Dwight Jones, former Olympian and NBA big man, dies at 64

NEW YORK CITYDwight Jones, a big man who played for a decade in the NBA and represented the United States in the 1972 Olympics, passed away earlier this week at 64 years old. According to the Houston Chronicle, Jones, perhaps the greatest high school player in Houston history, had been battling a heart ailment for several years.

A first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1973, Jones would go on to play for his hometown Rockets, as well as the Bulls and Lakers. Jones retired in 1984 after playing 766 NBA regular season games, amassing career averages of 8.1 ppg and 5.9 rpg.

Jones was also known for his participation in the controversial 1972 Olympics Men’s Basketball finals, when Team USA lost the gold medal game in overtime against the Soviet Union. As the New York Times recounts, even years later Jones remained frustrated by the loss

“For some of the guys, it’s eased over the years,” he was quoted as having said by The Houston Chronicle in 2002. “But for most of us,” he added, “we’re not that way.”

The American and Soviet teams had dominated the competition leading up to the championship game. The Americans initially struggled against the more experienced Soviet team, but managed a comeback and were trailing, 49-48, with seconds left in the game. Doug Collins sank two free throws, giving the Americans their first lead of the night with one second left on the clock.

An official, however, ordered that two seconds be put back on the clock. When the Soviets failed to score and a horn sounded, the American team began to celebrate and spectators swarmed the court. But officials then ruled that the clock had not been set properly, and they resumed the game with three seconds on the clock, giving the Russians yet another chance.

This time, Ivan Edeshko hurled a full-court pass to Aleksandr Belov, who scored the winning layup over Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes. It was the first time the Americans had ever lost a game in the Olympics.

Jones was off the court when it happened. He had been ejected with about twelve minutes left for scuffling with Mishako Korkia.

The American team appealed the results before a five-member jury set up by basketball’s global governing body, but lost, 3-2. The three members who voted to uphold the Russian victory were all from Communist countries. The Americans unanimously refused to accept their silver medals.

“It all came down to the Robin Hood theory — they took away from the good to give to the bad,” Jones said. “It’s the only game in history that has ever been played like that and ended like that.”

University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson (via ESPN.com) said in a statement…

Dwight was a tremendous competitor, who represented the University of Houston and his nation well during his playing career. While his health declined in recent years, he faced those challenges with the same courage and spirit that made him one of our program’s greats. Tonight, our hearts go out to Dwight’s family and friends and all those who knew and loved him.

Morning shootaround — July 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Team USA continues rolling | Wade, Bulls a convenient fit | Report: Monty Williams to return to sideline with Spurs

No. 1: Team USA continues rolling — With the Olympics now a week away, Team USA continued their exhibition schedule last night in Chicago, where they squared off against Venezuela. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Team USA managed to overcome poor shooting to still coast to an easy 80-45 win…

A miserable shooting night by both teams kept highlights to a minimum, but the USA Basketball men’s national team beat Venezuela 80-45 Friday night at United Center.

A sellout crowd eager to see both the Chicago Bulls’ Olympic representative, Jimmy Butler, and newest acquisition, Dwyane Wade — watching from the front row after his Bulls introductory news conference earlier in the day — did most of its noise-making during introductions.

At least, that’s how it went until DeAndre Jordan‘s alley-oop throwdown of a pass from Kevin Durant gave them something to roar about, putting Team USA up 62-37 with 6:47 left. Then Butler threw one down with 1:47 left to satisfy the locals.

Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson scored 13 points each for Team USA.

Heading into that final quarter, though, the teams had combined to shoot 29-of-104 (27.9 percent). The Venezuela team was pesky enough defensively to disrupt Team USA’s offense, which had purred along shooting 49.8 percent in its first three tuneups.

The Americans won those games — the opener against Argentina, followed by two against China — by an average of 45.3 points, outrebounding those opponents by an average of 21.0. By halftime Friday, they were on pace in both those categories — leading by 18, with a 37-12 edge on the boards — but their scoring was way down due to abysmal shooting.

Their 36 points through two quarters came the hard way: 12-of-40 on field-goal attempts, including 2-of-18 on 3-pointers. The NBA stars even missed six of their 16 free throws.

The Venezuelans hung tough deep into the first quarter, trailing 13-12, before USA ran off the game’s next 12 points across the quarter break. Venezuela’s John Cox, who led all scorers with 12 points in the half, got his crew as close as 28-18 before Team USA closed the half with eight unanswered points.

***

No. 2: Wade, Bulls a convenient fit — One of the more surprising signings of the NBA free agency period was Dwyane Wade leaving the only team he had ever played for, the Miami Heat, in order to sign with his hometown Chicago Bulls. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Wade met with the media in Chicago on Friday, and Wade said that this was not about money as much as it was a return to where he watched the Bulls play as a kid…

Wade was introduced Friday — wait, that’s the wrong word for one of the NBA’s most familiar faces, so let’s say reacquainted with Chicago media at a news conference at the Bulls downtown practice facility. The theme of the 45-minute “presser” was hometown-kid-returns, and strictly speaking, there’s no denying the truth of that. Wade was born in Chicago, grew up in the south suburb of Robbins, and went to Richards H.S. in neighboring Oak Lawn.

