Three Things to Know: LeBron James isn’t resting, his Lakers aren’t losing

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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 isn’t resting, and his Lakers aren’t losing. A lot of teams may have looked at the Lakers’ situation heading into Sunday night in Atlanta as the perfect chance to rest their star player: He had a sore elbow after a fall against Miami a couple of nights earlier, the Lakers are in the middle of 8-of-9 on the road (with tougher tests against Indiana and Milwaukee ahead), Los Angeles was facing a six-win team in Atlanta that is beatable without him, and the Lakers had a four-game lead in the West over the second-seed Clippers.

LeBron James played anyway.

It’s good for the Lakers he did because they needed his MVP-level performance — 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists — to get the victory on a night the Lakers were sloppy and just plain off: 5-of-31 shooting from three, and they turned the ball over on 20.8 percent of their possessions, more than one-in-five trips down the court. Los Angeles still won 101-96 in part because LeBron was making plays.

After the game, LeBron again scoffed at the idea of “load management” games. From his postgame interview broadcast on Spectrum Sportsnet:

“Y’all want me to sit out? … But why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally. I mean, I don’t know how many games I got left in my career. I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game that are there to come see me play — and if I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation. My obligation is to play for my teammates and if I’m healthy, then I’m going to play. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy and it’s just simple.”

The eye test says LeBron does not need a rest — he is playing at levels this early in the season we haven’t seen since his Miami days. He’s averaging 26.1 points, 10.7 assists (a career-high), 7.3 rebounds, is shooting 36.5 percent from three, and most importantly coach Frank Vogel is keeping him at around 34 minutes a night (their stated goal for the season).

Plus LeBron is a competitor, he wants to be out there. He’s talked about this before. He’s not going to sit if healthy, at least until the Lakers have essentially locked up whatever playoff seed they ultimately end up with.

However, to quote Mark Cuban, “the dumb thing would be to ignore the science… We’re not going, ‘OK, let’s just mess with the league and our meal ticket to fans to do something just because it might be interesting.’”

The NBA is a recovery league. That’s the coach’s cliche (I first heard it from Brett Brown, but others say it) and it’s true. The wear-and-tear on bodies — LeBron has already run 62.5 miles on hardwood floors during NBA games this season — combined with the thrown-off sleep schedules makes players increasingly susceptible to injuries as the season grinds on. Teams use biometric trackers on players — constantly checking their speed, explosiveness and more — looking for the signs of exhaustion to rest players before they get injured. That’s the goal of load management, to keep guys on the court, healthy and fresh, especially for the postseason.

No player in the league is better conditioned, or as concerned with rest and recovery, as LeBron. He gets it. But none of the league’s 450 players are immune to the marathon grind of an NBA season, especially any players turning 35 at the end of the month. The Lakers and LeBron can call it an injury or whatever they want, but making sure LeBron is right before something goes wrong (like it did last Christmas day) is not a bad thing. It’s the smart thing. It’s a call the Lakers and LeBron need to make together, but with their eyes wide open.

For now, LeBron keeps on playing, and the Lakers keep on winning.

2) Luka Doncic is out for at least a couple of weeks in Dallas. Now what for the Mavericks? It was a fluke play, Luka Doncic was driving the lane against the Heat and stepped on the foot on foot of Kendrick Nunn, and Doncic’s ankle rolled.

Doncic likely out for a couple of weeks at least with what team officials describe as a “moderate” ankle sprain. He could return just after Christmas, on the optimistic end of that timeline.

The bigger problem for 17-8 Dallas is the next four games on the schedule Doncic will miss: Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto. Four quality teams that would be difficult even with Dallas’ star player.

Dallas will not be the same in those games. In just his second season and at age 20, Doncic has exploded into crossover level NBA star with an MVP-level season: 30.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game. Doncic is as good as any pick-and-roll ball handler in the league (he shoots 12.4 times a game in that role and has a 60.7 eFG%) and is the engine for a Dallas offense that has been the best in the NBA this season.

Expect Rick Carlise to go with point guard by committee with a combination of Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, and J.J. Barea. Both Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway are going to need to up their scoring, while Dallas also will need improved defense. The goal is not to give up much ground, if any, in the fight for home court in the first round of the playoffs. How well the Mavs can play without their star may have a big role in where they start the postseason.

3) Big-name trade rumors update: The Thunder don’t expect to move Chris Paul, the Heat want to move on from Dion Waiters. Sunday marked the day that most players who signed a contract over the summer can be traded, and the rumors will be flying over the next week (especially with team executives all gathering in Las Vegas later in the week for the G-League showcase).

Here’s an update on a couple of big names.

There is “no belief” within the Thunder organization Chris Paul will get traded at the deadline, something ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Sunday on the network’s “Woj & Lowe: Trade Season Special.” And that confirms what we and everyone around the NBA have reported all season. Why can’t they trade him? I can give you 85.6 million reasons — that’s how much money CP3 is owed for the two seasons after this one. While Paul is playing well this season, there are just not teams with either the cap space or stomach to take on that massive contract. Not now, probably not this summer. Look for the Thunder to trade Danilo Gallinari and maybe Steven Adams.

Dion Waiters is not getting traded from Miami, either, but Waiters’ third suspension from the team this season “has left Miami determined to move on,” reports Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. That sounds great, but there is zero chance he gets traded, Waiters is owed the remainder of his $12.1 million this season (minus $1.4 million in fines) and $12.7 million next season, no team is taking that money for him, unless the Heat want to attach a first-round pick to him as a sweetener, which they do not. Miami may buy him out, but there is no reason for Waiters to give the team a discount on a buyout. One way or another, if Miami wants to move on it’s going to cost them.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.