Lakers aren't attracting stars with Kobe

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
Abbott By Henry Abbott
The Lakers have long been a magnet to the NBA's biggest names, but it's getting tough to find elite players who want to share the court with Kobe Bryant.


Mind of the Fan: LeBron's homecoming

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
LeBron JamesJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesLeBron James' return to Cleveland didn't just help the Cavs. James is more popular than ever before.
It took years, but LeBron James is finally more popular than ever, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. In the latest September survey, 18.4 percent of NBA fans cited James as their favorite player, almost double the 9.4 percent figure from the 2011-12 season, when he was still mired in Decision backlash.

But LeBron's surge in popularity is confined to certain demographics.

The "I'm coming home" bump was pronounced among whites and Hispanics polled. In the 2012-13 season, 9.7 percent of white NBA fans listed LeBron as their favorite player. That figure crept up to 13.2 percent last season and registered at 16.0 percent in the latest September survey.

Hispanics supported LeBron to the tune of 13.5 percent during the 2013-14 season and now do so at 17.4 percent. Even though LeBron rejected a heavily Latino market in Miami, his homeward turn certainly didn't hurt him with Hispanics polled.

There wasn't much evidence of LeBron's move resonating with African-American NBA fans or younger NBA fans. LeBron was the favorite player for 28.1 percent of the African-American NBA fans polled during the 2013-14 season. Our latest figures show no "I'm coming home" impact in that demographic, with LeBron most recently registering as the favorite player for 27.8 percent of African-American fans.

Younger demographics also received the LeBron news with apathy. Fans ages 12 to 17 went from a 22.4 percent favorite rating during the season to 21.4 percent in our September report. Support among fans age 18 to 34 crept up only 0.6 percent during this time frame. The millennial NBA fan seems to care little as to where LeBron works.

In stark contrast, older fans wholly embraced LeBron's embrace of his old team. The 35-54 demographic went from 14.7 percent support to 18.4 percent. Fans over the age of 55 went from 11.7 percent to 16.6 percent. LeBron's summer bump was powered by fans over the age of 35.

There might be a connection between how LeBron's return was received and how inclined the fan receiving it is to root for a local team. Older fans are generally more likely to support the local squad. Last season, 57.5 percent of fans over the age of 55 said they support the team in their market. Only 39.1 percent of fans 12-17 said they support the in-market team. There's a similar contrast between white and African-American NBA fans, with 58 percent of white fans supporting the local team to 37 percent black fans pledging local allegiance.

LeBron's popularity had been slowly building after falling precipitously in the Decision aftermath. In surveys conducted during the 2013-14 season, 16.1 percent of NBA fans named him as their favorite player. In surveys conducted over July and August, that figure jumped to 20.7 percent. Some of that positive feeling has since ebbed -- James isn't the story in the sports news cycle like he was in the summer -- but much of the afterglow still surrounds him. His latest 18.4 percent favorite rating easily exceeds his old Cleveland apex of popularity in 2010 (15.6 percent).

In terms of reputation, leaving Miami has been the opposite of leaving Cleveland. When LeBron ditched the Cavs in 2010, his favorite rating sank from that 15.6 percent figure to 10.2 percent in his first season with the Heat. Spurning Cleveland meant a sudden loss in over a third of his fans. In stark contrast, breaking hearts in Miami has led to many new LeBron converts nationwide, especially among demographics that tend to root local.

It would appear that if you root for the home team, you're more predisposed to cheer LeBron for coming home. If you like rooting for local clothing, you were probably rooting for Cleveland.

Can new offense make Klay an All-Star?

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Steve KerrJuan O'Campo/NBAE/Getty ImagesWill new Warriors coach Steve Kerr bring out the best in Klay Thompson's game this season?
At the Golden State Warriors' practice facility, coach Steve Kerr said something that had merit but little statistical basis: “Klay [Thompson] is at the point of his career where he’s very close to being an All-Star.”

Kerr is not a stupid person, and he’s not exactly prone to happy hyperbole either. One jarring difference from last season is this coach’s candor in discussing shortcomings. You hear terms like “bad practice,” confessions of broken plays, admissions of vulnerability that the previous coach felt too assailed to reveal. While the last guy made basketball seem like a war conquered by confidence, the current one makes it sound like an all-obsessing job, fraught with fallibility.

So how can the Warriors' coach believe that a player who has never notched an above-league average PER stands on the cusp of stardom? How can Kerr be so confident in Thompson when his shooting guard lags in so many categories outside of points?

[+] EnlargeKlay Thompson
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsGetting to the rim in the new offense would only make Klay Thompson an even greater offensive threat.
A lot of it rests on the idea that Thompson can quite literally choose to be a much better player. As in, he can take more of the shots he’s incredible at, and fewer of the shots that give little reward. The way Kerr put it after the “All-Star” assessment: “What I talk to him about is getting greedy, but not with bad shots. Getting greedy with good shots.”

Getting greedy with good shots. That painted arc is the line between a bad kind and good kind of selfish. Kerr continued, “He can shoot 25-footers with ease. The floor is his, but he’s got to be efficient and smart with the way he uses it.”

Thompson should be one of the league’s most efficient scorers, thanks to a high-release distance jumper that’s equal parts accurate and unblockable. His scoring efficiency was, like last season’s Warriors offense, disappointingly average. Both Thompson and the Warriors were hyped as offensive juggernauts throughout the year. Both Thompson and the Warriors squandered advantages by relying too much on midrange post-ups. Golden State finished last in the league in passes per possession. Thompson finished last in the league in passes per touch.

Stephen Curry is the superstar and face of the franchise, but at the moment his backcourt partner better symbolizes where the organization is at: its potential, its improved defense, its flaws, its uncertain future. The Warriors are deliberating over Thompson’s second contract, and he’s the player who must improve for them to compete for titles. It’s difficult to envision Golden State as a contender if Curry remains the lone star.

The hope is that Kerr unlocks Thompson’s and this team’s promise with an offense that moves the ball in a manner Golden State hasn’t moved it. All the way from the practice court, through a window, you can see that the walls of Kerr’s office are slathered in dry-erase ink. The wall scribblings conjure something between intricate planning and madness. Prying eyes can’t clock just what the mysterious cave paintings mean. “What’s he building in there?” the part of your brain that sounds like Tom Waits might mutter.

If what we’ve seen and heard is to be believed, he’s building an offense that incorporates elements of Spurs motion and elements of the triangle. With the assistance of former Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry, there’s influence from the Nash-era Suns as well. The challenge for Golden State is to generate offense without floor-spreading bigs like so many teams have -- like what the Warriors would have had if they’d traded for a certain current Cleveland Cavalier. For Golden State to live up to its billing as some revolutionary, exciting “Splash Brothers” attack, it must thrive with a positively old-school look. The Warriors must score with a center and power forward passing out of the post.

Kerr is sanguine about the possibilities, though. When asked if it’s a challenge to lean on passing (as opposed to shooting) bigs, Kerr exclaimed, “It would be a challenge to not have those guys!" He chuckled, then added, "When you have great passing bigs, it makes offense so much easier. Two things can really stretch the floor: shooting and passing. If you have good interior passing, you can get the spacing that you need.”

Many teams stretch the floor with the mere presence of shooters. The Warriors hope to stretch defenses with their decisions.

It’s not as simple as just rolling the ball out and hoping Andrew Bogut and David Lee pass incisively, though. The team must move in a way that primes the passing. Kerr explained the general idea behind the new offense as, “You take whatever talent you have. What we have is a great shooting backcourt and excellent passing bigs, so that’s why you see us doing what we’re doing. A lot of dribble handoffs, a lot of moving and cutting, because we know we have the skill to move the ball around.”

The dribble handoffs have been a distinct feature of an offense that came firing out of the gate this preseason. Bogut, thought by many to be a defense-only player, operates as the fulcrum of so much offense. He doesn’t simply set screens. He confrontationally dribbles the ball directly at smaller defenders, halts and blocks their path to Curry or Thompson.

Bogut explains, “If I can attack first and then get a better [passing] angle, it creates so much havoc for that big guy guarding me because he has to show on guys like Steph.”

Teammates orbit Bogut as defenders desperately try to get around his wide, jutted body. Defenders who doggedly chase Curry or Thompson around the screen can often be evaded with a cut away from the pick. If this happens, Bogut is more than likely to hit the open man with a crisp pass. If he still has his dribble, you might be treated to the comedy of a fake handoff that tricks everybody, followed by a slow turn and stroll through a vacant paint. It’s a shocking sight, like if the Arc de Triomphe grew sick of the circling traffic, uprooted itself and strolled down the Champs-Elysees past gawking tourists.

