Miami Heat Have No Choice but to Live and Die with Small-Ball Blueprint

In the wake of LeBron James’ devastating departure, the Miami Heat had little choice but to retain Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—to guarantee Erik Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” philosophy remained as close to intact as possible.

Ironically, Miami’s subsequent free-agent moves may have made Spoelstra’s small-ball system, rather than his stars, the team’s most indispensable commodity.

With the NBA moving evermore steadily toward a overwhelmingly perimeter orientation, the Heat’s offseason was as much about internal continuity as it was heeding the league’s prevailing strategy.

In a recent column, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel underscored precisely this point:

If Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts are your starting power players, and with Pat Riley already talking about Granger getting time in the power rotation, that again appears to be the direction.

And it’s not as if there is much of a Plan B, with Chris Andersen at an age where limited minutes are the preferred approach, and with Udonis Haslem having been marginalized in recent seasons.

Of course small ball is mostly an approach on one side of the ball. The reality is the Heat will face legitimate challenges against legitimate beef, be it Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, Andre Drummond or Roy Hibbert in the East. As was the case previously, there are no easy answers there.

Between the patchwork frontcourt and the loss of James’ peerless playmaking, the Heat have no choice but to live and die by Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” approach, first adopted after an impromptu visit with former University of Oregon head football and current Philadelphia Eagles skipper Chip Kelly.

As ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh writes, Spoelstra was enamored by the idea of turning a “collection of world-class athletes into a merciless scoring machine.”

Hyperbolic though that might sound, the results weren’t that far off, with the Heat finishing in the top six in overall offensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons.

James’ departure is all but certain to derail Miami’s status as one of the NBA’s most punishingly potent attacks. But that doesn’t mean the Heat can’t catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.

Indeed, one of the more underrated stories of this summer’s free-agency period was how Pat Riley—doubtless jaded over losing the game’s principal chess piece—managed to cobble together a more-than-passable board formation.

Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts? These are far from NBA also-rans.

Danny Granger, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem: a trio of eminently serviceable veterans, even if their best days are behind them.

Shabazz Napier and Khem Birch? A pair of rookies with enough palpable promise to instill within Heat fans hope for what’s to come.

Most of them fit—in theory, anyway—Spoelstra’s pace-and-space mold, albeit to varying degrees. In Deng, you have a more-than-passable LeBron analog, while McRoberts offers a better, more versatile version of Rashard Lewis. Granger gives you a classic stretch 4. Napier, meanwhile, is Norris Cole with the potential for something more.

More importantly, the man tasked with running Spoelstra’s show—the always polarizing Mario Chalmers—seems more determined than anyone to prove Miami’s offensive success was more about gestalt than any single god of the hardwood:

“I feel like I’ve finally got a chance to shine, show my real game,” Chalmers recently told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick. “Me, CB, D-Wade and the rest of the guys, we’re going to pick it up, we’re still going to play Miami Heat basketball, and we’re still gonna be a competitor.”

Playing in a historically weak Eastern Conference will only help Miami’s cause. Beyond the Chicago Bulls and James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the East remains very much a hodgepodge of hopeful upstarts and tenuous talents. What few teams can claim to have, however, is a skipper of Spoelstra’s cut and caliber.

And while the 43-year-old coach seems committed to transposing his offensive template on this year’s jarringly disparate talent, the other side of the ball could find Spoelstra scaling back his traditionally cavalier approach. From AllUCanHeat.com’s Wes Goldberg:

The last thing you will see change is the ‘gambling’ the Heat official talked about. Heat players were trained to jump passing lanes and try to get out in fearsome transition. Without James, now, the Heat won’t be as inclined to get on the fast break.

That Miami’s defense was so often the catalyst for its offense is, of course, a conundrum worth considering. Forced to rely more on wile and patience than opportunistic lane hawking, Spoelstra and Co. are almost certain to see fewer possessions at the other end of the floor.

So while the “space” in Spoelstra’s system should remain the offensive mantra, Miami’s more conservative approach on defense might result in a somewhat slower overall pace.

This will be nothing new for players like McRoberts and Deng, embedded as they’ve been the past few years with some of the East’s slowest teams (McRobertsCharlotte Hornets finished 21st in the league in pace last season, while Deng’s former team, the Chicago Bulls, have consistently ranked at or near the bottom in that category).

Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find a duo more suited to multiple styles than Bosh and Wade, who both labored under similarly deliberate systems before joining forces with James in Miami four years ago.

As with any team undergoing a monumental roster overhaul, the Heat are bound to endure their fair share of growing pains. Whether their on-the-job-learning proves fruitful or fitful depends heavily on Spoelstra’s ability to recognize what system specifics are worth salvaging and which must be tossed by the wayside.

Still, the stratagems Spoelstra nurtured over the past three years have undoubtedly proven a strategic sword worth living by. Even if losing the player who wielded it best means possibly dying by it as well.

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Writers discuss Kevin Durant’s Under Armour vs. Nike choice

$265 million. $285 million. Two dollar amounts that represent the range that Under Armour is willing to pay as it tries to acquire the 2014 NBA MVP  in Kevin Durant as its pitchman. This sponsorship deal could prove to be one of the largest ever signed, and it would give the Maryland-based company an in-state export to lay […] The post Under Armour Vs. Nike: 11 Of Your Favorite Writers Weigh In On Kevin Durant’s Decision appeared first on The Sports Fan Journal.

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Could Phoenix Suns Be LeBron James’ Best Choice for More Rings?

By exercising the early termination option in his contract, four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion LeBron James is free to opt for a destination of his choosing once again. Re-upping with the Miami Heat—where LBJ won both of his titles with Pat Riley calling the shots—appears to be the most logical outcome.

