AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Report: Mavericks’ top target in free agency will be Kemba Walker

4 Comments

Hornets point guard Kemba Walker is rumored to leave Charlotte in free agency this summer.

Where could he go?

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

Two sources with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking expect Walker, the Hornets’ three-time All-Star point guard, to be that team’s top target when NBA free-agency begins July 1.

Dallas projects to have about $30 million in cap space. Walker’s max starting salary projects to be about $33 million.

Maybe that’d be enough to get Walker, who’ll turn 29 in May. He’s very good right now, but he might not be worth a max contract over the next four years.

If they need to clear extra cap space for Walker, the Mavericks could try to trade players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Dwight Powell and Justin Jackson. A max contract projects to be worth about $141 million over four years. A starting salary of $30 million with max raises would pay Walker $129 million over four years.

For what it’s worth, Walker’s max contract with the Hornets projects to be $190 million over five years (or $221 million over five years if he makes an All-NBA team this season).

But Charlotte has never gotten Walker an All-Star teammate. In Dallas, Walker would have two teammates on the star track in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

Doncic makes this tricky, though. He’s a lead playmaker from the wing. Should he just be the point guard? If not, what type of point guard fits best with him? Signing Walker would be an expensive way to find out.

Walker can work off the ball. He drills catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at a good rate. His dribble-drives still work in secondary actions. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle likes to use two point guards, anyway.

But much of Walker’s value comes from his ability with the ball. If he’s not consistently initiating the offense and running pick-and-rolls, is he worth the salary he’ll surely command?

On the other hand, whom could Dallas get instead? Maybe a not-fully unleashed Walker is still the best option. After trading multiple future first-round picks, the Mavericks can’t just patiently roll over their cap space. Their imperative is to win soon, and Walker would help.

NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Rumor: Did Porzingis want out of New York because he didn’t want to play with Durant?

Getty Images
7 Comments

In less than a year, Kristaps Porzingis went from the anointed savior of the Knicks franchise to being traded to the Dallas Mavericks to make way for whatever and whoever is next. It was a turn of events that shocked and angered much of the Knicks fan base.

After the trade went down, the spin machines got busy. The Knicks said that Porzingis requested to be moved, and while there was some push back about that from KP’s camp there was no question he had his frustrations with the Knicks and might have looked around as a restricted free agent. Why did he want out? Did he not trust management? Or was it something else… like who the Knicks are reportedly targeting as a free agent? One Kevin Durant.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe floated that last theory on his podcast Friday:

“I don’t think he was psyched about playing with Durant. I don’t know how directly that was verbalized to the Knicks, but I’m confident that it wasn’t something that was his Plan A, he wanted to be the face of the franchise.”

That apparently was not said to the Knicks.

Expect push back from Porzingis’ camp on this.

There is a whole lot of speculation in this rumor, starting with the Knicks being able to land Durant (even though most sources I talk to around the league see that as the most likely outcome this summer). KD’s star would have been brighter than Porzingis’, but in New York there is plenty of spotlight to go around. Was sharing the stage really an issue?

Porzingis’ frustrations likely had many layers and cannot be defined by Durant alone. If he didn’t trust ownership and management, can you really blame him? We’ll never really know how much of a factor Durant was — or, was not — in that mix.

Where Porzingis landed, he and Luka Doncic are the face of the Mavericks going forward. Mark Cuban and Dallas bet big on them. The question now for Porzingis is was that a good gamble?

Dennis Smith Jr. and second chances

Getty Images
4 Comments

The Knicks got a lot in their trade of Kristaps Porzingis. Double-max cap space next summer that could be used to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. An unprotected future first-round pick. Another likely first-rounder.

And Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith has been treated as an afterthought in New York’s return for Porzingis. That’s somewhat understandable when the trade puts established stars like Durant and Irving in play, but don’t just forget about the 21-year-old Smith.

“I’ve been overlooked before,” Smith said. “It’s nothing new. This is familiar territory for me.

“That’s why I’ve been in grind mode. I’ve been in grind mode since I stepped foot in New York. That’s what I’m all about.”

Smith was most infamously overlooked in the 2017 draft, when he fell to No. 9. The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina one spot higher. LeBron James even said New York should have taken Smith.

To be fair, LeBron was feuding with then-Knicks president Phil Jackson. Jackson, in an incident that drew a lot of attention, pressured Smith into eating octopus at a pre-draft dinner meeting. Did Smith’s reluctance to try the octopus actually contribute to New York not drafting him?

“I hope not,” Smith said. “I ain’t for sure. But I hope that wasn’t the reason.”

It’s remarkable we can’t be certain of it not factoring. But that was the absurdity of Jackson’s tenure.

At least the Knicks get Smith now.

He even sometimes orders octopus for himself.

“I’ve got a little bit of money now,” Smith said.