Bogut has averaged 7.25 assists per 40 minutes this preseason, and it would appear he’s enjoying a system where, “They obviously want me to be involved more, especially the high post area to utilize my passing.” The ever-wary vet finished that thought with, “I’m not going to say, ‘I hated last year.’ I loved last year. I’m at a point in my career where I play whatever role coach wants me to, and if they want me to handle the ball more, I’ll do that.” Like a few of his teammates, Bogut is careful to stop short of slighting the old regime.

Lee has also thrived in the dizzying circles this preseason, frequently cutting behind the action for points at the rim. He’s claimed a 27.02 PER, and against Miami, he hit all 11 of his shots. Like with Bogut, Lee’s expected to export offensive creativity from inside the arc. In last season’s stilted system, Lee posted his lowest assist average since he was a reserve with the Knicks, back in 2008. More movement might mean more opportunities for Lee to tap into his skill set.

The two Warriors bigs, guys who don’t appear on “Splash Brothers” posters, are subtly linked to Thompson’s story arc. With the burden of creativity shifting from Thompson (and his post-ups) to Bogut and Lee, the thinking is that the shooter will get better shots. So far it’s working spectacularly, at least in this preseason. Thompson’s claimed a ridiculous 34.86 PER while driving more and posting less.

In the background, his agent negotiates his lucrative contract extension with Warriors GM Bob Myers. While the Warriors don’t expect Thompson to average over 34 points per 40 minutes (as he’s doing this preseason), they do expect him to validate the faith that’s implied in the rejection of a Kevin Love trade. Both sides want a deal, though this is complicated by the dizzying array of possibilities created by the NBA’s new TV contract. In theory, Thompson’s long-term Warriors commitment is only a matter of time. As for Thompson making an All-Star team, that could be more a matter of strategy.

Trail Blazers still shooting high

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
By Erik Gundersen
Special to
LillardSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images"The Shot" still rings out in Portland. But do the Trail Blazers have an encore performance in them?
In Portland, the afterglow of Damian Lillard's buzzer-beater to defeat the Houston Rockets hasn’t ended. All of the fan videos, courtside Vines and your friend's friend's stories about where they were when "The Shot" happened has turned perhaps the most memorable moment of the 2014 NBA postseason into a local legend. That the Trail Blazers were dismantled in the next round by Kawhi Leonard and the eventual champions is only an addendum, if that.

The city has fallen back in love with its team. After the “Jail Blazers” years, all the losing seasons that followed, the injuries that struck down Greg Oden and Brandon Roy in their primes, and some more losing, Portland seems squarely behind the Blazers again. A group of 13,500 showed up to a recent Fan Fest, which Terry Stotts, an NBA coach for over 20 years, said was the most he'd seen at such an event.

A lot of that has to do with Lillard. In just two seasons, the 6-foot-3 point guard who hails from little-known Weber State has risen into a bona fide star. Only Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Tiny Archibald have totaled as many points and assists in their first two NBA seasons as Lillard, and although he was left off Team USA’s final roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Lillard added “All-Star” last season to a résumé that already includes a Rookie of the Year win. He’s even started to show some star power off the court, appearing in commercials and video game covers, and presenting at the ESPYs (in a Dr. Jack Ramsay-style plaid jacket).

Lillard’s exploits mean even more locally, especially when contextualized by the ones that came before his. Six years earlier, Roy was the one beating the Rockets at the buzzer and earning praise as the Blazers’ next leading man. LaMarcus Aldridge, who rose to prominence alongside Roy, has even said that his new running mate is in the “Brandon Roy category.”

But Roy’s celebrity never reached the type of fever pitch that Lillard finds himself in now. With a more subtle game and a less ferocious on-court persona, Roy, who also played his best years before watching basketball evolved into its current, Internet “sharing”-happy state, mostly toiled in relative obscurity. Lillard is the type of player made for going viral. And with an in-his-prime Aldridge by his side, the Blazers might have a core that not only recreates what they lost to injuries, but even surpasses it.

“When Dame came in, I don’t want to say it was like B-Roy but it was kind of the same thing,” said Nicolas Batum, one of four players still on the team who played with Roy. “Now we have this duo we should have had with B-Roy, but now we have Dame.”

But just how much praise Lillard and the Blazers should be receiving remains a point of contention. Though he and Aldridge helped turn the Blazers into one of the big surprises in the league last season, leading them from 33 wins in 2012-13 to 54 in 2013-14, one big question has lingered over the team since they started ripping off wins last winter: Are they for real?

Most still aren’t sure. Oddsmakers don’t consider the Blazers to be serious contenders heading into this season.

"I feel like we are the hunter and the hunted," Wesley Matthews said. "We're still climbing, we still want to get certain places but we know we aren't going to sneak up on anybody. But at the same time, we still feel like we have some hunting to do like we did last year."

There is indeed work to be done.

The Blazers’ bad bench only looked good at times because of a historically bad one the previous season. Their starters played nearly every game and more minutes than only one five-man unit in the NBA. Veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake were signed this offseason via exceptions to help, but the pair is on the wrong side of 30 and entering their 12th seasons in the league.

[+] EnlargeDamian Lillard
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesDespite climbing up the West last season, the Trail Blazers have to prove themselves all over again.
And then there’s the defense. Portland’s offense ranked among the league’s five best last season at 108.3 points per 100 possessions, but the 16th-ranked defense was often pointed to as proof of its inviability. Stotts has taken notice, and has made it the main focus in training camp. Lillard, of course, remains confident in the team’s ability to turn that around, too.

"We did it one time," he said. "To say we are an elite team we have to keep proving it. I think what we did learn last year was that we can be one of those teams."

They learned Lillard can be one of those elite players as well. But despite all of the personal successes in his young career, the 24-year-old point guard feels like he has something to prove. Lillard went ice cold after sinking the Rockets; the San Antonio Spurs pushed him off the 3-point line and he struggled to get back on track. After watching the five-game series twice over the summer, Lillard said he thinks the Blazers simply ran out of gas.

As if that wasn’t enough motivation for his third season, Lillard still seems miffed by the Team USA snub. "Once I was turned away from making the team, I took it as 'you're not good enough," he told reporters at media day.

That type of edge -- surly, chip-on-the-shoulder demeanor -- has defined Lillard’s Portland tenure. And it’s spread to the rest of the team. Stotts certainly has a lot to do with the Blazers’ ability to succeed in tense moments, but Lillard's steady hand and quiet bravado, combined with the brashness of Matthews, give the Blazers the type of scrappiness few other teams can offer.

Whether or not it can translate to scrappy defense remains to be seen. And that’s precisely the uphill battle the Blazers face this season.

Despite all the good they did last season, despite all plaudits Lillard has received for his late-game heroics, they have to prove themselves all over again. They’ll be confined to a glass ceiling until they can prove otherwise.

At media day, Portland general manager Neil Olshey called his starting five “vanilla,” a metaphor he likes for getting the job done. But good might not be enough in a conference stacked with better options.

The Blazers have their star in Lillard, and that alone has seemed to satisfy the basketball-hungry fan base in Portland. But will that be enough the rest of the nation, too?

Erik Gundersen covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Follow him, @blazerbanter.

Are rising Raptors here to stay?

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
By Seerat Sohi
Special to
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozanAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Darren CalabreseThe Raptors are rolling it back after taking the East by storm last season and looking for much more.
When the NBA playoffs began last season, the city of Toronto was brimming with excitement.

The team that was supposed to sacrifice its season to the draft gods in hopes of landing Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins, the one that traded away its most expensive player in early December, reached improbable heights in 2013-14 -- a franchise-best 48 wins, a No. 3 seed and sending one player (and almost a second) to the All-Star Game for the first time since Chris Bosh left for Miami.

Now Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was dropping F-bombs in public. Maple Leaf Square -- a sports mecca outside the Air Canada Centre -- became “Raptors Square.” Fans flocked there during away games, noticeably more energized than the home crowd. Even Kevin Garnett thought so.

