Author: Dan Devine

James Harden promises he'll never leave Houston, donates $1M to Harvey relief

James Harden says he plans to be a Rocket for life. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)
James Harden says he plans to be a Rocket for life. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

James Harden has spent the last five years in Houston, becoming an NBA superstar, household name and international celebrity as the high-scoring leader of the Houston Rockets. Over the weekend, the two-time Most Valuable Player runner-up wanted to let a city just beginning to pick up the pieces from the destruction of Hurricane Harvey know that he plans to be part of that rebuilding effort, and part of Houston, for many years to come.

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Harden returned to Houston on Saturday and promptly “went to work,” according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, committing his money and himself to the city and those in need:

Harden met with Mayor Sylvester Turner to discuss the recovery efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey.

He visited with evacuees sheltered at the George R. Brown Convention Center. […]

“Obviously, the city is devastated,” Harden said. “We have to push forward. We have to find a way to get through it. We have to find a way to help the community out as much as possible. Reached out to the mayor. We wanted to help out and make sure we get the help where it needed to be.” […]

“This is home for me,” Harden told media at the convention center. “I wanted to say thank you to J.J. Watt for what he’s doing for the city. Thank you to the mayor for helping me. I just want to donate and give back to the community as much as I can.

“I’m going to donate $1 million to the city and areas that need it and people that need it to make the city stronger and put smiles on some faces.”

.@JHarden13 & I visited 1st responders from Houston & other cities, volunteers & families at @HPOUTX. Harden’s giving $1M to #Harvey relief pic.twitter.com/vCDoq6UtTK

— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) September 2, 2017

Smiles & Cries. We’re going to go through it all together. #PrayForHouston #PrayForTexas #LockedIn

A post shared by jharden13 (@jharden13) on Sep 2, 2017 at 2:41pm PDT

Harden’s seven-figure donation comes on the heels of Rockets owner Leslie Alexander pledging $10 million to relief efforts as Houston rebuilds after a storm that has reportedly claimed at least 39 lives and damaged or destroyed more than 100,000 homes in Texas and Louisiana. Many others in the sports world have also begun fundraising to aid the recovery effort.

After meeting with evacuees and announcing his donation on Saturday, Harden made another statement of solidarity with Houstonians:

Promise I won’t. #Rocket4Life

— James Harden (@JHarden13) September 2, 2017

On one hand, Harden publicly promising he’ll never leave Houston and proclaiming himself a Rocket for life seems like something he may come to regret down the line. Things can change very quickly in the NBA, and few players stay with one franchise for the long haul these days, for a variety of reasons — trades, free agency, front-office overhauls, shifting ownership priorities and roster-management strategies. When you say you want to be in one place forever, you’re kind of setting yourself up to catch all manner of hell if, for one reason or another, you change your mind a handful of years later; Harden need only ask his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant about how that plays out.

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On the other, Harden has shown as much commitment to Houston as is possible within the bounds of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. After the Thunder traded Harden to the Rockets just before the 2012-13 season, he agreed to a five-year maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract, the longest re-up allowable under the terms of the CBA. Last summer, with two years still left on that deal, Harden agreed to renegotiate and extend his deal for two more years, forgoing the chance to enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019 in favor of establishing himself as Houston’s foundation through 2020.

Then, in July, Harden agreed to another renegotiation-and-extension, tacking an extra four years onto the end of his prior deal in the most lucrative contract in NBA history. The Rockets now have their superstar playmaker committed through the end of the 2020-21 season, with Harden holding a player option for nearly $44 million in the 2021-22 campaign, which would mark a full decade of Harden in Houston. (Assuming, of course, Daryl Morey doesn’t try to get Harden’s signature on another longer extension before he gets there.)

At every opportunity, the Rockets’ leadership has sought to commit to Harden for as long as possible. At every opportunity, Harden has reciprocated. Maybe there will be a time where circumstances conspire to land him elsewhere, but Saturday’s donation and follow-up tweet are in line with the principle that has governed the past half-decade of this relationship: Harden and Houston want one another, and want to keep that mutual appreciation and adoration going as long as possible.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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A Houston rapper helped Jonathon Simmons escape Hurricane Harvey

Orlando Magic forward Jonathon Simmons was in his native Houston when Hurricane Harvey approached landfall. (AP)

Jonathon Simmons made a name for himself in the NBA world with the San Antonio Spurs, but he was born and bred a few hours east in Houston. He was back in his hometown when Hurricane Harvey made its approach to South Texas, and like millions of others in its path, he had to evacuate to escape rising foodwaters and find shelter from the ravaging storm that has reportedly claimed at least 38 lives.

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Now safe after an extended stay at a friend’s home in Richmond, Texas, Simmons — who this summer signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Orlando Magic — spoke about his experience with John Denton of the Magic’s website:

“Saturday night it started raining about 8 o’clock, but we had gotten over [to his friend’s house] about 3 o’clock just to be safe,” Simmons recalled on Wednesday morning. “I had bought all of these air mattresses and covers and blankets and food and water for everybody. We were good for three days, but my other friend’s house had started getting flooded early, so he came there to the house, too. So that gave us another 11 extra people and most of them were kids. We had to let the kids eat first, so most of the last two days it was kind of rough [without food].

“There was at least 20 people in the house and probably eight of them were kids,” Simmons added. “When I was little, my mom always kept the fridge full of stuff [during hurricanes]. This time, I ate a pack of ramen noodles and that’s all for like a day-and-a-half.” […]

When the food supplies disappeared, Simmons knew that he had to get his family and friends to safety as soon as possible. Luckily for him, rapper Trae the Truth – a fellow Houston native – came to the rescue.

“Trae the Truth, the rapper, is from Houston and we know a mutual friend from San Antonio. They brought a boat to Houston because [Trae] had to evacuate as well,” Simmons said of the rapper, who has gained additional notoriety recently in Houston for helping dozens of others evacuate flooded areas. “They came and got [Trae] and then he came and got us right away. Luckily, I had a friend in the area who could help us out.”

Simmons and his friends were among many area residents that Trae the Truth has helped find safety from Harvey’s floodwaters:

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Simmons’ journey to safety included him being “crowded onto a boat with two-dozen others, [a] trek through knee-deep waters and [being] forced to ride on the back of a truck,” holding a child in his arms as he slogged through the knee-high water. Ultimately, though, those closest to him have been lucky enough to avoid serious danger related to the storm …

Thank God my family is safe..! Praying for other families!! #harvey

— The Jonathon Simmons (@ThaRealJsimms) August 29, 2017

… which makes him one of the lucky ones.

“It’s devastating,” he told Denton. “[…] But I’m also proud of how the city of Houston has come together to help one another. On the upside and the brighter side, there’s that seeing how people have been there to help one another.”

Many in the sports world have begun fundraising efforts to aid in recovery from a storm that has reportedly damaged or destroyed more than 100,000 homes in Texas and Louisiana, and landed tens of thousands of displaced residents in shelters in the region. Leslie Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, has pledged $10 million to Harvey-related disaster relief. The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have jointly pledged $1 million. Sacramento Kings rookies De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson, both of whom hail from Houston, have announced plans to return to the area in September to hold a charity basketball game to raise funds for relief efforts.

If you’re interested in learning how you can get involved, here’s a list of some places that could use help.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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Kyrie Irving says goodbye to Cavs fans in 'special thank you to Cleveland'

Kyrie Irving high-fives Cavaliers fans after Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals, which would be his final home game in Cleveland. (Getty)

Now that the deal is absolutely, 100 percent, officially official, and Kyrie Irving is now the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, the four-time All-Star on Thursday took a moment to bid a fond farewell to the fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers who have followed his career and supported him since the team chose him with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA draft.

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There had been weeks of silence from Irving — on this particular subject, anyway — following his reported request that the Cavs trade him so that he’d no longer have to share the floor with LeBron James. He remained mum on the matter as the deal hung in limbo over the health of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip. On Thursday afternoon, though, Irving offered a two-pronged social media goodbye, pivoting toward Massachusetts via video

… and through the ‘gram:

“My special thank you to Cleveland” *Link in Bio. My love extends way beyond the court I have for Cleveland and it will always be a place thats special because of the great people and experiences. The Ups and downs, we stand and fight no matter what the circumstances are, and that’s what being in Cleveland embodies, it is all Love and a whole lotta pride. To the incredible individuals I’ve met who support the Cleveland organization and help allow us as Players to feel a special bond to the State/City and shared countless moments with, keep being YOU and know that my appreciation is eternal. Thank you From my whole being for being there as I was a 19 year old kid coming into the league, to now where I start another step in the journey as a 25 year old Evolving man. It will Always be Love and respect Cleveland. “The journey is always the Reward” #KyrieWick

A post shared by Kyrie Irving (@kyrieirving) on Aug 31, 2017 at 10:04am PDT

Irving didn’t specifically reference the trade, which sent him to Boston in exchange for fellow All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, rookie center Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick, and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick. Instead, he focused on the good times. From the caption of Irving’s Instagram post:

My love extends way beyond the court I have for Cleveland and it will always be a place that’s special because of the great people and experiences. The Ups and downs, we stand and fight no matter what the circumstances are, and that’s what being in Cleveland embodies, it is all Love and a whole lotta pride. To the incredible individuals I’ve met who support the Cleveland organization and help allow us as Players to feel a special bond to the State/City and shared countless moments with, keep being YOU and know that my appreciation is eternal. Thank you From my whole being for being there as I was a 19 year old kid coming into the league, to now where I start another step in the journey as a 25 year old Evolving man. It will Always be Love and respect Cleveland. “The journey is always the Reward”

Irving also capped the post with the hashtag #KyrieWick, evoking the “John Wick” film franchise in which Keanu Reeves plays an assassin lured out of retirement and back into the violence-dispensation business by the murder of his dog. (It looks like he first adopted the name in an Instagram post last month.) I suspect the intimation is that Kyrie plans to strike the league with a vengeance next year and leave opponents buried under a barrage of shots; I can only hope no animals are harmed in the making of this spiritual sequel. (Stay safe, Moondog.)

