Joel Embiid

O’Connor’s Latest: Spurs, Porzingis, Sixers, Wolves

The Spurs are viewed by front office sources around the NBA as a team with “significant interest” in Kristaps Porzingis, reports Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Porzingis will be a restricted free agent this summer and while the Knicks are expected to retain him, they may be pushed by rival suitors if they’re unwilling to put a fully guaranteed maximum salary offer on the tables themselves.

Of course, as O’Connor acknowledges, San Antonio isn’t particularly well positioned to make Porzingis a lucrative long-term offer. Even if they waive and stretch Pau Gasol, who has a partially guaranteed salary for 2019/20, the Spurs will have about $96MM+ in guaranteed contracts on their books for next season.

That $96MM+ figure doesn’t account for San Antonio’s first-round pick or any other cap holds. Assuming a projected salary cap of $109MM, the team would need more than $27MM in room to offer Porzingis his maximum salary. In other words, even if the Spurs’ does have serious interest in the Knicks’ young big man, they’d have to reshape their roster substantially to go after him — New York’s top competition for Porzingis may ultimately come from elsewhere.

Here’s more from O’Connor:

  • While Jimmy Butler‘s issues with the Sixers‘ offensive system appear real, league sources tell O’Connor that the All-NBA swingman has “developed a good relationship” with Philadelphia stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. On Monday night, we passed along Butler’s comments on Brett Brown and the coach’s system.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns said on Monday that no one saw the firing of Tom Thibodeau coming, and it seems that doesn’t just apply to the Timberwolves‘ players — sources tell O’Connor that the decision came as a shock to many in the organization, and some staffers are “in limbo with no idea about what will happen next.”
  • According to O’Connor, league sources believe Fred Hoiberg will be a top candidate for the Timberwolves‘ permanent head coaching position, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday. However, there have been no formal conversations between Hoiberg and owner Glen Taylor about the job, and the club is expected to wait until the offseason to make any decisions on its full-time coach and general manager. For now, coach Ryan Saunders and GM Scott Layden will remain in those roles.

Jimmy Butler Challenges Brett Brown Over Role

Just a few months after his trade request endlessly dominated headlines in Minnesota, Jimmy Butler has “aggressively challenged” Sixers head coach Brett Brown on his role in Philadelphia’s offense, league sources tell Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com. The situation has complicated an “already tenuous” chemistry among Butler and star teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, according to Shelburne and Wojnarowski.

Since joining the Sixers, Butler has averaged 18.0 PPG in 31.7 minutes per contest (21 games). Both of those marks would be his lowest averages since 2013/14. His usage rate (23.1%) is also down from recent years.

Butler would prefer to play more traditional pick-and-roll and isolation sets, rather than trying to find his place in the Sixers’ free-flowing offense, Shelburne and Wojnarowski write. As he works through those concerns, Butler has met privately with Brown and his assistants, as well as GM Elton Brand, per ESPN’s report.

Sources tell the ESPN duo that Butler has been “vocal” in questioning Brown and his system, including a recent film session in Portland that some witnesses viewed as “disrespectful.” However, Brown has told people within the 76ers’ organization that he had no issues with that exchange and considered it within the confines of the relationship he has developed with his new All-NBA swingman. As for Butler, a source close to the 29-year-old points out to ESPN.com that his direct style of communication can come off as combative when he expresses an opinion.

Despite posting a 17-8 record since acquiring Butler, the Sixers have been slow to assimilate the former Timberwolf into their system and have yet to find the perfect on-court role for him alongside Embiid and Simmons, which has caused some concern about his “long-term viability and fit” with the franchise, league sources tell Shelburne and Wojnarowski. According to the ESPN duo, Brown had already dedicated significant time working on the relationship between Embiid and Simmons, and incorporating Butler as well has compounded those challenges.

