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Posts Tagged ‘Dallas Mavericks’

Morning shootaround — Sept. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jackson ready to lead PistonsPorzingis likes Noah’s intensity | Will Haslem reunite with Wade? | Dirk Speaks

No. 1: Jackson ready to lead Pistons The Detroit Pistons made several moves this summer in free agency, and will enter this new season with an even younger roster than they had last season. For point guard Reggie Jackson, who is 27, it’s an opportunity to take on a leadership role, as he tells Rod Beard

While backup center Aron Baynes is the oldest player on the team — he turns 30 in December — the leadership mantle will be spread around, with veterans taking charge for summer workouts.

“That’s kind of how it goes; we have to step up,” said point guard Reggie Jackson, 27, entering his sixth season. “The organization put that upon us and myself to step up this year and be an even more impactful leader and more of a voice of reason and direction for our guys.

“I know I have a little more burden on my shoulders but it’s something I asked for and something I wanted. We’ll figure it out collectively.”

Tolliver had been a mentor for Andre Drummond, and Steve Blake was a veteran voice for the point guards. Anthony Tolliver also was one of the most respected voices in the locker room, but signed as a free agent with the Kings this summer.

It was a unique dynamic having the most veteran and vocal players as reserves. But it worked.

“We did have steady rocks with Joel Anthony, Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake, who really watched over us,” Jackson said. “Unfortunately, they’ve moved on and we have to find a way to get it done.

“Hats off to those guys for everything they taught us. We’re definitely appreciative of it and we’ll definitely use it in the future. They’re a big part of building the culture here. Now it’s time for us to carry the torch.”

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Morning shootaround — Sept. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Popovich moves on to new era with Spurs | Mavs’ Nowitzki on future: ‘We’ll see how next year goes’ | Brown excited about Sixers’ season

No. 1: Popovich moves on to new era with Spurs — It will be strange sight come Oct. 25 when the San Antonio Spurs visit the Golden State Warriors (on TNT) and there’s no Tim Duncan lining up for the opening tipoff. Duncan’s retirement is something many Spurs fans are probably still getting used to or getting over, but that hasn’t been the case for coach Gregg Popovich. In a chat with Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express News, Popovich talks about his expectations for 2016-17 and what may be next for Duncan.

He and his staff leave for the West Coast on Friday for their annual retreat, where, as Popovich said, “the arguing will begin.”

Included on this retreat is Monty Williams, the onetime Spur and former head coach of New Orleans. Williams has officially joined the Spurs, though Popovich is still unsure whether Williams will work from the bench or from R.C. Buford’s box.Otherwise, Popovich says this is business as usual. “Same culture, same philosophy,” he said. “I only know what I know. We’ll hang our hat on defense. We just don’t have the greatest power forward of all-time playing for us anymore.”

They still have him around, though. Duncan hasn’t been in the Spurs’ practice facility every day this summer, but he was there this week. He hits the weight machines, does some shooting, hangs around the guys.

You could still use a backup center, couldn’t you?

Popovich laughed. “I can’t look inside those knees.”

Popovich has told Duncan to come around, to be here, to do what he wants. “If he wants to go on a scouting trip, fine. If he wants his own station in training camp, he has it. He’s in charge. He can tell me exactly what he wants to do. But I’m not paying him a penny.”

Most in the organization think Duncan will eventually join the franchise in a full-time capacity. They guess he won’t coach but will instead focus on personnel. Duncan has long been intrigued by the methods that Popovich and Buford use to identify talent.

Duncan has at times disagreed with their decisions only to be proven wrong. He’s curious why.

For now Duncan is standing in the background as an observer, and his own adjustment is jarring. For nearly two decades he has spent his summers building his body to withstand an NBA season. Now he can eat as much carrot cake as he wants without the need to burn off the calories.

Popovich will want Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge to be more demonstrative, filling the leadership void left by Duncan, and then there’s Pau Gasol. He not only brings Duncan-like skills to the team, he creates a familiar pastime for Popovich. Whereas Popovich was once consumed with rationing Duncan’s minutes, now he can be as obsessed with preserving Gasol.

“As a coach you deal with what is there,” Popovich said, “and I’m excited about what we have.”

Brett Brown, the longtime Spurs assistant who is now the coach of the 76ers, saw this coming years ago. He always thought Popovich could coach without Duncan the player, but that moving on without Duncan the friend would be tricky. Brown, after all, was around for the carrot cake deliveries.

“Pop will miss Timmy more from a relationship standpoint than a basketball standpoint,” Brown said this week. “And considering how great Timmy was, that is saying something.”

Brown compared Popovich losing Duncan to how he felt dropping off his daughter at college this month. You know the transition is natural, you know this is what has to happen. But there’s a gnawing loneliness.

Accurate?

“Absolutely,” Popovich said. “I have a hole in my gut.”

