Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much.

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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) Utah looks like a team figuring it out. Houston… not so much. There were hints of optimism in both the Jazz and Rocket locker rooms heading into a Thursday night TNT showdown. Utah had won 3-of-4 since the Kyle Korver trade with better spacing in their offense, and as a team they were knocking down shots and defending better. Houston was finally healthy — Chris Paul, Nene, and the rest were back — and rested, and after a couple of recent wins thought they were turning the corner.

The question Thursday was “are the changes for real?”

For Utah, the answer appears to be yes. For Houston… there is a lot of work to do. The Jazz blew the Rockets out 118-91.

At the heart of this outcome was the genuinely improved Jazz offense (fourth best in the NBA over the last five games) picking apart the struggling switching defense of the Rockets (fifth worst in the NBA this season).

In the second round of last year’s playoffs, Houston’s switching defense stymied the Jazz offense and was critical to a 4-1 series win. Utah’s coaching staff spent the offseason studying how to better attack the trend of switching defenses and their work was on full display Thursday. Utah focused on getting James Harden (or other smaller defenders) switched onto Derrick Favors, then had the Jazz big pound them inside on the roll, to the tune of a game-high 24 points. Utah also used crisp ball movement (credit Ricky Rubio) to pick apart the missed help rotations (or Clint Capela just playing back to protect the rim) to get clean looks from three.

Houston may be getting healthy, they may have defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik back on the bench, but their defense remains a mess and is going to hold them back until it improves. The Jazz are playing smarter and better of late, but any good offense is going to pick that defense apart right now.

None of that is what people are really talking about out of this game.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert was ejected 2:47 into the contest when, after two very questionable calls (the second an obvious flop by Harden), he vented his frustration by knocking drinks and powder on the scorer’s table onto the court.

Gobert gets his share of the blame here — he lost his cool and that kind of swipe knocking stuff off the scorer’s table is going to mean an ejection every time. He owned up to that after the game.

If you know me, you know I generally scoff at all conspiracy theories (alien abduction, Bigfoot, frozen envelops, 9/11, George Soros’ plans, and the list goes on), but I buy into this theory that was popular on NBA Twitter Thursday: The referees in this game were targeting Gobert after he got a $15,000 fine for calling out officials for treating the Jazz like a small market team and saying “Every night has been the same s***.” Referees protect their “fraternity” because they don’t think the NBA league office does it well enough. So Gobert was hit with a bad foul call on literally the opening tip, then picked up a quick second on the Harden flop. The NBA league office will push back on all of that, but to me, it’s pretty obvious. A message was being sent, then a frustrated Gobert played right into it.

What’s most important for the Jazz is they didn’t let it change how they played — if anything it fired them up. Utah stuck to the game plan, and Houston has plenty of flaws to exploit right now.

2) LeBron James reportedly wants Carmelo Anthony on the Lakers. Does L.A. want that? Since the other games last night were duds (Utah/Houston kind of was, too), let’s talk about what everyone seems to be talking about:

LeBron James reportedly would like Carmelo Anthony to join the Lakers.

Anthony is currently in limbo, on the Rockets roster but away from the team, not playing while both the Rockets and his agent look for a landing spot. ‘Melo could be waived by the Rockets right now, however, if no team claimed him off waivers the over-the-tax Rockets would be stuck with his salary on their books. Houston wants to avoid that. So, they are looking for a trade, something that cannot happen for him until Dec. 15 because he signed last summer. It’s a holding pattern.

This new rumor/report strikes me as LeBron wanting to help out a friend, although LeBron and his camp reportedly think Anthony could help the Lakers. In theory, yes he could, but Anthony could have helped the Rockets if he was willing to accept a role (coming off the bench) with limited minutes and touches. He couldn’t and didn’t. Let’s be blunt: Anthony is at the point with his declining game that he is a role player in this league — a future Hall of Famer, no doubt, but right now that’s not where his game is at. He has, by all accounts, not accepted that reality and wants a bigger role and to be treated with the deference of a star. Is that what the Lakers want to bring into their locker room?

The Lakers have a full roster, they would have to waive someone to make room for Anthony, and before the season the Lakers were one of the teams that was clear they didn’t think he fit with where they were headed.

