NBA

Knicks Finishing Deal with Thibs to Return to MSG as Head Coach

By Scott Mandel

The New York Knickerbockers, a discombobulated, mostly losing franchise since the Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy era 20 years ago, are finalizing a five-year deal to make Tom Thibodeau the franchise’s next head coach, according to ESPN.

Knicks president Leon Rose and agent Spencer Breecker of CAA Sports were working Saturday to complete contractual terms and a signed agreement is expected in the near future, sources said.

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Rose and executive VP William Wesley are completing a two-month search process with the candidate, Thibodeau, long expected to emerge with the job. Together, they’ll be tasked with the daunting challenge of restoring a forlorn franchise to NBA relevance.

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New York is counting on Thibodeau’s history in player development as a head coach and assistant to put into place a program that’ll restore a competitive infrastructure with the Knicks. For now, Rose and Thibodeau inherit a roster that needs dramatic upgrades before a return to the playoffs is even a realistic aspiration.

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New York was 21-45 this season, missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

Thibodeau is 11th all-time in winning percentage for coaches with 500 or more games. He has a 352-246 (.589) record in eight seasons with Chicago and Minnesota.

Thibodeau, 62, comes to the Knicks after a tumultuous two-plus seasons with the Timberwolves that included the franchise’s first playoff berth in 14 years — and an unraveling centered around All-Star Jimmy Butler‘s trade demand that led to Thibodeau’s dismissal as president and coach in 2019.

Thibodeau had five playoff seasons with the Bulls, including a trip to the Eastern Conference finals and an NBA coach of the year award in 2010. A series of injuries to MVP Derrick Rose played a role in derailing the Bulls’ championships aspirations.

Thibodeau was a Knicks assistant under Jeff Van Gundy from 1996 to 2004, and has long desired to return to New York as a head coach. He’s a native of nearby New Britain, Connecticut.

Brooklyn Talents, Isaiah Whitehead and Shomarie Ponds Released By Pro Teams Without Reasons Offered. We’re On It. (Update on Whitehead)

By Scott Mandel

Two Brooklyn basketball stars, Isaiah Whitehead from Lincoln HS and Seton Hall and Shomarie Ponds from Jefferson HS and St. Johns, have been released by their respective teams.

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Whitehead played well his rookie season for Brooklyn Nets. Now, he is out of basketball

Whitehead had been playing in Russia, averaging about 13 ppg. and Ponds had been on a two-way contract with the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors have not released any reason for ending Ponds’ contract.

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Ponds was released by Raptors, with no reason given

Talented kids. Something doesn’t make sense, in both cases.

Update on Isaiah Whitehead’s career:

Montenegro and Mornar Bar are up next for Seton Hall alumni, Isaiah Whitehead.

Mornar Bar inked Isaiah Whitehead to a contract up to the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, the Montenegrin club announced on Saturday.

The 24-year-old American guard holds European experience through the VTB United League. Previously played in 89 NBA matches with the Brooklyn Nets.

Whitehead was picked 42nd in the 2016 NBA draft out of Seton Hall. A couple of years later made the jump to Europe for Lokomotiv Kuban and tipped off his current campaign with Astana. He averaged 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per appearance through five VTB contests.

His new team has a couple of Basketball Champions League games left, before turning full focus to its ABA League run. Already out of contention in BCL, Mihailo Pavicevic’s squad is currently 9-7 in ABA, good enough for fifth place.TAGS ABABasketball Champions LeagueBCL

Mandel’s Musings: Knicks “Interim” Coach, Mike Miller Has Similar Qualities to Another Interim Hire – Red Holzman

By Scott Mandel

The Knicks put up 77 points in the first half against the Hawks, last night at Madison Square Garden. Then, they proceeded to add another 66 points in the second half, completing a 143-120 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks, another struggling NBA team.

The win brought the Knicks’ record under their interim coach, Mike Miller, to 3-3, which includes four west coast road contests. The previous coach, David Fizdale, had compiled a record of 4-18 before he was fired.

I’m not about to compare this new coach, Miller, to the legendary Red Holzman, the former Knicks head coach when the franchise won its only NBA championships in 1969-70 and 1972-73 but he seems to share a lot of the same personality traits and coaching sensibilities the self-effacing, camera-shy Holzman used to impart to his players.

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Interim Knicks coach, Mike Miller, may lose his interim title if team continues to progress

Holzman, an organizational scout who preferred to work behind the scenes in his scouting capacity, was brought in on an interim basis to replace Dick McGuire as Knicks coach in 1967. The Knicks were a putrid team going nowhere in those days but they did have a handful of talented parts on their roster. Today’s version of this franchise has continued a 20-year year run of mostly pitiful basketball, pitiful scouting, pitiful drafting, and pitiful coaching.

In both instances, there was no clamor from legitimate, high profile coaches to become the head coach of a franchise on its way to nowhere, either in 1967 or today. Even Steve Kerr, with no head coaching experience in 2013, turned down the Knicks. Whatever happened to him?

