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With $32M on the line and Timberwolves needing him more than ever, Karl-Anthony Towns coming into his own

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DETROIT – Karl-Anthony Towns unknowingly walked up on Anthony Tolliver getting interviewed about Towns in the Timberwolves’ locker room.

“Hey, what’s up, man,” Tolliver said. “I’m not talking about you or nothing.”

Towns laughed. Then, as Tolliver returned complimenting him, Towns realized Tolliver made more than a random joke.

“Wait,” Towns said. “Were you talking about me?”

Towns urged Tolliver to change topics – to Towns’ flaws, to Tolliver’s own 3-point shooting, to anything else. Towns even jokingly threatened to throw fruit at Tolliver.

This is the Towns who earlier this season resisted being labeled of one of Minnesota’s most important players. He’s prone to just trying to fit in.

But Towns has special talent. The Timberwolves need him to assert himself.

Hope of Towns co-starring with Andrew Wiggins, the reigning Rookie of Year and previous No. 1 pick when Towns got drafted No. 1, has nearly completely faded. Wiggins has stagnated (at best) since signing a max contract extension two years ago.

Jimmy Butler temporarily commandeered the scene in Minnesota. While Butler was carrying the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years last season, it made sense for Towns to defer. But Butler is gone, reportedly at Towns’ request (and definitely at Butler’s).

This team is now clearly Towns’ and Towns’ alone. He might finally be embracing it.

“There’s a lot on my shoulders, but good thing I’ve got broad shoulders,” Towns said.

In six games since a car crash he said could have killed him, Towns is averaging 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game. Even for someone who has already established himself as a star, Towns might be turning the corner into superstardom.

The timing could be lucrative.

If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, his upcoming extension will project to be worth $190 million over the next five years. If he misses the All-NBA teams an super-max eligibility, the extension projects to be worth $158 million – $32 million less.

Will Towns get one of three All-NBA center spots?

He appears to be in a six-man race with the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Magic’s Nikola Vucevic. Here’s how they compare in points, rebounds assists, blocks and steals per game and PER, win shares and real plus-minus:

Player PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER WS RPM
Nikola Jokic 20.5 10.8 7.7 0.6 1.4 26.9 9.9 6.5
Anthony Davis 26.8 12.3 4.0 2.5 1.6 30.5 9.4 6.1
Joel Embiid 27.3 13.5 3.5 1.9 0.6 25.4 7.2 4.3
Rudy Gobert 15.5 12.9 2.1 2.2 0.8 24.3 11.0 4.6
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.2 12.2 3.3 1.7 0.9 26.6 9.2 4.3
Nikola Vucevic 20.6 12.0 3.9 1.2 1.0 26.0 8.3 5.5

Towns will have a tough time catching Jokic, who will get onto many MVP ballots.

Davis has already missed 16 games and will receive only limited minutes the rest of the season. The negative effects of his trade request on New Orleans should count against him. But his incredible production while on the court should also matter.

Embiid has missed 11 games and counting. How quickly and how well he returns from his knee injury will swing his candidacy.

Gobert wasn’t even an All-Star, but that was determined by Western Conference coaches, not the media who’ll pick All-NBA. Gobert’s All-Star snub generated a lot of publicity that might even help his All-NBA case. Defensive-minded players like him also tend to fare better with All-NBA than All-Star, because voters are also considering Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. Gobert is a leading candidate for that award.

Vucevic is in his first season playing on this level. If nothing else, there will be no voter fatigue with him.

Other players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Andre Drummond could also get All-NBA votes. In a close race, those could determine who actually lands on the All-NBA teams.

At minimum, Towns’ All-NBA window is open.

Towns earning the pay bump would further squeeze a team with at least a couple players on undesirable contracts – Wiggins (four years, $122,242,800 remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33,516,853 remaining) and arguably Jeff Teague (one year, $19 million player option remaining). But Towns playing well down the stretch would carry its own value.

“Karl deserves to be an All-NBA player,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.

By traditional big-man standards, Towns – averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game – looks like a lock. But he knows better.

In the previous 40 years, 25 players averaged 24-12 (minimum: 50 games). Only one didn’t make an All-NBA team – Towns in 2017.

