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Ezeli return a big moment for Warriors

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If Festus Ezeli can stay healthy, the Warriors could have three 7-footers to protect the rim. (NBAE via Getty Images)

OAKLAND – Under cover of the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series at the same time, with the Clippers resting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the Warriors sitting ill Andrew Bogut and using David Lee for 19 minutes, with everyone ready for the exhibition schedule to be over already, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena unsuspectingly turned meaningful.

Festus Ezeli played, newsworthy in itself given the length of his absence, and on his 25th birthday at that as an added layer to the celebratory mood of getting directions to the court. That he played well, though, was the thing, enough of a development to attach value to a sloppy preseason game, enough to prompt coach Steve Kerr to note that Ezeli “was really aggressive with what he did,” a sign that Ezeli was not shying away from contact inside.

Enough to nudge the jammed Western Conference playoff pack.

It was such a little thing — 11 minutes, just shy of the 12-minute limit imposed by the medical staff, 10 points, three rebounds, four baskets in five attempts, five fouls — and it was just one October outing with months ahead that really count — but it could become such a big thing. And now we’re talking developments.

The thin bench that was part of the Golden State downfall last season remains a concern the week before 2014-15 opens, projected point-guard backup Shaun Livingston may not be back from toe surgery when the season begins Wednesday in Sacramento, and Kerr is facing an Andre Iguodala-or-Harrison Barnes decision for the start at small forward. But if Ezeli can return to his former role of dependable second-string center, the Warriors have a key roster addition when they need it most.

That is obviously a big if. When Ezeli took the court with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter Tuesday, it was his first time in uniform in 17 months, since the Warriors were eliminated in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. No, it was, he said afterward, the first time in any five-on-five run since surgery on two ligaments in the right knee on June 12, 2013, cost Ezeli all last season and inflammation in the lower part of the same right leg took away much of the training camp and preseason that was supposed to be a fresh start.

But if he is healthy, if he can reclaim the 2012-13 form, if he can be depth behind Bogut, the little thing on a baseball night in the Bay Area can grow into something that could be worth enough wins to alter their place in the West. (A season ago, six victories separated four through nine, the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and the lottery.) If not, hello Ognjen Kuzmic and Marresse Speights.

“It’s big,” Kerr said. “Ezeli and Kuzmic. Kuz has really come along this training camp. We’ve given him a lot of time in the exhibition games and he’s performed well. If Festus can make strides… if he can come around physically and we can have three 7-footers who can all protect the rim, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. We would prefer to stay big most of the time. We like to have a rim-protector in there. With three guys, assuming we can count on all three, that protects us against us some injury and foul trouble and that kind of stuff.”

The source of optimism Tuesday night was Ezeli entering late in the first quarter, needing 68 seconds to block a shot by Jared Cunningham as the Clippers guard drove to the rim, another 55 seconds to hit an eight-foot jump hook from the left baseline, and 55 more seconds to finish a pick-and-roll by grabbing an Iguodala lob with both hands and flushing it through the net. The nervousness of making the return with family and friends in attendance as part of the birthday was replaced by a surge of confidence.

“That’s what people have been saying and people always talked about, how light we were at the center position and they didn’t feel we had enough depth there,” Ezeli said. “This team, we feel like we’re pretty decked. We have a pretty nice deck of cards on this team. But they felt like the center position was pretty light. But now, Kuzmic has been working his butt off. I’ve seen him work every day and I’ve been right there with him.

“The good thing about being out so long, I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me anymore. I don’t care because the people that write the articles… and the people that talk about me and put the other people down, nobody was there with me while I was doing my rehab. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s about what we as a team think about ourselves, and we think we’re pretty good and we have a lot of talent on this team. That’s all that matters.”

This will still be a process. Ezeli needs to improve his conditioning the same way all players coming back from extended layoffs do and needs to re-calibrate to the speed of the game — Kerr quickly pointed out that Ezeli picked up so many fouls in a short time against the Clippers “because the game is going to move too fast for him right now.” And it was just one night. Those are the reality checks.

On the other hand, the Warriors could have much-needed bench help and could end up with the important acquisition of a player who officially was always on the roster. Those are the bottom lines, for Golden State and the West.

BOG vote down Draft lottery reforms


VIDEO: Commissioner Silver discusses the owners’ vote

NEW YORK – Dealing with ultra-competitive people who’ve chased down success in both sports and business, vying in an industry with millions and these days even billions of dollars at stake in revenue and franchise valuations, it’s no wonder that every NBA rule on and off the court gets bent nearly to the point of breaking.

So dialing in the right mix of incentives, disincentives and weighted percentages in crafting or reforming a draft lottery is like dribbling through the Chicago Bulls defense – in a minefield of unintended consequences. Veer this way and … kaboom!

That, ultimately, was why a proposal from the league’s Competition Committee to modify the lottery failed to pass at the Board of Governors meeting that concluded Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. A 17-13 vote in favor of some significant changes still fell short of the 23 votes needed, based on the league’s by-laws. The issue goes back to the committee for further study.

“We’ve tinkered with the draft lottery several times,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the way it works now. I’m concerned with the perception.”

Silver, in fact, considers it a “corrosive perception” held by some fans, media types and people within his own league that teams can win big by losing big.

