Jonas Valanciunas

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.

Repeatedly slighted, Jarrett Allen rising above it for Nets

Nets center Jarrett Allen
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DETROIT – Jarrett Allen ran off the court after a Nets win and jumped to high-five a fan about 11 feet off the floor. The crowd in that section buzzed at Allen’s above-rim-level leap.

Then, Kyrie Irving came through.

The ovation swelled for the the star who had just dazzled with 45 points.

“I’m going to pretend they’re cheering for me, Ky,” Allen said as he and Irving ran toward the locker room.

“They are cheering for you,” Irving replied.

That was rare affirmation for Allen, who has repeatedly appeared overlooked with Brooklyn.

Despite Allen proving himself as a quality young starting center on a playoff team last season, the Nets signed DeAndre Jordan – notably a friend of Irving and Kevin Durant – to a lucrative four-year contract last summer. Jordan, 31, is nearly a decade older than Allen.

A couple months ago, Irving said it’s glaring Brooklyn needs another piece or two to complement himself, Durant, Jordan, Garrett Temple, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Omitted from that list: Allen.

Ironically, Allen is the type of low-maintenance role player the Nets could really use around Durant and Irving.

Allen brushed off noise about Jordan supplanting him, kept his starting spot and bonded with the veteran center. Allen also said he spoke to Irving and quickly put that quote behind him.

“I wasn’t really concerned,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, I can’t really control any of that. So, I’m not going to worry about it has been my philosophy.”

It’s a philosophy that fits Allen’s no-nonsense game.

He runs pick-and-rolls. He finishes lobs. He protects the rim.

Durant and Irving will dominate the ball next season. That leads to complications with Dinwiddie and LeVert, two young players who are also better on the ball. Allen carries no such fit concerns.

Allen has possessed the ball just 53 minutes all season. For perspective, that’s less than Nets backup shooting guard Theo Pinson, who’s not even in the rotation. It’s less than half as much as Montrezl Harrell, another energy big.

Yet, Allen still contributes. He ranks 46th in the league with 4.3 PIPM-based wins added.

Allen ranks among the league leaders wins added per 100 minutes of possession:

Nets center Jarrett Allen

Helping without the ball is such an important skill next to Durant and Irving. Allen checks that box.

How much do the Nets value it?

Allen will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. His 18.7 career win shares (and counting) entering his rookie-scale-extension window put him in line to slightly outpace comps like Greg Monroe, Kenneth Faried and Jonas Valanciunas.

The Pistons reportedly didn’t offer Monroe an extension in 2013, watched him accept the qualifying offer then lost him to a max deal from the Bucks in unrestricted free agency in 2015. The Nuggets gave Faried a four-year, $50 million extension in 2014. The Raptors gave Valanciunas a four-year, $64 million extension in 2015.

The salary cap has escalated significantly since. The extension market changes each year, as deals influence each other.

Allen ranks second in win shares among players who’ll be eligible for rookie-scale extensions this summer, behind only Heat big Bam Adebayo:

Nets center Jarrett Allen

Obviously, Allen isn’t as good as Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Win shares probably overrates efficient, but limited, bigs like Allen. There is also a surplus of effective centers around the league, lowering all their values.

But this speaks to a truth: Allen has consistently produced in his role.

In Brooklyn or elsewhere, expect that to continue.

“He’s too good, obviously,,” Dinwiddie said, “not to be a factor in the league.”

MRI confirms Damian Lillard groin strain, to be re-evaluated in one week

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Damian Lillard knew what it was almost instantly. By the time he was back in the locker room, Lillard was saying he had strained his groin, and with that was out of the All-Star Game (but he’s still rapping as Dame D.O.L.L.A.).

Now a team MRI has confirmed it. The Trail Blazers announced that, yes, Lillard does have a strained groin, and he will be re-evaluated in a week. That is right before Portland returns to play after the All-Star break (its first game is Friday, Feb. 21, against New Orleans, one of the other teams trying to chase down the final playoff spot in the West). Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reports the strain has a 1-2 week recovery time, and with groin injuries teams tend to be cautious because it is common to think it is healed when it is not, then the re-injury is worse.

Which means expect Lillard to miss at least some time after the All-Star break.

Portland can’t afford for him to be out long as it tries to make up the four games it is behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West.

The injury was just an unfortunate fluke. With less than four minutes to go before the All-Star break, Damian Lillard drove the lane against Memphis Grizzlies big man Jonas Valanciunas, landed and was in instant pain, grabbing his groin. He soon fouled to stop play and went straight to the locker room. After the game, Lillard said he was out of the All-Star Game on Sunday, where Devon Booker has replaced him.

Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic returns, scores 33, and basketball is fun again

AP Photo/Brandon Wade
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Luka Doncic returns, doesn’t miss a beat, scores 33 in Dallas win. It’s just fun to watch Luka Doncic play basketball.