Irving offered slightly more expansive remarks in a “special video” farewell “just strictly to Cleveland, and all of those who are just finding that self-love, and that’s what I’m here to bridge the gap for.” You heard the man, Northeast Ohio: love yourselves! (Just not in public. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.)

“This is a special thank you to Cleveland,” he said. “I love all you guys’ support, and all you guys’ love, over the course of the amount of years I was in Cleveland. And I say that because I know that the journey continues from this point on, and there will be nothing but love that I have for the organization and what we got to be a part of, because there are some special individuals there. And I’m shouting out you guys, and you guys know who you are.”

Irving thanked Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, managing partner Nate Forbes, former general manager David Griffin (“‘the bald guy,’ as he likes to be called,” Irving said) and Nick Gilbert, Dan Gilbert’s son, and said he appreciated the organization for giving him his start:

They took a chance on a 19-year-old kid that was coming off a stubbed right toe and being in a very, very immature place at the time. Because, I mean, what 19-year-old doesn’t take their time and make decisions? But man, I grew up — excuse me, I spent part of my life and my years in the NBA in such a great environment in Cleveland. […]

I just wanted to say that all the individuals I met over my six-year span — and I don’t say it as if this is an ending friendship or anything like that — but you guys understand how much those moments meant to me, and connecting with everyone. Because it matters, and I care, and I love the world, and I love people, and I love being around people. So as guarded as I am, and as everyone likes to say that I have a wall up, spending two minutes or five minutes asking someone genuinely about themselves is what I truly care about. To be able to share those moments with just everyone in Cleveland and everyone in Ohio, and doing something that was just an unbelievable experience for all of us — I still can’t believe the feats that we reached in a six-year span — and I’m truly grateful and I’m thankful.

All the same, Irving’s tenure in Cleveland has come to an end. He addressed the reasons why early in the video, after saying that he’d come to understand that “the magnitude of decisions that you make in your life can affect a lot of people, all at once.”

When you get to that point, and you understand that the best intentions for you, and ultimately to be in your truth, and find out what you really want to do in your life and how you want to accomplish it, that moment comes and you take full advantage of it. And there are no other ulterior reasons, other than being happy and wanting to be somewhere where you feel like it’s an environment that’s conducive for you maximizing your potential as a human being, and as a player perfecting their craft.

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Irving ends the video — after what looks to these untrained eyes like a cut at the 4:15 mark — with a word for his teammates. No specific teammates, for what it’s worth:

“And to my teammates: crazy stories, crazy experiences, and just unbelievable human beings, man,” he said. “Y’all know how this brotherhood goes, man. All love.”

As a reminder, when news of the trade first broke nine days ago, LeBron saluted a fan who’d offered a respectful tribute to Irving on his way out the door:

That’s the only way to be to the kid! Special talent/guy! Nothing but respect and what a ride it was our 3 years together Young Gode #Filayy https://t.co/wKYmYsmdgG

— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 23, 2017

Irving will get his chance to address LeBron and his former ‘mates more formally — and Cavaliers fans will get the opportunity to make their voices heard — in about six weeks’ time, when the Celtics and Cavs kick off the 2017-18 NBA season at Quicken Loans Arena.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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LaVar, Lonzo and the Ball family have a Facebook reality show now

Lonzo (C), LiAngelo (L), LaVar Ball and the whole Ball family are coming to your Facebook page. Batten down the hatches. (AP)

If ever there was a match made in digital media heaven, it is LaVar Ball — a person who has become notorious by cultivating a personal brand marked by willingness to share wild, often dumbfounding and sometimes problematic takes to, about and around his family — and Facebook, The Place For Finding Out What Your Aunt REALLY Thinks.

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And so, now we have “Ball in the Family,” a “docu-series” about the Ball family — LaVar, his wife Tina, and sons Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo — set to debut Thursday on Watch, Facebook’s “new home for original video content.” Here’s the first trailer for the 10-episode series, for your viewing pleasure:

The series will reportedly depict a year in which Lonzo became a college basketball star in UCLA and got drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, LiAngelo and LaMelo became two of the most talked-about prep players in the country, LaVar became a sports media mainstay (for better or for worse), Big Baller Brand became A Thing, and mother Tina suffered, and began recovery from, a stroke. Sounds like pretty fertile ground for dramatic storytelling.

If the presentation of the story seems familiar to you — the straight-to-camera interviews, the intimation of relationship drama between Lonzo and his girlfriend, the fourth-wall-pushing of LaMelo waving off the camera during a dispute with his dad — it’s probably because you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with the brand of reality television unscripted programming developed in the past by Bunim/Murray Productions. They’re the folks behind shows like “The Real World,” “Road Rules” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” … and, now, “Ball in the Family.”

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Whether the series provides the “unfiltered look into our lives” and glimpse of “a side of us that isn’t typically seen” that LaVar promoted in a statement announcing the release of the series will remain to be seen. He’s certainly proved capable of generating attention over the past couple of years; with the first two episodes of the series set to premiere on Aug. 31, and the rest of the episodes coming each Sunday starting on Sept. 10, Facebook’s banking that he and his family will draw all those eyeballs over to its new offering. One suspects there might be some more flagrant and reckless chatter in all of our futures. Will you tune in to find out?

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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Report: If Kyrie Irving doesn't go to Boston, the Bucks are ready to pounce

If Kyrie Irving doesn’t wind up joining the Boston Celtics, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks will reportedly be ready for the rebound. (Getty Images)

As it stands, the stalemate between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers continues. The two teams agreed last week to a blockbuster trade of their respective All-Star point guards, landing Kyrie Irving in Boston while sending Isaiah Thomas (plus forward Jae Crowder, rookie center Ante Zizic, and the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick) to Cleveland. That deal isn’t yet completed, though, due to concerns over the health of Thomas’ injured right hip that left new Cavs general manager Koby Altman “planning to seek an additional trade asset” from Boston as the cost of taking on an injured player. (Thomas, for his part, insists he’s not damaged goods.) The Celtics aren’t budging. And so, we wait.

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With the agreed-upon deal still hanging in the balance, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Wednesday that “the bidding for Kyrie Irving is still open” … with one prospective suitor lying in wait, right in Cleveland’s division:

The Milwaukee Bucks lurk on the fringes of the Irving bidding with an offer centered around Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Khris Middleton, sources say. The Bucks have not yet put a first-round pick on the table, sources say, but the bet here is that they would to get the deal done — or if Irving showed any interest in staying in Milwaukee long-term.

Lowe’s report comes one week after Arizona sports radio host John Gambadoro reported that Milwaukee had “offered Brogdon, Middleton and a [first]-round pick” for Irving, and gotten close to a deal, before Danny Ainge blew the Cavs away with Boston’s offer. Shortly thereafter, Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press cited league sources in reporting that the “Bucks never offered Middleton, Brogdon and a pick as was reported.”

Whether such a package was ever officially offered at that point, or merely proposed — or floated, hypothesized, or whatever other phrase allows plausible deniability in the event the discussions ever made their way into the ears of the principal players (or the public domain) — remains unclear. There’s clearly some fire underneath all that smoke, though, so the question is whether this deal would pique the Cavs’ interest more than the other previously formulated swaps should things ultimately fall apart with Boston.

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You can certainly understand why it might. Neither Middleton nor Brogdon provide near the level of playmaking punch that Thomas offers, but they’re both capable secondary ball-handlers and passers who would figure to slot in well alongside a ball-dominant superstar like LeBron James. They can shoot — 40.8 percent from 3-point range for Middleton during his four years with the Bucks, 40.4 percent from deep for Brogdon as a rookie.

More importantly, they’re big. Middleton’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 235 lbs. Brogdon goes 6-foot-5, 215 lbs. Both having wingspans north of 6-foot-10. They’re long, smart, good and active defenders who can switch screens and guard multiple positions. They’re not Jimmy Butler and Paul George, the two All-Star wings the Cavs reportedly worked to import earlier this summer before they ultimately landed elsewhere, but they’d be super useful pieces for a Cavaliers team that struggled mightily to match up like-for-like with the wing-heavy Golden State Warriors during June’s 2017 NBA Finals.

