(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

NBA decision-makers prepare for a draft unlike any other

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This time of year, members of NBA front offices have their focus split. Half the league is gearing is up for the playoffs, while the other half is beginning offseason preparations. On both sides, a shared deadline is looming: the 2020 NBA Draft is about two-and-a-half months away.

For playoff teams, this means keeping an eye on how your team is playing while gearing up for the Draft Combine, pre-draft workouts, meetings upon meetings and thousands of phone calls and text messages. For the non-playoff teams, they don’t have the postseason as a distraction. It’s all about the draft.

“It’s wild. The trade deadline is crazy because it’s all happening at once. But the months leading up to the draft are like months of complete chaos,” one Western Conference executive, whose team is headed for the playoffs, told NBC Sports. “Teams are talking to you about trades. Agents want daily updates on what you think about their clients. You’re trying to find out who is declaring and who likes who. And in the middle of it, you have people hitting you up about free agency and trades. It’s non-stop.”

This year, everything is taking on a different feel though.

The NBA recently released guidelines to teams on the pre-draft process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams are limited to four hours of virtual meetings with each prospect. They also can’t meet for more than two hours with a prospect in any given week. And during none of that time can teams ask a player to perform any sort of workout.

“It’s different for sure,” an Eastern Conference executive from a playoff-bound team told NBC Sports. “Fortunately, we push ourselves to have most of our in-person scouting wrapped before the NCAA postseason. We’re at the conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but we don’t want our year-long process swayed by a couple of games. It’s just another piece of information for our book.”

It’s gathering that information that has teams worried. You can watch tape and analyze stats, but not being able to see prospects in-person in their own facility has some teams concerned.

“We look for a few things when a guy shows up to see us. First, and most important of all, is the medical. If there are medical red flags, it can take a guy right off our draft board. Now, we have to trust what we get from the agent, and there’s different motivation there,” a lottery team from the Eastern Conference’s general manager said. “Then we, of course, want to see the guy workout. People laugh about going against a chair and shooting in an empty, but it’s our chance to see the guy. And you talk all throughout. We had one guy come in and bomb our shooting drill. He demanded we let him go again. That’s the competitive spirit we want to see.”

The in-person meetings are also a chance to get to know players better. Talent and skill matter, but personality and fit in a team’s culture matter a lot too.

“It’s our chance to see how they are as a person,” a playoff-bound Western Conference execute said. “We’ll get some of that over these video calls, but it’s not the same. We also like to find out who is around the kid. Does he show up with an entourage of 10 people? Who are those people? We had a player come in once with like 15 guys and girls. At first, we were like ‘What the hell?’ But as we talked, we realized it was his family and they were just excited to support him. That’s a great support system.

“We’ve also had guys show up with all these hanger-on’s and you talk to them too. Some of them are fine. Some are people you don’t want around. It’s all part of the process.”

Not being able to meet in person as a staff is also a bit daunting too.

“Normally by now the NCAA Tournament is done. Overseas leagues are wrapping up. Most of our people are at our facility. We’re used to meeting virtually, but it’s now when we start coming together. And some of our older scouts hate the technology stuff. They do their best work in the room. We’re having to drag them into this a little bit more. And thank God for our IT guys. They’re the real heroes of our organization right now!” said an Eastern Conference executive.

One lottery-bound Western Conference executive said this year’s strange process is different, but he’s excited to see it play out.

“No one will like this, but we waste a lot of time during this time of year,” the executive said. “We go to the PIT (Portsmouth Invitational Tournament) every year, but we haven’t gotten a guy from there in years. I’m also not really upset the NCAA tournament got canceled. Every year our owner falls in love with a couple of kids who have a big tournament. Every year we need to talk him down. I’m glad not to have that hassle this year.”

It’s not just owners hitting up general managers.

