Steve Ballmer, Clippers Start Washing Away Stain of Donald Sterling Era

LOS ANGELES — April 29, 2014 feels like a distant memory now for the Los Angeles Clippers and their fans, and not just because that day came four months ago.

That was the day that thousands of Clippers fans shuffled ambivalently through LA Live, past angry protesters and into Staples Center for Game 5 of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors—their first home game in the aftermath of Donald Sterling’s explosive comments hitting the airwaves and sending shockwaves throughout the world.

Some were dressed in black that day. Others wore shirts denouncing the Clippers’ now-former owner. Everyone had something different to say about Sterling, the team and the NBA‘s response to the controversy.

All of that seemed little more than the remnants of a bygone era on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Just about every Clippers fan who streamed out of Staples Center after the team’s Fan Festival on this day had nothing but glowing reviews for the owner.

Not Sterling, of course, but former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

“I thought that Steve Ballmer was just superb and enthusiastic and wonderful,” said Aisha Mori, a Clippers fan since 2004. 

The Clippers themselves, including head coach Doc Rivers, referred to the Sterling debacle that resulted in his long-overdue ouster as “The Clutter” during the proceedings. 

The franchise was nothing if not “cluttered” during the Clippers’ second-round playoff run: cluttered with curious media reporting on a story that touched on a lot more than just sports, with fans, players and staff who weren’t sure how to feel and with controversy unlike any the NBA had yet seen.

That clutter was gone, replaced by a clarity of vision, purpose and passion brought to bear by Ballmer. His romp of high fives and chest bumps through the crowd on the way to the podium couldn’t have been more different than what Clippers fans came to expect from Donald Sterling in his public courtside appearances.

“He’s amazing,” Martin Fuentes, a season ticket holder since 2009, said of Ballmer. “He definitely energizes a crowd, definitely a real fan and [I'm] looking forward to the next season.”

Such words would’ve seemed not only unusual, but downright ludicrous if spoken about a Clippers owner at any point in the past 33 years. Sterling was almost universally reviled by Clipper Nation, forcing fans into an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in supporting an enterprise that lined his pockets—and will do so even more now, with Ballmer‘s $2 billion payout enriching the Sterling family trust.

In truth, the Clippers might never be truly cleansed of the residue from the Sterling era. Ballmer sees no need to rename this team, despite its long history of losing for a man who’s become persona non grata in America. “The Clippers are the hottest brand in basketball pretty much right now,” Ballmer insisted at a press conference after the event.

The Clippers haven’t exactly untethered themselves from the tainted Sterling name, either. Shelly Sterling, Donald’s estranged wife, squeezed plenty of perks out of the deal she helped usher along, including a pair of courtside seats and the title of “Clippers No. 1 Fan” (h/t ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Arash Markazi):

Shelly Sterling’s reputation, beyond her official fandom, has also been called into question. According to The Los Angeles Times‘ Nathan Fenno, Sterling was party to the housing discrimination for which her husband was taken to court by the Federal Housing Administration in 2009:

In a 2009 deposition, a tenant at one of the Sterling’s apartment buildings in Los Angeles County said that Rochelle Sterling called him a “black m—f—” during a discussion at the building.

Ballmer, though, insisted that Shelly’s role in this process warranted some sort of salvation. “Without her, this deal does not get done,” Ballmer said.

Indeed, it was Shelly’s victory over Donald during a recent probate trial in Los Angeles Superior Court that paved the way for Ballmer to take control of the team.

Even with Shelly’s ongoing involvement, much has changed for the franchise’s identity since those fateful days in late April.

“It’s almost like now they can say it and be proud of it, and I’m happy for them,” Rivers said about those Clippers faithful who were wary of touting their fandom during those troubled times.

To that effect, Clippers fans have nothing to worry about now. Ballmer reiterated that he won’t be moving the team closer to his home in the Pacific Northwest. “Seattle is not where the Clippers are going to play,” he said.

Instead, he hopes to be leading “I love Larry” chants—many of which he led during the Fan Festival—down Figueroa Street. The “Larry” in question is the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is awarded to the NBA Finals champion every year. 

If there’s any concern about Ballmer, it’s his lack of experience in the basketball world. “Everyone has more experience in what they’re doing than I do in what I’m doing,” Ballmer added.

Then again, he’s not unfamiliar with the NBA as an enterprise, to say the least, not after trying to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle in 2013.