A healthy Thomas clearly outshines them both in terms of overall value (though Middleton is better than many fans probably realize) and pure playmaking prowess. But getting two solid players who fit the bill against the only team the Cavs worry about — and who would help ensure Cleveland wouldn’t have to rely on Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert and Deron Williams for more than 40 total minutes per night against the Golden State wrecking crew — would represent a strong bounce-back after a markedly disappointing summer for the defending Eastern Conference champions.

It would also be a significant step down from the best version of the Celtics’ offer, though. Cleveland would get a similar wing benefit from the Boston deal by adding Crowder, a hard-nosed and dogged defender who also shot 40 percent from beyond the arc last season. Adding a developmental prospect in Zizic, a 20-year-old Croatian 7-footer who profiles as a quality rebounder behind starting center Tristan Thompson, is a plus.

And, obviously, Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first-round pick — which might not be the No. 1 pick, as it was this year, when Boston redirected it to the Philadelphia 76ers to snag Duke’s Jayson Tatum and a protected first from either the Los Angeles Lakers or Sacramento Kings, but still figures to be quite good, since the Nets likely won’t be — outshines any pick from a Bucks team that looks like it’ll be a playoff mainstay in the East for years to come. (Especially if they add Irving.)

As Lowe details, and as we have discussed, the Celtics’ package continues to look like the best one on the board for the Cavs, even given the possibility that a rocky road to recovery presents “at least a slight chance Thomas would miss most of the 2017-18 season.” The most likely scenario, then, would seem to be the two teams getting the deal done, after much hemming and hawing.

If they’re going to do so, the clock’s ticking. According to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, “the two sides need to reach a conclusion by Wednesday evening or mutually agree to extend the deadline” for passing the physicals to complete the trade, which ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says “is 10 a.m. ET Thursday, per league rules.” If they can’t come to an agreement, voiding the deal and putting the kibosh on the NBA summer’s biggest blockbuster, it sounds like the Bucks will be waiting by the phone, eager for the opportunity to land an elite offensive weapon to pair with rising superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in a tandem that would give the Bucks more firepower than they’ve wielded in ages.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @YourManDevine

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NBA 25 Under 25: Otto Porter and the unsung heroes who make good teams great

Up next in our series examining the best young players the NBA has to offer — NBA 25 Under 25 — are five guys whose games might not sell tickets or go viral, but who make their teams better by consistently filling in the blanks.

Previous editions: The Unicorns | The Playmakers | The Scorers

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From left: Steven Adams, Clint Capela, Gary Harris, Marcus Smart and Otto Porter push their teams to greater heights. (Amber Matusomoto/Yahoo Sports)

5. STEVEN ADAMS
Age: 24
Role: Cheerful purveyor of blunt-force trauma

It’s not always easy to pick up how much players impact the game when they don’t score a lot. Luckily, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player is here to tell you why Adams matters.

“[He] does so many great things for our team,” Russell Westbrook told Nick Gallo of Thunder.com. “At his size, he does a lot of amazing things that other guys can’t do.”

Like, for example, pest control.

After four years of seasoning on a postseason mainstay, Adams can make his presence felt even when he’s not cleaning clocks. He ranked 16th in the league last season in “screen assists” — when you set a pick for a teammate that leads directly to said teammate making a shot — and finished in the 64th percentile in points scored per possession as the roll man after screening for a ball-handler, according to Synergy Sports’ game-charting.

That’s not an elite number, but it’s solid. In fact, it’s pretty impressive that Adams was even able to keep his productivity just about level year-over-year — 1.09 points per roll possession used last season, down from 1.12 in 2015-16 — despite operating on a Thunder team that lost Kevin Durant, that struggled to space the floor, and that didn’t present nearly as many opportunities for him to take a drop-off or a lob and flush it uncontested.

Adams had to play a larger offensive role last season, producing more on tougher shots with less help around him. He’s become one of the league’s premier possession-extenders — he finished seventh in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, and 14th in contested offensive rebounding percentage (so you know he’s not just picking off the easy ones) — and showed how much he’s improved as a roll man. With new star swingman Paul George and stretch four Patrick Patterson in tow next year, the hope is that Adams will get more chances to feast on high handoffs and be able to use his advancing skill set to provide a more potent threat.

With Durant and Serge Ibaka gone, Adams also had to step forward as the backline captain of OKC’s defense. Individually, Adams’ defensive production won’t wow you — just over two combined blocks and steals per game, rim protection numbers that place him 42nd among 60 dudes to defend at least five shots per game at the rim, etc. But he always did the work, battling burly centers and hustling to stay connected to smaller guards on switches, finishing 11th in the league in shots contested.

“A lot of the stuff Steven does as a pick-and-roll defender is really hard to quantify,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who last summer quantified it to the tune of $100 million. “[…] He’s been fantastic for us in terms of just blue-collar work ethic and doing a lot of the team defensive stuff that’s necessary for a team to win.”

Alongside All-Defensive second teamer Andre Roberson, Adams led the Thunder to a top-10 finish in defensive efficiency. With Adams on the court, OKC prevented points like a top-five D. Off it? Bottom-10.

He’s not a scorer, but he makes the most of his chances, shooting 57.1 percent from the field last year. He’s not a dominant defensive rebounder, but with him on the floor, the Thunder pulled down a significantly higher share of offensive and defensive and total rebounds. The Thunder were the best rebounding team in the league, thanks in large part to Adams’ talent for clearing the front of the rim by locking up the other team’s biggest body.

How high the Thunder can rise will depend largely on the talents of Westbrook and George. But how often and how effectively they get to play their game will depend on Adams taking care of the dirty work.

“I constantly keep drilling that into his head and make sure he understands that I have the utmost confidence in him and his abilities to do different things,” Westbrook said. “And that us, as a team, we don’t take him for granted, the things that he does.”

4. GARY HARRIS
Age: 22
Role: Guy you’re happy comes to your parties, because he never shows up empty-handed

You might know that the Denver Nuggets owned the NBA’s best offense from Dec. 15 through the end of the season. If you do, it’s probably because you know that’s when coach Mike Malone put Nikola Jokic back into the starting lineup, kickstarting the Serbian center’s reign as the conductor of the league’s lowest-wattage, highest-payload wrecking crew.

What you might not know: that date also marked Harris’ return after missing most of the first two months of the season recovering from groin and foot injuries. Harris and Jokic wasted little time generating buckets by the boatload:

Eighty-one of Harris’ 320 made field goals, just over 25 percent, came directly from Jokic. Don’t get it twisted, though: the third-year shooting guard wasn’t just the beneficiary of Jokic’s otherworldly vision. Harris helped create plenty of those scoring opportunities.

The Nuggets’ offense was awesome when Jokic played and Harris didn’t, averaging nearly 111 points per 100 possessions. But it was downright unbelievable when they shared the floor, scoring just under 118 points-per-100 — an incendiary rate that would put the Showtime Lakers, Seven Seconds or Less Suns, 73-win Warriors, ’96 Bulls and any other offense you can think of to shame.

Harris cuts hard, often, and with a purpose. He stays focused and sprints to spots, creating playmaking windows and keeping them open rather than squandering them by going through the motions. He’s always ready to make a play when the ball arrives; that he’s got the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and athleticism to finish in traffic only helps matters.

“Coach tells us to make the ball see you,” Harris told Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney last summer.

It’s smart, effective basketball — a coach’s blueprint to 15 points a night — and it’s made Harris one of the NBA’s most efficient young wings.

He shot a career-best 42 percent from 3-point range last season, eighth-best in the NBA, on 4.5 attempts a night. He’s got a quick trigger and a fluid release, posting the league’s fifth-highest effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than twos) on catch-and-shoot tries among players with 50 or more attempts. He was also one of the league’s better in-case-of-emergency operators, shooting 51.1 percent on attempts taken in the final seven seconds of the shot clock, including a 46.8 percent mark from 3-point land.

According to Synergy, Harris ranked in the 92nd percentile among NBA players in scoring efficiency in transition (sixth-best among players with at least one transition chance a game) and as a spot-up shooter (just below Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, just above C.J. McCollum and James Harden). He also finished in the 77th percentile in scoring on plays finished off cuts … and when you go back to the tape and watch him blitz past defenders with their heads turned, or lull them to sleep with a slow feint before sprinting the other way with a hard V-cut, you start thinking that number might undersell his gifts.

Harris has room to improve defensively, where his combination of size, athleticism and activity — he led the Nuggets in deflections, averaging just under three per game — hasn’t yet translated to stopper status. He’s still developing as a playmaker, posting a just above league-average 0.81 points per possession on 95 plays finished as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season. It’s a heartening sign that Harris averaged nearly a full assist more per game after the All-Star break than before it, and that as his usage and assist rates have risen over the years, his turnover rate has declined.

There’s a lot to like about a guy who’s always moving on offense, shoots the lights out, tries hard on defense, never turns the ball over, and has shown improvement in the areas where he needs work. Nuggets GM Tim Connolly knows that … and he knows it’s going to cost him very soon.