But he left Chicagoland after graduating to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee. After leading that school to the Final Four, the 6-foot-4 guard was drafted fifth overall in 2003 by Miami. And over the past 13 years, Wade established himself as the face, heart and soul of the Heat, stacking up 12 All-Star appearances alongside those three Larry O’Brien trophies.

Because Wade’s Miami teams were in direct conflict with the Bulls for much of his career, his roots mattered less to the fans at United Center than the city and logos on his uniform. He routinely was booed and, more than once, rather awkwardly, he was cheered when he fell or was knocked to the floor and it appeared he might be hurt too badly to continue. Wade even let on how that stung, coming in the building where he once had dreamed of playing and winning.

That was the dream-come-true of which he spoke Friday.

“I’m a Chicago guy, Chicago kid. I grew up here,” Wade said, before a fleet of cameras, a gang of reporters and lots of family. “I remember sitting on the floor when I could sit Indian-style and watching the Chicago Bulls win their first championship. I was 9 years old.

“We had this little-bitty TV — it’s about as big as an iPhone now — I remember looking at it and saying, ‘That’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to be. I want to be a champion and that’s who I want to do it with.’ My dream of becoming an NBA player started here in my hometown.”

No one wants to be overly cynical, so if Wade really is scratching an itch — and maybe extending his brand to another major market for the growing conglomerate that he and many of his peers have become — by playing next season in Chicago, good for him.

That doesn’t paper over suspicions, though, that he signed with the Bulls out of spite when the Heat and president Pat Riley didn’t make him a higher priority when free agency opened July 1. Or that the Bulls had ulterior motives in their own right besides landing a player whom they’d had in their sights twice before.

Wade tamped down a few questions Friday about the breakdown in his negotiations with the Heat. Reminded that Riley later expressed — sincerely or not — some regrets that he hadn’t been more involved in the talks, Wade said he had been fine hashing out particulars with owner Mickey Arison and son Nick.

“This year, the direction and focus for that organization in Miami — which I have nothing but respect for and love for — was a little different than it has been in years past,” Wade said. “My focus and direction was a little different than it’s been in years past. … I had a contract offer in Miami I could have took. I decided not to take it. It was my decision to be selfish and live out a dream of mine.”

“So let’s clear up the notion that Pat Riley orchestrated me getting out of Miami because he didn’t offer me the money I wanted,” Wade added. “This was not a money deal for me.”

***

No. 3: Report: Monty Williams to return to sideline with Spurs — After his head coaching gig ended with the New Orleans Pelicans, last summer Monty Williams joined the Oklahoma City Thunder as their lead assistant coach. But tragedy struck midway through the season, when Williams’ wife was killed in a traffic accident. Williams took off the rest of the season to focus on their five children, but he recently returned to work with USA Basketball, and as ESPN’s Marc Stein writes, Williams is expected to return to the NBA next season as an assistant for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.

Sources told ESPN that Williams — who left the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bench in February after the tragic death of his wife, Ingrid — has been urged by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to take as much of a role with the organization as he feels comfortable for the 2016-17 campaign.

The specifics of what role Williams would fill and how much time he could commit have not yet been determined, but sources say San Antonio has opened the door to either a coaching and player-development role or a front-office position (or a hybrid), depending on what he prefers.

One source close to Williams told ESPN that the 44-year-old “absolutely” intends to be a head coach in the league again after his expected stint with the Spurs. The source also said numerous teams, including Oklahoma City, have made similar offers to Williams for next season.

Williams’ in-laws live in San Antonio and have been assisting him with the couple’s five children in the wake of Ingrid Williams’ death after a Feb. 9 collision in which a car crossed over onto the wrong side of the road and struck her vehicle head-on.

The children also have been traveling with Williams during Team USA’s domestic stops on the road to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The team has played exhibition games in Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Oakland, California; and Chicago entering the final warm-up game in Houston against Nigeria on Monday.

The start of USA Basketball’s preparations for the Rio Olympics on July 18 in Las Vegas marked Williams’ return to the sport after five months away in the wake of the accident. In a SportsCenter interview with Hannah Storm that aired Friday, Williams said he’s “so juiced up and ready to get back into it again.”

“I’ve only had peace about a few things,” Williams told Storm. “I knew I had to take care of my kids and stop coaching, but also knew that I wanted to be a part of USA Basketball, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

“I can’t wait to get back and start coaching. I wouldn’t even think that if I didn’t know, one, my wife would want me to. My kids talk about it all the time. And there have been some things that have happened in my life lately that have allowed me to get that back.”