More importantly, Ballmer seems to have the fire and the drive to cement the Clippers’ burgeoning spot on the basketball map. Time and again, he used the word “hardcore” to describe his approach to his latest enterprise.

“I love basketball,” Ballmer went on. “My passion, in a sense, is for things I get involved with.”

“I won’t be able to watch the Clippers dispassionately because I care. I’m involved.”

Which the Clippers and their fans never could and certainly won’t say now about their former owner…what was his name again?

A distant memory—that’s what.

 

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Are LA Clippers One Piece Away from True NBA Title Contention?

Let’s get something out of the way.

The Los Angeles Clippers, as currently constructed, are title contenders. 

The Clippers have the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul, one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the league in Blake Griffin, a defensive anchor in DeAndre Jordan and tons of three-point shooting to surround them with.

This was the league’s best offense in terms of efficiency last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and the Clips were a solid ninth in defensive efficiency in their first year under head coach Doc Rivers. With natural improvement, the Clippers have the makeup of a team that could absolutely win the title.

Are they the favorites to win their first-ever NBA championship, though?

Probably not.

The road to the Finals is so much easier in the East, and so you’d put LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ahead of them for that reason. The San Antonio Spurs are the reigning champs and looked unreal last postseason, so they should be considered more of a favorite. The Oklahoma City Thunder ousted the Clippers in the playoffs in six games last year and lost nothing this offseason, so you can put them ahead as well.

Even with that said, the Clippers are certainly right there in the mix with all those teams, and given the nature of the league with injuries, that’s exactly where you need to be.

Because the Clippers aren’t the clear-cut favorite, however, there is room for improvement. The most obvious hole seems to be the small forward position, which is currently manned by Matt Barnes.

In a lot of ways, Barnes is a great fit for the Clippers. He’s a garbage man who fights for loose balls, defends with effort and adds toughness. He’s brilliant off the ball with his cuts, and he’s at least a serviceable perimeter shooter.

At 34 years old, however, Barnes is already starting to lose some of the athleticism that makes him so useful. While he’s a strong defender, it’s not ideal to have him as your lone wing stopper, considering the limitations of both J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford at shooting guard.

After the free-agency addition of Spencer Hawes to occupy the third big man role, it’s easy to see what the next area of improvement should be. 

Here’s Jeff Nisius of Bleacher Report:

Although the Clippers finally were able to address their need for a reserve big man, the small forward position remains a major concern. The team would absolutely benefit from an upgrade at the position, because if the team wants to advance out of the Western Conference they are going to need a long, athletic defender on the perimeter.

The problem is that the team has been unable to find that player in the draft or free agency. The hope last year was for [Reggie] Bullock to develop into a potential perimeter stopper. While that might still be the case, he is more of a guard-forward ‘tweener’ rather than a defensive stopper at small forward.

Rivers could very well make a trade but what assets will he need to part with in order to land an impact defender? Nearly as important; will said player be able to space the floor? Rivers has put an emphasis on spreading the floor. Either way, the team needs an upgrade at small forward and the sooner the better.

Again, the Clippers don’t necessarily “need” one more piece to contend. Upgrading at small forward and moving Barnes to a bench role would certainly seem to improve the odds of winning it all, though, and that’s not lost on Rivers.

Here’s what Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this offseason: “It’s no secret Rivers wants to upgrade his small forward position and that he has been trying to trade starting small forward Matt Barnes.”

Trading Barnes would deprive the Clippers of their glue guy on the wing, which would be tough to do. Instead, finding a trade for Jared Dudley might make more sense. It would certainly be selling low after Dudley’s poor first season with the Clippers, but the lack of athleticism and mobility he displayed last year isn’t promising for the future.

The hope is that Dudley will be fully healthy and in better condition for the upcoming season and that second-year player Reggie Bullock will be ready to step into a bigger role. A small forward by committee approach could work just fine.

Here’s what Dudley told Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles last year about playing time: “We’re a team that’s deep. We’re a team that can go far and everyone’s just got be ready and wait for your opportunity.”

The same can be said about this year’s team, and maybe a little roster competition will get Dudley going.

Of course, the Clippers might not need to be all that better at the 3 this upcoming season.

Remember, this was the league’s best offense last season, and there’s optimism that the defense will improve in year two under Rivers as well.

With Jordan in a contract year and hitting his prime, the Clippers may be able to take a production hit at small forward and be just fine thanks to his improvements.

