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NBA PM: Kobe Should Embrace the All-Star Game

Kobe Bryant should enjoy what could be his last All-Star game, not regret his inclusion, undeserved or not… Rivers gives strong endorsement to his former colleague Tom Thibodeau.

Yannis Koutroupis

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For the 16th time in his career, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been named to the All-Star team. He was voted in as a starter by the fans, receiving 988,884 votes, which put him ahead of everyone outside of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and LeBron James.

Bryant has played in six games this season, averaging 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. That doesn’t come close to justifying being an All-Star starter, especially when you compare it to what Chris Paul, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker have done for their respective teams this season, all of which are far ahead of the Lakers in the standings.

Bryant is an All-Star solely because of what he’s done in the past. He remains one of the league’s biggest stars, despite the fact that he’s played only six games this season and is missing more time due to injuries than he ever has in his career. As far as this year goes, though, Bryant’s undeserving of playing in New Orleans and he’s fully aware of that.

“With all due respect to the fans who voted me in, and I certainly appreciate that, but you’ve got to do the right thing as well,” Bryant said to Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times. “My feeling is you’ve got to reward these young guys for the work that they’ve been putting in.

“It just means somebody will have to lose a spot unfortunately. Our backups will be playing a lot if I go in there and do my two minutes and sit down.”

If it wasn’t for a fear of being suspended, Bryant insinuated that he would politely decline his invitation to the NBA’s midseason showcase. However, what Bryant doesn’t seem to be taking into account enough is that this could be his last All-Star game. At 35 years of age with 1,465 regular season and playoff games under his belt alone, that’s not including any preseason or international games, it’s reasonable to question whether or not Bryant will ever put up All-Star numbers again. He’s never a guy you want to bet against, but in the next two years that he’s under contract, is his production even going to be on par with Paul, Lillard and Harden’s? It’s doubtful.

There have been plenty of instances like this in the past. With the fans in charge of the voting it will continue to happen, but only in the most deserving cases.

Bryant has dedicated his life to the game of basketball. His status as one of the greatest to ever play the games is undeniable. He could retire today and have a legacy that few could ever come close to matching; he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. The All-Star game is supposed to feature the league’s best players, but there’s nearly a million people out there who would rather see Bryant, even when he’s not at the top of his game, than the other Western Conference guards at their best.

It’s an honor he should embrace, because it may not happen again next year. Just look back at the 2013 All-Star voting. Only Durant and James finished with more votes than Bryant. Now he’s dropped to sixth in the league, and in the process Curry doubled the amount of votes he was getting and surpassed Bryant in votes this year. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen with Lillard, Westbrook, Harden and especially Paul next season?

We live in a world all about instant gratification and what is happening in the present. Bryant’s inclusion in the All-Star game is one of the rare instances where that’s not the case. He’s being appreciated and rewarded for what he’s accomplished so far. As much as it may go against his DNA to embrace that, when his time as an All-Star officially comes to an end, he’ll miss it and everything that came with it. Because of that, there’s no harm in enjoying an extra trip that his legacy, not his play, earned him. Once he acknowledges that this could be his last, it may not be so hard to do so. And, those young guys whose spot he’s so concerned about taking, they’re going to be taking it from him soon enough. Even if he wanted to, he’s not going to be able to stop them. His time is coming to an end; theirs is just beginning.

Rivers Defends Thibodeau: Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers and Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau had a lot of success working together. They won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and there remains an immense amount of respect between the two even though they’re now the head coaches of different teams competing for the same goal. That’s why with rumors circulating that Thibodeau could be let go at season’s end due to a tumultuous working relationship with the front office Rivers was quick to come to his defense.

“I think it would be nuts not to have him here,” Rivers said to ESPN’s Nick Friedell. “He’s the best coach, one of the best coaches in this league. So if you have that, that’s an asset. And I don’t think any right-minded organization would allow that asset to leave. Because with all this adversity they’ve had with injuries, if you allow that one to leave, things will fall apart. And that would be pretty much a guarantee.

“I worked with the guy, it felt like 30 years, but he’s the best. One of my best friends, number one. But he’s the best mind I’ve been around, too. He has a way, he believes in it and he makes his players believe in it, and that’s where Tom and I are very similar. We don’t believe because a guy gets injured, no matter [who] the guy is, that the team should start feeling like they can’t win.”

