Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

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USA Today

Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

With the Utah Jazz trading for star point guard Mike Conley, the jockeying to take Golden State’s crown in the Western Conference continues.

Days after Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered major leg injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers traded the farm for Anthony Davis. Earlier this week, troubling reports out of Houston point to a feuding power struggle between James Harden and Chris Paul. It’s no coincidence that the 50-win Jazz team decided to swing now for Conley, a top scoring point guard that fills a void on the roster. 

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick to come out of the West next season, I wouldn’t blame you for picking the Jazz. At 18-7 with a plus-9.5 net rating, they were the second-best team in the NBA after the All-Star break before they fell apart against the Rockets in the first round. 

Teams like the Jazz don’t have the Hollywood glamour or the big-city market to draw star free agents so a trade like this makes a ton of sense. Though Conley isn’t near the caliber of Kawhi Leonard, this trade shares the same philosophy as the Raptors moving on from DeMar DeRozan: a 50-win team needs two-way stars to reach that championship-caliber level.

The Jazz clearly needed a second shot creator alongside Donovan Mitchell after the 22-year-old shot 32.1 percent from the floor and 25.6 percent from deep on the playoff stage. Mitchell had a breakout rookie season, but there were worries about how Mitchell would fare after the scouting report came out on him as a No. 1 scorer. He didn’t quell those concerns against Houston.

Conley to the rescue. The Jazz are getting an upgrade over unrestricted free agent Ricky Rubio, who remains a really effective point guard despite his reputation as a one-dimensional playmaker. Rubio’s just not effective in the ways that Conley is at this stage. In Conley’s age-31 season, he had his best scoring campaign of his impressive career. He averaged a personal-best 21.1 points per game with solid efficiency despite being the first, second and third option on the young Memphis team. 

Conley joins a stout defensive team with Rudy Gobert manning the backline. The Jazz are good bets to remain one of the best defensive outfits in the league next season, something that we can’t say about West contenders like Houston and the Lakers. That’s a foundation worth banking on.

Of course, the Jazz didn’t get Conley for free. The Grizzlies received Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen as well as this year’s 23rd pick and a future first-rounder, which figures to be in the late twenties. You might quibble with giving up two first-round picks for Conley, but the team risked losing the Indianapolis product to the Pacers, who are in the same boat as the Jazz -- a good team looking to be great.

Still, I love the deal from the Utah standpoint. With Golden State taking a step back, the Western Conference is as open as ever. It’s why Rockets GM Daryl Morey has fire hoses for arms these days trying to put out the flames of a Harden-Paul feud both internally and publicly. If the Rockets can keep things in order, they have as good a chance as anybody getting to the NBA Finals. 

There is a LeBron James factor in this Utah deal. It’s expected that Korver, a 38-year-old joining a rebuilding roster, will be waived upon his arrival in Memphis. The Lakers desperately need shooters (and bodies) and Korver has already chased a title with James. He struggled to stay on the floor in the playoffs against a physical Rockets team, but James and Davis would make things much easier on him on both ends.

With a newly-minted big three of Conley, Mitchell and Gobert, we safely can label the Jazz as legitimate West contenders. But be sure to use pencil. Thursday’s draft and the upcoming free agency sweepstakes will alter the landscape yet again. 

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Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

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

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

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USA Today Sports

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

The 1,230-game NBA schedule has arrived. While fans start to plan out which games to attend and which marquee matchups to watch, teams will be doing some planning of their own: 

When to sit their stars during the 82-game grind.

Like it or not, this is the NBA we live in. After years of employing strategic rest programs, coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs used to be the face of the “DNP-Rest.” But Kawhi Leonard’s season -- winning the Larry O’Brien trophy on the heels of an aggressive resting program in Toronto -- could represent a watershed moment for the league. 

In 2018-19, Leonard did not play a single full back-to-back set in the regular season and wrapped up a postseason so dominant that many now consider him to be the top player in the NBA. To him, there should be no debate: All that load management helped him stay healthy and peak at the right time.

Whether the rest of the league copies the Kawhi plan is a mystery. Some of the game’s brightest stars, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, took games off to rest last season, although not to Leonard levels. Nonetheless, the DNP-Rest scourge has grown to such an extent that embracing load management has found its way into free agency pitches.

“It’s not enough to prove you can win,” said one GM. “Now you have to prove you can prolong their career.”

