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Three Things to Know: Firing Tom Thibodeau almost as much about business as basketball

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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) Minnesota firing Tom Thibodeau almost as much about business as basketball. Every home game this season, when Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the Timberwolves coach, he has been loudly booed. It started in the preseason and continued through Sunday, when the Lakers came to town.

To be more accurate, Thibodeau is booed by the fans that show up. This season, the Timberwolves are drawing an average of 14,765 people to the Target Center for their home games — 29th in the NBA and 2,291 fewer people per game than showed up a season ago.

That’s a lot of revenue left on the table (it’s not just ticket sales, it’s parking fees and beer sales and kids not buying souvenirs). Things were only going to get worse with Minnesota out of the playoffs and struggling (teams that miss the playoffs tend to see some attendance decline late in the season). That reduced interest also was going to make it harder to sell season tickets for next season — a push that starts for most teams in earnest in the next few weeks..

All of it tied back to Thibodeau being reviled and unpopular as the Timberwolves coach and GM. He completely misread and mishandled the Jimmy Butler situation, his team wasn’t winning, and Thibodeau did not do much if any community outreach — that doesn’t fly in any market, but particularly smaller, more tightly knit ones where the fans want to see the coach as part of the community.

Thibodeau never tried to truly be part of Minnesota.

All that added fuel to the fire under Thibodeau’s hot seat. The basketball issues were bigger, but never underestimate how much money and business decisions can influence an owner to make a change.

Sunday — surprisingly after a blowout win over the Lakers — Minnesota fired Tom Thibodeau as coach and head of basketball operations.

The move itself was not a surprise around the league, only the timing.

Ryan Saunders, the 32-year-old son of legendary Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, will take over as interim coach for the rest of the season. Scott Layden will continue on as GM (the role he played under Thibodeau) through the rest of the season as well. However, there are already a lot of rumors of potential replacements — Fred Hoiberg, Monty Williams, Chauncey Billups — for those jobs.

Make no mistake, there were plenty of basketball reasons to fire Thibodeau as well.

It all starts with the Jimmy Butler debacle. When Thibodeau came to Minnesota this was a young, up-and-coming team, but Thibodeau wanted more veterans and more grit. He convinced owner Glen Taylor to okay a big move, sending Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn (and picks) to Chicago for Butler. But it wasn’t just Butler, Thibodeau got his old Chicago band back together: Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and Luol Deng were all brought in. Minnesota got a lot older and much more win now instantly.

It worked well enough for a while. Minnesota made the playoffs last season (on the last day of the season), ending a drought that stretched back to 2004 and the Kevin Garnett/Flip Saunders era.

But rumors of a locker room divide and problems between Butler and the young players — particularly Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — were already all over the league. Then this summer (Butler says early in the summer, Thibodeau said just before camp) Butler asked for a trade. When he wasn’t moved fast enough for his liking, Butler became a toxic and disruptive force, and a very loud one. Thibodeau held out hope that if he could just get the guys playing and winning, everything would work itself out. After an 0-5 road trip, Thibodeau gave up that dream and traded Butler to Philadelphia.

Combine that with the lack of growth and development of the team on defense, the antiquated offense, and now the franchise being without a lot of the young players seen as the future, and it was just a matter of time until Thibodeau was let go.

Thibodeau only has himself and his stubbornness to blame for this. That’s true of the Butler situation, the team’s dated play on the court (and lack of three-point shooting), and Thibodeau’s lack of connection with the community. Thibodeau brought all of that down on himself.

Just don’t sell the business side short in assessing what led up to Thibs’ firing. There was a reason Minnesota CEO Ethan Casson — the head of team marketing and the business side of the operation — was in the room Sunday when the ax fell.

2) Thibodeau was fired after a big Karl-Anthony Towns night that exploited struggling Lakers. Thibodeau’s job being in jeopardy was far from news, but the timing of his firing was the surprise — his team had just blown out the Lakers at home, 108-86.

Karl-Anthony Towns had maybe his best game of the season: 28 points, 18 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

On the flip side, the Lakers fell to 1-5 without LeBron and their young stars asked to step up and lead in his absence — Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram — continue to be MIA. Ball had zero points in the loss, while Ingram had 13 but needed 16 shots to get there.

Ingram just has never thrived as the solo playmaker, or even primary one, on the Lakers — when he’s had his best stretches playmaking was done in transition and the duties were split between him, Ball, and sometimes either Julius Randle or Lou Williams (neither of those two is with the team anymore). When he is decisive and doesn’t hold the ball and survey good things happen. However, just give Ingram the ball out top in the halfcourt, maybe with a screen, and ask him to create and he is not going to be efficient. He has moments off the ball or in a role, he can exploit some matchups, but he just is not a No.1 or even a No. 2 option an offensive creator. Despite the Lakers efforts to make him one.

Ball just floats in and out of games too much this season. He still thrives when they run, he’s a good defender, he can hit threes, but ask him to create in the halfcourt off a pick, ask him to drive, and he struggles to make the right read and play. His instincts with the ball in transition do not translate to the halfcourt where instant recognition of defensive movement matters. Plus, Ball is just not confident with a floater or shooting at the rim, and he’s in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact.

After Sunday’s loss, Laker coach Luke Walton said the team needed “…more passion. We need more fight. And that’s not scoring more.” He wants them to be leaders. This season was always in part about seeing if they could be and if they could play next to LeBron. The answers so far are not what Walton and the Lakers hoped.

