Kendrick Nunn

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo lift Heat past Trail Blazers

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MIAMI — James Johnson scored on his first possession in more than a month. Dragic either scored or got somebody else points pretty much every time the ball was in his hands.

As often is the case for Miami, bench guys came up big.

Dragic had 29 points and 13 assists, Bam Adebayo added 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting and the Heat — without Jimmy Butler — never trailed in a 122-111 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night.

“It doesn’t matter for us who’s playing or not,” Dragic said. “We don’t use excuses.”

Dragic tied a career best with seven 3-pointers. Derrick Jones Jr. scored 19 points for the Heat, who got 14 from Kendrick Nunn and 12 in 22 minutes from little-used Johnson — who was called upon largely because Miami was without Butler.

It was Johnson’s first minutes since Nov. 27.

“I’ve been in every situation that this league can offer, honestly,” Johnson said. “I know for sure it can be worse.”

Tyler Herro scored 11 points for Miami, as did Meyers Leonard in his first game against his former team.

Damian Lillard led Portland with 34 points and 12 assists. Former Heat center Hassan Whiteside, booed almost every time he touched the ball, finished with 21 points and 18 rebounds for Portland.

“It felt weird at first,” Whiteside said of playing against his former club. “But a lot of them guys I haven’t played with. There were a few guys out there that I actually knew.”

Both teams were missing starters unexpectedly. Miami was without Butler, ruled out because of back soreness. Portland played without the services of CJ McCollum for the first time this season; he was out with an upper-respiratory infection.

“Any time one of your best players is not on the floor you’re going to be less of a team,” Lillard said. “We’re professionals and that’s when you turn to the next guy. … It’s tough not having him but they didn’t have their best player.

Anfernee Simons scored 19 points off the bench for Portland, which cut a 24-point deficit to nine in the third quarter but no closer.

“Whatever word you want to use, we didn’t compete hard enough in the first half,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They had us on our heels from the outset.”

The Heat improved their NBA-best home record to 17-1 — that’s only two wins shy of their home total for 41 games last season — and are 10-0 after losses.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he still roots for Whiteside, who spent five years with Miami and got traded this summer as part of the series of moves that allowed the Heat to land Butler.

“We invested a lot into him and he invested a lot into us,” Spoelstra said. “For whatever reason — it just happens in this business — it was just time to turn the page on that team and it’s not anyone’s fault.”

Three Things to Know: Philadelphia zones out against Miami in loss

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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) Philadelphia zones out against Miami, Heat snap Sixers home winning streak. Brett Brown has done the self-scouting on his Sixers team, he knew this day was coming. Think about the Sixers’ biggest offensive strengths — Joel Embiid in the post, the slashing game of Ben Simmons getting to the rim — and the strategy becomes obvious and logical:

Play a zone defense.

A packed-in 2/3 zone that makes it hard to get Embiid the ball in the post and takes away Simmons’ driving lanes. Dare the Sixers to shoot over the top of the zone and beat it. Other teams had tried this for a few possessions here and there against Philadelphia this season, but nothing steady.

Miami has been more of a zone team than most already this season. They have the length and athleticism to make a zone work at the NBA level, so long as the other team can’t shoot well from distance.

Starting in the second quarter Wednesday night, Miami broke out its zone, and Philadelphia struggled. A lot. Philadelphia’s offense had flowed in the first quarter (with their defense creating transition chances), but it slowed and became clunky. At the heart of the issue was the Sixers couldn’t shoot over the top of the zone and make the Heat pay — Mike Scott was 1-of-6 from three, Josh Richardson 3-of-10, Joel Embiid 1-of-5, and as a team the Sixers shot just 30.8% from deep.

The Sixers then let their offensive struggles impact their defense. In the words of Tobias Harris, the Sixers became “zombies.” Miami went on a 23-5 run to take the lead, stretched that out to as much as 16, then held on at the end to win 108-104. That gave Philadelphia its first home loss of the season after 14 wins.

Miami’s zone cut off a Sixers strength — Embiid post-ups — and exposed a weakness of reliable long-range shooters. The Sixers started to adapt by moving Embiid more to the high post, with some success (and they could have even more long term by getting Al Horford or Ben Simmons the ball at the nail and letting them initiate the offense) but it was too little, too late.

Philly has been good this season against the league’s best — even with this loss it is 6-3 against the team with the 10 top records in the league — but their weaknesses can be glaring at times. It’s a concern when looking ahead to potential playoff matchups.

Games like this — with Bam Adebayo going off for 23, Kendrick Nunn 26, and Jimmy Butler being the closer when needed — make it clear Miami is going to be a very tough playoff matchup. Miami is the team other top teams would like to avoid come the postseason, the Heat will be a very tough out (and a real upset threat).

2) Oklahoma City comes back from 20+ points down to win for the second straight game. Some teams play better with their backs against the wall. Oklahoma City appears to be one of those teams.

Monday night, the Thunder stormed from 26 down against Chicago — with Chris Paul taking over late — to get a 109-106 win.

Wednesday night, the Thunder got down 24 to the Grizzlies but stormed back behind 22 second-half points off the bench by Dennis Schroder to get a 126-122 win.

That’s not a sustainable way to keep picking up wins, but they count just the same.

Phoenix may want to plan for how to handle the OKC guards if the Suns race out to a lead Friday night.

3) Two reasons the Knicks hiring David Blatt should concern Knicks fans. Steve Mills played basketball at Princeton, and there he was teammates with Craig Robinson and David Blatt. All three played under legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril, and all three went on to careers in basketball.

Mills is the president of the Knicks basketball operations and — hot seat or no — he still has power. He had already hired Robinson, and on Wednesday he hired Blatt — the former Cleveland Cavaliers coach — as a consultant.

In a vacuum, this move is fine. Blatt knows basketball, he may not have the personality and temperament to coach NBA players, but he has a long track record of success in Europe and he understands the game. Adding another smart voice to the front office mix is generally a good thing.

Two key things should concern Knicks fans with this hire. (And that assumes that Blatt never comes down from the front office to coach this team, or it would be three things to be concerned about.)

First, this is a very insular hire, when what the Knicks need is someone outside the box. One of the issues with Mills is that he was the guy with the power before Phil Jackson and the one with the hammer after Jackson left — the Knicks never shook things up. It was always insular, comfortable, safe moves. Mills, as president, just hired a guy he knows well and comes from the same coaching tree. It’s a move that backs the status quo, and is this status quo where the Knicks want to be?

Second, this hire shows Mills still has juice in the organization and may be around a while. For all the talk of Mills being on the hot seat and a fascination in the front office with Masai Ujiri (or other high-level replacement), this not a move ownership okays if the plan is to show Mills the door anytime soon. Even if the plan is to get a new POBO this summer, is this a hire ownership signs off on.

It’s the kind of move that makes it feel like Mills (and GM Scott Perry) are going to be around a while. A long while. Things change fast in Madison Square Garden, but for now the winds of change are not sweeping through the building.

Jimmy Butler returns to Philadelphia, gets booed, leads his new Miami team to win

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PHILADELPHIA — Perfect home record at stake, a game down to the wire, and the Philadelphia 76ers sure could have used Jimmy Butler in the clutch, just like he was for them so many times last season.

The Heat were glad to have the All-Star on their side — and Butler did enough to help spoil the Sixers’ perfect home record.

Kendrick Nunn scored 26 points and Bam Adebayo had 23 to help the Miami Heat hand the 76ers their first home loss of the season, 108-104 on Wednesday night.

Butler and the Heat won their 20th game, and perhaps proved they’re more than a one-man show.

“This is a team of one star?” Butler asked incredulously. “Who’s our star, Bam? I’ll take it. I’ll take Bam as our star any day. I ain’t worried about what anybody says. We’re content with who we are.”