“I still don’t think the league appreciates how good he is and how young he is,” Connelly said in April. “[…] He’s a guy that kind of embodies everything that we’re trying to be, both as a player and as a person. Whether it’s this summer or whether it’s the following summer, he’s going to be here for a very long time.”

3. CLINT CAPELA
Age: 23
Role: Eraser and engine who fuels the Rockets’ space race

As an idiot, I’m rarely right about anything, so I take pleasure in the rare occasions when I get one. Before last season, I pegged Capela as a breakout candidate, a player whose performance in a larger role would help determine whether the post-Dwight Howard Rockets returned to the NBA’s elite. Obviously, James Harden and Mike D’Antoni had much more to do with it, but the 6-foot-10 Swiss national gave them exactly what they needed to propel the Rockets back into the playoffs.

Capela came out of central casting for a Harden-and-D’Antoni-led spread pick-and-roll attack. He’s a big screener with the quickness to knife to the rim, the athleticism to elevate above defenders for lobs, and the hands to catch interior passes in small windows and finish strong. Give Harden three sharpshooters parked far away and a big man who dives hard every time, and The Beard will cook. Harden did just that, leading an offense that ranked No. 2 in the NBA … and that scored three more points per 100 possessions with Capela in the middle than when he sat.

Whether slicing down the lane after setting a high screen or lurking along the baseline on the weak side, Capela forced defenses to make an unenviable choice: stay connected, play Harden one-on-one, and get roasted, or put two on the ball, leave the big fella open, and give up two very loud points.

In an increased role, Capela remained one of the league’s most efficient dive men, producing 1.14 points per possession finished as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy — not quite on par with the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, but a top-15 mark among high-volume rollers. Now, Capela will share the floor with Harden and Chris Paul, the orchestrator who helped make Jordan an All-NBA selection; he might shoot 70 percent next year, and average 15 points a game just on dunks and put-backs.

On the other end, Capela’s per-possession block and steal rates dipped a bit in a larger role, but he still proved a legitimate interior deterrent, holding opponents to 49.5 percent shooting at the rim, a top-25 mark among rotation bigs. Houston settled in as a middle-of-the-pack defense last season, finishing tied for 17th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession. But the Rockets skewed closer to top-10 territory with Capela roaming the middle (105.9 points conceded per-100, just below the No. 13 Clippers) than when he sat (106.7-per-100, just above 20th-ranked Washington).

Capela already has the length to bother scorers inside, the quickness to hold his own when switched onto smaller guards outside, and an advancing understanding of how to limit fouls and stay on the floor. With more reps and seasoning — and help from ace defensive additions like CP3, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute — he’s got the potential to develop into the kind of defensive anchor you need to compete for championships.

“I’m not trying to say that [Capela’s] going to be for sure an All-Star … but he’s got a chance,” Houston GM Daryl Morey told reporters after the Western Conference semifinals. “You look at his progression and where he’s at, he’s got a chance to be for sure near an All-Star, if not better.”

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2. MARCUS SMART
AGE: 23
ROLE: Instigator, disruptor … stabilizer?

After a couple of whirlwind offseasons of roster-shaking moves, Smart is now the longest-tenured member of the Boston Celtics, with a whopping three seasons spent in Kelly green. Now, one of the game’s top chaos agents will be counted on to provide steadier, more reliable contributions if the C’s are to turn this summer’s swings for the fences into a home-run return to the NBA Finals.

Smart’s been one of Boston’s most valued reserves ever since Danny Ainge tabbed him with the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft. He’s a hard-nosed, quick-footed, instinctive and gifted defender with the size and brass to take on just about any assignment with gusto. But while he’s played big minutes since Day 1, he’s never needed to be the focal point of the Celtics’ backcourt, sharing time with Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.

Throughout his career, Smart’s main responsibility has been checking in and wreaking defensive havoc while other guys kept the trains running on time. Straight-up ripping the ball out of dudes’ hands was plenty; anything he created on the other end was gravy.

That prime directive isn’t gone. (In case you haven’t heard, Boston did get a new starting point guard to replace its old one. Or, at least, we think they did.) But with both members of the C’s prior starting backcourt now bound for the Central Division — and with versatile defensive tone-setter Jae Crowder also leaving town to join Isaiah in Cleveland — more will be asked of Smart. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are all excellent players; the team will run through them, and probably beautifully. But great teams need a beast to go with that beauty, and Smart’s the clear candidate to give the Celtics the spark, spirit and full-throated intensity they’ll need to thrive.

It remains to be seen whether Smart or second-year pro Jaylen Brown will slot in alongside Irving at shooting guard. Whether he starts or just plays starter’s minutes off the bench, Smart will now likely draw the most difficult perimeter assignment every night. There’s no reason to believe he can’t shoulder that load — he ranked in the top 10 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards who played half the 2016-17 season, and in the top 10 with no caveats in the two previous seasons — but he’ll need to learn how to let discretion be the better part of valor sometimes, lest his innate aggressiveness come back to bite him in the form of touch fouls or playing himself out of position by cranking up the pressure.

Larger questions loom on the other end. Smart took steps last season as a ball-mover and playmaker, averaging a career-best 5.5 assists per 36 minutes of floor time. He occasionally showed the capacity to serve as a lead guard when Thomas wasn’t available, most notably in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavs. (He won’t be expected to do a ton of initiating with Irving and Hayward on hand, but it’d help for Smart to grow more effective as a second-unit leader.) He moves without the ball and deploys his strength as an effective bully in the post, a useful tool against smaller defenders.

At base, though, Smart’s likely to remain an offensive liability as long as defenders can get away with ignoring a shooter who’s yet to make better than 37 percent of his field-goal attempts or 34 percent of his 3-point tries. It’s certainly possible for Smart’s shooting to improve; plenty of other players have made that leap given time and practice, including Crowder, who shot 32.4 percent from deep over his first four pro seasons before hitting 39.8 percent of his tries last year.

A similar spike, along with improved touch as a finisher in the paint and around the rim, would introduce new options into Brad Stevens’ already varied and potent offensive repertoire. It could also help cement Smart — in line to enter restricted free agency next summer — as a foundational building block worth betting on, whether in Boston or elsewhere.

1. OTTO PORTER
Age: 24
Role: Quietly and ably filling the spot every NBA team is trying to fill

You might be saying, “Um, Dan? This dude just got $106.5 million. He is not unsung. He is sung loudly, from the highest mountaintops, into the ears of the willing and unwilling alike.”

That is fair! But that contract caused bulging eyes and heart palpitations for a considerable portion of the basketball-watching populace, and it’s because a lot of people probably have no idea why anyone would think a career third option who’s never averaged 14 points per game would be worth nine figures.

So let us sing.

Porter’s worth what he got for a few reasons. For one: market dynamics. Once you got past Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, the 2017 small forward crop was wafer-thin. Teams with holes on the wing and money to burn needed to turn somewhere to solve their problems at the three. Two of them tried turning to Porter, and the Wizards decided to make sure he stayed just where he was before they appeared. (Asked why he didn’t hesitate to open his checkbook, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis told Michael Lee of The Vertical, “We want to be a ‘have’ team. ‘Have’ teams do whatever they want.”)

For another: demonstrated value. In a pace-and-space league now dominated by teams that can go small with versatile players at every position, a tall, long-limbed perimeter player who can shoot, slash, create (a little) and handle multiple defensive assignments is worth his weight in gold. While you were watching John Wall leave defenders in his wake on end-to-end sprints, that’s exactly what Porter became.

The Georgetown product has improved on a per-minute and per-possession basis in each of his four pro seasons. He has made 166 regular- and postseason starts in Washington over the past two years, and just finished a season in which he ranked fourth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, fifth in effective field-goal percentage, seventh in True Shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) and No. 1 with a bullet in turnover percentage, coughing the ball up on a microscopic 4.9 percent of Washington’s offensive possessions. And he’s proven capable of holding up in the postseason, standing shoulder to shoulder with Wall and Bradley Beal to help the Wizards come within one win of the Eastern Conference finals.

With the exception of the sparkling 3-point accuracy, Porter’s numbers don’t necessarily pop off the page. But when you combine the efficiency with which the 6-foot-8 swingman produces them, his capacity to check opponents at three different positions (four, if the Wiz face a small-ball power forward), and the infrequency with which he makes damaging mistakes, you arrive at what makes Porter worth paying: a consistency that approaches certainty.

As I wrote last month, Porter is “the kind of player who might lack a single elite talent that grabs your attention and demands your respect, but he does a little bit of an awful lot of things, does them well, doesn’t do very many things poorly, and doesn’t take much off the table.” He doesn’t make everything about the Wizards work; he just makes everything about the Wizards work better, on both ends of the floor. This has helped them become a legitimate 50-win, conference-final candidate.

Moreover, he’s all that at age 24, having quickly expanded his game and carved out his complementary niche. If the arrow keeps pointing up, what might he be by age 27, after a few more years of growth alongside one of the sport’s best setup men?

“I’ve always had that in the back of mind, what type of player I want to be,” Porter told Lee. “I’ve always wanted to be an All-Star type player. I feel like I don’t have a ceiling. I can only get better from here on.”