But is it the best choice LeBron can make in terms of winning more rings?

Not surprisingly, the best player in basketball wants to sign a max deal, according to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Few teams can offer James a max contract while simultaneously keeping the flexibility to put winning pieces around him.

Miami is an obvious suitor, since the only player on its roster right now is point guard Norris Cole. The Heat have money to spend, but they also face plenty of uncertainty by having to build a new roster from scratch.

The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, have established themselves as a legitimate dark-horse landing spot for his services.

“We are in good position,” Suns owner Robert Sarver said, per AZCentral Sports’ Bob Young. “We have a lot to offer, too, with the depth of our roster compared to some of the other teams. We think we have a favorable opportunity, but obviously he’ll make his decision when he wants to make it.”

James is sure to weigh any and all options available, but is Phoenix the best choice he can make from a basketball perspective?

 

The Pitch

After finishing dead last in the Western Conference during 2012-13, Phoenix flipped the script less than a year later.

General manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek built and managed a young, upstart roster that wound up winning 48 games—more than 2010-11 when two-time MVP Steve Nash was still running the show.

Hornacek established a winning culture that started with the play of his two point guards—Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Those All-Star-caliber talents led the way, and they’re just a part of the equation that could woo James to the desert.

“The Suns are positioned with the cap space and maneuverability to chase James and the co-star of his liking without yielding Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, James’ close friend, in the process,” AZ Central’s Paul Coro wrote. “That second star pursuit could be USA Basketball buddy [Carmelo] Anthony or fellow Miami free agent Chris Bosh in free agency.”

James and Bledsoe are both represented by the same agent, Rich Paul. LeBron has referred to the 24-year-old Kentucky product as his “lil bro,” per his Instagram account.

The situation in Miami would entail re-signing the Big Three and surrounding them with a new crop of role players and veterans. Whereas Phoenix allows James to join the Bledsoe/Dragic tandem as well as choose another star teammate.

As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal told me, “Dragic, re-signing Bledsoe, keeping Plum (center Miles Plumlee) and giving him any teammate he desires who’s a free agent? That’s unbeatable.”

Again, the Suns won 48 games despite the fact that Bledsoe missed 39 contests due to injury. Add James to the fold—as well as another star: Melo, Bosh or even a different vet like Pau Gasol—and there’s zero reason the Suns couldn’t be serious title contenders. That’d be true even while playing in the loaded Western Conference.

The Suns’ pitch to James is simple. If he lands with Planet Orange, a supporting cast will be there to help build his legacy. The Larry O’Brien Trophy would be far less elusive.

 

Longevity

Assuming that Bledsoe, James and another co-star sign long-term, financially lucrative deals, that core will be the organization’s focus for years to come.

In the short term, that includes Dragic, Gerald Green and the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.

Down the line, the Suns have a plethora of youngsters on rookie deals: Plumlee, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis.

At the very least, management won’t have to scramble to find worthy role players because youth and upside is already on board creating a buffer.

Of course, that fails to mention the mystique of Phoenix’s incredible training staff.

Head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson kept Nash healthy well into his 30s. A perfect storm of circumstances—a small fracture of his left leg and nerve root irritation in his back leading to hamstring issues—have since derailed his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Michael Redd experienced career resurgences in the Purple Palace, so the Santa Clara product isn‘t an isolated case study.

LeBron will turn 30 years old later this year (on December 30). The appeal of playing for an organization with a history of keeping veterans in playing shape is an underrated factor working in Phoenix’s favor.

Aging gracefully isn’t the norm for NBA players. Nevertheless, after years of suffering through a slew of injuries, Hill had a very successful five-year stint with the Suns. His tenure included three seasons playing at least 80 regular-season games beyond age 35.

James has always been a durable player. The Suns can all but guarantee he stays that way.

 

Depth

Sarver noted the depth of the Suns’ roster as a net positive. Unlike the 2013-14 Heat—a team that couldn’t even attempt to rely upon guys like Michael Beasley and Greg Oden—the Suns can go deep into their bench.

Markieff Morris established himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season.

His twin brother, Marcus, scored in double digits 42 times despite only starting one game.

Green was stellar as a starter filling in for Bledsoe and as a bench player providing an offensive spark.

Goodwin capped his rookie campaign with a career-high, 29-point outburst during Game 82; even Ish Smith raised some eyebrows for his hustle in limited minutes.

LeBron doesn’t want to end his career having won two titles. If he makes the tough decision to change locales for the second time during his illustrious career, Phoenix would offer him plenty of assistance getting back to the Association’s zenith.

 

Best Option?

A factor that is often ignored when discussing the future of free agents is family. Because these stars are in a business built to entertain the masses, humanizing them can be difficult.

Take, for instance, the decision made by former free-agent guard Darren Collison. He had a solid year with the Los Angeles Clippers—and head coach Doc Rivers wanted him back, according to the Los Angeles Times‘ Broderick Turner—but he opted for a lucrative three-year deal with the Sacramento Kings.

James lives in a South Beach mansion with his wife and two sons. He still owns a home in Ohio. You may recall his wife, Savannah, caused a stir with an Akron-related Instagram post not long ago.

The question is: Would LBJ consider moving yet again?

Regardless of whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” Phoenix still provides James the best title shot.

Joining a solid supporting cast, a close friend in Bledsoe and having the opportunity to court another piece to the puzzle is, as Fromal said, “unbeatable.”

Suns fans should still temper their expectations and consider this a long shot, but a James-Phoenix pairing makes a lot of sense.

LeBron’s legacy is tied—fairly or unfairly—to the amount of rings he acquires before calling it quits. As far as the 2014-15 season is concerned, Phoenix offers his best shot at adding trophy No. 3.

