Rudy Gobert

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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart headline All-Defensive teams

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NBA teams scored more points per possession this season than ever.

But a few players stood out for slowing the offensive onslaught.

The All-Defensive teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, voting points in parentheses):

First team

Guard: Marcus Smart, BOS (63-19-145)

Guard: Eric Bledsoe, MIL (36-28-100)

Forward: Paul George, OKC (96-3-195)

Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (94-5-193)

Center: Rudy Gobert, UTA (97-2-196)

Second team

Guard: Jrue Holiday, MIN (31-28-90)

Guard: Klay Thompson, GSW (23-36-82)

Forward: Draymond Green, GSW (2-57-61)

Forward: Kawhi Leonard, TOR (5-29-39)

Center: Joel Embiid, PHI (4-72-80)

Also receiving votes: Danny Green, TOR (19-28-66); Patrick Beverley, LAC (14-20-48); Myles Turner, IND (1-37-39); P.J. Tucker, HOU (1-36-38); Pascal Siakam, TOR (0-24-24); Derrick White, SAS (4-7-15); Russell Westbrook, OKC (2-5-9); Jimmy Butler, PHI (2-5-9); Chris Paul, HOU (1-5-7); Robert Covington, MIN (1-3-5); Paul Millsap, DEN (0-5-5); James Harden, HOU (2-0-4); Al Horford, BOS (0-4-4); Kevin Durant, GSW (0-4-4); Malcolm Brogdon, MIL (1-1-3); Josh Richardson, MIA (0-3-3); Kyle Lowry, TOR (0-3-3)
Stephen Curry, GSW (1-0-2); Thaddeus Young, IND (0-2-2); Anthony Davis, NOP (0-2-2); Ben Simmons, PHI (0-2-2); Donovan Mitchell, UTA (0-2-2); Derrick Favors, UTA (0-2-2); Joe Ingles, UTA (0-2-2); Jaylen Brown, BOS (0-1-1); Kyrie Irving, BOS (0-1-1); Ed Davis, BRK (0-1-1); Gary Harris, DEN (0-1-1); Nikola Jokic, DEN (0-1-1); Andre Drummond, DET (0-1-1); Andre Iguodala, GSW (0-1-1); Jordan Bell, GSW (0-1-1); Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LAC (0-1-1); Mike Conley, MEM (0-1-1); Kyle Anderson, MEM (0-1-1); Bam Adebayo, MIA (0-1-1); Khris Middleton, MIL (0-1-1); Brook Lopez, MIL (0-1-1); Terrance Ferguson, OKC (0-1-1); Damian Lillard, POR (0-1-1); De’Aaron Fox, SAC (0-1-1); Ricky Rubio, UTA (0-1-1); Bradley Beal, WAS (0-1-1)

Observations:

  • This voting could foreshadow a tight Defensive Player of the Year race. The three finalists for that award – Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo – each received a high majority of votes, but not unanimity, at their positions. Or Gobert could just cruise to another victory.
  • I have no major complaints about the selections. I would have put Danny Green (who finished fifth among guards) on the first team, bumped down Eric Bledsoe and excluded Klay Thompson. I also would have give second-team forward to P.J. Tucker (who finished fifth among forwards) over Kawhi Leonard. Here are our picks for reference.
  • P.J. Tucker came only one voting point from the second team. If he tied Kawhi Leonard, both players would have made it on an expanded six-player second team.
  • Leonard hasn’t defended with the same verve this season. He remains awesome in stretches, particular in the playoffs. But his effort in the regular season didn’t match his previous level. Defensive reputations die hard.
  • It’s a shame Thaddeus Young received only two second-team votes. My general rule is you can complain about a lack of votes for only players you picked, and I didn’t pick Young. But he came very close to P.J. Tucker for my final forward spot, Young had a stronger case than several forwards ahead of him.
  • James Harden got two first-team votes. Did someone think they were voting for All-NBA? Stephen Curry also got a first-team vote. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard got second-team votes. Nikola Jokic got a second-team vote. Kevin Durant got a few second-team votes. There’s plenty of All-NBA/All-Defensive overlap with other frontcourt players. There could easily be an incorrectly submitted ballot.
  • But that still leaves a second Harden first-team vote with no other plausible explanation. Someone must really love steals, guaring in the post and absolutely no other aspects of defense.
  • Jordan Bell got a second-team vote at forward. He’s a decent defender, but someone who played fewer minutes than Dirk Nowitzki, Bruno Caboclo and Omari Spellman this season. Bell also primarily played center. Weird.

