Sting of Team USA cuts should fuel Wizards’ already focused Wall, Beal


VIDEO:
John Wall’s top 10 plays from the 2013-14 season

Randy Wittman didn’t have to dig deep into his memory banks for words to soothe John Wall’s and Bradley Beal’s feelings after they were cut from Team USA last month.

All he had to do was remind them – or maybe educate them, since neither of the Washington Wizards’ young guards was born yet – that Hall of Famer Charles Barkley got cut the first time he tried to make the U.S. national team, too.

“That’s right,” Wittman said, “and by my guy.”

Bobby Knight, a Hall of Famer himself and Wittman’s coach at Indiana University, cut The Chuckster and fellow future legend John Stockton during the Olympic trials back in 1984, when the whole operation was a college-guys affair.

Things changed eight years later, by which point both Barkley and Stockton were established NBA All-Stars, and both earned gold medals as members of the original Dream Team.

So the Team USA future remains bright for Wall, 24, and Beal, 21. No brighter, though, than the Wizards’ own short- and long-term outlooks with those two in the backcourt in 2014-15 and beyond.

That’s why Wittman made sure to put a positive spin on their stint with coach Mike Krzyzewski and the rest of the FIBA World Cup roster representing the U.S., brief as it was.

“They worked all the way up through July,” Wittman said during a lull in the NBA coaches meetings in Chicago this week. “Putting the work in is the main thing a coach wants to see in the summer. They were able to do that.

“I told those guys, ‘Not everybody makes it right from the start. But you’re there, you’ve done it, you’re showing them you’re willing to be there. It’s a process.’ I think the way both those guys are going, they’re going to be on [Team USA] some day.”

Wall suffered some extra ignominy this week when the NBA crew at SI.com – in one of those manufactured exercises of offseason idleness – ranked him No. 31 on its list of the league’s best players. The Wizards point guard, in his Twitter reaction, didn’t seem to appreciate it (though it’s always hard to know true sentiments in 140 characters).

Then again, it might be another scoop of motivation on a pile that’s already high, what with Washington’s postseason showing and second-round exit against Indiana. With center Marcin Gortat re-signed, with Nene healthy and energized by his own FIBA tour for Brazil, with Otto Porter looking improved at the Las Vegas summer league, with DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries added and with Paul Pierce slipping into Trevor Ariza‘s veteran wing spot, expectations are as lofty as the Wizards’ potential.

Wittman, who steered a team beyond .500 and reached the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons as an NBA head coach, likes the old-young mix of his roster. Thirty-eight-year old Andre Miller stabilized the second unit after he arrived from Denver. Washington would love to add aging marksman Ray Allen if it could. And Allen’s old Celtics pal Pierce figures to bring many of the intangibles Ariza provided.

“We were lucky to get a guy like Paul,” Wittman said. “We lost Al Harrington – he didn’t even play that much, but he was instrumental in the locker room, on the road, just his presence and what he said to the players. Getting Paul fills that, too. He’s a voice who’s been through it. I think he still has the ability to really help us on the floor but he can help us off the floor, too.”

Make no mistake, though. Washington’s strength, possibly for the next decade, is that dynamic and budding backcourt. Both of whom figure to be wearing a different red, white and blue uniform one of these even-numbered summers.

Morning shootaround — Sept. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Chandler gets defensive about rep | Free Eric Bledsoe! Please? | Wilt is ‘Forever’

No. 1: Chandler gets defensive about rep — The big man doth protest too much. It sure seemed that way, anyway, when Dallas center Tyson Chandler “fired back” Friday at Phil Jackson and the Knicks for what he perceived to be criticism of his character and effect on chemistry in the New York locker room. Jackson made his comments after the June trade that sent Chandler and guard Raymond Felton to the Mavericks, alluding to “looks” exchanged by players and accountability issues. The thing is, Felton’s reputation was a lot shakier in N.Y. than Chandler’s, and some insiders believe Jackson mostly was talking about the gun-toting point guard. With Chandler’s retorts through Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com, he raised questions whether he was covering for his teammate or perhaps working from a guilty conscience:

“I did nothing but try to help the culture there the three years I was there,” Chandler said Friday. “You can say I didn’t live up to whatever or you didn’t like the way I played or anything. But to ever question who I am and the type of leader I am in the locker room, I don’t even know where that came from.

“I honestly don’t know where that came from. I don’t know if Phil put that out there or who put that out there, but to me, that was the ultimate shock. And you don’t have to say that to get rid of me or to trade me. The trade is over.

“So to judge my character and what I’ve done, you can go look at all my teammates and ask all of my teammates in the past, and the coaches I’ve played for, and I’ve never been a problem and never had a problem. So that was a shock to me that I didn’t appreciate.”

