DeMar DeRozan

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Mock NBA expansion draft: Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs

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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, Northwest Division and Southeast Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Seven of Dallas’ protections were easy calls. They’re all players locked up long-term. That left deciding between Tim Hardaway Jr, who has been a starter for the Mavericks but has a player option, and several other useful players.

Ultimately, the Mavs can’t afford to lose Hardaway, who has rediscovered his solid offensive play from his Hawks years. That leaves Justin Jackson and three big men in Dwight Powell (coming off a torn Achilles’) and Boban Marjanovic and Willie-Cauley-Stein (both backups for Dallas). The most likely to be selected player is probably Jackson, but that’s a risk Dallas has to take.

Houston Rockets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: No decision points for the Rockets. Houston is protecting the entirety of their eight-man rotation.

Chris Clemons could make for an interesting expansion pick because his scoring ability at guard. Isaiah Hartenstein has shown some flashes in the G-League as well.

Memphis Grizzlies

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Just how hard the Grizzlies’ protection decision were is a testament to how well their rebuild has gone. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton were all locks. Justise Winslow was just acquired at the trade deadline as the centerpiece of a deal. Tyus Jones is the ideal backup point guard behind Morant, so he stays as well. That left Jonas Valanciunas vs Kyle Anderson for the final protected spot. Valanciunas’ presence allows Jackson to play power forward, so the big man gets the final spot.

Memphis is gambling that Anderson’s slow-mo style of play and $9.5 million salary isn’t what an expansion team is looking for. Jontay Porter is another risk, but he’s got a lengthy injury history of his own. The Grizzlies will hope one of the other three is selected and might be willing to offer a small incentive to make it happen.

New Orleans Pelicans

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: New Orleans’ protections are cut and dry. Every player protected, minus Brandon Ingram, is signed for at least one more season. This includes several players on rookie scale contracts. Ingram will most assuredly be re-signed this summer, so that decision was easy as well.

The only gamble among the unprotected players is Nicolo Melli. He’s become a rotation player for the Pelicans, but he’s not as valuable as the younger players. The other three players are mostly out of the New Orleans’ rotation and not anyone the team will worry about if they are selected.

San Antonio Spurs

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Spurs are banking on keeping DeMar DeRozan this summer. He either opts in or re-signs in San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge is an easy decision as well. Dejounte Murray will start his extension this coming season. Everyone else is on their rookie scale contract, minus Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl is a restricted free agent that the Spurs hope to retain this offseason.

San Antonio is gambling that the big salaries of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will keep them from being selected. That exposes Trey Lyles, who has a relatively small guarantee, and young big man Chimezie Metu. The Spurs would like to keep both, but not at the expense of losing a rookie scale player.

Spurs earn Tim Duncan first win as acting head coach

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tim Duncan won more than 1,000 games as an NBA player.

He got his first victory as an acting head coach on Tuesday night.

Dejounte Murray scored 21 points and the San Antonio Spurs beat the Charlotte Hornets 104-103 without longtime head coach Gregg Popovich, who missed the game while dealing with “personal business,” according to the team.

Popovich is expected to return to the bench for Friday night’s game at Brooklyn.

“It’s night and day to be in the big boy chair,” said Duncan, who normally serves as an assistant coach. “Truth be told though, I wasn’t in the big boy chair. I had (other assistant coaches) making the calls and I was the one standing there screaming at people.”

When asked if being a head coach is something he wants to pursue down the road, Duncan said, “Nope, Pop is going to be back and I will be happy to hand it right over to him.”

Duncan said when his team had a five-point lead late in the game, he thought the Spurs might cruise to the win.

“But they had to make it interesting. I think they did that out of spite,” Duncan joked.

Hornets coach James Borrego, who worked as an assistant coach for the Spurs when Duncan was there as a player, said it was “odd” to look down at the other bench and see the five-time NBA champion and 15-time All-Star coaching a team.

“I’m used to see that No. 21 on his jersey and see him out there leading the group. Tonight he had a blazer on,” Borrego joked.

Borrego said he has immense respect for Duncan.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here (as a head coach) if it wasn’t for that guy,” Borrego said.

Terry Rozier had 20 points and P.J. Washington added 19 with five 3-pointers to lead the Hornets.

Duncan was mostly mild-mannered on the bench, not showing much emotion as the game progressed. However, he did challenge a charge call on Derrick White with 9:09 left in the fourth quarter, but the play was not overturned.

The Hornets jumped to a 12-2 lead to open the game, prompting Duncan to use his first timeout. Charlotte extended its lead to as many 17 in the first half, but the Spurs battled back to take a 77-76 lead entering the fourth quarter.

San Antonio extended the lead to six with 4:24 left in the game after three free throws by Forbes, just moments after he appeared to get away with a travel in the lane that drew boos from the home crowd.

The Hornets came back and Rozier cut the Spurs’ lead to one with a driving layup with 42 seconds left. After DeMar DeRozan missed a pull-up jumper, the Hornets had a chance to win the game on their final possession. However, after Rozier drove to the basket, his pass under the basket went in and out of the hands of Cody Martin, allowing the Spurs to escape with just their fourth win in the last 11 games.

