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Sunday, August 20, 2017

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10 teams that improved the most this NBA offseason

Jimmy Butler

Though there was no single Kevin-Durant-to-Golden-State-sized splash in the NBA this offseason, teams made move after move to jockey with the Warriors in an attempt to interrupt their reign of terror.

The Rockets took a leap of faith and traded the farm for an aging Chris Paul. The Celtics used their cap space to reunite Gordon Hayward with Brad Stevens, then got rid of an asset in Avery Bradley to balance their checkbook. The Timberwolves suddenly became a legitimate Western Conference contender by ripping off the Bulls.

There were so many moves, in fact — so many trades and so many signings — that, now that the league’s transaction churn and burn has finally calmed, it’s hard to believe all that actually happened. To sum it up:

We’re going to see a lot of familiar faces in new jerseys come this fall (the preseason begins Sept. 30). But which of those players will make the biggest impact, and which teams will look the most improved? Which 2017-18 NBA squad will make the biggest leap?

It’s too early to know, of course, but below is my take on the 10 NBA teams that improved the most this offseason.

10. Denver Nuggets

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Max Scherzer scratched from start with neck issue

Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer continues to be plagued by neck issues.

The Washington Nationals ace was scratched from his scheduled start on Friday against the San Diego Padres after experiencing a neck problem. Matt Grace got the nod in Scherzer’s place.

Nats manager Dusty Baker could tell something was amiss when Scherzer was at Petco Park early.

Scherzer left his start on Aug. 1 after one inning of work. He had hit his first career home run in that game and then was unable to continue pitching because of his neck. He still made his next two starts, pitching nearly identical lines of five hits and two runs allowed over seven innings. But the neck issue resurfaced Friday.

MASN’s Dan Kolko says Scherzer will undergo testing to see if anything can be found concerning his neck. The Nats would obviously want to have some answers before the playoffs roll around.

Scherzer is 12-5 with a 2.25 ERA this season.

Michael Beasley tired of not being respected

Michael Beasley has heard every last one of your bust jokes and your marijuana punchlines over the years, and he is one hundred percent over it.

In an interview with Marc Berman of the New York Post on Friday, the former No. 2 overall pick said he is sick of not getting the respect he feels he deserves.

“Look at my nine-year career, I’ve always been close to a point a minute,” he said. “I’ve always been a walking bucket. Nobody can stop me, hasn’t stopped me my last nine years. Every time I’ve touched the ball, the defender’s scared … I’m just tired of not getting the acknowledgement of being who I am.

“I’ve always been the quiet, not-stand-up-for-myself-kind-of-guy,” continued Beasley. “Not being disrespectful. But I want my respect. For the last nine years, I’ve been a walking bucket, man. Anytime you want a point, I’ll give you a point, no matter what the circumstances, who the player is defending me.”

The 28-year-old Beasley, who turned down more money to sign with the Knicks this summer, has always been able to, as he says, get dem buckets. But his off-court incidents, various legal troubles, and overall failure to live up to his draft position have come to define Beasley in the eyes of many. Now it’ll be on him to prove in The Big Apple why he deserves some respeck on his name.

Chargers OL Russell Okung calls on white players to take public action

Russell Okung

Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung wants more attention to be made to the issues of racial inequality in the country, and he thinks white athletes need to stand up for black ones in order for the public to start seeing things differently.

Okung’s former Seahawks teammate Michael Bennett said on ESPN’s SC6 Wednesday that things would really change when a white athlete took a stand for black players.

“It would take a white player to really get things changed,” Bennett said Wednesday. “because when somebody from the other side understands and they step up and they speak up about it … it would change the whole conversation. Because when you bring somebody who doesn’t have to be a part of [the] conversation making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a jump.”

Okung heard Bennett’s comments and sent a tweet on Friday in which he agreed with the Seattle defensive lineman.

Free agent longsapper Clint Gresham, who played in Seattle from 2010-2015, said he would join the movement if he were still on the team.

The closest sign of support came from Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long, who put his arm around teammate Malcolm Jenkins as the safety raised a fist during the anthem.

If more players embrace the movement, the conversation would certainly change.

Jay-Z says he bought three pairs of Big Baller Brand shoes

Jay Z

Big Baller Brand apparently has at least one notable celebrity backer.

