It's time to end the Anthony Davis charade

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NBC Sports

It's time to end the Anthony Davis charade

Anthony Davis plopped onto the bench and began unwrapping the black tape from his fingers on his left hand. It was midway through the third quarter in a tight game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Pelicans’ franchise player had just gotten the word from his coach Alvin Gentry. Davis was finished for the night. 

To the casual fan just now tuning into the NBA season, this must’ve been an unthinkable decision. Davis was marvelous and hadn’t suffered an injury. He had 22 points and eight rebounds in just 21 minutes. Why were the ESPN broadcasters saying he’d be done? Are the Pelicans trying to lose?

This is where we’re at in the league’s most confusing soap opera. The Pelicans are playing Anthony Davis, but only for 20 minutes because, well, it’s not entirely clear. It could be because they’re protecting their best asset from catastrophic injury (sort of) or they’re imposing punishment against their player for demanding a trade earlier in the month or they’re following orders from the league. But why would the league want this? Why play him at all?

Davis’ situation is fanning the flames of a raging debate in basketball circles: To play or not to play? The conversation has engulfed Davis during this most-awkward New Orleans debacle. The once-favored son finds himself under fire and facing boos from his half-empty home crowd. Meanwhile, facing discipline from the league office for violating rules against competitive integrity and sitting healthy players, the Pelicans have agreed to play Davis but not in fourth quarters.

The compromise is the worst of both worlds. Davis risks a career-altering injury to himself and, by benching him in critical moments, it sends the message loud and clear that the Pelicans, as an organization, are not trying to win games. 

The half-measure is a bad look for everyone involved and it’s time for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the Pelicans and Davis to come together and shut Davis down. Before it’s too late.

* * *

Do you remember the pit in your stomach when Zion Williamson went down? 

Moments after Williamson’s left foot burst through his Nikes and caused him to fall to the Cameron Indoor floor clutching his knees, social media began to mourn en masse. Reports surfaced. Out for the game: Knee. It was as if we all witnessed a basketball death. On the local Raycom broadcast in North Carolina, the play-by-play announcer solemnly offered “thoughts and prayers” to Williamson and his family.

Remember how that felt in the moment? That it all seemed so cruel? The nauseating sense of dread didn’t arise solely from the injury itself, or the fear of the unknown diagnosis. The financial backdrop compounded the unsettling nature of it all. A fluke play in an amateur (see: Unpaid) regular-season game could have derailed Williamson’s imminent professional career and jeopardized the millions of dollars he had coming to him as the expected No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft. 

And then, the good news came. After further evaluation, it appears Williamson avoided serious injury and is considered day-to-day with a mild knee strain. It’s unclear when he’ll play again this season.

Basketball is a high-velocity contact sport. There’s a risk of injury every time a player steps onto the court. When the benefit of lacing up outweighs the risks, the player plays. When it doesn’t, he sits.

Most of the time, those risks are determined by the medical team. But the rubric is changing. Basketball is a billion-dollar business and the financial part of the equation looms larger than ever. In some eyes, the financial risks for Williamson may be too large to roll the dice. Scottie Pippen, a Hall of Famer and father of a four-star recruit in the 2019 high school class, appeared on ESPN’s “The Jump” and argued that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season -- before the injury.

"I think he's locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he's definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he's done enough for college basketball that it's more about him personally," Pippen said. "I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career."

Then the shoe blowout happened. The calls for Williamson to shut it down only got louder. 

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins knows first-hand about the risk-benefit analysis of playing basketball. In 2018, five months away from a free-agent market that could have netted him a nine-figure deal, Cousins suffered an Achilles tear. The market went dry and he signed a one-year, mid-level exception with the Warriors for $5.3 million. One injury meant that more than 200 players would have a higher 2018-19 salary than a two-time All-NBA player in his prime.

With that experience, it’s no surprise that Cousins passionately advised Williamson to sit out

“College is bulls*** … get ready for the next level,” Cousins exclaimed. 

Denver guard Isaiah Thomas also pleaded for Williamson to rest up for the NBA. In 2017, in the midst of an All-NBA campaign, Thomas suffered a torn labrum in his hip just weeks before he was eligible for a max-contract extension with the Boston Celtics. That offseason, the Celtics shipped Thomas to Cleveland, which later traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, who decided not to keep him. 

