How We’ll Know If J.R. Smith Is Part of NY Knicks’ Future

The New York Knicks‘ near-three-year marriage to swingman J.R. Smith hasn‘t always been the most gracious of commitments for either side. Just over a year ago, the team re-signed Smith long-term, but after a poor first half on the court and a bevy of issues off it, his status with the team—after its recent power shift into the hands of Phil Jackson—has been a topic of debate. 

In a recent Q&A with the New York Post’s Steve Serby, Jackson gave a multifaceted remark about the enigmatic Knicks scorer. 

Q: How do you plan to try to get through to J.R. Smith to put an end to all his immature on- and off-the-court antics?
A: I don’t know if that’s possible or not. He might be one of those guys that’s a little bit like Dennis Rodman that has an outlier kind of side to him. But I’m gonna get to know him as we go along, and we’ll find a way to either make him a very useful player on our organization, or whatever.

On one hand, Jackson is mentioning J.R. in the same breath as Dennis Rodman, one of the more talented players Phil has ever coached, and a key cog to the Chicago Bulls 1990s dynasty. At the same time, “we’ll find a way to either make him a very useful player on our organization, or whatever,” doesn’t come off as the most sparkling of outlooks. 

It should be noted that the two have spent limited time together since Jackson was brought in last winter, so Jackson, admittedly, isn’t basing these comments off much experience—for what it’s worth, Smith said last April that he’s excited to “pick Jackson’s brain.”

But amid a putrid start to last season both on and off the floor, rumors of the Knicks’ distaste for Smith began to swirl. The team has been reportedly open to shipping him out as recently as last July, per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley

But according to ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk, J.R. is entering this season with a fresh outlook. 

“I think it’s definitely a clean slate,” he said at the team’s media day on Monday. “I think it will be a more productive start of the year for me. There’s nothing hanging over my head whether it’s injuries, suspensions stuff like that. So I’m starting out from Day 1 with my team and it’s a great feeling.” 

How exactly Smith factors into the Knicks’ plans after this short-term rebuild isn’t known for sure, but we should have several clues as the upcoming season unfolds. The first of those is how this Knicks regime handles any potential Smith infractions.

Smith was clearly favored under Mike Woodson, whose extent of punishments for J.R. maxed out at a pair of separate one-game benchings. Smith has finished top-two on the team in total minutes in each of the last two seasons despite sporadic on-court lapses and off-court issues. 

This can be harkened back to Woodson’s affinity to playing veterans over youngsters like Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. but also the previous Knicks regime’s obsession to please Collective Artists Agency (CAA) and its numerous clients throughout the organization—including Smith. 

It was a dynamic that grew so intrusively into the team’s locker room that an anonymous player spoke to ESPN The Magazine‘s Chris Broussard about it:

One Knicks player recently told ESPN.com that the CAA ties were a problem in the locker room.

“You see how guys from CAA are treated differently,” the player said. “How they get away with saying certain things to coaches. How coaches talk to them differently than they talk to the other guys. It’s a problem.”

The succession of power within the organization from James Dolan to Jackson has been the presumptive end to CAA‘s vise grip on the Knicks. The team president was even asked about it during a meeting with the press last April, and he confirmed that no such ties will affect New York’s day-to-day operations. 

Any potential Smith misstep under Jackson could go one of two ways. J.R. could be on the shortest of leashes this season, where any wrongdoing would result in a serious punishment—or even a banishment from the team. Or, if Phil, Derek Fisher and Co. make any effort to get through to the 29-year-old, it’ll likely mean that the team truly values him moving forward. 

A more tangible clue as to what the Knicks’ plan on doing with Smith moving forward can be directly traced on the team’s stat sheet early this season. With Hardaway and Shumpert at the same position as Smith, it’ll be interesting to see how Fisher divvies the minutes between the three.

It’s been a common talking point among important Knicks people that the 2014-15 season isn’t being played with visions of an NBA title. Carmelo Anthony first threw that comment out there in August, and Jackson followed up this month echoing his star. Again from the Serby Q&A:

Q: The target and the goal is to win a championship. Not this year. That’s unrealistic.
A: We would love to do it this year. When I went from retirement the last time to the Lakers in ’99-2000, I believed that I could win a championship in the first year. We had the personnel to do that. When I took the job in Chicago in ’90, I thought we could win a championship. … This team hasn’t taken the subsequent steps to get to the place where you vault yourself from not in the playoffs to a championship. So we have to go through some of those steps.

That leaves this season very much as a feeling-out period to see what the Knicks have for the future—one of “those steps” Phil touched on. With Shumpert and Hardaway both under 25 and still developing into the players they’ll be by the time New York is a contender, this season makes for a good, extended run to see what they can do in prime roles under Fisher. 

Of course, if the Knicks view Smith as somebody they’d like to keep around for the long haul, they’ll need to get a look at how he fits into the new system as well. But at 29, the book on Smith is pretty much out.

There likely won’t be much development on his end—at least not nearly as much as the other two options at his position. If the team has decided J.R. isn’t someone that will be a part of future Knicks teams, Hardaway and Shumpert could see themselves earning more minutes. 

Overall, if the Zen Master’s crew views Smith as someone who won’t be around for the future, it will be blatantly obvious. 

It’s unlikely that Jackson was comparing Smith’s talent to that of Dennis Rodman’s in his prime, but under the right mentorship—even at an advanced age, like Rodman was when he first teamed with Phil—there’s opportunity for the best to be brought out of J.R.