3) Dwyane Wade hits his 500th three, joins an elite club. As Wade’s “last dance” farewell tour continues, he continues to make history. Sunday, in what was an otherwise a game Miami would like to flush — they shot 14.7 percent from three and were blown out by the lowly Hawks — late in the third quarter Wade hit a three sliding to his left.

That was Wade’s 500th career three. With it, Wade joined Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history with at least 20,000 points, 5,000 assists, 4,000 rebounds, 1,500 steals, 800 blocks, and 500 made threes.

That’s some elite company. Next stop for Wade is the Hall of Fame.

Three Things to Know: Carmelo Anthony to be traded, released, hit free agency. Then what?

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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) Carmelo Anthony to get traded, released, become a free agent. But then what? By the end of the day today (Tuesday), Carmelo Anthony will be released from Houston Rockets limbo.

And land in another kind of limbo — his future is not much more clear.

The Houston Rockets have agreed to terms and will trade Anthony and some cash to Chicago Tuesday. This deal ultimately saves Houston $6.2 million in salary and tax, and Chicago will net just a little under $1 million — everyone is doing it for the money.

However, Anthony is never going to put on a Bulls’ jersey. Much like his summer trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta, this is just a move to find a team that could take him on then release him. Chicago expected to hold on to Anthony through the Feb. 7 deadline (on the off chance they can find a one-on-one trade for him) but not play him — the same on-the-roster-but-not situation he was in Houston. If/when the Bulls cannot trade him they will waive him on a buyout after Feb. 7.

Then Anthony will finally get his wish and be a free agent.

Then what?

Nobody knows. There are reports he has options for a landing spot, but if he had good ones he’d already be with that team. Clearly he is holding out for a better situation.

What would that look like? A contender/playoff team is going to ask him to come off the bench and play a role — something he was not willing to do in Houston. He felt his stature in the game — and ‘Melo is unquestionably a future Hall of Famer, and at his peak was an amazing bucket getter — entitled him to more than the small role the Rockets had for him. The problem is Anthony’s game no longer merits more than a smaller bench role. In Houston his offense slipped, he shot 32.8 percent from three, struggled to create good looks for himself in isolation, and was on pace for a career-worst .503 true shooting percentage. His defense remains a serious liability. His catch-and-shoot threes should improve, however, he simply cannot create efficient offense for himself anymore so he will be relegated to a shooter’s role. A role he does not want.

This brings us to the one team Anthony keeps getting linked to, the Los Angeles Lakers. (Which is more about LeBron James wanting to find his friend a good landing spot than the Lakers actually wanting him.) The role Anthony wants is currently filled on the wing by Kyle Kuzma — and Kuzma is better at it right now than Anthony can be (19.3 points per game, an athletic and attacking style that pairs well with LeBron). That means Anthony would have to accept a limited roll off the bench as a shooter, and he wouldn’t do that in Houston. Why are the Lakers going to cut a guaranteed contract so Anthony can battle Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson for limited minutes?

Maybe a struggling team looking for a marketing boost picks up Anthony, although if you run a team with developing young players why take the ball out of their hands so Anthony can get up midrange jumpers?

Once the post-buyout roster shuffling ends, I expect some team will have a roster spot for Anthony, but the role is going to be limited. It’s hard to watch a great career end this unceremoniously, but here we are.

2) James Harden scores 37, but against a good team like Philadelphia the one-man show is not enough. James Harden is putting on a run for the ages — he has now scored 30 or more points in 20 consecutive games after dropping 37 on the Sixers in the biggest Martin Luther King Jr. Day game on the calendar. Harden is in Wilt Chamberlain territory with his scoring.

Harden has now scored 200 points over his last four games — and not one of those has come off an assist. Right now he’s the only reliable shot creator on the Rockets’ roster, he has to do everything.

Against a good team, that’s not enough.

Case in point, Philadelphia on Monday. Joel Embiid had 32 points, but more than that the Sixers had a balanced attack and good defense led by Embiid. The result was an easy 121-93 win.

Embiid was putting up points and had the highlight of the game with a chase-down block on Harden.

This is where the Rockets are right now: Harden is playing at an MVP level, but often against the better teams that alone is not enough. Rockets not named Harden shot 31.7 percent against Philly, and 17.2 percent from three. It was The Beard against the world, and ultimately the world is going to win that battle.

Expect more of these “huge numbers from Harden in a loss” games to come in the next few weeks, especially with Clint Capela out.

3) Klay Thompson lights up depleted Lakers for 44 points. No LeBron James. No Lonzo Ball. No Rajon Rondo.

No real chance of slowing Klay Thompson.

The guy the Lakers’ covet — and know they are not going to get because he’s not leaving Golden State as a free agent this summer according to every source around the league I talk to — hit 10 threes and dropped 44 on Los Angeles on Monday night. The shorthanded Lakers could do nothing about it.

DeMarcus Cousins had his moments in his second game. Not the most efficient scoring night — eight points on nine shots — but he had nine rebounds, five assists, and was +24 (and didn’t foul out this time). Defensively he drew a charge, made his presence felt in the paint, and on the other end even dove for a loose ball at one point that led to a Thompson three. Cousins has some conditioning work to do coming off a torn Achilles, but this game looked like a small step forward.

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

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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).