He’s now playing on a veteran minimum deal. 

“One injury could change somebody career,” Thomas tweeted

They were talking about Williamson, but it might as well be for Davis, too. 

More from Haberstroh: AD sweeps have to wait | Davis would be LeBron's best partner

Look, The Brow is not Zion. While the NCAA doesn’t allow Williamson to be paid, Davis is earning $25 million in salary this season and is due another $27 million next season before he can become a free agent (Davis also has a player option for $28.8 million in 2020-21, which, according to agent Rich Paul, won’t be exercised.). Davis will have secured over $100 million in salary before his 28th birthday. If something goes wrong, plenty of people won’t feel the same empathy for Davis as they did for a teenaged Williamson.

And yet, the same conversation -- to play, or not to play -- has engulfed the NBA, Davis and the Pelicans, raising thorny questions about the integrity of the game against the backdrop of legalized sports betting.

There’s no pain-free answer. The Pelicans could sit Davis and maximize their 2019 draft pick, a logical strategy that I highlighted last month given the NBA’s draft incentive structure. Even after instituting draft reform that flattens the odds somewhat at the top, the system still indirectly encourages teams to lose games to improve their chances of landing a franchise star in the draft. The Pelicans, who shipped out Nikola Mirotic and acquired-and-waived Markieff Morris at the trade deadline, have made it clear which direction they’d like to take.

From the Pelicans’ perspective, sitting Davis would also protect him as a trade asset until this summer when he’s expected to be traded. Sure, Davis could suffer an injury while training or, say, slipping in the bathroom as fellow Klutch Sports Management client John Wall reportedly did earlier this month. Even then, some have a tough time being convinced that a player the caliber of Davis could see a precipitous drop in value in the case of a major injury.

Sitting Davis to protect him from injury (or as an asset) poses its own problems. For one, it would be a clear sign of tanking. In general, benching healthy star players is not good for business, nor the integrity of the game. Thus, after a string of high-profile “DNP-Rest” games in 2016-17, the NBA implemented a league policy against healthy scratches in 2017 and remains in effect. According to the league memo, “teams are prohibited from resting healthy players for any high-profile, nationally-televised game. Any violation of this provision shall constitute conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA, and shall result in a fine of at least $100,000.”

Muddying the waters even more is Davis’ desire to play for the Pelicans now despite openly wanting to leave the organization. Sources close to the situation indicate that Davis has always wanted to play regular minutes but also wanted his contractual intentions to be known to the front office so they could plan for the future. Davis has left decisions about his playing time up to the team and, after fearing a severe fine from the league office, the Pelicans and Davis decided to meet in the middle, multiple sources confirmed to NBC Sports. 

The solution: Play Davis only in limited minutes and not in the second half of back-to-back games. 

It’s a tortured existence. The Pelicans are much better off with Davis on the floor, even with the outside noise. In 160 minutes with Davis on the court since he returned from his trade demand, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 22 points, or a rate of plus-6.6 every 48 minutes. When the superstar is on the bench, the Pelicans are a minus-56 in 224 minutes, or minus-12 points every 48 minutes. Duh, he’s Anthony freakin’ Davis. But what’s most troubling is that in the last five games he’s played, Davis has sat out each fourth quarter in their entirety.

This league-approved tanking method has bewildered the rest of the league. Executives are left to wonder where the league draws the line on widespread practice of healthy scratches in the name of injury prevention. Household names such as Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, Blake Griffin, De’Angelo Russell, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge and Cousins have been “DNP-Rested” this season at one point or another. It’s all in the name of strategically avoiding injury that could alter their respective franchises. How is Davis’ situation any different?

Davis is not injured enough, it seems. Kawhi Leonard has missed over a dozen games this season in “load maintenance” recovery protocols after missing most of last season with a leg/thigh issue. LeBron James recently sat out a coveted Saturday night ABC matchup against the Warriors due to “load management” even though he played a game on Thursday and had the day off before the game. According to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, the league office sent out a reminder memo to all teams on Feb. 20 that re-emphasized proper reporting of injuries relating to load management or return from injury management. The Lakers had not followed the proper protocol, sources said, which called for the team to indicate James was out for load management relating to a recent groin injury. The league felt the semantic oversight, sources said, was not worthy of the $100,000 fine.

