Three Things to Know: LeBron, Anthony Davis combine for 82 in latest sign of fast chemistry

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LOS ANGELES — 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 and Anthony Davis combined for 82 in the latest sign of their instant chemistry. “I think we all thought there would be a little more of a learning curve.”

Laker coach Frank Vogel admitted Sunday night he didn’t expect this out of the gate. Nobody did. There has been almost no adjustment period. LeBron James and Anthony Davis had not played together before, yet, they have been dominating together since the season tipped off 24 games ago — the Lakers are +12.1 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together. And they are on the court together a lot.

Sunday the duo reached new heights, combining for 82 points against Minnesota, becoming the first Lakers’ pair since Shaq and Kobe to combine for more than 70 points in a game. Davis had 50 on the night, his best outing since coming to the Lakers — and he did it without hitting one three. Vogel called it an “old-school, smash-mouth” 50. 

LeBron and Davis’ fast chemistry is the reason the Lakers are 21-3 to start the season and on top of the West.

“I think their games fit,” Vogel said after a 142-125 Lakers win Sunday. “When you’re a general manager and you’re putting together a team, it’s not just a collection of talent. It’s putting together pieces that fit… [LeBron and Davis] are both guys that will make the right play, they are willing passers.”

Willing passers is nice, but the Lakers put the right roster around them to pass to — a combination of shooters and rim-running lob threats. Its guys willingly playing their roles and it makes the Lakers difficult to slow down.

“For me and AD, it starts with us,” LeBron said. “If we’re on the same page it makes it a lot easier for the rest of the ballclub.” He added the two stars hold each other accountable, and that trickles down to the rest of the team.

Before the season started, most pundits projected the Lakers to be floating around, or just above, 50 wins. Sure, the Lakers had two top-seven (maybe top five) players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and on paper it seemed like their games would mesh beautifully. But chemistry takes time. It was expected the Lakers would struggle early and find their footing closer to Christmas and beyond, becoming a much more dangerous team by the time the playoffs rolled around.

There has been no break-in period.

“I think [the chemistry] was there, it’s just a little missed timing,” Davis said of a few early struggles.

“I don’t know if it’s moreso lately, to me those two hit the ground running right from the start of training camp,” Vogel said. “Both on and off the basketball court their chemistry has been seamless.”

Davis hit the ground running on Sunday against Minnesota, starting 6-of-6 from the floor for a fast 13 points, and all of those buckets in the paint (a couple of them because he ran to the rim in transition and finished lobs).

“I think all of us are just more comfortable with our play,” LeBron said. “We know what we want to run, we know how we want to play, we know how we want to defend, we know what we want to be on offense. It makes it a lot easier when we are in a good rhythm… Every day [team chemistry] is going to get better and better, not just for AD and myself but for the rest of the group.”

“I think we’re just recognizing each other’s strengths, we’re getting comfortable with each other within the offense,” Vogel added.

Davis had 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting in the first half, with only one of those buckets from outside paint. It carried the Lakers while LeBron battled foul trouble.

“I just feel like I’m in a rhythm,” Davis said. “As a team, we are in a rhythm right now. Obviously, our defense has been really good for us, and it’s led to a lot of open shots for us.”

LeBron finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds, and it’s him as playmaker that puts the Laker offense on another level. On Sunday, LeBron was draining deep threes or finding guys in transition with pin-point look ahead passes. Whatever he did worked, and with Davis as a potential target, the Timberwolves had no answers.

So far, nobody around the NBA has had any answers. So much for the slow start, the West right now is a lot of teams chasing the Lakers, and that could continue all season long.

And into the playoffs.

2) With 105-102 loss to Brooklyn, Denver has suddenly dropped 4-of-5. For the past week and a half, the Denver Nuggets have struggled, and it’s mostly been about what is happening in the paint. On both ends of the court.

Brooklyn won the paint battle 66-22 on Sunday. It was ugly. In the third quarter alone, Brooklyn scored 26 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the paint. The Nets scored all their points in the paint or at the free throw line. After the game, a frustrated coach Mike Malone called his team’s effort in the third “a joke.”

The problems are on both ends of the court: The Nuggets are scoring 9.1 points fewer in the paint per game in the last five games than they have for the season as a whole. For a team led by big man Nikola Jokic and the penetration of Jamal Murray, this is a serious red flag.

Denver’s overall efficiency numbers in the last five games look okay because their 37-point, get-the-coach-fired win over the Knicks skews the numbers. But Denver has been stumbling, they have fallen to 14-7, and things are not going to get easier at Philadelphia on Tuesday.

3) Another day, another Miami Heat young star steps up. Sunday it was Tyler Herro’s turn. The Miami Heat have been getting phenominal play and unexpected contributions from their first-and-second year players all season. Kendrick Nunn is at the top of that list, playing like someone who will end up on a lot of Rookie of the Year ballots this season. Duncan Robinson, in just his second season, has started 18 games for Miami and has provided much-needed shooting (42.5 percent from three).

Sunday it was Tyler Herro’s turn. The rookie out of Kentucky scored 16 points through the fourth quarter and overtime against Chicago. That includes draining the game-winning three off an assist from Jimmy Butler.

That bucket held up as the final score, 108-105 Miami.

With Herro’s bucket, Miami improves to 17-6 on the season. This is Jimmy Butler’s team, but rather than terrorizing and running off the team’s young stars, in Miami Butler is lifting them up. And the entire organization with them.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri