Breaking (very) bad in Boston

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:30
AM ET
By Jack Hamilton
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Rajon RondoAP Photo/Steven SenneLet the pain begin. The Boston Celtics' struggles figure to continue for the foreseeable future.
There are many ways to be a good basketball team, and probably more ways to be a bad one. There is the bloated badness of too many of the wrong kinds of players on the wrong kinds of contracts; the callow badness of youngsters fumbling their way through professional basketball; and, of course, the timeless, quotidian badness of absent talent, of poorly constructed teams made of poorly equipped players.

The 2014-15 Boston Celtics have managed to collect all of these badnesses onto a single basketball roster, one that vaguely resembles a game of "NBA 2K15" in which you let your opponent (presumably an ill-humored 12-year-old) pick your team. It's been a long time since a Celtics team was this bad in this particularly depressing sort of way. Recent history includes last season's 25-57 record, the 24-win season of 2006-07, even the wretched 15-win 1996-97 campaign, but each of those were naked tanks, upward-failing grabs at Tim Duncan, at Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, or at the Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker/Joel Embiid trio. None of these prizes came to pass, of course, but at least there was usually a backup plan. The 1997-98 season saw a 21-win jump in the honeymoon period of splashy new hire Rick Pitino; in 2007 Danny Ainge pulled off the biggest Massachusetts-based summer blockbuster since "Jaws," acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett en route to the 2008 championship and the greatest single-season turnaround in league history.

This season promises nothing of the sort. A year removed from blowing it up and trading Garnett and team legend Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets and seeking to bottom out in the quickest way possible, the Celtics went into the offseason with intrepidly foolish hopes born of holding a decent lottery position and the much discussed, rarely defined "assets." This is the season we'll finally win the lottery, fans told themselves, or at least land in the top three. OK, top five! Or we'll trade for Kevin Love -- how hard could it be to pry another Kevin away from the Minnesota Timberwolves? What big, sweet-shooting Caucasian wouldn't want to play under the retired numbers of Heinsohn, Havlicek, Bird?

Well, to quote another great northerner, the devil fools with the best-laid plans. The Celtics fell to sixth in the lottery and, embracing the "talent over need" dictum, snatched up Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart. Smart is a promising player, a powerful, physical specimen who would have enjoyed superstar hype had he left college in 2013, as was widely expected. He's an athletic, savvy guard with a preternatural court sense and no jump shot. He also plays the same position as Rajon Rondo, another athletic and savvy guard with preternatural court sense and no jump shot, who happens to be the Celtics' best player.

This led to speculation that the permanently embattled Rondo was finally on his way out of town, for real this time, but getting superstar value for Rondo -- a walking medical red flag who is in the final year of his contract -- was never a robust prospect in a point guard-saturated league. And that was before Rondo broke his hand by allegedly falling in a shower the very same day he took his daughter to a trampoline park, a timeline of events that can't help but scan as rather suspicious. (Imagine, for a moment, an alternate world in which the trampoline-accident whispers are true: Leave it to Rajon Rondo to injure himself in an even weirder off-court activity than the prodigious roller-skating he's already famous for).

Assuming Rondo misses the start of the season, the Celtics' best player on opening night will be forward Jeff Green, a good player who shouldn't be the best anything on any NBA team, even a terrible one. Center Jared Sullinger has had a nice preseason, drawing particular praise for his impressive 3-point shooting, but no one aside from the most shamrock-goggled Celtics fan really believes the undersized Sullinger has the makings of a star player. The rest of the frontcourt is a patchwork of (literally and figuratively) green youth and high-priced detritus. Brandon Bass and Gerald Wallace are hard-working forwards who also make $17 million between them. Kelly Olynyk is an intriguing 7-footer who is a defensive work in progress in 2014 much like the Big Dig was a municipal work in progress in 1992. Tyler Zeller, acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason, would make a great end-of-the-bench guy on the sort of playoff team the Celtics absolutely are not. Vitor Faverani is enthusiastic.

