Posts Tagged ‘Warriors’

Ezeli return a big moment for Warriors

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If Festus Ezeli can stay healthy, the Warriors could have three 7-footers to protect the rim. (NBAE via Getty Images)

OAKLAND – Under cover of the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series at the same time, with the Clippers resting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the Warriors sitting ill Andrew Bogut and using David Lee for 19 minutes, with everyone ready for the exhibition schedule to be over already, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena unsuspectingly turned meaningful.

Festus Ezeli played, newsworthy in itself given the length of his absence, and on his 25th birthday at that as an added layer to the celebratory mood of getting directions to the court. That he played well, though, was the thing, enough of a development to attach value to a sloppy preseason game, enough to prompt coach Steve Kerr to note that Ezeli “was really aggressive with what he did,” a sign that Ezeli was not shying away from contact inside.

Enough to nudge the jammed Western Conference playoff pack.

It was such a little thing — 11 minutes, just shy of the 12-minute limit imposed by the medical staff, 10 points, three rebounds, four baskets in five attempts, five fouls — and it was just one October outing with months ahead that really count — but it could become such a big thing. And now we’re talking developments.

The thin bench that was part of the Golden State downfall last season remains a concern the week before 2014-15 opens, projected point-guard backup Shaun Livingston may not be back from toe surgery when the season begins Wednesday in Sacramento, and Kerr is facing an Andre Iguodala-or-Harrison Barnes decision for the start at small forward. But if Ezeli can return to his former role of dependable second-string center, the Warriors have a key roster addition when they need it most.

That is obviously a big if. When Ezeli took the court with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter Tuesday, it was his first time in uniform in 17 months, since the Warriors were eliminated in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. No, it was, he said afterward, the first time in any five-on-five run since surgery on two ligaments in the right knee on June 12, 2013, cost Ezeli all last season and inflammation in the lower part of the same right leg took away much of the training camp and preseason that was supposed to be a fresh start.

But if he is healthy, if he can reclaim the 2012-13 form, if he can be depth behind Bogut, the little thing on a baseball night in the Bay Area can grow into something that could be worth enough wins to alter their place in the West. (A season ago, six victories separated four through nine, the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and the lottery.) If not, hello Ognjen Kuzmic and Marresse Speights.

“It’s big,” Kerr said. “Ezeli and Kuzmic. Kuz has really come along this training camp. We’ve given him a lot of time in the exhibition games and he’s performed well. If Festus can make strides… if he can come around physically and we can have three 7-footers who can all protect the rim, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. We would prefer to stay big most of the time. We like to have a rim-protector in there. With three guys, assuming we can count on all three, that protects us against us some injury and foul trouble and that kind of stuff.”

The source of optimism Tuesday night was Ezeli entering late in the first quarter, needing 68 seconds to block a shot by Jared Cunningham as the Clippers guard drove to the rim, another 55 seconds to hit an eight-foot jump hook from the left baseline, and 55 more seconds to finish a pick-and-roll by grabbing an Iguodala lob with both hands and flushing it through the net. The nervousness of making the return with family and friends in attendance as part of the birthday was replaced by a surge of confidence.

“That’s what people have been saying and people always talked about, how light we were at the center position and they didn’t feel we had enough depth there,” Ezeli said. “This team, we feel like we’re pretty decked. We have a pretty nice deck of cards on this team. But they felt like the center position was pretty light. But now, Kuzmic has been working his butt off. I’ve seen him work every day and I’ve been right there with him.

“The good thing about being out so long, I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me anymore. I don’t care because the people that write the articles… and the people that talk about me and put the other people down, nobody was there with me while I was doing my rehab. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s about what we as a team think about ourselves, and we think we’re pretty good and we have a lot of talent on this team. That’s all that matters.”

This will still be a process. Ezeli needs to improve his conditioning the same way all players coming back from extended layoffs do and needs to re-calibrate to the speed of the game — Kerr quickly pointed out that Ezeli picked up so many fouls in a short time against the Clippers “because the game is going to move too fast for him right now.” And it was just one night. Those are the reality checks.

On the other hand, the Warriors could have much-needed bench help and could end up with the important acquisition of a player who officially was always on the roster. Those are the bottom lines, for Golden State and the West.

Kerr finally gets his chance with Curry


VIDEO: The NBA TV crew analyzes the transition of Steve Kerr

OAKLAND – They have joked about it for months now, Steve Kerr and Bob Myers, Kerr and Larry Riley, and Kerr and Stephen Curry, over the phone and in person, through the years and over international borders in an outcome so strange it comes with a laugh track.

A little more than five years later, everyone has unexpectedly met here, Kerr as the new Warriors coach, Myers as the general manager and primary recipient of what didn’t happen, Curry as the All-Star point guard, and with Riley still part of the organization as director of scouting. Roles have changed. Lives have changed.

One thing has remained true, though: Kerr has never been so happy to lose.

He was the Suns general manager in June 2009 and wanted Curry in the draft. Badly. There was phone call after phone call between Kerr and Riley, his Warriors counterpart. There were internal conversations among Phoenix management about the risk of trading 26-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 20 points and eight rebounds — and the risk of keeping Stoudemire with free agency a year away and growing health concerns.

The Warriors were very interested, intrigued by the chance to get the known of a proven power forward over the uncertainty of a scoring point guard from mid-major Davidson. They also really liked Curry and, in fact, doubted he would be on the board when Riley picked seventh. Arizona’s Jordan Hill was the fallback, probably for both sides, for the Suns if a deal had been arranged and for Golden State to keep if no deal was in place.

It got close, but never imminent. The Warriors were not going to trade for Stoudemire unless he at least showed strong likelihood of re-signing as a free agent the next summer, and Riley had yet to so much as ask the Suns for permission to have the conversation. And if Golden State and Stoudemire did talk, the result would have been the same. He was not going to commit to anything at that point other than showing up, playing hard and keeping an open mind about the future, an understandable stance that almost certainly would have ended the talks bouncing between Phoenix and Oakland.

Plus, once Blake Griffin (Clippers), Hasheem Thabeet (Grizzlies), James Harden (Thunder) and Tyreke Evans (Kings) were picked and the Timberwolves followed with the infamous Ricky Rubio-Jonny Flynn double dip of points guards at five and six, Curry was still available at seven. Riley’s stance hardened. No longer was it just weighing acquiring Stoudemire as a possible one-season rental while also sending out Andris Biedrins and big salaries as cap balast, it was believing Curry would be special. Riley would be demoted to director of scouting and replaced by Myers in 2012, but also secure a positive place in Golden State history by not biting on the tantalizing lure of an athletic power forward that put up numbers.

