Landry Shamet

Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to season

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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) Red-hot James Harden off to Jordan/Wilt level start to the season. Remember this quaint concern before the season tipped off: There’s only one basketball, how exactly are Russell Westbrook and James Harden going to share it and share the court?

It’s Harden’s basketball, Harden’s team, and when it matters Westbrook is going to stay out of the way. That’s how.

Harden — whose 36.1 points per game last season was the highest per-game average in the league since Michael Jordan in 1987 (37.1) — is off to a hotter start and scoring more this season.

We saw that on Monday night: Harden had a personal 13-0 run in the fourth quarter and dropped 19 in the final frame to help the Rockets put away the Pelicans, 122-116. Harden finished with 39 points, his fourth-straight 35+ point game — and not so coincidentally the Rockets are on a four-game win streak.

If you want to talk old-school per-game averages, Harden is averaging 37.3 through 10 games, the most in the last 50 years — Jordan averaged 36.9 in 1987 and 1989.

By the way, when Westbrook and Harden share the court the Rockets are +2.8 points per 100 possessions, and the team plays pretty good (league average range) defense when they are paired.

Nothing has changed for Harden. The man with the beard, motivated by losing the MVP race to Giannis Antetokounmpo last season, has not been slowed in the least by the arrival of another ball-dominant guard.

The Rockets are 7-3 to start the season, and while we can debate where they belong in the rankings of contenders in the West, we know that if you leave them off the list you’re doing it wrong. This is a good team, a dangerous one.

And good luck slowing Harden down.

2) The Day the injuries piled up: Gordon Hayward, Khris Middleton, De’Aaron Fox all out weeks. This was a depressing way to start the week, injuries to three star players that will keep them out weeks.

We knew Sunday night that Celtics’ star Gordon Hayward, off to a fast start this season, had fractured his hand. Monday we learned that he had surgery to repair the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand (the bone that connects the wrist to the ring finger), and he will be out six weeks. That’s relatively good news, Stephen Curry is out three months with the fracture in his non-shooting hand, but Hayward will be missed. He was averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and dishing out 4.1 assists per game. More than just that, he’s been a critical playmaker for the Celtics.

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton left Sunday’s game in the third quarter with a thigh bruise but after the game said it was not that serious. Actually, it was serious. He’s going to be out 3-4 weeks with the injury. Middleton was playing at his All-Star level of a year ago averaging 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

Sacramento’s rising star De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice on Monday and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

To add to all this, the Clippers’ young sharpshooter Landry Shamet had to leave the game against the Raptors on Monday night and an MRI on Tuesday will tell us how long he will be out.

3) San Antonio Spurs retire the jersey of Tony Parker, putting all of their big three in the rafters. Tony Parker was the No. 28 pick the 2001 NBA Draft. At the time there was a push from members of the Boston Celtics front office to take him at No. 21, but 84-year-old team president Red Auerbach didn’t trust that European point guards could thrive in the NBA. The Celtics took Joe Forte.

Parker fell to the Spurs seven picks later, and the rest is history. Parker went on to help the Spurs to four titles, he was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. Parker used his quickness and high IQ to break down defenses as well as anyone who played the game — the 6’2” Parker led the league in points in the paint one season.

Parker was part of the core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty. He deserved to have his number hung in the rafters with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (and they were all there for the occasion).

Parker handled the night with the class we have come to expect from the French star.

Merci, Toni.

Does the East have a better chance of winning the Finals with crowded, deep West?

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The Golden State Warriors will be hampered without Klay Thompson to start the season. The sharpshooting guard is a crucial part of what the Warriors bring to the table sans Kevin Durant, who is now with the Brooklyn Nets. Even with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, many have considered the Western Conference to be more open for the taking this season. It’s been thought that this makes it more likely the Eastern Conference can field a second consecutive NBA champion.

Leonard’s decampment from the Toronto Raptors has made way for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks to ascend into the Finals to take on the Western Conference’s best. All of these teams have tried to add pieces with this idea of a wide-open NBA table in mind: The Sixers now have Al Horford, the Celtics Kemba Walker, and Milwaukee a cavalcade of veteran talent including Kyle Korver.

And indeed, the more proven championship-caliber teams are out east. Philadelphia, for all its growing pains and issues arising around Joel Embiid‘s conditioning, added the one player in Horford who was able to put a stop to them. Well, save for Leonard, who put in a bouncing jumper to end the Sixers’ season last year.

