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PBT Mailbag: Shouldn’t Luka Doncic go No. 1 over Deandre Ayton?

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Welcome to the first ever edition of the PBT Mailbag. This week, we prepare for the 2018 NBA Draft as teams around the league try to scramble for Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, both, or neither.

The draft one of my favorite dates on the NBA calendar simply because most of the draft board changes via reports and rumors are simply general managers and agents trying to influence via disinformation. It’s really masterful to see, and some of them have gotten so good at it that you can barely even tell that they’re mostly full of crap.

The reality of the situation is that the draft itself is luck influenced by data analysis and risk assessment. What doesn’t become public are the most important things: parents, what their background is, what their support network is, their work ethic, whether they eat nothing but Everlasting Gobstoppers, etc. Talent can float you for you for little bit, and will rise your draft stock, but it takes work and character to go from 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo to MVP-threat Giannis Antetokounmpo. I hope all your teams draft Durants and avoid an Oden on Thursday.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Let’s get to your questions.

Incite

Who gets selected first between Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marvin Bagley and Mo Bamba?

I really like the presumption to this question, which is that the Sacramento Kings are so decidedly dedicated to their insanity that they are all but guaranteed to select Michael Porter Jr. with their No. 2 overall pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are apparently angling to take Doncic with their third overall selection, so that seems to be the answer here. Normally I like to err on the side of disbelief when it comes to big names being reported as favorites in the hours leading up to the draft. However, this is the Kings we are talking about here, and reporting about Porter being their favorite has come from some big-name, big-sourced writers.

Taking Porter with the second overall selection, complete with his injury history and murmurs about his personality, would be such a Kingsy thing to do so I am 100% all in on that definitely happening.

John

Shouldn’t it seem obvious that with the way the NBA is heading that Doncic should he the first pick? A combo guard/wing who can play multiple positions and switch onto multiple guys on defense vs Ayton; a big who can’t stretch the floor and would have trouble finding minutes and a matchup in these last finals?

The NBA has changed a lot in just a few years. Just yesterday I was talking with a friend about the difference between sort of these weird, muscly athletic guys coming out of the college game being sort of outdated already. It wasn’t too long ago that guys like Blake Griffin, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle were boasted as being positionless players. Now we are slowly talking about their limitations.

The 3-pointer is king in the NBA, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The problem with Doncic is translation. There is not some kind of comparative ratio you can use to weigh college players versus professional European players. NBA talent scouts have been looking at guys in domestic college ranks for longer than they have in Europe. Even then, resources put towards Europe versus college scouting has and still is tipped toward the scale of the NCAA.

That’s really where the reticence with Doncic lies, even if DeAndre Ayton seems a little too raw to take a chance on at No. 1. Frankly, the fact that some of the other wing type of guys aren’t higher up the list is a little bit surprising — I guess never count out an NBA team’s propensity to fall in love with a physical freak of nature.

I am not sure Ayton wouldn’t find a role in these past Finals, but certainly given his lack of experience on defense that would be the case in year one. Many of the guys in the top five feel like they will be good enough players over the next three years, a factor that may be pushed further by the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. However, as is often the case, big men are projects coming out of college unless they are can’t-miss guys like Karl-Anthony Towns. If the Sun’s take Ayton with the first pick, they are going to have to wait for him to develop. The hope is that his ceiling will be higher than Doncic’s.

Chris

What does our supreme leader Ernie Grunfield do for DC’s fourth favorite sporting franchise on Thursday night? Does he reach and draft a European superstar? How about a player with more swag than basketball skill? Think he should trade it for a sixth man type who has the season long flu?

Seriously though, is it worth grabbing a center in this day and age? Wall and Gortart’s pick and roll game was unreal when they liked each other.

Confusingly,
Chris from Philly

It feels like the Wizards could really go either way. Their backcourt and wing players are going to cost them a bajillion dollars over the next four years or so, so they could try to bring in a player they’ve had an eye on and try to replicate some of that production with a far cheaper price tag.

Then again, Gortat seemed to be on his way out over the course of this season, and was rumored to be some kind of trade bait, albeit without much value. He certainly doesn’t seem to have a future with the Wizards, and Ian Mahinmi has not really worked out for DC. John Wall does need some extra pick-and-roll help, and they need to get younger across the front line overall.

Washington is the ultimate roulette team when it comes to the draft. They’ll either get a high VORP guy like Otto Porter Jr. or Bradley Beal, or they’ll draft this year’s Jan Vesely with no inbetween.