Here’s Zach Harper at CBSSports.com with more on Jordan’s impact:

His athleticism wasn’t just a highlight factory anymore; he was actually a deterrent at the rim and he got better as the season went along. The Clippers with Jordan on the court after the All-Star break protected the restricted area 4.7 percent better than they had with Jordan on the court prior to the break. Jordan was the leading rebounder in the NBA, had the second most blocks total, and the third highest blocks per game in the league.

Jordan isn’t one of the best centers in the NBA across the board. He’s not going to be someone you run a lot of post plays for and he’s still a nightmare at the free throw line.

But nobody rebounded like him last season and he’s turned himself into someone who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Things like that matter, especially in the development of someone who is such a deadly weapon in the pick-and-roll with a point guard like Chris Paul.

It stands to reason that the league’s top offense needs to make defensive improvement its top priority. Barnes may not be a great shooter or offensive player, but he’s a strong on-ball defender and rebounder. You can do much worse.

And that’s ultimately what Rivers and Clippers management has to decide. Is it worth whatever assets the Clippers would have to fork over in a trade (draft picks, young players like Bullock) in order to attempt to upgrade from Barnes defensively?

Unless there’s a player who is clearly superior defensively and is available, the Clippers might be better off giving Bullock and Dudley chances alongside Barnes and hoping that the internal improvement elsewhere picks up any slack.

The Clippers may appear to be one piece away on paper, but there is plenty of room on championship teams for solid role players. So long as Barnes can stave off decline, Dudley can revert to the mean and Bullock can improve, the Clippers should have multiple options to employ at small forward. This is a team that can contend just the way they are.  

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Why Los Angeles Lakers Should Try to Lure Isaiah Thomas Away in Free Agency

The Steve Nash experiment didn’t work out quite as planned. In two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, the iconic point guard has played in just 65 games because of injuries.

The organization’s search for the point guard of the future is overdue at this point, but now it finally has the financial flexibility to earnestly engage in such a pursuit.

A pursuit that could nab someone like Sacramento Kings restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas.

Ordinarily, landing a restricted free agent isn’t easy. The incumbent team has the right to match any offer received on the open market, so suitors often shy away from the process. But Thomas is a different story altogether, especially after the Kings agreed to terms with former Clippers point guard Darren Collison.

Collison‘s presence in Sacramento could be a harbinger of things to come for Thomas. USA Today‘s Sam Amick reports that, “A person with knowledge of Collison‘s situation not only confirmed the agreement but said the 26-year-old who was Chris Paul‘s backup with the Los Angeles Clippers last season is heading for Sacramento with the understanding that he will be the starter.”

That likely means the Kings will balk at matching a large contract for Thomas. They wouldn’t make that kind of investment in someone they view as a sixth man, not with other teams pursuing Thomas as a key long-term piece.

Should Sacramento hold on to its money and let Thomas walk, the Lakers could be the benefactors.

They’re certainly high on Thomas’ list.

And they have been for a long time. According to Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy:

It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.

“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said, per Kennedy. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted.”

The Lakers could certainly make Thomas feel wanted—namely because they have good reason to want him.

Even if Nash goes out with a bang and plays an integral role this season, the franchise has to start thinking ahead. Thomas would be an important start.

The 25-year-old had a breakout 2013-14 campaign, posting 20.3 points and 6.3 assists. He was efficient, too, especially for a guy who took 5.1 three-pointers per contest. Thomas finished the season with a 20.54 player efficiency rating, a mark that ranked fourth among point guards. His .574 true-shooting percentage placed him ninth among point guards.

Put simply, Thomas is an electric scorer coming off his best season. He added an estimated 11.9 wins for the Kings last season, speaking to the pivotal role he played for a young, rebuilding team.

Could he play a similar role for the Lakers?

Los Angeles could use a point guard who can shoot the ball, creating space for Kobe Bryant to operate from the mid-range and the post. Though the young floor general still has plenty to learn about running an offense, he’d be able to ease his way into the responsibility—initially allowing Bryant and Nash to initiate much of the offense.

Thomas would also benefit from having Nash around as a mentor. Few—if any—current players are better suited to training an up-and-coming point guard on the spot. Nash can do it with his eyes closed.

That kind of relationship would bode well for the franchise’s future.

Though Thomas is small (5’9″) and somewhat of a liability defensively, his knack for offense has to make him an attractive option.

And at the moment, the organization is relatively short on options.

As in-house solutions go, Los Angeles is limited to the affordable but inexperienced Kendall Marshall. The 22-year-old earned heavy minutes last season in Nash’s absence, averaging a fairly impressive 8.0 points and 8.8 assists. The pass-first point guard showed flashes of promise, but isn’t nearly as ready to take the helm as Thomas. 

