Three things to know: Suspensions are coming, will LeBron get one?

Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons
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Three Things 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 going that make the NBA great.

1) Isaiah Stewart will get suspended for Lakers/Pistons fight, will LeBron?

This much is certain: The Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart will get suspended for the Lakers/Pistons fight Sunday — and this was almost a real fight. Stewart wanted it to be (he grew up boxing and wanted to hurt LeBron James). There is more actual fighting in West Side Story than most NBA “fights” — “you’re lucky this smaller teammate/coach is holding me back” — but Stewart genuinely wanted to go.

Stewart was triggered by the blood running down his face and it took nearly a full team of guys and multiple efforts to keep him away from going at LeBron. Cade Cunningman tried, the rookie was in the right place with the right intentions, but he isn’t strong enough to stop “beef Stew.” DeAndre Jordan did his job protecting the team’s best player. Stewart will get a suspension for this — despite Dwane Casey saying he shouldn’t — and the only question is how many games.

The bigger question is will LeBron get a suspension as well? It may have been unintentional — it appears he was trying to use his elbow to get Stewart’s arm off him, and LeBron did come over and try to apologize — but this is still a closed-fist shot to the face. That has led to suspensions in the past.

 

My guess? Stewart gets two games, LeBron gets a fine. But the NBA’s roulette of justice is often random and impossible to predict. We’ll see what is decided by the suits in Manhattan.

Both Stewart and LeBron were ejected for their part — and the Detroit crowd loved the LeBron result.

Pistons fans probably shouldn’t have been so happy — the incident lit a fire under the Lakers, who finally played with the urgency LeBron has wanted to see. Russell Westbrook (who got a technical for his part in the fight) caught fire, Anthony Davis blocked Cunningham twice, and the Lakers went on a 37-17 fourth quarter run to win the game and even their record at 9-9.

If this becomes the incident that somehow galvanizes these lackluster Lakers, LeBron will gladly take any punishment coming his way.

2) Luke Walton fired by Kings, now team needs to find actual solution to problems

It is not Luke Walton’s fault the Kings are 6-11, have lost 7-of-8, and are sitting 12th in the West. He was handed a “Chopped basket” of ingredients, an imbalanced core of a roster that went 31-41 last season, and was told to make it better. Walton was faced with decisions such as “should we start Chimezie Metu or Moe Harkless at the three?” (It’s been Metu, as of late.)

Walton also was not the solution in Sacramento. He was not the chef who could turn that mismatched basket into something worthwhile.

That’s why Walton was fired on Sunday, replaced in the interim by veteran NBA coach Alvin Gentry. However, GM Monte McNair will want his own guy in the big chair, either later this season or during the following offseason.

The Kings have missed the playoffs for 15 straight years, tying them for the longest streak in NBA history (with the Donald Sterling Clippers, a group you never want to be in the same sentence as). That streak started at the disastrous trying-to-sell-an-move-the-team end of the Maloof ownership era, but Vivek Ranadive took over in 2013 and has presided over more than half the streak. Gentry makes the 11th coach the Kings have had in those 15 years (and his replacement will make it an even dozen).

The Kings’ questions start here: What is the backcourt of the future? It was supposed to be anchored around De'Aaron Fox, but he has struggled this season since getting his contract extension, and he has never translated his game into becoming a halfcourt force that drives the offense. Tyrese Haliburton is good and has fundamental pick-and-roll skills, but he’s not a No. 1 offensive creator. Buddy Hield comes off the bench and can score, but is more likely to be traded than become the core of the future Kings. Davion Mitchell has played well as a rookie, but his offense still has a long way to go.

The Kings have four nice players in the backcourt, but not a player who can drive the offense consistently among them.

Harrison Barnes has been surprisingly impressive this season. Richaun Holmes is the most underrated center, and maybe player, in the game today, but he’s not driving the offense.

The Kings are a nice roster without a true No. 1 scoring option at the NBA level, and that’s not going to change no matter who is coaching.

3) Nuggets Michael Porter Jr. could miss rest of season with back issue

The basketball gods do not smile on Denver.

They have been the “if they can get Jamal Murray back healthy” possible contenders all season, but now comes this news: Michael Porter Jr. has a nerve issue in his back that could cost him the season.

Ugh.

Medical red flags about his back were why MPJ slid down to 14th in the 2018 NBA Draft. He had a microdiscectomy at Missouri that limited him to just three games played in college. After the Nuggets drafted him, Porter Jr. had another back surgery and missed an entire season trying to get right.

When he’s right, he’s a No. 2 (or maybe No. 3) option on a Nuggets team looking to contend. His potential to be that player nightly is why Denver gave him a five-year, $172 million contract extension last offseason (the fifth year is only partially guaranteed, but still that’s $145 locked in).

His back has clearly been behind Porter’s slow start to the season— 9.9 points a game on 35.9% shooting overall and 20.8% from 3.

Murray may return to the Nuggets rotation once the calendar flips to 2022, but will Porter join him? Without both of them, the Nuggets are not the contenders they otherwise might be.

Highlight of the Night: Paul George recreates his poster dunk

In 2013, Paul George did this to The Birdman in a playoff game against Miami.

Paul George recreated that dunk Sunday, with Dwight Powell in the Birdman’s place.

Last night’s scores:

LA Clippers 97, Dallas 91
LA Lakers 121, Detroit 116
Chicago 109, New York 103
Phoenix 126, Denver 97
Golden State 119, Toronto 104

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.