Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

Boston’s Ryan shares stories from press-row seat in ‘Scribe’ memoir


VIDEO: Bob Ryan recaps the surprising end to the 2013-14 season

Bob Ryan covered 11 Olympics in his sportswriting career, as well as dozens of World Series, Super Bowls, Stanley Cup finals and NCAA championships across multiple sports. He spent 44 years, give or take, chasing and breaking stories big and small for the Boston Globe, worked in local TV in that sports-crazed market and still entertains, informs and cracks wise on a global stage as a frequent ESPN contributor.

But he set a standard for NBA coverage during his years on the Boston Celtics beat and, later, as a Globe columnist that arguably never has been surpassed. And while Ryan’s new memoir, “SCRIBE: My Life in Sports” (Bloomsbury USA), set for release Tuesday, cuts across all the sports he has covered in his career, it returns again and again to pro basketball. And the Celtics. And the NBA.

“The NBA was the centerpiece for me,” Ryan said in a recent phone chat. “It launched my so-called career and it gave me the chance to make a name for myself. I grew up playing basketball – it was the one sport I could play through prep school.

“If I’d been presented with the opportunity in 1969 to cover the Red Sox, I’d have been a very happy baseball writer. … But I’m very proud of my basketball-writing career and, frankly, I think I wrote game stories as well as anybody wrote ‘em.”

Game stories, for fans who might not be familiar with them, were newspaper accounts of what actually transpired in the previous night’s game. Now it is assumed that everyone already knows that from TV and the Internet, so writers working a game wind up spinning forward a little mini-feature or quickie analysis instead.

Newspapers? OK, for fans who might not be familiar with them

“I’m so glad I did it when I did it,” said Ryan, who retired from the Globe in 2012 and spent eight months of 2013 working on “SCRIBE.” “I’m grateful. There’s no way it’s as enjoyable now. Because of the relationships and the access.”

Ryan, 68, did some MLB coverage, columnist duty and TV work in his early-to-mid career but returned time and again to the Celtics beat in Boston in the 1970s and ’80s. Back then, he could chat up players in the locker room before practice, then sit in the gym to watch the entire workout. Teams flew on commercial flights same as the writers back then, so a delay or cancellation would keep them elbow to elbow in coffee shops or airport lounges. And the players’ six-figure salaries didn’t dredge the moat between them that exists in an eight-figure sports salary world.

“The two biggest things to ruin life for the beat writers were charter flights and the Chicago Bulls,” Ryan said. “The charter flights are self-evident – you no longer traveled with them. The Bulls, because they became the rock-star team that traveled with security and then they built the Berto Center [practice facility] where you could no longer even figure out where their cars were. And because they were successful, naturally, everybody wanted to follow suit. That changed everything and it’s never going back.”

Ryan’s memoir is more thematic than chronological, though the early chapters track his youth and steps toward scribe-dom in straightforward fashion (“Trenton Born,” “Boston College,” “Becoming a Reporter”). He devotes chapters, too, to baseball, football (“I Can Hardly Believe It’s Legal”), hockey, golf, ESPN, the Olympics and major college sports (“Smitten By a Lady of Low Repute”). He saves room near the end to write about music, another of his great passions alongside hoops and his wife Elaine.

Dave Cowens (left) battled with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (right) and other powerhouses in his era.

Dave Cowens (left) battled with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (right) and other powerhouses in his era.

But Ryan’s embrace of the NBA permeates the project. He gives Red Auerbach, the Dream Team, Chuck Daly, Bob Knight and the 2008 Celtics title season their own chapters. And there is no mistaking the topics addressed in those entitled “This Guy Ain’t No Hick” and “Michael v. LeBron.”

Former Celtics center Dave Cowens, however, gets both a chapter of his own and the prologue. Ryan starts the book with the tale of Cowens’ unexpected decision to retire at age 31 in October 1980. Cowens wanted Ryan’s help editing his retirement statement and he wanted it to run in the Globe:

The truth is it was very nicely and powerfully written, which did not surprise me because this was not the first time I had recognized his writing ability. …

“I’ll need some time,” I told him. “Maybe an hour.”

He was heading out the door when he turned around. “Do you mind if I call Red first?” he inquired.

Excuse me? Do I, Bob Ryan, mind if he, Dave Cowens, calls the hallowed Red Auerbach, Mr. Celtics, on my phone to inform him he is retiring from active duty in the National Basketball Association, effective immediately?

I gave him my blessing.

“He’s the most interesting person I’ve covered by far,” Ryan said of Cowens on the phone. “I love Larry [Bird], Larry and I are friends, and watching Larry play was a joy. But watching Dave play was an other-worldly experience and watching him compete against [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar and [Bob] Lanier and [Willis] Reed and everyone else, spotting those guys size and running them into the ground and being their equal and very often their superior was a fan-inviting experience.

“But knowing him was the payoff. For his world view on basketball and on other things… He’s one of those guys who is a standard of something that people try to compare others to and find the next one, and in vain they have not found the next Dave Cowens.”

Ryan considers the Celtics’ John Havlicek to be the most underappreciated player he covered. “When he first retired, there was no issue, he was a demigod,” the writer said. “But Jordan comes and now LeBron, other guys come, and when the dust settles 36 years later, he’s still the greatest forward-guard, two-position player there ever was – and don’t give me Scottie Pippen.”

