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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Mitchell’

Morning shootaround — Feb. 7



VIDEO: Highlights of Saturday’s 10 games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

George Karl hanging by a string? | Mark Cuban says leave hacking strategy aloneKobe reflects on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich | What’s in the future of the struggling Wolves?

No. 1: Karl hanging by a string? — If it’s Sunday, then George Karl‘s job must be in jeopardy. Every other week, it seems, the Kings coach is headed out the door, and the most recent reports of trouble were intensified when the Kings were clobbered in Brooklyn, of all places, and DeMarcus Cousins said some cryptic statements that hinted of a possible coaching change. Well, Karl will coach Sunday in Boston — at least we think — and did take time to answer questions about his future (or lack thereof). Would the Kings really fire Karl and bring yet another coach to the franchise? Yikes. Here’s Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston writing about the latest on Karl:

Karl seemed amused by a string of questions about his future after he led the Kings through a 90-minute off-day workout Saturday at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, but he kept steering the conversation back to Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

“I don’t have any control over what other people are thinking or saying. That’s their storm,” Karl said. “My preference would be it wouldn’t be there. But there’s always energy today. Then once something gets out, it magnifies and grows and becomes a storm. That’s not my storm. My storm is the Boston Celtics.”

Added Karl: “I have no control of what other people think or whatever people are circulating. My job is to get prepared for Boston. We had a good practice [Saturday], and I’m happy with the practice. Boston’s playing at a great level. Probably the best they’ve played in two years. Their win [Friday] night [in Cleveland] was pretty impressive. They kept coming after a team that thought they had them beat about four times and stole the end from them. It was really a gutty win by the Celtics.”

Increasingly concerned about their floundering play under Karl, the Kings entered the weekend hoping to delay any decision about the coach’s future until the All-Star break, league sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein.

Sources said the nature of the team’s 128-119 loss Friday night to Brooklyn — Sacramento’s sixth defeat in seven games — and the fallout it generated have the Kings contemplating an immediate coaching change.

Does Karl believe he’s in danger if the team is mulling a change?

“I don’t think I’m in limbo,” he said. “I think I’ve got a heckuva challenge [against] a team that’s played damn well — probably it’s best basketball in the last six weeks. If you want to overreact to the last four or five games, that’s somebody else’s reaction, not my reaction. I think this team is still in a place that we can solve some problems and be good.”

Kings point guard Rajon Rondo said he hasn’t paid much attention to the chatter surrounding his coach.

“I haven’t heard it,” he said. “I talked to my agent this morning, but it was just about how the team is doing, how the team morale was. But I haven’t bought into it or read into too much of [the Karl reports]. It’s just part of the business. Coaches fired, players being traded — there’s no difference.”

Both Rondo and Karl noted that the Kings had been playing better before a recent funk. Rondo said it’s not time to panic … yet.

“When we don’t have an opportunity to get into the playoffs, that’s when we can panic,” Rondo said. “But the last 10 games, I think our record is 5-5. It’s not the worst; it’s not 3-7. We started off the season 1-7, so we’ve hit a tough stretch, some games we could have won. Brooklyn played amazing [Friday] night, shot the heck out of the ball. That’s part of it. There’s going to be games like that. Hopefully we can turn it around and get a win [Sunday] afternoon.”

Added Karl: “Ten days ago, we were on a five-game winning streak. … Every NBA season has scheduled parts that say, ‘Hey, this is a tough time.’ And since our beginning, our bad start, we’ve been a .500 team. We’re still a .500 team.”

Karl said it has been a process to get everyone on the same page, given the roster turnover this past summer.

“The whole season, when you change your roster with 10 players, you’re consistently trying to build better communication and a better connection and trying to get a commitment that’s a winning commitment,” Karl said. “Players question coaching. Coaching questions players. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth of the matter is I think this team has hung together pretty well through a lot of ups and downs this year.

“Our perseverance level has been maybe not an A but a B-plus. And when we play good teams, we usually play well. Our weaknesses have been home court, intensity and maybe overlooking a team with a bad record. But you can watch that film last night. Brooklyn played damn well.”

***

 No. 2: Cuban says leave hacking strategy alone — The technique of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters is the rage among coaches and another kind of rage among fans. There’s the belief that the game is worse off when DeAndre Jordan is shooting 15 free throws, although others believe that it’s part of the game and the league shouldn’t alter the rules just to relieve pressure from a half-dozen players with severe free-throw issues. Count Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the latter group. Cuban doesn’t feel it’s necessary to make drastic, if any, changes to the intentional fouling rule, or fouling players off the ball. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last Friday that he may favor a change. We’ll see. Here’s Tom Haberstroh of ESPN on Cuban:

On Friday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today Sports that he was “increasingly of the view” that the league will implement new rules this summer to prevent intentional fouling of poor free throw shooters.

“At the end of the day,” Silver said, “we are an entertainment property, and it’s clear when you’re in the arena that fans are looking at me shrugging their shoulders with that look saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do something about this?'”

Cuban disagrees with the notion that it is hurting the game’s entertainment value and told ESPN.com on Saturday morning that he believes fans actually feel more part of the game in hack-a-player situations, citing the example of fans getting on their feet to challenge an opposing player at the free throw line.

Cuban also said hacking adds an element of intrigue.

“Will they leave him in or leave him out?” Cuban said. “How do both teams feel about it? How will they foul? Is it a new creative way, or is it just chasing?”

The hack-a-player strategy has been on the rise around the league. As of Friday, according to tracking by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton, there had been 266 hack-a-player instances this season, already far exceeding last season’s total of 164. There were 52 instances through the All-Star break last season, and the NBA has surpassed that total by more than 200 ahead of next week’s All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

The majority of intentional fouls have come against tall, poor free throw shooting big men such as Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.

Cuban said hack-a-player strategies offer a teachable moment for fans and young athletes, especially parents who could spend time “watching the shots and telling your kids why practice matters and how amazing it is that they can do something that an NBA player can’t.

“Will a 7-foot man try to run and escape a foul so he doesn’t have to do what so many 12-year-olds do in games every day?” Cuban added.

Cuban argues that the chess match of hack-a-player makes the game more fascinating for fans.

“Does he make the free throws?” Cuban said. “If he makes one or two, will they do it again? Did the strategy work?”

Cuban contends that the league might be overreacting to a small minority of “basketball purists” outside the media.

“We have to realize that the number of basketball purists that aren’t in the media is probably under 1,000 people globally,” Cuban said. “There is no special basketball beauty in walking the ball up the court and dribbling around the perimeter. Will we change that too?”

***

No. 3: Kobe sounds off on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich — If nothing else, Kobe Bryant is in a reflective mood in this, his final NBA season, especially in places where his memories are deep and meaningful. San Antonio is such a place, and Kobe spoke glowingly about the Spurs, and what they’ve meant to his development as a future Hall of Famer, and also his thoughts on Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. As Kobe spoke, his thoughts were recorded by Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

What do you recall of the Spurs-Lakers battles?

