Kobe Bryant’s Effort to Rediscover Game Moving Forward, but Far from Complete

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kobe Bryant has always chosen his own context.   

Accordingly, the perspective has mostly tilted in his favor, toward his grandeur, serving in construction of his legend.   

It has not been ineffective marketing.

Bryant came to the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility a week ago, told new coach and longtime friend Byron Scott how much rust felt coated on his bones despite how healed everything was and how much more focus he had been placing on his craft all summer.

Bryant did not want the team’s website or TV network in the gym, as was allowed for other informal scrimmages for Lakers players. He had worked out with teammates such as Jeremy Lin for a week early in the offseason, but this was different.

This would be real five-on-five, a meaningful test.

Did Bryant pass? Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak termed the results “comforting” and was moved a few days later to remind: “He gives you a chance, no matter the circumstances, to be really good.”

Scott saw enough to suggest Monday at Lakers media day that Bryant would average 24 points and play all 82 games. Scott’s doubt about how well Bryant could raise up to get his jumper off was eased to the point that Scott described Kobe’s outlook as “very exciting.”

Bryant executed his footwork in the mid-post. He had the lift also to reach high for much-needed rebounds.

He played three games.

He hit two game-winning shots.

Asked on the eve of training camp about his dramatic scrimmage success, Bryant said, “I hadn’t played, so I spent the whole summer just kind of preparing and training. It was important for me to get a five-on-five game in, so I could see what I can and can’t do.

“And I felt like me.”

Bryant didn’t say it with any bravado, however. He also wasn’t cavalier about it or making it seem like a no-brainer. He didn’t even mention those oh-so-Kobe winning shots that the public was unaware he had hit.

He was pleased, but he was not emboldened.

He chose that context, and he chose not to feed the hype—or even believe it himself.

All he wanted to say about it was that it was a small, personal, positive steppingstone.

And I felt like me.

That’s not to be taken lightly as Bryant, 36, tries to inspire his public all over again with a comeback from the fractured right knee on top of the torn left Achilles and playing just six games last season.

“It’s just trying to see if I can prove to myself,” he said, “that I can be myself.”

Bryant added that the “words of doubt” from the outside—haters, critics or realists, whatever they might be—fan his flame, but only secondarily.

“I’ve always been that way, though,” he said. “I feel that [makes for] a much healthier journey. It’s much more enjoyable to look to the side every now and then and look at who you’re proving wrong in the process. That’s never been the main driver for me.”

Listening to Bryant speak Monday, it was clear that he is confident in his health. What he is uncertain about is the high hurdle of this recovery, which requires him to re-establish his game in the face of the unyielding aging process.

To that end, Bryant placed more focus on the craft, the details, the crux of his game, than anything over the summer. He dropped about 10 pounds but did so without using the track, his usual haven for early morning conditioning, and holed himself up in the gym. He feels potent on offense, as usual, but he wonders whether his lower body can slide defensively the way he knows it must if the Lakers’ defense is to meet Scott’s expectations.

The fundamentals have to be Bryant’s foundation more than ever. His outsized self-confidence was always rooted in faith that his work ethic leads to his game being there when he needs it.

So the only issue now that he is healthy is whether he will meet his own challenge.

Long before anyone else can judge how much this old snake looks like the Black Mamba, either he will feel comfortable in his skin or he won’t.

Bryant admitted he was “anxiously awaiting” the Lakers’ first practice. The first exhibition game is a week after that.

The regular-season opener sits a month away.

A year ago, Bryant was in a similar position, returning to the court from a prolonged absence, but also with facing an uphill struggle against his Achilles.

“Now there are questions, but they don’t center around health,” Bryant said of the difference this year.

As much as the suggestions so far sound good, Bryant’s inflection won’t change back to certainty until he has a different answer, and answer that isn’t: “I felt like me.”

It has to be: “It’s me.”

Anything less, and it’s going to be a long, unsatisfying march into retirement.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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Complete Miami Heat 2014 Training Camp Preview

The Miami Heat are gearing up for their first year of the post-LeBron James era.

With James gone, few are predicting the Heat to remain among the NBA‘s elite.

But before they can go out and attempt to prove the many doubters wrong, the Heat need to use training camp to not only mesh the newcomers with holdovers from last year but figure out who’s going to play and in what capacity as well. 

We’re going to examine the Heat position by position, looking at the likely contributors and what could possibly change during training camp. 

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Complete Boston Celtics 2014-15 Training Camp Preview

Coming off a season that featured the third-lowest win total in franchise history, the Boston Celtics will head into their 2014-15 training camp licking large, open wounds. 

The Celtics tried hard to turn things around overnight, but a relatively quiet summer yielded no additional superstar firepower. So instead, it’s looking like their fate is the lottery…again.