In a system that awards five points for a first-team vote, three points for a second-team vote and one point for a third-team vote, Towns landed just four voting points behind DeAndre Jordan for third-team center. If Towns had made All-NBA that season, he would have already clinched super-max eligibility. Nothing would have been on the line this season.

Towns said he thought he’d make All-NBA in 2017.

“It was a learning experience,” said Towns, who declined to elaborate on what he learned.

So many learning experiences lie ahead for Towns, who’s just 23. He has looked sharper on defense – by far his biggest deficiency – and improved passing out of double-teams. But there’s so much more room to grow. A reason Minnesota is just 30-35 is Towns’ defensive shortcomings.

Still, he brings so much offensively. Towns is the only player making 70% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his 3-pointers (minimum: 100 attempts each). He makes it look easy.

“He’s so talented,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “There’s nothing in this league, in the game of basketball, that I doubt him in.”

Towns has 44.1 career win shares. Since Towns entered the NBA in 2015, only four players – James Harden (54.9), Stephen Curry (47.3), LeBron James (46.9) and Kevin Durant (46.0) – have produced more win shares. But Towns is way younger than those four.

Here’s everyone who played in the NBA the last four seasons, sorted by age this season and win shares over the last four seasons. Harden, Curry, LeBron, Durant (who’s hiding behind Curry) and Towns are pictured:

image

Russell Westbrook recently trash-talked Towns during a game: “Get to the f—ing playoffs before you speak to me.” The diss was particularly cruel because the Timberwolves made the playoffs last year. But they got rolled by the Rockets in five games in the first round, Towns fading into the background of the series. It was quite forgettable.

There’s still plenty of time for Towns to make a bigger impact. Though further advancement might require roster upgrades around him, he has the tools to eventually lead the Timberwolves back into the playoffs and make a lasting impression.

Will he embrace that challenge and the accompanying spotlight or shirk the responsibility?

“He wants it,” Tolliver said. “And you can’t really say that about everybody. Some guys, they might say they want it, but their actions don’t say it. So, I think that he’s kind of a rare breed.”

As front office looks toward free agency, starless Clippers winning now

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CHARLOTTE – The Clippers have no All-Stars here.

Not Danilo Gallinari. Not Montrezl Harrell. Not even Tobias Harris, who spent most of the season with L.A. before getting traded to the 76ers.

Heck, nobody who has played for the Clippers this season – including Gallinari, Harris and Lou Williams – has ever made an All-Star team.

No Clippers are participating in All-Star Saturday Night events, either. Their only representative here is rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Yet, the Clippers are an impressive 32-27.

“When you just have a bunch of guys that are selfless and just want to play for each other and just want to ultimately win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “things like that happen.”

The Clippers are on pace for one of the best-ever records for a team with no past or present All-Stars. Here all the all-time leaders (counting only seasons with an All-Star game):

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The Clippers’ success is particularly surprising because this was supposed to be a transitional year for them.

They moved on historically quickly from the Chris PaulBlake GriffinDeAndre Jordan Lob City era. Everyone from the Clippers’ 2012-17 teams was gone before the season even began. Since the early 1950s, only these Clippers, the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely turned over their rosters within two seasons.

The Clippers have made no secret of their interest in Kawhi Leonard. They’re also reportedly pursuing Kevin Durant. Jimmy Butler could be in the mix.

“The front office and coaches and teammates are all competitive guys and want to be good for a long time,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Here’s the rub: Many of Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates might not be around for that ultimate goal.

To open a projected $57 million in cap space this summer,* the Clippers had to stock their roster with expiring contracts.

*Based on the Clippers renouncing all their free agents and not having a first-round pick. L.A. owes the Celtics a lottery-protected first-rounder.

Beverley will be a free agent this summer. So will Harris and likely Avery Bradley, who got dealt to the Grizzlies shortly before the trade deadline and has just $2 million of his $12.96 million salary next season guaranteed. So will Marcin Gortat, who got waived around the trade deadline.