In the end, the Raptors’ first postseason run since 2007-08 ended on a dour note. Kyle Lowry’s last-second floater was blocked by Paul Pierce, and the Brooklyn Nets escaped Game 7 in Toronto with a one-point win. A comeback in the waning minutes, with all the momentum of an inconceivable season behind it, would be for naught.

To feel the spoils of an entire season culminate and evaporate this way, in the singular flash of one final play, makes for a heartbreakingly tough way to go out.

Especially when that could’ve been it. That one play might have closed the books on this fun, started-from-the-bottom (I’m sorry, I really am) run. With the contracts of several key contributors up for renewal, and doubts about the lasting power of the roster they’d ridden up the diluted Eastern Conference lingering, these Raptors could have just been another thread in the franchise’s long line of first-round flameouts. That’s the kind of thing fans were used to, anyway.

Faced with the tall order of not only retaining their good players, but keeping the club on an upward trajectory, the franchise with only seven winning seasons in 19 years achieved something decidedly un-Raptor-like: It succeeded. Lowry, the team's floor general and emotional leader, re-upped for four more years. Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, who arrived in the Gay trade, stayed, too.

This was all pretty new to Toronto basketball fans. For almost two decades they had been constantly reminded of the long list of reasons not to play there: It’s too cold. Taxes are too high. Not enough publicity. And why doesn’t League Pass work? Canada, ugh. Fans operated under the assumption that things would always have to be this way. That’s why the reaction to Lowry’s return was met with a mix of awe, relief and gratitude.

Now, as the franchise normalizes, getting familiar with operating within the trappings of a regular playoff team -- the weight of expectations, balancing high hopes with definable limitations -- it’s no coincidence that phrases such as “internal development” and “continuity” reached a high point of concentration at Raptors training camp.

“You don't have to do so much of teaching, learning new things,” DeMar DeRozan said. “You start off from last year. Everybody already understands coach [Dwane] Casey, understand his philosophy. It makes it easier. All the guys that were here last year understood what it took for us to get to the point we were last year. We gotta take that next step as well if we wanna continue to be a great team.”

None of this is to say it isn't reasonable to pick at the Raptors’ offseason approach. They are, after all, locking in on this team for the foreseeable future. But while the notion of continuity-as-progress is often just hot rhetoric used to put a spin on standing pat, it might carry some real benefits for a developing team like Toronto.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lowry
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty ImagesUnlike other top-line talents sent north, Kyle Lowry chose to stay. Will continuity pay off for Toronto?
“The seed is there a lot quicker than it was last year," said coach Dwane Casey. "I love some of the options we have at the end of the game now. We're farther down the road, working on more intricate things. Double team schemes, things like that. We're farther ahead from a defensive standpoint. We’re farther in terms of knowledge.”

In response to Casey praising his playmaking, DeMar tipped his hat again to team chemistry. "At the end, it's just personnel, understanding my teammates. If Landry's in there, he likes to cut. I'll make a move if the double comes, I'll look for Landry on the cut. I think it helps me more just to understand my teammates.”

None of this is electrifying, nor is it certain. Schematic improvements, breakout seasons, freak injuries, inexpiable collapses, incremental improvements -- it’s all what-ifs before the first tip-off. Toronto could make good on its potential. Or maybe last season really was the high-water mark.

But just being in that position marks a cultural sea change, the beginning of a process that should long outlast this group of players. In a free-agency market featuring more player movement than ever, the Raptors -- for the first time ever -- look like an attractive destination.

Last year, Toronto overtook Chicago in population, making it the third-largest city with an NBA team (and that doesn't account for the rest of Canada). It touts one of the most energized fan bases in the league. Drake hangs out there a lot. Plus, Kevin Durant is signing with the Raptors in 2016. Seriously. Ask Drake about it.

Under the best of circumstances, the Raptors’ path from good to great still probably stops a few kilometers short of a championship. But success is a process, and improving the future requires investing in it.

“People always put a ceiling on all of us, as players. 'You only can be this good' or 'when you get this age, you only can be this good.' I don't look at nothing like that,” DeRozan said. “There's always something you can get better at, and you can take that same approach in life. There's always something out there that you can work on. I never could be great at everything, but I'm gonna work at everything to be good at it."

Having a ceiling is nothing to be cynical about. It’s just a natural byproduct of getting off the floor.

Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow her @DamianTrillard.

First Cup: Monday

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
By Nick Borges
  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: As experiments go, well, nothing blew up yesterday afternoon in the borough of Brooklyn. The shrinking of the preseason game between the Celtics and Nets was much ado about four minutes. The Celts took a 95-90 victory in the game shortened from 48 to 44 minutes, scoring more than they had in two of their regulation losses during this exhibition season. Overall, the game lasted an hour and 58 minutes, 12.5 minutes shorter than the C’s had averaged in their previous six outings — but the exact same it took them to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 111-91, in 48 minutes last Thursday. “I don’t know how much impact it had on the game,” said coach Brad Stevens after his club improved to 4-3 in the preseason with one more game left (Wednesday at home against the Nets). “I didn’t think we’d get to 60 at one point, with the way we were scoring,” he added sarcastically with a nod toward the Celts’ 17-point first quarter. As for the switch to 11-minute periods and the elimination of one mandatory TV/radio timeout in the second and fourth sessions, the coach said, “You notice it a little bit when you’re subbing at the start of quarters. But I thought the flow with the one less timeout was actually a little bit better in the second and fourth. But I didn’t notice it other than that."
  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: The first game without Brook Lopez didn’t go well for the Nets in the paint. It also didn’t help that his replacement, Kevin Garnett, didn’t play because of a stomach virus. The Nets gave up 20 offensive rebounds and were outscored in second-chance points 20-2. They allowed Celtics forward Jared Sullivan to score 21 points and grab 19 rebounds in falling to 3-1 in the preseason. “It’s not a pretty picture out there from that perspective,” Hollins said. Lopez is out for at least the remainder of the preseason with a sprained foot. On Sunday, the Nets went with a small lineup, starting Mason Plumlee at center (6 points, 4 rebounds) and Mirza Teletovic at power forward (3, 6). “We do (feel the loss of Lopez),” Joe Johnson said.
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The state of Dwight Howard's knee had not been a question for days, with Howard returning to practice Thursday and going through full workouts Friday and Saturday. But any doubt that might have existed was crushed before the opening tip Sunday. With young Rockets guards Nick Johnson and Isaiah Canaan enjoying a layup-line dunk contest, Howard pulled out one of his 2008 New Orleans specials, sans cape. He windmilled over the rim and threw down his dunk, demonstrating his hops were fine. Then Howard went to work considerably more important to the Rockets than his ability to put on a pregame show. After a rocky start, Howard came on strong enough to feel he is on his way back to full speed for the season opener, as the Rockets held off the Golden State Warriors 90-83 at State Farm Arena. "I just had to get going a little bit, get the feeling of the game," said Howard, who had 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 16 first-half minutes. "Once that happened, everything was pretty cool.
  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: The Warriors usually like the flexibility of entering the season with a 14-man roster. But they’re leaning toward keeping 15 — at least until contracts become fully guaranteed Jan.10 — because their training-camp invitees have been so solid. In what might be their last extended minutes before the cut, Craft had three points, seven rebounds and three assists, Holiday had 18 points (7-for-13 shooting), three assists and two steals, Kapono had a point (0-for-7 shooting) and six rebounds, McAdoo had four points and four rebounds and Watt had four points, two rebounds, two assists and three blocked shots. “It’s going to be agonizing when we get to that point, because I can make a case for all of them ...” Steve Kerr said.
  • Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Both Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Byron Scott talked to Julius Randle, saying he has the potential to become an NBA All-Star one day IF he mimics Bryant’s work ethic. If not? Randle will just become another forgotten NBA player. “It means he can’t [bleep] it up.” Bryant explained in more vulgar terms following the Lakers’ 98-91 preseason victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday at Staples Center. Once the initial laughter from reporters around him subdued, Bryant then offered another punchline. This one came at the expense of ESPN recently ranking him as the NBA’s 40th best player after appearing in only six games last season because of overlapping injuries to his left Achilles tendon and left ankle. “If you [bleep] this up, you’re a really big idiot,” Bryant said. “ESPN are idiots, but you’re really a big idiot if you manage to [bleep] this up.” Once his press conference ended, Bryant said, “you’re welcome” to this reporter, an obvious reference to his series of Nike commercials aired two years ago promoting the “Kobe System.”
  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: Dante Exum was given his first opportunity to start Sunday night in the Jazz’s final preseason game in a five-day SoCal stay when Utah coach Quin Snyder opted to give regular starter Trey Burke the night off. Exum didn’t play as well in Sunday's game as he did Thursday when he scored 13 points with six assists in a 119-86 rout of the Lakers. But this was yet another night in which Exum showed NBA viewers flashes of his extraordinary potential. He dazzled with a crossover and floater. He had a heads-up putback bucket. He had two assists, zero turnovers and ran the offense well at times as Utah took a 54-38 halftime lead before most starters were given a break. Better than anything, Exum got more NBA seasoning. There are few players in the league who have a similar combination of quickness, size, athleticism, ballhandling skills and court vision as Exum. Other facets of his game have come along nicely this fall, too.
  • Jack McCarthy of the Chicago Tribune: Derrick Rose hit another milestone in his second comeback tour Sunday. The Bulls guard took charge down the stretch, logging fourth quarter minutes for the first time this preseason as he helped the Bulls hold off the Hornets 101-96 at the United Center. Rose collected nine points in the quarter, including an 18-foot jumper, a key rebound and two free throws in the game's final 1 minute, 16 seconds. "It was great, he played hard throughout the night," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "With Derrick, the only way he's going to shake the rust off is to play. So we've got to get him out there." Rose played nearly 28 minutes — the most this preseason — and closed with 17 points, also a preseason high. He entered on Sunday at the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter and played the balance of the game. But Rose was just among several Sunday standouts.
  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders repeatedly has said thus far he wants a team that played almost no zone defense last season to at least dabble in it this season. If the concepts work like they did during Sunday’s 112-94 preseason victory over injury-strapped Oklahoma City, they might do more than that. “If we have the success we had tonight, we’ll probably use it a lot,” he said. Refined during recent practices, those zone defenses held a Thunder team missing injured superstar Kevin Durant for the next two months to 36 percent shooting and 40 points in the first half on a night when Russell Westbrook, the opponent’s other All-Star, made just three of 10 shots, scored 11 points and played only 23 minutes at the BOK Center. Six Wolves players had two steals each and rookie forward Andrew Wiggins had three in zone defenses that also trapped Thunder players at three-quarters and half-court. Afterward, Saunders praised Wiggins’ assertiveness and Kevin Martin’s activeness.
  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: The last we left regular-season Russell Westbrook, he wasn’t playing back-to-backs. As part of a maintenance program following his return from December knee surgery, the Thunder never played him two straight nights down the stretch last season. It was a precautionary measure that seemed to benefit the energetic point guard come playoff time, when he put up historic numbers. And after a restful summer, he has looked great in the preseason. So it’s expected that Westbrook will have no restrictions once the regular season starts, particularly after the injury to Kevin Durant. But Scott Brooks, at least for now, wasn’t ready to rule that out. He rested Westbrook on the front end of OKC’s only preseason back-to-back and, before Sunday’s game against Minnesota, said it’s a discussion that will take place in the future. “We haven’t talked about that,” Brooks said. “That’s so far down on our list right now. He’s feeling great."
  • Ben Strauss of The New York Times: The N.B.A. players union has hired Gary Kohlman as its new general counsel, according to a person who was briefed on the negotiations but was not authorized to speak publicly. The union’s executive committee approved the nomination, and a formal announcement was expected as early as Monday. Kohlman, 68, was the lead trial lawyer at the Washington firm Bredhoff & Kaiser, where he represented a number of unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the United Steelworkers. In February, he argued in front of the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of Northwestern’s scholarship football players, who sought the right to form a union.