“Our coach is watching film on guys. He never has time for that,” the GM of an Eastern Conference lottery GM said. “Even when your team is bad, your coach isn’t looking at draft stuff until the season ends. If you make the playoffs, which we usually do, coach doesn’t look until after you get knocked out. Now, he’s hitting us up multiple times a day about guys he likes. It’s good and it’s bad. We like knowing who he thinks fits. But the draft is a 5-to-10-year decision. Our coach today probably isn’t our coach in five years. We can’t just pick the guys he likes.”

It’s not just NBA decision-makers who have mixed feelings on this new process. NBA agents are also struggling a bit.

“It’s really dependent on the player. If he had an awesome season, you might want it to stop there. Leave that as the last impression,” one agent who has as many as 10 prospects in this year’s draft told NBC Sports. “On the other hand, I’ve got some guys who were hoping to use the combine and the workouts to boost their stock. There are guys who don’t jump out at you on tape, but in-person, they’re dynamic. That’s missing now.”

Compounding matters is that this is considered to be a very flat and talent-deficient draft.

“This draft class just isn’t great,” said an executive from one playoff-bound Eastern Conference team. “There are some players for sure, but it’s not anything like last year. Last year’s group might have as many as 10 All-Stars. It was that good. This year? Maybe a couple of All-Stars? That makes it tough. And not getting all the information you can makes it even harder.”

Another area of particular concern is with international players.

“You feel good because your book on those guys is probably really thick already. Some of them we’ve been watching since they were young kids. Flip side is, it’s going to be a real pain in the butt to meet with these guys. It’ll be months for some of them since we’ve seen them in person. And virtual meetings with a guy who doesn’t speak great English and has to work through a translator? Good luck!” said the lottery-bound Western Conference executive.

The best teams and executives will learn from this year’s upside-down process.

“This draft will tell us who really does their work and when they do it,” the playoff-bound Western Conference executive told NBC Sports. “Our guys are out there as soon as kids are back on campus and as soon as the overseas teams are back together. We know people who don’t really start until the preseason college tournaments. We see them every year in Hawaii (at the Maui Invitational) and they tell us they’re really just getting started. That’s too late. My guys know if they aren’t working, they won’t be working for us. Look, it’s a bad draft, alright? There are going to be major mistakes made because teams just won’t have enough info. Having a late pick isn’t the worst thing this year.”

Break up the Suns! Phoenix remains perfect in bubble defeating OKC

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points, and the Phoenix Suns rolled past the short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder 128-101 on Monday to remain perfect and improve to 6-0 in the restart and improve their playoff chances.

The Suns have surged in the Western Conference standings. They entered the day just 1 1/2 games behind eighth-place Memphis and a game behind ninth-place Portland in the race to qualify for a spot in the play-in series.

“We haven’t accomplished anything,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “That may sound like coach-speak, but we dug ourselves a hole with our record. We scrapped all year long and won some games, but it’s been an uphill battle.”

Williams appreciates the position the Suns are in.

“We’ve done a good job of getting to this point,” he said. “No one knew we were going to be here, but we’re here and we’re thankful for that.”

Phoenix center Deandre Ayton sat out the first quarter because he missed his coronavirus test on Sunday. He tested negative on Monday and was cleared. He started the second quarter.

“In an NBA season guys are going to make mistakes,” Williams said. “You have to be able to give people grace. It wasn’t intentional. Thankfully he was able to get tested early enough that he was able to come back and play, and the guys received him with open arms because we all understand we’re human.”

With Ayton out, Oklahoma City led 37-23 at the end of the first quarter. After Ayton entered the game, Phoenix dominated the rest of the way. He finished with 10 points and six rebounds in just over 17 minutes.

Oklahoma City was without four of its top five scorers. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (bruised right calf), Danilo Gallinari (left ankle maintenance), Dennis Schroder (birth of child) and Steven Adams (bruised left leg) sat out. Reserve center Nerlens Noel (sprained right ankle) also did not play.

Rookie Darius Bazley had 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

The Suns rallied from 15 points down in the second quarter to take a 65-64 lead at halftime. Phoenix opened the second half on an 11-2 run and controlled the game from there.