The essence of a draft is to deliver the best young talent to the neediest team. Yet “neediest team” is a moving target: Sometimes it’s a good team whose star player has gone done for a season – or left for good as a free agent. Sometimes it’s a chronically mismanaged roster full of players who never quite panned out. And still other times it’s a crew in need of serious rebuild whose front office has determined that “tanking” in search of a high draft pick is the surest way out of Stinkville.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the current poster guys for that strategy, using lottery picks on injured Joel Embiid and Euro-stashed Dario Saric one year after adding hurt-and-redshirted Nerlens Noel and finishing 19-63. Other teams such as Milwaukee and Orlando lined up with them – the 15-67 Bucks actually undercut the field in 2013-14 – in pursuit of the same prize.

The sense that one or several of the league’s 30 teams would take the court intending to do anything but win is one that rankles Silver. But for every tweak in the lottery system allegedly keeping teams honest in one direction, there was potential for a different club to game the system in another.

“Whether it’s the case, I’m frankly not sure. Sometimes perception becomes reality,” Silver said. “I think there’s an unfair pressure on some of our teams to actually underperform. There’s a view in those markets that they’re better off performing poorly in order to win in the long-term.”

Teams voted for or against the lottery reforms for other, more specific reasons. Some franchises in small-revenue markets feel they’re at a disadvantage in free agency (luring players) or trades (keeping acquired players long-term. They see the draft – and the rules of rookie contracts that can stretch as long as five seasons, at salaries lower than market value – as an equalizer. Teams in larger markets, with greater pressure from their fan bases to win, may view the draft as rewarding the league’s laggards or, worse, the intentionally bad.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the votes broke somewhat, but not entirely, along market-size lines. The 13 “no” votes reportedly were: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Washington and Utah.

The proposals floated this week called for broadening the lottery’s sweet spot and giving more teams a better shot at landing the top picks. In flattening the odds among the teams with the four worst records, the “neediest” team’s chance at the No. 1 pick would have been cut from 25 percent to 12. Also, it would be guaranteed no worse than the seventh pick, rather than fourth in the current system, if its lottery numbers proved unlucky.

“People want a change,” one Eastern Conference GM told NBA.com, “but they weren’t happy with the proposal.”

Other topics addressed at the Board of Governors meeting included:

  • Reports on revenue sharing and the new TV and digital rights extensions with Turner Broadcasting and ABC/ESPN that will pay the NBA $24 billion over nine years beginning in 2016-17, approximately triple what the current deals generate.
  • Discussion about the league’s latest marketing campaign and the status of the Atlanta Hawks’ unsettled ownership situation.
  • Presentations on domestic violence, diversity and other workplace concerns.
  • The extension of Minnesota owner Glen Taylor’s term as Board of Governors chairman for one more year.
  • The establishment of the David J. Stern Sports Scholarship, a $30,000 package based on merit and need for a student in sports management. Included: an internship at the NBA office in New York as a junior and direct mentoring from Stern, who retired as NBA commissioner after 30 years in February. “He was honored, flattered,” Silver said. He’s looking forward to engaging directly with these young students.”

The TV money issue looms large over the next two years because, while the infusion of cash won’t occur until 2016-17, all parties know that it is coming. NBA players already have talked about getting back some of what they felt was sacrificed in the last round of collective-bargaining talks in 2011, when their share of league revenues fell from 57 to approximately 50 percent. Owners reportedly are questioning revenue-sharing arrangements agreed to at about that same time and fine-tuned since.

Silver said Wednesday that one-third of the league’s 30 teams still are not profitable, though he added after the news conference that the onus still is on the individual teams to manage well their business. Some in attendance raised the specter of labor strife again in 2017 when the current CBA can (and likely will) be re-opened, and the possibility of a lockout similar to or worse than 2011 in a squabble over the flood of dollars.

The commissioner wasn’t ready to go there.

“So many great things are happening in this league right now,” Silver said. “Putting money aside, I think the system elements are working in the new collective bargaining agreement. I can’t remember a time when we had so many competitive teams in the league, so much hope in markets throughout the league.

“As I’ve said to the players, from day one when I became commissioner, my focus is on growing the pie. And if we do our job growing the pie, the incremental differences in percentages will be rounding error compared to us both sharing in the success of the league.”


VIDEO: Silver breaks down the new media deals

The last less likely to be first, under expected draft lottery reforms

NEW YORK – The NBA’s Board of Governors, expected to approve an overhaul of the league’s draft lottery Wednesday at their fall meetings in midtown Manhattan, might want to be careful what they vote for.

In thwarting the Philadelphia 76ers in what many consider their shameless plunge into, and loitering about, the lottery for consecutive seasons, they might in fact wind up aiding GM Sam Hinkie‘s team on the way up.

Lottery reform, as reported by multiple media outlets, is likely to pass with at least the 23 (of 30) votes needed. The changes essentially will broaden the lottery’s sweet spot, giving more teams a better shot at landing the No. 1 pick and therefore, presumably, discouraging teams that might be inclined to “tank” their way to a rebuilding strategy.

That’s what Philadelphia has done, trading last year for injured big man Nerlens Noel, sputtering through a 19-63 season, then using its two lottery picks in June for two more players – Kansas center Joel Embiid and Euro-obligated Dario Saric – who won’t help at all in 2014-15.

Flattening the odds among the teams with the four worst records, cutting the worst club’s chances (25 percent now) approximately in half and guaranteeing it no lower than the seventh pick (no longer the fourth) all reportedly are among the reforms considered by the owners this week to strip incentives from finishing dead last or nearly so.

But given the young talent already on board in Philadelphia, it’s possible the 76ers could be improve considerably in the next two or three years – and find itself with a Top 3 pick again, thanks to the rejiggered odds.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of the league’s worst team landing the best draft prospect would be lessened again. And that’s happened only three times in 21 years anyway since the lottery adopted its current weighting – a pattern that some believe argued against tanking in the first place. A 25 percent shot at No. 1 means a 75 percent shot at not getting the top pick.

Clearly, the league is a long way from its days of heads or tails, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Neal Walk and Magic Johnson vs. David Greenwood, dictated by coin flip. But the 76ers and others got good enough at gaming the system to grab the Governors’ attention, and a draft system intended to help the truly awful might wind up aiding the merely mediocre. That is of particular concern to the league’s smaller-revenue markets, which already feel disadvantaged in attracting free agents and retaining players acquired via trades.

Among other items believed to be on the Board of Governors agenda:

  • A report on the league’s new replay center in Secaucus, N.J., the clearing house for all reviewed calls this season.
  • Discussion of the flood of TV money from new rights extensions with Turner Broadcasting and ABC/ESPN and its expected impact on player compensation, the salary cap and revenue-sharing.
  • Update on the Atlanta Hawks ownership and front-office situation.
  • Conversations about the NBA’s code of conduct, particularly as it relates to domestic violence.

Big minutes matter in rookie race


VIDEO: The Starters make their picks for Rookie of the Year

The cut line has been established: 30.5 minutes. No one has been voted Rookie of the Year the last 10 seasons averaging fewer per game, and Kyrie Irving cruising to victory over Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried in 2012 is more anomaly than anything. Winning with that comparatively light workload does not ordinarily happen.

Really, based on recent history, a first-year player will need to log closer to 35 or 36 minutes an outing to have the kind of role that sways voters, a trend that is relevant with no clear preseason choice for the award and some of the most NBA-ready prospects opening 2014-15 in reserve roles.

Julius Randle would be a much stronger candidate in other places, but not amid Lakers plans to rely heavily on Carlos Boozer to chase that elusive 30th victory. Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott join a crowded and experienced group of forwards as the Bulls chase something other than the past. And in Boston, Marcus Smart would have better odds as opening night approaches if not for the likelihood he will spend a lot of time coming off the bench once Rajon Rondo returns from a hand injury, which could happen very early.

No one has won Rookie of the Year averaging less than 30 minutes since Mike Miller of the Magic at 29.1 in 2001, his easy victory over Kenyon Martin. In the previous 10 seasons, to be exact:

2013-14 — Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers, 34.5 minutes and 70 games.

2012-13 — Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers, 38.6 and 82.

2011-12 — Irving, Cavaliers, with 51 appearances in the 66-game, lockout-shortened schedule.

2010-11 — Blake Griffin, Clippers, 38 and 82.

2009-10 — Tyreke Evans, Kings, 37.2 and 72.

2008-09 — Derrick Rose, Bulls, 37 and 81.

2007-08 — Kevin Durant, SuperSonics, 34.6 and 80.

2006-07 — Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers, 35.4 and 57.

2005-06 — Chris Paul, Hornets, 36 and 78.

2004-05 — Emeka Okafor, Bobcats, 35.6 and 73.

Anyone hoping to crash the party from the bench this season is going to need a lot of big moments on a good team and probably even as a difference maker for a playoff club. Voters generally want numbers or a lead role, not a complementary spot for a winner (the 76ers were 19-63 last season, the Trail Blazers 33-49 as Lillard won, the Cavaliers 21-45 as Irving won. On and on. Rose is the only Rookie of the Year in the 10-year sample to play for a non-loser, with the Bulls at 41-41.)

The outlook will change with the depth charts, of course. Boozer averaged 28.2 minutes in Chicago’s last regular season and was down to 24.2 in the playoffs, so he’s not exactly an insurmountable obstacle for Randle. If the Lakers are taking on water and getting the 2013-14 Boozer, the ROY race could change, given projections that power forward Randle should be able to handle himself physically and score inside now.

The week before the new season opens, though, the same player that would have a stronger case on another team has a problem. And leading candidates Nerlens Noel and Jabari Parker have an advantage.

Suns try lineup with three point guards


VIDEO: Suns look to build on momentum from last season

It was probably inevitable the Suns would go there eventually, and exhibition games are the time to push the envelope, so push away. The details just happened to be Thursday night, US Airways Center in Phoenix, 3:12 remaining in the second quarter against the Spurs.

Point guard Goran Dragic, point guard Eric Bledsoe and point guard Isaiah Thomas were used together for the first time and probably not the last. There is no indication it will be a common sighting, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if coach Jeff Hornacek opts for microball in situations during the regular season, depending on the opponent and whether Phoenix simply needs a burst of energy at that time of the game.

The appeals and drawbacks are obvious: The Suns could force the tempo they like, but would risk getting turned into little more than speed bumps on defense by going 6-foot-3 (Dragic), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 5-foot-9 (Thomas), not to mention risking injury from getting stepped on. They would have to counter by staying in scramble mode the entire time, trying to force turnovers or get the opponent horribly out of rhythm since playing straight up wouldn’t be much of an option.

The immediate feedback Thursday was an 11-2 run with the Bledsoe-Dragic-Thomas grouping, although that doesn’t really count as evidence of anything, not when it’s against the pseudo-Spurs with three starters and sixth man Manu Ginobili getting the night off or nursing injuries. Coach Gregg Popovich didn’t even make the trip to Phoenix. The actual value for Phoenix was the chance to take the unique lineup out for a test drive to see how all five Suns on the court played off each other, especially the three, in something other than a scrimmage setting.

