Three Things to Know: Rings aren’t won in December but Bucks are best team right now

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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) Rings aren’t won in December, but Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA right now. The Lakers wanted this one. You could tell through their words — before the game coach Frank Vogel called the matchup of the two best records in the league a “measuring stick game” — but more through their actions. Specifically, letting Anthony Davis play despite still having pain in the ankle he tweaked on Sunday.

The Bucks were better.

Milwaukee held the Lakers to 17 points in the first quarter, forced turnovers on 19.6 percent of Laker possessions, led by as many as 21, held off every Laker run late, got 34 points from their MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (who also shot 5-of-8 from three, plus had 11 rebounds), and generally handled the game.

The final score was 111-104 Milwaukee, but that makes it seem much closer a game than it actually was.

The Larry O’Brien trophy is not handed out in December, and both these teams will evolve between now and June (if both get that far).

However, right now, the Bucks are the best team in the NBA. And they proved it.

There are mitigating factors for the Lakers, no doubt: This was the last game of a road trip, Los Angeles was playing its fifth game in 10 days on the road, Kyle Kuzma was out, and Davis had his sprained ankle.

Not that the ankle slowed Davis much — he had 36 points, had to guard Antetokounmpo much of the night, and was arguably the best player on the court. Plus, he did this to the Greek Freak late in the game.

Yet, the concerns about the Lakers going into the season showed up on Thursday night. There is the depth concern — the Lakers got four points from their bench on the night. There were the questions about having enough shooting — take Danny Green (21 points) out of the equation and the Lakers shot 21.7 percent from three (including Davis going 0-of-6).

Meanwhile, the Bucks were the better team, a roster well built to match its star and in tune with how to play off him. Milwaukee players understand the angles, space the floor, and when the Lakers would close out aggressively at the arc the Bucks make smart cuts to the rim. There was balance. George Hill had 21, Khris Middleton 15, and Wesley Matthews had 13 plus a couple of clutch steals.

It’s just December. This game only counts for one game in the standings. Nothing is decided.

Right now, however, Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA — and they proved it.

2) We need a Rockets vs. Clippers playoff series. These teams can’t stand each other. There’s not a lot of venom in today’s NBA. That’s not to say guys don’t go hard at each other — they do — but after the final buzzer there is a “we’re all part of one fraternity” mindset among most players.

Which makes the Clippers and Rockets so much fun — they can’t stand each other. Like when Patrick Beverley fouled out Thursday night, Russell taunted him, waved goodbye, and picked up a technical for it.

Or, watch the normally-controlled Lou Williams lose it after a foul call and get tossed.

It was that kind of night and one where the Rockets were the better team. With the Clippers focused on making life difficult for James Harden — he still had 28 points, including nine in the final six minutes — Russell Westbrook went off for 40.

The Rockets got the win 122-117, a quality road victory for a team trying to prove it should be counted among the West’s elite.

We just need to see more of this matchup come the playoffs.

3) Likely top-3 pick next June James Wiseman leaves Memphis to prepare for NBA draft. The NBA world did not see this coming, there was genuine surprise among scouts and front office people at the G-League showcase event in Las Vegas. The Memphis Wildcats did not see this coming, either.

James Wiseman, the best big man in the coming NBA Draft and likely top-three pick (certainly top five), is leaving Memphis to prepare for the Draft.

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Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. Throughout this process, I’ve asked God to ordain my steps and lead me in the right direction. God is my lord and salvation, and throughout this process he has comforted me. This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I’m thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process. I want to thank the coaches and staff for all their support and my teammates for pushing me everyday at practice. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be a Tiger and for having the honor to play with these special group of guys. I can’t wait to see what all they accomplish this season. The friends and fans of Tiger Nation will always hold a place in my heart. #GoTigersGo 🐯🔵🐯

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Wiseman had issues with the NCAA and was serving a 12-game suspension because Penny Hardaway — now the Memphis coach but at the time a local high school coach — gave $11,500 to Wiseman’s family so they could move from Nashville to Memphis. He was close to coming off that suspension when the surprise announcement came.

Wiseman is an elite prospect. He stands 7’1” with a 7’5” wingspan and has impressive athleticism. The potential is obvious. The biggest concern is that he wants to play like a modern, shot-creating big man — think Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant — but right now his skill set is that of a more traditional NBA center. He’s got some developing to do.

The first thing scouts in Vegas said: This will not change his draft status much, if at all. They have seen enough, despite just three college games, although he does lose out on having the kind of season that could climb him up draft boards.

