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Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

LeBron James on Cleveland: ‘When Kyrie got traded, it was the beginning of the end’

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This Wednesday, LeBron James makes his return to Cleveland.

This time it should feel different from eight years ago, when LeBron returned in a Miami Heat uniform and Cleveland unleashed all its pent-up fury upon him. Not that Cavaliers fans wanted him to leave last summer, but this time they saw it coming and could look back upon a title in the city for the first time since 1954. LeBron cemented his legacy in Cleveland.

LeBron reflected upon those days and said he knew the end was coming the same time everyone else did — when Kyrie Irving demanded a trade (he was eventually shipped to Boston). Via Joe Varden of The Athletic.

“Everyone knows that when Kyrie got traded, it was the beginning of the end for everything. It’s not a secret.”

For my money, the real beginning of the end was when owner Dan Gilbert refused to pay up and retain a quality general manager in David Griffin. LeBron realized that when it all started to go down, too. The new GM Koby Altman told LeBron he would not trade Irving to Boston — turning them into an instant powerhouse — but then the trade was completed later that day. LeBron realized it’s not that Altman lied to him as much as Altman wasn’t the guy making the call.

“You realize at that point in time, take nothing from Koby, because Koby [was just named GM], but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as [Griffin] had done, and that’s why Griff was let go pretty much.”

LeBron still carried the Cavaliers to the Finals (in part because Irving was injured and out when the teams met in the postseason) but the Cavaliers were no match for the league’s elite, which is why they got swept by the Warriors. LeBron decided he needed to move on to new challenges and headed West to the Lakers, where the work to build a contender is still ongoing.

His return to Cleveland will bring mixed emotions to Cavaliers fans on Wednesday. And if LeBron plays like he has lately — dropping 44 on Portland and 51 on Miami — they will be reminded just how great a player he was for them.

 

 

Report: Cavaliers GM Koby Altman told LeBron James they wouldn’t trade Kyrie Irving

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LeBron James told the Cavaliers not to trade Kyrie Irving last year. LeBron didn’t do anything to win over the point guard, who asked out. But LeBron still told Cleveland not to honor the request.

LeBron’s last message on the top went to Cavs general manager Koby Altman shortly before they dealt Irving to the Celtics.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.

James suggested he didn’t feel he was lied to by Altman, so much as Altman was overruled by owner Dan Gilbert.

“You realize at that point in time, take nothing from Koby, because Koby (was just named GM), but at that point in time, you realize that Koby’s not the only one running the team, as (former GM David Griffin) had done, and that’s why Griff was let go pretty much,” James said.

Cavs front-office officials declined to be quoted for this story but disputed that Altman gave James any indication the trade would not occur. They also said Altman asked James whether he would commit to the Cavs long-term if Irving were not traded, and James said no.

If he didn’t have the authority to keep Irving, Altman shouldn’t have said he would.

Maybe Altman didn’t know he lacked that authority. He was new in the job, after all. So, maybe his error was easily forgivable. But it sounds like an error, nonetheless.

The Cavaliers also didn’t necessarily err by trading Irving. The package they got proved problematic, but the concept of trading the disgruntled star had more merit to the team than LeBron. LeBron lasted only one more season in Cleveland, and it seems likely – though not certain – he would have left even if the Cavs listened to him on Irving. That meant, the Cavaliers could have been left without LeBron and trying to trade Irving in the final year of his contract, when his trade value would have been lower. LeBron might have just wanted to use Irving for one more playoff run then leave Cleveland holding the bag.

The communication issues are a bigger issue. It’s unclear how to divvy blame between Gilbert, Altman and LeBron, but that call ended with those three on different pages. And it doesn’t seem LeBron’s exit has fixed the problem in Cleveland. Since, the Cavs:

Again, it’s unclear whether Gilbert, Altman or others are the problem. But that’s a lot of disarray under Altman, and at a certain point, it’s his responsibility to ensure proper communication is flowing smoothly within the organization.

There are numerous reasons LeBron left for the Lakers. But it’s hard to overlook the Cavaliers’ crummy management in the last year.

