Associated Press

Three Things to Know: LeBron’s injury apparently not serious. Warriors weren’t serious either.

13 Comments

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 James injury apparently not too serious. Warriors weren’t serious either on Christmas. It was almost the Nightmare on Christmas for the NBA — the game’s biggest star, LeBron James, going down, saying he heard a pop, right in the middle of a prime-time game on Christmas Day.

After NBA Twitter — and more than a few Lakers fans — freaked out for a while, it appears things are not that bad for LeBron or the Lakers, it’s a muscle injury, a groin strain.

LeBron reportedly was in a good mood after the game and the team says he is day-to-day right now. After Wednesday’s MRI the doctors will have the final say on a timeline, but it doesn’t look like LeBron will miss extended time (my guess, a week or two, that’s the standard with these types of injuries). The Lakers are 5.1 points per 100 possessions worse with LeBron off the court this season, and he is by far their best shot creator in the half court. The Laker can’t go without him for long, but may not have too.

No LeBron for most of the second half and the Lakers still handled the Warriors with ease, 127-101. Best Laker win of the season.

There are two non-injury takeaways from this game.

First, don’t take much away from this game. It’s December, we’re not halfway through the season. Golden State is still struggling with its bench and second units (they got smacked at the start of the second and fourth quarters, lineups that still had Stephen Curry and Draymond Green out there). The Warriors had another game where they didn’t bring a playoff-level intensity when their opponent did. When the energy isn’t there is shows on defense for the Warriors — slow rotations, miscommunication on switches, a casualness on closeouts. Add to that the Lakers just hit shots at a likely unsustainable rate (streaky Lance Stephenson 4-of-4 from three, Ivica Zubac 9-of-10 shooting). This is what you get from the Warriors during the middle of the regular season. They are not fully engaged and are beatable. Nobody should doubt they will find a groove for the playoffs, but right now even LeBron James on Christmas Day can’t bring the fire out of them.

Second, the Lakers do have guys who can ball outside LeBron. Kyle Kuzma (19 points) and Josh Hart (12) have been doing it all season long — those guys are decisive and just know how to finish — but Zubac (18 and 11), Rajon Rondo (15) and everyone else stepped up, too. Plus, the Lakers defend pretty well. LeBron is still the leader, the fulcrum on offense and the guy who sets the tone, but the Lakers have other guys who can make plays around him, a nice core, and those guys stepped up on Tuesday.

2) No Celtic can get buckets like Kyrie Irving, he took over against Sixers and got Celtics OT win. Part of Boston’s problems early in the season was the lack of a clear pecking order. After last season and the playoff run, Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown thought they deserved more touches, same with Terry Rozier, Al Horford has to get his, and now Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were injected back into the mix. It was a lot of mouths to feed and not everyone was getting the portions they wanted.

There’s a pecking order now, and it starts with Irving getting to eat all he wants. He had 14 in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, including the bucket that forced OT, and much of that was with a good, physical defender in Jimmy Butler draped all over him.

This was a quality win for Boston. The Celtics’ recent 8-game win streak came against a softer part of the schedule and now they are in the middle of a test against good teams — and they passed this one. This was not a game Boston likely won earlier in the season but they are genuinely finding an identity now, their defense is still elite, and they have a guy in Irving who can get buckets with the best of them. In the playoffs, that matters.

Philadelphia should come out of this feeling positive, there were good signs. Joel Embiid struggled against the Celtics and Horford last playoffs, he had 34 points and 16 assists in this one (he did better against Horford but really feasted on Daniel Theis). J.J. Redick will do his thing every game (although he was 1-of-6 inside the arc), Wilson Chandler is probably the fifth best player on the team and was solid for them (as he usually is) and the bench was okay in its minutes. Jimmy Butler had 24 points but on 9-of-21 shooting. Philly can be a little better, they do need more depth (GM Elton Brand is working the phones heading into the trade deadline) but the Sixers forced OT on the road with the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago. This matchup should not scare Philadelphia right now.

3) James Harden scores 41 and the Rockets are 2-0 since Chris Paul went down. Do not sell short what James Harden did on Christmas Day. Yes, it took him 34 shots to get to his 31 points, but he had Paul George — an elite defender playing the best basketball of his career — inside his jersey most of the night. Harden still found a way to get a little space and get buckets.

Harden has scored at least 30 points in 7 straight games and is carrying the offense — and the Rockets back into the playoffs. For the past couple of weeks, Harden has been back to his MVP form.

He had some help. Austin Rivers stepped into some Chris Paul minutes and played good defense, plus hit a couple of threes in the fourth. Eric Gordon and Clint Capela put up numbers (but neither were efficient on the night). The Houston defense is improving.

OKC can make a case for being the second best team in the West right now (Denver is the other team that can stake a claim) — the Rockets went on the road and beat the Thunder. And without CP3. Going into the season, we thought the Rockets would be the second best team in the West again. Maybe they are, it just took a while to get there.

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

Getty
Leave a comment

New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

Stacy Revere/BIG3 via Getty Images
1 Comment

A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
3 Comments

Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.