Kawhi Leonard

And-Ones: Luxury Tax, Thomas, Scola, Top Defenders

The Trail Blazers have the highest luxury tax bill at $5.9MM, Bobby Marks of ESPN tweets. Team salaries are now frozen after the one-week transactions period that closed late Tuesday. The Heat ($2.9MM), Thunder ($2.5MM) and Timberwolves ($582K) are also over the luxury tax line but the projected $11.9MM total is the lowest since the luxury tax was introduced in 2002/03, Marks notes.

We have more from around the basketball world:

LeBron, Giannis, Curry, Other Stars United In Desire To Resume Season

NBPA president Chris Paul arranged a private conference call with a number of the league’s superstars on Monday to discuss the coronavirus ramifications and the potential resumption of the 2019/20 season, league sources tell Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

By the end of the conversation, per Haynes, those players were united in their desire to resume the season once the NBA ensures the necessary safety measures are in place and gets the green light. According to Haynes, LeBron James, Giannis AntetokounmpoStephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Russell Westbrook were among the players on the call.

As Haynes explains, the group’s decision is expected to carry significant weight at a time when not all of the NBA’s players are necessarily on board with the idea of completing the 2019/20 season this summer.

Sources tell Yahoo Sports that many players on teams who are all but eliminated from playoff contention would prefer to just have the top eight clubs in each conference finish the season. The fact that stars outside the playoff picture, such as Curry and Lillard, are in favor of resuming play is significant.

According to Haynes, there was also some concern among players after Friday’s call that the NBA wouldn’t be able to guarantee player safety, with a coronavirus vaccine not expected to be available until 2021 at the earliest. Commissioner Adam Silver assured players that the league will do all it can to create the safest possible conditions, and it sounds like the stars on Monday’s call are satisfied with that promise.

Haynes notes that there are some players out of the playoff picture who are worried about a canceled season negatively impacting the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s an issue we’ve touched upon in recent days, with Adrian Wojnarowski, Bob Myers, and Mark Cuban among those who have suggested that lottery teams will have to prioritize the “greater good” of the league, since the NBA and its players would benefit financially over the long term from playing as many games as it safely can this year and next.

As we relayed earlier this afternoon, the NBPA has reportedly begun reaching out to individual players to get their feedback on whether or not they want the season to resume.

Western Notes: Leonard, Giles, Johnson, Blazers

Clippers coach Doc Rivers isn’t worried about his stars getting out of shape during the NBA’s hiatus, he told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk and other reporters. “I know (Kawhi Leonard is) overworking. I can guarantee you that,” Rivers said. “And the difference is, during the summer, Kawhi couldn’t work, you know, so now he’s got this break and he’s able to train. The Kawhi we’ll see will be in phenomenal shape. PG (Paul George) is another guy that’s going to be in phenomenal shape.”

We have more from the Western Conference:

  • Kings center Harry Giles is likely to be playing elsewhere next season, according to James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area. His original coaching and training staff are gone and the franchise didn’t pick up his contract option for next season, Ham notes. Giles, who will be an unrestricted free agent, did enough during his opportunities this season to intrigue plenty of teams, Ham adds.
  • Big man James Johnson is a solid reserve but not the answer as a starter alongside Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic opines. Johnson gave the club a boost in 14 games after being acquired in a three-team deal, averaging 12.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 3.8 APG in 24.1 MPG. Johnson will surely exercise his $16MM player option for next season and the team hopes he can pick up where he left off.
  • Zach Cooper, a video assistant for the Trail Blazers, has died unexpectedly due to undisclosed reasons, Shams Charania of The Athletic tweets. “I am devastated by the news of Zach’s passing,” head coach Terry Stotts said in a statement. “He was a valued member of our staff, but more importantly, he was an outstanding young man who everyone loved and appreciated.”