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Morning shootaround — Aug. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Joerger hoping to get Kings to defend | Heat hoping Whiteside can assist shooters | Is Harrison Barnes ready?

No. 1: Joerger hoping to get Kings to defend — The Sacramento Kings haven’t ranked higher than 20th in defensive efficiency since the 2005-06 season. Hoping to end that 10-year streak of futility is new coach Dave Joerger, who had two top-10 defenses in his three seasons as the head man in Memphis. Joerger knows that improvement has to start with effort, as he told the Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin:

Joerger’s challenge is transforming an unbalanced roster into something resembling chicken soup. A team featuring Cousins, Collison and Rudy Gay pleases the analytics people but has been susceptible to injury and devoid of chemistry or defensive commitment. The playoffs are a distant memory. A joyous locker room traces back to another era.

As training camp approaches for the Kings’ first season at Golden 1 Center, Joerger is tinkering and pondering, noncommittal about a style of play and, in his mind, moving the players around a chess board.

“We have a lot of work to do, and it starts defensively,” he said during a lengthy conversation. “We are a very poor transition team. Turnovers were catastrophic last year. I think we can play fast, but I don’t think you go three or four possessions without DeMarcus touching the ball. He should be a playmaker. How do we do that? That’s a spacing issue and a shooting issue. We just have to try to build a foundation and go from there. We have to understand what it takes to grind, because we need to grind here. And we need to outwork people.”

Joerger also joined ESPN’s Zach Lowe this week for a podcast about his days in Memphis and his plans for the Kings.

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Morning shootaround — Aug. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bogut reinvigorated by Olympics run | Bird, Miller talk 3-point prowess | Jackson says Rondo, Butler want him on Bulls

No. 1: Olympics run lifting Bogut’s spirits after rough summer — A hyperextended knee kep Andrew Bogut from being anything more than a spectator for the Golden State Warriors in Games 6 and 7 of The Finals, both of which they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers to in turn lose the series. Then came the offseason for Bogut, who was dealt to the Dallas Mavericks as the Warriors cleared salary cap room to sign former MVP Kevin Durant from the rival Oklahoma City Thunder. Things were looking pretty down for Bogut until he got word he could play in the Olympics, writes Michael Lee of The Vertical:

That nasty collision with J.R. Smith in Game 5 of the NBA Finals set off a unsettling chain of events that put Andrew Bogut on crutches, made him a helpless bystander as LeBron James dunked the greatest season in NBA history into the trash, and sent him packing for his third professional home as a casualty in Kevin Durant’s free-agent decision. Each situation was crushing in itself. Combined, they nearly sent Bogut into a funk this offseason.

“The first couple of weeks, it was rough waters,” Bogut said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

But what kept the 31-year-old Bogut from sulking through his summer were the only encouraging words he heard throughout that whirlwind month: six weeks. Bogut was given that as the earliest estimated timetable for his possible return from bone bruises and a hyperextended knee – which meant that Bogut could be ready just in time for the Rio Olympics if he dedicated himself to an intense rehabilitation program. Far-fetched as it seemed, the chance to represent Australia for possibly one last time in the Olympics was enough incentive, enough of a needed distraction to avoid dwelling on his sorrows.

“Mentally and physically, it was good to have another goal straight away,” Bogut said. “It was a freak play, like most of my injuries. It was frustrating, the way the whole thing played out. It wasn’t great. But it happened. The reason why we’re professional athletes and there’s all these big contracts is because we have to deal with that, we have to suck it up and move on. Move on to the next thing, and that’s the Olympics.”

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the more vocal detractors of NBA players participating in international competitions but didn’t want to block the pursuit of his latest acquisition. And Bogut waited until last Friday – the day before Australia’s opening win against France – to declare himself fit to compete in these.

“If it wasn’t right, I’d put my hand up and I’m on a flight back home. It was good enough to play,” Bogut said, adding that Cuban “has been great. We have a great relationship via email and via text. The whole thing was, if you feel like you’re 100 percent, and you feel like your knee is a go, we’re going to support you. I couldn’t ask for a better organization to give me that confidence.”

Bogut will have a reunion with two former Warriors teammates (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson), a former Warrior turned current Mavericks teammate (Harrison Barnes) and the man who created the entire awkward situation (Durant) on Wednesday when Australia takes on the United States in an intriguing matchup of undefeated teams in the preliminary round.

“It’ll be all right,” Bogut said. “I’m in Texas, so I’m pretty pumped about it. Harrison is still my teammate, so we’re good. Those guys are guys I’ll always remember and have friendships with. You win a championship with a group of guys, it doesn’t happen very often, and you all remember that.”

After missing the London Olympics with an ankle injury, Bogut endured back spasms during the 2015 regional Olympic qualifier with the understanding that he might never get another chance to compete on the most recognized international stage. Australia has never medaled in the Olympics and has a decent chance after already recording wins against France and Serbia.