Eight players/teams, hundreds of millions of dollars and one high-stakes All-NBA vote

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NBA award votes were cast at least 40 days ago. The regular season being judged ended even before that. After rounds of high-level playoff basketball, it’s easy to lose interest in these honors.

But All-NBA selections – which the league plans to release this week – can’t be overlooked.

They could determine the fates of several players and franchises.

In 2011, the NBA began allowing a higher max salary for certain young players. The Collective Bargaining Agreement got updated in 2017 to allow certain veterans to earn super-max salaries. The most common route to eligibility: Making an All-NBA team.

Here are eight players and teams with a lot riding on these results:

Kemba Walker, Hornets

The Hornets haven’t given Kemba Walker a playoff-series victory. They haven’t given him an All-Star teammate. They didn’t even give him Marc Gasol before the trade deadline.

But they can potentially give him a super-max contract.

It might be a necessary tool to retain the greatest player in franchise history.

A year-and-a-half ago, Walker said he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. A couple months ago, a rumor emerged Walker was likely to leave in free agency. This has gone south quickly.

Yet, don’t rule out Walker re-signing – especially if the Hornets can offer him a super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. That’s far larger than Walker’s projected max if leaving, $140 million over four years.

Heck, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Walker might even return for his regular max, projected to be $190 million over five years.

That begs the question: How badly do the Hornets want Walker back? Their outlook is bleak either way.

Keeping Walker would make them far more competitive in the short term but carry serious downside risk with the 29-year-old point guard. Maxing out, let alone super-maxing out, Walker would also force Charlotte to clear salary unless Michael Jordan is willing to make an unprecedented trip into the luxury tax. So, a lackluster roster would get even further depleted.

Walker leaving would invite other problems, namely the loss of the team’s best player. The capped-out Hornets would have no mechanism to adequately replace him. They’d be heading into a year of purgatory then rebuilding from near rock bottom.

It’s hard to see Walker settling for the regular max if he’s eligible for the super max. But if Walker misses All-NBA and constrains Charlotte’s offer, the regular max could be enough.

Walker seems to take pride in representing the Hornets and living in Charlotte. He also appears fed up with the franchise’s losing.

These opposing forces will pull at him this summer.

A giant bag could soothe everything. Or its absence could be the final straw.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns signed a five-year contract extension last fall that projected to be worth $158 million or $190 million.

Why the $32 million difference? It depends whether Towns makes All-NBA this season.

Eventually, he pushed to trigger that extra money.

Towns averaged 28-13-4 after the All-Star break, up from 23-12-3 prior. Minnesota didn’t suddenly start winning more. But Towns posted shiny numbers.

The Timberwolves would love if Towns maintained that urgency. For all his talent, he has too often failed to assert himself on the court.

But they also might quietly like if he misses All-NBA this season. With Andrew Wiggins already on a max contract, paying Towns an extra $6 million or so per year would further squeeze flexibility.

Towns still looks like he’d be worth the super-max over the next five years. But he could be a bargain at the regular max.

Klay Thompson, Warriors

The near-consistent expectation since the season began: Golden State will sign Klay Thompson to a max contract this summer. If the Warriors offer any less, he’d take it as a sign of disrespect and explore the market.

That implies Thompson will demand the super-max if eligible for the projected five-year, $221 million contract (up from a projected $190 million over five years with the regular max). The difference could be quite costly for Golden State.

If they re-sign Kevin Durant, waive and stretch Shaun Livingston and fill their roster with minimum players, the Warriors’ projected luxury tax depending on Thompson’s contract type:

  • Regular max: $128 million
  • Super max: $161 million

Considering Thompson’s salary, this All-NBA vote could cost Golden State an additional $38 million next season alone.

Of course, Durant might not stay. If he leaves, the Warriors could even avoid the dreaded repeater tax altogether.

But the issue looms next year, when Draymond Green will be up for a big raise. There’s no easy way maintain a championship contender without it getting very expensive.

Thompson’s All-NBA status will go a long way toward determining just how much it costs Golden State to remain elite.

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Washington knows the danger of offering the super-max to someone who has made only one All-NBA team and won’t hit free agency for another two years. John Wall is the poster child for the super-max gone wrong. His extension hasn’t even taken effect yet, and his contract is arguably the NBA’s worst.