Let’s be honest, the best thing that could happen to the Wizards during the draft is that LeBron decides to head to the Western Conference. Any selection after that is secondary.

Alfredo

Chris Paul‘s first trip to the conference finals has convinced me the only way to get a ring is to play for a team who has won before, like Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Warriors, even Cavaliers. This means, those teams who have made the playoffs, but not a deep run, are plum out of luck.

What were the fatal flaws behind the Paul-led Pelicans and Clippers that kept them from getting out of the 2nd round vs. Rockets? Of the teams to have reached the conference finals and Finals, but not won a title yet*, which new team do you see winning next? Are the Pelicans, Hornets and Clippers considered dead end franchises, just because they can’t get out of the 2nd round?

First, I really appreciate the fatalism here. It takes a special kind of broken fan to admit that they think their team will probably never win a championship and that the odds are, for whatever cosmic reason, forever stacked towards the teams who are traditional powers. I really jive with that.

I think it’s easy to say that a lot of those Chris Paul teams suffered because of injury. But there is also something to be said about the surrounding players on the bench for a lot of his squads. Do you realize that Bonzi Wells was a contributor for the Hornets the year they got beaten by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round? That was in 2008, many years after Bonzi was a useful player.

The same can be said about those Clippers teams, who had a lot of front line star power but who also rolled out the likes of Glen Davis and an ancient Danny Granger against Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the playoffs. Whose idea was that?

I wouldn’t say it’s fair to call any franchise “dead end” because team owners eventually have to die. That’s the real thing we don’t talk about enough when it comes to why the more sordid franchises are annually terrible. The Knicks would be a great destination if James Dolan decided to wear a fedora and do his Guitar Hero: Bruce Willis thing full time.

You can’t fire an owner but you can hope they sell the team. I’m not sure if that means you should root for team valuations to go up or down, but it’s something.

Daniel

Hey Dane, I wanted to know what kind of food is acceptable for a draft viewing party, and does acceptable draft night food vary for fans of different teams? I’ll take my answer off the air.

I’m really torn here because I think it depends on the context of the draft watch party. Is this a bunch of fans of one team who have struggled for years and are hoping for a breakout star to go to them in the top five? Or is this a bunch of NBA dorks getting together to watch the draft because they have nothing better to do on a Thursday night?

The former deserve to eat whatever their hearts desire. If it’s at your friend’s house, I would say you should go with the least messy thing you can find. Don’t try to eat wings at a buddy’s kitchen island. You’ll end up blowing through two rolls of paper towels all by yourself, and that’s nothing compared to when you sit down and rub something out of your eye 35 minutes later completely forgetting that you ate wings but didn’t wash your hands. You’ll start screaming, although if this is a Kings draft meetup everyone will just assume you are inconsolable about Vlade taking Michael Porter Jr.

If this shindig is just for NBA nerds, you should be doing nothing but snacking. Chex Mix, chips and maybe some guacamole. It’s a Thursday night, it’s a casual get-together, and you have to get up early in the morning.

Xander

Is there any chance Portland acquire someone that could be considered as a 3rd star without trading Collins?

No.

PDX HYPE SQUAD

Will the summer blockbuster, “Uncle Drew” be enough to get us all drinking Pepsi again?

I have to admit something: I have always been a Pepsi drinker. To be honest, seeing the Uncle Drew trailer in the theater made me want to stop drinking it. We have truly reached the zenith of capitalism when commercials that are based on a Robin Williams movie from 1993 end up as movies themselves.

Can I just say one more thing about Uncle Drew? How was it that we are in 2018 and we can turn Josh Brolin into a giant pink behemoth and a time-traveling clone, but we haven’t advanced the “make a young guy look old” technology past “Big Momma’s House”? The whole concept of these movies are unbelievable mostly because they look exactly like a guy put on 17 hours of prosthetics just to cross somebody over while Kevin Hart makes quips in the background about taking calcium to cure their broken ankles. I hope it was worth it, Kyrie Irving. I’m setting the “Uncle Drew” over/under on Rotten Tomatoes at 24.5%

Bret O

Out of LBJ, George, and Leonard, who is most likely to end up in a Sixers uni and why?

