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Not just another pickup game

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates at San Quentin State prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates in a pickup game at San Quentin State Prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – They walked back out some two hours and 45 minutes later, past death row with the loud cadence of the Mexican Mafia counting off exercises, through the two metal-bar doors that slam shut with exactly the shock value portrayed in movies, and to the final check of sliding a wrist under the fluorescent light to make sure the underside of the lower arm had been stamped with “PASS” on the way in, indicating a guest allowed to leave.

“No glow, no go,” the guard manning the lamp said.

Nineteen Golden State Warriors players, coaches and executives had been inside San Quentin State Prison on Friday morning for a another pickup game against inmates, and it didn’t matter that they were back for the third year in a row. You don’t get used to San Quentin. About a 20-mile drive from Oakland, the prison boasts 3,873 inmates, 732 of them on California’s only death row for men. Some 400 convicts ringed the outdoor court to watch the game; an official estimated 80 percent of them were serving life sentences. So, no, you don’t get used to that.

The game was played in a yard near a baseball field, a tennis court, a track and weight-lifting equipment, the same kind of outdoor setting that could be found anywhere, except that this one also included razor wire looped along the top of the fence that ran the length of the sidelines and one baseline. Because blowing a whistle is a signal for trouble — inmates are required to hit the deck, everyone else must freeze — hunters’ duck calls are used. (In a non-Golden State game about five years ago, one of the refs with the visiting group, unaware of the rule, tweeted a regular whistle. Rifles flashed into view from towers in an instant.) Cell phones are not allowed without prior permission. Outsiders are prohibited from wearing blue, even jeans, or grey for fear of being confused with inmates’ wardrobes, so the Warriors, mostly dressed in the approved black and white as they arrive, slipped on green jerseys.

A unique basketball experience?

“Probably the No. 1,” said coach Steve Kerr, the former shooting specialist who did not play. “I spent about three years in Egypt when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. We didn’t have a gym. We’d play on a dirt court, light bulbs hanging on cords to light the court. That was No. 1. This replaces it.”

A different vibe?

“I watch the TV shows, I watch the movies,” Festus Ezeli, the projected backup center this season, said. “To be here today is almost surreal.”

A scary situation?

“My sisters, they were nervous about it, to be honest,” assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. “My older sister called this morning to say, ‘Be careful.’ Obviously there are a lot of things associated with San Quentin.”

All of the above. The Warriors have never had anything close to a problem in the three visits, though, not so much as a member of the home team trying to stare them down on the court or hoping to get in their head by suggesting a special brand of prison justice as intimidation. As officials and convicts themselves note, the only people who get hurt if game action goes too far are the inmates. They don’t want the visit to go away.

“We’re in such awe of them being here that we don’t have time to process that,” inmate Juan Haines said while watching from behind the Warriors bench. “We’re the ones intimidated.”

The inmates were exceedingly polite Friday, greeting the visitors with waves of high fives, handshakes, embraces and conversation, participants and watchers alike. One said the appearance was like getting Christmas at a different time of the year. Another told Ezeli the appearance that had nothing to do with marketing to sell tickets or merchandise “made us feel a little human.” Bill Epling, who has been coming to San Quentin to play basketball for about 15 years and for the last 11 has led the outreach program that now extends to the Warriors, called the game “a little moment of escape today from the daily grind” as part of his pregame invocation at mid-court.

Kerr, just as he is everywhere he goes, was asked about playing with Michael Jordan. Rookie guard Aaron Craft was questioned about playing at Ohio State and about Ohio State football. General manager Bob Myers heard about the upcoming season. One inmate said he wanted to ask Jonnie West, the associate general manager of Golden State’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, about Jonnie’s father, Jerry. Ezeli, coming off a knee injury, was questioned when he was getting back on the court.

On and on. The usual fan stuff.

Inmate Rahsaan Thomas was asked during the second quarter what he would like to ask one of the Warriors.

“My question is,” Thomas said, “who talked you into walking into prison? It took guns and warrants to get me in.”

OK, so not always the usual fans.

Players — Craft, Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, James Michael McAdoo, Marreese Speights, training-camp invite Mitchell Watt this year — attend strictly for the experience and the support, not to get on the court. General manager Bob Myers and assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, who organizes the Warriors group and comes to San Quentin other times as part of the outreach program, played, along with assistant coaches Luke Walton and Jarron Collins while Kerr and Gentry stayed on the sideline, with Gentry running the team. (Gentry, turning to the bench just before tipoff: “I’m going to show you how a real coach does it. Bob, Kirk, you can shoot any time you want.”)