Yet, these players put aside personal agendas to help a franchise that’s transparently looking past them. It’s a tribute to the players. It’s a tribute to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, too. This team has played hard and shown great camaraderie.

It won’t get easier even after moving Harris, L.A.’s top player this season who’s entering free agency. Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple and Wilson Chandler – acquired before the trade deadline – also have expiring contracts.

Don’t assume the Clippers will fall off now. They added solid vets who could fit this culture.

The Clippers’ identity – starless, transient – remains intact. The winning could, too.

It’s not that the Clippers got snubbed. I thought none deserved to be an All-Star.

That’s the beauty of this team.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors reign as teams head into All-Star Weekend

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It seems appropriate to head into the All-Star break with the Warriors on top of the Power Rankings, but it feels like slots 2-7 could be shuffled in any order any week and it wouldn’t be wrong, those teams are all essentially even. Programming note: Since the league is off for a week around the All-Star break and there are just a handful of games between now and next Wednesday, the NBC NBA Power Rankings will take a week off, then return in two weeks.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-15, last week No. 2). Any discussion about Golden State understandably focuses on their stars — this Sunday will be the fourth straight year Golden State has three or more All-Stars, the last team to do that was the Celtics way back when JFK was president in 1960-63. However, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the starting lineup has meant a boost for the second unit with the play of Kevon Looney, who brings some athleticism around the rim to the team. Everything is clicking for the Warriors, who have won five in a row and 16-of-17.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (42-14, LW 1). Teams that suffer their worst loss of the season — as Milwaukee did against Saturday against Orlando — don’t hang on to the top spot in the power rankings, but don’t read too much into that one game. The loss was because Giannis Antetokounmpo was off for the night, and the rest of the team took it off, too. The pickup of Nikola Mirotic fits in perfectly with Mike Budenholzers’ system in Milwaukee — the Bucks shoot more threes than any team in the East but are middle of the pack in accuracy, they need what Mirotic brings to the table. They will get that once he gets healthy and gets in the lineup. Which could be Wednesday night against Indiana (he’s close), if not certainly after the All-Star break.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 5). Nick Nurse and the Raptors are still figuring it all out, but Marc Gasol with the second unit in Toronto shows a lot of promise. Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner against Brooklyn dominated the highlights (with good reason, check it out below) but the Raptors starting five with Serge Ibaka in the paint was -4 in that game. However, some of the lineups with Marc Gasol at the elbow/midpost as the offensive fulcrum surrounded by athletes and shooters — Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby — had strong runs that helped get the Raptors the win and showed real promise. The kind of promise that will be hard to match up with in the postseason. The Jeremy Lin pickup should help mitigate the loss of Fred VanVleet for a few weeks (thumb injury).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (37-19, LW 6). Paul George is putting together a season that is going to get him MVP votes — Damian Lillard said he deserved the award after the Thunder beat the Blazers Monday night — but what also has fueled OKC’s 11-of-12 win streak is three-point shooting. The Thunder are hitting 44.1% of their 31.3 attempts a night from beyond the arc in the last dozen games, the best percentage in the NBA during that stretch. For comparison, the Thunder are a 35% team from three on the season (on basically the same number of attempts). Jerami Grant is knocking down everything and is a big part of that.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (35-21, LW 3). Gordon Hayward is getting his legs back, he is attacking the rim and closing out shots there much more often, and his legs are under his jumper. In his last 10 games he has taken 46.5 percent of his shots in the paint, and overall he’s averaging 11.8 points per game on 50% shooting overall and 42.3% from three. That includes 26 points against the Sixers in a statement win Tuesday night. The Celtics needed that win to shake off the two ugly losses against the Los Angeles teams, but against an Eastern foe (and without Kyrie Irving) the Celtics looked like the team we expected to lead the East this season.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (36-20, LW 7). The addition of Tobias Harris to the starting lineup in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid has worked very well so far. Through three games, that fivesome is +21 in 53 minutes, and that includes a 14-7 run against Denver late in that game that helped Philadelphia seal a win. However, as the loss to the Celtics Tuesday showed, the question will be the bench behind those five can bring (even with Brett Brown staggering his stars some). In the last three games, the Sixers are +6 total with lineups that are not the starters (and the bench units were -7 against Boston).