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Knicks Rumors: Carmelo Anthony’s Decision a Choice Between Winning and Happiness

What makes a man’s legacy? For something that comes up so often, comes up in the morning rounds of hot-take debate shows, the types in which chirping canaries pick and pick at the same fruit until it’s nothing but a rotten core, we rarely examine what the word really means.

Is it what you accomplish as a professional? Are you forever remembered by the world for your moments on the public stage, the last-second buzzer beaters, the number of RINGZZZ on your fingers? 

Or is legacy something much simpler? Family. Happiness. Being able to compartmentalize professional accomplishments with what “really matters.” The life of a professional athlete is such that we rarely view them in three dimensions. They are mere avatars who are looking to satisfy criteria that we—those of us who cannot soar to the rim or effortlessly flick our wrists and touch nothing but nylon—have set up for them in an inane battle of good versus evil.

Carmelo Anthony, at the moment, probably knows this better than anybody. The seven-time All-Star is the prize of the NBA free-agent market—at least the one is actually seen around the league as being available. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while technically free agents, are all but certain to keep their talents in South Beach.

Melo? He’s available. He spent most of Tuesday in Chicago being courted by Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau. Wednesday marks Houston and Dallas before a trip to Los Angeles to speak with the Lakers on Thursday, per ESPN’s Marc Stein. The Knicks will probably end up with final say, but if we’ve learned anything over these past few years, when a player schedules visits in other cities, he’s looking at real-estate pricing along the way. 

The answer to why Anthony might leave the bright lights of New York City is rooted in that aforementioned and oft-frustrating noun. 

Eleven years into his NBA career, Anthony has zero NBA Finals appearances. He’s been to a conference finals just once. In this same period, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have been to five Finals, and Chris Bosh has been to four. Hell, Darko Milicic has a ring.

The playoff successes of his contemporaries have helped form a narrative in which Anthony became the NBA’s most polarizing superstar. Every defensive misstep, every contested three-pointer, every check in the loss column is an indictment on his status among the game’s best players. There is no “chill button” when it comes to Carmelo analysis. Only lava-hot takes from fans who speak in only binaries of “best thing ever” and “terrible.”

It also doesn’t help that the Knicks are a dumpster fire. Incompetency at the ownership and front-office levels left the Garden filled with overpriced wreckage they attempted to call a basketball team—and Anthony turning in the best professional season of his career trying to salvage it all.

Owner James Dolan cleaned house and brought in Phil Jackson as his shiny new face of the front office, but the NBA unfortunately doesn’t take the offerings of Zen wisdom in exchange for salary-cap space. Jackson’s moves this offseason—like the one sending Tyson Chandler to Dallas and bringing in Jose Calderon—amount to a shuffling of the deck chairs for 2014. The Knicks, at best, are going to be a borderline playoff team that competes merely because they reside in the miserable Eastern Conference.

If Anthony views his legacy in the way we’ve come to publicly define it, there is no alternative: He leaves the Knicks in a…New York minute. (Sorry.)

The Bulls have a former MVP in Rose, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Noah, another elite defensive big in Gibson, a rising two-way player in Jimmy Butler and a Euroleague stud in Nikola Mirotic whose arrival has been hyped for years. No matter how Miami‘s Big Three rejiggers its cap space to add surrounding pieces, the Bulls with Anthony are an instant championship threat.

The Rockets have the NBA’s best center (yes, still) in Dwight Howard, the NBA’s best shooting guard in James Harden, an unrelenting bulldog defender in Patrick Beverley and arguably the league’s best general manager in Daryl Morey. With some creative timing, Anthony can sign in Houston and the Rockets can retain restricted free agent Chandler Parsons. The West is a gauntlet, but Anthony can put the Rockets in the conversation with San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

The Mavericks and Lakers have admittedly less. Dallas can sell Rick Carlisle, a reunion with Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s not a core comparable to Houston or Chicago. The Lakers hold roughly the same status as an unending pit of uncertainty as New York.

The point being here that Anthony has options. Placing all other considerations on hold and focusing only on that elusive ring puts Melo in a Rockets or Bulls uniform by midweek.

But, for a second, let’s allow for consideration that Anthony is not some avatar character inside our PS4. He’s a 30-year-old man with a wife and a son who values stability in his personal life and the happiness of those closest to him. We should consider these facts because Anthony himself made it clear they that factor into any decision he makes. 

The average person just sees the opportunity to say, Melo should go here, Melo should go there,’” Anthony said in an interview with VICE Sports. “But they don’t take into consideration the family aspect of it, your livelihood, where you’re going to be living. Do you want your kids to grow up in that place? Do I want to spend the rest of my career in that situation, in that city?

Anthony’s wife, entertainer La La Anthony, spent most of her childhood in Brooklyn. Anthony, of course, was born in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn. Part of the reason Anthony forced a trade from Denver to New York was so that he and La La could settle down in the city they once called home. It’s not hard to connect the dots between his July 2010 wedding and his angling for a trade out of Denver. In fact, the plan may have been hatched within minutes of his nuptials. 

For all of the on-court frustrations, Anthony and his family have settled into the New York lifestyle. The city is one of two meccas of entertainment in this country along with Los Angeles. La La parlayed a one-off wedding special into her own reality show on VH1 and appearances in feature films like Baggage Claim and Think Like a Man Too. She’s was also cast in a television series for Starz network last year set in—you guessed it—New York City.

There have been some who have tried painting Anthony’s wife in a negative light, insinuating that her acting career is in some way affecting the way he treats free agency. Last month, La La told TMZ that “of course” she has a say in what happens with Anthony’s free agency. Please take five minutes and check the comments section of any sports website with that video embedded. It’s deserving of a seat at the big kid’s table at this year’s misogynists Thanksgiving summit.