The benefit from the Golden State perspective, Lacob said, “I think there’s an element of good community… and it’s a great learning experience. An educational experience, I’ll call it, for anyone who goes in, seeing how other people live and what else is out there, because we live in a pretty rosy world in sports. It’s basically you win or you lose but you’re still in a great environment. On top of it, the thing that I always come back to, it’s that mutual shared interest, that shared love of basketball that brings people together. There’s just something when you connect with people. It’s hard to explain, but that idea that you can connect with someone so different from yourself at such a deep level I think is valuable. But every year that we’ve gone with the Warriors, I think people have come out with a great appreciation for their own lives and what they do.” The team has even donated old practice gear to the inmates.

Death row is 300 yards away from the court. Guards are everywhere. The razor wire.

The game is lighthearted enough most of the way, with running commentary over a public-address system from one of the inmates, then becomes a close finish. It is a good, intense pickup run with a lot of contact, and Collins and Walton, with long NBA careers in their backgrounds, and Myers, a member of a national-championship team at UCLA, chug hard under the sun and light breeze coming off San Francisco Bay. Finally, the inmates close out the 92-86 victory, their first win in three tries.

Both sides consider the day a success. The convicts, after spending weeks talking about the upcoming game, got to go against players they had seen on TV and spend time in conversation. Plus, the win. The Warriors got to experience San Quentin — then got to walk out through the yard, up a slight hill into a courtyard within hearing range of death row, through the doors and, finally, to their cars.

They plan to be back for another game next year. It has become part of the annual routine. But it will never be something they get used to.

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

No George, no Stephenson, but Vogel downright upbeat about Pacers


VIDEO: Pacers’ top 10 plays from the 2013-14 season

You see Frank Vogel for the first time since things turned really ugly for his Indiana Pacers team, your initial thought is to commiserate.

Then you hear Vogel talk about the Pacers and what awaits them in this 2014-15 NBA season, and your next thought is to apply a cold compress.

Vogel bounced through the early going at the annual coaches meetings in Chicago with a mile-wide smile and an optimism that had you wondering if, somehow, he had missed July and August. That’s when, in a span of two weeks, Indiana suffered a 1-2 gut punch in the form of Lance Stephenson‘s surprising decision to leave as a free agent and Paul George‘s gruesome, season-crippling injury at Team USA’s scrimmage in Las Vegas.

Yet to look at and listen to Vogel last week, you’d have thought Larry Bird had dialed a time machine back three decades with the idea of reassigning himself from team president to starting small forward.

“We’re going to be fine,” Vogel said. “We’ve got more than enough to compete with the best and we’re going to have another great season. Our approach is, we’re going to try to not skip a beat.”

Vogel’s fingers were not crossed. There was no whiff of rum in the room, and he wasn’t talking in Comic Sans.

He continued: “Two guys being gone – Lance being gone, Paul not being with us because of injury – creates opportunities for other guys. Both at that position and also at other positions to carry a bigger role.”

Ah, OK, so maybe it was the whole interview thing. So you switched off the recorder, looked the Pacers coach in the eye and said, now Frank, how do you really feel?

“I really feel that way,” Vogel said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”

It was time to find a chair for Vogel. Or maybe several so he could lie down. Indiana, despite its 56-26 record last season and berth as the No. 1 playoff seed in the East, ranked 29th in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com stats. The Pacers were 28th in field-goal attempts, 27th in assists, 24th in points per game and 23rd in offensive rebounding.

George and Stephenson, the team’s dynamic two-way wings, generated an outsized portion of that attack. They combined for 45.5 points and 28.2 shots per game, which was 47 percent of Indiana’s scoring and 35 percent of its field-goal attempts.

George would have been a starter for Team USA in its gold medal-winning effort in the FIBA World Cup tournament. Stephenson would have been a worthy NBA All-Star reserve in February and was expected to remedy that miss this season. Together, the two Pacers were the likeliest sources for some Indiana improvement offensively, while pestering opponents like Dobermans defensively.

Into the breach step retreads Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.

