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Morning shootaround — Feb. 9


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Reports: Karl to be fired before All-Star break | James ’emotional’ over Kobe’s farewell tour | Communication issues dogging Bulls

No. 1:Reports: Karl to be fired soon — On Jan. 23, the Sacramento Kings beat the Indiana Pacers behind a monstrous 48-point night from All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. That victory was the Kings’ fifth in a row and had them solidly in the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. But, oh, how things have changed since then. Sacramento has lost eight of its last nine games and is on a four-game slump, all of which has turned those good feelings a few weeks ago back into turmoil for the Kings. And in the wake of coach Derek Fisher surprisingly being fired by the New York Knicks on Monday, it seems Kings coach George Karl is next in line to be fired. Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee has more, as does ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

League sources said the Kings will fire coach George Karl in the coming days amid the team’s worst stretch this season.

The sources said Karl will not keep his job beyond the All-Star break. The Kings’ final game before the break is Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

A season that looked to be on the upswing last month has gone awry, leaving the players to wonder if they have the fortitude to turn things around.

“I hope that’s the case,” guard Rajon Rondo said after Monday night’s 120-100 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. “But with optional shootarounds, it’s tough. We’ve lost eight of nine. When three or four guys show up for shootaround (Monday) morning, how can you expect to win?”

Optional workouts are nothing new for the Kings under Karl. But with the team in a tailspin and its defense faltering, players questioned the logic behind making anything optional.

After firing Michael Malone and Tyrone Corbin last season, the Kings hired Karl at the All-Star break to provide stability. But that hasn’t been the case, dating to Karl’s feud with center DeMarcus Cousins last summer. Several players also have been unhappy with Karl’s coaching style.

Assistant coach Corliss Williamson, a former teammate of Kings general manager Vlade Divac and the lone holdover from Malone’s staff, is a logical choice to be interim coach.

Players’ rumblings over the lack of defensive adjustments have grown louder during the current rut as offensively challenged teams like the Brooklyn Nets post multiple season and career highs against Sacramento.

The Kings often look unprepared defensively, leaving shooters open and watching as opponents execute the most obvious game plans against them. They’ve given up 120.8 points per game during their current four-game losing streak.

“We go into the game knowing that we’ve got to protect the (three-point) line, knowing that LeBron (James’) favorite target is J.R. (Smith),” Rondo said. “And what do we do? We come in and let LeBron find J.R. We’ve got to stop making excuses; that’s the bottom line. We make too many excuses as a team.”

A separation between Karl and the players has existed at various levels throughout the season. But it is at its greatest when the Kings are playing at their worst.

As the point guard, Rondo was supposed to be a bridge between Karl and the players. Rondo has even said he believes he and Karl should speak more to each other.

Asked if his talks with Karl still are productive, Rondo said, “After every meeting on a game-day shootaround, we talk. He asks me questions, and sometimes I give him my feedback and sometimes I don’t say anything.”

After Monday’s loss, Karl acknowledged a lot of “mental frustration” was surrounding the Kings.

And here’s Stein’s breakdown of the situation in Sacramento:

The Sacramento Kings are going ahead with a coaching change and plan to fire George Karl in the coming days, league sources told ESPN.

NBA coaching sources told ESPN that the Kings have decided internally that a change on the bench is needed and is likely to happen after Sacramento plays its final game before the All-Star break Wednesday in Philadelphia.

Within the organization, according to sources, concerns have been mounting for weeks that Karl was not providing the stewardship Sacramento expected when it hired the 64-year-old from ESPN during the 2015 All-Star break to replace then-interim coach Tyrone Corbin.

Sources said rising dismay, both within the front office and among players, with Karl’s defensive schemes, practice policies and general leadership have had a demoralizing effect on the players, who have slumped into a 1-8 funk in the wake of a recent five-game win streak that briefly had Sacramento in the West’s eighth playoff spot.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has made no secret of his hope to see his team reach the postseason and bring a halt to the franchise’s nine-season playoff drought in its final season at Sleep Train Arena before moving into a new building in Sacramento.

Divac, sources said, is seeking only an interim coach for now and wants to take his time with a proper coaching search, in hopes of bringing some much-needed stability to the position and the organization.

The Kings’ next coach will be their league-most ninth since 2006-07, the season that began the postseason drought.

Sources said Ranadive, who took ownership of the Kings in May 2013, has left the decision of whether to fire Karl fully with Divac. The owner twice bucked NBA convention by hiring a coach — first Mike Malone, then Karl — before hiring his GM.

Former Kings guard Bobby Jackson, who played alongside Divac on Sacramento’s best teams in the early 2000s, essentially called for Karl’s dismissal on the team’s local postgame show after the Brooklyn defeat.

Karl has an estimated $10 million in guaranteed money left on his original four-year, $15 million contract with the Kings. His ouster would be the sixth coaching change of this NBA season, which is two shy of the league’s record of eight before the All-Star break, set during the 2008-09 season.