Last season was Williams’ first as the lead assistant in Oklahoma City under Thunder coach Billy Donovan. Williams previously posted a record of 173-221 in five seasons as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. After the Thunder’s seven-game exit to Golden State in the Western Conference finals this postseason, Donovan confirmed that Williams would not be returning to the Thunder bench.

Williams got his start in coaching under Popovich as a Spurs intern in 2004-05 before making his debut as an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Reflecting on the accident that claimed his wife’s life, Williams told Storm, “I got the call that nobody wants to get. And I knew when I was talking to my daughter, because she answered the phone, I knew at that moment that my life was going to change. I can’t explain it, but I knew that everything was going to be different. I didn’t know what was going on at the hospital; I just knew that my life was going to change. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. I just felt that in my heart like this phone call was different.

“It’s one of those things you never get rid of. You never forget where you were. You never forget what you were doing. It’s the phone call you don’t want anybody to ever get. Certainly [it] could’ve broken me to the point of quitting. But God and his graciousness has given me the strength and good people to help us go forward.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: New Atlanta Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schröder joined this week’s Hang Time Podcast … The Warriors will reportedly offer JaVale McGee a chance to make the team in training camp … Nets guard Greivis Vasquez has withdrawn from the Olympics and the Venezuelan National Team … Jarrett Jack says he’s about a month away from returning to full-contact workouts

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 242) Featuring Dennis Schroder

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Three years into his NBA career and one thing is clear, Dennis Schroder has arrived.

An exciting change-of-pace backup to All-Star Jeff Teague with the Atlanta Hawks, Schroder takes over for Teague now on a revamped Hawks team that traded Teague and lost All-Star center Al Horford to Boston in free agency. The Hawks new look does include hometown big man Dwight Howard, once the most dominant big man in the league.

Ask any fan or pundit and they’ll likely debate the biggest risk, Schroder moving into a starting role or the Hawks betting that Howard still has dominant big man juice in his body.

But know this, Schroder is convinced he’s ready for prime time. He’s been clear about his ambitions from the moment he made the transition from his native Germany to the NBA

Hawks coach and team president Mike Budenholzer is also a believer. He’s the one who signed off on the trading Teague to Indiana and opening up the space for Schroder to ascend to the starting job (Bud also wisely signed veteran Jarrett Jack this summer to serve as Schroder’s backup).

The results of these changes will determine just how wise a move it was to make these moves now. Will the Hawks remain among the Eastern Conference playoff elite? Will Schroder and Howard energize a unit that has done nothing but roll on Budenholzer’s watch?

We dig deep with Schroder on that and much more on Episode 242 of The Hang Time Podcast.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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Morning shootaround — July 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Durant says he didn’t tell Westbrook he was coming back | Wade’s move shocks Anthony | Stoudemire wanted to retire with Suns

No. 1: Durant says he never made promise to Westbrook — Kevin Durant was one of, if not the biggest, names in free agency this summer. His decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors made ripples throughout the NBA that are still being felt today. On a recent podcast, ESPN.com’s Royce Young said Durant had essentially told his All-Star teammate in OKC, Russell Westborook, he was coming back to the Thunder. (Young has since clarified that statement back a bit.) Durant, in an interview with The Vertical’s Shams Charania, says he never said anything of the sort to Westbrook:

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant refuted a report that he told his ex-Oklahoma City teammates – including Russell Westbrook – that he planned to re-sign with the Thunder.

“It’s false,” Durant told The Vertical on Thursday. “I didn’t say that – words about me telling Russell or Nick that I would stay or leave never came out of my mouth. We met as teammates, but no promises came out of it. In this day and age, I can’t control anything people claim out there. Someone can go out and say something random right now, and people will believe it.

“I never told Russell or Nick [Collison], ‘All right, guys, I’m coming back to the Thunder’ – and then a week later, I decide not to. Never happened. I don’t operate like that. I heard people say that story, but it’s not the truth.”

In a quiet corner before USA Basketball’s practice at the United Center, Durant admitted he has heard – and refutes – the perception that he turned his back on Westbrook and his former Thunder teammates. “There were never promises given in a meeting before July,” he told The Vertical. “I went through the process.”

He held meetings with six teams – the Warriors, Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat – and committed to a two-year maximum contract with Golden State. Since joining the Warriors, Durant and several teammates, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, have fielded questions about acclimating the one-time NBA MVP to the starting lineup.

“I’m not coming into a team where a guy is playing my position and we have try to fit in two guys playing the same position,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’m not coming in trying to play the point guard, trying to play the shooting guard. I’m a small forward. The team didn’t have a small forward when I signed. Steph, Klay, Draymond, the bigs, we all play different positions.

“Whether it’s minutes, shots, opportunities, any good team will have players sacrificing. That’s the nature of the game. I’m not coming into a game saying that I need my 18 shots and I need to get to the line 12 times. I let the game flow naturally.”

