Posts Tagged ‘Lance Stephenson’

Morning shootaround — July 19




VIDEO: Gasol excited about joining the Bulls

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Bynum might sit out | Exum experiences bumps | Bulls take on international flair | Jordan challenges Lance | Wiggins not worried
No. 1: Bynum might sit out year to strengthen knees — Of course, the big question is if Andrew Bynum decided to sit out the entire 2014-15 season to have treatment on his bad knees, who would notice? After all, the big man has played just 26 games over the past two years while wearing different uniforms in Philly, Cleveland and Indiana. Now, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Bynum is considering undergoing the German-based therapy program that promotes cartilage growth that will require an extra long recovery time, with an eye on joining Phil Jackson and the Knicks in 2015-15:

Regenokine is a non-surgical program that promotes new cartilage growth through a series of injections. The FDA still hasn’t approved it in the United States. Bynum is considering doing the program with well-known doctor German doctor Peter Wehling, who worked with Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez. It is similar but not identical to the PRP procedure.
Bynum has arthritic knees that have stalled a career that once flourished under Jackson in Los Angeles.
“If he’s healthy, Phil will be interested,” Lee told The Post. “Phil knew how to tap into Andrew. They got along famously.”

Bynum, the Jersey product who was a young stud center for two of Jackson’s Lakers title teams, would undergo the procedure as a means to extend his career.
“He would be looking at in a longer-term situation,” Lee said. “He’s still a baby. If he went to college, he’d be coming off his rookie contract at age 26.”

***

No. 2: Strong Exum finds there’s a lot to learning in Las Vegas — Everybody with a grade school knowledge of world geography knows it’s a long way from Australia to the United States. Utah’s No. 5 pick in the draft Dante Exum got a first-hand taste of the miles he still has to travel to make the adjustment to the NBA with a rough experience in the NBA. Our own Scott Howard-Cooper watched all of Exum’s bumps in the road at the Las Vegas summer league and talks about what the experience meant:

Unlike the majority of every draft class that steels itself with years of AAU circuits and college play or leagues in Europe with older professionals, Exum not only has to make the transition at age 19 but with very little in his basketball background to prepare for the NBA. He has never been seriously challenged for weeks at a time, let the months waiting for him with the Jazz schedule as a rookie.
“The last games I played was high school games and I’m one of the bigger guys out there that can push guys around,” he said. “Here, I get into the paint and I’m getting knocked over.”
Literally and figuratively. Exum faced NBA competition for the first time and shot 30.8 percent in five games, ending with Friday’s victory over the Trail Blazers at Thomas & Mack Center, while averaging 7.2 points and piling up more turnovers (15) than assists (14). He had good moments, but nothing close to a good game, with making four of 10 shots and three assists against one turnover in the opener against Philadelphia probably holding up as the best.
“It’s been a big couple weeks for him,” said Brad Jones, the Jazz assistant coach who ran the team in the Summer-League games. “He’s got a lot going on. He’s had some ups and downs through this, but it’s also why we play Summer League, for him to go through the ups and downs. The little challenge, we talked to him at halftime about, we wanted to see him finish on a strong note. I thought he tried to play through and luckily made a great play and hit that little floater to kind of seal that game for us.
“Now he can go back and regroup a little bit. I know he’s going to his national team, but hopefully now he has a level of understanding of what he has to do every day to be successful. There were some times he showed some brilliant, brilliant things this last week. Then again, there’s been some times where he’s been kicked in the rear end a little bit. Hopefully he’ll take this, process it and come back in the fall ready to go and to help because we think he’s got a bright future.”

***

No. 3: Gasol, Mirotic give the Bulls a taste of Spain — So much has changed since the time Spaniard Pau Gasol was a No. 1 pick in the draft back in 2001 to now when Nikola Mirotic signed on to join him for the upcoming season with the Bulls. Our Steve Aschburner talks about how the basketball world in general and the NBA in particular has embraced the contributions of international players:

“The infrastructure is a lot better now in Europe and the rest of the world,” Tony Ronzone said by phone Friday during a break in Las Vegas Summer League action. “And the world’s becoming smaller with the Internet and the video. You can see now how many games are televised all around the world.”
Ronzone, a longtime NBA executive, is one of the league’s most experienced evaluators of international talent. He is director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks, worked for Minnesota and Detroit in similar capacities and served as head coach of teams in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He also is director of international player personnel for the USA Basketball men’s team.
He has seen the growth and comfort level in both directions — international players and coaches becoming more NBA savvy, the league embracing more players and concepts from overseas — throughout his career.
Consider: In Gasol’s rookie season, 2001-02, there were 52 international players from 31 different countries on NBA rosters. By Opening Night 2013-14, the number had grown to a record 92 players from 39 countries.
“What’s happening now is, our game has grown and with the NBA as the best league in the world, these players internationally are able to watch athletes on the floor and mimic their moves,” Ronzone said.
“There’s a lot more player-development going on to create more foot speed. Because the biggest adjustment the Europeans have coming over to America is, defensively they’d be behind and their foot speed, they’d be behind. What they’re learning to do is, with less foot speed, they’re understanding angles and they’re doing a better job of watching these athletes and getting scouting reports on how to play them.”

