Posts Tagged ‘Serge Ibaka’

Blogtable: Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Can Warriors or Clippers better absorb loss of star guard? |
Thoughts on Spurs-Thunder? | Who should be the Lakers’ next coach?


> Game 1 of the Spurs-Thunder conference semifinals series is Saturday. Who or what is the X factor in this series? And which team do you predict will advance?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Danny Green, as another Spurs’ on-ball defender, is my X factor. When an opponent has two explosive scoring stars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it means some San Antonio player has to step up besides Kawhi Leonard. Green has the size to match up with Westbrook and the fundamentals to make deny or bother Durant while chewing up some shot clock. He also can force OKC’s guys to work at the other end if he’s able to contribute offensively. Green’s 40 percent shooting from the arc against Memphis was a nice start, a bump from his 33 percent of the regular season. Where does it all end? Barring any more of these playoff-convulsing injuries we’ve been getting, I think San Antonio advances in six or seven games.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com Serge Ibaka is my X factor. When he’s running the floor, guarding the lane and also knocking down jumpers, he’s an athletic force that can be tough for the Spurs to handle. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook demanding so much attention from defenses, Ibaka is the third weapon that can be a difference-maker. But we haven’t seen much of that guy all season. Spurs in 7.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: That guy trying to break into the Spurs rotation, Tim Duncan. That’s a little extreme, but Duncan did have a reduced role at just 20.3 minutes per game in the first round because of matchups and San Antonio blowout wins. Now comes the chance to face an opponent with more bigs — Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter — that should mean a larger presence for Duncan. A big contribution will be a step toward the Spurs advancing.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com This sounds weird, but the X-factors are named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. For over a decade they were the backbone of the franchise. Right now, none are playing efficiently and for the most part are backup singers to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. That must change ASAP. San Antonio will need more from at least two of those three against a hungry OKC team, or else Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be a series away from returning to the NBA Finals.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Danny Green is the X-factor. The ball will find the open man in the Spurs’ offense and that open man is often Green. He had a rough regular season, shooting 33 percent from 3-point range (27 percent in March and April), but was 6-for-13 in the first round. He’ll also be the primary defender on Russell Westbrook, so his ability to get back in transition, fight through screens, and stay in front of the Thunder point guard will be critical.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The dueling wild cards in this series are salty Kevin Durant and raging Russell Westbrook. The Thunder superstars (sorry Mark Cuban, they’ve got two) are playing with monstrous chips on their shoulders these days and nothing would delight them more than to upset all the conference finals plans we’ve all been talking about for months. That said, I’m picking the Spurs to advance in a knock down, drag out six-game affair.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: This one is going to be all about defense. The Spurs are the league’s most cohesive and versatile defensive team. Will the Thunder be able to match San Antonio’s passion and attention to detail? I’m afraid not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHaving seen both of these teams in person over the last two weeks, the one part of the match-up that I can’t reconcile is how will the Spurs stop Russell Westbrook? You haven’t seen elite speed until you’ve watched Westbrook in person — he literally flies down the court, his feet barely touching the floor, like he’s running across the surface of a lake. And i just don’t know how San Antonio matches that speed. I guess you could try Kawhi Leonard against him, although I’d rather save Leonard for Kevin Durant. Either way, the Spurs have a matchup problem waiting to happen.

Two-on-five works well for OKC


VIDEO: Thunder handle Mavs 131-102 in Game 3

DALLAS — There is never a downside to having a pair of top-five players as teammates, especially if they respect and genuinely like each other and seldom, if ever, conflict on the floor. This is certainly the case with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City would be a dusty NBA outpost without them.

There is a nit-pick, though. When the Thunder are involved in tight finishes, you often wonder why they bother calling a timeout, because there’s no sense drawing up a play. Everyone knows what’s coming. OKC will spread the floor and allow either Durant or Westbrook to go one-on-one.

It’s the type of simple and non-creative strategy that helped grease Scott Brooks‘ path out of town. The ex-OKC coach, freshly hired in Washington, showed no imagination with his playbook in the final two minutes and critics howled and cringed whenever OKC lost close playoff games to the elite teams in the West. The blame went to Brooks instead of key injuries to Westbrook and Durant.

But look here: Billy Donovan is doing the same thing, and in that sense, you can’t tell the difference between one coach and the other.

This strategy was moot in a pair of blowout victories over the Mavericks in their first-round series, but in Game 2, which OKC lost by a point, Donovan had Durant keep firing even though Durant eventually missed 26 shots. He did drill a critical 3-pointer in the final minute, but by then OKC was seconds away from being upset.

In one sense, how can any coach take the ball out of the hands of players who are averaging more than 20 points and bring great credentials? If anything, that would be grounds for a coach getting fired, or at least it seems. Besides, Durant and Westbrook probably wouldn’t stand for it and would keep the ball anyway.

“Kevin and Russell are such great one-on-one players that you’re not going to run motion offense,” Donovan said. “What you do is space the floor for them. When you create space, then it’s up to them to make good decisions. They just can’t jack-knife and shoot over two guys.”

Westbrook is so great at reaching the rim, and Durant brings superb shooting range, that Donovan (like Brooks before him) will play the odds. The downside is their teammates stand around and make little effort to be anything more than mannequins. Also, it feeds the notion that Durant and Westbrook don’t trust their teammates with the ball in those situations, and so great defensive teams will exploit that lack of trust and simply leave those teammates open while doubling on the All-Star duo.

Again, this is likely good enough to get OKC  beyond the first round and the understated Mavericks. But what about the next round against the Spurs, who can use Kawhi Leonard on single coverage on Durant? Or a smart defensive team like the Warriors? Doesn’t Donovan need to introduce a new wrinkle that in some way involves, for example, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka, the under-used Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters?

It’s probably too late for that. Those players, neglected all season in these situations, probably aren’t comfortable with the ball and the burden that comes with it. And so, unlike the Spurs or Warriors, the Thunder’s offensive formula omits all but two players, although they are two very special players. OKC will go two-on-five and continue to believe that is a big advantage in its favor.