Borrego didn’t call timeout before the final play, so as not to let the Spurs set up their defense.

USA Basketball names 44 finalists for 2020 Olympics

Team USA in 2012 Olympics
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Team USA just placed seventh in the FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament. Their biggest problem? Lack of star power.

Now, it’s time for the U.S. to renew hope for the 2020 Olympics.

USA Basketball released a star-studded list of 44 finalists for the roster in Tokyo:

None of these players are required to play if selected. The player pool for the World Cup once looked similarly promising. Then, player after player withdrew. The reasons for not playing – health, personal – usually emerge closer to the event. For now, it’s easier for players to express interest. They can always withdraw later.

Likewise, USA Basketball can always put someone on the final roster who isn’t a finalist now. This list isn’t binding. So, it’s not worth getting worked up about omissions.

That said, HOW THE HECK ARE Trae Young, Zion Williamson AND Ja Morant NOT INCLUDED? All three are good right now. Given their youth, they’ll likely look even better next summer. Young is already an All-Star!

Several other good players didn’t make this list, including C.J. McCollum, Fred VanVleet and Spencer Dinwiddie. But they’re a little older and therefore less likely to make a leap into consensus stardom.

And that’s what it might require to make this roster.

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and have already expressed strong interest in playing. Other players who’ve previously represented the U.S., including LeBron James, will also get favorable consideration.

Winners and losers at the NBA trade deadline

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So much for a quiet trade deadline.

For a couple of months in the run-up to the NBA trade deadline, sources around the league talked about all the reasons not to expect a lot of trades this year, from a lack of cap space to take on bad contracts to a lack of sellers. Then came Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, which became a black cloud over the league and blotted out talk of things as trivial as trades.

But when the doors opened on trade talks again, it felt like the whole league rushed in — the result was a wild, trade filled couple of days that changed both this season and the trajectory of a number of teams.

Here is who won and who lost.

Winner: Los Angeles Clippers

In a West where the margins between the top teams — especially the two that call Staples Center home — are so thin, the Clippers’ moves around the trade deadline made this team better. Maybe a lot better. If they were not the favorites to come out of the West before the deadline, I have them there now. At least on paper.

The big move: The Clippers traded for Marcus Morris.

Morris brings grit, some interior toughness, a few technicals, and some floor-spacing shooting to Los Angeles. Morris averaged 18.5 points per game for the Knicks, and shot 45.4 percent from three — and that was without players such as Kawhi Leonard or Paul George drawing defenders to get him wide-open looks. Also, Morris is a physical defender — exactly the kind of player teams want on their side in the playoffs. Doc Rivers now has even more options on how to attack teams with this versatile roster.

The Clippers still bring Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench behind that starting five.

Loser: Los Angeles Lakers

This is all relative. The Lakers may still win the West — they do have LeBron James, after all — but the trade deadline made their path more difficult.

The Clippers got a boost picking up Marcus Morris. Denver got a little better and added some scoring (and will get healthy at some point). Utah’s one move was more than a month earlier, but they added scoring off the bench in the form of Jordan Clarkson.

The Lakers are still the Lakers. They also should get better because they will thrive in the buyout market, and they are still the favorites to land Darren Collison if he returns.

But even with that, the opponents the Lakers need to beat got better in the last few days, and that is not ideal for the Lakers.

Winner: Atlanta Hawks

To maximize what Trae Young can do, the Hawks needed to find him the right pick-and-roll partner, a guy who sets a strong pick then dive hard to the rim, drawing defenders with him (or getting open for the alley-oop). Some defense and shot blocking would be nice, too.

Enter Clint Capela, picked up from the Rockets in a massive four-team, 12-player trade — and the Hawks got him without giving up a first-round pick, nor rising star John Collins.

Capela was half of a very effective pick-and-roll tandem with James Harden (they scored more than a point per possession, in the Damian Lillard/Jusuf Nurkic range). The Hawks looked at a lot of big men and settled on the one that likely fits best with Young. Whether Capela fits next to Collins is another story and something to watch over the next couple of years.

Winner: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat are in the mix with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, vying to be the second-best team in the East. (Philadelphia would like to be in that conversation, too, but right now they are not.) At the trade deadline, the Heat got deeper — adding Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder — and while that’s not likely making them a threat to any team with a Greek Freak on the roster, it may be enough to make Miami the second-best team in the East. Toronto and Boston stood still, Miami got better and added playoff-proven veterans.

At the same time, Miami got out from under the oversized contracts of James Johnson and Dion Waiters. It’s a masterstroke. Miami maintained its financial flexibility for the summer of 2021, in case any famous players who grew up in Greece want to test the free-agent market.

Loser: 2020 free agents

The teams that had cap space this summer to chase max-level free agents were not exactly inspiring: Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, Charlotte, New York, and Phoenix.

Now Atlanta, Cleveland, and Memphis are off that list. Their deadline moves said they were not inspired by the free agent class and decided to spend that money now.