***

No. 2: Anthony shocked by Wade’s move to Chicago — New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and new Chicago Bulls signee Dwyane Wade have been friends for years, dating back to before both were taken in the top 5 picks of the 2003 Draft. The two have had their share of memorable one-on-one showdowns through the years, even moreso over the last six seasons since Anthony was traded to the Eastern Conference. While Anthony should continue to face Wade on a regular basis in 2016-17 and beyond, he was like many others this summer who found themselves surprised Wade left the Miami Heat to sign with the Bulls. ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell has more:

“I was shocked,” Anthony said before Thursday’s Team USA practice at the United Center. “I was shocked more from a standpoint it was just hard to see. It’s hard to see some players in different uniforms and he’s one of those guys who I never thought I would see in a different uniform other than Miami. But it happened, and I got a chance to talk to him and sit down with him and really dig deep about his feelings and what happened. He’s at peace now. And when he’s at peace, I’m at peace with it.”

Wade surprised many in the league by spurning the Heat to sign a two-year deal with the Bulls earlier this month. Anthony, who was wooed by the Bulls two summers ago but ultimately decided to re-sign with the Knicks, acknowledged that the free-agency process can be mentally taxing for players.

“I don’t think the masses really understand how difficult those decisions are,” Anthony said. “And what goes into those decisions. And as athletes what’s going through our mind during those decisions. A lot of people think we can just wake up and we can just make those decisions — it’s not that easy.”

Anthony’s comments come just a few weeks after two of the most successful Bulls in recent memory, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, landed in New York. Rose was dealt to the Knicks last month. Noah signed as a free agent.

“We love them,” Anthony said. “We love those additions. And we’re looking forward to getting the season going. And I think everybody is excited, the excitement is back. Right now there’s an adjustment on paper, but of course we have some work to do putting it all together, making it work. But we’re going to ride the wave of this excitement right now.”

As for a rekindling of a rivalry between the Bulls and Knicks, Anthony said he knows that it’s possible with all the moves both teams have made.

“I know you guys want that,” Anthony said. “I know you’re living for that. But we embrace that. I think as players, as competitors, we embrace all of those challenges and rivalries, that’s what makes the sport great again, so we embrace that.”

***

No. 3: Stoudemire says Suns weren’t receptive to him returning — After six All-Star Game apperances, a Kia Rookie of the Year trophy, and being named an All-NBA player several times, Amar’e Stoudemire retired from the NBA on Wednesday. Stoudemire was a free agent this summer and decided to hang it up as a member of the New York Knicks, whom he played for from 2010-15. Although Stoudemire had some memorable days in New York, most associate his peak seasons with the Phoenix Suns, who drafted him in 2002. Stoudemire told the Arizona Republic‘s Paul Coro he wanted to retire as a Sun, but the team didn’t seem receptive to that idea:

Amar’e Stoudemire gets sentimental the moment he reflects on his first eight NBA seasons spent in Phoenix, where a raw teenager became a skilled All-Star.

“Where do you want me to start?” Stoudemire said Thursday, shuffling through his mind’s fondest Suns memories. “It doesn’t stop.”

Stoudemire quickly recites Suns times like flying with a Phoenix contingent to recruit Steve Nash out of Dallas, watching Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic arrive in Phoenix from foreign countries, his career’s most successful seasons as an individual and a team, experiencing a preseason tour of Italy and Germany, watching Nash’s soccer skills on the Suns practice court and using his Hollywood connections to entertain teammates on the road.

All of that, dotted by conference finals runs and five All-Star Games as a Sun, will carry more weight in time than his decision to retire on a one-day New York Knicks contract for his less successful NBA home of 4 ½ years.

Stoudemire just did not feel the same love back in the past two offseasons, when he hoped to return to the Suns to close his career. That prompted him to reach out to New York this month for a ceremonial contract with a “Once a Knick, Always a Knick” quotation to cap his 14-year career.

“The last two years, we made phone calls to Phoenix but I wasn’t getting any positive response,” Stoudemire told azcentral sports on Thursday. “That would’ve been the perfect way to go out. I didn’t want to beg Phoenix. My heart was in two places – Phoenix and New York. I just went where I was wanted.”

“I love my fans in Phoenix. Most of my high times and highlights were in Phoenix. I put forth the effort to finish my career in Phoenix but it wasn’t well-received.”

Stoudemire watched Steve Nash be inducted into the Suns Ring of Honor last season and thought, “I might be next.” There are currently 14 members.

Even with missing nearly a full season during his eight-year Phoenix stay, Stoudemire ranks highly in Suns career annals – fourth in points per game (21.4), third in total rebounds (4,613), fifth in total blocks (722), third in free throws made (3,044) and seventh in field goal percentage (54.3).

“I’m praying for that,” Stoudemire said of a Ring of Honor induction, “because my glory years are in Phoenix. My best times are in Phoenix. I bleed purple and orange. My roots are in Phoenix and the tree bloomed from there.”