Given Ryan’s press-row seat before, during and after the dual arrival of Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979, he can attest that the NBA was in trouble for several years prior to that. “A down period artistically and every way,” he said.

“The great fallacy is that Bird and Magic instantly saved the league,” Ryan added. “They stopped the slide. They focused attention on the game, the passing was great and they revived Kareem, which was good. It’s interesting to think how [Abdul-Jabbar] would have been regarded if Magic had gone to another team and he stayed in that [bored] attitude that he had in the late ’70s. I think he would have quit probably two or three years into the ['80s] and gone on to do something else.”

Here is Ryan at one point on Bird:

For me, his arrival was as if I were an art student and into the classroom walked the new professor – Michelangelo. Who could be prepared for that? … I had been covering the NBA for 10 years. … I didn’t expect to be surprised and educated and thrilled by anything new.

And Ryan on officiating:

I came to realize that in any given game the referees had an influence that made them the equivalent of a good player, if not necessarily a great one. Referees decide who will stay on the court and how the game will be played. They cannot be ignored. I didn’t reference the officiating every night, and not all references were negative. But I was always on the lookout for exceptionally smooth, well-officiated games.

Then there’s the serendipity of his own career, which began at age 11 with his self-published column “The Sportster” growing up at home in Trenton, N.J.:

I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on many occasions. I received a Globe internship interview when my roommate turned it down. I was handed the Celtics beat at age 23 because there was no one else in the department with either the interest or the basketball feel to take the job. They got very good after one year and I rode the wave. I lucked into doing a TV show because the guy who bought it was an old friend.

Had someone else taken over the show, he would have hired his friends. Some great things have happened to me over which I had zero control.

Michael who? Ryan says he prefers to watch LeBron more.

Michael who? Ryan says he prefers to watch LeBron James play more.

As for Ryan’s take on the growing debate of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, you can read the book in search of his answer. Over the phone, Ryan just said: “Do I think that Michael is clearly a ruthless competitor and his six championships will stand the test of time in the non-Bill Russell category? Yes. But I’d rather watch LeBron play. I just love the full scope of his game.”

Ryan’s memoir gives you the full scope of his game, from filing stories by wire with a young Chris Wallace (future news anchor) at a Western Union office in Harrisburg, Pa., to his appearances on “Around The Horn,” from his very modern squabbles with the analytics crowd over their beloved WAR theories to the irritated phone call he received one day from Amelia Earhart‘s sister.

Said Ryan, “I was thinking 37 years was the statute of limitations.”

Bucks see brighter ‘next tomorrow’ thanks to Parker, Antetokounmpo


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo looking toward 2014-15 season

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – John Henson won’t turn 24 until three days after Christmas, but when you get him talking about his precocious Milwaukee Bucks’ teammates Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, you start looking around for a front porch and a rocking chair. Henson isn’t about to drop a “whippersnapper” on anyone but yes, he admitted this week, the two kids do make him feel old.

“It does, man,” Henson said after a morning session Wednesday in coach Jason Kidd‘s first Bucks camp. “When I was 19, I was a sophomore in college, not even thinking about the NBA. It’s interesting, man. I’m as excited to see them grow as anybody else.”

The number of anybody elses is unusually high, too, considering it’s, well, Milwaukee. A training camp visit by a major sports network added to the buzz.

“I think it’s good to have some excitement out here,” Henson said. “I saw the ESPN [production] truck out there, I didn’t know what was going on. I had to search my app and make sure nothing came up. They were just talking about training camp. So that’s something that’s new for me here.”

The days of ignoring the Bucks are dwindling. Used to be, some big media enterprise or national reporter would wait for Milwaukee to come to them, say, for a road game in New York or L.A. It’d be a quick peek and then, yeah, back to flyover status for a team stuck somewhere in the NBA’s steerage class of the flawed and the futile.

Now the Bucks boast two of the league’s most promising, young talents. Parker and Antetokounmpo are twin sources of optimism and untapped potential for a franchise with new ownership, a new coach, hopes for a new arena and a fresh set of ambitions.

Last season, the Bucks lost their way to the opportunity to draft Parker with the No. 2 pick in the June draft. The rookie hopes he doesn’t have to go through anything resembling their 15-67 season.

“I think the guys really don’t take winning for granted, because they lost so much,” Parker said, sharing his first impression of his new team. “So with that attitude, that mindset, they appreciate winning a little more. They leave it out on the floor, just play with a little bit more heart, because they know winning isn’t guaranteed.”

It might be more achievable, at least, with the two teens in tow.

Parker and Antetokounmpo got to this point from widely divergent paths The former has competed at basketball’s highest levels in high school (Simeon in Chicago, Ill.) and college (Duke) before turning pro last spring in a flip-a-coin decision with Andrew Wiggins atop the 2014 draft.

Parker went second, which gave him way more stability this summer as the Bucks pledged their allegiance from the start. Wiggins, meanwhile, got embraced by the Cavaliers, got excited about LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland and then got traded to Minnesota as the major chip delivering Kevin Love.

Parker, listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, also got a head start on this whole NBA thing as the son of former Golden State forward Sonny Parker (1976-82).

“His time was different,” Parker said of going to school on his father’s experience. “During the ’70s and ’80s, they flew commercial all the time. And they practiced in two-a-days for a month straight, maybe even longer.

