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Three Things to Know: James Harden drops Jamal Murray, Rockets drop Nuggets

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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, the stuff you missed while watching Clemson throttle Alabama.

1) James Harden drops Jamal Murray, Rockets drop Nuggets. Another night, another string of highlights from James Harden, another storm of threes from Houston (22-of-47), and another win for the Rockets.

Houston is on a roll and best-record-in-the-West Denver was not going to stop them, just the way Jamal Murray was not going to stop James Harden.

Harden scored 32 but this game was a little different because the Nuggets tried to take the ball out of his hands — from the opening tip, they trapped him off the pick-and-roll, hard doubled him, and just threw multiple defenders at him every possession. The result was Harden racking up 14 assists, Clint Capela getting the ball on the roll to the rim on his way to a career-high 31, and P.J. Tucker getting the ball on the kick-out, as he had five threes in the first half alone. Denver dared someone other than The Beard to beat them, and they did.

Nikola Jokic did have 24 points and 13 boards for Denver.

The Rockets run should continue. There’s an interesting test against the Bucks on Wednesday night, then the Rockets hit the soft part of the schedule for a couple of weeks.

2) Anthony Davis keeps making his MVP case, scoring 36 with 13 rebounds in Pelicans win over Memphis. If the MVP voting took place today, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden would finish first and second in some order (it would be close).

Third would likely be Anthony Davis, despite the fact his Pelicans are below .500. The man is having a monster season on both ends of the floor. Just ask the Grizzlies, he dropped 36 points and had 13 boards against them Tuesday night.

Memphis has lost six in a row and 11-of-13 now to fall all the way back to 13th in the West, out of the playoffs, their hot start freezing up in winter. In those 13 games, the team’s defense has been fine, or at least middle-of-the-NBA pack, but the offense is second-worst in the league, scoring fewer points per possessions than the Cavaliers or Knicks in that stretch. The team needs help so the front office traded Wayne Selden Jr., MarShon Brooks, and two second-round picks to Chicago for Justin Holiday, a rotation-level two guard who can give Memphis a little depth but isn’t the answer. Chandler Parsons isn’t the answer, either.

Memphis needs to figure out an answer fast before this season is lost to them completely.

3) Did Cleveland game the system to help out Patrick McCaw? For the first couple of months of the season, Patrick McCaw was sitting in limbo. The restricted free agent who had shown promise as a rookie, regressed, but was in line for a role off the bench, refused to sign a contract and show up to play in Golden State — the team that had his rights — because the swingman wanted more touches and a bigger role. Golden State is pretty set on the wing, and McCaw had regressed last season and couldn’t get the ball in his hands like he wanted. The sides were at a stalemate, with the Warriors having all the power.

Then a week ago along comes Cleveland with an offer sheet — two years, $6 million, not guaranteed. The Warriors, already over the tax and not really having a need for McCaw, let him walk. Then a week later, on Sunday, the Cavaliers waived McCaw, letting him go to become an unrestricted free agent.

One of two things happened here.

First, struggling Cleveland decided they wanted to take a flier on McCaw, they made the offer, then got him in with the team, watched him play — 53 minutes over three games, shooting 2-of-9 — and decided he was not a fit and waived him.

Nobody around the league thinks that’s what happened.

The other option is the Cavaliers did McCaw and his agent a solid. McCaw wanted to be a free agent and the Cavaliers helped him get there, making an offer that was big enough the Warriors would not match, but always with the intention of letting him go. (Cleveland is reportedly in the mix to re-sign McCaw at a lower price.)

Is that allowed? Yes. It didn’t violate any league rules. But it raised some eyebrows around the league as violating the spirit of the team-friendly restricted free agent system. The Warriors are not going to ask the league to investigate, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times, and it’s not the kind of situation that will come up often, but the Cavaliers gamed the system to get McCaw out of Golden State and to free agency.

Now McCaw needs to prove he made the right move, he needs to land somewhere he can get some run and touches. He refused to play a role on the best team in the NBA, the team where he won two rings, that also should raise some eyebrows around the league.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.