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (38-18, LW 4). Denver dropped three in a row on the road, not coincidentally the three games that Paul Millsap was out. Their defense falls apart without him to do the dirty work and little things. He returned against Miami at home, Denver wins. The Nuggets may be the one team most settled into a playoff slot in the otherwise crowded West. It’s hard to imagine they will make up 2.5 games on Golden State for the top seed, but they have a five-game cushion over the five seed (Rockets). Denver is going to have home court in the first round, the team just wants to stay in the 2/3 seed slots (and avoid the other side of the bracket where they would meet Golden State in the second round).

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (38-19, LW 12). This team is not giving up its plans for having home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs without a fight as the Pacers have rattled off six straight wins (against some soft competition, but still). Give coach Nate McMillan a lot of credit. The buyout market pickup of Wesley Matthews is a good one, he is kind of a Victor Oladipo-lite who can fill some of those same roles and fits with the balanced attack that has made the Pacers such a tough team to beat this season (and that lack of a weak link will make them a playoff threat as well, Indiana will not be an easy out).

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (33-23, LW 9). Iman Shumpert, and to a lesser extent James Ennis (go Long Beach State!) could be critical to any playoff run Houston makes. The offense isn’t the question, not with James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games at 30 and counting. The often-discussed challenge is on the defensive end, where the Rockets have been bottom 10 all season, and that has continued through the last 10 games. Shumpert had a resurgence in Sacramento few saw coming, and Ennis is long and athletic. The Rockets need them to step up and disrupt some quality scorers down the stretch and into the postseason.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (32-25, LW 11). Utah may not have landed Mike Conley at the trade deadline (he will still be available this summer), but they did add some depth at the position with Raul Neto and returning to action. Utah now is off through the All-Star break — but Rudy Gobert should have been in Charlotte. Last Saturday Gobert matchup up against Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and owned the battle dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus grabbing 13 boards and blocking a couple shots, while holding Aldridge to 15 points on 16 shots. Gobert took the snub personally.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (33-23, LW 8). It’s only been three games (and Portland lost two of them), but Rodney Hood has looked good as a trade deadline pickup, averaging 10.3 points per game on 68.4% shooting and hitting 55.6% from three. Obviously, he’s not going to keep shooting at that pace, but he is providing an additional scoring threat and that’s what Portland was counting on. I also like the trade deadline roll of the dice on Skal Labissiere, I feel like there’s a solid player in there if they develop him.

 
Kings small icon 12. Kings (30-26, LW 14). Harrison Barnes has looked like a guy still trying to figure out his fit — and his teammates are doing the same — after a couple of lackluster games. Some practice time over the All-Star break should help with that, and expect coach Dave Joerger to raid Rick Carlisle’s playbook for some of the things Barnes liked in Dallas (and he took over a lot of the old Nowitzki sets). As of this writing, the Kings are the eighth seed in the West and have the final playoff spot, percentage points ahead of the Clippers (it’s a virtual tie). LeBron and the Lakers loom 2.5 games back, but the Kings are also just 1.5 back of the 6/7 seed Spurs and Jazz.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (31-27, LW 13). Los Angeles went 3-3 on its Grammys road trip, but in each of the wins the team trailed by 20+ points and came back to steal the win. While the conventional wisdom is trading Tobias Harris was a sign the Clippers planned to give up their playoff chase, the trade of Avery Bradley for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green is the opposite — Bradley had not been great for Los Angeles and the team picked up a couple of quality rotation players. While they may still miss the playoffs, this team will be competitive and will not roll over.

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (33-24, LW 10). The Spurs were thrown off the bucking bull to start the Rodeo road trip, dropping four in a row until they barely beat the Grizzlies on Tuesday (the road trip has three more games on it through the East after the All-Star break). The problem in San Antonio continues to be the defense, it is bottom 10 on the season and worse of late — in the last 10 games the Spurs have allowed 118.8 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA over that stretch. The defense isn’t going to magically improve over the All-Star break, the Spurs are going to have to score their way into the postseason.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (29-29, LW 15). D’Angelo Russell will be the first Nets All-Star since Joe Johnson when he steps on the court Sunday, a nice bit of redemption for a guy Magic Johnson said was not a leader as he pushed Russell out the door (to cover the Timofey Mozgov contract, but that ended up a high price for LA). What the Nets need is Russell to help them turn things around on the court fast — the Nets have lost 5-of-6, have fallen back to .500, and no longer look like a playoff lock (they are just 2.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat).

