Three Things to Know: Has Michael Porter Jr. arrived in Denver?

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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) Has Micahel Porter Jr. arrived in Denver? If so, he may be stretch four the team needs. Just a few weeks back, during the G-League showcase event in Las Vegas, executives from a lot of teams expected the Nuggets to be buyers at the trade deadline. At the top of Denver’s list of needs was a stretch four to put next to Nikola Jokic. The kind of player who could score an efficient 25 points, getting buckets in the paint on bunny hooks or stepping out to the arc and nailing threes…

Exactly like the game Michael Porter Jr. had for the Nuggets Thursday night against a good Pacers team.

Going into the season, there was a lot of “Michael Porter Jr. will be the difference” talk coming out of Denver, a team largely banking on continuity this season. Porter had looked like a steal at No. 14 in the 2018 draft, but back surgery and some reports of a “diva” attitude had him sliding down the draft board. The big question with Porter was, what would he look like healthy? The man has battled two back surgeries, nerve issues in his foot, and a knee sprain. However, after sitting out last season, he was ready to go this season and… nothing. His jump shot was a mess, his defense was that of a rookie, and coach Michael Malone was stingy with the minutes. Porter made little impact on the Nuggets through the first third of the season, other than to have them taking a hard look at Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Love in the trade market.

Then Porter dropped 19 on Sacramento a few nights ago, which caught people’s attention. His corner threes, then the rest of his jumpers, started falling. On Thursday night in Indiana, Porter Jr. was the player Nuggets fans had hoped for and the team has needed — a difference-maker and versatile player at the four.

If Porter can continue with and build off that kind of performance it changes the calculous for Denver. The Nuggets are 24-10 and the two seed in the West, but despite the early wins their play was not striking fear in the hearts of opponents. Lately, however, Nikola Jokic looks like himself again (he played his way into shape?), the defense is improved this season, and with Porter is playing like the missing piece they need things feel different in Denver (they have won 10-of-12).

It’s too early to say Porter Jr. has arrived in Denver, we’re just talking two good games. But if he has, if this is going to be the new norm and not a fluke career night form Porter, the Nuggets start to look a lot more dangerous.

2) Something to watch: Paul George left Clippers win with a hamstring injury. The Clippers had little trouble with a shorthanded Detroit team Thursday night in a game that followed form and was not particularly worth noting except for one thing:

Paul George left the game in the second quarter not to return due to “hamstring tightness.”

The Clippers were up by six at the half and about to get serious and take over the game, there was no reason to risk anything and play George in the second half. So they didn’t. After the game, George was not showing a limp, reports Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN. That’s a good sign.

Maybe it’s nothing. Hopefully, for the sake of fans of the game, it’s nothing. But hamstrings are the kind of things that linger if not treated, so this just becomes something to watch with the Clippers and one of their two stars.

3) The first round of NBA All-Star fan voting is in, so who will the starters be? As they should, NBA fans get the largest say in who should start the NBA All-Star Game. It’s an exhibition game to promote the league, so give the fans who they want… unless it’s Zaza Pachulia. After a coordinated effort to make him the starting center in the NBA showcase game a few years ago (a lot of that out of his native Georgia), the league added a media and player vote components to make sure nothing like that happens again. Which means it’s cute that this year fans cast a lot of ballots for Alex Caruso and Tacko Fall, but they will not start.

So who will start? Let’s break down the early returns from fan voting a little and project forward with what the media and players likely do.

Here are the Western Conference starters as voted by the fans: Luka Doncic (Dallas), James Harden (Houston), LeBron James (LA Lakers), Anthony Davis (LA Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers).

I doubt that five changes. In the backcourt, Doncic is the leading vote getter in the West and second-place Harden is more than 500,000 votes ahead of third-place Damian Lillard. That’s not changing with the media/player votes. It’s basically the same in the frontcourt, where Leonard has a massive lead over teammate Paul George for the third starting spot. The media and players likely vote in the same five. This group is pretty much a lock.

The East is another story. The Eastern Conference starters as voted by the fans: Trae Young (Atlanta), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia), Pascal Siakam (Toronto).