Here’s the thing: She should have a say. The last time I checked, a marriage is a two-way partnership. They have a child together. If Anthony can play basketball in New York and La La can base her multimedia career out of the same city, that seems like a pretty plum deal for a celebrity relationship.

If you think that is unreasonable, go ahead and tell your significant other that you’re taking a job that requires he or she a) quit his or her current job and come with you or b) sees you only intermittently for eight months. Have fun taking care of the kid while you’re at it, honey!

That’s one of the major issues with sports fandom. We—a collective that includes fans and media types as well—outright refuse to acknowledge athletes as human beings with competing interests. Switching teams does not mean swapping out jerseys; it means willingly uprooting your life. Athletes do not belong to us and have no responsibility to fill the criteria that we set when making these decisions. A person prioritizing what they want over the next four or five years should not give a second thought to a collective of other people they barely know. 

It’s nonsense.

If Anthony’s priority in this moment is getting the most out of his basketball career, then he shouldn’t even give the Knicks so much as a courtesy meeting. He probably shouldn’t have taken a flight from Chicago to Texas.

If Anthony’s priority is happiness and security—both in terms of his family life and the extra $30 million the Knicks can offer—then he’ll be at MSG on opening night.

I don’t think Anthony knows which of those two things he wants at the moment. It’s why he’s taking these meetings. It’s why he is traveling to each city rather than having teams come to him. It’s why his free agency is the one that packs by far the most intrigue this summer.

When Anthony signs his next contract, he’ll be telling us far more than where he’s playing basketball. He’ll be telling us what Carmelo Anthony, 30-year-old man with a wife and a kid, wants from his next half-decade.

No matter his destination, know that there are far more nuances to it than the binary arguments bandied about on the ever-so-popular shouting shows. And that’s OK.

 

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Andrew Wiggins Is Best Possible Choice for Cavaliers at No. 1 in 2014 NBA Draft

The Cleveland Cavaliers might be paralyzed by the prospects of holding the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

ESPN’s Chad Ford relayed the details on the front-office drama regarding choosing Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker:

The Cavaliers could still try to ditch the No. 1 pick and alleviate the stress and scrutiny, but if they do keep the pick, Wiggins is the best possible choice for the team.

It’s understandable that the Cavaliers’ brass is in agony over this pick. They are still feeling the effects of LeBron James’ departure in 2010 and whiffed last year by choosing Anthony Bennett. For a tortured franchise in a city with a tortured sports history, there is no margin for error with a No. 1 pick in hand.

Choosing Wiggins over Parker allows the aforementioned Bennett the chance to grow into a solid contributor. Parker can play either forward spot, but if he fits best at small forward, his presence could swallow up any of the minutes Bennett was allotted this season to redeem himself.

Wiggins could fit in alongside Bennett by playing 2-guard and allow him the room to grow at small forward. Bennett averaged just 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last season, hardly worthy of a No. 1 draft choice. However, his conditioning and overall play improved as the season went on. He averaged 7.0 points per game in February and 5.0 in March, according to ESPN.com.

It’s too early for the Cavs to punt on Bennett; pairing Parker with incumbent forward Tristan Thompson could soak up all of his minutes next season.

Wiggins offers more upside on the defensive side of the ball than Parker. As ESPN’s Hollinger rankings show, Cleveland was right in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency last season; it gave up 104.8 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14. 

Wiggins’ one-on-one perimeter defense is his one true ironclad commodity. ESPN’s Paul Biancardi thinks it is part of what makes him a great prospect:

Cleveland would be better served improving on defense and trying to lure a proven scorer through free agency in the next year or two. Joel Embiid offers this defensive-transforming potential as well, but the foot injury makes him too much of a risk for Cleveland.

Some have questioned Wiggins’ ability to take over in games. ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required) wrote that Wiggins’ stats don’t reflect those of current NBA scoring machines:

In particular, Wiggins failed to showcase the elite ability to create his own shot that is a requisite for superstardom. He finished 25.5 percent of the Jayhawks’ plays while on the court, per KenPom.com, as compared with 31.8 percent for Parker at Duke. As freshmen, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony finished approximately 28 percent of their team’s possessions, and Kevin Durant was at 31.6 percent. Wiggins’ mark is more similar to Luol Deng, who had a 24.0 percent usage rate.

Wiggins may not have shown the ability to take over during college, but it’s possible that the draft scrutiny has emboldened him as a player. 

“That’s more of the competitive side just me wanting to be above everybody else, not wanting anyone to go ahead of me,” Wiggins told Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears. “I still want to go [No.] 1.”

His competitive drive shouldn’t be questioned; it should also be noted that the emerging Embiid may have taken a hit on Wiggins’ usage rate while at Kansas.

And it’s not like Wiggins was a slouch on offense in any case. He averaged 17.1 points per game in 2013-14, good enough for sixth in the Big 12 Conference. His athleticism and ability to drive to the hoop is not in question, and coaches can work on his 34.1 percent shooting from three-point range to make him more of an outside threat in the NBA.

Now that Embiid‘s foot injury will likely take him out of the top three in the NBA draft, Wiggins’ and Parker’s NBA careers will become even more intertwined. Their status as two of the best players in a highly regarded draft class will have the media comparing them for many years. 

This will only be intensified if they go first and second overall in the draft. Wiggins may be as strong as Parker in his first couple of years in the league due to Parker’s polished offensive game, but he certainly has the athleticism and ability to justify being chosen over him down the line.

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Kobe Bryant Makes Byron Scott the Right Choice for Los Angeles Lakers Coach

It’s hard to imagine anyone being cut from the same cloth as Kobe Bryant, but Los Angeles Lakers coaching candidate Byron Scott seems to be at least made up of the same material.