Still, the Sixers remain focused on making things work in this season and beyond. Ownership and management is also still very fond of Brown, so there’s an urgency around the organization for the head coach and his staff to stabilize the situation and get everyone on the same page, according Shelburne and Woj.

Since Butler will be a free agent this summer, he’d have an opportunity to join a new team if things don’t work out in Philadelphia. According to ESPN, his preference has been to sign a lucrative, long-term deal with the Sixers, who can offer more years and money than any other suitor, but it sounds like the club will need to get more comfortable with the fit before it’s ready to put that kind of offer on the table. Sources tell Shelburne and Woj that rival teams believe Butler will ultimately decide to meet with other teams in July, in addition to the 76ers.

Atlantic Notes: Hollis-Jefferson, Embiid, Smart, Burke

Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson suffered another groin injury on Saturday, but the severity of the issue isn’t worse than his strained right adductor from this past summer, Brian Lewis of the New York Post writes.

Hollis-Jefferson sustained the injury as the team played Milwaukee, with the 23-year-old heading to the locker room for examination and being ruled out of the game early.

“Yeah,” he said, “I felt a little strange feeling on a crossover going baseline. It just felt weird to me so I just wanted to be cautious and talk to our training staff, see what was going on.”

Hollis-Jefferson missed the entire preseason following his adductor injury on Aug. 4, making his debut nearly 12 weeks after the injury on Oct. 24. News of his Saturday’s injury not being worse than the problem in August comes as a relief for Brooklyn, a team already playing without talented wing Caris LeVert.

Hollis-Jefferson has started in 19 of 34 games this season, averaging 9.9 points per contest while playing his usual stellar defense. He’ll undergo further examination on Sunday with hopes of making a return in the near future.

“You know where your groin is, so I knew it was my groin,” Hollis-Jefferson said, according to Lewis. “But I’m no doctor, so I didn’t know “Oh, it’s this severe” or whatever the case may be. I knew it was my groin. A little sore. But we’ll go see [Sunday], check and see how it feels, how everything is.”

There’s more out of the Atlantic Division today:

  • Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid is quietly building a case for Defensive Player of the Year this season, Brian Seltzer of Sixers.com writes. Philadelphia sports an impressive 101.9 defensive rating when Embiid is on the court, turning into a different team when he’s protecting the rim. “I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again, he is the Defensive Player of the Year,” coach Brett Brown said. “When I look at our metrics, his impact on this team is overwhelming.”
  • Before the Celtics‘ game against the Rockets last week, coaches from both teams praised Marcus Smart for the intensity he brings on defense. Smart notched 11 points, three assists and a steal in the game, defending players such as James Harden and Eric Gordon“Just his ability to stick his nose into everything and stamina, strength, and then being willing to do all the dirty work,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Smart, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “He’s one of the better defenders in the league. He’s like P.J. [Tucker] for us. They do what’s needed. And some people have noses for the ball, situations they can think they’re way out of defensively. He does that.”
  • Knicks guard Trey Burke has regained his love for basketball while playing in New York, Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News writes. Burke started his career with the Jazz, a tumultuous time period he still reflects on today. “I’ve had to figure the league out,” Burke said. “I think individually it helped me kind of look myself in the mirror and re-evaluate what I needed to get better at and the areas I needed to grow in.”

Atlantic Notes: Ntilikina, Horford, Sixers, Irving

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina is set to return to the rotation after sitting out of the team’s game on Christmas, Marc Berman of The New York Post writes. The Knicks will play the Bucks on Thursday night, the second matchup between the teams this week.

“He’s a pro, man,” coach David Fizdale said of Ntilikina. “He says, ‘Coach, don’t you worry about that.’ That’s how he talks. He says, ‘I don’t want you to worry about that. I know you are going to get me back in there at some point and I won’t let you down.’

“For a 20-year-old kid to think that way and talk that way even though I know it hurt him, and I know it was hard on him, and I didn’t want to do that to him — he just handled it great. I want him to have a shot back at these guys.”