[+] EnlargeDanny Ainge, Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesFinding big-time talent has been tough for the Celtics since a pair of blockbuster trades in 2007.
The backcourt is a more exciting adventure, a talented bunch terminally burdened by asterisks. The team’s three best guards -- Rondo, Smart and defensive wiz Avery Bradley -- are the most shooting-averse trio since the Three Amigos (the actual ones). Marcus Thornton is a prodigious scorer whose best skill seems to be shot attempts, which, to be fair, is less a "skill" than an "interest." (As a snapshot into the Celtics-fan psyche, let me present this recent text message from a friend: "Marcus Thornton scored 14 points in 14 minutes on 13 shots. I'm intrigued.") One hopeful spot is James Young, a talented rookie out of Kentucky whom the Celtics nabbed with the 17th pick. A productive college player who got lost in the starry Wildcat draft-day shuffle, Young might prove to be a steal, except it's unclear whether he'll get much play behind higher priced offseason acquisitions Thornton and Evan Turner, both of whom play his position.

Earlier this year I wrote that, in the glow of the 2007-2013 run, Celtics management had won almost unconditional trust from the team's fans. A seemingly bird-in-hand David West spurns the team for Indiana? We'll be fine. Ray Allen bolts for Miami? We’ll be fine. Rajon Rondo blows out his ACL? We'll be fine. Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry traded to Brooklyn for picks and cap flotsam? We'll be fine. But right now, this is a depressing team facing depressing questions. Do they chase mediocrity with the roster they have, hoping that if everything breaks just right, they might land an 8-seed and quick exit in a shallow Eastern Conference? Or do they try to bottom out, again, but even better/worse this time, even if #oferforokafor doesn't quite have the same sparkly ring to it as campaigns from years past?

The only sure thing is the 2014-15 Celtics are going to be a bad team, and probably a very bad team at that. Worse, they'll be a bad team without recourse to fanciful hope or the illusion of direction. They probably won't be the worst team the franchise has ever put out on the court, but in all honesty, they often feel that way, particularly to those who've grown accustomed to winning, or even just relevance. Those people include only its best player, its front office and its entire fan base. But, hey, we'll be fine.

Jack Hamilton is the pop critic at Slate and assistant professor of Media Studies and American Studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him, @jack_hamilton.

NBA's new replay center will help game

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:55
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
OfficialsAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThis season, NBA referees will be aided by a replay center in N.J. that will help them make calls faster.
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- “I love this,” said Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations.

Borgia and his team devised a true-false quiz on the NBA rulebook for a group of journalists and we were bricking question after question. A few minutes later, the video portion of the test wasn’t much easier. I denied Kendall Marshall continuation when he was fouled on a drive to the hole, and it wasn’t until Borgia’s aide replayed the reel frame by frame that I saw my error. On first watch, I swore Marshall gathered the ball, planted a foot, then took two additional steps before going up. But in slo-mo, Marshall took only the two permitted steps after cupping the ball against his torso -- totally kosher. I was dead wrong.

Even as Borgia dinged us, the exercise was all good times, but the underlying message was obvious: Officiating professional basketball is inordinately difficult for mortal beings. On Tuesday night when the 2014-15 season opens, those mortal beings will have a little more help from the shiny, new NBA Replay Center at NBA Entertainment’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey.

That means when you see game officials at an NBA arena this season gather in front of the monitor at the scorer's table after a play triggers a video review (there are now 15 instances when that happens), those officials will be looking at clips, images and angles that are curated at the replay center by an individual who is not only well-versed in the arcana of the rulebook, but who has no other priority for three hours than to monitor the game in question from nine different camera angles. Standing behind that person, quite literally, will be a senior NBA honcho -- for example, Borgia, Rod Thorn (president of basketball operations) or Kiki VanDeWeghe (senior vice president of basketball operations).

“Here was the issue that we wanted to solve,” Steve Hellmuth, the executive vice president of operations and technology, said. “The referees would huddle, come over to courtside. By the time they got there, frequently the broadcasters and the production guys had already shown the answer maybe three or four times. Then [the officials] are looking at the video and our referees are looked upon as slowing things down. It’s, ‘Why don’t they know. I already know.’ Well, now during that time interval, we’re going to be working with the video.”