LeBron James has the most agency out of any of these guys, so it seems like he’s the least likely to head to Philadelphia. More and more rumors come out every day about how he’s heading west, although we don’t know where. Meanwhile, NBA players really do seem to love Russell Westbrook, and whether George ends up in Oklahoma City or elsewhere, I’m not sure that the 76ers are a top destination for him.

That leaves us with Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are refusing to send somewhere in the Western Conference. That fact alone so that gives the most credence that he would be the most likely to end up in Philadelphia out of these three guys. Plus, since Leonard has reportedly said he wants to head to Los Angeles, he’s completely tanked his own trade value. Philly has a few non-essential assets, and could give up something in exchange for a one-year rental on Kawhi as they try to take over the Eastern Conference and convince him to stay on for a championship run.

Andrew T.

Does Kawhi have a no-trade clause? Can he veto any trade? If he does, and refuses to play for the Spurs, do they have to pay him? Is Kawhi worth multiple first round picks?

Kawhi does not have a no-trade clause, and he does not have the ability to veto any trade. If he refuses to play, they do have to pay him although they can just go ahead and fine him right back. We have never seen a player do that for a significant amount of time that would warrant a real intervention from the league or the players union, and I don’t see that happening here.

As it stands today, Leonard is not worth multiple first-round picks. Heck, he’s not even worth one. He has completely killed his trade value, and even under regular circumstances it’s hard to tell what he would garner on a trade market that he hadn’t killed with his own hand. First round picks have sort of varied in their worth over the last decade. First, they started off as easily moved trade pieces. Then they exploded in value, sometimes becoming more important than actual good players. It seems like they’re sort of on the downslope again, although on a very shallow fall.

Doug L.

Does the concept of “hometown discount” exist anymore? Did it ever? There’s examples like Dirk & Durant taking less than they could have gotten, but I don’t remember ever seeing a guy like Evan Turner or Harrison Barnes taking less than what they feel they’re worth. Why does that always seem to come up when discussing someone like Marcus Smart‘s free agency when it almost never happens? Or even other stars like Kyrie, LeBron, Klay, or CP3?

You also have to remember the context for Evan Turner and Harrison Barnes at the time. Barnes was the guy on a team that hasn’t performed up to his potential. Giving him that kind of money was really questionable, especially within the context of how much Klay Thompson had evolved over the course of his contract.

The same can be said for Evan Turner, who was invaluable in the Eastern Conference during his time in Philadelphia and Boston, but who wasn’t necessarily an integral piece of the fabric for either. That doesn’t excuse the Portland Trail Blazers for handing him $17 million a year, but it’s not like anyone was thinking Turner would even need to take a hometown discount.

I think it does exist, but it’s nothing we need to worry about just yet. If multiple MVP-type guys start taking massive cuts just to group together on the same team, then the NBA has a problem.

Adam F.

What should be our new NBA position labels be? Currently 1=PG 2=SG 3=SF 4=PF 5=C. Why can’t we divide it into Play Maker (1) / Wings (2,3) / Bigs (4,5) In fact we could further divide it to quickly accommodate everyone’s unique contributions?

0.5 / Small Wing / Aaron Brooks, non-Boston Isiah Thomas Types, short defensive liabilities who max out as 6th man spark plugs off the bench.

1.0 / Play Maker / The fulcrum of their teams’ offense regardless of traditional size (Giannis, LeBron, Kyrie. Curry, Harden, Durant)

(You could further Classify this like 1.1 = Curry, 1.2 = Harden, 1.3 = Durant/LeBron, 1.4 = Giannis)

1.5 / Unicorn Big / Anthony Davis types. Play Makers who need someone else to initiate the offense but often finish it.

1.75 / Combo Wing / Eric Gordon types who can take over backup Play Maker duties for short stretches while the real play maker rests. Potential to become a 1.1 or 1.2

2.0 / Shooting Wing / Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson types who primarily stretch the floor with their shooting but are big enough to defend traditional guards

2.25 / 3 & 0 Wing / Tim Hardaway Jr, Andrew Wiggins types known for their offense with no accompanying defense

2.5 / 3 & D Wing / Avery Bradley, Robert Covington types known more for their defense but can still stretch the floor on offense

2.75 / 0 & D Wing / Andre Roberson, Michael Kidd-Gilcrest types known for their defense with no accompanying offense

3.0 / Big Wing / Jayson Tatum, Otto Porter types who fill in all current small forward duties, more perimeter oriented. Potential to become a 1.3

3.5 / Power Wing / Name your small ball 4 (Justise Winslow, Jae Crowder types), basically Big Wings who can’t stretch the floor.