The Warriors took Curry seventh and he turned into a star. The Suns kept Stoudemire one more season and 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds and played it right to not get into a bidding war with the Knicks in 2010 free agency.

And….

The Warriors ended up hiring Kerr to coach. To coach the entire roster, obviously, but with Curry as the best player and one of the main attractions of choosing Golden State over the option of working for long-time friend and coaching mentor Phil Jackson with the Knicks.

How life could be different if Kerr got his wish in 2009.

“I may not be here,” he said.

It was one of the first things they talked about after Kerr was hired in May, when he was home near San Diego and called Curry on a postseason golf outing in Mexico. Kerr couldn’t bring him to Phoenix, the new coach told his point guard, so Kerr would come to Curry.

“He’s said a couple times, ‘You know, I really wanted him,’ ” said Myers, an agent in 2009. “Obviously any coach that has the opportunity to coach this team, that’s one of the first things mentioned, if not the first, which is, ‘I get an opportunity to coach that guy.’ And not just his talent on the floor, but who he is as a person. It makes perfect sense to me. I’d want to coach him too if I was a coach. We’ve joked around about that.”

Because they can now. Now that Kerr finally has Curry on his side.

Kerr gets the job and coast he wanted


VIDEO: New coach Kerr looks ahead to 2014-15 season

Steve Kerr told Phil Jackson, his former coach with the championship Bulls and the new head of basketball operations in New York, he would coach the Knicks. Basically accepted the job. The contract had to be worked out, obviously no small matter, but Kerr was set for Madison Square Garden.

And then he wasn’t.

The TNT commentator who went to high school near Los Angeles, college at Arizona, previously worked in Phoenix and now lives in San Diego ultimately could not convince himself to be a continent away from his wife and kids. And to hear Kerr tell it, he didn’t have to convince an understanding Jackson. Either way, it became the only opening the Warriors needed.

Golden State grabbed Kerr as its coach. It had a replacement for the fired Mark Jackson and Kerr had an ideal situation of landing his first sideline job with an established, winning team on the West Coast. He had added another twist to his strange road — from unfulfilling years as Suns general manager to enjoying TV work in California, not New York, and the career path he expected after leaving college, before an unexpected playing career and all those championships kept getting in the way.

NBA.com: Did you always know you wanted to be a coach one day or had the plan been to get back into the front office?

Kerr: When I left Phoenix, I never had any desire to get back in the front office.

NBA.com: Why is that?

Kerr: I like being on the court. I enjoyed the job, but you’re never on the court as a GM. You’re always upstairs and talking to agents. It’s a more-corporate position. I’d rather dress like this (T-shirt, shorts) every day to practice, to be honest with you. I like working with players and I like the game itself.

NBA.com: Did you find yourself not liking the GM job in Phoenix?

Kerr: I liked it when we won. We had a great year the last year.

NBA.com: But in general, because that’s going to be the same with almost any job, that you’re going to enjoy it more when you’re winning. But did you find yourself thinking, “This isn’t for me”?

Kerr: I knew when I left after my contract ran out and I decided to go back to TV, I thought that it was a great experience for me but I had no desire to go back and do it. Coaching was much more intriguing to me.

NBA.com: Was that one of the reasons you left, because it just wasn’t fun?

Kerr: Yeah. That was one of the reasons. And a big part of it was family. My kids, all three were high school or below in San Diego. The opportunity to go back to TV and live the good life was there. That meant a lot to me at the time because of the ages of my kids. Now, two of them are in college, one is not too far off from college, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my home life. It’s just a much better time of my life to pursue this and commit fully.

NBA.com: You had other opportunities before this. Why did this feel right and the other ones didn’t?

Kerr: I had plenty of opportunities. I had probably four or five teams over the last few years (to be a head coach), not necessarily offer me the job but contact me about the possibility. It was very intriguing.

NBA.com: Any that you were offered?

Kerr: No. Without an interview, nobody said, “We’ll give you the job.”

NBA.com: Why not (interview with), “Let’s see where it goes.”

Kerr: Because I knew I wasn’t ready, family-wise mainly. I wanted to be at home for my daughter’s last year of high school, for example. Once she graduated high school, which was a year and a half ago, then I really started to focus on it. But I still had a year on my TV contract, I loved working at TNT, my son and my daughter were both playing college sports, I wanted to be able to go to their games. I was just really enjoying myself. So I figured I’d just wait until the timing was right and not only the timing but the circumstances. So to be here, in Golden State with a team that won 51 games, in a great city, I’m from California, raised in California, with an ownership group that I was familiar with, (Warriors president) Rick Welts a great friend from Phoenix, and a good young roster and my daughter lives two miles away and goes to Berkeley. It’s like ideal.

NBA.com: Did you have to make a Knicks-or-Warriors decision?

Kerr: Yes.

NBA.com: What did that come down to?

Kerr: Everything I just referenced. New York was very intriguing, especially my relationship with Phil and the opportunity he was presenting me, and the Knicks, the franchise itself and the history. But it would have been a really, really difficult situation in terms of the family and being all the way across the country. I just felt better suited to work with these guys here, this younger roster with a more established core. It just felt more comfortable.

NBA.com: How much of it was the Knicks are not in as good a position as the Warriors in terms of being able to win now?

Kerr: The fact that they were in the East and were a year away from cap room was really intriguing. I think the Knicks are a playoff team right now and I think they’re going to get better and I think a year from now they’ll have a chance to make a real splash in free agency. The basketball situation, particularly being aligned with Phil, was very intriguing actually. It much more came down to lifestyle and family and the established roster here. On the flip side, we’re in the West. (He laughs) That was a negative. But can’t do much about that.

NBA.com: How close did you come to taking the Knicks job?

Kerr: I came close. It was very difficult to turn down. Agonizing. I actually at one point told Phil I was going to come, without knowing anything about contracts and without really talking in detail about certain circumstances. At one point I told him, “I’m coming,” but the caveat that we need to hash the rest of this out. And that’s when the Golden State job opened up and that’s when they were able to contact me and I was able to explore it. The timing was weird.

NBA.com: Was it a matter of you were not comfortable with the terms that the Knicks were putting out, the contract itself? Or the time it took to put the contract together, that’s when the Warriors opened and the Warriors slid in?

Kerr: They did. The Warriors did slide in.

