good shooting the rock in an empty gym, but that is a long way from doing it in a game.

Klay Thompson never set foot on the court for the Warriors this season, nor was he expected to as he worked to recover from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s Finals. Still, the Warriors shut the door on his return on Thursday, ending any speculation.

The Warriors come back next season with Thompson, Stephen Curry (who will return to the court next month), Draymond Green, a healthy Kevon Looney, whatever they can get out of Andrew Wiggins, and a high draft pick (or, whoever they trade that pick for). The Warriors will be rested and be threats in the West again.

3) Joel Embiid: “I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.” Joel Embiid saved Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Sixers came out of the All-Star break flat, going down by 15 to the shorthanded Nets in the first half.

Embiid, who finished the game with 39 points and 16 rebounds, changed the dynamic in the second half and brought the Sixers back for a 112-104 win. He shot 4-of-4 from the line in the final 35 seconds of regulation, then blocked Wilson Chandler‘s shot to force OT.

It’s the kind of win the Sixers need down the stretch, they remain just half a game back of Miami for the four seed and home court in the first round.

Embiid played like a guy inspired by his All-Star experience. What did Embiid get out of his time in Chicago? Via NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. “I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”

Embiid is playing like his dominant self again, and Sixers fans want him thinking like he’s the best player in the world. Even though he is not. However, he might be the best center in the world right now, and that might be enough to make the Sixers a serious threat in the playoffs (if the rest of the team can step up).

It was never about this year for the Brooklyn Nets

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With news that Kyrie Irving is out for the season due to impending shoulder surgery, it’s worth taking a look at exactly where the Brooklyn Nets stand now.

Irving and Kevin Durant were the big-ticket items for Brooklyn this summer, as they both signed four-year, max deals. Those contracts came with starting salaries of $31.7 million for Irving and $38.2 million for Durant. That’s a combined $69.9 million for a grand total of 20 games (all from Irving).

But it was never about this season for the Nets.

Not when they signed Irving and Durant, and certainly not now.

After Durant tore his Achilles’ during the 2019 NBA Finals, it was assumed he would be out for most if not all of the 2019-20 season. Brooklyn reiterated this when they signed Durant and made it clear they would not rush him back. Durant recently said himself that he would not return this season, even with the Nets pushing for a second straight playoff appearance.

Instead of an immediate impact, Brooklyn banked on a long-term one. Now, they’ll open next season with both Durant and Irving coming off mostly lost years. And they’ll have a lot more questions than answers about the viability of building a title contender around the two stars, given the health concerns.

After this season runs its course, and he misses 62 games, Irving will have missed a whopping 27% of his teams’ regular season contests of the course of his career. Durant will be 32 years old the next time we see him play, and coming off a year without playing in an NBA game. And that’s before factoring in that very few players have returned from the torn Achilles’ at the same level they were at pre-injury.

The Durant portion was part of the plan for Brooklyn. Sean Marks knew what he was signing up for there. The Irving part was unexpected, but given his history, not exactly shocking. Now it’s about what Marks does next to try and set things on a solid path moving forward.

Before this season, Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince both inked contract extensions. This came on the heels of Spender Dinwiddie signing an extension before last season ended. With these three moves, Marks kept three valuable rotation players off the open market.

Brooklyn also has Jarret Allen and Dzanan Musa on rookie-scale deals and a few other young players under team control for next season as well. All total, the Nets have 13 total players under team control approaching this offseason.

Brooklyn is already right up against the luxury tax to start next season, and that’s before re-signing key free agent Joe Harris. Harris is in his fourth year with the Nets, and has found a home in Brooklyn. He’s improved each year since Marks plucked him off the scrap heap, but he’s probably not giving the Nets any sort of hometown discounts this time around.

In a year where the free agent class is fairly barren, Harris will have suitors. He’s the top shooter on the market and the handful of teams with meaningful cap space are in the market to add shooting. Brooklyn has full Bird rights for Harris, but signing him to a market value contract will push them deep into the luxury tax.