“He’s playing great. It’s good to see him out there healthy because he had a tough injury in the Finals. We definitely missed him,” Thompson said. “I knew this was potentially his last Olympics and I knew he didn’t want to miss it for anything and he was going to do everything he could to get back. You don’t want to be sitting at home, sulking on what could’ve been. We all wanted, obviously, to get that second ring, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

A medal won’t erase the disappointment of being absent when an NBA-record 73 wins wound up only being good enough to secure finishing as a championship runner-up. But just being at these games, being back on the floor, has already ensured that his summer wouldn’t be wasted with regret. “I didn’t want it taken away that easily,” Bogut said.

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Morning shootaround — Aug. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kerr: Don’t call Durant “villain” | Gores: Pistons are in a good place | Cuban behind Bogut’s Olympic run | Ray Allen may not be finished yet

No. 1: Kerr: Don’t call Durant “villain” The Golden State Warriors clearly hit the jackpot in free agency this summer, bringing in Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a move that not only made the Warriors stronger but also weakened the rival Thunder. But according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in an appearance on ESPN Radio, calling Durant (or any of the Warriors, for that matter) villains would be “absurd.”:

“To think of Kevin Durant or Steph Curry or any of our guys as villains, it’s kind of absurd. Especially Kevin,” Kerr said Sunday in an interview on ESPN Radio’s TMI with Michelle Beadle and Ramona Shelburne. “This is one of the most likeable people in this league. He’s just an awesome human being. What he did in Oklahoma City was just amazing for that community.

Kerr added: “Circumstances kind of dictate, I guess, that some people are going to see him as a villain. But it’s only because he decided to go elsewhere to play. He wanted to change his scenery, he wanted a new challenge. More than anything he wanted to play with our guys. He loves Draymond [Green] and Steph and Klay [Thompson] and Andre [Iguodala]. Seeing those guys in New York, he loved seeing the chemistry that exists and he wanted to be a part of it.”

Durant said last month that he didn’t leave the house he’d rented in the Hamptons for 48 hours after he announced his decision because he knew how strongly fans would react to him leaving.

“For a few days after, I didn’t leave my bed, because I was like, ‘If I walk outside somebody might just hit me with their car, or say anything negative to me,'” Durant said last month at Team USA training camp in Las Vegas.

“I mean, I’ve been somewhere for so long, and then to make a change like that, [which] nobody knew was coming, that nobody didn’t think I would do, of course I didn’t know how it would be received afterward. But at some point, I just said, ‘Look, man, life goes on. Life moves on, and I can’t hide forever,’ so I just had to face it.”

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No. 2: Gores: Pistons are in a good place The Detroit Pistons won an NBA title in 2004, but rebuilding following that title run proved to be a tough task. But since becoming owner of the Pistons in 2011, Tom Gores has presided over a building project that finally has the Pistons a perennial postseason contender, with aspirations of much more. As Vince Ellis from the Detroit Free Press discovered in a wide-ranging Q&A with Gores, despite the solid foundation finally in place, Gores isn’t satisfied with just being a playoff team and talks about that, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s future and more:

Q: The Pistons appear to be on the rise. With downtown Detroit becoming more of a destination, it appears the time could be ripe for a move. You’ve never closed the door, but can you quantify the importance of the next year for the franchise?

Gores: “I think last year was the beginning of the important years. I think we began to set the course last year. We proved a point. We got into the playoffs. I really like the way we finished with the roster with (forward Tobias Harris) coming in. This year, everybody’s a year older, we’ve got the core set with our folks, so it’s an important year that we prove that we are making progress. I’ve always said patience with progress, so this is an important year because they really just jelled last year, if you think about it. Tobias was new, what a steal with (forward Marcus Morris), (point guard Reggie Jackson) as a true starter in his first year. (Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) is still a young man. (Forward Stanley Johnson) just turned 20. This a very young team and very, very talented. … It’s an important year for everybody to keep developing, and that’s what Stan’s been focused on, not sitting still to make sure everybody’s got a place to improve. … We have a very focused group. There’s nobody in the locker room that’s a problem for us. These are good guys.”

Q: What can you say right now on the potential to move downtown?

Gores: “We’ve always been open-minded. I’ve always respected (Mike and Marian Ilitch) in terms of what they’re doing. We do have an understanding of some of the things they’re developing down there. There’s a lot going on downtown. …”

Q: Dan Gilbert is doing a lot of business there.

Gores: “Dan (Gilbert), as well. Dan and I have been talking about the soccer team. Whatever we do, I’d like to be that third piece of the triangle between Dan and the Ilitches and then myself to really finish bringing the city together. I think we can do that. I think we have a lot of value to add. Not just the basketball team, but our business expertise. There’s a ton going on and Detroit is getting close to being in the red zone. I don’t know if we’re there quite yet, in terms of the city coming back, but we’re not on the other 20. (Detroit is) getting close, and I think I can be helpful there. We’re staying open-minded and I’ve always said in terms of the Ilitches and what they’ve meant to the city, I think definitely we could be good partners for each other. So we’re evaluating everything and I think we should. I’ve been paying attention to a lot going on in downtown Detroit.”

