Paul George

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Will the NBA allow enough time with the restart of games to avoid injuries?

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It finally happens — the NBA returns. The coronavirus forced stoppage ends and the NBA races into action. As quickly as they can teams gather in a “bubble” in Las Vegas, players are on the court in games televised across the nation and streamed around the world. The NBA’s elite are back and thrown into a condensed playoff format…

Then in the first game a superstar player goes down with a torn ACL.

Just a few games later, another is sidelined with a strained quad. Another player suffers a torn meniscus. The injuries quickly start piling up.

It’s the scenario that is keeping NBA athletic trainers and staffs up at night.

“We call it spiking the workloads, you never want to go from zero to 100, that’s when you see a lot of injuries,” one team’s strength and training coach told NBC Sports, speaking on the condition of anonymity [his team did not want this discussed]. “You’re going to need a slow ramp-up. How slow it is going to be somewhat limited, with everyone wanting to get things going.”

As the NBA and its fans dream of returning to play, the league must find a balance. When the NBA restart happens, there will be a rush to move fast and get games going, but move too fast and it could lead to injuries. Guys need time to get back into game shape.

Any athlete at any level will tell you: working out in a gym is not game shape. For the NBA, the consequences of moving too fast could devastate some players and teams.

How long a runway into games will teams need before they can play?

“I think it’s going to take time… Realistically three weeks, four weeks would be ideal, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” one strength trainer said.

Other training staff polled seem to expect two-three weeks, with games of some form — maybe some regular season games, perhaps just exhibitions — as part of that. The league itself is not discussing publicly the return — there are too many variables in play to make predictions — but sources said a training camp is factored into the equation.

Just having the games is critical.

“Conditioning is a primary reason for pre-season exhibition games… live game speed simulation remains ideal,” said Javair Gillett, Director of Athletic Performance for the Houston Rockets.

Knowing they could return to work at any time, NBA players are trying to work out at home — and team strength and conditioning staffs are using new technology to help out with that. Everyone understands that whenever the suspension is lifted, things are going to move fast.

That short window has players from playoff-bound teams seeming a little more focused than those who are near the start of their off-season (and may not play again this season).

“As we’ve been preaching and saying around our team, amongst coach, we want to win the wait,” the Clippers’ Paul George said on the team’s Instagram feed. “When this thing gets back going, we want to be the team that’s in the best shape and ready to go.”

“Guys know that they won’t be able to use games to play themselves into shape,” Gillett said of the Rockets. “So if we continue the season, the hope and expectation is that we see guys returning with a higher level of fitness than the state they typically return in at the onset of a full season…

“We know where we’re at in the season, what’s on the line, what’s at stake, with that in mind our players are very motivated because there’s still that end goal in sight, to win a championship.”

Technology helps training staffs push their players in ways they couldn’t have years ago.

Gillet and the Rockets are among the franchises using Teambuildr, an app and website site where staff can plan, track, and demonstrate through videos how to do remote workouts. It allows the staffs to design and modify workouts for each player individually. In the NBA alone Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Minnesota, and Detroit use the site, as do teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB.

“Technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, we’ve gotten to the point teams can present their programs online or through apps,” Gillett said, adding it makes it easier for players to follow along and stick with a program.

Other teams have gone different directions.

“The players had bikes and weights delivered to their homes,” Brad Stevens said of the Celtics. “We’ve had some voluntary strength and conditioning sessions.”

The Warriors’ players have been doing group Peleton classes.

One challenge is simply nobody knows what the timeline of a return will be.

“Like the rest of the country, they don’t know when they are going to go back to work,” Gillett said.

Another challenge has been the limited equipment some players have available to work out with in their home. Highly-paid players and ones that live in bigger homes in the market (often veterans with families) may have impressive workout facilities in their houses. Even among those players, having half-a-court to practice shooting is rare. Stephen Curry didn’t have one.

It’s even harder for younger players and guys living in apartments, they had very limited tools.

“Their homes aren’t equipped with a lot, so we tried to communicate with them on an individual basis and address individual needs as best we can,” Gillett said of the Rockets’ approach. “In the offseason we send guys home with a care package, a duffel bag of items we feel is necessary, that we know is going to be part of their program. I think in this case it’s no different, we’re trying to provide some things we know they may not have at their home.”