Did #NBArank overrate Kobe?

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Webb By Royce Webb

It’s time to take “respect” out of the NBA vocabulary, and Kobe Bryant proves it.

Look at what is happening with the announcement that Kobe finished 40th in this year's #NBArank. The same thing happened a year ago when we predicted Kobe to be the 25th-best player in 2013-14. The reaction both years was easy to predict, and it was ugly. Many fans were outraged, even ESPN folks were apoplectic, and Kobe himself mocked us, saying anyone who thinks he’s 25th “needs drug testing.”

The most common reaction was that we were crazy. OK, hard to refute that one.

The second-most common reaction was that we had disrespected the Mamba.

And that reaction was just plain incorrect. In fact, our problem was that we overrated Kobe tremendously, out of “respect.”

But “respect” is one of the most useless concepts in the NBA when it comes to player evaluation. If we had treated Kobe like any other player, we would’ve said he was no longer a top-25 player, or even close to that.

Let’s be blunt: Kobe Bean Bryant was one of the very worst players in the NBA last season -- a $30 million disaster. He was closer to the 425th-best player than the 25th-best player.

He played six games, in which he was mostly just terrible, with negative win shares -- that’s right, he was taking wins off the floor. The Lakers had a winning record before he arrived and immediately hit the skids. The team played worse with him on the floor, and on top of that, he insulted his teammates.

And this was entirely predictable. More than 1,000 men have played the guard position in the NBA. You can count on one hand the number of guards, from all of history, who have been notably productive after playing as many NBA minutes as Bryant has.

So why did we rank him as high as 25th? Out of respect. Too much respect, really.

In the NBA, “respect” is often a code word. It means different things to different folks, but when it comes to evaluating players, it often means that we agree to lie. We don’t like the truth, so we lie and call it “respect.”

Is this a polite impulse? It can be. We respect our elders, and in the NBA, we respect our veterans, even boorish guys like Kobe.

But if “respect” becomes a weapon to shut people up, what’s that about? If “respect” is a word used to bully people, that’s not real respect.

Why did Kobe get a $48.5 million extension from the Lakers before he proved he could play after the Achilles injury? Why didn't they just cut him using the amnesty clause, given that he’s probably done as a winning player?

Because the team believed it couldn't afford to “disrespect” Kobe. They knew he could make life difficult for them by appealing to his fans and supporters around the league. They knew he could bully them into “respect.”

You know, we shouldn't be forced to “respect” Kobe any more than he earns our respect. We can respect his career, sure, if we want to reminisce about the good ol' days.

But respect is earned, and the current version of Kobe is not much of an NBA player.

And when it comes to an evaluation system like #NBArank, it should be just that simple.

TrueHoop TV Live

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
We're talking hoops at 2 p.m. ET. Join us!

Spreecast is the social video platform that connects people.

Check out ESPN NBA Live Chat - Episode 79 on Spreecast.

Preparing for life without Kevin Durant

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Young By Royce Young
Kevin DurantAP Photo/Brett Deering, FileIt's hard to picture the Thunder without Kevin Durant, but the team is prepared for the possibility.
Scattered last year along the three interstates that surround downtown Oklahoma City were billboards featuring different duos of Thunder players. Reggie Jackson with Serge Ibaka. Russell Westbrook with Thabo Sefolosha. Kevin Durant with Nick Collison. Never, though, would you see one with Westbrook and Durant, the faces of the franchise, together. And you definitely wouldn’t see Durant, the soon-to-be league MVP, by himself.

On the surface it seems like innocuous, inclusive marketing. But it was all very intentional and very purposeful. The moment the franchise loaded the trucks and relocated from Seattle to Oklahoma City, sporting a new name and new colors, there was a plan in place for when Durant left -- whether it happens in 2016 or 2026 or 2036.

Operating in such a small market, the Oklahoma City Thunder organization has a vision to remain an entity unto itself. The team still sells its electric superstars to keep the ticket booths busy, but there has been a clear effort to keep the city aware that the Thunder aren’t just Kevin Durant’s team. They’re Oklahoma City’s team.

The reasoning is simple: players come and go, but the franchise is forever. Spend years presenting the team as the Oklahoma City Durants and you’re left without any identity when he retires, or, gasp (!), leaves. And in a place like Oklahoma City, hardly the glitziest or most glamorous NBA destination, it’s a sound and necessary strategy.

In just six seasons, the Thunder have etched themselves into the fabric of the city and state. One of the main motivations for the city approving tax after tax to entice an NBA team to relocate here was so when you Googled “Oklahoma City” the browser would autofill with something other than “bombing.” In less than a decade, the franchise has not only overcome the SEO robots, but it's also loosened the stranglehold the state’s two biggest colleges have had the past century. Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder draw equal amounts of attention and adoration as any Heisman Trophy winner or legendary college football coach. Which, around here, was once unthinkable.