The other thing people at the G-League Showcase wondered:

Is this a trend? LaMelo Ball could start to wind it down early in Australia. What if Cole Anthony or Anthony Edwards decide to follow suit and shut it down early (or choose not to play in the conference or NCAA Tournament)? Not that they will, but if it’s not going to impact draft status then more guys in the future could go Wiseman’s route.

At least until the NBA does away with the one-and-done rule, or the NCAA finds a way to compensate athletes financially.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Paolo Banchero, Scoot Henderson highlight player pool for Rising Stars during All-Star weekend

Orlando Magic v Miami Heat
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The big winner in last year’s All-Star Friday night Rising Stars game was the new format (and Cade Cunningham). The new setup saw players onto four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score — something that actually had the young stars defending and playing hard. Things too often lacking All-Star weekend.

That format is back, and an impressive crop of players is involved: Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes, and expected No.2 pick in the upcoming draft Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite. Here is a complete list of the players competing (the rookies and sophomores will be drafted into three teams of seven players each, and the G-League players will make up their own team).

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans)
Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors)
Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jalen Green (Houston Rockets)
Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks)
Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)
Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans)
Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets)
Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite)
Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite)
Mojave King (G League Ignite)
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle)
Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats)
Leonard Miller (G League Ignite)
Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

There are former NBA stars to coach each of the teams: Former All-Stars Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Deron Williams will coach the three Rising Stars teams, while former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry will coach the G League team.

There will be three games Friday night during the Rising Stars challenge, with each game played to a target score of 40. If it’s anything like last year, it’s worth tuning in.

Needing defense, Kings reportedly eyeing 76ers Thybulle for trade

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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At 28-21, the Sacramento Kings sit as the No.3 seed in the West with the second-best offense in the league — they seemed destined to break their 16-year playoff drought and very well could even host a first-round playoff series.

However, their 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) will undo them come the playoffs.

That has the Kings looking for some defensive help and they are eyeing Sixers wing Matisse Thybullereports Marc Stein in his latest Substack newsletter.

Sacramento is said to be monitoring the availability of Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle as the Kings, unexpectedly holding the West’s No. 3 seed after a league-record 16 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, ponder the pursuit of a more defensive-minded option on the perimeter.

Thybulle has lived in the rumor mill for a while, this is nothing new. However, those rumors carry more weight because Thybulle’s role in Philadelphia has shrunk considerably with the additions of De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker as defensive-minded forwards who can provide more offense than Thybulle. Doc Rivers also leans into Georges Niang more off the bench because of his shooting.

Thybulle is in the final year of his contract and is headed for restricted free agency, the Kings might be interested in re-signing him (depending on the price and his fit with the roster). The Kings can match salaries easily enough with Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis or Alex Len, the question is who will the 76ers want back, and will the Kings need to throw in a second-round pick?

There’s some logic to this trade getting done in some form, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

 

Nets reportedly in no rush to sign Kyrie Irving to contract extension

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving wanted a contract extension with the Nets this past summer, but that went nowhere (as did his looking around for a new home). Now, Irving’s representative again wants to talk contract extension with the Nets.

The Nets are in no rush, partly because they feel they have all the leverage, reports Marc Stein in his latest newsletter.

Irving hopes to sign a contract extension with the Nets — but substantive talks between the sides have yet to begin. Some league observers have posited that this could be by design on Brooklyn’s part, with the Nets apparently convinced that they are under no pressure to move swiftly on the extension front when Irving would likely need their help via sign-and-trade to relocate in the offseason to any other team he likes.

The teams with potential cap space next summer are the Spurs, Rockets, Magic, Pistons, Hornets, Pacers and Thunder (a few teams, like the Lakers, can create some cap space but not at the max money Irving would seek). It’s a list of teams that may take a step forward toward the play-in, but there is not a contender in the mix.

If Irving wants out of Brooklyn to get to the Lakers or another team he sees as a threat to win it all, it will come via an off-season sign-and-trade. Irving will have to work with the Nets, one way or another.

There is a growing sense around the league that ultimately Irving will re-sign in Brooklyn if the team’s recent run of strong play continues into the playoffs. For all the tension between Irving and Nets’ ownership in recent years, he fits well there on the court and likes playing with Kevin Durant. He likes being in Brooklyn. This can still be a fit that works for everyone.

The interesting part with Irving’s next contract will be the years — would any team lock into him for four fully-guaranteed years? He may not get more than a couple of years, at least from any team he would want to play for.