Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat

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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) Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat in beating Pacers. Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars. Tobias Harris should have been. They are all top 25 players in the NBA.

Joel Embiid is better than any of them — a true top-10 difference maker — and the Sixers need him if they are to be a real threat in the playoffs.

How much the big man in the middle means to Philadelphia was evident Sunday in his return from an eight-game absence — he had 33 points on 21 shots (18 of those points in the fourth quarter), 12 rebounds, and dominated the paint in a critical Sixers win over the Pacers, 106-89.

Embiid was a physical force inside that got Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis in foul trouble, both Pacers big men picked up their fourth foul early in the third quarter and had to be cautious the rest of the way. Also, combined the two Pacers’ bigs shot 3-of-14. Meanwhile, Embiid shot 8-of-12 at the rim (although his outside shot showed plenty of rust, as did his entire game early). The Pacers shot 40.8 percent (20-of-49) in the paint.

The Sixers as a team cranked up the defense in the third quarter to take the lead, holding Indiana to 3-of-20 shooting for the frame.

The win moved the Sixers into a tie with the Pacers for the three seed in the East, with the Sixers likely to hold on to that spot because the Pacers have the much tougher schedule the rest of the way. For the Sixers that means avoiding Boston in a first-round series, which is something both sides wanted.

The Sixers have a lot to figure out during the last 15 games if they are going to be a genuine threat in the second round and beyond of the East playoffs. The halfcourt offense looked stagnant at points. Simmons has liked playing in the post at times this season, but that’s more complicated with Embiid out there, that dance needs to be worked out. Brett Brown has to figure out his rotations. The players just need to gel, sacrifice, and learn to trust each other.

But none of that was going to work without Embiid in the middle of it all. He is their anchor, their keystone, and the guy that makes it all work. He’s back, which means the Sixers are back to being a playoff threat.

2) Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. throws down a dunk of the year candidate. Damn. This just is not fair.

That is reminiscent of some of those old Blake Griffin dunks where he just seemed to fly and threw it into the basket. That’s what Jones does here. There are not many, if any, better dunks this season.

(By the way, if you’re going to argue it’s not a dunk because he threw it in the basket just stop, go sit in a meditative pose, and question why it is you hate fun and feel the need to be contrarian on such little things. Let it go and enjoy life and all basketball has to offer.)

3) Suns snap 18-straight game losing streak to Warriors; Kevin Durant injures ankle. The Warriors are bored, but is it morphing into more than that?

Before we question the Warriors, we have to start by propping up the giant killers, the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix is one of the NBA’s worst teams, one of the three teams with the best odds (14 percent) of landing Zion Williamson, yet they have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks and now Golden State Warriors in recent weeks. The Suns snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Warriors, coming from 16 points down at one point to win 115-111 behind 37 points from Devin Booker.

Against Denver last Friday night we saw what the Warriors can do when they focus and flip the switch. That’s the Warriors we will see in the playoffs.

But the Warriors had issues in this game.

The potentially biggest was Kevin Durant going down with an ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter.

Coach Steve Kerr said he didn’t think the injury was that bad, but as with all sprained ankles it is how things look the next morning that matters most.

Kerr was frustrated with his team and late in the game was caught saying what looks like “I’m so f****** tired of Draymond’s s*** …” — and that video went viral.

What he was referring to — attitude, missed shots, missed assignments — is unknown. Emotions were high and Kerr should have been frustrated in anyone in yellow yesterday. No Warrior played well.

Particularly on defense. Starting in the second quarter (when the boredom seemed to kick in) they had a had a lot of missed assignments, they didn’t stay in front of their man, and generally just went through the motions. It was an ugly loss. After the game, Klay Thompson tried a different tack and said the team needed more from the fans.

The fans will be deafening in Oracle if they are given something to cheer for. The players failed at that assignment.

Atlanta G League affiliate promotes Tori Miller, first female GM in league

Tori Miller
Photo courtesy College Park Skyhawks
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The Atlanta Hawks aren’t just talking about progress and giving Black women a chance. They are acting.

The College Park Skyhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate, has promoted Tori Miller to general manager. She is the first female GM in the G-League.

Miller, who grew up in Decatur (a city next to Atlanta), had worked for the team in Erie (when they were the Bayhawks) and followed the team with its move closer to its parent franchise. Miller served as an assistant GM last season before being promoted.

G League front office positions can be a stepping stone into an NBA front office.

The Hawks progressive move comes just as the team’s WNBA franchise, the Dream, has players trying to oust co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senator, because she advocated against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler has said she will not sell. It’s a problem not going away anytime soon.

Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley calls for NBA to put more politics into sports

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley
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Americans are increasingly inviting progressive politics into sports. Football players kneeling the national anthem are no longer an easy target. Even President Donald Trump has softened his tone on Colin Kaepernick.

So, some Republicans are pushing for MORE politics – their politics – in sports (sometimes under the guise of less politics in sports).

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, like Tennessee U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn, has criticized the NBA for its relationship with China. It’s grandstanding while the United States itself has a trade deal with China.

Now, Hawley is objecting to the NBA’s pre-approved list of social-justice messages players can wear on their jerseys.