As the DNP-rest strategy rises to unseen levels, the NBA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines. Back-to-backs are at an all-time low. In April, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of taking a small chunk out of the regular season in order to fit in a midseason tournament. In June, ESPN reported that NBA and team executives have been exploring such a cup-style tournament as soon as the 2020-21 season.

But as we get ready for marquee matchups in an open championship race, some of those high-profile games may fall victim to load management. Which stars and which games are most at risk? 

* * * 

Vijay Shravah knew there had to be a better way. As a NASA engineer in Silicon Valley, Shravah and his buddies used to buy tickets to watch the Golden State Warriors only to find out last minute that Stephen Curry and other stars weren’t playing that night. They weren’t injured. They were healthy scratches. Even on national TV games.

“The more it happened, the more it baffled me that there was no recourse,” Shravah told NBC Sports.

Shravah felt like it was a breach of trust. No other pro team sport depends on its star power like the NBA, and suddenly, it seemed healthy stars weren’t as dependable as he thought. As the DNP-Rest took hold among the best players, the problem only got worse for ticket buyers and home viewers. In October 2017, Shravah founded Fansure, an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury. 

It takes some real brainpower to make it work. The company has employed two NASA scientists to create algorithms that predict the likelihood of a star player sitting, accounting for several factors, including a player’s rest history, days off heading into a game and quality of opponent. A fan can purchase a 50 percent reimbursement or 100 percent reimbursement package for a small variable fee separate from their ticket purchase. Should the star player sit, the fan gets its money back -- not unlike when airlines offer ticket protection plans before checkout.

Teams are resting their players, or at least being honest about it, more than ever. One of Fansure’s findings should worry fans and executives alike: Top players are taking off games 3.5 times as often as they did in 2012-13. Top 10 players, on average, rested about seven percent of its games last season (every six games or so) and most often at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs. (The company’s top 10 criteria is based on their internal metrics). That figure is disproportionately represented by Leonard last season, when he sat 22 of 82 games to rest and protect his bothersome knee.


With an open championship race, Shravah expects stars like Embiid, James and Leonard to take games off when it makes sense in order to maximize postseason performance. 

“There’s no reason to believe why the trend won’t continue,” Shravah said. 

Of course, not all players are risks for load management. Fansure has identified 10 players who are most likely to be a healthy scratch. At the top of the list is the 34-year-old James, who played a career-low 55 games last season dealing with a significant groin injury that forced him to sit for precautionary reasons. After crunching the schedule that was released on Monday, Fansure expects James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest.

That might seem like a lot, but James has played over 56,000 minutes in his NBA career (playoffs included), which is more than Stephen Curry and his father Dell Curry combined. With the Lakers vying for a championship and Anthony Davis being able to shoulder the load in his absence, it’s possible James takes a Leonard-like conservative approach in the regular season.

Following James, Leonard, Embiid, Paul George, Curry and Davis were highlighted as likely sitters considering their injury risk, rest history and respective team’s championship contention. Fansure also sees a strong probability that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Damian Lillard will miss several games to recover from the 82-game grind.

Which games are most likely to fall victim to load management? Fansure has uncovered six factors that raise the rest probability for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the league:

  • Last game of the season (14.9 times more likely)
  • Second game of a back-to-back (6.5)
  • Single-game road trip (5.2)
  • First game of a back-to-back (4.8)
  • Three games in four days (4.4)
  • Away games (3.5)


The single-game road trip is a hidden pothole. On March 27 last season, the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Making matters worse for Jazz fans hoping to see Lebron, the single-game road trip was sandwiched inside a four-game homestand. Sure enough, James took the night off and didn’t travel with the team. The same went for Leonard on March 3 when he rested during the team’s one-game road trip to Detroit even though it didn’t come on a back-to-back.

Shravah realized it’s not just ticket buyers who are affected when James abruptly decides to sit out even on a non-back-to-back. TV advertisers and gambling sectors aren’t jumping for joy either. This past year, Shravah hired the eighth member of the Fansure team, Scott Kaplan, who is an economics PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and winner of the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics poster competition for his research on the economic impact of star players on NBA ticket prices.

Using Kaplan’s insight and the team’s engineering intel, Fansure is now assessing quality of matchups and risk of injury/rest to help advertisers and fans pick which games to lay down big money for and which to avoid.

Looking through that lens, there are several high-profile games that project to have the highest chance of being a load management game. 