Washington believed that enough to pay Porter like a star. Even if he never quite reaches that level, he can be a star in his role, the kind of high-floor metronomic contributor you never have to worry about. The Wizards would prefer the former, but in a league with few sure things on the wing, they’ll happily take the latter.

More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the NBA

Ben Simmons and the NBA’s top five playmakers under age 25

Bradley Beal, Devin Booker headline the NBA’s next generation of scorers

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the league

The Golden State Warriors rule the NBA, and from the looks of things, that might be true for a little while. (Until Joe Lacob finally sees a payroll bill that makes his eyes roll out of his head, anyway.) As we prepare for a new season in which Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and company are heavy favorites to repeat, let’s focus not on the campaign’s likely endpoint, but rather on the thrilling neophytes whose continued growth and development will help make the journey so compelling every night.

This week, we’ll take a look at the best young players the NBA has to offer in a series called NBA 25 Under 25. First up: the multifaceted monsters who herald bold new possibilities for the sport, and whose presence could come to redefine the league.

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One note before we begin: There’s one name you won’t see on this list whose omission might seem glaring: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. He won’t turn 25 until March. So why isn’t he here? Well, because he’s already here — an established superstar with two top-10 finishes in Most Valuable Player voting, four All-Star appearances (including the game’s all-time scoring record), two All-NBA First Team nods and two All-Defensive Second Team selections.

For the five players below, their league-shaking gifts have only just begun to burst into view. For Davis, they’ve been in full bloom for quite a while, and for our purposes, that makes him something different. (I promise: We think Anthony Davis is very great.)

And now, without further ado:

From left: Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns have the capacity to redefine the NBA. (Amber Matusomoto/Yahoo Sports)

5. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS
Age: 22
Role: Lone beacon of light in long-benighted Gotham

As crotchety as I can be about the nomenclature, there is something of a standard definition for “unicorn” in the NBA world — a center who has the potential to both reliably shoot a high volume of 3-pointers and protect the rim.

The modern NBA game is all about creating space on offense and taking it away on defense. Having a five who’s a legitimate threat to rain fire from 24 feet away, draws his man out of the paint and removes the last line of defense at the basket gives ball-handlers an easier path to scoring. Having one who can reject, alter or discourage shots in the lane emboldens your defenders to play tighter and more aggressively up top, and makes generating and converting high-percentage shots more difficult. Get you a man who can do both, and you’ve really got something.

In spite of their perpetual dysfunction, the New York Knicks have something in Porzingis, who was blessed with the folkloric handle early in his rookie season by no less an authority on cool NBA stuff than Durant. The four-time NBA scoring champ recognized the rare combination of shooting skill and shot-swatting prowess that would make Porzingis the first player in NBA history to drain more than 150 3-pointers and block more than 250 shots in his first two pro seasons. Now, when we talk about inside-out big men who seem too good to be true, we use the name KD gave KP — a mythological moniker to match the fantastic reality.

As you’d expect from a 7-foot-3 dude with the wingspan of an aircraft carrier, Porzingis can have trouble defending in space. He’s got strides to make as a facilitator; his rebounding rate dipped as he spent more time parked at the arc; and his foul rate last season ticked north of 5.5 whistles per 100 possessions of floor time (though some of that is due to facing drivers with a full head of steam after blowing past the Knicks’ eternally permissive guards). In each of his first two seasons, his shooting percentages and scoring efficiency have tailed off after the All-Star break, and he’s missed 26 games in two years. There are warts.

Those flaws, though, don’t come close to spoiling the big picture.

Porzingis’ handle is tighter and more functional, and his gait running the floor lighter and more natural, than any skyscraper should have the right to expect. The pull-up, turnaround and pick-and-pop jumpers are feathery, with a quick release. He’s nimble enough to punish overly aggressive closeouts off the bounce, and enormous enough to swallow up drivers just by lifting his arms; only four dudes who played big minutes allowed a lower field-goal percentage at the rim.

The next evolutionary step, it seems, is for head coach Jeff Hornacek to find more opportunities for Porzingis to play center, and for the front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry to craft a roster that can more effectively facilitate that. (Not an easy task, given how much money their predecessor tied up in Joakim Noah for the next three seasons.) New York was outscored by 24 points in 450 Porzingis-at-the-five minutes last season, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data, but within that negative number lives a glimpse of a brighter future. The Knicks scored 111.9 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, a rate of offensive efficiency on par with Mike D’Antoni’s go-go Rockets. Find some wings who can shoot and credibly defend — hello, hoped-for-best-case-scenarios of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina — crank up the tempo and have some fun.

There are, as ever, reasons to be skeptical about where the Knicks are headed. They have Porzingis, though. As long as that’s true, they also have hope.

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4. NIKOLA JOKIC
Age: 22
Role: Young and (mostly) ambulatory Old Sabonis for a new generation

You’d be forgiven if you weren’t paying super close attention to Mike Malone’s 33-win 2015-16 Nuggets. If you were, though, you caught a glimpse of a 6-foot-10 Serbian center who’d lasted until the middle of the second round of the 2014 draft, but who was starting to look pretty special. Jokic built on that promising freshman campaign in a major way, turning in a sophomore year for the ages.

Jokic led the Nuggets in points, rebounds and blocked shots last season, while finishing second on the team in both steals and assists. And oh, man, those assists:

Jokic averaged 4.9 dimes per game, a number matched or bettered by only 14 players his size in Basketball-Reference.com’s database, despite averaging fewer than 28 minutes a night. He notched the helper on 28.8 percent of Denver’s buckets during his floor time, the highest assist rate for a center in more than 40 years. The Nuggets had the NBA’s best offense from mid-December on … which just so happened to coincide with Malone returning Jokic to the starting lineup (and, to be fair, shooting guard Gary Harris coming back from injury to give Jokic a key cutter and floor-spacer to feed).

His playmaking is equal parts natural and audacious — a combination of preternatural understanding of how teammates and defenders move, a conjurer’s vision for when and where scoring chances can be created, and a gambler’s guts to seize opportunities by putting the ball where others wouldn’t dare. Which, yes, is easier to do when you can see over everybody, but should be harder because behemoths aren’t supposed to do this:

What makes Jokic even more special is that when opponents played off him in hopes of short-circuiting Denver’s offense by taking away his cutters, he busted them up with push shots and a flat-footed J. Jokic shot a sparkling 51.9 percent from midrange last season, the NBA’s second-best mark among players who took at least 100 such shots, and 65 percent on shots between the restricted area and free-throw line, easily No. 1 among players with at least 50 attempts.

That touch helped make Jokic one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers. He finished fourth in True Shooting percentage (a stat that considers accuracy on 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) and sixth in Effective Field Goal percentage (which accounts for threes being worth more than twos), despite making fewer than one-third of his long-ball tries. The bet here is the latter number will improve as Jokic gets more comfortable casting away from deep, as it has for Marc Gasol, a similar playmaking big who’s grown more accustomed to popping from the elbows to the arc. If defenders have to get in Jokic’s jersey 25 feet out, he might average seven or eight assists a game just by leading back-cutters to the basket through the acres of space.

Jokic isn’t an explosive athlete or a menacing rim protector — only two bigs who faced at least five shots a game allowed a higher field-goal percentage at the rim — but he rebounded, distributed and scored so well that he was still one of the most impressive second-year players in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole. Jokic’s 2016-17 season ranks 10th in Basketball-Reference.com’s database for Value Over Replacement Player among sophomores; seventh among second-year players in Player Efficiency Rating; and No. 1 with a bullet in Box Plus/Minus, which aims to identify how many more points per 100 possessions a player is worth than a league-average counterpart. This metric suggests that last year’s Jokic was, on balance, a more valuable contributor than Year 2 David Robinson, LeBron James or Charles Barkley.

Admittedly, that sounds kind of preposterous. Maybe you don’t see any way in the world that this once-chunky goofball is that kind of difference-maker. My recommendation: watch the Nuggets a few times this year. (They ought to be better after adding All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, who looks like a perfect two-way complement to Jokic.) Pay attention to how everything revolves around the unassuming giant slinging passes seemingly destined for either heartbreak or hosannas, like some kind of super-sized Manu. Before long, I’m betting you’ll come to see that a franchise in search of a cornerstone ever since trading Carmelo Anthony found what it was looking for while the rest of the league wasn’t looking.

3. JOEL EMBIID
Age: 23
Role: Full-time multiplatform source of joy; part-time basketball-playing revelation (availability TBD)

It seemed almost impossible that, after missing what were supposed to be his first two pro seasons with foot fractures, 2014’s No. 3 pick could really deliver on the hype and hope that attended his selection. And then, the 2016-17 season tipped off, and there was Embiid, up-faking from the arc before shaking and baking his way to a foul-line jumper for his first NBA points, and going on to score 20 in just 22 minutes.

There he was, putting up 18 and 10 with four blocks and three assists against Orlando. There he was, going 4-for-4 from downtown against the defending-champion Cavs, and hanging 25 in 26 minutes to beat the Pacers. This was real: Joel Embiid was actually playing and doing all the stuff in real NBA games that we read about in those breathless reports from workouts and practices past, and still finding time to try to make love connections with good girls gone bad.

