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When a routine physical uncovers a life-changing diagnosis: The story of the Caris LeVert trade

Caris LeVert's basketball life has been up in the air after it was discovered he needed kidney surgery, a condition found after his trade from the Nets to the Pacers.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

When a player gets injured or misses time, the NBA moves on. It did when Kevin Durant missed a full season. It did when Paul George and Stephen Curry and Victor Oladipo missed significant time.

The league shouldn’t move on from the Caris LeVert injury. In fact, it should serve as a warning to NBA teams and a blessing to LeVert that the Pacers were diligent in his physical examination following the James Harden trade.

The Nets moved LeVert to the Rockets, who then swapped him to the Pacers for Oladipo. LeVert is considered a rising star, a 26-year-old premium scorer who needed his own team to shine. That wasn’t going to happen in Brooklyn.


But something happened on the way to LeVert become Indiana’s next All-Star. His physical found a spot on his kidney, and it was a major concern.

The Pacers did not call off the trade — the Nets added money into the deal — and Indiana not only decided to keep LeVert but ensure he got the best medical care. On Tuesday, the team announced in a brief statement that LeVert had surgery to treat renal cell carcinoma. LeVert is expected to make a full recovery and return to the court.

The Pacers understand that LeVert may not return until next season, but the question begs to be asked: What if there was no Harden trade and LeVert kept playing with a cancerous kidney?

“It’s been some trying times for myself and my family,” LeVert said before the surgery. “From being traded to finding out the news about my body. I’m very grateful for such support I’ve received. It’s definitely been a crazy couple of days. It’s going to be a crazy recovery as well, but I think myself and the Pacers organization is really optimistic about the future.”


LeVert is expected to make a full return, and the diagnosis was a testament to some of the sophisticated medical issues even the finest-conditioned athletes have. LeVert said he had no symptoms. He did not miss a game with the Nets this season. Yet he was playing with a kidney that needed surgery.

“The most important thing is to get my body healthy and live a long life,” he said. “Making sure I’m good health-wise is most important. I’ve been through a lot, not only with basketball but life in general. It was tough news to get, but it could always be worse. I didn’t have any symptoms. I was playing in games. I was 100 percent healthy. This trade could have possibly saved me.”

The Pacers could have rescinded the trade but didn’t. Team president Kevin Pritchard said LeVert was sought-after for years and, when they found his condition could be treated, they stuck to their convictions.

“We huddled 50 times with our doctors and we’re comfortable with it,” Pritchard said. “Modern medicine is incredible. We felt like there is an opportunity to tell a great story and have a great story. We look at character. Character means a lot for us. There were some moments where we could have bowed out, said no chance. [Owner Herb Simon] stuck in there and said, ‘Let’s see this through.’ ”

Said LeVert: “I didn’t know if the trade was going to go through, but it did and that’s a testament to the organization.”


The hope is LeVert turns into a franchise cornerstone. Pritchard said he saw an opportunity to acquire a rising star in exchange for a player who made intimations that he wanted out in Oladipo.

“This was a very unique trade; it had its ups and downs,” Pritchard said. “This organization is going to step up, help him through this, and we’re super confident that we’re going to have him on the court. We’ve had him on our radar for a long time. We’ve tried to get him in the past.”

LeVert said that a physical that was originally meant to examine his back and knees caught the affected kidney.

“This does not get found out until a detailed physical happened,” Pritchard said. “I got two texts from doctors and they told me they had never seen a kid as optimistic and ready to jump in it and get it taken care of.”


A very bad spell for Wizards

Bradley Beal is leading the NBA in scoring, but the Wizards are 3-12 and have the worst record in the league.Nick Wass/Associated Press

The best way to describe the Wizards season so far is disastrous. When the team acquired Russell Westbrook for John Wall last month, it was supposed to result in a legitimate playoff run for a franchise that hasn’t been to the conference finals in 42 years.