Ntilikina’s sudden benching likely harmed his confidence, but the 20-year-old has stayed ready for a second opportunity. His mother traveled to New York for the Christmas Day game, according to Berman, making the sudden DNP sting even more for the second-year player.

Ntilikina has averaged 6.3 points per contest in 31 games this season, shooting 34% from the field and 29% from 3-point range. The Knicks drafted him with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

There’s more from the Atlantic Division:

  • Al Horford‘s return brought a calming effect to the Celtics this week, Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports writes. Horford returned to Boston’s lineup on Christmas against the 76ers, producing nine rebounds, six assists and solid all-around leadership. “[Horford] just brings a calming presence,” said teammate Kyrie Irving. “[There’s] nothing like having a plus-12[-year] vet out there that knows how to play basketball. He makes the game a lot easier with screening, rebounding, defense, all the intangibles that just demand that effort. And he’s just always locked in, in the game plan.”
  • Despite Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid not being a flawless fit together, the duo still has several years to work out the kinks and improve as members of the Sixers, David Murphy of Philly.com opines. Philadelphia currently owns a 22-13 record behind the production of Simmons, Embiid and Jimmy Butler, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
  • Despite the Celtics‘ recent success, All-Star Kyrie Irving will need more help if the team hopes to make a late postseason run, Sean Deveney of The Sporting News writes. The Celtics were expected to be at the top of their conference entering 2019, but the team holds just a 20-13 record and the fifth seed 33 games into the season. Boston sports a talented mix of players around Irving that includes Horford, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward.

Sixers Notes: Fultz, Z. Smith, Roster Depth, Embiid

With Markelle Fultz‘s status as uncertain as ever, Sixers GM Elton Brand admitted Saturday he’s not sure if the second-year guard will play again this season, writes Sarah Todd of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Fultz, who hasn’t seen game action since November 19, has been diagnosed with neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome. He is doing rehab work away from the team, and there’s no timetable for a possible return.

“He’s in L.A. with Judy Seto, … who Kobe [Bryant] swears by, progressing well,” Brand said. “He’ll be with us on Christmas, with his family. … Our staff, or someone from the organization has been in touch with him daily, or someone in his camp daily.”

Brand added that another update is expected after the holidays as team doctors re-evaluate his condition. The top pick in last year’s draft, Fultz had started 15 of 19 games and was averaging 8.2 PPG before being sidelined by the injury.

There’s more this morning out of Philadelphia:

  • Brand has more definite news about this year’s first-rounder, Zhaire Smith, who hasn’t played yet this season, Todd relays in the same story. Smith had surgery on his left foot in August, then had his rehab interrupted by complications from a peanut allergy, but Brand said the organization expects him to be ready before the season ends. “Zhaire is in the gym every morning, early in the morning, sometimes 5 a.m. He’s in good spirits,” Brand said. “He’ll have another test on his foot after the holiday and we expect to see him back this season. Not this year, but this season.” Smith will likely be sent to the Sixers’ G League team in Delaware when he is ready to return.
  • Brand expects to make at least one more move to add roster depth before the February 7 trade deadline, Todd adds. Philadelphia gave up some depth when it sent Robert Covington and Dario Saric to Minnesota to acquire Jimmy Butler. Brand agrees with coach Brett Brown that the team could use another perimeter defender. “We’re not a finished product right now,” he stated. We’re going to get better.”
  • Since the Butler deal, the Sixers have relied on Joel Embiid to provide more 3-point shooting, but the center wants to make that a smaller part of his offensive game, relays ESPN’s Tim Bontemps“I don’t like shooting 3s,” Embiid said. “I only do it because of the spacing that we have, and sometimes I have to take them.”

Atlantic Notes: Dinwiddie, Butler, Embiid, Fultz

The Nets made news last week when they agreed to a contract extension with point guard Spencer Dinwiddie. The three-year deal totals $34MM+ and includes a player option on the final year, which would allow Dinwiddie to re-enter the free agency market at age 28 to secure another contract.

