First Harden, then Deng; who's next?

Luol Deng was just the second shoe. You do need at least two. James Harden was the first. They’re the early fallout from the 2011 labor deal. Like with a draft, it takes a few years to determine who are the winners and losers and which players will develop. Similarly with a new labor contract. Everyone believes they know what will happen. Until it does.

The owners in the labor deal wanted to level the playing field more by spreading talent and make it difficult to create more super teams. It seems they’ve succeeded.

The Thunder traded Harden for lesser contracts and draft picks because they felt they couldn’t afford that third huge deal. Deng’s deal involves similar issues given the Bulls felt they could not go over $10 million annually with future possibilities and financial penalties.

The question is who’s next?

Probably Miami after this season depending on LeBron James’ decision regarding his opt out. The conventional wisdom is the Heat will have to trade Chris Bosh to avoid the big luxury tax penalties. Once Marc Gasol returns, the Grizzlies figure to look into what to do about Zach Randolph again. They supposedly want to build around Gasol and Mike Conley. Utah probably can’t pay all its young players and may have to make a big decision on Gordon Hayward. The Pacers will have issues bringing back Lance Stephenson. The Warriors, though he has played well lately, probably cannot retain David Lee. It’s a whole new world in the NBA, and it’s just beginning to come into focus.

LeBron’s Heat vulnerable as were Jordan’s Bulls

-- Joakim Noah’s postgame peroration Saturday was the most touching. But LeBron James’ comments after the losses to the Knicks and Nets last week may have been the most significant. “It's a long and grueling season for all of us, not just us because we're the champs," James said after fouling out for only the sixth time in his career and the first time in a regular season game since 2008 against Brooklyn. "We've played a lot of basketball in our four years together. It's taken a lot of wear and tear on all our bodies. It's mentally fatiguing. And you just try to find the motivation the best way you can as an individual and as a collective group." I don’t believe James is going to retire. But this is the latest James as Jordan comparison. James clearly is getting worn out carrying a not very great Miami team, much as Jordan did, especially in 1997-98 and a bit less so in 1992-93. We all said the third time isn’t so charming, and James is feeling it like Jordan did. James complained after the Nets game of opponents flopping (nice the way he falls all over the place when hit) and said he apologized to teammates for his body language. The “problem” James has like Jordan is they cannot give up on games. Dwyane Wade has become fine with that, resting until the playoffs. But Jordan couldn’t bear it for one game. And neither can James. But even with the super ones it has an effect even if they never think it will happen. It seems to be happening with James. It’s why the Bulls struggled so much with those third titles, falling behind the Knicks 2-0 in the conference finals in 1993, going seven games with the Pacers in the conference finals in 1998. It’s why the Heat is vulnerable this season. Which makes the Derrick Rose injury all the more difficult to take for the Bulls.

What will Love’s future hold?

-- So what of Kevin Love? His future is soon going to rise to the top of personnel possibilities with the Timberwolves having a disappointing season and Love seemingly on the verge of a meltdown. The Timberwolves went to 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer after last week’s last second loss to the Suns. Love then, according to Minneapolis media, was waiting for reporters to enter the locker room to basically blast his team, or at least a few of them. “We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes, just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts," Love said, supposedly referring to J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham. "We all need to be in this together. That kind of (ticks) me off. We're supposed to be a team. It's two guys that we expect more from them. I think they expect more from themselves. I'm not trying to single anybody out and I don't want to make it bigger than it is, but it's just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn't play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that's really in it together." Perhaps it wasn’t the best time as Love was four of 20 in the game. Love had called out the reserves a few weeks earlier after a loss to Dallas as well. And the Timberwolves have not won more than 31 games in his five seasons. Now the Timberwolves face the issue teams have with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard: Trade him now or this summer and get something? Try a sign and trade when he opts out after next season? Lose him? Utah traded Williams early and seems to have done well. Denver did reasonably well trading Anthony in midseason. But that clause to be traded and then extended for the maximum contract has been eliminated. Love, in the top four this season in scoring and rebounding, is said to be favoring the Lakers or the Knicks in free agency in 2015 when both will have money for perhaps two free agents. So is it even worth it to give up much given Love likely won’t extend with your team? Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said after losing James that he’ll trade a player before he allows that to happen again. Someone should be saying they are sorry in the Love story. But things can change as LaMarcus Alridge, who last summer supposedly wanted to be traded, now is telling the Portland Tribune he wants an extension to stay with the Trail Blazers.