It was fun. The most fun was when they had home-court advantage, and we had to come up here and play, and we wound up getting both games up here. It was intense — we knew what they could do, we knew how they would play, we knew their momentum, we knew how they liked to execute — but their were just some nights where we never could get in front of them. Their ball movement, we were always kinda chasing the game. I do miss The Dome, though. I do miss that. I remember playing in there, there was something about the rims there that I really enjoyed. Then when they moved here, the first couple of games really threw me off. I hated playing here. I couldn’t shoot for crap. But, playing at The Dome was a lot of fun.

How has your relationship with Gregg Popovich evolved?

It’s been amazing. I mean, he’s been so open with me and I’ve been a sponge every chance I get to be around him. I talk to him a lot about the game, I ask him questions about the game, how he teaches the game. One of my favorite times that I spent with him was during the All-Star game when he was coaching. He came up to me right before practice and he said, ‘Hey, should I do a real practice or like a whatever walk-through All-Star practice?” I said, ‘Do a real practice, because I want to see what the hell goes on in San Antonio, so you’ve got to do all the real stuff.’ The guys were kind of looking around like ‘What the hell.’ Tim just looked at me like, ‘You’re killing me.’ I wanted to see what goes down.

Is that going to be the plan for this All-Star Game?

“I hope it is because it’s rare to play for one of the all-time greatest coaches. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had Phil and played under Pop for several times. It’s been great.”

Was Tim’s success ever a driving force for you?

“It’s strange. No, because the competitiveness was always centered around us vs. them. You have to beat them. In the process of us getting to the next level you wind up beating Tim Duncan but against San Antonio you cannot afford to think individually for one second because they’ll burn you so I never had that personal rivalry with him.”

Is it weird to play them without Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan suiting up?

“Nah. I’ve played against them for so many year, it’s like, ‘enough already.’ We’ve had all those battles before.”

Can you compare facing Bruce Bowen to facing Kawhi Leonard?

“It’s very difficult to give you a very intelligent … I could give you a BS answer but it’s hard to make that comparison. I saw Bruce so many times. Kawhi I’ve only played against one-and-a-half times and nothing at a really high level of a matchup. So it’s very hard for me to compare the two. From what I see on TV Bruce uses length a lot more. He was kind of in and out, tapping the arms and trying to break your rhythm, things of that nature. Kawhi tends to use his body a lot more and plays position a lot more. But they both have phenomenal hands.”

Could you have imagined playing for Pop for 20 years?

“Of course.”

That wouldn’t have been a problem?

“Nah. I’d have won a lot of championships.”

Does this rivalry mean more to you than the Celtics?

“It’s more personal because it’s the rivalry that I played through. The Celtics rivalry is something I grew up watching. IK played against them a couple of times in The Finals. But San Antonio was year in and year out. The year we won the championship it was like, ‘Well, Tim was hurt so it really doesn’t count.’ So the second run it was, ‘OK, you guys had a shortened season and we had Tim when he was hurt so now let’s see what’s up.’

“That rivalry was what fueled the majority of my career.”

How do you think you would have dealt with Pop wanting to sit you if you were dinged up or tired?

“I’d have been fine because he never would have known I was dinged up or tired … ‘You on the training table? No. I’m good.’ “

You said last year there is some jealousy Tim’s had the same coach all these years … you had that a bit with Phil but he’s gone. Is there a jealousy factor for Spurs having that continuity, the group of players who have been with him so long?

“I think that starts at the top with Pop, starts at the top with the ownership. They’re very clear on what the identity is, very clear on what they stand for, what they represent. They’re very clear on the style of player that they want to have. They’ve been consistent with that year over year. That’s why it becomes easier for them to select certain players to draft, certain players to trade for. Because they’re looking for certain type of player. That leads to consistency.

We’ve had changes. We have Dr. Buss passing away, have Jeannie and Jim, you have Phil coming and going. You have all these things going on and so as a result system changing as well. So there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here which is phenomenal, probably compared to the Patriots, is had so much consistency from top to bottom.”

Ever wonder what you could have done with that kind of consistency around you?

Of course, you wonder that. But just for fun. I can’t sit here and complain. I’ve eaten pretty well. So I can’t complain that there’s no dessert left.

***

No. 4: What’s in the future for the struggling Wolves? — These are interesting times for the Wolves. On one hand, they appear headed in the right direction for the first time in over a decade, with a batch of intriguing young players on the roster and a possible lottery pick coming in June and plenty of room under the salary cap. However, there are questions about the leadership of this team, from Glen Taylor (who has resisted overtures of selling the majority of the team) and GM Milt Newton and the coaching staff led by Sam Mitchell, a situation that was thrown in question with the passing of Flip Saunders. Despite all of their promise, the Wolves have struggled this season and therefore it wouldn’t be surprised if they underwent an off-season shakeup. Here’s a report from Chip Scoggins of the Star-Tribune:

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are the Bucks simply experiencing growing pains, or is it something more troubling? … Jimmy Butler is feeling good about his chances of returning to the court soon, maybe within days … Can Russell Westbrook average a triple-double for a season and pull an Oscar Robertson? .. The Sixers should extend their talent search overseas, given their dire straits …

Morning shootaround — Jan. 17


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Jan. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Should the Blazers break up their backcourt?| Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix, but Suns haven’t | Are the Wolves in the right hands? | Kobe cancels out Rio, speaks on other topics

No. 1:  Should Blazers trade CJ McCollum? — Just when it appears the Blazers have a solid young backcourt for the future, along comes a thought: Are they better off trading CJ McCollum? The thinking is both McCollum and Damian Lillard are smallish guards who collectively run into defensive matchup problems, and since both are scorers, the Blazers could trade one to shore up the front court. Here’s what John Canzano of the Oregonian wrote recently:

The Blazers remain $13 million below the salary floor, and are sitting just four games in the loss column out of the No. 8 spot in the playoffs. The Feb. 18 NBA Trade deadline is looming and for those holding out hope that Portland may try to alter its future by obtaining a front-line player at the deadline, there’s a move that could be made.

CJ McCollum (20.9 points per game) is putting together a nice bounce-back season. At $2.5 million annually he’s currently a terrific value. But anyone who has watched McCollum play when paired with Damian Lillard knows that you can’t play them successfully together on a team that will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

That’s the goal, right?

They can score together, but they’re a defensive disaster when paired. They’re both chuckers, too. And there’s no way that Olshey is trading Lillard, his prized draft pick. Further, the Blazers don’t want to get into a position beyond the 2016-17 season where they have to pay both Lillard and McCollum.

They’re not the “Splash Brothers.” We know that. But we don’t want them to become the “Cash Brothers.”