***

No. 4: Jordan throws down gauntlet to Stephenson — Before he officially signed off on the three-year, $27.4-million free agent contract, Hornets owner Michael Jordan laid down the law and told Lance Stephenson that he expects fewer shenanigans and more production this season. Stephenson told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer that he definitely got the message:

“I bring more to the table than blowing in someone’s ear,” Stephenson said Friday of the incident with LeBron James that brought him so much notoriety.
Stephenson, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, brings scoring, defense, playmaking and an edge. The Hornets like his edginess, and believe it can help them win games. But only to a point.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan attended the meeting in Las Vegas on Tuesday night that resulted in Stephenson signing a 3-year, $27.4 million contract. Jordan spoke very directly with Stephenson before signing off on this contract.
“He told me what he likes about me, he told me what I need to calm down on,” Stephenson told the Observer after the news conference. “He told me how I can contribute to the team. And he told me he believed in my talent. He likes my competitive edge.”
There is plenty to like. The Hornets desperately need scoring and shooting from the wing positions. Last season Stephenson averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists and shot 49 percent from the field. The Hornets needed a player of his wide skill set and playoff experience.
What they don’t need is some of the disruptive things that have come with Stephenson’s history. He committed 14 technical fouls last season, fourth-most in the NBA. He had two legal issues in the past, first when he was accused of groping a teenage girl and later an accusation he pushed a girlfriend down a flight of stairs.
The $9 million-a-season salary (the third season at $9.4 million is a team option) is a bargain for a player of Stephenson’s talent. The Hornets got that deal because of the ways Stephenson undermined his reputation entering free-agency.

***

No. 5: Wiggins just playing, ignoring the rumors — Rookie Andrew Wiggins can’t turn on the TV or click on a website without confronting another rumor that he could be part of a blockbuster trade that brings Kevin Love to Cleveland. It’s an unusual position for the No. 1 pick in any draft to be in. But after finishing up his stint at the Las Vegas summer league on Friday night, Wiggins told our Jeff Caplan that the only thing on his mind is playing basketball and getting better:

“Nothing to me,” Wiggins said as he flashed a playful personality with a wide smile after taking the Cavs’ Friday night Summer League finale off following four promising performances in his debut as a professional. “I just know what you know. I just see what you see on TV. That’s about it.”
The 6-foot-8 swingman said he’s letting his “agent and support system” handle the off-court twists and turns while he focuses on preparing for his rookie season, wherever it may be.
“I just play basketball, man, wherever I go,” Wiggins said.
James’ intent seem clear. On Thursday, Yahoo! Sports reported that James has reached out to Love about forming a superstar pairing few ever in thought about before a week ago. The Timberwolves have stood pat that there’s no deal unless Wiggins is the centerpiece. Whether or not the Cavs are now prepared to make their top pick available seems to change with the wind.
There’s just no clear indication yet of the Cavs’ position. It was only a week ago that James announced his return to the Cavaliers. Later that night Wiggins made his first appearance in Cavs colors at Summer League. Since then, Wiggins has been the at the main attraction in Vegas and at the center of constant trade rumors.
As he sat on the bench early in Friday’s game, a section of the crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center stood and chanted: “We want Wig-gins!”
“It’s been crazy, but it’s all positive stuff,” Wiggins said. “With LeBron coming back, there’s nothing negative about that; the best player in the world coming to your team. The organization is on the rise right now.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dwight Howard says the Rockets won’t miss Chandler Parsons …Channing Frye never considered giving the Suns a hometown discount … Udonis Haslem signs two-year deal to stay with the Heat …LeBron James is asking for help on deciding which jersey number he’ll wear in his return to Cleveland.

ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George is among the best two-way players in the game today …:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam

Lance takes talents, drama to Hornets, while Pacers sift through options


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson talks with the media after Indiana falls in Game 6 of the East finals

LAS VEGAS – Lance being Lance.

That’s how some will explain free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson‘s decision to sign with the Charlotte Hornets for $18 million guaranteed vs. the $44 million offered by his previous team, the Indiana Pacers.

Given Stephenson’s occasionally erratic behavior and impulsive thinking – the blowing-in-LeBron‘s-ear stuff that drove down his market value just weeks before free agency – the idea of leaving $26 million on the table to switch teams might seem so … so Lance. According to the Charlotte Observer, Stephenson will be paid $9 million in each of his first two Hornets seasons, with a slight raise in 2016-17 if the team exercises its option to retain him.

