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Morning Shootaround — Aug. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rubio thinks Wiggins will be big time | Also, Kawhi is thinking big, too | Horford talks Dominican hoops | Burke ready and able

No. 1: Rubio thinks Wiggins will be big time — There’s lots of optimism in Minnesota about basketball, and it doesn’t center on the Lynx for a change. No, the former WNBA champs could take a back seat, popularity-wise, to the Timberwolves this season. Over the last two years, since the Kevin Love trade, the Wolves have gradually stockpiled assets and young players and believe the best is yet to come. This represents a change for a franchise that really hasn’t been on radar since Kevin Garnett left for the Celtics. Anyway, Ricky Rubio is in Manila doing promotions and was asked about the Wolves. He didn’t hold back and saved his best props for Andrew Wiggins, as Naveen Ganglani of Rappler reports …

The 6-foot-4 Rubio, who averaged 10.3 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.7 rebounds a game last season with an effectiveness rating of 15.24, said that health will be a big factor in order for the playoffs-starved franchise to reach their goal.

“If we stay healthy, there’s no doubt that we’re going to have a chance,” said Rubio, who’s about to enter his fifth year in the NBA — all with Minnesota. “We [all] have to be there to do that, and dream big.”

Wiggins is the key factor. Good enough to win last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year, the former Kansas Jayhawk averaged 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per contest in his freshman campaign as a pro.

What’s more impressive than his statistics or athleticism is that he’s already displayed a great feel for the NBA game despite being just 20 years old, making pundits believe he can one day blossom into a top-5 player in the league.

His point guard is thinking even further.

“I think Wiggins is going to be an MVP one day,” said Rubio, who missed a large chunk of last season due to a severely sprained ankle injury.

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No. 2: Also, Kawhi is thinking big, too It’s pretty common for players on the verge of stardom thinking they’re ready to take the next step, but in Kawhi Leonard‘s case, he might be on to something. Lots of the attention this summer in San Antonio was generated by LaMarcus Aldridge defecting from Portland and, to a lesser extent, David West from Indiana. And yet, lots of the Spurs’ upcoming season will depend on Leonard and whether he’s ready to be an All-Star. To hear him say it, he is. And Leonard doesn’t say much. But he has plenty of confidence in himself and is big on the Spurs, which is why he decided to stay and sign an extension. This is what Leonard told David Zink of the Press-Enterprise

Moreno Valley’s Kawhi Leonard usually lets his game do the talking.

But Saturday morning, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year delivered an important message to the young athletes who attended his basketball camp at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center.

“I want the kids to know that it’s not a myth that somebody from their city plays and wins in the NBA,” said Leonard, who helped Riverside King High to consecutive CIF-Southern Section titles in 2008 and ‘09. “I just want to influence them to work hard and do whatever they want to do in life, whether it’s to be a basketball player or scientist … if they believe in themselves they can do anything.

“That’s why I have this camp.”

On Saturday, about 90 boys and girls spent the day at the free camp rubbing elbows with one of the great, young NBA talents.

Quiet and unassuming, Leonard, 24, is a relentless competitor who has taken the NBA by storm, carving out his spot among the elite players while playing in a San Antonio Spurs system that values hard work and unselfish play.

“Winning just rubs off on you, once you see Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Tim (Duncan) wanting to win every game.”

Now that’s he’s reached a new plateau professionally, Leonard says he’s ready to make another big leap.

“I want to to be an (NBA) all-star and MVP of the regular season,” said Leonard. “I’m trying to be one of the greatest players so whatever level that consists of is where I want to take my game.”

***

No. 3: Horford talks hoops in the Dominican — Al Horford is the elder statesman of the Hawks, who won 60 games last season and reached the East finals for the first time, so he’s more qualified to discuss the state of the franchise than anyone else. He also won a pair of championships at Florida under Billy Donovan, now the coach of the Thunder, so while conducting a clinic with Basketball Without Borders, Horford let it fly about those two subjects and more to Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated

The NBA and FIBA’s Basketball Without Borders program held its first-ever camp in the Dominican Republic this week, and along for the ride was Hawks big man Al Horford, for whom the events held added weight.

Horford was born in Puerto Plata, lived in the country until the age of 14 and continued to visit every offseason to see family and help run basketball clinics. His father, Tito, also taking part this week, was the NBA’s first Dominican-born player. The Basketball Without Borders traveling contingent also included Mavericks forward Charlie Villanueva, whose parents are Dominican, and Horford’s former Florida teammate Corey Brewer of the Rockets.

SI.com caught up with the All-Star center in the midst of his trip for a window into his experience and his take on a busy off-season for the Hawks, who are preparing to follow up on a 60-win campaign and the franchise’s first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference finals. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

SI.com: Given that you grew up in the Dominican, how meaningful is it to be a part of the first-ever camp there, and especially to be there with your dad?

Horford: It’s a pretty awesome experience. We’re very grateful that the NBA has brought this caliber of camp to the Dominican Republic, and we get to have an impact in the community as well. I’m excited, my family and I, this has been a week-long celebration, just being able to teach kids, spend time together and make a difference down here.

SI.com: As a kid, you chose basketball over baseball. Obviously baseball’s still the main thing there, but do you get the sense that interest in basketball has changed over the years?

Horford: No question. Baseball’s our dominant sport, obviously, but more and more, you’re starting to see kids from a very young age start to play basketball and really be interested in the game. There’s a big following here. People follow us, they know what’s going on in the NBA, and people here want to play basketball. It’s funny, you drive anywhere in the city, you’ll see courts and people out there playing at all hours of the day. It’s pretty impressive.

***

No. 4: Burke ready and able There’s been plenty of worry in Salt Lake City over the knee injury suffered by Dante Exum, which will likely sideline him for all of the 2015-16 season. But Trey Burke says, have no fear. With the Jazz down a point guard, Burke feels it’s time to start carrying himself like a veteran and help fill the void of Exum, who was expected to see increased playing time in the Utah backcourt. Here’s Burke discussing Exum and the clang to Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune

Trey Burke was sitting on the concourse at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon, signing autographs with a silver marker when a fan struck up a conversation with the Utah Jazz guard.

“Now for the most important question,” the man said after a while. “Utah or Michigan?”

Burke smiled and said he’d be rooting for his alma mater when Jim Harbaugh and company visit Salt Lake City on Sept. 3.

After some lighthearted razzing, the man chuckled and turned to the woman at his side and said, “He’s the perfect point guard except that he’s from Michigan.”

The couple laughed.

Burke, too.

He knows he has been far from perfect since he led the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament championship game, won college basketball’s player of the year award and became the first point guard drafted in 2013.

“I haven’t hit the goals that I have for myself,” Burke said between fulfilling autograph requests and posing for pictures at a community fair. “But I feel like they’ve been two solid years. I’ve been learning a lot, especially over this summer and last summer. But I know I have a lot of room to improve and I’m willing to work on those areas.”

Burke knew he was facing a crucial year ahead even before knowing that starting point guard Danté Exum could miss all of next season with a torn ACL. Burke had shown flashes over his first 146 games in the NBA, but he also struggled for stretches when he was getting beat on defense or missing too many shots. So as he prepared to his third season with the Jazz, Burke said he was as motivated as ever to prove himself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Glen Davis believes the Clippers would’ve beaten the Warriors in the Western Conference finals even though the Clippers have fewer banners in Staples than Taylor SwiftCan the Rockets really sign Kevin Durant? … They love LeBron in the Philippines.

Kobe Bryant shoots for first time since shoulder surgery

NBA.com staff reports

First day back on the court shooting! Bout damn time!! #shoulderrecovery #20thseason @drinkbodyarmor #lakers

A photo posted by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on

Kobe Bryant hit the hardwood and put up shots on Saturday for the first time since he underwent surgery in January to repair a torn rotator cuff.

The initial recovery timetable was set at nine months, which would have Bryant ready to start his 20th, and perhaps final, season in the NBA in late-October. But after three straight season-ending injuries, the Lakers (and Bryant) may take their time with the recovery and allow new additions Lou WilliamsRoy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and rookie D’Angelo Russell to steady the ship until Bryant is 100-percent healthy.

The Lakers open the season on October 28th against the Timberwolves.

Morning Shootaround — Aug. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Gentry can’t wait to team with Davis | A new era for the NBA | Copeland moving forward in Milwaukee | Cousins gets key

No. 1: Gentry can’t wait to team with Davis NBA coaches are only as good as the players on their rosters. Which is why new New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is so excited: He has the chance to coach Anthony Davis, who is one of the NBA’s best players and is only 22 years old. As Gentry explained to our own Ian Thomsen, Davis is one of the few “generational” players in NBA history …

Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan. Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe Bryant. LeBron James.

The dream of every NBA coach, as Alvin Gentry sees it, is to partner with one of those exceptional stars.

“They really are generational players,” Gentry says. “Anthony is a generational player, I think. And he is 22 years old.”

Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, whom Gentry will be coaching next season, has already earned an NCAA championship in 2012 (with Kentucky) and an Olympic gold medal four months later, in addition to two All-Star invitations, one first-team All-NBA selection and a breakthrough playoff appearance last season with New Orleans.

Coaches can navigate the NBA for decades and never connect with someone like him. Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman — each with more than 1,000 wins — have coached many great players, but never that one transcendent star who could win the championship.

“Anthony is right in that category, and there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” says Gentry. “It is up to us to make him as good as he can possibly be, and not settle for him to be less than great in this area or that area. I told him that I have no doubt that he is going to be an MVP in this league. And I said to him, ‘We are going to be really, really good if you also win Defensive Player of the Year.”’

It is one thing to dream of coaching Davis. It is another thing to know how to coach him — to bring the experience and energy and wisdom that are crucial to the job. How do you make the dream come true?

***

No. 2: A new era for the NBA It’s something many NBA fans have probably taken for granted over the years: We all see the schedule — 30 teams criss-crossing the hemisphere in order to play 41 home games and 41 road games — but did anyone really consider how that tangled web of scheduling came together year after year? As Howard Beck writes, for the last three decades, the job of scheduling the NBA belonged to NBA executive Matt Winick, who is “moving on” after forty years with the NBA, and taking with him an era when things were done differently

The memorabilia has been bubble-wrapped—the autographed Willis Reed print, the kitschy poster from the 1978 Finals. A brawny typewriter, the Royal 440, rests on the radiator. An NBA staff guide, dated 1975-76, peeks out from a shelf.

And on the desk sits a yellowed Rolodex, jammed with four decades of key NBA figures. But the real power rests beside the Rolodex.

That’s where the PC is. The one with the spreadsheet containing all those arena dates and television commitments and grudge matches. The one that dictates where every NBA team will play, and when.

For the last 30 years, Matt Winick has punched the keys on this PC (or one like it) and arranged all of those dates, color-coding for home games (blue) and away (red), agonizing over every six-game road trip and every back-to-back set, bracing for the complaints that were sure to follow.

