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Three Things to Know: Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come

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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) Assertive LeBron James shows how far Lakers have come. Back on Oct. 18, in the first game of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers comfortably handled a Laker team still stumbling around with new faces and a lack of identity. That night, Portland’s continuity and shooting were a stark contrast to a Lakers team with neither.

Nearly a month later, LeBron and the Lakers look dramatically better.

LeBron played by far his most aggressive and best game as a Laker Thursday night, dropping 44 on the Blazers — passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list in the process — along with 10 rebounds and nine assists, leading the Lakers to a 126-117 win at home.

Wednesday night LeBron reminded everyone that when he decides to take over there is nobody like him Anywhere. Especially when he is hitting threes from a Curryesque range, which he did from the game’s opening minutes. LeBron was 5-of-6 from three on the night.

One key to the Lakers’ turnaround is they are playing much better defense, and they did for stretches against Portland. This isn’t just about Tyson Chandler — although he helps — but over the past seven games, the Lakers have allowed an average of 104 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA. The Lakers are pressuring better and higher to stop penetration off the pick-and-roll, jumping in gaps and generating steals (9.6 per game in their last seven games), and getting blocks from their bigs at the rim. All of that is a dramatic change from the beginning of the season when the Lakers played matador defense and were letting teams walk to the rim at will.

The Laker offense has come a long way, too, and it isn’t all LeBron. The Lakers generated good chances by having Lonzo Ball as a screener, with Brandon Ingram getting isolated on a smaller defender (C.J. McCollum much of the time), and with JaVale McGee as a rim runner. The Lakers are still generating chances playing at pace, too, something that has become a key part of their identity.

There was one bit of bad news for Los Angeles out of this game: Rajon Rondo broke his hand and will be out weeks. The Lakers will miss him on the second unit.

2) Jimmy Butler plays his first game with Philadelphia and… it’s going to be a process. “The process” is over in Philly. The arrival of Jimmy Butler as a Sixers makes them a “win now” team.

Now just starts another process: Fitting Butler into the Sixers offense and schemes.

This process could take some time, too.

Orlando proved that point, went on a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a 16-point Philadelphia lead and ultimately spoiled Butler’s debut, 111-106.

Butler had moments but was not the aggressive player we know, he let the game come to him more, something to be expected with a player on a new team who has been through one practice. He did show off his midrange game and defense at points, but expect him to be more aggressive as he gets more comfortable.

The game showed that there will be a lot of adjustments needed from Philadelphia to make this work.

That starts with Simmons, who had to work off the ball more when Butler created looks. The problem is Simmons is not a shooter so the Magic didn’t have to respect him until he made a cut or got close to the rim, allowing them to pack the paint more and provide help. Simmons can make those cuts and finish, but coach Brett Brown would prefer Joel Embiid coming out of the dunker’s spot and so the spacing becomes an issue. Embiid also didn’t look quite in sync for stretches of the game, although he did rack up his first career triple-double with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Those assists came when the Sixers were moving the ball the way Brown wants — fast side-to-side ball reversal that gets guys like J.J. Redick clean looks (he had a team-high 22). The Sixers did more of that in the third quarter. However, the ball movement was inconsistent as the Sixers tried to fit Butler into the offense. Late in the game when it was close, Butler was not taking over as much as serving as a decoy on the weak side for the Simmons/Embiid two-man game we have seen before.

It’s just going to take time. It’s a process. A fully healthy Wilson Chandler will help, he had 14 points on 10 shots and the offense flowed much better with him out there rather than Mike Muscala.

The Sixers have other questions to answer: Should they stagger Simmons’ and Butler’s minutes so each has longer stretches as the primary ball handler? If so, where does that leave Markelle Fultz, who is coming off the bench now and had eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Jimmy Butler with the Sixers is not going to be a plug-and-play instant contender. The loss in Orlando made that clear. What matters now is how much better the Sixers look in a week. Then in a month.

3) Dwane Casey went back to Toronto and drew up a beautiful game-winner. Dwane Casey, the best coach in Raptors’ franchise history, got a warm welcome from the Toronto fans Wednesday. As he should. The man presided over the best years of basketball in Raptors history and won Coach of the Year last year.

Then, with the game on the line, he reminded those fans why he is so good — he drew up a beautiful game-winning play that got Reggie Bullock a clean look. The play had Blake Griffin coming off a double screen, one set by Bullock, and when his man Pascal Siakam slid over to help on the Pistons’ biggest threat, Bullock slid into a scoring position.

Well done for Casey and a quality win for the Pistons. One they needed.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.