VIDEO: Durant scores 34 points in OKC’s Game 3 win

Morning shootaround — March 21


VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant calls Oklahoma City ‘home’ | Lakers’ youngsters will finally get to play through mistakes | Gentry comes to defense of beat up Davis | Mavericks say they owe it to Dirk to make playoffs

No. 1: Durant calls Oklahoma City ‘home’ — The speculation won’t stop anytime soon. That’s just the way it is when a superstar like Kevin Durant is approaching free agency. So reading between the lines is the only thing Oklahoma City Thunder fans can do until July. They can take solace, though, in the fact that Durant continues to show love to the city he calls “home” right now. Royce Young of ESPN delivers the latest bread crumbs for those trying to figure out Durant’s thinking on Oklahoma City and what it means to him:

When the Oklahoma City Thunder visited New York a couple months ago, Kevin Durant was asked specifically what he thought about the city. When Durant was in Boston last week, again, he was asked about the city. The premise is easy to understand: Big market, big team, big future free agent. You can piece that puzzle together.

But on Sunday, standing on a red carpet next to his mom outside the front doors of his restaurant in Bricktown, just a few blocks from the arena he currently plays in, Durant stopped to answer a few questions.

One of which being: You get asked about all these other cities, but what about this one?

“It’s home,” he said. “It’s home.”

Like any other answer he’s given over the last few months, that’s no more a breadcrumb leading to answering what he’s going to do come July 1, but it is a reaffirmation of Durant’s affection for the place he’s called home the last seven years.

“I’ve always felt that this place meant so much to me,” he said. “It has a special place in my heart and my family’s heart as well. And we want to do our justice by giving back and giving to the less fortunate. That’s how I was raised, that’s how my mom taught me, how my grandmother taught me, is to give back. I’ve been blessed with so much I want to be a blessing on someone else.”

As is the case whenever the Thunder do anything, virtually the entire organization was present for the event, including Russell WestbrookSerge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams.

“Since I’ve been doing this job we’ve walked into the same building every single day,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of Durant, who he drafted at the age of 18. “I can honestly tell you there’s never a day that goes by that I take for granted that I work in an organization that has Kevin Durant representing it. His evolution as a person has been as steady, consistent and impressive as his evolution as a player. And that’s quite the statement.”

(more…)

Blogtable: Are Thunder a great team?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Are Thunder a great team? | Deciphering LeBron’s cryptic messages? |
More dangerous sleeper playoff team — Hornets or Blazers?



VIDEOInside the NBA’s experts dissect the Thunder

> After a loss last week, Kevin Durant said the Thunder want to be a great team, but they’re fooling themselves. My question for you: Are the Thunder a great team, or are they fooling themselves?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: You can’t be a great team with a middling defense (19th in points allowed, 13th in Defensive Rating). Nor can you be great when you’re 0-3 against the Warriors. Now, with two Alpha Males like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on your squad, you are always close to great. But until and unless the Thunder figures out how to incorporate everyone on offense on a consistent basis, I see the same ending coming in May. Of late, it looks like OKC is making a more concerted effort to get Serge Ibaka, for example, more shots (double figure attempts in his last 10 games). That’s a step in the right direction.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comWe throw around the word “great” way too easily. No, this OKC team isn’t “great.” There are two “great” teams this season, which is one or two more than most seasons, and one of them – San Antonio – could slip from that perch if a priority on resting players for the postseason chews up the final week or two of the regular season. If the Spurs were to knock off the Warriors, they still might wrest the “great team” title away from Golden State. But if the Thunder ends up winning the title, they’ll be known as the surprisingly good upstart team that upset the two powerhouses in the West.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Thunder have been fooling themselves for a while. They are an incomplete team with two great players and even with the splendid individual talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s a recipe not likely to win a championship in the age of the Warriors and Spurs. For an “elite team” they cough up fourth-quarter leads because their offense relies almost exclusively on Durant and Westbrook to make big shots late. Too many other players around them with limited skills at one end of the court or the other. That’s quite dangerous on any given night, but that formula just doesn’t add up to 16 wins through the playoffs.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Neither. They are not a great team. But they could become very good in time for the playoffs, where greatness is truly established. That’s the potential, not where they are now. The Thunder are definitely not fooling themselves, though. Durant and coach Billy Donovan, two of the critical voices in the locker room, have not hidden from the reality that OKC has been inconsistent much of the season, even when piling up wins the first half of the season, and that it has been getting exposed since the schedule turned tough. This team is struggling in some ways, but the ability to live in reality is not one of them.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: We must first define greatness before giving an answer. Is greatness the 1986 Boston Celtics? How about this season’s Warriors and Spurs, are they the benchmark for greatness? Then no, compared to the teams above in the West, OKC is merely very good at the moment and therefore fooling itself. But the Thunder have the potential to be in that class and anyone who doesn’t think so is fooling themselves. It comes down to whether OKC can play some D when it counts, and if Billy Donovan can convince his stars to occasionally chill with the one-on-one and play team ball in the crunch and be less predictable. Two very big ifs.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey’re a very good team, but they’re a clear step below the Warriors and Spurs. Their offense gets too Russ-and-KD heavy, with little ability to adapt, down the stretch of close games. But defense, especially when they go to their bench, is their real problem. They rank 14th on that end and 25th since late January. They have matched up well with the Spurs over the last several years, so Saturday’s game in San Antonio will be telling. But I’d believe in them more if they could play their starting lineup, which has been the best high-usage lineup in the league, 48 minutes a game.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Great team? Not exactly. Very good team? Absolutely. And I agree with KD: they are fooling themselves if they think playing the way they have, particularly against the other very good and great teams, is going to get it done. The Thunder’s flaws get exposed far too often for me to believe they are title ready. And I still need to see them involve some of their role players at critical moments. It’s always on KD and Russell Westbrook to rescue the Thunder when things get tight. Leaning that hard on your superstars will get you to a certain point, but you need to have other guys to fill in the gaps and make plays, on both ends, in order to take that next step.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: They have great talent. Are they a great team? That’s one of those questions to be answered in hindsight only. Just because they have the talent and the potential doesn’t make them comparable to the Warriors or Spurs — the only way for OKC to be great is to prove it.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThey are, obviously, a pretty good team. While their numbers are good, particularly offensively, to me the Thunder are a great example of the value of the eye test — despite a new coach and new philosophies, they seem to still end up going one-on-one and taking questionable shots at the end of games. (Unrelated but related: I don’t understand how a guy as big and athletic as Serge Ibaka is averaging fewer rebounds per game than Russell Westbrook.) I like the addition of Randy Foye, but I don’t think this team can get to that next level without major philosophical changes.