Davis, on the other hand, has been deemed healthy by the Pelicans’ training staff. But still, there are plenty of examples of extensive healthy scratches not being disciplined by the league. Front office executives have privately brought up several analogous cases to NBC Sports. One is J.R. Smith, who was the Cavs’ starting shooting guard until he was suddenly healthy-scratched in late November after he described to The Athletic what he saw as blatant tanking by his organization: “I don’t think the goal is to win. The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can.”

The Cavs and Smith have agreed it’s best to have Smith away from the team. Same with Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets (and the Chicago Bulls). Other examples: Enes Kanter and Chandler Parsons were both medically cleared with their respective teams, both were starters and both were very public about wanting to play. Neither teams faced fines for resting their healthy player. After Parsons was not traded at the deadline, he has suddenly been playing for the Grizzlies, who are all but eliminated from playoff contention and need their 2019 pick to fall in the top eight to keep it from going to the Boston Celtics. After sitting as a healthy scratch 10 times since January, Kanter was waived following the deadline and signed by Portland where the 26-year-old has thrived off the bench. In both cases, rival executives believe the teams had kept their players on ice to protect a potential trade asset.

“It begs the question,” wondered one longtime general manager to NBC Sports, “why were those situations not met with the same requirements as the Davis one?”

It’s a question shared by many frustrated team officials around the league. One possible and rather obvious answer: Davis is much better than Kanter, Anthony, Parsons and Smith, and therefore is held to a different standard. Some might argue that it’s a double standard. Why have a rule if it’s not going to be enforced? 

Another name raised by league executives is Kristaps Porzingis. Over 12 months have passed since Porzingis suffered a torn ACL and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban already indicated he’d miss the rest of the 2018-19 season to continue his rehab from the injury he suffered with the Knicks last February. 

That’s an abnormally long absence. According to one NBA team’s internal study on the injury, the average return to play for a torn ACL in the NBA is 293 days, or 9.8 months. We’re at 387 days with Porzingis. If Porzingis returned on the final day of the regular season, he would miss 428 days, or 14.3 months. The study also eliminates any height correlation, noting that fellow big man J.J. Hickson returned in 211 days and Kendrick Perkins, 224.

This wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows around the league if it not for the fact that the Mavericks, who at 27-34 have the ninth-worst record in the league, keep their 2019 pick if it lands in the top-five slots on draft lottery night.

“Why is (Porzingis) allowed to sit,” a high-ranking team official asked, “so the teams he’s been on can tank?”

The Mavericks have not heard a peep from the NBA in this case, multiple sources say, because it is an injury-related instance and Porzingis hasn’t been medically cleared to play anytime soon. It’s an open secret in league circles that Porzingis’ recovery has not gone as smoothly as many initially hoped.

This is the gray area that makes Davis’ situation so problematic. In response to an inquiry by the New York Times, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass denied an ESPN report that the Pelicans were told the league office would levy a $100,000 fine for each game that Davis missed. Instead, Bass says, the league intervened due to rules that ensured the integrity of the game.

“The NBA did not tell New Orleans that it would be fined $100,000 per game if Anthony Davis were held out for the remainder of season,” the league said in a statement. “The Pelicans were advised that the team had not identified a proper basis for making that determination at this time and league rules governing competitive integrity therefore require that he be permitted to play."

But where was the league on the Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe, another one of agent Rich Paul’s clients, back in March 2017? Bledsoe was averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds and was the team’s go-to scorer in clutch situations before he was shut down with 14 games to go. Then-coach Earl Watson said it was a “management decision” to sit the Suns’ best player even though he was healthy. 

“The front office made a decision and I had to live with it,” Bledsoe told the AZ Central. “I wasn’t OK with it, and I don’t know what basketball player would be. I want to compete.”

Phoenix lost 12 of its final 14 games, securing the NBA’s worst record over that span. 

The Suns ended up with the second-best chances at the No. 1 pick, but, as luck would have it, they slid to the No. 4 pick in the draft lottery (and later selected Josh Jackson). The Suns avoided discipline from the league despite their conspicuous tank, league sources say, likely due to the fact that the healthy scratch rule hadn’t been implemented until later that summer. 