“We were small but everybody got in and rebounded and we pushed the tempo and the lead just went up,” Bledsoe, who had three defensive boards during the run, told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. “We definitely was having fun out there. Everybody was sharing the ball. I know Isaiah did a great job.”

It’s an adjustment period for all three, and not just if they’re on the court together. Thomas is coming to a new team as a free agent and making his first move as a pro after three seasons with the Kings, Dragic is learning how to play with him, and Bledsoe is back for his first full season after missing 33 games in 2013-14 with a knee injury, with added expectations after re-signing at five years and $70 million. It worked with Dragic and Bledsoe then and it can work with IsaiahDragsoe now, with the same starters as before and Thomas winning Sixth Man of the Year.

Phoenix has three more exhibition games before opening the regular season Oct. 29 at home against the Lakers.

Bulls’ Butler a high-volatility stock


VIDEO: Butler plays preseason hero against Hawks

Asterisks abounded Thursday night, when Jimmy Butler went vintage-Derrick Rose – or one-off-Michael Jordan – down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks.

* Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau had starters, including Butler, on the floor late in the Bulls’ mostly dismal performance.

* His Atlanta counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, was rolling with third-string Hawks.

* Rose, the Bulls player who would normally be called upon at such a point, was on the bench (prompting some predictable hand-wringing from critics who aren’t happy when the point guard plays a lot or when he plays a little).

* It still was the preseason.

* And Butler is in the midst of a salary drive, his performances this month potentially out of character, with the real impact of deal-or-no-deal in his contract extension talks to be determined later.

Still, the Bulls shooting guard did score 29 points – one more than his career high in three NBA seasons – in his team’s scramble back from 21 points to win. Butler got 20 of those in the final 5:11, an explosive stretch that might have been aided by the various asterisks but explosive nonetheless.

He did it, too, in ways that made the worriers feel a little better about Butler’s offense – no one questions his defensive effort or effectiveness – at a position where Chicago needs more oomph. Butler, who shot 39.7 percent from the floor (28.3 percent on 3-pointers), dramatically beat the buzzer from 26 feet in good form. He wound up shooting 8-for-14 and 12-for-16 from the line (9-for-11 in the fourth), and got some big love from teammates.

“We always tell him to take more [shots], but it’s going to be up to him to break that seal,” Rose said. “Thank God that he’s catching his rhythm right now and he’s building his confidence. He’s another threat offensively.”

Not last year, he wasn’t. But Thibodeau played Butler long minutes anyway, for his defense, out of need and in spite of distractions coming at the wing player from Marquette. Butler battled injuries early, played only eight games with Rose before the point guard went down again, then had his role tweaked after the Bulls traded veteran small forward Luol Deng in January.

“Jimmy has grown,” Thibodeau said Thursday night. “He’s more a scorer than to characterize him as a straight shooter. He’s an all-around scorer. He’ll find ways to put the ball in the basket.”

Butler, though you’d wonder where it came from, is said to have arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter. He looks more athletic and clearly has been more aggressive, leading Chicago after five October games with 18.6 points, 60.4 field-goal shooting, 43 free throw attempts and 144 total minutes.

“All summer I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots I know I can make,” he said.

So, salary drive? Butler has two weeks left to land, per NBA rookie-scale rules, the contract extension available to players heading into their fourth seasons. Two years ago, Bulls forward Taj Gibson felt preseason pressure while his talks played out, and though he got his deal (four years, $33 million), the episode seemed to bleed into a subpar season. Butler has some folks wondering if he might go the other way if he gets paid – throttling back – or be adversely affected if he doesn’t get the extension done.

He said Thursday it hasn’t been a distraction. “Nope. Not at all,” Butler said. “I just try to play the game the right way. The whole contract situation is up to my agent (Happy Walters) and the Bulls organization. I just want to win games. Then the contract will take care of itself, whenever.”

And however much. The market for Butler figures to be as hot as it is fluid. Chicago reportedly would like to sign him now for what’s becoming called “Taj money,” close to Gibson’s 2012 extension. Butler might be anchored more by the three-year, $30 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bulls put in front of Deng before trading him.

Then there’s the unpredictable marketplace of free agency, even with restrictions, should Butler get that far. Gordon Hayward landed his four-year, $63 million max deal that way – offer sheet from Charlotte, matched by Utah – and Chandler Parsons scored a three-year, $46 million contract with Dallas. And if Butler, who will make $2 million this season, were to play this out twice on a year-by-year basis, he would hit the unrestricted marked in 2016 as the new bonanza of TV rights cash officially kicks in.

Bulls VP of basketball John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, who will already have $50 million committed to four players next season (Rose, Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol), won’t have Thibodeau at the bargaining table, that’s for sure. The coach who has leaned hard on Butler for two years will look to him even more.

Chicago added shooters over the summer but after Rose, Butler is the best choice to put real pressure on opponents, getting to the rim, getting to the line, throwing himself around to wreak havoc and create energy on nights when there’s none, like Thursday. With Deng’s departure, he is the defender who will draw the toughest assignments, the only one Thibodeau trusts to check other guys’ most potent scorers.

Butler was drafted last in the first round in 2011 and still sounds like an absolute underdog. “I’m from Tomball, [Texas],” he said earlier this week. “I’m not even supposed to be in the NBA, let alone be a star player. I just want to be wanted. I just want to play hard. I just want to help [us] win. End of story. Star player, role player, bench player, whatever it takes. Just let me win.”