In past years, NBA officials relied on broadcast producers to provide video of a play. If a ref at the scorer’s table wanted a baseline angle or the precise moment a point guard gathers the ball during an off-ball foul call, he’d have to ask for it. The producer in the truck could have an Emmy to his name, but he might not know what a “gather” is and probably wouldn’t ace Borgia’s rulebook quiz either.

Borgia recalled the simulation the league performed during the five games of the NBA Finals. Game 1 in San Antonio had been rough, and before Game 2, he asked the producer for a few new angles, including the overhead camera. Borgia’s request was granted quite literally -- the replay team had the blimp shot for Game 2.

When basketball officiating lifers communicate with even the most talented live game producers on the planet, a lot can get lost in translation. But an officiating lifer like Borgia, his charges at the individual game consoles and the refs on the ground share a common vocabulary.

“We speak the same language,” Borgia said. “We don’t have that issue. When [game officials] come on, we sort of know what they want, whereas a producer, as great as they may be, ‘OK. Clear path? What the hell is a clear path?’ They don’t know the criteria. We’ve got it set up. We’ve had some [preseason situations] as short as seven seconds of video.”

The change in process and personnel will undoubtedly speed up the replay process, which is crucial for a league that sees flow as one of its greatest edges over sports such as football and baseball. The way Borgia, Thorn and Hellmuth explained it, the replay center -- decked out with nearly 100 monitors, 14 very cool individual game consoles each featuring nine camera angles, six more behind those, the presence of wise men with decades of collective NBA experience -- will tee up crystal-clear evidence that will make the call abundantly obvious. It’s almost as if the replay center is making the call ... except that it’s not, which the NBA is very intent to emphasize.

In the view of the league’s top basketball operations people, officiating is an experiential task that must be performed on the court of play. A guy sitting in Secaucus can’t hear a power forward tell his defender, “Do that again next time down and I’ll beat your ass,” and he can’t get a clear decibel reading of the intensity of the game. Technology is an aid, but it’s not a substitution.

“From our standpoint, we don’t want to take it away from a referee right now,” Thorn said from the replay room Thursday.

But if Secaucus has already watched the sequence one frame at a time from three optimal camera angles and is certain of a call before a game official has picked up the monitor, why not just furnish him with the call? If the goal is to (a) get the call right and (b) make that call as quickly as possible, isn’t the most efficient route to say into the game official’s ear, “Chicago ball”?

“Two years from now, that may be,” Thorn said. “Down the road, yes. Right now, we want to make sure we get this thing right and god knows what the glitches may be. So far everything has been fine but we’re not in the regular season and I’m sure some things will come up that we’re going to have to deal with. Our feeling was that we’ll leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the on-court crew chief with his guys for right now. But there may come a day when you have a chip in your ear, you’re running down the floor, you wave your hand about a 3-point shot and Joe Borgia says, ‘His foot was on the line. It was a 2,’ so you don’t even have to go over to the table.”

We have been on that incremental path for some time now. Though this is the first season of the command center, replay is now 12 years old. There will be a day in the future when thermodynamics might be the best way to determine contact on a foul call or motion sensors can detect traveling. The game will always look different -- and from the vantage point of a console in New Jersey, toggling between nine angles, frame by frame over Eric Bledsoe’s crossover from Wednesday night’s Phoenix-Clippers game, it looked mesmerizing. If the NBA’s investment in technology pays off, it also will look more fair than ever.