But even though a championship feels light-years away, things probably won’t be as dire as last season. The team has several fresh faces and a healthy Rajon Rondo, plus the infusion of some serious young talent. 

Here’s a breakdown of each position and every player who’s expected to make Boston’s final roster. They’re ranked by how Brad Stevens should arrange his depth chart, even though things in real life will be much more fluid as the season goes along.

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Complete Chicago Bulls 2014 Training Camp Preview

The Chicago Bulls‘ training camp begins Tuesday, September 30. Their first preseason game is on Monday, October 6 at the United Center (full preseason schedule here) against the Washington Wizards—the team that ousted them from the first round of last year’s playoffs.

The 2014-15 NBA campaign is nearly here, and the Bulls have a lot to figure out between now, then and beyond. They’ve got a logjam in the frontcourt, new players young and old (say hello to Aaron Brooks, Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic) plus former MVP Derrick Rose looking to make a full return.

But there is a clear, if preliminary, depth chart in place. Let’s take a look at what the Bulls have, position by position, in preparation for the team’s most important season of the Tom Thibodeau era.

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Complete NY Knicks 2014 Training Camp Preview

The New York Knicks, under the new regime of team president Phil Jackson and first-year head coach Derek Fisher, are ready to bounce back from last year’s disappointing 37-45 season. 

A long-time Jackson disciple, Fisher will install the famous triangle offense, which won Jackson 11 championships—six with the Chicago Bulls and five with Fisher and the Los Angeles Lakers. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason. 

Armed with a re-signed Carmelo Anthony, a rejuvenated Amare Stoudemire and talent in the backcourt, Fisher has a foundation in place. Jackson has been busy tinkering with the roster as well, trading Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks over the summer for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington. 

Ellington and Jeremy Tyler were sent to Sacramento for Travis Outlaw and Quincy Acy, giving the Knicks even more depth. There are plenty of new faces and options for the newly installed triangle and its rookie head coach. 

According to ESPN, the Knicks’ starting five projects to be Calderon, Iman Shumpert, Anthony, Stoudemire and Dalembert. Regardless of last season’s shortcomings, the Knicks have added solid depth and are poised to take a major step forward under Jackson and Fisher.  

Let’s take a look at how New York’s roster will shake out and who will contribute at each position. 

 

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Complete Predictions for Nerlens Noel’s Role, Statistics with Philadelphia 76ers

Now that Nerlens Noel is back at full strength, the Philadelphia 76ers‘ rebuild is officially ready to get underway. 

Although a couple of key pieces won’t be joining the fray this season, Noel will attempt to validate his status as a franchise building block when the 2014-15 season tips off.  

And with 6-1 Rookie of the Year odds, per Odds Shark, there’s no shortage of hype surrounding Noel’s highly anticipated debut. 

However, we need to maintain perspective. Noel is still just 20 years old, and his offensive repertoire is undergoing major reconstruction. 

That said, Noel’s defensive impact alone should keep him active in a Rookie of the Year race that’s expected to be dominated by Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. 

So as training camp approaches, we’re here to provide realistic expectations and a complete slate of projections for Noel’s inaugural campaign. 

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FIBA World Cup Schedule 2014: Complete Preview Heading into Semifinals

There have been a number of surprises throughout the FIBA World Cup, but we are now down to four teams all fighting for a gold medal.

While Spain was considered a top contender as the host nation with a number of NBA stars on the roster, the squad was eliminated by France in the quarterfinals. This makes the United States the overwhelming favorite to win its next two games, but it is clear anything can happen in this competitive tournament.

All four remaining teams have a chance to take home gold with two wins, while one more win will at least secure a medal. Here is a look at what each team has to do to reach that goal.

 

United States vs. Lithuania

When: Thursday, September 11

Time: 3 p.m. ET

Where: Barcelona, Spain

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream: ESPN3

 

The United States has not faced incredibly difficult competition in this tournament so far, winning all six of its games by at least 20 points. 

Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried have been almost unstoppable in the low post, averaging a combined 26.7 points and 15.1 rebounds per game. Their pure athleticism, combined with incredible work ethic, has helped them lead become leaders of this young squad.

Arash Markazi of ESPN explains that Spain’s loss in the quarterfinals makes an American title much more likely:

Still, head coach Mike Krzyzewski knows what he is up against in Lithuania. Team USA barely escaped with a win against this opponent at the 2012 Olympics, while Jonas Valanciunas is playing as well as ever as a leader for this squad.

“He gets a piece of the paint in numerous ways, and then he is a great offensive rebounder,” Krzyzewski said of the Toronto Raptors star, via Chris Kudialas of the Detroit Free Press. “Not a good one, but a great one.”