“I tell the teams, ‘Hey, that’s the way the computer did it,'” Winick said from behind his desk. “But it was never the computer. I was the computer.”

Officially, Winick has carried the title of senior vice president, but he is best known as the NBA’s Scheduling Czar—a role he alone has held since 1985, a role he is now relinquishing for good.

The 75-year-old Winick, who first joined the NBA in 1976, is stepping down (not retiring, he insists) at the end of the month, taking with him four decades of memories, mementos and scheduling wisdom.

The spreadsheet has been bequeathed to Tom Carelli, the league’s senior vice president of broadcasting. Carelli’s team produced the recently released 2015-16 schedule, the first without Winick’s fingerprints since the 1984-85 season.

“I always described it as a jigsaw puzzle with 1,230 pieces”—one for every game—”and if one of them doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work,” Winick said. “All 1,230 pieces have to fit.”

***

No. 3: Copeland moving forward in Milwaukee A few months ago in New York City, then-Pacers forward Chris Copeland was stabbed outside a New York City nightclub, necessitating emergency surgery and ending Copeland’s season. Now Copeland is a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, and as our Steve Aschburner writes, Copeland is looking forward to getting back on the court and playing for coach Jason Kidd and one of the NBA’s most promising young teams…

This is a guy for whom there were no bread crumbs marking his path to the NBA, no dots to connect in cooperation with a friendly GM that would help him realize a dream. Copeland got cut twice overseas and moved through teams in Spain, Holland, Germany and Belgium before turning himself — with some intense coaching from TBB Trier’s Yves Defraigne in Germany — into a player worthy of a Knicks summer league invitation in 2012.

With his solid play there and in camp that fall, Copeland won a roster spot. It all has gone so fast since then — 147 NBA appearances, 1,955 minutes played, 349 field goals — that getting derailed or even stuck with a reputation for one wrong-place, wrong-time mistake would have been cruel.

Instead, Copeland has focused on the positive.

“If I didn’t go through cold showers overseas or stuff like that, I wouldn’t understand as much what it is, when I say it’s a blessing to be here,” he said. “It’s different when you actually have an experience on the other side.

“Everything else that’s happened that’s led me to this point, I’m thankful for. I just keep it as a positive in my head.”

Reuniting with Kidd, who Copeland played with in the final year of his Hall of Fame-bound career as rookie, is the positive now. He said he learned much from the veteran point guard, from how to care for his body to proper positioning on the court. What Kidd helped the Bucks accomplish last season, improving from 15 to 41 victories, was no surprise to their new “stretch four” option.

“I knew he’d be someone I’d want to play for,” Copeland said. “He’s been a great basketball mind. Playing with him, I got to see his leadership abilities. A lot of things he did as a player, he was almost coaching then. You can see it over the last two years he’s been a head coach, he knows what he’s doing.”

Copeland’s strength, deep-threat shooting from a big, never has been more in demand. And Milwaukee has been eager to add some after finishing 26th in 3-point attempts and 23rd in 3-point makes. Golden State won a championship with shooters spacing the floor, so the Bucks are among the many hoping to replicate the success.

“I think with the guys we have on this team — [Giannis] Antetokounmpo, Jabari [Parker] when he gets healthy — we can make their jobs easier,” Copeland said.

Copeland hit 42 percent of his 3-pointers in his first two seasons, then dropped to 31 percent in 2014-15. It was a dismal year all around, from Paul George‘s ghastly summer injury and absence, through Roy Hibbert‘s continuing funk, to the regrettable incident in April.

“I always count blessings, but I always look forward,” Copeland said, happy for the fresh start. “I count on my blessing always — I’ve been like that before, after and in-between. I thank God every day for my life and for being able to be here as an NBA player. But I don’t look backwards in any way.”

***

No. 4: Cousins gets key There’s been plenty of drama in Sacramento, but the one thing nobody is arguing is that center DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most talented young players in the NBA. This week Cousins returned home to Mobile, Alabama, where the mayor gave him the key to the city and Cousins discussed plans to help revitalize parts of his hometown

The 25-year-old Cousins was born and raised in Mobile and this weekend he returned to hold a free youth basketball camp with free eye exams from VSP Vision. He held the same type of camp in Sacramento back in June.

“Teaming up with VSP is helping kids in Sacramento and Mobile see better and provides them with opportunities they may not otherwise receive,” Cousins said. “Having good vision is critical both on and off the court.”

Mayor Stimpson and Cousins spent two hours touring parts of the city on Friday. Part of Cousins visit was to share his vision of revitalizing Michael Figures Park in his old neighborhood.

The park has become dilapidated and over-run with graffiti, and it no longer serves a purpose for youth within the community.

Cousins, who played at LaFlore High School, is hoping to partner with the city to give the park a makeover. He wants to clean it up and add a new playground, as well as revitalize the basketball court, where currently one hoop is missing from the run-down court. He envisions turning the inner city park into something that would resemble New York’s Rucker Park.

The vision of the park restoration project is just the first of many that Cousins has planned for Mobile.

Also included of the hometown tour was a stop-off at Pritchard Prepatory, a charter school for elementary students. Cousins and the Mayor stopped in classrooms to visit with children and pose for pictures.

