HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The days of both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash rocking high fashion on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench are coming to an end.
Gasol is reportedly ready to make his return to action tonight against Charlotte, provided he gets medical clearance after this morning’s shootaround practice, ending his eight-game injury hiatus (knees) just in time for Christmas. Nash joined him on the practice floor Monday and is expected back in action for the Christmas Day showdown at Staples Center against the New York Knicks.
His return will end a near-two month stint of inactivity after Nash suffered a small crack in his fibula on Halloween.
“It’s starting to get exciting just because I’m able to do some things,” Nash told reporters after that practice. “The majority of the last six weeks have been pretty inactive. So it’s nice to be able to get out there with the guys and just see some light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s definitely sore and it’s definitely going to be a process — not just to get back to complete health but also to get back into shape. But I have to take what I can get. To be on the court sweating and playing and just working on my game a bit is important to me.”
No one is more excited about the return of these two than Lakers’ ironman Kobe Bryant, whose averaging 42 minutes a night in his past six games in an effort to will the Lakers out of their funk and back into the mix with the other contenders in the Western Conference.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni would love to unwrap a fully healthy roster against his former team on Christmas, as well. The 3-5 record the Lakers have compiled since Gasol went down has given fuel to the critics who say that this team and coach are a mismatched fit and destined to disappoint a fan base that prepared itself for a championship parade.
As much noise as we’ve made here about the Lakers’ ineptitude early on this season, there is plenty of time for them to turn things around. And it could start in the next seven days with a healthy and rejuvenated Gasol back in the fold and an inspired and crafty-as-ever Nash finally at the controls of D’Antoni’s offense. That leaves us with the same dilemma the Lakers have been facing since D’Antoni took over; how to utilize two 7-footers in the post in a scheme that requires just one.
“You know, we can’t put 15 guys down there in the post,” D’Antoni said. “We can’t do it. It doesn’t work. Because if you’re posting him up, it means you’re not posting Dwight [Howard] up and then you get criticized for not posting Dwight up.
“We play Laker basketball. That ball is shared, that ball moves, we’ll score in the first 16 seconds and then after that we’ll post people up, we’ll get people in the right spots to finish off the shot clock.”
Gasol has long talked about his desire to handle the ball more near the basket during a season in which he has averaged a career-low 12.6 points while twice being benched in the fourth quarter. Is he clear about his role upon his return?
“Still a facilitator,” Gasol said with a chuckle. “Still just giving balance to our team out there and making good decisions, whether it’s scoring, passing or penetrating.”
Is that OK with him?
“Yeah,” he said. “As long as we win, as long as it works, I’m OK with everything. When it doesn’t translate to wins, when it translates to the team struggling, then I’m not that OK with it.”
I’ve said from the beginning that the Lakers would need time, and lots of it, to work through their issues. The injuries to Nash and Gasol, not to mention the coaching change, have only added to that need. Christmas was the initial target date for them to show what they were truly about, if they were going to be legitimate contenders or just play that role on paper.
So the deadline is being extended for these healthier Lakers. A few weeks to get everyone acclimated in the new system with the ideal point guard to run said system buys them a little more time.
But if they don’t have it together by Martin Luther King Jr. Day …
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We’re still trying to figure out exactly how he does it, but while other members of his generation are fighting Father Time all the way to the finish line, Kobe Bryant continues to act like he’s in his mid-20s as opposed to closer to his mid-30s.
The reports from the Lakers’ initial training camp workouts have been glowing where Bryant is concerned. He’s been dominating the action, asserting himself the way you’d expect a young Kobe Bryant would, not the elder statesman entering his 17th season in the league.
With Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the fold now alongside Bryant and Pau Gasol, there is a bit more firepower around to help ease some of Bryant’s offensive burden. The Lakers don’t want him to have to push quite as hard. But Bryant doesn’t seem to be interested in easing up at all.
He played 38.5 minutes per game last season and spent his summer as a starter on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team that won gold at the Olympics in London.
“If I can, I’d definitely love to keep his minutes down and not have them up to 38,” Brown said. “But I’m sure he’ll tell you he can play 48, which is probably true if he needed to. But we feel like we have a deep team this year and hopefully at the end of the day it leads to reduced minutes for him.”