“But what he told me to remember is, the game never changes. Players change. But keep that same mentality. The rules of success, that formula, never changes. He always tells me to keep it by the playbook.”

Sonny Parker averaged 9.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 24.2 minutes, the first two of which some Bucks fans might expect Jabari to double in his rookie season. But the younger Parker isn’t talking numbers and he’s maintaining perspective.

“Until I get to my sixth year, he’s got it over me,” he said of his father. “I’ve got to just listen to him and hopefully I’ll get to where he was.”

Parker and the Bucks have penciled him in as a power forward, a nod to his build and relative athleticism. He has impressed the staff and his new teammates with his diligence and his humility – even Antetokounmpo said, “He’s a great kid” – and has shrugged off early predictions as the Rookie of the Year favorite.

“More advanced, more comfortable,” Antetokounmpo said of the difference between his rookie arrival and Parker’s. “That confidence he has, for a young guy, he surprises you. He’s got, like, nerves. He’s always … how can I say it? … he don’t care who’s going to guard him. He even doesn’t care who he’s going to defend. Whether it’s a young guy or a big guy, he don’t care, he just plays his game.”

Said Henson: “Great rookie to have – comes in, works hard, doesn’t say much. Bought a stereo for the locker room so we can listen to music. Just goes about his business.”

If Parker is headed to power forward, Antetokounmpo could have his position decided by dartboard. Drafted 15th overall in 2013 as a raw sleeper pick from Greece, the lanky teen from Athens grew another two inches in the offseason. Now he’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and notions of actually playing point guard for one of the game’s all-time greats at that spot. Everyone in Milwaukee’s camp keeps a straight face on the possibility, too.

“We try to stay away from labeling,” Kidd said. “The one thing he has is a natural instinct to make plays and find ways to win. As far as being a point guard, I think he can start the offense, he can go coast-to-coast – he’s very comfortable with the ball in the open court.”

Can Antetokounmpo guard some of the gnats and water bugs among NBA point guards?

“We’ll see,” Kidd said. “He probably could play center. Y’know, 6-11. Guys, whatever they can do to help a team win. Magic [Johnson] played all positions to help win a championship [in 1980 with the Lakers]. When you have that type of ability and skill level to play multiple positions, it helps the coach, it helps your teammates and it also gives you more time on the floor.’

The key differences in their development, in Kidd’s eyes, are the refinements with which Parker has grown up, different from the rough edges so to be sanded off Antetokounmpo. But if Parker can produce half the YouTube moments that the “Greek Freak” did in 2013-14, the Bucks will be thrilled.

“You’re probably looking at small things – fundamentals, footwork – when you look at Jabari,” Kidd said. “But he probably isn’t growing any more. Giannis has grown over two inches – he gets accustomed to being 6-9, he wakes up and he’s 6-11. … He has to go through kind of understanding his body.

“They’re both 19 year olds, they’re both different. But they’re both capable of playing at a high level in due time.”

Some Milwaukee fans are thinking five, 10, even 15 years ahead with both these guys in the lineup. That’s a little far out there for Parker and Antetokounmpo.

“I’m thinking day by day,” Antetokounmpo said. “Hopefully we stick here for long years and everything goes well and we take the Bucks back to a championship like before [1971]. But if you don’t play hard now or tomorrow or the next tomorrow, it can’t happen.”

Wilt gets USPS towering tributes

Lakers Phila

Wilt Chamberlain was a super-sized superstar with a personality to match.

Makes sense that his postage stamp would be super-sized as well.

News leaked out last month – six years after longtime Philadelphia Tribune sportswriter Donald Hunt founded a campaign to immortalize the NBA giant on a U.S. postage stamp – that Chamberlain indeed would be so honored this winter. Now, the images for the two Limited Edition Forever stamps are official, appearing in the USPS philatelic catalog that hit the streets Wednesday and shared later in the day with NBA.com.

Here is some info on the stamps’ release, which will be held Dec. 5 in conjunction with the Philadelphia 76ers’ game at the Wells Fargo Center against Oklahoma City in Chamberlain’s hometown.

The U.S.Postal Service and Philadelphia 76ers, in conjunction with the National Basketball Association (NBA), will formally dedicate the Wilt Chamberlain Forever stamps — the first of its kind featuring an NBA player — in a halftime ceremony featuring a special three-dimensional tribute video using the team’s state-of-the-art court projection system. Throughout the night, the Sixers will celebrate the life and legacy of the legendary Chamberlain with videos during breaks in play. Tickets for this 7 p.m. game will be available to the general public beginning Oct. 8 via Sixers.com.

The stamps, just over two inches tall each, are about a third taller than a typical commemorative stamp height of approximately 1.5 inches. Kadir Nelson, of San Diego, CA, created the two stamp image portraits of the NBA superstar. One is based on a photograph of Chamberlain in a Philadelphia Warriors uniform; the other is based on an image of Chamberlain in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. The word “Wilt” is featured in either the top right or left corner of each stamp. Art director Antonio Alcalá of Alexandria, VA, designed the stamps.

The stamps are striking in appearance and appropriate in their size. Chamberlain’s feats were Ruthian, Bunyanesque even: scoring 100 points in a game, averaging 50.4 points in 1961-62, scoring 60 points or more on 32 occasions, stringing together 126 games with 20 points or more and posting career averages of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 45.8 minutes.