Although the Bulls haven’t had the success they’ve hoped for in recent years because of all the injuries they’ve had to deal with,
Rivers feels like Thibodeau keeps outdoing himself every season.

“I think every year’s his best coaching job, honestly,” Rivers said. “Last year he went through it, the year before, every year people keep expecting them to fall and they don’t, and the guy that’s standing there is Tom Thibodeau. He’s the guy. He’s the difference. He holds them together somehow.

“Obviously, they make trades. They trade Deng away and yet they keep winning. So the guy that’s standing there every day is Tom. I just think it’s been impressive what he’s done, not just this year, I thought last year was just as hard, and some ways harder, because you kept thinking Derrick may come back. So you just got to take your hat off to him.”

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA Daily: A Bright Future is Building in Oklahoma City

Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder click and which players can emerge as future stars of the league.

Tristan Tucker

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34 draft picks from 2021-27.

A staggering treasure chest of assets, something that means nothing if the team that owns those assets can’t draft well.

Thankfully for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise has already shown that it can build a competitive and fun roster no matter the circumstances.

There’s no sugarcoating it, the Thunder is truly awful this season. The team boasts a truly atrocious 104.7 offensive rating, good for 30th in the league while pushing out a less-than-stellar 112.8 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the league. The team is dead last in SRS, a stat that factors point differential and strength of schedule while owning a league-worst -8.1 net rating.

But this team is so much fun to watch. So much so that it’s easy to neglect its horrible rankings and record.

The Young Stars

The team already boasts one of the game’s best young stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is enjoying career-best numbers of 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. “SGA” is out indefinitely, but the team can rest assured in the development it’s seeing from its other young pieces.

Look no further than the team’s 2020 draft class composed of Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, two players already making an impact. Entering the season, neither player looked to be significant contributors coming from overseas play and needing time to develop. In fact, “Poku” is the youngest player in the NBA, while Maledon is the sixth-youngest.

Maledon has 30 starts under his belt already at the age of 19, averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Maledon’s shooting splits don’t jump off the page but his instincts do. The point guard isn’t the type of player to give up on a play and it’s easy to see the offensive instincts carry over from his time with ASVEL in France.

Meanwhile, Pokusevski is on fire as of late. Since March 11, “Poku” is a full-time starter, averaging 31.4 minutes, 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The Serbian power forward only turned 19 in December and it’s already clear to see his potential is nearly limitless.

Fan-favorite “Poku” has shooting potential, connecting at a 35.9 percent rate from deep on over six attempts per game. He can make plays, rebound, gather blocks and score at all three levels. He isn’t a marksman, he’s far from it at this stage of his career, but there’s no denying the finesse he puts on every shot. Pick-and-rolls featuring Pokusevski and Maledon is something Thunder fans have to look forward to.

The Thunder’s young talent doesn’t end there, the team is already proving it can find gems on a whim.

Two-Way Contract Development

Moses Brown played out last season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers on a two-way contract and was mostly an afterthought. Brown spent most of his rookie season in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Thunder in training camp, an opportunity he used to pick up another two-way contract opportunity and then a multi-year deal after stellar play.

In a game against the Boston Celtics on March 27, it was clear to see Brown had established himself as a staple of the Thunder’s young corps. In that game, Brown picked up 21 points and 23 rebounds, both of which are career highs. Shortly after, the Thunder converted Brown to a standard deal.

Since March 14, Brown has 12 starts under his belt in 14 games, averaging 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oklahoma City has 10 players on its roster that have three or fewer years of experience, not including Pokusevski, Brown, Maledon or Gilgeous-Alexander.

Shortly after converting Brown, the team moved to sign Jaylen Hoard, who was on a two-way contract opposite of Brown in Portland last year. Like Brown, Hoard spent training camp in 2020 with the Thunder but was ultimately cut, unlike Brown. However, if early signs are any indication, Hoard already looks like another keeper.

In just three games, Hoard is averaging 11.7 points per game while limiting his fouls and playing with his head down.

The other two-way contract slot is held by Josh Hall out of Moravian Prep, a young player that is very raw but has limitless upside. Don’t hold his numbers against him, he has the athleticism to make fans regret that. Watching Hall is always a thrill because there’s always a risk of an explosive play to come. It’s clear to see that the end-of-roster development is just as skilled as the rest of the roster.