Hawley press release:

Today Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is sending a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver blasting the league’s apparent decision to strictly limit messages players can wear on their jerseys to a few pre-approved, social justice slogans while censoring support for law enforcement officers or the military and any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Senator Hawley writes that, as the NBA is now sanctioning political messages, they must stand up for American values and make clear where they stand on China’s human rights abuses.

Senator Hawley writes, “The truth is that your decisions about which messages to allow and which to censor – much like the censorship decisions of the CCP – are themselves statements about your association’s values. If I am right – if the NBA is more committed to promoting the CCP’s interests than to celebrating its home nation – your fans deserve to know that is your view. If not, prove me wrong. Let your players stand up for the Uighurs and the people of Hong Kong. Let them stand up for American law enforcement if they so choose. Give them the choice to write ‘Back the Blue’ on their jerseys. Or ‘Support our Troops.’ Maybe ‘God Bless America.’ What could be more American than that?”

OF COURSE the NBA was going to limit jersey messages to a pre-approved list. The league doesn’t want the pressure of censoring players’ individual choices. Nor does the league want to condone messages that would offend offend customers and jeopardize revenue. Support for Hong Kong protesters would definitely qualify as financially perilous.

The NBA – a business trying to make money – wants to support its employees and appeal to its audience. These relatively benign phrases accomplish those goals.

That doesn’t prevent NBA players from criticizing China. I take NBA commissioner Adam Silver at his word (especially after the Daryl Morey controversy) that the NBA endorses its employees right to speak out.

The NBA just isn’t going to allow players to give just any message through their jerseys.

Some players are understandably bothered by that limitation. But the biggest pushes for change aren’t going to come through multi-billion-dollar corporations. That’s just reality.

Likewise, though Hawley raises legitimate concerns about China’s treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kongers, scolding an American company for legally acting in its best financial interest is… um… certainly a choice for a U.S. Senator.

Also, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski sent a profane two-word response in response to Hawley’s press release.

Wojnarowski:

NBA executive predicts every team will lose money next season

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The NBA is launching an unprecedented and ambitious operation – hosting the rest of its season in a centralized location with frequent testing – because that’s what’s necessary to play amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What about next season?

Coronavirus will likely remain a danger on Dec. 1, when the league hopes to begin. That threatens fan attendance. Heck, that could undermine teams playing at all in their home markets. All 30 teams, rather than just 22, adds complications.

Even if the season gets off the ground, there will be financial issues.

Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“The truth is, things are changing so fast that, when it comes to next season, the best we can do is put a stake in the ground and make a guess,” an Eastern Conference team president said. “The reality is nobody is probably going to operate in the black next season.

“The only question is how much each of us are going to lose.”

NBA owners love to cry poor. The actual math often reveals a different picture. There are complexities that teams can hide.

Some teams have already cut employees salaries. But some teams are also doing extravagant things like shipping their courts to Disney World for practice:

Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver estimated 40% of league revenue comes from ticket sales and other game-day sources. If teams are ever believable about losing money, it’d be now. Coronavirus has wrecked so many sectors of the economy.

Revenue falling significantly would be felt by players, who – per the Collective Bargaining Agreement – receive about half of Basketball Related Income. (That 50-50 agreement supersedes players’ stated salaries in their contracts.)

It’s undecided how and when players would suffer those losses.

The 2020-21 salary cap could be reduced. But that would put the burden on players – free agents, draft picks – signing new contracts next offseason.

That’s why the salary cap is reportedly expected to remain roughly flat. There are a couple options within that scenario.

Players could have a larger share of their salaries withheld (as they’re doing this season). Then, at the end of the season, owners would return whatever money is necessary to reach the 50-50 split. However, that would reduce players’ spending power during the season.

Or players could collect their usual salaries with an artificially high salary cap. However, that would likely mean they get more than their entitled 50% share and the salary cap would be reduce in future seasons to offset. Current players – some of whom won’t be in the league in future years – would probably love that. Owners likely wouldn’t accept paying players more sooner.

Increased withholding from player salaries is probably the best option. But there’s plenty to decide about the exact withholding amount and how long the money is held. To ensure enough money is withheld, the percentage should initially be fairly high. Then, as the revenue picture becomes clearer, the withholding amount could decrease in future paychecks.

Of course, that assumes the league finds a safe way to play. Which is the biggest challenge.

Report: Wizards’ Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II test positive for coronavirus

Wizards players Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II
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Bradley Beal not playing sunk the Wizards’ for the NBA’s resumption, anyway.

If that and Davis Bertans sitting out weren’t enough, Washington is also without Thomas Bryant, Gary Payton II and Garrison Mathews.

Ava Wallace of The Washington Post:

The NBA announced 25 players tested positive from June 23-29. It’s unclear whether Bryant and Payton were among that group or additional positive cases.

It’s also unclear whether Bryant, Payton and Mathews will join the team at Disney World.

Bryant would be a particularly significant loss. His optimism and energy in tough situations are exactly what the Wizards need right now.

With the Nets severely shorthanded and the Magic looking uninspiring, Washington still has a path to the playoffs.