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Three Things to Know: James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken

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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) James Harden is breaking records, Warriors just look broken. At what point do we say “the Warriors have a problem?”

I’ve been at the forefront of the “whatever, they’ll get it together when it matters” campaign, that we’re measuring the Warriors against the impossibly high bar they set. However, the Warriors were crushed at home by the Lakers on Christmas (even with LeBron James having to leave the game), next they gave away a fourth-quarter lead to the Trail Blazers and lost in overtime, then Thursday night they repeated the pattern blowing a 17-point lead to the Rockets, going to OT and losing again.

At what point do we say “this is a problem?”

Thursday the Warriors’ problem was named James Harden.

He has vaulted himself back into the MVP conversation with a historic run in the last dozen games: 40.1 points per game average in those 12 on a ridiculous 64 true shooting percentage, plus 9 assists and 6.6 rebounds a night. Harden now owns the NBA record streak of games with at least 35+ points and 5+ assists at nine (and counting), and he has topped Stephen Curry’s record for consecutive games with five or more made threes at eight.

Against the Warriors, he had 44 points, made a career-high 10 threes, had 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Oh, and with the game on the line did this.

Which, frankly, was instant Karma after the Warriors took a two-point lead on a Curry shot that only happened because the referees somehow missed an obvious out-of-bounds call when Kevin Durant “saved” the ball to keep the play alive.

Harden’s run has carried the Rockets offense and propelled the team to an 11-1 run that has taken them from 14th in the West to fourth. The last six wins have come with Chris Paul out. That said, I’m not ready to say Houston is back to being title contenders — their defense is 13th in the NBA during the win streak, it’s not great, Harden is just covering it up right now.

The Warriors aren’t playing like contenders, either.

In those same last dozen games, the Warriors are 7-5 with a meager +1.1 net rating. Curry and Draymond Green are finally healthy, yet the Warriors are not playing with the consistency of execution or passion we expect of contenders. In the final 3:30 of regulation against Houston, Curry and Durant — mostly Durant — took all the shots and were 2-of-8.

This roster is thinner, Golden State could use a good DeMarcus Cousins in the paint (nobody knows exactly how good he will be whenever he returns), and the Warriors look older and a little slower.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the Warriors’ “don’t worry, we got this” attitude when asked about their struggles it is right. They are back-to-back champions, maybe Golden State can just flip the switch.

But at what point do we say “the Warriors have a serious problem?”

2) Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio and DeMar DeRozan reminds everyone he was traded, too. Spurs fans got their cathartic moment. Despite the fact Gregg Popovich didn’t like it, when Kawhi Leonard returned to San Antonio Thursday Spurs fans lustily booed every chance they got and even changed “traitor” at points (but Danny Green got plenty of love).

Leonard and the “he will make Toronto different in the playoffs” narrative have dominated the storylines around the Raptors and in the run-up to this game. DeMar DeRozan — the guy that was the reason the Spurs went with the Toronto package, the guy pissed he was traded from a city and franchise he loved over the summer — dominated the game and reminded the world he was part of the trade, too.

DeRozan came out of the locker room hotter than a TexMex salsa with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in the first half. He finished the game with his first ever triple double. DeRozan finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, and the Spurs got the 125-107 win.

Overlooked in that was LaMarcus Aldridge bullying Serge Ibaka on his way to 21 points on 14 shots, or that Bryn Forbes had 20 points on 10 shots. The Spurs were the classic efficient Spurs. Which is why they currently are a playoff team (tied for the seven seed at 21-17) in the crowded West.

One final thought: Toronto misses Kyle Lowry. A lot. And they missed Jonas Valanciunas a lot in the paint, also.

3) The first round of fan All-Star voting is in and… what exactly are you all thinking? The first round of fan voting is in and if we went by that the All-Star captains would be LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo (remember the new All-Star format has the fans picking the 10 starters, who are thrown in a pool the captains choose teams playground style). That makes perfect sense, they are two of the best players in the NBA this season.