The others

Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley became household names for NBA fans in the Orlando bubble last season and have continued their strong play into this season. Dort’s been a full-time starter this season while averaging 12.6 points per game. His shooting is pitiful but he’s a hard worker and he’s made strides as both a playmaker and a scorer. Bazley is also a full-time starter with poor shooting numbers but he’s close to being a nightly double-double. While these two haven’t jumped off the page this year, they’ve both already proven that they can contribute to winning basketball, as seen last season.

Isaiah Roby is another interesting case, he’s a big player that can play the three through the five on a dime. Roby was traded to the Thunder from the Dallas Mavericks for pennies on the dollar — and he’s making Oklahoma City thankful for their doing so. Roby’s averaging 8.9 points on very efficient shooting.

As if the OKC frontcourt wasn’t loaded enough, the team went out and acquired Tony Bradley from the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade that shipped George Hill away. The move looked great at the time and looks even better now, as he’s making the case to be considered a long-term piece. 

Bradley is still just 23-years-old and looked like a suitable replacement for Joel Embiid on the 76ers when the MVP candidate went down. The center’s best game came in a win over the Golden State Warriors in which he recorded 18 points and 11 boards.

If that wasn’t enough the team also has Svi Mykhailiuk, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, who have all proven their worth in one way or another. Mykhailiuk and Jerome have the potential to be some of the best shooters in the league while “Kenny Hustle” is exactly that, the ultimate glue guy.

Overseas development

One of the most underrated traits a developing team can have is the ability to negotiate with overseas players and leagues and pick up professional stars. The Thunder is quickly showing its fans that it is more than capable of doing so.

Firstly, the team drafted Vit Krejci in the second round of the 2020 draft. Krejci didn’t come over this season but has the potential to be a good role player for the Thunder if he’s ever brought over. He also got experience playing in the NBA G League earlier this year.

Then, the team recently signed Gabriel Deck, who isn’t super young but is a winning player. Literal hours before the move went down, Deck scored 19 points to lift Real Madrid to the Euroleague playoffs.

The team is also reportedly bringing over Vasilije Micic next season, a star in Euroleague averaging 16.4 points and 5 assists per game in those games. Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to notch assists overseas. Micic isn’t young either, but he’ll bring a lot of professional experience both on the court and in the locker room to aid a young Thunder team.

While Oklahoma City is constantly touted for its future draft picks, its current roster isn’t something to look over either. Combine that with the fact that, despite his massive deal, the team might be able to actually get something of value for Al Horford and has a roster spot to use once Justin Robinson’s current 10-day deal runs up.

In the NBA not many things are certain, but the Thunder’s bright future and strategic front office surely are.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Executive of the Year Watch

Front offices around the league have had their hands full trying to make the right moves in order to steer their organizations towards a championship. With one month of regular season basketball remaining, Basketball Insiders examines the intense race for the Executive of the Year Award.

Chad Smith

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There are three main areas where NBA executives face extreme pressure and scrutiny. Free agency, the draft and the trade deadline are all different avenues for teams to improve as they pursue the ultimate goal of a championship. Under ordinary circumstances, there are sleepless nights, make-or-break decisions and countless “what if” scenarios that run through their heads. During two seasons amid a pandemic, things somehow get even more hectic.

With a shortened offseason and limited access to players, executives were given the impossible task of drafting the right player, signing the best free agents and making the perfect trade just before the deadline. Some teams have done well while others — like Danny Ainge in Boston — have struck out looking. With the regular season heading towards the finish line, five contenders have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of winning the Executive of the Year Award.

Sean Marks, Brooklyn Nets

Technically the biggest move of Marks’ career came two seasons ago when he signed Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan and traded for Kevin Durant. This set the table for everything else and, while some view it as Brooklyn simply lucking out, Marks still had to put the team in a position to make the deals work. He began collecting key role players like Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Tyler Johnson and kept Joe Harris with a new contract.

Sean’s next move was to put together a package to acquire James Harden from the Houston Rockets. The deal had been rumored for quite some time but once it became official, Marks had put together arguably the greatest trio of superstars the league has ever seen. The Nets were also able to add Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market to bolster their already impressive roster.

Brooklyn has only had all three of their star players on the court for six games but they have also had the luxury of one or two guys carrying the load while the others get healthy. When you factor in the deals for guys like Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Alize Johnson, it is easy to see why Marks is the clear frontrunner to win the award this season.