Even as Olshey has a man-crush on McCollum, and has privately said he wouldn’t dream of trading him, the general manager should be looking and listening when it comes to offers for the guard between now and Feb. 18.

Portland also has a potential first-round lottery pick as trade bait (but theoretically would have to wait until the draft to make that deal). And even as Olshey feels stuck on a refusal to part with any of his future draft picks, the Blazers general manager should be quietly shopping McCollum, gauging his trade value. If the return resulted in a front-line player who would start for multiple seasons and better complement Lillard, you’d have to consider making it.

To be clear, I’m not saying “McCollum must go,” here. I like his game. Just not as much as Olshey does. I’m saying, McCollum’s value isn’t going to be greater than it is in the next two seasons. It’s just not sustainable. Also, I’m saying that this season shouldn’t just be viewed as a throw away in which the Blazers roll out a the lowest-paid roster in the league and pretend that’s all there is to see.

***

No. 2: Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix; Suns haven’t —  It was a strange marriage and a strange breakup. The Suns signed Isaiah Thomas to a very team-friendly free agent contract over a year ago, which angered Goran Dragic, who felt threatened by another point guard on a team that already had Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both Bledsoe and Thomas got paid while Dragic at the time was awaiting free agency. Well, Thomas was traded to the Celtics and Dragic to Miami and of the two, Thomas is clearly having the better transition. Here’s Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic on Thomas and the team he left:

Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is keeping the book open on the trade history now that he has become the starting point guard that he wanted to be. Thomas is being called an All-Star candidate, averaging career highs in points per game (21.6) and assists per game (6.7) although his 3-point percentage (33.5) is at a career low.

Isaiah runs the show for a 21-19, eighth-place team in Boston. When he was traded from Phoenix, the Suns were a three-point-guard show for a 29-25, eighth-place team.

“When we recruited him, we pitched the sixth-man role to him and to be one of the top scorers in the league,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “That was with (Eric) Bledsoe and (Goran) Dragic on the roster. We signed Isaiah before we ended up getting Bledsoe’s contract resolved. It’s one of those things that seemed better to him in July than it did maybe during the season.”

The Suns pursued LeBron James first in 2014 free agency. Once that door closed after a meeting with James’ agent, the Suns targeted Thomas as the best available free agent after Sacramento did not pursue re-signing him. Thomas’ four-year, $27 million contract (via a sign-and-trade for Oriakhi) was – and is – considered a strong value, especially with how rapidly the NBA salary cap will rise over the next two years.

Thomas averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists for the Suns in 25.7 minutes per game, nine fewer minutes than he played in Sacramento. Thomas said he was competing for a starting job from the start of 2014 Suns training camp and commented during the season that the Suns situation was not what he expected. After the trade, he said playing time was his only issue in Phoenix, where he made 39 percent of his 3-pointers.

***

No. 3: Are the Wolves in the right hands? — The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team built for the future; everyone knows this. But the present-day Wolves aren’t doing very well; we can all see that, too. The question then becomes: is the team being brought along properly? And is Sam Mitchell the right coach in their development? Mitchell is the interim coach this season and the Wolves haven’t made any guarantees about his future, which means the organization is taking a wait and see approach. Meanwhile, Mitchell spoke with Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune, who offered up this report:

And so, despite a nine-game losing streak, Mitchell loves the team he has. And, after practice Saturday, Mitchell defended his work developing that Wolves young roster.

“Our three leading scorers are our young guys,” Mitchell said of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. That will be a blessing a year or two from now. It’s tough when they’re developing. But everything they’re going through is going to make them better.”

It’s clear Mitchell would like to still be the coach when the benefits of that development are reaped. He also knows that, as the Wolves losing streak has gotten longer — it reached nine Friday — the criticism has grown louder. But Mitchell — who went through a similar situation in Toronto — is confident he is the right man for the job of developing this young team.

“Explain to me how we’re blocking the young guys?” Mitchell said. “When Andrew Wiggins is a 20-point scorer, and there are only 20 of those in the league? Karl-Anthony Towns is doing something that no rookie has done in 20 years. Zach LaVine is in the process of learning a new position and is our third-leading scorer. And Shabazz Muhammad has made tremendous strides. Gorgui Dieng has made strides …

“Now tell me, how are we hurting them?”

Mitchell is a self-described old school coach. Again Friday he left many of his young players in the game in the fourth-quarter of a one-sided loss, hoping they’d learn from the experience. He has admitted being hard on LaVine, even allowing as his style hasn’t always been fair.

“Yes, I tell him that all the time,” Mitchell said. “I tell him, ‘It’s hard, Zach, and sometimes it’s unfair.’ But that’s the way young players learn.”

As an example Mitchell offered Muhammad. The coaches were trying to get him to look for his teammates more, make the extra pass, play better defense. When he didn’t do that, his minutes took a tumble late in December. But, once Mitchell saw Muhammad making the effort, the minutes increased.

“I didn’t give him those minutes,” Mitchell said. “He earned them.”

But, as the losses mount, so does the pressure. Mitchell admitted Saturday that his team very much needed to experience a win, and soon, just to see some return on his players’ investment.

But he’s not going to change his approach. He said his experience in Toronto — where he won 33 and 27 games in his first two seasons before jumping to 47 wins and a division title in his third — gives him the confidence he’s doing the right thing.

“Two years from now, if we don’t do what we’re doing now, we’re never going to win, or compete, for playoff spots, or for the Western Conference or an NBA championship,” he said. “So my job is this. Even though it’s painful to do the right thing. And the right thing is to teach the young players — with the help of the veterans — how to play. And if I had not been through it before, maybe I’d panic. Maybe I’d be worried.”

***

No. 4: Kobe cancels himself out for Rio — Yes, Kobe Bryant does have a realistic grip on his basketball abilities at this point. Previously, Kobe openly wished he could be considered for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, but with his struggles this season, he finally conceded that maybe taking a spot from a more deserving player wouldn’t be the best idea, even if he could pull it off. Remember, Olympics chief Jerry Colangelo didn’t promise Kobe a spot – only Paul George is virtually guaranteed one — but would consider it out of respect for what Kobe has done for international basketball. Anyway, Kobe some about this and other topics before playing in Utah. Here’s some of the Q and A:

 

Q: Lot of memories with the Jazz team. Do you have any memories with this Jazz crowd here in this arena?

Kobe: [Laughing] Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. Yeah. They were really, really tough on me, man. More so than the other crowds. They were tough. Signs when I’m shooting a free throw to literally just yelling it in my ear. Taking the ball out. They pissed me off so much. It was like ’08 in the playoffs where I just kind of erupted after a play, talking back to the crowd because they just kept driving me. With that said, it’s fond memories truly because it was like that’s what sports should be. That kind of bantering and that kind of competition or whatever. I’ve always loved playing here because of that.

Q: A man that is so driven like yourself, if you can, as you think about life after basketball, have you thought about ownership, coaching, broadcasting? Have you had a chance to just let it soak in and say what about life – because you’re still a young man – but after basketball that will keep you motivated and focused?