“I thought their pressure disrupted us,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought we got a little bit stagnant. We made some pretty decent plays. We were able to get some open looks, but I thought there in the second quarter they turned up their defensive intensity and that probably took us out of some rhythm.”

Rumor: Pelicans will soon fire coach Alvin Gentry

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry works for a lead executive – David Griffin – who inherited, rather than chose, Gentry in the first place. Gentry has had just one winning season in five years in New Orleans, and the Pelicans particularly underwhelmed this season.

Connect the dots.

William Guillory of The Athletic:

The worst-kept secret in the NBA is that Gentry’s time with the Pelicans won’t last much longer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Executive VP David Griffin and Pelicans ownership have a decision to make with a year left on Gentry’s contract, sources said. Consider two relationships Griffin has back to his front-office days in Cleveland and Phoenix, respectively, if there’s a change in New Orleans: LA Clippers assistant Ty Lue and Los Angeles Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, sources said.

Zion Williamson was transcendent at times this season. Brandon Ingram blossomed. Youngsters Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes showed flashes. Veterans Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors provided reliable depth and versatility.

But New Orleans was never quite as good as the sum of its parts.

Some of that falls on Gentry.

The Pelicans’ defense was often scrambled. An offensive-minded coach, Gentry hasn’t shown he can correct that issue. His lineup decisions rarely maximized the offense, either.

Lue and Kidd are unsurprising candidates. Lue had a great record working for Griffin with the Cavaliers (obligatory LeBron James mention), and Kidd is good at getting his name tied to job searches. Are Lue and Kidd the most likely coaches to replace Gentry? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just the first candidates to emerge publicly. This job search isn’t even officially underway.

But it could be soon.

76ers coach Brett Brown says he expects Joel Embiid (ankle injury) back before playoffs

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Joel Embiid injured his ankle in the 76ers’ loss to the Trail Blazers yesterday.

How serious is it?

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Joel Embiid is out for Tuesday’s game against the Suns with the left ankle injury he sustained in the first quarter Sunday vs. the Blazers. He’ll be undergoing treatment and evaluation at the team’s practice Monday night.

Brett Brown said he expected Embiid to play again before the playoffs, though characterized that view as “just one man’s opinion.”

That sounds like great news for Philadelphia, which is already without Ben Simmons.

Embiid can be dominant. With him, the 76ers still have a chance of advancing in the playoffs. It might even be easier to create space around Embiid – where Embiid can really feast – without Simmons (though the loss of the talented Simmons lowers Philadelphia’s ceiling).

However, the 76ers don’t deserve benefit of the doubt for setting accurate injury timelines, particularly with Embiid. There’s an element of “see it to believe it” here.

J.J. Redick loses NBA’s longest-active individual playoff streak (13 years)

Pelicans guard J.J. Redick
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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As J.J. Redick stared into the distance, he had to see this coming.

Redick will miss the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career. His Pelicans were eliminated from the postseason race yesterday.

At 13 years, Redick’s playoff streak is tied for the 13th-longest in NBA history. No current player has a longer streak at any point his career. LeBron James also had a 13-year playoff streak (which was snapped last year).

Here are the longest individual postseason streaks in NBA history:

Obviously, some of Redick’s streak was out of his control. He got drafted in 2006 by the Magic, who were rising with Dwight Howard. But Redick’s competitiveness and professionalism made him a steady contributor, and he chose winning situations with the Clippers then 76ers.

But New Orleans was too flawed to make a major leap in this Western Conference.

This clears the way for Bucks wing Kyle Korver to take over the longest active playoff streak. He has played in the last 12 postseasons, and Milwaukee has already clinched a playoff berth.

Here are the longest postseason streaks that could remain active this year.

Players whose teams have already clinched a playoff berth are in blue. Players whose teams are still in the race but haven’t clinched are in gold.

Players are listed with the teams they made the postseason with during their streaks. If they haven’t reached the playoffs with their current team, that team is listed in brackets: