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Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

LeBron James on Cleveland: ‘When Kyrie got traded, it was the beginning of the end’

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This Wednesday, LeBron James makes his return to Cleveland.

This time it should feel different from eight years ago, when LeBron returned in a Miami Heat uniform and Cleveland unleashed all its pent-up fury upon him. Not that Cavaliers fans wanted him to leave last summer, but this time they saw it coming and could look back upon a title in the city for the first time since 1954. LeBron cemented his legacy in Cleveland.

LeBron reflected upon those days and said he knew the end was coming the same time everyone else did — when Kyrie Irving demanded a trade (he was eventually shipped to Boston). Via Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“Everyone knows that when Kyrie got traded, it was the beginning of the end for everything. It’s not a secret.”

For my money, the real beginning of the end was when owner Dan Gilbert refused to pay up and retain a quality general manager in David Griffin. LeBron realized that when it all started to go down, too. The new GM Koby Altman told LeBron he would not trade Irving to Boston — turning them into an instant powerhouse — but then the trade was completed later that day. LeBron realized it’s not that Altman lied to him as much as Altman wasn’t the guy making the call.

“You realize at that point in time, take nothing from Koby, because Koby [was just named GM], but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as [Griffin] had done, and that’s why Griff was let go pretty much.”

LeBron still carried the Cavaliers to the Finals (in part because Irving was injured and out when the teams met in the postseason) but the Cavaliers were no match for the league’s elite, which is why they got swept by the Warriors. LeBron decided he needed to move on to new challenges and headed West to the Lakers, where the work to build a contender is still ongoing.

His return to Cleveland will bring mixed emotions to Cavaliers fans on Wednesday. And if LeBron plays like he has lately — dropping 44 on Portland and 51 on Miami — they will be reminded just how great a player he was for them.

 

 

Report: Cavaliers GM Koby Altman told LeBron James they wouldn’t trade Kyrie Irving

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LeBron James told the Cavaliers not to trade Kyrie Irving last year. LeBron didn’t do anything to win over the point guard, who asked out. But LeBron still told Cleveland not to honor the request.

LeBron’s last message on the top went to Cavs general manager Koby Altman shortly before they dealt Irving to the Celtics.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.

James suggested he didn’t feel he was lied to by Altman, so much as Altman was overruled by owner Dan Gilbert.

“You realize at that point in time, take nothing from Koby, because Koby (was just named GM), but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as (former GM David Griffin) had done, and that’s why Griff was let go pretty much,” James said.

Cavs front-office officials declined to be quoted for this story but disputed that Altman gave James any indication the trade would not occur. They also said Altman asked James whether he would commit to the Cavs long-term if Irving were not traded, and James said no.

If he didn’t have the authority to keep Irving, Altman shouldn’t have said he would.

Maybe Altman didn’t know he lacked that authority. He was new in the job, after all. So, maybe his error was easily forgivable. But it sounds like an error, nonetheless.

The Cavaliers also didn’t necessarily err by trading Irving. The package they got proved problematic, but the concept of trading the disgruntled star had more merit to the team than LeBron. LeBron lasted only one more season in Cleveland, and it seems likely – though not certain – he would have left even if the Cavs listened to him on Irving. That meant, the Cavaliers could have been left without LeBron and trying to trade Irving in the final year of his contract, when his trade value would have been lower. LeBron might have just wanted to use Irving for one more playoff run then leave Cleveland holding the bag.

The communication issues are a bigger issue. It’s unclear how to divvy blame between Gilbert, Altman and LeBron, but that call ended with those three on different pages. And it doesn’t seem LeBron’s exit has fixed the problem in Cleveland. Since, the Cavs:

Again, it’s unclear whether Gilbert, Altman or others are the problem. But that’s a lot of disarray under Altman, and at a certain point, it’s his responsibility to ensure proper communication is flowing smoothly within the organization.

There are numerous reasons LeBron left for the Lakers. But it’s hard to overlook the Cavaliers’ crummy management in the last year.

Donovan Mitchell scores 28, Jazz beat Celtics 98-86

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BOSTON (AP) — Donovan Mitchell had 28 points and six assists, bouncing back from one of his worst performances of the season and leading the Utah Jazz to a 98-86 win over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night.

Ricky Rubio scored 20 points for Utah, which beat Boston for the second time in eight days and swept the season series. Rudy Gobert had 12 points and nine rebounds, and Derrick Favors finished with 10 points and eight boards.

Mitchell took 35 shots and did not record an assist in Friday night’s 113-107 loss at Philadelphia. He was far more efficient against Boston, going 10 for 21 from the field and 3 for 4 at the free-throw line.

Boston scored its fewest points since a 93-90 loss at Orlando on Oct. 22.

Kyrie Irving had 20 points for the Celtics, who had won two in a row. He also had the move of the night.

Jayson Tatum finished with 10, but no other player scored in double figures for Boston.

The Celtics were just 8 for 26 from the field in the third quarter. They had to play much of the period without Irving, who fouled Mitchell on a 3-pointer with 5:40 left. Mitchell made all three from the line to put Utah up 68-55, and then Irving picked up his fifth foul just 28 seconds later.

Irving returned in the fourth, but Boston was unable to catch up. Mitchell blocked a dunk attempt by Gordon Hayward and Utah took it the other way for an alley-oop dunk by Favors from Geoges Niang to put the Jazz up 83-64 with 9:07 left to play.

Utah ended a two-game losing streak, which started with a 118-68 loss at Dallas on Wednesday.

 

Kyrie Irving, teammate of 12-year-veteran Al Horford: Celtics need 14- or 15-year veteran for leadership

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The Celtics just had a 1-4 road trip, the lone win coming in overtime against the lowly Suns. Most Boston players (except Marcus Morris and, lately, Kyrie Irving) look out of sorts offensively.

Irving, via Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

Looking at this locker room, me being in my eighth year and being a ‘veteran’ as well as Al [Horford] and [Aron] Baynes. Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint, when you want to play, when you want to do what you want to do.

Al Horford is in his 12th season. His team, the Hawks then Celtics, have made the playoffs every season of his career.

I’m not sure Irving intended this as a slight of Horford. Irving certainly didn’t forget about Horford, whom Irving mentioned the sentence prior.

But I’d definitely understand if Horford felt slighted. He’s experienced enough to provide that veteran leadership. So is Irving for that matter.

Ultimately, these comments might prove benign, just more weird words from Irving. Still, they’re potentially significant enough to keep an eye on Boston’s leadership situation.