Kobe: Yeah, those are tough questions for athletes, I think. I’ve been kind of searching for what that was going to be for years now – 15 or 16 years – kind have been searching for that next passion and I’ve been very fortunate enough to find it to the point where it keeps me up at night. Constantly working, studying, and trying to get better at it, and I’m really looking forward to moving into that next phase. Ownership is in terms of being there day-to-day or coaching and things of that sort don’t interest me. I just don’t have a passion for it. Or broadcasting for that matter, I just don’t have a passion for it.

Q: Speaking of the future, the other day you said it was Draymond’s and Steph’s time to pursue championships and gold medals. That you’ve had your turn. Have you closed the door on pursuing the Olympics this summer or is that something you’re still considering?

Kobe: I think it’s their time. I think it’s their time. It’s funny; during a game in Golden State, it was a break in a play or whatever. Leandro Barbosa, who I’ve known for a very long time, comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in Rio.’ I just turned around and go, ‘Nah.’ [Laughs] He said, ‘Come on, man, it’s Rio.’ I said, ‘Nah, I think it’s the young guy’s turn to go play and perform.’

I’ve been fortunate enough to win two gold medals. I’ve had my moment. I think it’s important for them to go ahead and play. I’ll watch from afar, support from afar. If they want me to come down and speak to the guys, I will. That’s about it. I think as beautiful as it would be to play for our country, when I say my last game is going to be my last game I’m going to retire, then that’s it. It’s not like I’m going to walk off the stage and then but… I’m going to come right back for a minute. [Laughs] ‘Hold on one second.’

I think it’s pretty sweet to have the final game in a Laker uniform and to support the players from afar.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suppose the moves made by Sam Hinkie eventually help rebuild the Sixers? How will he be viewed? … After a show start, Amir Johnson is starting to finally fit in with the CelticsLeBron James, whose company dropped Johnny Manziel, says the QB needs to turn things aroundCody Zeller at center? It might work. He has played better with the Hornets missing Al JeffersonJared Dudley says the Bucks were smart to trade him.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jordan pays tribute to Kobe | Cavs right ship with team meeting | Spurs find ways to win | Report: Burks opts for surgery

No. 1: Jordan pays tribute to Kobe Kobe Bryant is in his 20th season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, so its easy to forget that Bryant was actually drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and later traded to the Lakers. Bryant returned to Charlotte last night on his farewell tour for his final game in the Queen City, and while Hornets owner Michael Jordan couldn’t make it in person, the Hornets welcomed Kobe with a video message from Jordan before the game. As ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, Kobe appreciated the tribute…

Bryant said he spoke with Jordan on Sunday and knew the video would be shown.

“It was awesome. It was awesome,” Bryant said. “He and I — as he said in the video — we talk pretty often. But it was pretty funny to see some of the reactions of my teammates. I was sitting next to Julius Randle before the game. He was like, ‘Yo, that’s amazing!’ I was like, ‘What?’ [He said] ‘That was Michael Jordan!'”

Bryant added, “We talk fairly often. I know he’s enjoying a little vacation time. I told him I was a little jealous. He said, ‘You’ll be here soon enough.'”

While Jordan transitioned into an ownership role for an NBA team, Bryant said he doesn’t expect to follow the same path.

“No, he and I differ entirely when it comes to that,” Bryant said. “He’s a mathematician. He loves math. He loves numbers, loves dealing with numbers. I don’t. I could care less. I suck at math. So from that perspective, I’m not going to be looking at cap numbers and all that other stuff. I just have no interest in it.”

Bryant again was warmly received by a road crowd that chanted his name at numerous points throughout the game, including when the buzzer sounded.

“It’s been like that every city, fortunately,” he said. “Here it’s a little bit different because this is the city that drafted me, so my journey started here. As brief as it was, it still started here. That has a little more value to it.”

But perhaps no stop means as much — or carries as much personal history for Bryant and his team — as the stop Wednesday, when Bryant will play his final game in Boston against the archrival Celtics, a team Bryant faced twice in the Finals. The Lakers lost in 2008, then won in 2010.

“Love-hate fest sort of thing,” he said of what he is expecting from the crowd. “I’m bringing my family down because my kids have never even been to Boston. They’ve never even been to Boston. I’m looking forward to them getting a chance to see the city a little bit and then just experience the green. It’s just a different green. I want them to be able to see that.”

Bryant also said he misses playing the villain, which meant being booed at road arenas.

“Yeah. It was just so natural to me for so many years,” he said. “It became something that just felt comfortable. It felt a little awkward at first, to be honest with you, to get this praise, but I’m glad they didn’t do this many, many years ago because it’s like kryptonite. It would’ve taken away all my energy and all my strength because I relied a lot on being the villain. Sometimes, the best way to beat the villain is to give them a hug.”


VIDEO: Jordan Honors Kobe

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Morning shootaround — Nov. 3


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors seek that ‘next level’ of play | Kobe gets break from practice after postgame rant | Emotions high at Wolves home opener | Rondo enjoying ‘underdog’ status

No. 1: Warriors all about that ‘next level’ of play — Just four games into the season of defending their NBA title, the Golden State Warriors are a team everyone is targeting (and everyone wants to play like). Our Fran Blinebury raised a good question the other day: will reigning Kia MVP Stephen Curry surpass the season he put up in 2014-15? The better question is: are the Warriors as a whole better than they were in their dominant 2014-15 campaign? Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com was on hand for last night’s 50-point win over the Memphis Grizzlies and reports that surpassing 2014-15 is all part of the plan for Golden State:

Draymond Green stood before the media, arms akimbo, and gave the motto. “The one thing coming into training camp, Coach Kerr’s one go-to line was ‘next level,'” he declared. “Next level in the offense, next level in the defense, next level in focus, next level in intensity.”

This level isn’t supposed to exist. After a 67-win season and subsequent championship, the Golden State Warriors weren’t expected to get better. That’d be lunacy, especially in a climate in which many basketball pundits are still slow to accept last season’s greatness. Lunacy might be reality, though.

After beating their first four opponents by more than anyone has (plus-100), after strangling the Memphis Grizzlies into a 26-of-96 shooting night and 50-point loss — 119-69 — the champs are looking better than ever. They’re doing it without head coach Steve Kerr and center Andrew Bogut, and both could return at any moment.

Stephen Curry has been beyond impressive, scoring more points (148) through the first four games than anyone other than Michael Jordan. He has also done this in 127 minutes on 84 shots.

“It’s about us, it’s not about sending a message really,” Curry said of Golden State’s recent approach. It’s easy to draw conclusions from how the Warriors have battered four former playoff opponents, but Curry insists their motivation is internal. “We know that we’re capable of being a better team than we were last year. We have so much potential in here and so much talent that we don’t want to waste it.”