The two formed a bond during the 1996-97 season—Bryant’s first and Scott’s last—and its ties remain as strong as ever.

As Scott explained to USA Today‘s Sam Amick, there’s a mutual respect between him and Bryant rooted in history, transparency and a similar appreciation for the way the game should be played:

Kobe knows all about me and what I’m about. He knows that I’m an old-school coach who’s very demanding on the defensive end and knows that defense and rebounding wins championships, so I think from that point of view we see eye to eye.

Our relationship is great. We talked over the summer. We text each other. His ideas on the game of basketball and my ideas on the game of basketball are a lot alike, so we share a lot of the same views when it comes to the way the game should be played. So to me, it’s going to be fun.

Scott can check off several boxes on the Lakers’ coaching wish list, including experience with the profession and a commitment to the defensive end. Of course, L.A. could find those qualities in another candidate, like former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins or NBA lifer Mike Dunleavy.

What L.A. cannot recreate with another applicant, though, is that relationship with Bryant. That’s kind of a big deal, considering general manager Mitch Kupchak already detailed the importance of the franchise’s next coach connecting with its brightest star.

“We have to make sure that whoever we hire as a coach can really get the most productivity out of him, whether it’s scoring the ball or playmaking or the threat that he may score,” Kupchak told reporters. “That’s probably of primary importance right now.”

Bryant’s status as L.A.’s most important player might feel like a formality. After all, he’s one of just three players holding a guaranteed contract for next season, along with Steve Nash and Robert Sacre.

Yet Bryant’s position won’t change regardless how the Lakers fill out the rest of their roster. Not with the $48.5 million headed his way over the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com.

Someone will need to earn the trust of a 35-year-old who has secured five world titles and appeared in 14 All-Star Games for doing things his way. Scott, however, has already cleared that hurdle.

That’s why it comes as little surprise that he “has emerged as the leading candidate” for the position, as sources told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne. Chris Broussard of ESPN has also heard similar things about Scott’s standing in this race:

While Shelburne notes that the process still isn’t far enough along for the two sides to talk financial figures, there seems to be a consensus that Scott is the clubhouse leader at this stage.

Considering the relationship he already has with Bryant, Scott is holding that favorable position for a reason.

If the Lakers have any shot at competing for something of substance during Bryant’s twilight years, it will start with maximizing the Mamba’s production. The Lakers need him to be elite for them to enjoy a similar status.

That might seem like a stretch considering where he’s at in his career. He’s had to endure a pair of serious leg injuries (first a torn Achilles, then a knee fracture), which cost him all but six games last season.

However, in 2012-13, he was still one of the NBA’s premier producers. He averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting to go along with six assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He finished that campaign in the top 10 in both player efficiency rating (23.0, tied for ninth) and win shares (10.9, tied for eighth), via Basketball-Reference.com.

He’ll need his body to cooperate in order to post numbers anywhere close to those levels, but if it does, he could reclaim his spot among the game’s greats.

That’s what the Lakers have to be hoping for. Even if they had other motivations behind handing him that massive contract extension, they’d still love to see his production validate that cost.

While Bryant still has a shot at putting up notable numbers, he’ll likely need to continue to evolve as a player to keep building those box scores. He can’t get back the physical tools he’s already lost to Father Time. He’ll need his strength and smarts to help replace the speed and explosiveness he used to unleash.

Some might recognize that need sooner than Bryant. That could lead to some potentially awkward conversations, the kind that are far easier to have between friends than coworkers.

Scott isn’t afraid of having those uncomfortable talks. He’s already sent a challenge Bryant’s way despite not officially grabbing the coaching seat:

Scott could step in and immediately have some pull with Bryant. Mike D’Antoni spent nearly two full seasons with Bryant and never seemed to build that bridge.

Scott isn’t just Bryant’s buddy, though. He’s a well-qualified candidate in his own right, with a resume that speaks for itself.

“Scott had some success in his first head coaching gig, taking the New Jersey Nets to two straight NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003,” NBC Sports’ Brett Pollakoff noted. “He then coached five full seasons in New Orleans, peaking with a run to the second round of the playoffs in the 2008 season.”

By his own admission, he’s demanding. That’s exactly what the Lakers need after last season’s unsightly 27-win performance.

I’m not a screamer, I’m intense and I’m a perfectionist,” Scott said of his coaching style in 2000, via Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times.

An intense perfectionist? Yeah, that certainly sounds like Bryant’s style.

If Scott is such a great fit, why hasn’t a contract offer been extended yet? Frankly, there’s no need to rush.

The Lakers have a roster to build, starting with the seventh overall selection in Thursday’s draft. They have the cap space to fill their remaining ranks however they see fit and need more pieces in place before determining whether Scott is the right man to steer the ship.

He’ll wait for them to make that call. He spent 11 of his 14 seasons as a player with the Lakers, so grabbing the coaching reigns would be nothing short of a dream job.

With the knowledge that his relationship with Bryant gives him a leg up on the competition, his wait might not be as stressful as it would seem. Not when both he and the Lakers know how important it is for Bryant to approve of the next head coach.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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Joel Embiid Is Sure-Fire Top-5 Choice in NBA Draft Regardless of Foot Injury

Joel Embiid has questions surrounding him, but there’s one certainty—he’ll be a dominant force in the NBA when he’s both experienced and healthy.

He might be neither of those things right now, but that doesn’t mean the Kansas big man isn’t worthy of a top-five pick. 

Of course, the latest saga surrounding Embiid is his broken foot, which he recently had surgery for. According to ESPN, he’s slated to be out for four to six months. 

Once the most talked about name for the top overall pick and a sure-fire bet to come off the board within the top three selections, Embiid is now tumbling. Per Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix, a Western Conference executive even said he wouldn’t take him in the top 10. 