VIDEO: Cavaliers dominate to keep Kings reeling

***

 

Ezeli surgery puts to test LeBron’s remark on Warriors’ health

LeBron James didn’t exactly curse the Golden State Warriors earlier this season when he lauded the defending champions as “the most healthy team I’ve ever seen in NBA history.” But that backhanded compliment might no longer apply, based on backup center Festus Ezeli’s surgery Monday.

Ezeli underwent arthroscopic surgery in Oakland to clean out debris from his left knee and will be re-evaluated in six weeks. The team’s official news release included the phrase “expected to return this season,” but that likely means sometime in April, leaving the Warriors only a short time to re-acclimate the 6-foot-11 backup big man before hitting the postseason.

Add in the 16 games forward Harrison Barnes missed with a sprained ankle and it’s becoming increasing difficult to write off Golden State’s success to injury avoidance. Granted this setback still doesn’t match the short-handedness through which James led Cleveland in the playoffs last spring – what with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love missing or hobble through most of the playoffs – but it will stretch Golden State’s deep roster just a wee bit thin. Marreese Speights and maybe Jason Thompson will pick up Ezeli’s minutes, while starter Andrew Bogut has less margin for mishap now himself.

Of course, the Warriors could just decide to small-ball the opposition into submission. Ezeli’s impact was most noticeable defensively, with teams shooting worse (46.5 percent vs. 47.1) and scoring less (3.2 points fewer per 100 possessions) when he was on the court.

Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com caught some of the initial reaction from the Warriors on Ezeli’s situation:

“Festus is a huge part of our rotation,” head coach Steve Kerr said after practice on Monday. “He’s really had a good year, an excellent year.

“Mo is going to step in and play well for us, but I feel bad for Festus. It’s a contract year and he’s young and he’s already had a knee surgery. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that he’s going to be OK.”

The 6’11” center last appeared in a game on January 25 vs. San Antonio and has missed the last five games due to a sore left knee.

In 40 games this season (11 starts), Ezeli is averaging 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.23 blocks in 17.8 minutes per contest.

It’s open season on coaches in NBA


VIDEO: Derek Fisher got ejected for arguing a call earlier this season. The Knicks fired him today.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Technically, the New York Knicks “relieved” Derek Fisher of his duties as coach today, which is a fancy way of saying they fired Phil Jackson‘s hand-picked choice to lead the franchise.

Kurt Rambis has been elevated to the top job in Fisher’s place, leaving yet another franchise with an interim (or replacement) in place of the coach they started with this season. It’s the latest in a somewhat shocking run of coaching decisions around the league.

And it just goes to show that no matter if you’re winning or losing, when it’s open season on coaches in the NBA, anybody could be on the firing line — just ask George Karl, who is reportedly on the hot seat in Sacramento.

Kevin McHale was the first to go this season, lasting just 11 games in Houston before being shoved out and replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff. Lionel Hollins got the boot in Brooklyn after a dreadful start and was replaced by Tony Brown. David Blatt, fresh off of a trip to The Finals and his team sitting at 30-11 and first place in the Eastern Conference, was next. Tyronn Lue was tabbed as his successor and is 6-3 since making that 18-inch move over to the big chair. And just last week Jeff Hornacek was tossed out in Phoenix and replaced by Earl Watson.

And now comes the news that Fisher, a Phil Jackson disciple but a coaching novice, is out after a season and a half and just 136 games (with a woeful 40-96 record).

With the Knicks mired in a 1-9 slide, including five straight losses, and seemingly no relief in sight, Jackson apparently decided that enough was enough. We’ll find out what the final straw was late today when Jackson addresses the media after practice.

But it’s clear that in New York and everywhere else, if ownership and the front office believe that there is a disconnect (real or simply perceived) between the talent on the roster and the coach responsible for getting the most out of that talent, the coach is expendable.

The five coaching changes prior to All-Star Weekend is the most since the eight coaching changes prior to the break during the 2008-09 season.

The term “crazy season” is usually reserved for the rumors and drama surrounding this month’s trade deadline. It seems a more appropriate title for all of the coaching changes going on this season.

Blatt’s contemporaries, notably Rick Carlisle in Dallas and Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, expressed their outrage when he was fired and Cavaliers GM David Griffin did his best to explain why a coach with a sterling record was out of his league, and ultimately out of a job, trying to coach a star-studded roster.

Carlisle and Van Gundy should know better than anyone how this works, since they were both fired from previous jobs in the league where they were wildly successful.

There is no real rhyme or reason to these things. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, sometimes it’s the things we can’t see from the outside and sometimes it’s just clash of personalities or philosophies that lead to a coaching divorce.

Fisher had no coaching experience prior to being selected to coach the Knicks. And he wasn’t even Jackson’s first choice, that would have been Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who in hindsight obviously made the right choice.