“Me growing up, I wish I would have had a chance to interact with an NBA player,” Cousins said. “This is just my way of giving back to them.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kobe Bryant joined Taylor Swift on stage at the Staples Center last night to present her with a “championship” banner … Michael Jordan won a lawsuit against a supermarket chain that used his likeness without permission … Tyrus Thomas is training for an NBA comeback … The Sacramento Kings will celebrate several #FlashbackFridays this season by bringing back their old baby blue uniforms

Morning shootaround — Aug. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Griffin backs a 66-game season | Horford says he’s ‘very happy’ with Hawks | Next challenge for Valanciunas

No. 1: Griffin says 66 games is ideal NBA season length — The 2011-12 NBA season was a 66-game slate that some considered the perfect amount of games for the regular season. Since that lockout-shortened season, the NBA has resumed its regular, 82-game schedule and shows no signs of changing that anytime soon. CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger recently caught up with several of the NBA’s stars and, in a Q&A session, asked them what the ideal length of a season would be. Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin was the lone player who voiced support for a shorter season:

If money were no object, what would the ideal length of the NBA regular season be?

Griffin: Sixty-six, spread over the same amount of time [as the current 82-game season]. Fatigue and injuries, and better product. If you have less games, less back-to-backs, the product’s better. The fans will appreciate it more. You see those college guys playing so hard, but they play 36 games in the same amount of time we play 82 almost. I just think it would be a better product.

John Wall: I just enjoy playing. I enjoy loving the game, so it doesn’t matter to me. I think [82 games] is cool … if you get more breaks. They did a great job of giving us more time at the All-Star break, giving us a couple of more days.

Draymond Green: I don’t know if you can necessarily say there’s a better way because it’s never been done. Within the course of the 82, some people catch their stride, as you saw the season before last year. The Spurs caught their stride in like the last 35-40 games. If you’re not playing 82, do they catch their stride? Are they world champions? Who knows? So it’s kind of hard to judge. I think it’s a slippery slope when you get to assessing that because, yeah, what was the lockout year, 66? So you saw that, but you also saw three games in three days, which you can’t judge off that, either. And then there’s going to be an unhappy party, because the owners aren’t going to make as much money, which means the players won’t make as much money. So I think it’s a slippery slope. At the end of the day, our league has done great. Is that something to really tinker with? Probably not. Is there really a reason to? Yeah, guys get tired. But are you going to get tired if there’s 65 games? Probably so. I just think that’s a tough subject.

Chris Paul: Money is an object, though. When we were kids playing AAU, we’d play five games in a day and wouldn’t think twice about it. I don’t know what the right number is. We’ve been playing 82 for a while though, huh? As far as I can remember. That’d be tough [to change].

Kenneth Faried: I think 82 is the proper length. We’ve been playing this game for so long and it’s been 82. [Michael] Jordan played 82. They played more preseason games, so they cut the preseason games and training camp down, which is good for us. But at the same time, these guys before us were playing 20-plus years and they were playing 82 and still being All-Stars and still having big names — Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and those guys. So guys who’ve done it before us, they’ve already paved the way, so we just have to follow in their footsteps as much as we can.

***

No. 2: Horford says he’s ‘very happy’ with Hawks — If you thought this summer’s free agency period was full of news, wait until next summer. Several big names will be hitting the market, Atlanta Hawks All-Star big man Al Horford among that group. In a chat with SI.com’s Jeremy Woo, Horford reflected on Atlanta’s successful 2014-15 campaign, its offseason moves and his own future with the team going forward:

SI.com: Looking back, how would you describe last season?

Horford: It was a great season for our team. I felt like everything started to come together as far as coach’s system. I feel like we really all were able to sink in and play the way he wanted us to play. And it showed—[it was] the first time we made it to the Eastern Conference finals in Hawks history. Now, we’re looking to build on that and try to be the best team we can.

SI.com: Have you had the chance to go back and watch any of the Cleveland series? [The Hawks were swept in four games.]

Horford: Honestly, no. They obviously dominated us, they were the better team. I don’t need to see that, I know what we need to do, I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. Our whole team. So this is the time to do it. Individually, I’m working on my game and trying to get better for the upcoming season.

SI.com: How big was it for the Hawks to be able to keep Paul Millsap?

Horford: It was very important. I think that was the priority for us, to make sure we brought Paul back. Being able to add Tiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway, really was big. Unfortunately, we lost DeMarre [Carroll, who signed long-term with Toronto]—he’s such a great player, but it was the type of thing he couldn’t turn down, and it’s what’s best for him and his family.

SI.com: What will it take for the team to sustain that success?

Horford: Being healthy, that’s the number one thing for our team. For the most part, we were healthy as a team last season. Two is to be able to keep playing the way we play, being a good defensive team, sharing the ball on offense. We had a lot of success doing those two things, and even though they’re simple, that’s what carried us.

SI.com: Considering the new additions to the team, what are some of the things you look for as far as fitting in?

Horford: I think for them, it’s just being able to get comfortable with the system. We’re just looking for them to impact the game and impact winning, and when you have a guy like Tiago Splitter, an experienced big man, I feel like he’ll be able to help us right away. Tim [Hardaway] I feel like has a lot of potential, and I’m very excited to see him playing in the system. I feel like he’ll be able to help us a lot.

SI.com: Lastly, I know you’ve said you’re waiting after the season to figure out your contract situation. What led you to that decision? [Horford will be a free agent in 2016.]

Horford: For me, I’m very happy in Atlanta. It’s one of those things where I don’t want any contract talks to be a distraction for my team and me. I feel like my focus this year is for us to build and be better. Since we can’t do anything right now, we’ll wait until the season’s over and then we can start talking about all that.