Q: With a possible KCP extension, you could threaten the luxury tax line (an NBA mechanism to curtail teams’ spending). Thoughts on being a luxury taxpayer?

Gores: “Look, if we weren’t building a core, there’s really no point in paying the luxury tax. Because we are building a core, would I do it? Yeah, absolutely. This is a tremendous team. If you go down the line, player by player, and especially our young folks, these are real players. You look at KCP as a very diverse player. He keeps working at his game and you look at his improvement and just like anybody else, he will improve in other areas. Part of Stan [Van Gundy]’s coaching philosophy obviously is defense. So you say go into the luxury tax for nothing, then that would be silly because then we’re putting the franchise behind. But given that we have such a good core, if that’s what it took, and we feel we’ve made such progress this year, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it because we want to keep getting better.”

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No. 3: Cuban behind Bogut’s Olympic run Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has historically been critical of NBA players playing in the Olympics, rightfully reasoning that NBA teams have huge financial investments with little upside from Olympic success. But in the case of newly signed Mavs center Andrew Bogut, Cuban signed off on Bogut’s appearance with the Australian National Team, telling the AP that they view Bogut’s Olympic appearance as an important part of his comeback from the injury he suffered in the 2016 Finals:

Mark Cuban has been opposed to NBA players competing in the Olympics, but the Dallas Mavericks owner gave Andrew Bogut the clearance he needed to play for Australia after injuring his left knee in the NBA Finals.

And Cuban is pulling for his new center, who scored 18 points to lead the Aussies to an 87-66 victory over France on Saturday in the opening game of the tournament.

“We obviously were nervous and I’m still not a fan of NBA players in the Olympics, but Andrew was going to have to go through a process to get back on the court anyway,” Cuban wrote Sunday in an email to The Associated Press. “Our staff has communicated with him and we knew he would be cautious in his approach to returning.”

Bogut suffered bone bruises in Game 5 while playing for Golden State. Players need a release from their NBA teams to compete internationally if they have a pre-existing injury, and Bogut said he was a little worried he might not get it from the Mavs, who acquired him last month in a trade.

“They were very, very nervous obviously because my prognosis was six to eight weeks and this is right on six weeks right now, but I was open with them and honest,” Bogut said. “I said, ‘Look, if I know I’m not ready and the knee’s swelling up, I’m pulling the pin.’ And they said fine, we trust you.”

Bogut said he even received an email from Cuban before the Olympic opener.

“I told him make sure he has his green-and-gold jersey on watching the game, and he threw a couple of other words I can’t repeat and said let’s go,” Bogut said. “So it’s been a good relationship by email so far.”

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No. 4: Ray Allen may not be finished yet — Sharpshooting guard Ray Allen hasn’t played in the NBA since the Miami Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. But speaking to the Hartford Courant at a basketball camp this weekend, Allen said he may still be interested in playing if the situation was right:

“I worked out the other day in New York with a friend of mine,” Allen said Saturday, during a break from his annual instructional camp at East Granby High. “I was shooting, I was going through my routine just like I’d always done. Yeah, I was a little winded, but I was able to go through my routine like I’d always gone though my routine and I didn’t feel like I’d missed any time in doing what I was doing. For me, it’s not ‘Can I do it anymore?’ It’s how I feel after I do it. And yesterday, I felt great.

“I could not have learned all that I’ve learned in 20 years of my life, dealing with coach [Jim] Calhoun, and how to sleep right, eat right, and then go to the NBA and do what I’ve done there and then afterwards just drop the ball and let everything go. I still weigh the same I weighed in college.”

Allen, 41, the former UConn star who won two championships and was a 10-time NBA All-Star, is gearing up or a comeback after two seasons out of the league. While he is not certain he will suit up again, he made it clear that this is not just idle chatter.

“My decision is predicated on what is available,” he said. “I said that I was interested because I never retired for a reason. I’ve been watching, seeing what teams have been doing and I’ve been waiting to see if the opportunity presented itself where I think I could fit.”

It has been assumed that Allen, who last played for the Heat in 2014, would be most likely to join the champion Cavaliers, reuniting in Cleveland with LeBron James, or the runner-up Warriors, who have added Kevin Durant to the team that went 73-9 in the regular season.

The Spurs and Clippers have been mentioned, also, but Allen said he has spoken with the Celtics, with whom he won a championship in 2008, and the Bucks, his first NBA stop.

“I would love going back to those places if it worked out,” Allen said, “because both teams are good, too. It doesn’t necessarily have to be championship-or-bust for me to go back to the NBA.