James Jones, Phoenix Suns

As a player, Jones was always associated with winning teams. Now, the same can be said for his career as an executive. When Jones was able to put the trade together for veteran point guard Chris Paul, he knew exactly what he was doing. The move was successful in three ways. The veteran leadership and talent acquisition is obvious, but it also prevented them from having to overpay Kelly Oubre. The third and probably most important, was proving to Devin Booker that they were serious about winning – and winning now.

With Booker under contact through the 2023-24 season, it removed any potential desire to request a trade in order to play for a winning team. This was becoming more apparent at the end of last season when the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble down in Orlando. The pieces were nearly in place, but Jones still had to work around the edges to make everything stick.

Jones got busy in free agency, signing Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, Dario Saric and E’Twaun Moore. Crowder provides more playoff experience that their young nucleus can digest. Jones even picked up a talented young player like Torrey Craig for next-to-nothing at the trade deadline. From reclamation projects like Jevon Carter, Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky, to the player development of Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, the stars have aligned for Phoenix, who own the second-best record in the league.

Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers

While the award is seemingly a two-horse race between Marks and Jones, Daryl Morey has quietly revamped the 76ers into serious title contenders. It began with drafting Tyrese Maxey, trading for Seth Curry and signing Dwight Howard. His biggest move was shipping out Al Horford and adding Danny Green. Morey, who won this award in 2017-18, has raised the ceiling on their offense by surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with capable shooters.

Embiid has been one of the top candidates for MVP this season, though his most recent injury may hurt his case. When he plays, he is the most dominant player in the league. Though he and Simmons have both missed time this year, Tobias Harris has been able to step in and lead the team. Morey has his three stars under contract for the foreseeable future and Doc Rivers has this team playing exceptional defense.

Morey was able to acquire George Hill at the trade deadline, giving the team another ball-handler and an outstanding three-point threat. He has addressed their weaknesses and essentially turned them into strengths. By tweaking the roster since his first day in Philly, Morey has put his stamp on this team as they battle with Brooklyn for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have been sliding down the standings as they continue to play without their two superstars. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis still sidelined for weeks to come, the team has had to rely on their bench to fill the void. This is where Pelinka has improved the roster the most from last season’s championship team.

Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol have provided the depth and talent needed to make another title run. They upgraded at nearly every position while retaining key pieces like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.

Signing Andre Drummond after his buyout should provide dividends in the postseason as they face guys like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert. This means Davis can play his more natural position at the four spot. Pelinka’s biggest move was signing Davis to a multi-year extension, keeping the big man in a Lakers jersey through at least the 2024-25 season.

Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

After a brutal exit from the playoffs last season, the Bucks decided to reload their roster. Horst was able to complete a deal to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Much like the Paul trade in Phoenix, this move convinced their franchise player to stay. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228 million supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee.

The failed trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic did not set this team back one bit. Horst signed a couple of key free agents in Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, who have been solid contributors for the Bucks. The signings of Craig and AJ Augustin didn’t pan out but they did use one of them to acquire PJ Tucker in a deal with Houston.

Tucker is a perfect fit with this group, providing them with another outstanding defender that has led the league in corner three-point shooting each of the last two seasons. The Bucks had been one of the worst three-point shooting teams from that spot. Milwaukee should have no problem in tight games come playoff time. A closing lineup of Holiday, Khris Middleton, Tucker, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez should give opposing offenses nightmares.

Honorable Mention

The popular pick before the season was Travis Schlenk, who assembled quite the roster in Atlanta. The Hawks stumbled out of the gate, as they navigated through injuries and a lack of on-court chemistry. After firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, Nate McMillan has guided this team to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Other notable names to mention are Tim Connelly of the Denver Nuggets and Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz. Denver lost Jerami Grant in the offseason but the recent trades to acquire Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee have turned Denver’s season around. While the Jazz didn’t make any significant signings before the season, this cast is one that Lindsey assembled and now is thriving with Mike Conley finally settling into their system. Lindsey should get more credit and praise for the Jazz continuing to own the best record in the league.

Winning this award is special, but the ultimate goal for each one of these individuals is to win a championship. Since 1996, only three executives (Ainge, RC Buford, Bob Myers) have won this award and the NBA Finals in the same season.

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NBA

NBA PM: Don’t Forget The Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the NBA’s three heavy favorites to win the championship just a season ago. not only are they a better team now than they were then, but they’re also putting it all together at the perfect time to make some noise in the playoffs.