The rebuilding years in Washington were supposed to be over, with Westbrook and Bradley Beal catapulting the team to respectability. Instead, the Wizards have been besieged with COVID-19 cases, Westbrook has been erratic at best, and Beal is putting up big numbers — in big losses.

Beal is averaging an obscene 34.7 points per game, but the Wizards are a league-worst 3-12 and Beal is beginning to show major disappointment after each loss. When the Wizards faced the Rockets on Tuesday, with Wall angry at his former team and wanting to prove the trade was a mistake, Houston pulled away to a 19-point victory in the final four minutes.


The next night in New Orleans, Beal scored 47 points and the Wizards lost by 18 points. The issue is Beal has been greatly let down by his supporting cast.

Westbrook is averaging a near triple-double (18.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 9.6 assists) but is shooting a career-low 38.1 percent from the field. The issue is Westbrook can no longer shoot or finish like he once did. He is shooting 39.7 percent on 2-point shots. By comparison, Westbrook shot 51.4 percent from 2-point range last season.

When Westbrook can’t consistently score at the rim or shoot jumpers, more pressure is on Beal. Also, Westbrook is still playing carelessly — 5.0 turnovers per game — which would be the most in the NBA, if he qualified.

Also, the Wizards had seven consecutive games postponed because of players in COVID-19 protocol, which has hampered development. This was supposed to be a breakout season for second-year forward Rui Hachimura, but he’s played in just half of the games. Davis Bertans, who signed a lucrative extension, is supposed to be the team’s 3-point marksman, but he is shooting just 33.7 percent from beyond the arc.


The Wizards were able to acquire former lottery pick Jerome Robinson (a former Boston College standout) and draft Troy Brown, but neither are consistently in coach Scott Brooks’s rotation. So the Wizards have essentially become Beal and the Disappointments.

Brooks is on the coaching hot seat, but it would be unfair to make a move now because the team has been riddled with COVID-19 cases. Yet, changes have to be made.

Beal is contractually obligated to the Wizards through the 2021-22 season with a player option at $37 million for 2022-23. He is obviously the team’s most tradable asset, but also the most valuable. The Wizards moved Wall because they wanted Beal to be the franchise centerpiece.

But the centerpiece is visibly unhappy and the Wizards may have to respond by completely starting over.


Nothing working for T’Wolves

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves have the worst record in the Western Conference.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

With the No. 1 overall pick to add to another former No. 1 pick and second overall pick, the Timberwolves appeared to be ready to compete in the Western Conference. Instead, they are the worst team in the West and there appears to be no sign of progress.

General manager Gersson Rosas did not hire Ryan Saunders as coach, so questions will begin percolating about Saunders’s status. Saunders was a sentimental choice as he is the son of the late Flip Saunders, the most successful coach in franchise history.

Yet, Ryan Saunders is 40-84 with the Timberwolves and the team continues to serve as one of the league’s biggest disappointments.

At first, the combination of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins didn’t work, so Wiggins was moved to Golden State last summer February in exchange for former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell. That was supposed to be the modern-day version of Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett. Instead, the Timberwolves are 7-24 since that tandem was put together.

Towns has played in just four games this season because of a hand injury and COVID-19, and it’s understandable that he hasn’t been the same player since the devastating loss of his mother to the coronavirus. But the team has a whole appears to be a bunch of thrown-together pieces with little cohesion. Recent No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards has had highlight-reel moments but is also shooting just 35.7 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, players such as Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie, and Ricky Rubio were expected to make a major impact but haven’t added to winning. It’s highly unlikely that merely the return of Towns will turn the Timberwolves into a respectable franchise.

They are in the bottom 10 in the NBA in scoring, field goal percentage, and 3-point percentage, and they are also in the bottom 10 in those categories defensively. So, if the Timberwolves aren’t good defensively or offensively, how can they win?