 

Stoudemire wanted to make it clear that his positive feelings for the franchise remain in tact, especially his respect for Suns fans and managing partner Robert Sarver.

“I never have received so much love and loyalty than I did with Suns fans,” Stoudemire said. “I love them unconditionally.

“I understand what Robert is trying to do. I know Robert is trying to win and I know the organization is trying to create a winning environment. I respect what they are trying to accomplish. If they need my help with anything, I am here for them.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: ICYMI, the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers will square off in a regular-season game in London next season … The cost of the Washington Wizards’ new practice facility just went up … Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler says he no longer has a chip on his shoulder motivating him, but he’s just as driven as ever … Sacramento Kings VP Vlade Divac is predicting a big Olympics for his team’s star center, DeMarcus Cousins … Gerald Green is glad to be back where his NBA career started — with the Boston Celtics …

Morning shootaround — July 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Towns: ‘Things are about to change’ | Watson recalls Popovich scolding him | Divac responds to Gay’s comments

No. 1: Towns expecting big changes in Minnesota — You have to go back a dozen years to reach the last season in which the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs. That 2004 run to the Western Conference finals, led by Kevin Garnett, was the postseason high point for a franchise that has struggled to regain that success since then. But with reigning Kia Rookie of the Year winner Karl-Anthony Towns, plus former Rookie of the Year winner Andrew Wiggins, the athletic Zach LaVine, rookie Kris Dunn and new coach Tom Thibodeau in the fold for 2016-17, things can’t help but look up for Minnesota. Towns, for his part, is expecting the Wolves to be more than improved writes Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press:

Karl-Anthony Towns grew up in New Jersey. He loves it there.

But it’s not home anymore.

“A lot of times, I talk to my friends and family and I’m always trying to rush back to Minnesota,” Towns said Wednesday during his basketball camp at Hopkins High School. “This is where I call home.”

“I thank God every day that I get a chance to do all these great things in a Timberwolves jersey.”

Towns has carved out some court time to work on his game, too. He said he has worked on all aspects of his craft and added new moves to his arsenal.

He also has worked on his three-point shot. In New Jersey, he said, he was one of the top three-point shooters and now is moving “back to his roots,” using some shooting drills he used to do.

“It’s been paying dividends,” Towns said. “My shot has looked the best it’s looked in about four years, and I’m really happy.”

Towns’ focus already is centered on next season, which he talks about with Wolves teammates regularly. The primary topics are what the league looks like, how the division will look and what the Wolves need to do to accomplish their goals.

“We’re concocting a plan to be the best Timberwolves team that’s come around in a long time,” he said.

This month, Towns sent out a tweet that read, “Remember us.” He explained the reasoning Wednesday.

“A lot of people tend to think that we’re the Timberwolves, and we’re at the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “I just want everyone to know that we’re coming. Just remember us, remember who we were for the last 13 years, because things are about to change.”

***

No. 2: Watson recalls scolding he got from Popovich — By all accounts, the Phoenix Suns had a rough season in 2015-16, from the 23 wins they posted (their fewest since 2012-13), to the myriad of injuries they endured to stars such as Eric Bledsoe and others, to the mid-season firing of then-coach Jeff Hornacek. His ouster led to the team moving Earl Watson over as interim coach and although the team went just 9-23 under his watch, his ability to reach the team’s young players and regain a sense of direction for the franchise wasn’t lost on team officials. Watson was named Suns coach this summer and in an interview with Marc J. Spears of TheUndefeated.com, he talks about how he got a stern talking to from legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich last season:

Watson was asked to interview with the Suns as an interim head coach for the rest of the season. As exciting as the opportunity was, he sought the blessing of Hornacek before agreeing to interview.

“I called Jeff because if he was discouraged about it, I would walk away from it,” Watson said. “You don’t want to ever interview for a job from a guy who brought you in. It’s torn emotions.”

Watson landed the interim opportunity and earned a 9-24 mark in what would end up being the second-worst overall record in Suns franchise history. One game of note was a 118-111 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 21 in which the Suns challenged the NBA power. Watson got scolded by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich afterward for being too hard on himself after not landing the big win.

“[Popovich] told me, ‘Great job.’ I said, ‘Coach, we have to win games. No one cares about great job.’ He got in my face and asked me if I was crazy. ‘Are you f’ing crazy. Great job. I really mean it. You were poised. Your team is playing great. They’re playing for you.’ I told him that I love him. He said, ‘I love you, too,’ ” Watson said.

While Watson was stressed about earning wins, the Suns actually were not judging him on wins and losses with the young and injury-riddled team. The hope was rather to improve the team’s attitude. And when the 2015-16 season concluded, the players’ attitude toward Watson was extremely positive. Several told Suns management before and during their exit meetings that they hoped he was retained .

“What he inherited is maybe one of the toughest situations that any coach has had to inherit,” Suns center Tyson Chandler told The Undefeated toward the end of last season. “What he has done is taking these young guys and put their focus in the right way. I love what he is doing. I love the way he approaches it.