No puny 1.5-inch stamp was going to do justice to the iconic Big Dipper.

Blogtable: Finding Westbrook’s place

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: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook remain one of the most formidable 1-2 punches in the league.

> Scott Brooks says Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the NBA. We’re wondering if Westbrook should play 2 guard instead. What’s your thinking?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Scott Brooks, former professional point guard by trade, considers Russell Westbrook to be a point guard, that’s good enough for me. What’s in a name, The Bard asked. That which we call a Rose (Derrick) by any other name would smell as sweet (if healthy). Same goes for Westbrook. No need to get hung up on position designation. The key is for Westbrook to complement Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup and for Brooks to build his backcourt to complement his irrepressibly athletic ball dominator. Time to move on from the John Stockton archetype, at least in this guy’s case.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: With all of the great point guards currently in the NBA, who is the best is a classic barstool question that can have many different and valid answers. Russell Westbrook, with all of his flaws, is the correct one on any given night. No, he’ll never be linked with John Stockton as a classic set-up man or Chris Paul as an overall floor general, but the Thunder have been one of the league’s elite teams with him at the point. It seems to me that if you moved him to the 2 spot, you’d actually be turning him loose to shoot even more and eliminating a raw, physical mismatch that he has over most other point guards. I’m also wondering why anyone wants to change one of the two main cogs on a Thunder team that has a .688 winning percentage over the past five seasons?

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Why would you play the, ahem, best point guard in the league at shooting guard? No. I’m leaving Westbrook right where he is. Westbrook is an All-Star, the guy does things no one else can do. OK, so some of what he does also makes you want to pull your hair out. He mentioned Monday that incorporating more player and ball movement into the offense is a high priority and suggested we might see something new from the Thunder in that regard. So we’ll see. But starting Reggie Jackson at the point and Westbrook at the 2 doesn’t make this team better. Westbrook averaged 21.8 ppg and 6.9 apg after all those surgeries last year. In the playoffs he averaged 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. Anyone else does that and we’re calling him the best point guard in the league.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: His career best for 3-point percentage is 33 percent and he’s been better than 44 percent overall twice in six seasons. So there’s that. Plus, he is uniquely effective because he is a PG with superior athleticism and better size than most on the other side of the matchup. Move Westbrook to the other backcourt spot and suddenly the Thunder have a small backdoor, a shooting guard who can’t spot up and concerns about not maximizing your second-best player. The only reason it should be discussed is if OKC wants to play Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. Otherwise, no go.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He’s certainly the most talented point guard in the league and one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players, period. Westbrook without the ball in his hands is not the same Westbrook. There are possessions — sometimes when the game is on the line — when he needs to be more of a true point guard, but if you live by the Russ, you have to sometimes die by the Russ. It’s not like you can flip a switch in his head.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Of course, Scott Brooks is campaigning for Russ Westbrook, as any coach worth his whistle should. And he can make a great argument for the force of nature that Westbrook has become, warts and all. He doesn’t own the No. 1 spot on my list. That spot still belongs to Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. But Westbrook is easily in my top five. My bigger issue is  with this mysterious “we” who are contemplating whether or not Westbrook should play the 2? That’s like playing a high-risk, high-reward dual threat NFL quarterback at wide receiver. Makes no sense to me!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Russell Westbrook might be the most *talented* point guard in the NBA. I mean, his athleticism at the position is really unparalleled, both in the NBA today and historically. His combination of size and speed and explosiveness render him almost unstoppable in the open court. But that incredible package of skills also seems to dazzle Westbrook at times, and he doesn’t fully know how to consistently utilize those gifts in such a way as to lead the Thunder to titles. Westbrook is an amazing talent, but that doesn’t make him the best point guard in the NBA. Because that person’s name is Chris Paul.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I think Westbrook stays where he is. Look at Kevin Durant’s numbers — the current league MVP has four scoring titles, with Westbrook playing point-guard. Also, consider this, Westbrook averaged 8.1 apg in the 2014 postseason, only behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, both of whose teams did not proceed beyond the second round. How much better can Westbrook or anyone else at point-guard do? Moreover, with Westbrook playing the 2-spot, how often is he going to get the ball, with Durant definitely being OKC’s number one offensive option. OKC’s problems against the NBA’s best remains an overdependence on Durant and Westbrook for their scoring. They need to address that rather than tinker with Westbrook’s position.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: When it comes to ranking point guards, Chris Paul is 1A and Russell is 1B in my book. I think playing him at the 2 is nonsense. Even if you add a another point guard, that’s just gonna cut into the touches and times he and Durant get to bring the ball upcourt. I do like two point guard sets and think Russ could excel in them, but only if you don’t have a point-forward type player like KD. Free Westbrook!

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA Argentina: These days there’s not a huge difference between a point guard and a shooting guard. It depends on the opponent and certain moments during the game, but Russell can play either position.