The most important choice for Jackson going forward is getting it right this time. He’ll have his pick of out-of-work coaches, like Tom Thibodeau, or he can wait on an up and coming assistant like Luke Walton. Whatever his choice, it has to be someone that can get the most out of the Carmelo AnthonyKristaps Porzingis combination and perhaps more importantly, someone with the toughness and resolve to survive the “crazy season” expectations that all of these franchises are caught up in.

Data curated by PointAfter

Knicks fire Fisher, name Rambis interm coach

From NBA.com staff reports

Derek Fisher posted a record of 40-96 over one-plus seasons in New York.

Derek Fisher posted a record of 40-96 over one-plus seasons in New York.

After 136 games and roughly 1 1/2 seasons, Derek Fisher is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

According to ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein, who first reported the news, Fisher has been fired 54 games into the 2015-16 season.

The Knicks made the news official shortly thereafter and said in a team release that assistant coach Kurt Rambis would take over as interim coach.

The Knicks hired Fisher on June 10, 2014 in hopes that his playing pedigree (five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers) would extend to the team as they tried to revive their championship days of the past. The Knicks paired him with his former coach in Los Angeles, Phil Jackson, who was now the team president.

But the Knicks have stumbled under Fisher, going 17-65 last season and are 23-31 this season, five games out in the race for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Overall, he was 40-96 in New York.

Shelburne first reported that Rambis (another former Jackson disciple) would take over the team on an interim basis. But other names — and Jackson disciples — could enter the mix, including former Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw and current Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 8


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Karl unsure how to fix Kings’ issues | Portland’s Henderson gets bounce back at right time | Magic needed win over Hawks in worst way | Curry’s wild week finishes front and center at Super Bowl 50

No. 1: Kings’ Karl trying to right team’s ship — Sacramento Kings coach George Karl made it through the weekend, surviving the swirl of rumors that he could be fired before the sun came up this morning. But the day is just getting started, the Kings visit the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight at Quicken Loans Arena (7 ET, NBA League Pass). And Karl still doesn’t have any answers for his team’s current slide after Sunday’s 128-119 loss in Boston, the Kings’ third straight and seventh in their last eight games. Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee has more:

Boston scored the most points by a Sacramento opponent in a quarter and a half this season. The Celtics’ total also matched the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors for the most points allowed in regulation by the Kings this season. The Nets beat the Kings 128-119 Friday.

Lately, nothing seems to spark the Kings at the game’s outset – neither the possibility of falling further behind in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth nor speculation coach George Karl’s job is in jeopardy.

Karl isn’t sure how to fix the defense or prevent the team’s slow starts.

“I think we’re all pulling our hair out trying to figure that out,” Karl said of the defensive issues. “But this is not a time of year you get a lot of practice time. Do you want to zone up? Do you want to come up with a gimmick pick-and-roll defense? I think we’ve tried just about every one that I know of. I just think we’ve got to actually simplify and try to find something we can do more efficient.”

In the offseason, the Kings added more veterans to handle predicaments, but no one seems to know how to contain the opposition early in games.

Said Rajon Rondo, known for his dry humor: “Just try to hold the ball? Don’t take a shot? I don’t know what we can do to try to stop teams from scoring 30 (in the first quarter).”

Added DeMarcus Cousins: “I guess we’ve got to find a better energy and effort as a team. Be more engaged.”

The Celtics might have scored more if not for 24 turnovers, the most by a Kings opponent this season. Boston shot 56.0 percent and benefited from Sacramento’s perpetual inability to stop three-point shooters, making 13 of 24 from beyond the arc.

In the first quarter, Boston sank seven three-pointers and scored 12 of its 23 second-chance points.

Until the Kings figure out something, they’ll continue being the team opponents circle on the schedule in anticipation of a big offensive game or an opportunity to get on track.

“If that’s what teams are thinking, we’ve got to find a way to change that,” Cousins said. “That’s a bad a way for a team to be feeling, that a team is coming in and, oh, they can have an easy night. We’ve got to find a solution because right now whatever we’re doing isn’t working.”

Said Karl: “Our focus has got to be better. It’s got to be stronger; it’s got to be more defensive-minded. We just can’t give up the numbers we’re giving up.”

***

No. 2: Portland’s Henderson gets bounce back at right time Gerald Henderson was something of a forgotten man since moving across the country from Charlotte to Portland. But the Trail Blazers’ veteran swingman is hitting his stride at just the right time (ahead of the NBA trade deadline) to assist in his team’s chase for a playoff spot in the Western Conference standings. Joe Freeman of the Oregonian provides the details on Henderson’s rise ahead of the Trail Blazers’ trip to Memphis tonight (8 ET, League Pass):

Has Gerald Henderson been playing better? Yes. Does he finally seem comfortable in a Blazers uniform? Definitely. But the dunks and the blocks and the athletic plays — the bounce — that’s the tell-tell sign Henderson is back to his old self.

“He’s got some bounce,” Damian Lillard said. “He can get up there and hang up there, too. He can jump with the best of them.”