Morning shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Next man up is new normal in Cleveland | Riley says Heat not looking to trade | Howard responds with love in Houston | Shumpert truly delivers

No. 1: Next man up is new normal in Cleveland The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Cleveland having won six games in a row, but the Cavs used a strong second half run to build an insurmountable lead and win, 104-100. While Kyrie Irving has still yet to return from injury for the Cavs, LeBron James once again stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to lead the way for the Cavs. And as our Steve Aschburner writes, it’s still early, but the Cavs look locked in:

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

“Our motto is the next man up,” said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC’s Kevin Durant. “There’s no excuses around here. Whoever’s in the lineup is ready to go.”

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook‘s injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall — 11 on the offensive end — to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It’s the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It’s the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder’s checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he’s been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that’s old news in a rapidly changing game.

***

No. 2: Riley says Heat not looking to trade The Miami Heat are currently 15-9, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But we know team president Pat Riley is always looking to improve the roster, which could involve making a trade somewhere along the way. A recent report had center Hassan Whiteside on the trade block, and yesterday Riley spoke to the media to say he wasn’t ready to make any moves, at least not quite yet, as Manny Navarro writes in the Miami Herald:

“I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days,” Riley said of rumors Whiteside could be headed to Houston or Sacramento. “I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed.”

Riley said he expects the Heat, which plays the Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, will be “one of [the teams] that is going to be for real” when that 40-game mark is complete Jan. 15.

What does he like about this Heat team?

“Well, we’ve got great depth,” Riley said during a five-minute interview with The Miami Herald and a two local TV stations Thursday during a holiday event for veterans at the Miami VA Fisher House. “I think we have a three-tiered team which is we have a group of great veterans, mid-aged veterans, and then we have youth. We have a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of energy with our young guys.

“Probably some of our best defenders are our young players. They’re trying to get their offensive games to match their defensive games.”

He also likes the leadership that team captains Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem have brought.

“They have no idea how proud I am of them and how they conduct themselves every single night, good or bad — to the community, to the media,” Riley said. “It’s not easy. This league is not easy, and when there’s a high-expectation level, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences of winning and the consequences of losing, and I think our guys do it very well.”

He said coach Erik Spoelstra has done “an exemplary job.”

“I think he’s finding his way to the heart of his team and how they’re going to play, how he can adjust and make those adjustments,” Riley said. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, we have a team that can play big. We have a team that can play medium. And we have a team that can play small. You don’t want to get caught up in any one thing. You just want to create your own identity, which is what I think [Spoelstra is] talking about. Whether you’re big or you’re small, that’s how you’re going to play. I think we’re showing that.”

***

No. 3: Howard responds with love in Houston The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start, including firing coach Kevin McHale. Part of their inconsistent play has come from center Dwight Howard, the former All-NBA player who has suffered various injuries in recent years, and has seen his production fluctuate. But recent reports of Howard wanting out in Houston are, at least according to Howard, not true, as Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle:

“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is people to assume that because things are not going quite well for us that I’ve quit on the team and take away from all the positive things we have done, despite the loss, making the city feel like they’re unwanted,” Howard said on Thursday. “There’s a lot of negativity going around. I haven’t caused it. I haven’t said anything negative to anybody about this team or this situation. I’ve just been trying to find ways to make this situation better, trying to grow as a man, as a basketball player.

“You just try to laugh at it. I don’t want to go out and persecute the people that persecute me. That’s the hardest part. The first reaction is to go back at them. You just have to respond with love.”

A report at sheridanhoops.com on Tuesday cited sources saying Howard is “extremely unhappy” with his role with the Rockets and predicted he would be traded to the Miami Heat. Howard called the report “lies.”

Howard can expect to hear plenty from the Lakers fans tonight at Staples Center. He has often laughed at the taunts in Los Angeles, even singing along with chants in his first return to play the Lakers after signing with the Rockets.

“If they boo me, they boo me,” he said. “Just going to say, ‘Hey, I love you guys. If you boo me, I’m going to respond with love, just try to have a good game, not get frustrated with whatever happens on the floor. I don’t want to smile too much because then I’m (said to) not take it serious. I don’t want to not smile too much because then I’m (called) unhappy. Just going to stay positive.”

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has over the years talked to some players when they have been subject of trade rumors or other media reports. With Howard, Bickerstaff said they have talked often throughout the season, but did not consider that necessary with this week’s reports and that neither took them seriously.

“There’s certain guys that need to be talked to more about those situations and other guys, it doesn’t bother them. I try not to bring attention to it. If a guy does have a problem or a question and he brings it to me, then I’ll talk to him. For the most part, I try to ignore it because there’s so much noise out there.

“We’ve joked about it. We’ve laughed about it. I don’t think it needs to be addressed. I don’t know when I’ve seen him ‘extremely unhappy.’ We’ve had plenty of conversations. We’re in a good place.”

***

No. 4: Shumpert delivers One of the Cavs out with an injury last night was forward Iman Shumpert, recovering from a strained groin. Which meant Shumpert happened to be at home on Wednesday when his pregnant fiancé, Teyana Taylor, unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin writes, Shumpert ended up having to play doctor and delivered his daughter before the paramedics arrived…

The baby, Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., was born at 6:42 a.m, according to the post. Taylor nicknamed her “Junie.”

Taylor wrote that she did not realize she was in labor until she could feel her baby’s head. She said Shumpert used the cord from a pair of headphones to tie off the umbilical cord as the couple waited for the ambulance to arrive minutes later.

