NEWS OF THE MORNING
Report: Sixers explore trading Okafor, Noel | Warriors still facing steep odds | LeBron back to Miami? | Fizdale already impressing in Memphis
No. 1: Report: Sixers explore trading Okafor, Noel — The Philadelphia 76ers own the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but the suspense doesn’t stop there. Will the Sixers explore the possibilities of parting with two other lottery picks on their roster, Jahlil Okafor and/or Nerlens Noel? There does appear to be a glut of big men on the Philly roster, which is a great problem to have, and so it would be wise for the Sixers to see what value each brings. When you’ve been stuck to the bottom of the East for the last three years, and in the midst of a total overhaul, and have new management in charge, everything’s on the table. Here’s the report from Chad Ford and Marc Stein of ESPN:
In an interview with ESPN Radio’s Russillo and Kanell earlier this month, Sixers coach Brett Brown hinted at the club’s desire to be active.
“Think about these types of resources,” Brown said during the interview. “We have the first pick. We have the 24th and 26th pick. On our current roster, we have Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Jerami Grant [and] Robert Covington. We had a  draft class that effectively redshirted in Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
“For the first time in my four years, we’re going to enter a legitimate approach to free agency.”
Colangelo, for his part, told Bleacher Report Radio last week that “everybody is thinking about winning as opposed to prolonging the rebuilding process.”
Sources describe Okafor, at this early juncture, as the most likely of the two to be moved in the wake of his rocky rookie season off the floor.
But the Sixers are known to be considering a wide range of possibilities, given the prospect of fellow lottery picks Embiid and Saric finally making their Philadelphia debuts next season to add to the Sixers’ deep frontcourt and the well-chronicled concerns about whether Okafor and Noel can play together.
After winning the recent draft lottery, Philadelphia is in the process of choosing whether to take LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram with the first overall pick.
Among the options the Sixers have is trying to trade Okafor or Noel for another high pick in the looming draft to address their backcourt needs or building a package around either one in a trade for veteran talent, either in June or in July after free agency starts.
No. 2: Warriors still facing steep odds — Heading into Game 6, the Warriors have momentum, however small. They’ve won one game to stave off elimination, but now face another, even steeper task, of beating the Thunder in OKC, where the Warriors suffered through a lost pair of games. It helps that Stephen Curry found his groove in Game 5, but the Warriors are trying to do what only 9 teams have managed to pull off, rallying from a 3-1 deficit. Here’s Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle with the story:
With Thursday’s Game 5 ticking toward its final minute, Stephen Curry dribbled the ball on the right wing as Oklahoma City’s 7-foot center Steven Adams was defending him.
The Warriors’ point guard slashed left to beat Adams in an instant to the elbow of the free-throw line, glided toward the basket and then flipped in a right-handed reverse layup while being fouled.
Just in case his game-clinching play wasn’t enough, Curry marched near half court and yawped three times: “We ain’t going home.”
“That was great grammar, right? My Davidson people are very embarrassed,” Curry said … “We’ve got to bottle up that joy and take it with us to OKC. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere, and I think we’re ready for the challenge.”
Sure, in the moment, Curry’s syntax wasn’t pristine, but his points were on the mark. The Warriors aren’t going home, and they’re going to have to play with great joy that has been their identity to win in Oklahoma City.
The Western Conference finals will relocate for Game 6 to Great Plains, a place where the Warriors were embarrassed in Games 3-4 of the Western Conference finals and a place where they’ll have muster up some more magic, if they’re going to continue their historic run.
“Our guys have had a spectacular run, they’ve loved every second of it and they don’t want it to end,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “No matter how you look at it, if you’re not the last team standing, it’s tough. It’s a disappointing way to go out, so we want to hang in there. We want to win the next two and get back to the NBA Finals.
“We know how difficult it’s going to be, but we’ll give it a great shot.”
Curry’s shot with 62 seconds remaining Thursday helped get the best best-of-seven series deficit to 3-2, but the Warriors are well aware of the challenge they still face.
Of the 232 previous teams to dig 3-1 holes since the NBA switched to seven-game format, only nine have come back to win. Fifty of the 53 teams down 3-1 in conference finals have lost.
Still, the Warriors have been reminding anyone who would listen that in their 10th playoff series since Curry arrived on the scene, they’ve won at least one road game in each of the first nine. They haven’t won one at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It will take all of our IQ, all of our gamesmanship and just 48 great minutes to get a win down there, considering how the last two games have gone,” Curry said.