The Celtics are one of the teams worried about Embiid‘s situation—in fact, all 30 teams are, according to director of player personnel Austin Ainge:

It’s normal for teams to be noticeably worried about a top player who suffers a serious injury a week before the draft. When you’ve been sifting over a prospect for months, and suddenly something new and dangerous appears, it significantly changes things.

Despite that, the public seems to be on board with Embiid staying in the top five, per ESPN SportsCenter:

But teams and scouts dug through Embiid‘s back problems throughout the predraft process, and nothing changed as far as his status at the top of the draft. Conventional wisdom is to drop Embiid after this latest hiccup, but teams will begin to see what they’re missing out on.

Sure, Embiid‘s injury and later surgery may drop him beneath the Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins echelon that he once was accompanied by. Maybe even Dante Exum can sneak above him. 

After that, though, teams would be foolish to pass on Embiid.

ESPN Stats & Info showed what a healthy Embiid can do on the court:

It’s understandable to pick Wiggins or Parker above Embiid. But after that, there’s no player who screams All-Star and certainly no player who can become the next Hakeem Olajuwon—or anything close. 

A true 7-footer, Embiid has the athleticism to fit right in at the next level and the size to avoid getting pushed around as many youngsters do. His shot-blocking prowess affects the game in a way that can trickle down throughout the team. If Embiid becomes the Embiid that many expect, he could be a game-changing center on a championship team.

Does a serious foot injury and surgery just a week before the draft knock him back? Sure, it does—a couple of spots. 

But you don’t draft players for their impact in year one. In the NBA as much as any league, it’s about finding the youngest, most talented player who can turn a few years of development into a quick ascension.

If it’s the guy who will average 10 points per game as a rookie and become a mid-level starter or the player who can’t play in year one but becomes an All-Star down the road, give me the latter every time. 

Assuming the Cavaliers and Bucks go with Wiggins and Parker—in whatever order—at the top, the Sixers would likely be quick to pass on Embiid. After all, they just drafted Nerlens Noel last season and haven’t even played him yet. 

But at No. 4 to the Magic, Orlando needs to pull the trigger. Slowly but surely, the Magic have built a promising young roster, but there’s no true big man to let their versatile power forwards off the hook with rim protection. Embiid could be that piece.

If somehow, some way, Embiid is available at No. 5, expect the trade offers to fly in left and right. They may be talking him down, but these scouts haven’t been raving about Embiid for months just to disregard him because of a six-month injury.

If Embiid falls out of the top 10 like that Western Conference executive predicts, he’ll spend his early years making those who passed up on him pay with emphatic shot-blocks and dominant rebounds. 

 

Follow Steven on Twitter.

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King’s Court: Why Marcus Smart Should Have Made the Wise Choice and Turned Pro

Three weeks before he went into the Texas Tech stands to shove Jeff Orr, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart had another ugly encounter with fans.

This one was actually much worse.

It involved a group of teenage girls.

Smart and teammate Phil Forte came face-to-face with the high schoolers about 20 minutes after their Jan. 18 loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. As the players walked toward the Cowboys locker room after their postgame press conference, one of the girls approached them and smiled bashfully.

“Would you two mind if we got a quick picture?” she said.

Smart kept walking.

“Not right now,” he said.

Forte stopped and tried to coax his teammate into posing with the fans, grabbing his arm and reminding him it would only take a few seconds. Smart rolled his eyes.

“If we take a picture with them, we’ve got to take pictures with everyone,” Smart said as he pulled away.

The point would’ve been valid if there was a throng of fans in the tunnel. But there wasn’t. The only people within an earshot of the group were a pair of security guards—and me. I was trailing the twosome in hopes of scoring a few extra quotes for my game column.

As Smart and Forte barked back and forth for about 30 seconds, one thought lingered in my head.

With the way he’s acting, why would anyone even want a photo with Marcus Smart?

“Just take the picture!” Forte said forcefully, and Smart relented and posed for the shot.

As rude and arrogant as Smart came across that evening, I was willing to give him a free pass. Athletes go through mood swings and have bad days just like the rest of us. Losses sting. Not everyone has the grace of Peyton Manning, who was still in uniform when he signed an autograph for a beer salesman after getting crushed in the Super Bowl earlier this month.

If a player doesn’t feeling like scribbling his name on a basketball or stopping to take a picture with a fan, he shouldn’t have to. Especially when he’s in enemy territory after a gut-wrenching defeat.

The girls’ timing couldn’t have been any worse.

Still, I always thought that Smart was different. Or at least that’s what I’d been told.

For the past year, television announcers have fawned over Smart to the point where it’s strange and uncomfortable. Florida’s Billy Donovan and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who worked with Smart in USA Basketball, said the point guard may be the best competitor they’ve ever coached. NBA experts projected him to go as high as No. 3 in last summer’s draft—never mind that he’s a mediocre ball-handler who has shot just 28.7 percent from three-point range in his career.

Smart is a leader, they said, a guy who makes everyone around him better.

That may be the case.

But—as we now know—only sometimes.

That’s been the most baffling thing about the past few weeks. We don’t know who Marcus Smart is anymore. Is he the player who changed the entire culture of Oklahoma State’s program with his intensity and work ethic? Or is he the prima donna who snubbed those young girls at Allen Fieldhouse, the bully who punked that doofus fan at Texas Tech?

Smart was phenomenal as a freshman last season, when he led Oklahoma State to a 24-9 record overall and a 13-5 mark in the Big 12. Smart’s performance earned him Player of the Year honors in the conference and a spot on the Sporting News’ All-American team. 

When faced with adversity this season, though, Smart has floundered. He’s clearly under an immense amount of pressure, and the shame of it all is that Smart brought the pressure upon himself.