“I want to be in a situation where I thought I could help, play a little bit and help where they have good young talent.”

Allen, who lives much of the time in Miami, has opened a restaurant called Grown, said he is not yet sure what direction the Heat are taking. How about the Knicks? “Spike Lee has been trying to recruit me,” Allen said. “We’ve been texting.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul George is trying to set up a meeting with the French gymnast who suffered a broken leg in the opening days of Rio 2016 … Nick Anderson made it out of the violence in Chicago, and wants to help bring it to an endJoel Embiid was excited by the game-sealing block in Croatia’s win over Spain from his potential 76ers teammate Dario Saric

Abdul Jeelani, who scored first hoop in Mavericks history, dies at 62

The pass came in the left corner and it was a simple 17-foot jumper that looked like so many others.

Except for the time and the place.

When Abdul Qadir Jeelani made the bucket on Oct. 11, 1980, it was the first basket scored in the history of the Dallas Mavericks expansion franchise and the crowd of 10,373 at old Reunion Arena went wild.

Jeelani, 62, died Wednesday night, according to the Racine Journal Times.

“Absolutely one of the highlights of my career,” Jeelani told the Dallas Morning News in 2011. “For a journeyman like myself, that’s like the Hall of Fame, to be forever linked to a franchise in such a manner.”

From Dirk Nowitzki to Steve Nash to Mark Aguirre to Detlef Schrempf to Austin Carr to Rolando Blackman to Brad Davis, there have been plenty of big buckets made in Mavs history. But only Jeelani could carry the distinction of the first.

It was part of a two-year NBA career that saw him play one season each in Portland and Dallas, but it helped carry Jeelani through a continued professional career in Europe then a difficult post-playing life that included alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, diabetes and cancer.

“That certainly wasn’t in my plans,” Jeelani said. “To say that you have nowhere to go. To say you don’t have any keys to your own place, that you have to depend on the generosity of others to house and feed you.”

Born Gary Cole on Feb. 10, 1954 in Bells, Tenn., the 6-foot-8 forward graduated from Park High School in Racine in 1972. He went on to earn NAIA All-America honors in college at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 1975 and ’75.

Jeelani was chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliersin the third round of the 1976 draft, he was the last pick in that year’s Draft and was waived before the regular season. He was signed by the Detroit Pistons in September 1977, but waived prior to that season. He played three seasons in Italy before catching on in 1979 and then moved to Dallas in the expansion draft in 1980. After the one season with the Mavs, he signed a four-year contract worth $750,000 to return to Italy with Liberto Livorno.

It was after his playing career when Jeelani reportedly became addicted to drugs and alcohol in the 1990s amid turmoil in his personal life.

Jameel Ghuari, a high school and college teammate of Jeelani, told the Journal Times: “To me, he was easily the best scorer to ever come out of Racine. Scoring for him was such a natural thing.”

No bucket ever meant more than the one that gave Jeelani unique his place in Mavericks history.

Blogtable: Where do Thunder rank in West now?

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: Importance of keeping Westbrook? | What grade do you give OKC’s offseason? |
Where do Thunder rank in Western Conference now?


> In the loaded Western Conference, where do the Thunder rank going into this season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Second-tier playoff team. I think the Clippers and the Trail Blazers bump up into the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the West, with OKC now in the mix with the likes of Memphis, Utah, Houston and Minnesota for the remaining four spots. Not only has Westbrook been a terrific catalyst when playing without Durant, averaging about 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds over the past two years in such games, but GM Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan and the rest will be extra-motivated to demonstrate how good the Thunder still are and how well they can remodel a legit contender around Westbrook. They dare not slip into lottery land, at this point.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comWestbrook has already proven that he can anchor the team and lead it to a winning record (45-37) two seasons ago when Durant missed 55 games due to injury. While the Thunder are no longer a championship contender, they battle the Portland Trail Blazers for first place in the Northwest Division. If all goes very well, they’re fighting for the No. 4-5 spots in the Western Conference. If not, OKC is scrambling for the No. 7 or 8 holes. Either way, this is still a playoff team, though the young Minnesota Timberwolves under Tom Thibodeau are coming up fast. 