And how long can the 34-year-old Saunders keep his job when the organization isn’t making progress? The Timberwolves believed winning the draft lottery would be the beginning of an organization ascension, but it’s done nothing but add another talented player to a team filled with them but nothing to show for it.


Uneasy in New Orleans

Lonzo Ball, right, is averaging 12.9 points per game for the Pelicans this season.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Wasn’t Stan Van Gundy supposed to be the answer to all of the Pelicans’ issues? They are still poor defensively and the duo of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram aren’t getting much help.

With a fully healthy Williamson and Ingram coming off a maximum contract extension and Most Improved Player Award, the Pelicans were expected to take off. Even though they sent away Jrue Holiday in a four-team trade, they were able to get Oklahoma City strongman Steven Adams in return to stabilize the center position.

But the Pelicans lost 8 of 11 games, allowing at least 111 points in each defeat. So, what’s the problem? Like the Timberwolves, the Pelicans have the talent but lack cohesion, and that has resulted in losses to average teams such as Oklahoma City and Charlotte (at home), and back-to-back losses at Utah followed by a loss at Minnesota.

The issue is a lack of a dependable third scorer — Eric Bledsoe has taken that role — while injuries and inconsistency have stopped Lonzo Ball from making the expected impact. Meanwhile, veteran J.J. Redick has dipped as a 3-point shooter (29.8 percent). Redick is in the final year of his contract at $13 million and teams have been inquiring about his services.

The Celtics have a $28.5 million trade exception and could add a first-round pick or some second-rounders to get Redick out of New Orleans. But the pressure is on the franchise to take the next step, especially with two of the league’s rising stars in Williamson and Ingram.

The problem is the players the Pelicans received in return for Anthony Davis haven’t developed. Ball has been injured and uneven. Josh Hart is a role player. Van Gundy is known for his inventive offenses, but he convinced management he could help the team improve drastically on defense. But the Van Gundy Pelicans and the Alvin Gentry Pelicans are pretty much alike. They are entertaining teams with star power but lack the savvy and fortitude to win games late. Van Gundy, 61, was an interesting choice for a young team because he’s an older coach who was considered a retread and his four-year stint in Detroit was a failure.

Instead of hiring a first-time coach or younger lead man to relate to younger players, Van Gundy won the job because he interviewed well, which wasn’t a surprise. But the Pelicans need to make a significant step soon, and that could be near impossible in the competitive Western Conference.


The Spurs will get a boost with the return of Derrick White, who has been limited to one game this season because of a fractured toe. The Spurs went into the weekend tied for fourth in the West and were coming off impressive home wins over the Celtics and Nuggets. San Antonio has reshaped itself with younger wings such as Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker, and White will fill a backcourt role that could turn them into a sleeper in the conference . . . Former Celtic Isaiah Thomas has decided to join Team USA in his quest to return to the NBA. It’s a perfect vehicle for Thomas to prove he can still contribute after having hip issues the past few years. Thomas maintains that his latest procedure has eliminated the pain and he can get back to the form that made him a two-time All-Star with the Celtics. NBA teams have been resistant to sign Thomas because of his injury history. There are a handful of players, such as Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, and Dion Waiters, waiting for calls from teams. The league has been resistant about expanding rosters from 17 to 18 players because there is concern that adding a spot would create a competitive imbalance favoring teams who are not hard-capped . . . We want to offer blessings and farewell to the great Sekou Smith, one of the top NBA reporters in the country and a close friend who died this past week because of complications from COVID-19. Smith was one of the reporters who spent time in the bubble and it was a joy to spend time on a daily basis with a dude who was so funny and had such basketball acumen. All of the reporters who spent time in the bubble developed a bond because of the sacrifices made. Smith made the time in the bubble more enjoyable and the accolades he’s received since his tragic passing have been well-deserved. NBA reporters have a pretty deep brother and sisterhood, and Smith was a center part of that bond. Take care of yourself and your family because COVID-19 is serious and can be devastating.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.