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Donovan Mitchell adjusting to elevated expectations

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Donovan Mitchell quickly won over fans in and outside Utah with his electrifying play. Despite not being an All-Star, he stole the show at All-Star Weekend, charismatically building his platform and winning the dunk contest. He unleashed an insurgent Rookie of the Year campaign. He led the Jazz to playoff-series victory. He signed a lucrative endorsement deal and got a signature shoe.

Donovan Mitchell has made it.

And that makes him uncomfortable.

“I’ve never really come from a position where I’m not the underdog, if that makes sense,” said Mitchell, whose stature rose quickly for a player who initially intended to return to Louisville for his junior season and was still just a mid-first-round pick in 2017. “I haven’t really had that in my life.”

Mitchell is having another fine year, averaging 20.4 points per game. But he doesn’t look quite as sharp as last season, when he established himself as a co-franchise player with Rudy Gobert for the Jazz.

The future in Utah with those two can still be extremely bright. The ascent will be just be bumpier than hoped.

Some of Mitchell’s difficulties are unavoidable. He’s the go-to scorer on a defensive-first team – a tremendous burden.

Of the nine regularly playing guards with usage percentages above 30, only two have their team allow fewer than 105 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor – Mitchell and Russell Westbrook. Relatedly, Mitchell and Westbrook have the lowest true shooting percentages among those nine:

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(That’s Zach LaVine barely poking out behind Kemba Walker.)

The Jazz and Thunder have built systems around putting defensive-minded personnel on the floor, positioning players to get back on defense, gumming up spacing and expecting their top guards to produce anyway. It’s a big ask, one that depresses Mitchell’s and Westbrook’s individual efficiencies but works to the betterment of the team.

Westbrook was a seasoned star in his ninth season when Oklahoma City gave him that role following Kevin Durant‘s departure. Mitchell got it as a rookie and is continuing with it in his second season.

At times, Mitchell has tried to defer. His teammates urged him to keep shooting. This team was built to feature him, and a couple months of relative struggles don’t change the bigger picture.

Mitchell is the only Jazz starter who can reliably create for himself. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are the only starters who can reliably create for others. Mitchell and Joe Ingles are the only starters who can reliably space the floor from distance. Utah starts a pair of traditional bigs in Gobert and Derrick Favors. So much falls to Mitchell offensively.

Opponents have adjusted to Mitchell more quickly than he has developed his game. They blitz him more often on pick-and-rolls. They shade toward him more quickly as he drives. They stunt off him more often rather than completely leave him to help.

Ever since Mitchell torched Dwane Casey’s Raptors for 25 points early last season, the coach – now with the Pistons – has emphasized Mitchell in scouting reports.

“There’s certain things we want to live with and certain things we don’t want to give up,” Casey said. “And him sashaying from end of the court to the other, one slot drive, one dribble to the rim – those are the things we’ve got to take away.”

Mitchell isn’t getting to the rim as often as last season, settling for more floaters. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has also fallen from 41% to 30% – concerning because that should be more defense-agnostic.

“The season might not go the way I want it to this year, for me personally,” Mitchell said.

He’s figuring it out as he goes, but not quickly enough to maintain the sky-high expectations set for him entering the year. At least the Jazz (20-21) are winning a reasonable amount amid a tough early schedule that will soften. Team success, Mitchell says, is his priority.

This is a learning season for both Mitchell and Utah about how to best deploy him.

The Jazz will have an opportunity to reconfigure this summer. They could waive Derrick Favors ($16.9 million unguaranteed salary), renounce free agents Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and open a projected $31 million in cap space.

Maybe Mitchell just needs more complementary offensive pieces, and that’d be the cash to get them. Or maybe continuing to emphasize defense while riding Mitchell offensively is the right formula.

This season has provided plenty of reason to reel in the Mitchell hype. It has not produced many doubters in him.

“He may have some growing pains,” Casey said. “But it’s there, and you never forget how to swim. He’s going to be a great player in our league for a long time.”

Kyrie Irving: I apologized to LeBron James

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Celtics star Kyrie Irving slammed his younger teammates for not understanding how to win a championship.

Which ironically made Irving sound a lot like LeBron James talking about Irving early in their time together with the Cavaliers.

Irving sometimes disliked LeBron’s leadership back then. Similarly, Irving’s comments didn’t go over well in Boston, especially with Jaylen Brown.

But apparently Irving realized how he fit both sides of the situation and addressed it, including with LeBron himself.

Jay King of The Athletic:

Irving, via NBC Sports Boston:

I’ll tell you one thing, and obviously this is something that it was a big deal for me because I had to call Bron and tell him, “I apologize for being that young player that wanted to everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything to be at my threshold. I wanted to be the guy that led us to championships. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that.”

And the responsibility of being the best player in the world and leading a team is something that’s not meant for many people. And Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and tried to really show us what it’s like to win a championship. And it was hard for him. And sometimes getting the most out of the group, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.