To be fair, Detroit now will have the cap space — Detroit valued that cap space more than they valued Andre Drummond, the Cavaliers valued Drummond more than the cap space. Still, for potential free agents such as Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Drummond (although he likely opts into that $28.8 million next season), Joe Harris, Montrezl Harrell, and others, it’s some slim pickings out there.

Winner: Robert Covington

Robert Covington got traded from a team that had lost a dozen games in a row (now 13) in the NBA’s coldest city to warm-weather Houston on a team poised to be a playoff threat — that’s a win.

Covington had 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting and was a team-high +16 in his first game with the Rockets, Thursday nights win against the Lakers. That’s what Covington does, he puts up solid stats, but the team just plays better defense and runs a little smoother when he is on the court. Use whatever coach’s cliche you want — “he does the little things that don’t show up in the box score” or “he just plays winning basketball” — but he makes teams better.

Loser: Moe Harkless

If Covington wins because of the change in his situation, then you have to feel for Harkless. He did nothing wrong, he played well for the Clippers — he started most of the time, played smart, and took on the toughest wing defensive assignments so that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George didn’t have to all game. But, his $11.5 million contract made him a perfect person to round out a trade deal.

Harkless got traded from a title contender in sunny Los Angeles to the New York Knicks. That’s going to be a shock to the system.

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves

Gersson Rosas is reshaping this team and he made some bold moves to do just that at the trade deadline.

He traded for D'Angelo Russell, which will make Karl-Anthony Towns happy and gives the Timberwolves a solid point guard of the future. Amazingly, he got Andrew Wiggins off the books at the same time. He added solid bench depth by trading for Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. He got good value for Covington. He managed the salary cap well.

That’s a good start. I have serious questions about how well a team with Russell and Towns is going to defend, how good they can ultimately be, but considering where Minnesota was this is still a big step forward.

Loser Traditional NBA centers

Andre Drummond — who scores more than 17 points a game and is the NBA’s best rebounder — had almost no trade market and was salary dumped to Cleveland. Houston sent Clint Capela out the door to start a 6’5″ center in P.J. Tucker. Cleveland could not get a good enough offer for Tristan Thompson to pull the trigger on a deal. Boston and other teams were not willing to put real assets on the table to trade for a traditional center, deciding instead to wait for the buyout market.

In case you had any doubt about how the game is moving away from traditional centers, there’s your evidence. The league is moving on. Teams will still need an old-school big on the roster (although Houston is trying to prove that wrong), but teams are not going to pay big for one unless he is high-level elite (Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic level).

Watch LeBron James drain five three-pointers in three minutes, score 36 in Lakers win

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James absorbed contact and tumbled to the court while his fifth 3-pointer in a three-minute span dropped through the net. The Los Angeles Lakers’ entire roster left the bench and crossed the court, gleefully picking up their leader while a sellout crowd roared.

“That’s what we’re all about,” James said. “Our team, anytime anyone is having success in the game, we cheer like it’s our own. So having that camaraderie, having that brotherhood, even though they’re beating you up, it’s just a pretty cool feeling.”

Nine days after Kobe Bryant’s death, the Lakers finally had an evening that felt like a return to normalcy.

Well, as normal as anything can be when King James is performing feats of basketball brilliance.

James scored 19 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter with that incredible 3-point barrage, propelling the Lakers to a 129-102 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.

James added nine assists and seven rebounds, while Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma had 18 points apiece as the Lakers beat San Antonio for the third time, sweeping the season series.

After the Spurs chipped away at the Lakers’ big lead late in the third quarter, James and Kuzma put the game away with a combined seven 3-pointers in 3 1/2 minutes to start the fourth. James’ shots seemed to increase in difficulty with each possession, but he buried them all.

“When the guy gets hot like that, it’s always fun to watch him,” Davis said, laughing at the Lakers’ group celebration after the final 3. “It wasn’t the plan. We all just kind of ran over there and jumped on him.”

DeMar DeRozan had 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in his hometown for the Spurs, who have lost five of seven.

San Antonio was outrebounded 58-28 by the bigger Lakers, and the Spurs grabbed only three rebounds in the fourth quarter while the Lakers went 16 of 24 from the field.

When asked what the Spurs can do when James gets rolling, coach Gregg Popovich quipped: “Make sure you get good pictures.”

Bryn Forbes added 13 points, but one night after the Spurs blew a late lead in a three-point loss to the Clippers, they returned to Staples Center and fell to 0-2 at the start of San Antonio’s eight-game road trip while a rodeo occupies AT&T Center.

“As a competitor, it’s what you want to play against,” DeRozan said of the LA back-to-back. “I don’t look at it like it’s being tough. It’s part of the job, part of the game, and as a competitor you want to compete against the best. You worry about the toll afterwards.”

The Lakers returned to a semblance of normalcy at Staples Center in their first home game since their emotionally-charged return last Friday for their first game following Bryant’s death.

Bryant’s two retired jerseys still remain isolated in a spotlight on the wall high above the court, and the Lakers crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of “Kobe! Kobe!” in the third quarter, and the chant returned in the final seconds of the game.