4.0 / Power Big / Traditional Power Forward types who score buckets inside, grab rebounds. What they lack is they can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense (Karl Malone, Carlos Boozer types)

4.15 / Combo Big / Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis types who protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. What they lack is girth of a 4.5 of 5.0 and the consistency of a 1.4 or 1.5. Potential to become a 1.4 or 1.5

4.5 / Dive Big / Rudy Gobert, Clint Capella types who protect the paint, dive the lane and are quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. What they lack is the ability to stretch the floor.

4.75 / Shooting Big / Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson types can stretch the floor. What they lack is they can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense.

5.0 / B2B Big / Jonas Valanciunas or Al Jefferson types who can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. They play with their back to the basket and are ground bound

God bless the man who sees people complaining about too much math being used in the NBA and comes up with this.

I think we are missing some key positions left out here. I don’t know how you want to number them, but I think it goes like this:

2.375 / Wings who can sort of dribble but that’s it: Your Evan Turners, your Jeff Greens, your Playoff JR Smiths. What do these guys bring to your team? I don’t know, but a 55-year-old pro scout in your favorite organization loves their HEART.

2.6175 / Every wing player on the current iteration of the Sacramento Kings: No role, and all of them could end up playing as a backup shooting guard or as a small ball four in a couple of years. The only guarantee is it won’t be for the Kings.

3.29 / Young wings on your favorite team that could put it together if they just knew how to play basketball: You know the type. Your Travis Outlaws, your Jordan Clarksons. These guys show flashes of brilliance, athleticism, and top flight basketball IQ for literally minutes at a time. Then it’s right back to the tank, followed by several passes directly at the guy holding nachos courtside. Will they ever figure it out? Maybe your GM should roll the dice and give them another $10 million a year to find out. I bet they will.

4.99 / Bigs who are athletic and who can rebound but don’t have any appreciable NBA-ready skill: JJ Hickson or Thomas Robinson type of guys who don’t seem to know exactly what it is they’re doing but, boy, do they do a lot of it. They’ll get rebounds, mostly over guys exactly like them and stretch fours who would have been backup small forwards a decade ago. Local fans always overestimate how much they should be paid by at least 60%.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back on top behind MVP-to-be Harden

Associated Press
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The Houston Rockets are back on top of the power rankings, with the Raptors now second, and the Trail Blazers holding steady at fourth despite the end of their win streak. At the bottom, Phoenix has “reclaimed” the last spot and are winning their race to keep Deandre Ayton in Arizona.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (56-14, Last Week No. 2). Things look good for the Houston Rockets: They almost certainly will finish with the best record in the NBA, James Harden almost certainly will win the MVP, Ryan Anderson is back in the rotation giving Mike D’Antoni another three-point shooter to lean on (although how much Anderson can be used in playoff matchups remains to be seen), and after the dramatic 115-111 win in Portland Tuesday night the Rockets’ schedule softens up. D’Antoni has kept his rotations tight and not rested guys very often, how much will that change down the stretch?

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (53-18, LW 1). The Thunder snapped the Raptors’ 11-game win streak Sunday, but don’t read too much into that one loss: It was Toronto’s third game in four days and it showed in their legs late. Toronto plays each of the other two top teams in the East twice, starting with Cleveland Wednesday (the Celtics start next week), which makes for interesting storylines, but be careful drawing big conclusions from those games: If I’m Dwane Casey and I have a strategy I like vs. Cleveland, I’m not breaking it out for a regular season game (maybe beyond a couple of possessions at most). Save your best strategies for the games that matter.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (53-18 LW 3). Golden State should get Stephen Curry back Friday vs. Atlanta — he would have been back last weekend if this were the playoffs, but the Warriors have conceded the one seed and now are working on just getting their team healthy and rested before the postseason. With Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson banged up, the Warriors health is something to watch over the final few weeks of the season. The team says that everyone will be healthy come the start of the playoffs, and if so they will be a fully formed Voltron again, but if not the equation changes some.