And like I said, only few are meant for it or chosen for it. And I felt like the best person to call was him, because he’s been in this situation.

He’s been there with me, where I’ve been the young guy of being the 22-year-old kid and wanting everything. Wanting everything right now. Coming off an All-Star year starting then this heck of a presence comes back, and now I got to adjust my game to this guy. And you take it personal, but at the end of the day, he just wants what’s best. He has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture.

So, I think what that brought me back to was, alright, how do I get the best out of this group, of the success they had last year, and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship.

It takes a real man to go back and call somebody and be like, “Hey, man, I was young. I made some mistakes. I wasn’t really seeing the big picture like you were. I didn’t have the end of the season in mind. I just wanted to get my stats and make All-Star games. In his career, it means like this much [holds fingers close together] at that point.

So, it was just good. It gave me peace of mind, too, to go about what I’ve got to go do.

Kudos to Irving for his self-realization. Few people recognize their hypocrisy.

And kudos to Irving for immediately making amends – both toward his younger teammates and LeBron.

Learning how to win at the highest levels is extremely hard. Irving did it.

Teaching someone else how to win at the highest levels might be even more difficult. Irving isn’t there yet.

To his credit, Irving took a lot of grief while playing with LeBron and worked through it. LeBron’s leadership style isn’t for everyone. LeBron gets away with insensitive criticism of his own teammates and coaches, because he’s such a great player, and it’s generally believed he knows best, anyway.

As excellent as he is, Irving doesn’t have that same cachet as a leader. He can’t just follow the LeBron model.

Irving also might not have young teammates as willing to persevere through the negatives of following a LeBron-like leader and internalize the lessons as Irving was.

That said, even Irving tired of it, as he requested a trade from Cleveland.

I wonder whether Irving regrets that now. If he understood LeBron’s burden with young teammates sooner, would Irving have stayed with the Cavs?

Maybe Irving just wanted the leadership role himself, regardless. He has it now in Boston.

Now, he must find a leadership style that works after identifying one that doesn’t.

James Harden scores 58, but Nets beat Rockets

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James Harden and the Rockets reshaped how NBA games look.

Now, they’re pushing the boundaries even further.

Harden scored 58 points tonight, just the second time someone has had consecutive 50-point games in the last decade (joining Harden in 2017). Houston went 23-of-70 on 3-pointers, demolishing the previous single-game 3-point attempts record of 61 (set by Houston in 2016).

Meanwhile, the Nets are simply winning.

Brooklyn beat Houston 145-142 in overtime tonight. The Nets are 15-5 in their last 20 games, and they showed plenty of fight to get this latest victory.

They trailed by 14 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. They trailed by seven with 1:20 left in overtime. But Spencer Dinwiddie hit overtime-forcing 3-pointer then put Brooklyn up late in overtime with an old-fashioned three-point play.

Dinwiddie finished with 33 points, and Jarrett Allen had 20 points, 24 rebounds and three blocks – including a nice, poetic one of Harden:

Report: Lakers management still supporting Luke Walton as coach through rest of season

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Lakers president Magic Johnson said he wouldn’t fire Luke Walton during the season “unless something drastic happens, which it won’t.”

Does a 4-7 stretch (most of those games without LeBron James) qualify as drastic? Nope.

What about following that with a 2-2 stretching including an ugly loss to the Cavaliers? Apparently not.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Lakers management continues to project support for Walton publicly and privately — at least through this season, multiple sources told ESPN.

Walton might not be coaching to keep his job the rest of the season. But he’s almost certainly coaching to retain it for next season.

Johnson inherited, rather than hired, Walton. The new boss apparently hasn’t been impressed with his coach. As long as Johnson’s support seems so tepid and the Lakers keep losing, it will be worth continuing to evaluate Walton’s status.

LeBron getting healthy will go a long way. He can cover for this otherwise-deficient roster and make Walton look better.

But, in the meantime, Walton must avoid catastrophe to keep his job. So far, so good.

Report: Warriors project at least $100 million revenue increase with new arena next season

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The Warriors’ player costs this season are in line to be about $195 million (about $145 million in salary, about $50 million in luxury tax).

If they re-sign Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to max salaries, keep everyone under contract, sign their own draft picks and fill the rest of their roster with minimum-salary free agents, the Warriors’ spending on players next season would project to hit about $355 million (about $173 million in salary, about $182 million in luxury tax).

But maybe Golden State can afford it.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Internally, the Warriors project a nine-figure increase in revenue when they move into the Chase Center next season, sources said.

The Warriors already make so much money on their home games. That’s a whopping increase – one that could alone increase the league-wide salary cap a couple million dollars.

But this figure doesn’t say how much more money will reach Golden State ownership. Revenue differs from profit. The Warriors could have greater expenses, including revenue-sharing obligations, in their new arena.

Still, it’s hard to imagine this won’t be a windfall for the Golden State, one that could go a long way not just in affording stars but also keeping complementary players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

The salary cap promotes competitive balance. But big-spending teams still have an advantage.