 

***

No. 3: Valanciunas gets his deal … now he needs to play some ‘D’ — Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is one of the more promising young big men in the NBA. In his three seasons in the league, Valanciunas has grown steadily as an offensive threat and rebounder, but his defense and rim-protection are lagging behind in development. The Raptors gave Valanciunas a $64-million contract extension yesterday, providing the big man with a secure future in Toronto. As Doug Smith of the Toronto Star reports, though, Valanciunas’ value relative to the deal will show up in how he defends going forward:

Whether or not the new contract extension signed by Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas makes good economic sense is secondary to one fact not in dispute.

There is vast room for the 23-year-old to improve as a player, and whether he makes $16 million as season or $16 a season won’t matter a lick if his development stalls.

Everyone connected with the Raptors knows it, and it was the underlying theme to the day when the Lithuanian big man inked a four-year, $64-million contract extension with the only NBA team he’s known.

“It depends on me,” he said during a hastily called news conference at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday afternoon.

“I have to get better defensively.”

If he can — and there’s no physical reason he shouldn’t be able to — it will make things vastly better for the Raptors and coach Dwane Casey, who barely used Valanciunas in the fourth quarter of any game last season because of perceived shortcomings.

“Everyone in the whole world knew we fell on defence, and how can we get it back to where we were and hopefully better is by maybe doing something different,” general manager Masai Ujiri said.

“That’s coaching, and it’s left to coach Casey and we’re confident he’s put together the right people and he’s identified some of the issues.”

The deal is another step in an expensive summer of moves for Ujiri. Coming off the four-games-and-out playoff elimination at the hands of the Washington Wizards he’s added DeMarre Carroll (four years, $60 million), Cory Joseph (four years, $30 million), Bismack Biyombo (two years, $6 million) and Luis Scola (one year, $3 million) while saying goodbye to Amir Johnson, Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez.

The general manager has a window until Oct. 31 to think about a contract extension for Terrence Ross, and has at least thought about the possibility.

“We’ll keep monitoring and see how things get done, if anything happens,” Ujiri said. “We’ve had a little bit of discussion.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge has reportedly changed agents … Golden State Warriors rookie forward Kevon Looney (hip surgery) will be out 4-6 months … Former All-Star forward Carlos Boozer could be playing in China next season … Good Q&A with Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic …  The 2004 Detroit Pistons will be a part of NBA2K16’s classic teams this year

Report: J.R. Smith to re-sign with Cavaliers


VIDEO: J.R. Smith lights it up from deep

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The long, strange trip that has been J.R. Smith‘s free-agent summer is over, according to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ swingman. He is returning to the Cavs, per a message he delivered on his Instagram account.

Smith’s struggles in The Finals made it unclear exactly where he stood on the priority list for the Cavaliers this summer as they tended to other free agent business, the signings of LeBron James and Kevin Love being the team’s top priorities.

But Smith explains (above) his reason for opting out of the final year of his deal to test free agency and how that played into the Cavaliers’ summer plans.

The Cavaliers have kept their core group largely intact, with Smith being one of the final pieces to be taken care of before training camp. Smith and Iman Shumpert, acquired last season in a deal with the New York Knicks, were crucial additions for the midseason roster tweaking and subsequent run to The Finals for the Cavaliers.

Smith’s new deal with the Cavaliers is for two years, $5 million for next season and a player option for the second year, per Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Report: Raptors, Valanciunas reach deal


VIDEO: Jonas Valanciunas talks during Summer League

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Toronto Raptors have reportedly reached an agreement with center Jonas Valanciunas on a contract extension.

A report from Monday had the parties discussing a four-year deal worth more than $60 million. That’s far from the max (it’s about half of what Damian Lillard got in July) and seems like a good deal for the Raptors, considering Valanciunas’ size and offensive skill set.

But the center has been a defensive liability, and Toronto is trying to get back to being a good defensive team after a big fall-off on that end of the floor last season. In a Q & A with NBA.com last month, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that he’ll look to go small late in games in order to keep up with the rest of the league.

Q: Is there still a big role for Jonas Valanciunas in the way that you want to play and in the way the league is going? How can you use him, but also make up for his deficiencies when he’s on the floor?

DC: The league is going smaller, but as long as the goal is at 10 feet, size is going to matter. You still got to have size.

At the end of games, the trend is to go smaller. Threes are fours, fours are fives, and your roster has to fit that. Adding DeMarre [Carroll] gives us that flexibility. He can play some at the four, with [Luis] Scola or Patrick Patterson at the five. We’re better equipped to play that way now than we were a year ago.

The league is going to their more skilled guys toward the end of games. Trends come and go, but right now, we have to participate in that trend.

Casey was already looking away from Valanciunas late in games. The seven-footer played just 292 fourth-quarter minutes last season, which ranked 254th in the league and were just 14.0 percent of his total minutes. Among players who logged at least 1,000 total minutes, only seven played a smaller percentage of them in the fourth quarter.

Still, Valanciunas just turned 23 years old in May. The Raptors hope he’ll be lighter and quicker this season, so that pick-and-roll coverage and weak-side rotations aren’t as much of an issue as they’ve been in the past.

Valanciunas was taken with the No. 5 pick of the 2011 Draft, but is with the class of 2012 in regard to extension eligibility because he didn’t come to the NBA until a year after he was drafted. Anthony Davis, like Lillard, was given a max extension early in free agency.

Other first-round picks from 2012 (that had their third and fourth-year options exercised) have until Oct. 31 to sign extensions. Otherwise, they will become restricted free agents next summer.

