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Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

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The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.

Seven must-watch games from NBA Orlando restart

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The NBA is back… almost.

The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.

Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.

And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.

Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.

1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)

Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.

That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.

2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.

3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)

This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.

4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)

New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.

5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)

These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.

6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.

7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.

Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.

Trainer says Luka Doncic ‘not in the best shape,’ will be ready for games

Luka not in best shape
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Players’ workouts during the shut down have been a mixed bag. Stars such as James Harden and LeBron James have home gyms nicer than the ones you (and I) pay for and have been posting their workouts on Instagram. Other players had equipment sent home by teams with trainers leading online workouts that were the best players could manage, but not keeping players in game shape.

Luka Doncic appears to be in the latter category.

His trainer said Luka is “not in the best shape” but is working out and will be ready when games start in Orlando. The trainer, Jure Drakslar, spoke with RIA Novosti in Solvenia, and that was translated by Eurohoops.net.

“We have been working together for the last three weeks. Luka was previously in quarantine and trained individually at home,” he pointed out, “The last three weeks we have been working hard to prepare him for the resumption of the NBA season…

“Most players struggled to stay in shape. Doncic is no exception,” said Drasklar… “We understand his role in Dallas. Luka is improving every day. He puts in a lot of effort. He has completely dedicated himself to be ready…

“He is not in the best shape, which is normal. NBA games will not be played before the end of July, so there is enough time to help him recover and get ready,” he added, “However, he undoubtedly would be ready to play right now.”

Doncic’s conditioning improved considerably between his rookie and sophomore campaigns, one of the key reasons he made the leap from Rookie of the Year to a guy who will make an All-NBA team and draw some MVP votes this time around. That he slipped a little during the NBA’s forced hiatus is not a surprise — a lot of players have — nor an issue, as long as he puts in the work to get back.

Dallas enters Orlando as the seven seed in the West, only 1.5 games back of both six seed Houston and fifth seed Oklahoma City. The Mavericks moving up could help them avoid the Clippers in the first round, a matchup that would be particularly difficult for Dallas (which lacks good wing defenders, and the Clippers bring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the party).

Making that move up will require peak Doncic. Which means he’s got some conditioning to do.

Five winners in NBA’s 22-team restart plan

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Nothing is set until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA seems to have coalesced around this restart plan:

Twenty-two teams come to Orlando in mid-July — 13 from the West, nine from the East, all teams within six games of the playoffs when the league hit pause — and, after a two-and-a-half week quarantined training camp, play eight regular-season games each starting July 31. That will be followed by a two-game play-in matchup between the eight and nine seeds (if the ninth seed is within four games the team it’s chasing) with the lower seed needing to win both. From there, the league jumps to a traditional 16-team playoff (no 1-16 seeding) with seven games per round.

That plan — and the unconventional choice of 22 teams — has backing because it’s a compromise that is a win for a lot of people and groups. Who? Here are seven groups or people that come out as winners with this plan.

1) NBA Players

NBA players win not just because they get to go back to work — even if the working conditions are a bit unusual — but they got the regular season games they wanted. It was the players who arguably made the biggest push for regular-season games before the playoffs, and there were two reasons for it. First, going straight to the playoffs — even with a training camp — was asking for injuries. The only way to get in game shape is to play games, and the players wanted some meaningful games in front of the postseason.

The other reason is money. NBA players get paid by their teams for the regular season (for the playoffs they get bonuses paid by the league with the amount depending upon how far they advanced). The league is already withholding 25% of player paychecks anticipating canceled games, this plan at least replaces some of those games. There were 259 total games remaining when the NBA season was paused, this would see 88 of them played. There are no gate receipts for teams, this is not the same financially for owners, but some regular-season games being shown by local broadcasters ultimately helps players’ paychecks.

2) NBA Broadcasters

This is a win for ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting (TNT) because they get games — and sports-starved fans will watch (expect insane ratings). Also the game’s biggest names — LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, etc. — will be taking part, and the stars are always the draw in the NBA.

Speaking of stars, those networks also get Zion Williamson — a massive draw in the 19 games he played — who will be part of at least the regular season, and maybe more. Plenty of people around the league think the whole idea of a play-in tournament gained favor with the league simply to get Williamson to Orlando. With this 22-team format, the league also picks up Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker to draw eyeballs.

On top of all that, there will be eight regular-season games per team, which can help local broadcasters and get some past the goal of 70 games (a target number in most NBA local broadcast contracts).

3) Pelicans and Trail Blazers

If play had not been suspended, Fivethirtyeight.com estimated a 60% chance the Pelicans would have made the playoffs and a 14% chance the Trail Blazers would have gotten in. Both teams were 3.5 games back of Memphis with 17 games to play, but the Grizzlies had one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league while the Pelicans had the easiest and the Trail Blazers had a soft closing stretch as well. Plus, New Orleans was coming together and playing better ball (5-5 over their last 10 with a +2.5 net rating) than either Memphis or Portland (both 4-6 with essentially flat net ratings).

