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Three Things to Know: Who’s your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers

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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) LeBron is your MVP? James Harden drops 50-point triple-double on Lakers. It’s early in the season, but the narratives for the race for MVP are taking shape, and right now LeBron James — having a season similar in many ways to the ones he had recently in Cleveland, just now doing it in a much brighter spotlight — is near the top of a lot of lists, with a compelling narrative around him that he has turned around the worst run of Lakers’ basketball in franchise history. (If the vote were taken today Giannis Antetokounmpo would win, but LeBron would be in the mix… just my sense talking to other voters and what one straw poll found.)

James Harden, who is the reigning MVP, has put up very similar offensive numbers to last season — 30.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds a game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage and a 27.3 PER — yet his name is not mentioned in the race.

Thursday night on TNT he threw his hat back in the ring with a 50-point triple-double (10 rebounds, and 11 assists) pushing the Rockets to a 126-111 win over the Lakers, the kind of win that makes you think maybe the Rockets can turn it around.

That was Harden’s fourth 50-point triple-double, an NBA regular season record (moving him past former teammate Russell Westbrook).

It was a vintage Harden performance — he only had 26 shot attempts to get to 50 points, and he got to the free throw line for 18 shots. Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the long list of coaches who picked up a technical foul yelling at the referees that Harden was getting all the calls while his team didn’t get those same whistles (Harden is the master and drawing contact, then when he feels it throwing back his head, flailing his arms, and essentially flopping for the call… it works). LeBron and Lonzo Ball actually tried defending with their hands behind their backs for a stretch, trying to make a point to the officials. But what Harden does is just smart and practiced — he’s the master at it, and if you don’t foul he’s good enough to still put up ridiculous numbers.

Harden’s offensive skills have never been in question. However, he’s not mentioned in the MVP race because of the other end of the court — Houston is 13-14 with the second worst defense in the NBA, and Harden is part of the problem on that end. Last season the Rockets were a top-10 defense and they switched everything with the hope that the other team would then try to exploit the mismatch of Harden (or Chris Paul) guarding a big man, post up said big up and let him go to work. Except, Harden is very strong, especially in the lower body, and it’s difficult to back him down in the post and go to work. Harden is a good post defender.

This season, teams have largely abandoned that approach, they are working to exploit Harden in space or his help defense, both of which are terrible. Again. Harden is playing defense this season like the meme-worthy guy of 2014-15. Harden is not the only problem on the Rockets’ defense (Clint Capela looks a step slower, as does Chris Paul, and they miss the switchable wings they let walk last season in free agency, the communication is lacking, and much more) but he is a part of the problem. And it’s obvious.

That said, if the Rockets start to turn it around, string together some wins, get into a playoff position in the West, and Harden keeps putting up these numbers, he’s going to get some MVP votes. For now, the Rockets need more games like this from Harden to get them back into the West playoffs.

2) Dirk Nowitzki is back on the court, but the Mavericks suffer an ugly loss to Phoenix. For the 21st season in a row, Dirk Nowitzki — the future Hall of Famer, the best European player in NBA history, the talisman of the franchise — was back on the court in a Mavericks uniform. He was limited, playing just 6 minutes and scoring only one bucket, but it was good to see (just ask Mark Cuban).

Nowitzki is not why this game was a national TNT broadcast on one of the league’s showcase nights: they wanted Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic. A 2018 NBA Draft showdown.

This was not vintage Doncic (the current clear leader in the Rookie of the Year race), who had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists but added 4 turnovers. A couple of reasons for that, but at the top of the list is something the league tries to avoid on Thursday night showcases: it was Dallas’s third game in four nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and Doncic looked dead-legged (as did all the Mavericks). Also, Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. seemed to take turns, trading off who would attack, rather than letting the more skilled Doncic just take over.

Ayton was not himself either, scoring 7 points on 3-of-13 shooting, matched up with the athletic veteran DeAndre Jordan. Ayton usually puts up good counting stats — he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds a game — but his offense is limited, half his shots come right at the rim and 75 percent of his shots are set up by someone else, and his defense is dreadful. He’s got potential as an NBA big man, but he also has a lot of work to do to live up to being a No. 1 pick.

Phoenix snapped it’s 10-game losing streak with a 99-88 win.

3) The NBA tries to win over Mexico by sending them… Orlando and Chicago? If you’re an NBA fan living Mexico City fan and you get to see a couple of games in person a year, you can’t be faulted for thinking Nikola Vucevic is a legend.

The NBA put its best foot forward in Mexico City Thursday night… okay, it put a foot forward, giving them a regular season game between the Magic and Bulls. Vucevic, who is playing at an All-Star level for the Magic this season, was the best player on the court, dropping 20 points and 10 boards, leading the Magic to a 97-91 win.

The most interesting news out of Chicago is that Bulls new coach Jim Boylen will be allowed to so something Fred Hoiberg was not — bench Jabari Parker. Despite Chandler Hutchison being out, Parker got four first-half minutes and that’s it. He’s not going to be part of the regular rotation going forward. This was one of the front office’s big moves this summer, spending $20 million to bring in Parker (when no other team was offering near that much), but with Lauri Markkanen back there just shouldn’t be minutes for Parker. (Hoiberg didn’t really get to coach Markkanen this season due to injury, so he had to play Parker, even starting him a lot at the four.)

Bulls management has made some smart moves the past 18 months, but there have been a few head-scratchers, too. Parker is at the top of that list.

Brooklyn Nets like Kyrie Irving, but how much does he like them?