Cleveland offense may be offensive to Deng

-- Luol Deng must think he’s back with Vinny Del Negro, losing Sunday night to the Kings by 44. Actually, it was losing a 35-point lead to the Kings under Del Negro that may have been Deng’s playing low point with the Bulls. Deng has been used modestly in his two games with the Cavs, averaging 11 points in 22 minutes per game. A lot of the thinking is Deng has the leverage on the Cavs given they gave up so much money and draft picks to do the deal that they cannot afford to lose him. Especially since LeBron James is not coming back to the Cavs, at least not after this season. James has an opt out and there is much speculation about where he might go if he chooses to leave Miami. But until he does decide, anything you hear is unconfirmed as James has remained quiet and no one was predicting Miami his last season on Cleveland. But in hearing from people around and close to James, they pretty much laugh at and dismiss talk that James would entertain returning this summer to the Cavs. Which leaves Deng in potentially even a stronger position to get perhaps a four-year $60 million contract. But what about Mike Brown? The Cavs coach is regarded as the Lovie Smith of the NBA with barely a passing interest in offense. Deng had his worst times as a Bull under Del Negro because Del Negro’s offense was simple and Brown-like. Would Deng choose to spend the rest of his top seasons playing for a coach who will have trouble involving him in the offense since Deng routinely has said he doesn’t need plays but plays off others and the coach’s ingenuity? Money supposedly can’t buy happiness. Can it buy Deng back to a standing around in a waiting-for-a-bus offense?

NBA news and notes

-- We know a lot of guys are hurt this season, but it’s become epidemic among guards with Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jrue Holiday going out recently. The No. 1 point guard for 10 teams is out now with several, like Ray Felton in New York and rookie starters Michael Carter Williams and Trey Burke, recently back. And they protect the guards with less contact allowed. … The players who went on Dennis Rodman’s ill-conceived “goodwill” trip to North Korea were mostly paid if they were a bigger name about $100,000, according to one. … Forget that MVP for Thaddeus Young. He failed to score a point last Tuesday after having scored a total of 205 in the previous eight games. He thus became the fourth player in NBA history to be held scoreless while playing 20 or more minutes after averaging at least 25 points during the previous eight games, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The other players were Jim Paxson, Antawn Jamison, and Gilbert Arenas. … I’m refusing to mention the Knicks this week because they get too much attention with the same wacky guys saying inflammatory stuff for an essentially irrelevant team. But there are plenty of others to go to, like Boston’s regularly angry Gerald Wallace, who did throw in some support for the Bulls. Asked by Boston reporters if he could see the Celtics pulling apart, Wallace said, “I think so. It’s typical of when things go bad it goes that way because guys go in their own direction. The teams that have been through adversity, like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Chicago, they know how to pull together and keep it on track. This is a young team with guys who are in situations they haven’t been comfortable being in. Like I’ve said, this road trip can make or break our season depending on how we respond to it.” The Celtics were swept. … The Nets play the Hawks in London this week with the Nets saying Deron Williams would not go to treat his recurring ankle problems. The Nets have been celebrating the play at point guard lately—with Williams off the ball when he does play—of Shaun Livingston. The Peoria product is averaging 10.6 the last 10 games and continues to have an unlikely career after tearing basically every ligament in his knee in 2007. Houston recently was rumored interested in Williams with Patrick Beverley hurt and needing another scorer. But they’ve been trying to unload Omer Asik on basically everyone with no takers. The main reason, other than some suspicions Asik isn’t hurt but doesn’t want to play for the Rockets, is the clever balloon payment the Rockets came up with to steal Jeremy Lin and Asik. Their money is on the salary cap at $8 million. But you have to pay them $15 million in cash for next season. Thus if you trade for Asik, Houston will have paid him the small dollar years and you are stuck with the bulk of the payment of his contract for one season. So basically the contract has backfired since it was a benefit only if they kept Asik. It’s why the Rockets are now saying they what to keep Asik. It’s pretty much the same in Brooklyn with Williams. You sure could have him if you wanted that $21 million average salary through 2016-17.