Three Things to Know: After third straight loss Steve Kerr says Warriors now in the ‘real NBA’

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Warriors drop third straight game on road trip and Steve Kerr is blunt: “This is the real NBA…. We’ve been in this dream. So now we’re faced with real adversity.” This is not serious illness the Warriors have come down with, it’s just a little fall cold. Come April, when the chance to threepeat is on the line, the Warriors will be the Warriors again. Don’t doubt that.

But right now, the Warriors are scuffling.

Stephen Curry is out with a strained groin. Draymond Green is out with an injured toe. In his last five quarters of play, Kevin Durant has shot 9-of-32 (28.1 percent) and he picked up a technical Sunday chirping at officials, he just is off his game and seems to be unfocused (insert your speculation about the Green situation here). In his last two games Klay Thompson is shooting 40 percent. On Saturday night both had chances at potential game winners and missed good looks. On Sunday in San Antonio, neither even got the chance as the Spurs handled the Warriors without much trouble 104-92.

With that, the Warriors went 0-3 on a road trip for the first time with Steve Kerr as coach, and they are 2-5 in their last seven. In those seven games, the Warriors are allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions, the second worst defense in the league. On the other end of the floor, the ball is sticking on offense.

“I’ve had a dream run for four-and-a-half years,” Kerr said. “We’ve had such a charmed existence the last four seasons. So, yeah, of course, this is the toughest stretch we’ve been in. This is the real NBA. We haven’t been in the real NBA the last few years. We’ve been in this dream. So now we’re faced with real adversity. We’ve got to get out of it ourselves.”

How do they change this around? Get healthy — Curry was playing back closer to his MVP level before the groin injury, just putting him back in the lineup will spark the offense and the team. Green’s return will help the defense. Durant and Thompson will find their shot at some point. Beyond that, the Warriors just need to get out of their own heads. While everyone around the NBA can talk about how they are on a cakewalk to a title, the reality is they are going to have to work for it. There are good teams in their way.

That said, we aren’t even to Thanksgiving yet. If the NBA season is a marathon, we are just 5.1 miles into it. It is far too early to think the Warriors are in any real trouble, or more unlikely, that they are going to make a trade and break things up (ownership said that is not happening).  The Warriors will be the Warriors again when it matters. Right now, they are facing some adversity, and that’s probably good for them looking ahead towards the playoffs (better to be tested than not).

2) When LeBron James is good, the Lakers are good. Sunday he dropped 51 on the Heat and the Lakers looked dangerous again. Last Wednesday night on national television, LeBron James had one of those “just reminding you I’m the best player on the planet” games dropping 44 on the Trail Blazers, and the Lakers looked the best they have all season in a win. Saturday night, LeBron had a pedestrian 22 and did not dominate the game the same way, and the Lakers lost to the Orlando Magic.

Sunday LeBron was back to his dominant ways, dropping 51 on his old team in Miami, getting Los Angeles another win.

Looking at the splits, two things change with LeBron in the Lakers’ wins. First, he is a more efficient shooter. For example, he shoots 32.5 percent from three in Laker losses, but 44.6 percent in victories. Or, his true shooting percentage jumps from a good 58 in losses to an insane 64.8 in wins. The second big change is his defense, and the team defense, is more dialed in for Laker wins. LeBron’s defensive rating is 115.6 in losses, and is 101.8 in wins.

It’s not just LeBron that has keyed the Lakers’ improved play of late, much of that comes from better team defense overall. But he is the catalyst of the offense, and when LeBron dials it up the Lakers become dangerous.

3) He’s no Jennifer Hudson — Heat’s Josh Richardson ejected for throwing his shoe into crowd. When Jennifer Hudson throws a shoe — her shoe, someone else’s shoe, any shoe she can find — on The Voice, it’s a sign of respect. A compliment.