However, it stands to reason that shutting down Bledsoe, a borderline All-Star, had violated the “competitive integrity” policy that had seemingly already been in place. Yet the Suns avoided punishment, a fact that makes it hard to reconcile with the current situation. How is the Bledsoe situation any different than the current saga with Pelicans and Davis?

It has puzzled the major stakeholders in the league who have to navigate uncomfortable disputes with players and teams. Said one prominent player agent, who doesn’t represent Davis: “It can’t keep dragging on like this. It’s not benefitting anybody.”

* * *

The league has put the Pelicans in an impossible position. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has valiantly tried to answer constant questions about playing his best player amid a public trade demand, but he has understandably lost patience lately, calling it “a dumpster fire.” The front office must follow the league’s mandate and play Davis even if it leads to injury and a worse trade package this summer. 

The trying situation was on full display before the Pelicans’ game on Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. Speaking with the local broadcast for the first time since taking over as the Pelicans interim general manager, Danny Ferry sat down with FOX Sports’ Jennifer Hale for a series of questions, one of which was a very direct query about Davis and the front office’s approach this summer.

“I appreciate that you have to ask the question,” Ferry said smiling. He then deftly sidestepped the question and talked about free agency and scouting the draft instead. The interview lasted four minutes with Ferry never mentioning Davis’ name even once. When asked about the goal for the rest of the season, Ferry was stern in his response.

“Competing every night,” Ferry said. “I think that’s really the focus.”

Later that night, the Pelicans benched Davis in the fourth quarter of a close game, in which Davis scored 18 points in 21 minutes. The Pelicans lost by one point as Davis looked on in warmups.

“Yeah, I’ve never been a guy who sat in the fourth quarter,” Davis said after the game. “It’s a little tough.”

Yet, there was Davis again on Wednesday night, in L.A. of all places, not long after Lakers fans cheered Davis’ pregame introduction, sitting quietly on the Pelicans’ bench as LeBron James nailed a game-clinching fade-away 3-pointer. 

This isn’t just poisonous optics. It can dictate the playoff picture. With Davis looking on from the bench, the Lakers, of all teams, pulled out the win and moved within one game of the ninth-seeded Sacramento Kings, who lost in an overtime game that saw rookie Marvin Bagley III carried off the court with a knee injury. 

The only way this situation gets worse is if a similar scene befalls Davis. And the longer this drags out, the more transparent it will be that the Pelicans are not trying their best to win games. It’s a bad look for everyone involved. If sitting James, Bledsoe and others didn’t violate league rules, it’s not much a rule at all. Let the Pelicans sit Davis and let’s all move on from this damaging situation.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

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NBC Sports

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

Well, that was quick. We’ve reached the one-month mark of the 2019-20 NBA season and, admittedly, it’s been a bit of a rocky start. Between the Golden State Warriors falling apart, a slew of PED suspensions hitting the league, and rookie sensation Zion Williamson still sitting out, things have not exactly gone as advertised.

But there are plenty of other feel-good storylines and fascinating developments that have made the season a pleasure to watch. Let’s highlight five trends that I’m buying or selling at this stage of the season.

BUY: Luka Doncic, MVP candidate

Don’t look now but the Dallas Mavericks have the top offense in the loaded Western Conference so far, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Can the average NBA fan name more than two starters on that team?

It starts with Doncic, who is averaging an astounding 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the 6-4 Mavericks. Those stats aren’t juiced by a turbo-charged NBA; Unlike the rapid-fire Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks rank just 20th in the league in pace. Instead, Doncic is seeing the game faster in his sophomore season and, well, he’s playing a lot faster, too.

Following a rookie season in which he was noticeably doughier, Doncic looks like he’s in better shape this season after taking the summer off from national basketball. A source close to Doncic says he’s largely kept away from bread and sugary foods as part of his effort to prepare for the 82-game grind. That’s no small thing for a 20-year-old who flies around the world for a living.

Doncic has trimmed the fat in his game too. He has taken two -- two! -- shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc this season, per NBA.com tracking. One was an 18-foot floater, which he made. The other was a late-game mid-range pull-up in the epic showdown against the Lakers (he missed). Doncic probably has a slick mid-range jumper, but he’s too good around the rim to settle there.