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comI always dislike August predictions, knowing rosters can still change before the opening of camp, but since you asked: They could still be a playoff team. Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson’s defense, Enes Kanter’s offense and rebounding — there are big holes at both forward spots, but that’s also a respectable starting point. To try and pinpoint it, I’ll say OKC is in the 8-9 conversation. I think they’re going to be very motivated and focused. They are not going away quietly, that’s for sure. Getting a boost from a second-year player (Cameron Payne) or rookie (Domantas Sabonis, Alex Abrines) would be a big help, especially since Sabonis can play power forward and Abrines small forward. It’s just tough to count on dependable play from newcomers, though.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Top 5. Russell Westbrook will have an MVP type season and he and Victor Oladipo will mesh in the backcourt.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey still a good amount of talent, but their defense is going to take a big step backward with the departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. I would put them behind Golden State, San Antonio, LA Clippers and Memphis, in the mix for lower seed with Portland, Dallas, Utah, and Minnesota.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The top six is a realistic starting point. Scanning the list of contenders in a top-heavy Western Conference we have to start with that new-look crew at Golden State, followed by the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and then the Thunder. I’m not sure what to make of the Dallas Mavericks and their revamped roster. And the Houston Rockets still have James Harden to lean on. The Thunder are in that same mix with the Mavericks and Rockets, without the benefit of knowing how all of the new pieces will fit on each of those teams.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The sure thing — health permitting — is that they’re going to make the playoffs. The top three contenders are going to be the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers, which leaves the No. 4 spot wide open. Who’s to say that the Thunder won’t be able to grab it — with the promise of a delicious Western Conference semifinals rematch vs. Golden State in which virtually everyone outside the Bay Area will be rooting for OKC.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogLet’s do this by process of elimination. Eliminating health concerns, I’d say as presently constructed, the very best teams in the Western Conference are the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. I would place the Thunder within the next tier of teams, which includes (in no particular order) the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, and maybe Minnesota Timberwolves. Can the Thunder make the playoffs? Even if everyone stays healthy, I think it may require Russ averaging 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. I don’t know if he can do that over an entire season, but it sure should be fun to watch.

Morning shootaround — July 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Team USA rolls in opener | Paul George shines in long-awaited return for USA | Harden looks forward to fresh start | Ingram’s tough road to the NBA

No. 1: Team USA rolls in opener — They might have had just four days of practice together, but Team USA came out in their exhibition opener and looked nothing like a team that needed more time to bond. Behind prime time performances from Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George, Team USA coasted to a 111-74 win over Argentina. And as Steve Aschburner writes, it was a dominant performance from start to finish…

By halftime, the USA led 56-33, thanks largely to a 35-15 rebounding edge that produced second chances and defensive pressure that stymied Argentina’s attack. Led by Carmelo Anthony‘s three steals and Cousin’s two in the first 20 minutes, the NBA stars shook loose 14 turnovers and turned them into 25 points. All those offensive rebounds — they grabbed 19 of their missed shots to Argentina’s 14 defensive boards in the half — showed up in a 19-2 advantage in second-chance points.

George, playing for USA Basketball for the first time since fracturing his right leg in an August 2014 intrasquad scrimmage, shot 6-for-9 with a pair of 3-pointers. Cousins had nine points and 10 rebounds in the half, while DeAndre Jordan maintained USA’s inside advantage with six points and four boards.

Andres Nocioni scored eight points in the first half, and Manu Ginobili had six. Argentina was better from distance — 6-for-14 on 3-pointers vs. 4-for-12 on 2-point field goals — thanks to cleaner looks. In the paint, USA dominated in the half 34-6.

Taking better care of the ball in the third quarter — just two turnovers — Argentina stayed even with the Americans at 80-56. They got 22 shots, compared to 26 in the first half, and only allowed USA one offensive board.

The Americans got their swagger back in the fourth, though, outscoring Argentina 24-8 through the first six minutes of the quarter.

The game was the first of five that Team USA will play over the next 11 days before heading to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Americans will play the Chinese national team twice — Sunday in Los Angeles and Tuesday in Oakland — before traveling to Chicago and Houston for games against Venezuela and Nigeria, respectively.

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No. 2: Paul George shines in long-awaited return for USA — It was two years ago in Las Vegas during an exhibition that Paul George suffered a gruesome broken leg that changed the course of his career. Now back and healthy, George came off the bench to score 18 points last night for Team USA, and as Yahoo’s Michael Lee writes, George showed everyone that he’s all the way back …

George is back in the Team USA fold, ready to complete what he started before his career was interrupted by what he now calls a “bump in the road.” The venue for George’s long-delayed international debut changed to the brand-new T-Mobile Arena, but he admitted playing an organized game in Las Vegas again was “eerie.” Any uneasiness quickly subsided shortly after Krzyzewski brought him off the bench in the first period. After scoring 18 effortless points in an emphatic 111-74 demolition of Argentina, George was quick to state that the injury that rocked USA Basketball was “behind me.”

All week, George’s Olympic teammates avoided discussing with him a setback that he has little interest in reliving but remains a defining moment in his career that he has been unable to escape – especially since his will to overcome that incident continues to define his character. Krzyzewski said after Friday’s game that George is playing “the best basketball in his life.”

Determined to not only come back, but to continue his steady improvement after missing nearly an entire season, George made his return since breaking his right leg the best of his career. He led the Indiana Pacers back into the postseason, came one point short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game scoring record with 41 points and earned third-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defensive honors.