“Those guys are solid NBA veterans,” Vogel said. “It’s not like we’re going to fill the spots with guys who were in the D League last year. And we feel [2013 first-rounder] Solomon Hill is going to be an elite defensive player and a guy who can knock down open shots. We could have played him 25 minutes a game last year and we would have been all right. We just had such depth.

Chris Copeland is going to get a chance to play more. Damjan Rudez, one of the best shooters in Europe, is coming over to play at the ‘three’ or the ‘four.’ So we’ve got answers. You look at that, combined with our point guard rotation’s intact with George Hill and C.J. Watson, our big rotation’s intact with [Luis] Scola, [Roy] Hibbert and [Ian] Mahinmi. There are reasons to be optimistic.”

Hibbert, for instance, has shed 14 pounds in a plan to be more mobile and not so easily shaken when a team with “stretch fives” like Atlanta vacates the middle. Hibbert also spent a week immersed in court time, meals and movies with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, adding the NBA’s all-time leading scorer to his list of illustrious tutors (Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan). Hopefully the Pacers center and The Captain screened film other than “Airplane!” and “Game of Death.”

It’s understandable that Vogel might want to stay upbeat, because the alternative wouldn’t do him or his team any good. His biggest concern is defensively, where Indiana has excelled in recent seasons. Hibbert still is the anchor at 7-foot-3 but in George it lost a Scottie Pippen-like shadow for the other guys’ most dangerous point guards and wings. Covering for that with double-teams and help might stress the seams of the Pacers’ schemes overall.

Stephenson did more defensively, too, than just blow in guys’ ears. It seems reasonable to think that, had George’s ghastly leg fractures happened before Stephenson signed with Charlotte, the Pacers might have kept him for a deal better than the three-year, $27 million one he accepted. Or that, given the dire need and urgency, Indiana might have upped its initial offer from five years, $44 million.

Still, if Vogel wasn’t about to bemoan the roster hits with which he’ll have to live all season, he wasn’t going to if-only himself into a blue mood over unfortunate timing.

There is, at least, some encouraging news on George.

“He’s on one crutch now – almost full weight-bearing,” Vogel reported. “He’s got a boot. He still has to have the one crutch. He’s doing really well.

“It’s a challenge for him. But he’s not coming in with a frown on his face, sulking around. He’s doing a lot – lifting weights, doing a lot of core work. He works out five times a week.”

The brink of a new season, on the heels of the FIBA gold medal in the first year of his five-season, $91.6 million extension, makes this one of those tough emotional times for George. He’s stuck on the side as the Pacers prepare to tackle 2014-15 without him. Presumably without him anyway, with George a long shot to return any sooner than next fall.

“I was concerned about it when it first happened, where he was going to be [mentally],” Vogel said. “It’s going to be a long process, once he starts getting out running and learning to trust [the leg] again. But he seems to be of the mindset that his expectations are for a full recovery, and a full recovery as soon as possible.”

George has high expectations. His team now has lower ones. That might explain some of Vogel’s buoyancy: Indiana thrived on its way up, feeling underrated and overlooked in its pursuit of the Miami Heat, and only ran into trouble last season when it got far in front of the field with its 33-7 start.

Dialing down the projections and slipping back into the underdog role it knew so well might be a comfortable fit. Already the Pacers have proven wrong skeptics who suggested they take it down to the studs in a full-blown rebuild. Never was broached, Vogel said.

“Nope. There was some talk about ‘Can you believe people are saying that? Do they understand how long it takes to build a winning culture?’ ” he said.

“We have enough to be really good. Are we the preseason favorites to win the East? No, we’re not anymore. Some fans think the season’s over already. But some fans are like me, like, ‘Hey, they’ll still be pretty good.’ “

The Pacers will find out soon enough, with neither Vogel’s cheeriness nor Kool-Aid at the concessions stands covering up the results on the Fieldhouse court.

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.

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.’ “

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.

Stars of NBA.com Top 10 voting ending


VIDEO: Stars of the NBA.com Top 10 second team

By Beau Estes, for NBA.com

The clock is ticking and the ball is in your hands.  It’s now all down to fan votes.

Today we release the first half of the “Stars of the NBA.com Top 10.” There are five spots remaining on this list and we have a pool of five players for fans to vote among.

The player with the most votes from the fans will be crowned king this Wednesday.  The deadline for voting is Wednesday at midnight (ET), so send your vote — your one vote for the player that should be No. 1 — to @NBABeau and later on Wednesday we will release the Top 5.