Assuming restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe is out of the organization’s price range (or otherwise likely to be retained by the Phoenix Suns), there are few other free-agent possibilities seriously worth exploring.

Veteran Jameer Nelson could probably be had at a reasonable price, but at 32 he’s not the kind of guy around whom the Lakers can build. The same goes for Portland‘s Mo Williams.

Los Angeles could probably outbid the Toronto Raptors in pursuit of restricted free agent Greivis Vasquez, but Thomas is an all-around better player.

That leaves LA with a grab bag of relatively unattractive possibilities including Mario Chalmers, Kirk Hinrich, Ramon Sessions or D.J. Augustin—none of whom has the starting pedigree Thomas possesses at the moment.

So even if Thomas doesn’t seem overwhelmingly attractive at first glance, consider the alternatives. 

Thomas will start to grow on you.

At least if he’s available at the right price. The Lakers are set to have plenty of cap space in 2015, when guys like Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo are scheduled to become free agents. Much as this team wants to win now, it would be well-advised not to overspend and jeopardize future flexibility.

Pending that consideration, Thomas appears to be a strong fit, perhaps a valuable missing piece.

If the Lakers are looking around the market and doing their due diligence, they certainly can’t overlook him. 

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Why LeBron James Won’t Walk Away from Miami Heat in Free Agency Now

As the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James was always going to have free-agent options.

But with the Miami heat suddenly in a position to give him everything he wants, it’s looking more and more like he’ll realize the best one is staying exactly where he is.

 

Help on the Way

“The whole league continues to get better every single year,” James said after Miami’s NBA Finals defeat, per Joseph Goodwin of the Miami Herald. “Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It’s just how the league works.”

The Heat haven’t outfitted the roster with a new supporting cast—or anyone, actually. With the Big Three opting out, Miami’s list of players under contract is ridiculously short, but said triple opt-out means reconstruction can begin in earnest right away.

Shabazz Napier, a favorite of James’ based on this flattering tweet, is already in place after the Heat traded up in the draft to get him. And depending on the extent to which LBJ, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are willing to reduce their salaries going forward, the Heat will be able to chase down a superstar and/or a handful of solid vets who’ll want to get in on the ring-chasing action.

Per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

If Wade and James are willing to accept reductions in pay as well, the Heat potentially would be able to open a salary slot to add another player. The team is known to be interested in Toronto Raptors free agent point guard Kyle Lowry.

James could certainly seek out the help he wants by leaving the Heat, but it looks like there’s going to be plenty of it coming right to him.

 

Cashing in?

OK, this is where things get a little strange.

James has never been the highest-paid player on his team—not with the Cleveland Cavaliers and not with the Heat. If he’d like to rectify that, Miami can max him out this summer.

According to one report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, that’s an avenue James might pursue:

While Bosh, Wade and Haslem could ultimately take less money with the early termination outs in their deals, James, the NBA‘s four-time MVP, is seeking a full maximum contract extension – or something close to it – to stay with Miami, sources told Yahoo Sports.

James is eligible to sign a five-year, $130 million extension with the Heat.

It’s hard to see how signing a huge contract extension squares with James’ plea for an improved supporting cast. Obviously, on merit, he deserves far more than the current max allowed by the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

But the CBA and the salary cap it imposes mean the Heat have a finite amount of money to spend; dumping it all on James would be fair from an objective standpoint, but it wouldn’t be smart from a team-building perspective.

Ultimately, James seems too intelligent and too focused on winning rings to demand max money. Getting paid like that doesn’t serve his other goals.

But the money’s there if he wants it, and you can bet the Heat will pay him if James forces the issue.

 

The Ring’s the Thing

The potential to improve the roster enables Miami to impress James in a different, ultimately more important way: It can offer him a chance to continue his streak of four straight Finals appearances—at the very least.

At this point in his career, James is only interested in championships, and adding someone as effective as Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng or even Carmelo Anthony would get him significantly closer to ring No. 3.

Miami still plays in the East, where no real competition looms on the horizon. Strengthening a core that has owned the conference ever since James arrived in South Beach would mean an even easier path to the final round.

If the Chicago Bulls manage to land Anthony and Derrick Rose gets healthy at last, the conversation changes. But we’re a long way from thinking one or both of those things will happen.