But although the franchise is certainly enjoying the spoils of Durant’s rise on the court, it’s created a potential problem off of it: He’s become so popular that he has outgrown even the Thunder’s best efforts to redirect focus toward the organization.

Durant is reaching Peyton Manning-level commercial exposure. Jay Z is (sort of) his agent. He was honored with the league’s highest individual award last season and pulled in the second most All-Star fan votes. He had his own movie, is on the cover of basketball’s biggest video game and has an HBO reality special coming this fall. At this point, he may be worth more than the franchise itself -- Clay Bennett and his ownership group purchased the SuperSonics in 2006 for $350 million; Durant signed a 10-year deal with Nike in September that will pay him upward of $300 million.

Given how identifiable Durant has become with the Thunder, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen to the franchise if he did indeed leave. The intricate plan of general manager Sam Presti, the bond with the Oklahoma City community, the endless sellouts and profit margins -- does any of that stuff continue without No. 35? Heck, even the team’s name and logo seem decent because of Durant and how cool he is. What would the Thunder be without the guy who, for all intents and purposes, is the Thunder?

For six to eight weeks, they’re going to find out. A “Jones fracture” in Durant’s right foot will sideline the Thunder star for at least the first month of the season. The injury marks the first time Durant will miss double-digit games in his seven seasons in the league, giving Oklahoma City its first look at life without KD.

The Thunder, of course, have options to fill the void. While no player can recreate what they’ll lose from Durant, the succession plan in OKC is a well-established and important one to the team's long-view approach. Instead of making big splashes in free agency, Presti has put his faith in drafting and development, sometimes to the chagrin of fans. While that has meant missing out on the likes of Pau Gasol, despite Durant’s best efforts, it has allowed the small-market franchise to prepare in advance for the potential departures of its own players. Sefolosha, a long-time starter, signed in Atlanta this offseason, but the Thunder drafted a similar player in Andre Roberson in 2013. Mitch McGary was drafted in this year’s first round as a potential replacement for Collison, who is 33 and in the final year of his contract.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
AP Photo/Eric GayKevin Durant's broken foot will give Oklahoma City its first look at life without its superstar.
But replacing an MVP in his prime for good simply can’t be done. And while the pending free agency of their superstar in 2016 is already exhausting, recent comments -- both by Durant and others -- have made the possibility of him bolting to a franchise other than the one that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2007 a very real one.

A summer of speculation has split the fan base into those in denial that Durant would ever actually leave and one beset with crippling fear that it might happen. Presti, on the other hand, said this past summer that he’s “looking forward” to the star’s free agency. He sees it as an opportunity to lock up a foundational player long-term.

“We know it’s there, and we are looking forward to it -- the opportunity to re-sign a legacy player -- especially when you consider where our team could be at that point, with two more years of experience and cohesion and taking that into account,” Presti told USA Today. “We have to honor the season in front of us, because we have a tremendous opportunity to win right now and continue to build the tradition of the Thunder. We are fortunate to be in this position, and we want to capture and respect this moment. We have to put that anticipation in its place for now and not allow ourselves to get distracted from the present, regardless of what the future could look like for Kevin and the organization he has built with us, brick by brick.”

Presti’s perspective is admirable, and given Durant’s history -- specifically his history of success -- with the team, it seems as though the Thunder will be able to make the best case to him. But the shadow cast by that decision will only grow larger as we get closer to 2016. And any injury is a piercing reminder of just how fragile title windows can be.

But it's more than the wins and losses. Durant's hasn't only evolved into a brand maybe bigger than the Thunder itself, but he’s essentially become Oklahoma’s global ambassador. He's been in the community about as much as he’s been on the court, ready to step up in the state’s weakest moments. He's been the face of change, turning a place known for tragedy and turning it into something of a burgeoning destination of young business types.

The fan base has had it pretty good in the franchise’s short tenure in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have made the playoffs five times in their six seasons of existence, and they’ve advanced past the first round in four of those postseason appearances. The one season of bad basketball Oklahoma City did watch came in the Thunder’s inaugural season, when simply having a team was more than enough.

What would happen if Durant did leave and the franchise was forced to endure several more like it?

The Thunder have been preparing for that possibility since the beginning.

Royce Young covers the Thunder for Follow him, @royceyoung.

Wizards not wavering places

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
By Conor Dirks
Special to
WizardsChris Covatta/Getty ImagesIs the Wizards' time now? An accelerated rebuilding plan has Washington thinking big (for a change).
In late September of last year, just before the 2013-14 regular season, Emeka Okafor sat in a fold-out chair and looked across the practice arena floor with a neutral expression, waiting for an interview to begin at the Washington Wizards’ media day.

The excitement that normally greets a new season had been dulled just days earlier by the news of Okafor’s disconsolate diagnosis: a herniated disc in the neck. Okafor told the Washington Post: “It’s awkward. I was looking forward to starting this year and getting things kicked off right. Sometimes, you have plans and it doesn’t work out, man, so you have to make other ones and just roll with it.”

It turned out that the team, harried by years of inadequacy and premature announcements of arrival, wasn’t willing to wait.

Less than a month later, and mere days before the start of the season, team president Ernie Grunfeld took Okafor’s advice and traded his starting center and a 2014 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns for Marcin Gortat. The trade was rightly described as desperate (more a statement of fact than a value judgment), and many worried that Grunfeld, who has shown little ability to mine Round 1 for NBA talent outside of no-brainers such as Wall and Bradley Beal, had made a mistake common among executives fighting for their jobs: trading potentially franchise-altering assets for rented improvement.

But Gortat’s addition did more than save Washington’s season. It liberated the Wizards. With the playoffs in sight, the youthful rebuild -- the mythical adherence to an ambitious model popularized by Oklahoma City -- was abandoned. Former lottery pick Jan Vesely and offseason acquisition Eric Maynor were eagerly traded for the relatively ancient “Professor” Andre Miller. Again, it reeked of desperation, and again, the realness of that desperation did not necessarily invalidate the risk.

Days later, team owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld welcomed another veteran, Drew Gooden, to the team, first on a series of 10-day contracts and later for the rest of the season. In a way, it was brilliant electioneering; the public faces of the franchise (Wall and Beal) remained precariously young, while the rest of the team quickly transformed from a mixture of unrealized potential, youth in regress and abandoned project players to a smattering of seasoned veterans ready to prop up the product, if only for a limited time.

For the most part, the behind-the-scenes vintage went unnoticed. Although Wall and Beal were the only two young, inexperienced players in Washington’s rotation (Trevor Ariza and Gortat were even on opposite sides of the 2009 NBA Finals), the team seemed to project that mirage of youth and inexperience during and after their emphatic first-round playoff series win against the Chicago Bulls.

Now, entering the 2014-15 season, Washington inconspicuously carries the league’s oldest roster.

As a result of the team’s paradigm shift towards veteran, rather than peer, support for its young stars and subsequent postseason success, a discussion of Washington’s notable draft and development failures is no longer at the forefront of the conversation about the Wizards, even if some are still anxious to see Otto Porter Jr. show the “NBA-readiness” attributed to him before he was drafted third overall in 2013.

Fortunately for Porter Jr., and the Wizards, the former Georgetown star won’t be rushed into the starting lineup following an offseason back surgery for forward Martell Webster. The Truth is in town.

Paul Pierce’s signing was, at the very least, tentative validation of the philosophy behind the Gortat trade -- a trade that catalyzed this era of D.C. basketball. Pierce, both advocate and proof, told the media in late September that Washington was “becoming a destination.”

Although Pierce told David Aldridge that he feels familiar enough with what Ariza -- who left this offseason for a big payday in Houston -- provided to replicate it, he also touted an added versatility that could help unclog Washington’s inflexible and underdeveloped half-court offense. John Wall will keep his shooters well fed in transition, but he desperately needs a player like Pierce, who can create something out of the final five seconds of a shot clock after a broken play.

Still, it wouldn’t be a Wizards offseason without a setback. Injuries to Webster and Beal -- who will miss at least the first month of the season -- aren’t catastrophic because of the projected brevity of each player’s absence. But combined with Ariza’s departure, what was a strength (Washington was the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA last season) becomes a massive uncertainty: The team will start the season without a proven ace.

[+] EnlargeNene and Marcin Gortat
Chris Covatta/Getty ImagesTrading for Marcin Gortat was a risk, but he and Nene have given the Wizards some needed muscle.
At full strength with the additions of Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, these Wizards still aren’t quite stacked enough to challenge Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown, are older than you might think and remain helmed by a limited coach who --- outside of the Chicago series -- didn’t show the ability to turn what was one of the best starting lineups in the NBA into a consistent winner.