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Kyrie Irving is a popular guy. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and rumors of them pairing up on the Knicks next season have been rampant all over the league this season. Irving also is hanging out with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and LBJ is reportedly up for the idea of getting the band back together (minus Kevin Love, and in Los Angeles this time). Boston has every intention of keeping Irving, and ideally pairing him with Anthony Davis who they would acquire via trade.

The Brooklyn Nets will be free agent players this summer and think they would be an excellent fit for Irving. The goal would be to pair him with All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

How seriously is Irving considering the Nets? A lot, according to Anthony Puccio of SNY in New York.

Sources tell SNY that Kyrie Irving and his camp are strongly considering Brooklyn if he decides to leave Boston. Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case.

SNY also learned recently that the Nets would not shy away from signing Irving even if they re-sign point guard D’Angelo Russell. The ideal scenario would be to pair two max free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Irving, but sources say the Nets would be open to pairing Irving and Russell in the backcourt together.

The Nets, just like the Clippers, could be major players in free agency this summer (the Clippers are more focused on Kawhi Leonard, but if he chooses to stay in Toronto the Clippers will be a potential force in trades and on the free agent market). This is a young team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs this season, they have a good culture and good role players, they just need a star or two to take them over the top.

Irving could be that guy, or at least one of those guys, in Brooklyn.

Irving will have options and you can bet his decision is not yet made. He may be leaning one way or another, but circumstances with other players and time to think things over may (likely will) change his mind. Maybe a few times.

Where his mind is July 1 matters. It could be in Brooklyn then, but it could be a lot of places.

Warriors know they have is something special, with uncertainty ahead

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry hears the dynasty discussion about his Golden State Warriors during another postseason run.

Draymond Green realizes special teams only stay together for so long before something breaks them apart.

That’s why the Warriors decided from Day 1 of training camp to cherish this season.

Golden State is a franchise in its prime – five straight trips to the NBA Finals and seeking a third consecutive title. But the clock is ticking and the Warriors are well aware of the possible ramifications of free agency and how things could change in a hurry this summer.

“Basketball careers aren’t that long. If you can get 10 out of it, you’re lucky,” Green explained. “To be to five straight finals, I don’t even know what to say about it. This is what you play for. This is our goal every year and to get here five straight times is special.”

The Warriors started this run with three All-Stars in Curry, Green and Klay Thompson. They added two more in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. How many they’ll have after free agency is any and everyone’s guess.

Curry – with nearly 11-month-old son Canon regularly in his arms for the ride – is certainly relishing this stretch of his decorated career, appreciating how far the Warriors have come during the 10 years he has been in the league.

A third straight title is suddenly within reach, which would be Golden State’s fourth championship in five years.

“We know what’s at stake and what we’re chasing this year, this series, this game, and that’s the only way that you can really put your best foot forward in terms of trying to get back to the mountaintop,” Curry said. “We’ll have plenty of time when we hang the sneakers up to really go back and think about all the different experiences and highs and lows, but right now, we’re two games away from another finals appearance. It’s pretty special.”

The Warriors are the first team to reach five straight finals since the Celtics advanced to 10 in a row from 1957-1966.

Another championship would cement this run of titles among the best ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 – led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – are the last team to capture three straight titles.

Golden State advanced without Durant, the reigning two-time finals MVP, and Cousins. Both were sidelined with injuries for the entire Western Conference finals. The finished off Portland without Andre Iguodala, another finals MVP who sat out Game 4 with an injury.

While the Bucks and Raptors are slugging it out in the East, the Warriors are rehabbing.

“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated. Five straight finals hasn’t been done since the 60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics,” fifth-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Hasn’t been done for a reason: It’s really, really difficult. I just can’t say enough about the competitive desire about the group of players that we have here and the culture that they have built together, playing together regardless of injury.”

Each Warriors run has been unique. When they won in 2015 it was the first title for the franchise in 40 years.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers derailed them in 2016, but the Warriors bounced back in 2017 with a dominant 16-1 record during the postseason.

Last year, Golden State joined Russell’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and trio of Lakers teams – including George Mikan and company in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago – as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

“When I was here the first time, they rebuilt and retooled,” said Andrew Bogut, a member of the 2015 title team before rejoining the Warriors in March.

“They didn’t just sit on their hands thinking it was going to last forever. They freed up cap space, you have to give (general manager) Bob Myers, (owner) Joe Lacob and the coaching staff a lot of credit. There are a lot of teams that win a championship and kind of reward the whole roster, then they end up two-three years down the track and end up in a bit of a hole. Whereas this is a great run for a franchise that will end up as one of the all-time greats.”

The Warriors enjoy playing together and with so many selfless stars and a deep bench they are rarely out of any game.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy, especially with the constant free agency chatter this season.

Durant is an impending free agent and the basketball world continues to speculate on his next move. Thompson’s future with the Warriors is unclear as well, while Green is signed through next season.

“We know that these runs don’t last forever, and obviously there are so many questions and things that could possibly happen with this team this summer,” Green said. “So want to try to take advantage of this opportunity and make the most of it, and deal with the things that come after whenever those things arrive, but right now we’re focused on the task at hand and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, or many times.”

The Warriors are aware of the dynasty talk, but aren’t labeling themselves. They have consistently said their focus is the task of raising another banner in the final season at Oracle Arena before the franchise moves into Chase Center in San Francisco to begin 2019-20.

“I don’t think in those terms. It’s just every opportunity we have to play, these are big moments, big games,” Curry said, “and the context of what this five-year run has been and all that stuff doesn’t really dominate my mind when we’re out there competing.”

 

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.