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (26-29, 22). The Pistons have won four in a row and 5-of-6 to push back into the playoff picture (the Pistons are currently the eight seed in the East, one game up on Miami and 1.5 on surging Orlando). The reason for the good play of late isn’t anything exotic — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson have played well together and off each other during this streak. That’s the big three in Detroit and as they go the team goes.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (27-29, LW 16). Kemba Walker deserves his turn in the spotlight this weekend as the hometown starter for the Hornets when the All-Star Game comes to Charlotte. It was surprising to see the Hornets — fighting to both make the playoffs and impress Walker so he stays as a free agent next summer — stand pat at the trade deadline. They were in the mix but missed out on Marc Gasol, and could make nothing else work. There are rumors Walker was unhappy with the lack of activity, we’ll see if that translates to anything come July.

 
Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (26-30, LW 20). Just to add to the legend of Luka Doncic: In the final three minutes of games within three points this season, Doncic 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 percent) including 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) from three. He is already clutch. While he’s not in the main All-Star game Saturday (the fans would have voted him in as a starter) he’s the favorite to be the Rising Stars MVP on Friday, then will be in the Skills Competition on All-Star Saturday. The NBA is going to hype him up as much as they can.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (26-32, LW 23). Orlando is back in the playoff picture after winning four in a row and 6-of-7 — the Magic are just 1.5 games out of the final playoff slot in the East. In those last seven games the Magic have won with defense, locking teams up and holding them to a point per possession (which has led to a +11.6 net rating in those games. What does that kind of defense look like? Watch Jonathan Isaac block John Collins three times on one possession.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (28-29, LW 17). The Lakers went 2-4 on their Grammys road trip, they are 2-3 in the games LeBron James has played since he returned, and the loss to Atlanta on Tuesday night was a punch to the gut. It’s not rocket science to figure out what has happened, the Lakers’ defense has fallen apart — on the road trip the team surrendered 119.7 points per 100 possessions (for comparison, the Cavs have the worst defense in the NBA for the season allowing 116.3). Missing Lonzo Ball doesn’t help, but this is much larger, much more systemic than that. Los Angeles’ defense earlier in the season was respectable (for a 30-game stretch they allowed less than 105 per 100), but it has devolved, and that could land Luke Walton in hot water after the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (26-30, LW 18). The Timberwolves opportunity to make a playoff push seems to have gone the way of the Dodo after the team dropped 6-of-8 including every game on a three-game road trip against beatable teams (Memphis, Orlando, and New Orleans). Minnesota has gone 7-9 under Ryan Saunders (who took over for the fired Tom Thibodeau as coach) and the fact this team has not make a playoff push doesn’t seem to speak well of his chances of holding onto this job long term.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (25-30, LW 19). The road has not been kind to Miami, which has slid out of a playoff position as the team has gone 1-3 on an ongoing road trip and 6-of-7 overall. Miami realized where it stands and its trade deadline moves were about the bottom line — it saved more than $8 million against the luxury tax for the team. It also opened up the roster a little bit and could lead to more minutes for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, we’ll see if they can be consistent and do anything with that extra run.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (25-33, LW 21). Is it really better for the Pelicans and the league to play a disgruntled Anthony Davis – who had three points on 1-of-9 shooting on Tuesday night against Orlando, then ripped his teammates after the game — than to just sit him. Even if the league fined the Pelicans $100K a game that’s “just” $2.4 million, not an insane sum in the NBA orbit. I don’t blame the Pelicans for not taking the Laker deal at the deadline (I am in the camp that believes it will still be there in July if the Pels want it) but it’s created an awkward situation on that team, where everyone seems to have mentally checked out.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-33, LW 24). The Otto Porter trade was about getting off that contract and saving some long-term money, if Bobby Portis works out as a rotation player for Washington longterm all the better. Bradley Beal will spend part of All-Star weekend dodging questions about whether he wants a trade and how much he can’t stand John Wall, but he’ll still get a lot of love from other All-Stars. A few of which would love to have him on their team in the future.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (23-35, LW 26). There were a lot of raised eyebrows around the league that Memphis didn’t trade Mike Conley away before the deadline, too, keeping their price so high that Utah and others refused to pull the trigger. Is the market going to be better for him this summer? Memphis goal now is to hang on to their pick in the upcoming draft — it is top 8 protected, and the Grizzlies have the sixth-worst record in the league. Even with the new lottery odds, hold on to this position and there is only a 3.8% chance they fall back far enough to lose the pick this season (which would be fine with Boston, that pick is more valuable as a trade chip).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (19-38, LW 25). If your memories of Trae Young are his struggles at the start of the season, you need to watch him again. In Young’s last 10 games he has averaged 21.8 points per game on 15.6 shots a night, he’s hitting 42 percent from three, and he’s dishing out 8.8 assists per night. We’re also starting to see some real chemistry between him and John Collins. Young is confident, watch him go right at LeBron in the final two minutes of a close game Tuesday — and get the and-1.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (13-44, LW 27). I don’t mind the gamble on Otto Porter at the trade deadline. Sure, the Bulls are going to pay $46.7 million for their starting wings next season (Porter and Zach LaVine, and it goes up the season after that) but this is still a building team and they are not wed to Porter long term. Combine those two with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., then mix in a point guard (Kris Dunn is fine but there will be better options available) and Chicago will have a respectable roster