First Cup: Friday

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
4:34
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Scott Agness of VigilantSports.com: And for the life of me (and NBA minds much, much smarter than I am), I still can’t process why Stephenson signed a deal with a team option in year three. He’s betting on himself taking a shorter deal than the five-year, $44 million the Pacers offered, but with the new TV deal kicking in after two seasons, should he stay on course mentally he’ll be vastly underpaid. (He left for a different of hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions.) “I be getting money ’til I fall out!” Stephenson rapped in his freestyle hit over the summer. As the Pacers and Hornets square off Thursday night, again, there’s no real intrigue. As the battered Pacers take the floor with just one usual starter (Roy Hibbert) due to injuries, all they can think about is getting guys healthy so they can continue to work. They have a ways to go getting comfortable playing together, finding lineups and combinations that work, and most of all, putting their best players on the floor. Paul George will be out for a while, we know that. (He did show an encouraging sign this week by putting shots up.) David West’s suffered a bad sprain that’ll likely keep him out for weeks; George Hill’s left knee has swelled up considerably after he bumped knees in Tuesday’s game at Minnesota; C.J. Watson has a sore foot, as does Rodney Stuckey.
  • Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette: In Thursday’s preseason finale, that effort and sharpness was lacking in a big way for much of the game before a late rally made the score look respectable in an 88-79 loss to Indiana. The result ended the Hornets’ preseason with a 3-5 record and gives Clifford and his team almost a week to work out of their struggles before next Wednesday’s 7 p.m. regular season opener against Milwaukee. “We’ve had an up and down preseason,” Clifford said. “Some of that is due to injuries, but that right there, that’s an unacceptable effort by most of the guys. If we’re going to play like that, it’s going to be a struggle.” Certainly, having starting point guard Kemba Walker (left foot), starting off-guard Lance Stephenson (right groin) out of action in addition to projected top reserve Gerald Henderson (hamstring) and top rookie draft pick Noah Vonleh (right ankle) didn’t help matters.
  • Terry Foster of The Detroit News: Pistons practices are long. Including film study and meetings, they last approximately three hours. One in Orlando lasted 3:40. "Practices are really, really, really long," rookie Spencer Dinwiddie said, laughing. "But (coach Stan Van Gundy) has a track record of winning, so with that in mind, how can you really argue about it?" Van Gundy swears practices under Pat Riley were just as long — and tougher. But he's trying to make an impact with his work ethic and expectations. And he wants to see who stands up to the challenges. We got a final look at the Pistons on Thursday night against the Philadelphia 76ers at The Palace before they begin the regular season next Wednesday at Denver. The Pistons beat the Sixers 109-103 when Josh Smith (17 points and 10 rebounds) broke a late tie with a 3-pointer and free throw. D.J Augustin finished with a double-double (11 points and 11 assists), Kyle Singler added 19 points, Caron Butler 18 and Cartier Martin 17. NBA analysts Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley said the Pistons are talented and should make the playoffs. But Van Gundy's brother, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, said they are a work in progress. That seems to be the case.
  • Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer: The 76ers now have tough decisions to make. Do they keep Casper Ware as the third point guard? Have Malcolm Lee and Chris Johnson shown enough to make the roster? And will Brandon Davies' status as a great locker-room guy outweigh his on-court limitations for the second straight season? The deadline to trim NBA rosters from 20 players to 15 is Monday at 5 p.m. Coach Brett Brown had said the Sixers would release players after their final preseason game. That came Thursday night in a 109-103 loss to the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills. So who's getting released? "We will review it all tomorrow morning and maybe even Saturday," Brown said Thursday morning. "None of these decisions are preconceived. There's isn't in my mind definite things going on." ... You have to assume that the team will release Ronald Roberts and Lee. The same for Ware, if the Yahoo Sports report about the Sixers' being in talks with the Brooklyn Nets for reserve guard Marquis Teague is true. ... Meanwhile, Davies, JaKarr Sampson, Drew Gordon, Alexey Shved, Johnson, and Jason Richardson appear to be on the bubble.
  • Tyler Moody for The Advocate: A now-healthy Ryan Anderson gives the second unit an elite 3-point-shooting talent it lacked while he was injured. Anderson used the final preseason game to find his stroke and knock down a pair of 3s in his 23 minutes. New Orleans has more depth with the key additions of Omer Asik and John Salmons. Monty Williams said Salmons will be key off the bench. “John gives us some steadiness in the second unit because he is an older guy and kind of calms that group down a little bit,” he said. “His veteran leadership is a big key with the young players around him.” There is little doubt the Pelicans have enough offensive firepower. Defense is where New Orleans must assert itself to make a run at the playoffs. New Orleans had one of the worst plus-minus ratios in the league defensively a season ago with Tyreke Evans on the floor.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: After sitting all of his starters and top two reserves Thursday in a 88-85 loss to New Orleans on Thursday, Rick Carlisle will be hoping for a full dress rehearsal Friday in Orlando against the Magic. What leading character Dirk Nowitzki is looking for is a sign that the Mavericks’ defense is ready for prime time. If they have one glaring weakness – and as far as Nowitzki is concerned, they do – it will be a major focus in the preseason finale. “This team’s challenge is defensive rebounding,” Nowitzki said before Thursday’s game. “If we’re solid enough there to get stops and get rebounds, then I think we can play with anybody. If we keep hitting the boards, we have a good shot of winning, even on the road.” It won’t be as easy as it sounds, even though center Tyson Chandler can be a rebound machine at times, Nowitzki knows the Mavericks aren’t an intimidating team when it comes to establishing an inside presence. In short, this team lacks bulk.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: It is hard to fathom Steve Nash going through the work he has put in over the past two years again. That dedication earned him the chance to play 15 games last season and none this season. With $147 million in career earnings, no team would approach the $9.7 million he is making this season, and it probably would have to be the Lakers or Clippers for him to do it anyway. Nash has set roots in Manhattan Beach, Calif., for him and his three kids for his post-NBA life, which includes being Canada Basketball's general manager. Nash's influence still will be evident each night this season in the NBA, where the prevalent pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick styles are a tip of the hat to what Nash and Mike D'Antoni created in Phoenix with major help from Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Beyond that, Nash was arguably the NBA's best all-around shooter for years, an ideal captain who made teammates better and a gentlemanly face of the franchise. Nash's next basketball stop likely will be the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of seven players in NBA history to win consecutive MVP awards and used his Lakers time to creep into third place on the all-time assists list with 10,335. He only trails former Suns teammate Jason Kidd (12,091) and John Stockton (15,806).