But what separates this team from the fun but deficient Wizards of the mid- to late aughts is that, if they aren’t up to the task, there is an escape route that doesn’t involve starting from scratch.

Instead of re-signing Ariza long-term and committing to a good, but not great, roster, Washington structured each of its offseason contracts to terminate neatly before the summer of 2016. In 2016, with Wall and Beal coming into their prime, the Wizards will have money for a franchise-altering talent (or two, considering the NBA’s prodigious new TV deal). It’s been suggested, with no semblance of subtlety (even in self-conscious satire), that D.C. native Kevin Durant might be that talent.

For once, the Wizards are both good and not hamstrung indefinitely. That flexibility will allow Grunfeld to pivot when an opportunity emerges from the fog. That flexibility allows for joy, rather than obligation, in chasing increasing expectations.

The since-abandoned Oklahoma City model was never much of a “model” at all. Mimics in the method, such as Washington, Charlotte and Orlando, have discovered that Sam Presti’s rebuild of the former Seattle Supersonics was a process to pull ideas out of rather than trace from a template.

Having top-six lottery picks in four consecutive drafts was not enough. Youth, with all of its compelling vibrancy, was not enough. Especially when the losses piled up and fans became aware that the overused “rebuild” term was more of a branding effort than prima facie evidence of smart management.

After losing in overtime to Charlotte in the last week of the 2013-14 regular season, the Wizards, inconsistent as ever, seemed destined to be surpassed by a surging then-Bobcats team, fall prey to Miami in the first round of the playoffs and cease mattering long before anyone outside of D.C. started paying attention.

A loss from Charlotte to the struggling Celtics, stars resting in Brooklyn and four straight Washington wins to end the season changed this team’s trajectory, setting the stage for a playoff series win that gave the Wizards something they’ve sorely lacked since Wall arrived: relevance.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.

First Cup: Friday

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
By Nick Borges
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: The supporting cast changes. The headliners do not. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge, just like always. Scotty Brooks coaching, coming upon his sixth anniversary of being hired. Sam Presti presiding. Clay Bennett chairing. The Thunder is a bastion of stability. Continuity is a Thunder calling card. Presti calls it a lost currency in the NBA. A stable roster is hard to find. Stable leadership is, too. Only three NBA coaches have been on their job longer than has Brooks, can you believe it? And two of those (Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle) have him beat by less than six months. Presti, who still could pass for student body president at Emerson College, is eighth on the general manager list. Heck, Bennett is moving up the owners’ list; 13 NBA franchises have been sold since he bought the Seattle SuperSonics eight years ago. “Continuity has become a lost currency,” Presti said. He was talking about players, too, but there OKC also rules. Who has a franchise cornerstone that trumps Durant in seniority? The Lakers and Heat, with Kobe and Dwyane Wade barely hanging on. San Antonio with the ancients. Dallas with Dirk. Portland with LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s it.
  • Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: While he has alternated playing on and off the ball so far this preseason, guard Jimmer Fredette displayed good court awareness on a pair of assists Thursday night. First, Fredette threaded a cross-court pass to find an open Darius Miller for a layup with 1:43 to go in the first quarter. On the Pelicans' first possession of the second quarter, Fredette bounced a nice pocket pass to Alexis Ajinca inside.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: With the Suns leading San Antonio by 33 near the end of a preseason points parade, Suns Managing Partner Robert Sarver apologized to the few faithful fans remaining for a depleted version of the visitors. The Spurs left Coach Gregg Popovich, said to be ailing, and five players at home for the preseason game. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili did not travel to Phoenix to rest while Kawhi Leonard (eye infection), Patty Mills (torn rotator cuff) and Tiago Splitter (calf strain) were out for health reasons. During a time out with 2:31 to go in the Suns' 121-90 victory at US Airways Center, Sarver came to scorer's table to get on the public address system. "Hey, everybody, I want to thank you for coming out tonight," Sarver said. "This is not the game you paid your hard-earned money to watch. I apologize for it. And I want you to send me your tickets if you came tonight with a return envelope and I've got a gift for you on behalf of the Suns for showing up tonight. Thank you." The game's official attendance was 13,552, although many of those paid tickets were unused. After the game, Sarver said the fans who mail in a ticket stub or proof of attendance would receive a gift certificate for tickets, merchandise or food. The amount had not been determined.
  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: A four-time Euroleague champion, Ettore Messina had certainly coached in bigger games than the one he experienced Thursday night at U.S. Airways Center. NBA preseason games, after all, are typically short on meaning. That is doubly true when it involves the defending champion with 14 players back from the season before. With Gregg Popovich back home in San Antonio, Messina — the 54-year-old Italian coaching legend who joined Popovich’s bench in July — took control of the Spurs’ joystick for a 121-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns. ... Messina has found a warm welcome with the Spurs so far, and that’s not surprising. With nine foreign-born players, they are the most internationally flavored team in NBA history. As such, Messina arrived in San Antonio with instant respect. “He’s a winner, won everything in Europe,” said guard Marco Belinelli, who played under Messina in Bologna. “It’s going to be another motivation for us to be better.” One sign Messina is fitting in: Like most everybody else in the Spurs’ locker room, he refers to the Spurs’ most decorated player as “Timmy.” “He’s been great,” Parker said. “Obviously, he’s been watching a lot and learning our stuff. I’m sure as we go forward, he’ll talk more and share his ideas and his vision.” Handed the reins of the Spurs on Thursday night, Messina had little other choice but to take control. Even in a blowout loss, even on what otherwise would have been just another night in the NBA preseason, it made for a momentous occasion.
  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: There was a huge promotional poster of the Warriors’ third-year forward on the outside of the Wells Fargo Arena, and he purchased about 250 tickets for friends and relatives to attend Thursday’s 104-101 preseason win over Denver. “I know NBA players make a lot of money, but he might need to take out a loan to get the number he’s looking for,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “He had more than 200 people here tonight, which is awesome. It doesn’t surprise me. He’s such a great guy and well-loved.” But those same fans had to leave the arena with some newfound love for little-known Ognjen Kuzmic, too. The second-year center stole some of the spotlight from hometown hero Barnes (2-for-8, five points), putting up 10 points, four rebounds and an assist in 17 minutes. He barked out orders as the anchor of the defense and was 5-for-6 from the field. He had a dunk, an athletic tip-in, a contortionist finish of an alley-oop and showed nice touch on two short jumpers. It made Kerr’s comments from last week seem a little less hyperbolic. While in Southern California for three games and three practices last week, the coach told a tale of Kuzmic dominating a quarter of an intrasquad scrimmage with 14 points and five boards
  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: The question, as it seemingly always has been for the Nuggets, is can they play fast and still play solid defense? Early on in camp, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw predicted defense to be one of the areas his team will experience the most growth. “I think the biggest area of improvement that you’ll see is going to be on the defensive end,” Shaw said. A lot of that had to do with adding personnel – shot blocking in JaVale McGee, perimeter defense in Arron Afflalo and Gary Harris. But will the speed with which the Nuggets want to play get in the way? Can the pace be high yet, points and field goal percentage allowed remain at low levels? The Nuggets aren’t the only team looking to figure it out. The L.A. Clippers are desperately trying to achieve that double as well. Their coach, Doc Rivers, has a stifling defensive background, with his title-contending and title-winning Boston Celtics teams being high-level defensive units.
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott started for the Hawks in Thursday’s exhibition against the Bulls and nearly delivered a victory. They were done in when Jimmy Butler hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Bulls an 85-84 win over the Hawks in Chicago. Schroder hit a driving layup with 1.5 seconds left that gave the Hawks a two-point lead, 84-82. It was short-lived. The Bulls played three starters for the fourth quarter, including Butler who had a game-high 29 points including 20 in the final period. The Bulls also used Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in the fourth quarter as they erased a 20-point deficit and outscored the Hawks’ young reserves 38-18 in the period. ... The Hawks have three exhibition games remaining, including Saturday’s home game against the Pistons.
  • Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: Mike Dunleavy might be moved to the new-look bench crew. Don’t call it a demotion; it might have to be done out of necessity. With newcomers Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks still finding their way with that second group, coach Tom Thibodeau has been kicking around the idea of promoting first-round pick Doug McDermott to the starting lineup so that Dunleavy can help stabilize the bench, which was outscored 38-24 by the Hawks, including an 11-4 run in the second quarter that put the Bulls in a hole for most of the game. “I don’t want to overlook what Mike’s done, either," Thibodeau said of the switch. “Mike has shot the ball extremely well. He helps that first unit function well, so I’m not locked into it. As I said, that’s the great value of Mike — he’s started before, he’s come off the bench, he’s comfortable in both roles. We’ll see how it unfolds."
  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: When Sixers draft pick Dario Saric didn't play in his first two games for Anadolu Efes in Turkey this week, rumors that he was close to coming to Philadelphia swirled faster than litter during a storm. But, even before getting benched, it was always highly improbable that Saric would make an NBA appearance anytime before he plays at least two seasons in Turkey. For Saric to be able to play for the Sixers before he fulfills two of the three seasons of his contract, all three parties involved - Anadolu Efes, Saric and the Sixers - would have to come to an agreement. Anadolu Efes paid a lot of money for the 6-10 forward's services, "so just letting him go isn't probable," according to a source. After two seasons, if Saric wants out and the Sixers agree to help with the buyout, then Anadolu Efes really is no longer in play, so only two of the three parties need to be on board. "He is still a very young player in a league that is a lot older, older than the NBA," the source said. "It isn't uncommon that he sat. He could play the next few games and be one of the best players on the team, and all will be well again." Translation: Don't bank on Saric being here until at least 2016. He did play in his first Euroleague game yesterday and scored nine points in 22 minutes.
  • A. Sherrod Blakely of Avery Bradley had the kind of first half on Thursday night few players experience, especially those with a well documented reputation as an elite defender. But as much as the talk following Boston's 111-91 win over Philadelphia was about Bradley's 20 points - all in the first half - which included six 3s, it's his play at the other end of the floor that remains at the heart of any success the 6-foot-2 guard has on the floor. "The biggest thing that he can do, is he needs to let his defense fuel his offense and not the other way around," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters following Boston's victory. "Tonight, I thought he really did that." Bradley has steadily improved his game offensively every year, which includes a career-high 14.9 points per game last season. As impressive as Bradley was on Thursday night, he's wise enough to know his shot isn't going to fall with that kind of consistency all the time. "I might not make 3s every single night," Bradley, who was 6-for-9 on 3s, told reporters following the win. "But I know I can go out there and give my all on the defensive end every single night."
  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: While in Southern California for a preseason road trip, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward had a chance to reunite with perhaps the most popular Utah Jazz teammate they’ve ever had. And it happened, of all places, on the set of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." The two Utah players were invited to participate in a five-minute segment featuring JP Gibson, the 5-year-old with leukemia who signed a one-day contract with the Jazz last week. The family didn't know the players were going to surprise them and be part of the show, which aired Thursday afternoon. “It was a great experience for me and Gordon,” Favors said. “That was my first time being on national TV like that.” It was also the 23-year-old’s first time “even watching … or knowing about the show.” Ellen might’ve won over a new viewer. “It’s an amazing show,” Favors said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of females watch it. I’m not sure a lot of men watch that show.”
  • Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: A smirk formed on Kobe Bryant’s face. Then, the Lakers star chuckled. A panel of ESPN media members ranked Bryant as the 40th-best NBA player. If Bryant found his 25th ranking last year “silly” and “laughable,” which adjectives will the Lakers star use to express his disgust about his latest standing? “I’ve known for a long time they’re a bunch of idiots,” Bryant said. A smile widened on Byron Scott’s face. Then, the Lakers’ coach shook his head trying to process it all. What does Scott make of Bryant’s ranking after professing his rookie year that he would soon become the NBA’s best player? “I think he probably gets a kick out of it. I do too,” Scott said. “I would hate to be one of the guys who doubted him.” Bryant’s latest ranking likely stems from playing only six games last season because of recurring injuries to his left Achilles tendon and left knee. But Bryant scoffed that he would use this slight as fuel to accelerate his motor. “I tend to use things as motivation,” Bryant said, “that tend to be in the realm of reality.”