Both Holzman and Miller were organizational men who did what they were asked, which was to finish out the current season and try to get the team back on a path of respectability while a new coaching search began. Holzman did more than that, and has a bust in the NBA Hall of Fame to prove it. So far, Miller is 3-3. Both are superb accomplishments, given certain realities of the organizational history and the rosters they inherited.

At 4-18, it was time to say goodbye to David Fizdale. Enter organization man, Miller, a 55-year old basketball lifer who, like Holzman, worked the back roads of the basketball universe, far from the bright lights of Broadway, before being asked to take over a broken franchise. Miller became something of a last resort.

Like Holzman did, in 1967.

Back then, the team president, Ned Irish, decided to replace McGuire, who, like Fizdale, looked beaten and couldn’t wait to find the exit door. The team was in last place, and Irish decided to reach out to the nearest candidate, which he presumed to be Holzman. Holzman preferred the anonymity of scouting.

But Irish persisted.

”And I realized that if I didn’t take the coaching job,” Holzman, modest as always, said, ”I might not have any job.”

Miller, too, is one of those self-effacing types who doesn’t seek out television cameras or a high profile. He doesn’t make himself the story. Like Holzman, he’s a teacher, first, a disciplinarian, a basketball lifer, an old-school guy who focuses on the fundamentals of the game. Nothing fancy about the suits he wears or about the way he approaches the game.

Like Holzman.

Bill Bradley, who played for Holtzman from 1967 through 1977, once told me Holzman often solicited the players’ opinions on what they thought would work in a given game. The mutual respect sometimes made the process a collaborative one for those great Knicks teams. Of course, Holzman had the benefit of collaborating with basketball geniuses with very high hoops IQs. Bradley, DeBusshere, Frazier, Reed, Barnett, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Monroe. There wasn’t a Dennis Smith or a Julius Randle among them.

But, if last night’s game is any indication, we watched the youngsters on the Knicks, guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox, cutting hard to the hoop off of pick and rolls for easy buckets or finding cutting teammates with slick, but basic passes for easy baskets. Fundamental basketball.

Like Holzman.

And, a quick history lesson. Those terrible 1967 Knicks made the playoffs in the season in which Holzman took over the club. He agreed to stay on as coach. In December of the next season, the team traded for DeBusschere, giving the Knicks a tremendous force around the basket, as a defensive forward and long-range shooter. It was the piece that made the difference and made Holzman a legendary figure in NBA history who never took credit for his success. It was always about the players.

This guy, Miller, a quiet, middle-aged, balding basketball lifer with the interim title seems like an odd fit for this young, hip-hop 2019 team. But, something here is clicking. Any coach who can convince freakishly athletic talents with low understandings of team basketball like Dennis Smith and Julius Randle to play more controlled and within team-oriented concepts on both sides of the floor has somehow figured out how to communicate with this younger generation, despite the 30+ years in age difference with this roster.

Just like Holzman.

NBA preview: LeBron and AD are Lakers’ perfect power couple

by Scott Mandel

It is indisputable that some of the elite duos in NBA history ruled while playing for the Lakers. And, how many sports franchises’ can say their best players all became icons known by their first names like Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Elgin, Kobe (or Mamba), Wilt, and, The Logo (aka Jerry West)?

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor reigned during the 1960s and into the early 1970s, the two of them the force that propelled the Lakers to seven appearances in the NBA Finals. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were a supreme pair that won five championships together beginning in 1979. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant wreaked havoc from 1996 to 2004, dominating along the way to three consecutive championships from 2000-2002.

Now the Lakers have another electric combination in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, performers many see as having the potential to go down in Lakers and NBA lore as another special twosome.

“The Lakers have had these incredible duos and the Lakers have been successful because of that,” Johnson said. “You can’t have one. You always got to have two. Any time we’ve had two, it has spelled championships, you know?

“The thing about it is it’s always a guard and big man. It’s always a guy that handles the ball and always a dominant player inside. I think that these two, LeBron and AD, have their opportunity of making Lakers history along with the other three pair of us that won.”

West was an all-encompassing guard and Baylor a smooth-gliding forward. Abdul-Jabbar had the most unstoppable shot in history with his sky hook and Johnson was a magician as the point guard. Bryant was unyielding as a shooting guard and O’Neal was a power down low.

Now, James remains a do-everything forward who may be the starting point guard this season and Davis is a 6-foot-10 forward who is able to play inside and out.

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Golden State coach Steve Kerr grew up in Los Angeles as a Lakers fan and knows “the glitz and glamor” the Lakers brought to the game.

“You could see a big part of what the Lakers were trying to do was putting the stars together. Not that that was a novel concept, but most teams and most cities just couldn’t do that. It was just hard to do,” Kerr said. “But [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss was good at it and he found a way to keep doing it. So this makes sense, right? It’s a continuation of the blueprint and it’s such fondness to look at it from a historical standpoint but not so much fun to look at from a coaching standpoint of having to play against them.”