Morning shootaround — Aug. 20


VIDEO: Tim Duncan is named the NBA’s teammate of the year

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Harden wouldn’t let Terry leave | Report: Friends urging Stern to run for mayor | LeBron-sponsored tweets would cost you

No. 1: Harden wouldn’t let Terry leave Rockets — The Houston Rockets pulled off a potential big transaction late in the summer when they traded for troubled-but-talented Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson. They also re-signed defensive-minded point guard Patrick Beverley, who missed Houston’s playoff run with a wrist injury. Despite that seeming depth in the backcourt, superstar James Harden knew he wasn’t going to let free agent combo guard Jason Terry leave the squad either. Mark Berman at Fox26 in Houston has more:

Jason Terry has returned to the Rockets.

“It’s official,” Terry said in a text message to FOX 26 Sports.

Then in a telephone interview with FOX 26 Terry said guard James Harden refused to give up on Jason returning to Houston.

“No question, he was all over me,” Terry said. “(Harden) basically wasn’t letting me go anywhere. That was tough for me knowing how important I am to his growth and his development.

“You’re not the main guy, but the main guy needs you. It makes it a lot easier to come back.”

Terry mentioned that Harden made it tough on him because he had an attractive offer from the New Orleans Pelicans.

“It was tough for me because New Orleans presented a great opportunity to work with a young core that is on the cusp of doing some good things in this league,” Terry said.

But the Rockets appear to be on the cusp of doing some great things in the NBA.

“You obviously see how close we are, and with the acquisition of Ty Lawson that makes us even closer than we were last season,” Terry said.

“And we’re healthy. A healthy Patrick Beverley, a healthy (Donatas) Motiejunas. I feel confident we are going to  build on the success we had last season, seeing how (Rockets general manager) Daryl (Morey) put this team together.”

***

No. 2: Report: Friends urging Stern to run for mayor of New York City — Former NBA Commissioner David Stern has kept himself busy despite no longer running one of the major professional sports leagues in the United States. From advising work to other interests, Stern has plenty to do each day. Yet according to Richard Johnson of the New York Post, some of Stern’s friends are pushing him to run for mayor of New York City:

Friends of former NBA Commissioner David Stern are urging him to run for mayor in 2017, now that Mayor de Blasio is looking less likely to be re-elected to a second term.

Stern, a lifelong Democrat who has regularly contributed to the party, will be retired for two years in February.

“He’s pretty bored,” said one source. “He’s always been interested in politics, and he’s always been interested in running for office.”

“He’s tough as nails. He’s popular with the black community,” said one associate. “New York would be lucky to have him as mayor.”

Stern, though “flattered,” said he is not interested in running. “I remain a happy Westchester resident and am very busy as a senior adviser to a number of enterprises.”

Other potential Democratic candidates include real estate mogul Don Peebles, NYC comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and Christine Quinn, the former council speaker now working for Gov. Cuomo.

***

No. 3: LeBron-sponsored tweets cost roughly $140K — More and more professional athletes are on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media. Most of their tweets center on their daily lives, their workouts and so forth. But what if you wanted to, say, pay one of these athletes to tweet about your product or service? According to ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell, it would be pricey and the estimated cost for LeBron James to do so ranks highest:

Opendorse, a company that specializes in executing and monetizing digital and social media campaigns for athletes, says a tweet from James, who has 23.2 million followers, has the highest value of any U.S. athlete. Each tweet from James has a media value of $139,474, the company said.

“We’re basically saying that the value of one LeBron tweet is worth $140,000,” said Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence. “And with that, you will reach 23 million people. It would cost you five times more to reach that many people with a TV ad.”

Lawrence’s company figures out how much a particular tweet, Facebook or Instagram post is worth by determining a celebrity’s true reach, activity, and quality and overall level of engagement of their audience of followers.

Rounding out the top five athletes whose single tweet would provide a company’s product or service the most value are Kevin Durant ($66,553), Kobe Bryant ($42,389), Floyd Mayweather ($34,924) and Dwight Howard ($34,290).

Despite the big numbers, Lawrence said most companies pay athletes between $1,000 and $2,500 for a single tweet. The most his company has sold a one-off tweet for was for $20,000 during last year’s NFL playoffs when a New England Patriots player, who he said he can’t disclose, took the bounty.

Lawrence said he brought a one-tweet, six-figure deal to LeBron’s team, which recently passed.

“The big guys are looking for a fully integrated endorsement deal that includes social media,” Lawrence said. “But there are only so many athletes that can get that type of home run.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: According to a report, the Los Angeles Lakers tried to lure Yi Jianlian back to the NBA … A look at the Charlotte Hornets’ offseason … The Washington Wizards are reportedly going to sign big man Jaleel Roberts to a non-guaranteed deal … Last summer, the Milwaukee Bucks talked about playing Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard the following season. This summer? How about Antetokounmpo at center in 2015-16Was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynasty over before it began?

Blogtable: Is Kobe the greatest Laker ever?

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


BLOGTABLE: Favorite Kobe moment? | Should Kobe do Rio? | Greatest Kobe feat? | Greatest Laker ever?