Oh, Butler definitely is going to win, either with the Bulls or someone else. In this case, the victory will be noted not by a ‘W’ or an * but by a bunch of $’s.

Kerr finally gets his chance with Curry


VIDEO: The NBA TV crew analyzes the transition of Steve Kerr

OAKLAND – They have joked about it for months now, Steve Kerr and Bob Myers, Kerr and Larry Riley, and Kerr and Stephen Curry, over the phone and in person, through the years and over international borders in an outcome so strange it comes with a laugh track.

A little more than five years later, everyone has unexpectedly met here, Kerr as the new Warriors coach, Myers as the general manager and primary recipient of what didn’t happen, Curry as the All-Star point guard, and with Riley still part of the organization as director of scouting. Roles have changed. Lives have changed.

One thing has remained true, though: Kerr has never been so happy to lose.

He was the Suns general manager in June 2009 and wanted Curry in the draft. Badly. There was phone call after phone call between Kerr and Riley, his Warriors counterpart. There were internal conversations among Phoenix management about the risk of trading 26-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 20 points and eight rebounds — and the risk of keeping Stoudemire with free agency a year away and growing health concerns.

The Warriors were very interested, intrigued by the chance to get the known of a proven power forward over the uncertainty of a scoring point guard from mid-major Davidson. They also really liked Curry and, in fact, doubted he would be on the board when Riley picked seventh. Arizona’s Jordan Hill was the fallback, probably for both sides, for the Suns if a deal had been arranged and for Golden State to keep if no deal was in place.

It got close, but never imminent. The Warriors were not going to trade for Stoudemire unless he at least showed strong likelihood of re-signing as a free agent the next summer, and Riley had yet to so much as ask the Suns for permission to have the conversation. And if Golden State and Stoudemire did talk, the result would have been the same. He was not going to commit to anything at that point other than showing up, playing hard and keeping an open mind about the future, an understandable stance that almost certainly would have ended the talks bouncing between Phoenix and Oakland.

Plus, once Blake Griffin (Clippers), Hasheem Thabeet (Grizzlies), James Harden (Thunder) and Tyreke Evans (Kings) were picked and the Timberwolves followed with the infamous Ricky Rubio-Jonny Flynn double dip of points guards at five and six, Curry was still available at seven. Riley’s stance hardened. No longer was it just weighing acquiring Stoudemire as a possible one-season rental while also sending out Andris Biedrins and big salaries as cap balast, it was believing Curry would be special. Riley would be demoted to director of scouting and replaced by Myers in 2012, but also secure a positive place in Golden State history by not biting on the tantalizing lure of an athletic power forward that put up numbers.

The Warriors took Curry seventh and he turned into a star. The Suns kept Stoudemire one more season and 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds and played it right to not get into a bidding war with the Knicks in 2010 free agency.

And….

The Warriors ended up hiring Kerr to coach. To coach the entire roster, obviously, but with Curry as the best player and one of the main attractions of choosing Golden State over the option of working for long-time friend and coaching mentor Phil Jackson with the Knicks.

How life could be different if Kerr got his wish in 2009.

“I may not be here,” he said.

It was one of the first things they talked about after Kerr was hired in May, when he was home near San Diego and called Curry on a postseason golf outing in Mexico. Kerr couldn’t bring him to Phoenix, the new coach told his point guard, so Kerr would come to Curry.

“He’s said a couple times, ‘You know, I really wanted him,’ ” said Myers, an agent in 2009. “Obviously any coach that has the opportunity to coach this team, that’s one of the first things mentioned, if not the first, which is, ‘I get an opportunity to coach that guy.’ And not just his talent on the floor, but who he is as a person. It makes perfect sense to me. I’d want to coach him too if I was a coach. We’ve joked around about that.”

Because they can now. Now that Kerr finally has Curry on his side.

Messina adds taste of Italy to Spurs

messina

Could Ettore Messina (left) be the Spurs’ next coach when Gregg Popovich retires? (NBAE via Getty Images)

Ettore Messina had taken a sip from the NBA cup before when he was a consultant on Mike Brown’s staff with the Lakers for the 2011-12 season.

This time is like opening wide, throwing back his head and drinking it all in.

“The Spurs,” he said with a grin. “It is a familiar taste.”

A comfortable fit, like a designer Italian suit.

The team with nine international players from seven different countries now adds another bit of overseas flair to the mix with an assistant coach with a worldly resume.

The 55-year-old Italian has won four titles in his home country, four Russian League titles, four Euroleague championships and was named one of the 50 greatest contributors to the Euroleague.

“He’s a smart guy, a helluva good coach and a very interesting man,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Why wouldn’t you want somebody like Ettore to be around your team?”

Fact is, Messina had been around the Spurs once before. When he abruptly quit as coach of Real Madrid just before the Euroleague playoffs in the spring of 2011, Messina accepted an invitation from the Spurs to come to San Antonio and travel with the team.

After his season in L.A., a return to coach CSKA Moscow, this is more of a commitment as a full member of the coaching staff as the Spurs look for new ways to keep moving ahead in defense of their 2014 NBA championship.

It is a reunion with Manu Ginobili, 13 years after the Argentine star was the Euroleague Finals MVP for Messina’s champion team at Kinder Bologna. It was also a time when Messina first was exposed to a young teen-age prospect named Marco Belinelli.