That again, Philadelphia is missing two key pieces from last year that we don’t know how they will make up for. JJ Redick is now with the New Orleans Pelicans, and his shooting presence will be missed. Redick made 240 threes last year for the Sixers. Landry Shamet was second on the team with 99. Jimmy Butler is now with the Miami Heat, and his dynamism on the wing will be difficult to replace.

The Celtics and the Bucks have similar issues when looking at their championship resumes. Boston has a glut of wings, although it’s not clear how good any of them are outside of Marcus Smart. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are dueling for future contract extensions. Gordon Hayward didn’t look great last season, and although there is hope he will be his old self this year, we’ll have to wait and actually see it to feel comfortable. That’s before mentioning that Horford is no longer anchoring the paint for the Celtics.

Milwaukee found a hard stop last year when it came to its playoff readiness. The Bucks were not particularly steady in the postseason, and teams were able to plan around Giannis Antetokounmpo and his lack of 3-point shooting. Last season’s MVP has said that his goal is to get better from beyond the arc, and any improvement in 2019-20 would be acceptable. Even despite the team adding Kyle Korver, they will be relying on Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton to flesh out the wing. Gone is Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, perhaps their most reliable player in the playoffs.

Put together, all three championship contenders in the Eastern Conference have their issues. But so to do the newly-minted challengers out west. There’s a thought that both of the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers — who now have Anthony Davis — will show some weakness to start the year. The Clippers will need to use load management on both Leonard and George, the latter of which is still recovering from double shoulder surgery. And although the Clippers were one of the best teams in terms of depth last season, how adding two new stars changes that dynamic is not yet known.

On the other side of the hallway in Los Angeles stands the Lakers, who outside of Davis, LeBron, and Danny Green don’t have much to show for all the bluster around their title hopes. The Lakers roster is flat-out bad, and despite tons of optimism around media types, I’m just not buying that they are a championship-level squad yet. The Lakers have real injury concerns, and until they make it all the way through to the Western Conference Finals, those will always be top-of-mind.

The second-tier in the west is plucky, but not necessarily ready for overt dominance. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs will all be in the running for the middle of the pack next year. Do any have championship rosters? Some of these teams are top-heavy, including Houston with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Others, like the Nuggets and Jazz, will rely on their depth. Harden and Nikola Jokic could be legitimate MVP candidates, and that’s a problem in a league where it’s difficult to make it to the Finals without one.

That puts us in a difficult position in terms of “counting out” the Warriors. Thompson has said that he is going to take his time coming back from his ACL injury, but he should be a part of a Warriors playoff run in the spring of 2020. Without Durant, both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be extra motivated to prove themselves as the core pieces to the team that dominated the NBA long before Durant came to the Bay Area.

Health will be another concern for Golden State, particularly with Curry and his ankles. Weight, if you can call it a health concern in context of the NBA, is what most will be raising questions about when it comes to Green. He entered the season last year a bit slower, and burned off 20 pounds at the All-Star break to make a playoff run. They will need the former Defensive Player of the Year to come into the preseason already able to do what he did last year: Disrupt opposing offenses and pressure the defense with his pace-pushing offensive style.

For now, at the precipice of the season, it seems clear that the Eastern Conference is the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. At least, as a group. This isn’t a Tiger vs. the field situation for the Clippers. They just aren’t that strong, and in this case the safer bet would be on one of the Eastern Conference powerhouses instead of just L.A. It’s possible that the Clippers are will be as dominant as projected. In that case, it would be a bitter irony for the East to be subjected to yet another super team on the West Coast just as one appears to have a chink in its armor.

New teams coming together — particularly super teams — have not always had the best track record. Will the Clippers be LeBron James with the Miami Heat in 2008? Or will they be Durant with the Warriors in 2017? Consistency and familiarity cannot be ruled out as a function of success in the NBA. It would be smart for teams in the East to continue to build on their core as long as the teams out west are starting to form theirs. They may only have a short window with which to strike before the Warriors, Clippers, or some other team takes control of the league.