-- Kevin Garnett is one of the biggest pains in the butt with media with his penchant to avoid reporters, make them wait and then walk away and other juvenile acts. It’s too bad because he’s a clever guy when he takes the time to chat, and he came up with another good one after a rare, of late, good game with 11 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and a game saving defensive play against the Warriors. Explained Garnett: “I work on my craft every day, so I expect it to be a certain way. When I got to dial her up, I want her to pick the phone up. Tonight, I dialed and she was right there and answered like she was supposed to.” Too bad he’s not much gracious when he doesn’t do well. Which is more often of late. … I did say the Kings would be a scoring team trading for Rudy Gay, and they won their third straight for the first time in two years and have scored at least 100 points in 12 straight games and 18 of the last 19. The Bulls by contrast have scored 100 points six times all season. But can the Kings be good enough that the Bulls will get that draft pick this season from the Deng trade? It’s top 12 protected, meaning the Kings need to have the 13th pick or below to 30. It probably would mean getting to 10th in the West. They currently are four games behind. But they’d likely have to pass three from among New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota and Memphis, who are currently not playoff teams. … It was a pair of wins for the Pistons after eight losses in nine games thanks to that wily Mo Cheeks. See, we always know what to do. It always takes the teams awhile to figure it out. We all knew Asik wouldn’t work as soon as Houston got Dwight Howard. And we all knew Josh Smith wouldn’t work at small forward with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. But if you change the starting lineup the media goes into an uproar. So Mo fooled them. He starts each half with those three, but never plays them together after the first substitution. So no new starting lineup. At least on paper. But how long until Josh figures it out? They still could move one by trade deadline, and you are starting to hear that maybe it would be Josh. Which is unlikely with the $54 million the Pistons paid him for four years, which made it so hard for the Bulls to extend Luol Deng. Monroe, though, is a restricted free agent. If there are no bites on Smith, he figures to be the one to go. Cheeks also is going with the new normal in the league, playing Brandon Jennings and Will Bynum together frequently. … The Cavs, by the way, have Deng on a minutes restriction given his sore Achilles, from which he recently returned before the trade. Another complicating factor for Deng weighing whether to stay with the Cavs is that they obviously no longer have Andrew Bynum. And Anderson Varejao is on a partially guaranteed contract for next season. Could they afford to pay Deng and then extend Kyrie Irving to an obviously maximum deal? And then who plays center? Tyler Zeller? Is that Deng’s view of going to a winner? The whispers are the Cavs also may have a very difficult time resigning Irving, who grew up in New Jersey and is said to have an interest in a return.

-- Since starting last season 12-13 after bidding good riddance to Dwight Howard, the Magic is, uuugh, 18-66 and 10-27 this season. No city gets mad at its great players more, having similarly celebrated the departures of Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady. But now can they afford to not cash in Arron Afflalo, who has an opt out after next season. … It’s the battle for fifth in the United Center Monday as the Bulls host the Washington Wizards. This, finally, was supposed to be the turnaround season for the Wizards with John Wall maturing, Bradley Beal back and the trade for Marcin Gortat. But the Wizards remain consistently erratic, better on the road than at home. Oddly, so are the Raptors, Pistons, Knicks and Bucks. Maybe East home fans are too disappointed. … Thomas Robinson came back with a nice stint off the bench last week against Orlando, though after losing his rotation spot once again, this time to Meyers Leonard. … He never gets any All-Star mention, not with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Stephen Curry in the conference. And now Damian Lillard has overshadowed him. But the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley has quietly emerged. He’s averaging 22 points and 6.4 assists this month as the Grizzlies have won four of six and had 31 last week when the Grizzlies beat the Suns and Goran Dragic. “Maybe he’s tired of hearing about Dragic being an All-Star,” cracked Memphis coach Dave Joerger of Conley. “Mike gave him fits.” … The Nuggets got on a bit of a run as players said new coach Brian Shaw finally has gone back to George Karl’s running style game. … It was tough to see Andre Miller basically thrown off the team awaiting a trade for a confrontation with Shaw as Miller generally is one of the better veterans in being professional. … The Suns looked like they had a dilemma with point guard Eric Bledsoe, who rejected an extension last fall and then was on the way to being an All-Star. Now what do they do as restricted free agent Bledsoe is out indefinitely after his second meniscus surgery on the same knee? That’s also the big risk for a player in turning down your first big extension. It’s generally bad advice to do so. Get that first pay day. Then you can hold out pretending to be a star. Now how much of a chance will anyone take on Bledsoe?

-- You better believe the next time you come close to anyone shooting a game ending three there will be a foul call. The NBA Sunday had to again admit its officials made a mistake by not calling a foul, this time on an Austin Rivers three attempt to tie Dallas Saturday. Coaches had started to tell players to foul at the buzzer as the officials won’t call it. You can be sure that’s changing. … With Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson out indefinitely, the Pelicans’ hopeful season is fading away. It probably will take Anthony Davis’s All-Star chances with them and he’s continued to put up impressive numbers. … Pau Gasol is averaging 18.8 points and 12 rebounds in January since his return from an infection. Fans and local media now are demanding he be traded in the wake of Andrew Bynum going to the Bulls instead and being released. The Lakers long have quietly been trying to get something for Gasol—Cleveland ended up throwing in the draft picks for Deng instead—though his approximately $20 million contract with trade kicker makes a deal difficult given the Lakers want to remain salary free after this season for free agency. Kobe Bryant’s coming back to this?