“As just as serious as he was on the court, there is just as much passion [coaching]. His knowledge for the game is actually what I thought he would have been as a young coach. His leading ability … Young guys are usually feeling themselves out. But he surprised me.”

The Suns agreed with their players’ assessment and hired Watson on April 19 as the permanent head coach. He immediately became the NBA’s youngest head coach at 36 years old. Suns guard Devin Booker called it a “great move for our organization.”

“Going into next season we understand that it will be a process, but Earl is the best fit to lead our squad,” Booker said in a statement to The Undefeated. “He’s played the game before. He has experience. We trust him and he trusts us.”

***

No. 3: Divac responds to Gay’s complaints — Sacramento Kings swingman Rudy Gay was the team’s second-leading scorer in 2015-16 (17.2 ppg) and is one of the core pieces to a team hoping to get back into the upper crust in the Western Conference. Gay, however, is also entering his 11th season come 2016-17 and has just seven playoff games on his career resume. In an interview earlier this week with Sactown Royalty, Gay voiced his displeasure with the team’s direction, which Kings VP Vlade Divac responded to, writes James Ham of CSNBayArea.com:

Divac played cat and mouse, initially saying that he hadn’t heard Gay’s comments. Once informed of what the veteran wing had told the media, Divac weighed in.

“He has my number,” Divac told CSN California. “If I do something, I will call him. Obviously, if I didn’t call him, we didn’t do anything.”

In case you missed it, Gay went public on Monday with his frustrations over the uncertainty surrounding his future with the team and the current direction of the franchise.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what situation is going on here,” Gay told Sactown Royalty. “At this point in my career, I think I want some kind of consistency and we don’t have that here, at all.”

Divac has restructured the Kings roster in the offseason, bringing in eight new faces via the draft and free agency. Sources have confirmed that the Kings are shopping Gay and the team has fielded plenty of calls, but they have yet to find a deal that makes sense for the team.

The Kings GM has spoken with his small forward on this subject in the past and has nothing new to report. Divac has been on both sides of the table as both a player and now and an executive and he understands the frustration of being in limbo. But he also has a job to do.

“Look, I was a player, 16-17 years in the league, nobody called me everyday and tell me what management is doing,” Divac said. “Management was doing their job. If something big happened, they called and told me. Obviously, nothing big happened (so) I’m not going to call anybody.”

When asked whether the Kings’ roster is set so far, the 7-footer kept his cards close to the vest. He is working the phones trying to do what’s best for his team and be it Gay or Kosta Koufos or Ben McLemore, Divac is looking for value in return, not a salary dump.

“There’s always room to improve,” Divac said. “I’m happy for now, but down the road, we’re always trying to improve.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Ben McLeMore is preparing for a bounce-back season in 2016-17 … ICYMI, a back injury will keep Anderson Varejao out of the 2016 Olympics … Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki reportedly signed a two-year, $50 million extension with the team yesterday …

Blogtable: Best five U.S. Team players for offense

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: NBA rookies eager to watch in Rio | Team with best shot to defeat U.S.? | Best five U.S. Team players for offense | Best five U.S. Team players for defense


>The five players Coach K should put on the floor when he needs scoreboard-busting offense?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com:

G – Kyrie Irving
G – Klay Thompson
F – Carmelo Anthony
F – Kevin Durant
C – Draymond Green

This is a red, white and blue version of Golden State’s Death Lineup, with Irving, Anthony and Durant swapped in for Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. When you factor in the shorter 3-point line in FIBA rules, this crew — three of whom will be playing together in 2016-17, along with the reigning two-time Kia MVP — would be scary-lethal. (Note: No disrespect to Barnes, who also is on Team USA, but KD is a clear upgrade and Melo is a professional scorer.)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comCarmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comKevin Durant, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comFirst thought: Kevin Durant. Duh. Second thought: They would be best offensively with Draymond Green’s passing and shooting at the five, especially if Kyrie Irving is at the point. Now add the shooting of Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony and they will score rather efficiently.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Start with Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson in the backcourt, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt and DeMarcus Cousins in the middle and you can blow out a few bulbs on any scoreboard. That first five firepower would be off the charts. Coach K is working with an embarrassment of riches, even when some of the best and brightest don’t make the trip.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com:  Everyone here can create his own shot:
C – DeMarcus Cousins
F – Carmelo Anthony
F – Kevin Durant
F – Klay Thompson
G – Kyrie Irving

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI would go extra small and use a lineup of Kyrie Irving at the point, with Klay Thompson alongside him in the backcourt. Then a frontline of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Spread the floor, score. Good luck finding someone on that five who can’t take advantage of a mismatch.