Mavs owner Mark Cuban, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle all cited Chandler’s outstanding leadership ability as one of the motivating factors in bringing him back to Dallas. Chandler was widely recognized as the spiritual leader during Dallas’ 2010-11 championship season. He has always prided himself in being an unselfish player who demands the best of his teammates.

“It makes no sense,” Chandler said. “If you call holding people accountable daily being a bad influence, then hey, I’m a bad influence. But I’m going to be that as long as I’m going to strap up my shoes and step on the basketball court. And that was the big problem there.

“That’s the biggest thing. I guess if that’s why I was a bad influence, because I wanted to do things the right way, then I guess I’m a bad influence. But I’ve never heard of that. I thought that was being a professional.”

***

No. 2: Free Eric Bledsoe! Please?Eric Bledsoe had no leverage when he entered restricted free agency in July and nothing has shifted the Phoenix guard’s way in the 12 weeks since then. Reports surfaced Friday that Minnesota wants to offer Bledsoe a four-year maximum-salary deal worth $63 million, even though the Timberwolves are capped out and can only add that sort of contract via a sign-and-trade. So far the Suns have turned up their nose at the Wolves’ proposals. Meanwhile, Bob Young of the Arizona Republic strongly favored spending Phoenix’s limited funds on Bledsoe’s backcourt mate, Goran Dragic, in a max deal of his own. That suggests more strongly than ever that Bledsoe might play in 2014-15 on a one-year qualifying deal of $3.73 million with the Suns, in anticipation of being unrestricted in free agency next summer. Here is part of Young’s case for Dragic, which can’t have thrilled the Bledsoe camp:

Unlike Bledsoe, Dragic has a proven track record on the court, a great reputation off of it and has shown a commitment to the Suns that Bledsoe has avoided since the Suns obtained him in a deal with the Clippers.

Heck, Dragic came back to the Suns as a free agent after they traded him to Houston for a lesser player — and at a time when there was very little reason to believe that a turnaround was coming anytime soon.

It is well documented that Bledsoe and his representative, LeBron’s “guy” Rich Paul, have demanded a maximum deal of five years and more than $80 million.

The basis for that demand is a mystery to all except Rich Paul.

Bledsoe hasn’t been an All-Star. He hasn’t been on an All-NBA team. He hasn’t led a team into the playoffs. He wasn’t a lottery pick (18th in 2010). His jersey isn’t among the top sellers in the league. He hasn’t been named to a USA Basketball national or select team.

And here is some background from the Minnesota end, from Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Keep in mind, Mark Termini, one of Bledsoe’s agents, had Wolves president/coach Flip Saunders as a longtime client. So it’s possible Minnesota is being used to nudge along the Suns-Bledsoe talks, which broke down after Phoenix’s four-year, $48 million offer. The plot thickens when you factor in guard Ricky Rubio and his desire for a max extension with Minnesota.

The Suns are not believed to be interested in either center Nikola Pekovic and his $12 million salary or Rubio. The Suns already have point guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, and they’d be back in the same situation they are with Bledsoe, negotiating with a player who believes he’s worth a maximum salary. (There’s no indication the Wolves are willing to trade Pekovic or Rubio, anyway.)

The Wolves likely will be unwilling to trade any of their top young players — Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng — the Suns might want, and can’t trade Anthony Bennett or Thaddeus Young, who were acquired in the Love deal, for at least another month.

The expiring contract of guard J.J. Barea and veterans such as Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer or Kevin Martin won’t get the deal done, either.

The Wolves could play Rubio and Bledsoe in the same backcourt, much as the Suns did with Bledsoe and Dragic last season. But with Rubio also seeking a max contract, doing so would involve paying big money to players who naturally play the same position.

***

No. 3: Wilt is ‘Forever’ – Actually, Wilt Chamberlain already is an NBA immortal. But he apparently will become one of the United States Postal Service’s “forever” stamps this winter. The Babe Ruth of basketball was pitched years ago to the USPS to be honored with his own postage stamp, perhaps as part of its Black Heritage series and pegged to Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game. That project is in line for what looks to be a happy conclusion, based on sleuthing by a user of Reddit.com, or at least a stumbling-across of some USPS product rollouts. And that has to be good news for Donald Hunt, founder of the campaign and a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Tribune in Chamberlain’s hometown. Hunt and some of Wilt’s other family and friends talked with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner about their ambitions back in 2011 to honor Chamberlain and refresh his memory for new generations of sports fans:

Like Jimmy Sadler, who played three seasons with Chamberlain at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, where they posted a 58-3 record. “It’s overdue, really. If any athletes should be on a stamp, it’s him,” Sadler said. “Wilt was it. When you say ‘it,’ Wilt was it. He could do it all.”

Sports, coaches and athletes have been among more than 5,000 subjects featured on general-release U.S. postage stamps dating to 1847. Last June, two stamps dedicated to baseball’s Negro Leagues were issued with one depicting founder Rube Foster and the other showing a play at home plate.

