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Nets could have point guard conundrum between D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie

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DETROIT – With D'Angelo Russell sidelined by a knee injury much of last season, Spencer Dinwiddie stepped in as the Nets’ starting point guard and played better than the more ballyhooed Russell ever has. Russell could do nothing but watch as another viable contender emerged for the job everyone assumed was Russell’s to grow into.

But Russell says he wasn’t fazed by Dinwiddie’s breakthrough season, which earned Dinwiddie third place in Most Improved Player voting.

“Guys are thirsty for opportunity in this league,” Russell said. “You give guys an opportunity that have prepared for it, they’ll take advantage of it.”

Russell might as well have been talking about himself, too.

After years stuck losing and surrendering its first-round pick, Brooklyn suddenly has two young point guards with potential to handle the starting job long-term. Big decisions near on both players.

Russell has the better pedigree. He was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft and acquired for a haul – the No. 27 pick last year’s draft (which the Lakers used on Kyle Kuzma), Brook Lopez on an expiring contract and cap space used to absorb Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract.

Dinwiddie was a second-rounder in 2014. He washed out with the Pistons and Bulls then played in the D-League.

But Dinwiddie has closed the gap. While questions swirled about Russell’s maturity and work ethic in Los Angeles, Dinwiddie was grinding with a motivation to return to the NBA.

Yet, Dinwiddie said he doesn’t see himself competing with Russell.

“Not at all,” Dinwiddie said. “No. 2 pick. Franchise PG. Future and all that good stuff.”

Maybe Dinwiddie is just toeing the company line. Russell has reclaimed his starting role entering the season, sending Dinwiddie to the bench.

That’s probably the right move. Russell’s ceiling his so much higher. While Dinwiddie’s virtue is his steadiness, Russell brings dynamic scoring and playmaking ability. He can create shots and throw passes Dinwiddie would never dream of.

But Russell also gets himself into trouble with turnovers and forcing jumpers. His creativity and shot-making lag behind his perception of those skills. Dinwiddie is also a much stauncher defender.

Maybe it’s just fine 25-year-old Dinwiddie is ahead of 22-year-old Russell. Point guards tend to develop later, and Russell’s leap could be coming this season.

That’s why it’s hard to see Russell agreeing to a rookie-scale contract extension before Monday’s deadline. There’s a canyon between his production and potential. Most likely, he’s heading toward restricted free agency this summer.

Dinwiddie will become eligible for a contract extension Dec. 8, three years after he signed his current deal. But unlike Russell – who could theoretically sign an extension for a max salary – Dinwiddie’s extension is capped at about $47 million over four years. Though it’s possible he could draw more in unrestricted free agency next summer, Dinwiddie – who has only once and only barely exceeded a minimum salary in his career – sounds open to locking in sooner. Not that he expects an offer.

“If Sean Marks calls to give me a contract extension, I’ll take it,” Dinwiddie said. “But until he does, I’m looking forward to being a free agent.”

Dinwiddie’s doubts about the Nets general manager’s plan seem valid. Even if Brooklyn wants to keep Dinwiddie, there’s value in doing it through free agency. If not extended, he’ll count just $3,146,575 against the cap until re-signed. The Nets could use their cap space then exceed the salary cap to re-sign him to a higher salary through Bird Rights. If extended, he’d immediately count next offseason at his 2018-19 salary.

Russell said playing for a new contract “always” motivates him. He’s definitely positioned to cash in with a strong year. One of the big external threats who could override even major progress from Russell – Kyrie Irvingeffectively took himself off the market.

Dinwiddie, on the other hand, said he’s more focused on the court than motivated by his contract situation.

“That’s all I can really afford to look at,” Dinwiddie said. “You look at my role – second-round pick, out the league, now back in the league, obviously good season, don’t matter, back on the bench, all that other stuff. So, all I’ve got to do is continue try to help our team win games.”

If he isn’t discouraged by his move to the bench, Dinwiddie should do that and press Brooklyn’s decision-makers.

Would you rather have Russell or Dinwiddie? (Yes, that’s a real question.) If Russell and assuming Dinwiddie would come cheaper, would you rather have Russell or Dinwiddie plus the additional salary-cap flexibility?

The Nets could keep both beyond this season. They have plenty of room to spend. Maybe Russell emerges as the starter and Dinwiddie settles in as backup. Or, even if it’s harder to see Russell accepting it, vice versa. The two can play together at times.

More likely, the Nets are heading toward a decision between their point guards. It could be revealed through contract extensions, in free agency or even later. But based on where Dinwiddie was last season and where Russell wants to get, Brooklyn might not be big enough for the both of ’em.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.