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-45, LW 28). I like what Cleveland has done around the trade deadline (and through the season), making moves to add draft picks and get the rebuild going. Kevin Love likely will be up next summer, although with his salary and injury history, finding a team willing to part with much of anything of value will not be easy. The other thing about all those Cavaliers trades this season: It doesn’t make this team easy to watch.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-47, LW 29). I don’t mind the idea of trading for Tyler Johnson and seeing if he can play next to Devin Booker, a little experiment for the rest of the season. That said, it’s hard to say much positive about a team that has lost 14 games in a row, except that their first two games after the break (Cleveland and Atlanta) give them a chance to snap this streak.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-46, LW 30). The Knicks have lost 17 games in a row, but at least Dennis Smith Jr. has become a distraction from that pain. The athletic guard is averaging 17.4 points per game since coming over from Dallas, although he is shooting just 21% from three and has a dreadful 47 true shooting percentage (way below the league average). On the bright side, he and DeAndre Jordan have a little chemistry.

Trading young star like Kristaps Porzingis such a Knicks move

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As Knicks president, Phil Jackson built teams that went 17-65, 32-50 and 31-51. Jackson gave Joakim Noah a huge contract. Jackson offended the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, shortly before LeBron changed teams in free agency. Jackson reportedly floored multiple free agents with his unpreparedness in meetings, couldn’t get his computer to work during pitches, became unreachable to rival general managers even shortly before the trade deadline and fell asleep during a pre-draft workout.

But Jackson also drafted Kristaps Porzingis.

Whatever deserved criticism Jackson faced for his calamitous New York tenure was always weighed against that single wonderful transaction. That’s how good Porzingis was.

The 7-foot-3 big man wowed early with his putback dunks. With an excellent shooting stroke and mobility, he blossomed even further. His rim protecting made him a true two-way player. He even made the All-Star game last season, just his third year in the NBA.

Porzingis was the type of franchise player most teams only dream about. He was a young star in a league that gives teams plenty of contractual control over such players. When teams find a gem like that, they almost always hang on as tightly as they can. Remember, Knicks owner James Dolan fired Jackson, despite just opting into the final two years of Jackson’s contract, only once Jackson made such a big deal about shopping Porzingis.