The following, in no particular order, are the five players to choose from:

  • Russell Westbrook
  • Kevin Durant
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Blake Griffin

Once again, get your votes in to @NBABeau and we will reveal your choice for the Top 5 players on the “Stars of the NBA.com Top 10.”

Thus far, the response has been as entertaining as much as enthusiastic.

Some fans were conflicted, but in the end honest.

Others were filled with certainty about their choice

Still others wanted to dive into the history books, which wasn’t precisely the exercise, but was fun nonetheless

Once again, get your votes in to @NBABeau by Wednesday at midnight and we will then reveal your choice for the Top 5 players on the first ever “Stars of the NBA.com Top 10.”

Atlanta paper lands Ferry audio recording discussing Deng

The depth of the hot water Hawks GM Danny Ferry is in could deepen after his Luol Deng comments were released.

The depth of the hot water Hawks GM Danny Ferry is in could deepen after new audio was released.

NBA.com staff

Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has obtained the audio recording of the already infamous conference call that landed Hawks general manager Danny Ferry in hot water, and in it … well, you’ll just have to listen to it and make up your mind.

Was Ferry, as he claimed, reading off scouting reports on free agent Luol Deng when he says the player “has a little African in him”? Or was that Ferry simply winging it, speaking off the top of his head, in his own words, as many on Twitter surmised Thursday night after the AJC snagged the audio?

Whatever the case, the heat is being turned up on Ferry, at least in some corners. Though Ferry has his backers who say he is not a racist — our own David Aldridge is among them, and commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today that, in his opinion, Ferry’s comments do not merit his firing — others are insisting that Ferry step down. One of the owners of the Hawks, Michael Gearon Jr., called for his dismissal back in June. Gearon, among many other Hawks’ front-office executives, was on the call with Ferry.

One of the more thoughtful takes on the whole ugly situation has come from Toronto general manger Masai Ujiri, who spoke directly to Ferry about the incident, as reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Ujiri (who is from Nigeria) knows Deng (who hails from South Sudan) well. They have traveled through Africa together.

I spoke to Danny myself about this. He started off by apologizing to Luol. He apologized to me and apologized for any insult he’d offered to African people in general. He explained the incident as best he could to me. There are some things about that conversation I would like to keep between the two of us, but I came away feeling like I’d understood what he had to say.

Here is what I have to say:

I have no idea what is happening in the Atlanta Hawks organization, but I do know how the scouting world works. We all have different ways of sharing information about players and different vocabularies to do so. It crossed a line here.

That said, we are all human. We are all vulnerable. We all make mistakes.

You discover a person’s true character in their ability to learn from and then move on from those mistakes. One of the truly important things we must learn is how to forgive.

Danny’s mistake will remain tied to him for a long time. What he’s said can’t be unsaid, but we must measure his heart. If he has made an honest, isolated error, we should forgive and move on.

Will that kind of thinking be enough to save Ferry’s job?

Here’s the audio from the AJC. There’s some NSFW words in there.


SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

 

 

Optimism continues to rise in Denver


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried talks about the USA win over Mexico

So, yeah, Kenneth Faried. He’s everywhere for Team USA, finishing on the break, crashing the boards, pounding away with typical bottomless energy, and emerging as the NBA player whose reputation has benefited most from the FIBA World Cup.

This is a step forward for Faried, even with the disclaimer that the event once known as the world championships does not automatically translate to NBA play, not when the international game is different and now when roles are much different for some national teams than they will be starting in late-September. That makes it an obvious step forward for the Nuggets back home as the latest in a series of offseason boosts, and that makes Denver more intriguing than before.

Maybe even playoff intriguing. Faried will be better for his time with Team USA and the positive performance will become an injection of confidence and energy, if that’s possible. Danilo Gallinari is encouraged about being ready for Day 1 of training camp and a full regular-season schedule, save perhaps avoiding back-to-backs early, in the return from two surgeries on his left knee and all 2013-14 on the sidelines. Arron Afflalo was added in a steal of a trade that sent Evan Fournier and a second-round pick to the Magic. JaVale McGee should be back after missing all but five games last season with a fractured left leg. No. 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic was the second-best center prospect in the 2014 draft, after the injured Joel Embiid, and No. 19 pick Gary Harris could crack the rotation as a rookie.