Pistons building a future around Drummond

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:50
AM ET
Hayes By Patrick Hayes
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Andre DrummondAP Photo/Carlos OsorioAfter two seasons of disarray, Andre Drummond has become the clear focus of Detroit's future.
It took about six games for Andre Drummond to debunk the reasonable -- albeit vague -- reasons that eight teams passed on him in the 2012 NBA draft.

All the talk about his poor conditioning, a lack of motor -- all of it melted away when you saw the supremely talented teen with the body of a player 10 years his senior put up 22 points and eight rebounds on the reigning Western Conference champs in 21 minutes, mostly through sheer effort.

The drafting of Drummond answered a question that had nagged the franchise ever since the mid-2000s powerhouse began to lose its traction atop the East: how to land a franchise player without being bad enough to pick at the top of the lottery. But it also created another: How could a franchise whose roster decisions quickly undercut a core that advanced to six straight conference finals surround such a player with enough support to keep him?

Things didn’t get off to the greatest start. Drummond’s first coach, Lawrence Frank, imposed a strict minutes limit on the young center as a rookie even though he was clearly the team’s most productive player. Frank’s successor, Maurice Cheeks, increased Drummond’s minutes, but he hurt the team by remaining steadfast in his commitment to a supersized front line of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. Cheeks’ successor, John Loyer … well, he didn’t really do anything of significance, but he did mark the third coach for the budding big man in his first two seasons.

The Pistons had been gifted one of the NBA’s best young players, but their organizational instability has mired both their and Drummond’s progress.

This was all a bit too familiar for team president Joe Dumars. The last remnant of the Bad Boys era, Dumars watched as the organization failed to give Grant Hill the support he needed. In the six seasons Hill played in Detroit, the team embarked on an awful teal rocket-powered, horsey-based rebranding effort, lost Allan Houston for nothing, hired four different head coaches and never assembled a roster around Hill that made it farther than the first round of the playoffs.