You think Bradley Beal is willing to let that become his problem?

Beal stepped up while Wall was injured and earned serious All-NBA consideration. Beal is extolling his loyalty to the Wizards. Even as he says he wouldn’t rush to sign the super-max if offered, Beal sounds ready to get paid.

Washington should be reluctant. A projected $193 million over four years is a lot of money for a player of his caliber, and it could doom the franchise for years. A super-max extension would also prohibit the Wizards from trading Beal for one year, taking him off the market while his value remains high. Plus, with Wall already on the books, Washington has less margin for error.

I can’t imagine it’d go over well with Beal if the Wizards spurned him because Wall got overpaid first – especially considering the history of friction between those two.

Yet, it’d be incredibly risky for Washington to commit so much to Beal now. There’d be only a narrow path for Beal to lead the downtrodden team to meaningful winning next season. All the while, he’d be ineligible to be traded. Longer term is hazier, which is treacherous uncertainty when someone could get paid so much.

If Beal makes All-NBA, there’s a good case the Wizards shouldn’t offer him a super-max extension. If they don’t offer him the super-max extension, there’s a good chance he’ll resent it.

Where this all leads: If Beal makes All-NBA, that could prompt Washington to trade him.

That wouldn’t be just an unintended consequence of the super-max. It’d be the exact opposite of the super-max’s intended design.

Maybe Beal won’t make All-NBA, which would create its own set of complications. Beal would be just two years from unrestricted free agency, and a non-super-max extension seems unlikely. But at least doors would be open.

If he makes All-NBA, suddenly there’d be a lot of pressure on the Wizards to commit one way or the other on him. Not an ideal situation, especially for a team without a general manager.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Anthony Davis made a trade request.

David Griffin has indicated he might not honor it.

That’s probably a combination of hope and bluff. Griffin obviously wants Davis in New Orleans, but if Davis remains intent on leaving, it’s tough to keep him. However, by announcing a plan to sell Davis on the Pelicans over the next year, Griffin improves his trade leverage.

Of course, Griffin might actually follow through and keep Davis into 2020 free agency. That plan becomes much more tenable (or improves the viability of Griffin’s bluff) if Davis makes an All-NBA team this year.

The Pelicans can already offer Davis a super-max extension this offseason. But if Davis makes All-NBA this season or next, they could also re-sign him to a super-max contract in 2020 free agency. The extension or fresh contract would have the same terms – projected to be five years, $235 million.

That’s a lot more than Davis’ projected max with other teams in 2020 ($156 million over four years).

If Davis misses All-NBA this season and next, New Orleans would still have a financial advantage in its 2020 offer for Davis (projected max of $202 million over five years). Davis could still qualify for the super max with the Pelicans in 2020 free agency by making All-NBA next season.

But that’s obviously a smaller guaranteed edge without him clinching super-max eligibility this season. It’d be incredibly risky for the Pelicans to keep him into 2020 free agency without knowing they’d have the bigger upper hand.

It’s probably too risky to keep him, anyway.

Davis has said the extra money won’t sway him. His trade request affirms that.

But people change their minds.

More money only helps.

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard will make an All-NBA team, but the playoffs would always go a long way toward answering questions that remained.

Would Portland commit now to paying Lillard a projected $193 million from ages 31-34? Would Lillard lock into team control for six more years?

After the Trail Blazers’ run to the Western Conference finals, the answer is clear: Yes.

This is the designated-veteran-player extension everyone should be watching. If it doesn’t work with Lillard – an excellent player and even better leader – it could prompt changes in the next CBA.

Nikola Vucevic, Magic

I see six centers as legitimate All-NBA candidates: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic’s case is surprisingly strong.

Among those six, Vucevic ranks second in real-plus-minus-based wins, third in PER-based estimated wins added, fourth in win shares and fourth in value over replacement player.

Plus, there are the factors that shouldn’t matter, but often do. Vucevic has the narrative of working his way into first being an All-Star in his eighth season and ending Orlando’s six-year playoff drought. There will definitely be no voter fatigue with him.

I don’t expect Vucevic to make All-NBA, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if, as voters researched their picks, he holds up well. If he gets on some ballots and many voters are divided on other candidates, it’s possible for Vucevic to sneak onto the third team.

Even if that happened, though, is it possible he’d actually get a super-max contract?

