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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.

Timberwolves fans boo Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau at home opener

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How is Tom Thibodeau doing right now in Minnesota tonight?

Friday night is the Timberwolves home opener — a big production where every player is introduced and the crowd is hyped. How hyped? Derrick Rose got a surprising amount of love from the fans.

However, the reception for Jimmy Butlerwho has demanded a trade out of Minnesota, thrown a tirade during practice, and generally been disruptive — and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau (blamed by many for creating and dragging out this situation) both heard it from fans.

Watching the broadcast you could hear some boos, but the pumped-up in-arena entertainment noise on that feed made it hard to hear anything clearly. In the arena were a few cheers mixed in there for Butler, although most booed.

Thibodeau didn’t get even that much love.

Timberwolves fans were indiscriminate and were ready to boo anyone who ever pissed them off — enter Kevin Love.

The boos for Butler subsided as the game went on.

The coach and star player getting booed maybe motivate owner Glen Taylor to step in and force the situation, but probably not. At this point how much more embarrassing is it going to get? If the Timberwolves get off to a slow start this season because of the chemistry, that might be the tipping point.

Right now, Butler trade talks are dormant. This — and these boos — are the status quo.

But everything is fine.

Mike D’Antoni on Rockets’ defense: “I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it.”

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Last season the Houston Rockets’ defense allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, seventh best in the NBA. After the All-Star break they allowed just 103.8 per 100, fourth best during that stretch. By the end of the season, the Rockets switched every screen on- and off-ball (something they felt they needed to handle the Warriors in the playoffs) and leaned on defensive minded role players such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. It got them within a game — within a half, really, the Rockets led at half of Games 6 and 7 vs the Warriors — of reaching the NBA Finals and almost certainly bringing home a title.

This season, the conventional wisdom was the Rockets would take a big step back defensively. Ariza and Mbah a Moute left as free agents, replaced on some level by James Ennis (a quality defender), Carmelo Anthony (not so much) and Michael Carter-Williams. Defensive-focused assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik retired, adding to the losses.

That narrative was fed opening night when Anthony Davis did whatever he wanted on his way to 32 points, Elfird Payton (yes, Elfrid Payton) put up a triple-double, and the Pelicans scored at a 124.8 points per 100 pace in blowing the Rockets out.

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t see the season going that way. Speaking to  Sam Amick of The Athletic he defended the team’s defense this season.

I think we’re even deeper this year, so we can have fresher guys on the floor… Trevor and Mbah a Moute were big parts of (Houston’s switching defense), but it’ll be taken up by Michael Carter-Williams. He’s a very good defensive player. James Ennis, who has energy and can play defense, and has all kinds of energy, to Eric Gordon, who will play with Chris and James a little bit more. So I don’t see it like falling so far off. I don’t see it. ‘Melo and the guys are smart enough (to know that) by switching it helps them too. They don’t have to fight through screens and all that. We’re just switching everything to try to keep guys in front. We have a nice philosophy, I think, where players understand what we’re trying to do.

The only thing that’s really changed is that (assistant coach) Roy (Rogers) has the (defensive) voice, in film sessions, talking to them, and (former assistant) Jeff (Bzdelik) had the voice (last season, before unexpectedly leaving during the summer). We all sat down to figure out what we wanted to do defensively, what were the best matchups, talking to Chris and James and PJ about, ‘OK, who you guarding tonight, and what do you think?’ And they’ll figure it out. But at the end of the day, the information still flows exactly the same.”

While the system may be the same, the players executing it are not. Carter-Williams was just lost and a mess defensively in the opener. Anthony will be better than some think as a team defender during the regular season (not good, but not a complete dumpster fire), but he can be exploited in a playoff series (Utah hunted him out in the first round last season, and it worked). P.J. Tucker is a fantastic defender, as is Chris Paul, but both are a year older and not getting faster.

Opening night was an aberration — the Rockets are not that bad on either end of the floor. It’s just one game and every team will have a few clunkers over the course of 82. The Rockets will play better against the Lakers in LeBron James‘ home opener Saturday night (that will not be an easy game for Houston by any measure).

Right now it feels like the Rockets are headed for a step back defensively this season, and with that their margins against the Warriors get even smaller. We’ll see over time if D’Antoni knows best.

Russell Westbrook out vs. Clippers Friday night, second game he’s missed

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The Thunder offense struggled on opening night, scoring less than a point per possession (96.2 per 100 possessions, to be specific). While the Thunder got out and ran a decent amount, 18.6 percent of their possessions started in transition, they scored just 0.88 points per possession on those chances (stats via Cleaning the Glass). On spot-up jump shots, they shot scored just 0.67 points per possession (via Synergy Sports) and they shot 27.8 percent from three in the part of the game that mattered.

How much of that was the Thunder offense missing their engine in Russell Westbrook, and how much of that was going against the solid defense and length of the Golden State Warriors?

We may find out Friday night because Westbrook is out again, still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on right knee back on Sept. 12. Royce Young of ESPN broke the news.

That means again most of the offense will flow through Paul George, which worked reasonably well but he needs more help from other players. The Clippers’ defense was fairly good opening night, and they played Denver close, but couldn’t score enough and lost a lead down the stretch, dropping their season opener.

What really matters is this gives us another chance to watch Westbrook try to sneak-snack on the bench.

LeBron James: Team chemistry not “like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast.”

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We shouldn’t overreact to the opening night loss for the Lakers in Portland, there were a lot of things in there we should have expected. First, Portland is a superb team led by two All-Stars that is always tough at home. The  Moda Center is never an easy place to win for any team. Second, the shooting woes the Lakers had were too be expected when we looked at the roster, and while it’s going to be a lingering problem all season they will have better nights than 7-of-30 from three and 0-of-7 from the corners.

However, the biggest takeaway is this: The Lakers lacked continuity and chemistry, and in a one-point game in the fourth (101-100) that really started to show, while the Trail Blazers are primarily the same team running primarily the same system, and their chemistry fueled the win.

That also shouldn’t be a surprise. So LeBron James, how long is it going to take for the Lakers to find that chemistry? (As reported by Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN).

“Um, not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said when asked how long it will take for the Lakers’ chemistry to develop. “I always kind of compare it to like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast. It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are.”

LeBron has history on his side here. Both when he went to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and when he returned to Cleveland, his teams got off to slow starts as they figured out their team chemistry. It takes player a while to adjust to playing with LeBron — who was working hard to set his Laker teammates Thursday rather than just taking over — and for him to adjust to them. Both those Cleveland and Miami teams went on to the NBA Finals.

The difference is this is the West and there is almost no margin for error, and early struggles could cost the Lakers’ playoff seeding. Or more.