“They introduced those stamps at the Negro League museum in Kansas City,” Hunt said this week, “and I saw how they gave out so much information and history. They could get that in schools and kids could learn about Wilt. It would be great for the NBA, too.” Hunt has gathered signatures on petitions and recommendations from NBA commissioner David Stern, Jerry West, Pat Riley, Billy Cunningham and various Philadelphia and Pennsylvania officials, while hoping for President Obama‘s support as well.

“I don’t think people really know what Wilt was all about, as far as his charitable work and giving back,” Barbara Chamberlain Lewis, one of his sisters, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “When he got into the NBA, he really had to play the way they wanted him to play, to appeal to the crowds. But how he was away from games, I don’t think people really know.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas tries again to quell the violence in his native Chicago with the third annual “Peace Tournament” on the city’s South Side. … Retired NBA player and front-office exec Rex Chapman earned a reported $22 million in his career, but was arrested Friday on a $14,000 shoplifting beef in Scottsdale, Ariz. … As the NFL’s miserable week spiked by domestic violence was ending, Toronto’s Patrick Patterson tweeted out a reminder of another pro athlete’s brush with the law for the same category of offense. … Chicago’s Taj Gibson, meanwhile, took to Twitter to defuse a situation before it gained momentum, sharing his views of starting vs. subbing for the Bulls.

Report: Wolves offer Bledsoe max contract

From NBA.com staff reports

Eric Bledsoe‘s summer-long wait for a max contract offer appears to be over as the Minnesota Timberwolves have reportedly presented Bledsoe with a max four-year, $63 million contract, as reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

The Timberwolves hope this offer will cause the Suns to engage in sign-and-trade talks for Bledsoe. If not, then Minnesota would need to find a way to shed salary as they currently don’t have the cap space to sign Bledsoe outright.

The addition of Bledsoe would continue the summer of change for the Timberwolves who acquired Andrew WigginsAnthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young earlier this summer for Kevin Love.

The 24-year-old Bledsoe was acquired by the Suns last summer and averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game in 43 games for Phoenix.

Budenholzer deals with double-duty

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be taking on some front-office duties this season. (Bart Young/NBAE)

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be taking on some front-office duties this season. (Bart Young/NBAE)

CHICAGO – Long characterized as a “copycat” league for trends ranging from basketball strategies to hiring practices, the NBA has a new move that everybody’s getting in on: Coaches doing double-duty as general managers, presidents of basketball operations or other titles vested with personnel control.

The latest to take all that on is Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, who had decision-making responsibility dropped in his lap last week in the fallout from the Hawks’ front-office mess. GM Danny Ferry, beleaguered after making racially charged comments about free agent Luol Deng, took an indefinite leave of absence, and Hawks CEO Steve Koonin appointed Budenholzer to be the team’s head of basketball operations for now.

His circumstances are unusual, but Budenholzer joins the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, Minnesota’s Flip Saunders, Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and of course San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich in holding added clout beyond their work on the court.

Until Rivers beefed up his role last year when he moved from Boston to L.A., Popovich was more of an exception. Most teams in recent years preferred to separate the powers, believing that a coach focuses on tonight (win the game) while a front-office exec thinks about tomorrow, next season and several years after that.

So is this the start of a new trend? A pendulum swing?

“I don’t know, those pendulums seem like they’re always swinging,” Budenholzer said Thursday in Chicago, in town for the annual NBA coaches meetings. “There are a couple of people who have done that, and obviously Pop’s been doing that for a long time, with R.C. [Buford, Spurs GM to Popovich's president title] doing a ton. Those two together have been just an amazing combination. So I don’t know.”

Flip Saunders (David Sherman/NBAE)

Flip Saunders (David Sherman/NBAE)

The long-established view that the jobs should be kept separate has led to some coaches, hungry for more input on their teams’ architecture, finding themselves on the sidewalk. The most recent example: Jason Kidd, whose power play in Brooklyn wound up with Kidd coaching in Milwaukee and coach Lionel Hollins slipping in beneath GM Billy King in the Nets’ flowchart.

“A lot of people question it,” Saunders said. “Agents especially — they don’t necessarily like someone having that much control over their clients. Because as a coach, you can basically dictate how much you’re going to pay a guy.” By growing or limiting a player’s role, that is.

Saunders added duties in the opposite direction from Budenholzer and Rivers — he was the Timberwolves’ basketball boss when he appointed himself as head coach for 2014-15, taking over for the retired Rick Adelman. But Saunders made his NBA bones on the sideline, coaching Minnesota, Detroit and Washington for 15-plus seasons.

“I believe, if you look at many of the successful football teams, they were built that way,” Saunders said Thursday. “Look at [Bill] Parcells. [Bill] Belichick, he’s got total control. Then in our sport, look at the success that Nellie [Don Nelson] had — he pretty much ran the whole thing [in Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State]. Then Pat Riley‘s situation, when he pretty much ran a lot of those things.”

Just as Popovich has “nurtured” Buford to work in concert on personnel matter, Saunders, Rivers and Van Gundy also have titular GMs or other execs to tackle salary caps, administer scouting and handle other chores that would pull them away from player development and game preparation.

“The best thing about it is,” Saunders said, “I believe in most organizations when you have a falling out, the tendency is there’s a relationship that is lost between the coach and the owner. Because maybe they don’t all have the same agenda from management to the coaching staff. Well, when somebody is your coach and your president or GM, he’s going to talk to the owner. So there’s never going to be a disconnect on what the message is.”

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, said the added power and work aren’t for everyone.

“In my case, I’m not looking to do that. I love my owner [Mark Cuban] and I love my GM [Donnie Nelson] — my GM and I go back 30 years as friends,” Carlisle said. “I want to concentrate on my craft. But I applaud these other guys for taking on the other responsibility.

“If you get a great coach like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers or Stan Van Gundy and you have the opportunity to meld those two positions into one guy who is high-quality in so many areas, if you’re an owner, you should go for that. More than anything, it’s pointing to the vortex of the connection between the coach and GM. The fact that some owners are looking at this and saying, ‘These two jobs should be one and the same’ highlights the importance of coaching.”

No one, however, is saying it’s easy. The consensus is that a GM has less-grueling days and better job security than his head coach. Saunders adapted comfortably to that last season, his first in the role with Minnesota, though coaching competitiveness still coursed through his veins.

In Budenholzer’s case, it comes just one year into his head coaching tenure with the Hawks, with the true impact of the front-office mess (analyzed well here by our Sekou Smith) still to be felt. The longtime Spurs assistant has a lot coming at him, on the brink of training camp.

“There are extra things you have to do to prepare for camp and the season,” Budenholzer acknowledged. “But we’ve got a great group. So there’s more work but I think we can manage it. The team, for the most part, is in place. That’s the most important thing.”

Growing up in the NBA in the Spurs organization — Ferry logged valuable time there, too, under Popovich and Buford — helped prepare Budenholzer for this beefed-up role. “It’s something where I spent 19 years in that kind of a set-up,” he said. “To whatever degree I can be comfortable, I wouldn’t feel that now if I hadn’t spent all those years around that in San Antonio with Pop and R.C.”

Asked where he would turn with questions, he said: “Oh, Pop and R.C. have always been open to me. I’ve obviously learned a ton from them and I’ll continue to.”

And if rivalries of the NBA prevent his Spurs pals from helping too much?

“I’m sure if I cross the line unintentionally,” Budenholzer said, “they’d say, ‘You’re a big boy, you’re going to have to figure certain things out for yourself.’ “

HOFer Payton plans to mentor Bucks’ Antetokounmpo

From NBA.com staff reports

Ears perked earlier this summer when new Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd discussed his plans to play the 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard. While unconventional, Antetokounmpo has the ball skills and vision to make it work and the guidance of Kidd is sure to help.

Now “The Greek Freak” has more guidance coming as Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton announced his plans to work with Kidd and mentor Antetokounmpo during the Milwaukee Bucks’ training camp and preseason. He discussed his vision for Antetokounmpo at a press event in Greece this week.

Here’s Payton’s full quote:

“Jason [Kidd] let me see [Giannis Antetokounmpo] personally. I talked to him after some of the [Summer League] games. Jason put him at the point guard in the Summer League and he did very well at the point guard. I’m going to go down there for the preseason and training camp and work with him a little bit on his point guard skills. Being 6’10″ or 6’11″, he has great skills to play basketball [at] the point. I think he’s going to be very successful if he gets point guard skills. He’s very talented. He’s a young kid. He’s raw, so he needs to work on a lot of things.

Last year, when he was in Milwaukee, he was hurt a little bit and he didn’t get to play as much. (With) a coach coming in like Jason, who is a point guard, who wants to use him like that, I think he’s going to be very good, but he just needs a little guidance. They’re a very young basketball team; they don’t have veterans that can teach him things, so he needs someone like Jason and myself to come along and teach him the skills. I think he has raw talent. He has to work on it, though. I’m not going to say he’s going to be a splash right away. But I think he’s going to be good if he works at it and does the things he has to do and I think he knows that.”

Antetokounmpo, with his reported 7-foot-4 wingspan and confirmed giant hands, would be one of the largest point guards in recent memory and incredibly difficult for opposing guards to defend. There’s a reason more players his size don’t play point guard, though, and he could be wasted at the position.