The Process had yielded “The Process,” and the result was not only relentlessly entertaining — it was legitimately foundation-shaking.

Even operating under a minutes restriction intended to preserve his body that limited him to 28 minutes a night and only one half of back-to-back sets, Embiid inspired awe. He averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.4 minutes per game as a rookie, a level of per-minute production that evoked comparisons to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Yao Ming, Walt Bellamy and Anthony Davis. And he shot better than league-average from 3-point range on 4.5 attempts per 36 minutes.

While commandeering a frankly hilarious share of the Sixers’ offensive possessions, Embiid also proved to be an instant defensive game-changer. He was a fearsome interior deterrent, allowing a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Defensive Player of the Year winner Draymond Green and runner-up Rudy Gobert, while also looking surprisingly comfortable moving in space for a 7-foot-2-inch, 260-plus-pound pivot. (“I want to be a multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year, so I love it, especially when you switch on guards,” Embiid told Michael Lee of The Vertical. “I love switching on them and locking them down. I take pride in stopping the other guy.”) When Embiid was on the floor, the Sixers allowed fewer points per possession than the league-leading San Antonio Spurs. When he sat, they conceded at a rate that would’ve made Philly one of the NBA’s half-dozen worst defenses.

When he suited up, Embiid looked like not only an All-Star, but one of the sport’s very best two-way players. He only saw 31 games of burn before suffering a meniscus tear and bone bruise in his left knee, though, prompting surgery that ended his whirlwind campaign after only 786 minutes. The injury cost him the Rookie of the Year honors that had seemed all but a formality while he was upright.

With his return expected for training camp, the minutes cap reportedly in the rear-view mirror, and two gifted new ball-handlers and a lights-out floor-spacer joining his crew, it seems like the only thing that can stop Embiid is his own body. Last season’s preview was thrilling enough; here’s hoping he stays healthy enough to give us the feature presentation we’ve all been waiting for.

2. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS
Age: 21
Role: Most compelling reason in 15 years to go all-in

Towns hasn’t shot as many triples as Porzingis, or flashed the playmaking chops of Jokic, or displayed the immediate predilection toward NBA interior defense that Embiid showcased. He has, however:

• started all 164 games in his career to date (pretty important for your franchise player);

• become the first player to average 25 points and 10 rebounds per game before the end of his age-21 season since Shaq, and the youngest player ever to tally 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 assists in a single season;

• and averaged nearly 28-and-13 on wild shooting splits — 59 percent from the field (on 19 shots a game!), 42 percent from 3-point land, 85 percent from the foul line — for the final three months of the 2016-17 season.

So, y’know: pretty good!

Towns can bulldoze opponents on the block, sprint off pindown screens to drill catch-and-shoot jumpers, and face up and shake defenders off the bounce. He can shuffle his feet to move with guards on the perimeter, slide over from the weak side to erase drivers’ layups, clean the glass, run the break and drop no-look dimes. Watch him long enough and you find yourself feeling that there are no things he can’t do on a basketball court; there are only things he hasn’t done yet.

One of those things is lead a winning team, let alone one that’s broken through into the top eight in the brutally competitive Western Conference. That should change this season.

On paper, this looks like the best Minnesota team in at least a dozen years. Thanks to the additions of an All-NBA swingman in Jimmy Butler, a shooting upgrade at the point guard spot in Jeff Teague, a bruising defense-first veteran power forward in Taj Gibson, and an ankle-breaking microwave off the bench in Jamal Crawford, the Wolves will enter 2017-18 with legitimate hope of bringing postseason basketball to Minneapolis (correction: NBA postseason ball) for the first time since 2004. Tom Thibodeau and company made all those moves, on the heels of 29- and 31-win seasons, because they know that in Towns they have the genuine article — a cornerstone who, surrounded by pros to stimulate his development and complement his talents, can carry a team to franchise-defining heights.

The Twin Cities got everything Kevin Garnett could give, and got close once. This time, the Wolves want to start maximizing their All-World young big man early, and hopefully get many more shots at the brass ring.

1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
Age: 22
Role: Everything at once

On the night of the 2013 NBA draft, I sat in the interview room at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and watched a little-known 18-year-old from Greece insist, despite speculation from draftniks that he’d be plying his trade overseas for a couple of years before ever putting on an NBA uniform, that he was in the United States to stay.

“I know I’m not ready, but I have a lot of a work ahead of me,” he said. “But I’m not afraid. I will give everything in the court, in the gym. And I will prove to the Milwaukee Bucks that they made the right choice.”

Four years later, that 6-foot-9 stringbean has become a 6-foot-11 showstopper, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and the leader of a franchise with its sights set on becoming a postseason mainstay.

Let it never be said that Giannis isn’t a man of his word.

In his fourth pro season, Antetokounmpo not only averaged career highs in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks; he led his team in all five of those categories, too, and finished in the top 20 in the NBA in each one, as well. He made his first All-Star appearance, his first All-NBA appearance and his first All-Defensive Team appearance; spent time initiating Milwaukee’s offense and serving as its shot-blocking last line of defense, sometimes in the same lineups; and provided all-everything production that evoked names like Jordan, Kareem, Bird, KG, LeBron, Pippen, Barkley and Durant. His driving can devastate a defense, and the attention he draws makes life easier for his teammates, the lion’s share of whom shoot more efficiently off Giannis’ feeds than they do otherwise.

Giannis’ physical tools are unrivaled, and his aptitude for deploying them has grown so much so quickly that trying to conceive of an upper limit to his game fast becomes an exercise in considering the impossible. There is one (1) blemish of note: an iffy jumper that’s seen him shoot below 35 percent from midrange in each of the last two seasons, and below 30 percent from 3-point land in each of the last three. Given the vast, enveloping strides he has made elsewhere — as a ball-handler, facilitator, perimeter defender, rim protector and leader — betting against him refining that stroke seems dumb.

It is possible that a Bucks team with uncertainty elsewhere on the roster — the health of 2014 No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, the development of 2016 lottery selection (and potential unicorn-in-the-making) Thon Maker, whether the backcourt of Tony Snell and 2016-17 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon can reproduce last year’s playoff-caliber work, etc. — sputters rather than soars; that Milwaukee’s progress won’t be linear, but rather that it will come in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Such is the nature of a league in which all but the very best teams tend to come with their fair share of question marks. In Antetokounmpo, though, the Bucks have an answer for just about anything the NBA can offer.

“Someone like him is God-given,” veteran guard Jason Terry told the New Yorker in February. “Heaven-sent.”

Why even suggest a limit on such a player, one whose ceiling isn’t yet in sight … if, in fact, it even exists?

“You know you won’t be Most Improved again because you were an All-Star starter, right?” Bucks play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke said during a recent conversation with Antetokounmpo. “You probably won’t win that award again.”

“Why?” Giannis asked. “I might be the MVP this year.”

“I said, ‘Most Improved,’” Paschke replied. “MVP, you can win.”

“OK, but … if I win the MVP, I can be the Most Improved,” Giannis said.

Sure, it sounds far-fetched. But remember: Giannis Antetokounmpo is a man of his word. Doubt him at your own peril.

More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:

Ben Simmons and the top five playmakers under age 25

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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The health of Isaiah Thomas' hip may be the key to the Cavs-Celtics blockbuster

Isaiah Thomas is still not 100 percent after a significant injury, and entering a contract year. (Getty Images)

In a blockbuster trade that’s both as stunning as any in recent memory and somehow eminently sensible for both sides, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics swapped All-Star point guards on Tuesday night. A month and a day after news broke that he’d requested a trade because he no longer wanted to play with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving got his wish, as Koby Altman was able to come away from his first big deal as the Cavs’ new general manager with scoring savant Isaiah Thomas, versatile defensive-minded forward Jae Crowder, intriguing rookie center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick — all while saving owner Dan Gilbert nearly $30 million in luxury tax payments. (Seriously: Altman should get, like, a few extra days of vacation time and a pizza party.)

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The deal allows the Cavs to straddle the line between remaining an immediate title contender (ideally, Thomas replaces Irving’s scoring production and secondary playmaking, while Crowder offers an instant upgrade on the wing for a team in greater need of perimeter defenders to hope to match up with the Golden State Warriors) and retooling for the future (with 20-year-old 7-footer Zizic providing a potential contributor in the middle and the unprotected Nets pick giving Cleveland a shot at a top-half-of-the-lottery talent in next summer’s draft) as they wait to find out whether that future will or will not feature LeBron. It lands Boston a 25-year-old four-time All-Star with an established track record of when-it-matters-most bucket-getting. Perhaps just as important, it returns a starting lead guard who’s locked up on an old-salary-cap max contract for at least two more seasons, allowing Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to avoid the nettlesome issue of whether to pony up the new-cap max that Thomas is sure to seek this summer to keep a 5-foot-9 scorer around into his mid-30s.

There’s cold logic to that, but it’d be hard to blame Celtics fans for feeling bummed out that Thomas — who became a two-time All-Star, a clutch-time icon, “The King in the Fourth,” and a postseason folk hero during his time in Boston — will be leaving town.