Maybe not if you’re the Kings trying to stop him. Luke Walton started the game small — a three-guard lineup with De’Aaron Fox, Cory Joseph, and Bogdan Bogdanovic — and has Joseph on Doncic. That didn’t work. Walton got frustrated watching his team try to defend Doncic and fail all night, but at least he was funny while doing it.

This was the best the Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis pick-and-roll has looked all season and it led Dallas to a 130-111 thrashing of Sacramento. Doncic, back after missing seven games with a sprained ankle, didn’t miss a beat, scoring 33, with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

Porzingis had to be more aggressive offensively with Doncic out and that carried over against the Kings. Also, he was not going against much size all night against the small-ball Kings (they started Nemanja Bjelica at center), so Porzingis just pushed them around and got where he wanted on the court. KP had 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, plus 13 rebounds.

The other reason it’s good to see Doncic back out there? It means he’s good to go for the All-Star Game Sunday, where he will be a starter.

2) Damian Lillard strains groin, out for All-Star Game. Damian Lillard will be in Chicago, he is performing during the Saturday night festivities as Dame D.O.L.L.A. — he remains the unquestioned best hip hop artist among NBA players. (Shaq is a close second *cough*.)

Lillard, however, will not be knocking down shots in the 3-Point Contest Saturday as planned. Nor will he be in the All-Star Game on Sunday after injuring his groin on Wednesday night.

The timing sucked. With less than four minutes to go before the All-Star break, Lillard drove the lane against the Memphis big man Jonas Valanciunas, landed and was in instant pain, grabbing his groin. He soon fouled to stop play and went straight to the locker room.

He suffered a strained groin, with an MRI coming tomorrow. However, Lillard said he knew instantly he was out of the All-Star Game, where he was set to be a reserve on Team LeBron.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver picks Lillard’s replacement, and traditionally he takes the guy with the next most votes on the coaches’ All-Star reserves ballots (we don’t know who that is, that vote is not public). Lillard said he hopes the spot goes to someone deserving “like Devin Booker.”

3) Toronto’s win streak ends at 15 as the sleepwalk into the break against Brooklyn. NBA players often treat last night before the All-Star break like you treated the last day of school before spring break — they are just watching the clock, waiting for their vacation.

That was the Raptors on Wednesday night. Winners of 15 in a row coming in, they were just sloppy on offense, messing up on their standard plays, setting soft screens, and in general just going through the motions on their way to shooting 37.8 percent on the night.

Do that against another NBA team and you lose, which is what happened, the Nets won 101-91. Caris LeVert had 20 points and looked sharp to lead the Nets.

A clunker of a game was bound to happen for Toronto, and now the streak is over. It doesn’t take away from what an amazing season they are having, and now for Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry it’s on to Chicago for the All-Star Game.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Lakers pick up an impressive road win in Denver behind LeBron James triple-double. Unlike the Raptors, LeBron and the Lakers did not take the night off mentally.

“I was trying to be laser sharp, laser focused as I could,” James said, via the AP. “I know the break was coming, but I wasn’t going to take this opportunity for granted.”

The Lakers went on the road to take on a Nuggets team that had won 6-of-7, and LeBron led the way and had 32 points, 14 assists, and 12 rebounds.

Throw in 33 points from Anthony Davis and the Lakers picked up a 120-116 overtime win. That is a quality road win for the team on top of the standings in the West.

Watch Ja Morant rack up first triple-double as Grizzlies drop Wizards

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WASHINGTON — Ja Morant had 27 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds for his first career triple-double to help the Memphis Grizzlies overcome poor 3-point shooting in a 106-99 victory over the Washington Wizards on Sunday night.

Morant scored 10 of his points in the fourth quarter for Memphis, which closed the game on a 22-8 run after trailing for most of the second half. His performance impressed Wizards coach Scott Brooks and star Bradley Beal.

Kyle Anderson added 16 points and Jonas Jackson Jr. had 14 for the Grizzlies, who won despite shooting 5 of 32 from beyond the arc. Jonas Valanciunas had 18 rebounds.

Bradley Beal scored 26 points for Washington, which led by as many as 12 points early but shot 4 of 26 in the fourth quarter.

Rui Hachimura had 12 points and 11 assists in the Wizards’ third loss in their last 10 games at home. Moritz Wagner had 19 points off the bench, while Davis Bertans added 15.

Morant was the instigator throughout the Grizzlies’ late run. He found Anderson underneath for a layup to tie it at 93 with 5:33 remaining before hitting two free throws to give Memphis its first lead of the half 26 seconds later.

Clarke’s 3-pointer on his only attempt behind the arc stretched the lead to five before Morant found Anderson inside again to make it 102-95.

Morant’s 3 from the right elbow with made it 105-96 with 44 seconds remaining, sending much of the Washington crowd to the exits.