Three things to know: No Westbrook, same problems for 0-4 Lakers

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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 that make the NBA must-watch.

1) No Westbrook, same problems for 0-4 Lakers vs. Nuggets

Russell Westbrook has not played well for the Lakers this season — shooting 28.8% overall, 8.3% from 3, a PER at the “send him to the G-League” level of 8.6 — but he also has become the Lakers fans’ scapegoat for problems much bigger than him.

Westbrook missed Wednesday’s game in Denver with a sore hamstring, Austin Reaves started in his place, but the story was familiar:

• The Lakers shot 8-of-30 from 3 (26.7%).
• The Lakers’ transition defense was dreadful, with the Nuggets starting 24% of their possessions in transition and had a 133.3 net rating on those plays (via Cleaning the Glass).
• They had no answer for Nikola Jokic who put up 31 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists (to be fair, no team has a solution for the two-time MVP).

The Nuggets pulled away for a needed 110-99 win over the Lakers. Michael Porter Jr. got the night off to rest his back and Bruce Brown stepped up with 18 points to go with his strong defense. Denver improved to 3-2 with the win.

The Lakers shooting woes go beyond Westbrook. LeBron James is averaging 8.8 3-point attempts a game and is shooting 25.7%, Lonnie Walker IV is hitting 17.4% of his 5.8 attempts a night, Kendrick Nunn is at 23.5% of his 4.3 attempts a game, and Patrick Beverley takes four a night and hits 18.8%.

The thing is, it’s not like the Lakers are missing tough, contested shots — teams are packing the paint and giving the Lakers the 3. Coach Darvin Ham is telling his team to keep shooting the open shots because in the NBA you have to take what the defense gives you, and teams are daring the Lakers to shoot.

Through four games, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 96.9 — the only team in the NBA scoring less than a point per possession.

Ham has got the Lakers playing hard on defense and playing faster (second in the league in pace). He has come in and done his job. But just like Frank Vogel before him in that seat, a chef has to use the ingredients given to him and he can only do so much. The Lakers’ issues fall on the team’s brain trust, the people constructing the roster — and that is not only the just-extended GM Rob Pelinka. He’s the public face of a front-office team that gave the Lakers this roster.

The Lakers’ problem isn’t just Russell Westbrook, it’s the entire process and decision-making that brought him to Los Angeles (including LeBron).

With each loss, the tension grows in the locker room and the pressure builds for that Laker brain trust to do something that will get this season on track before it’s too late. The problem is, there isn’t one magic move that will fix everything in Los Angeles.

2) Trail Blazers lose Damian Lillard and first game of the season

Unlike the above-mentioned Lakers, the Miami Heat came out Wednesday night and played with the desperation of a 1-3 team that needed a win badly. In the Miami way, they played a team game, moved the ball, and scored 119 points not by one star taking over but by having six players score between 14 and 18 points. Balance and good defense got the job done. The brightest spots for Heat fans were Kyle Lowry finding his groove and scoring 17 points, and the team knocking down 15 3-pointers.

At the hands of the Heat, the Trail Blazers lost their first game of the season, 119-98.

However, potentially the bigger loss was Damian Lillard leaving the game with a strained calf.

Here is what Lillard said postgame, via Sean Highkin and his Rose Garden Report (Blazers fans, you need to check it out).

“I went back on defense just to see how it would feel, and the next time running up the court I did another move and I just felt how tight it was,” Lillard said afterwards. “It wasn’t like something happened, it was just like, ‘Let’s just get it off the court and see what’s going on.'”

Lillard said if this was the playoffs he could have stayed in and played, but it’s the fifth game of the season so why risk anything? He added he likely sits out Friday’s game against the Rockets, and after that the Blazers are off until next Wednesday. A week off may be enough time to get his calf right. (Insert your own “now he has time to go to the Oregon coast” joke here.)

Miami was up nine when Lillard left the game and pulled away from there.

As I discussed with Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel, the Heat now travel for a back-to-back on the road against a rested Warriors team that is motivated after a loss. Our partners at Points Bet opened the Warriors as 7.5-point favorites… does that seem low to anyone else?

3) Raptors run right through 76ers terrible transition defense for win

The book on how to beat these 76ers is already written, and Nick Nurse picked up an early copy. The 76ers have the worst transition defense in the NBA this season, and it’s not close.

So, the Raptors ran at every opportunity Wednesday night — 22.8% of their possessions started in transition and they had an insane 1.72 points per possession on those plays. Add in a hot Gary Trent night — 5-oof-10 from 3 on his way to 27 points — and the Raptors ran past the Sixers, 119-109.

Philly is 1-4 on the season due to the 26th-ranked defense in the league. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey each went off for 31 points, James Harden had 18 points and nine assists, but the Sixers couldn’t get enough stops to win. The best news for the 76ers is that their fans are far more focused on the Phillies and Eagles than them right now.

Bonus thing to know: In sloppy, grinding game Bucks pull away to beat Nets

If you want one stat that sums up why the Brooklyn Nets are 1-3 to start the season, it’s this: Brookyn’s starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Royce O’Neil, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton have a -37 net rating through four games, with a 121.6 defensive rating.

That ugly defense and a starting five that is not meshing was a problem again as Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 43 points, 14 rebounds and five assists to keep the Bucks undefeated at 3-0 with a 110-99 win.

It was an ugly start to this game, with both teams shooting 27% through the first 10 minutes, and Jrue Holiday opened the game 1-of-7. The brightest spot for the Nets was at the end of the first half when Yuta Watanabe entered the game and replaced Claxton (a Simmons at center lineup) that went on a 16-7 run to put the Nets up a dozen at the half.

In the second half, Antetokounmpo took over (13-of-15 shooting), Steve Nash got ejected for trying to back up Patty Mills (who flopped trying to embellish a little contract and draw a foul on Antetokounmpo), and the wheels came off. The other bad news out of this was Ben Simmons occasionally grabbing his back. Durant had 33 and was brilliant, but it was not enough.

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in OT — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.