Tim Hardaway Jr.

Lakers star LeBron James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard
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It was already the strangest NBA season before the coronavirus hit

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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: Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs

Mock NBA expansion draft
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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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, Central Division, Pacific Division, Northwest Division and Southeast Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Seven of Dallas’ protections were easy calls. They’re all players locked up long-term. That left deciding between Tim Hardaway Jr, who has been a starter for the Mavericks but has a player option, and several other useful players.

Ultimately, the Mavs can’t afford to lose Hardaway, who has rediscovered his solid offensive play from his Hawks years. That leaves Justin Jackson and three big men in Dwight Powell (coming off a torn Achilles’) and Boban Marjanovic and Willie-Cauley-Stein (both backups for Dallas). The most likely to be selected player is probably Jackson, but that’s a risk Dallas has to take.

Houston Rockets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: No decision points for the Rockets. Houston is protecting the entirety of their eight-man rotation.

Chris Clemons could make for an interesting expansion pick because his scoring ability at guard. Isaiah Hartenstein has shown some flashes in the G-League as well.

Memphis Grizzlies

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Just how hard the Grizzlies’ protection decision were is a testament to how well their rebuild has gone. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton were all locks. Justise Winslow was just acquired at the trade deadline as the centerpiece of a deal. Tyus Jones is the ideal backup point guard behind Morant, so he stays as well. That left Jonas Valanciunas vs Kyle Anderson for the final protected spot. Valanciunas’ presence allows Jackson to play power forward, so the big man gets the final spot.

Memphis is gambling that Anderson’s slow-mo style of play and $9.5 million salary isn’t what an expansion team is looking for. Jontay Porter is another risk, but he’s got a lengthy injury history of his own. The Grizzlies will hope one of the other three is selected and might be willing to offer a small incentive to make it happen.

New Orleans Pelicans

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: New Orleans’ protections are cut and dry. Every player protected, minus Brandon Ingram, is signed for at least one more season. This includes several players on rookie scale contracts. Ingram will most assuredly be re-signed this summer, so that decision was easy as well.

The only gamble among the unprotected players is Nicolo Melli. He’s become a rotation player for the Pelicans, but he’s not as valuable as the younger players. The other three players are mostly out of the New Orleans’ rotation and not anyone the team will worry about if they are selected.

San Antonio Spurs

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 4

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Spurs are banking on keeping DeMar DeRozan this summer. He either opts in or re-signs in San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge is an easy decision as well. Dejounte Murray will start his extension this coming season. Everyone else is on their rookie scale contract, minus Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl is a restricted free agent that the Spurs hope to retain this offseason.

San Antonio is gambling that the big salaries of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will keep them from being selected. That exposes Trey Lyles, who has a relatively small guarantee, and young big man Chimezie Metu. The Spurs would like to keep both, but not at the expense of losing a rookie scale player.

Watch Bradley Beal’s game-winning layup as Wizards top Mavericks

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WASHINGTON — Bradley Beal‘s last-second layup handed the Dallas Mavericks another loss without Luka Doncic.

They felt as though things slipped away well before that.

Beal made a layup with 0.2 seconds left to finish with 29 points and give the Washington Wizards a 119-118 victory Friday night over Dallas, which has dropped three of five since Doncic went out with a sprained right ankle. The Mavericks committed 14 turnovers that turned into 23 Wizards points, and they weren’t themselves defensively in part because Kristaps Porzingis got into foul trouble.

“The game was lost throughout,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “We had too many miscommunications, and it was a collection of defensive mistakes over 47 minutes and 58.2 seconds or whatever it was that led to this. Just very disappointing.”

Beal’s heroics came after Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. drew a blocking foul and hit one of two free throws with 1.8 seconds left.

“He was reading the defense really well and it’s a great play, good screen, good finish,” coach Scott Brooks said.

Beal fell one point short of reaching 30 for an eighth consecutive game, but felt great about getting the 18-32 Wizards to the edge of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. They’re three games back of the eighth seed.

“It just meant a lot to win at the end of the day,” said Beal, who was 11 of 28 from the field. “We’ve got four or five home games before the break. We can take full advantage of that and be sitting right in the playoff picture.”

Washington made 19 of 38 3-pointers. Davis Bertans was responsible for five of them and finished with 20 points.

“We’ve just got to do a better job guarding guys,” Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We’ve got to limit the wide-open 3s.”

Rookie Rui Hachimura took it to Porzingis, getting the Mavericks center into foul trouble and finishing with 17. Porzingis, who played without a protective face mask two nights after breaking his nose, picked up his fifth early in the fourth quarter and had 11 points in just 21:16.

Shuffling Porzingis in and out didn’t help the Mavericks’ rhythm, especially on defense, where players blamed a lack of communication.

“This team is way too close to not talk as much as we did tonight,” Jalen Brunson said. “We have very good chemistry, we all enjoy each other, so this is a very uncharacteristic night for us not talking defensively.”

Doncic is progressing in his rehab, and the Mavericks hope he can play at least one game before the All-Star break, which begins for them after a game against Sacramento on Feb. 12. This is the second time Doncic sprained his right ankle this season, and it’s unclear what kind of maintenance it’ll need over the next few weeks and months.

“Any time you have any body part that’s been injured a couple times, the training staff’s going to watch it very closely,” Carlisle said.

Report: Knicks fire Steve Mills; pursuing Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Knicks president Steve Mills, owner James Dolan and general manager Scott Perry
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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Steve Mills seized control of the Knicks’ front office – while running it potentially temporarily in the aftermath of Phil Jackson’s firing – by signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a shockingly large contract. Mills didn’t even show up at Hardaway’s introductory press conference to explain the move. But that signing scared off other candidates, and the Knicks just let Mills remain president.

I can’t believe that went poorly.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Mills did a horrendous job. He came in preaching patiently rebuilding. Then, he traded Kristaps Porzingis to unload big contracts (including Hardaway’s) to open double-max cap space. But New York struck out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and every other star. Somewhere along the way, the Knicks returned to focusing on developing young players. Yet, New York also signed a bunch of blah veterans last summer then set expectations way too high.

Amid ever-changing directions, the Knicks are 15-36 and headed toward their seventh straight losing season.

Of course, this isn’t all Mills’ fault. Problems start with owner James Dolan. He’s petty and vindictive, creating a destructive culture throughout Madison Square Garden. His influence on basketball operations – including keeping Mills, who was also Jackson’s predecessor – is almost unbelievably bad.

Masai Ujiri is a great executive, and New York is wise to pursue him. But luring him and compensating the Raptors will be difficult to pull off. There’s a chance. I also wouldn’t trust Dolan to execute.

Just look how he handled Mills.

Why now? Mills appeared finished for a while. Yet, the Knicks kept him all the way until the commotion of trade-deadline week. New York is negotiating on several fronts – most notably Marcus Morris. Firing Mills just two days before the deadline brings unnecessary chaos. The Knicks should have fired him before ever reaching this point.

Scott Perry takes over, his first time leading a front office. He fell up to New York after the Kings did a lousy job during his short time in Sacramento. That followed working for the Magic during Rob Hennigan’s underwhelming tenure. Maybe Perry would have operated differently than bosses. Evaluating individual non-lead executives is difficult from afar. But Perry’s teams have shown little reason to have faith in anyone involved.

Still, if Perry lands an expensive veteran before Thursday’s trade deadline, maybe he can remain in charge.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.