 
Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (44-26, LW 5). Despite the loss to the Rockets and the end of the 13-game winning streak, Portland seems to have nearly locked itself into the three seed in the West (and the way they are defending they should be favorites in the first round). One interesting stat that could play a role in a postseason series: the Blazers have the worst shooting percentage of any team in the league at the rim, 57.1% (not including garbage time numbers, this stat via Cleaning the Glass). Also, they are 27th in the league in corner threes attempted, just 5.5% of their shot attempts.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-23, LW 4). The Marcus Smart thumb injury and surgery is a big blow, especially depending upon how much of the playoffs he misses. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender and a central part to the best defense in the NBA this season. Boston is more vulnerable in the first round without him, but would really miss him in a second-round matchup (especially if that is Cleveland). Kyrie Irving is getting a second opinion on his knee and could miss more time than originally thought, but he should still be back for the postseason, giving Boston’s offense a much-needed boost.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (43-30 LW 6).. Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a tremendous lift since getting picked up after the Lakers’ waived him. Brewer is scoring 11.7 points per game, shooting 38.2 percent from three, playing competent defense, helping them speed up the pace, and generally giving them the fifth starter they needed since Andre Roberson went down. Brewer with the other four starters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams — is +11.3 per 100 possessions. All this seems unsustainable at this level, in fact, the numbers fell back considerably after the loss to Boston, but still this move has been a big pick up for the Thunder, who had won six in a row before Tuesday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (40-31, LW 10). The Jazz had won nine in a row before Tuesday’s punch-to-the-gut loss to tanking Atlanta. Still, Utah seems destined for the playoffs (which should get Quin Snyder some Coach of the Year votes down the ballot). It’s still all about the defense for this team: Their Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert lineup has a defensive rating of just 76.4 since Crowder was traded to the team (and they use that lineup heavily). This is a tough playoff out for whoever lands them. It’s good to see Dante Exum back on the floor.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (39-30, LW 9). They have won three in a row and still have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way — 9-of-13 games against teams below .500. The Sixers are just one game back of the four seed — home court in the first round is not out of the question. But there are questions: How hard does Brett Brown and the organization push for that four seed vs. make sure Joel Embiid gets some rest down the stretch before they lean heavily on him in the postseason? And how much can they up his 31 minutes a game average in the playoffs?

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (41-30, LW 7). Injuries have caught up with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis is still out with an ankle issue, and Myles Turner missed a little time, all of which meant more Al Jefferson than the Pacers would like to see and a couple of losses. The Pacers need some quality wins — like vs. the Pelicans, Clippers, and Heat coming up this week — because of the teams in the mix for the 3/4 seeds in the East (Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia are in there, too) the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule. That includes a West Coast road swing starting next Tuesday in Golden State.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (41-29 LW 12). Kevin Love is back (he looked pretty good dropping 18 in his return from a broken hand) and Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. should be back in the rotation soon as well. Cleveland survived a recent road trip with a 3-3 record but need to rack up wins — and find some cohesion on defense — to keep the three seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Interesting test Wednesday against Toronto (they catch the Raptors on a back-to-back).

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (40-30, LW 14). The Wizards are a good three-point shooting team, hitting 37.6% of their triples once you remove the garbage time stats from the equation (via Cleaning the Glass). Which makes you wonder why they are 23rd in percentage of their shots taken from three — if you can make them, take them. What matters most to this team is the return of John Wall, which may not be that far off — Scott Brooks thinks he could get into some 5-on-5 drills in the coming days, the last step before suiting up.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (41-30, LW 16). The death of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. Just a reminder not to completely count them out, the Spurs have won four in a row and it appears they will extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons. This Spurs run of wins has come like so much of their season: Incredible defense — 0.88 points per possession allowed through the four games — and enough offense courtesy LaMarcus Aldridge to get the “W” (he’s averaging 30.25 points per game over the streak). Bet the under when the Spurs and Jazz play Friday.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (41-30, LW 5). It’s not only the Anthony Davis show since DeMarcus Cousins went down, Jrue Holiday has stepped up, too — he is shooting 41.1% from three in his last 15 games, adding the spacing the Pelicans need. In the wake of owner Tom Benson’s death, his wife Gayle runs the show now and there are not going to be big changes, according to sources. Also, the rumors that she’s going to sell the team are not true (at least not for a while, the Pelican’s lease runs through 2024). New Orleans won the first game of a rare back-to-back-to-back at home, something forced by the leaky roof postponement against the Pacers earlier this season.