The other eight in the starter’s pool would be: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Derrick Rose, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, and Dwyane Wade.

Um… really fans? Wade, who comes off the bench on a struggling Heat Team and is playing replacement player level basketball, but you want him over Victor Oladipo or Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry? I love the Rose comeback story as much as the next guy, but you’re picking him over James Harden or Damian Lillard? And Doncic is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but if you’re picking him over Anthony Davis or Paul George you’re doing it wrong.

That said, it’s an exhibition and fans vote their heart. So if they have Vince Carter — who I think entered the NBA during the Taft administration — seven in the East frontcourt voting, so be it. Or if they vote DeMarcus Cousins, who has yet to touch the court for the Warriors, 10th in the West frontcourt, so be it.

I’d say “give the people what they want” except the NBA is not going to do that. Remember the fan vote counts for 50 percent of the total, with a player vote making up 25 percent and a media vote making up the other 25 percent. Plus, the fan vote will shift as more votes come in. Which is good. Also fans, you can stop voting for John Wall, he’s not going to be playing (but is 10th in fan voting in the East guards somehow, despite a down year before his injuries).

Toronto police: Report of shooting at Raptors championship parade

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Update: Toronto police:

 

 

The Raptors’ championship parade was interrupted by a scary situation.

Toronto Police:

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star:

Especially in large crowds like this, chaos and confusion can spread quickly. Hopefully, everyone is OK.

The scene was quite strange, as speeches were interrupted while people in sections of the crowd fled:

The Raptors are continuing their speeches now.

Report: Nets not extending qualifying offer to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

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The Nets appear to be on the verge of signing Kyrie Irving. They opened double-max cap space to pursue a second star like Kevin Durant, Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler.

Brooklyn isn’t going to let Rondae Hollis-Jefferson foil that plan.

The Nets could make Hollis-Jefferson a restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any offer he receives. But do so, they must extend a $3,594,369 qualifying offer. That’s essentially a one-year contract offer he could accept at any time. If he did, he’d count against the cap at $3,594,369. Brooklyn doesn’t want to risk that.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Nets could still re-sign Hollis-Jefferson. This just prevents him from unilaterally accepting the qualifying offer and jamming up cap space.

But this signals Brooklyn is ready to move on. Hollis-Jefferson, who become an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four years with the Nets, might also be ready.

The 24-year-old Hollis-Jefferson has settled in as an undersized power forward. He’s a switchable defender and active offensively. Playing power forward somewhat covers for his lack of shooting and ball-handling ability, but that can still be exploited.

Why timing of Anthony Davis trade matters so much for Lakers

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The Lakers will get Anthony Davis.

That’s clearly the only thing that matters to them.

Not only will they send the Pelicans a massive haul of draft picks and young players, the Lakers could lose significant cap space with the trade’s structure.

Los Angeles and New Orleans can’t complete the reported deal until the league year turns over June 30. Then, the NBA immediately goes into a moratorium in which most transactions aren’t allowed. The moratorium ends July 6. That’s when two main options emerge.

Option 1: Trade July 6

Let’s start with Davis’ trade kicker, a bonus paid to him if traded. Davis’ base salary next season is $27,093,018. His 15% trade bonus could raise his salary $4,063,953 to $31,156,971. Davis could waive all or a portion of the bonus. The Pelicans would pay the bonus, but the Lakers can also include enough cash in the trade to cover the full bonus amount.

The Lakers will send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (combined salary: $17,918,965) and the No. 4 pick (which will count about $7 million against the cap) to New Orleans.

Davis’ salary will be between $27,093,018 and $31,156,971 next season, depending on his trade kicker.

Simply, the Lakers’ incoming salary in the trade will be about $2 million-$6 million higher than their outgoing salary in the trade.

That works just fine under the cap rules. The Lakers will have way more than $2 million-$6 million in cap space. As far as salary matching, teams can always trade when they end up under the cap.