The Nuggets go from 36-46 and missing the playoffs by 13 games to opening training camp in a few weeks with the possibility of essentially three new starters, and veteran starters at that: Afflalo at shooting guard, Gallinari at small forward and McGee at center. There is the uncertainty of Gallinari and McGee because of injuries — and of McGee because it’s JaVale McGee — but it’s easy to see Denver in the conversation with Phoenix and New Orleans as Western Conference teams pushing into the playoffs.

There’s an extra 13 wins to be cobbled together from Gallinari at small forward plus Afflalo and some Harris at shooting guard plus McGee and some Nurkic at center. That’s in addition to the carryover starters, Faried at power forward and Ty Lawson at point guard, plus Randy Foye, in the opening lineup at shooting guard last season but likely bound for a reserve role now, and Wilson Chandler in the same situation at small forward and J.J. Hickson at center.

“I think at every position we’re pretty deep,” Lawson told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan last month. “At center, we’ve got JaVale and Timofey Mozgov, who started playing well throughout the last year. We’re so deep, I think that’s a gift and a curse. Everybody is going to want to play. I already told (coach Brian Shaw), I was like, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a problem that you’re going to have, divvying up minutes and making sure everybody’s still happy.’ That’s a gift because say somebody goes down, God forbid, we’ll still have somebody step right in. Also, there’s so many different lineups we can have. We can go small, go big, we’re so versatile.”

Small forward is the specific watch, and not just with Gallinari’s recovery. Draft night changed that. The Nuggets traded the No. 11 pick to the Bulls for 16 and 19, taking Denver out of contention for Doug McDermott in a double-down of the bet that Gallo would have a full recovery. McDermott would have been for the same position and the projected help for a team that had just finished 19th in the league in shooting. Chicago took McDermott with the selection instead. If he plays to expectations and Gallinari never gets all the way back, June 26, 2014, becomes a haunting memory.

It’s easy to see the Nuggets’ logic, though. They got a lot deeper and, with the Afflalo deal the same day, a lot stronger with Nurkic, needing to now address how a center not known for mobility will fit into the up-tempo game of Lawson and Faried. Nurkic was a candidate for the lottery and Denver got him at a position that has lacked stability for years, plus potential help at shooting guard with Harris. And if Gallinari does make it back, the decision looks even better.

Mr. Big Shot one cool customer


VIDEO: Veteran Billups calls it a career

There are players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin, whose careers throw off smoke and sparks and noise like drag racers, right from the starting line.

Then there’s Chauncey Billups, who simply hummed as quiet and cool as an air conditioner.

For 17 seasons and seven different NBA teams, Billups was the proverbial duck who might have been paddling furious beneath the surface, but never gave the appearance of doing anything but gliding across the water.

He moved fast by taking it slow and he always seemed to be taking it slow, even when pushing the ball down the court in the middle of a fast break. He was the strong man who never felt a need to flex his muscles until the game got late and there was heavy lifting to do. He played with a warm smile on his face that could chill a defender. He was often the shortest one on the floor, yet the player who stood tallest when it was needed most.

Mr. Big Shot.

The standard line about the 2004 Pistons is that they were the last team to win an NBA championship without a superstar.

But that’s if you measure a star only by its brightness, as one that grabs headlines along the way to the more critical task, which is grabbing games by the throat.

Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace did work in concert, a symphony orchestra in high tops and shorts. But it was Billups who stood on the rostrum with the baton in his hand, making sure everyone hit the right notes.

“He’s at the head of the table and he determines how people eat,” none other than Kevin Garnett once said when they were teammates in Minnesota.

That’s the way Billups had always been since his days as a teenager at Denver’s Skyland Rec Center, when he was often the youngest player on the court. He not only found a way to fit in, but developed a way to earn the respect and the trust of the older kids.

Funny thing is, it took a while to gain that same respect in the NBA. After a standout college career at Colorado, he was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft by the Celtics. But the franchise that prides itself on recognizing smarts didn’t keep around. Neither did the Raptors, Nuggets, Magic or Timberwolves.

So Billups finally wound up in Detroit in 2002 with a resume list of ex-teams that was longer than his arm, but not even a trace of doubt.

“My demeanor, how I am, it never swayed,” he said back then. “A lot of guys in this league when they’re not playing a lot of minutes, they get a chip on their shoulder, they’re mad at everybody. I’ve never been that way.”