That is not how it came off when Josh Richardson threw his shoe into the crowd Sunday. Richardson — who is having a breakout season in Miami — was frustrated. Very frustrated with the foul calls (he felt he didn’t get one on a dunk attempt, then with his shoe off he fouled LeBron), with the team not winning, with a knot in his shoelace that would not come out, and with Erik Spoelstra subbing him out to get the shoe fixed and to calm down. So Richardson launched his shoe into the crowd.

That’s an automatic ejection. Richardson can break out the checkbook, too, a $25k fine is coming.

But if he wants, Richardson can go Hudson and tell the league office he was offering LeBron a compliment by throwing his Nikes into the crowd. Not going to work, but he can try.

LeBron James scores 51 points, Lakers torch Heat 113-97

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MIAMI (AP) LeBron James scored 51 points against his former club and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 113-97 on Sunday night.

James had 19 points in the first quarter to set the tone, the Lakers led by as many as 21 and never trailed.

The 51 points were a season high for James, and the most he’s scored against Miami; he had 47 against the Heat twice. His last shot was a 32-footer with 16 seconds left, capping the 13th 50-point game of his career – including playoffs – and he threw the ball skyward at midcourt when time expired.

It was James’ first time winning against Miami since he left the Heat after the 2014 NBA Finals. He was 0-4 when facing the Heat since; his teams were 0-7, when including the three Cleveland-Miami games that he sat out for various reasons.

Wayne Ellington scored 19 points for Miami (6-10), which has dropped four straight home games and is off to its second-worst start in the last 12 years. The Heat were 5-11 at this point of the 2016-17 season, the only other time they’ve been worse after 16 games in that span.

Josh Richardson scored 17 points before getting ejected in the fourth quarter after throwing one of his sneakers about 15 rows deep into the crowd, while he was arguing about what he thought should have been a foul call that didn’t come his way. Tyler Johnson also had 17 points for the Heat, while Rodney McGruder added 14.

Goran Dragic missed the game for Miami because of a right knee problem, one that will be further evaluated Monday. Dwyane Wade missed his seventh consecutive game for the Heat because of the birth of his and wife Gabrielle Union-Wade’s daughter; it’s possible that Wade returns to the Heat this week.

Miami hasn’t forgotten James, obviously – he still gets loud cheers when introduced in his former home arena – but just in case anyone in attendance needed a reminder of what’s in his skillset, he put on a show. He made eight of his first nine shots and had the whole arsenal working; dunks in transition, stepback 3-pointers, turnarounds from the baseline.

But the biggest shot for the Lakers might have come from Brandon Ingram with 3:46 left. Miami had clawed within eight and the shot clock was about to expire on the Lakers, but Ingram connected on a long jumper from the left wing to make it 104-94.

From there, the only drama was whether James would get 50. And he did.

TIP-INS

Lakers: This game is part of a long weekend of sorts in Miami for the Lakers, who arrived Saturday night after playing in Orlando and aren’t scheduled to fly to Cleveland until Tuesday. … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 19 points, Kyle Luzma scored 15 and Ingram finished with 13.

Heat: The last time Miami lost four straight at home was early in the 2014-15 season, which was actually a five-game slide. … Miami had the rare five-shot possession in the third quarter, with three missed layups and a missed jumper, all of them rebounded by the Heat, before Ellington made a 3-pointer. … The Heat fouled 3-point shooters twice in the first half, after doing so only twice – total – in the season’s first 15 games.

CONSISTENT LEBRON

Whenever James changes teams – Cleveland to Miami in 2010, Miami to Cleveland in 2014, Cleveland to the Lakers this past summer – the same thing always happens: His new team starts 9-7. The Lakers surely hope the other thing that happens when James changes teams holds true, since the 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavs both went to the NBA Finals.

HEAT HELP

James Johnson played for the first time this season after finally being declared good to go following offseason sports hernia surgery. He had four fouls in the first half and finished with eight points.

UP NEXT

Lakers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday. The Lakers are 2-11 in their last 13 trips to Cleveland.

Heat: Host Brooklyn on Tuesday. The Heat defeated the Nets 120-107 in Brooklyn last week.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports