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PBT Extra: Despite Russell Westbrook’s triple-double pace, James Harden is MVP frontrunner

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The NBA’s MVP race is down to two men. Sure, you can make a case for Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, some even want to throw Isaiah Thomas in the mix, but the best any of them is going to do is down the ballot in the final three slots.

The top two are reserved for James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

In this PBT Extra, I discuss that while Westbrook is on pace for a historic season — averaging a triple-double of 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists a game — it is Harden who is lifting his team to higher heights, and that very well could win the beard the award.

As Texas legislature considers it’s own “bathroom bill,” Adam Silver hints it could cost Houston All-Star Game

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NEW ORLEANS — The 2017 NBA All-Star Game is co-existing with the start of Mardis Gras in New Orleans right now because of the North Carolina legislature.

When that state passed bill HB2, commonly called “the bathroom law,” the NBA owners and Adam Silver rightfully drew a line in the sand and said, in so many words, “we’re not bringing our All-Star Game to your city if that discriminatory law is on the books.” Of course, there was no way a Republican-controlled legislator and governor were going to cave on a red meat issue for their base like that one in an election year. So the NBA joined numerous businesses that pulled out of the state, as well as some musical acts planning concerts, and took their business elsewhere.

Right now, the Texas legislature is considering a similar bill.

Houston is considered a frontrunner to land the 2020 or 2021 All-Star Game, the NBA has opened the application process for those games and Houston is interested.

Could the bill kill Houston’s application before it even gets to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s desk? Silver is too smart a lawyer and negotiator to box himself in a corner and say there is no way Houston gets the All-Star Game if the law passes, but he made it clear it could.

“You know, I’m not ready to draw bright lines. Clearly, though, the laws of the state, ordinances, and cities are a factor we look at in deciding where to play our All-Star Games,” Silver said at his annual All-Star Weekend press conference.

“I think the issue is we’d have to look at the specific legislation and understand its impact. I mean, I’m not ready to stand here today and say that that is the bright line test for whether or not we will play All-Star Games in Texas. It’s something we’re, of course, going to monitor very closely. What we’ve stated is that our values, our league-wide values in terms of equality and inclusion are paramount to this league and all the members of the NBA family, and I think those jurisdictions that are considering legislation similar to HB2 are on notice that that is an important factor for us. Those values are an important factor for us in deciding where we take a special event like an All-Star Game.”

The 2018 NBA All-Star Game is headed to Los Angeles, and there is no concern that California is going to pass such a law. The 2019 game is officially unscheduled right now, but the NBA’s hope is to give it to Charlotte if HB2 is rolled back or eliminated. The uproar over the law is part of the reason the former governor Pat McCrory lost his re-election bid last November to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper.

“I have talked to Governor Cooper, the new Governor of North Carolina since he was elected, really to express our desire to return to North Carolina [in 2019] for our All-Star Game,” Silver said. “We have a team in North Carolina. We have a development team, soon to be a G-League team, in North Carolina. And 20 other teams will visit North Carolina this season. So we’d very much like to get back there.

“We had a discussion so I understood, certainly, his position, when he was running for office, was anti-HB2, the bill that ultimately led to our leaving. So I really was talking to him more to understand, from his standpoint, how he was hoping to move forward in terms of changing that law. My pain purpose of talking to him was to express our desire to return.”

The HB2 law covered a variety of issues, but what drew the most attention was that it restricts transgender bathroom use — you have to use the bathroom for the gender with which you were born. The law also superseded anti-discrimination ordinances put in by the city of Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, laws that tried to block discrimination against gays and lesbians. 

While any state has the right to put on the books laws it sees fit (within the framework of the Constitution), those actions can come with consequences. Just like Texas has the right to put the law on the books (not a sure thing, there has been pushback from the business community in the state), the NBA has the right to decide where it will do business. And bringing an All-Star Game to a city is a big economic boost — Charlotte lost an estimated $100 million in spending without the game, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Glenn Robinson III does his best to salvage Dunk Contest, gets victory in process

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NEW ORLEANS — This year’s NBA All-Star Dunk Contest was doomed to disappoint, it was never going to match last year’s epic battle. It started in a hole.

It never climbed out. Don’t take my word for it, check out what JaVale McGee thought.

Saturday was an underwhelming night of dunks punctuated by a couple of moments of brilliance.

The Pacers’ Glenn Robinson III had the most of those moments — which is why he won the event. His strong night started with his first dunk, which may well have been the best of the contest.

“And just talking to a couple people helping me, Vince Carter did one of his best dunks first, and it kind of intimidated people,” Robinson said sitting next to his trophy later. “That’s what I wanted to go out and do. I wanted to do one of my best dunks first. Who knows if it worked? But they missed some of their dunks, and it gave me a little more room.”

The final one from Robinson, the one that sealed the victory, may be the other best dunk of the competition — dunking over Paul George, the Pacers mascot, and a Pacers dancer.

“I originally planned for it just to be PG (Paul George),” Robinson said afterward. “I knew I had to bring out something special. We added the mascot and the cheerleader. I really just wanted to get up high and dunk that thing hard, man. My adrenaline was going. It felt like I was looking at the rim. All I knew was the crowd go crazy. I pointed like this because, man, everybody seemed to sleep on me, didn’t really think I was going to win this thing.”

Event favorite Aaron Gordon, who should have won a year ago, opened the contest with an innovative idea — a drone dunk — but he couldn’t execute it and there were a few attempts before he nailed it.

Gordon didn’t advance out of the first round, and his first dunk summed up the 2017 Dunk Contest — interesting ideas that didn’t quite pan out like planned. Gordon said some recent injuries didn’t impact his performance, and that if he had reached the Finals he had another drone dunk planned.

If it wasn’t going to be Gordon, a lot of people expected it to be the bouncy Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. who won, and he reached the Finals in part thanks to this spectacular dunk that woke up the Smoothie King Center up.

DeAndre Jordan was okay, but without Chris Paul throwing him lobs it didn’t quite feel the same. Jordan can dunk with such power in game, but we didn’t see that Saturday.

In the end, it was Robinson who made the plays.

“I’m not really a known dunker,” Robinson said. “I practiced. I prepared. I know I’m a jumper. And like I said, I’m a guy that stays out of the way. But when it’s time to shine, that’s my thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew all along I had some things planned, and I just wanted to show the world.”

NBA stars shoot threes to raise $500,000 for Sager Strong Foundation in touching moment

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NEW ORLEANS — The spirit of Craig Sager is strong during All-Star weekend in The Big Easy and he’s going to get a spot in the Hall of Fame, deservedly so.

After Eric Gordon won the Three-Point Contest, he and the other finalists Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker stayed on the court to shoot threes to raise money for the Sager Strong Foundation — they would shoot threes for a minute and for each make the foundation would get $10,000. Then they brought out help — Reggie Miller, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, DJ Khaled, and others to knock down shots. That raised $130,000.

Stephen Curry tried to push that to $500,000, but it was Sager’s son that actually did it (with an assist from Shaquille O’Neal).

It was a touching moment for a great cause.

Eric Gordon returns to New Orleans and reminds locals he can shoot, wins Three-Point Contest

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NEW ORLEANS — After playing five injury-plagued seasons in New Orleans, where he was frustrated and a common whipping boy of fans by the end, Eric Gordon heard a smattering of boos every time he walked up to the racks in the All-Star Saturday Three-Point Shootout.

Then he reminded those fans why he the Pelicans signed him and paid him big cash — when healthy he can shoot the rock.

Gordon, now representing the Houston Rockets, won the NBA Three-Point Contest on All-Star Saturday night. He had to go to an “overtime” extra shootout round to beat Kyrie Irving for the title.

“Well, no, it’s not really weird,” to win in New Orleans, Gordon said. “I am used to these rims here. I’ve been here for five years. I’ve always been a pretty good shooter. I’m just happy to win it, just to win it.”

Did he hear the boos?

“Yeah, I heard a little bit, but I’m not worried,” Gordon said. “I was focused on trying to win. That’s all that matters.”

Golden State’s Klay Thompson, the defending champion in this event and heavy favorite to repeat, did not even advance out of the first round.

Gordon has been hot from three all season, hitting 38.5 percent from three and hitting more total threes than anyone else in the league. He’s healthy and happy in Houston and Mike D’Antoni’s system, and his play has him as the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

Gordon set the tone in the first-round with a score of 25  (players shoot 25 threes from various spots around the arc, with some balls designated for two points, called “moneyballs.” Kemba Walker with 19 in the first round as he was draining money balls from the right corner, while Irving came through with 20 to top him. Klay Thompson couldn’t match that with 18 and the defending champion was out in the first round. Kyle Lowry’s cold shooting of late continues with an event-worst nine points. Wesley Matthews was not as hot as the Mavericks of late and had just 11 points, C.J. McCollum had just 10, while Nick Young had a respectable 18 but it wasn’t enough to advance.

That advanced Gordon, Irving, and Walker on to the final round. Walker was slightly off his first round with 17 points in the finals. Irving got hot with the moneyball rack and put up 20 points again. Then Eric Gordon matched it with a hot middle to racks, so they had a shoot again. 

That Final round saw Gordon stay just a little hotter.