James, 34, is coming off his first season with the Lakers in which he played only 55 games because of a left groin injury and then stopped playing after they were eliminated from the playoffs.

But he still played at a high level, averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. He has become an iconic figure in the NBA by being a 15-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion, four-time MVP, 15-time All-NBA and three-time Finals MVP. James is 100 points (32,543) behind Bryant (32,643) for third place on the league’s all-time scoring list and 304 assists (8,662) behind Gary Payton (8,966) for ninth place on the all-time assists list.

Davis, 26, played in only 56 games last season with the New Orleans Pelicans because of injuries and eventually stopped playing toward the end of the season following a trade request.

Kyle Kuzma prepares to take a shot against the Nuggets during a game last season.

He was still a tower of strength, averaging 25.9 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He is a six-time All-Star, with three selections to the All-NBA team.

Davis sprained his right thumb during a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday in Shenzhen, China.

“I think it will work seamlessly with LeBron and AD because it’s a true inside-out or true perimeter guy and a big man that has perimeter skills and versatility,” said Mark Jackson, a former NBA star and coach who is now an analyst for ESPN.

“They are two incredible basketball players and I think they will work seamlessly. I think the thing will be who plays around them. But I don’t think it’ll be an issue because they are two great basketball players who have been great from Day 1.”

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SportsReporters’ 2019-20 NBA Previews: Los Angeles Clippers (or, are you kidding me with this talent pool?)

by Scott Mandel

Today, we’re looking at the LA Clippers.

2018-19 season record

48-34 (8th in the Western Conference)

Projected 2019-20 season record

55-27 (tied for 1st in the Western Conference)

Notable additions

Kawhi Leonard (free agency)

Paul George (trade)

Maurice Harkless (trade)

Patrick Patterson (free agency)

Mfiondu Kabengele (draft)

Notable departures

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (trade)

Danilo Gallinari (trade)

Wilson Chandler (free agency)

Depth chart

Starter2nd3rd4th
PGPatrick BeverleyLou Williams
SGPaul George*Landry ShametJerome Robinson
SFKawhi LeonardMaurice HarklessRodney McGruderTerance Mann
PFJaMychal GreenPatrick PattersonMfiondu Kabengele
CIvica ZubacMontrezl Harrell

George is hoping to return “November-ish” from offseason shoulder surgeries

3 key storylines

What will Kawhi Leonard do for an encore?

Leonard is coming off of the best season of his career. While he missed more than a quarter of the regular season, mostly due to load management, he had a historic postseason that culminated in the Toronto Raptors winning their first-ever championship.

Leonard has since seen his stock go through the roof, with our NBA.com Staff ranking him as the best player in the league entering the 2019-20 season.

With that comes high expectations. Not only are the Clippers expected to finish with the best record in the Western Conference next season, they enter the season with the second-best odds to win the title.

For the Clippers to live up to that hype and potentially win their first championship in franchise history, they’ll need Leonard to be every bit as good as he was last season.

There’s some history on the line for Leonard as well. If he adds another Finals MVP to his trophy case, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to win the award on three different teams.

When will Paul George return?

And more importantly, what will Paul George look like when he does?

Like Leonard, George is coming off of the best season of his career. In averaging 28.0 points per game and leading the league with 2.2 steals per game, he received the third-most votes for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

George didn’t finish the season on a particularly strong note, though. Due in large part to a shoulder injury, he saw his production decline in the final 18 games of the regular season. He then struggled with consistency in Oklahoma City’s first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs, combining for 19-for-61 shooting (31.1 percent) in three of the five games.

George has since undergone surgery on both of his shoulders and is expected to miss the start of the season, eyeing a “November-ish” return.

Having parted ways with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and a boatload of draft picks to acquire him, the Clippers are betting big on George being more like the player he was in the first half of last season when he does return. If he can, the Clippers could very well have the best duo in the league in George and Leonard. They might even have the league’s best defensive duo since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

The center position

If there’s one position the Clippers are lacking depth heading into the season, it’s centre.

They have two viable options in Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell, but it remains to be seen if they can handle their own against the league’s best centres. Zubac played well after the Clippers acquired him last season, but he’s both young and inexperienced. Harrell, meanwhile, was a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year last season but he’s undersized at 6-foot-8, making it tough to matchup with the likes of Joel EmbiidNikola Jokic and Anthony Davis – three players the Clippers could very well face in the playoffs.

The Clippers appeared to have Joakim Noah in mind for their final roster spot, but Sean Deveney of Heavy reported that his workout with the team ahead of the season was postponed. If Noah doesn’t end up being the answer, their best options on the free agent market are Amir Johnson, Marcin Gortat and Salah Mejri.

The Clippers could otherwise look to make a trade at some point of the season or wait to see if anyone gets bought out. They’d certainly be able to make a compelling case to any free agent, offering both minutes and an opportunity to compete for a title.

SportsReporters’ 2019-2020 NBA Previews: Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2019-20 NBA season with very different expectations than they did a season ago. Lots of teams enter training camp talking about culture and/or how they’re being overlooked. Well, the Nets were one of the few teams that were right in 2018-19. They entered last season having won only 28 games the season prior and ended the season with 42 wins and a playoff berth.