The birth came about three weeks before the expected due date of Jan. 16, 2016, which Shumpert previously shared on his Facebook account.

Shumpert and Taylor got engaged in November, with Shumpert proposing to her with a ruby engagement ring on the night of her baby shower.

Shumpert was ruled out of the Cavs’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night with a right groin strain. According to the Cavs, his playing status is questionable moving forward.

Before the 104-100 win over the Thunder, Cleveland coach David Blatt said Shumpert had yet to be re-evaluated by the Cavs since the team returned from Boston, because he was excused to be with his family.

“Due to the recent events, we’ve allowed Shump to do more important things,” Blatt said. “The doctor will get his hands on him, hopefully, [Thursday] evening. Then we’ll be a little bit smarter [about his status]. But he’ll be down for a few days for sure.”

Then Blatt cracked a joke about Shumpert’s surprise delivery skills.

“Dr. Shumpert now,” Blatt said. “And congratulations to Teyana, as well.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Scary moment in Cleveland last night, as LeBron James dove for a loose ball and slammed into Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, sitting courtside. She was taken away on a stretcher and, according to Cleveland.com, treated and released from a local hospitalSteve Kerr hopes to be back on the Warriors’ bench in the next “two to three weeks” … Are the Sacramento Kings interested in trading for Kevin Martin? … Mike D’Antoni was spotted in Philadelphia, presumably there to meet with the Sixers about a job as an assistant … The Milwaukee Bucks held an “informal” meeting with Carlos Boozer in Los Angeles … The Bucks also took a team bonding trip to AlcatrazThe Currys and Drake made a postgame trip to In-N-Out …

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 14


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Irving expected back this week | Chandler back, ready to face Mavs | Thunder stars spread the love vs. Jazz | Can Warriors start another run?

No. 1: Cavaliers expect Irving to return this week — The hope in Cleveland was that Kyrie Irving would make his season debut as early as this week, perhaps Tuesday night in Boston. But it turns out that was a bit ambitious. Irving, coming back from June knee surgery, will most likely have to wait until the weekend to see his first game action of the season. LeBron James has waited this long to have his squad at full strength, what’s another week? Chris Haynes of the Cleveland.com explains:

“We’ve still got some things that we want to go through with him before we let him get back out there,” Cavs coach David Blatt said, “but he is looking good and feeling good.”

There’s a chance he takes the court against Oklahoma City at The Q on Thursday, but it’s more likely that next Sunday, Dec. 20 at home versus Philadelphia is the target date. Either way, it pretty much ensures the three-time All-Star will be in the starting lineup Christmas Day against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Irving is a couple of full practices short of having participated in a week’s worth of sessions. He added one more to his belt on Sunday. His movements and his shot looked good.

Mentally and physically he’s ready to play. He’s built up strength in his legs to where his lower body is stronger than ever. Behind the scenes, he tried to persuade the organization to activate him last week and has been upset with the organization’s response.

The Cavaliers are being cautious. It’s a marathon for a title, not a sprint.

“He still has some testing to do and we’d like him to work a few more days in practice,” Blatt said.

Irving is the final piece to the team reaching full strength for the first time this season.

“It’s great to have bodies,” LeBron James said after the Cavs beat Orlando on Friday. “Coach is going to have a great opportunity to do what he wants to do with the lineups. We’re just missing one more piece and once we get that, we can really start to see what we’re capable of doing.”

***

No. 2: Suns’ Chandler returns just in time to fave former teamTyson Chandler‘s presence in the middle for the Phoenix Suns was sorely missed for eight games as he dealt with a hamstring strain. But he returned to the lineup Sunday and helped the Suns knock off the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Suns get their defensive anchor back just in time for Chandler to face his former team, the Dallas Mavericks, (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic has more:

Tyson Chandler already was back in the swing of things during Sunday’s game when he rolled off a screen for Eric Bledsoe, who sent an alley-oop pass for him.

Chandler stretched back to catch the pass and redirected the ball to the perimeter while in mid-air. But it was a sign that more than Chandler’s right hamstring might be back for the Suns.

“I feel like if I had my springs, I could make up for that,” Chandler said. “I felt like that was on me. It was just good to see the timing.”

Chandler played 23 minutes in his first game back from an eight-game absence with a right hamstring strain. He came off the bench for the first time since April 2010 with Charlotte to ease back into action while Alex Len continued to thrive, having an 18-point, seven-rebound game with rookie star center Karl-Anthony Towns in early foul trouble and playing only 18 minutes.

Chandler’s return comes just in time for him to play against his former team Monday at Dallas, where he had two one-year stints that included the 2011 championship and last season. He departed each time against his choosing. The latter came after Dallas owner Mark Cuban had intimated that they would not let him go again, only to let him do so for the failed pursuit of DeAndre Jordan.

“It’s not as emotional as the first time in the past,” said Chandler, whose return last season to New York after three seasons there was riper for emotion. “For some reason, it doesn’t feel the same. I’m happy to be in Phoenix. I was blessed to a good situation so there’s really no animosity.”

Chandler already has missed more games this season (nine) than he did last season with Dallas (seven) but his defensive impact was felt immediately upon his return. His opposing man scored once in the paint against him Sunday.

“He’s the anchor of our defense,” Suns guard Eric Bledsoe said. “He picks everybody apart and tells them what we need.”

***

No. 3: Thunder stars spread the love to seal fifth straight win — They are more than just a two-man team. Granted, no one should complain when those two men are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But the Oklahoma City Thunder needed more than just their two superstars to seal their fifth straight win, an overtime thriller over the Utah Jazz. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman explains:

Overtime tipped and Russell Westbrook had already scored four points within 36 seconds — a 15-foot pull-up on the opening possession and a weaving fastbreak lefty layup moments later.

The spurt bolted OKC to 100 points. Utah wouldn’t reach triple-digits. Final score: Thunder 104, Jazz 98, with Westbrook’s two early overtime makes serving as enough late offense.

But to seal a season-high fifth straight win, plenty of other contributors were needed. The two biggest were OKC’s other two most important players, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, who both lumbered through a brutal first half before awakening in highlight fashion.