Even for the teams taking their suspension workouts seriously, nobody is going to be in game shape.

“It is very difficult to maintain basketball, NBA level conditioning, without playing games… the volume, the intensity, the stress levels all come into play and it’s very difficult to replicate,” the Rockets’ Gillett said. “Which is why we’re stressing [to players] you have to maintain a certain level of fitness so that when you are to return it’s not going to take a long time to get you back into basketball shape.”

There will need to be games when the league returns, which is one reason for the discussion of playing some regular season games upon the league’s return. Even if the long hiatus forces the NBA to jump almost directly to the playoffs, there will need to be some exhibition games to get guys ready.

“I feel no matter what guys are doing, unless they have a court in their house, or access to a court, they’re just not going to be ready physically to handle the stress that a player goes through during the game,” one trainer told NBC Sports. “Then you add to that it could be right into the playoffs, and that’s an added stress.”

And that added stress could lead to injuries the NBA desperately wants to avoid.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams: ‘I was not having Lou’

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

Olympics postponement should force USA Basketball to change roster strategy

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USA Basketball named 44 finalists last month for the Tokyo Olympics.

No Zion Williamson. No Ja Morant. Not even Trae Young, who’s already an All-Star starter and on track to get even better.

USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo explained: Though young players would eventually get their turn, the 2020 Olympics would be for players who previously represented the U.S.

Except there will be no 2020 Olympics.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Games have been postponed to 2021. By then, USA Basketball’s plan to build an older roster – already a suspect strategy – will become even less tenable.

The 2019 FIBA World Cup showed the Americans’ vulnerability. They finished seventh – their worst-ever finish in a major tournament. The United States’ advantage is depth of star talent. That has carried Team USA through deficient cohesion and comfort with international rules/style. The 2019 squad lacked the usual star power.

Anything USA Basketball does to lower its talent level – including giving preferential treatment to past-their-peak players based on prior contributions – increases risk of another letdown.

Chris Paul sounded ready for Tokyo. But he’ll turn 35 this spring and would have been one of the oldest players ever on Team USA if competing in an on-time Olympics. LeBron James – who is at least open to another Olympics – is even older than Paul. Several other aging veterans are in the mix.

Already, half the finalists will be in their 30s by the time the Games were originally scheduled to begin.

Though that doesn’t necessarily mean the final roster would have been old, it’s a telling starting point. The average age of the finalists is 28.1.* In 2016, it was 26.4 In 2012, it was 26.8.

*On Feb. 1 of that year

Again, the final roster could have shaken out differently. But imagine this team:

A little backcourt-heavy? Yes. But so is the United States’ top-end talent.  Will Stephen Curry play? His father said yes, though that was before Curry was sidelined even longer than he expected. So, there’s plenty of room to quibble with the selections. But it’s at least a reasonable facsimile of the final roster.

The average age* of that group: 29.5.

That’d be the second-oldest Team USA in the Olympics, shy of only the 1996 squad. It’s even older than the original Dream Team, which – as the first Olympic team to include NBA players – definitely prioritized rewarding career accomplishments.

Here’s the average age* of each Team USA since NBA players began competing in the Olympics:

*Age for Team USA’s first game or, in 2020, first originally scheduled game of the tournament

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see taking that same group to Tokyo in 2021 would make it Team USA’s oldest-ever squad, advancing the average age a full year to 30.5.

Plenty will change in the next year. It’s easy to project growth from players like Trae Young, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. But whether or not those three in particular meet expectations, other young players will rise. Some of these older players will decline further.

Of course, there will still be room for some veterans in 2021. Chris Paul is flourishing with the Thunder and could continue to play at a high level. LeBron James is so dominant, he has plenty of room to decline while remaining elite.

But USA Basketball should be open-minded about emerging young players. That’s the only way to ensure a maximumly talented roster.

In 2020, it was foolish to pretend it’s 2016 or even 2012.

It’d be even more misguided to do so in 2021.