The Golden State defense has grown more comfortable, and they’re dabbling in new tactics. This early season has seen a lot of blitzing double teams from the baseline and traps further out. When asked about the trapping, Golden State assistant coach and defensive coordinator Ron Adams said, “We’re being a little more active this year in that regard.” He continued, “We can play in different ways defensively. I would say this about our defense: I think we have grown, and we’re still growing. That’s exciting.”

“I think we’re trying to get to that next level,” Green repeated, “but there are still more levels to get to.”


VIDEO: Warriors impress in rout of Grizzlies

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Morning shootaround — Oct. 27


VIDEO: Sekou Smith digs in on why the 2015-16 season will be great

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron, Rose ready to go in opener  | Report: Carlisle, Mavs negotiating extension | Taylor discusses Saunders’ passing | Ainge in it for long haul with Celtics

No. 1: LeBron OK to go in opener; Rose ready for opener, too — Well, after months of waiting, the season is FINALLY here. And what better way to start things off than with a matchup between two Eastern Conference heavyweights — the defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who take on their longtime rival, the Chicago Bulls (8 ET, TNT). The best thing about the matchup may be that former MVPs LeBron James and Derrick Rose, both slowed by injury in the preseason, are ready to go and neither is expected to be on a minutes limit.

James spoke about his status after practice, which we’ll turn to Tom Withers of the Associated Press for more:

After sitting out nearly two weeks since undergoing an anti-inflammatory injection, James was able to fully participate in Cleveland’s practice for the second straight day and said he’ll play Tuesday in the season opener at Chicago.

“I feel good,” James said following Monday’s workout at Cleveland Clinic Court. “I’m ready to go. I’ll be active tomorrow.”

James had been limited in practice since receiving the shot Oct. 13, the second injection he has gotten in 10 months. The four-time MVP took some contact Sunday and said the big test would be how he responded after the workout. Although he didn’t get into any specifics, James feels good enough to take on the Bulls.

The 30-year-old was asked if he ever worried he’d have to miss the opener.

“Nope,” he said.

“He won’t have a specific limit minutes-wise,” coach David Blatt said. “On the other hand, we will be cautious and careful and not overplay.”

“We’re not going to put too much on the first game of the season,” James said. “We’ve put in a lot of work over the last few weeks, and you can only try to get healthy, work your habits, work your rhythm and our last few practices have been very good. But you don’t put too much onus on if this will be the team that we’ll be long-term tomorrow.”

The Cavs will begin the season missing All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who is still recovering from surgery on a broken kneecap and may be weeks away from his debut. Cleveland will welcome back forward Kevin Love, who missed most of the playoffs after dislocating his left shoulder in the first round against Boston.

“I did everything leading up to be ready for this,” said Love, who re-signed with the Cavs as a free agent this summer. “My body feels good and now is just the time to get to work for the real thing.”

And here’s Sam Smith of Bulls.com, who caught up with Rose after practice about the upcoming season:

I was reminded Monday after Bulls practice about Jerry’s mom from the Seinfeld series. She’d heard about “Crazy” Joe Davola not liking Jerry. She’s stunned, in disbelief. “How can anyone not like you!” she exclaims. “Doesn’t like you? How can that be?”

And then there was Derrick Rose Monday concluding another long media session in the Advocate Center and being asked about having to endure yet another setback, his fourth surgery in the last four years, though expected to be in the starting lineup Tuesday when the Bulls open the 2015-16 NBA season against the Cleveland Cavaliers on national TNT.

“It’s part of it,” Rose said. “It’s a big picture. I’ve got to take the good with the bad and the ugly. It was ugly when I started training camp. Like I said, taking the good, how my life has been. I’ve been so comfortable; my family has been so comfortable, everybody is enjoying their life. It’s a lot of positives and a lot of blessings that come with playing this sport. Getting hit in the eye, all these surgeries, I’ve got to take it. This game changed my life too much.

“I don’t think I have to prove anything to anyone,” said Rose. “It’s just all about having fun. Enjoying the game, appreciating the game. Seeing how far this game has taken me. How comfortable my life is as far as I’m able to focus on certain things, focus on my profession without any distractions. I just feel blessed. I’m not expecting anything (Tuesday). I’m just expecting to win the game. For myself, I don’t care. As long as we win the game, I’m fine.”

I hear plenty of discussion, national and local about the Bulls, and so much is about Rose and that he doesn’t relate to his team and is some sort of distraction and it’s some fight over whose team it is and should be and some lack of respect and regard for all that is holy and good in the world. I have defended Rose plenty in the past. So full disclosure, as the saying goes, is warranted. But I never quite get this level of media and public outrage directed toward him.

All I see is a guy who works relentlessly to get back and play basketball.

It’s all he wants to do.

Rose meets with media as much or more than anyone on the Bulls, at least when he is not in rehabilitation. He answers questions with sincerity and often humor. After the game in Nebraska last week he did group and individual interviews. He obviously has a strong faith as I have never heard him blame anyone for his injuries or ask why it befell him.

And now he’ll be in the starting lineup and open the season Tuesday against tormentor LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I’m very excited, very excited as far as what I just went through as far as the surgery, and just how much I miss the game,” said Rose. “My appreciation for the game just grew. My faith grew as far as all this is out of my hands. I can’t control this. I’ve just got to go along and take the good with the bad.’’

And because Rose is playing and in good health and basically of positive attitude, the Bulls again have a chance to defeat the Cavaliers.

“I’m just happy to be back playing again, so it really doesn’t matter,” Rose told reporters when hearing for the first time he’d be starting Tuesday following coach Fred Hoiberg’s comments to media. “It’s (left eye) still blurry a little bit. But every day, like I said, it’s improving. It’s a slow process. A little bit (of double vision still) when I look certain places. But if I concentrate really hard or focus on it a little harder, I can see more things at certain times. I see side-to-side, but usually when I look certain places I see double still. When I play I just play with one eye. Close the other eye until my vision is back clearer. I just close one eye and just go out there and play. It worked out for me.’’

“If anything (the surgery) helped me recover with my body,” said Rose, putting a positive spin on getting his face broken. “It helped me focus on other things, like my ankles and my hips, getting them loose and staying loose. As far as massages and all that stuff, I made sure I got the maintenance for my body.

“I think my body is fit for (the season) now,” said Rose. “I lost a couple of pounds. Last year I was at 212. This year I’m at 203. Same weight I was when I won MVP. So feel a bit lighter. And who knows? The way I was able to drive the ball [Friday playing 10 minutes against the Mavs with eight points], it felt good driving, and like I said, it boosted my confidence a little bit.

“Since the first day, I really haven’t had a problem with (wearing the protective mask),” said Rose. “When I’m playing I’m so focused on the game that you really don’t know that you have it on until there’s a timeout or something like that and you’ve got to wipe it off. But other than that I don’t care.