Whether this new Knicks regime agrees with that, we’ll soon find out.

 

Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.

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Rajon Rondo’s Future a No-Win Situation for Rebuilding Boston Celtics

Rajon Rondo‘s future is uncertainty in its highest form, its direction fluid and fragile, its lone constant the Boston Celtics‘ inability to reach resolution unscathed.

There is no perfect victory awaiting the rebuilding Celtics once Rondo’s Boston-bound fate is determined. Not even the best-laid plans can protect them against the compromises that will come with “winning.” There’s no blueprint that safeguards them against an outright loss, either.

This situation is that delicate. The Celtics can only hope the solution they reach will be enough to limit the collateral damage they’re forced to endure.

 

Trading Rondo

Sifting through Rondo-related trade rumors has become a full-time job.

Conflicting reports are filed almost daily. One day Rondo has never been more available; the next day he’s not going anywhere.

Most recently, ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan (via Mass Live’s Jay King)—during a behind-the-scenes video for ESPN’s Around The Horn, which has since been removed but lives on courtesy of Deadspin—reported that Rondo “wants out” of Boston and that a trade “will happen.”

Like all other things Rondo, MacMullan’s findings were later refuted. Rondo and his agent Bill Duffy quickly pumped the brakes on trade talk, according to Boston Herald insider Mark Murphy, and Celtics president Rich Gotham did the same, per The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn: 

Smoke—suggesting fire—still lingers, though.

General manager Danny Ainge remains a half-open book. Each time he’s asked about Rondo’s availability, he passes on the opportunity to declare him untouchable. A recent appearance at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Worcester, Massachusetts proved to be no exception.

“The truthful answer is I really don’t know,” Ainge posited when asked if he was going to deal Rondo, per the Worcester Telegram and Gazette‘s Bill Doyle. “I have no intention. I’m not trying to trade Rondo, but because he’s a free agent this summer, he assured me that he wants to stay in Boston. We’d love to keep him in Boston.” 

If nothing else, Ainge and the Celtics seem open to anything. Such is the stance many rebuilding teams wish to maintain. The Celtics aren’t just looking at next year or the year after; they’re thinking about three, four and five years from now. And beyond.

It’s important to consider all options when looking that far ahead. Rondo may not fit the Celtics’ long-term model at 28 years old and approaching free agency. Trading him would allow Boston to move on while capitalizing off his departure. 

Maybe.

Moving Rondo won’t be an easy decision for the Celtics to make. Bidding farewell to a four-time All-Star (three appearances) won’t sit well with the organization and its fans, no matter the circumstances or return.

Yet the return itself is an issue. Having appeared in just 68 games over the last two seasons and still working his way back to form after suffering an ACL injury, Rondo’s value isn’t what it was before. 

Flashes of his wily incisiveness and preeminent playmaking were scattered throughout 2013-14, but Rondo has yet to show he’s actually back or that career-long weaknesses—his still-developing jump shot—are, without question, trending in the right direction.

Teams won’t relinquish top-flight assets for his services unless his recovery is complete. Even then, with free agency looming, finding takers willing to pillage through their stable of assets will be difficult.

“I don’t see how you get 80 cents on the dollar for him,” MacMullan said, via King. “Tell me where.”

On the off chance the Celtics negotiate that ideal trade, that balanced packaged headlined by draft picks, promising prospects and cap relief—which Rondo, as of right now, is no longer worth—they’re still left to pick up the pieces his exit leaves behind.

Dealing him prolongs their rebuild. It doesn’t matter who or what they get back. Flipping superstars usually results in additional transition. 

Shipping out Kevin Love for a king’s ransom hasn’t expedited the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ rebuild. It’s no different with Rondo. It’s actually worse because, again, Rondo won’t net the Celtics that kind of return.

Sending him on his merry way only pins them to an even more extensive project that wouldn’t include an established star.

 

Re-Signing Rondo

Avoiding the cons that come with trading Rondo isn’t difficult. The Celtics could, you know, just keep him.

Assuming that Rondo, like Ainge said, wants to remain in Boston, re-signing him next summer is the easiest course of action. All the Celtics must do is commit a substantial amount of money to him for the next five years.

So, it’s not easy.

Gauging Rondo’s market value is impossible at this point. For the same reasons trading him would be a trying endeavor, his worth inside and outside Boston is incalculable. 

Clarity should be provided as next year wears on and Rondo’s play defines his individual standing. But how he fares in 2014-15 will only say so much. 

Talented floor generals are everywhere, and the price of bringing one in has dropped dramatically. Kyle Lowry—the Eastern Conference’s best point guard last year—landed just four years and $48 million from his incumbent Toronto Raptors. Isaiah Thomas was a steal for the Phoenix Suns at $27 million over four years. Eric Bledsoe isn’t still battling restricted free agency because he thinks it’s fun.

Lucrative contracts aren’t handed out as frequently if you’re not Chris Paul (or Kyrie Irving, apparently). Rondo, meanwhile, appears to be searching for that exact type of deal.

During an interview with Yahoo Sports Radio (via Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com) in June, Celtics radio analyst Cedric Maxwell alleged that Rondo is after a $100 million contract. Committing that much coin to him would be an active admittance that Rondo is still in the same class as Paul. It would hamstring the Celtics financially as well. 

But comparisons to Paul, Stephen Curry and the rest of the NBA‘s top point guards cannot be made until Rondo plays through a good portion of next season. Determining his worth—inside and outside Boston—is dependent on his performance.