As confident as Stephenson is in his truly impressive talents, that might just permit the brash Brooklyn native with the “Born Ready” nickname to market himself again sooner at a higher price. Heck, it might keep him relatively hungry and focused on his next deal, mitigating the fears many in Indianapolis and around the NBA had that Stephenson, if validated with major money, might go from incorrigible to unmanageable.

Then again, maybe he was just bored. And with such a short guarantee, if the mercurial Stephenson (who will be 24 in September) undermines the image-conscious Hornets on the court or elsewhere, he might face even more frustration the next time he hits free agency.

He is Charlotte owner Michael Jordan‘s challenge to handle now, after four years of Larry Bird‘s TLC in Indiana – if Stephenson still requires or accepts mentoring from an all-timer.

Assuming Stephenson locks in while on the court, Charlotte – in this fallback move after its offer sheet to Utah’s Gordon Hayward was matched by the Jazz – has added a formidable talent. Stephenson is a multiply skilled wing player who is a natural scorer, a terrific athlete, a crafty (and sometimes wild) passer when he spies the opening and a lively, tenacious defender who welcomes the task of stifling big scorers. He has good range that can get better after shooting 49 percent overall and 35 percent on 3-pointers, while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

At its best, Stephenson’s energy served as jumper cables for an Indiana team that could be too calm, too centered for its own good some nights. At its worst, that energy had the effect of Tasering his own team. The Pacers’ locker room was full of veteran players who could rein Stephenson back in; with the Hornets’ loss of Josh McRoberts and several young players trying to make their bones like Stephenson, who knows if Charlotte has the necessary steadying influences needed for Lance.

Indiana had offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal two weeks ago that, by all reports, had not been amended. Its average value of $8.8 million was only marginally different from the $9 million for which Stephenson is uprooting.

Even as players such as Hayward, Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza were getting bigger deals, Stephenson never pushed into eight-figure territory because of the risks associated with his behavior. He ranked among the league’s leaders in technical fouls and flopping fines, and was stats-centric enough to steal rebounds from teammates Roy Hibbert and David West (and to complain at the scorers table if he felt something was missed). Even Bird criticized him at the end for his distracting antics against Miami in the East finals, where Stephenson whipped up media scrutiny for days on end.

Now, however, the Pacers have a different sort of headache. Replacing good Lance might be just as challenging as handling bad Lance. There are precious few options left among free agents – especially since Indiana already cut loose former Philadelphia guard Evan Turner, who disappointed after his acquisition by Bird in February.

The latest Lance insurance policy is C.J. Miles, a 6-foot-6 veteran of nine NBA seasons with Utah and Cleveland. Last season, Miles averaged 9.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 43.5 percent. He hit 39.3 percent of his 3-pointers but isn’t comparable to Stephenson as an athlete, defender or offense generator.

Outside options? Rodney Stuckey still is available after moving into a bench role with the Pistons. Ray Allen at 39 wouldn’t be able to handle the workload Indiana needs from Stephenson’s spot. There’s always a chance the Pacers could indulge George Hill‘s inner off-guard dreams and find another point guard, like former Magic playmaker Jameer Nelson.

Barring a stealthy save by Bird late in free agency or via trade, Stephenson has gone from blowing in LeBron’s ear to boxing the Pacers’ ears … all at a head-scratching bargain price.

 

Morning shootaround — July 16


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played July 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Hornets, Stephenson reach deal | Reports: Wolves, Warriors renew Love trade talks | Parsons clarifies comments about Houston | ‘The Greek Freak’ at point guard? | Silver: Clips sale may not happen soon

No. 1: Report: Stephenson headed to Hornets — The Charlotte Hornets opened free agency by taking a big swing at landing restricted free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward of the Jazz, but Utah matched the Hornets’ offer sheet last weekend. Swing No. 2 appears to be a success for the Hornets this time, though, as they have agreed to terms on a three-year deal with Indiana Pacers standout (and unrestricted free agent) Lance Stephenson, as first reported by Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. This marks a big loss for the Pacers — who had the best record in the East last season — but there had been talk that contract negotiations between Stephenson and Indiana had broken down of late. Bonnell has more on the move for Charlotte:

Following an all-night negotiating session, the Charlotte Hornets have come to an agreement to sign Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, the Observer has learned.

Under terms of the agreement, Stephenson will make $9 million in 2014-15 and $9 million in 2015-16. Stephenson will get a slight raise in 2016-17 if the Hornets pick up the team option.

Stephenson fills an obvious need, as the Hornets were weak offensively at the shooting guard and small forward positions. The 6-foot-5 Stephenson had a breakthrough season statistically, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He also shot 49 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.

However, he has a quirky personality that seems to have limited his market when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1.

The Pacers had offered Stephenson $44 million over five seasons, and reportedly did not come off that number. Stephenson thought he was worth considerably more.

But the question becomes how Stephenson’s quirkiness might play out once he signs a lucrative contract extension. He famously blew in opponent LeBron James’ ear in the playoffs. He was fined for flopping this season and was charged with 14 technical fouls, fourth-most in the NBA.