Mason Plumlee added to Team USA player pool (Montrezl Harrell, too, but he’s already out)

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The story of Team USA’s 2019 FIBA World Cup roster in a nutshell: USA Basketball announced Montrezl Harrell and Mason Plumlee were added to the player pool. Less than an hour later, Harrell put out word he probably wouldn’t play.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Many stars swiftly turned down Team USA for this year’s FIBA World Cup. More accepted an invitation to try out then withdrew. Now even Harrell is out.

Who’s in?

Here are the players slated to attend training camp, with rough positional designations:

Point guards

Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

Combo guards

Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)

Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)

Wings

Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)

Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)

Big forwards

P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)

Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls)

Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)

Centers

Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)

Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)

Julius Randle (New York Knicks)

Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)

Plumlee is an odd addition (except considering his connections). That’s so many centers – especially because USA Basketball also invited Harrell, another center. It seems original selections Lopez, Drummond and Turner could hold down the position.

The Americans could use more backcourt depth. J.J. Redick, who just signed with the Pelicans, might provide it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

As an excellent outside shooter, Redick could fill a valuable role.

USA Basketball also announced the select team, a group of young players that practices against the senior squad:

At this rate, maybe a select-team player or two will make the final World Cup roster.

Concerns about Knicks organization reportedly at heart of why free agents stayed away

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It’s not about the last 20 years, most NBA players don’t account for “ancient” history when choosing a free agent destination. It’s about the previous five years or so.

If you’re thinking about the last five years, what do you know of the Clippers? Went to the playoffs every year, have player-friendly and loved Doc Rivers as coach, was the fun show of Lob City, rebuilt well on the fly, have Jerry West in the front office and an owner worth about $50 billion in Steve Ballmer.

What do you know about the Nets in the last five years? Playing in Brooklyn now, and management there has built a player-friendly culture built on guys who play hard, and they have made smart rebuilding decision after smart rebuilding decision under Sean Marks. This is a playoff team already poised to take a step forward.

That’s now what players think of the Knicks, according to a story in the New York Times by David Waldstein.

Yet interviews with agents and other basketball executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing any future business with the Knicks, bear out the perception that players would rather not deal with an organization seen as dysfunctional, though there are more nuanced explanations for the radioactivity of the team, as well…

But there is also the remote location of the Knicks’ practice facility — in suburban Westchester County, nearly 30 miles from Manhattan, a long commute that complicates living arrangements — and most recently there has been the surprising success of the Nets…

Players around the league, according to the agents, have taken note of the Knicks’ instability: There have been 10 coaches since Van Gundy left in 2001 and almost as many top executives, some with impressive résumés, like Isiah Thomas, Donnie Walsh and Phil Jackson. Now [Steve] Mills and Scott Perry, the general manager, are at the helm.

James Dolan is painted as the villain, the Knicks need to overcome that perception.

Perry and Mills have done a good job this summer in this sense: After striking out with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they didn’t throw max contracts at second- and third-tier guys who would hamstring the organization going forward, as the Knicks have done in the past. They stuck with building around youth — R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson — while adding smart veteran contracts such as Julius Randle (a two-year deal). Keep improving, but keep the financial flexibility go after the next star.

Think about the struggling franchises that have made big moves. The Lakers did it by putting together enough good young players that they could make an interesting offer for Anthony Davis. The Nets had young players with talent such as D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris. The Clippers may or may not get Kawhi Leonard, but they also have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell plus veterans such as Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley who are respected around the NBA.

The Knicks need to spend a couple of seasons getting there, getting that core talent level up, then the rest of it can come together.

And then the stories about why players are staying away will stop.

Report: Clippers agree to terms with guard Rodney McGruder, three-years, $15 million

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The Clippers have guards they like — rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet start, Patrick Beverley is back and will come off the bench — but they could use some more depth. And the Clippers can never have enough grit.

Which is why Rodney McGruder should be a good fit. The combo guard who spent his first three seasons in Miami is headed to Los Angeles, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Patrick Beverley liked the signing.

The Heat waived McGruder back on April 7 to get under the luxury tax, and the Clippers grabbed him off waivers and were expected to re-sign him. Because of that, his cap hold was on the Clippers’ books already, so this contract does not impact the team’s ability to offer a max contract to Kawhi Leonard.

McGruder averaged 7.6 points per game last season and shot 35.1 percent from three (where he took almost half his shots) he struggled to knock down looks inside the arc. What he brings more than points is an attitude and style that will fit with the scrappy Clippers team.