I could argue that, as entertaining as Young is as a player, he’s the leader of a 7-win team and doesn’t deserve to start the All-Star Game. Except, who is going to replace him? Second-leading vote getter Kyrie Irving has missed too much time to do well in the media and player votes, so if Boston fans don’t push Kemba Walker into a starting role (he’s nearly tied with Irving already), the press will put Kemba in as a stater again. After that, could the media/player votes push Ben Simmons or Bradley Beal far enough up the ladder to start in front of Young? Maybe, but most likely the Hawks guard holds down his spot.

In the East frontcourt, Antetokounmpo and Embiid are locks. Will the media/player vote push Jimmy Butler past Siakam? Maybe. It will be close. While one could make a case Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo should play in the game, neither are starters.

Still, expect some shifts in the starters in the East by the time the players get announced for the game at the end of the month.

Devin Booker reportedly could return to Suns next week

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Phoenix Suns are 9-13 since Devin Booker went out with a left groin strain (which counts a few games before, but does not include, his attempted Christmas Day comeback, which lasted all of four minutes in a Suns loss). While they have bounced back lately as Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned, Phoenix still slid down to eighth in the standings.

The Suns need Booker to return — and they may get it next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, sidelined the past five weeks because of a left groin strain, could return as soon as Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, sources told ESPN… Booker has been ramping up his on-court work, and is expected to join the Suns at the start of a five-game road trip that begins Friday in Boston and continues Saturday at Detroit.

Booker should be named an All-Star reserve Tuesday, despite all the time missed — he has been that good. Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game shooting 37% from 3 (a good 58.5 true shooting percentage) and is dishing out 5.1 assists per night. The bottom line, the Suns have outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season and been outscored by 2.5 per 100 when he is out.

He returns to a team that needs a jolt and could get a couple — both the return of Booker to the rotation and a trade at the deadline to bring in depth. The Suns are likely to trade Jae Crowder at the deadline — the Bucks are considered the frontrunners but the Heat and Hawks are reportedly in the mix — which may not bring back what James Jones once hoped, but should give the team a little more depth.

If the Suns can get back to the team that started the season 15-6 they could make some noise in the West, but there is a lot for the Suns to clean up to get back to those days.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three things to Know: Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

The biggest free agent in WNBA history has chosen to form a super team in league history — and that’s a real opportunity for everyone.

Former league MVP and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart has chosen to leave Seattle and play for the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the Liberty traded for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to pair with Sabrina Ionescu, forming one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league. Now add Stewart and her playmaking to a roster filled with quality players —  Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, Joceyln Willoughby, Kayla Thornton — and this is a team that’s a legitimate threat to win the WNBA title next season. This is a superteam.

New York’s move comes just days after two-time former MVP and WNBA champ Candace Parker chose to join the defending WBNA champion Las Vegas Aces with reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and quality players around her such as Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray. This is also a superteam.

It’s not a coincidence Stewart and Parker chose to go to teams with newish WNBA owners willing to spend to win, Joe Tsai in New York (also the owner of the NBA’s Nets) and Mark Davis in Las Vegas (owner of the NFL’s Raiders). Two owners who came into the WNBA wanting to spend to pay players but also improve their experience — a new practice facility in Las Vegas, for example — and grow the sport that way. Owners with the vision to know they must spend money to make money — grow the league and its popularity and franchise values will skyrocket.

Stewart in her free agency pushed charter flights for players to the top of the list of ways to improve the league. Right now, the WNBA CBA requires teams to fly commercial. It’s part of a penny-pinching mindset from some quarters that sometimes feels like it will choke off the growing league. Charter flights for every team to every game — something common in professional sports and high-level college sports, including women’s college basketball — would cost about $30 million for the league.

There’s a divide among WNBA owners, not all want to pay that added charter flight cost out of their pocket, but the league has to find a way. As Corey Robinson of NBC Sports noted in the video above, this feels a lot like when his father — Hall of Famer David Robinson — wrote an open letter in 1991 to then San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs asking to fly charter to games because of the competitive advantage (McCombs agreed after the public pressure, now charter flights are just expected in the NBA).

Beyond just flights, this is an inflection point for the WNBA — it has to intensify its marketing, its outreach, and do whatever else it takes to grow the league.

