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.

NBA Fundamentals, Where Art Thou? Stat Lines Are Wacked

By Scott Mandel

Oy. The NBA. Where art thou gone? Yesteryear was so much more satisfying to us baby boomers.

Now, we are getting ridiculous stat lines in the wide open game the NBA has turned into.

Last night, Giannis Antetakoumpo compiled 40 points and 20 rebounds, from his forward position. I’m guessing not one of those rebounds were gathered through the physical act of boxing out or fundamental positioning because of the way the pro game has changed, with emphasis on the long jump shot from beyond the three-point line.

Today’s game is dominated by the three-point shot, in the way it spaces out players and opens up the lane for unobstructed drives for layups. The blocked shot or clogged lane is a thing of the past. This season, Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets average 55 three point attempts per game. The lowest per game attempts of threes in the league is 27, by the Indiana Pacers. That represents anywhere from 35 to 60% of all shots coming from beyond the three-point stripe.

As soon as offensive teams throw up those 3s, nobody is crashing the offensive boards, anymore. The three goes up and all five guys head down court to play “defense” in case of the inevitable long rebound a missed 25-footer often produces. They don’t want to give up easy fast break buckets on those long rebounds, which create 2 on 1 breaks.

So, the game has turned into a run and gun, playground-style in which it is not unusual to see an offensive player come down the court ahead of his teammates, shooting a three without anyone around him to rebound a miss. These guys are going 1 on 3 and still shooting it from 25 feet.

Coaches used to be able to reign-in undisciplined players with bench time or, allowing team veterans to pull the kids aside and tell them they are messing with their all-important playoff bonus money. Those days are over, as rookie #1 draft choices are making several million dollars per year, guaranteed for at least three years. Playoff money? That’s used for tips.

To this aging eye, there are too many 19 and 20 year olds who don’t have a fundamental basketball bone in their body. It’s become very difficult to watch if you remember the sport as an exercise in strategy, fundamentals, hard-nosed defense, and driven by great coaches.

Today’s NBA players are the most graceful and powerful athletes on the planet. It’s always been like watching the ballet, except the dancers wear short shorts and bounce a ball. Today, it is, in reality, just a ballet. Less contact, less strategy and structure to the “dance,” and, less defense.

The good news? The better teams in the league play the type of fundamental basketball most of us want to see when the playoffs begin. And the teams that go furthest in the post-season play the best fundamental style of the sport, while leaning on one or two superstars on their roster to rise above everybody else. That part has not changed.

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.

Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Patrick Ewing and now, Marcus Morris

By Scott Mandel

The Knicks are advertising their next game with, “come see Marcus Morris and the Knicks at MSG.”
Wow.

If this is not quite a sign that the apocalypse is on its way, it may be a sign that basketball, once known as the city game (when the city referred to was New York) has become a secondary event in this city and at Madison Square Garden, which used to house the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus every year until that entity also went out of business.

Is Jim Dolan, the Knicks owner, doing the same thing to the Knicks that happened to the circus or, have the Knicks, with a record of 4-14, become the new circus in town with Dolan as the ringleader?

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The Knicks are advertising on social media to “come out to MSG to watch Marcus Morris and the Knicks in 2019. Their record is 4-14.

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 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?

Image result for Patrick Ewing loses to Houston
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.

Kawhi Leonard – The Under-publicized NBA Superstar

Leonard just may be the best player in the world

by Scott Mandel

The Toronto Raptors season has always been about pacing themselves for the playoffs. The Raptors have tasted regular-season success plenty in the past, but it never tastes so great when the seasons always end in the same way: With too-early losses in the playoffs.

That’s why general manager Masai Ujiri made the gutsiest move of the last offseason in trading franchise centerpiece DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for the Spurs‘ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. It was risky on many different levels. One was that the Toronto fan base adored DeRozan, and DeRozan adored them back, and you just don’t sever those types of relationships without feeling very uncertain about your decision.

Another reason was that Leonard was coming off a bizarre season lost to injury, a mysterious quad injury where the Spurs often felt left in the dark and out of step with Leonard and his camp. When the Raptors made the trade, they could not be sure if they were sending the beloved DeRozan for a player still capable of being a Finals MVP – or whether they would be getting, in exchange for their franchise player, an ex-superstar who was now damaged goods.