But in a shocking turn, New York traded Porzingis to the Mavericks yesterday. It was just the fifth time since the NBA-ABA merger someone made an All-Star team then got traded within his first four seasons. The five:

  • Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks to Mavericks in 2019)
  • Jason Kidd (Mavericks to Suns in 1996)
  • Alonzo Mourning (Hornets to Heat in 1995)
  • Mike Mitchell (Cavaliers to Spurs in 1981)
  • Billy Knight (Pacers to Buffalo Braves in 1977)

At 23.5-years-old, Porzingis is the second-youngest established All-Star to change teams. The only one younger: Jrue Holiday, who was 23-years-and-1-month-old when traded from the 76ers to the Pelicans after his fourth season in 2013.

But as shocking as a deal like this is, it’s far less surprising New York was the team to make it.

Charlie Ward, who was drafted in 1994, was the last player to spend his first six seasons with the Knicks. Since, only David Lee (drafted in 2005) made it even his first five full seasons with New York. If not even Porzingis gets a multi-year contract after his rookie-scale deal, which Knick ever will?

New York just hasn’t shown sustained interest/ability in identifying, developing and retaining young talent. Even though that was Knicks president Steve Mills’ explicit plan only a year-and-a-half ago, he has already pivoted in a new direction. That’s how it goes in James Dolan’s franchise. Over and over and over.

It isn’t necessarily a mistake this time, though.

New York got a haul for Porzingis. The Knicks unloaded Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s and Courtney Lee‘s onerous contracts (opening a projected $73 million in cap space next summer) and got two future first-round picks (one guaranteed to be in the first round and one likely to convey), Dennis Smith Jr. (a promising young player) and DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews (productive veterans who could be flipped before the trade deadline).

The big question is what the Knicks do with all that cap space. They’ve chased quick fixes and failed many times under Dolan. But if they land Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving this summer, the trade will have been a home run. If New York misses on star free agents, the trade looks far more ominous. Presumably, the Knicks have a better idea than I do about impending free agents’ interest. Cap room goes further in a market like New York. This risk makes more sense for the Knicks than it would most teams.

Either way, it’s not as if keeping Porzingis was a foolproof plan. He remains out while recovering from a torn ACL, a major injury – especially for someone so big. He has had multiple other injuries in his short career and shown signs of frailty.

Maybe, as he gets older and stronger, he’ll be fine. Maybe he just needs a team that will put less stress on his body.

But the injury risk with Porzingis appears real.

That was particularly concerning with him entering restricted free agency this summer. He could easily draw a max offer sheet projected to be worth $117 million over four years. Or worse, he could sign a qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Teams should trade young stars more often. Sometimes, a player’s value peaks early in his career. That could be the time to sell high.

But it’s difficult to tell when those cases are occurring. Amid uncertainty, NBA teams usually avoid risk.

If they kept Porzingis and his career stagnated due to injury or other reasons, the Knicks would largely get a pass. But if he flourishes in Dallas, New York will get shredded. Teams – unfairly, though understandably due to a lack of public information – are held accountable for the moves they make, not they moves they don’t make.

The Knicks are showing plenty of courage with this trade, but they’ve never been afraid to take big swings before. They’ve just usually struck out.

At least this was a pitch over the plate.

New York had to do something risky with Porzingis. Trading him for this return – as rare as it is to deal a player like him – seems reasonable. At least if the Knicks have an edge on top free agents next summer.

Winners and Losers from Kristaps Porzingis trade

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NBA trades don’t happen overnight, they percolate under the radar, starting as a seed of an idea and taking a lot of time and watering to take root and eventually flower into a full-on trade.

Not this one. The Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks trade seemed to come out of nowhere. It came together fast, according to all accounts. So fast it caught the NBA off guard when it became public Thursday afternoon.

The trade sends Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to Dallas, while New York gets Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and two lightly protected first-round picks.

Who won and lost in this trade? Let’s break it down.

Winner: Kristaps Porzingis. Having not stepped on an NBA court this season as he continues to recover from to a torn ACL — combined with the feeling David Fizdale had not been able to improve a relationship first damaged by Phil Jackson — had led to a lot of “should we really pay this guy a max?” rumblings around New York. Porzingis doesn’t exactly have the cleanest injury history in the first place, and there is a lot of uncertainty about how a mobile 7’3” guy will bounce back from this injury. Everyone is rooting for him to come back and go the full Joel Embiid, but that’s a big unknown. Hence the Knicks wanting to hedge against a max contract.