Ibaka didn’t make a shot in the first 24 minutes. Durant had a career-low two first half points, taking only two shots and committing four turnovers. The Thunder trailed Utah 51-38, with a wild Westbrook second quarter buzzer-beater the only reason it wasn’t worse.

“Just getting a bit frustrated with myself,” Durant said. “Had to calm down. Told myself to calm down.”

When he was younger, Durant’s godfather would pull him aside during in-game struggles and tug on his jersey while looking straight into Durant’s face, sternly telling him to focus.

The past two games, both starting slowly and ending with a flurry, Durant’s morphed that memory into a celebration. After big shots in both wins over the Jazz, Durant strolled down the court tugging on his own jersey and yelling at himself.

He had plenty of chances to do it on Sunday night.

Durant scored seven points in the first two minutes of the third quarter and combined with Westbrook to score OKC’s first 20, erasing that 12-point deficit by the 7:38 mark.

From there, the game tilted back and forth deep into the fourth quarter.

With 49 seconds left, the Thunder trailed 94-91. Durant, who was scorching by that point, had the ball isolated in the post. He had a smaller defender on him, so the Jazz doubled. Durant surveyed the floor, identified a weak spot and made the kind of late-game trust pass coach Billy Donovan can only hope becomes habit.

“I seen them shift all the way over and leave Serge wide open,” Durant said. “That’s a bad move because he can shoot that.”

Durant whipped a cross-court laser right to Ibaka. Derrick Favors tried to recover, sprinting back toward Ibaka and jumping. But Ibaka stayed patient, pump-faked, let him soar by and then knocked in the game-tying three.

“I see him working on that every day,” Durant said. “The pump-fake, fly-by three. Huge shot.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook talks about OKC’s comeback win

***

No. 4: Do the Warriors have another streak in them? Now that the Golden State Warriors know what it’s like to be a mere mortal team, courtesy of their historic start to the season being interrupted by that loss in Milwaukee Saturday night, they can get back to normal. But do the mighty Warriors have another streak in them? Could they get on another roll and crank out another double-digit win streak this season? With Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson leading the way, Marcus Thompson III of the Bay Area News Group believes the Warriors are built for another wicked run:

So the Warriors lost. Finally. They are just a regular great team again. This must be how Wolverine felt with regular bones.

But let’s get this on the record now. The Warriors have another long streak in them. They aren’t done blitzing the NBA.

What’s so impressive about what they pulled off was how regular it was for them. They didn’t play lights out for six weeks. They ran off 24 wins to start the season without being at their best.

Their system is that good. Their roster is that deep and versatile. Their best player is that special.

And they still haven’t peaked.

“Love competing with my brothers every night!” Draymond Green tweeted. “Now it’s time to focus on getting better each and every day. Let’s get it.”

In the final seconds, Curry — when it was clear the Warriors would lose — stood there and watched Milwaukee party like it was 1999. And the look on his face, a half a smile beneath weary eyes, was one of a star who’d found motivation.

Milwaukee was celebrating as if it had clinched a playoff series. Better believe the Warriors noticed, and will remember that when the Bucks come to Oakland.

Klay Thompson after the game: “We get to see them again Friday.”

But that’s how high the Warriors had gotten. Beating them — even if it was an exhausted, short-handed version of the Warriors — was celebration worthy.

Starting a season 24-0 puts the Warriors on a level we haven’t seen before. Their trajectory defies logic. Saturday’s defeat may be one of only nine this season, if they break the record for most wins in a season.

Judging by what it took to finally beat them, Milwaukee might be in rare air. When it’s all said and done, they might have made the greatest team ever look normal.

And that’s not normal.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame is making major changes to the election process, which could produce a mega class including Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming in 2016 … Thunder fan Shane McKinzie breaks the $20,000 half-court shot drought … ICYMI, the Washington Wizards will be without Bradley Beal for at least two weeks … DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors own the Philadelphia 76ers like no one else in the league …

ICYMI of the Night: What’s better than an alley-oop? How about a double alley-oop?


VIDEO: Jon Leuer finishes off the alley-oop with a jam

Blogtable: Most entertaining team to watch in 2015-16?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Top international newcomer? | Most entertaining team? | Too many preseason games?



VIDEOWho are the must-watch teams on League Pass in 2015-16?

> The ________ will be the most entertaining team to watch this season, and here’s why.

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Warriors. They already were, and they brought the band back together. Steph Curry spent the summer trying to become even more efficient, and dropped 40 on New Orleans in the opener. The second and third years in a new offense are when a truly smart and skilled team blossoms. Which means trouble for the other 29 teams.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: For the second straight season, the NBA’s most entertaining team probably will be its best team — the Golden State Warriors. A club like the Clippers might pack more personality and purists might find entertainment value in the care and nurturing of a young, developing crew such as Milwaukee or Orlando. Personally, I still get my kicks watching 40 percent of the Memphis Grizzlies – that is, big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol playing old-millennium ball in a 3-crazed NBA. But night in, night out, for pace and production and their undersized leader out top (Steph Curry), Golden State is sports’ DWTS.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The defending-champion Golden State Warriors. Have we forgotten so quickly, the ball movement, the shot-making the versatility, the sheer beauty of the Warriors that practically begged for a musical score in the background?  Play it again, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Warriors. I considered the Thunder because it’s Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka joined by the uncertainty of a new coach, and that wonder of how Billy Donovan will work out adds to the good theater. But c’mon. Golden State is a fun watch anyway, and now the defending champs have the entire league chasing them … while hearing about how the title was luck … and firing back at doubters … with a coach who routinely dishes snark. That’s entrainment.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Thunder. So much at play here, with Kevin Durant returning and seeking to restore his MVP glow, and how Russell Westbrook tries to top what he did the last three months of last season, and what Billy Donovan has in store for a system. Oh, and there’s also the backdrop of KD’s pending free agency. To me, entertainment means points and wins and showdown games against top competition, and OKC will hit that trifecta.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Warriors are the easy answer, and the Thunder are a distant second. But in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards could be Warriors Light. John Wall can’t shoot anything like Stephen Curry, but he’s one of the league’s best passers who will thrive with more space to operate. If Bradley Beal and Otto Porter can build on their postseason performances, this can be a pretty potent offense led by one of the league’s five best point guards.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Clippers have all the ingredients you need to be the No. 1 reality TV show in basketball, both on and off the court. They’ll be the most interesting team to watch, as coach Doc Rivers tries to tinker with the chemistry of a championship-caliber group that has added three ridiculously strong personalities in Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. This is still Chris Paul‘s team, but he might have to share the leadership load with others in ways that he has not been accustomed to recently. They’ll put on a show when they are at their high-flying best.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The Clippers are going to be the edgiest and therefore most entertaining team. Their impatience will be their strength: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are fed up with hearing about what they haven’t done, while DeAndre Jordan, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith all want to be taken seriously. They are going to play with more attitude than any rival contender.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHere’s the thing: Whichever team is the correct answer to this question is a team we aren’t talking about right now. Last season the Atlanta Hawks quickly evolved into a sweet passing tribute to Jogo Bonito, which transformed them into darlings of the basketball nerd set. And then there are the young teams that play entirely on spirit and fire with a style that may be unsustainable, but no less watchable. So I’ll take a guess and say a team that might be worth tuning in for, if healthy, will be the Minnesota Timberwolves. Between Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine performing nightly high-wire acts, Ricky Rubio splashing the ball around with abandon, and Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, what’s not to like?