It was already the strangest NBA season before the coronavirus hit

Lakers star LeBron James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard
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This just feels weird.

To be sitting on the couch in late March and streaming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” or “Don’t f*** with cats” because there isn’t any basketball to watch feels wrong. No NBA battles for the eighth seed, no late pushes for Defensive Player of the Year or even MVP. No NCAA March Madness. Nothing. And no idea when the NBA is coming back.

It’s been the strangest of NBA seasons. One that feels like a scene out of Space Jam.

The thing is, this was already the strangest of NBA seasons before the novel coronavirus forced the league to suspend games back on March 11.

Just think about all the stuff we saw before the coronavirus changed our lives.

One Daryl Morey Tweet upends NBA’s relationship with China

The NBA season hadn’t even started when things got weird. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a Tweet showing support for the protestors in Hong Kong, a Tweet that barely registered a ripple of recognition stateside. NBA players or people from teams getting political barely generates a shrug here because we’re both used to it and had the concepts of free speech baked into us at a young age.

In China, Morey’s Tweet touched the third rail of politics and things blew up. Soon sponsors were pulling out of deals and NBA games were off Chinese television. When the NBA released a statement that read as wanting to appease the league’s business partners in China, plenty of people stateside — Senators and presidential candidates, even the creators of South Park — pounced to make a political point, saying the NBA was putting the almighty dollar over the freedom of speech it says it champions. The league had to come out and set the record straight with a second statement, backing Morey, and then hoping it would all blow over.

It has not, at least not completely. NBA games are still not broadcast on state-run television in China (although they can be streamed on Tencent) and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this cost the NBA “hundreds of millions of dollars,” ultimately suggesting it could be about $400 million. It’s unclear if the NBA will be back in China for the preseason next year (or, when preseason will be). The coronavirus seemed to hit pause on everything with the NBA and China.

The shocking and untimely death of Kobe Bryant.

Before the coronavirus literally stopped it, the entire NBA world seemed to grind to a halt on Jan. 26, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into a foggy hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.

Tributes poured in — not just at Staples Center but from around the NBA and around the world. Kobe’s impact and inspiration were global. His “Mamba Mentality” had influenced a generation of players (and people not in basketball), and he came to be a guru of sorts that countless current players leaned on for advice — Devin Booker even got a Kobe-related tattoo based on Kobe’s words to him.

Nothing, however, was as moving as the Kobe Celebration of Life that came at Staples Center. Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, gave a powerful speech that brought an arena to tears.

Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.

Kobe was also the focus of a tribute — and an intense fourth quarter — at a re-imagined All-Star Game.

At Staples Center (even for Clippers games), the numbers and names of the other legendary Lakers’ players have been covered up, and just Kobe’s 8 and 24 were visible in the rafters. It seemed a fitting tribute this season.

The Houston Rockets go all-in on small ball

Morey, before he pissed off a nation, made a bold move last summer to try and push the Rockets into contention — he traded for Russell Westbrook.

That alone was strange because Westbrook was the guy who stayed and embraced Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State a few years prior, then Westbrook went on a historic run of triple-doubles. However, when Paul George forced his way to the Clippers via trade, Westbrook relented and went to join another former Thunder star in James Harden in Houston.

It never really worked, not on a contender level, anyway. Harden and Westbrook played next to, not really with, each other and Houston didn’t look any better than they did the season before (the Rockets were 34-20 at the All-Star break, they won 33 games before the break the season before).

But before the break lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni found something that worked: real small-ball. Start P.J. Tucker — a 6’5″ corner-three shooting forward — at center, have nobody taller than 6’7″ on the floor. Make sure everybody can shoot the rock, and make other teams adapt to them. It may have been a lineup tried first out of injury desperation, but it worked. The Rockets went so all-in they traded center Clint Capela to Atlanta at the deadline.

For a while, it all came together and the Rockets went on a streak winning 10-of-12 and shot back up the standings. Eventually teams seemed to adapt (there was a four-game losing streak just before the suspension) and there were legitimate questions about how it all would hold up in the playoffs, but in the regular season the Rockets were must-watch television again.

And Harden is going to win another scoring title, averaging 34.4 points per game.