Is Kobe's #NBArank right?

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Last year, when #NBArank rated Kobe Bryant the NBA's 25th-best player, there was outrage. This year, he's ranked much lower.


Can the Clippers own the future?

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ClippersNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers, once L.A.'s indie darlings, have gone mainstream. Is the future theirs for the taking?
The Ballmerization of the Clippers and the rejection of “eternal Clipper hell” doesn’t mean Los Angeles isn’t still a Lakers town. Clippers fans know that, and many of the lifers wouldn't want it any other way. The team has long been an expression of sports counterculture, a dive bar for NBA-crazed Angelenos who can't tolerate the velvet-rope club, Team Bukowski. Tribal identities are difficult to shake, no matter how much history evolves.

One of Los Angeles’ newer tribal identities is “eastsider.” Much of the cachet that used to belong to the city’s westside has moved that way, and these neighborhoods on the downtown side of Western Avenue have caught fire. Westsider Baron Davis could see it coming three years ago.

This year’s cult television comedies, “You’re the Worst” and “Transparent,” are set in Silver Lake and neighboring environs, and their thirtyish characters claim eastside citizenship as an element of their urban identity. Ryan Gosling and James Franco have planted stakes in the neighborhood. Are these real and fictional people Clippers fans? Unknown, but spiritually that’s where they live. If they’re not, their kids, unburdened by the past, will be.

There has long been a civic obsession in Los Angeles about the future, probably because there isn’t as much of a past. The city has been playing a game of catch-up with its eastern brethren and San Francisco for more than a century, and has never stopped building. That’s a nice ethic for a city to have, but it also encourages Angelenos to get lost in a fantasy of what the city will look like. The most alluring feature of Spike Jonze’s “Her” last year was his imagination of Los Angeles’ near future -- a dense urban paradise, greener, walkable; a warmer, more communal place that still gets more than 300 days of temperate sunshine.

Given current trends, would the Clippers be a better representative of that future Los Angeles than the Lakers? It’s hard to say, but the normalization of the Clippers under Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul means this is a legitimate question for the first time. According to an ESPN Sports poll, NBA fans are far more likely to switch allegiances -- OK, bandwagon hop -- than fans of other sports. Los Angeles is a young and diverse market that's obsession with the future only compounds the possibility a championship-caliber Clippers team could make up ground, especially if the Lakers swing and miss on the league’s marquee free agents and stop playing basketball in May and June. At least that’s the thought.

The Clippers as the city’s team of the future isn’t a bad piece of casting. When a glossy mag wants to showcase the next-wave American athlete on its cover, it brings Griffin in for a shoot. With Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan in the leads, the product on the court is fast, physical ... modern. Meanwhile, the Lakers limp to the starting line with a couple of aging, brittle Hall of Famers seven seasons or so past their prime and a few adhesives.

Under an owner who, as a matter of principle, believed that capital investment is a gimmick, the Clippers lagged behind most of the league in areas of innovation. With Ballmer and Rivers presiding, the organization has expanded its analytics operation, pushed its way to the front of the line for snazzy tools that used to be the domain of the Texas triumvirate and are listening to cutting-edge health specialists. With no real guiding principle other than the preservation of tradition for its own sake, the Lakers were the lone holdouts at the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and still regard the European market as a novelty.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
AP Photo/John LocherCan Blake Griffin become the face of Los Angeles sports once Kobe Bryant cedes the throne?
Los Angeles’ core is more dynamic than most, but power and wealth are still concentrated in the 310. The Clippers are beginning to gentrify the basketball landscape in town, but it’s not as if Paul, Griffin and Rivers are moving next door to Jimmy and Gretchen from "You're The Worst" or hanging out on York Boulevard -- they live west. And no matter how unsightly the freak show gets, the Lakers will continue to rule, at least for a good while. Fifty-two percent of NBA fans in Los Angeles call the Lakers their favorite team. The Clippers draw only 12 percent. Kobe Bryant is the favorite of 55 percent of those fans, while Griffin checks in at 4 percent. Those numbers will move in the coming years -- and they already are. The Clippers clocked in at only 2 percent to 3 percent just three seasons ago, while the Lakers have tumbled considerably from 70 percent. But turning Los Angeles into a Clippers town still might not occur in Ballmer’s lifetime.