There is one interesting thing to watch out of this: Just how much leverage, how much power does LeBron have in the organization? He has not made a formal request to management about ‘Melo, and likely will not, but his desire is out there now. In Cleveland, where LeBron signed a series of one-year deals to keep pressure on Dan Gilbert and his franchise, they might have acquiesced to keep LeBron happy. But in Los Angeles LeBron signed a 3+1 contract, he’s back next season no matter what. Will the Lakers still give LeBron what he wants? I’d be surprised, but it’s worth watching.

3) Just how valuable is the three-point shot to winning? Maybe not as much as you think. In the first great book on NBA analytics — Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper — he put forward the “four factors” that were key to winning games, which is now accepted as common knowledge around the league. The biggest key is shooting (he used eFG%), second was turnover percentage, third was defensive rebounding (in large part as a way to measure forcing missed shots), and then getting to the free throw line.

How much has the onslaught of threes in the NBA changed that? Not much. NBC’s own Tom Haberstroh did the math correlating box score stats from every game this season to winning and the results were one for the old school.

With that in mind, the most important stat on the traditional box score is … field-goal percentage! Basketball purists, rejoice! If you shoot better from the floor than your opponent, you’re probably going to win the game. In fact, teams this season are 246-69 (.781) when they win the FG% column….

The team that won the defensive rebound battle is the next-most likely to win, going 225-71 (.760) this season. Don’t believe it? Look at the league’s top defensive rebound teams: Milwaukee, Philly, Portland, L.A. Clippers, — yeah, they’re really good this season!…

All right, 3-pointers have to be the next most pivotal category in the box score, right? Nope. Plain ol’ field goals made is still more important than the 3-ball. The team that reigned supreme in the field goals column went 225-72 (.758), regardless of where they took them.

We can keep going. Turns out that assists (.699), rebounds (.690) and 2-point field goal percentage (.689) are still more tied to the win column than 3-pointers made.

This does not mean Gregg Popovich’s obstinance is entirely right because the math is still 3>2 and if you live on a heavy diet of midrange jumpers while your opponent gets good looks at the three ball, you’re in trouble.

But it does mean the simple things are true: Hit more shots than your opponent and you win. It seems obvious, but sometimes we can get away from all that, and this is a reminder not to.

James Harden scores 37 but Joel Embiid’s 32 leads 76ers to 121-93 rout of Rockets

Associated Press
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid relished the chance to face James Harden, and wasn’t going to let a little back tightness stop him.

Embiid had 32 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past fellow MVP contender Harden and the Houston Rockets 121-93 on Monday night.

“I love playing against guys you guys say are better than me,” Embiid said.

Harden, selected Western Conference player of the week earlier in the day, finished with 37 points – giving him 20 straight games with at least 30.

Philadelphia played without four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (sore right wrist), and Embiid more than made up for his absence.

“It was really fun for us,” Embiid said. “Don’t think it was fun for them.”

Embiid was questionable before the game with lower back soreness and coach Brett Brown hinted during pregame it might be best for the Philadelphia big man to sit this one out. Embiid clearly had other intentions.

“I want to fight with my teammates,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I’ll do for my team.”

His 24 first-half points helped Philadelphia to a 65-50 halftime lead, and he punctuated an entertaining opening 24 minutes by pinning Harden’s layup attempt with 7.5 seconds left for a crowd-pleasing block. The duo had to be separated with 38.7 seconds left in the half, with each being issued a technical, after Harden took exception to Embiid’s foul on him.

The 76ers broke the game open in a dominant third quarter as they outscored Houston 29-13 to take a 94-63 advantage into the fourth. Ben Simmons stole Harden’s pass, made a layup and finished a three-point play after being fouled by Harden to make it 73-52. The lead kept growing, getting as large as 31.

“We were due for a game like this,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden had 10 points in the third but missed four of six field goal tries as the 76ers hounded him defensively with double-teams and different looks. A tired-looking Harden’s air ball with 12.3 seconds left in the third showed the effects of the Philadelphia defense – and, perhaps, Harden’s offensive workload.

With the game out of range, Harden sat in the fourth.

“This is not a great way to rest him, but we rested him today,” D’Antoni said.