Smart should’ve never returned to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. Sure, it was a feel-good moment when Smart made the announcement last spring, but the Oklahoma State fans who clapped at his press conference had to have been wondering what Smart was thinking. Or if he was thinking at all.

Most experts guessed that Smart would’ve been a top-three pick after his freshman season, an instant millionaire who could’ve provided immediate help to his mother, who has one kidney and goes to dialysis three times a week.

But instead Smart chose to return for another year, risking injury and giving NBA scouts more chances to dissect his game, more opportunities to detect flaws that could lower his draft stock and cost him millions.

That’s exactly what’s happened.

Smart is averaging a team-high 17.5 points, but he’s shooting just 42.2 percent from the field overall and a measly 28.1 percent from three-point range. During one particularly brutal stretch last month he missed 25 of 28 shots from behind the arc and was 13-of-53 overall.

Once ranked as high as No. 5, the Cowboys had lost four straight games before Smart was suspended for three contests for shoving Orr, which was hardly the only sign Smart was beginning to crumble under the scrutiny and expectations he brought upon himself by deciding to return to school.

A week after big-timing those young fans at Allen Fieldhouse, Smart became frustrated with his play against West Virginia and kicked over a chair during a timeout. He drew a technical for doing a chin-up on the rim and slapping the backboard after a dunk at Kansas State, forcing him to the bench with foul trouble, which played a huge factor in the Cowboys’ loss.

Smart complained to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman about how “inconsistent” officials have been when it comes to enforcing the new hand-check rules.

And Monday night, while serving the final game of his three-game suspension, Smart criticized an Oklahoma State blogger on Twitter for being too negative.

In less than a month, Smart completely unraveled.

I’ve never heard anyone say Smart is a bad person. The story of Smart overcoming a tough neighborhood as a child and the death of his father speaks highly of his character and drive.

Instead, I look at Smart as a cautionary tale, an illustration of why it’s better to make the wise decision rather than the popular one when it comes to the NBA. The same people who applauded Smart’s choice a year ago now feel sorry for him because they realize it cost him a fortune.

An assistant coach at a high-level program told me last week that Smart’s confidants—his coaches and advisers—should’ve stepped in last spring and convinced him to turn pro, mapping out why it didn’t make sense to return to Oklahoma State.

“With all that’s happened now,” the coach said, “I don’t know how those people sleep at night.”

While last year’s draft class was considered weak, the 2014 class appears strong. Even if Smart would’ve had a banner season, there’s no way he would’ve gone in the top five.

The most recent mock drafts have dropped Smart from the No. 6 overall pick to the middle of the first round.

It’s obvious Smart knows it.

He’s become irritable, defensive and selfish. When Orr screamed at Smart that night in Lubbock, he was poking a caged bear.

Hopefully Smart has been able to simmer down during his three-game suspension. Hopefully he’s collected his thoughts and will revert to his old form Saturday, when he returns to a squad that has now lost seven straight.

At 16-10 overall and 4-9 in the Big 12, the Cowboys will need a miraculous finish to make the NCAA tournament. Getting them there through leadership and gutsy play would help Smart save a little face and reestablish his reputation.

Maybe then, someone will want his autograph again.

   

This Week’s Grades

A: Tubby Smith – The first-year Texas Tech coach has led his team to victories over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma—all of whom have been ranked—and in the last week the Red Raiders have lost to No. 11 Iowa State and No. 8 Kansas by a combined seven points. People are excited about basketball in Lubbock, and the United Spirit Arena is becoming a difficult place to play. Texas Tech made the best hire of the offseason.

B: Terran Petteway – Nebraska’s sophomore wing has keyed the Cornhuskers’ resurgence under second-year coach Tim Miles. Petteway, who redshirted last season after beginning his career at Texas Tech, is averaging 17.7 points and 5.2 rebounds for a squad that is a surprising 6-6 in the Big Ten. Petteway scored 23 points in Sunday’s mammoth upset of then-No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing.

C: Arizona and Syracuse – The Wildcats and Orange are proving what I’ve been saying all season. Although both are great teams, neither is significantly better than the other squads ranked in the Top 10. Syracuse’s inability to put away bad teams at home finally caught up with the Orange in Wednesday’s overtime loss to Boston College. Arizona lost in overtime to unranked Arizona State on Friday and needed overtime to put away Utah on Wednesday.

D: Washington – It may be time for the Huskies to make a coaching change. Lorenzo Romar has had some good moments, but he’s never taken Washington past the Sweet 16, and the Huskies appear destined for the NIT for the third straight season. Heck, two years ago, Washington won the Pac-12 regular-season title and didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. Washington’s program has too much going for it to accept that kind of mediocrity.

F: Court-storming snobs – I get so tired of people who try to dictate when it’s acceptable to storm a court. Do you really think the students in the stands—some of whom are probably liquored up—are thinking deeply about etiquette and tradition and sportsmanship? They’re simply having fun. At schools such as Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, students are basically told upon enrollment that it’s never OK to storm. And that’s fine. The tradition at those schools is unmatched. But as far as everywhere else? Let college students have their fun. What’s wrong with a little enthusiasm and excitement in college basketball?

 

Starting Five: Best first-year coaches (listed alphabetically)

Steve Alford, UCLA – The Bruins are 21-5 overall and at, at 10-3, are just one game back of Arizona (11-2) in the Pac-12 race. Great hire by the Bruins.

Chris Collins, Northwestern – Who says you can’t win in Evansville? Collins has led the Wildcats to victories over Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.

Bobby Hurley, Buffalo – One season after going 14-20, the Bulls are 15-8 overall and 9-4 in the MAC under Hurley, the former Duke star.

