Three things to know: Jazz are 8-3, swept Los Angeles, and are… good?

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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) Jazz are 8-3, swept Los Angeles, and are… good?

One simple but usually effective tool for deciding who is and is not a contender is does it have a top-10 offense and defense. For example, in the West the 7-2 Phoenix Suns meet the criteria.

So do the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz are 8-3 — a 59-win pace — and just swept through Los Angles after they out-executed the Clippers down the stretch for a 110-102 win. The Jazz have a +5 net rating (+3.7 if you remove garbage time, still eighth best in the league and a better than 50-win pace).

Nobody expected this outside the Jazz locker room. While the franchise would tell anyone that would listen they planned to win games, that was greeted with eye rolls. The Jazz traded both their biggest stars (plus shipped out Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale) last summer and were expected to struggle with a mismatched roster and an expectation of more trades and tanking to come.

Lauri Markkanen has found health, a home, and a comfort level in the offense scoring 21.8 points per night. Jordan Clarkson can thrive as a starter averaging 17.9 a game. Collin Sexton is finally healthy and getting buckets at 14.4 a game. Mike Conley is still a quality point guard, Kelly Olynyk and Malik Beasley can shoot, and rookie coach Will Hardy has pulled the whole thing together. The Jazz are a true team, with six players averaging double-figures in points.

Can the Jazz sustain this? Probably not at a +50-win pace, but yes they can. The Jazz have been lucky with a softer start to the schedule and catching teams with injuries, plus their bench is playing over its head, and opposing teams will shoot better than 32.3% on 3-pointers against them over the course of the season.

But the Jazz can hang at playoff/play-in level — Markkanen can play at this level when healthy, Olynyk and Conley will remain solid vets, and Clarkson can be a playmaker, not just a scorer. If Danny Ainge doesn’t blow this roster up at the trade deadline, Utah looks more like a playoff team than a lottery team.

As for the Clippers — who lost because they missed all 11 3-pointers in the fourth quarter — they remain hard to read and still lack Kawhi Leonard, who has played just two games and 41 minutes this season.

“We knew coming off an ACL it wasn’t going to be a straight line,” Clippers coach Tyronne Lue said pregame of Leonard. “We talked about it before the season. The biggest thing is he’s progressing well. We’re just going to follow the lead of our medical staff. We got to be smart about the situation.”

The Clippers feel disjointed and like a team still figuring out some basic things about itself, but they have hung in at 5-5 through the early-season issues.

2) LeBron’s comments sum up red-hot Cavaliers, slowed Lakers after Cavs win.

LeBron James was at crypto.com Arena Sunday, but Donovan Mitchell was the best player in the building. Mitchell dropped 33 points on Los Angeles, his backcourt running mate Darius Garland added 24, and the Cavaliers got a comfortable 114-100 win over the Lakers.

After the game, LeBron Jamepraisedon the Cavaliers and their offseason move to land Mitchell.

“I got in trouble last time when I was just giving an honest opinion…” about the Cavs, referencing the last All-Star break, LeBron joked postgame, via the AP. “They did a great job in the offseason of picking up a big-time player. They have a really good team and a great coach. A well-balanced team and a bunch of players [who] seem like they just really want to play ball.”

The Lakers have looked better with Russell Westbrook coming off the bench — and he has looked better, including 19 points and 10 assists Sunday. But the Lakers are now 2-7 on the season, and while Darvin Ham is getting everything possible out of this roster, there are limitations. A day ago, Anthony Davis said the Lakers are “not the team our record shows.”

LeBron was more honest, via Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

“We are who we are,” LeBron James said.

The Lakers put in the work on defense (seventh in the league) and the overall effort is there most nights, but this team lacks shooters and overall offensive punch — dead last in the league in offensive rating — and it costs them games. A lot of games so far. And there is no easy fix for Darvin Ham. This is a front-office mess.

3) Pascal Siakam out indefinitely with adductor strain; Raptors beat Bulls anyway

Pascal Siakam has been tearing it up this season — 24.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game (all would be career-highs). He is a key reason the Raptors are over .500, with wins over Miami, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Now the Raptors will be without him for a while.

This is more commonly called a groin strain and those take more than a couple of weeks to heal, most of the time.

No Siakam will put more pressure on Scottie Barnes to step up, but on Sunday Fred VanVleet was the one taking over as he put up a 30-spot and the shorthanded Raptors beat the (also shorthanded) Bulls 113-104.

When we talk about contenders with top 10 offenses and defenses? That’s the Raptors too, so far this season. This is a better team than fans realize.

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.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.