At the top of the list of things Porzingis will get out of this trade is money. And lots of it.

Dallas traded for Porzingis with plans to pay the man and keep him in town. Yes, Porzingis’ camp made threats of signing the qualifying offer and get out of Dallas, but nobody pushing near a max deal (five years, $158 million) does that and leaves almost all of that money — his first “set your family up for generations” contract — on the table. He will stay in Dallas and partner up with…

Winner: Luka Doncic. He’s got his partner for his buddy cop film, the Cagney to his Lacey, the Charles Boyle to his Jake Peralta. A partner who should fit like a puzzle piece with Doncic’s game: A big who will pop out after setting the pick and force defenders to track with him. A big he can feed in transition, either deep in the post or as the trailer at the top of the arc. A long big man in the paint who can block shots. A guy with a similar sensibility about the game.

Dallas found one star in the draft (thanks again, Atlanta), and now it has a second. Probably. Maybe.

Too early to call: Dallas Mavericks. Dallas has pushed all-in on the idea that Porzingis can return to full health, stay that way, and be everything Knicks fans had projected him to be. Dallas needs that to happen. With this trade, the Mavericks have capped themselves out this summer and will struggle to add quality around their stars. The Mavs gave up a couple of first-round picks with minimal protections, too.

If Dallas has gotten itself the full Unicorn back for that price, if Porzingis can play 72 games a season and be the All-NBA player he projected to be — and he re-signs long-term — then Dallas is a winner. But if Porzingis is not quite the same, and is a guy who plays 60 games a season at a borderline All-Star level, they will have lost. It’s a gamble worth making, but it is a gamble.

Too early to call: New York Knicks. The Knicks front office had to get a back-channel nod from Kevin Durant’s camp saying he was coming, right? They wouldn’t trade the potential of Porzingis, the fan favorite, and everything else thinking they “could” land a superstar or two, right?

Well, this is James Dolan’s Knicks, so….

The buzz that Durant and Kyrie Irving are coming to New York is all over the league now, and while there are some reasons to doubt that entire story (Irving’s decision is more in flux than that, he is not leaving Boston for sure, I’ve heard) clearly the Knicks know something and are confident. They think they are getting at least one household name player. Also on the bright side for New York, moving the nearly dead money contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee plus getting two first-round picks in the deal makes this a lot more palatable, whatever happens in July.

Loser: Boston Celtics…. maybe. If this trade gives Kyrie Irving serious thoughts about taking his talents to Madison Square Garden to partner with Durant, then Boston should be worried they will end up losers in this deal. There’s a lot of moving parts to that last sentence, but Boston’s pitch to keep Anthony Davis after a possible July trade (another moving part) was always pairing AD and Irving with good role players on a team that can contend right away. If Irving is wearing blue and orange — or any team’s colors other than green — then Boston loses.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers.…. maybe. If Kyrie Irving leaves Boston, maybe Danny Ainge scales back is potential trade offer, and the Laker offer looks better to the Pelicans. Again, a lot of “ifs” between now and that outcome, but it seems more likely than it did 24 hours ago.

Winners: DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews. Two veterans on a non-playoff team led by a rookie will spend a couple of weeks in New York then be bought out and become free agents. Houston, Golden State, Philadelphia are just a few of the teams that will come calling. By the third week of February, these guys likely are playing meaningful minutes for a team headed to the playoffs.

Winner: Dennis Smith Jr. He simply did not fit next to Luka Doncic and was getting squeezed out in Dallas. In New York is the best guard they have now, the ball will be in his hands and it will be an all he can eat buffet. Smith showed flashes last season in Dallas, in New York he will get to flash his athleticism again and make his case to be part of whatever the Knicks future is.

Loser: Frank Ntilikina. Phil Jackson loved him, picked him one spot in front of Smith, but now Phil has his feet up on the ottoman out in his ranch in Montana, and Ntilikina is about to lose his job to the guy picked after him. This feels like the end of the Ntilikina era in New York, such as it was.