The Blazers (25-27) are playing their best basketball of the season, which coincides, perhaps not coincidentally, with the improved production of Henderson, a seven-year NBA veteran who said he feels as fit and healthy as he has all season. The Blazers won for the sixth time in the last seven games Saturday night at the Toyota Center, trouncing the Houston Rockets 96-79. Henderson scored 16 points — four more than the entire Rockets bench — which just so happened to be the sixth time he’s reached double figures in the last seven games, including a season-high four in a row.

In three February games, Henderson is averaging 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds, while shooting 60 percent from the field (15 of 25). He’s been more lively and dependable on defense, more assertive in huddles and postgame locker room pow-wows and more of a factor in wins. All of a sudden, after a disappointing three months, Henderson is evolving into the player the Blazers thought they were getting when they acquired him in the Nicolas Batum trade last summer.

“He’s been on a roll,” coach Terry Stotts said.

When asked about that trademark “bounce” — which he revealed multiple times against the Rockets — Henderson grinned.

“I feel good,” he said. “That’s how I’m used to playing.”

But will Henderson endure a different kind of bounce later in the month? Will he be bounced from Portland in a trade?

Henderson’s improved production has come at the same time his playing time has significantly increased. He’s played 20 or more minutes in eight of the last nine games after doing so just nine times the rest of the season. It’s become a sports talk hot take to postulate that the young and rebuilding Blazers are showcasing the veteran to potential trade suitors in the buildup to the Feb. 18 deadline.

While that’s a nice theory, there’s another possibility.

“I think he’s just healthy,” Lillard said. “He was coming off hip surgery, so it took some time for him to get in shape. He missed training camp. He had to get in shape, he had to get his rhythm back, he had to get his feel back, get comfortable with our sets, comfortable being out there with the guys. I think the last couple of weeks, you’re starting to see him get comfortable. He’s finally back.”

***

No. 3: Magic needed win over Hawks in worst way — The Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks will line up and do it again tonight (8 ET, NBA TV), but for that one shining moment Sunday, when Nikola Vucevic‘s buzzer beater lifted the Magic over their Southeast Division rivals, it was all good. And as Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel points out, it was a much-needed confidence boost for a Magic team searching for some light and the end of a dark stretch:

That great move, and even greater shot, arrived at a crucial time for the reeling Magic, who had lost 15 of 17 games heading into Sunday.

The tailspin would’ve worsened if the Magic had lost to the Hawks.

Orlando took a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter and responded to a subsequent Atlanta surge by going ahead by eight points with 3:41 to go.

“I think the way we won, too, was big — to finally get something kind of going our way,” Payton said. “A lot of times, we’d be on the other end of this.”

For a time, it looked like the Magic (22-28) might rout the Hawks (30-23).

A left-ankle injury prevented Tobias Harris from playing Sunday, prompting Skiles to start Fournier at small forward in Harris’ place. The starting quintet of Payton, Oladipo, Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic had played a total of just 25 minutes together this season before Sunday.

They brought a level of defensive energy and cohesion their team hasn’t shown in weeks. The Hawks looked flat at the outset, and the Magic capitalized. Orlando held Atlanta to 39 percent shooting for the entire game and also forced 12 first-half turnovers.

Teague scored a game-high 24 points, causing Payton problems on defense.

But on offense, Payton broke out of his slump.

In the fourth quarter, Payton scored seven of his 12 points and delivered five of his game-high 12 assists.

The final last assist came on Vucevic’s game-winner.

“I’m just glad we got the win,” Vucevic said. “After a rough month with a lot of losses it’s good to come out and win against a good team like the Hawks are.”

Vucevic not only managed to escape Al Horford‘s clutches, but he also got the shot off cleanly despite having to shoot over Horford’s outstretched right arm.

“You can’t guard him any better than that,” Millsap said.

The shot was Vucevic’s second game-winner of the season. On Nov. 11, he made a turnaround, fadeaway jumper from 20 feet over Roy Hibbert to lift the Magic to a 101-99 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

That night, Vucevic celebrated by running down the court with his right index finger held high over his head and an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

On Sunday afternoon, Vucevic stood still and allowed his teammates to mob him.

“I thought it was a real man’s celebration,” Fournier said. “I thought he looked like a baby on the other one.”

***

No. 4: Curry’s wild week finishes front and center at Super Bowl 50 — A great week for Stephen Curry that included a trip to the White House to visit with President Barack Obama after a 51-point outing against the Washington Wizards was just the beginning. Saturday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on the night before Super Bowl 50 was the perfect appetizer to Sunday’s game, where Curry’s hometown Panthers took on the Denver Broncos. And Curry was front and center, pounding the drum as Cam Newton and the Panthers took the field. The Bay Area News Group chronicled Curry’s big day (which ended on a sour note as the Panthers fell 24-10 to the Broncos):

https://twitter.com/StephenCurry30/status/696542942656266243

Curry has been on top of the sports world for the last year-plus. But Sunday was a dream come true for the Warriors’ star.