It is not the Hornets’ habit to take frequent risks on high-maintenance players. Trading for Stephen Jackson worked out for two seasons before they traded him on to the Milwaukee Bucks. Now they have drafted P.J. Hairston, a player who lost his NCAA eligibility over improper benefits and who recently was cited for punching a teenager during a pickup game at a Durham YMCA.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan has said one of his team’s greatest strengths last season was the character of the players on the roster. Did that embolden the front office to pursue Stepehenson? Is Stephenson now a threat to that chemistry?

Certainly the Hornets faced competitive pressure in the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers improved dramatically with the addition of James, so that’s a non-playoff team in the East that now looks like a post-season lock. While the Heat lost James, they weakened the Hornets with the signing of Josh McRoberts.

It’s possible the Hornets would have struggled just to make the playoffs this season without upgrading the roster with a move like Stephenson.

(more…)

With no LeBron, what’s next for Miami?

LeBron James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

LeBron James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

HANG TIME NEW YORK CITY — With just one tweet, the Miami Heat went from being next season’s Eastern Conference favorites to most likely being out of the race to win their own division.

Today’s announcement that LeBron James is taking his talents home to Northeast Ohio effectively ends what has been a feverish run by the Miami Heat: four seasons, four NBA Finals appearances, two NBA titles. But LeBron’s exodus not only breaks up the Big Three. It throws the franchise into flux.

With LeBron gone, the next domino that seems to be teetering is Chris Bosh, who is reportedly in talks to join the Houston Rockets. With James and Bosh gone, the cupboard in South Beach will be left mostly bare.

What happens to Dwyane Wade? As part of his season-ending news conference, Heat president Pat Riley made clear that Wade, who has played his entire career in Miami, was something of a made man. Just two weeks ago, when Wade opted out of his contract, presumably as part of an effort to create financial room to help keep the Heat competitive, Riley said, “Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade, and we hope he remains a part of the Heat family for life.”

It’s a nice idea, but at this point in his career, Wade isn’t the type of player a franchise builds around. After missing 28 regular-season games last season to rest his ailing knees, Wade seemed to wear down in the postseason, to the point where he didn’t have much let in the tank during the NBA Finals.

Yet Wade could still serve as the franchise face while the Heat reload. They’ve already reportedly agreed to deals with free agents Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, two players who should (or at least could) be solid contributors. They will join incumbents like longtime Heat big man Udonis Haslem, who will likely re-up, and guard Norris Cole. Rookie guard Shabazz Napier will give them some youth in the backcourt.

While James and Bosh may be gone, the allure of South Beach and the Heat’s organizational championship pedigree still could serve as a siren’s song for available free agents. And with Bosh and James off the books, even if the Heat sign Wade to a modest long-term extension, the Heat will have plenty of cap space to throw at other free agents. Would a core of Wade and a couple of free agents like Luol Deng and Pau Gasol be enough to contend in the East? What about Wade with Isaiah Thomas and Lance Stephenson?

Or, do the Heat step back, not immediately use their cap space, and try to reload down the road? The Heat’s first round pick next summer belongs, ironically, to Cleveland, though it’s top-10 protected. After that, the Heat own all their own first round selections going forward. And if the Heat can hang on to their cap space for one more year, the 2015 free agency class could include names like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge (who has expressed his hope of staying in Portland).

No matter which way they go, what the Heat already have in place is a strong organizational structure. Riley may have swung and missed on keeping the Big Three together, but he did put them together to begin with and has the bona fides to build another championship organization. Coach Erik Spoelstra has spent just six years on the Heat sideline but has won two titles and never missed the playoffs, even when the Heat were setting up to go after the Big Three.

The Heat may be waning in Miami, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from watching how they operate, things likely won’t be cool for too long.

Market for Stephenson might move, though concerns remain same


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson talks about his season with the Pacers in 2013-14

Lance Stephenson might or might not be happy with the Indiana Pacers’ contract offer to him. But he has to be happy with the Charlotte Hornets’ contract offer to Gordon Hayward.

By doing nothing beyond waiting, Stephenson – the talented and erratic shooting guard who is testing free agency after four seasons of development and nurturing in Indiana – has seen the market change for good young wing players. Not necessarily his market to stay in Indianapolis, given Larry Bird‘s calculation of Stephenson’s pro & con bottom line: five years, $44 million, an average annual salary of $8.8 million. But the market overall, as determined by a pair of needy teams in modest-sized markets.

The Hornets’ decision to sign Hayward to an offer sheet for four years, $63 million (a max deal worth $15.75 per year) presumably has shifted things seismically not only for Stephenson but for Chandler Parsons, Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng.

Depending on what you read or believe, Stephenson already was displeased with the amount of Indiana’s offer and/or Bird’s one-price strategy.