Colangelo said the incentivized gesture USA Basketball extended in the aftermath of George’s injury was the “right thing to do,” but George also rewarded that blind faith, making easy the decision to add him to the 12-man roster.

“I’m here for a reason,” George told The Vertical. “I’m not just a guy that Coach K brought along.”

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No. 3: Harden looks forward to fresh start — It was a season of discontent for James Harden and the Houston Rockets, who went through a coaching change and then made a quick postseason exit. But with new coach Mike D’Antoni on the sideline this season and several new free agents signed up, Rockets’ star Harden tells Lang Whitaker that he’s excited for the new opportunity…

Q: How do you feel you fit into Mike D’Antoni’s system, and how do you feel his system benefits you?

HARDEN: You know what? The day he got hired, we watched film. We’ve communicated several times a week. You know, it’s going to work. I’m really excited about it because he’s prepared. He’s prepared, he’s given me knowledge, he’s given me things where I can fit into his offense and what he’s trying to do. And not only myself but the entire team — I asked him questions about how Patrick Beverley fits and the new guys that we got fit. So it’s exciting. And [we added Jeff] Bzdelik, who was the head defensive coach for Memphis. You know, everybody talks about, ‘The Rockets aren’t a good defensive team.’ Well, we got one of the best defensive coaches in the league now. So it’s all about preparation. In this league it’s all about preparation, putting guys in positions where they’re successful, and good things happen.

Q: Do you feel like you get a bad rap for your defense?

HARDEN: Yeah, yeah. But everybody makes mistakes. I can look up the same amount of plays for myself as the other top guys in the league. So I don’t really worry, I don’t focus on it. And now with the more talent that’s going to release some offensive pressure off me, I’m going to be able to go out there and play both ends of the floor at a high level. It’s really difficult to go out there, play all 82 games, lead the league in minutes and have to do everything offensively. I mean, no one else had that weight on their shoulders in the league. So like I said, it doesn’t really bother me. I focus on what I gotta do and I just go out there and do it.

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No. 4: Ingram’s tough road to the NBA — The Lakers used the second overall pick in this summer’s draft on Brandon Ingram, a lanky forward out of Duke who showed everyone in his one year of college that he is an elite scorer. But making it to the NBA wasn’t an easy path for Ingram, and as Chris Mannix writes for Yahoo, Ingram getting to the NBA was a family affair

As he got older, his basketball obsession grew. He played after school. When he got home, he challenged Bo to one-on-one on the battered hoop in the backyard. “I was a senior in high school before I beat him,” Ingram said. When it got dark, his father, Donald, who managed the local rec center, opened up the gym. “It was an all-access pass,” Ingram laughed.

The work paid off. Ingram won a state championship his first year at Kinston. He went on to win three more. A stringy, 6-foot-2 guard as a freshman grew, by his own estimation, two inches every year to finish high school as a slender 6-8 forward. Spins, fadeaways, step-backs — Ingram had it all. He averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. Legend had it that in four years, Ingram never missed a free throw. So? “Most definitely, that’s true,” Ingram said.

Last month, the Lakers tabbed Ingram with the second overall pick in the draft. Overnight, Ingram, 18, became the face of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s not the type of position he has always been comfortable in. For years, Ingram was shy about playing in front of crowds. It wasn’t until eighth grade, when he joined Jerry Stackhouse’s AAU team, that he took to it. He was a star in high school but needed Mike Krzyzewski to tell him at the 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game that he had pro potential. He could score on anyone but wasn’t always assertive in high school and was briefly benched for listless play at Duke.

The Lakers hope he grows into the role. They see Ingram as a multi-position player. At 6-9, 190-pounds, Ingram will need to bulk up. He was eating six meals a day, some 5,000 calories, Ingram said, before the draft and he hopes to be 210 pounds next season. But the talent is undeniable.

Durant sees it. For months, scouts have compared Ingram to Durant. And Durant understands why. “He reminds me of myself, but he’s a little farther along than I was at that stage,” Durant told reporters at Team USA practice in Las Vegas on Wednesday. For Ingram, there is no higher compliment. He grew up wearing Durant’s sneakers. His walls were covered with Durant posters. He mimicked many of Durant’s moves. He worshipped him when he was at Texas, cheered him in Seattle, followed his career closely in Oklahoma City. The Lakers hope they found the next Durant; Ingram knows it will be a while before he gets there.