The Warriors lost consecutive games for the first time all season in Games 3-4 at Oklahoma City. They lost by 28 in Game 3 and by 24 in Game 4.
The coaches differed on explanations for the results of Games 3-4 vs. Game 5. Kerr said it was Warriors center Andrew Bogut dominating the paint, and Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan said it was the foul differential.
The Warriors shot 10 more free throws than the Thunder in Game 5. In the series, the teams have been whistled for an identical 108 personal fouls.
Oklahoma City has scored 21 more points at the free-throw line than the Warriors, and the Thunder are leading the series by an aggregate 22 points overall.
“We’ve still got a huge hill to climb, but it’s fun,” Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala said. “It’s a fun journey.”
A journey that the Warriors ain’t trying to let end – just yet.
No. 3: LeBron back to Miami? — Of course, you knew it would happen, the talk of LeBron James returning to Miami. Why? Well, because that’s what subject-starved talk show hosts and writers do, they search for possibilities, the juicer the better, especially if there’s a shred of a chance that it could happen. In this case, LeBron is a free agent this summer and can sign anywhere. He has also whined at times about the Cavs and obviously has a bromance with Dwyane Wade. There are plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t happen, namely, the sight of LeBron bailing on Cleveland for the second time would be too much for even him to overcome. Anyway, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald wonders if LeBron will return if he wins a championship in Cleveland. Here’s his take:
Cheer for LeBron.
Pray he wins it all.
Hope he makes good on his promise of delivering a championship to Cleveland — the very thing that drove him to abruptly (and rather messily) leave Miami.
That would tip the domino that might make possible this franchise’s biggest blockbuster summer since LeBron first took his talents to South Beach in 2010.
I said possible. Skeptics might still place the likelihood somewhere between long shot and pipe dream. (Just like they also did before the Big 3 happened down here in ’10, it may bear noting.)
Riley already has said Miami’s offseason priority is re-signing center Hassan Whiteside long term. It has been speculated that doing that and also keeping Dwyane Wade probably would mean the Heat would have to put off its whale-watching excursion until the summer of 2017.
But the Heat isn’t buying that.
Riley has an impressive track record of getting bargains on luxury items and is hoping the club can lock up Whiteside perhaps for less than market value, crafting a deal that would allow the financial leeway to also sign James or Durant.
Whiteside would be the key figure in enticing James to return to Miami or Durant to come here — the whale magnet.
“You know we’re always looking for a whale if there’s one out there. It changes things,” Riley said in his recent postseason State of the Heat media talk. “We have the flexibility to do that.”
The supposition on James and/or Durant becoming available is twofold:
1. That LeBron winning a championship and fulfilling his dream for Cleveland would make him free to leave, but that he would stay with the Cavaliers and keep chasing that title if he fell short this year.
2. Oppositely, that Durant likely would leave Oklahoma City to seek a championship elsewhere if he fell short in these playoffs, but that he would not leave the Thunder as a champion.
And a Cavaliers-Thunder Finals that would have Heat fans begrudgingly rooting for LeBron looms as likely.
The Cavs were 2-2 with Toronto entering Game 5 in Cleveland on Wednesday night but were overall betting favorites at 7-5 odds to win it all entering the game. Oklahoma City leads Golden State 3-1 entering Thursday’s game and is right behind Cleveland at 8-5 title odds.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith “reported” this week that LeBron might be agreeable to rejoin Miami if he is able to parlay these playoffs into an NBA title for Cleveland. I put “reported” in quotes not derisively or dismissively but because it was speculative in the “I’m hearing” category.
Still, remember it was Smith who broke the news of LeBron coming here in 2010 when the rest of the basketball literati harrumphed that it wouldn’t happen. Smith has his sources, and sources often are not the athlete or agent. Sometimes they are members of an entourage, or family. Sometimes information comes indirectly, indeed.
You know what the initial tip was in 1989 that first led to my knowing Jimmy Johnson was leaving the Miami Hurricanes to join the Dallas Cowboys? An assistant leaving with him, Dave Wannstedt, had a school-age daughter who told a friend who happened to be the child of a friend of mine.)
One thing Smith didn’t address in what he was hearing about James maybe coming back to Miami:
Would the Heat take him back? Specifically, would Riley, after the way LeBron left the Heat president feeling used and angry?
Answer: Very likely, if only because Riley’s bosses, Micky and Nick Arison, might take the rare position of overruling Riley for the good of the franchise.