 
14. Timberwolves (41-31, LW 8). The Timberwolves have gone 5-5 without Jimmy Butler, and Tuesday night against the Clippers was what we need to see more of from this team. First, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting touches and shot attempts (through the first 8 Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season). Second, there was leadership on both ends from Andrew Wiggins, who had one of his better defensive nights. Minnesota is now three games up on the Clippers and the Timberwolves have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, they are going to make the playoffs.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (38-33, LW 19). With no Dwyane Wade, in a very close game with Denver last weekend, it was Josh Richardson isolation at the end of regulation then James Johnson at the end of overtime. Neither really got to their spots on the floor for a quality shot (fortunately for Miami it dominated the second OT, so no need to look for another option). With an easier schedule than the stumbling Bucks, Miami may be destined for the seven seed and a date with Boston in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (38-33, LW 15).. Denver has started a crucial 7-game road trip 0-2, including a gut-punch loss to the Grizzlies (and the 2OT one to the Heat stung, too). Just since the start of March, the Nuggets have lost to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies — that lack of urgency and consistency is why they are two games out of the playoffs and with difficult prospects to climb back in (fivethirtyeight.com has them with a 12% chance of getting in). The Nuggets have gone 11-23 on the road this season (they are 27-10 at home) and if they don’t change their road woes around this week the playoffs will be out of reach.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (37-33 LW 13). Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are 24th in the NBA in defense, and their problems were evident Tuesday night when they had no answer to the Jeff Teague/Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and were roasted in the second half because of it. Tough road games ahead against the East coming up next — at Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — and with the Clippers 2.5 games back of the Jazz and the final playoff spot, they need to find some road wins fast.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (37-33 LW 18). The Bucks are going to make the playoffs — in large part because the teams behind them in the East have collapsed — but that’s not what people around the league are talking about with this team. The question is who will be the next coach? This is going to be a coveted job — getting to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of good role players who just need a better system in place — plus the team will be moving into a new arena. Will Bucks ownership spend what it takes to get a name/high-level coach?

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (31-39 LW 17). Remember a few weeks back when Lonzo Ball torched the Spurs from three because, as coach Gregg Popovich admitted after the game, their game plan was to go under the pick and dare him to beat them from deep, then Ball did just that? Teams in the NBA learn, they are now trailing over the top on Ball, not letting him have uncontested looks, and since Spurs game he’s shooting just 23.1% from three (and 30.3% overall). Ball is good from three if he gets some room and his feet set, but teams have figured that out and are taking his space away.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (32-39, LW 20). Detroit has played poorly of late and is going to miss the playoffs. What happened in Detroit? Blake Griffin is getting blamed for it. Stan Van Gundy likely will lose his GM title for it (and we’ll see if he is back as coach next season). However, the reality is this team came apart when point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt. Since he went out Dec. 27 the Pistons were 12-25 without him — they were 19-14 with him. Jackson returned Tuesday in a limited role (15 minutes) but it will be too little, too late for the Pistons this season.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-41, LW 21). Nicolas Batum is going to miss some time to deal with chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles — a real concern because that doesn’t exactly heal well. Much like Mike Conley in Memphis, it requires constant monitoring and plenty of rest during the season. Before the All-Star break the Hornets were a middle of the pack defensive team in the NBA. Since the break they are 26th in the NBA giving up 6.6 points more per 100 possessions.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (23-49, LW 24). No team of late has given a higher percentage of minutes to first and second year players than the Kings — and there have been bright spots. Specifically, back-to-back wins last weekend against Miami and a banged-up Golden State team where rookie point guard D’Aaron Fox was making clutch plays. The Kings have started out 0-1 on a six-game homestand at the Golden One Center where the home fans can get a good look at the young players themselves.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (23-48, LW 25). Part of what the Nets wanted to do after the All-Star break is give a lot of minutes to D’Angelo Russell and see what they really have in a player eligible for a contract extension this summer. He has shown flashes of both an ability to score and ability to lead a team, but the simple matter is the Nets have been 4.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is off the court, with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end. My guess is Russell is back next season without an extension and hits restricted free agency in 2020.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (26-45, LW 28). New York easily took care of Chicago on Monday night, meaning the Knicks almost certainly will enter the lottery in the nine slot (a 6.1% chance of jumping up into the top three). Few people around the league expect Jeff Hornacek to keep his job past this season, but who replaces him? Mark Jackson’s name gets mentioned. New York would be wise to get David Fizdale in early and talk to him. Whoever gets the gig, with Kristaps Porzingis likely out for the first half of next season, the new coach needs a long leash to build a culture that can win with KP in a couple of seasons.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (24-46 LW 22).. Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are two of the young cornerstone pieces the Bulls think they have going forward. One problem, when they are on the court together this season, the Bulls get outscored by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. When those two are paired, the Bulls score less then a point per possession and are sieve defensively. This is over the course of 308 minutes, so while there is certainly noise in that number it’s not inconsequential. Chicago may not be able to keep both.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (22-49 LW 23). Whatever Mark Cuban says — and he should be far more focused on off the court Dallas issues right now rather than on it — the Mavs players are not tanking. The team just went 1-3 on a recent road trip, but in the losses they took the Raptors to overtime and played both the Nets and Pelicans tight. Another week, another milestone for Dirk Nowitzki, who is now fifth on the NBA’s career regular season games played record.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (21-50, LW 26). With Elfrid Payton shipped West, D.J. Augustin has played well as a point guard for Orlando since the All-Star break. It’s a lone bright spot in an offense where Aaron Gordon missed time, Evan Fournier is still out, and after some impressive play lately Jonathon Simmons missed Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-50, LW 27). Atlanta is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip thanks to a surprising win over the Jazz Tuesday. Dennis Schroder went off in that game for 41. Before that, the bright spot for the Hawks lately has been Taurean Prince, who dropped 38 points Saturday, and now has two 35+ point games this season, the first Hawk to do that since Joe Johnson.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (19-51, LW 30). Tyreke Evans is back on the court, and not surprisingly the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak came to an end. If the “Most Improved Player” award were still the “Comeback Player of the Year” award Evans would be in the mix, despite playing just 51 games (so far). Evans has averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 39.2% from three, he’s going to make more money than the Grizzlies can afford this summer and they will lose him.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-53, LW 29). Losers of nine in a row, the Suns have “reclaimed” the bottom spot in the rankings. The Suns are on pace to finish the season with the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA by net rating — an “impressive” feat. They will probably have the best lottery odds going into it (25% chance at No. 1), and if they get the top pick you can bet they would love to keep DeAndre Ayton in Arizona.