“It is obviously special to have a chance to come to the NBA after these years and be part of a team with Manu and Marco,” Messina said. “But I know so many of the different Spurs player from their time in Europe. In a way, it is like I am coming home.

“It is very, very special to work with Pop, with this club, not only because it happens to be the champion team, but also the team that for us Europeans is closest to our way of seeing things and doing things. To have this chance to return with Manu at the end of his career, it’s very special. At my age you don’t start thinking about building a career or anything. If something happens, it happens. It doesn’t matter. Now it is only about experiences.”

For Popovich and the Spurs, it is only the next step in their determination to leave no stone unturned anywhere on the planet in order to move ahead in their education in the game. They added Messina to the staff in the same summer that they broke another barrier when they welcomed Becky Hammon as the first full-time female coach in an American men’s professional league.

“That’s just Pop,” said general manager R.C. Buford. “He’s open and he’s always hungry and searching for new things to discover about the game and different ways to coach it.”

“It was an easier decision now because Ettore has been with us before,” Popovich said. “I gave him a seat on our team plane and he’s gone on road trips with us. He’s traveled with us before.

“We talk a lot, that sort of thing. He’s a class act, a lot classier and suave than I am. He’s a sharp dude and he knows what he’s doing. Having Ettore here is great for our program and fun for me. (He’s) somebody I can bounce things off and same generation kind of thing.”

Messina has watched from a distance as Popovich exercised his basketball world view and assembled his “Foreign Legion” lineup, using the style and many of the passing game principles that have been a staple of the international game.

“We had to play that style in Europe and South America because we don’t have the kind of size, strength and athleticism in the game that exists in the United States,” Messina said. “I am talking about a generalization, of course. We learned that if we were going to win against those kinds of players, we would have to use skills — passing, keeping the ball moving, shooting, so many of the fundamentals. Those are all the things that Pop teaches here with the Spurs. I must say, it was a joy as a coach to watch the way they played last year, especially in the playoffs. Now I am an assistant coach back at the first step, trying to learn everything.”

Messina says his first experience with the Spurs and now his daily training camp routine in San Antonio continues to dispel many myths that Europeans have about the NBA.

“The thought over there is that the Americans don’t work, that it is all about the individual, about just using physical talent,” he said. “Most people over there think that we worked harder. That is not true. There is a great deal of individual work here in the NBA by players trying to get better. There is concentration on player development by the teams. If you watched the USA team (last) month in the World Cup, you know that wasn’t just a group of All-Stars. That was a team. That’s what Pop has put in place here. Everyone talks here about the ‘European style’ that the Spurs play. You know what? We really spend a great deal of time watching film and studying the Spurs and Pop’s offense.”

With Popovich at 65 and Messina 10 years younger, it might not be so far-fetched to think this could be the progression of the reigning champs’ global evolution — the grooming of the first foreign-born head coach.

It is, after all, how the Spurs conquered the basketball world, one dribble, one country at a time.

Kerr gets the job and coast he wanted


VIDEO: New coach Kerr looks ahead to 2014-15 season

Steve Kerr told Phil Jackson, his former coach with the championship Bulls and the new head of basketball operations in New York, he would coach the Knicks. Basically accepted the job. The contract had to be worked out, obviously no small matter, but Kerr was set for Madison Square Garden.

And then he wasn’t.

The TNT commentator who went to high school near Los Angeles, college at Arizona, previously worked in Phoenix and now lives in San Diego ultimately could not convince himself to be a continent away from his wife and kids. And to hear Kerr tell it, he didn’t have to convince an understanding Jackson. Either way, it became the only opening the Warriors needed.

Golden State grabbed Kerr as its coach. It had a replacement for the fired Mark Jackson and Kerr had an ideal situation of landing his first sideline job with an established, winning team on the West Coast. He had added another twist to his strange road — from unfulfilling years as Suns general manager to enjoying TV work in California, not New York, and the career path he expected after leaving college, before an unexpected playing career and all those championships kept getting in the way.

NBA.com: Did you always know you wanted to be a coach one day or had the plan been to get back into the front office?

Kerr: When I left Phoenix, I never had any desire to get back in the front office.

NBA.com: Why is that?

Kerr: I like being on the court. I enjoyed the job, but you’re never on the court as a GM. You’re always upstairs and talking to agents. It’s a more-corporate position. I’d rather dress like this (T-shirt, shorts) every day to practice, to be honest with you. I like working with players and I like the game itself.

NBA.com: Did you find yourself not liking the GM job in Phoenix?

Kerr: I liked it when we won. We had a great year the last year.

NBA.com: But in general, because that’s going to be the same with almost any job, that you’re going to enjoy it more when you’re winning. But did you find yourself thinking, “This isn’t for me”?

Kerr: I knew when I left after my contract ran out and I decided to go back to TV, I thought that it was a great experience for me but I had no desire to go back and do it. Coaching was much more intriguing to me.

NBA.com: Was that one of the reasons you left, because it just wasn’t fun?

Kerr: Yeah. That was one of the reasons. And a big part of it was family. My kids, all three were high school or below in San Diego. The opportunity to go back to TV and live the good life was there. That meant a lot to me at the time because of the ages of my kids. Now, two of them are in college, one is not too far off from college, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my home life. It’s just a much better time of my life to pursue this and commit fully.

NBA.com: You had other opportunities before this. Why did this feel right and the other ones didn’t?

Kerr: I had plenty of opportunities. I had probably four or five teams over the last few years (to be a head coach), not necessarily offer me the job but contact me about the possibility. It was very intriguing.