NBA.com: Was there any problem with what the Knicks were talking money wise and years wise?

Kerr: No. I had no problem with the money. That was just normal negotiation. A lot of it was figuring out logistics and, like I said, there were some family considerations. And all the while I’m working every other night for TNT, so I never had a chance to actually go to New York and sit down with management. I had dinner with Phil in the city when I was working a Nets game for TNT, but I never had the chance to visit the facility. It was just awkward with the whole process.

NBA.com: Do you second-guess yourself? Do you regret the way you handled it — saying yes, committing to it before things had really been worked out?

Kerr: A little bit. It’s a human thing. Phil couldn’t have been better when I told him I was going to go Golden State.

NBA.com: He didn’t feel burned?

Kerr: Not at all. Because he understood. In fact, he said, “If you had come here and regretted it, it would have been the worst thing for both of us.” That’s why Phil’s Phil. He understands people. In hindsight, it probably would have been best not committing, not saying anything, just saying, “Look, I need to talk to Golden State.” But the timing was an issue on both ends. It was very tricky. Anyway, it all worked out. I think the Knicks ended up with a great coach and Derek (Fisher) and Phil will do well together and I’m happy to be here with (general manager) Bob (Myers) and the team.

NBA.com: Because you two have such a history, was it difficult to tell Phil you were not taking the job?

Kerr: It was agonizing. But his reaction made it a lot easier.

NBA.com: He didn’t try to change your mind by inviting you to do some yoga and meditate over it?

Kerr: I was already doing yoga and meditating over it.

NBA.com: What is the biggest impact you can bring with this team?

Kerr: I think empowering the guys with the real sense of how we can get to our goal.

NBA.com: In terms of the mental? When you talk about empowering, you mean….?

Kerr: First of all, I feel good about my ability to connect with guys and to lead. They’re already a good team. I feel like it’s relatively easy to identify what we have to do to get better and I have a staff in place that is going to give the team every opportunity to do so, especially with (assistant coaches) Ron (Adams) and Alvin (Gentry) and their long-time expertise in this league. I think we have a good plan. Last year’s team won 51 games. As I said, it’s a talented group. I just feel like from here to take the next step they need direction, they need the idea of how we’re going to do this, and that’s what we try to provide.

Not just another pickup game

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates at San Quentin State prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates in a pickup game at San Quentin State Prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – They walked back out some two hours and 45 minutes later, past death row with the loud cadence of the Mexican Mafia counting off exercises, through the two metal-bar doors that slam shut with exactly the shock value portrayed in movies, and to the final check of sliding a wrist under the fluorescent light to make sure the underside of the lower arm had been stamped with “PASS” on the way in, indicating a guest allowed to leave.

“No glow, no go,” the guard manning the lamp said.

Nineteen Golden State Warriors players, coaches and executives had been inside San Quentin State Prison on Friday morning for a another pickup game against inmates, and it didn’t matter that they were back for the third year in a row. You don’t get used to San Quentin. About a 20-mile drive from Oakland, the prison boasts 3,873 inmates, 732 of them on California’s only death row for men. Some 400 convicts ringed the outdoor court to watch the game; an official estimated 80 percent of them were serving life sentences. So, no, you don’t get used to that.

The game was played in a yard near a baseball field, a tennis court, a track and weight-lifting equipment, the same kind of outdoor setting that could be found anywhere, except that this one also included razor wire looped along the top of the fence that ran the length of the sidelines and one baseline. Because blowing a whistle is a signal for trouble — inmates are required to hit the deck, everyone else must freeze — hunters’ duck calls are used. (In a non-Golden State game about five years ago, one of the refs with the visiting group, unaware of the rule, tweeted a regular whistle. Rifles flashed into view from towers in an instant.) Cell phones are not allowed without prior permission. Outsiders are prohibited from wearing blue, even jeans, or grey for fear of being confused with inmates’ wardrobes, so the Warriors, mostly dressed in the approved black and white as they arrive, slipped on green jerseys.

A unique basketball experience?

“Probably the No. 1,” said coach Steve Kerr, the former shooting specialist who did not play. “I spent about three years in Egypt when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. We didn’t have a gym. We’d play on a dirt court, light bulbs hanging on cords to light the court. That was No. 1. This replaces it.”

A different vibe?

“I watch the TV shows, I watch the movies,” Festus Ezeli, the projected backup center this season, said. “To be here today is almost surreal.”

A scary situation?

“My sisters, they were nervous about it, to be honest,” assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. “My older sister called this morning to say, ‘Be careful.’ Obviously there are a lot of things associated with San Quentin.”

All of the above. The Warriors have never had anything close to a problem in the three visits, though, not so much as a member of the home team trying to stare them down on the court or hoping to get in their head by suggesting a special brand of prison justice as intimidation. As officials and convicts themselves note, the only people who get hurt if game action goes too far are the inmates. They don’t want the visit to go away.

“We’re in such awe of them being here that we don’t have time to process that,” inmate Juan Haines said while watching from behind the Warriors bench. “We’re the ones intimidated.”

The inmates were exceedingly polite Friday, greeting the visitors with waves of high fives, handshakes, embraces and conversation, participants and watchers alike. One said the appearance was like getting Christmas at a different time of the year. Another told Ezeli the appearance that had nothing to do with marketing to sell tickets or merchandise “made us feel a little human.” Bill Epling, who has been coming to San Quentin to play basketball for about 15 years and for the last 11 has led the outreach program that now extends to the Warriors, called the game “a little moment of escape today from the daily grind” as part of his pregame invocation at mid-court.

Kerr, just as he is everywhere he goes, was asked about playing with Michael Jordan. Rookie guard Aaron Craft was questioned about playing at Ohio State and about Ohio State football. General manager Bob Myers heard about the upcoming season. One inmate said he wanted to ask Jonnie West, the associate general manager of Golden State’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, about Jonnie’s father, Jerry. Ezeli, coming off a knee injury, was questioned when he was getting back on the court.

On and on. The usual fan stuff.

Inmate Rahsaan Thomas was asked during the second quarter what he would like to ask one of the Warriors.

“My question is,” Thomas said, “who talked you into walking into prison? It took guns and warrants to get me in.”

OK, so not always the usual fans.