Curry, a Charlotte, N.C. native, has been a die-hard Panthers fan since the franchise was created in 1995. So his team playing in the Bay Area in the Super Bowl is as perfect as it gets.

His day began with his wife, Ayesha, at an exclusive tailgate party at chef Michael Mina‘s restaurant. Donning a Curry No. 30 Panthers jersey, she made porchetta biscuit sandwiches inspired by Carolina: red pepper jam, Crystal’s hot sauce mayo and a fried egg. Curry helped.

Curry then got a special treat before the game. The Panthers tabbed him to pound the drum in advance of the Panthers taking the field. It’s a team tradition — banging a big drum that reads “Keep Pounding” — that Curry got to do at a game in Charlotte back in September. The shirt Curry was planning to wear on Sunday was a custom made Under Armour tee with an illustration of him pounding the drum.

He stood on the sidelines with his wife before the game, both wearing black No. 30 Panthers jerseys with Curry on the back. When the Panthers ran off the field, both running back Mike Tolbert and head coach Ron Rivera stopped by to give Curry a hug.

Curry bought six tickets from Carolina Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson. But his family will sit in those seats and he will be in the Under Armous suite at Levi’s Stadium with brand CEO Kevin Plank.


VIDEO: Go behind the scenes from Saturday’s battle between the Warriors and Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks will hold Tiago Splitter out until after the All-Star break … The Indiana Pacers are preparing a tribute of some kind for Kobe Bryant as he makes his final visit to Indianapolis tonight … The Chicago Bulls are pointing fingers at themselves (and not coach Fred Hoiberg) for their late-game failuresKevin Durant took in the festivities at Super Bowl 50 as well, but with a media credential … Derek Fisher agrees with Rajon Rondo, the triangle would not be a good fit for the veteran point guard … Heat backup point guard Tyler Johnson might miss the playoffs …

NBA watches the Super Bowl


VIDEO: Inside The NBA crew make their Super Bowl picks

The sports world is focused on the biggest day of the football year as the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos clash at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California.

Excitement for the game has spilled into the basketball world as NBA players take to social media to join the conversation:

 

Morning shootaround — Feb. 7



VIDEO: Highlights of Saturday’s 10 games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

George Karl hanging by a string? | Mark Cuban says leave hacking strategy aloneKobe reflects on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich | What’s in the future of the struggling Wolves?

No. 1: Karl hanging by a string? — If it’s Sunday, then George Karl‘s job must be in jeopardy. Every other week, it seems, the Kings coach is headed out the door, and the most recent reports of trouble were intensified when the Kings were clobbered in Brooklyn, of all places, and DeMarcus Cousins said some cryptic statements that hinted of a possible coaching change. Well, Karl will coach Sunday in Boston — at least we think — and did take time to answer questions about his future (or lack thereof). Would the Kings really fire Karl and bring yet another coach to the franchise? Yikes. Here’s Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston writing about the latest on Karl:

Karl seemed amused by a string of questions about his future after he led the Kings through a 90-minute off-day workout Saturday at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, but he kept steering the conversation back to Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

“I don’t have any control over what other people are thinking or saying. That’s their storm,” Karl said. “My preference would be it wouldn’t be there. But there’s always energy today. Then once something gets out, it magnifies and grows and becomes a storm. That’s not my storm. My storm is the Boston Celtics.”

Added Karl: “I have no control of what other people think or whatever people are circulating. My job is to get prepared for Boston. We had a good practice [Saturday], and I’m happy with the practice. Boston’s playing at a great level. Probably the best they’ve played in two years. Their win [Friday] night [in Cleveland] was pretty impressive. They kept coming after a team that thought they had them beat about four times and stole the end from them. It was really a gutty win by the Celtics.”

Increasingly concerned about their floundering play under Karl, the Kings entered the weekend hoping to delay any decision about the coach’s future until the All-Star break, league sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein.

Sources said the nature of the team’s 128-119 loss Friday night to Brooklyn — Sacramento’s sixth defeat in seven games — and the fallout it generated have the Kings contemplating an immediate coaching change.

Does Karl believe he’s in danger if the team is mulling a change?

“I don’t think I’m in limbo,” he said. “I think I’ve got a heckuva challenge [against] a team that’s played damn well — probably it’s best basketball in the last six weeks. If you want to overreact to the last four or five games, that’s somebody else’s reaction, not my reaction. I think this team is still in a place that we can solve some problems and be good.”

Kings point guard Rajon Rondo said he hasn’t paid much attention to the chatter surrounding his coach.

“I haven’t heard it,” he said. “I talked to my agent this morning, but it was just about how the team is doing, how the team morale was. But I haven’t bought into it or read into too much of [the Karl reports]. It’s just part of the business. Coaches fired, players being traded — there’s no difference.”