Blogtable: Best five U.S. Team players for defense

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: NBA rookies eager to watch in Rio | Team with best shot to defeat U.S.? | Best five U.S. Team players for offense | Best five U.S. Team players for defense


>The five players Coach K should put on the floor when he needs lock-down defense?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

G – Paul George
G – Klay Thompson
F – Jimmy Butler
F – Draymond Green
C – DeAndre Jordan

The key to this lineup would be Paul George’s ability to make life tough on point guards with his length and quickness. Thompson, Butler and Green are proven two-way players who pride themselves on shutting down their men. And there’s Jordan backing them all up with size, leaping ability and — in these games — a license to take the ball off the rim.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comJimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Paul George and DeAndre Jordan.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comDeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Jimmy Butler. That would force someone to defend a point guard, but very few opponents will have a PG with the ability to go around Thompson or Butler, for example. If I need a point guard for defense, I go with Kyle Lowry and sit one of those two.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comA long lineup of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeAndre Jordan wouldn’t have too many issues switching everything and would be tough to score on. And it’s a lineup that we very well may see. Krzyzewski has been using George at point guard for a few minutes here and there in the first few exhibition games.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Depending on what type of ball pressure you want to bring to the game, I’d start with Klay Thompson and Paul George as my guards (and I think they could both handle themselves against the point guards in this field). Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler have all the versatility I need on the perimeter and can both play bigger than their listed height and weight. DeAndre Jordan is going to be a revelation to some people in this competition much the way Kenneth Faried was in the 2014 World Cup in Spain, a player capable of dominating the game around the rim with his athleticism and shot-blocking.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comThese five will also be able to transform stops and turnovers into baskets, so long as Jordan is attacking the basket for lobs:

C – DeAndre Jordan
F – Draymond Green
F – Paul George
G – Jimmy Butler
G – Klay Thompson

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThis is where I’m not sure what the play is at the point, considering neither Kyle Lowry or Kyrie Irving are known for their defense. So maybe you use Klay Thompson at the one, with Jimmy Butler next to him at the two. Then a front line of Paul George, Draymond Green and DeAndre Jordan seems pretty capable, and able to switch just about anything.

Blogtable: Team with best shot to defeat U.S.?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: NBA rookies eager to watch in Rio | Team with best shot to defeat U.S.? | Best five U.S. Team players for offense | Best five U.S. Team players for defense


>The United States will be a heavy gold-medal favorite in Rio, but which team do you believe has the best chance to hand the U.S. a loss?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Australia won’t have Ben Simmons or Andrew Bogut, Spain will be playing without Marc Gasol and the best players on Argentina’s team are all long in the tooth. So I’ll go with France, to whom Tony Parker and Boris Diaw will bring their years of Spurs synergy. Lithuania and Serbia should be more rugged tests, too, than Team USA has been facing in its exhibitions so far.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comFrankly, the answer is nobody. Normally you’d look at Spain, but not without Marc Gasol. If you forced me to make a pick, I’ll take a flyer on France with a roster stocked with NBA talent.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comFrance, then Spain. The French are expected to have Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert, Boris Diaw and others, some with an NBA background, plus many years together that includes reaching the quarterfinals in London. (The surprise was that France left Evan Fournier off the roster.) It won’t be enough to beat Team USA, but that lineup will get the Americans’ attention.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comSpain has better offensive talent, but France has the defenders — namely Nicolas Batum and Rudy Gobert — that can make things interesting against the U.S. They also have a very good coach, Vincent Collet, whose game plan played a big part in their upset of Spain in the World Cup quarterfinals in Madrid two years ago. It would help if Tony Parker was a few years younger, because neither Parker (at 34) nor France’s other ball handlers have the quickness to really make the U.S. defense scramble. While Spain has been able to hang with the U.S. in a couple of high-scoring games in the last two Olympics, France would need a much uglier game to have a shot.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I don’t believe the U.S. is in any sort of imminent danger from the field in Rio. France and Spain always stick out from the crowd, due to the abundance of NBA players on their respective rosters. But the U.S. is the only team that can go up and down the roster and tap NBA All-Stars to hit the floor and play at a high level for short stretches. If things get interesting late in any game, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comThe leadership of Tony Parker, the shot-blocking of Rudy Gobert, the playmaking of Boris Diaw and the perimeter defense of Nicolas Batum will give France the best chance in the final game of group play — especially if the French are fighting for a higher seed and the Americans are looking ahead to the knockout round. That being said, I don’t see any team capable of beating the U.S. There will be a surprisingly close game or two, but the great players of the traditional basketball powers – Parker, Pau Gasol of Spain and Manu Ginobili of Argentina — have grown old while USA Basketball has continually replenished. The argument can be made that the top eight players (if not more) will be wearing American uniforms.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThere are several teams stocked with NBA players, but the two I’d be most concerned with are both from Europe: Spain and France. I know Australia has a lot of talent as well, but Spain, as always, basically has a team full of NBA players, and France is the other team I think you can never count out.