No matter the outcome, this experiment is sure to be exciting … especially if he continues to cover the length of the court in just two dribbles:

(h/t Bucksketball)

Morning shootaround — Sept. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Wolves optimistic they’ll lock up Rubio | Players may not ignore Hawks going forward | Long road ahead for Hawks and their fans

No. 1: Wolves’ brass optimistic they’ll ink Rubio to extension — The Minnesota Timberwolves are in rebuilding mode after agreeing to trade their All-Star big man, Kevin Love, to the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. Will the Wolves have to think about losing budding star point guard Ricky Rubio in the coming years, too? According to Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press, Minnesota’s brass isn’t sweating a looming extension for the young playmaker: 

Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton said he’s optimistic that the team and point guard Ricky Rubio will negotiate a contract extension but insisted there is no urgency.

“If we can get something done sooner, great. If not, we’re not necessarily in a rush,” Newton said Thursday after a pre-training camp workout.

The Wolves and Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan, have been able to negotiate since July 1 and have until Oct. 31. Newton said the sides are in “constant contact” but stopped short of calling that “negotiations.”

“Knowing Ricky the person, he wants to be here,” Newton said. “We just have to deal with his agent.”

The maximum deal allowed under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement would be five years, $90 million. Given Rubio’s shooting struggles and the time he spent on the bench in the fourth quarter last season, a more likely offer would be a four-year deal in the ballpark of $40 million.

“Until that right number comes up, I guess we will continue to talk,” Newton said.

Rubio will receive $5 million this season, and if the sides don’t agree to a long-term extension, the Wolves will have until July 2015 to offer him a one-year qualifying offer for 2015-16. That contract would have to be worth 125 percent of this season’s average salary, so about $6.3 million.

If Rubio accepted a qualifying offer, he would become an unrestricted free agent the next season.  

Getting out of NBA’s ‘Ringless of Honor’

Steve Nash's teams have been to the playoffs 12 times, but he's never been in The Finals. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Steve Nash’s teams have been to the playoffs 12 times, but he’s never been in The Finals. (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Rings still are the things, even if it didn’t necessarily seem that way in June.

Because The Finals of 2014 were a rematch of the 2013 Finals, there wasn’t any chatter about stars who needed to win a championship. Both the Miami and San Antonio rosters were full of decorated performers, their “ring” box checked and re-checked through multiple title runs.

That wasn’t the case in many previous postseasons, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh (2011), Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd (2010), Pau Gasol (2009) and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (2008) chased the validation that seems to matter most in the NBA. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant had won nine rings in 12 years, so unless someone was a teammate of one of them — or broke through like the ’08 Celtics, the ’06 Heat (Dwyane Wade on the rise) or the ensemble ’04 Pistons – he had his nose pressed against the window at title time.

The Duncan-Bryant era was a legacy blocker as surely as the Jordan era, back when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were winning six titles in eight years with two different supporting casts in Chicago. By dint of competing during one or both of those consecutive eras – the Bulls last won in 1998, the Spurs first won in 1999 – an entire generation of All-Stars and Hall of Famers exited this league without jewelry, including Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Chris Mullin and Reggie Miller.

With 15 of 20 titles hogged by three franchises – and Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston teams grabbing two more – vying for the leftovers was a game of musical chairs. Gary Payton and Clyde Drexler managed to grab rings on their way out the door. The old-warhorse-to-the-Spurs-or-Lakers-seeking-his-ring became an annual tale of spring.

Guys like Pierce, Garnett and Nowitzki would be on the brink of joining that club to which no NBA star wants to belong – the Ringless of Honor – if not for the Celtics’ and Mavericks’ one-and-done peaks in 2008 and 2011.

Meanwhile, the waiting list gets refreshed, not erased. Here are the stars who – by virtue of their status and their career trajectories – are most on the clock as the 2014-15 season approaches (with each’s level of urgency noted):

Carmelo Anthony, Nov. 2013

Carmelo Anthony, Nov. 2013
(Michael Bernstein/NBAE )

Steve Nash, Lakers (****) – Nash is about out of time, and might have been before he got to L.A. two years ago. At this point, his best shot at a ring will require a trade by the February deadline because the Lakers will have trouble even qualifying for the tournament next spring. The once-dazzling playmaker left Dallas too soon and got to Bryant too late.

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks (***) – If Anthony’s Hall of Fame career gets discounted for the lack of an NBA championship to bookend his NCAA title splash with Syrcause, he’ll have the man in the mirror to blame. He pushed out of Denver before the Nuggets’ plan had a chance to come to fruition, and he couldn’t capitalize in New York despite the Knicks’ monstrous payroll. Now, rather than choosing as a free agent to contend with Chicago or Houston, Anthony has re-upped for what clearly is a New York rebuild. He’s a strong candidate to find himself facing the Tracy McGrady fate in a few years, the scoring star latching on in twilight for a final shot or two.

Kevin Durant (**) – He’s young, so the ticking of the clock still is muted. But Durant has accomplished almost everything else he can – scoring titles, an MVP – which makes the open space on his trophy shelf more conspicuous. He doesn’t want to become Garnett, the constant around whom insufficient parts get haphazardly placed. Russell Westbrook fits in here, too, by association, though he still has individual awards to conquer.