Both Rondo and Karl noted that the Kings had been playing better before a recent funk. Rondo said it’s not time to panic … yet.

“When we don’t have an opportunity to get into the playoffs, that’s when we can panic,” Rondo said. “But the last 10 games, I think our record is 5-5. It’s not the worst; it’s not 3-7. We started off the season 1-7, so we’ve hit a tough stretch, some games we could have won. Brooklyn played amazing [Friday] night, shot the heck out of the ball. That’s part of it. There’s going to be games like that. Hopefully we can turn it around and get a win [Sunday] afternoon.”

Added Karl: “Ten days ago, we were on a five-game winning streak. … Every NBA season has scheduled parts that say, ‘Hey, this is a tough time.’ And since our beginning, our bad start, we’ve been a .500 team. We’re still a .500 team.”

Karl said it has been a process to get everyone on the same page, given the roster turnover this past summer.

“The whole season, when you change your roster with 10 players, you’re consistently trying to build better communication and a better connection and trying to get a commitment that’s a winning commitment,” Karl said. “Players question coaching. Coaching questions players. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth of the matter is I think this team has hung together pretty well through a lot of ups and downs this year.

“Our perseverance level has been maybe not an A but a B-plus. And when we play good teams, we usually play well. Our weaknesses have been home court, intensity and maybe overlooking a team with a bad record. But you can watch that film last night. Brooklyn played damn well.”

***

 No. 2: Cuban says leave hacking strategy alone — The technique of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters is the rage among coaches and another kind of rage among fans. There’s the belief that the game is worse off when DeAndre Jordan is shooting 15 free throws, although others believe that it’s part of the game and the league shouldn’t alter the rules just to relieve pressure from a half-dozen players with severe free-throw issues. Count Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the latter group. Cuban doesn’t feel it’s necessary to make drastic, if any, changes to the intentional fouling rule, or fouling players off the ball. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last Friday that he may favor a change. We’ll see. Here’s Tom Haberstroh of ESPN on Cuban:

On Friday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today Sports that he was “increasingly of the view” that the league will implement new rules this summer to prevent intentional fouling of poor free throw shooters.

“At the end of the day,” Silver said, “we are an entertainment property, and it’s clear when you’re in the arena that fans are looking at me shrugging their shoulders with that look saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do something about this?'”

Cuban disagrees with the notion that it is hurting the game’s entertainment value and told ESPN.com on Saturday morning that he believes fans actually feel more part of the game in hack-a-player situations, citing the example of fans getting on their feet to challenge an opposing player at the free throw line.

Cuban also said hacking adds an element of intrigue.

“Will they leave him in or leave him out?” Cuban said. “How do both teams feel about it? How will they foul? Is it a new creative way, or is it just chasing?”

The hack-a-player strategy has been on the rise around the league. As of Friday, according to tracking by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton, there had been 266 hack-a-player instances this season, already far exceeding last season’s total of 164. There were 52 instances through the All-Star break last season, and the NBA has surpassed that total by more than 200 ahead of next week’s All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

The majority of intentional fouls have come against tall, poor free throw shooting big men such as Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.

Cuban said hack-a-player strategies offer a teachable moment for fans and young athletes, especially parents who could spend time “watching the shots and telling your kids why practice matters and how amazing it is that they can do something that an NBA player can’t.

“Will a 7-foot man try to run and escape a foul so he doesn’t have to do what so many 12-year-olds do in games every day?” Cuban added.

Cuban argues that the chess match of hack-a-player makes the game more fascinating for fans.

“Does he make the free throws?” Cuban said. “If he makes one or two, will they do it again? Did the strategy work?”

Cuban contends that the league might be overreacting to a small minority of “basketball purists” outside the media.

“We have to realize that the number of basketball purists that aren’t in the media is probably under 1,000 people globally,” Cuban said. “There is no special basketball beauty in walking the ball up the court and dribbling around the perimeter. Will we change that too?”

***

No. 3: Kobe sounds off on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich — If nothing else, Kobe Bryant is in a reflective mood in this, his final NBA season, especially in places where his memories are deep and meaningful. San Antonio is such a place, and Kobe spoke glowingly about the Spurs, and what they’ve meant to his development as a future Hall of Famer, and also his thoughts on Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. As Kobe spoke, his thoughts were recorded by Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

What do you recall of the Spurs-Lakers battles?

It was fun. The most fun was when they had home-court advantage, and we had to come up here and play, and we wound up getting both games up here. It was intense — we knew what they could do, we knew how they would play, we knew their momentum, we knew how they liked to execute — but their were just some nights where we never could get in front of them. Their ball movement, we were always kinda chasing the game. I do miss The Dome, though. I do miss that. I remember playing in there, there was something about the rims there that I really enjoyed. Then when they moved here, the first couple of games really threw me off. I hated playing here. I couldn’t shoot for crap. But, playing at The Dome was a lot of fun.