HANG TIME HQ, TEXAS – News flash for Andrew Bynum: four and a half years after the infamous video taken at a Newport Beach mall, Kobe Bryant believes you’ve got the right stuff to help him run down that sixth NBA championship that would pull him even with Michael Jordan.
After falling out of the starting gate with back-to-back losses, the Lakers have won six out of their last eight going into tonight’s game against the Suns. Bryant told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports! that he’s feeling good about many things: The right wrist that is holding up despite torn ligaments, the attitude and philosophy of new coach Mike Brown and especially the play of his front court teammates Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Bryant loves that Brown’s pushing people within the organization, that he’s pushing Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and, yes, that he’s pushing Bryant, too. The Lakers are still struggling to find themselves, but Brown is transforming them on the fly, fortifying them defensively and moving far away from the triangle offense. For everything that’s changed, Bryant still believes the core of a championship contender is here.
“We have our own Big Three,” Bryant said. “Andrew. Pau. And myself. Those are three bona fide All-Stars.
And you’d put that against anyone else’s three?
“Yes, I would.”
This promises to be a grueling sprint of a season where no one wants to hear about tired legs and injured players. Bryant’s always made it harder for Lakers teammates to sit out with injuries, because they know he’s plays through everything. For Gasol and Bynum, this has never been more important. “Mike’s pushed us hard, especially our bigs,” Bryant said of Brown. “He demands a lot from Pau. … But you’re seeing, Andrew has an incredible drive, an ambition to be great. And we need to encourage him in that.”
That’s a far cry from the way Bryant used to view the young big man in the middle of the L.A. lineup. But since starting the season late following his four-game suspension, Bynum has come a long way from the player who showed only flashes of his ability in the past. In his first half-dozen games this season, Bynum is averaging 18.8 points and 15.7 rebounds per game while shooting 53.6 percent. What he’s brought to the early part of this season has been consistency. He has only one game when he didn’t score in double figures and has hit double digits in rebounds every time out.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You don’t need X-ray vision to figure out where the NBA’s labor impasse is heading this week (“straight past the ‘Dead End’ sign and over the cliff” is the way an agent put it to us early this morning).
The end of business Wednesday deadline issued by NBA Commissioner David Stern is a car wreck we’re all being allowed to watch from a distance far too close for comfort. The threats — of a considerably worse offer if this one is not accepted by the owners and of the dissolution of the union by the players if they ignore Wednesday’s deadline — only make for a yet another wicked twist to an already disturbing tale.
That doesn’t sound like a union ready to capitulate or compromise, as union attorney Jeffrey Kessler made clear in the aftermath of Saturday’s nearly nine-hour session. It sounds more like players, at least a faction of them, willing to stare the league down on deadline day and come out swinging the morning after. What that means for us, the true casualties of this lockout, is the loss of more games and potentially the demise of the entire 2011-12 season.
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com: In the end, the truest words spoken early Sunday morning came from Kessler, who said the owners’ tactics were “not happening on Derek Fisher’s watch. It’s not happening on Billy Hunter‘s watch. It’s not happening on the watch of this executive committee.” If the players successfully decertified, none of the aforementioned would be in power. A decertification petition requiring the signatures of 30 percent of union membership would put the union on approximately a 60-day clock before an election is held to disband it — and that’s only if the National Labor Relations Board authorizes the election. Typically, the agency does not when a union has an unfair labor practices charge pending. The mere signing of the petition by 30 percent of the union would not by itself cease negotiations since the union would remain in power until the election, which wouldn’t happen before January — if at all. That leaves two months for cooler heads to prevail. But really, the stopwatch has been set for four days — 96 hours to spare chaos. Of all the inflammatory words spoken after this latest fiasco, the words “best and final offer” were never among them. That’s legal mumbo-jumbo for this: There’s still time to end the ass-hattery, if everyone’s heads return to a place oxygen is available. The clock is ticking.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: After reports that Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan had become one of the most vocal of hardline owners, union officials were anxious for him to speak up in Saturday night’s meeting. Union officials, just as they wanted to do back at the last labor meeting that Jordan attended on All-Star weekend, were determined to throw back at Jordan many of his old anti-ownership screeds from the 1990s. As one official said, “He never opened his mouth, not once.” The two sides didn’t spend a great deal of the 8½ hours engaging each other, but rather had the federal mediator shuttling back and forth between rooms, a source said. Stern’s ultimatum comes with the backdrop of player agents actively canvassing their clients to determine if there were enough votes to move forward with a decertification vote on the union, agent and player sources told Yahoo! Sports. Before proceeding, agents and players were waiting on the outcome of the weekend’s labor talks. Several agents and players believed support would grow for a vote on dissolving the union without significant progress on a deal. Agents and players took part in two conference calls this week on the subject of decertification. Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce has taken a lead in spearheading those discussions, sources said.