Dwight Howard, Rockets (***) – The big fella seems destined to head into the sunset and five years later to Springfield with a big smile and no Larry O’Brien trophy. He plays at the mercy of his coaches and his point guards, yes, but Howard has yet to show the leadership skills or the passion – as in downright, focused orneriness – to carry his team when it matters most. James Harden is younger but he’s facing the same onus, especially with Houston’s relative whiff in free agency this summer.

Chris Paul, Clippers (***) – The Clippers’ playmaker might be in the most urgent now-or-never situation of all on this list. He has the coach, the teammates, the reset ownership and his best opportunity yet to be on a podium shaking Adam Silver‘s hand in mid-June. Injuries are always a concern with Paul, however, and at 29, so is the clock.

Joakim Noah, Bulls (**) – Noah is here because he’s older than his oft-injured and more esteemed teammate Derrick Rose. Rose’s overarching storyline is all about health, with championships way down the list. Noah had a breakthrough individual season in 2013-14, though, and has been the guy enduring all the comings and goings in Chicago (coaches, Rose’s layoffs, Luol Deng‘s ouster). A dervish of emotions on the court, Noah doesn’t hide how important winning is to him. But he hasn’t been able to achieve it yet, largely because of James in Miami and now, again, in Cleveland.

Zach Randolph, Al Jefferson, David West, LaMarcus Aldridge (*) – These are all top-tier NBA power forwards for the Grizzlies, Hornets, Pacers and Trail Blazers, respectively, still seeking their first rings. With the exception of Aldridge, who still has time, they’re not quite at the marquee level of the other names on this list. They’ll need help chasing down hardware.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson (**) – It’s not so much that fans notice the holes in these Brooklyn stars’ resumes; they haven’t achieved that level of reverence yet. In fact, it’s more what a ring would do for each of them, perhaps elevating opinions and removing criticism.

Long road to recovery looms for Hawks, city officials and team’s fans


VIDEO: The GameTime guys discuss what’s next for the Hawks’ front office

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Say this for the city of Atlanta and its NBA franchise: at a time of crisis, the response has been swift and comprehensive.

Team officials, civic leaders, fans, the local media and even the city’s mayor have all rallied to the rescue of a franchise in need of an immediate pick-me-up in the wake of the Bruce Levenson and Danny Ferry dramas.

It’s been impressive. It’s the one time I can remember in a decade of living and working in Atlanta that there was this kind of focus and attention on the well-being of the Hawks.

The fact it took a dumpster fire of epic proportions to bring these people together is what spoils it for me. There are lots of good people who will end up paying dearly for the missteps and mistakes of someone else (Levenson and Ferry in particular).

Ownership — at least controlling interest — will change hands. There are always casualties when that happens.

Jobs will be lost.

Reputations will be tarnished … forever.

The lives of people who aren’t directly involved have been and will continue to be turned upside down.

And when training camp opens in a few weeks, the focus will be on the circus going on around the team instead of the team itself!

Levenson, Ferry, Michael Gearon Jr. and other members of the organization won’t be on the hook come media day. That responsibility will fall upon Atlanta’s players and coaches, who had absolutely nothing to do with the mess that has been made.

So with all due respect to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — who insists all involved will be better in the end because of this cratering of a franchise — the city and the Hawks’ fan base, there is no happy ending in sight. Not even with beloved Hawks Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins in the fold in a legitimate decision-making position within the new structure, whatever that might be.

Ferry meeting with local clergy and civic leaders behind closed doors won’t heal the public trust that has been breached by his discriminatory and destructive comments regarding Miami Heat forward Luol Deng.

While the attentions of the rest of the sports world and the 24-hour news cycle shifts to even more drama in the NFL, folks here will be left to sort through the wreckage of an Atlanta Spirit organization that seemed poised for big things in the 2014-15 season. A strong playoff showing without Al Horford in uniform gave Hawks fans plenty of hope to chew on during the offseason.

Even without making a huge splash in free agency, there remained a sense of optimism surrounding the on-court product (Paul Millsap emerged as an All-Star, Jeff Teague showed signs of being an elite-level point guard and coach Mike Budenholzer proved that system basketball works when administered properly).

Now Budenholzer has to assume duties he never signed up for as the day-to-day steward of the Hawks’ basketball operations, while Ferry continues his indefinite leave of absence.

What you have left is a skeptical fan base, the one that has been disrespected at every turn, wondering where it fits into this basketball soap opera. Paying customers who felt the Hawks were relevant have been given reason to question everything about the franchise and how it is run. Potential customers (yes, that’s ultimately what fans are) now have even more reason to ignore the city’s most consistent playoff outfit.