In the Celtics’ case, it’s also about him meshing with the rest of his teammates. There’s little point in building around Rondo if he doesn’t fit alongside fellow cornerstones Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. 

That means more waiting—waiting to see if Smart and Rondo’s overlapping skill sets can be adapted for them to succeed alongside one another, waiting to see if Sullinger is the floor-spacing forward Rondo has never played with, waiting to see if there’s pick-and-pop chemistry between Rondo and Olynyk.

Not even Bradley—four years Rondo’s teammate—can be considered familiar. The two have appeared in just 68 games together since 2010-11, according to NBA.com.

Before re-signing Rondo, before paying him anything at all, the Celtics must be sure what’s in place can work. And like Tom Ziller of SB Nation noted in February, they must be equally certain Rondo’s ready to see their experiment through:

The question is whether Ainge thinks he can pull off that switch quickly, and how much patience he thinks Rondo has left. Remember, Rondo is one of the smartest and most brusque players in the league. Observers might take that to mean that he’s an a–hole, but that’s uncharitable. He does not like wasting effort or a team, and he knows how NBA rosters work. I’m totally convinced that Rondo and Stevens are a good match and that they will get along. I’m not sure Rondo and a dilapidated roster will co-exist long before things get prickly.

Indeed, Rondo’s morale—however high it may or may not be in the interim—is a bigger concern than his health or production. He’s an emotional player with poignant opinions who isn’t afraid to voice concerns or displeasure. The Celtics know this. Co-owner Wyc Grousbeck openly admits it.

“He’s super stubborn,” Grousbeck said during an appearance on WBZ-TV’s Sports Final Overtime, per Boston.com’s Adam Kaufman. “I don’t know how coachable he really is.”

Grousbeck isn’t belly-aching or being malicious. He’s stating facts—truths the Celtics, if we’re to believe they really want Rondo back, are perfectly comfortable with.

At the same time, they have a future to worry about.

Stubborn players aren’t exactly a boon for business. Free agents won’t flock to Boston if Rondo’s perceived as uncontrollably bullheaded and incapable of playing nice with others.

Recruiting outside talent is hard enough. The Celtics aren’t known for staging free-agency coups as it is. Developing in-house talent is only one ingredient to their rebuild. They’ll need to attract players through various channels. It helps their cause if they’re building around a star others want to join.

And there’s no way of knowing right now if Rondo is that player. There’s no way of answering any of these questions.

Unless that changes between now and next summer, it will be difficult to see investing in Rondo as anything more than an expensive dice-roll.

 

Waiting for Clarity

Don’t bother searching for an easy solution to Boston’s Rondo conundrum. There isn’t one.

Keeping him has its burdens. Trading him has its disadvantages. Letting him walk for nothing in return next summer won’t make this situation any better.

Allowing next season to unfold should offer some valuable insight, but it’s just one year. Direction-shaping decisions drawn from small sample sizes of players leading lottery-doomed teams aren’t made without risk. 

For the Celtics, no matter what they decide, there is only this game of chance that, for better or worse, will come to define their rebuild.

 

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2015 Committed Recruits Who Would Be Starters for Their Future Teams This Season

College basketball teams are gearing up for the start of the 2014-15 season, and barring some strange late additions, they are stuck with the rosters they have at this point.

If only it were possible to get a few of the best recruits from the 2015 class to be eligible for this season.

Looking at the top prospects who have already committed for 2015-16, we’ve identified 20 who likely would be starters in college during what would actually be their senior years of high school. Either because their future team has a hole right now at that position, or because their talent far outweighs what is currently available, these are the guys who fans would love to see on the court sooner rather than later.

Players are listed alphabetically, rather than by recruiting ranking or importance to their team. And one player you will not see on this list is top overall prospect Ben Simmons, an LSU commit who happens to play the same position as the Tigers’ best returning player.

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Kobe Bryant Finds Inspiration to Change, Prepare for Future, in Tracy McGrady

LOS ANGELES — It happens all the time with all sorts of people. On occasion it can be as graphic as what has happened to Donald Sterling and Ray Rice with their livelihoods. At other times it happens gradually, when an athlete faces the march of time or the struggle to bounce back from the wear of thousands of games played at an elite level.   

Only when the enjoyment of something those in sports, or those in every walk of life, have grown accustomed to is taken away does the real cherishing and coveting sink in.   

Take Tracy McGrady, who popped back on the radar last month when he told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that McGrady, with an eye toward another run at the NBA, had been working out last month with Kobe Bryant.

It was difficult not to feel a little pity and sympathy for McGrady, 35. Poor T-Mac, desperate to take advantage of Kobe’s ongoing relevance. It’s a shame the guy can’t let go and keeps trying to recapture the past.

Inspiration can be found in McGrady’s determination, but it’s hard to take too seriously someone who earlier this year had dabbled in independent league baseball and was quoted there as saying: “It feels good to be celebrated again.”

Bryant and McGrady, preps-to-pros jumpers who joined the NBA a year apart, are longtime friends, so it’s not shocking to hear of them working out together. What Bryant might be able to get out of it, though, is what’s really interesting.

Bryant needs more work than usual this offseason, which is why, besides his usual early morning workouts at the Los Angeles Lakers‘ training facility in El Segundo, he has been hosting sessions near his Orange County home—some with Lakers teammates Jeremy Lin, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Ed Davis.

Bryant played only six games all last season between his Achilles and knee injuries, and although he is viewed as completely healthy now, he needs extra work.

But it’s not that simple.

In a broader sense, Bryant is very much determined not to become McGrady…or anything close to McGrady.