Stewart, a recognizable face and name to any sports fan in America (even casual ones who only know her Olympics efforts) just formed a superteam in the biggest media market in the nation. They have a natural, high-profile rival in Las Vegas with their own superstars and big names. If you can’t sell this, you’re doing it wrong — this will be great basketball (and that’s not even mentioning Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury, and other good teams out there).

New York vs. Las Vegas could be the 1980s Lakers vs. Celtics moment for the WNBA. Stewart vs. Wilson can be a version of Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry and must-watch matchup that took the NBA off tape-delayed late-night television and vaulted it into prime time, putting it on the course for what it is now. This feels like that moment for the WNBA, but will WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert be able to grab the opportunity the way David Stern did? Can she get her owners to buy in the way Stern did? The WNBA must spend, it must take advantage of this opportunity. Chances and players like this don’t come around very often.

2) Timberwolves outplay Warriors in clutch, pick up quality win

Right now, this Warriors team just does not have the aura of its championship teams of years past. Even last year’s team didn’t enter the playoffs as the favorites in the West (that was the 64-win Suns), but we had seen enough to know they could be a threat to win it all with a couple of breaks. Which they got.

This year’s team… the Warriors had a 13-point lead on the Timberwolves Wednesday night with less than 11 minutes left and then got outplayed the rest of the way. While D'Angelo Russell was draining key 3-pointers, Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and  Andrew Wiggins were missing theirs, and Jonathan Kuminga was committing illegal screens. The result was the Warriors blowing their lead and the Timberwolves took advantage of it — with some critical plays by Naz Ried.

“I thought we had control of the game and then I thought we just kind of gift-wrapped it,” Kerr said postgame, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “And not to take anything away from Minnesota, I thought they were great. They took advantage of our mistakes and lack of execution. [D’Angelo Russell] got hot and guys made big shots, but we missed box-outs, we threw the ball away, we took really difficult shots.

“So everything we had done to that point to have control of the game, we stopped doing. We got what we deserved.”

This year’s Warriors are 13-14 in the clutch (games within five points in the final five minutes), with a -1.8 net rating. Make that a game within three points in the final three minutes and the Warriors are 10-12 this season.

The Warriors had won 4-of-5 before this and it felt like they may be flipping the switch, but then games like this happen and it gives you pause. These Warriors are not there yet.

3) Celtics put on a show, romp past shorthanded Nets

Boston has cooled off following its hot start to the season, but there are nights when they get focused, turn the burner back on high, get hot and remind everyone why they are the title favorites this season.

The Nets ran into those Celtics on Wednesday — Boston outscored Brooklyn 46-16 in the first quarter, hitting eight straight 3-pointers to open the game.

From there the Celtics romped to a wire-to-wire 139-96 win. Boston stayed hot from deep and hit 48.1% from 3 for the game (26-of-54). Jayson Tatum scored 31 points,  Jaylen Brown added 26, and both got to sit in the fourth quarter and watch.

The Celtics needed a win like this.

The Nets… life is tough sometimes without Kevin Durant. This is a game Brooklyn can flush and move on, even with KD it would not have helped much the way the Celtics were shooting.

ONE BONUS THING TO KNOW (or see): Give Tari Eason credit, he did not give up. That is persistence.

Nuggets’ Michael Malone to coach Team LeBron in All-Star Game

DENVER NUGGETS VS LOS ANGELES LAKERS, NBA
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Denver is comfortably in first place in the West and looking like a contender.

Which is bad news if Nuggets coach Michael Malone purchased any non-refundable plane tickets for the start of the All-Star break, because now he is headed to Salt Lake City.

With Portland beating Memphis on Wednesday, it ensured that the Nuggets will have the best record in the West on Sunday ( two weeks out from the All-Star Game, meaning Malone is now the head coach of Team LeBron.

This is Malone’s second All-Star Game as a coach, but the captains should be familiar to him. In 2019 he coached Team LeBron to a win against Team Giannis 178-164.

Boston’s Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis.

The coaches do not know which players they will coach — Malone doesn’t know if he will be coaching Nikola Jokić or not. This year team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will pick their teams live, just before the game. We know the pool of starters the captains will pick from, with the reserves being announced Thursday.