Like I mentioned on the Habershow with Brandon Payne, Doncic is a puppeteer. At least once a game, he’ll get a 7-footer to bite on his pump-fake in the lane and giggle on his way back on defense after he lays it in uncontested. It’s mean. He’s currently shooting 64.6 percent on shots in the paint, per NBA.com. Only three players have converted a higher percentage with at least 75 attempts in the paint: Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those three are dunk factories. Doncic has one dunk so far.

Doncic’s bag of tricks goes deeper than almost any NBA player at this point. And he will only get better as Kristaps Porzingis shakes off some rust and takes some pressure off of the Slovenian. The Luka hype is very real. 

SELL: The coach’s challenge

Doc Rivers has said it over and over: He hates the newly instituted coach’s challenge. And that’s probably because coaches aren’t winning the challenge much, if at all. 

Outside of the occasional out-of-bounds challenge, it’s been a frustrating experience for NBA coaches. Through Sunday’s games, there have been 95 coach’s challenges, with 32 calls being overturned, a success rate of just 34 percent. Drilling down even further, challenges on foul calls have only produced a 30 percent success rate, which makes sense given the nature of personal foul calls (Again, Doc really hates this rule.). The more clear-cut judgment calls -- out-of-bounds plays, specifically -- have been successful in six of the 11 challenges. That also makes sense; those plays are easier to see.

Behavioral economists will have a field day with the other aspects of the data. The league offers by-quarter breakdowns, which show that only six percent of the challenges have come in the first quarter, but those first-quarter challenges are tied with the second quarter challenges for the best success rate at 50 percent. Challenges in the fourth quarter, when coaches are possibly more emotional and using a might-as-well-burn-it mentality with the challenge, have the worst overturn rate at 24 percent. 

I don’t think the overturn rate is high enough to justify the buzzkilling stoppage in play. Fourth quarters in the NBA are long enough as it is and the overturn rate is so low that it’s mostly a waste of time. Tracking data from inpredictable.com provided to NBC Sports shows that NBA games this season are, on average, two hours and 16.4 minutes long, which is 2.6 minutes longer than this time last season.

The NBA deserves big kudos for transparency in this space. They didn’t just open their referees to extra scrutiny by implementing the coach’s challenge, but they’re also publishing the data from them to their media website. It’s also good for fans to know that the league wants to get calls right, but this is a one-year trial that fans shouldn’t expect to stick. Most of the head coaches I contacted agree with Doc. When asked whether he was for or against the coach’s challenge, one NBA coach simply responded back: “Ugh.” Another’s take from a long-time coach: “I’m a coach, not an official. Gets me focusing on the wrong things. Hate it.” And no, that’s not a quip from Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who finally got one overturned after six unsuccessful tries.

But here's my favorite bit of data. Every coach in the NBA had used the coach’s challenge through Tuesday’s games. Except for one: Gregg Popovich. That streak ended on Wednesday night when he challenged a foul call on LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Popovich lost the appeal. He may never do it again.

SELL: The Phoenix Suns are a playoff team

To be clear, I love what the Suns are doing right now. I’m a proud subscriber to the Aron Baynes Fan Club feed. That satirical Twitter account has been replying to viral NBA tweets with insanely pro-Baynes propaganda for years and it is somehow becoming more accurate by the day. Since being salary-dumped by the Boston Celtics this summer, Baynes has been absolutely fantastic as DeAndre Ayton’s fill-in, averaging 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists with a 70 percent effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers). Yes, Aron Baynes!

He’s the face of a suddenly very-grown-up Suns team under new head coach Monty Williams, who last coached a fiery New Orleans Pelicans team that held its own against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. After fielding the second-youngest roster in the league last season, the Suns added actual adults like Baynes and Ricky Rubio to the starting lineup next to Devin Booker and now they’re playing like an actual playoff contender. Three of Phoenix’s four losses went down to the final minute, including Tuesday night’s close loss to the Lakers. This is a team that could be 9-1 with a couple bounces going their way.

So why am I selling? This feels like a best-case scenario start to the season. Booker and Baynes aren’t going to make half their 3s all season. And I think Ayton coming back will actually hurt them. While his 25-game suspension looks bad from an optics standpoint, I think it actually helps the team win in the short-term with Baynes filling in his minutes. 