NBA.com: Any that you were offered?

Kerr: No. Without an interview, nobody said, “We’ll give you the job.”

NBA.com: Why not (interview with), “Let’s see where it goes.”

Kerr: Because I knew I wasn’t ready, family-wise mainly. I wanted to be at home for my daughter’s last year of high school, for example. Once she graduated high school, which was a year and a half ago, then I really started to focus on it. But I still had a year on my TV contract, I loved working at TNT, my son and my daughter were both playing college sports, I wanted to be able to go to their games. I was just really enjoying myself. So I figured I’d just wait until the timing was right and not only the timing but the circumstances. So to be here, in Golden State with a team that won 51 games, in a great city, I’m from California, raised in California, with an ownership group that I was familiar with, (Warriors president) Rick Welts a great friend from Phoenix, and a good young roster and my daughter lives two miles away and goes to Berkeley. It’s like ideal.

NBA.com: Did you have to make a Knicks-or-Warriors decision?

Kerr: Yes.

NBA.com: What did that come down to?

Kerr: Everything I just referenced. New York was very intriguing, especially my relationship with Phil and the opportunity he was presenting me, and the Knicks, the franchise itself and the history. But it would have been a really, really difficult situation in terms of the family and being all the way across the country. I just felt better suited to work with these guys here, this younger roster with a more established core. It just felt more comfortable.

NBA.com: How much of it was the Knicks are not in as good a position as the Warriors in terms of being able to win now?

Kerr: The fact that they were in the East and were a year away from cap room was really intriguing. I think the Knicks are a playoff team right now and I think they’re going to get better and I think a year from now they’ll have a chance to make a real splash in free agency. The basketball situation, particularly being aligned with Phil, was very intriguing actually. It much more came down to lifestyle and family and the established roster here. On the flip side, we’re in the West. (He laughs) That was a negative. But can’t do much about that.

NBA.com: How close did you come to taking the Knicks job?

Kerr: I came close. It was very difficult to turn down. Agonizing. I actually at one point told Phil I was going to come, without knowing anything about contracts and without really talking in detail about certain circumstances. At one point I told him, “I’m coming,” but the caveat that we need to hash the rest of this out. And that’s when the Golden State job opened up and that’s when they were able to contact me and I was able to explore it. The timing was weird.

NBA.com: Was it a matter of you were not comfortable with the terms that the Knicks were putting out, the contract itself? Or the time it took to put the contract together, that’s when the Warriors opened and the Warriors slid in?

Kerr: They did. The Warriors did slide in.

NBA.com: Was there any problem with what the Knicks were talking money wise and years wise?

Kerr: No. I had no problem with the money. That was just normal negotiation. A lot of it was figuring out logistics and, like I said, there were some family considerations. And all the while I’m working every other night for TNT, so I never had a chance to actually go to New York and sit down with management. I had dinner with Phil in the city when I was working a Nets game for TNT, but I never had the chance to visit the facility. It was just awkward with the whole process.

NBA.com: Do you second-guess yourself? Do you regret the way you handled it — saying yes, committing to it before things had really been worked out?

Kerr: A little bit. It’s a human thing. Phil couldn’t have been better when I told him I was going to go Golden State.

NBA.com: He didn’t feel burned?

Kerr: Not at all. Because he understood. In fact, he said, “If you had come here and regretted it, it would have been the worst thing for both of us.” That’s why Phil’s Phil. He understands people. In hindsight, it probably would have been best not committing, not saying anything, just saying, “Look, I need to talk to Golden State.” But the timing was an issue on both ends. It was very tricky. Anyway, it all worked out. I think the Knicks ended up with a great coach and Derek (Fisher) and Phil will do well together and I’m happy to be here with (general manager) Bob (Myers) and the team.

NBA.com: Because you two have such a history, was it difficult to tell Phil you were not taking the job?

Kerr: It was agonizing. But his reaction made it a lot easier.

NBA.com: He didn’t try to change your mind by inviting you to do some yoga and meditate over it?

Kerr: I was already doing yoga and meditating over it.

NBA.com: What is the biggest impact you can bring with this team?

Kerr: I think empowering the guys with the real sense of how we can get to our goal.

NBA.com: In terms of the mental? When you talk about empowering, you mean….?

Kerr: First of all, I feel good about my ability to connect with guys and to lead. They’re already a good team. I feel like it’s relatively easy to identify what we have to do to get better and I have a staff in place that is going to give the team every opportunity to do so, especially with (assistant coaches) Ron (Adams) and Alvin (Gentry) and their long-time expertise in this league. I think we have a good plan. Last year’s team won 51 games. As I said, it’s a talented group. I just feel like from here to take the next step they need direction, they need the idea of how we’re going to do this, and that’s what we try to provide.

Bucks see brighter ‘next tomorrow’ thanks to Parker, Antetokounmpo


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo looking toward 2014-15 season

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – John Henson won’t turn 24 until three days after Christmas, but when you get him talking about his precocious Milwaukee Bucks’ teammates Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, you start looking around for a front porch and a rocking chair. Henson isn’t about to drop a “whippersnapper” on anyone but yes, he admitted this week, the two kids do make him feel old.

“It does, man,” Henson said after a morning session Wednesday in coach Jason Kidd‘s first Bucks camp. “When I was 19, I was a sophomore in college, not even thinking about the NBA. It’s interesting, man. I’m as excited to see them grow as anybody else.”