First of all, Bryant is resolute about maximizing and relishing the latter years of his career. Anything less would taint the bar he has set for himself so far.

McGrady doesn’t motivate Bryant, per se, yet his presence a year after retiring at age 34 can’t help remind what disappointment could await if Bryant doesn’t adhere to his same standards now that his body and game have changed.

Allow Bryant’s trusted longtime physical therapist Judy Seto to explain.

“What’s the secret? What’s the inside scoop?” Seto said. “It’s not something fancy. He works at it. He works at it consistently. He works at it religiously.

“Some people work hard because someone’s watching or someone’s pushing. His motivation isn’t someone else. It’s within him. It’s this internal drive that he has.

“And he’s smarter now. He’s not one to sugarcoat things. I think he has a very good handle on what his abilities are and what he’s able to accomplish and what he’s not. He realizes that there is a certain amount of mileage; he’s not the same person—no one is—from when he was 10 years ago.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t other attributes that he can’t tap in to. He’s got 10 more years of basketball knowledge and experience. His basketball IQ is 10 years better. He’s not saying, ‘This is all I can give. Oh, my gosh, I’m approaching the end! What will I do?’”

There is no doubt that McGrady failed to bring Bryant’s level of attentiveness, both mental and physical, to a career that infamously lacked postseason success and ended with him bouncing to five different NBA teams down his stretch, going to China and then missing a coattails ring in 2013 with the San Antonio Spurs.

McGrady didn’t score in a handful of playoff appearances as the Spurs fell just short against the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals series so close that McGrady could rightly imagine being a champion if he could have given the Spurs just a little help.

The Spurs redeemed that without him this year, while McGrady tried his hand at pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters, a team name straight out of a screenwriter’s imagination and a place close enough to McGrady’s former Rockets fans in Houston for the Skeeters to derive some publicity out of the stunt.

When McGrady retired from baseball right on the spot upon finally recording his first strikeout, the small-time sideshow could be summed up in the fact that the radio reporter who got the quotes about it was the father of the Little Leaguer who partnered with McGrady in a home-run derby competition that night.

One of those quotes, it’s worth noting, started this way: “Not having my basketball career end the way I wanted…”

So McGrady, more than a year younger than Bryant, is back entertaining thoughts of the one thing he has been able to trust in his life: playing basketball.

Which brings us to the second key point in comparing and contrasting Bryant and McGrady.

When it does end, Bryant will not live in or for the past.

He prides himself on having delivered a consistency that Michael Jordan and his two failed retirements never could, never needing or seeking any breaks. And even though it is a veritable certainty that Bryant’s obsession with competition will give him some trouble without that basketball fix, he’s not nearly as single-minded as is often portrayed.

Bryant has been plotting this out for years and years, determined to maintain his relevance in a real, different and earned way.

Now that the Kobe Inc., office building is a reality in Newport Beach and he has invested to own 10 percent of BodyArmor sports drink, the vision he has been reluctant to discuss sans any accomplishment is taking shape.

“There’s so much more to him than just being a basketball player,” Seto said. “He’s not the same person that he was when he entered the league. What people don’t realize about him is he’s already put in motion the things in his life that he wants to pursue and move into.

“It’s not like suddenly it’s over and then there’s nothing. He’s already made preparations for what he wants to do with his life. It’s a natural continuum.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve seen behind the curtain, but I already see that his life is just going to keep on going and evolving. He’s not going to go back and try to relive it.

“You’ve got to realize one thing: When basketball ends, his competitive drive doesn’t end. It’s just going to shift to other things. He’s competitive as a basketball player. He’s focused.

“Wait till you see him in the business world.”

 

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

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Milwaukee Bucks: The future is now with Parker and Antetokounmpo on board

Milwaukee Bucks fans should not just be excited that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are on the team now, but that they could stay on the team for a long time.
Milwaukee is not the most desirable city to play basketball, but Antetokounmpo and Parker have both expressed their feelings in sticking with the Bucks.
I’ll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship level team..
— GiannisAntetokounmpo (@G_ante34) July 17, 2014

In the world of sports today, it is common to see players of all caliber switching teams over the course of their careers. Antetokounmpo said that he will commit himself to improving the Bucks, which could certainly be a long and stressful process. This kind of commitment is not seen often in today’s sports, so having one of the Bucks’ young potential stars say this is a great thing for Bucks fans.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks had the 1st and 2nd picks respectively of the 2014 NBA draft. With the injury to Joel E

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Chicago Bulls, Jimmy Butler Facing Future Sooner Than You Think

Jimmy Butler’s future is arriving sooner than most of us are ready for. Next summer, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.

Butler came of age quickly with the Chicago Bulls. Thrust into a starting spot as a sophomore after Richard Hamilton’s repeat injuries in the 2012-13 season, he became a playoff-ready defensive warrior before our eyes, clocking memorable performances against Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among other.

Butler’s gritty style, cut from the blueprint of Tom Thibodeau’s league-influencing system, has since come to be a culture-defining presence for the Bulls and fans in Chicago. Averaging a whopping 38.7 minutes per game as the anchor to Thibodeau’s perimeter stronghold in 2013-14, Butler tied with Carmelo Anthony for most time per contest in all of the league. Butler won All-Defensive Second Team honors for the year. 