Players — Craft, Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, James Michael McAdoo, Marreese Speights, training-camp invite Mitchell Watt this year — attend strictly for the experience and the support, not to get on the court. General manager Bob Myers and assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, who organizes the Warriors group and comes to San Quentin other times as part of the outreach program, played, along with assistant coaches Luke Walton and Jarron Collins while Kerr and Gentry stayed on the sideline, with Gentry running the team. (Gentry, turning to the bench just before tipoff: “I’m going to show you how a real coach does it. Bob, Kirk, you can shoot any time you want.”)

The benefit from the Golden State perspective, Lacob said, “I think there’s an element of good community… and it’s a great learning experience. An educational experience, I’ll call it, for anyone who goes in, seeing how other people live and what else is out there, because we live in a pretty rosy world in sports. It’s basically you win or you lose but you’re still in a great environment. On top of it, the thing that I always come back to, it’s that mutual shared interest, that shared love of basketball that brings people together. There’s just something when you connect with people. It’s hard to explain, but that idea that you can connect with someone so different from yourself at such a deep level I think is valuable. But every year that we’ve gone with the Warriors, I think people have come out with a great appreciation for their own lives and what they do.” The team has even donated old practice gear to the inmates.

Death row is 300 yards away from the court. Guards are everywhere. The razor wire.

The game is lighthearted enough most of the way, with running commentary over a public-address system from one of the inmates, then becomes a close finish. It is a good, intense pickup run with a lot of contact, and Collins and Walton, with long NBA careers in their backgrounds, and Myers, a member of a national-championship team at UCLA, chug hard under the sun and light breeze coming off San Francisco Bay. Finally, the inmates close out the 92-86 victory, their first win in three tries.

Both sides consider the day a success. The convicts, after spending weeks talking about the upcoming game, got to go against players they had seen on TV and spend time in conversation. Plus, the win. The Warriors got to experience San Quentin — then got to walk out through the yard, up a slight hill into a courtyard within hearing range of death row, through the doors and, finally, to their cars.

They plan to be back for another game next year. It has become part of the annual routine. But it will never be something they get used to.

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

GLAAD honors Warriors president Welts

It is nearly 3 ½ years later. Jason Collins, an NBA center hoping to squeeze another season or two from the twilight of his career, has come out. Michael Sam, a successful college player trying to make it in the NFL, has since announced he is gay. Robbie Rogers, an American soccer player in England and later to return to the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy, has made the same declaration.

2014 GLAAD San Francisco Gala

Jarron Collins and Rick Welts attend the 2014 GLAAD San Francisco Gala at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square on Sept. 13, 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Trisha Leeper/Getty Images for GLAAD)

Now Warriors president and chief operating officer, Rick Welts looks back without regret that he came out in a May 2011 front-page story in the New York Times, as the first prominent North American sports figure to publicly disclose his homosexuality. He looks ahead with optimism while seeing work still ahead before gay athletes and officials find true acceptance. In between — in the moment — he remains in the role he not only accepted but embraced at the time of his historic announcement: a leading voice whenever the topic enters the public conversation.

Welts was honored Saturday in San Francisco with the Davidson/Valentini Award by GLAAD as what the advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues called the “LGBT media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBT community.” The presenter? New Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins — Jason’s brother.

Welts, who rose from ball boy with the Seattle SuperSonics to executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the NBA and later president and chief operating officer of the Suns, couldn’t help but notice the sports world he helped pave, as he noted in a conversation in advance of the award ceremony.

NBA.com: What does something like that mean to you, to be put on that plateau, to be put on that podium, for the work that you’ve done?

Welts: I don’t know. It’s actually a really great opportunity to kind of reflect back over what I think has been just a remarkable time on our country’s history. For me, since I made my announcement in May of ’11, there’s no way I could have foreseen or anybody could have foreseen the transformation in our society over that period of time in regards to a whole number of issues.

I’m really proud of the NBA on that night. I’m obviously humbled by being selected for the honor, but the cooler thing for me is that I’m not sure what we’re going to do on Saturday night can be replicated in any other league. We have an openly gay president of an NBA team being presented by one of our team’s assistant coaches who happens to be the twin brother of the first male professional athlete to come out during his career, Jarron Collins. That’s a rare combination of events and personalities that kind of come together. I’m really proud of our league. I’m really proud of where the NBA is and will be on this issue and I think that it speaks volumes about the leadership in our league and its vision for what sports leagues can be and should be. If anything, that’s probably what I take away the most pleasure in.

NBA.com: One thing I’ve always noted is that stepping into this role as almost a spokesman for the whole movement, it’s not just something you have accepted, it’s something that you really seemed to have embraced. Where did that come from? Is that something you always wanted to have once you decided to come out or is that just how it evolved?

Welts: It was part of the thought process in deciding to undertake my journey the way I did. When I was thinking about this, I remember in January of 2011 asking one of my longest-standing friends and who I consider to be the smartest guy in the PR business, Dan Klores, when I was in New York.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was a snowy night on the Upper East side. We got together for dinner. I said, “Dan, here’s what I’m thinking about. But I’m too close to it. I could do this a number of ways. I could just take care of this privately with friends, family and co-workers and accomplish basically what I want to. But you need to help me understand if there’s a bigger story here and whether or not I could do more good by telling it another way.” That night, he looked across the table at me and said, “If you’re really prepared to do this, I think it’s Page A-1 New York Times.” That was kind of my “Oh, (shoot)” moment, excuse my French. I was kind of like, “Wow. Really? OK.”

And then over the ensuing few months I got introduced to a brilliant writer at the New York Times, Dan Barry, and talked about how the story could be told in a very thoughtful way and enlisted from Bill Russell to Steve Nash to David Stern to tell the story of someone about nobody in the sports world would really know: me. I don’t play, I don’t coach, I’ve devoted my life to this business but hearing about me through names that everybody that’s associated with sports would know is a great way to really put a circle around the announcement and to hopefully create some really substantive discussion about those issues in men’s pro sports, which has trailed — still trails, but I think we’re catching up a little bit — the country in terms of attitude and environments that are created in the workplace.

