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Jazz will focus on adding offensive punch in offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate on defense this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.

After getting knocked out of the first-round of the postseason by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”

Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.

Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After January 1st, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.

Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs

“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”

Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0) in 2018-19.

Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in 1966-67.

Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.

“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”

Here’s a few other things to watch with the Jazz in the offseason:

POINT GUARD CHANGES?

Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games – five more than his previous six seasons in Minnesota combined. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.

Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.

“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”

FAVORS RISING

Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6th to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.

He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed. 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after January 1st and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).

His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.

“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”

KORVER RETIREMENT?

Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade

The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season. `

“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”

3-POINT FLURRY

Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10-or-more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.

Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was the second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating among NBA teams. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.

Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Could the Knicks get a first-round pick for trading Marcus Morris?

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What are the New York Knicks going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s not a simple question, not with team president Steve Mills is on the hot seat — there’s a long history of GMs/POBOs making bad trades looking for a short-term boost to save their jobs. Will the Knicks trade veterans looking for picks and young players to be part of the future? On top of that, the Knicks are starting to get healthy and have won two in a row. Management may want to let this play out for a while.

The plan is not to make any sudden moves on Sunday — the day most players signed over the summer (nearly 40 percent of the league) can be traded — or early in the trade season. However, the offers are going to come.

Particularly for Marcus Morris.

The veteran forward is leading the Knicks scoring 18.6 points per game, and he’s spacing the floor shooting 48 percent from three. He’s gritty, physical, defends well — exactly the kind of player that can help a team make a playoff run. The Knicks are going to get calls about him, it will be one of the most discussed rumors out there.

Will the Knicks trade Marcus Morris (who is on an expiring contract)? That could come down to can they get a first-round pick, something Mike Vorkunov broke down at The Athletic.

The market for Morris, according to opposing scouts and execs, is probably a team that believes his addition could help push them further into the playoffs. Morris is likely the only player on the Knicks who could get dealt this season who could get a first-round pick back in return, those sources believe. The Knicks could also ask for a young player with upside.

It’s not unanimous, though, that the Knicks would definitely get a first-rounder back for Morris, those scouts and executives say. Drawing a first-round pick is difficult. Last season it was only done by teams willing to take on bad contracts to free up cap space ahead of free agency — something the Knicks were unwilling to do this summer and may not be willing to do now either — and by the Knicks when they traded Porzingis.

This trade season is different from last year because the NBA feels wide open. While there are teams that have separated themselves — Lakers, Bucks, Clippers — those teams have flaws and the gaps to them are not insurmountable. There are teams out there such as Denver, Boston, and others looking at the trade market and thinking one player could make a real difference. Plus, with a very down free agent market next summer, teams feel they may have a better chance of adding now as opposed to waiting until July.

Will those teams throw in a first-round pick to the Knicks for Morris? It seems possible, but it depends on how a quiet market right now starts to heat up and shake out.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months coming up in New York.

LeBron, what sparked your second half turnaround? “My teammates got on my ass”

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In the first half in Miami Friday night, LeBron James scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and he had seven turnovers. The Lakers were down eight points at the break and LeBron was -6.

In the second half, LeBron looked more like the guy in contention for an MVP: 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3-of-5 from three, and just one turnover. He was at the heart the Lakers come-from-behind win, 113-110 win.

What sparked that turnaround? From LeBron’s walk-off interview on ESPN with Israel Gutierrez:

“My teammates got on my ass. They told me you’re playing too passive, thinking about the game way too much instead of read and reacting and doing what you do… [Anthony Davis] got on me, Boogie Cousins got on me and they told me to just be me. So I was like, ‘Thank god we have two halves in a basketball game,’ where I can flush the first one and then come back and try to help us win.” 

After the game, Anthony Davis said it is the entire team’s willingness to accept constructive criticism has been a key to the Lakers’ fast start.

For most of the season it has been LeBron getting on his teammates’ asses that has fueled the 23-3 Lakers. Not only is he playing at the highest level we have seen from him this early in the season since Miami — 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a career-high 10.8 assists a game — but he’s pushing his teammates defensively and not letting them take plays off.

The Lakers have won six in a row, four of those on the road where they are 13-1 this season. The road tests continue this week, including Friday night against Milwaukee. Also looming out there in 11 days, a Christmas showdown with the Clippers.

LeBron can’t have an off first half in those games, and he knows it.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.