Hiatus Notes: TV Revenue, Benson, Storylines, Clippers

The NBA hopes to play at least 70 regular-season games this season in order to retain 100% of the revenue the league receives from their regional sports network partners, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst (hat tip to RealGM). Those networks broadcast games in local markets. An abbreviated resumption of the regular season would also serve as a way for teams to ramp back up before the playoffs begin, Windhorst adds.

We have more developments related to the league’s hiatus:

  • Pelicans owner Gayle Benson has pledged to give $1MM to various causes, including financial assistance to arena workers displaced by the coronavirus-related stoppage, according to a team press release. The Gayle Benson Community Assistance Fund will also provide assistance to the general New Orleans community. Numerous players and teams have reached out to help their arena workers.
  • LeBron James‘ pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s potentially historic follow-up to his MVP season are among the storylines that won’t be played out if the season is canceled, Michael Lee of The Athletic notes. The Pelicans’ pursuit of the Grizzlies for the Western Conference’s final playoff berth, with the added intrigue of those teams being led by top rookies Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, would also fall by the wayside.
  • The hiatus could have a silver lining for the Clippers, ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk points out. The prime title contender will have a chance to get fully healthy heading into the postseason, as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will have an extended time to rest, while Lou Williams (calf) and Patrick Beverley (groin) can recover from their ailments. The article breaks down what the hiatus means for each Western Conference club.

Western Notes: Leonard, Beasley, Chriss, Tucker

The All-Star Game provided a glimpse of how dominant the Lakers would have been if Kawhi Leonard had signed with them instead of the Clippers, Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times notes. The trio of Leonard, LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 27 of Team LeBron’s first 30 points.

“I didn’t really go there mentally,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It was an All-Star game. It’s an exhibition. I had fun with that aspect of it, but I love my Lakers team.”

We have more from the Western Conference:

  • Guard Malik Beasley has been rejuvenated by getting traded to the Timberwolves, Mike Singer of the Denver Post points out. Beasley was a victim of the Nuggets’ depth but he’s now getting steady minutes with Minnesota, which will pump up his value entering restricted free agency. “It’s good to see him have the opportunity and take advantage of it,” former teammate Jamal Murray said.
  • Reclamation projects such as Marquese Chriss are the types of players the Warriors will need to improve their roster, according to Marcus Thompson of The Athletic. Chriss can eventually complement the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green by running the floor, finishing at the rim and rebounding, Thompson continues. Chriss has been especially productive since signing a two-year, $2.5MM deal and that’s significant, since the Warriors won’t have salary-cap space to upgrade their roster by many other methods for at least two more seasons, Thompson adds.
  • Former Rockets guard Chris Paul says Houston should give P.J. Tucker a contract extension, as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle relays. Tucker, who will earn just under $8MM in the final year of his contract in 2020/21, will be extension-eligible during the offseason. He has been playing center in a very undersized lineup in recent games.

USA Basketball Announces 44 Finalists For 2020 Olympic Roster

USA Basketball has formally announced a preliminary group of 44 players who are candidates to be part of the program’s roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The final roster will only consist of 12 players, so most of these finalists won’t actually play for Team USA at the Olympics. Some will likely withdraw from consideration, while others simply won’t make the final cut. However, these players have all expressed interest in being involved in the process.

“This is the first step in USA Basketball identifying the 12 players who will represent the United States as members of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team in Tokyo,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo.

“… Over the course of the remainder of the NBA season we’ll continue to monitor all of the athletes. Selecting the 12-man USA roster will obviously be an extremely challenging and difficult process, and we will again attempt to select the very best team possible to represent our country and who we hope will be successful in our difficult mission of repeating as Olympic champions for a fourth consecutive Olympics.”

Although the U.S. men’s team has won three consecutive Olympic gold medals, the program had a disappointing showing at last year’s World Cup, finishing in seventh place. Team USA will be looking for a bounce-back performance in Tokyo this summer, with many players from that World Cup squad among the 44 finalists announced today.