The Nets swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving, they return a fully healthy Caris LeVert and they still have Kevin Durant to look forward to in 2020-21. Further, they fleshed out their depth at the center position and swapped out Allen Crabbe for Taureen Prince. Long story short, the Nets are ready for the national spotlight. Now they’ll have to live up to the hype instead of playing above expectations.

You have to give coach Kenny Atkinson, a local guy from Long Island who played point guard at the University of Richmond, credit. He’s changed the culture of this moribund organization know mostly for its losing ways. The Nets became contenders quickly – going from the laughing stock of the league to the envy of it in about two years. Even with Durant missing most – or probably all – of 2019-20, the Nets will still boast top-10 talent.

They’ll be fun this season and if Durant returns to form in 2020-21, look out. The one caveat for 2019-20 is if Kyrie can put his ego aside and be the Nets on-the-court leader. He struggled to do so in Boston. But last year was a learning opportunity and Irving should be better prepared to be a team-centric leader with the Nets this year.

Sean Marks, their general manager who learned how to construct an NBA team from the geniuses in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich and the general manager, R.C. Buford, inherited a mess of a team when he took over in the front office, and he’s done a remarkable job of cleaning it all up and putting a real contender together. Brooklyn has become a destination for marquee players and that was evident this past summer. Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler were solid pickups. Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs were spot on draft picks. It will be huge if this team can manage to win a playoff series while Durant recovers.

Key Players:

Jarrod Allen

A major knock on Jarrod Allen was on full display in the postseason last year against Joel Embiid and Philadelphia. Embiid made a habit of bullying Allen in the post, and Allen simply couldn’t hold his ground. But according to Nets Daily, Allen added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, which will come in handy when battling bigger and more physical opponents – and which could help separate him and other above-average rim protectors as early as this season.

Top Playmaker: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie attacks the basket with supreme confidence – he averaged a career high 6.6 points in the paint in 2018-19. But he can also dish the rock, too. He averaged 6.6 assists per game in 2017-18 and 4.6 in 2018-19.

He’ll probably play alongside Irving a bit but since the Nets lack true point guards, he’ll also almost certainly rack up minutes as the lead guard for the Nets’ second unit, allowing him to demonstrate his ability to create for others.

If Dinwiddie can shore up the second unit, the Nets will – once again – boast two top-tier point guards. And the drop off from Irving to Dinwiddie might be the smallest across the entire league as far as starting and backup point guards is concerned, which is a huge buoy to a team’s offensive continuity.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Harris

Joe Harris gained national attention in the last year or so, thanks entirely to his shooting ability. Harris is definitely more than just a shooter, but he is also a certifiable assassin from long-range. He shot 45.9 percent from three-point range last season and ran around screens at an elite level – according NBA.com, Harris ranked 5th in the league in average speed on offense at 5.17 mph. He also shot 47.9 percent on 4.2 attempted catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game.

Also, his time with Team USA this summer should only improve his game and work ethic, having been exposed to superstars and their processes, including Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.

Harris’ unassuming approach and demeanor also make him a perfect fit with other similar-minded Nets like Jarrett Allen. And having a team-first shooter like Harris is a must for teams hoping to compete for a championship (e.g., Kyle Korver).

The Unheralded Player: Caris LeVert

It might be a stretch to call LeVert unheralded, but the presence of guys like Irving and (eventually) Durant will allow him to fly under the radar, even after a quasi-breakout year last season.

Fresh off of a three-year extension with the Nets, LeVert can now put financial distractions aside and focus exclusively on his game – not that that’s been an issue. He looked primed for an All-Star selection through the first few weeks of last season, but an ankle injury derailed his year and cost him more than 30 games.

A healthy LeVert will benefit from the increased offensive threat that is Kyrie Irving. He is an ideal third option alongside Irving and Durant come 2020. But LeVert will happily develop his game as the second option this season next to Irving – and the Nets could find themselves contending for an NBA title if LeVert takes his game to the next level.

Best New Addition: Kevin Durant

As much as Durant doesn’t affect the on-the-court product this season, building a dynasty is about much more than one year. Durant’s addition truly validates the Nets ascension. They have completely arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Irving was a great addition and boasting a strong core and excellent coaching staff is equally important, but adding a top-three active player moves the needle in the NBA like few other things can. Durant has the luxury of being patient with his rehab and recovery. While rumors already began to circulate about Durant’s return thanks to video of him walking without crutches in Los Angeles this summer, it’s more likely than not that Durant takes his time and returns at the start of the 2020-21 season. And the Nets should do everything in their power to ensure that is the case – unless his recovery is so far ahead of schedule that the team and every expert available all agree that he there is no doubt he is back to 100%.