But while Butler’s defense and intangible hustle are unquestionable strengths, plenty of doubt remains about his abilities on offense. After shooting 38 percent on three-pointers in 2012-13, Butler dropped all the way down to 28 during his most recent campaign. From Kevin Ferrigan of CBS Sports:

That 356 attempt figure, as it turns out, is not a significant enough sample to tell us all that much about how good a shooter Butler really is. The 105 attempts he took in 2012-13, when he looked so good, is clearly an even smaller sample, and thus has even more potential to be the result of statistical noise. It turns out that to have a meaningful sense of how good a three point shooter a player truly is, you need to see at least 750 three point attempts from them, according to research done by Darryl Blackport of Nylon Calculus.

Three-point shooting isn’t the only factor that goes into measuring offensive worth, but it’s a huge one for Butler. The Bulls need crack shooters to put around Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, who are sure to be their top playmakers. Butler’s best chance at contributing is to hone his catch-and-shoot capacities, and there’s no jumper more important than the three.

If Butler hopes to get a lot more than the $3 million qualifying offer the Bulls will need in order to retain him next summer, he’ll have to do better than 28 percent from beyond the arc. It’s unlikely he’ll have many chances at creating shots for himself next to Rose, Noah and Gasol, so his ability to stretch the defense is paramount.

And while Butler is one of the top perimeter defenders in the game, he gets a lot less credit for that status under Thibodeau, who enhances every defender he’s handed. Outside of the coach’s steely, domineering system, it’s unclear whether Butler is as valuable.

In other words: Butler is worth more to the Bulls than he is to other teams. A classic “culture guy,” his continuity, familiarity and comfort with both the bodily and interpersonal standards of Thibodeau’s ever-intense locker room wouldn’t necessarily transfer over to other teams. But in Chicago, Butler is a pillar.

That’s why the most likely result is Butler and the Bulls’ front office working out a deal that behooves both sides. Like Tony Allen, the “Grindfather” defensive maniac who’s found a home and an indelible sense of identity with the Memphis Grizzlies, Butler has entrenched himself as a Bull in ways that extend well beyond the box score. And it’s been just as beneficial for him as it has for his team.

Whether Butler can collect more points and shoot his price up in 2015 remains a mystery. But, either way, it’d be surprising to see him leave Chicago.

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Pau Gasol ponders future with Spanish national team

Could Pau Gasol’s glory days with the Spanish nation team be in it’s final stages? The seven-footer seems to question his future with the team after their recent 65-52 loss to France basketball World Cup on Wednesday. Gasol isn’t getting any younger, and the time to bring in some new blood seems like it could be a real option, or at least that is the way Pau makes it sound. “You never know when it is your last game or your last tournament,” Gasol told reporters after the 65-52 loss. The 34-year old big man is entering his 14th season in the NBA. Gasol will suit-up for the Chicago Bulls this season, a change of scenery that seemed necessary after a second-consecutive losing season with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bulls will be Pau’s third team in the NBA, and will give the career 18.3 ppg forward a real chance at his third championship for his career. “I would like to play until I am 50 but I doubt I will. It is an honour to play for my country but you never know…We have great young players com

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Will Eric Bledsoe Contract Standoff Derail Phoenix Suns’ Bright Future?

It was supposed to be the easy part of Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough’s offseason.

Attracting premier talent, handling three first-round picks for a roster that doesn’t need to get any younger, that was the hard stuff. But sitting back and letting Eric Bledsoe‘s restricted free agency settle his present and his future? That should have been effortless executive work if there is such a thing.

Yet for all the items marked off McDonough’s summer to-do list—adding four players on draft night, landing Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver in free agency, keeping P.J. Tucker aroundBledsoe‘s box remains unchecked. With weeks left until the start of training camp, the Suns’ simplest summer task is still not completed.

The story hasn’t changed since the first sign of trouble.

ESPN The Magazine‘s Chris Broussard reported in July that a wide gap existed between the money Bledsoe wanted ($80 million for five years) and what the Suns were willing to offer ($48 million for four). Last month, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne wrote that Bledsoe was still seeking max money either from the Suns (five years, $85 million) or in a sign-and-trade (four years, $64 million).

Then again, it’s hard for the parties to make any type of progress when they aren’t even on speaking terms:

“Bledsoe has not spoken with Suns staff since the season ended,” wrote Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. “Talks with his representation have been limited and unproductive. He also has not signed another team’s offer sheet, which the Suns were expected to match to keep him if he did.”

Both sides have stubbornly refused to rework their numbers. And both are correct for acting as such.

Professional athletes have a finite earnings window. Bledsoe and his representatives can and should seek as much money as they can possibly get.

The Suns, meanwhile, have their own reasons for steadfastly refusing his requests.

“Taking the long view, Phoenix’s hardball approach to the Bledsoe negotiations makes perfect strategic sense,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan. “From its perspective, Bledsoe‘s stellar season was, at this point, less a bellwether than a promising outlier—a hint rather than a guarantor of things to come.”

Each camp has numbers supporting its view.

On Bledsoe‘s end, the number is nine, as in the amount of players other than Bledsoe to average at least 17 points, five assists and four rebounds last season. There are two notable numbers for the Suns: 78 (career starts) and two (surgeries to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee since 2011).

If the two came together on a surprise last-minute contract agreement, one side would need to risk something. Either Bledsoe would commit to a future where he could easily wind up outperforming his wages, or the Suns would bet the farm on a player with a limited track record and a troubling medical history.

At this stage of the game, reconnecting on his one-year, $3.7 million qualifying offer feels like the only logical ending still in play.

Except this wouldn’t be the end of the story. There’s still another chapter to be written, one sure to start on rough terrain given how poorly this process has played out.