Even the ownership groups with the deepest of pockets have limits on how much tax they’re willing to pay. This is one spot where having DeAndre Jordan on the books for over $10 million is a complicating factor. Jordan is close with both Durant and Irving, but he’s clearly behind Allen in the center rotation, and rookie big Nicolas Claxton has shown a lot of promise as well.

The Nets also have to consider whether or not they want to bring back Wilson Chandler, who has been a rotation player since returning from a 25-game suspension. And Brooklyn has team options for Garrett Temple and Theo Pinson to deal with as well.

Given the makeup of the roster, it’s unlikely the Nets will be in the market to add impact newcomers this summer. Their best bet is probably re-signing Harris and maybe adding a veteran or two on minimum deals. That probably puts Brooklyn somewhere between $10 and $15 million in the tax.

Even with concerns over a mounting tax bill, you have to factor in that the Nets are essentially adding Durant and Irving all over again this summer. The 20 games, complete with 8-12 record, are largely forgettable for Irving. And, of course, Durant won’t have even suited up in a Nets jersey by the time 2020-21 tips off.

If the two stars are able to be stars again, Brooklyn is deep and versatile. Kenny Atkinson will have his work cut out for him finding enough minutes for everyone, especially on the wing. But that’s something Marks can alleviate in the offseason. If he believes the Nets have a hole at the four (it looks like a weak spot), Marks can trade a wing to bring in a power forward.

But Marks will need to be careful. Trade away too much of that depth, and Brooklyn won’t be protected if Durant and/or Irving goes down again. That was fine this year. Adding the two stars was never about this year for the Nets. But it is very much about next year and beyond.

Trae Young drops career-high 50 points in Hawks win

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Trae Young suffered from no All-Star break hangover.

The second-year guard went for a career-high 50 points, as the Atlanta Hawks defeated the Miami Heat 129-124. Young shot 12-of-25 from the floor, including 8-of-15 from behind the arc. One of those shots was this bomb from the logo:

Fittingly, Young got his 50th point at the free throw line since he was 18-of-19 at the charity stripe on the night. This was Atlanta’s first 50-point game since Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 2001.

Young got some help from his baby Hawks teammates in the win too. De’Andre Hunter scored 17 points and knocked down a big three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. Fellow rookie Cam Reddish went for 16 off the bench, including picking Goran Dragic’s pocket for a breakaway dunk that put Atlanta up for good with 31 seconds to play.

Report: Klay Thompson ruled out for entire 2019-20 season

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Marc Stein reports that the Golden State Warriors have ruled Klay Thompson out for the remainder of the 2019-20 season:

Thompson tore his left ACL during the 2019 NBA Finals. It was always unlikely that he would return during the 2019-20 season, and it’s all but official now.

Thompson’s absence, combined with Stephen Curry breaking his left hand in the Warriors’ fourth game, has led to Golden State’s tumble in the standings. The Warriors come out of the All-Star break with the NBA’s worst record at 12-43. Stephen Curry’s return to play seems to be nearing, but that won’t be enough to lift Golden State into playoff contention. Currently, the defending Western Conference champions are 16.5 games out of a postseason spot.

After sending D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline, the rest of this season is about Steve Kerr seeing what he has in Andrew Wiggins alongside Curry and Draymond Green. Golden State will also continue to develop the younger players on their roster with plenty of minutes.

Next year, the Warriors will open with a retooled roster around Curry, Thompson, Green, Wiggins and whatever talent general manager Bob Myers is able to add over the summer. Myers has a $17 million trade exception and a high lottery pick to work with. Considering that the core of Curry, Thompson and Green had played an additional 105 games over five consecutive Finals runs, a season of rest is probably welcomed, even if unplanned. They should come back rested, re-loaded and ready to go for 2020-21.