But the risk, Ujiri deemed, was worth it. The DeRozan-led Raptors era felt tapped out as a very good regular season team that wasn’t built for playoff success. A Leonard trade was going for it: Ujiri pushing all of his chips to the center of the table. Perhaps the biggest risk that Ujiri was taking was to trade for a superstar who was in the final year of his contract, and who had made well known his desire to return to Southern California. The Raptors would have one season to capitalize on the talents of Leonard and their impressive surrounding pieces. Succeed there – say, make an NBA Finals – and it would all be worth it, even if Leonard decided to leave in the offseason anyway for SoCal.

Which brings us to Sunday evening in Philadelphia. The Raptors were in a pickle. In Game 1, they dominated at home, with Leonard showing – as he has these entire playoffs – that it might be him, not LeBron James and not Kevin Durant and not Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the best player in the world. This was close to the best version of the Raptors, even if the contributions from the bench were less than you’d hope.

Now the Raptors were in trouble. Lose this one and they’d be heading back to Toronto having to win out to win the series. In all of NBA history, only 11 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series. It can happen – just ask noted Raptors killer LeBron James – but it is not the situation any team wants to find itself in. Especially when the alternative, losing in the second round of the playoffs after planning an entire franchise future around this moment, would likely portend close to a total franchise rebuild. The pressure was on. This felt like the last time Toronto could do anything of note in the postseason for a long, long time. Lose here, and the Raptors were about to take a huge step back as a franchise. Who knows when they’d ever find themselves back at this point.

So what did the Raptors do on Sunday? They stood up to the challenge and were close to that best version of themselves. Even with a visibly struggling Pascal Siakam, who had been listed as doubtful with a calf contusion but gutted it out anyway, the Raptors had their most complete game of the series. Leonard was machine-like in his efficiency. This wasn’t just the same Leonard who was a top-five player in the NBA before his injury-riddled 2017-18 season. This was quite possibly a better Leonard, at least on the offensive end: 39 points on 20 shots, 14 rebounds, 5 of 7 from 3, including the dagger in the final minute. It was another Jordanesque playoff performance from Leonard. But even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to win championships, and it was the stellar supporting cast that pushed the Raptors past the Sixers. Kyle Lowry was aggressive, and at times he looked like a younger version of himself, a.k.a. an All-Star. Danny Green didn’t shoot much, but he played good defense and got to the free throw line, making all eight of his attempts. Most importantly, Marc Gasol showed why Ujiri made his trade-deadline move to nab him from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol played his finest game of the playoffs, playing his typically excellent defense while scoring 16 points and reminding the Sixers they have to respect him as an outside shooter. The Raptors outscored the Sixers by 13 points while Gasol was on the floor, the best plus-minus on the team.

It is here where we should note that one big reason the Raptors were able to steal one on the road was because Embiid was very clearly not himself. He was playing without the aggression he brought to his incredible Game 3 performance, and without the joy, too; Embiid ended up with only 11 points on just seven shots. Head coach Brett Brown offered up an explanation afterward: Embiid had texted him at 6:20 a.m. and said he wasn’t sure he could play. He’d been up all night throwing up and got an IV hydration early in the morning. It was, apparently, a virus, and unrelated to the stomach bug that hampered him in Game 2. Whether it’s a stomach bug or a virus, knee tendinitis or too many milkshakes from the night before, it’s become even more clear during these playoffs that the Sixers need Embiid close to 100 percent in order to fulfill their very large potential.

Still, this should not take away from the Raptors’ complete and dominant performance. They regained home-court advantage after a Game 3 where they looked wholly outclassed. They leaned on their superstar, but they got important contributions from their supporting cast.

In so doing, they extended this era of Raptors history. Maybe the era will end this week, or maybe it’ll go well into June. They played with urgency, but it never felt like desperation. With more performances like that – where their superstar plays like the best player on Earth, and their supporting cast doesn’t turn into a collective pumpkin at the mention of playoff pressure – the Raptors could very well be playing later this season than they ever have.