The qualifying offer isn’t a one-year commitment so much as an eventual ticket out of town. Bledsoe‘s 2014-15 campaign will suddenly shift to a season-long tryout for the potential suitors with max money to spend next summer, coin that backcourt mate Goran Dragic could also collect once he declines his bargain $7.5 million player option for 2015-16.

Whatever money the Suns saved this summer, they’ll need to part with the next. That or risk watching both backcourt stars bolt and bring back nothing in return.

As ESPN.com’s Marc Stein explained, teams are ready to chase the Suns’ guards on the open market:

If Bledsoe elects to go the rare qualifying offer route, Phoenix would suddenly face the very real possibility of losing both of its two best assets without compensation in 2015 free agency. 

The Lakers, for example, are just one team league sources say would likely make a hard run at both of them, based on the premise that the Suns couldn’t afford the cost of paying both at that point, theoretically making either Bledsoe or Dragic gettable. Sources say that Houston, furthermore, has Dragic on its list of potential targets next summer given how he’s blossomed since leaving the Rockets for Phoenix in the free-agent summer of 2012. 

If Bledsoe signs the qualifier, furthermore, you can pretty much bank on him leaving Phoenix as soon as he gets the chance, because players don’t take that sort of gamble and then bury the bad feelings months later to re-sign with the incumbent team. And that would naturally increase Dragic‘s leverage in the process, because Phoenix simply couldn’t stomach losing its two most valuable players, who both happen to play what is routinely regarded as the most important position on the floor in the modern NBA.

That’s obviously a worst-case scenario, and the stat sheet captures what a crushing blow that would be.

Dragic (20.3 points per game) and Bledsoe (17.7) contributed more than 36 percent of the Suns’ nightly offense (105.2) off their scoring alone. The pair also dished out a combined 11.4 assists per game, nearly 60 percent of the team’s total distributing (19.1).

The Suns can credit the bulk of last season’s 48 wins to their efficient offense, and no players ignited this attack better than these two.

Losing both would be a deathblow in terms of what the Suns are aiming for now and what they’re trying to build down the road.

It’s also probably not going to happen. Dragic seems content to stick around in the desert, provided Phoenix ponies up the appropriate offer.

But that means he has a major contract to earn this season. Ditto for Bledsoe, even if his will likely come from outside. Thomas, now a member of coach Jeff Hornacek’s three-headed point guard monster, has 82 games to prove he can handle a starting role in the future as opposed to serving as a complementary spark plug.

Moving outside of the backcourt doesn’t quiet Phoenix’s free-agency questions.

Gerald Green is working on an expiring deal and could be looking to parlay another career year into a jackpot payday. The Morris twins (Markieff and Morris) are slated for restricted free agency next summer, their first chance to really strike it rich since they will no longer be bound by the rookie-contract scale.

A lot of players on this team have incentive to do well in 2014-15, but the motivation to succeed together will only be as strong as they allow it. There is a ton of money at stake, along with the chance there isn’t enough of it around to keep everyone happy.

The Suns’ chemistry, which looked spandex-tight last season, could be at risk if players let different priorities pull them in opposite directions.

Phoenix sounds confident that won’t happen. Or as confident as it can sound without its full array of talent on hand.

Thomas, the backcourt’s third wheel until proven otherwise, told Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy he’s ready to fit the puzzle however he’s needed:

People always ask me, ‘What’s going to happen with you, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic?’ At the end of the day I’m going to play, we’re going to play together, we’re going to have fun with it and we’re going to figure it out. I mean whatever happens, it’s for the best, and that’s how I’m going about it. We’re going to compete each and every day, we’re going to make each other better and we’re going to do what’s best for the team.

That sentiment sounds nice for now, but is it one shared by all his teammates? Is everyone willing to sacrifice in pursuit of a common goal with the knowledge it could impact their bottom line?

The Suns can only hope they are. Given the incredible depth of the Western Conference, the slightest bit of friction could sink this playoff ship before it ever sets sail.

Phoenix is likely looking at a future without one of its primary building blocks, but it needs that foundation to hold together for one more season.

Collective success may not impact every individual the same way, but a collapsed structure would help no one. Whether that message sticks will determine how bright the Suns’ present and future really are.


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

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Should LA Lakers Be Chasing Wins or the Future This Season?

The Los Angeles Lakers, as a franchise, are in a bit of precarious situation.

On one hand, the Lakers should be all-in on competing for the playoffs and giving Kobe Bryant the best possible chance at playoff success in the last few years of his career. He deserves as much.

On the other hand, the Lakers should be preparing for life after Kobe, and developing young players to better the future and make sure the franchise doesn’t tailspin like it did last year after losing Bryant for nearly the whole season.

That isn’t to say the two goals need to be mutually exclusive, but it puts new head coach Byron Scott in a somewhat difficult position. Should he siphon away minutes from rookie Julius Randle to play a veteran like Carlos Boozer? What’s the primary objective?

Here’s what Byron Scott told Mike Trudell at Lakers.com:

I know it’s going to be a tough road, but when I start training camp, the first thing I’m going to tell our guys is that our goal is to win the championship. I want them thinking that way from day one. People aren’t picking us to make the playoffs, sure, but that’s not how we’re going to approach it. We have to change the mindset. I know it may take a year or two, and I think Kobe knows that, but he already has that championship mindset. It’s not hard to convince him. Convincing everyone else is the biggest trick we have to do, but that’s how we have to do it.