Some reports claim Stephenson was simply disappointed by the Pacers’ number and wants to see what else is out there. Some claim he rejected that deal and is looking to leave. Among the teams said to have interest, from passing to strong, in Stephenson: Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Charlotte and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Taking the speculation to yet another level, there was word out of Texas that the Mavericks might deign to offer a smaller deal with Stephenson if he spurns Indiana yet miscalculates and grows desperate enough to accept a worse payday. Good luck with that.

We all know how the game goes from here: If Avery Bradley is worth $8 million a year to Boston with his limited offensive impact and Hayward is worth nearly twice that to Charlotte and Utah – the Jazz have been open about their intent to match anything Hayward signed – then it might seem, in sheer basketball valuation, Stephenson should be further to the right on the pay scale than what Indiana has presented. There are a couple of disclaimers though:

  • The difficulty, or should we say near-impossibility, of attracting free agents to Salt Lake City. Epecially with the Jazz mired in the lottery. With a new, unproven coaching staff.
  • Hayward’s restricted status.

Both of those point toward a player perhaps getting overpaid. A market that can’t dangle some mix of beaches, balmy weather, nightlife, lucrative endorsements and instant winning often has to show more money. And with RFAs, if the current team has expressed its intention to match, a rival can only fatten the offer in hopes of discouraging that.

Indianapolis isn’t a glamour market but it has gone to two consecutive East finals, with a breakthrough possible again next spring, especially if Miami has a break-up. Stephenson is unrestricted, which means that the team that overpays him will be the one stuck.

And stuck is an operative word, leading to a couple legitimate disclaimers about Stephenson and his value:

  • The Pacers shooting guard has had an unusually patient and nurturing situation in Indiana. Bird has had his back from the start, drafting him in 2010 despite off-court incidents and behavioral concerns. The team’s veterans have encouraged and kept him in line for the most part. Even when Stephenson drove down his own value with some high-profile hi-jinks against LeBron James and the Heat this postseason, Bird wondered aloud if he should have spent more face time with the irrepressible player.
  • Teams, including the Pacers, wonder what Stephenson might be like off the court once he has an eight-figure, multi-year guaranteed contract. He might take that as validation of everything – good and bad – he’s been doing, rather than a deal offered flinchingly in the hope that his maturity might catch up to his skill level.

Bob Kravitz, longtime columnist for the Indianapolis Star, urged the Pacers not to budge beyond the five years and $44 million they already have offered Stephenson. “Stephenson will never have as good a support system (read: Bird) as he has now in Indianapolis,” Kravitz wrote. “He will never find a group of teammates more willing (however grudgingly) to put up with his antics, both on the practice court and in games. He will never find a fan base more willing to embrace him, a fan base that loves him despite all his warts, much like Ron Artest, the former Pacers All-Star now named Metta World Peace.”

And yet, the one spinout other teams wouldn’t have to worry about that should concern the Pacers is Stephenson and his possible growing impatience with being the team’s “little brother.” He could well be Indiana’s second-best player in 2014-15 behind Paul George but his salary could be fourth- or fifth-highest on the roster.

One thing the Pacers can offer Stephenson that other teams cannot is the comfort zone he has at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, not just with the fans but in his eccentric “Bird Cave.” More pressing at the moment, though, for those who would consider him: caveat emptor.

Five free agents that just can’t get away

Eric Bledsoe's potential departure from Phoenix would be a big blow to the franchise.

For the Suns to keep rising, they must re-sign the tough, spry Eric Bledsoe (left).

Most teams go into the free agency period saying they have every intention of hanging onto their players. They value them. They respect them. They’re ready to pony up and reward them. Truth is, in some cases, they can’t afford to let players that have become an integral part of the team and their identity walk out the door. It goes without saying that the Heat are all in to keep LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. So putting them aside, here’s the top handful of free agents that are just too valuable to let get away:

Carmelo Anthony, Forward, Knicks (unrestricted) — The new boss of Madison Square Garden Phil Jackson can keep trying to play hard ball and insist that Anthony accept less than a maximum level contract this season. But that truth is the Knicks need Anthony far more than he needs them. His options are many, from joining the Bulls or Rockets to try to lift them to the elite level, becoming another Hollywood star with the Lakers or even going to Miami to raise the temperature with the Heat. The Knicks’ options, if ‘Melo bolts, might include just leaving the ice down permanently at the Garden and letting the NHL Rangers play twice as many home games. Since LeBron has opted out this summer, the fantasy of chasing the game’s biggest name and best player will go back on hold in New York for another several years. The Knicks don’t have the assets to swing a deal for Kevin Love. They have a new coach in Derek Fisher. The declining Amar’e Stoudemire handcuffed the team further by deciding to opt in for $23.4 million. By keeping Anthony, the Knicks give fans a reason to show up or turn on the TV. Without him, they’re irrelevant.