Reports: Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas traded to Brooklyn for Trevor Booker

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Jahlil Okafor is going to get his chance to prove he can contribute in the NBA.

For their trouble, Philadelphia is going to get some veteran depth up front.

The Sixers are sending Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas, plus a second-round pick, to Brooklyn for veteran power forward — and impressive dunker — Trevor Booker, a story broken by Zach Lowe of ESPN.

Okafor has been on the trade block for more than a year, the Sixers finally found a deal they like. This was a good deal for both teams.

It’s good that Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft (one spot ahead of Kristaps Porzingis) who has battled injuries and an NBA game that has moved away from his skill set. Okafor is a project, he doesn’t have much shooting range nor can he defend very well (in space or at the rim). He plays below the rim. He may not be the star that he was projected to be, but in Brooklyn Okafor will get a chance to show he can get buckets around the rim and out of the post, and that he has a role in the league. There is potential for him in an Al Jefferson/Zach Randolph kind of role (likely off the bench).

Brooklyn also gets a shooter in Stauskas who was out of the rotation in Philly (with J.J Redick and Timothe Luwawu getting run ahead of him). The Nets are rebuilding, and taking a flier on a couple of former first-round pick is the kind of gamble they should be taking. The Nets now have two of the top three picks from the 2015 draft, they got D'Angelo Russell from the Lakers last summer.

Philadelphia is eyeing the playoffs, and Booker gives them a solid big man off the bench that they can pair with Amir Johnson and/or Richaun Holmes. Booker is a glue guy who plays with energy every night — exactly the kind of veteran the Sixers have tried to surround their young core with. The Sixers get better in the short term with this move.

Hot Timberwolves ready for litmus test vs. champion Warriors

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won five straight games, five head coaches and nearly nine long years ago, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the team. Kevin Love was a rookie, still coming off the bench. Fifteen different players started at least one game.

Karl-Anthony Towns had just turned 13. President George W. Bush was still in the White House.

The woebegone Wolves have waited a long time for this. They will play at Golden State on Wednesday night, just one-half game behind the defending NBA champion Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference. Forget for a moment that the regular season is merely 12 percent complete. For the first time in, well, 13 years or so the Wolves will be a legitimate participant in a marquee national game on ESPN rather than a token opponent.

“You want to see where you are and how you measure up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone in the league is chasing them.”