So, yeah, it’s what I signed up for. I embrace it and I’m incredibly gratified to see with amazement what’s happened since then. Not everybody gives Robbie Rogers enough credit, who is on the U.S. national soccer team and was a European soccer player at the time he made his announcement, now plays for the Galaxy. Jason Collins, obviously. Just an incredibly amazing act of strength to do what he did when he did it and the way he did it. And Michael Sam that we’re all rooting to find a job. But also we’re reading about college athletes and high school athletes who are taking those steps very courageously to make this something that we have to talk about. The more we talk about it, the better we understand it. (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Sept. 13



VIDEO: The GameTime crew makes predictions for FIBA final

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Klay paves the way | Korver speaks with Deng | Serbia not in awe | Billups a tough Hall call

No. 1: Thompson shows his stuff to the world — There have been few days when the multi-talented Anthony Davis and the uber-hustling Kenneth Faried haven’t been part of the highlight videos for Team USA out of the FIBA World Cup. But as the Americans prepare to face Serbia on Sunday in the gold medal game, it’s time to acknowledge that the consistent contributions of Klay Thompson to the effort. The Warriors guard started out the offseason with his name being part of trade talks to lure Kevin Love to Golden State. Now, our own Sekou Smith relates, Thompson is using the whole summer as an experience to take his game and his career to the next level:

Thompson’s contributions off the U.S. bench, a role he probably hasn’t had to play at any point in his basketball career since before high school, if ever, could pay huge dividends when this tournament is over and he goes back to his role as one of the stars for the Warriors.
“You expose yourself to different stages of basketball,” Stephen Curry said of the benefits Thompson will gain from this medal run with the U.S. National Team. “It’s beneficial because you’re being called on to play a different role, to be a scorer off the bench and it’s just different. It adds a little bit of character and charisma to your game. And that should translate to even more success when we get back to Golden State.”
This has definitely been a character building summer for Thompson and other guys used to starting and the spotlight that comes with it in the NBA. He’s perhaps a better defender than anyone imagined. He’s stepped up to the challenge on defense night after night, while serving as the team’s most consistent scoring threat off the bench as well, averaging 12.8 points while shooting 66 percent on his 2-point shots and 41 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
We’ve gotten a glimpse of his game, the entire scope of his game, in ways we don’t normally get to see in the NBA.
“He’s been a lockdown defender for us, no doubt,” James Harden said. “Scoring is never going to be a problem for him. It’s not an issue for this team. So it says something when you see guys working hard on defense and trying to make an impact any way they can.”
That’s the spirit of the program, the one Jerry Colangelo and Coach K have tried to foster from the start. And the results have worked beautifully. The U.S, takes a 62-game win streak into Sunday’s gold medal game, having put together a flawless run in World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and international exhibition competition dating back to 2006.

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No. 2: Deng says Hawks not racist Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Hawks guard Kyle Korver, who is also a member of the executive board of the National Basketball Players Assocation, following a conversation the veteran guard had with Luol Deng, who is at the center of the Danny Ferry controversy. Korver said he hopes the Hawks can put the issue behind them and that Deng does not believe Ferry is motivated by racism:

Q. What is your reaction to everything that has happened?
A. My thoughts are, when I got traded to the Hawks, I didn’t want to come here because all I knew was what I had heard, about bad culture and no fans and no excitement in the city. So I didn’t want to come to Atlanta. At all. I was bummed to leave Chicago. But by the next summer, I chose to re-sign and come back to Atlanta. After a year of watching what Danny (Ferry) was doing and the people he was bringing in. Everything I saw, was so attractive to me and I really believed in it. I believed that he was going to turn things around. I saw that Atlanta was an incredible city, and that there was so much potential here to both raise my family and help build a great basketball culture. I had some opportunities to go to places that were already established and played really good basketball but I wanted to come back here and be a part of building this. I think in all this, I’m hopeful that when the dust settles, it keeps on going. I really do believe in what has gone on in the two years that I have been here. I think anyone who knows the game and has watched the transformation would agree with me. But it’s just sad what’s all going on. That all this has happened has really bummed me out.
Q. You were teammates with Luol Deng. Would you care to comment about what was said about him? Have you reached out to him?
A. Yeah we did speak. Luol is such a good guy. And he’s been through so much in life that I don’t really think this has really even phased him. He told me that he didn’t think that Danny or anyone with the Hawks was racist. He said he was shocked when he heard what was said, but that sometimes things just slip out. It was pretty amazing, really. He just wants everything to move on. He wants to get back to basketball.

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No. 3: Serbia says USA will have to earn gold medal — When France upset hometown favorite Spain in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup, the knee-jerk reaction around much of the basketball planet was that Team USA could making room in their luggage for those gold medals. However Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Hoops says the history of international basketball and the particular pride of the Serbians could make things interesting in Sunday’s gold medal game. In other words, the Americans must be careful not to get caught in a trap:

But here they are now, playing for the gold medal after defeating the team that defeated Spain.
They are much older than the Americans. They have a player who once played for the Nets in East Rutherford, N.J. (Nenad Krstic). They have a point guard, Milos Teodosic, who is a lock for First Team All-Tournament (he scored 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting against France).
Most importantly, they have nothing to lose.
And when all the pressure is on the other team, as it will be for the United States on Sunday, it can be an enormous equalizer. Just ask Spain.
“We’re not going to be scared, for sure,” Krstic said. “Some players never get this chance — the chance to do something great in our lives.”
A previous generation of Serbians got that chance and capitalized on it in 2002, even if one of them — Divac — got a gold medal after one of the worst games of his life.
Another generation, Djordjevic’s generation, put a scare into the Americans in 1996 when everyone thought it would be another 20 years before anyone would even come close to defeating Team USA.
The Serbians played a huge role in making the basketball universe change less than two decades ago, which allows us to remind everyone of this famous quote: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Just a few words of caution heading into Sunday’s game.
Do yourself a favor and turn off the football for two hours and see what happens. When the Serbs are involved in a gold medal game, you really never know what you are going to get.
“If they beat us, when it is over I will shake their hands,” Djordjevic told me. “But we are going to play our game.”

Read more at http://www.sheridanhoops.com/2014/09/12/sheridan-serbia-coach-on-team-usa-prove-you-are-better/#yTv5JLmTPPyalJhA.99

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No. 4: Is Billups Hall of Fame worthy? — We all know him as Mr. Big Shot and the driving force in the middle of the Pistons 2004 team that shocked Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers to win the championship. But is being the MVP of The Finals and five All-Star seasons enough to get Chauncey Billups a spot in the Hall of Fame? That’s the question raised by our Scott Howard-Cooper:

He was a leader in 17 seasons with seven teams, filled with positive intangibles that never reach the box score. He was a difference maker in attitude alone as Detroit won the title in 2004 and Denver reached the Western Conference finals in 2009, a locker-room presence chosen by the league as the first winner of the Twyman-Stokes Award in 2013 as the “player deemed the best teammate based on selfless play, on and off-court leadership as a mentor and role model to other NBA players, and his commitment and dedication to his team.”
He was even the kind of person chosen by the media as winner of the 2008 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for charity work.
Billups’ strongest attribute cannot be measured. Now, get two sets of voters — one that determines the finalists, another in a second round of voting that chooses the inductees — to put that into tangible terms on the ballot when Billups becomes eligible to be nominated for the first time as part of the Class of 2019.
Which makes two problems.
Besides the first issue, 15.2 points, 5.4 assists and 41.5 percent from the field, with one top-five finish in assists average and a lot of years less than 42-percent shooting, does not get anyone inducted.
Five All-Star appearances, three as a Piston and two with the hometown Nuggets, is a big credibility boost. Being named second-team All-Defense twice, second-team All-NBA once and third-team All-NBA twice will matter. Having a lead role on a championship team — while being named Finals MVP — and also winning a gold medal with the United States in the 2010 world championships will count for a lot.
But being a positive force of energy is what set Billups apart and made him a player to emulate more than the gaudy numbers usually required for a serious Hall bid. It’s why there is a very good chance he will be in the conversation when the time comes, but not get across the line, a good talent with unique qualities but not historic.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: With the return of LeBron-mania to Cleveland, the Cavaliers will hold a lottery for the sale of individual game tickets this season…The Clippers re-signed veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu and plan to add Sam Cassell and Mike Woodson as assistant coaches on Doc Rivers staff…Tobias Harris hopes to stay in Orlando with the Magic for the long haul…Film critics and Maverick teammates Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis and others will fly to Germany next week for the premiere of Dirk Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot.
ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George is among the best two-way players in the game today …:

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

Myers solidifies his Warriors future

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Since leaving player agency and joining the Warriors three years ago, Bob Myers has headed a fast rise in Oakland.

It happened fast. That’s the thing.

Agent to general manager-in-waiting to actual GM to indisputably part of the solution in Golden State. Zero to 60 in about three years. Maybe not officially zero, since the experience as a leading agent is a rolling start, but Bob Myers had never lived the front office life before, and certainly not one as unique as the Warriors with so many voices coming at him from different directions.

About the only certainty when he went to work for his hometown team as assistant general manager in 2011 was that Myers would eventually, and probably quickly, become head of basketball operations, because no way he comes down from a lofty position in the agent game to serve as an aide. There was no chance to predict this with any confidence, though, the way a management newbie turned no cap space and limited trade assets into Andre Iguodala, how Myers did the Stephen Curry extension at what turned out to be an incredible bargain, how the Warriors got prime coaching target Steve Kerr away from Phil Jackson and the Knicks, and how the draft record will look good if Harrison Barnes is more 2012-13 than 2013-14 and Festus Ezeli recovers from knee surgery.

By the summer of 2014, the turnaround has led all the way to where general manager is one of the positions the Warriors don’t have to worry about. Myers has proven himself in pressure situations, the window of opportunity is still open after the disappointing first-round exit last season, upper management is relieved to be away from the strained relationship with previous coach Mark Jackson, and now the team and Myers have agreed on a three-year contract.

The new deal, first reported last week by Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group, is on top of the 2014-15 remaining on the original package, putting Myers under contract through 2017-18. The Warriors are in an uncertain place on the court as Kerr takes over with no coaching experience and needing to deliver immediate results, good enough to project to somewhere around the middle of the Western Conference but unproven enough for reasonable doubts about a long playoff run, there is transition off the court with the planned arena construction and move into San Francisco, the salary cap has to be managed to take on another big salary with Klay Thompson a season away from free agency, but the front office is stabilized.

Relatively speaking, at least. Owner Joe Lacob is very involved. Assistant general manager Travis Schlenk, well regarded as a future GM somewhere, has a voice. Assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, son of Joe, has a voice. Jerry West, untitled in basketball ops but a minority owner/member of the executive board, does not know how to hang back, wanting to challenge people and loving others challenging his ideas just as much. Even the new coach, Kerr, is a former GM who will speak up, lobbying hard to keep Thompson and David Lee rather than trading for Kevin Love.

The mega-decisions — whether to include Thompson in the deal to get Love from the Timberwolves, whether to go four years and $48 million for Iguodala and three years and $36 million on an Andrew Bogut extension within about four months — come down to Lacob and Myers. But that’s still a lot of volume in one place. That’s still a very crowded war room when communication is not one of the GM’s strengths.

Still, the understated Myers kept the Warriors together emotionally last season as a counterbalance to an owner whose passion is regularly on display, with Jackson’s future in play for several months, when an assistant coach was fired for bugging colleagues’ conversations and another assistant demoted, not to mention dealing with the Donald Sterling saga in the first round against the Clippers that Golden State players and coaches said affected them too. That the Warriors got to a Game 7 despite the absence of Bogut says a lot about Jackson and the risk Lacob and Myers took in firing him. But there was also a composure in difficult situations, and that’s Myers too.

After all of one season as an apprentice and two as the GM, he has solidified himself as part of the long term, a proven commodity at age 39. Myers is no longer one of the questions, even more now that the potential contract issue is off the table with the extension. It happened fast.

Top triple-double winners of 2013-14

Kevin Durant averaged 32 points a game last season in winning his first MVP. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Kevin Durant averaged 32 points a game last season in winning his first MVP. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

In these days of advanced metrics, it seems every day brings another way to measure the effectiveness of a player. But with a nod toward Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, we’re sticking with the old faithful triple-double. Here is our list of 10 favorites that produced wins in the 2013-14 season:

10. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
February 11, 2014 vs. Atlanta Hawks — 19 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists

In the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s second consecutive season lost to knee injury, Noah had already stepped into the breach to carry the team. But the United Center crowd knew this was going to be special when the running, spinning, banging bundle of energy had a devil of a first quarter with a 6-6-6 in points, rebounds and assists. He finished the night with his fourth career triple-double in a 100-85 thumping of the Hawks that included a career-high 11 helpers.

9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
November 4, 2013 at Philadelphia 76ers — 18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds

It had been 3 1/2 years since Curry had rung up a triple-double, but he came flying out of the gate in the first week of the season.  Andre Iguodala, playing his first game as a Warrior in the city where he broke into the NBA, poured in 32 points in a 110-90 win. But it was Curry who showed off his all-around game, slashing to the hoop, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and even coming up with five steals for Golden State.