Eric Bledsoe, Guard, Suns (restricted) — Never mind that they picked up rookie Tyler Ennis on draft night. When he was healthy for 43 games last season, Bledsoe was a difference-maker and likely could have lifted Phoenix into the playoffs if he’d been around for the full season. Though there might be a few who’d question his durability, Bledsoe is a 24-year-old sheer talent with a very high upside. He and backcourt partner Goran Dragic can both slide over to play shooting guard. But it’s running the show as a 1 where Bledsoe has the potential to carry the Suns into the future and could even crack the All-Star lineup in a very crowded Western Conference backcourt race. General manager Ryan McDonough has vowed to match any offer that comes his way. Bledsoe needs to be the foundation on what the Suns are building in the desert.

Boris Diaw, Forward/Center, Spurs (unrestricted) — You almost never want to tell the Spurs that one individual not named Tim Duncan means so much, especially after they’ve just picked up championship No. 5 by demonstrating that the team concept can outshine superstars by a wide margin in The Finals. But the point-guard-in-a-big-man’s-body Diaw was a very large part of that accomplishment, shifting the balance of power in the series against the Heat when he moved into the starting lineup. There was a great deal of talk on Draft night that the Spurs got the next Diaw-type player in forward Kyle Anderson. But this is a team where the clock is ticking loud and the championship contending days for this bunch will come to an end in another year or two at the most. Anderson will be fine for the next generation, but the Spurs need their crafty passer, good rebounder and underrated defender to stick around in order to have a shot at hanging up banner No. 6.

Marcin Gortat, Center, Wizards (unrestricted) — Yes, the Wizards will have to overpay, but that’s just a fact of life when you’re talking about a big man. Especially when it’s a big man coming off a season of averaging 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.5 blocks and anchoring the front court on a team that is built around guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. Gortat is simply solid at both ends of the ball, helping with the efficiency of the offense and stepping up to the play the role of large body stopper at the other end of the floor. In short, he just fits. Plus, the 30-year-old gives Washington a veteran’s sense of perspective. If it comes down to a choice between Gortat and fellow free agent Trevor Ariza, it’s really no choice at all. While Ariza’s defense on the perimeter and streaky offense are nice to have around, the big man keeps everyone grounded and gives the Wizards credibility in the East.

Lance Stephenson, Guard, Pacers (unrestricted) — Was it the moment that he blew in LeBron’s ear? Or when he gave the King that little chuck on the chin? At some point during the Eastern Conference finals virtually everybody leaned in a little closer to the HDTV screen and asked: “What in the world is Lance thinking?” Of course, the answer might have been nothing at all. Surely, the Pacers will have to think long and hard about how far they’re willing to open the wallet for a 23-year-old with a crazy streak. But that’s just it — Stephenson is just 23 and if club president Larry Bird can eventually get through to a player who has been a personal favorite, this team finally reaches its potential. If they let Stephenson get away, the Pacers are giving up part of their identity, their edge and simply take a step back into the soft middle of the standings. Yes, he’s a risk. Yes, he’s going to be infuriating. But yes, Indiana has to keep him.

Hawks set up well to add a star


VIDEO: East Draft Review: Atlanta Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The big free agent destinations for this summer are Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.

But what about Atlanta?

Few teams are set up to sign a star better than the Atlanta Hawks, who created more cap space with a trade reportedly agreed to on Sunday.

John Salmons is under contract for $7 million next season, but the Hawks only have to pay him $1 million if they waive him by Tuesday. That’s exactly what they’re expected to do, so by trading Lou Williams‘ $5.45 million deal (Lucas Nogueira doesn’t have a contract), the Hawks have created an additional $4.45 million of cap space.

As it stands, that gives the Hawks more than $13 million of cap space total. Assuming they extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents Shelvin Mack (more important now that Williams is gone) and Mike Scott and don’t extend one to Gustavo Ayon (who played just 26 games last season), they have a little more than $15 million in cap space.

That’s not enough to offer a max contract to LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, but it’s enough to make a serious upgrade on the wing, where DeMarre Carroll started 73 games last season.

It’s just not cap space that makes a star player a good fit in Atlanta. It’s the supporting cast.

The best way to complement a star who draws the attention of extra defenders is with shooting. And starting with Kyle Korver, the Hawks have an abundance of that. They ranked fifth in 3-pointers last season and fifth in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint. It was their ability to space the floor with all five guys that gave the Indiana Pacers a world of trouble in the first round of the playoffs.

Bigs Paul Millsap and Pero Antic can step out beyond the 3-point line and Al Horford — expected to make a full recovery after December surgery on a torn pectoral muscle — has been one of the league’s best mid-range shooters over the last few years.

Those bigs are also good rebounders, and Jeff Teague is a solid point guard who can make defenses scramble on the pick-and-roll. That takes pressure off a star to carry the offense by himself.

Of course, beyond James and Anthony, there’s not a real offensive star (on the wing) to be had in free agency. Lance Stephenson might be the closest thing, but he doesn’t quite fit into the Spurs East model that Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer are trying to build in Atlanta (neither does Anthony, really).