“Isaiah had just an amazing season this year, and entertained us all — the whole city of Boston, and everybody fell in love with him,” Ainge said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters to discuss the trade. “You know, he’s such an underdog because of his size, and his heart, and his spirit in which he plays. It was very challenging to make this decision.”

From the sounds of things, though, something else factored into the C’s decision-making in pulling the trigger on the trade: the status of Thomas’ injured hip.

There was significant concern from Celtics about Isaiah Thomas’ hip, source told ESPN. Turning 29, game is built on speed.

— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) August 23, 2017

Thomas bowed out of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals before Game 3 after re-aggravating an injury that was later revealed to be a torn labrum in his right hip. More than a month after sustaining the season-ending injury, it remained unclear whether the dynamic scorer would need surgery to repair the damage. Late last month, the Celtics finally confirmed Thomas wouldn’t need surgery, and looked to be on target to begin the season … maybe, as Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told Chris Mannix of The Vertical earlier this week.

“It’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab,” Stevens said. “There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe. We want what’s best for Isaiah. We want to make sure that when he is ready to roll, which hopefully is sooner rather than later, that he is ready to roll at his highest level and for the longest possible time, obviously, right?”

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Evidently, the Celtics remained unsure that Thomas would be able to do that. The day before the trade went down, Ainge told CSN New England’s A. Sherrod Blakely that Thomas would “undergo additional testing prior to the start of training camp.” Given that, and how quickly this trade came together, many speculated that concerns over Thomas’ ability to not only make a full recovery, but to reach the same career-defining heights of productivity he achieved last season, would have contributed to the Celtics’ decision.

Ainge suggested as much on Tuesday night, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick:

When asked about the part the hip played in his decision – this after the Celtics and Thomas had considered surgery only to determine that it wasn’t necessary – Ainge stammered a bit before indicating that Thomas might not be ready for the start of the season.

“Um, I don’t – you know, it, some,” he said. “There’s going to be probably a little bit of a delay for Isaiah as he starts the season this year, but – um – I think that Isaiah should be fine and healthy as the season goes along.”

Add the hip situation to the question about Thomas’ next contract, and you have yourself a challenging equation. With free agency fast approaching next summer, Thomas – who averaged 28.9 points (third in the NBA) and 5.9 assists last season – would be looking to land a five-year, $179 million deal that would pay him $40.8 million in the final season (2022-23).

“I think that contracts do play a part in trades,” Ainge said when asked about the contrasting contract landscape between Thomas and Irving. “No question about it.”

If Thomas is fully healthy, he should be devastating in Cleveland, both playing off LeBron and serving as an offensive fulcrum capable of keeping the Cavs afloat when James hits the bench — something neither Irving nor fellow All-Star-caliber offensive talent Kevin Love could credibly do over the years. The ever-present chip on the shoulder of the 2011 draft’s last pick should become planetary after his rise to stardom resulted in just another jettisoning — this time in favor of that draft’s first pick — resulting in an exceptionally motivated meteor hell-bent for the bucket as he sets out to prove he is worth the Brinks-truck-backup he’s made it very clear he’ll demand come July. Given Thomas’ track record at every step of his journey, from Washington to Sacramento to Phoenix to Boston, as SB Nation’s Paul Flannery suggests, “No one should ever get too comfortable doubting IT’s ability to maximize his abilities.”

Given the nature of the injury, though, and the history of how it has impacted those who have sustained it, that’s a major “if” on which to be banking the championship-contending hopes of a roster built to compete now and for the next handful of years. In the end, Ainge decided it would be better to let somebody else deal with the combination of physical and financial uncertainty related to cementing Thomas as a maxed-out cornerstone. That it happens to be the team Boston’s trying to dethrone, and that engaging in the deal also takes away one of the central figures of the Cavs’ recent dominance, makes the decision all the more fascinating.

From their perspective, the Cavs aren’t betraying any concerns about the condition of Thomas’ hip:

Boston has believed rest + rehab would return Thomas’ hip to a full recovery. Cavs plan to monitor closely, anxious to give him physical.

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 23, 2017

Cleveland has no short term concerns on Thomas’ health. No surgery was needed on hip. Cavs are getting motivated All-Star in contract year. https://t.co/g4lRhcGmkb

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 23, 2017

The $64,000 question: whether that changes when Thomas makes his way to Cleveland for the physical that would be required to consummate the deal — a trip that might not happen for another week.

he has to undergo a physical. Depending on the results, Cavs might be able to fail him & revoke the deal

— Chillin in my Bacta (@AminESPN) August 23, 2017

Doctors will red flag then management has to decide, based on doctors’ findings, whether risk is worth it https://t.co/E4oiZxabJB

— Chillin in my Bacta (@AminESPN) August 23, 2017

Failed physicals have scuttled more than a few deals in recent years — Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City, Donatas Motiejunas to Detroit, Cuttino Mobley to New York, Shareef Abdur-Rahim to New Jersey and plenty of others. Given the starry nature of the participants in this particular swap, it’d be a significantly bigger deal for this one to get quashed, but it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility, or even necessarily all that uncommon.

That said, given the return Altman was able to secure for Irving — and the potential pitfalls of bringing Kyrie and LeBron to camp after all that’s happened — the Cavs’ brass would have to think very, very hard about whether what they saw on IT’s medical reports was bracing enough to put the kibosh on a deal.

That pick is in there 100 pct to say “you sure you wanna do that?” https://t.co/9DQghrRIPQ

— Bernard Lee (@bleebasket) August 23, 2017

All of which is to say: we might not have seen the last twist or turn in this stunning saga just yet.

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @YourManDevine

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'I cheated the game': After drug ban, O.J. Mayo seeks second chance

One year after being banned from the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, O.J. Mayo has his sights set on a comeback. (Getty Images)

Last month, former Slam editor-in-chief Ryan Jones wrote a long feature for Bleacher Report aimed at identifying what had happened to O.J. Mayo. Now, we know: one year after being banned from the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, he’s trying to work his way back into professional basketball.

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The heralded prep prospect once hailed as “the next LeBron” became an all-Pac-10 First Team selection in his sole year at USC, the third overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft and a 2009 All-Rookie First Team selection with the Memphis Grizzlies. His career never took off, though. His production and effectiveness waned throughout his years in Tennessee. A lone year in Dallas began with a bang, but ended with a whimper. He found himself out of the rotation five months into a three-year deal with the Bucks, and never played more than a grace-note supporting-cast role in Milwaukee before suffering a season-ending leg fracture last March.

Despite a disappointing run of things, Mayo was still set to enter unrestricted free agency at age 28 during a summer when seemingly the entire league had gobs of salary cap space thanks to the infusion of cash from the NBA’s new $24 billion broadcast rights deal. Instead, on the first day of free agency, Mayo was “dismissed and disqualified from the league,” and prevented from even applying for reinstatement for two full years, following a positive test for a “drug of abuse.” And then, nothing … until now.

Mayo sat down with Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver in Los Angeles for a far-reaching, in-depth discussion about how he’d hit bottom, and the difficult process of getting up off the ground and trying to climb out of the hole he’s dug:

Once the 2016-17 NBA season started, a “hurt” and “lost” Mayo couldn’t bear to watch, consumed by remorse over the years that had preceded his ban. He had “burned the candle at both ends [until I] ain’t got no candle left.” His “entourage” had grown too big, and he had prioritized “showing love to friends, hanging out, and finding girls” over the gym. He acknowledged smoking marijuana and abusing a prescription pain medication that triggered his two-year ban because it is on the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list. (He emphatically denied testing positive for hard drugs like cocaine.)

Mayo also concluded that he had been “overwhelmed” by a string of difficult life events: his father, high school basketball star Kenny Ziegler, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for distributing crack cocaine, his brother was placed in juvenile lock-up, a close friend went to jail, and another was killed. “I was bred to play basketball and I thought I could balance everything,” he said. “I couldn’t.” […]

“Taking the game away is probably the closest thing to jail that I’ll get to,” Mayo said. “Since I was like 6 or 7, I’ve always had a basketball season. That was the lowest point in my entire life: The shellshock of not being in the NBA. All my peers are playing and I’m not because of boneheaded mistakes. Take the ball away, what is there to do?”

After staying away from basketball for the entire 2016-17 season to rehabilitate his injured ankle, travel and “get his stuff together,” Mayo began taking his first tentative steps down the comeback trail. Eventually, he worked his way into a workout group featuring several current NBA players, working with professional skills development and fitness trainers to try to burn off the weight he’d put on in his year away, and knock off the rust that had accumulated on his game.

I’m not black I’m O.J …. my bro back working hard in the gym!! Miss the USC days #Blessed #MyBrother #USC

A post shared by Taj Gibson (@tajgibson22) on Jul 20, 2017 at 8:17pm PDT

Throughout his conversation with Golliver, Mayo comes off as contrite, a man unwilling to blame others for his decline, eager to take responsibility for the position in which he finds himself:

Mayo knows all the potential excuses and he chooses to reject them. Did he have too much, too soon in life? Sure, he admitted, his childhood and teen years were exceptional. “But if I had the same focused mindset I had at 15 and 16 later when I was 24 and 25,” he argued, “we wouldn’t be sitting here talking right now.” Could he have used a better father figure and more guidance? Mayo didn’t want to say that, repeatedly pointing out that his mother had “taught me right from wrong.” Did his friends, or fake friends, lead him astray? “I knew better,” he argued. “I knew guys in my neighborhood who should have made it somewhere but got stuck. I wasn’t raised like that.” Were the league’s drug rules unfair? “Every man writes his manner,” he said. “I just made poor decisions.”