Dallas drafted Smith, and his future there appeared promising. He scored 15.2 points per game as a rookie. Obviously, scoring isn’t everything, but it indicates a player’s stature, how much his team has entrusted him. When teams get someone young with Smith’s scoring average, they almost always build around him.

But the Mavericks acquired Luka Doncic in last year’s draft and are justly prioritizing him. Doncic is better and younger. Smith, who also fills a primary-ballhandler role, no longer fit.

Smith left Dallas averaging 14.5 points per game with the Mavericks. That’s one of the highest-scoring averages ever for someone with his original team who got traded or sold before the end of his second season:

image

In Smith’s lifetime, only Michael Carter-Williams had a higher-scoring average with his original team then got traded before the end of his second season.

Smith is no longer the player I ranked No. 4 on my draft board or even the one who actually got picked in the top 10. His stock has rightfully dropped while in the league. He’s inefficient as a scorer, and he lacks complementary skills. His accuracy on 3-pointers is disappointingly low. His distributing lags well behind with his score-first approach.

But the reasons Smith looked so intriguing fewer than two years ago haven’t completely dissipated, either. He’s got nice handles and quickness, and he has the athleticism to finish above the rim. His inefficiency seems due more to shot selection than mechanics and is therefore likely an easier fix. Point guards tend to develop later.

In the meantime, Smith is losing prominence. He played in the Rising Stars Challenge last year but wasn’t invited back this year. Of the several dozen players who participated in that game as a rookie but weren’t selected as a sophomore, only three – Joe Johnson, Caron Butler and Chris Kaman – developed into All-Stars.

Smith wanted to return to All-Star Weekend this year, anyway. It’s in his native North Carolina, and his grandma is getting older. She wanted to see him there. So, after competing in last year’s dunk contest then declaring it wasn’t for him, he’ll re-enter.

“I kind of learned what it was about last year with all the extra gimmicks and things,” Smith said. “So, I have a couple myself.”

That’s where Smith wants the gimmicks to end.

Knicks fans can dream about Irving or even look to Kemba Walker as a fallback. Smith wants to earn the starting-point guard job for himself.

Right now, it has been handed to him on a barren roster. New York is tanking, biding time until its next era.

Maybe, just maybe, Smith will be an integral part of it.

“He really knows how to run a team,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “And we’re just getting started together, and I’m really excited for the future with him.”

Celtics reportedly believe Rich Paul planted story on Kyrie Irving leaving: ‘It was cheap and underhanded’

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
5 Comments

By sharing he apologized to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving unwittingly walked into a storm.

The revelation initially seemed innocent enough. Irving – who sometimes resisted LeBron’s leadership with the Cavaliers – realized how difficult it is to teach younger players. I’m not convinced Irving suddenly liked all LeBron’s tactics, but Irving seemed to now appreciate the enormity of LeBron’s challenge. If LeBron occasionally erred in leading Cleveland, it was more understandable to Irving now. Irving, by his own admission, occasionally erred in leading the Celtics.

Then, Anthony Davis requested a trade from the Pelicans.

Davis – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – wanted to join the Lakers. But Boston was positioned to make a better offer this offseason than Los Angeles before the trade deadline. The Celtics are prohibited from trading for Davis while Irving remains on his current contract, because both are designated rookie scale players.

So, the Celtics had to convince New Orleans to wait and that a great offer was coming. Meanwhile, the Lakers, Davis, Paul and LeBron wanted to convince New Orleans that something would derail Boston and that a better offer than Los Angeles’ wasn’t coming.

So, in the wake of Irving expressing more respect for LeBron, a rumor emerged about Irving signing with the Lakers this summer. Though that was somewhat debunked, the Knicks then traded Kristaps Porzingis to clear double-max cap space in the offseason. Suddenly, Irving-to-New York rumors were flying. Word even leaked Davis himself believed Irving might not re-sign with the Celtics. Of course Irving leaving Boston would make Davis less likely to re-sign in 2020 if traded there – a prospect that could lead the Celtics to offer New Orleans less for Davis.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

The Celtics were annoyed by the story of Irving having eyes for New York, not because of Irving, but because they felt the story was planted by Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, in order to scare the Pelicans into thinking Boston would back off making a trade offer for Davis in July if Irving left.

“It was cheap and underhanded,” one source told SN.

No matter what disinformation campaign Paul waged, nobody ignited more talk of Irving leaving Boston than Irving himself. Asked a couple weeks ago about his commitment to the Celtics, Irving infamously said, “Ask me July 1.” That was a stark departure from his preseason declaration of intent to re-sign.

Irving doesn’t have to share his plan now. He’ll be a free agent this summer and can decide then. But he shared his plan already. That makes his recent demurring look particularly alarming for Boston.

With Davis, the Celtics won. The Pelicans kept him through the deadline, clearing the way for Boston to trade for him this summer. However, even if the Celtics trade for Davis, they’ll have to re-sign him in 2020. Leaking disdain for his agent probably won’t help.