Hawks part-owner and CEO Steve Koonin will have to dig into his deep reservoir of tactics to sell what’s going on right now to the local public. I know this because I live among them. I hear from them regularly about this team at gas stations, grocery stores, school functions and church. The question is always the same: “what’s up with the Hawks?”

A shake of the head is all I can offer now, because I’m honestly not sure.

I’ve watched the relationship between a diverse and vibrant city and what has largely been an equally vibrant team the past seven years, run on parallel tracks … for the most part. The same basic questions Levenson had about the apathy of a certain segment of the fan base is the same question, without the racial or ethnic distinctions, of course, I’ve struggled with the past decade.

I’ve seen lovable losers in other NBA cities get 10 times the love the Hawks receive with the second-longest playoff streak in the league (behind the reigning-champion San Antonio Spurs) as a selling point.

The disconnect has always been about the perception of who and what the Hawks are to the locals and beyond and the reality of who and what they are to the people that matter most: those willing to spend their time and money venturing to Philips Arena to watch games in person.

Fixing that disconnect and repairing that breach requires transparency the Hawks have yet to commit to. Then and only then will I buy this talk of a happy ending for all involved.

Morning shootaround — Sept. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Terry relishing new chance in Houston | Dragic, not Bledsoe, deserves extension? | Lakers forward Johnson works out with Bryant

No. 1: Terry relishing opportunity to help Rockets — The Houston Rockets lost out this summer on adding a star free-agent like Carmelo Anthony or Pau Gasol and also watched as small forward Chandler Parsons left town to sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Last night, the Rockets helped offset some of their offseason losses by officially completing the trade that has brought Kings sixth man (and longtime Mavs standout) Jason Terry back to Texas. Terry is glad to be a part of a playoff-bound squad and, after years of tormenting the Rockets as a Maverick, is ready to help them soar. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has more:

The Rockets general manager might not have used the term “Rockets killer,” but in one of his first conversations with Terry after reaching agreement on the trade that officially brought Terry to Houston on Wednesday, Daryl Morey told him that many Rockets fans have considered him one of their most bitter rivals.

Being regarded as a particularly vexing nemesis could have been considered a complement, but Terry said some of the same emotions that inspired his play against the Rockets will also allow him to return to that level now that he’ll play for the Rockets.

“It was always special playing in the Houston Rockets’ arena,” Terry said. “I don’t know if it was the fans, or the red seats – probably a little bit of both – the history of the franchise; it’s just a special place.

“There’s about six or seven arenas around the league that when you step foot in that arena, you feel like, ‘Man, I want to have a big game.” So every time I faced Houston … I always wanted to … perform at high level. Now that I’m joining the Rockets, hopefully I can provide that same energy, that same excitement that they faced for years.”

His reputation, however, likely comes from the 2004-05 playoff series against the Rockets when the Mavericks came back after losing the first two games of the series to win in seven games. Terry averaged 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting and 60.6 percent 3-point shooting, reveling in his successes with his “Jet” pantomime around the court.

He played 35 games with the Nets last season, averaging a career-low 4.5 points, before he was traded to Sacramento. The Kings allowed him to return to Dallas to rehab his knee, and Terry said he is now ready to play as he never could last season.

“I’m 100 percent now,” Terry said. “Last season, coming off surgery, I never gave it a chance to heal properly and then strengthen. I tried to rush back. That just set me back even further.

“I worked extremely hard every single day to strengthen the knee and to get back at full strength. In my off-season training, I’ve been able to go extremely hard and I’ve been able to do everything. That was something I was limited in last season.”

“I definitely look at it as a situation when Jason Kidd came to the Dallas Mavericks, what he did for me on and off the court, teaching me how to play the game the right way and how to take care of your body, putting the extra work in,” Terry said. “I’m not saying they don’t know, but there are things I’ve picked up … that I can show them. I’m going to be there to provide that type of leadership.”

Still, Terry said he is coming to Houston to play. He was surprised by the deal, but said he became excited when he spoke with Rockets coach Kevin McHale. Terry had said in July he did not want to be a part of the Kings’ rebuilding. Hoping to play at least to 40-years-old before going into coaching, he said he wanted to chase another championship.

“Hearing his voice assured me I was heading to the right destination and that I was in a winning situation,” Terry said. “That’s all you ask for when you’re at this stage of your career, having an opportunity to win a championship. I think that’s what the Rockets have presented to me.”  

New situations for second-year players


VIDEO: Learn more about the Greek Freak on ‘Inside Stuff’

What a difference a year makes. And another 60 draft picks. And coaching changes. And trades, free agency and retirement. And medical updates. Especially medical updates.

Paul George getting hurt creates an unexpectedly large opportunity for Solomon Hill with the Pacers, C.J. McCollum gets a training camp in Portland and a running start into 2014-15, Alex Len tries to keep up with the other Suns after missing almost all of a second consecutive summer league because of health problems, and that’s just a partial list. Many of last season’s rookies to watch are this season’s special intrigue, second-year players who will be under a spotlight beyond the usual tracking.