These Wolves (7-3) have produced the franchise’s best 10-game start to the schedule since a 9-1 record in 2001 when Kevin Garnett was 25, Terrell Brandon was the point guard and Anthony Peeler was the first player the off the bench.

With only three players who’ve been on the roster longer than three years, there aren’t as many scars in the locker room as all that franchise futility would suggest. The last few seasons have been frustrating enough, though.

“It’s something that’s changing around here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Shabazz Muhammad, who with fellow reserve Gorgui Dieng has the longest tenure in their fifth year.

The 2008-09 team finished 24-58, so the early January success was clearly not a harbinger.

The Wolves have lost 461 games between the end of that streak and now, so even three solid weeks to start a season is an accomplishment. Thibodeau was hired to take them much further than that, of course.

The hard-driving, no-nonsense coach sure won’t be satisfied with this team’s progress anytime soon, and neither will these players, from 17-year veteran Jamal Crawford to Towns, who’s still only 21.

“We just want to keep doing more of what we’re doing,” Crawford said after practice on Tuesday.

That’s continuing to better the defense, for one.

The Wolves have held three consecutive opponents under 100 points, with newcomers Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford beginning to pick up the tendencies of their returning teammates and the young core of Towns and Andrew Wiggins starting to learn the principles of helping and switching under the defensive-minded Thibodeau. Chemistry is just as important when they’re guarding the basket as it is when they have the ball.

“It’s still a work in progress,’ Thibodeau said, “but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

The depth, and the versatility of that depth, is another area of vast improvement. The second team, which Thibodeau has played together as a unit for several stretches at a time, includes Tyus Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Dieng. When they are in, there has not been a drop-off at all from the star-studded starting lineup.

The Wolves are shooting 3-pointers more effectively and often, too, another long-running weakness of this team going back dozens of players and a handful of head coaches. With Towns in the paint and Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves already have two of the league’s best offensive players.

“They can definitely score. They have three or four guys out there that can get 20 on any given night,” said Charlotte Hornets power forward Marvin Williams, whose team lost at Minnesota on Sunday night. “They are definitely tough to stop.”

Then there’s Butler, the alpha wolf who Thibodeau wanted so badly as a tough, experienced two-way player who would not only challenge his teammates to excel but selflessly defer to them on the court as needed.

“When I feel like it’s my time to shoot, I’ll shoot it,” Butler said. “But as of right now, my teammates are rolling. Feed them. Let them get us going.”

Butler’s attitude and perspective might be the biggest upgrade the Wolves have made among so many.

“Often times you hear people say things, and they never do the things that they say. But when you watch what they’re doing, it tells you what’s important to them,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy has always played that way.”

 

Report: Celtics interested in Jahlil Okafor but won’t give up first-round pick

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Jahlil Okafor is a project. The game has moved away from the former No. 3 pick, he doesn’t have much shooting range nor can he defend very well (in space or at the rim). Okafor plays below the rim. But he can get buckets around the rim and out of the post, and there is potential for him in an Al Jefferson/Zach Randolph kind of role (likely off the bench).

The Sixers have given up on that development, Okafor is out of their overstocked front-court rotation. They are trying to trade him to a team that wants to take a chance on that development potential.

The Celtics are one of those teams. What has stalled the deal is Boston will not give up a first-round pick for him, reports Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

Philadelphia does not want to buy out his contract and then watch him sign with a conference rival with no compensation. The Celtics have long held interest in Okafor, but as more of a project than an immediate contributor. Boston is also not willing to part with a first-round pick for Okafor.

Boston is in the right here. Sure, Danny Ainge has been a hoarder when it comes to future picks and he has them to spare, plus they have the Gordon Hayward injury exception in which to absorb the salary. But Okafor is a long-term project and Boston is a team that is winning now, plus since the Sixers didn’t pick up his fourth-year option, Okafor is a free agent at the end of the season. How much should Boston really give up?

The Sixers seem to have unrealistic expectations of what Okafor can fetch on the market right now — Okafor himself basically told the Sixers he has no trade value and they need to let him go for less. The Sixers aren’t going to get more than a second-round pick, yet they seem more concerned about the perception of how they look giving up on a former No. 3 pick for basically nothing than doing the right thing (the current Sixers regime seems very concerned about PR after the Sam Hinkie era).

You can be sure that players and agents around the league are taking notice of how the Sixers are treating Okafor right now, and it will factor into future decisions.