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
April 11, 2014 at Los Angeles Lakers — 30 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds

This late into the schedule, triple-doubles were starting to become old hat for Curry. It was his fourth of the season, making him the first Warrior to accumulate that many since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963-64. This was definitely some hot Curry, making 12 of 20 shots, including 4-for-5 from behind the 3-point line as he led Golden State in clinching a playoff berth while ending an 11-game losing streak at Staples Center in the 112-95 victory. “What Curry did tonight, and what he does every night, is remarkable,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.

7. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
April 2, 2014 vs. Memphis Grizzlies — 24 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists

This is why LeBron James wanted him so badly. It might not have felt like it was in the cards when Love started out the night by missing three of his first four shots. But he found his touch and range, especially behind the 3-point arc, going 8-for-11 over the final 3 1/2 quarters to register his third triple-double of the season in a 102-88 win. It was a last stand for the Timberwolves, who put off for one more night being eliminated from playoff contention for the 10th year in a row. That’s why Love wanted so badly to play with LeBron.

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
May 3, 2014 vs. Memphis Grizzlies — 27 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds

This was a reminder that Westbrook didn’t enjoy watching virtually all of the playoffs a year earlier from the bench with a knee injury. With the Grizzlies pushing OKC to the limit in the first round, Westbrook was a one-man wrecking crew with his second triple-double of the series to clinch the 120-109 win and let the Thunder move on. He connected on five of his six 3-point tries and tied his career high with 16 assists. He also joined Rajon Rondo as the only players in the NBA to have a pair of Game 7 triple-doubles. The only other players ever to have as many as 25 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a playoff game are Oscar Robertson and Chris Paul.

5. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
May 7, 2014 vs. Los Angeles Clippers – 31 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds

No matter what Kevin Durant accomplishes, it seems that Westbrook always finds a way to get into the story. That was definitely the case on the night Durant was awarded his MVP trophy before Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. K.D. was great with a near-triple-double of 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, but Westbrook sealed the deal with 31, 10 and 10 when he shoveled a pass to Thabo Sefolosha for a layup with 81 seconds to go as OKC won the series opener 112-101. It was his second triple-double in a row and third of the playoffs. “Russ played harder than all of us combined,” said the Clippers’ Chris Paul.

4. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
March 19 at Dallas Mavericks — 22 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds

Teammate Kevin Love led the way with 35 points and hit the floating jumper to give the Timberwolves a 123-122 overtime win on the road, but it was Rubio who was the slashing star of the show for most of the night. He weaved through the Mavericks’ defense to get to the basket, hitting eight of his 12 shots without a single 3-point bucket. It was Rubio’s second triple-double of the season and third of his career. He also came up with four steals. That puts him in the company of Chris Paul and Andre Miller as the only active players to get at least 20 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds and four steals in a game.

3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
January 25, 2014 at Philadelphia 76ers — 32 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists

The league’s leading scorer sat out the Thunder’s previous game in Boston three nights earlier with a sprained shoulder, but his shooting hand was obviously well rested when he returned against the Sixers to lead the 103-91 win. K.D. cruised, hitting 12 of 17 shots and became just the sixth player since 1990 to score at least 30 points in 10 consecutive games. Even though they’d been playing without the injured Westbrook since Christmas, Durant pushed the Thunder on to their seventh consecutive win.

2. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
February 22, 2014 at Utah Jazz — 37 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists

It was only a matter of time, considering that Love had been on a run of eight straight games with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. This time he blew the lid off EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City to lead the Timberwolves in a 121-104 romp. The assists were a career high and gave Love the first triple-double of his career. It all came in less than 33 minutes of playing time as he sat out almost the entire fourth quarter. The Timberwolves needed him to come up big on a night when they were missing Nikola Pekovic, Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Martin with injuries. It was Love’s fourth straight game of 30 or more points, tying Kevin Garnett’s franchise record.

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
December 1, 2013 vs. Minnesota Timberwolves — 32 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds

We know he doesn’t like the nickname, but this was one of those games where “Durantula” fits. Those long, lethal arms and his poisonous bite were everywhere as Kevin Durant notched the third triple-double of the season and fourth of his career in the 113-103 whipping. In fact, the triple-double was just a start as K.D. was also ferocious on defense, blocking four shots and making four steals. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the only line of at least 32-12-10-4-4 since the NBA began officially keeping track of blocks and steals in the 1973-74 season. Durant was sizzling all night, hitting 14 of 21 shots, including a trio of 3-pointers. He did his scoring damage without living at the line, taking just two free throws. There are so many candidates to like on our top 10 list, but we’re giving K.D. the top spot for this one.

New role, old challenge for Jonnie West

 

Jonnie West chose to play at West Virginia. Playing in West Virginia would have been enough to invite the spotlight of walking in the footsteps of a statewide legend and the taunts from opposing crowds, but he went all in, to the same school as the legend because he wanted to be coached by John Beilein, only to have Beilein leave for Michigan.

Jonnie West chose to work for the Warriors. Yes it was a fast-track NBA job no one would have turned down, and few others with a different last name or Golden State relationship could have even hoped for, but he stepped into the unique challenge again.west

He ducks nothing. The son of Jerry West played at the same college, got into the same business and is part of the same organization where The Logo reigns as a minority owner and prominent voice in basketball operations under owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers.

Jonnie West has moved up to associate general manager of the NBA D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif., in a shared role with Patrick Sund, the son of another long-time NBA executive, Rick Sund, a job bump announced Friday. Jonnie will continue to scout for the parent club about 75 miles to the north. Jonnie will still be trying to build a career beyond a 26 year old far, far down the front-office depth chart.

And Jonnie will still be the son of one of the greatest GMs in the history of this or any other North American league.

“This is an opportunity,” Jerry West said. “There’s no question it’s an opportunity. But you have to seize upon the opportunity. You’ve got to outwork other people. You’ve got to be more prepared than other people. And I think that’s exactly what you’ll see from him.”

Jonnie West has worked in Santa Cruz management the previous two seasons, as director of basketball operations and then with a promotion to director of player personnel. Before that, he interned for superstar agent Arn Tellem — the West and Tellem families have been close for decades — at the same Wasserman Media Group where Myers became a prominent agent before leaving for the Golden State front office. Jonnie West and Myers have also known each other for years, since Myers was finishing his UCLA career, a couple miles from the West’s home, in 1997.