He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick, but Baynes does the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Baynes pancakes opponents on screens, ranks fifth in box-outs and is second in charges taken -- all while playing in just 24.3 minutes per game. Ayton, meanwhile, was among the least-impactful rim protectors in the league last season. It’s hard to imagine the Suns bringing their franchise big man off the bench, especially since he’s a favorite of Suns owner Robert Sarver, a fellow Arizona Wildcat. They could trade Baynes and his $5.8 million expiring contract to a contender. You know who could really use him? That team in Boston.

SELL: LeBron James’ double-digit assists

Just when you think you know a guy. In his 17th NBA season, James is averaging a career-high and league-leading 11.1 assists per game. He has never compiled this many assists in the opening 10 games of the season. The closest he came to this level was in 2016-17 when he registered 97 assists and 37 turnovers in the Cavs’ first ten games. This season, he has 110 assists, and four fewer turnovers (34). It’s obscene.

When the trade winds were swirling last February, I declared Anthony Davis as the best teammate LeBron James would ever have, better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. So far, so good. The on-court chemistry between the Klutch clients has been other-wordly. Of James’ 122 assists, 29 of them have been distributed to his new prized big-man Davis. No other Lakers teammate has more than 18, per Basketball Reference tracking

James is certainly on a mission to show love to Davis, who, as Bulls fans will remind you, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Using data from NBA.com’s stats page, James is feeding 25.5 passes per 36 minutes to Davis while they’re on the floor together. That’s a huge number. For perspective, Jrue Holiday sent 18.4 passes per 36 minutes into Davis’ hands last season when they shared the court. You think James is excited about his new toy?

With that said, I don’t think this keeps up. For one, it’s not a good sign that Davis’ shoulder is already giving him issues. If James’ favorite target goes down for any chunk of time, that’ll obviously hurt the King’s ability to rack up assists. Secondly, Rajon Rondo’s back. Lakers fans know how I feel about this clunky partnership. But the numbers don’t lie: James’ assist rate last season fell from 11.9 assists per 100 possessions without Rondo on the court down to 8.9 per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, per PBPStats.com tracking

It appears that Davis’ presence has given James new life, especially in the assist column. But Davis’ health and Rondo’s arrival doesn't make me optimistic about James’ ability to set a new career high -- even if the King and the Brow have been a joy to watch so far.

BUY: Pascal Siakam, back-to-back Most Improved Player

I’m all for breaking tradition. I know the Most Improved Player award is conventionally given to an up-and-coming player who ascends from plucky role player to legitimate star. Siakam’s selection last season was just that.

But what about star to MVP candidate? That leap is way harder to pull off and Siakam is doing it right now. You can see the door opening for Siakam’s candidacy. Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton’s injuries have delivered a significant blow to Boston and Milwaukee’s staying power atop the East. Kyle Lowry’s fractured thumb won’t keep him out nearly as long and Fred VanVleet can fill Lowry’s void better than Hayward and Middleton’s backups can for their respective clubs.

But Siakam is that good. He’s improved his scoring average more this season than he did the previous season, in which he won Most Improved Player. Siakam’s scoring average is higher than LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker entering play Thursday night. And it’s not because of unsustainably hot shooting, like in the case of Brandon Ingram and Booker. Siakam is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from downtown, which is more or less where he’s been in his career. 

The difference -- and this is so difficult in today’s NBA -- is that he’s maintained his efficiency despite nearly doubling his field goal attempts per game from 11.8 last season to 20.9 this year. His improved ball-handling and sharpened shot-making have made him a legitimate scoring alpha. To put Siakam’s scoring load in perspective, the 25-year-old’s usage rate is higher than Kobe Bryant’s in his age-25 season. 

Siakam’s climb is pretty much unprecedented, even when compared to his former Toronto Raptors teammate. It’s cliche to make the Kawhi Leonard parallel, but the truth is that Siakam’s rise has been steeper. Leonard didn’t become “MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard” until his sixth season in the league. This is Siakam’s fourth. And as crazy as Leonard’s ascension was, Siakam rose from a lower floor, averaging just 4.2 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 27th overall in 2016. (It’s early, but Siakam may end up being the best of a class that also features Ben Simmons, Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.)

With the top of Eastern Conference battered and bruised right now, the Toronto Raptors should remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. If Siakam keeps this up -- and I think he can -- there will be whispers about his MVP campaign. He might not win it, but if there’s a player who deserves to be the first two-time Most Improved Player award, it’s Siakam.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

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NBC Sports

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told NBCSports.com that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

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