2. DeAndre Jordan

As much as Allen is the Nets’ defensive anchor, he struggled defending Embiid in the playoffs (as stated above). Jordan’s game is very similar to Allen’s, only he is 10 years older and approximately 30 additional pounds heavier. Having two starting-caliber centers who can’t share the floor with one another – neither of them can stretch the floor – might be unusual for the modern NBA, but it also guarantees that they’ll always have a shot blocker and rim runner available. Signing Jordan to a four-year deal with no team options was curious, but he’s obviously a good addition.

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Kyrie Irving play nice with others?

It’s hard to say so with certainty. His recent past doesn’t speak highly of his ability to do so. He abruptly asked for a trade from Cleveland, and then he wore out his welcome in Boston thanks to an allegedly holier-than-thou attitude.

But Brooklyn might be different. After all, he likely won’t have to endure any prolonged periods of subpar play, which could change his thinking on things – and that probably won’t happen given the level Coach Atkinson had his team operating at last year.

And further, Irving had selected Brooklyn as his destination of choice. While he requested out of Cleveland, Boston was not on his short list of preferred teams. We haven’t seen a prime, locked-in Irving since the 2016 NBA Finals. His recent experiences will serve him well in his dealings with Durant, LeVert and his other teammates.

Additionally, Irving’s played for some accomplished coaches – but none as universally loved by their teams as Coach Atkinson is in Brooklyn. And because of that, Atkinson can get even more out of Irving than did Mike Brown, David Blatt, Ty Lue or Brad Stevens.

So if Irving is willing to be a big brother to his teammates and help lead the way, he’ll have the requisite support of his coaches – and that could result in the 2019-20 version of Irving being the best we’ve seen yet.

SportsReporters Will Preview the Upcoming 2019-2020 NBA Season: Houston Rockets (with Westbrook, Harden and Just One Basketball)

by Scott Mandel

The Rockets made a bold decision this offseason in trading Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.

Coming off a season in which he averaged 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 rebounds per game, Westbrook is still very much one of the best players in the league. Perhaps more importantly to the Rockets, he’s both better and more durable than Chris Paul is at this stage of his career. Paul almost helped the Rockets make the NBA Finals in 2017-18, but he had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2018-19 – a worrying sign for an undersized point guard entering his mid-30s.

However, Westbrook is neither the shooter nor defender that Paul is, the combination of which complicates his fit next to James Harden, the league’s leader in usage and shot attempts last season.

James Harden will have to learn to share the ball with Russell Westbrook

With four years and around $170 million remaining on Westbrook’s contract, the Rockets are betting big on him and Harden being the duo that can lead them to a championship in what should be a wide open Western Conference. If they can’t, Westbrook’s contract will make it difficult for the Rockets to flip him for someone who better complements Harden while he’s still in the prime of his Hall of Fame career.

Does Eric Gordon have another gear?

Other than Westbrook, the biggest move the Rockets made this offseason was signing Eric Gordon to a four-year, $75.6 million extension.

Gordon has been a huge part of Houston’s success in each of the last three seasons. He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in his first season with the franchise and finished second behind LA Clippers guard Lou Williams for the award in 2017-18. He then started in 53 of the 68 games he appeared in last season, posting averages of 16.2 points per game on 36.0 percent shooting from 3-point range.

The Rockets are going to need Gordon to continue providing a scoring punch. According to The Athletic’s Alykhan Bijani, the 30-year-old will see a lot of his minutes alongside Westbrook against second units next season, making him the secondary scorer in those situations. He’s also “very likely” to start alongside Harden and Westbrook in the backcourt, a team source told Bijani, which will require him to be a more consistent 3-point shooter than he was at times last season.

Gordon is well aware of how valuable he is to the Rockets, telling Jenny Dial Creech of The Houston Chronicle that he has a lot to give and that he feels as though he’s going into the prime of his career. If the latter is true, it will go a long way in helping the Rockets overcome their demons in the playoffs.

Mike D’Antoni’s future

Having not come to terms on an extension this offseason, head coach Mike D’Antoni is entering the final season of his existing contract with the Rockets, which begs the question of whether or not 2019-20 will be his last in Houston.

Based on what Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had to say when he was on ESPN’s First Take this offseason, it appears as though how far D’Antoni can coach Houston this season will determine his future with the franchise.

“Mike D’Antoni is a great coach and he fits our team,” he said. “Let’s not talk situational: I think that we’re going to have a great year, and Mike and I are going to sit down – I think Mike D’Antoni will be the coach this year, next year and probably the year after that. But we need to be successful too. I think we will be and I don’t even think it’ll be an issue.”

Beyond having to find a way to get the most out of the Westbrook and Harden duo, D’Antoni has a new coaching staff to work with after a number of assistant coaches were let go this summer, including Jeff Bzdelik, a well-known defensive guru who came out of retirement last season to re-join the Rockets.

In his three seasons as head coach of the Rockets, the team has compiled a 173-73 regular season record and a 23-16 postseason record. They made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2017-18 and the Western Conference Semifinals in both 2016-17 and 2018-19.