Chris Sheridan of Sheridanhoops.com: The owners, Kessler said, had been the ones who brought an abrupt halt to the proceedings. After 3 weeks of preconditions that were levied and then removed and then levied and removed again, the owners circled back to basically the same place they have been all along while giving the players a take-it-or-leave-it offer that for all intents and purposes would max out at 50.2 percent of revenues going to the players, 49.8 percent going to the owners. The players had dropped to 51 percent, or as Kessler termed it: “Fifty plus one,” with the extra one percent ($40 million) being earmarked for improved pension benefits for both current and retired players. “These are professional basketball players,’’ Kessler said. “They are the finest athletes in the world. How do you think they feel about threats? How do you think they feel about efforts at intimidation? Who negotiates in good faith when they say it’s this proposal or (back to) 47 percent? Take it or leave it. This is not good faith to the fans. ‘’ Big, bad Michael Jordan had become Paul Allen 2.0 during the meeting, Kessler said, barely uttering a word. Arbitrator George Cohen’ suggestions, Kessler said, had been hijacked by Stern and turned into the owners’ official offer. The money quote from my news story, after the 8 1/2 hours of meetings and 60 minutes of dueling news conferences had ended: “The story here is they want it all,” Kessler bellowed. “They want a win, win, win, win. We wanted a compromise. Our 51 percent offer was based on a fair system. They would have to come to us on the system, but they did not.”
Howard Beck of the New York Times: This latest negotiating session, the 21st of the lockout, lasted for eight and a half hours, ending around 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Under the guidance of George Cohen, a federal mediator, the parties actually narrowed the gap on some crucial items before the talks collapsed. The players — who had vowed not to accept less than 52.5 percent of league revenues — proposed a 51 percent share, with 1 percent devoted to aid retired players. That moved them within 1 percent of the league’s longstanding proposal. On Saturday, the owners proposed a “band” that would pay the players 49 to 51 percent, depending on revenue growth. But the union said it amounted to a 50 percent offer, because the threshold for growth was so high that the share would never get to 51. Jeff Kessler, the union’s outside counsel and chief negotiator, called the 49 to 51 band “a fraud.” Yet it was ultimately the mechanics of a new system, not the revenue split, that killed the talks. The league’s standing proposal would eliminate spending options for teams that pay the luxury tax, by banning them from sign-and-trade deals and the use of the midlevel exception. At Cohen’s suggestion, the league proposed a “mini-midlevel” that would start at $2.5 million — half the value of the full midlevel — and would be limited to two-year deals. The N.B.A.’s proposal also called for an additional penalty — a so-called “repeater tax” — on teams that exceed the tax threshold three times in a five-year span. The union is open to the concept, but not at the steep rates proposed by the league. The net effect of the N.B.A.’s proposal, the union said, would be to eliminate the highest-spending teams from acquiring top talent — thus devastating the free-agent market.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: The owners have not threatened to impose a flex-cap since last summer. But it’s a sign that they’re running out of patience with the players, who continue to hold out for more of the same soft-cap features that were part of the last collective bargaining agreement. “We want our players to play and we’d like to have a season and these are the terms upon which we’re prepared to gear up and get in as many games as possible,’’ Stern said. The league has already cancelled all of its November schedule. With the players already rejecting the owner’s latest offer, it seems fairly certain that December games will soon start to go up in smoke, too. In addition to the split of revenue, owners in this latest proposal want players to accept a decrease in the mid-level exception, from five years to two years for teams over the luxury tax. There would also be reductions in the terms of the exception for non-tax paying teams. The deal would also penalize taxpayers by not allowing them to work sign-and-trade transactions. Jordan is one of nearly 12 owners who don’t want players to get above 47%. But Stern said that he would have enough votes to get the deal for the players allowing for them to get upwards of 51%. That’s because Jordan, Charlotte majority owner, and other small- and mid-market owners who lost $300 million last season do not have enough votes to kill a deal. To ratify a deal, Stern needs a simple majority of 16 votes. “This is not good faith to the players or to the fans,’’ said union counsel Jeffrey Kessler. “The players will not be intimidated. That’s what the league is doing in presenting an ultimatum to us.’’
