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Three Things to Know: Lakers have a steal in Dwight Howard

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LOS ANGELES — 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) The Lakers may have a steal in… Dwight Howard? Yes, Dwight Howard. For the past handful of years, as Dwight Howard bounced from franchise to franchise — Houston to Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington, with fans cheering his exit in each city — the sentiment from front office types around the league has been the same:

If he would just accept a role he could still be an important part of a winning team.

If he could just accept that the offense is going to flow through others — stop demanding post-up touches — and focus on defense and rebounding, if he could stop being a distraction off the court, there is a role for him in the league. Howard, however, was not ready to accept that reality.

Until he got a second chance in Los Angeles.

Howard has thrived early in the season for the Lakers because he finally is doing what everyone has long asked of him. Sunday night in San Antonio he worked hard on defense and let the offense come to him — and it did in the fourth when he was 5-of-5 for 10 points, plus two blocks. For the game, Howard had 14 points on 7-of-7 shooting, with13 rebounds, helping spark a 103-96 Laker win in San Antonio.

What changed for Howard?

Being healthy (so far) is certainly part of it. Also, maybe he realizes that this really was the last stop in the NBA if he didn’t come around, no other team was going to take a chance on him. Maybe it’s because he has a non-guaranteed contract and can be cut any day the Lakers think he’s slacking off and not taking the craft seriously. Maybe it’s playing on a LeBron James team. On the court, LeBron’s gravity creates opportunities for bigs who roll to the basket; and off the court, LeBron and Anthony Davis are not going to put up with Howard’s antics (which goes back to the non-guaranteed contract).

Whatever the reason or reasons, it’s working. Howard was at the heart of the Lakers dominating the paint scoring 50 points there against the Spurs. Howard and company took advantage of the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles do not form an intimidating front line.

Howard has started to become a Lakers’ fan favorite, which may be the biggest surprise of the young season.

Another surprise: Los Angeles also has been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA to start the season. It’s a sign that their 5-1 start is sustainable.

The Lakers win Sunday shouldn’t completely overshadow the strong fourth quarter Dejounte Murray had — 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, getting to the rim and knocking down a three. Murray kept the Spurs in it, but it was just not enough.

2) Don’t call Houston’s defense this season a sieve — that’s an insult to sieves. As you read this, the Houston Rockets have the second-worst defense in the NBA, allowing 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, that’s basically the level the 19-win Cavaliers defense was at last season.

Sunday was a new low for that Houston defense. Miami scored 46 first-quarter points on Houston, which had a 117.3 defensive rating for the night.

This loss to Miami was particularly ugly all the way around. Houston came out flat — the South Beach nightlife remains undefeated — and if the Rockets’ offense isn’t covering up the defensive flaws the Rockets quickly end up in trouble.

Trouble like falling behind 59-23 to Miami in the first half. The offense woke up and the gap narrowed some, but the Rockets could not get enough stops to change the course of the game.

On offense, Houston got 29 points on 14 shots from James Harden, but Russell Westbrook shot 3-of-11, Eric Gordon 2-of-10, and when those guys are cold it’s going to be a long night in Houston.

The Rockets have had impressive stretches of basketball this young season, but it hasn’t lasted. It’s why the Rockets are 3-3 to start the season, and why if the defense doesn’t turn around — and they can’t just bring Jeff Bzdelik back this season (he’s in New Orleans) — they are never going to get far above .500.

3) Kawhi Leonard outduels Donovan Mitchell down the stretch and the Clippers knock off the Jazz. Here are some bullet point notes made while at an entertaining game Sunday in Los Angeles, one that ultimately ended in a 105-94 Clippers win.

• Utah held Kawhi Leonard in relative check for the better part of three quarters, but in the fourth Leonard had 18 points on 11 shots, getting to his spots and making plays. He finished the night with 30.

• What won the Clippers the game, however, wasn’t Leonard, it was offensive rebounds. The Clippers got the offensive rebound on 42.1 percent of their missed shots on the night, including six offensive boards on 12 missed shots in the fourth quarter. Montrezl Harrell had six offensive boards by himself in the game, including four in the fourth.

“[The loss happened because of] second-chance points and some fouls,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We had breakdowns of communication that resulted in fouls, but the biggest thing was just the defensive glass.”

Rudy Gobert agreed, saying after the game his team needs to communicate better on the defensive glass, especially when he has to step out to defend a player driving the lane (which happened a lot in the fourth quarter).
• Donovan Mitchell will be an All-Star this season. He finished with 36 points against the Clippers, at points making plays that had the Clipper crowd buzzing.

• With Mike Conley still struggling with his shot — 2-of-10 on the night — the Utah offense late in the game became the Donovan Mitchell show, with him coming off picks and having to do everything. That was supposed to be different this season with the additions of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, but so far the offense as a whole remains clunky and it needs Mitchell to take over to have a chance.

• Looking way down the road to a potential Utah playoff matchup with the Clippers (or Lakers), the concern that they don’t have a wing defender who can slow players such as Kawhi Leonard or LeBron is a legitimate one.

Gregg Popovich: Marcus Morris situation handled ‘unprofessionally’

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The Spurs agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal with Marcus Morris. San Antonio even traded Davis Bertans to the Wizards to make the cap mechanics work.

Then, Morris reneged to sign a one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks.