We’re talking playoff implications here and serious questions about career direction. Including:

Victor Oladipo, Magic — Oladipo greatly enhanced his draft stock by dramatically improving his perimeter game as a junior compared to the first two seasons at Indiana, then regressed to 32.7 percent on 3-pointers and 41.9 percent overall as an NBA rookie. That was either a typical difficult transition to the pros, compounded by playing a lot more point guard than before, or the start of chatter that he was a one-hit wonder as a college shooter.

That, in turn, matters in a big way in Orlando. The potential impact of the No. 2 pick in 2013 who at the time projected as a two-way player, based on that final season with the Hoosiers, would be stunted if opponents don’t need to break a sweat when he gets the ball 18 feet from the basket. Beyond that, the Magic need shooters. If Oladipo isn’t one, they need them even more.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks — New coach Jason Kidd wants to give Greek Freak, a small forward as a rookie, a look at point guard, despite Kidd’s many options at the positions. There isn’t the same need after adding Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall later in the summer — in addition to returnees Brandon Knight, Ramon Sessions and Nate Wolters — but the implications of Antetokounmpo succeeding or failing at the point are big. If it works, Milwaukee could throw a matchup problem of historic proportions at a opponents and projected power forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick of 2014, would have more of an opening to show versatility at small forward.

Cody Zeller, Hornets — When Josh McRoberts went from Charlotte to Miami as a free agent, Zeller went from likely backup to the new starter after a 2013-14 of 17.3 minutes per game and a drop to 13.3 in the first round. He is a good fit next to center Al Jefferson, an athletic power forward to offset the center’s slower pace and post game, a good passer who will find Jefferson and new offensive threat Lance Stephenson, but Zeller needs to produce no matter what to help make the Hornets in a playoff a regular sighting.

Alex Len, Suns — Ankle problems last summer, a fractured right pinkie this summer. The 2014 issue isn’t nearly the concern in Phoenix, but the No. 5 pick in ’13 needs to show he can stay healthy. He played 42 games as a rookie, mostly watching as Miles Plumlee, just acquired from the Pacers, took complete control of the starting job at center. Len has a lot of ground to make up.

Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves — The good news is that the first pick in 2013 does not face the same pressure in Minnesota as he did in Cleveland, not with Andrew Wiggins, No. 1 this year, headlining the package that went to the Twin Cities for Kevin Love. Of course, that’s also the bad news. People are expecting that little of Bennett.

Counting him out after one season, even a season of 4.2 points and 35.6 percent from the field, is a mistake. Bennett may have been the top choice only because it was a bad draft and likely would have gone somewhere around the middle of the lottery this June, and there may still be questions about whom he defends, but this is a bounce-back opportunity. Then it’s up to him.

Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves — Speaking of Minneapolis big-man watches. The difference is Dieng went No. 21, was always going to be a good value pick in that range, and showed the kind of improvement the second half of his rookie season that makes a team look forward to what comes next. Nikola Pekovic, Dieng, Thaddeus Young, maybe Bennett — Minnesota has a chance for a center/power forward rotation.

Ben McLemore, Kings — Sacramento officials couldn’t stop celebrating its good fortune a year ago that McLemore was still on the board at No. 7. Then he was given a clear path to the starting job at shooting guard and couldn’t hold it, finishing at 37.6 percent from the field. Then the same Sacramento officials used the 2014 lottery pick on another shooting guard, Nik Stauskas. While saying all the right things about remaining committed to McLemore, of course.

Solomon Hill, Pacers — Even if Chris Copeland gets the start at small forward in place of the injured George, any measurable bench production from Hill, the No. 23 pick a year ago, will be important. To Indy, of course, in trying to turn longshot hopes for another playoff run into reality, but also to Hill in the wake of getting just 8.1 minutes in 28 regular-season appearances.

C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers — Limited to just 38 games by a broken left foot, a repeat injury from college, he is now an integral part of hopes in Portland. A solid (or better) contribution from McCollum and the Trail Blazers have a proven backup shooting guard who could play emergency point guard. Poor production and the Blazers have more depth problems with a bench built mostly on players trying to squeeze another season or two out of their career or prospects all about unrealized potential.

Trey Burke, Jazz — From the third-leading vote getter for Rookie of the Year, behind Michael Carter-Williams and Oladipo, to possible transition mode within months after Utah spent its 2014 lottery pick on Dante Exum, who has made it clear he is a point guard and wants the ball in his hands. Maybe Burke and Exum play together, especially with Exum projected as being able to defend shooting guard, although he has yet to show the consistent perimeter game to handle the role on offense. Maybe Burke’s relative experience and leadership skills keep him first on the depth chart as Exum makes the jump from high school ball in Australia. But one of the best parts of the Jazz last season is far from locked into the job.