In an appearance Friday on TIDAL’s “The Rap Radar Podcast,” rap mogul Jay-Z said he bought three pairs of Big Baller Brand shoes. Jay-Z gave credit to and expressed his support for LaVar Ball, as transcribed by JMKTV.

For his part, Hov obviously knows a thing or two about sports business and starting your own company from the ground up. While LaVar, son Lonzo, and the Big Baller Brand are often the butt of jokes, they are at least embarking on an admirable venture, and Jay-Z, for one, respects it.

H/T BSO

AJ Hinch has not heard from MLB about umpire criticism

AJ Hinch

Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch has not heard from MLB despite criticizing the umpires from Thursday’s 4-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Hinch was especially upset with the way the game ended and criticized umpire Paul Nauert for calling out Marwin Gonzalez on strikes to end the game. Here were Nauert’s calls in the final at-bat of the game. The red balls represent what were strikes in the at-bat and the green means the pitch was called a ball.

As you can see, the final pitch (No. 7) was inside, though not quite as far inside as No. 3. Hinch complained after the game that the Astros were robbed in the final at-bat of the game.

Despite his criticism and comments, Hinch said on Friday that he hasn’t heard anything from the league yet.

Hinch certainly had a right to be upset when you see the calls made on Gonzalez to end the game. If this were the NBA, he would have already been hit with a fine.

New York radio host has epic meltdown on Aaron Judge caller

Don La Greca

New York sports radio host Don La Greca had a meltdown for the ages on Thursday when responding to a caller who suggested Aaron Judge should have been pinch hit for in a game.

La Greca co-hosts “The Michael Kay Show” with Kay on ESPN Radio New York. After he and Kay took a call from caller Steve in Brooklyn, who asked why Judge wasn’t replaced for a pinch-hitter, La Greca lost his mind.

La Greca, remaining a true pro, doesn’t drop any curse words while going on a massive rant.

Hey, if you were a Mets fan the way La Greca is, and someone suggested replacing a guy with 37 home runs this season, you would find them to be crazy too.

But wow, did La Greca go over the top or what? Sheesh.

Dirk Koetter won’t commit to Doug Martin starting upon return from suspension

Doug Martin Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay may not be giving the reins right back to Doug Martin in Week 4.

Speaking with the media on Friday, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said that it was “impossible” to say if Martin would be the team’s starting running back upon his return from suspension, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.

The two-time Pro Bowler Martin is coming off a down year in 2016 in which he made just eight appearances, rushing for a meager 431 yards and three touchdowns. He will be sitting out the first three games of the 2017 campaign due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Bucs management has spoken highly of Martin’s performance this offseason, but it sounds like he may still be in an open backfield competition with the likes of Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims upon his return to the gridiron.

DeMarcus Cousins on Confederate statue debate: ‘Take all them motherf—ers down’

All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins is the latest prominent sports figure to give his take on the ongoing national debate over Confederate statues.

In a Friday chat with TMZ Sports, he called for all the statues to come down.

“Take all them motherf—ers down,” said Cousins bluntly. “Take ’em all down.”

It’s an issue that hits close to home for Cousins — he is from Alabama, went to college in Kentucky, and now plays professionally in Louisiana, three states where Confederate monuments are still prominently displayed.

Other prominent NBA players have recently been voicing their opposition to the statues as well, and the cries may only continue to grow louder from here.

Dwight Howard hoping to ‘shut people’s mouths’ in Charlotte

Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard is now on his fifth NBA team in as many years, but he believes that he has finally found the right opportunity to hush the naysayers.

In an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that ran Friday, the eight-time All-Star commented on his new situation with the Charlotte Hornets.

“Cliff’s [Hornets head coach Steve Clifford] going to push me, but he’s not going to ever be one of those guys who I would say would break my spirit,” said Howard. “He really believes in me. Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths.”

The 31-year-old Howard, who was traded to the Hornets earlier this summer, was quietly productive last season with 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game in 74 appearances for the Atlanta Hawks. But his last several NBA stops have been plagued by uncertainty over his role, friction with his teammates, and just a general aura of unwelcomeness. One can only hope that Charlotte will help Howard flip the unwanted journeyman narrative that has accompanied him for the second part of his career.

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