Three Things to Know: Jimmy Butler blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at T.J. Warren

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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) Jimmy Butler was stirring the pot by blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Jimmy Butler is not just an All-Star but also an All-NBA level…

Pot stirrer.

And player. Butler likely starts in the All-Star Game in Chicago next month, and if not he’s certainly in the game. As things stand now, Butler is highly likely to make an All-NBA team at the end of the season. He’s earned all of that, averaging 20.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists a game to lead Miami and make them the surprise No. 2 seed in the East.

Butler, however, does not shy away from mixing it up. He likes a little tension around him, and he’s comfortable when other people are uncomfortable. Just ask Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Or, the Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Butler and Warren were barking at each other for much of the game Wednesday night, and it was building up to something. This is the play where everything really got started and the referees jumped in the mix.

The play was reviewed and the referees left as a common foul. Which was the right call, but did not ease the tensions. Soon after, the duo was matched up again, and Warren drew the offensive foul on Butler — then walked behind him, clapping his hands and taunting him. That got Warren a technical and an ejection.

Butler’s reaction? He blew Warren kisses.

Butler was not done. After the game, Butler ripped Warren, dropping an F-bomb as an adjective to emphasize his point.

Then Butler took the fight to social media.

Suddenly that March game looks like must-see TV. Because Butler likes to stir the pot.

2) Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” — he says on accident, he meant to say “slugs.” When speaking to a room of mostly African-American young men, the term “thug” is a loaded one. It’s full of implications (the kind David Stern tried to sweep under the rug with a dress code).

Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” during a film session on Wednesday. In showing the players clips of their defense, he tried to pay his team a compliment by saying they were no longer playing like “thugs.”

That silenced the room and was leading to some growing frustration among players — and the Cavaliers have had their fill of frustration lately. Made aware of what he said, Beilein contacted his players to apologize and say he meant to say “slugs.” This is the money quote of what Beilein told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I meant to say slugs, as in slow moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment.”

Do you believe him? While that will become a sports talk radio topic all day, it doesn’t really matter.

Do his players believe him? That will decide Beilein’s fate. Was this a one-time, fluke thing, and the players know their coach well enough to take him at his word? Or, is there a little more to this, and will other stories leak out in the coming days?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is Beilein left the University of Michigan at age 66 to take over the Cavaliers job this season, signing a five-year contract, and he hasn’t impressed. The Cavaliers are 10-27, there is no team identity, nor have we seen the young Cavs players — such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — developing under his guidance. Players are acting out and don’t seem on the same page with the coach.

The coaching questions are not enough to get Beilein fired in the first year of a five-year contract. However, if he loses the players over this “thug” comment then the dynamics are very different. This story is not over by a long shot.

3) James Harden, Trae Young make history as first opposing players in NBA history to record 40-point triple-doubles in one game. James Harden and Trae Young were putting on a show.

Harden scored 41 points with 10 assists and 10 rebounds (although he wasn’t efficient shooting 9-of-34 on the night, including 4-of-20 from three). Young had 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

It’s an interesting bit of history and a fun show for everyone watching. By the way, the Rockets got the win, in case anyone still cares about the outcome of games.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Kemba Walker was ejected from an NBA game for the first time in his career. KYP — know your personnel. NBA coaches say it to players all the time. It means to know that Giannis Antetokounmpo will go to the spin move in the paint on a drive, be prepared for it (and good luck). Don’t bite on DeMar DeRozan’s pump fake. Certain players only want to go left. The list could go on, but the idea is clear — know the players and their tendencies.

Referees need to do the same thing. For example, Kemba Walker is not a hothead, which is why he’s never been thrown out of an NBA game.

Until Wednesday. Midway through the third quarter of a Celtics loss to the Spurs, Walker got pancaked by LaMarcus Aldridge. Just flattened. Walker thought it was a foul and popped up angry walked over to rookie referee Evan Scott to protest the call — and got a quick ejection.

Here is the official explanation from the referees.

That was a bad call and the league should rescind the second technical. The first one, with Walker cussing at the referee, that’s an earned technical. The second one, without trying to have a conversation with Walker, was an overreaction. There needs to be more dialogue between referees and coaches, and some understanding of the situation. Basketball is an emotional game, Walker just got flattened, the officials have to give the player some space to vent (this is a two-way street, the players need not to fire up the crowd — Walker didn’t — and give the referees some respect, too). This felt like when refs put up the “stop sign” hand before the player has even gotten to them to say something — that’s not the way to deal with players or coaches. Have a conversation.