VIDEO: Derrick Rose talks about his status for tonight’s opener

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Report: Saunders will not return to Timberwolves this season

Flip Saunders will not return to coach the Timberwolves this season, owner Glen Taylor told Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Friday in the latest sad update as Saunders battles cancer.

Saunders, also the president of basketball operations, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June. He has been  hospitalized since early September.

Asked if he expected Saunders to return, Taylor paused, then said: “Not this year. I just think his illness, I mean, it’s serious. At this point, if he came back I still think he’d have a hard time to recover all his energy and all that because he has been in the hospital for a long time.”

From Zgoda:

Doctors treating Saunders called his disease treatable and curable when the Wolves announced his diagnosis in mid-August. At the time, the team said Saunders intended to continue working while he received chemotherapy treatments, which he had completed by the time he was hospitalized in September.

Taylor called the developments “an unbelievable situation we hadn’t anticipated going into this season” and said he talked with the team’s players about Saunders’ condition and his influence on all of them as coach, chief basketball decision-maker and franchise part-owner during a team dinner at Taylor’s Mankato home earlier this month.

“I don’t care how old you get or how experienced you get, these friendships that are in your lives are so important,” said Taylor, who has employed Saunders two different times and known him since shortly after he bought the team in 1994. “They do affect your heart and your mind on a daily basis.”

Taylor said he and Saunders had talked enough throughout the summer that there has been a “blueprint” to follow that includes such things as buying out young forward Anthony Bennett’s contract before training camp began.

The Timberwolves had previously named Sam Mitchell the interim coach and expanded the duties of general manager Milt Newton in an attempt to fill the void in Saunders’ absence.

Morning shootaround — Oct. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Tristan Thompson and Cavs sweat out deadline | Dwight Howard feels silence is better this time | Back in the coaching chair, Sam Mitchell is ready | Big man pairing has Okafor and Sixers excited |

No. 1: Tristan Thompson officially a holdout — The midnight deadline came and went and nothing changed in the Tristan Thompson negotiations, or lack thereof. Thompson had until midnight to sign the Cavs’ qualifying offer, which he refused to do. And the sides are still apart on a new deal. Thompson can either sign a new deal or accept an offer from another team until March 1, which the Cavs would then be free to match. The Cavs expected Thompson to report to training camp Friday, although that’s uncertain now. Here’s Jason Lloyd of the Beacon Journal with a recap

The two sides remained separated this week on a long-term deal. If Thompson accepts the qualifying offer, he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Contracts are fairly rigid under the collective bargaining agreement, making holdouts rare in the NBA — although they do happen. Anderson Varejao’s bitter contract dispute spilled into December in 2007 before he finally signed a three-year, $17 million offer sheet with the Charlotte Bobcats that was quickly matched by the Cavs.

“It wasn’t easy for me. I missed the first 21 games if I remember,” Varejao said Thursday. “But I had to do it back then because I felt like I was disrespected with the offer they offered me. I don’t really know what’s going on with Tristan right now, numbers and stuff, I’m not sure. But I’m pretty confident he will be here soon.”

LeBron James twice in recent days also said he was optimistic the two sides would reach agreement on a long-term deal sooner than later.

James Jones is the secretary/treasurer of the players union and held the role when the current collective bargaining agreement was ratified. Players typically always stick together on financial issues, yet Jones is a veteran trying to win another championship and understands Thompson is a vital piece the Cavs need.

“First thing’s first. We understand that this is a business, and once the business is taken care of we can come in and work on the floor,” Jones said. “Until that’s resolved, he’s handling his business and we support him 100 percent. At the same time, the guys that are here are working, and we have a goal and a mission and we’re not going to let anything stop us from focusing. We’re staying on course.”

***

No. 2: Dwight Howard feels silence is better this time — When the summer arrives and if he becomes a free agent, there won’t be a big fuss made about Dwight Howard. For one, he perhaps isn’t the franchise player now than he was then. And he isn’t going to make the process a dramatic presentation, unlike a few years ago when he made a messy exit from Orlando. Older and wiser and certainly stung by the criticism, Howard has adopted a new approach this time: He’d rather leave well enough alone. Ken Berger of CBS Sports had a take on Dwight and what the future may hold…

Given that each of Howard’s pre-free agency go-rounds with the Magic and the Lakers turned into a full-on circus, this was a step in the right direction for the soon-to-be 30-year-old All-Star.

“There’s no need for me to focus on anything next summer,” Howard said. “My job is to focus on how I can get this team to be the best team in the NBA and win a championship.”

The Rockets didn’t get LaMarcus Aldridge, as there is only one LaMarcus Aldridge and he signed with the Spurs. But with a worthwhile gamble on Ty Lawson — who will take some of the play-making pressure and defensive attention away from James Harden — the Rockets will be among the better teams in a loaded Western Conference. According to Las Vegas oddsmaker Bovada, the Rockets’ championship odds are 16-1 — sixth in the NBA.

Though the team revolves around Harden, the Rockets need a healthy, committed and engaged Howard to be in the hunt to come out of the West. Healthy, committed and engaged, however, are not words that have been synonymous with Howard in recent years.

With the Lakers, he was hindered by after-effects of back surgery and an uneasy partnership with Kobe Bryant. Last season, he played only 41 games due to persistent issues with his right knee.

In many ways, Howard is a cautionary tale for marquee free agents who are thinking about leaving their teams when the TV revenue windfall hits the market over the next two summers. After forcing his way to the Lakers from Orlando in a 2012 trade, Howard spent one miserable season in LA before bolting to the Rockets. Howard, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are just a few examples of superstars who left for supposedly greener pastures (either through free agency or via trade) and still have yet to advance as far in the postseason as they’d been with their former teams.

Are you paying attention, Kevin Durant?

***

No. 3: Back in the coaching chair, Sam Mitchell is ready — The guy in charge of the Wolves at the moment never thought he’d be in this position so soon. But a year after joining the staff as the top assistant to Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell is now coaching the Wolves while Saunders recovers from cancer treatment. Mitchell was a former Coach of the Year with the Raptors but flamed out shortly thereafter and found himself out of work until his old buddy Saunders reached out. Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune recently did a question and answer with Mitchell…

Q. It has been seven years since you were a head coach. These obviously aren’t the circumstances you wanted, but did you always want to do this again?

A. Yeah, once I made the decision to come back into coaching, to prove myself and show people I want to be a head coach again. I enjoyed my time in the media. I learned a lot, got to watch a lot of basketball. It still tugs at me a little bit with the circumstances, but we all have a job to do and we’ve got to be professional and do our jobs.

Q. How did being away from coaching change the way you look at the game?

A. When you’re coaching, you just watch your team and the opponent. When you’re doing TV and radio, you’re watching everybody. I got a chance to talk to different coaches. Why do you do this or do that? It was a great learning experience and it proved to me I can do something else if I needed to. A lot of guys panic if they’re not in coaching, like that’s all I know, what am I going to do? It gave me confidence in myself that I can do other things.