Now New Orleans and Portland get to make their case, even if the schedule will not tilt to them as it did before. The league wanted Zion Williamson in the Orlando bubble to juice television ratings, so it came up with a way to get him there, but that plan helps a few teams. Portland returns with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and that makes them a much more dangerous threat to make the playoffs. Sacramento gets the chance to break the longest playoff drought in the NBA.

4) LeBron James (and other stars on contenders)

LeBron only has so many shots at a title left and he didn’t want this one to go to waste — there’s good reason he’s been so vocal in pushing for a return to play (after an initial hesitation about games without fans). LeBron is 35, plus this Laker team had key players with injury histories — Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo — yet it stayed healthy and it came together as a team and played elite defense. This season came together for the Lakers, and while they will largely get the band back together for the 2020-21 season, there are no guarantees — LeBron needs to take his title shots while he can.

That same philosophy applies to other teams. The Clippers, with Leonard and Paul George, were finally healthy and coming together, who knows if they can stay that healthy for another season. The Bucks need to prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo they are contenders so he doesn’t balk when they offer him a supermax contract this summer (although the financial situation with the league could cause that anyway, even if he doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee). James Harden knows he only has so many chances, and on down the list.

5) Adam Silver

Watch the attempts at a restart in Major League Baseball and other sports, and the acrimony between players and the commissioner/ownership becomes the story. It speaks to what an amazing job Silver did building consensus. This wasn’t something that just started when play was suspended, Silver has involved players in the decision-making process going back to the Donald Sterling removal, and he was more collaborative in getting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement past than any commissioner in recent memory. Silver also has been a consensus builder with the owners, and he has involved GMs and team presidents in calls.

All of it built up a lot of political capital and trust, so when Silver had to make the call not everyone was going to like — the 22-team return plan is far from universally popular — he could still get everyone to buy-in. Everyone trusts him, and that is huge for a commissioner.

Honorable Mention Winners: The Philadelphia 76ers (they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, plus with enough wins in the regular season they can move up a spot and avoid Boston in the first round of the playoffs); Also the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns, both of whom were not making the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com had the Wizards at 2% and the Suns at less than 1%) but now get the chance to play some more games and maybe find their way into the dance.

Revisiting the Knicks’ 2009 draft: Was there a backup plan to land Stephen Curry?

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Stephen Curry wanted to be drafted by the Knicks, to play in Mike D’Antoni’s system in the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Curry’s father, Dell, and agent Jeff Austin both wanted Stephen in New York and called up Larry Riley, then the Warriors GM, trying to pressure him not to draft the young Curry.

It didn’t work. The fact Knicks president Donnie Walsh wanted Curry so badly just confirmed to the Warriors they were doing the right thing, Riley told Marc Berman of the New York Post this week.

“The truth is I respected Donnie Walsh a great deal,” Riley said. “Their interest in Steph reaffirmed what we already believed.”

Looking back at that draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves (and GM David Kahn) had the No. 5 and 6 picks in the 2009 NBA Draft and used them both on point guards — Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio and fast-rising Jonny Flynn. The Warriors were poised to take Curry at No. 7.

Did the Knicks’ Walsh do enough to try and trade up to get Curry, to leapfrog the Warriors and get one of those Timberwolves picks? It depends upon who you ask, and the Post’s Berman talked to a lot of people.

“I really wanted Stephen in that draft, and when I realized that Golden State was going to take him, I tried to trade up to take him,” Walsh said. “But I could not get the pick I needed so I looked elsewhere and tried to fill a need. Stephen was the guy and he obviously would have made a huge difference.”

However, one source familiar with the situation said Walsh never contacted Minnesota, which held picks No. 5 and 6. Another league source says when Golden State selected Curry, a “huge collective groan” emerged from the Knicks’ war room, which indicated the Knicks were calling Golden State’s bluff.

“It didn’t seem Donnie was prepared for any other scenario,” a former Knicks scout said. “We all love Donnie, but he didn’t seem to have a backup plan and it was a mad scramble to finalize [No. 8 pick Jordan] Hill.”

Jordan Hill played 24 games for the Knicks before he was traded in a salary dump.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s easy to look back and say Walsh should have done anything to get the future two-time NBA MVP and three-time champion who set the culture for the Warriors. At the time of the 2009 NBA Draft, there were questions about Curry’s ability to play the point at the NBA level (he had only done it for one season at Davidson), and he was seen more as a shooter, certainly not a franchise savior. He was behind guys like Blake Griffin and James Harden in that draft for a reason.

But did Walsh do enough to move up? Would Curry have developed into the player we know in New York, where likely his coach and the front office above him would have changed several times?

It’s all a what if, just a painful one for Knicks fans.