Blogtable: Knicks a playoff 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: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: Defense, says Carmelo Anthony, is going to be a focus of the Knicks

> We’ve seen a lot of changes in New York, and a vow from new boss Phil Jackson that the Knicks will be in the playoffs. Your thoughts? Playoffs? Are they a better team than last year?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Sure, the Knicks will make the playoffs. The East still isn’t the West and I think enough has changed with New York —  driven by Jackson’s arrival, altering the culture sufficiently — that it will be a little better. Carmelo Anthony got an awfully cushy call-out (five years, $124 million) but seems to get it now that his legacy will be limited unless his team wins big. My hunch: New York and Brooklyn share All-Star Weekend, then fight over the East’s final playoff spot

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The 37-45 Knicks missed the playoffs by one game last season, so Phil Jackson’s promise isn’t exactly going to register on the Joe Namath Scale in New York. Carmelo Anthony is re-signed and happy. That’s nice. Jose Calderon is at the point. That’s nice. They’ve swapped Tyson Chandler’s defense for Samuel Dalembert. That’s not so nice.  They’re counting on a resurrection by Amar’e Stoudemire and a recommitment by J.R. Smith. That’s unlikely. Can the sideline combo of Jackson and Derek Fisher get them to .500 if everything clicks?  In a glass-half-full world, I suppose. But hardly any more.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Yeah, I think they will be in the playoffs. They have a very motivated head coach and superstar. They’ve improved at point guard with steady Jose Calderon, and while losing Tyson Chandler in the middle theoretically hurts, he wasn’t healthy much last season and Sam Dalembert is serviceable, and I like the Jason Smith pickup. I really think Tim Hardaway Jr., can give the Knicks a real scoring boost and I’m eager to see Cleanthony Early bring some youthful elbow grease. Above all else, this team can have fun, and that was in short supply a year ago.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: They could be a little better, but the problem is, Cleveland will be a lot better. Milwaukee will be better. The team that finished just ahead of the Knicks last season, Atlanta, will be better. Indiana is a candidate to fall out of the top eight, and Miami will go backward as well, though maybe not lottery backward. New York and the playoffs will be a close call. For an October answer, I’ll say no.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey’re in the 7-10 range in the East with a decent shot of making the playoffs with good chemistry (especially defensively), or injuries to teams that would otherwise finish above them. Jose Calderon’s shooting should help an offense that was already pretty good. The loss of Tyson Chandler would seemingly hurt the defense, but any cohesion on that end of the floor would be more than they had last season. They certainly have a chance of improving on 37-45, but there are a lot of variables.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Playoffs? We’re talking playoffs? In New York? Listen, nobody loves having the Zen master back in the building more than I do. He is truly great for the game. But I’ll refrain from any playoff proclamation about the Knicks until at least Christmas. We need to see this crew in action before swimming in those deep playoff waters. I don’t know if this a better team than what we saw under Mike Woodson last year. Derek Fisher’s going to have to find his own coaching niche with this group and from a personnel standpoint there hasn’t been enough of an upgrade to automatically vault this team into the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference. It’s way too soon for playoffs chatter from new York.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I do think they’ve built a better roster than they had a season ago. But as my co-host Rick Fox has talked about several times on the Hang Time Podcast, getting a full understanding of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense takes years, not weeks or months. So it might take these Knicks some time to be able to fully grasp how to maximize their offensive system. An for all the talk about the West being better than the East, the East should be more competitive top-to-bottom this season than last. My top seven in no real order are Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Charlotte, Toronto, Atlanta and Miami. Maybe we see Indy and the Knicks fight it out for the eight spot?

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: One thing is for sure, Phil Jackson has the magic touch, so I would believe whatever he says. If Phil says that the Knicks will go to the playoffs, I am expecting the Knicks to go to the playoffs. They have the talent to do so. The things they lacked and are looking to regain this year are chemistry and health.

Guillermo Garcia, NBA Mexico: I think that at this time they’re a real question. It seems to me that they can fight for eighth place to the playoffs, but are not a better team than last year and are going to be left out of the postseason.

Blogtable: Kobe, putting up numbers

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: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: How far can Kobe pull his teammates along? That’s a big question for the Lakers.

> Kobe Bryant has averaged 25.5 points a game on 45 percent shooting in his career. So take a guess: What should we expect from him this season? Why?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: We should expect Bryant to join an hyper-exclusive club this season, namely, Players Who Averaged 20 Points or More at Age 36 or Older. There have been only three — Michael Jordan (2), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3) and Karl Malone (4) — doing it a total of nine times. Given Bryant’s relentless drive, his Jordan obsession and his shortage of scoring help on the Lakers, I expect him to put up the point totals. Keep in mind, though, that Jordan shot a combined 43.1 percent in his two seasons, averaging 21.2 points with the lowest PER numbers (19.9 combined) of his career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You’re asking this without a benefit of seeing a single preseason game, anything?  OK, going strictly on gut and what we know about Kobe, I have a hard time seeing him averaging less than 20 ppg. Maybe the shooting percentage is in the low 40s. Why? Because he’s driven to come back as the alpha dog. Because if his wheels are OK, he’s dead set on proving everyone who doubts him wrong. Because he’s going to get up his shots. Because he’s Kobe.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Here’s the thing, look at the Lakers roster, somebody’s got to score, right? Pau’s not even there anymore for an inside option. This show is going to be Kobe’s and as long as he stays healthy he’s going to get off a lot of shots and get his points. He hasn’t averaged fewer than 25 ppg since the 2003-04 season when he averaged 24. This might not be the same Kobe we’re used to, but honestly, we saw that coming as far back as the 2011 playoffs. This Kobe will still score points, and a lot of them because he’ll have to. He’ll average at least 22.0 a game.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I can’t predict health. But if he plays, he plays well. If it’s a guess you want, let’s say 18 points a game and 42 percent. That’s not bad for a 36 year old coming off two major injuries and most of a season on the sideline. Plus, he will be playing with several teammates for the first time (Lin, Boozer, Randle, maybe Ed Davis and Jordan Clarkson). There will be a lot of timing issues moving forward, which is why the shooting numbers will take a hit.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: With 36-year-old legs, without much help on the Lakers’ roster, and with No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in his sights, I don’t think he’ll be all that efficient, unless Steve Nash can somehow play 1,500 minutes and create easy looks for him. I’ll guess 26 ppg on 43 percent shooting (45 EFG%).