Those technical fouls did not cost the Celtics the game, but they did help change momentum. The Celtics were on a 20-7 run and had cut the Spurs lead to seven. This call led to five three throws for San Antonio — two for Walker’s two technicals, one for a Brad Stevens technical, and two for the shooting foul called on the play — and when the Spurs hit four of them it stretched the lead back up to double digits.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.

New coach, new attitude, but will that fix Lakers defense, Westbrook fit?

Los Angeles Lakers Media Day 2022
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham was the new face at the front of the room, and since the day he walked in the door he has been about looking forward and a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.

“This year, we’ve turned the page, you know, we’re looking out the windshield, not so much through the rearview mirror,” coach Ham said.

However, at Lakers’ media day everyone kept looking backward — to the team’s poor defense and questionable fit of Russell Westbrook last season.

Can a new face at the front of the room, a new focus, and some better luck with injuries wipe away that past and make the Lakers a threat in the West again?

“I think everyone here has a chip [on their shoulder], and in every right, obviously, [after last] season, last year,” another newcomer, Patrick Beverley, said. “Everyone wants a little bit of oomph, a little bit of you know, more of whatever it is.”

For Ham, “whatever it is” means defense. On Monday, Ham was preaching defense again. Like he has incessantly since the day the Lakers hired him — he is hanging his hat, his rotations, and the Lakers’ chances on an intense defense.

Of course, Frank Vogel preached defense, too. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020 they had the third-best defense in the NBA, the following season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on that end got lost last season for various reasons. The Lakers fell to the bottom 10 in the league on that end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.

Ham tied last season’s defensive concerns and Westbrook’s fit in the rotation together — if you don’t defend, you don’t play. That includes the $47 million former MVP guard.

“We got to have a defensive mindset,” Ham said. “Those are the guys that’s going to get the minutes, guys going out there to get stops. And… [Westbrook has] told me personally, he’s going to commit to that side of the ball.

“And that’s what camp is for. We’ll see.”

Ham would not commit to Westbrook as a starter. That comes after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook, to move on from last season’s frustrations, but any deal had to bring value back to the Lakers. That really never came close to happening (there wasn’t a great market for Westbrook’s services at his current price tag). So Westbrook is back.

“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, show up to work like I’ve always done thus far, do my job the best way I know how to, and that’s it. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to, and any other job across the world. As a professional and as a working man I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take of my family, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The awkwardness of Westbrook’s fit was a structural one — he has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play a role now. He’s not their best shot creator, he will be standing in the corners at times. That’s not in the nature of the aggressive, confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never strike a balance.

“We’re telling Russ be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him that before every game, like be yourself,” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him thinking too much like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the ball LeBron or AD’ and now he’s being passive and not being aggressive, which is who he has been in his league to be Russell Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, we can adjust.”

Ham, however, has talked about running the offense more through Davis — this is a critical year in his time with the Lakers — and, of course, nobody is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.

“My thing is offensively, we want to play fast, want to be physical and play free. And fast meaning our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Bron around the elbow area,” Ham said. “There’s a variety of sets that we have planned to install that’s going to highlight their strengths, get Russ in post more.”

Westbrook said all the right things about fitting in. Again.

“I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team doing whatever that is asked of me,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters I’ll be the best person I could possibly be.”

Westbrook said all the right things a year ago to LeBron and Davis, then his fit with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it really change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”

Each of the Lakers big three talked about just needing more time together healthy (for the record, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when all three shared the court). They jumpstarted the process this summer with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.

“With all of us you know our time on the floor together was very limited because of injuries for myself and Bron but I think that was that was really it,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”

Injuries have been an issue. Davis spent the summer getting healthy and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry a larger load. LeBron echoed that idea.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham’s media day message was not a new one, it’s what he’s been saying — defense, accountability, a team mindset. The question, looking back to last season, is fit. Ham has talked to Westbrook about those things and has been the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ is going to get his chance.

“Everything has been about you know, being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding [Westbrook] to that — words that came out of his own mouth,” Ham said.

Roster changes could come in Los Angeles. They didn’t this summer — at least with the core players — because GM Rob Pelinka would not send out both picks the Lakers can trade (2027 and 2029) for any deal that didn’t make Los Angeles a contender. Asked bout that, Pelinka noted he gets one swing at this and it has to be a home run.

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Pelinka said. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

In the short term, that improvement falls to Ham and the Lakers roster. They are saying all the right things about looking forward.

But will the ghosts of seasons past haunt them again? We’ll see.