It’s hard to see the Magic – whose front office inherited, rather an acquired, Vucevic – paying him that much. He’s 28 and has made the All-Star team only once. Orlando barely snuck into the playoffs in the East with him. He had a very fine season, but that doesn’t mean his long-term trajectory has completed changed.

I’d be quite surprised if the Magic gave him a regular-max contract (projected to be $190 million over five years). A super-max contract (projected to be $221 million over five years)? That’s barely even imaginable.

[Correction: Newly signed designated-veteran-player contracts, as opposed to extensions, must cover precisely five seasons.]

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo seems happy in Milwaukee.

The Bucks can secure him in 2020.

Antetokounmpo is too inexperienced to sign a veteran-super-max extension this offseason. But because he made All-NBA last year and will certainly make it again this year, he’ll already clinch eligibility to next year sign a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years.

A lot can change in year, including Antetokounmpo’s desire to stay in Milwaukee. But the Bucks can do their part to keep Antetokounmpo happy between now and then. That starts with advancing from the Eastern Conference finals, where Milwaukee is tied 2-2 with the Raptors. The Bucks can also pay the luxury tax to keep their strong supporting cast intact next season. Follow that with another deep playoff run next year, and Antetokounmpo seems highly likely to stay.

Still, the only certainty once Antetokounmpo makes All-NBA this year, will be in his eligibility for a super-max extension next year. His and Milwaukee’s views on it once it can actually be signed can’t be known until then.f

Knicks Frank Ntilikina reportedly wants to be traded, switches agents

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When the Knicks acquired Emmanuel Mudiay last season — a player Denver just released outright — Mudiay instantly jumped past Frank Ntilikina on the point guard depth chart. Then, when the Knicks traded for Dennis Smith Jr. at the deadline (part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal), the future of Ntilikina in New York was thrown into uncertainty.

Ntilikina sees that, wants out, and is getting a new agent as well, reports Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina dropped CAA as his agency last season and planned to sign with French agent Bouna Ndiaye, the Daily News has learned.

Ntilikina, who was drafted eighth overall by Knicks in 2017, is on the trading block and desires a relocation, a source told the News. The Knicks declined offers to move Ntilikina at the trade deadline in February, acquired another point guard in Dennis Smith Jr., and Ntilikina quickly decided to change agents.

Ndiaye represents several French players in the NBA, including Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier.

The Knicks are expected to try to trade Ntilikina, either at the draft or next summer. Mostly other teams will view him as a way to save money — if teams do not pick up his 2020-21 option by Oct. 31 he comes off the books after this next season — but also Ntilikina played good defense and other teams may try to take a flier on him.

No, the Pelicans winning the lottery was not the end of tanking

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The New Orleans Pelicans went into last season intending to make the playoffs, go on a postseason run to the second round and beyond as they had the season before, and showing Anthony Davis they were a serious organization that he would want to re-sign with.

It didn’t work out anywhere close to that. The Pelicans hung around .500 until mid-December, yet despite strong seasons out of Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle, the team’s defense was a disaster, and they stagnated in the standings. The Pelicans could not string together enough wins. Then came the Davis trade request and from there things spiraled downward.

Eventually, the Pelicans reached a decision: Play Davis as little as we can and tank. Go into the lottery and get the best odds we can, then see where the chips fall.

Tuesday night, with a six percent chance, the New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery, which means they won the rights to Zion Williamson. A guy with the potential to be the next Anthony Davis and lift up a franchise.

That the Pelicans won the lottery while the teams with the three worst records fell down the board — the Knicks will draft third, Cleveland fifth, and Phoenix sixth — led to multiple reactions like this one from Utah’s Rudy Gobert.

Not exactly.

It depends on how one chooses to define tanking. If tanking means only a hard and fast race to the bottom to ensure the worst record and rebuild just through the draft — or to do that for multiple years in a row, like “the process” Sixers — then yes, we will see less of it. The NBA’s flattened out lottery odds were aimed at exactly that. There is no advantage to making sure a team has the worst record by far.

However, what those flattened out lottery odds really did was just change the inflection point.

Because a team can have the eighth worst record (like the Pelicans) yet have an improved chance of winning the lottery, some teams will do what New Orleans did — reach a mid-season point where they will decide getting improved lottery odds is a better call than making a push for the eight seed. Not all teams will do that, the lure of playoff money for franchises and experience for players will have plenty of teams making a push for the postseason. But not every one. Some will choose to tank.

In a sport and system where landing a Zion Williamson can set a team up for a decade, there will always be some level of tanking. That will never go away.