Morning Shootaround — Oct. 26


VIDEO: The NBA remembers the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Flip Saunders

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Saunders remembered as leader, cherished member of NBA family | Anthony, Knicks gain inspired by Mets | Parker ready for new, reduced role with Spurs | Ibaka the most unique big man in basketball?

No. 1: Saunders remembered as a leader and cherished member of NBA family — Flip Saunders lost his battle with cancer Sunday at 60, succumbing to Hodgkins lymphoma on the eve of a NBA season he was going to start away from the Minnesota Timberwolves as he continued his four-month fight. Instead, he’s being remembered around a league where he touched many throughout his career. Our very own Steve Aschburner, a longtime former Timberwolves beat writer, shared some of his own reflections on Saunders:

Saunders had other pet phrases, things he’d coined or gleaned from the many coaches’ books he devoured during his trek through basketball’s trenches — seven years in the CBA in Rapid City, S.D., in La Crosse, Wis., in Sioux Falls, S.D., after college work at Golden Valley Lutheran College, Minnesota and Tulsa. “You are the position you can guard,” he’d say. And: “You give a player only as much responsibility as he can handle.” And: “Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.” Sometimes he’d footnote, sometimes he wouldn’t.

Flip also could prompt one back, typically when he’d claim that the only reason Marquette (my alma mater and first beat) won the NCAA men’s championship in 1977 (his senior year) was that Minnesota, despite its 24-3 record, was on probation and ineligible for the tournament. “But like Woody Allen said,” I’d remind him, “80 percent of success is showing up.” He’d wave his hand and we’d banter another day.

The fact is, Saunders disliked confrontations. It was the single biggest criticism of him as a coach and, when his teams in Minnesota and Detroit went through some tough times, it was cited as key to his undoing. When your best player, Kevin Garnett, is a blast furnace of motivation and improvement, there’s little about which a coach needs to confront him or the teammates intimidated into following. When some salty veterans such as Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell or Rasheed Wallace plant their heels, though, being player-friendly can get you pink-slipped.

Saunders was easily the most successful coach in Timberwolves history, particularly during his first stint. The Wolves went 411-326 and made the franchise’s only eight postseason appearances, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004. All other seasons (including 2014-15 with Saunders navigating downward for lottery chances), they’ve gone 407-940 with zero playoff berths.

The good times were the product of Saunders’ coaching, Kevin McHale‘s acumen and Hall of Fame experience as VP of basketball operations, and the two college teammates’ and friends’ commitment to Garnett and, for as long as it lasted, to Stephon Marbury. That blew up in less than three seasons and, despite the subsequent playoff runs, Minnesota never got quite good enough.

A comment Flip made a while back in hindsight about that fizzled vision turned particularly poignant Sunday. “I hope years from now,” he said, “KG, Steph and I aren’t sitting around a table at All-Star Weekend saying, ‘We really screwed up.’ ”

He couldn’t push the Pistons over the top in three years, either, and the situation in Washington went sideways thanks mostly to Gilbert Arenas and his guns. And yet, while Saunders got fired three times at the NBA level — the Wolves dismissal, coming from McHale, stung all the way to the end — he got hired four times.

***

No. 2: Melo, Knicks gain inspiration from Mets — Give Carmelo Anthony credit for thinking big — and we’re talking championship big — as the New York Knicks head into this season. He’s drawing inspiration from the New York Mets, who’ll battle the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. And in the Mets, Anthony says he sees similarities in how they have gone from rebuilding to competing for a championship. Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News details Anthony’s vision and how the fortunes of these two Big Apple franchises relate:

It wasn’t long ago that another New York sports team was selling hope over substance, building around a combination of youth and veterans while resisting the quick fix.

So can the Knicks draw inspiration from the World Series baseball team across the East River?

Carmelo Anthony thinks so.

“That’s very inspiring to me, what the Mets have done this season,” he said. “But that didn’t start this season. That was a process. That was a build that was happening the last couple of years. To see them now kind of at the pinnacle of the sport, it’s a good feeling. Even if you’re not a Mets fan and you’re here, it’s a good feeling.”

The similarities between the Knicks and Mets also extend to championship droughts (43 and 29 years, respectively), although only the Jets can claim in New York that they’ve tortured their fanbase longer than the Knicks.

“I don’t want to say it’s similar but you can see some similarities in that,” Anthony said. “The way that they kind of broke everything down and kind of rebuilt piece-by-piece and all of it came together at the right time. I don’t want to say we’re in a similar situation, but we are. Right now we put pieces together and we have to go out there and build that.”

The big difference is the Knicks won 17 games last season and finished with one of the worst records in the NBA. So they’re not close to anything resembling a long playoff run, which took the Mets five years to accomplish since Sandy Alderson took over.