And so, while Ferry did well in clearing contracts to get to this point, his tenure with the Hawks can’t be ruled a success until he actually gets the team back where they were — making three straight trips to the conference semifinals — before he got there.

Joe Johnson‘s contract is kind of ridiculous, but the Joe Johnson that we saw in the playoffs this year is exactly the kind of the player that would fit in well with the Hawks right now. Ferry has done well to set up a strong supporting cast, but there’s one more big step to take.

Night for Pacers, Pistons to watch, plot

The Cleveland Cavaliers again have everyone else in the NBA breathlessly waiting while they decide which domino shall topple first.

The Milwaukee Bucks are next, happy to sit at No. 2, hoping for more Durant-after-Oden, less Bowie-after-Olajuwon.

The Chicago Bulls sit further back but hold two picks, Nos. 16 and 19, in the first round of what’s considered to be a deep draft (and even loftier ambitions for free agency).

And then there are the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, poor little Central Division teams on the outside looking in – on the first round, anyway – of the 2014 Draft Thursday night.

The Pacers traded away their first-round pick to Phoenix last summer, packaging it with Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee for veteran forward Luis Scola. The Suns hold it at No. 27, leaving Indiana with only the No. 57 pick – three from the bottom – as a long-shot stab at talent near the end of the night.

The Pistons would have picked No. 9, a pivotal point similar to last year (No. 8), if not for its desperation two years ago to unload Ben Gordon, sweetening a deal for Charlotte’s Corey Maggette by including a protected future first-rounder. That future turned into the present when Detroit slipped one spot in the lottery drawing, stripping the protection, transferring the pick to the Hornets and leaving new basketball poobah Stan Van Gundy only with the No. 38 pick.

Technically, Nos. 38 and 57 aren’t wastelands when it comes to finding (more like discovering months later) occasional talent. Eighteen of the past 20 players drafted 38th earned jobs in the league, however briefly; Andy Rautins (2010) and DeMarco Johnson (1998) lasted five games each, while Michael Wright (2001) and Rashard Griffith (1995) were the only washouts. Over the past 20 years, the top players to emerge from No. 38 probably have been Chandler Parsons (2011), Steve Blake (2003), Eduardo Najera (2000), Chris Duhon (2004) and Nate Wolters (2013).

Meanwhile, San Antonio sixth man Manu Ginobili classed up the No. 57 slot when the Spurs grabbed him there in 1999. Washington center Marcin Gortat was picked at the spot in 2005. Since Gortat, however, the eight players selected at No. 57 have played a combined five games – all by Florida State forward Ryan Reid (2010), who logged 17 minutes total for the Thunder in 2011-12.

All of which is a long and historically broken down way of saying Indiana and Detroit aren’t banking on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to deliver their offseason improvements.

The Pacers have internal chores atop their to-do list. Shooting guard Lance Stephenson has reached free agency before full maturity, forcing a tough call on president Larry Bird and the rest of the organization: Pay Stephenson and risk even greater antics fueled by a fat, guaranteed-and-validating contract in the mid-eight figures, or let him leave and scramble to replace his scoring, playmaking, defense and energy. Backup Evan Turner was a dud after arriving via trade in February and also will be a free agent, but for now he is Indiana’s Lance insurance.

Coach Frank Vogel also has to resuscitate Roy Hibbert as the team’s centerpiece, weighing the big man’s defensive presence against his offensive quirks and alarming unreliability late last season and postseason.

The Pistons feel as if their work already is underway, with Van Gundy in place and speculation swirling about a Josh Smith-to-Sacramento trade. They also have done their homework in gauging restricted free agent Greg Monroe‘s value, possible offer sheets (which often aren’t in synch with the first calculation) and their match-or-trade decision tree. Detroit also figures to have between an estimated $13 million to $14 million in salary cap space, pending other moves.

Van Gundy, a baseball fan, used an analogy from that sport when updating Detroit media recently on the team’s expected maneuvers. “We’re not gonna hit a home run,” he said, “but if we can get three singles or two singles and a double, and drive in a couple runs, we’ll be OK.”

Assuming they’ve got Verlander or Scherzer on the mound, of course.

Leonard, Spurs will stick to traditional methods of defense against LeBron


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard talks about the matchup with the Heat

SAN ANTONIO – And now … the San Antonio Spurs player most likely to blow in LeBron James‘ ear…?

(Crickets).

“There isn’t one,” Spurs forward Matt Bonner said, straight-faced.

Right.

The stoic, disciplined and ultra-professional Spurs have no need for the brand of antics that Pacers guard Lance Stephenson brought to the floor in his personal battle against the two-time Finals MVP during the Eastern Conference finals.

The Spurs, rest assured, will not employ it as a tactic against James.