As you can see, it’s not a black and white situation. The Lakers can play for the future without tanking. They can try and compete by playing young players. It’s a delicate balance, one that will require trust and patience from both Bryant and the rest of the front office.

One thing we know is certain: So long as Bryant is in a Lakers jersey, the Lakers are his team. Everything will run through him.

Here’s J.M. Poulard for Bleacher Report on how Scott’s hiring impacts that:

It’s probably safe to say the Lakers were already going to revolve around Kobe Bryant’s talents, but the hiring of Scott transformed whatever assumptions anyone might have had into fact.

If Scott implements the Princeton Offense, there might not be a team in the league capable of even slowing down Kobe…

Bryant will get the lion’s share of the load, which will give him an opportunity to put up numbers and make impact plays. Kobe should have one of the most efficient seasons of his career because he’ll be operating a little more off the ball, where he is devastatingly efficient.

Is it possible that Bryant has effectively rehabbed his Achilles and is in prime shape for one last run? Absolutely. There’s no underestimating or writing off a player of his caliber. If he’s the Kobe we know, the Lakers could sneak into the playoff picture.

While none of that seems likely, necessarily, you always have a puncher’s chance with Bryant, even in a stacked Western Conference. That’s part of the reason why the Lakers stayed somewhat in the middle this offseason. By re-signing players like Nick Young and Jordan Hill, the Lakers brought back established role players with clear-cut strengths and weaknesses. 

Still, the Lakers didn’t go out and blow all their future financial flexibility, either. Instead, they snatched up guys like Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer to fill roster spots for virtually nothing. This was some solid thrift shopping by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, especially given the circumstances.

The presence of guys like Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer and even Bryant himself doesn’t mean that the Lakers won’t find minutes and teaching experiences for the younger players on the roster.

Here’s what Carlos Boozer told Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles about Randle:

‘I think first you got to get in the league and see where you fit and find a niche for yourself,’ Boozer said. ‘I watched Randle a lot in college. He had a great, great college run. Great rebounder. Great scorer inside and polished. But sometimes you just have to be thrown in the fire and play. Ed Davis is extremely athletic. I played against him a few times throughout my career. And he’s a good rim protector. So I’m excited to be playing with him too.

‘But experience, sometimes you have to be out there. When you’re playing in the league a long time, this is my 13th season, I have little tidbits about different players that we’ll be competing against. I can help them with that. It will be fine. It will be a fun process.’

What’s important here is the attitude. If Bryant were surrounded by fresh faces without legitimate experience, perhaps there would be potential for everything to blow up. Having some veterans on the roster could level things out a bit and keep everyone a little more even-keeled.

Having veterans on the roster in important roles also gives Scott a chance to succeed, something you’d think the front office would want to do after signing him this offseason.

It’s obviously difficult to remain patient, given the time ticking on Bryant’s career and the anxiousness of fans for the Lakers to restore their image as one of the league’s best teams.

Kupchak and the Lakers are doing this the right way, though. The balance is key, and depending on the results of the season about midway through, Scott can shift to what’s more appropriate. If the Lakers are out of the race, then throw heavy minutes to guys like Randle and Jordan Clarkson.

Playing time doesn’t always equate to successful development for young players anyhow, and so it’s commendable that the Lakers would try and build a winning environment in the hopes that Bryant is recovered first and foremost.

Like most teams, the Lakers should start the season as eternal optimists and plan on being successful by trotting out the best lineup possible. If the season goes awry and it doesn’t work out, that’s when the shift in objective can take place. 

It only makes sense for a team led by Kobe Bryant to take a shot at winning big this season, no matter how improbable it may seem. 

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Time for Oklahoma City Thunder to Embrace Young Front Line of the Future

The time has come for the Oklahoma City Thunder to unleash their crop of young big men and put their aging veterans out to pasture. 

In Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Perry Jones III and rookie Mitch McGary, the Thunder have arguably the best collection of frontcourt talent in the league. The problem is the growth of most of that group is blocked by the presence of diminished veterans such as Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison

At one point in their careers, Perkins and Collison were serviceable role players. Perkins was once a solid defender in the post, but he has become more of a liability as the league has transitioned away from traditional centers.

Meanwhile, Collison will turn 34 years old in October. His days as a tenacious rebounder and occasional interior scoring option are coming to a close. Last season, the former Kansas star contributed 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 81 games. Someone like Jones or McGary could easily match those numbers in the 16.7 minutes Collison was logging each night. 

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has been stubborn to a fault, especially when it comes to lineup changes. During last year’s playoffs, it took him a while before he decided to take defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha out of the starting lineup and replace him with offensive spark plug Reggie Jackson. 

Brooks’ attachment to Perkins has been even more mind-boggling. While never much of a scorer, Perkins’ offensive numbers were his worst since the 2004-05 season. He averaged 3.4 points per game and shot a career-low 45.1 percent from the field. Perkins also faded on the boards, grabbing 4.9 rebounds per contest. 

Despite the lack of production, Brooks still thought it was a good idea to have the 29-year-old Perkins start 62 games in the regular season and all 19 playoff games. In both instances, he played 20 minutes per game. 

On the flip side, Adams played 14.8 minutes a game in the regular season, and his numbers were comparable to Perkins’ (3.3 points, 4.1 rebounds). Unlike Perkins, though, Adams turned it up in the postseason. He averaged 3.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18.4 minutes (as opposed to Perkins’ 3.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in 20.3 minutes). 

