Raptors were reportedly working on trade for Paul George that might have kept Kawhi Leonard

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The Los Angeles Clippers won the Kawhil Leonard sweepstakes — and they got Paul George in the process.

That process cost Los Angeles a lot, too. To get George, the Clippers had to send Oklahoma City Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on and didn’t want to trade), Danilo Gallinari, four unprotected first-round picks (three of their own, plus Miami’s in 2021), one lottery-protected first-round pick, and the right to two pick swaps with the Clippers. It was a haul for the Thunder.

Los Angeles had to throw all of that in the deal because Toronto, under team president Masai Ujiri, was making a push to trade for George themselves and bringing Leonard back to Toronto, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Thunder GM/President Sam Presti was playing the Raptors off Clippers president Lawrence Frank and team.

Clippers’ leadership — [owner Steve] Ballmer, Frank and GM Michael Winger — harbored fears that Presti was close to striking a deal with Toronto that would’ve delivered George to Leonard and the NBA champions, sources said.

Had Presti been able to strike a deal for George with the Raptors — and Leonard was willing to stay — George was believed to be willing to join the Raptors too, sources said. Presti pursued a package of Russell Westbrook with George to the Raptors — with the NBA’s Most Improved Player, forward Pascal Siakam as the centerpiece of a deal — and Ujiri balked, league sources said…

In the end, the Clippers reservoir of draft picks and young players — cultivated in the Blake Griffin trade, and built upon in the flipping of Tobias Harris to Philadelphia — gave the Thunder a return that could Toronto couldn’t match in trade talks, league sources said.

The Raptors were never going to go that kind of all in on this trade because, unlike the Clippers, Toronto was not given assurances that if they traded for George that Leonard would come back, according to sources. That didn’t matter to Presti, he just needed the leverage to get more out of the Clippers. It worked.

For the Clippers, it was a lot to put in the trade. However, if being in Los Angeles — and watching the Lakers with even a diminished Kobe Bryant dominate the local landscape — taught Ballmer one thing it was that star power wins out in the modern NBA. On the court, elite stars are needed to win titles. Off the court, stars are what draws fans to the expensive seats and sells sponsorships. It’s also star power that can help Ballmer get a new building for the Clippers built in Inglewood.

The Clippers had to have this trade, whatever the cost that may come back to bite them. It’s the same calculus the Lakers used to land Anthony Davis (although there were not real suitors going against the Lakers in that overpay).

The Raptors now have a decision to make: Compete this season as a second- or third-tier team in the East (they are not a threat to Milwaukee or Philadelphia anymore), or start trading away players for picks and young assets to start the rebuild around Pascal Siakam. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet are all in the final year of their contracts. This is going to be a year of change north of the border — but they have a title to celebrate through it all.

The Clippers are hoping Leonard can bring the same to them.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.