By the time Hill hit free agency, it was Dumars, just hired as president of basketball operations, who had the unenviable task of coaxing Hill to return. Despite their five years together as teammates, Dumars couldn’t convince the former No. 3 pick to stay.

This time around, the team has taken a more bold approach, and it started by removing Dumars from the equation. After 14 seasons as the key decision-maker in Detroit, Dumars, a key player for the first title-winning Pistons and the architect of the next rendition, finally stepped down from his perch. In his place, the team set its sights on a candidate who could prevent history from repeating itself.

Stan Van Gundy built his résumé around a freakishly good young center. He’s the coach who helped Howard develop from a raw, athletic dynamo who succeeded because of his otherworldly athletic gifts into the best center in the league, a top-five player with a refined enough offensive game to complement his physical gifts. He’s the coach who took a roster of what, at the time, looked like a collection of ill-fitting parts and molded it into a cohesive offensive and defensive unit that got all the way to the NBA Finals.

[+] EnlargeAndre Drummond
AP Photo/Alex BrandonDetroit hopes Stan Van Gundy has as much success with Drummond as he did with Dwight Howard.
The fit in Detroit was an obvious one. Van Gundy, hired as head coach and president of basketball operations in May, gives the organization the intelligent and creative coach it has needed all along to figure out what to do with a roster whose talent is as obvious as its flaws. He provides the feisty, defensive-minded, us-against-the-world type of personality that has always formed a strong bond with the basketball community in Michigan. And the Pistons give Van Gundy the one thing he lacked near the end of his Orlando tenure -- organizational support and structure without the fear of the front office having a different vision.

But the most important element in all of this has always been Drummond. By hiring Van Gundy, the Pistons are sending Drummond a message that they’re going to give him the best tools to ensure his success. That ultimately might not be enough to keep him -- though most teams retain their high draft picks through their second contract, there are always many factors players consider in determining the best place to play. But such a large, long-term commitment is an unprecedented step for this franchise.

The Pistons of today are not just far removed from their recent run of winning and contending for championships. They are completely unrecognizable. Starting with their surprising run to a championship in 2004, the Pistons have embraced the notion that an individual superstar is not necessary to succeed in the NBA. That mentality worked when they were winning, but has become harder to defend in the years since they’ve fallen from contention.

Detroit has been on a rudderless search for the slightest sign of hope in the years since its most recent success ended. Any hope of finding their way back to the top rests with Drummond, but the organization’s commitment to Van Gundy is just as important because it shows they understand the need to surround him with resources.

One of the most successful franchises in modern league history enters a season trying to create a new identity. But for the first time in six years, it seems like they’re close to finding it.

Patrick Hayes is a writer in Michigan. Follow him, @patrick_hayes.