Garrett Brooks

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It feels like a very long time ago that the basketball world discussed the Milwaukee Bucks as a top contender to win the NBA Finals. Despite being a consensus contender just one year prior, a fair few have already forgotten about the Bucks.

That’s a mistake many are guilty of. But it would be an even bigger mistake if any of their potential playoff opponents are overlooking them. That includes the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, among many others out east.

Inevitably, the Bucks have gotten less love this season after failing in the bubble – in both fair and unfair ways. Add in the extreme roster additions of the Brooklyn Nets and it’s almost understandable why they’ve felt overlooked. Almost.

Sure, the Nets should be the Eastern Conference favorites but his Milwaukee Bucks team is capable of greatness too – ultimately, people have forgotten how much they’ve as well.

Improvement From Three-Point Distances

Last season, the Bucks were a middle-of-the-pack three-point shooting team in terms of percentage. Milwaukee shot the fourth most three-point attempts per game – but as a team only converted on 35.5 percent of them, ranking 18th in the league.

This season, they only trail the Los Angeles Clippers in team three-point percentage, jumping up the league rankings by bumping last year’s 35.5 number to 39.3 in 2020-21. More good news, it’s obviously not a fluke.

The changes the Bucks made to their roster in the offseason are the primary reason they’re a much better shooting team this season. Hugely significant as well, Milwaukee has seen internal development from Donte DiVincenzo.

After shooting 3.7 threes per game last year, he now leads the team with his 5.1 attempts. In addition to the increased volume, he has increased his success rate by nearly five percent.

Of course, the big move to bring in Jrue Holiday during the offseason has made a large impact. Holiday is much better (more on that later) and specifically is a better outside shooter these days.

But beyond adding undeniable talents, some under-the-radar moves like Bryn Forbes (45.7 percent) and Bobby Portis (47.7) have panned out as well. This team has more reliable three-point shooting than a season ago, something that’s been a thorn in their side for far too long.

Defensive Versatility

The Bucks have a plethora of versatile and talented defenders. While their defensive numbers have fallen off, in general, their roster and track record speak for themselves.

Both Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are more than capable of matching up with the best guards in the game, even defending bigger players. Holiday especially is a hound on the defensive end, capable of single-handily disrupting an opponent’s entire offensive flow.

Of course, Brook Lopez is a solid option as a rim protector and, at the very least, will contest many shots as the anchor down low. But the big X-Factor is, naturally, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wreaking havoc on the defensive end, the perennial MVP candidate does so regardless of his on-court teammates.

Finally, the last certified defensive difference-maker is the recently acquired P.J. Tucker. Tucker has long been known for his work on the defensive end, holding his own against bigger players and keeping up enough on the perimeter.

The Bucks will have a ton of options to use defensively if they’re healthy when the playoffs begin. Even when they face off against the most lethal offensive teams, they will make them struggle to grind out possessions on that end of the floor.

Jrue Finding His Groove

Somehow, in amongst the other spotlight-stealing NBA headlines, quickly, Holiday seemed like a forgotten addition.

Recently, he has found his groove and has shown mainstream fans exactly why the team was willing to invest so much. That’s in regard to both the trade assets they moved for him and the hefty contract extension the pair agreed upon.

But if Holiday keeps up his recent level of play, it could all be well worth it sooner rather than later. The defensive impact from the former Pelicans’ guard is never in question.

Since the NBA’s All-Star break, the menacing guard has averaged 21.4 points per contest while adding in 6.1 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Really though, the increased offensive production has much to do with an increase in efficiency.

During those 13 games, Holiday has connected on 54.8 percent of his field goals and 45.6 percent of his three-point attempts. It’s no coincidence the Bucks are 10-3 in the games he has played in since the break – a tread that will no doubt continue.

In the end, the Bucks have three players able to drop 20 points a night when the playoffs roll around – something they could not expect last year. That lightens the load on both Antetokounmpo and Middleton, but also the role players behind Holiday.

It will also inevitably create better looks for players such as Portis, Lopez, DiVincenzo, Forbes and Pat Connaughton.

The facts regarding the Bucks are simple: They’re a significantly better team on both ends of the court than they were last year. So, really, the Nets are hot and the Lakers are defending champions, but no one should be counting Milwaukee out.

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