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Three Things to Know: LeBron James looks like MVP-level LeBron James again

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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) LeBron James looks like vintage MVP LeBron James again, has Lakers at 6-1. Is it because he just had the longest summer vacation he has had since 2005 and his body got a chance to rest? Is it the motivation of having Anthony Davis next to him? Is it because he doesn’t want Bronny walking around saying he’s the best basketball player in their house?

Maybe he just wants to send a message to his doubters.

Whatever the reason, LeBron James looks like MVP-level LeBron James again — and with that the Lakers are off to a fast start. He has racked up three straight triple-doubles — the last Laker to do that was Magic Johnson — and after an opening night loss to that team down the hall, the Lakers have rattled off six straight wins after beating the Bulls 118-112. The Lakers now have the best record in the NBA at 6-1.

Entering this season, the biggest thing to watch with the Lakers was the race between LeBron and Father Time. So far this season, LeBron is winning it. Again. It’s been a long time since we saw a player hold off the inevitable for this long, but at age 34 (and turning 35 next month), LeBron looks re-energized and like a man 10 years his junior.

On the season, LeBron is averaging near a triple-double — 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 11.1 assists per game (he leads the league in dimes) — and he is doing so efficiently to the point his advanced stat numbers are in line with his MVP seasons in Cleveland and Miami.

The other thing that’s back is his defense — the end of the court that had been more of an issue in recent years. With the shot blocking of Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard behind him to protect the rim — and with AD taking on more offensive load — LeBron has returned to the free-safety role he likes on defense, using his high IQ of the game to take chances, make steals, and be disruptive. He’s said he was motivated by the film out there of him taking plays off on defense the past few seasons (and he did). This season he’s back to being a force.

Seven games into the season is FAR too early to have any serious kind of MVP discussion, but if one did LeBron would be in the mix at the top of the list. Without question.

These Lakers have gotten in the habit of slow starts and furious comebacks — they trailed the Bulls by 19 and looked out of it for the first three quarters, only to go on a 16-0 run to start the fourth — but it’s building confidence in a roster that on paper resembles the Island of Misfit Toys.

But if they have LeBron James playing like an MVP (not to mention that Davis guy putting up career numbers) the Lakers will be in every game — and will be playing in games late into May. At the least.

2) Speaking of guys playing like their vintage selves, check out Gordon Hayward in Boston. The Celtics thought they were signing an All-Star, borderline All-NBA level player who had a well-rounded game in Gordon Hayward a few summers ago — and they had, until a devastating opening night leg injury set him back for a couple of seasons.

Gordon Hayward has looked more and more like his old self this season, the Utah version of himself. Just ask the Cavaliers, Tuesday night Hayward torched them for 39 points on 17-of-20 shooting, plus dished out eight assists in Boston’s 119-113 win on the road.

Hayward isn’t quite all the way back to form, but he’s looked closer and closer each game. You can see the confidence building. He’s playing 34 minutes a night, averaging 20.3 points, with an amazing True Shooting Percentage (65.6) because he is knocking down 50 percent his threes. Also, he may be the best playmaker for others on the Celtics.

Boston is off to a fast 5-1 start this season and if Hayward can keep this up they become a much bigger threat in the East.

3) Is there more of a Performance Enhancing Drug issue in the NBA than we realized? First it was Brooklyn’s Wilson Chandler before training camps opened. Then it was the Suns’ Deandre Ayton just one game into the season.

This time it was Atlanta’s impressive young big man John Collins — the guy seen as the inside to Trae Young’s outside for the Hawks — who tested positive for a PED. He will be suspended 25 games, although he reportedly will appeal the suspension.

“First I want to apologize to my teammates, the Hawks organization, our fans, partners and community as a whole for this situation,” Collins said as a statement. “I understand the impact this matter has on what we are trying to achieve together this season, and I am incredibly frustrated and disappointed in myself for putting all of us in this position. I have always been incredibly careful about what I put in my body, but I took a supplement which, unbeknownst to me, had been contaminated with an illegal component. I plan to fight my suspension in arbitration so I can get back on the court as soon as possible and continue to contribute to our 2019-20 campaign.”

Players almost always say they didn’t know they ingested the banned substance, take that claim with more than one grain of salt. For the record, if he serves the full 25 games this will cost Collins $610,582.

The NBA has had just three players suspended for PEDs between 2014-18. Now that is three just this season, in a little more than two months.

While the NBA may not have the depth of steroid issues facing other sports, the idea that it wasn’t going on at all around the NBA was always a fantasy (one the league was happy to sell). The reality is steroids help people recover faster, and the NBA is a recovery league because of the length and grind of the season (not to mention injuries). Plus, with the tens of millions of dollars at stake, some players will do whatever it takes to gain an edge (which is no different from baseball, football, or other sports).