First is Nov. 7 when Lillard and the Blazers come to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on TNT. The Clippers will have played Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the night before on ESPN. Will Leonard and George play that second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, especially if George is coming back from double shoulder surgery? 

On the Blazers’ side, it’s the front end of a back-to-back before they fly back up to Portland for a home game against Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Will Lillard and CJ McCollum, fresh off the deepest playoff run of their career, give it a go?

Another early DNP-Rest possibility is the first Warriors-Lakers matchup of the season on Nov. 13. The Lakers will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, after playing in Phoenix the night before and flying overnight to Los Angeles. The highly anticipated game will, of course, be nationally televised.

James and Davis may decide to play in that marquee game, but the previous night in Phoenix is a game that may fall victim to DNP-rest. It’s a single-game road trip for the Lakers, with two home games before and four home games after the trek to the desert. If Phoenix fans don’t get to see James that night, then they might not see him all season. The other time they host L.A. is the Lakers’ season finale, a game in which James has sat 11 of his last 12 years.

For those outlining the season, here are 10 games that Fansure has red-flagged for load management risk:

  • Nov. 7: POR at LAC
  • Nov. 12: LAL at PHX
  • Nov. 27: LAC at MEM
  • Jan. 23: LAL at BKN
  • Feb. 11: LAC at PHI
  • March 1: LAL at NOP
  • March 12: BKN at GSW
  • March 14: NOP at LAC
  • March 19: PHI at CHA
  • April 15: LAL at PHX
     

Kevin Durant’s “return” to Golden State is on the list for a more subtle reason. Irving, who took games off ahead of the playoffs last season, is also on the load management radar for that late-season game. The trip to the Chase Center is the first night of a back-to-back, but more importantly, it’s bookended by games in Los Angeles. Will Durant travel during his Achilles rehab or will he stay in Los Angeles? 

For what it’s worth, the NBA chose not to put that game on national TV, underlining the sheer unlikelihood of Durant making an appearance at the Warriors’ new arena in the 2019-20 season.

* * * 

Don’t expect every team to have a hard-line rest schedule until the season starts and signs of fatigue begin to show.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

It remains to be seen how often Leonard will rest this season. At his opening press conference in Los Angeles, Leonard indicated that this season he would take the load management on a “day-by-day” basis and that he intends to play out the season. Part of Toronto’s load management program was a response to Leonard only playing nine games in the previous season with the Spurs. Leonard has hinted that he feels healthier entering this season.

“Resting on back-to-backs is becoming a more and more accepted practice around the league,” said one top executive. “But Kawhi didn’t invent this.”

Still, Leonard’s success last season will influence at least some decisions across the league. Embiid, in particular, seemed keen on the idea of strategically resting more next season.

“Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season,” Embiid said after losing to the Raptors in the playoffs, “obviously I don’t want to miss that many games, but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that ... definitely got to take a better approach.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen. The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices -- vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin. 

The schedule-makers have taken extra precaution when booking the Sixers for primetime. Of the 13 second nights of a back-to-back on Philadelphia’s schedule, none of them were handpicked to be on national television (ESPN, TNT or ABC).

* * * 

Privately this summer, representatives from the league office have reached out to team brass to strongly convey the importance of the availability of its stars, especially on national TV games. While player health remains the top priority, teams have been told to keep in mind that the NBA is uniquely positioned to showcase its stars. With no facemasks, helmets or walls to shield fans from seeing the stars, it is the most intimate league in America.

“Let’s not kill the golden goose,” relayed one team executive who spoke to the league office this summer.

The NBA has tweaked the schedule to account for the rise of the DNP-Rest. In 2017, the league office lengthened the season by two weeks to squeeze in more rest days and reduce back-to-backs. After a series of high-profile healthy scratches, the NBA no longer schedules an ABC game in a back-to-back set -- but even building in additional off days sometimes isn’t enough.

The NBA isn’t just competing against Netflix and the NFL for eyeballs. It’s competing against NBA 2K, which, according to its parent company, has sold 90 million units worldwide. Video games are increasingly becoming so life-like and compelling that there is real expectation in league circles that fans could prefer the video game over the real thing, especially in the load management era.

If James, Leonard or George sit to rest, fans might tune out the actual Lakers-Clippers game in order to play as LeBron against Kawhi and PG-13 on their favorite gaming console.

Said one GM: “There’s no load management in 2K.”

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