How has your relationship with Gregg Popovich evolved?

It’s been amazing. I mean, he’s been so open with me and I’ve been a sponge every chance I get to be around him. I talk to him a lot about the game, I ask him questions about the game, how he teaches the game. One of my favorite times that I spent with him was during the All-Star game when he was coaching. He came up to me right before practice and he said, ‘Hey, should I do a real practice or like a whatever walk-through All-Star practice?” I said, ‘Do a real practice, because I want to see what the hell goes on in San Antonio, so you’ve got to do all the real stuff.’ The guys were kind of looking around like ‘What the hell.’ Tim just looked at me like, ‘You’re killing me.’ I wanted to see what goes down.

Is that going to be the plan for this All-Star Game?

“I hope it is because it’s rare to play for one of the all-time greatest coaches. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had Phil and played under Pop for several times. It’s been great.”

Was Tim’s success ever a driving force for you?

“It’s strange. No, because the competitiveness was always centered around us vs. them. You have to beat them. In the process of us getting to the next level you wind up beating Tim Duncan but against San Antonio you cannot afford to think individually for one second because they’ll burn you so I never had that personal rivalry with him.”

Is it weird to play them without Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan suiting up?

“Nah. I’ve played against them for so many year, it’s like, ‘enough already.’ We’ve had all those battles before.”

Can you compare facing Bruce Bowen to facing Kawhi Leonard?

“It’s very difficult to give you a very intelligent … I could give you a BS answer but it’s hard to make that comparison. I saw Bruce so many times. Kawhi I’ve only played against one-and-a-half times and nothing at a really high level of a matchup. So it’s very hard for me to compare the two. From what I see on TV Bruce uses length a lot more. He was kind of in and out, tapping the arms and trying to break your rhythm, things of that nature. Kawhi tends to use his body a lot more and plays position a lot more. But they both have phenomenal hands.”

Could you have imagined playing for Pop for 20 years?

“Of course.”

That wouldn’t have been a problem?

“Nah. I’d have won a lot of championships.”

Does this rivalry mean more to you than the Celtics?

“It’s more personal because it’s the rivalry that I played through. The Celtics rivalry is something I grew up watching. IK played against them a couple of times in The Finals. But San Antonio was year in and year out. The year we won the championship it was like, ‘Well, Tim was hurt so it really doesn’t count.’ So the second run it was, ‘OK, you guys had a shortened season and we had Tim when he was hurt so now let’s see what’s up.’

“That rivalry was what fueled the majority of my career.”

How do you think you would have dealt with Pop wanting to sit you if you were dinged up or tired?

“I’d have been fine because he never would have known I was dinged up or tired … ‘You on the training table? No. I’m good.’ “

You said last year there is some jealousy Tim’s had the same coach all these years … you had that a bit with Phil but he’s gone. Is there a jealousy factor for Spurs having that continuity, the group of players who have been with him so long?

“I think that starts at the top with Pop, starts at the top with the ownership. They’re very clear on what the identity is, very clear on what they stand for, what they represent. They’re very clear on the style of player that they want to have. They’ve been consistent with that year over year. That’s why it becomes easier for them to select certain players to draft, certain players to trade for. Because they’re looking for certain type of player. That leads to consistency.

We’ve had changes. We have Dr. Buss passing away, have Jeannie and Jim, you have Phil coming and going. You have all these things going on and so as a result system changing as well. So there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here which is phenomenal, probably compared to the Patriots, is had so much consistency from top to bottom.”

Ever wonder what you could have done with that kind of consistency around you?

Of course, you wonder that. But just for fun. I can’t sit here and complain. I’ve eaten pretty well. So I can’t complain that there’s no dessert left.

***

No. 4: What’s in the future for the struggling Wolves? — These are interesting times for the Wolves. On one hand, they appear headed in the right direction for the first time in over a decade, with a batch of intriguing young players on the roster and a possible lottery pick coming in June and plenty of room under the salary cap. However, there are questions about the leadership of this team, from Glen Taylor (who has resisted overtures of selling the majority of the team) and GM Milt Newton and the coaching staff led by Sam Mitchell, a situation that was thrown in question with the passing of Flip Saunders. Despite all of their promise, the Wolves have struggled this season and therefore it wouldn’t be surprised if they underwent an off-season shakeup. Here’s a report from Chip Scoggins of the Star-Tribune:

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are the Bucks simply experiencing growing pains, or is it something more troubling? … Jimmy Butler is feeling good about his chances of returning to the court soon, maybe within days … Can Russell Westbrook average a triple-double for a season and pull an Oscar Robertson? .. The Sixers should extend their talent search overseas, given their dire straits …

L.A. Clippers player with broken hand? Now it’s Austin Rivers


Your first thought: Who’d he punch?

Because it’s another broken hand, because it’s the Clippers and because the estimated recovery time is identical (four to six weeks) that was projected in Blake Griffin‘s case, it stands to reason that Austin Rivers similarly might have fractured his left hand by punching a team employee.