Here’s the full list of players who are candidates to play for Team USA at the 2020 Olympics:

  1. Bam Adebayo (Heat)
  2. LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs)
  3. Harrison Barnes (Kings)
  4. Bradley Beal (Wizards)
  5. Devin Booker (Suns)
  6. Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers)
  7. Jaylen Brown (Celtics)
  8. Jimmy Butler (Heat)
  9. Mike Conley (Jazz)
  10. Stephen Curry (Warriors)
  11. Anthony Davis (Lakers)
  12. DeMar DeRozan (Spurs)
  13. Andre Drummond (Cavaliers)
  14. Kevin Durant (Nets)
  15. Paul George (Clippers)
  16. Draymond Green (Warriors)
  17. James Harden (Rockets)
  18. Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)
  19. Joe Harris (Nets)
  20. Tobias Harris (76ers)
  21. Gordon Hayward (Celtics)
  22. Dwight Howard (Lakers)
  23. Brandon Ingram (Pelicans)
  24. Kyrie Irving (Nets)
  25. LeBron James (Lakers)
  26. Kyle Kuzma (Lakers)
  27. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
  28. Damian Lillard (Blazers)
  29. Brook Lopez (Bucks)
  30. Kevin Love (Cavaliers)
  31. Kyle Lowry (Raptors)
  32. JaVale McGee (Lakers)
  33. Khris Middleton (Bucks)
  34. Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)
  35. Victor Oladipo (Pacers)
  36. Chris Paul (Thunder)
  37. Mason Plumlee (Nuggets)
  38. Marcus Smart (Celtics)
  39. Jayson Tatum (Celtics)
  40. Klay Thompson (Warriors)
  41. Myles Turner (Pacers)
  42. Kemba Walker (Celtics)
  43. Russell Westbrook (Rockets)
  44. Derrick White (Spurs)

Pacific Notes: LeBron, Kawhi, Warriors, Suns

For LeBron James, the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant last Sunday in a helicopter crash provided a powerful reminder of life’s priorities, Ben Golliver of the Washington Post writes.

The crash also took the lives of eight others, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna. James has three children of his own (Bronny, Bryce and Zhuri, all between the ages of five and 15), and the three-time NBA champion was impacted harder than most by the devastating news.

“Seeing Kobe playing the game of basketball for 20 years,” James said, “you know what’s crazy? Out of all the success he had — five rings, MVPs, first-team everything, all-life, all-world, all-basketball — I felt like the last three years were the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Being able to be with his daughters and his family.”

James gave an inspiring speech prior to the Lakers‘ game against Portland on Friday night, speaking from his heart and remembering the lives of each victim. The game also included various performances, decorations and memorabilia to honor the Bryant family.

“What he said was just beautiful. It was strong,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James’ speech. “It represented who he is and who we are as a team. [That was] definitely the heaviest game I’ve been a part of.”

For the Lakers, it’ll unquestionably be difficult to progress forward this season. However, in James’ mind, basketball remains second on his list of priorities.

“When you punch your clocks and we punch our clocks, when we’re done for the day, make sure you hug the s— out of your family,” James told the media. “If you have kids, tell them you love them. Try to make it to as much as you can, and don’t feel bad if you happen to go to one of your loved one’s events and [that means you] sacrifice your job.”

There’s more out of the Pacific Division tonight:

  • Kawhi Leonard‘s impressive scoring surge has lifted the Clippers in recent games, Mirjam Swanson of the Orange County Register writes. Leonard has scored 30+ points in his last nine outings, averaging 34.6 points per contest over that span. “Just midseason,” Leonard said. “My teammates are being aggressive. I’m able to get open shots off of their attacks and drives. I’m just able to make shots right now.” 
  • Anthony Slater of The Athletic previews the trade deadline for the Warriors, including their current mindset, which players could be available via trade, and more. The NBA’s annual deadline falls on Thursday, February 6 this season.
  • Gina Mizell of The Athletic examines which players are most likely to be dealt for the Suns, examining the contracts of Aron Baynes, Tyler Johnson and others. Phoenix has had a tumultuous season to date, accruing a 20-29 record through 49 games.