The resurgence of a 35-year-old LeBron James as serious MVP candidate

Nobody questioned that LeBron James could still dominate basketball games, we had seen it in the playoffs for years. When focused, he was still as good as anyone on the planet, a dominant force of nature unlike anyone else the NBA had seen (or, at least seen since MJ or Wilt).

However, for years, LeBron had largely coasted through the regular season, particularly on the defensive end. He was saving energy, not dialing it up every night, and placing a priority on the postseason over the regular season. This had gone back to his second stint in Cleveland — where he won another title — and continued into his first injury-riddled season in Los Angeles.

Not this season. At age 35, LeBron held nothing back. He came out of the gate playing hard on both ends of the floor every night, becoming a disrupting defensive force while scoring 25.7 points per game and leading the league with 10.6 assists a game every night. He was attacking again like we hadn’t seen in years.

It feld weird bcause it was unexpected at this age. We’d need to go back to Karl Malone, or maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to find a player at this age having this kind of impact.

LeBron, driven by the arrival of Anthony Davis and the realization he does not have that many years left in the game to win another title, had played at an MVP level all season. The award may well go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had another spectacular season as well and pushed his Bucks squad close to 70 wins, but the impact of LeBron was unquestionable. When he sat, the Lakers’ offense struggled, which is a big part of the “valuable” portion of his MVP case. The season being cut short hurt LeBon’s chances to make that case over the final 20 games.

There was a real rivalry in Los Angeles for once

For many years, the Clippers had been — at best — the cute little brother in Los Angeles. They were not the heart of Los Angeles basketball or a bigger draw, even when the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin “Lob City” Clippers were clearly the better team and a potential contender. The Los Angeles market always has been about the Lakers. There also was no feeling of a rivalry because even the years the Clippers had been better the Lakers were not in the mix for a title. The little brother was not in the way.

This season the LeBron/Davis Lakers were legit title contenders — and the Clippers may be their biggest foe.

The Clippers are no longer the backward-run franchise of the Donald Sterling years, this is one of the best-run franchises in the league now and that word had gotten around to players. The Clippers were a team guys wanted to play for, Steve Ballmer was an owner guys wanted to play for.

That helped the Clippers win the off-season, landing Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and trading for Paul George. Combine those two elite talents with a playoff-level core already — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and the list goes on — and the Clippers were the deepest team on paper in the NBA. The Clippers were legitimate title threat, once they got healthy and put everyone on the court.

To make their point, the Clippers won the first two meetings in the battle of L.A., the Lakers the most recent one (and one that felt like a playoff game), but the real test of seven games was ahead in the playoffs.

Lakers’ fans will try to deny this is a rivalry yet — “what have they won, look at the ringzzzzzz” — but in the last meeting of these teams in the regular season everyone could sense it. Lakers fans realized the Clippers were their biggest threat (with the Bucks in that mix). Around Los Angeles, Lakers fans don’t look at the Clippers as their little brothers, they look at a rival and legitimate threat. Which, for anyone who grew up in Los Angeles, or as an NBA fan, is just strange.

The crash of Golden State from five-straight NBA Finals to worst team in the NBA

Everyone understood this would be a down season — a “gap year” — for the Warriors. Kevin Durant had left for Brooklyn, and after tearing his ACL in last year’s Finals nobody expected Klay Thompson to suit up this season (except maybe Thompson himself).

Then four games into the season, Stephen Curry fractured his hand, followed by four months of missed action.

At that point, the wheels came off, and the Golden State Warriors went from the team that went to five straight NBA Finals to the worst team in the NBA. The Warriors were 15-50 when play was suspended, leaving them with the worst record in the league by 4.5 games. Even with Curry back, and now a healthy Andrew Wiggins on the wing (the book is still out on that trade), the Warriors were going to finish near the bottom of the pack.

It has always been all about next season for the Warriors: A healthy Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, with Wiggins, a high draft pick (or whomever they can trade that for), and a solid bench, should put the Warriors back near the top of the NBA. This season, however, was a strange and ugly one for the Warriors.