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m not ready to close the book on Kobe just yet. Not now, not when so many are sure to doubt him. That’s the stuff he thrives on, what’s made him great for so long. A reasonable expectation, as long as he’s healthy, is for Kobe to go for 24.4 points a night on 46 percent shooting on a Los Angeles Lakers team that will need that and more from its best player. There’s no doubt he’ll get all the shots he heeds under Byron Scott and his supporting cast will be eager to defer to a rejuvenated Kobe.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog23 points per game on 42 percent shooting, in about 33 minutes per game. Kobe’s not the player he was a decade, or two decades, ago. But knowing what we know about him, the Mamba will be primed and ready to strike. And I think this season, with experience behind him and trusting Byron Scott, the Mamba will be able to temper himself a bit more and not feel the need to play 40-plus minutes every night. Which, in the long run, benefits everyone.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: The 2014-15 version of Kobe Bryant will be the smartest, more passing…est version of the Kobe we’ve seen. I’m afraid part of his explosiveness is gone (due to his injuries but also his age), but he could still be a lethal weapon. He should share the ball more, play with his teammates and build from there. More or less what he tried to do in the six games he played in 2013-14, averaging 6.3 apg. My guess is 22.5 ppg and 6.5 apg, shooting 42 percent.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: If his body stays right, I think he may average similar points per game (maybe 20-22 PPG) but will be less efficient. I only say this because I legitimately want him to abandon whatever it is the Lakers want to do with their roster full of short-term contracts and genuinely make a run at the all-time scoring record. He’s a chance to pass Michael Jordan for third all-time this season and I’d love to see him have a crack at Kareem beyond 2015. My advice to Kobe, jack it up!

Rose gets shooters, not shot creator

The Bulls are still searching for a scorer to play alongside Derrick Rose.

The Bulls are still searching for a scorer to play alongside Derrick Rose.

CHICAGO – Almost from the day Derrick Rose arrived, the Chicago Bulls have sought a second shot-creator to ease his workload and pose as a secondary threat when the defense stymies their explosive point guard.

Six seasons in, they still don’t have one. Call it the curse of Keith Bogans or something.

What the Bulls do have, though, as camp opens on the 2014-15 season is a squadron of shooters unlike any in recent memory at United Center. None of them is likely to put the ball on the floor and make something out of nothing the way Rose and a few other rare talents in the NBA can.

But as far as putting it in the air to great acclaim — spotting up on the perimeter or cutting-and-catching for opportunities near or beyond the arc –the Bulls have upgraded considerably. They ranked dead last in effective field-goal percentage last season (47.1 percent), 24th in 3-point accuracy (34.8) and last on anything inside the arc (45.6).

It hasn’t been a constant — they had Kyle Korver from 2010-12, and Mike Dunleavy shot 38 percent on 3-pointers last season — but it has been a problem. Now, by design, after going to school on rivals such as San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta and others, Chicago can spot two, three or even four shooters in the halfcourt.

Consider:

The idea, of course, is to spread defenses and open seams for Rose. It’s the next best thing – or maybe an equally effective strategy – to having that second creator, with Rose coming off high pick-and-rolls and finding a quiver full of arrows.

Rose sounded excited after the Bulls’ first scrimmage Tuesday, seeing the new options and how diligently defenders stayed home.

“Just thinking about how I’m actually going to attack in the offense,” Rose said. “I’ve got a lot of space now, especially with Pau being able to knock down that li’l 12-foot shot or 15-foot shot. … It’s just going to be space to really move around.”

Space is important to Rose, providing the lanes he needs to get to the rim. It’s also important to his health because, barring some alternate uniforms made of bubble-wrap and Kevlar, the best way to keep Rose on the court is to keep crowds away from him in the paint. (Asterisk time: Rose was untouched on his two season-snuffing knee injuries.)

Having played only 50 games since his MVP season of 2010-11, Rose might seem ripe to make some serious adjustments in his style of play. He might not be able to do much to lessen the torque of his violent cuts and leaps in attacking the rim, but he can throttle back occasionally and be a little smarter in traffic. He knows it and so do his coaches.

“They’re trying to make the game as simple as possible,” Rose said of some intended tweaks this season. “If I have an open shot, shoot. If I have a pull-up, shoot it. Shoot a lot more floaters so that people won’t touch my body like they did in the past throughout the entire game. I think that really hurts you I think as an athlete — you need your years.”

Chicago needs Rose’s, certainly, after waiting for his knees and his psyche to fully mend. Being wary of unnecessary contact is one of the concessions he’ll try to make to the blown opportunities of the past two years. Not rushing to show everyone, all at once, just how back he really is? That’s another.