Q. You said it at the news conference yourself and Glen Taylor said he has seen you mature. How will people who watched those Raptors teams see it now?

A. That’s not for me to say. I think every day you try to get a little better. That’s what I try to do. I’m probably not as hard on myself and not as hard on people as I used to be. I’ll probably still have my moments. But I appreciate life in different ways now. I can appreciate what these guys do, I can appreciate what assistant coaches do, I can appreciate what the media does now because I was there. Hopefully with that experience I have more patience and I look at things a little differently. But I’m not going to sit here and try to list how I’m different. I guess if you’re around me enough, you’ll see it.

Q. Were you too hard, too intense the first time around?

A. Well, I’m not going to lose my intensity. I was talking to my minister recently and he reminded me don’t lose what got you here. You’re an intense person, but you can do it a little bit different. I can communicate a little differently. Hopefully my language is better.

***

No. 4: Big man pairing has Okafor and Sixers excitedJahlil Okafor was a high lottery pick and so was Nerlens Noel and now these two found themselves playing next to each other for the team that drafted them. When that team is the Sixers, you can see what they’d be in position to score a pair of bigs in two years. Now many teams have the luxury of putting two promising young bigs on the floor and watching them develop, yet that will be one of the main themes of the Sixers this season while they use yet another 82-game season to search for a star from within. Marcus Hayes of the Daily News thinks Philly is on to something …

With skillful tanking and blind luck, the Sixers today find themselves in a nearly unprecedented position. Noel and Okafor were the two most coveted post players of their respected draft classes; each nearly 7 feet tall with wonderful athletic gifts, though slightly different; each hungry to prove he was more valuable than the slot in which he was drafted.

Ralph Sampson, the Virginia gentleman, and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian project, were drafted first overall a year apart by the Rockets, but they played only two full seasons together. Both No. 1 overall picks, they never had the extra incentive of being snubbed.

Charismatic Midshipman David Robinson had cemented his Hall of Fame berth by the time the Spurs added dour islander Tim Duncan in 1997.

“They were very different people,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown, who worked with Duncan and Robinson briefly as a Spurs assistant.

Those pedigreed pairs had less in common than Noel and Okafor.

Both Noel (Boston) and Okafor (Chicago) are products of big American cities; AAU-groomed, highly touted, one-and-done products of elite college programs expected to lead their drafts.

Both also are still upset that other teams passed on them. Each was projected as the No. 1 overall pick but slipped; Noel, injured, to fifth two years ago; Okafor, his unmatched skill set out of vogue, to third this year.

So, they are angry.

So much common ground.

So much time to grow.

It shouldn’t take long.
***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Warriors will wear special jerseys in the opener … Mike Conley is sticking with the mask for now Serge Ibaka is coming back from an injury too, remember … Dorell Wright wrote a letter to his younger brother and NBA rookie Delon …

Report: Cancer battle ongoing for Timberwolves’ Saunders


The announcement by Golden State that Warriors coach Steve Kerr is taking a leave of absence to recover from back surgery brought the number of NBA head coaches dealing with health issues this preseason to two. The other, of course, is Minnesota’s Flip Saunders, who is battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma and will not be actively involved with the Timberwolves for at least the first half of the 2015-16 season.

Saunders’ dual role as president/head coach is being handled on an interim basis by GM Milt Newton and assistant coach Sam Mitchell. The organization is giving Saunders and his family as much time and privacy as they need while fighting his illness. Wolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did provide an update Thursday during a live chat on the newspaper’s website:

There’s no question things have changed dramatically since the team announced his diagnosis in August, back when it quoted his doctors saying the cancer was very treatable and curable. Since then there have been changes to the way his body handled the chemotherapy (and maybe how much cancer they’ve found) that have made it life threatening. Everyone involved has gone radio silent because of the family’s request for privacy and federal patient-privacy laws, etc., but between the complete silence, the lack of people visiting as far as I can tell apart from his immediate family and very inner circle while he remains hospitalized here in Minneapolis and the things I’m hearing second-hand, well, none of it is good. I’ll just say this, and this is just my own opinion, if he pulls through this: I doubt very much he’s back this year, it’s probably unlikely he coaches again just because of the stress inherent doing both those jobs and I think there’s a pretty good chance he doesn’t return full time to either job. As far as the franchise goes, that will put them in a holding pattern for some time. I can’t see Glen Taylor allowing Milt Newton and Sam to make a major decision until they know more about Flip’s future and Glen decides who will run his team for the long term. I wouldn’t assume it’ll be Milt and Sam going forward, that’s just for the short term until things become clearer.

No. 1 pick Towns’ hectic summer settles down to serious NBA business

VIDEO: Take an all-access look as Karl-Anthony Towns becomes 2015’s No. 1 pick

EDINA, Minn. – From being the first NBA newbie to shake Adam Silver‘s hand on the stage in Brooklyn to squeezing into a phone booth with actor Kevin Spacey on late-night television, from taking some high, hard lessons from new grizzled teammate Kevin Garnett to maybe bringing some high heat of his own from the mound before the Los Angeles Angels-Minnesota Twins MLB game Sunday afternoon at Target Field, it has been a summer like no other for Karl-Anthony Towns.

But the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 6-foot-11 rookie forward/center knows that, fun as it was, it all flows from his status as the league’s No. 1 overall draft pick.

“I got a job this summer, I didn’t get a scholarship,” Towns said Saturday. “So for me, I actually have to play a different role now. It’s been a crazy summer, to say the least. The most hectic I’ve ever had in my life. But to be able to have it all happen the way it happened is a blessing.”

Towns, recently back in the Twin Cities after traveling the country for the NBA Draft, the Las Vegas Summer League and workouts in L.A., participated in a pair of youth basketball camps Saturday hosted by the Wolves. He’ll throw out the first pitch before the Angels-Twins game in downtown Minneapolis. And then he’ll be a week out from what matters most, the first training camp of his professional life.

Prepping for that has gotten most of Towns’ recent attention, he said.

“I’ve been everywhere,” said the University of Kentucky’s newest-minted millionaire. “But mostly just focusing on my game, making sure I’m the most prepared I could be for the season. Just came back from L.A. Had a great time training there for a week of, I guess I call it basketball meditation. I usually do [it]. My phone was completely off and making sure I was focusing on the game.”

A multi-talented big man, Towns said he worked out with some NFL players, along with former NBA forward Al Harrington. “But mostly I was working out by myself,” he said. “Basketball-wise, just playing, getting ready for the season, making sure I have all my fundamentals and making sure my skills are as sharp as possible.”

The expectations for Minnesota, just 16-66 last season in a rebuilding season, are genuine now. No one is predicting a leap into the Western Conference playoffs, but the talent base is broad now with the addition of Towns to a roster already blessed with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and a half dozen other legit players.