The Spurs spreading word that they were pissed was one thing. San Antonio president-coach Gregg Popovich putting his name behind the indignation is another.

Jabari Young of The Athletic:

Popovich:

It was more than difficult to lose Davis. Let’s just say that that was an unfortunate situation that was handled unprofessionally on a couple of different levels. We made that move to make the signing that we did and got blindsided. Davis was a special player, as we all know. He was young and getting better and better. So, yeah, we hated losing him.

Did Morris reach out to explain himself to the Spurs, as he claimed?

Popovich:

Not really.

That’s a sharp response that directly contradicts Morris. There’s clearly resentment toward him.

I’m curious what Popovich means by different levels, though. The Knicks? Agent Rich Paul, who left Morris over the saga? Both? There are multiple ways blame could be spread.

The result for San Antonio is more straightforward. Not getting Morris and settling for Trey Lyles stinks. Losing Bertans stinks. Whatever happened with Morris, the Spurs got the raw end of it.

Spurs treading water

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Gregg Popovich is arguably the best coach in NBA history. Get him a few capable veterans, and he has guided to the Spurs to the playoffs. Every darn year.

He’s also 70 years old, which limits the value of a rebuild. Why waste seasons Popovich could prop up just to get young players he probably won’t stick around to coach? Might as well continue to enjoy the present.

So, the Spurs agreed to a contract extension with Popovich then commenced on a boring offseason – though one that included more action than desired.

The big prize was supposed to be Marcus Morris, a good forward who would’ve strengthened San Antonio’s rotation. But he reneged on his deal and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs are reportedly – and should be – pissed.

San Antonio traded Davis Bertans, a solid stretch four, to the Wizards to open money for Morris. That trade was already complete by the time Morris pulled out. Many top free agents were off the board.

The Spurs settled for Trey Lyles ($5.5 million next season, $1 million of $5.5 million guaranteed in 2020-21). He impressed a couple years ago, but he significantly regressed last season. There are reasons he was the fallback option.

At least San Antonio got a couple of more-ready forwards by re-signing Rudy Gay (two years, $29 million) and signing DeMarre Carroll (two years, $13.65 million followed by $1.35 million of $7 million guaranteed in 2021-22). Still, the plan was to get Gay, Carroll and Morris.

Mostly, the Spurs remain on the same course. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are still the headliners. All eight players who played in each of San Antonio’s playoff games return.

Still, there’s a tinge of a youth movement beneath the surface.

Dejounte Murray missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Derrick White emerged in Murray’s absence. Those rising point guards will be back next season, and it’s possible to envision a next era led by one – or if Popovich is creative enough – both.

For just the second time in the last three decades,* San Antonio picked twice in the first round. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they got those selections in a weak-looking draft. No. 19 pick Luka Samanic and No. 29 pick Keldon Johnson are fine, unspectacular prospects.

*In 2011, San Antonio traded for No. 15 pick Kawhi Leonard and drafted Cory Joseph No. 29.

The Spurs’ goal is clearly a record-breaking 23rd straight postseason appearance. That’ll be tough in a loaded Western Conference. But they’re content to try.

Offseason grade: C

Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett not playing for Team Canada in World Cup

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USA Basketball is struggling to gets its top players to compete in the upcoming World Cup.

The United States isn’t the only country with that issue.

After initially announcing a training-camp roster featuring 17 NBA players, Canada is down to five NBA players in contention for the World Cup roster.

Team Canada’s best player (Nuggets guard Jamal Murray) and most highly touted young player (Knicks guard R.J. Barrett) will both attend training camp. But dealing with injuries, neither will go to China.

Other Canadian NBA players no longer in the roster pool:

Nik Stauskas is both longer in the roster pool and no longer in the NBA.

That leaves the only NBA candidates for Team Canada as:

Other Canadians heading to training camp: Aaron Best,  Melvin Ejim, Brady Heslip, Kaza Kajami-Keane, Andrew Nembhard, Duane Notice, Eugene Omoruyi, Kevin Pangos, Addison Patterson, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb and Kyle Wiltjer.

That could still be a decent team, but Canada has definitely lost a lot of bite.

Report: Spurs pissed about Marcus Morris reneging to sign with Knicks

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Marcus Morris backed out of a two-year, $20 million agreement with the Spurs to sign a one-year, $15 million deal with the Knicks. (Don’t blame Rich Paul.)

Occasionally, teams allow committed players to look elsewhere. But that apparently wasn’t the case here.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

the Spurs didn’t like it.

“They’re pissed” is how one general manager described it.

Pissed at Morris? Pissed at the Knicks? Pissed at both?

I don’t blame the Spurs for being upset. They traded Davis Bertans in anticipation of signing Morris and watched other quality free agents go off the board. San Antonio settled for Trey Lyles.

At some point, Morris should explain himself. It’s a major breach of decorum to renege on an oral agreement in free agency. Why did he feel strongly enough about ditching the Spurs for New York to go back on his word?

The Knicks should also explain themselves. They got extra cap space when Reggie Bullock‘s spine injury shuttered his original deal. But poaching an already-committed player at least raises eyebrows.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, there’s nowhere productive to direct this anger. Shortening or eliminating the moratorium would help in some similar situations. But Morris agreed to terms then backed out all after the moratorium.

The Spurs just have to eat this one.