So, after this deal, the Lakers would have about $24 million-$28 million in cap space.

But there’s another path that would give the Lakers even more flexibility.

Option 2: Trade July 30

On July 6, if they renounce all their free agents and waive Jemerrio Jones‘ unguaranteed salary, the Lakers project to have about $33 million cap space.

That’s about enough for a max salary for a free agent with fewer than 10 years experience – someone like Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving. Or multiple helpful role players.

The Lakers could spend all that money then trade for Davis.

Here’s how they could get Davis after reaching the cap line:

They’d sign the No. 4 pick June 30. (Signing first-round picks is one of the few moves allowed during the moratorium.) He couldn’t be traded for 30 days after being signed. Hence, the July 30 date on this trade. But his actual salary would count toward the trade. Unsigned draft picks count $0 in trades.

In this salary range, the Lakers could acquire 125% of the outgoing salary in the trade plus $100,000. Aggregating Ball, Ingram, Hart and the signed No. 4 pick would allow the Lakers to acquire about $31 million of salary. That covers Davis’ full salary and most, if not all, of his trade bonus.

But why would the Pelicans wait?

That’d mean the No. 4 pick can’t play for them in summer league. There’d also be complications flipping the No. 4 pick to another team.

It’d also tie up a portion their cap space until the trade is completed, as they’re the ones holding the more-expensive Davis through July. Most good free agents will be off the market by July 30.

New Orleans could always reach an unofficial agreement with a free agent then make the deal official after the Lakers trade. But that requires trust, and some free agents might not go for that.

There’s no upside in waiting for the Pelicans. The only question is how much downside.

What’s at stake?

A quick recap:

If the Lakers trade for Davis sooner, they’d project to have $24 million-$28 million in cap space (depending on his trade bonus).

If the Lakers trade for Davis later, they’d project to have about $33 million in cap space.

That extra $5 million-$9 million could go a long way.

What now?

It doesn’t sound as if the Lakers pressed New Orleans to wait until July 30 before accepting the trade.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

For now, the plan is to execute the trade on July 6, right after the moratorium ends on the start of free agency — and it’s unlikely that will change.

The Lakers could always negotiate with free agents June 30-July 5 then decide. If they want the additional cap space, the Lakers could try to entice the Pelicans with extra draft picks to delay. But that’d make the trade even more costly to Los Angeles.

The alternative might be even more grim – the Lakers not finding worthy players in the first week of free agency. Los Angeles could even view that as a face-saving move to justify the timing of this trade.

But if the Lakers make this trade July 6 then claim they didn’t have good use for an extra $5 million-$9 million in cap space, they’ll only be telling on themselves.

Report: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has griped about Chris Paul’s contract in front of rival executives

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In 2017, Chris Paul opted in to facilitate a trade to the capped-out Rockets. By forgoing free agency and a max salary, Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 that season. With Paul and James Harden, the Rockets became a championship contender and pushed the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The bill came due last summer.

Houston re-signed the aging Paul to a four-year max contract worth $159,730,592. That deal always looked like it could age poorly, and Paul – now 34 – is already slowing.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has noticed.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Fertitta has grumbled about Paul’s contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.

Fertitta bought the Rockets after they traded for Paul. Though the sale was completed before they re-signed Paul, it seems the contract terms were at least discussed as far back as the opt-in-and-trade.

So, Fertitta didn’t necessarily sign off on this arrangement.

But it was good for Houston! It made the Rockets the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant-supercharged Warriors to that point. Re-signing Paul helped keep Houston in title contention this year. The Rockets were limited in that pursuit by Fertitta’s spending limitations, not by locking Paul into this contract.

Yes, there’s downside to Paul’s deal. Houston is feeling it now. Paul will be difficult, though not impossible, to trade this summer.

But as much as Fertitta talks about winning, he yet again shows why that’s all bluster.