But if Miami had its choice of signing Durant or taking back James, Riley would have every justification for opting for Durant — and take every delight imaginable in saying “no thanks” to LeBron.
That is the scenario that could play out — could — only if the starting point is LeBron James winning a championship for Cleveland.
No. 4: Fizdale already impressing in Memphis — David Fizdale had many admirers in Miami during his time as an assistant to Erik Spoelstra and was just hired to steer the Grizzlies into their next era. In some ways he’s a mystery, if only because he’s never held a high profile job, other than being visible during the Big Three era in Miami. The Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote a lengthy essay on Fizzle and here is Tom Schad‘s report:
David Fizdale and Lamont Smith were standing in line at a since-forgotten restaurant, waiting to order a since-forgotten meal, when a 6-foot-8 mass of muscle ran over to greet them.
It was summertime in Miami, about four or five years ago. Fizdale was an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. Smith, his close friend and old college teammate, was in town for a long weekend. They talked some ball, spent some time on South Beach and went to grab a bite to eat.
“There’s a chance we may run into Dwyane or LeBron,” Fizdale told Smith — as in, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, two of the NBA’s most popular superstars.
Cool, Smith thought. He expected a straightforward “shake hands, sit down, share a meal” type of thing. He did not expect to see James rush over and grab Fizdale in a bearhug like a long-lost friend.
“When’s the last time you saw him?” Smith later asked Fizdale.
“Oh,” Fizdale answered. “I saw him last week.”
To Smith, that moment showcased one of the greatest strengths of the man poised to be the next Grizzlies’ coach: An ability to build deep relationships with the players he coaches, whether it’s an undrafted rookie from a small-private school — or arguably the best player on the planet. It’s not so much friendship as it is a mutual understanding, Smith said. It’s the type of connection that can help a coach get the most out of his players.
“He has the utmost respect from those guys, but at the same time, he coaches them. He’s very critical of them,” Smith explained. “I think, again, it all stems back to having that relationship.”
Now, Fizdale will seek to build those same types of relationships in Memphis. A source told The Commercial Appeal on Thursday that the 41-year-old has accepted a four-year contract to become an NBA head coach for the first time. An introductory press conference is expected sometime next week.
Not much is known about Fizdale outside of NBA circles, but former teammates, coaches and players describe him as both fiercely competitive and naturally easygoing. He has the basketball savvy of someone who became a Division I assistant coach at 24, then sharpened his skills in the Miami Heat video room under the guidance of Erik Spoelstra. And he has a laid-back personality befitting his Los Angeles roots.
“You can’t be around Fiz and not feel positive and energized and enjoy his company,” said his college coach, Brad Holland. “You just can’t. That’s who he is.”
Beach ball, and an early start
Andre Speech always liked playing pickup basketball at a court down by the beach in San Diego. So that’s where he and a few friends were one day when Fizdale rolled up.
Speech and the rest of his group were getting ready to leave after a recent loss. Fizdale heard that and insisted they play a few more games.
“We probably ran the court for the next couple hours,” Speech said.
Fizdale and Speech played together at the University of San Diego and were roommates one summer. Speech said Fizdale was generally competitive in everything he did — epic video game battles initially came to mind — but on the court, “Fiz” took it up a notch.
“If his normal competitiveness level was a 7, on the court it was an 11,” Speech said.
Fizdale played point guard at USD, a small private Catholic school in the West Coast Conference, and averaged 8.5 points, 5.4 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game. He wasn’t a dazzling offensive player but graduated as the program’s all-time career assists leader, with 465. More often than not, he made his mark on the defensive end.
“He’d get a step on you and be tipping balls, getting deflections,” said Smith, who is now the head coach at USD. “He was a monster defender.”
Holland always viewed Fizdale as his coach on the floor at San Diego, so shortly after the point guard graduated with a communications degree in 1996, Holland gave him his first coaching opportunity off the floor. In 1998, at 24 years old, Fizdale became a full-time assistant coach, instructing players barely younger than he was — many of them his former teammates. (Coincidentally, one such player was San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego, who was reportedly a finalist for the Grizzlies’ job before it was offered to Fizdale.)
Those first few years as an assistant were where Fizdale first found the balance between friend and coach. He remained close with many on the team — making late-night pizza runs with Smith, for example — but demanded respect at practice.
“I was impressed with how quickly he made that transition, but yet players loved to be around him,” Holland said. “Even though the players he was coaching were not that much younger than him, they were hanging on every word. They loved Fiz.”
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