Three things to know: In very tight West, will any team go all in to win?

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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) In very tight West, will any team go all in to win?

Talking to someone with the Clippers less than a couple of hours before Kawhi Leonard‘s return to play, they casually said one of the reasons they were comfortable being patient was nobody had run away with the West.

They are right. On Thanksgiving, nearly 20 games into the season, just three games separate the top-seeded Suns and the out-of-the-play-in 11-seed Warriors.

It’s not like that in the East, where Boston and Milwaukee have clearly looked like the two best teams, and there is already a six-game gap between the Celtics and the 11-seed Bulls. Out East, the bar has been set (and both the Bucks and Celtics are still without key players due to injury).

Out West, no team has run away with anything — five other teams are within a game of the top-seeded Suns. Or, look at it this way: The Suns are two games away from falling from the top seed to the play-in. With so few games played who a team played matters, strength of schedule factors in more, and the Kings, Clippers and Suns are among the seven easiest schedules in the league. Things will get tougher for them.

Which leads to this question, one asked by Vincent Goodwill on Brother from Another on Peacock Wednesday:

Will any team make a bold trade and make themselves the team to beat in the West?

There are rumors of deals, but they are not necessarily a conference changers. The Jazz have been rumored to have an interest in John Collins. The Suns have their eye on Bojan Bogdanovic in Detroit among other players (and they are sending out Jae Crowder in a deal at some point, looking for players who can help them win now in return). Will any team make a move for Myles Turner? (And will the Pacers trade him, after they have gotten off to a better-than-predicted start and Turner has been a beast protecting the rim?) Buddy Held? Will the Rockets finally trade Eric Gordon?

Those are all quality role players, but what about the superstars? The players that shift the balance of power?

Nothing is sure on that front. Yet. A lot of eyes have turned to Brooklyn where the Nets look flawed and Kevin Durant looks frustrated. Then there are questions about which teams might look at themselves in the mirror come Christmas and decide to pivot toward Victor Wembanyama and the lottery. The Heat and Bulls are right with the Nets in disappointing starts, might they become sellers? (It’s hard to imagine the Heat throwing in the towel on any season, but they could put quality role players on the market beyond Duncan Robinson if they want.)

Some team in the West is going to make a move. Maybe the Mavericks find a running mate for Luka Doncic. Maybe it’s internal, like the Clippers getting Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy and on the court together for an extended stretch (they did go 3-0 when Leonard returned, only for him to sit out in a loss to the Warriors Wednesday due to his ankle). Maybe Denver cleans up their bottom-five defense. Perhaps the Pelicans get Zion Williamson healthy for an extended stretch and look like a team ready to make the leap.

Or maybe it is the Suns, but after the way they exited the last playoffs, they will have to prove their mental toughness in May, not December.

The door is open in the West. Is any team going to be bold enough to walk through it?

2) Bulls finally win a game in the clutch, knock off Bucks 118-103

Last season, the Bulls were one of the best teams in the clutch in the NBA, largely thanks to DeMar DeRozan having a career year and hitting big shots. This season, the Bulls entered Wednesday 0-7 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes (not a perfect measure of clutch, but the one that has become the standard).

But Wednesday Coby White stepped up.

The Bulls are not a team stacked with shooting that takes a lot of 3-pointers, but White is a guy that can get hot for them from deep. He had two threes in the final 90 seconds that were key, as was Alex Caruso drawing a late charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo.

DeRozan finished with 36 for the Bulls. Antetokounmpo had 36 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, Brook Lopez added 20, but the Bucks turned the ball over 20 times and that did them in.

The Bulls have now beaten the Celtics — snapping Boston’s nine-game win streak — and the Bucks in back-to-back games. It’s a huge confidence boost for a team that stumbled out of the gate, now can they sustain and build on that momentum?

3) Trae Young puts up 36 and Kings’ seven-game win streak goes down

They can’t light the beam every night.

The Sacramento Kings seven-game win streak ended at the hands of Trae Young, who can be a one-man offensive machine and put up 36 on the Kings in a 115-106 Atlanta victory.

Malik Monk led Sacramento with a season-high 27 points, but this wasn’t their night. Clint Capela added 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Hawks.

The Kings have been a great story, the second-best offense in the NBA (using the NBA.com numbers) with De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis leading the way and seemingly a different guy stepping up every night. But they have had this fun, 10-7 start against one of the softest, easiest schedules of any team so far. That’s about to change with the Celtics and Suns on the docket for their next two games (and a long road trip in December). The tests for the Kings are coming.

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.