Miami reached the Finals this past season with no bench and Wade on the sidelines for 28 regular-season games. Then, it fell to a historically great San Antonio Spurs team that would have beaten just about anybody. A few minor tweaks to the Heat roster will likely mean an uncontested run back to the Finals and, critically, a much better shot at finishing the drill once they get there.

 

Staying Home

James can walk away from the Heat if he wants, though it would be a pretty harsh move to make after his star teammates gave up guaranteed money to facilitate his happiness. And you can be sure that if free-agent negotiations with, say, the Houston Rockets or Bulls get past mere flirtation, those teams will also move heaven and earth to give James exactly what he wants.

But LeBron has been to four Finals in a row with Miami, and if it follows the path it’s on to completion this summer, it looks like a certainty he’ll get there a fifth consecutive time in 2015.

With everything he wants—a better supporting cast, more money and the chance to chase rings—lined up and waiting for him at home, there’s no real reason for James to go anyplace else.

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5 proven NBA draft prospects who could help right away

Looking for a ready-made NBA player? The college ranks had some good ones this year.

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Embiid reportedly blows Cavs away with workout

While speculation will certainly continue to run wild over the next two weeks, it seems that the Cleveland Cavaliers have made their decision as to who they will select with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Cavs were reportedly “blown away” by Kansas center Joel Embiid’s workout recently and unless the team is overwhelmed by a trade offer, he will be their pick. ESPN’s Chad Ford confirmed what I’ve been hearing for a while: that Embiid has been Cleveland’s favorite throughout the process, but the team needed to clear him medically. His back has been thoroughly checked out and he received a clean bill of health from team doctors last week, so that doesn’t appear to be an issue. Embiid’s interview and workout in Cleveland last week both went extremely well and the Cavs appear to have everyone on board with his selection. Even owner Dan Gilbert is all-in on the big center. Things could still change over the next two weeks, but Embiid provides the Cavs with something th…

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Offseason Storylines College Basketball Fans Wish Would Go Away

The college basketball season officially runs from November to early April. This is when actual games are contested and players get to (mostly) focus on playing the game.

Then there’s the long offseason, when it seems like far too much happens.

And most of it isn’t good.

Since the 2013-14 season ended with Connecticut’s thrilling run to a second title in four years, hardly a day has gone by without some storyline or another popping up to keep college basketball in the news for something other than baskets and rebounds.

Most of this news is important to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy to have it occur. Sometimes we just wish it would go away, giving us more time to look ahead to what excitement awaits us when the 2014-15 season ramps up again in less than five months.

Here’s our list of the offseason storylines we wish would just disappear.

Begin Slideshow

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5 things: Clippers pull away from Bucks for 50th win

LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers’ mantra this season has been process over results.
The Clippers’ coach remains even-keeled regardless of a win or a loss, choosing to focus on how Los Angeles played on a given night rather than the final score.
With a pivotal five-game road trip with playoff implications looming, the Clippers understandably overlooked the lowly Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night. As Rivers is quick to remind the media, it’s human nature to occasionally have an off-day or two.
Despite leading wire to wire, the Clippers’ 106-98 win was anything but impressive. The Bucks’ 26th-ranked offense shot 48.2 percent and turned the ball over only 10 times against their porous defense — numbers far better than their season averages.
Yet even in a near loss to the NBA’s worst team record-wise, Rivers remained cognizant of the bigger picture — the Clippers earned their 13th win in their last 14 games, and are on pace to locking up the three-seed with 50 wins already — and said he isn’t

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NY Knicks Choke Away Desperately Needed Game vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

When the grand postmortem of the New York Knicks’ tumultuous 2013-14 season is finally written, it might well include this epitaph:

At the exact moment when they desperately needed something—a basket, a stop, a win, anything—the Knicks simply couldn’t do it, no matter how easy or ripe the taking.

That theme played out to devastating effect Sunday night, with New York surrendering a 17-point lead—and 31 points to backup point guard Jarrett Jack—en route to a 106-100 loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.

What’s worse, the Cavs did their damage without the services of Kyrie Irving.

The loss dropped the Knicks to 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks (four in the loss column) for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

We can safely declare the Phil Jackson honeymoon over.

To say the Knicks needed this one—as they’ve needed every one of their previous eight wins—would be an understatement. With the Hawks losing on the road to the Toronto Raptors (96-86), New York had a golden opportunity to make up some much-needed ground.

Instead, the Knicks might’ve just watched their postseason hopes vanish in classic fashion—a comfortable lead swallowed by a tidal wave of isolation offense, anemic defense and dispiriting body language. 

