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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

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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.”

Wilt gets USPS towering tributes

Lakers Phila

Wilt Chamberlain was a super-sized superstar with a personality to match.

Makes sense that his postage stamp would be super-sized as well.

News leaked out last month – six years after longtime Philadelphia Tribune sportswriter Donald Hunt founded a campaign to immortalize the NBA giant on a U.S. postage stamp – that Chamberlain indeed would be so honored this winter. Now, the images for the two Limited Edition Forever stamps are official, appearing in the USPS philatelic catalog that hit the streets Wednesday and shared later in the day with NBA.com.

Here is some info on the stamps’ release, which will be held Dec. 5 in conjunction with the Philadelphia 76ers’ game at the Wells Fargo Center against Oklahoma City in Chamberlain’s hometown.

The U.S.Postal Service and Philadelphia 76ers, in conjunction with the National Basketball Association (NBA), will formally dedicate the Wilt Chamberlain Forever stamps — the first of its kind featuring an NBA player — in a halftime ceremony featuring a special three-dimensional tribute video using the team’s state-of-the-art court projection system. Throughout the night, the Sixers will celebrate the life and legacy of the legendary Chamberlain with videos during breaks in play. Tickets for this 7 p.m. game will be available to the general public beginning Oct. 8 via Sixers.com.

The stamps, just over two inches tall each, are about a third taller than a typical commemorative stamp height of approximately 1.5 inches. Kadir Nelson, of San Diego, CA, created the two stamp image portraits of the NBA superstar. One is based on a photograph of Chamberlain in a Philadelphia Warriors uniform; the other is based on an image of Chamberlain in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. The word “Wilt” is featured in either the top right or left corner of each stamp. Art director Antonio Alcalá of Alexandria, VA, designed the stamps.

The stamps are striking in appearance and appropriate in their size. Chamberlain’s feats were Ruthian, Bunyanesque even: scoring 100 points in a game, averaging 50.4 points in 1961-62, scoring 60 points or more on 32 occasions, stringing together 126 games with 20 points or more and posting career averages of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 45.8 minutes.

No puny 1.5-inch stamp was going to do justice to the iconic Big Dipper.

Gasol needs Rose to run with Bulls


VIDEO: Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau look forward to a new day in Chicago

CHICAGO – The difference between Derrick Rose‘s first comeback and latest comeback is the difference between Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol.

A year ago, Dunleavy — a solid NBA veteran in search of the first .500 team of his career — joined the Chicago Bulls on a modest, role player’s contract to scratch his competitive itch more than his financial one.

Except Rose lasted just 10 games, the Bulls backed off their loftier ambitions by trading Luol Deng midway through the schedule and Dunleavy wound up starting and logging heavy minutes. He appreciated Chicago’s 48-34 finish and could take pride in becoming one of the NBA’s biggest bargains (salary per minute). But no Rose and a five-game ouster by Washington in the first round were profound disappointments.

Now the stakes are higher. The Bulls’ key offseason acquisition is a cut above, in pedigree and possibilities. Gasol brings a Hall of Fame portfolio, two championship rings and international acclaim to Chicago. He also brings greater expectations and a considerable role already reserved for him. Like Dunleavy, Gasol turned 34 this offseason. His high hopes and crossed fingers are pretty much identical too.

“It’s important to the whole team, for sure,” Gasol said of Rose and the Bulls’ dire need for their point guard to a) stay healthy and b) reclaim his All-Star, all-NBA and ideally MVP form. “I talked to him before I made my decision. He’s eager, he’s hungry. He’s been working extremely hard to be where he’s at today. Playing in the World Cup in the summer helped him, to be able to get some rust out. I think he’s ready.”

That’s as good as the Bulls have at this point — thinking that Rose is sufficiently recovered from the torn ACL injury in his left knee (April 2012) and the torn meniscus in his right knee (November 2013) to lug around their goals and dreams.

If he is recovered, the 2014-15 season in Chicago could be the brightest since Rose’s MVP year of 2010-11 and maybe even the Jordan-Pippen era of the last millennium. If not, it will be another long season of overachieving and pluck that probably leads nowhere — and a whole bunch of what-ifs for Gasol.

Gasol talked with the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat and the Knicks. He got calls and tests from Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, the coach with whom he won championships in L.A. in 2008 and 2010.

“I talked to many great, great players that I would be happy to play with,” the 7-foot, four-time All Star said. “Unfortunately I could only play with one team. So I picked a great situation, a great team, a great franchise, a great city.”

Upon making his decision, Gasol got another text from Jackson, the former Bulls coach, saying that, “I was going to love Chicago, that I was going to be happy here and that it was a great choice.”

If Rose’s health can be trusted, sure.

From his spot on Spain’s national team, Gasol saw a pretty spry and explosive Rose in the FIBA World Cup tournament. “I don’t have any doubt,” Gasol said. “I hope that he stays healthy, just like everybody else on the team. Everybody is subject to injury. But I believe in his health and I think he’s going to do fine.”

Gasol ($7.1 million in Year 1 of a three-year deal) and Nikola Mirotic ($5.3 million) essentially have slipped into the payroll spot opened by Carlos Boozer‘s amnesty. Boozer wasn’t a popular Bull, never quite appeasing United Center fans for not being LeBron James after his 2010 signing, or even playing up to his five-year, $75 million deal. Still, he did average 15.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in four Chicago seasons and showed up for all but nine games over the final three.

Gasol will need to maintain his numbers (17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and step up his durability (55 games missed the past two seasons) to match or top Boozer’s statistical production. And Gasol is older.

Maybe Gasol can do contribute intangibly by how well he fits with fellow slick-passing big man Joakim Noah, with the shooters — Dunleavy, Mirotic, rookie Doug McDermott — that coach Tom Thibodeau can spot around him and, of course, with Rose.

Asked how the two of them might play off each other and boost the other’s effectiveness, Rose visualized and verbalized for the mob at Bulls media day.

“I automatically go to the fourth quarter, where he’s got the ball and I’m out on the perimeter, and I’m just waiting to get a set shot,” Rose said. “Other than that, let him work. You’ve got Joakim or Taj [Gibson] on the other side cleaning up everything else. And you’ve got two other shooters on the floor with me, Jo and Pau.

“I just see him in the post. I’m waiting for a jump shot. And you pick your poison.”

After waiting so long for Rose, seeing him take a pass from Gasol is an upgrade this team and the city will take.

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.