NBA Legend Lance Stephenson Taking his Talents to China

by Scott Mandel

Old buddy, Lance Stephenson, the Coney Island, Brooklyn kid who made it to the NBA and became better known for his on-court antics than his sometimes superb basketball talents, is about to sign a contract to play in China next season.

According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Stephenson agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association.

“Born Ready,” as he was called when he was 14-years old, and dominating the blacktop playgrounds of New York City against much older players, found his market in the NBA had apparently dried up at age 29. He was unable to get an offer for this upcoming season after the Lakers, his last employer, did not extend the one-year deal he signed with them last year.

His career should have been more productive than it turned out. His talent level, on both sides of the ball, was considered by many to reside in the elite section of the NBA. But, some combination of career-long immaturity, entitlement, cockiness, and corniness mitigated his talent, in the eyes of many NBA executives.

He was a constant triple-double threat during the 2013-14 campaign and averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. However, he has been a journeyman since and played for the Charlotte HornetsLos Angeles ClippersMemphis GrizzliesNew Orleans PelicansMinnesota Timberwolves, Pacers again and Lakers over the last five seasons. He suited up for three different teams in 2016-17 alone.

Stephenson shot 37.1 percent from deep in 2018-19 on his way to averaging 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

When he was a young player with the Indiana Pacers, just two years out of high school back in 2011-12, his cockiness and physical style of play during Pacer practice sessions rubbed some of the veteran players, like Dahntay Jones, the wrong way.

In the locker room after one such competitive practice, Jones started a fight with Stephenson, which was soon broken up. Upon hearing of the altercation, Pacers President Larry Bird came down to the locker room.

According to a highly reliable source who was in that room, Bird read the team the riot act. He told those players, which included Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and David West,

“Lay off the kid. He’s possibly the most talented player in this room and you need to encourage him to mature and to get better. He makes us a better team.”

Less than a month after that 2012 season ended, Bird traded Dahntay Jones to the Dallas Mavericks and handed Jones’ job, playing the wing from the big guard or small forward position, to Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson would go on to become a key part of the Pacers teams of that era, leading the league in triple doubles in 2013-14. He was just 22 years old that season and his future as an NBA star seemed in place. He, along with George led the Pacers to memorable Eastern Conference finals against the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat, in 2013 and 2014, each series concluding with a game seven.

Stephenson was on his way, or so it seemed.

With an expiring contract in 2014, Stephenson, flourishing in Indiana, was expecting a financial reward commensurate with his exciting play for the Pacers. Instead, they underwhelmed him, leading to his acceptance of a three-year, $29 million deal from the Charlotte Hornets.

It started a league-wide sojourn for Born Ready that took him to six more teams, all with different styles and coaches. Stephenson found out he didn’t easily fit into the roles each coach wanted from him.

H is now at a basketball crossroads, which will be leading to the same country fellow Lincoln High School stars, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, were forced to explore. Marbury, who had worn out his welcome in the NBA at age 30, became a national legend in China, on a par with Yao Ming. A statue was built in Marbury’s likeness in Beijing, where he led that team to two consecutive CBA championships.

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The infamous blow in the air moment during the Pacers-Heat 2014 Eastern Conference finals

Telfair used the Chinese Basketball Association as a launching point to get back into the NBA. He averaged 25 points per game overseas and the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him to a series of 10-day contracts though he wasn’t able to parlay that into a long-term commitment from the NBA.

Stephenson is hoping to play well in China, and upon the end of the CBA season in February, 2020, come back to the states to help an NBA team make the playoffs.

Liaoning Province in China is in the northeast sector of the country, bordering North Korea. The NBA already has one of its old stars, Dennis Rodman, who pals around with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un. It wouldn’t shock anyone if Lance Stephenson becomes a national hero in China or, begins basketball clinics in North Korea. Two Brooklyn kids, Stephenson and Marbury, from the same high school, using the power of sports to dominate the socio-athletic-political spectrum of two Asian powers.

One gets the feeling Born Ready, always happiest when he could just be a big kid with a ball in his hands, will somehow find his way back to the United States to play basketball again, whether it’s in the NBA or on a black top in a playground.

The 2019 NBA Draft – Winners and Losers

by Scott Mandel

The NBA draft is over, and now, the work begins for teams to justify who they chose and how these new players will fit in with new teammates.

As happens every year, it’s easy to choose the winners and losers, based on what “experts” predict, on paper. Of course, experts are often wrong. Do you know who else is often wrong? The teams, themselves, who think every one of those top five picks will become superstars, leading them out of the morass of an NBA losing culture (how else did they get one of the first five picks?) into championship contention.