***

No. 3: Parker ready for new, reduced role for Spurs — The addition of All-Star help like LaMarcus Aldridge and the increased role of budding All-Stars like Kawhi Leonard could mean a new and reduced role for Tony Parker. And it’s a role Parker is prepared to embrace at this stage of his career. Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News details the changes on the horizon for one of the Spurs’ staples:

Days before the Spurs start their quest for championship No. 6, the 33-year-old Parker acknowledged his role is finally changing. No longer will he be relied to do so much on offense, instead passing that torch to Leonard and Aldridge.

“I understand my role is going to change,” said Parker. “I don’t need to score as much and I have to get LaMarcus and Kawhi (going). I know my role is changing, but I love it. The way that (Tim Duncan) changed towards Manu (Ginobili), and Manu changed towards me, it’s the same thing with me now.”

Parker echoed the words of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who mentioned to the Express-News how the Spurs “equal opportunity offense” will now shift towards Aldridge and Leonard. Popovich was quick to point out that Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker won’t be forgotten, but things will change.

Let Parker tell it, he’s fine with taking a backseat.

“The last four or five years it was my job to be aggressive and score, but this year is totally different,” said Parker. “I have to be the engine in another way.”

Parker has led the Spurs in scoring four of the last five seasons, before Leonard took over last season averaging 16.5 points (Parker averaged 14.4).

Asked his feelings when the offense was transitioning to Ginobili and Parker, Duncan admitted the competitor in him resisted, and still does a bit, but added his unselfishness took over.

“As an individual you got to try not to fight it,” said Duncan, who is entering his 19th season. “We’re all competitors and we all want to do what we’ve always done. You have to understand what’s best for the team and I think we’re all here for that. It’s just about accepting that and finding your niche in your new role.”

***

No. 4: Ibaka the most unique big man in basketball? —  On a team headlined by superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, might Serge Ibaka be the most unique talent for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season? It’s a great debate. One that Erik Horne of the Oklahoman argues in Ibaka’s favor with a new and crucial season for Ibaka and the Thunder on the horizon:

Catch Ibaka at the end of Thunder practice, and you’ll see the same guy who’s the active leader in blocked shots per game (2.58) outshoot fellow power forward Nick Collison from beyond the arc. At 34, Collison refers to the 3-pointer as something he’s tried to work on “to stay on the court” in the changing NBA.

Factor in the arrival of Billy Donovan, he of the pace and space offense and experience with the skilled big man, and the green light is even greener from 3 for the versatile Ibaka, who at 26, isn’t using the 3 to stay on the court, but expand his stranglehold on it.

“I feel very comfortable with him shooting threes, even corner threes, because of the time and effort he’s put into it,” Donovan said. “but also he’s a proven shooter – he’s a really good catch-and-shoot guy and that’s a unique combination for a frontcourt player in the league to have.”

Donovan couldn’t come up with a current or past comparison for Ibaka either, forced to look toward the future, a player who’s yet to play an NBA regular season game. Donovan said Indiana Pacers rookie Myles Turner has the skill set to mimic what Ibaka does on the floor.

Good luck, young fella.

“I coached him with the USA team. He’s somebody I think has a chance to maybe develop into that role,” Donovan came up with after a few moments of thought. “That would be the only guy I’ve been around and coached in the summer who I’d say is like that.”

What makes Ibaka even more of an outlier: He’s been capable of this longer than his uptick in 3-point attempts has indicated. He’s one of 11 players in NBA history taller than 6-foot-10 to shoot better than 35 percent from 3, 45 percent from the field and block 150 shots in a season. No big deal, except Ibaka’s the only one to do it three times.

The numbers summarize what left Jackson speechless when faced with the daunting question: Is anyone like Ibaka? Jackson knows what a great shotblocker looks like. He played with 7-footer Patrick Ewing, eighth all-time in blocks but someone who kept his game inside the arc offensively in an era where bigs weren’t encouraged to shoot from deep.

Last season, Ibaka attempted nearly twice the amount of threes Ewing hoisted in his entire career.

 

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Who needs training camp and the preseason anyway? Tristan Thompson is ready for the Cavaliers’ season opener … Folks keep writing P.J. Tucker off in Phoenix and he keeps on grinding his way back into the mix … No one is sure what to make of the Sacramento Kings this year, which is exactly why they (DeMarcus Cousins, George Karl and Rajon Rondo in particular), are one of the truly intriguing must-see teams in the NBA this season … Serge Ibaka, the most unique big man in NBA history? … The Philadelphia 76ers don’t officially start this season until Wednesday and they are already limping …

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 …

Morning shootaround — August 3


VIDEO: Steve Smith shines a light on the offseason winners and losers

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Noah active, energized this summer | Thunder coach Donovan tough as they come | Okafor has great expectations for Sixers

No. 1: Noah active, energized this summer — Change has been good for Joakim Noah. The Chicago Bulls’ All-Star big man has been active this summer and energized this summer, both in the community and where basketball is concerned. Noah feels good. His mind is clear and his focus is sharp. And as far as his new coach, Fred Hoiberg, is concerned, the vibes are good. K.C. Johnson from the Chicago Tribune has more on Noah’s big summer:

Given that Joakim Noah spoke Saturday at an anti-violence community event his foundation organized, the Bulls’ big man placed last season’s personal struggles in perspective.

“Last year was a tough year for me. I feel it was very humbling,” Noah said. “We went through a lot. Right now, I’m feeling healthy both physically and mentally. I’m really excited about our upcoming opportunity. I never take anything for granted.”

Noah, who attended Saturday’s ONE CITY youth basketball tournament at the Major Adams Community Center near the United Center with his mother and sister, has been working out this offseason in California. Recently, new coach Fred Hoiberg visited.

He’s confident his summer at a sports science academy has put the health issues he experienced last season after May 2014 left knee surgery behind him.

“I feel great,” Noah said. “This is the first time I’ve taken a lot of time for myself to just focus on what I need to get done. Sometimes when you go through humbling experiences, (you) hungrier than ever. And I feel ready to prove I can help this team win big.”