Thibodeau, an assistant on the Team USA staff this summer, talked with Rose prior to their FIBA World Cup tour about the impatience he showed last fall. His rush to return to his spot in the NBA’s hierarchy was rusty – until it ended abruptly with torn meniscus in his right knee after just 10 games.

Rose eased back a bit this summer, playing with Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry in the USA backcourt. The Bulls don’t have that depth at point guard but they still don’t want Rose taking on too much, soon.

“Last year he was trying to get it all back in one day,” Thibodeau said. “I thought right before he got re-injured, he was starting to find a good rhythm again. This time, he’s not rushing like he did. But there’s a fine line for him, to still be aggressive, find a rhythm but not force it. I don’t want him to overthink it, I want him to play.”

Whether Rose is working the high pick-and-roll with Gasol or just bursting inside to kick out to Dunleavy, McDermott or Mirotic, the results can be just as effective as standing out top while Carmelo Anthony goes iso again and again.

“Just take pressure off of him,” said Gasol, who will try to develop an offensive chemistry not unlike what he had with Kobe Bryant in the Lakers’ best-of-times. “By playing well, by doing your job, by not having him have to force too much offensively or the pressure to create too much. When you have the weapons that we have, I think it takes pressure off of him. Creates and gives him space, and things become easier for him.”

Healthier, too.

Gasol needs Rose to run with Bulls


VIDEO: Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau look forward to a new day in Chicago

CHICAGO – The difference between Derrick Rose‘s first comeback and latest comeback is the difference between Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol.

A year ago, Dunleavy — a solid NBA veteran in search of the first .500 team of his career — joined the Chicago Bulls on a modest, role player’s contract to scratch his competitive itch more than his financial one.

Except Rose lasted just 10 games, the Bulls backed off their loftier ambitions by trading Luol Deng midway through the schedule and Dunleavy wound up starting and logging heavy minutes. He appreciated Chicago’s 48-34 finish and could take pride in becoming one of the NBA’s biggest bargains (salary per minute). But no Rose and a five-game ouster by Washington in the first round were profound disappointments.

Now the stakes are higher. The Bulls’ key offseason acquisition is a cut above, in pedigree and possibilities. Gasol brings a Hall of Fame portfolio, two championship rings and international acclaim to Chicago. He also brings greater expectations and a considerable role already reserved for him. Like Dunleavy, Gasol turned 34 this offseason. His high hopes and crossed fingers are pretty much identical too.

“It’s important to the whole team, for sure,” Gasol said of Rose and the Bulls’ dire need for their point guard to a) stay healthy and b) reclaim his All-Star, all-NBA and ideally MVP form. “I talked to him before I made my decision. He’s eager, he’s hungry. He’s been working extremely hard to be where he’s at today. Playing in the World Cup in the summer helped him, to be able to get some rust out. I think he’s ready.”

That’s as good as the Bulls have at this point — thinking that Rose is sufficiently recovered from the torn ACL injury in his left knee (April 2012) and the torn meniscus in his right knee (November 2013) to lug around their goals and dreams.

If he is recovered, the 2014-15 season in Chicago could be the brightest since Rose’s MVP year of 2010-11 and maybe even the Jordan-Pippen era of the last millennium. If not, it will be another long season of overachieving and pluck that probably leads nowhere — and a whole bunch of what-ifs for Gasol.

Gasol talked with the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat and the Knicks. He got calls and tests from Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, the coach with whom he won championships in L.A. in 2008 and 2010.

“I talked to many great, great players that I would be happy to play with,” the 7-foot, four-time All Star said. “Unfortunately I could only play with one team. So I picked a great situation, a great team, a great franchise, a great city.”

Upon making his decision, Gasol got another text from Jackson, the former Bulls coach, saying that, “I was going to love Chicago, that I was going to be happy here and that it was a great choice.”

If Rose’s health can be trusted, sure.

From his spot on Spain’s national team, Gasol saw a pretty spry and explosive Rose in the FIBA World Cup tournament. “I don’t have any doubt,” Gasol said. “I hope that he stays healthy, just like everybody else on the team. Everybody is subject to injury. But I believe in his health and I think he’s going to do fine.”

Gasol ($7.1 million in Year 1 of a three-year deal) and Nikola Mirotic ($5.3 million) essentially have slipped into the payroll spot opened by Carlos Boozer‘s amnesty. Boozer wasn’t a popular Bull, never quite appeasing United Center fans for not being LeBron James after his 2010 signing, or even playing up to his five-year, $75 million deal. Still, he did average 15.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in four Chicago seasons and showed up for all but nine games over the final three.

Gasol will need to maintain his numbers (17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and step up his durability (55 games missed the past two seasons) to match or top Boozer’s statistical production. And Gasol is older.

Maybe Gasol can do contribute intangibly by how well he fits with fellow slick-passing big man Joakim Noah, with the shooters — Dunleavy, Mirotic, rookie Doug McDermott — that coach Tom Thibodeau can spot around him and, of course, with Rose.

Asked how the two of them might play off each other and boost the other’s effectiveness, Rose visualized and verbalized for the mob at Bulls media day.

“I automatically go to the fourth quarter, where he’s got the ball and I’m out on the perimeter, and I’m just waiting to get a set shot,” Rose said. “Other than that, let him work. You’ve got Joakim or Taj [Gibson] on the other side cleaning up everything else. And you’ve got two other shooters on the floor with me, Jo and Pau.