Before we break down the winners and losers, though, let’s take a look at when current NBA stars were drafted, in the past:

  • Steve Nash – 15th pick in first round
  • Draymond Green – 35th pick, second round
  • Nate “Tiny” Archibald – 19th pick in 1970
  • Tony Parker – 28th pick
  • Manu Ginobili – 57th pick
  • Jimmy Butler – 30th pick
  • Kawhi Leonard – 15th pick

And, let’s not forget some of the top 5 picks in recent NBA drafts who turned into busts:

  • LaRue Martin – 1st pick in 1972 draft, chosen before Julius Erving and Bob McAdoo, along with guard Paul Westphal. Bob McAdoo, and Paul Westphal
  • DaJuan Wagner – 6th pick in 2002, chosen before Amar’e Stoudemire, Caron Butler and Tayshaun Prince
  • Kent Benson – 1st pick in 1977 draft, chosen ahead of Bernard King, Walter Davis, Jack Sikma
  • Michael Olowokandi – 1st pick in 1998 draft, chosed ahead of Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce

The point is, all of the scouting and preparation that goes into choosing the players who will turn bad teams into good ones, often falls flat on its collective faces, getting scouts and general managers fired.

That said, let’s break down the 2019 NBA draft, with the codicil that we are probably going to be proven wrong in many cases:

Winner: The Pelicans’ War Chest and Their Future

On Thursday night, Zion Williamson waltzed into the Barclays Center in a suit as white as his smile and shook Adam Silver’s hand before giving an emotional interview. Obviously, this was a great moment for the Pelicans, but the NBA world had known it was coming since the lottery in May.

Back in New Orleans, David Griffin was still dealing. The Pelicans flipped the fourth overall pick, Solomon Hill’s expiring contract, and the 57th pick to the Hawks for the eighth, 17th, and 35th picks in the draft. Those first two picks turned into rim-running Longhorn Jaxson Hayes and Hokie Nickeil Alexander-Walker. As capologist Albert Nahmad pointed out on Twitter, this expansion of the Davis trade now leaves New Orleans with $30 million in cap space. Here it is, sans the Cavs pick, all laid out:

Anthony Davis has turned into:

– Lonzo Ball
– Brandon Ingram
– Josh Hart
– No. 8 pick in 19
– No. 17 pick in 19
– No. 35 pick in 19
– L.A.’ 21 pick if top 8
– L.A.’ 22 pick if not
– L.A. swap in 23
– L.A.’ 1st in either 24 or 25

And got rid of Solomon Hill’s contract.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers needed a 3-and-D rotation player and they just snagged the best defensive wing in the draft with the No. 20 pick in Matisse Thybulle. It’s amazing how undervalued defense is on draft night. Thybulle broke the defensive scale last season at Washington averaging 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game as the free safety in Washington’s zone defense. If there’s any center in the NBA who can own the rim enough to let others roam, it’s Joel Embiid.

He can be their Robert Covington. Thybulle has shot 36 percent on over 500 3-pointers in his collegiate career. He shot just 31 percent from downtown last season, but he’s better than what he showed there. At 22 years old, he can step in right away and contribute to an already elite defensive core with Ben Simmons and Embiid. 

Sixers fans might get nauseous at the idea of trading up with Boston to pick a Washington product, but this it the back end of the draft, not the front. Also, Thybulle’s presence allowed Philly to dump Jonathon Simmons’ contract on the Washington Wizards and save an extra $1 million for their free agency pursuits.

Atlanta Hawks

League Pass All-Stars. Adding De’Andre Hunter (No. 4 pick from New Orleans via Los Angeles via crazy lottery luck) and Cam Reddish (No. 10 via Dallas for Luka Doncic), the Hawks figure to be an exciting young squad that will be fascinating to watch next season.

With Trae Young and John Collins’ defensive limitations, I love that they targeted Hunter with the No. 4 pick. He may not have the box score stats of a defensive stalwart, but Hunter played in a Virginia defense that suppresses blocks and steals. The Hawks weren’t going to let another Malcolm Brogdon slip from their fingers with two of the best offensive young players in the NBA in Young and Collins. Reddish is a question mark, but at No. 10, that’s a worthy spot for his upside.

Knicks fans

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Knicks faithful. They lost the draft lottery. Their presumed top free agency target, Kevin Durant, tore his Achilles tendon. The Pelicans traded Anthony Davis elsewhere. Just when you thought the Knicks’ offseason couldn’t get any worse … wait, good news on draft night?!

Yes, the Knicks selected RJ Barrett with the No. 3 overall pick, a Knicks pick that was met with loud cheers for the first time … ever? I have my concerns about a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot 3s or at the line efficiently, but it was nice to hear Knicks fans be happy. They got their homegrown talent who seems genuinely thrilled to be a Knick. I sincerely hope he finds his jumper, because the NBA is better when its biggest market has something to root for.

Losers

Phoenix Suns 

I really don’t know what the Phoenix Suns are doing. First, they traded T.J. Warren and his remaining $35 million over three years into the Pacers’ cap space. Warren, 25 years old, is a big wing scorer who shot 43 percent from downtown last season, providing a really good insurance policy for Indiana free agent Bojan Bogdanovic. And you give him away along with the 32nd pick for cash considerations?

This is a deal you make if you’re a title contender looking to add a premiere free agent. But the Suns are going nowhere and they punted on Warren and got next to nothing. This is a new front office led by veteran GM Jeff Bower, but I’m not a fan of their start. Maybe they have D’Angelo Russell in their sights with their resulting cap space, but even then, I don’t love his fit next to Devin Booker. Deandre Ayton will have to be Bill Russell to clean up the backcourt’s mistakes.