In his exit interview following the Thunder’s elimination at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Brooks said that “positions are available” this upcoming season. He also said that he wouldn’t let outside criticism dictate how he’ll coach, per ESPN.com’s Royce Young

I don’t listen to ‘they.’ I always focus on what I do and try and do it to the best ability I can. I’m not looking from nobody other than doing my job and living with the results. I love what I do, and I love the team I’m with. I know I have to get better and I know the team has to get better,” Brooks said. 

While Brooks’ ability to tune out the naysayers is admirable, his reluctance to change could lead to his upheaval. Brooks will be entering his seventh season as the Thunder head coach. He’s won Coach of the Year honors (2010) and helped lead Oklahoma City to an NBA Finals appearance (2012).

However, despite having the league’s best one-two punch in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Brooks hasn’t been able to bring a championship to Oklahoma City. While the team’s failure to win a title doesn’t fall solely on Brooks or his reliance on guys like Perkins and Collison, his decision-making deserves a fair share of the blame. 

That all becomes moot if Brooks embraces the youth movement this season. The team already has a star on the front line in Ibaka. The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 this month) seems to get better every year. Last season, he averaged career highs in points (15.1) and rebounds (8.8) per game.

While he’s not exactly Kevin Love from the perimeter, Ibaka has started to come along as a three-point shooter, as well. He shot a career-high 38.3 percent from behind the arc last year. Ibaka initially came on the scene as a shot-blocker, leading the league in swats twice and earning All-Defensive First Team nods three times.

Now, with his offensive game evolving, Ibaka has become more well-rounded and gives the Thunder a legit third scoring option. With Ibaka now established, the next Thunder breakout star should be Adams, the second-year man out of Pittsburgh (by way of New Zealand).

Adams was a raw prospect when Oklahoma City drafted him with the No. 12 overall pick in last year’s draft (acquired from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade). However, the 21-year-old was able to contribute sooner than expected and showed flashes of being a solid starting center. 

The highlight of Adams’ rookie campaign came in the Thunder’s series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Clippers. The big man played 40 minutes, finishing with 10 points, 11 boards and a block. That game was Exhibit A in the case to make Adams the starter over Perkins. 

Adams still has a long way to go, obviously. Offensively, he’s still a work in progress, as even he admitted to The Oklahoman‘s Darnell Mayberry in a recent interview:

I’ve definitely seen improvements now from summer league. But there’s still a long way to go. I’m on the right track, though, I guess you could say that. But as I’ve said before, it’s still a part of what I’m learning. They’re still developing it [his offensive game].” Adams said.

Even if Adams’ contributions this season come mostly on defense, he’s still a better play at center than Perkins. He’s a superior athlete with good strength and quickness. He has a 7’5″ wingspan and has already flashed the capability to be a shot-blocking presence inside. 

With Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka already in the starting rotation, the Thunder don’t need Adams to contribute much offensively. He can spend this season continuing to get adjusted to the pro game and learning from the guys around him. 

There will still be occasional moments where he puts it all together, which is more than we can say for Perkins at this point. The upside to putting Adams in the starting lineup clearly outweighs any potential downside that would stem from his lack of experience. 

Lastly, there’s McGary and Jones. Jones has been woefully underutilized since being selected with the No. 28 overall pick in 2012. The former Baylor standout has averaged just 10.5 minutes per game during his first two seasons in the league. 

Jones’ skill set is different from the other members of Oklahoma City’s future frontcourt. At 6’11 and 235 pounds, he has the size to play power forward, but he has the outside jumper to play the 3 as well. During his time in the Orlando Summer League, Jones went 9-for-19 from three (47.4 percent). 

With the Thunder in need of depth and scoring on the second unit, it seems only right that Jones gets an extended look. His versatility on the offensive end could come in handy, and he has the length to contribute defensively. All he needs is the opportunity. 

As for McGary, one of his main obstacles will be maturity. The Michigan man declared for this year’s draft after the NCAA was preparing to suspend him for the entire season after testing positive for marijuana (per Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel)

In McGary‘s defense, he’s handled the situation well. After being drafted by the Thunder with the No. 21 overall pick this past June, he seemed somewhat contrite in his interview with Vice Sports.

“I get people on Twitter and Instagram still commenting and stuff saying, ‘Oh, You did drugs,’” McGary said. “Well, you know what? I did. Whatever. So what? I learned from it.” 

The other issue for the 22-year-old big man will be health. A back injury kept him out for all but eight games during his sophomore season with the Wolverines. He managed to put together a solid showing in Orlando during the summer league, averaging 14.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. 

Provided his health isn’t an issue, McGary could be a decent contributor as a rookie. He’s similar to Collison in the sense that he’s a limited athlete who plays with a lot of energy. He can be a factor on the boards and could offer something on the defensive end as well. 

He’ll probably never be a star, but he could eventually inherit Collison‘s role as the second unit’s frontcourt linchpin. 

Perkins and Collison will make a combined $11.35 million this season (per Spotrac). Both are in the final year of their contracts, and neither has much trade value. Perkins could be an interesting trade target for a team wanting a decent post defender, while Collison‘s $2.2 million salary makes it justifiable to leave him at the end of the bench. 

The Thunder will never know what they have in their young players if they don’t give them the opportunity to show what they can do. Even in a deep Western Conference, the tandem of Durant and Westbrook should be good enough to make up for any growing pains and still make the playoffs. 

The team has tried to get by with guys like Perkins and Collison for years. It hasn’t worked out. With Brooks’ job potentially on the line, the future is now. It’s time to throw caution to the wind and see what guys like Jones, Adams and McGary can do.

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