“I just see him in the post. I’m waiting for a jump shot. And you pick your poison.”

After waiting so long for Rose, seeing him take a pass from Gasol is an upgrade this team and the city will take.

Hey Denver, they’re free, free, free!

The Nuggets hope improvement at the foul line will fuel their turnaround (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images).

The Nuggets hope improvement at the foul line will fuel their turnaround (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty).

Mile high. And a little short.

Or long. Or left or right.

That’s how Brian Shaw characterized the Denver Nuggets’ gap between where they wound up last season and where they should have been. If you work backwards from Denver’s 36-46 finish last spring and first missed postseason in a decade in search of a butterfly effect – a hiccup in one area that leads to a major disruption somewhere else – you need to look hard at the Nuggets’ foul shooting.

Denver ranked fifth in the NBA in free-throw attempts last season but a miserable 27th in FT percentage (.726). The league average was .815, but never mind that: the Nuggets had 28 games in which they made fewer than 70 percent of their free throws and they went 10-18 on those nights.

“That’s more mental than anything else,” Shaw, Denver’s head coach, said last week during a break in the NBA coaches meetings. “Usually games are won or lost within the margin of how many free throws are missed.”

Let’s see: Denver missed an average of 7.2 free throws last season. Fifteen of their 46 defeats were by a margin of seven points or less. Roger that.

Your average NBA team got 17.83 points per game from the foul line in 2013-14. The Nuggets had 36 games in which they failed to hit more than 17, going 13-23. They had three games in which they made 12, missed 10, repeatedly hitting their low mark of 54.5 percent in a game.

This wasn’t some new speed bump for the Nuggets. Shaw has been talking about free-throw proficiency since he took over prior to last season, in part because he was a career .762 foul shooter in 14 NBA seasons with seven teams.

Denver ranked 28th (.701) in foul shooting in 2012-13, George Karl‘s final season as coach. It ranked 25th (.735) the season before that. Not since 2009-10 have the Nuggets finished in the top half of the NBA in success rate (.772).

Last October, Shaw generated some headlines by standing under the rim one day at practice and allowing the ball on made free throws to hit him on top of the head. It was a challenge to his guys, and while some took aim and hit their target, Shaw never was at risk of submitting to concussion protocols.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Shaw said, asked for the cause. “You have to have a comfort level at the free-throw line. It takes a lot of practice. Different guys react differently – some guys make ‘em all in practice but then they get out there in the game, when the stands are filled, and they [struggle]. We have a sports psychologist at their disposal to talk to and work on ways of calming themselves down.” (more…)

NBA coaching in the time of social media

One by one they arrive, each man pulling up in his elegant sedan, sports coupe or luxury SUV and, for all intents and purposes, bringing his family, his friends, his fans — his peeps — and his digital world along with him.

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

In the locker room, where they dress and tease and bond and strategize, it’s all about chemistry. Except when it’s about technology.

“Say we have a shootaround or a team meeting that starts at 9:30. Guys start trickling in at 9:15,” Denver coach Brian Shaw said the other day, talking about these modern times. “We used to come in and sit around and talk to one another face to face. Now these guys have their devices and they’ll all be sitting at a table and nobody’s saying anything to anybody. They’re just punching buttons and looking down, and there’s no interaction.”

That novel about Love in the Time of Cholera? The men who oversee NBA teams are coaching in the time of social media, which might just be trickier.

Red Auerbach never had to worry about some tabloid photographer popping out of a darkened doorway to snap a photo with his date. Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson barely stuck around long enough for cell phones. Coaches today face the full arsenal of gadgetry, as far as where their guys might turn to lose themselves or what a civilian might use to catch players unawares. TMZ, remember, pays real folding money and, after all, 15 minutes of fame is better than none.

“It’s a big challenge coaching now,” said Shaw, who  — when he was an NBA rookie in 1988 — needed a quarter and a glass booth if he wanted to fiddle with a phone at the Boston Garden. “There are so many more options for them, so many more things to take their attention away from what you’re trying to do as coach. You have to constantly bring them back in and keep them engaged.”

Twenty years have passed since Magic Johnson, in his unsatisfying 16-game stint as Lakers coach, threw Vlade Divac’s cell phone against the wall after it rang during a team meeting.

Sounds quaint now.

“I feel his pain,” Shaw said, chuckling. “A coach like Phil Jackson, the majority of the years that he coached, these are challenges that he didn’t have to deal with. To me, the X’s and O’s kind of cancel each other out, between me and the coaches I’m opposing at the other end. Keeping everybody dialed in and not being distracted by outside forces — that’s what the real challenge is.

“I’m contemplating making the players, an hour before practices and an hour before games, check their cell phones in. So they can’t even have ‘em in the locker room. It’s, ‘You’re here. We need your undivided attention right now.’ “

Been there. Doing that.

“We have rules against cell phones in the locker room after a certain point before a game,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose owner, Mark Cuban, is the king of NBA social media, at least among the Board of Governors. “If someone’s cell phone goes off, the guy gets hit with a pretty hefty fine. And we all have a good laugh about it. If it happens again, we may have to have a serious discussion about it. And the fine’s going to be heavier.”

(more…)