Clippers Still Working Through Chemistry Issues

Some players on the Clippers are not thrilled with the team’s preferential treatment to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, sources tell Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic. This sort of handling is common in the NBA nowadays. Stars play by different rules, however, that doesn’t mean things are always smooth behind the scenes.

Look across the Staples Center to LeBron James to see another example of stars getting different treatment. James frequently sets the Lakers’ practice and shootaround schedules, coordinating with coach Frank Vogel as they try to figure out what works best for the team. Yet, LBJ’s situation is generally accepted by teammates because of his leadership style; he has an ability to inspire and connect with his teammates in a way that facilitates it.

Leonard and George have different personalities. Leonard is a lead-by-example type and with George having the same approach, there’s a bit of uncertainty about whose voice should be the loudest.

“I think it boils down to Kawhi not talking, and so who is their true leader?” one source with knowledge of the Clippers’ dynamics said. “How do you get around that?”

After a loss to the Grizzlies earlier this month, Montrezl Harrell was particularly vocal about the team’s performance, telling the media that the Clippers were not a great team” while explaining that the club needed to “wake up and figure it out.” Harrell was asked about the vibe in the locker room and the center’s response was noteworthy.

“I don’t know, brother,” Harrell said at the time. “I don’t know. And that might be another problem right there.”

Doc Rivers addressed Harrell’s comments and Buha and Amick hear that tension had been rising in the locker room leading up to those remarks. The big man’s words also rubbed some teammates the wrong way as they felt Harrell’s post-game mood was, at times, reliant on his individual box score.

Harrell is in a contract year and could be in line for a major raise in free agency. However, sources tell The Athletic duo that the 25-year-old remains focused on the team’s goal of winning a championship over any sort of personal agenda.

“Everything he does is out of his passion for winning,” one source said. “He kind of walks to his own beat a little bit, but it’s not from a selfish perspective at all.”

Buha and Amick spoke to over a dozen sources and the entire piece is worth a read. Here are more highlights from the duo’s latest:

  • Multiple Clippers players don’t feel the team practices as hard or as seriously as it should be. Leonard’s load management plays a role in that.
  • The Clippers prefer to call the strategy with Leonard “injury management.” Los Angeles’ medical team still doesn’t consider Leonard a fully healthy player and maintains that Leonard should not play back-to-backs.
  • Leonard has become more vocal recently. He’s coordinated player-only film sessions that many around the team believe have been a key to the Clippers’ recent surge in the standings. “It wasn’t one of those crazy players-only meetings, but they started doing it two or three games ago,” Rivers said earlier this month. “They just felt like watching the game together instead of everybody watching their iPads, watching it alone, would be better.”
  • The team’s success over the next week or so (which includes games against the Heat and Lakers) could determine what Los Angeles does at the trade deadline. Many players and team employees feel the dynamics have improved and the team has begun to jell over the past few weeks.
  • Buha and Amick write that Leonard most frequently speaks with George, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Maurice Harkless. The pair notes that Leonard is not standoffish to others, but has grown the most comfortable with that group.
  • As a reminder, both Kawhi and PG can hit the free agent market in the summer of 2021, as each player’s deal contains a player option for the following season.

Los Angeles Notes: Howard, Kawhi, Trades, China

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t surprised by Dwight Howard‘s turnaround season with the Lakers, praising the veteran for his commitment to Los Angeles and the work he’s put in.

“Dwight’s a very talented basketball player,” D’Antoni said, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “If he is happy and willing to do it, which obviously he is, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be successful.”

Howard has happily accepted his role off the bench this season, posting averages of 7.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 20 minutes per contest. His production behind the likes of Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee has helped propel the Lakers to a 34-8 record.

“It’s impressive, it also shows, when everything’s right, a person’s talents come through and he is a talented guy,” D’Antoni said of Howard.