VIDEOPlayers around the league show their appreciation for Kobe Bryant

> Is Kobe the greatest Laker of all time?  Explain.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comOne’s first duty in answering any question of this sort is to be protective of the predecessors, whether it’s a ’68 Mustang supposedly being eclipsed by the 2015 model or in this case, Kobe Bryant elbowing ahead of Jerry West and Magic Johnson. It’s hard to argue against “The Logo,” one of the best and classiest acts in NBA history, but Bryant – with his rings, his stats totals and his MVP trophy – has climbed higher among the game’s notables, which moves him past West as a swell Laker. I’m holding firm on Johnson, though, as the face of that franchise. We can quibble about the “greatest” definition, but Johnson was remarkable as a 6-foot-9 point guard who helped revive both the Lakers and the league with his team play and his smile. He also is my point guard on any by-position all-time team I put together and Bryant is a backup. So that splits my final hair here.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You can put him in the conversation and I’ll listen. But Kareem and Magic are at the top of my list. One is the all-time leading NBA scorer with six MVPs and the other was the spark that lit the flame on five championship teams, nine Finals appearances in 12 years and began the modern era of the Lakers as the league’s most dominant franchise.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Jerry West is. He was a star as a player and a star as a general manager. It would be hard to find anyone who  impacted any organization in any sport so much. West had massive roles in championships on different levels. He coached the team as well. There is no reason to diminish anything Kobe has accomplished. But “The Logo” is the greatest Laker.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Magic Johnson is No. 1. Kareem is No. 2 only because he spent a chunk of his prime in Milwaukee. Then Kobe. By giving Kobe the nod over Jerry West and Elgin Baylor speaks plenty about the brilliance of Kobe’s career, because Elgin and Jerry were certainly no slouches (from what I understand; they were before my time). Kobe got buckets, was clutch and raised his game in the post-season. And aside from injuries, he was all that for two decades.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He’s clearly on the short list, but I can’t put him ahead of Magic Johnson, who was the most important player on all five championship teams he played on, had one of the three greatest Finals performances of all-time (1980, Game 6), and was obviously more of a galvanizing force for the Lakers, making his teammates better. I’ll always wonder if Kobe could have won more if he trusted his teammates just a little bit more.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comNo. 1? Wow. That’s a tough one. I can’t go there, though, having lived through the Showtime Lakers era and seeing the impact Magic had on not only Lakers fans, but fans everywhere. Kobe’s right up there among the franchise’s greatest players ever, and perhaps even a 1A to Magic, but I can’t give him that No. 1 spot ahead of Magic.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m going to say that Kobe rates No. 1, based on his longevity and the fact that he never had so much talent around him as Magic Johnson had in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Byron Scott and the rest. Kobe led from a more vulnerable position, in a league that was more competitive top-to-bottom.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I think he’s top three. To me, the top trio is Kobe, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And within that trio, I’d have Kareem third. Magic and Kobe may each have five titles, but when you consider their places in history, Magic came into the NBA at a time when it was struggling, and he helped transform it into the international behemoth it is today. Purely as a basketball player, Kobe may retire with the better career numbers, but being a Laker isn’t only what happens on the court. And in that sense, to me I don’t know if anyone will ever surpass Magic.

Blogtable: The greater Kobe feat — winning with Shaq or without him?

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


BLOGTABLE: Favorite Kobe moment? | Should Kobe do Rio? | Greatest Kobe feat? | Greatest Laker ever?



VIDEOThe Lakers’ dominance in the 2000s began with the Kobe-Shaq pairing

> The greater Kobe feat: Winning three in a row with Shaq, or two in a row without him?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The two championships without Shaquille O’Neal are more impressive from a strictly-Kobe perspective. He had lots of help in 2009 and 2010 too, notably Pau Gasol and coach Phil Jackson, but those two Lakers teams also caught lightning in a bottle with the likes of Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace. Let’s put it this way, if Kobe hadn’t led L.A. to those titles and finished his career with two fewer rings, he wouldn’t be in any GOAT or Rushmore conversations outside Lakersland. And Shaq would forever lord it over him.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comIs it easier to run on one leg or two? No brainer. Everything is harder when you don’t have Shaq around to do the heavy lifting.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: For a Bryant feat and not necessarily a Laker achievement, it’s the two without O’Neal. As much as Bryant has established himself as a star during the three peat, Shaq was still the player in the league no opponent could straight counter. When Kobe became the unquestioned leader of the best team, on the court and in the locker room, it meant something more because everything was on his shoulders. He had changed personally. His game had changed. And Bryant delivered to earn a credibility boost whether he needed one or not.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: No doubt, the two without Shaq weigh more in my mind. Understand where Kobe was at in his career. He was blistered (and rightly so to a degree) for being a selfish gunner. He recovered from that and became a better team player and leader. In so many ways, Kobe was more important to the Lakers for those two titles than he was for the three titles.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com Shaq’s numbers…

’00-02 playoffs (58 games): 29.8 PPG, 14.2 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 55% shooting.
’00-02 Finals (15 games): 35.9 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 60% shooting.

So yeah, the two titles without him were the greater feat.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Winning titles without Shaq is easily the most impressive feat of Kobe’s career, in my eyes. Winning back-to-back titles without Shaq seems unfathomable, even after watching Kobe do it. His confidence, will — along with Pau Gasol‘s unbelievable work and Metta World Peace‘s game-saving heroics, among other things — and the joy it gave Kobe to win without the Shaq asterisk were undeniable during those title runs. It changed Kobe’s legacy to win those two other titles without Shaq.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Two in a row without him: Because the NBA was a much more competitive league when Kobe was winning his final two championships. The Shaq-Kobe teams never faced any opponent as talented, experienced and competitive as the 2009-10 Celtics.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogWithout. I always used to make the argument back then that Shaq should have been the MVP every season, which is no slight to Kobe — Shaq was such a unique combination of size and speed and athleticism that he was virtually unguardable. At the same time, Shaq had plenty of teammates who were not able to win titles with him. To Kobe’s credit, he figured out how to play alongside Shaq and be a potent one-two punch. 