And then they traded down from No. 6 for Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick, but reached for the oldest player in the draft, Cameron Johnson. Look, the UNC product is an elite shooter on the wing, but I worry about his age and hip issues. Bone impingement and a torn labrum is what has devastated Isaiah Thomas’ career, so hopefully he’s put those health issues behind him. Phoenix’s brass must’ve heard that Johnson was promised shortly after No. 11 because most intel had him projected to be a late first-rounder, at best. 

For a team that finished with the second-worst record in the NBA, this wasn’t much of a reward for their futility.

Hats

I kinda like the goofy hats atop the giant manes of the draftees, but we need to update the hat logos to reflect the teams they’re actually going to play for. Do we really need to put a Lakers hat on DeAndre Hunter after that pick was traded not once, but twice? Let’s bring the draft into 2019.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards were an awful defensive team last season, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and traded Otto Porter for two score-first-and-second players in Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. With interim GM Tommy Shephard steering the decisions for the club, I expected the Wizards to target a defensive presence at the No. 9 pick, someone like Brandon Clarke who reminds me a lot of Shawn Marion with his elite finishing ability and versatility on the defensive end. Clarke is only 6-foot-8 with a short wingspan, but he had the instincts and athleticism to block over three shots a game for Gonzaga. (I love him in Memphis next to Jaren Jackson Jr.)

Instead, the Wizards went with Clarke’s teammate at Gonzaga in Rui Hachimura, who fits the mold of a younger Parker. I like Hachimura’s scoring abilities around the rim, but this team needs more impact players on the defensive end and I think they missed out on Clarke. Getting Simmons from Philly makes some sense on the wing, but then again, coach Brett Brown, looking for defensive players on the wing, didn’t trust him much at all in the playoffs. Admiral Schofield is a solid flier in the second round with the 42nd pick they netted from the Sixers, but that’s a steep price with cash considerations going to Philly. Again, where is the defense going to come from for this team? The good news is Bradley Beal is still a Wizard. No desperate moves from Washington. 

Boston Celtics

It really seems like the Celtics have given up on the 2019-20 season already. By trading Aron Baynes to Phoenix and not moving up in the draft with their bevy of picks, the Celtics have essentially reverted back to the team that rallied to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving.

But that team had Al Horford, who is an essential part to everything that they do. They’ll need Horford to compete next season, but right now, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Robert Williams will be their starting frontcourt next season. I’m not high on Romeo Langford (No. 14), but I love the Grant Williams pick at No. 24. (Jaylen Brown and Williams, the son of a NASA engineer, should stream weekly Academic Bowls.)

No one outside New England is feeling sorry for this team. But between Danny Ainge’s health scare and the surprising exodus out of Boston, this has been a sad chapter for the franchise. 

Look, they might make a run for Kemba Walker, who went to UConn just 85 miles down the road, but the comments out of the team on Thursday night suggest this will be a rebuild. Just a year ago, the Celtics held one of the brightest futures in the league. Now, they’re a cautionary tale.

Bol Bol

No one wants to be the guy that lingers in the green room on draft night, but I’m happy he landed in Denver. For the second year in a row, the Nuggets take a rehab flier on a top prospect. Last year it was Michael Porter Jr., who was the 14th pick dealing with back issues. He had a redshirt season in Denver, which might be the outcome for Bol in 2019-20 while he rehabs from a broken foot.

Bol is more than worth the flier. The son of the late NBA legend Manute, Bol is a 7-foot-2 shooter with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and has some real NBA-caliber skill. I am stunned he fell all the way out of the first round, even with the foot injury. He’s a top-10 talent. Good for the Nuggets to take a chance on Bol.

The day, in 1985, the Knicks won the first NBA Draft Lottery and with it, Patrick Ewing

The great Dave DeBusschere, the Knicks G.M. in 1985, slammed his fist in joy.

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, and voracious Knicks fan, announced Ewing as the number one pick in the draft of the hometown New York Knicks, followed by a crescendo of cheering from the NY draftnicks at the event in June, 1985.

And, Knicks fans thought they were getting the next Bill Russell, the Celtics center who was a shot-blocking machine and the best winner in NBA history.

Knicks fans thought they were getting the Hoya Destroyer, a 7-foot, 240 pound athletic freak who loved to play defense, block shots, and rebound, all in the pursuit of winning championships.

We all know how that turned out. As good a career as Ewing had, the Knicks never figured out that an NBA championship team needs more than one superstar to compete for the ultimate prize. LeBron James, with the Lakers last season, learned that very well, didn’t he?

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Ewing never brought home a championship for Knicks fans. Akeem won two.

Tonight’s event will excite the hell out of the winning team’s fan base, make no mistake about that. But, Zion Williamson, sure to be the ultimate prize and number one choice in the upcoming June draft, will need lots of help to turn a terrible team into a competitive one.