Noah said he enjoyed “vibing” with Hoiberg.

“We got to break bread together,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed talking to the coaching staff, spending time with Fred. I think it’s going to be very different.”

Asked to elaborate, Noah smiled.

“Time will tell,” he said. “But it will definitely be different. We had a lot great times with Tom Thibodeau. He’s a great coach. I learned a lot from him. I’ve experienced a lot with him. I only have good things to say about him. I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my career.”

Before the tournament, Noah and his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, unveiled his Noah’s Arc Foundation’s latest public service announcement centered on its “Rock Your Drop” movement. It’s centered on peace, unity and positive change in the face of Chicago’s rampant gun violence.

Spike Lee, Bears running back Matt Forte, “Chicago Fire” actor David Eichenberg and St. Sabina’s Rev. Michael Pfleger are some of the spot’s prominent cameos.

“‘Rock Your Drop’ is a movement that started with my mother. It has been part of my vision as a basketball player since I was a kid,” Noah said. “For it to be finally here and feel this love really means so much to me and to my family. To launch this PSA is huge. To be able to play for the Chicago Bulls is something other than just basketball. When I see people wearing their drops, it means the world to me and my mom.”

Rodhe, an artist, chiseled the small drop out of stone 18 years ago. Noah wore one on a necklace.

“We’re all one. We’ve all been given life,” Rodhe said. “It doesn’t matter where we’re from. I’m from Sweden. You may say, ‘What are you doing here, blonde lady, on the South Side of Chicago? This isn’t your problem.’ I say no. When something is as strong as gun violence and you see the pain of moms, that’s all of ours problem.”

Noah is very hands-on with his foundation. He joked about converting now-teenage kids who razzed him about Kevin Durant fans five or six years ago.

“This will be my ninth season here and I don’t take that for granted,” Noah said. “Guys move around in my profession. They get traded. To be with a team for that long is special.

“I’m working as hard as I can on the court and this is a part of what I wanted to do since I started playing basketball. This is like home. We’ve been putting in a lot of work here. This is not a gimmick. It’s for the right reasons. To be able to do all this work makes me happy.”

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No. 2: Thunder coach Donovan tough as they come — Anybody wondering what kind of transition Billy Donovan will make to the NBA after years as one of the nation’s elite college coaches need only peek into his past. Donovan is as tough as they come, having honed his game and his basketball sensibilities in Queens and, later, the Big East. If Donovan’s pedigree is any indication, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the Co. are in good hands. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman explains:

After the Big East formed in 1979, basketball interest in the northeast spiked. The early ‘80s produced a golden age for high school point guards in NYC, meaning the 1983 Wheelchair event, the 10th annual, was a must-see edition.

That graduating class had Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, the playground legend and soon-to-be Syracuse star, and future NBA starters Kenny Smith and Mark Jackson.

But it was a sub 6-foot white kid from an affluent area of Long Island who stole the show in that showcase game. His name was Billy Donovan.

“Oh, Billy went off,” said his high school teammate, Frank Williams.

Donovan’s Queens team faced the Brooklyn squad led by Pearl Washington, the game’s headliner. Months earlier, Donovan battled Washington’s in a six-quarter high school scrimmage. Pearl had 82 points.

“We pressed the whole game and he just weaved in and out,” Donovan said. “I learned a lot.”

Donovan was a game-control point guard. Slick ball-handling was his greatest strength. Pearl was a wizard with the ball, his moves legendary. At the Wheelchair Classic, Donovan put his mental notes from the scrimmage to use.

“I don’t think Pearl was ready for it,” Williams laughed.

In the highlight play of his highlight day, Donovan sent Pearl sprawling on a left-handed, inside-out crossover dribble, cruising past him for a layup.

“Pearl nearly fell down,” said Billy’s childhood best friend Kevin Quigley. “The crowd went nuts. Just hooting and hollering. The little white boy just juked Pearl out of his shoes.”

Billy Donovan made a career out of willing himself to success. Too small and athletically limited to compete against premiere athletes? He molded himself into a player and led Providence to an unlikely Final Four run. Florida is a second-tier hoops program at a football school? He quickly turned them into a national powerhouse. Too inexperienced to coach in the NBA? Sam Presti just handed him the keys to the most important season in the Thunder’s brief franchise history.

But before there was Billy Donovan the iconic coach or Billy The Kid bombing 3s at Providence College there was Billy the kid, a Long Island youth addicted to basketball.

“It was almost an obsession,” Quigley said.

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No. 3: Okafor has great expectations for Sixers — Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor is well aware of the struggles that have gone on prior to his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love. But that has not soured him on what could be. He has great expectations for what he and the Sixers will get done in his rookie season. Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer has the details:

Okafor averaged 18.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in two Las Vegas Summer League games. Before that, he averaged 14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in three summer league games in Utah.

“I was satisfied,” Okafor said of his summer performance. “I got better every game and worked on everything.”

Covington said Okafor has already made an impact.

“He has brought a whole lot of excitement to this team,” Covington said. “He is a big man who has made his presence known already.”

Another big man, Joel Embiid, will miss a second straight season because of another procedure on his foot.

“It is hard to do, but he is doing well, and he is keeping his head high,” Covington said.

Just as the focus last season was on Nerlens Noel, this season it will be on Okafor. He said he can’t wait to get settled in the Philadelphia area and is looking for a place to live.

Okafor won’t lack confidence. He expects a lot from a Sixers team coming off an 18-64 season. He knows the expectations will again be low, but he doesn’t care.

“Everybody knows we have expectations, and the fans have expectations, and that is all that matters,” he said.

Okafor will be a trendy choice for rookie of the year because he is expected to play major minutes.

“It’s definitely a possible goal,” he said about earning the award. “Definitely.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Michael Jordan is still the G.O.A.T., just ask Jimmy ButlerNancy Lieberman called Muhammad Ali after joining the Sacramento Kings as an assistant coach … Got cash? You’ll need plenty of it to buy the New York penthouse of former Brooklyn star Deron Williams