Blogtable: Rookies eager to watch in Rio

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: NBA rookies eager to watch in Rio | Team with best shot to defeat U.S.? | Best five U.S. Team players for offense | Best five U.S. Team players for defense


> Several incoming NBA rookies will be suited up for the Summer Olympics, which begin next week.  Which of these rooks are you most eager to see in action in Rio? Why?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I’m curious about Domantas Sabonis with Lithuania. I missed seeing his old man, Arvydas, until he was an older, thicker and different player with Portland (1995-2003) than he had been in international competition. If his offspring can make the transition from Gonzaga to the NBA as effectively as Arvydas did when he arrived at age 31, the Thunder will have something special. Arvydas Sabonis was so gifted, and had such great finesse for a huge man. It’ll be interesting to see how much Domantas relies on guile as he’s adding strength to compete in the paint against the NBA’s grown men.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comAs a resident of Houston, I’ll be most interested in Rockets second-round draft pick Zhou Qi of China.  The 7-foot-2 center has a tremendous wingspan, demonstrated athleticism, touch around the hoop and a decent jumper. But he is downright skinny and I want to see if he can hold his own against physical play. I’ll also have an eye out for Domantas Sabonis of Lithuania.  The son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis could get big minutes this season for the relaunching Thunder.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comAlex Abrines. I’ve been on the bandwagon for a few years, since before the Thunder took him 32nd in 2013. His previous experience at major international tournaments has only been in the junior events. Now the swingman has extensive experience in Spain, will finally be joining Oklahoma City this season and is scheduled to play for Spain in the Olympics. The Spanish roster is crowded enough that Abrines will not be handed minutes, but his play, especially if a matchup with the United States materializes beyond pool play, will be a measuring stick heading toward his NBA debut. The same goes for Dario Saric as he nears the move to the 76ers.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comTwo of them — Domantas Sabonis and Dario Saric — are lottery picks. Even though Sabonis played college basketball in the States, I’ve seen more of Saric. So I’m more curious about Sabonis, who has been playing a decent amount of minutes in exhibition games for a veteran-laden Lithuania squad. His skills could be a good fit on the Thunder frontline and it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance to contribute as a rookie on a team that will be fighting for a playoff spot.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Seeing his highlights doesn’t do justice to the game so many talent evaluators insist resides in the body of Dario Saric. I’ve been waiting anxiously to see him go all out in a competition like this, just to see if he can justify some of the hype (and there has been plenty). He’s such a critical piece for the Philadelphia 76ers going forward. I want see for my own eyes what he brings to the party in Philly.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comFor two years we’ve been hearing about 6-foot-10 power forward Dario Saric, the No. 12 pick of the 2014 draft who will add to the glut of big men in Philadelphia next season. Will Saric be able to earn meaningful minutes alongside Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor? Which skills will he bring to the 76ers? The best clues will be provided by his play with Croatia in the weeks ahead.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogWait, Ben Simmons is playing? Oh, well then, my options are severely limited. In that case, out of the rookies playing in Rio, I’ll do with Domantas Sabonis, who may end up playing a bigger role than anyone suspected this season for the Thunder following the departure of Kevin Durant.

Waiters agrees to deal with Miami

For those casual NBA critics you run into occasionally – particularly the ones who finally have come off their hackneyed “no one plays defense” or “the regular season means nothing” salvos, only to replace them this summer by grumbling about the flood of TV money and overpaid mediocre players – we offer: Dion Waiters.

Waiters, a shooting guard who already was an object of bemusement for some NBA reporters on social media, appears to be adding another chapter. The Miami Heat have signed Waiters, who most recently played for Oklahoma City, to a reported two-year contract worth around $6 million.

Mediocre? Overpaid? Not in this instance. If the reported salary is correct, Waiters will play in 2016-17 for less than he was paid last season and not even half what he could have gotten by re-signing with the Thunder. But Waiters’ inconsistent play, and the gap between his skills and his perception of those skills, apparently meant less of a market for a guy who was the No. 4 pick overall in 2012. Waiters averaged a career-worst 9.8 points while shooting 39.9 percent and continuing a career-long trend as a minus player in net rating (99/108 in 2015-16).

Here is some context from Anthony Slater of the Daily Oklahoman, including details on why the Thunder pulled their qualifying offer to Waiters:

The number is eye-popping. Waiters is a 24-year-old shooting guard who, despite his flaws, showed decent ability on both ends of the floor deep into the playoffs this past season. Many speculated that Waiters would get $10 million or more per year in this seller’s market.

But his restricted free [agency] dragged on deep into July. The Victor Oladipo trade last month, combined with the Kevin Durant departure, allowed the Thunder to take a new direction. After signing Alex Abrines, OKC had little interest in bringing Waiters back. So the Thunder rescinded a qualifying offer last week that, if Waiters accepted it, would’ve made him $6.8 million next season.

He then became an unrestricted free agent and, apparently, there wasn’t much interest out there despite available money from teams like the Nets and Sixers. So Waiters has agreed to a short-term, bet-on-yourself, pay-cut deal with the Heat.