The Loy Vaught-Michael Cage contingent in Clippers Nation might not care if the team closes the gap, but the silent majority would love to see counterculture turn mainstream in Los Angeles -- and so would the organization. Pioneering new territory is all well and good, but you still need somewhere to eat in the neighborhood, a reliable grocery, some decent coffee and a dry cleaner that’s worth a damn. Ballmer didn’t spend $2 billion for a boutique storefront; he wants to own the block.

What will that take? Aside from hanging some fabric alongside the sleek new LED fixtures at Staples Center, Griffin evolving into an iconic star. As the old trope goes, the NBA is a superstar league and the Lakers’ dominance is as much an expression of Magic and Kobe as it is the rings. Bryant will soon retire, and when he does that 55 percent will come off the board and it’s Griffin’s for the taking if he can parlay his crossover appeal into broad approval.

Demography and rivalry aside, maybe the better question is whether it matters at all. Does a team need to win the popular vote in its market to affirm itself or its fans? The revenue from a more robust local cable deal would be nice, especially since Ballmer figures to be spendy, but Clippers fans might just prefer to keep the chains out of the nabe, and Griffin as their indie hero.

First Cup: Thursday

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
By Nick Borges
  • Chris Fedor of The Plain Dealer: The ups and down of Dion Waiters: The third-year shooting guard was terrific in the first three preseason games, averaging 18 points on better than 50 percent from the field. But Wednesday was a rough night. Waiters scored eight points on 4-of-14 shooting and received a technical foul for arguing with one of the referees. One of his makes was a breakaway dunk with no one from Indiana around him. Waiters' shot selection and approach were the biggest issues. Going into attack mode, Waiters played too much one-on-one, only looking to create for himself off the dribble and settling for outside shots, which weren't in the flow of the offense. He also didn't let his teammates set him up for open shots. It was a complete 180 from one night earlier. ... Finishing with the most shot attempts on a night when he shared the court with LeBron James and Kevin Love is not a recipe for success. Hopefully Wednesday night will be a learning experience because Waiters has a chance to be a major weapon on offense with the Big Three drawing so much attention. Waiters needs to let that happen and understand his role better moving forward.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Ian Mahinmi missed the first week of training camp while recovering from a left shoulder injury. On Wednesday, the other side gave him problems. Mahinmi played a little over 19 minutes before leaving the game with what was first believed to be soreness in his right shoulder. However, after the game, Mahinmi said that though his right arm went numb, the problem area was actually in his neck. "That's why I was on the floor for so long because I couldn't feel my arm," Mahinmi said. "I already got it checked. The doctor and the trainer. I'm good, it's just a game injury." Mahinmi said he plans to undergo his last battery of tests on the left shoulder on Thursday. Mahinmi initially injured the shoulder while practicing for the French national team.
  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Tobias Harris loves sweets. And, like the rest of us, he enjoys bread and pasta, too. This summer, however, he cut all of those foods out his diet. The goal, he says, was to arrive at Orlando Magic training camp leaner and in better shape. The 6-foot-9 combo forward weighs 235 pounds, and although that was his playing weight last year, he traded bad weight (fat) for good weight (muscle). He also is fully healed from the high-ankle sprain he suffered last October — an injury that stuck with him throughout the entire 2013-14 season. "I feel good out there," Harris said. "I think the biggest thing is I'm healthy, and God-willing, I can stay healthy throughout the whole season. My conditioning is at a high level right now, so I think that's really helped me offensively and defensively, and I feel great." Harris scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds Wednesday as the Magic beat Flamengo of Brazil 106-88. In four preseason games this month, Harris is averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He's made 55.3 percent of his shot attempts. Harris always has run the floor well, but this preseason, he's been more active on both ends of the court.
  • Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post: On Tuesday, the NBA announced Sunday’s preseason matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics will be a 44-minute game with four 11-minute quarters — four fewer minutes than the typical NBA contest. The NBA’s goal is “to examine the flow of a short game as compared to the standard 48-minute game.” Don’t count Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman as a supporter of the idea. “Yeah, you don’t want to hear my thoughts,” Wittman responded when asked for his thoughts. “I’m old school. I mean, are you going to have a whole new set of records? And how are you going to dictate who averaged more points LeBron James or Michael Jordan?” Wittman offered three suggestions to cut game times: Play the standard 48-minutes with one fewer timeout for each team, find a way to streamline the game’s final two minutes, and revisit instant replay. “I think we’ve extended the games a little bit with instant replay,” Wittman said.
  • Perry A. Farrell of the Detroit Free Press: Josh Smith and Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy had a good talk during the weekend. The discussion was about what the forward does well, and both came up with the same general answers. One thing not on the list is three-pointers. He doesn't need to shoot many this season. "I think Josh has a very good understanding of the shots he needs to shoot that are not only best for him, but best for our team," Van Gundy said. "He's one of the elite guys in the league around the basket. Last year, stuff inside, right at the rim, in two straight years, he has been 71% and 77%. There's very few guys at that level. So he needs to get more of those. He knows that. He also understands he really doesn't need to shoot threes for this team. Will he get some? The other night, late in the shot clock, throw it back … you have to take that shot. He's going to shoot some. It's not a matter of number, one a game, less than one a game. It's when are you shooting them? There might a game where he might take three." Both agreed that coming down and making one pass and jacking up a three isn't what the offense will be about.
  • Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer: Steve Clifford is integrating Lance Stephenson carefully. He will start Stephenson, certainly, but the Hornets’ primary two offensive weapons won’t change. Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker remain the team’s purest threats to score. “I think people are going to have to be patient with him,” Clifford said of Stephenson. “You can see his talent and his ability and he wants to do well ... He’s a good, good player. But he averaged 13 a game last year. This isn’t a guy who for eight years scored 22 a night.” Which is fine. Jefferson is going to score 22 a night. Walker will be close to that. What Stephenson must do is lead this team in is versatility. He has to be able to guard one of the other team’s top scorers, pass the ball well and especially rebound, because the Hornets look a little short (again) on rebounding to me.
  • Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun: The grand unveiling of Bruno Caboclo was not a rousing success, but rather a step in what will be a long road. The Raptors gave all-star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan the night off in Maine on Wednesday and inserted Caboclo in at small forward, with Terrence Ross moving back to guard. Caboclo had played well in Manhattan on Monday and was rewarded with a major test. The Raptors won the game 92-89 after Lou Williams hit a three with 0.6 seconds remaining, after Boston’s Avery Bradley had tied it up with 8.1 seconds left. Toronto won, even though DeRozan and James Johnson did not play and despite the fact Kyle Lowry was rested after the first quarter. Despite his struggles, this was an excellent learning experience for the 19-year-old Brazilian. “It was a good lesson, he’s going against Jeff Green, who is a big-time player,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I don’t look at the points or any of that (Caboclo didn’t score), I thought he held his own.”
  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: When last season ended, the Celtics stated that one of their main offseason goals would be to acquire a large person of some heft to protect the rim. Having basically failed on that mission, the Celts are planning to go in a different direction with the starting lineup this season. So say hello to slender second-year 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, the starting center. ... The lineup would look different with a so-called rim protector in it. ... Olynyk, who blocked one shot against the Raptors, is taking the move in stride. “As a player, you just want to be on the floor, whether you’re starting at 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5,” Olynyk said. “It really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re out there helping the team win.” And it’s not as if the Celts will employ a traditional offense with the center on the low block. “Me and Sully (Jared Sullinger) and even BB (Brandon Bass) are sometimes outside, spotting up and drawing defenses out to open the lane for guards penetrating the ball,” Olynyk said. The biggest difference for Olynyk will be on defense, when he has to match up with bulkier centers.
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: With Kings star center DeMarcus Cousins sitting out, Brook Lopez went to work in the post early, bullying the much smaller defenders, scoring 14 points to go with three rebounds and two blocks while playing the entire first quarter. Lopez was impressive, including earning three trips to the foul line, but there still were too many times where he caught the ball and held it, the offense grinding to a halt. Things were much more crisp for Lopez and the Nets when he caught the ball on the move – as he did a couple of times in quick pick-and-roll actions with Deron Williams, getting hit with passes while moving towards the rim and immediately turning and scoring. The more the Nets can have Lopez catch the ball on the move, the better. But all in all, it’s been a very impressive first three games back for the 7-footer coming off season-ending surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot in January.

Scott Raab on LeBron's return

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
Abbott By Henry Abbott
TrueHoop TV revisits with Esquire writer and "Whore of Akron" author Scott Raab.

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