Afterwards, the veiled finger-pointing began in earnest.

Fans looking for a fast respite certainly won’t find it in New York’s upcoming schedule, which begins with a five-game West Coast road trip before dates with the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat.

Barring an epic collapse from the Hawks, the Knicks are toast, victims of an arrogance borne out of last year’s shocking—and, as it turns out, eminently unsustainable—54-win campaign.

It was an arrogance that told them the 3-13 start was little more than a hiccup ahead of another franchise-saving feast, that their rusty rough edges would be smoothed out by little more than the sands of time.

Now that its playoff fantasies have been laid on the operating table, New York’s attention turns anew to the most critical crucible of all: what to do about Carmelo Anthony.

Around the time the Knicks were launching their now-defunct eight-game winning streak, their chances of retaining Melo—who has stated he will opt out of his final year to become an unrestricted free agent this summer—looked grim.

Like gauze on a gaping wound, New York’s hope-inducing stretch may end up having been scant more than a temporary fix. Unless, of course, New York’s prodigal son and new president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson, can somehow summon some serious Zen gymnastics.

Indeed, in hiring Jackson, owner James Dolan is assuring his fairly fickle fanbase that a new day—one predicated on basketball passion and principles rather than personal grudges and petty vendettas—has finally arrived.

That’s all next year’s business, of course. Right now, impossible as the odds rightly sound, New York’s focus must be nothing short of winning out.

Absurd? Probably. But not impossible.

Save for the Golden State Warriors, New York’s western swing includes dates with four teams—the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz—fully content with bowing to draft-day dreams.

Next up: a pair of home dates with the Nets and Wizards—tough, but with bad blood to spare.

Depending on how the East’s playoff picture shapes up, any or all of New York’s last five opponents—the Heat, Raptors (twice), Chicago Bulls and one more tilt with the Nets—could be looking to rest their starters.

Couple another streak with two or three bad Hawks losses, and the Knicks could find themselves back in it.

Speaking to reporters before Friday’s game, head coach Mike Woodson stressed the importance of his players not focusing on the horse-race nature of the task at hand, per The New York Times’ Clifton Brown:

It’s good if they lose, but again, it’s about what we do at this point. Our focus is not on Atlanta or Charlotte. It’s on the Knicks and how we’re playing and competing. Every game is important. We just don’t have any room for error. We’re trying to get in.

We just don’t have any room for error.

Such a declaration would’ve seemed impossible heading into the season, when—despite a noticeably improved conference brass—expectations for the Knicks were of a reasonable facsimile, if not an outright carbon copy, of last year’s happy renaissance.

After Sunday’s epic meltdown, however, the only surprise is how that ever-narrowing margin didn’t squash them sooner.

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Kevin Durant Receives 14th Technical Foul of Season, 2 Away from Suspension

Kevin Durant‘s final line against the Cleveland Cavaliers during a March 20 victory was impressive, as he finished the victory with 35 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and a block on 12-of-21 shooting from the field. 

But there was one major flaw: 

The reaction to that play, which involved Durant staring right at the poor soul he just posterized during a surprisingly intense first quarter, led to a technical foul. And it’s not exactly the first time that Durant has been whistled for extracurricular activity during his astounding 2013-14 season. 

As The Oklahoman‘s Anthony Slater made clear, this is Durant’s 14th technical of the season:

With the cut-off point at 16 before suspensions start being doled out, he’s going to have to be more careful. The Thunder can’t afford to lose him down the stretch of a tight race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, even if it’s only for one game.

Fortunately for OKC, Durant recognizes this, and he’s also going to work on getting the technical foul rescinded: 

Now there’s always a chance the league does something unexpected, but this is a pretty textbook tech. You simply aren’t allowed to stare at a player after dunking (as much as we hate that rule), and referees are taught to give that whistle for taunting without hesitation. 

At least he’s going to make an effort to tone down the passion when it isn’t directly related to playing winning basketball.

Durant has a “nice guy” reputation, but Gregg Popovich probably loves how much “nasty” he inserts into his on-court persona. The OKC superstar has made a habit out of jawing with the opposition during intense moments, and this isn’t the first season in which he’s racked up quite a few technical fouls. 

According to ESPN’s technical foul tracker, only DeMarcus Cousins has more than Durant now, as the league’s scoring leader moved out of a tie for second with Blake Griffin. Last year, he finished in the No. 8 spot with 12 techs to his name. 

The NBA better watch out for Kevin “Rasheed Wallace” Durant. 

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