Billups came to the Pistons at a time when then-president Joe Dumars was constructing a team in the “three-peat” era of the Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant off-court bickering, where he wanted talent to work together like five fingers inside a glove doubled up into a fist, where effort took a backseat to ego.

The point guard with the butler’s name and the sniper’s nerveless confidence was the perfect choice to pull it all together and be the driving force. Billups was the steady hand on the reins of disparate personalities that knew how and when to take clutch situations in the biggest of games into his own grasp. Thus, the nickname, Mr. Big Shot. The player who could miss his first 10 shots of the night and then coolly put No. 11 into the bottom of the net with a game or a playoff series on the line.

You could picture him in a tuxedo ordering a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Billups, Chauncey Billups, was always the player who could lock and bar the door, the one that took the guessing and drama out of that final minute. Send him to the line and he’d drill those six straight free throws to seal a win. Leave him an opening and he’d stop up and drain that long 3-pointer without thinking twice.

“Who else would you want with the ball in his hands at that point than Chauncey?” Dumars asked.

He was a five-time All-Star from 2006-2010, was MVP of The Finals when the Pistons took down the mighty Lakers in 2004, a two-time All-Defensive second team member and, notably, in 2013 was named NBA Teammate of the Year by a vote of his peers. The only question left is whether Hall of Famer voters five years from now were really paying attention.

Let the others throw off loud sparks. For 17 seasons Billups just hummed. Perspiring, but never letting you see him sweat.

Hawks’ Ferry now on the hot seat

By NBA.com staff

Bruce Levenson‘s decision to sell his stake in the Atlanta Hawks after the unearthing of a racially insensitive e-mail may be just the start of troubles for Atlanta’s NBA franchise. The team’s general manager, Danny Ferry, is now under fire for a racist remark he made when describing free agent Luol Deng during a conference call.

Ferry’s comments came to light Monday, and Tuesday word came that some in the Hawks’ organization had been asking for the GM’s head since June. This from columnist Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

In the latest of a dizzying series of events that began Sunday with owner Bruce Levenson’s disclosure of a racially charged email now comes news that co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. has been demanding Ferry’s exit since June. The reason, as previously reported by the AJC, was a Ferry comment on a conference call with owners in which he described the negatives of free agency target Luol Deng, as having “a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

According to Gearon’s letter, Ferry completed the slur by describing Deng as “a two-faced liar and cheat.”

In short, Ferry not only faces overcoming the stigma of his comments — with the public, every player on his team and players and agents around the league — he has a co-owner, Gearon, who wants him out. It’s difficult to see a scenario in which he survives.

Here’s Schultz excerpting Gearon’s letter, obtained by Atlanta’s WSB Channel 2. (The whole letter is here.)

“We are appalled that anyone would make such a racist slur under any circumstance, much less the GM of an NBA franchise on a major conference call. One of us can be heard on the tape reacting with astonishment. Our franchise has had a long history of racial diversity and inclusion that reflect the makeup of our great city. Ferry’s comments were so far out of bounds that we are concerned that he has put the entire franchise in jeopardy. … If Ferry’s comments are ever made public, and it’s a safe bet to say they will someday, it could be fatal to the franchise. … As lifelong Atlantans with a public track record of diversity and inclusion, we are especially fearful of the unfair consequences when we eventually get thrown under the bus with Ferry. We are calling on you, as majority owner and NBA Governor, to take swift and severe action against Ferry. Our advisors tell us there is no other choice but to ask for Ferry’s resignation, and if he refuses, to terminate him for cause under his employment agreement.”

For his part, Ferry released a statement Tuesday morning in which he showed no signs of backing down. At least for now:

“In regards to the insensitive remarks that were used during our due diligence process, I was repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources during background conversations and scouting about different players.   I repeated those comments during a telephone conversation reviewing the draft and free agency process.  Those words do not reflect my views, or words that I would use to describe an individual and I certainly regret it. I apologize to those I offended and to Luol, who I reached out to Monday morning. In terms of the email that Bruce sent, the situation is disturbing and disappointing on many levels and I understand Bruce’s words were offensive. I am committed to learning from this and deeply regret this situation. I fully understand we have work to do in order to help us create a better organization; one that our players and fans will be proud of, on and off the court, and that is where my focus is moving forward.”