Marc Stein of ESPN.com: Bear in mind that there’s a big difference between rounding up the 130 players needed to sign a petition to vote on decertification and finding a 50 percent-plus-one majority in a union of roughly 450 members amenable to actually voting for decertification. Because decertification is “risky and messy,” as established above, there is undeniable skepticism around the league about how many players would be willing to go all the way through with it. And maybe that’s why some ownership sources insist that the decertification process won’t have nearly as much impact as its supporters contend. But if it merely gets as far as a vote — no matter what would happen when decertification ballots are passed out — that’s when you’ll know that there’s really no hope for a 2011-12 season. If the union ultimately does decertify fully, there won’t even be time at that point to do what NBA commissioner David Stern does not want to do and stage another 50-game season. The reality, though, is that we’re still some distance removed from that crossroads. Wednesday is the deadline announced by Stern for the union to take the deal as currently constructed, but this sad saga can rumble on for at least another good month — and probably longer — unless Stern can convince the union that they better take Saturday’s offer because he’s serious about canceling the rest of the ’11-12 season before Thanksgiving.XX
Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Player reaction to Stern’s take-it-or-leave-it offer was swift on Twitter. ”U gotta love an ultimatum,” tweeted San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Novak. “How does basketball ever even get to this point?” … All 29 owners gathered early in the day Saturday for a meeting among themselves, and Cohen met separately with players and owners before collective negotiations resumed. Small-market owners in attendance included Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Portland’s Paul Allen, believed to be among those wanting to hold the players’ share of revenue to 47%. Among large-market owners were the Lakers’ Jerry Buss and Miami’s Micky Arison, the latter of the recent $500,000 tweet claiming he wasn’t the reason the lockout was lingering. The discussions lacked star power on the players’ side. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had attended earlier negotiating sessions, announced via Twitter that he had landed in Sydney for the start of an exhibition tour. ”Got off the plane in my jordan sweat suit,” Wade wrote, “but as soon as I walked out the airport it felt like Miami.” Clippers teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan exchanged trash tweets regarding their alma maters’ Big 12 Conference football game in Norman, Okla. Tweeted Jordan: “Sorry but Texas A&M is going to smack OU today!!!” Final score: Oklahoma 41, Texas A&M 25. Jordan wouldn’t find a happy ending with the proceedings in New York either.
Alan Hahn of Newsday: Stern said that the league would spend Sunday writing up two formal proposals, one as outlined above and another based on a less appealing offer that would come if Wednesday’s deadline passes without an agreement. That deal, Stern said, would have two ominous parts: a 47-53 split of league revenue in favor of the owners and a “flex” cap system that would replicate the NHL’s hard cap. ”We hope that this juxtaposition will cause the union to assess its situation and accept the deal,” Stern said. If they don’t take the deal, the union is faced with one option: to decertify the union and fight the league in court. That, of course, would take up the kind of time that would essentially kill any chance of having a season. Neither Fisher nor Kessler would address decertification, which has been promoted by several agents. Union executive director Billy Hunter did not speak to reporters after the talks because, according to a union spokesman, he was under the weather. It was yet another long day for everyone involved, as the owners met early Saturday afternoon to discuss their strategy going into the meeting with the players. Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats owner who is the marquee name among a faction of hardlining small market owners, was in attendance, along with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and Heat owner Micky Arison, who last week was fined $500,000 for a few candid tweets about the lockout. On the players’ side, Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, one of the most respected veteran players in the league, made his first appearance at the talks at the request of the union’s executive committee, mainly vice president Mo Evans. But it was Kessler who had the strongest voice after the meetings, as he continually charged the owners with having no interest in making a deal. ”Who negotiates in good faith and makes an ultimatum?” he said. Later he added, “The big story here is they want it all.”