Turns out, Rivers actually suffered his broken hand on the basketball court, taking a blow in traffic against Minnesota Wednesday in what he and the Clippers initially thought was just a bone bruise. The injury proved more serious than that, however, and now Rivers, son of coach Doc Rivers, joins Griffin as an L.A. player with a clipped wing.

Rivers’ broken hand at least came in the line of duty. Griffin has been called out by Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and by Doc Rivers over the unacceptable, extracurricular nature of his injury, the result of punching an assistant equipment manager. Now it’s the coach himself feeling some heat in both his roles.

Things haven’t gone as smoothly as L.A.’s roster and potential would have suggested. The Clippers rack up technical fouls at an alarming rate. And now both an All-Star starter and a helpful role player are out. Griffin was averaging 23.2 points and 8.7 rebounds before he went out, while Rivers is chipping in 8.1 points in 21.6 minutes.

Doc Rivers spoke recently with the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn about the expectations and pressure that’s only getting dialed up these days:

With [Ballmer] paying a record $2 billion for the team prior to last season, there is immense pressure to win. Rivers is still as smooth and savvy as before, but he fully realized the job would be challenging.

Griffin is facing sanctions from the league as well as the Clippers.

“Really, it’s nothing you want to go through,” Rivers said of the Griffin situation. “You learn that they’re still young. They’re still learning. It’s not anything you want to go through as a team but you keep remembering that they’re young guys that are in the spotlight and it doesn’t take but a minute or two minutes and something happens.”

It was supposed to be a smooth transition for Rivers, but he has found himself playing counselor, mentor, and life coach with his new Big Three (Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan).

“You’re probably being all of them at this point,” he said. “You’re being a coach first because your job is still to get the team to function and then you become a life coach. But I don’t have all the answers. I make as many mistakes as these guys. I’m human, too. But I tell them about the mistakes I made, the mistakes I still make. I tell them you’ve got to stay in life and hang in there and good things will happen.”

Pelicans shut down Evans through break


If it’s a Pelicans headline, it almost certainly has to do with injuries. That’s how 2015-16 has gone for New Orleans and, sure enough, that’s the reason for this post: Wing Tyreke Evans, sidelined with right knee tendinitis from the Pelicans’ past five games heading into Saturday, has been shut down at least through the All-Star break.

Evans was unavailable for the night’s game at Cleveland, coach Alvin Gentry confirmed, and won’t participate in the Pelicans’ three other games (at Minnesota, against Utah and at Oklahoma City) before the break. John Reid, beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, offered some details:

”It’s just a little tendinitis and it’s always there,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters before Saturday’s game at the Quicken Loans Arena. ”We’re probably going to hold him out until after the All-Star break.

”That gives him a situation where he has almost two weeks where he can rehab and get it back. Hopefully, he’ll be ready to go right after the All-Star break and we’ll be able to play him for the rest of the stretch.”

In all, Evans is expected to nine games before possibly returning for the Pelicans’ first game after the All-Star break ends on Feb. 19 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Pelicans general manager Dell Demps continues to listen to trade offers and the franchise is no longer reluctant to trade Evans, sources say.

After this season, Evans, 26, has only one year left on his existing contract that will pay him $10.2 million. Evans missed the first 17 games this season after undergoing surgery in October to remove bone chips in his right knee. After 25 games, Evans was averaging 15.2 points.

New Orleans – currently without Eric Gordon (fractured right ring finger) and Quincy Pondexter (left knee) – has had 15 different players start at least once this season. Gentry used 13 different starting lineups in the Pelicans’ first 19 games and 22 lineups overall.

Bulls’ Butler heads home from road trip with (only) strained knee

VIDEO: Jimmy Butler injury impact

As bad as it looked, Jimmy Butler, the Chicago Bulls and their fans had to feel relieved that their leading scorer and two-time All-Star selection only suffered a knee strain Friday night in Denver.

“Only” is what you say about an injury that happens to someone other than you, of course. Butler is the one who had to be carted off the floor at the Pepsi Center in the second quarter. He was the one headed back to Chicago even as the Bulls were moving on to the final two stops on their seven-game road trip, at Minnesota Saturday and at Charlotte Monday, without him.

But the way Butler landed under the basket, all his weight coming down on his left leg after taking contact from the Nuggets’ Joffrey Lauvergne, many feared a far worse diagnosis than what the MRI exam Saturday revealed. Something even from (gasp!) the Derrick Rose hospital charts. Yet Butler’s personal reputation for durability continued, and the Bulls’ worst fear were allayed even before the game ended. Their miserable fourth-quarter collapse (getting outscored 42-21 to lose) was their greatest anguish, not Butler’s mid- or long-term availability.

Short-term, Butler will be evaluated further back in Chicago, with his response to treatment determining the timeline for his return. The Bulls’ first home game after the trip is against Atlanta Wednesday.


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