“Uh, not on purpose,” said Spurs guard Danny Green, who could see time against James as well as Dwyane Wade, said. “That stuff doesn’t work against him and that only makes him better, I think, from the aspect of many different areas. We kind of don’t want to wake a sleeping a giant.”

Not that James has really been sleeping, but in the Spurs and Heat splitting the regular-season series (one game apiece, a blowout per side), the Spurs did as good a job as any team in letting alpha dogs lie. He averaged 18.5 ppg, less than only the Bulls allowed (18.3). Part of that is due to the blowout nature of the two games and James logging an average of only 32.9 minutes in the two games. Still, check out the shooting percentage, and the Spurs limited James to 42.4 percent (14-for-33) from the floor and 16.7 percent (1-for-6) from 3-point range. James’ percentages during the regular season were 56.7 and 37.9.

It makes sense with the Bulls employing Jimmy Butler and their intensely physical defense on James, and the Spurs using 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard backed by a smart, cohesive unit that was quite successful in last year’s Finals of keeping James from rampaging through the lane.

Leonard, fresh off tracking regular-season MVP Kevin Durant in the West finals, will get the bulk of the LeBron load. On Tuesday, the third-year small forward was named to his first NBA All-Defensive team, making the second team.

“It’s just great that people are starting to notice that I’m giving my effort out there on the floor at both ends and just finally starting to get noticed,” Leonard said. “That’s what I pretty much feel about it.”

James obviously faced Leonard a year ago in the Finals, so he probably knows he’s not going to hear much in the way of trash talk, or much of any talk at all from the famously quiet Leonard. Leonard said he doesn’t get involved in conversations of any kind with the man he’s tasked to guard.

“No,” Leonard said, “no I don’t. I just talk to my teammates, tell them I got help-side or something like that, but not really a conversation to try to get into somebody’s head.”

Dislike? Nope, so Heat, Spurs will try to whip up extreme absence of like


VIDEO: Duncan discusses Finals clash with Heat

SAN ANTONIO – With all the yammering about shared respect and mutual dynasties heading into these 2014 Finals, you might expect to find the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, some night this week, strolling hand in hand along the Riverwalk on a moonlit night.

Veteran Miami forward Udonis Haslem made it clear Wednesday, that ain’t happening.

“Just because this series may not be as physical as the Indiana series or may not be as physical as a [past] Chicago series,” Haslem said, “does not mean we like these guys any more.”

An absence of like might not be the same thing as an active dislike, but it’s a reasonable starting point for a potentially long, best-of-seven series that might lend itself to emotions and subplots in ways the 2013 Finals did not. It would take some doing – the Spurs don’t typically seek out headlines, the Heat see no one on San Antonio’s roster who can play the Lance Stephenson knucklehead/pest role.

But if the series is low in vitriol, it still will be high in competition, both sides’ dials cranked hard to the right to take rather than give.

“Sometimes the game is played a little different between the lines,” Haslem said. “Sometimes it’s more physical. Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower. Doesn’t change the mindset. We’re in the Finals. We can’t afford to be trying to make new friends right now.”

Again, not making friends isn’t quite the same as butting heads with rivals. Miami has been targeted for four years now, with East opponents such as Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn eager to topple them and, presumably, everything they stand for. Over time, fueled by hard knocks, strains of resentment and disdain began to show.

Not so with the Spurs, who happen to be catching the Heat in their more-established, less-shortcutting third and fourth postseasons.

“I don’t think it’s animosity,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “Indiana wants what we have – and you could tell, there was animosity on their part. We didn’t give much credence to that, and it wasn’t reciprocal. The Spurs are different. They’ve had serial success over a decade and a half. They want what’s out there and we want what’s out there. It’s not so much they want what we have or we want what they have.”

Last year’s Finals wasn’t exactly gentlemanly, but it didn’t deteriorate into barroom tactics. The Spurs set a Finals record for fewest fouls committed in a seven-game series (118). Correspondingly, the Heat shot the fewest free throws in a seven-game series of any Finals team in history (118). Read that again: LeBron James‘ team shot the fewest free throws in a seven-game series of any Finals team ever .

(The records for the most fouls and free throws? In the 1957 Finals, Boston fouled St. Louis players 221 times, resulting in 341 free throws. Scintillating to watch, no doubt.)

So this one will have to muddle through without bad blood, personal histories or old scores to settle (besides the outcome). Two teams, both driven and fiercely competitive, went at it for seven rounds last June and didn’t even merit a technical foul for defensive-three seconds after Game 4.

“I think that’s why this series was so great last year: It was about basketball,” Battier said. “It wasn’t about talk. it wasn’t about controversy. It was an awesomely officiated series last year – there were no refereeing controversies. There were no technical fouls, no flagrant fouls. It was about basketball.

“How novel for the NBA Finals to be about basketball. I expect the same sort of respect, and it being about the game, as it should be.”


VIDEO: Battier talks Spurs and Finals