••••••••••

One other thought from Tuesday night’s lottery results: Look for a lot of trades around this draft. Or at least teams trying to make trades.

The Pelicans will still end up having to trade Anthony Davis, winning this lottery just softens the blow. It also informs the kinds of players they will want back in a trade because with Williamson the Pelicans will continue to play fast, like Alvin Gentry wants.

The Grizzlies at No. 2 almost certainly will draft Ja Morant out of Murray State, which makes it more likely they trade Mike Conley this summer.

The Knicks and Lakers at three and four both are big game hunting this summer and would throw their pick in a trade for Davis or another star player.

This is a down draft — there are quality future role players in it, but after Williamson (and maybe Morant, depending on who you ask) the talent level drops off. With that, a lot of GMs would be happy to trade their pick for a more reliable veteran role player. Thing is, there’s not a lot of value for the picks. A lot of teams will talk trade but find a soft market.

James Harden struggles, Rockets still beat Jazz 104-101 for 3-0 series lead

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SALT LAKE CITY — James Harden never worried.

In fact, he didn’t know he had missed his first 15 shots.

Through it all, he never changed the attacking style that made him the NBA’s leading scorer.

Harden overcame a poor shooting performance and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win Saturday over the Utah Jazz for a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

“Keep shooting. Keep being aggressive,” Harden said of his only thoughts. “My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”

Not much has worked against Harden for the Jazz, and even when they thought they had him trapped, they weren’t able to control The Beard for a full game.

“You’re going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there’s times where he’s going to make plays,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

The Jazz didn’t take it easy on Harden, and took every opportunity to knock him down, even when it sent him to the line. For one of the rare times this season, Harden passed up some shots. But he did take them – and make them – when they counted most.

Though the victory was hardly a thing of beauty, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was grateful for the way it went down.

“Sooner or later we have to win games on defense. We did this time,” D’Antoni said of his team which is known for Harden’s lethal 3-point attack but has drastically improved on the defensive end since mid-season.

Harden made a 3-pointer and added two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 101-97 lead. After Donovan Mitchell made two free throws, Harden missed another 3-point attempt, but P.J. Tucker, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, making one of two free throws.

Chris Paul said: “You trust (Tucker) to make those plays. … He’s going to do anything and everything to help the team win.”

Mitchell had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but like so many of his shots in the hard-fought contest, it was off the mark.

Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference series is Monday night in Utah.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and we still won. That just gives us more confidence,” said Harden, who was 3-for-20 shooting with 10 assists. He was 14 for 16 from the line.

Paul scored 18 points and Clint Capela had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 38.4 percent from the field and 67.6 percent from the line.

Mitchell scored 34 points, but struggled shooting, too, making just 9 of his 27 attempts. Derrick Favors had 13 for the Jazz.

Royce O'Neale, who played tenacious defense on Harden, made a 3-pointer for Utah’s last lead at 89-88. In fact, the Jazz led most of the game, but never by more than eight.

The Rockets made their move in the fourth quarter.

Gerald Green made back-to-back 3-pointers and Harden added a pair of free throws with 8:33 remaining put the Rockets up 84-80.

After two slow starts in Houston, the Jazz came out energized with a deafening crowd hanging on every basket. Utah led 11-3 and Harden picked up two fouls in the first 94 seconds, but stayed on the court. He couldn’t find his rhythm until the stretch run.

The Rockets have made no secret they are keying on Mitchell and Ingles to take away their playmaking and make other Utah players beat them. So far, no one else has made them pay.

Mitchell vowed to be more aggressive and apologized for being a “no show” early in the series. He re-introduced himself to the series in an exuberant show of shot-making and open emotion after big plays. But it didn’t last.

“I just started missing shots,” Mitchell said. “I can’t miss 16 shots (after the first quarter). That’s my role and I can’t miss makeable shots.”

Prior to Saturday’s big game, Mitchell was shooting 32.6% and had more turnovers (nine) than assists (six). After his hot start, Mitchell missed 11 straight field goal attempts but never stopped attacking.

Harden was missing 3-pointers and floaters, including two that were rejected by Rudy Gobert early in the game, and didn’t convert one until his emphatic fast-break dunk with 7:34 to play. But then he made a step-back 3-pointer to give Houston its largest lead at 89-83.

The leading MVP candidate did get to the line – something the Jazz have tried desperately to avoid.

Gobert had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.