Richard Pitino, Minnesota – The Gophers head coach apparently takes after his father. Minnesota is 6-8 in the rugged Big Ten, but six of those losses have come by eight points or fewer and three have been in overtime.

Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin – Frank Martin’s former assistant hasn’t lost since Nov. 23. He’s 24-2 overall and 13-0 in the Southland Conference. Underwood won’t be at SFA long if he keeps this up.

 

A Dozen Words On My Top 12 Teams

1. Florida – Gators have won 18 straight games but nearly choked Wednesday against Auburn.

2. Wichita State – Shockers are on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated. Well-deserved.

3. Duke – Blue Devils play North Carolina, Syracuse in a span of 48 hours.

4. Syracuse – The Orange were playing with fire and they finally got burned Wednesday.

5. Louisville – Cardinals have won five straight games by an average of 26 points.

6. Kansas – Jayhawks will be looking for revenge Saturday against Texas in Allen Fieldhouse.

7. Kentucky – John Calipari’s squad played well at times against Florida and dominated Ole Miss.

8. Creighton – Can the Bluejays reach the Final Four? With Doug McDermott, why not?

9. Arizona – The margin for error is small, but the Wildcats are tough defensively.

10. Michigan State – Losing to Nebraska at home was a wake-up call for the Spartans.

11. San Diego State – The Aztecs are proving how much it helps to have experienced players.

12. Virginia – I’m calling it now. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers will win the ACC title.

 

Rapid Fire

Heating up: UCLA and Louisville

Cooling down: Florida State and Ole Miss

Too much credit: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina; Jahii Carson, Arizona State

Not enough credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati; Juwan Staten, West Virginia

Time for someone to hire: Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland

Time for someone to fire: Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest) and Stan Heath (South Florida)

Maddening: Baylor

Saddening: Oklahoma State

What the heck has happened to: Indiana and Temple

Quietly doing a nice job: Danny Manning, Tulsa

Would someone help me choose: The Big 12 MVP

 

Pit Stops

Wings in Kansas City – As the regular season begins to wind down, I figured it was time to give a shoutout to the various wing haunts in my current city of residence.

Before I begin, I want to remind everyone that I’m a Texan at heart. I was born and raised in Dallas and, when the time is right, I plan to move back to my hometown. One thing keeping me from pulling the trigger, though, is that Dallas is a terrible wing city. There simply aren’t any good spots for top-quality wings. The bird there has no character (and, please, don’t pollute my inbox with emails about how good the wings are Pluckers, BW3, Angry Dog and all of those other pretenders).

Luckily, there are plenty of options in the Kansas City area, where it’s common knowledge that The Peanut wings are the best in town. One wing at The Peanut is like two wings anywhere else–mainly because you get the full wing, with the drummie still attached to the flapper. Things can get a bit messy when you’re eating one of these bad boys, but The Peanut’s tangy, peppery sauce and its homemade blue cheese makes digging into the trenches worthwhile.

No. 2 on my Kansas City wing list is Mac’s Sports Pub. Love the spicy garlic wings and the regular buffalo wings, too. My good friend Courtney McReynolds makes the sauce in-house. The wings aren’t small and wimpy, and it’s obvious she and her staff take a little pride in their preparation, even offering to toss them on the grill for a minute or so to give them that charred flavor before serving.

A few other recommendations: Tanner’s has the basic SBW (Standard Bar Wing) that won’t exactly wow you. But the charred wings (try either buffalo or teriyaki) are a hit. The “Simmons Wings” at Johnny’s Tavern are a local favorite. Johnny’s spreads a mixture of its barbecue and buffalo sauces on the wings, flash fries them and then tosses them on the grill.

In Lawrence, I’ve always been a fan of Henry T’s, which has long been a staple on my all-time top-five list. Lately, though, I’m hearing that Six Mile Tavern has made in-roads on the Lawrence wing scene. I’ll hit that up next. As in, this Saturday after the Kansas-Texas game.

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No, Kevin Love did not say the Boston Celtics are his first choice in free-agency

During the NBA All-Star Celebrity game on Friday night, my sources say that Chris Broussard interviewed Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love talked candidly about his upcoming free-agent in the summer of 2015. In that interview, Kevin Love did everything short of saying “I am sick of playing in Minnesota and I am leaving for greener pastures as soon as I hit free-agency and its going to be awesome.”
Kevin Love jumping ship is one of the worst kept secrets in the NBA. Everybody who even sort of follows the league knows that it will happen if the Timberwolves don’t deal him at an upcoming trade deadline or in the off-season. Most likely, Love wants to go home to Los Angeles, and considering that the Lakers will have cap-room and be looking to build their next great power, well, as a Celtics’ fan, I’m already getting sick thinking about it.
There’s hope though! Most Celtics’ fans also have an idea in their heads of Kevin Love being a perfect complement to Rajon Rondo and that the Celtics’ a

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Chicago Bulls make tough, but right, choice on Luol Deng

Late Monday night, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers completed a deal that will send fan-favorite Luol Deng to Cleveland in exchange for Andrew Bynum, a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and the right to swap first-round picks in an upcoming draft. The story, broken by Shams Charania of RealGM.com, was a late-night doozy after many people had gone to bed.
Before the season started, I pondered what Deng’s future might be in Chicago. Reports of failed extension negotiations were already circulating, but it seemed that the Bulls were ready to give it one more go with the core of Derrick Rose, Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer.
Of course, that all came crashing down when Rose injured his other knee.
So now, the questions about Deng’s future have been answered. And it’s a tough one for Bulls fans, and presumably Bulls players
The newest Chicago Bull…and as of this typing, no longer a Chicago Bull!
and coach Tom Thibodeau, to swallow. With Rose out, another season headi…

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