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated sees the center as a threat for the United States big men:

Just as importantly, Lithuania has hit 40 percent of its three-point shots in this tournament and can find ways to score against a more athletic opponent. This will help ensure this game remains close throughout.

That being said, Team USA is simply too good to stop and should come through with a tough win.

Prediction: USA 88, Lithuania 80

 

France vs. Serbia

When: Friday, September 12

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Where: Madrid, Spain

Watch: ESPN2

Live Stream: ESPN3

 

Few expected either France or Serbia to make it to this point in the tournament. France and Serbia finished third and fourth in Group A, respectively, and had subpar performances against the top teams in the group.

However, the quarterfinals featured major upsets for both teams, as each squad was able to avenge a loss from earlier in the tournament.

France had an impressive showing in a 65-52 win over Spain, utilizing its size inside to get the advantage over the elite frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Rudy Gobert especially stood out in the victory, as John Schuhmann of NBA.com pointed out:

Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated joked about how good the center was in the defensive battle:

With Boris Diaw and Thomas Heurtel also coming through with big performances, the French were able to pull off the massive upset over the host nation and biggest rival.

While you would think France could keep this momentum to possibly move into the finals, it is important not to count out Serbia, which had a dominant victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Like Spain, Brazil was expected to advance thanks to its NBA talent. As HoopsHype noted, this did not go as planned:

Milos Teodosic led the way with a game-high 23 points, including 10-of-10 shooting from the free-throw line, as he was clearly unafraid of contact. The entire squad has continually improved throughout the tournament and is now playing as well as ever.

When these two teams face off in the semifinals, expect the competition to be a lot like the first time they played when France edged out a 74-73 victory. Boris Diaw hit a game-tying shot with 18 seconds left before Joffrey Lauvergne put his team ahead for good with a made free throw in the final seconds.

France has the size inside to make a difference in this game while still waiting for the outside shooting of Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier to come around. Although this matchup should be close, the French should be able to pull off the narrow win.

Prediction: France 67, Serbia 63

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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UNC Basketball: Breaking Down the Tar Heels’ Complete 2014-15 Schedule

Most of the opponents were already known, and a handful of dates and locations were penciled in. But now that North Carolina has formally released its 2014-15 basketball schedule, we can really start looking ahead to what the Tar Heels will face this season.

We can also start picking apart the hills and valleys of the slate, which is a tough one but also one that can provide UNC with great preparation for the postseason.

The 2014-15 schedule features 13 nonconference games before Carolina gets into the 18-game ACC lineup. All told, UNC plays 15 home games in the Dean Smith Center, with 12 games on the road and four set for neutral sites. That includes three games in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

The 15 dates in Chapel Hill are the fewest since the 2010-11 season, when UNC only played 30 regular-season games.

The full schedule is listed below. You can also find a PDF of it to download here.

The schedule features either 13 or 14 games against teams that made the NCAA tournament last season, depending on who UNC’s final opponent is in the Bahamas. Only seven of the games will come against foes that finished below .500 a year ago.

 

Easy street

* Jan 18-24 (vs. Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest, vs. Florida State): The trio combined to go 17-37 in ACC play last season, with Florida State winning nine of those games. The FSU game is the toughest of the three, but it’s at home, though it does fall two days before UNC hosts Syracuse on ESPN’s Big Monday lineup.

 

Toughest stretch

* Feb. 7-18 (at Boston College, at Pittsburgh, at Duke): Sure, BC was among the worst major college teams in the nation last year, but with the trip to Chestnut Hill serving as the opening leg of a three-game, 12-day road trip, it’s the kind of game that could get overlooked. That’s enhanced by the face UNC goes from there to Pittsburgh and then back to Tobacco Row for the annual trip to Duke.

According to Adam Lucas of GoHeels.com, it marks the first time under Roy Williams and the first occasion since the 2000-01 season that Carolina plays three straight ACC road games.

You could stretch it out even further and take in the two games before the three-game trip, making it an even more difficult spate. On. Jan. 31 UNC visits Louisville, then two days later hosts Virginia. Even with BC in there, that’s a quintet that went 121-56 in 2013-14.

 

Schedule traps

* Nov. 14-16 (vs. NC Central, vs. Robert Morris): Yes, both teams come from the kind of conferences (Northeast and MEAC, respectively) that usually earn no better than a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament. But these are the reigning conference regular-season champions, with Robert Morris getting upset at home in the Northeast tourney final and NC Central won 28 games en route to an NCAA berth.