Blogtable: Favorite Kobe moment?

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


BLOGTABLE: Favorite Kobe moment? | Should Kobe do Rio? | Greatest Kobe feat? | Greatest Laker ever?



VIDEOKobe Bryant’s career top 10 plays

Kobe Bryant turns 37 Sunday and is heading into what could be his final NBA season.  What is your all-time favorite Kobe moment?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com“Favorite” unshackles this from any requirement that it be an “important” moment, so Bryant’s 81-point performance against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006 would seem an easy choice. But I’d be lying because I didn’t see that game – I was covering the big clash that day between mediocre Philadelphia and middling Minnesota that Andre Iguodala won at the buzzer in Minneapolis. I only could watch highlights of Kobe’s explosion the next morning, and watching a succession of scoring plays in replay captures none of the excitement they pack live. So I’m split between Bill Russell handing Bryant his first Finals MVP trophy in 2009 and the precocious 1998 Bryant waving off Karl Malone from an attempted pick-and-roll in the All-Star Game so he could square up against Michael Jordan.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant accepts the 2009 Finals MVP trophy

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comWhile it’s tempting and certainly valid to say Kobe scoring 81 on the Raptors, I’m going with Aug. 24, 2008. That’s the night at the Beijing Olympics when Kobe and Dwyane Wade led the USA Redeem Team to the gold medal. Bryant was a hungry, fierce, driven leader all through the campaign to put the U.S. back on top of the basketball world and he hit big buckets down the stretch to seal the gold medal. I was in the building and the feeling of accomplishment was palpable and probably as satisfying to Kobe as any of his five NBA titles.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comPicking 10 favorites would be hard enough, let alone a single all-timer, and this is No. 1 for the moment because there will be more candidates to come. But if I have to choose one, let’s go with April 12, 1997, at Utah. (So many historic Laker moments intersected with Salt Lake City and the Jazz.) A rookie Kobe Bryant air-balled four shots late in the fourth quarter and into overtime of Game 5 of the West semifinals of the playoffs. Those misses, one brick after another, clinched the Lakers’ 98-93 OT loss as Utah won the series 4-1. And he was unfazed. Bryant did not flinch, not when he got the ball as the bad misses piled up and not in the visitor’s locker room afterward as he faced the media scrutiny. It may not have been the indication of what was to come on the court, but that was the clear preview of the future of the Black Mamba personality. He would back down from nothing and nobody.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comThis isn’t the 81 points or a playoff moment or a Finals moment. But on the final regular-season game in 2003-04 (against the Portland Trail Blazers), Kobe made a pair of hellacious buzzer-beating 3-pointers that defy logic (they’re plays No. 2 and No. 1 here). The first happened at the end of regulation at the top of the key with Ruben Patterson (the Kobe Stopper) painted all over him. The second was at the end of the second overtime, when Kobe took an inbounds pass with one second left and turned almost completely around and splashed. He ran off the court and was hugged by Shaq, the last time that happened.


VIDEO: Relive Kobe Bryant’s best plays from the 2003-04 season

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Bryant didn’t play great for most of the 2008 Olympics. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade did the heavy lifting for the U.S. through the first 7 1/2 games in Beijing, with Bryant often showing some frustration with his shooting struggles. But when things were tight down the stretch of the gold medal game against Spain, he hit the two biggest shots for the Americans, including the four-point play that essentially put them on the top of the medal stand. Considering the stakes, that was maybe the best game I’ve seen in person, and Bryant backed up his rep as the best closer in the game.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThere are so many it’s hard to choose just one. But the 2003 All-Star Game at Philips Arena comes to mind because it illustrated to me what sort of a cut-throat competitor Kobe really was. It was supposed to be a celebratory send off for Michael Jordan, his final All-Star Game appearance and a chance to all of the current stars to bow down one last time to the G.O.A.T. Vince Carter gave up his spot in the Eastern Conference starting lineup and East coach Isiah Thomas had instructed his guys to show MJ the respect he deserved. Kobe, of course, ignored the memo. He wasn’t having it. He went at MJ like it was Game 7 of The Finals and didn’t let up, including knocking down two free throws to tie the game and send it into double-overtime (after Jordan had hit what could have been the game-winner for the East with 4.8 seconds to play). The Western Conference won by 10 in double overtime with Kevin Garnett winning MVP honors. Kobe could have missed one of those free throws on purpose or even decided against pulling up for the potential game-winning 3-pointer (he was fouled by Jermaine O’Neal with a second to play) and let me MJ have the storybook ending. But it’s just not who he was or is … it’s not in his blood.


VIDEO: Kobe vs. MJ in the 2003 All-Star Game

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: In his second season, in 1998, Sports Illustrated sent me to Los Angeles to report what would be Kobe’s first cover story. He picked me up in a new SUV and we went to an outdoor patio restaurant for an interview that went on for hours. A woman sitting next to us asked if he played for the Lakers: He introduced himself, and she said she would be following his career. Much has changed since then, but not his confidence: That night at age 19 he was predicting basically everything he would go onto accomplish in basketball.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI was there at Madison Square Garden in 2009 when the Lakers came to town. It was an early February game, with the All-Star break a few weeks away, and despite it being two marquee franchises — the Lakers! Against the Knicks! — in the world’s most famous arena, there was no great sense of anything special hanging in the balance that night. And then Kobe went for 61 points, scoring from all over the place and setting a Madison Square Garden record. Even as provincial as Knicks fans can be, I’ll never forget the chants of “MVP! MVP!” for Kobe.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant scores 61 on Knicks


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