The number of anybody elses is unusually high, too, considering it’s, well, Milwaukee. A training camp visit by a major sports network added to the buzz.

“I think it’s good to have some excitement out here,” Henson said. “I saw the ESPN [production] truck out there, I didn’t know what was going on. I had to search my app and make sure nothing came up. They were just talking about training camp. So that’s something that’s new for me here.”

The days of ignoring the Bucks are dwindling. Used to be, some big media enterprise or national reporter would wait for Milwaukee to come to them, say, for a road game in New York or L.A. It’d be a quick peek and then, yeah, back to flyover status for a team stuck somewhere in the NBA’s steerage class of the flawed and the futile.

Now the Bucks boast two of the league’s most promising, young talents. Parker and Antetokounmpo are twin sources of optimism and untapped potential for a franchise with new ownership, a new coach, hopes for a new arena and a fresh set of ambitions.

Last season, the Bucks lost their way to the opportunity to draft Parker with the No. 2 pick in the June draft. The rookie hopes he doesn’t have to go through anything resembling their 15-67 season.

“I think the guys really don’t take winning for granted, because they lost so much,” Parker said, sharing his first impression of his new team. “So with that attitude, that mindset, they appreciate winning a little more. They leave it out on the floor, just play with a little bit more heart, because they know winning isn’t guaranteed.”

It might be more achievable, at least, with the two teens in tow.

Parker and Antetokounmpo got to this point from widely divergent paths The former has competed at basketball’s highest levels in high school (Simeon in Chicago, Ill.) and college (Duke) before turning pro last spring in a flip-a-coin decision with Andrew Wiggins atop the 2014 draft.

Parker went second, which gave him way more stability this summer as the Bucks pledged their allegiance from the start. Wiggins, meanwhile, got embraced by the Cavaliers, got excited about LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland and then got traded to Minnesota as the major chip delivering Kevin Love.

Parker, listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, also got a head start on this whole NBA thing as the son of former Golden State forward Sonny Parker (1976-82).

“His time was different,” Parker said of going to school on his father’s experience. “During the ’70s and ’80s, they flew commercial all the time. And they practiced in two-a-days for a month straight, maybe even longer.

“But what he told me to remember is, the game never changes. Players change. But keep that same mentality. The rules of success, that formula, never changes. He always tells me to keep it by the playbook.”

Sonny Parker averaged 9.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 24.2 minutes, the first two of which some Bucks fans might expect Jabari to double in his rookie season. But the younger Parker isn’t talking numbers and he’s maintaining perspective.

“Until I get to my sixth year, he’s got it over me,” he said of his father. “I’ve got to just listen to him and hopefully I’ll get to where he was.”

Parker and the Bucks have penciled him in as a power forward, a nod to his build and relative athleticism. He has impressed the staff and his new teammates with his diligence and his humility – even Antetokounmpo said, “He’s a great kid” – and has shrugged off early predictions as the Rookie of the Year favorite.

“More advanced, more comfortable,” Antetokounmpo said of the difference between his rookie arrival and Parker’s. “That confidence he has, for a young guy, he surprises you. He’s got, like, nerves. He’s always … how can I say it? … he don’t care who’s going to guard him. He even doesn’t care who he’s going to defend. Whether it’s a young guy or a big guy, he don’t care, he just plays his game.”

Said Henson: “Great rookie to have – comes in, works hard, doesn’t say much. Bought a stereo for the locker room so we can listen to music. Just goes about his business.”

If Parker is headed to power forward, Antetokounmpo could have his position decided by dartboard. Drafted 15th overall in 2013 as a raw sleeper pick from Greece, the lanky teen from Athens grew another two inches in the offseason. Now he’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and notions of actually playing point guard for one of the game’s all-time greats at that spot. Everyone in Milwaukee’s camp keeps a straight face on the possibility, too.

“We try to stay away from labeling,” Kidd said. “The one thing he has is a natural instinct to make plays and find ways to win. As far as being a point guard, I think he can start the offense, he can go coast-to-coast – he’s very comfortable with the ball in the open court.”

Can Antetokounmpo guard some of the gnats and water bugs among NBA point guards?

“We’ll see,” Kidd said. “He probably could play center. Y’know, 6-11. Guys, whatever they can do to help a team win. Magic [Johnson] played all positions to help win a championship [in 1980 with the Lakers]. When you have that type of ability and skill level to play multiple positions, it helps the coach, it helps your teammates and it also gives you more time on the floor.’

The key differences in their development, in Kidd’s eyes, are the refinements with which Parker has grown up, different from the rough edges so to be sanded off Antetokounmpo. But if Parker can produce half the YouTube moments that the “Greek Freak” did in 2013-14, the Bucks will be thrilled.

“You’re probably looking at small things – fundamentals, footwork – when you look at Jabari,” Kidd said. “But he probably isn’t growing any more. Giannis has grown over two inches – he gets accustomed to being 6-9, he wakes up and he’s 6-11. … He has to go through kind of understanding his body.

“They’re both 19 year olds, they’re both different. But they’re both capable of playing at a high level in due time.”

Some Milwaukee fans are thinking five, 10, even 15 years ahead with both these guys in the lineup. That’s a little far out there for Parker and Antetokounmpo.

“I’m thinking day by day,” Antetokounmpo said. “Hopefully we stick here for long years and everything goes well and we take the Bucks back to a championship like before [1971]. But if you don’t play hard now or tomorrow or the next tomorrow, it can’t happen.”