 

Doc Rivers seemingly blames Steve Ballmer for Clippers losing Joe Ingles

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Entering the 2014-15 season, the Clippers had to waive someone to meet the regular-season roster maximum. Their choice came down to Joe Ingles and Jared Cunningham, neither of whom had guaranteed salaries.

L.A. kept Cunningham and waived Ingles. Cunningham never made a significant NBA impact. The Jazz claimed Ingles on waivers, and he became a quality starter in Utah.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was also team president at that time.

Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News:

When asked Wednesday if he regrets that decision, Rivers answered, “all the time.”

“I said it the day we released him that this was a bad decision and that we’re going to regret it,” he said. “Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract. We were begging to eat one contract and they said that will never happen and we had to let him go.”

Did Rivers confuse the timeline and think he was blaming Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was notoriously cheap? Current owner Steve Ballmer bought the team and was announced as the owner before the start of the 2014-15 season, when Ingles was signed for camp and released. Ballmer has talked big about spending, and is Rivers’ boss right now. It’d be strange for Rivers to criticize Ballmer like this, but I also can’t figure out whom else he’d be referring to besides the owner. As team president, Rivers had no other oversight within basketball operations.

Maybe Rivers wanted to keep both Ingles and Cunningham and waive someone with a guaranteed salary – likely Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ekpe Udoh or Glen Davis. But, in hindsight, the obviously right call would have been waiving whichever of those players was necessary to keep Ingles.

The frequent criticism of the Clippers about Ingles is somewhat unfair. They brought Ingles to training camp when other teams didn’t. The only reason they were positioned to waive him is because they were ahead of the curve on him.

But they also had the unique opportunity to evaluate him up close and still decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot.

How did that decision get made? Rivers passing the buck only adds confusion. It seemed as if it were his decision.

Luka Doncic becomes second NBA teenager to record triple-double, Bucks rout Mavs anyway

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Is Luka Doncic an All-Star?

He’s not a starter (in my vote, anyway) but in what is an exhibition designed to give the fans what they want, why not have Doncic in the game? He is what the fans want. I’m not convinced he’ll make the cut — at least in the ridiculously deep West, in the East he probably would — but it’s a legitimate conversation. The kid can flat-out ball.

Case in point, he dropped a triple-double on the Bucks on MLK Day, becoming only the second teenager to record an NBA triple-double. (The other was Markelle Fultz, who was 10-days younger when he got his, also against Milwaukee.) Doncic finished the game with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Doncic’s play was not enough to keep the Bucks from racking up their fifth straight win, and doing it pretty easily (although Dallas made an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to make it a little interesting). Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 15 rebounds, while Eric Bledsoe had 21 points, and Brook Lopez finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks (that was Lopez’s first double-double with the Bucks).

Reports: Houston trades Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, who will waive him

Associated Press
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Carmelo Anthony‘s sabbatical is over. Sort of.

Anthony, who has been on the Houston roster but not with the team after that experiment crashed and burned 10 games into the season, will be traded to the Chicago Bulls. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story (and other reports have since confirmed it). However, he’s not going to be putting on a Bulls’ jersey.

He may not be waived until after the Feb. 7 deadline, in case the Bulls find a way to use his salary in a one-for-one trade (his salary cannot be combined with others in a deal because he was just traded). If/when he is waived, at that point there will be more roster shuffling around the league and a landing spot for ‘Melo may open up.

Houston’s trade is much like the trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta last summer that moved Anthony off the Thunder roster. The Hawks waived him and Anthony signed with the Rockets. For the Rockets, this is about saving money.

The Bulls also make a little under a million in this deal. If another team signs Anthony, it would be a benefit for the Hawks.

It’s unclear where Anthony’s ultimate landing spot will be, although his agent has said there are options.

After his struggles in Houston — where the future Hall of Famer thought he deserved more than a bench role due to his stature, even though because of his declining offensive skills and defense that’s all he warranted — it’s hard to imagine another contender or even playoff team picking him up. Maybe a franchise going all in on the Zion Williamson chase but wants a bump at the gate from the name recognition Anthony brings him in? Although for teams trying to develop young talent why take the ball out of those young guys’ hands to let Anthony jack up contested twos? Most likely it will be a team battling injuries and looking for help.

In 10 games for the Rockets this season coming off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, shot just 40.5 percent overall and 32.8 percent from three. The Rockets’ defense was 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony sat.