The decision to give Dinwiddie the extension might have appeared simple on the surface, but Michael Scotto of The Athletic analyzes how it may impact the decisions the Nets have to make on upcoming restricted free agents D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Russell will very likely be looking for more money on his next contract, while the Nets also have 2019 free agency aspirations as they look to make the next step and become a playoff team. For now, they have locked up a quality point guard for the foreseeable future on a very reasonable contract as they look to navigate the waters without Caris LeVert moving forward this season.

There’s more from the Atlantic division:

  • In his running column on the Sixers for The Athletic, Derek Bodner explored the fit between Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid, especially in light of the comments Embiid made about the questionable fit and role he has had since the trade.
  • The Sixers have struggled recently as a result of Butler’s injury, which, as Tim Bontemps writes for ESPN, exposes the team’s lack of depth on a nightly basis. Bontemps also discusses the notion that subsequent roster moves that would help solve the 76ers’ depth issues moving forward.
  • According to Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Ben Uzoh, a former point guard that also dealt with thoracic outlet syndrome during his playing career, has reached out to Markelle Fultz to provide him with advice on how to navigate the diagnosis and properly recover as the Sixers‘ young point guard looks to get his career back on track.

Atlantic Notes: Walker, Hernangomez, Butler, Yabusele

While Kemba Walker did not sound enthused about returning to his native New York and play for the Knicks, he did not shut the door on the possibility, Marc Berman of the New York Post writes.

“I don’t have any interest in coming back home — right now,” Walker said. The 28-year-old Bronx native is set to hit free agency this summer and will be one of the most sought-after guards on the market.

New York is expected to have cap room to sign at least one top-tier free agent and Walker fits the bill. While he admitted to enjoying his time playing in Madison Square Garden as a visitor, Walker appeared to shut down the possibility over the summer

“I’ve been hearing it for years now, the Knicks,” Walker said. “Every time I come home, it’s ‘When are you coming home to the Knicks?’ MSG is a special place, man. The Knicks are a special team. Of course, I’ve been a Knicks fan growing up, always rooted for the home team. But I really can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey — only because I’ve been in one jersey. I really don’t know.”

Check out more Atlantic Division notes below:

  • Former Knicks center Willy Hernangomez said he requested a trade last season after it became clear he was no longer in the team’s long-term plans, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Obviously with Phil [Jackson] out, he was the person who bought me here from Spain, who believed in me from the beginning,” Hernangomez said. “Him and Steve Mills. Summer, they made a change. I think that changed the mentality to the future. You see how many players from my first year are on the team now.”
  • Sixers big man Joel Embiid said the acquisition of Jimmy Butler and subsequent change to his role have impacted his play. Speaking to reporters, including Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Butler downplayed Embiid’s comment and expressed his support for Embiid. “I know where his heart is, man,” Butler said. “His heart is pure. He wants to win. I can feel for him. It’s new to him. It’s new to myself. It’s new to everybody.
  • Celtics big man Guerschon Yabusele suffered a “bad sprain” in his right ankle during the team’s on Saturday, A.Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston writes. Yabusele is expected to “be out for a while,” according to head coach Brad Stevens.

Atlantic Notes: Nets, VanVleet, Sixers, Hayward

As a result of the Nets owning their own first-round pick for the first time in four years and the struggles the team has dealt with after losing Caris LeVert, many fans have brought up the idea of tanking this season to land another top prospect. However, as Greg Logan writes for Newsday, the Nets and head coach Kenny Atkinson won’t be actively trying to lose games any time soon.

The Nets have suffered several tough losses in recent weeks, having built up leads against the 76ers, Grizzlies and Thunder, only to fall short of victories on all three occasions. However, the team had a strong weekend, securing back-to-back victories over the Raptors and Knicks.