* Feb. 28-March 3 (at Miami, at Georgia Tech): These teams combined to go 33-33 last year, but both should be improved in 2013-14. This is Carolina’s final road trip of the regular season, with the Tech game coming four days before the Heels host Duke.

 

Worth the trip

* Nov. 26-28 (at Battle 4 Atlantis; Nassau, Bahamas): As if you needed a reason to go to the Bahamas, Carolina is entered in a whopper of a preseason tournament. After opening with Butler, UNC will face either Oklahoma or UCLA, both of which reached the NCAA tournament last year. The Heels’ final game will also be a challenge, with the possible opponents being Florida, Georgetown, Wisconsin or UAB. If it’s UAB, that would mean facing the Blazers twice in a month (along with the Dec. 27 game in Chapel Hill).

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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5 NBA Players That Need a Trade to Fulfill Complete Potential

The NBA is a dream come true for the players who work hard enough to make it, but plenty still find themselves one trade away from being in the right situation.

For the five in this slideshow, reaching their full potential may be just around the corner, but getting there will be next to impossible with the teams they currently represent.

Whether it’s a logjam at the player’s position, an issue with management or just the need for a fresh start, there’s a reason to believe each one would be better off individually somewhere else.

They’re in order by age, and each has qualified for the list by being involved in some kind of trade rumor during the last year.

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FIBA World Cup Schedule 2014: Complete Preview for Preliminary Round of Tourney

The 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup gives fans of international basketball the opportunity to watch their favorite nations in action outside of Olympic play.

Hosted by Spain, the 2014 FIBA tournament is going to be filled with excitement. The Spanish team is loaded with talent, evidenced by its silver medal in the 2012 Olympics. Its main competition is the United States, a team that won gold in the Olympics and also won 2010′s installment of this tournament against host nation Turkey.

The two teams have plenty of history, and they’ll enter the tournament as likely favorites to take home the top spot. Before group play gets underway, we’ll have to get through the preliminary rounds. The entire preliminary schedule can be found below.

 

Preliminary Round Schedule

Preliminary schedule is courtesy of NBA.com.

 

United States

Kevin Durant has pulled out of the FIBA tournament, and Paul George will miss out on the tournament because of a terrible injury he suffered in a scrimmage. Regardless, this team is poised to dominate in Spain.

Of course, it won’t be easy. Team USA’s schedule is a grueling one, and that even includes its pre-tournament tuneups. Nick Gallo of NBA.com broke down the team’s itinerary:

The United States’ training in Las Vegas ends on August 1st with the USA Basketball Showcase at 8:00 p.m. CDT. The team will then travel to Chicago, Ill. For two more days of training and an exhibition game against Brazil on August 16th at 8:00 p.m. CT. From August 18th-22nd, the United States squad will be training in New York City, squaring off against the Dominican Republic on August 20th and Puerto Rico on August 22nd in two more exhibition games before departing for Spain. Training camp concludes for the Untied States in Gran Canaria, Spain with two days of practice and a final exhibition tune-up against Slovenia on August 26th.

That’s a lot of basketball, but the tuneups will be necessary for success in this tournament. Basketball is a game of consistency, and it’s hard to find consistency if you aren’t playing consistently. Makes sense.

Team USA’s exhibition against Brazil is Saturday evening, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski has already named four of his five starters for the game, tweets NBC’s Kurt Helin:

The other spot won’t be occupied by DeMarcus Cousins, as SportsCenter tweeted that he won’t play in the contest:

Even without Durant, George and now Cousins (for at least one game), the United States have the weapons to make noise. Just look at the four listed in the starting lineup. Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis are a scary quartet on the floor.

This lineup might be fluid during exhibition games as Coach K works out the kinks with his roster, but there are multiple candidates to start games on this stacked roster.

 

Spain

The Spanish team is loaded with talent.

Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol are the three headliners. This frontcourt is absolutely dominant in every facet of the game, so it will be interesting to see how teams combat these big bodies.

Veterans like Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan-Carlos Navarro are also set to play well. They’ve proved themselves in international competition in the past, making them candidates to help keep the offense flowing efficiently.

Ricky Rubio is the X-factor for the Spanish. Everyone is aware of his incredible passing ability. It’s that ability that’s going to help Spain confuse opposing defenses and get easy baskets, so in that regard, Rubio is a plus.

But then there’s Rubio‘s ineffective jump shot.

Rubio isn’t a good shooter. The whole world knows it. Sometimes he himself doesn’t, however. Rubio tends to lean on that jumper a bit too much, and if he does that in this tournament, Spain will lose a good amount of their dominance.

Playing in front of their home fans gives Spain an edge, but there is certainly something playing against them. If Rubio realizes that he needs to dish before shooting, Spain can challenge the United States.

 

Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @KennyDeJohn_BR

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