The Wolves will cope with the absence, at least early in the 2015-16 season, of coach and basketball president Flip Saunders, on a leave of absence while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Assistant Sam Mitchell will serve as head coach on an interim basis at least through the season’s first half. Towns said he doesn’t expect the situation to disrupt his or his teammates’ development.

“No, we’re fighting right now,” Towns said Saturday. “We’re all fighting the same way he’s fighting. We all just worry about him getting better. He’s getting better every day. And we’re just glad to know our coach is getting well.”

Towns’ first taste of NBA practices and his swift learning curve in Las Vegas gave him a base to build on in camp. He averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, looked far more comfortable by just his second game, yet had three games with seven or more fouls (players don’t foul out in the summer league). That won’t cut it in the preseason or the regular season, of course.

“I think the biggest thing is, you have to understand the different rules,” Towns said. “There are so many rules that change from college to the NBA. Change of pace is a big thing also.”

Towns, who won’t turn 20 until Nov. 15, said he talked to some of the kids Saturday about doing “what you love.” Growing up in Piscataway, N.J., he switched his early passion for baseball – he was a pitcher – to basketball over time and not merely because of a growth spurt.

“I did what I loved. That’s why I think I play the way I do,” Towns said. “I’m very passionate, and I love the game I play.”

That should serve him well as his relationship with Garnett deepens. The greatest player in Wolves history, back for his first full season in Minnesota since 2006-07, is seen even in late career as one of the NBA’s fiercest competitors. Towns’ rookie season figures to be a special project for KG and KAT.

“He’s my mentor,” said Towns, who spent time with Garnett in Los Angeles last month. “Everything he knows, and countless years he’s been playing this game at a high level, [I am] just trying to garner information from him every day. Learn how to be a better leader, how to be a champion, just to be a true professional.”

Minnesota rookie Karl Anthony-Towns signs autographs after a Timberwolves youth clinic. -- Photo by David Sherman

Minnesota rookie Karl Anthony-Towns signs autographs after a Timberwolves youth clinic.
— Photo by David Sherman

Rival coaches welcome, dread healthy return of Lakers’ Bryant


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant’s career milestones

CHICAGO – As one of the NBA head coaches said Thursday, the word out of Los Angeles that Kobe Bryant is fully healthy for the start of the Lakers’ training camp is a classic case of good news-bad news.

Good news for Bryant, the Lakers and NBA fans, obviously, after enduring Bryant’s two injury-marred partial seasons. Bad news, presumably, for rivals if Bryant is able to get back to something approximating his Hall of Fame-bound younger self.

But Bryant, at age 37, after a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2013 and a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder last season, never has been so mortal or so old. He’s returning to a Lakers team that has gone 48-116 the past two seasons, the worst of the franchise’s L.A. era. And the harsh reality is that the Lakers were no better with Bryant in the 41 games he played than they were without him in the other 123 – their winning percentages with (12-29) and without (36-87) were precisely the same: .293.

So it’s one of the larger questions looming over the 2015-16 NBA season: How far back will Bryant get? Several of the league’s head coaches tackled it – and shared their thoughts on Bryant’s particular brand of greatness and intensity – Thursday prior to the start of their annual fall meeting in downtown Chicago.

“I think he’s still probably capable of being an All-Star,” said George Karl of the Sacramento Kings. “A lot of Kobe Bryant now is his brain as much as it’s his skills and athleticism. For years he was skilled and athletically bigger, stronger than the players he played against. Now he’s learned the angles. He’s still going to be extremely difficult to defend – you’re going to need to defend him with one of your better players. He might not be as great defensively but he’s still going to make defensive plays.”

As for Bryant’s ability to make peace with any decline in his game, Karl said: “It’s probably a little more difficult than you think it is. I was a very ordinary player, and I didn’t want to give up on who I was. I didn’t want to think I wasn’t an NBA player and I wasn’t good enough to play in that game. Now Kobe’s going from the top of the mountain, from a Mt. Rushmore-type, to maybe just being a really good All-Star. I don’t know how long Kobe will take to make that decision. Will he like who he is and continue to play at that level, or does he just want to remember himself as being one of the best?”

Washington’s Randy Wittman talked of the tough intersection Bryant’s at, with injuries, age and a struggling Lakers team converging. “Some handle it better than others,” the Wizards coach said. “But look, I don’t anticipate anything different from what Kobe’s been. I think he’s going to come out and try to show that he’s still got it.”

Coping with the Lakers’ losing ways? “I don’t think he thinks they’re going to lose,” Wittman said.

Sam Mitchell, interim Timberwolves coach during Flip Saunders‘ medical leave to battle cancer, said he thought of Bryant while packing for his flight Thursday morning from Minneapolis. ‘They were talking on ESPN about Peyton Manning, and they were saying he didn’t have the zip he had and using all these clichés,” Mitchell said. “But remember something about those veteran players, they’ve got heart, man. They’re gonna go down swinging. Eventually Father Time’s gonna win. But Kobe Bryant’s got five championship rings and he’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around in my life. And you know what? In his mind, he’s still Kobe Bryant. Until someone proves him wrong and knocks him off.”

The Timberwolves open their season against the Lakers at Staples Center on Oct. 28. “We’re going to prepare for Kobe Bryant on opening night as if he’s the Kobe of old,’ Mitchell said, “because he’s going to come out and play.”

Denver’s Mike Malone echoed that. “You can’t talk about Kobe like an ordinary player,” Malone said. “His will to win, his tenacious personality … everybody says ‘Well, he’s not going to be the same.’ But I’m never going to short-change Kobe Bryant.”

Malone was on Golden State’s staff when Bryant suffered his Achilles injury, a point at which some thought Bryant’s playing career was done or jeopardized. And now? “I’m curious to see how he is and, really for our league, I hope he comes back and plays great,” the Nuggets’ new coach said. “I expect to see a very determined, passionate and hungry Kobe Bryant, because he’s been away from the game for a while. I know when Denver plays the Lakers, we’re not going to go in expecting to see ‘poor old Kobe.’ We’re going to expect to see the Kobe of old.”

That word comes up a lot now: old. Father Time has a consecutive victories streak and doesn’t play favorites.

“He’s gonna still be ‘Kobe Bryant,’ ” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “but when you’ve missed two years basically and you’re older, it’s not easy. Just the rhythm and timing alone, on top of the injuries and fighting the age as well. Kobe is probably as mentally as tough as any player we’ve seen since Michael [Jordan]. So he’s gonna be ready. He’ll be good.”

Rivers thinks the Lakers bottomed out last season and will be up to the challenge Bryant throws at them, within reason. “When he left, when he was healthy, they were really good,” the Clippers coach said. “He has a lot of young guys he can be a mentor to. And they’ve added – they had a better summer, so there will be some veterans he can play with as well.”

And poke and prod and ride as mercilessly as he does himself.


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