As it stands, the Nets sit at 10-18 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. The conference has a plethora of struggling teams, which would make it more difficult for the Nets to fall down the standings. It looks like this Nets team will continue fighting and scraping for every victory it can get.

There’s more from the Atlantic division:

Sixers Optimistic Butler Will Stay Put

Sixers managing partner and owner Josh Harris is both determined and optimistic that Jimmy Butler will remain with the team beyond this season, as he told USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt and The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

The Butler trade was made to give the franchise a third star alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and become a serious championship contender. It wouldn’t have happened unless the Sixers were convinced they could keep Butler, who can opt out of his contract this summer, in the long run.

“We’ve been saying since the summer we’ve been looking for another star and we felt we needed another shooter, a three-and-D wing, someone like Jimmy,” Harris told Zillgitt. “They’re hard to find at this elite level. We know who we have to get through to win the East. It’s obvious who it is. We think this is a piece we needed.”

While Butler became a major distraction around the Timberwolves, he’s been a model citizen since joining the Sixers. And Philadelphia anticipates that its gamble will pay off in the long run in the form of a multi-year contract.

“Our goal is to have elite talent under contract for a long time,” Harris told Charania. “That’s what we’re interested in.”

Both reporters offered insights into the trade discussions involving Butler. The Sixers eventually agreed to deal Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a future second-rounder for Butler and throw-in Justin Patton.

  • The Timberwolves initially asked for another starter in addition to the trio the Sixers dealt, according to Zillgitt.
  • Minnesota narrowed its offers to three teams, with the Pelicans and Rockets being the other finalists, according to Charania.  New Orleans dangled forward Nikola Mirotic and a first-round pick, while Houston was willing to part with guard Eric Gordon and two first-rounders.
  • The Sixers initially offered draft picks and other large contracts, Harris told Charania. Markelle Fultz was discussed in the Butler talks.
  • Other suitors, such as the Lakers, wanted to wait until the December 15th date when signed free agents could be included in a deal for Butler, Charania added.

Atlantic Notes: Knicks, Thomas, Butler, Theis

Any dreams the Knicks may have had about teaming up Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving next season appear to be dead, writes Zach Braziller of The New York Post. The Sixers are considered likely to re-sign Butler to a long-term contract after acquiring him from Minnesota in a deal that should become official tomorrow. That follows Irving’s declaration last month that he intends to remain with the Celtics when he hits free agency.

Butler and Irving are friends and there was talk earlier this year that they might be interested in teaming up in New York, with Butler “liking” an Instagram comment that suggested such a move. New York would have needed to trade for one of them, then sign the other next summer. The Knicks were on the list of teams that Butler gave the Timberwolves when he first made his trade request, but they never seemed interested in making a deal.

The Knicks’ options to land a franchise-changing star in free agency are beginning to dwindle, Braziller notes, and their success may depend on getting Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard to consider New York.

There’s more from the Atlantic Division:

  • Knicks forward Lance Thomas had been experiencing knee pain for weeks before deciding to have surgery on Thursday, tweets Ian Begley of ESPN. “Lance is our leader and we just [want to] get him back feeling good and get him back in that locker room with his voice,” coach David Fizdale said. Thomas will be re-evaluated in about a month, with Kevin Knox and Mario Hezonja expected to get more minutes while he’s sidelined. Fizdale may also use bigger lineups with Noah Vonleh at power forward (Twitter link).
  • Sixers center Joel Embiid got a positive report on Butler when he reached out to Timberwolves stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, relays Tim MacMahon of ESPN. Even though Butler clashed with both players during his time in Minnesota, they expect him to be a positive influence in Philadelphia. “They thought that he was going to be good for us,” Embiid said. “They thought that we were definitely going to get along. He wants to win. Wiggs told me that he thought that we were going to win the East for sure.”
  • Celtics center Daniel Theis, who has been sidelined with a plantar fascia tear since October 27, hopes to return next week, tweets A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.