“It’s a very special comparison,” Ingram said. “But, of course, I know I’m not him. I know I’m not him yet, but I have the potential to make my own brand. Of course, you grow up with him as an idol, and in a few months he’s going to become my rival. It’s going to be a dream come true. I think just watching him for so long and having the ability to actually learn and play against him is just going to be a special motivation for me as a competitor and someone who really looked up to him.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks have agreed to an extension that will keep Dirk under contract until he’s 40 years old … The Pelicans have signed free agent forward Terrence JonesDraymond Green reached a plea deal with prosecutors in Michigan … Luis Scola isn’t thrilled with the real estate prices in Brooklyn …

Morning shootaround — July 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cuban on Warriors as NBA ‘villain’ | Report: Saric to sign this week | Howard returns to Hawks

No. 1: Cuban a fan of Warriors being an NBA ‘villain’ of sorts — A mere two weeks ago, the Golden State Warriors pulled off perhaps the most envied free-agent signing of the summer — adding superstar and former MVP Kevin Durant to their already potent mix. Many are wondering how the Warriors will look next season with he, reigning MVP Stephen Curry and All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in the mix. Success is all but certain to follow that group … and perhaps some disdain from non-Warriors fans who want to see this new super team beaten. As Tim McMahon of ESPN.com reports, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is a fan of the Warriors being the new villains (his word, not ours) of the NBA;

Mark Cuban believes Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors will benefit the NBA from a business perspective, despite commissioner Adam Silver’s concerns about the forming of a superteam.

Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner who has never shied away from going against the grain, is confident that adding a former MVP to a recent championship team that already features two-time MVP Stephen Curry and All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will drive interest in the league.

“They become the villain,” Cuban told ESPN on Wednesday, a day after Silver indicated that changes in the collective bargaining agreement are needed to prevent similar situations from developing in the future. “Just like when LeBron James went to Miami, I loved that there was a villain. They become the villain. I’m fine with that. Everybody’s going to root for them to lose.”

Cuban’s Mavericks benefited by Durant’s decision, allowing them to add former Warriors starters Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut to the roster, with Golden State needing to let both players go to create cap space for Durant.

The Warriors declined their right to match the Mavs’ four-year, $94 million offer to Barnes, a restricted free agent who Golden State planned to keep if its recruiting pitch to Durant didn’t work. Golden State traded Bogut to Dallas in a salary-dump deal.

“It sure helped,” Cuban said of the impact Durant’s decision had on Dallas’ offseason.

Cuban also cautioned against assuming that the Warriors — who won the title in 2015 and lost in the NBA Finals this year after setting a regular-season record with 73 wins — will have an easy road to another title.

“It’s always been tough for superteams to stay super,” Cuban said. “When you congregate that much talent, one injury destroys the whole thing. They played by the rules, so it is what it is. It has always happened. It’s nothing new.”

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Morning shootaround — June 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron on the verge of a dream realized | Curry understands stakes are high | Role players could play huge role in Game 7 | Kerr wants Warriors to embrace the moment

No. 1: LeBron on the verge of a dream realized After two weeks of games, tonight it’s finally time for the deciding Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And for the Cleveland Cavaliers there’s plenty on the line, as they try to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win a title. It would also be the first championship for the city of Cleveland in over 50 years. As our own Shaun Powell writes, those hopes and dreams are at the mercy tonight (8:00 p.m. ET, ABC) of LeBron James, who hopes to author history with the Cavs

LeBron returned to Cleveland two summers ago to create a new image for a sobbing city with a sports inferiority complex, and that can only be secured with a championship. That’s heavy. That’s a burden. How many more times will he get this close?

And he’s one win away.

“I don’t think people imagined it this way, the route we’ve taken,” he said.

He was the teenaged basketball messiah from Akron drafted No. 1 by the sad-sack Cavs and therefore planted a seed of hope. That initial tour of duty in Cleveland resulted in one championship appearance, where the Cavs were rudely swept by the Spurs, to be followed shortly afterward by a nasty defection to Miami. After living out his mid-life crisis with the Heat, winning two rings, LeBron returned two summers ago to a hero’s welcome only because Cleveland was just as miserable as when he left, maybe more.

The Cavs last season were simply unlucky, harpooned by injuries and therefore ran out of gas last summer against the Warriors. LeBron was the most important player on the floor, then and now, especially the last two games, both 41-point masterpieces, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7.

His averages in this series: 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 2.7 steals, 2.5 blocks in 41.2 minutes of heavy labor. He’s away from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, his All-Star teammates in Miami who relieved him of all the leadership responsibilities and pressure, and blessed only with Kyrie Irving, which magnifies what he has already accomplished. Win or lose in Game 7, LeBron should be a strong favorite if not a lock for MVP — Jerry West is the only MVP winner on a losing Finals team — and he managed a wisecrack about that.

“The last time I answered a question about MVP, it didn’t go so well for me,” he said, “so I’m not going to do it.”

Why should he? His play speaks loudly and boastfully. If you combine this series with last summer’s, nobody has more points, rebounds, assists or blocks than LeBron. He shot only 40 percent last summer, mostly because he wore down from the load without Irving and Kevin Love, but is far more efficient now. Besides, his defense and especially shot-blocking has been brilliant if barely noticed from the outside; when the subject came up Sunday, he took the opportunity to mention his pet peeve: “I’ve been highly upset that I haven’t won Defensive Player of the Year.”

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