Most of all, he insisted, his former coaches, teammates, organizations and the NBA itself do not bear any of the blame for his current predicament. With the benefit of hindsight, Mayo wished he had taken the league’s counseling and support programs more seriously. He admitted that he hadn’t acted professionally enough to deserve a spot in the NBA, and he thanked Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd, GM John Hammond (now with Orlando), and owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens for doing “everything in the world to help me.”

“I want to go back to what I left [in Milwaukee],” Mayo said, when asked for his dream destination. “I was real close with Jason Kidd. That was the best relationship I had with a coach besides [Dwaine Barnes]. I had great relationships with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Khris Middleton. I was comfortable there. I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years. They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. They invested millions of dollars for me to be on top of my s—, and when you’re not on top of your s—, it shows. I’ll be 30 next summer. If they just give me the chance, I can make it up. I owe them.”

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An in-shape, committed and focused version of Mayo is the kind of player who might absolutely be able to help an NBA team. Peel away the off-court concerns, and at his best, O.J.’s an athletic two-guard with good size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), a generally reliable long-distance shooter (37.3 percent from the field in his eight NBA seasons), a capable secondary ball-handler who (in Milwaukee, at least) tended to look for chances to set up the team’s young stars, and a player with the physical tools and capacity to dig in and switch assignments on defense. (For what it’s worth, Milwaukee was nearly five points per 100 possessions better on D with Mayo on the floor than off it two seasons ago, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.)

Mayo is eligible to apply for a return to the NBA on July 1, 2018; under the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA’s teams and its players, reinstatement requires “the prior approval of both the NBA and the Players Association,” based on consideration of a variety of factors, including satisfactory completion of a treatment/rehabilitation program, how Mayo has conducted himself since his dismissal (including whether he has “comported himself as a suitable role model for youth”), whether he’s “judged to possess the requisite qualities of good character and morality,” and whether he can demonstrate that he hasn’t tested positive for a “drug of abuse or marijuana” within the 12 months before submitting his application. (Mayo insisted to Golliver that he’s totally sober.)

You’d expect, of course, that it won’t be easy for a lot of teams to “peel away the off-court concerns,” or to overlook the track record that saw Mayo fritter away most of what should have been his most productive years in the pros. Given the way he flamed out in his previous three NBA destinations, we shouldn’t anticipate 30 general managers lining up to offer Mayo a deal should he make his way through the reinstatement process. It only takes one, though, and Mayo’s just hoping to find a single squad willing to give him the chance to prove he now fully appreciates what he once squandered.

“I dug myself a hole, but it’s not a coffin,” he told Golliver. “I can still get out.”

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @YourManDevine

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Report: NBA looking at Magic Johnson in Lakers/Paul George tampering investigation

Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka watch a game at the NBA’s 2017 Las Vegas Summer League. (Getty Images)

A scant six months after taking the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, franchise legend Magic Johnson now finds himself at the heart of a tampering investigation. Let it never be said that Earvin has not thrown himself into the gig with gusto!

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The NBA confirmed Sunday that it has “opened an investigation into alleged tampering by the Los Angeles Lakers,” at “the request of the Indiana Pacers,” as first reported by veteran NBA scribe Peter Vecsey. Shams Charania of The Vertical reported that “the investigation centers on” All-Star forward Paul George, whose agent reportedly informed Pacers brass two months back that he planned to join the Lakers when he hits unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018. Faced with the prospect of losing their franchise centerpiece for nothing next year, the Pacers instead chose to trade George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis.

So what, exactly, do the Pacers want the NBA to investigate? “The possibility of impermissible contact” between Johnson, who ascended to the post of president of basketball operations with the Lakers in February, and George, a player who until last month was still under contract with Indiana and who’s supposed to be off-limits for other teams’ executives, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

If the league office’s probe can prove that the Lakers tampered with George while he was under contract with Indiana, they can be punished in several ways, including a loss of draft picks, fines up to $5 million, future restrictions on acquiring George and possible suspensions of offending officials.

If the NBA finds evidence that the Lakers had engaged in a side agreement with George, he could be prohibited from signing a free-agent deal with Los Angeles or being part of a trade to the Lakers. […]

Team officials aren’t allowed to make contact with players or their agents to discuss future plans unless it’s after the opening of the players’ free-agency year on July 1.

The NBA said in its Sunday statement that the Lakers “have been cooperative and, at this point, no findings have been made.”

“As the NBA’s statement made clear, we cannot comment about the specifics of any ongoing investigation,” the Lakers said in a Sunday statement. “We can confirm, however, that we are cooperating fully with the NBA in the hope of clearing our name as soon as possible.”

If you’re finding it a bit tough to believe that Magic never had any interactions with George that might have pushed up against the boundaries of propriety, it’s probably because you’re a fan of ABC’s late-night talk-show programming.

During an April visit to ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Johnson spoke with host Jimmy Kimmel about the steep learning curve he faced as he took over as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, and about the players he hoped to import to help turn around the fortunes of a franchise that has gone a combined 91-237 over the past four seasons.

“I wish I could talk about all those guys,” Johnson said.

“But you’d be contract tampering now,” Kimmel said.

“Exactly,” Johnson said. “[…] I had to go to school. I had to go to [collective bargaining agreement] school, salary cap school and tampering school. Yeah, you can’t tamper with somebody else’s player. I had to learn the new CBA that we have.”

“What constitutes tampering?” Kimmel asked. “Like, if you’re on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?”

“No, we’re going to say hi because we know each other,” Johnson said. “I just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [exaggerated winking motion, followed by laughter]. You know what that means, right?”

Yeah, Magic. Everybody knows what that means, which is why it’s awfully easy to believe that there had been some improper contact between Johnson (or one of his emissaries) and George (or one of his representatives). The burden of proof’s significantly higher in an official inquest, though:

Hard to prove tampering charges unless there is a paper trail. A wink on The Jimmy Kimmel Show doesn’t cut it.

— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) August 20, 2017

Article 35A of the NBA’s constitution and by-laws lays out the rules on tampering: nobody affiliated with an NBA team is allowed to directly or indirectly “(i) entice, induce, or persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any player, coach, [general manager] or other person under contract to any other NBA team to enter into negotiations for or relating to that person’s services or to negotiate or contract for such services, or (ii) otherwise interfere with the employment relationship between that employee and the other NBA team.”

Similarly, Article XIII of the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between NBA teams and players covers “circumvention” — attempts to players, teams, agents or other parties to skirt the boundaries of the CBA and player contracts. That includes “any agreements or transactions of any kind” — public or secret, explicitly stated or merely implied, oral or written, promises or assurances of “understandings” — between a player under contract with one team (or anyone acting on the player’s behalf) and another team (or anyone affiliated with the team).

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, though, in the absence of a clear paper trail, it’s awfully tough to prove the existence of a back-room deal or the intent to enter into one … even if such agreements are much more common than anyone at the league office would care to admit. From The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor:

“[Lakers general manager and former NBA player agent Rob] Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.” […]

“If there’s a paper trail, then it’ll be a thing,” said one league executive, adding he doubts there were any distinct emails or texts that implicate Magic. “No paper trail, no problem.”

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It’s much more likely, then, that the Lakers will face either no penalty or a slap-on-the-wrist fine — like the ones assessed to the Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets in 2013, and the Toronto Raptors in 2014, after public comments related to other teams’ players — than that LA will be forced to fork over draft picks. All of which might leave you wondering: what exactly is the point of all this?

George is gone; the Pacers aren’t going to get him back, or get anything more for him than the return they secured by shipping him out one year early (much to the chagrin of Dan Gilbert). Players aren’t going to stop recruiting one another, whether by social media, phone calls and text messages, or back-channel communications. Executives and agents aren’t going to stop having the sorts of before-the-fact conversations that result in free-agent deals being agreed to at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 — and, increasingly, being reported in the final hours of June, before the summer free-agent market officially opens for business. It is “how this league works,” and everybody knows it, just like everybody knew what Magic’s wink meant.

On some level, you can understand the Pacers feeling compelled to try to extract a pound of flesh after being put in a difficult position by George telling them he planned to head west. (Though, to be fair, it’s a predicament Indy wouldn’t have faced had Larry Bird flipped George in February rather than holding onto him after publicly testing his market, which seemed to turn him off.) Now, though, with the deal done, George getting ready for a new campaign in Oklahoma City, the Pacers preparing to rebuild around Oladipo and Myles Turner, and Magic and company still sitting tight and waiting for next summer, you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better off for Indy to just charge it to the game, take the L and move on. Getting the Pacers pointed in the right direction for the future figures to be difficult enough without expending energy dwelling on the past.

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @YourManDevine

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