The midseason resurgence of Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony was outside the NBA looking in. After being waived by the Rockets 10 games into the 2018-19 NBA season, the future Hall of Famer could not find a new home. No team picked him up last season, no team wanted to sign him this summer. The concerns from teams were mainly about Anthony’s defense — never good it had been a disaster in Houston — and whether the production was worth the attention he would bring.

Enter Portland. Already without Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season, and early rash of injuries — including to Zach Collins, sidelining him most of the season — left Portland desperate for frontcourt help. They turned to Anthony in a marriage of desperation.

It worked. Anthony averaged 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, and he provided a solid forward presence to the team — even getting named Western Conference Player of the Week one week.

At age 35, Carmelo Anthony proved he was not washed. He’s going to get to walk away from the NBA on his own terms (probably). Which is amazing and a little weird considering where we were a year ago.

Luka Doncic having Dallas on pace for the greatest offense in NBA history. Statistically.

Last season, the Golden State Warriors put together the greatest team offensive season in NBA history, with an offensive net rating of 115.9 (that’s points scored per 100 possessions). That just bested the 1987 Showtime Lakers and the 2017 version of the Warriors, who had net ratings of 115.6. Then came the 1992 Jordan Bulls and last season’s James Harden/Chris Paul Rockets at 115.5.

This season’s Dallas Mavericks, led by second-year player Luka Doncic, blew them all out of the water.

Dallas had an offensive rating of 116.7 when play was suspended. Through 67 games, Dallas had been the best of them all, with Doncic’s masterful pick-and-roll decision making setting up Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, and others in a game of marksmanship. Dallas has been entertaining, and Doncic has pushed his way into getting MVP votes (down-ballot, but still top five) with his play.

The high offensive rating may be a product of the times and three-point shooting, but it’s still weird to say this Dallas offense may have been better than any other. Ever.

There was so much more

The strangeness of this NBA season went beyond all that. There was:

• The likely end of San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak.
Ja Morant mania.
Zion Williamson mania surpassing Morant-mania.
• John Beilein’s weird, short tenure as Cavaliers coach.
• Kenny Atkinson getting fired late in a playoff season for his injury-riddled Brooklyn team.

And that list goes on; it was all weird.

Then the coronavirus came and made it all that much stranger.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings

Mock NBA expansion draft
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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 and the Central Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Pacific:

Golden State Warriors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: The Warriors have their core together with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Ky Bowman, Marquese Chriss, Damion Lee and Eric Paschall provide value on minimum contracts. That’s all the Warriors need to protect.

Golden State wouldn’t mind seeing Kevon Looney or Jordan Poole selected to get the salaries off the cap sheet. The rest of the players are ones the Warriors won’t lose any sleep over if they’re drafted.

L.A. Clippers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: L.A. has its main guys with four starters under contract. They aren’t being exposed here. The other three players are key bench contributors on good contracts. And Kabengele and Mann were just drafted. Easy decisions across the board for the Clippers.

L.A. could lose Green as a free agent. The Clippers also bet he does undrafted and could return. Rodney McGruder makes too much money for his role.

Los Angeles Lakers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: The Lakers and Anthony Davis will work out that he’ll opt out before the expansion draft, which makes him ineligible. The rest of the players are role players that Los Angeles would rather keep around LeBron James than risk losing.

Los Angeles won’t be upset to see Quinn Cook or Rajon Rondo selected. They’re both replacement-level players for the Lakers at this point.

Phoenix Suns

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Phoenix keeps it simple and protects all the guys who are part of its core. The Suns could have left Dario Saric unprotected, but by protecting Saric, they keep the flexibility to re-sign him as a restricted free agent. The rest are all easy decisions.

Of the unprotected players, none of have established themselves as NBA rotation players. If any are selected, Phoenix won’t lose any sleep over it.

Sacramento Kings

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Kings will protect their five starters and three key reserves. Cory Joseph is a decision-point, but considering De’Aaron Fox’s injury issues, Joseph is too valuable to let walk away.

Sacramento won’t mind if Jabari Parker is selected, but they aren’t going to pay anyone to do it. Justin James has been an interesting prospect, but the Kings won’t stress if he gets selected.