When NBA players are with their off-season trainers and not around teams, they may try to push the boundaries. The NBA does not appear to be a league rampant with PED use, but the idea it is nonexistent — and something the association does not need to worry much about — has been blown up to start this season. PEDs are an issue to watch around the NBA.

Report: NBA group stage could include 24 teams

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Bulls guard Zach LaVine
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The initial report on the NBA resuming with a group stage presented a 20-team scenario. There’d be four groups with five teams each – one from each tier of the current standings:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

Teams would play each other team in its group, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to an eight-team tournament (effectively the second round of the playoffs, though without conference splits).

But that format could apparently include four more teams.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups

The simplest way to expand to 24 teams would be adding a sixth tier then forming four groups of six. That’d mean adding:

  • Tier 6: Suns, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls

Bleh.

The more games the NBA holds, the more money the league will make. But the more people involved, the more risk of someone contracting and spreading coronavirus. It’s a fine line, and the league has sought a middle ground.

Phoenix, Washington, Charlotte and Chicago strike me as too lousy to include. Those teams are well outside the normal playoff race, and there’s no good reason to believe they would’ve made a late push.

In this environment, they might have shot, though. Coronavirus increases variability. Players have had differing access to resources and differing motivation to train during the hiatus. Once play resumes, positive tests could be scattered randomly. Would anyone view the Suns, Wizards, Hornets or Bulls as deserving of a berth in the eight-team tournament? If one of those four teams qualified, that’d probably just show the setup was flawed.

The fairest way to set the playoffs is with 20 teams, depending on structure. Resuming with just 16 teams wouldn’t be that far behind. The highest financial upside comes with all 30 teams, but that seems infeasible.

Setting the line at 24 teams seems like the worst of most worlds – including four bad teams that wouldn’t generate much interest but would threaten to disrupt everything else.

Michael Porter Jr.: Pray for both George Floyd’s family and police officers involved in ‘this evil’

Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. and Knicks forward Maurice Harkless
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Several NBA players posted about George Floyd, a black man who died after being pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer for about eight minutes.

Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. struck a different tone than most.

Porter:

Knicks forward Maurice Harkless:

Harkless, whose dismay was shared by many, is a seasoned veteran. Porter has made made rookie gaffes.

But I’m uncomfortable criticizing someone for calling for prayer for anyone. For some, prayer can be effective way to cope amid tragedy. Many believe prayer can change the world.

Porter didn’t say prayer alone should be the solution. In fact, he called the situation “evil” and “murder,” seemingly suggesting the need for criminal justice, too.

Basketball Hall of Fame delays enshrining Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Spurs forward Tim Duncan
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The Basketball Hall of Fame originally planned to induct Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in August.

But coronavirus interfered.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of the board of the governors for the Hall, told ESPN Wednesday that enshrinement ceremonies for the Class of 2020, one of the most star-studded lineups ever which includes Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant, will be moved to spring of 2021.

Colangelo stressed there will be separate ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, even though both events will now be held in the calendar year 2021. “We won’t be combining them,” he said. “The Class of 2020 is a very special class and deserves its own celebration.”

I’m so glad each class will be honored separately. Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and the rest of this class – Tamika Catchings, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton and Patrick Baumann – deserve their own night.

So does Paul Pierce and whoever gets selected in the next class.

Life can end at any moment. Bryant’s death was a tragic reminder of that. But there’s no specific urgency here. The Hall of Fame should wait until it’s safe to hold a proper celebration of this class… then the next one.

NBA being sued for missed rent payments amid coronavirus shutdown

NBA Store
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The NBA has been sued by the owners of the building that houses the NBA Store, who say the league owes more than $1.2 million after not paying rent in April or May.

The league responded by saying it doesn’t believe the suit has merit, because it was forced to close the New York store due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NBA Media Ventures, LLC is required to pay $625,000 of its $7.5 million annual fee on the first day of each month under teams of its lease with 535-545 FEE LLC, according to the suit filed Tuesday in New York.

The NBA entered into the lease agreement for the property at 545 Fifth Ave. in November 2014.

Counting other fees such as water, the owners of the building are seeking more than $1.25 million.

“Like other retail stores on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the NBA Store was required to close as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Under those circumstances, we don’t believe these claims have any merit,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “We have attempted, and will continue to attempt, to work directly with our landlord to resolve this matter in a manner that is fair to all parties.”

The NBA suspended play on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic and faces hundreds of millions of dollars in losses this season, even as it works toward trying to resume play in July.