“You’re talking about the NBA. Anything is possible. Nothing surprises me. There’s no reason not to. I don’t think he left on bad terms. It was a tough year on everybody. A little bit (surprised) but not (a great deal.) Same with Melo (Carmelo Anthony) shows up in Portland and (is) having a great year. The NBA is all about finding an opportunity and making the most of it.”

Here are some other notes out of Los Angeles tonight:

  • Clippers star Kawhi Leonard has been pouring it on during the team’s latest five-game surge, Mirjam Swanson of the Orange County Register writes. Leonard has scored 180 points in his last five games, good for an average of 36 per contest. “He’s an All-Star, man,” teammate Montrezl Harrell said of Leonard. “He’s done it in this league for a number of years. He doesn’t get a lot of credit just because of how quiet that he is, but I don’t think he looks for it. He’s a guy who comes to work and just comes looking to do his job, day in and day out.”
  • Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report examines the potential trades for the Clippers ahead of this season’s Feb. 6 deadline, with the team not quite dominating the way most envisioned through the first half of the season. The team holds a 30-13 record despite facing various injuries. “They just haven’t had their guys. George and Pat (Beverley) have been hurt, Kawhi has his load management,” one Eastern Conference executive told Pincus. “We’ve seen what they can do at full strength against the Lakers on Christmas.”
  • The Lakers expressed no interest in commenting on the Rockets-China conflict that emerged roughly three months ago, Kyle Goon of the Orange County Register writes. Los Angeles defeated Houston 124-115 on Saturday. “That has nothing to do with me or with the Lakers – I’m going to stay away from that,” Howard said when asked about the situation. “Stay away from China questions. … No offense.”

Clippers Notes: George, Kawhi, Trade Ideas

The inciting incident for the union of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George during the summer of 2019 was a congratulatory phone call from George to Leonard a few days after the Raptors‘ championship victory, writes Ramona Shelburne in a cover story for ESPN.

“It was congratulating him on winning,” George said. “That’s how it started … then it took on a life of its own.”

As Shelburne details, that one phone call turned into multiple phone calls, text messages, and even in-person meetings at Drake’s house in Los Angeles, where the rapper let Leonard stay while the San Diego native was in town for free agent meetings.

By July 1, Leonard and George had decided they wanted to team up, preferably with the Clippers, and kept in constant communication during that first week of free agency, even meeting at Drake’s house following Kawhi’s meeting with Toronto. Although the Thunder engaged in George trade talks with both the Clippers and Raptors, as reported in July, the Clips were “clearly the favored destination” for the star duo and were the team most willing to pay the high price to get a deal done, per Shelburne.

Here’s more on the Clippers:

  • Shelburne’s story is worth checking out in full for a more in-depth explanation of why returning to his hometown of Los Angeles meant so much to George. “[People] think it was a basketball move,” George said. “And for a lot of reasons, it was a basketball move. But that’s not where it comes from. It was a lot deeper than me coming here for basketball reasons.”
  • In an Insider-only article for ESPN.com, Kevin Pelton examines the Clippers’ trade options, noting that the team will want to load up for a potential playoff matchup with the Lakers. Pelton views Marcus Morris as a more worthwhile trade target than Andre Iguodala if the Clips are willing to give up their 2020 first-round pick. He also briefly explores the idea of a Lou Williams trade, unlikely as it may be.
  • The Clippers are in almost exactly the same spot the Raptors were last season, according to Dan Woike of The Los Angeles Times. As Woike points out, the Clippers’ 2019/20 first half (28-13, sixth in net rating) is nearly a statistical match for Toronto’s ’18/19 first half (29-12, sixth in net rating). Leonard has also missed almost exactly the same number of games (11 of 41, compared to 10 of 41 last season).
  • Those similarities to last year’s title team may be one reason why Leonard is preaching patience to his Clippers teammates, as Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN details. “We just can’t be in a rush,” Kawhi said when asked about the Clippers’ continuity, or lack thereof. “That’s what I’m [telling them]. Just be patient. It’s hard to win a championship. The pressure isn’t even on us now. Just enjoy the process and have fun.”