The 76ers had been 14-0 at home, including a 113-86 victory over the Heat last month.

They came within a late bucket or two of staying flawless in Philly.

Tobias Harris buried a 3-pointer for the Sixers with 25.5 seconds left that made it 106-104 and they had sudden life when Nunn missed twice at the free throw line. Al Horford, though, missed an open 3-point attempt from the wing and the Heat escaped in a thriller.

Duncan Robinson had 15 for the Heat and hit a pair of 3s in the fourth that stretched the lead to 14 points. Nunn buried a 30-footer for a 99-83 lead that should have been enough of a cushion for Miami.

Joel Embiid, who missed Sunday’s rout by the Nets with an upper respiratory illness, had 22 points and 19 rebounds. Harris scored 20 points and the Sixers struggled to get going until late against Miami’s 2-3 zone that put them on their heels.

“We weren’t making shots and when you’re not making shots, especially when a team is playing zone, they’re going to keep on doing it,” Embiid said. “They did it all game and that’s how they won the game.”

Butler scored 14 points for the Heat and was pretty much a non-factor until late in his second game back in Philadelphia.

Butler was soundly booed the first few times he touched the ball and continued to get jeers throughout the game. He played 55 regular-season games for the Sixers last season, averaging 18.2 points after being acquired in a trade with Minnesota last November. He helped Philadelphia beat Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs before the 76ers were eliminated in the second round by Toronto.

Butler left Philadelphia in the offseason, signing a $142 million, four-year deal with the Heat in a sign-and-trade that brought Josh Richardson to Philadelphia.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Butler has been a perfect fit for a team trying to return to the playoffs after missing them last season.

“I feel like I’ve coached a lot of guys like Jimmy that are adults, that are very serious about winning, about the process of winning,” he said. “Ultra competitive. He’s a max player. We wanted a max player, someone that would fit our culture and our system.”

Richardson did his part late, hitting a 3 that made it an eight-point game and one more that made it 101-97 and sent another packed house into a frenzy. With a perfect home start still within reach, the 76ers coughed up the ball to Miami — and Butler crushed them with an assist on a 3 from Derrick Jones Jr. that gave the Heat needed breathing room.

Butler sank two free throws with 33.9 seconds left, toying with the 76ers to the end.

“I don’t think we had a sting to our defense,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “What did they have, four 3s with a second left? Sometimes it’s just not your night. There were times they were hurling up shots at the end of the clock, one of which was a bank shot, you feel like maybe it’s going to be a long night.”

Miami’s interest in Chris Paul reportedly ‘extinct;’ Jrue Holiday the more likely target

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Talk to sources around the league and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks Chris Paul will be traded before the deadline. He’s going to finish out this season wearing Thunder blue (and he’s accepted it).

It’s not that CP3 couldn’t help a contender — he is having another impressive, All-Star level season averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists a night for the Thunder, with a 21.3 PER — it’s the $85.6 million he is owed across the two seasons after this one that scares teams off (and just makes a deal difficult to put together).

The Miami Heat had interest in Paul over the summer, but now up against the hard cap (because of the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade) the Heat are looking elsewhere, reports Kevin O’Conner at The Ringer.

At this point, Miami’s interest in Paul is extinct, according to league sources. Miami is more likely to chase someone like Jrue Holiday, multiple front office executives believe.

New Orleans is reportedly now listening to offers for Holiday (and J.J. Redick, but not Brandon Ingram).

Holiday makes more sense on the Heat because he can play the two next to PG Kendrick Nunn, or he can run the point with Butler at the two. Holiday can shoot the three (career 35.4 percent) and is a good defender that fits the Miami style.

Holiday also has two seasons on his contract but at a more reasonable (than Paul) $53.1 million.

Miami could make a Holiday trade that works with several combinations of players, such as Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk, but New Orleans is going to want a first-round pick or young player for their rebuild if a deal is going to get done.

It’s still a longshot for any Heat trade, but CP3 is out of the picture. At least until this summer.