“I’ve dealt with it my entire life,” Jonnie said of the famous family name. “When (Jerry) first went to Memphis, he was really the face of the franchise, which he didn’t want. He wanted the attention to be on the players, which it should be. Playing high school basketball in Memphis, I started to get some of that pressure and people would ask me questions. I just never really felt it. Then going to West Virginia and playing where he played, it was always a question that people asked me. I’ve always said the same thing. I appreciate and love him for everything he’s done for me and all the accomplishments that he’s had, but I’m my own person. I may be trying to follow the same path that he did, but I’m my own person. I’m only doing this because I want to do it. I have his support, which means the world to me.

“Probably on a daily basis we talk basketball. Growing up, I was around him a lot during drafts. I was in the war room with him during the drafts from an early age, so I experienced a lot growing up and got experience that a lot of people just don’t have the opportunity to have. I was able to learn a lot even before I began working in the NBA.”

Ryan West understands. Jonnie’s older brother is also climbing steps in an NBA front office, except Ryan is doing it as assistant director of scouting with the Lakers, the team their father is most identified with. Jonnie doesn’t have that connection, but attending the same school and then working in the same organization as Jerry West is asking for a comparison no one can win.

“The one thing that we constantly have discussions about are players that we think are good and players that we think are not quite as good,” Jerry West said. “And it’s really interesting, at least in my family with my two kids, that goes on all the time. They tell me I’m crazy, I tell them they’re crazy. To me, I think the strength of anyone who works within this organization is to pride yourself on looking at players, being objective about them, and I think that’s exactly what he will do. I honestly could never change his mind about his player that has something unique to contribute to a team. I don’t think I could change his mind. And I think that’s good in many respects.”

Patrick Sund, 28, is entering his sixth season in Golden State, after most recently serving as manager of scouting. Rick Sund has been an executive with the Hawks, SuperSonics, Mavericks, Pistons and Bucks.

Summer Dreaming: Most Valuable Player

We’ve been to the beach to soak up the rays and the scenery and did some snorkeling to take a peek at life beneath the water’s surface. We’ve risen at dawn and hiked up through the cool morning air on narrow trails to get a glimpse of what’s over there on the next mountain. We’ve gone bungee jumping just to see if we had it in us. We’ve floated down long, lazy rivers to navel gaze and find out how long we could keep that umbrella drink balanced on our bellies.

What else is left to see on these sultry summer days except to lie back in a hammock and dream of MVPs who’ll make things hot on all those winter nights?

While we’re still several pages on the calendar away from the 2014-15 season openers, we’re taking off from the free-throw line in our naps and soaring all the way to April for the top five contenders on my ballot.

Send us your picks.


VIDEO: LeBron James returns home to Cleveland

LeBron James, Cavaliers — He’s back at home in Ohio, all is forgiven and it’s safe to like him again. Add in the fact that he lost out on the MVP trophy to Kevin Durant last season — even though it was silly to even think that he wasn’t the best player in the league — and there’s reason to expect bigger things than a pregame mushroom cloud of resin dust in Cleveland. Chalk last year up to “LeBron Fatigue” from a voting roll that simply got tired of writing his name in on the top line of the ballot, even if it was the right thing to do. So now “The Homecoming” will have him in the same situation he faced after Derrick Rose copped the MVP from him in 2011. All James did was respond by winning the award two straight times. A fifth MVP this season will move him into a tie with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan and, at just 29, LeBron in his prime will be stalking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time record of six.


VIDEO: Brent Barry goes one-on-one with Chris Paul

Chris Paul, Clippers — Does anybody really think head cheerleader and screamer Steve Ballmer would have plunked down $2 billion to buy the Clippers if Paul hadn’t already done the seemingly impossible and removed their name as the punch line from every NBA joke? Yes, Blake Griffin is a bonafide All-Star. Yes, Doc Rivers is an elite level coach who was tapped into the psyche of DeAndre Jordan to push him into the conversation as one of the best centers in the league. But it’s Paul who is the face, heart, teeth and claws of the franchise. With career averages of 18.6 points, 9.9 assists, simply the best handle in the game and a nose for ballhawking defense, CP3 has a pot that’s been bubbling for nine NBA seasons and is ready to boil over and take the Clippers to the next level. This could be the year. Paul has driven the team to win a franchise record 56 and 57 games in each of the past two seasons and if he can do it again to set up a deep playoff run, the shiny hardware could be his reward.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks about his 2013-14 MVP season

Kevin Durant, Thunder — He capped off another splendid and relentless season by winning his first MVP award last season and then upped his game by delivering one of the great acceptance speeches of all time. Go ahead, admit that you wiped a tear from the corner of your eye. What’s going to change on the court this time around? While teammate Russell Westbrook rides the roller coaster of fandom up and down with his off-the-charts play mixed with the “what-was-he-thinking?” shot selection, Durant will continue to be the spindly-legged racehorse that pulls the Thunder wagon. He’s won the scoring title four of the past five seasons, had a string of a dozen straight games of scoring at least 30 a year ago, which brought out the Jordan comparisons. But with all of the hullaballoo surrounding LeBron’s return to Cleveland, last season could one day be remembered as K.D.’s only MVP win if he can’t get the Thunder over the hump to win a championship.


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony elects to stay in New York

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks — Last season was the first time in his career that Anthony’s team did not make the playoffs, yet he still finished third in the MVP voting. That speaks not only to the depth of his own talent, but a lack of depth on the Knicks roster that forces him to be the do-it-all force every night. Other than the arrival of Phil Jackson in the executive suite and Derek Fisher on the bench, little has changed at Madison Square Garden. Melo went window shopping in the free agent market, glimpsing at the goods in Chicago and Houston, then opted to take the largest bundle of cash — five years, $124 million — to remain in New York and continue to keep his name in lights on Broadway. He’s lost weight. He’s gained confidence. He says he can get the Knicks back into the playoffs. In a rebuilt Eastern Conference that now has real challengers up and down the standings, that will be a tall task. But if Anthony can take the Knicks there, he’ll deserved to be in the conversation.


VIDEO: Stephen Curry’s top plays of 2013-14

Stephen Curry, Warriors — Curry is the best pure shooter in the league today. It’s not just the number of times he puts the ball into the basket, but his ability to get the shots off so quickly, at all angles, from virtually anyplace on the court. Give him an open dribble as soon as he crosses the mid court line and you might have given up a bucket. But it’s more than just scoring 24.5 points a game. It’s Curry’s ability to dish the ball from either hand with a magician’s flair for 8.5 assists that makes him truly special. He was already knocking on the door of the top five a year ago, finishing sixth in the MVP balloting. If new coach Steve Kerr can get the Warriors to take the next step and boost them into the upper half of the Western Conference bracket, Curry could be a dark horse in the race.