First Cup: Thursday

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
4:51
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Chris Haynes of The Plain Dealer: Though Kevin Love has still found ways to be productive for the Cavaliers, after the 96-92 loss preseason finale loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, he told Northeast Ohio Media Group that he needs more looks inside to get his game back. "My entire life I played the game from inside-out," Love explained to NEOMG. "So the more touches I can get inside to get myself going, the better. I'm not accustomed to starting out a game shooting a three, so it's just something that I see. I'm 26-years-old and I've been playing basketball for quite a long time. Just finding ways to mix it up. If anything, keeping it around the basket a little bit more and the offense will allow me to get offensive rebounds. That will be tough for teams with Andy [Varejao] and myself and Tristan [Thompson] in there." Love has been roaming the three-point area more than in year's past. His shooting ability creates spacing, giving LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters the necessary room to maneuver.
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: "Yes, I expected to come back to Memphis. But everything happens for a reason. I’m where I’m supposed to be now and I truly believe that. I’ll make the most of it.” – Cavs swingman Mike Miller, reflecting on free agency this past summer.
  • Eric Koreen of the National Post: Dave Hopkinson was in his early 20s, and had a full-time job with the Toronto Argonauts. For a kid looking to work in the sports industry, that was a prime position in the first half of the 1990s: a salary and benefits with a professional sports team. Still, when the Toronto Raptors were born, Hopkinson gave up the certainty of the Argonauts for something considerably more risky with the city’s newest team. He turned 24 on his first day with the Raptors: Nov. 1, 1994, about a year before the club’s first regular-season game. “They put 24 of us in a phone room, with a chair and a desk and a phone, and they had us sell season seats for the new Raptors franchise,” Hopkinson recalled recently in his office at 50 Bay Street, the building beside the Air Canada Centre. “They said, ‘The top four of you will get full-time sales jobs, and 20 of you will leave.’ It was on a week-to-week basis: for a few hundred bucks a week, come in and sell for the new franchise. I was one of the top four and got one of those full-time jobs. Here we are.” Hopkinson is now the chief commercial officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and one of just five employees to have stuck with the organization since its birth. The others: manager of team services Doreen Doyle, medical director Dr. Paul Marks, photographer Ron Turenne and Ryan Bonne, the trainer of the team’s unassailable mascot.
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Make no mistake, the Hawks signed Kent Bazemore for his defense. While that will be his main role with the team, the guard is showing his new coaches and teammates that there is more to his game. It’s a slow process as he battles back from offseason foot surgery and reconstructs his jump shot. ... Bazemore has shown signs that he can get to the rim. He is 3-of-14 from the field this preseason, with every made shot coming in the paint. He has also drawn five shooting fouls and is 4-of-10 from the free-throw line. It’s a work in progress, as he has yet to make an outside shot. Bazemore has worked on his jump shot with assistant coach Ben Sullivan. He said the work has been “everything from my feet all the way to my follow-through.” If Bazemore can develop a consistent jump shot, it will make his ability to drive to the basket that much more effective. ... The 6-foot-5 Bazemore likely will play 12-15 minutes per night. He has averaged 11 minutes in his four exhibition appearances. He played 15 minutes against the Pistons on Saturday and 12 against the Hornets on Monday as Budenholzer began to fine-tune his rotation for the start of the regular season.
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Dwight Howard sat out the game in his return to Orlando in the second half of a back-to-back, but he said he still has warm memories of his time with the Magic, despite the often awkward split in which he was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Though Howard has been gone for just two seasons, there are no coaches or players left from the center’s last Magic team. “I grew up in Orlando,” Howard said. “We had a lot of great memories. No matter how it ended. I enjoyed my time here. I’m just happy with my time here. I see the progress with this team and where they’re trying to go.” Though he sat out Wednesday night’s 90-89 victory, Howard said he is happy with his progress physically. Asked if he had returned to where he had been before the back problem began in 2012, Howard said, “I’m getting there. It’s a process. Some days I feel really good. There are days where I still feel bad, but all that is changing."
  • Derek James of 1500ESPN.com: Over the past few years the NBA has been moving towards becoming a 3-point shooting league and the Timberwolves have struggled to keep up. Last season, the team averaged 21.4 threes per game, good enough for 16th in the league. On paper, that seems like a modest number, but only converted 34.1 percent of them-- 26th in the entire league. Sure, half the league is taking more per game, but it's a problem if only four teams make a lower percentage of them. This preseason it appears the Timberwolves are taking a different approach offensively. "I think the number one thing is that, I thought last year we were last in the league in threes and we took a lot of them," said head coach Flip Saunders. "You know, don't take threes you think you can't make." When the Timberwolves opened their preseason against the Pacers, they attempted just 13 threes and made four of those. Tuesday? Just eight, but they made half of them. Saunders praised the team's offensive discipline after the victory by saying, "I think you shoot 50 percent, getting the shots you want, and get 13 turnovers. We play. If guys have threes we'll take them."
  • Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram: Including his 0-for-5 performance Wednesday, forward Matt Barnes has made just 3 of 36 shots from the field. Doc Rivers admitted before tip-off it is somewhat worrisome. “It’s a concern, yeah,” said Rivers, who said Barnes will likely be his opening-day starter at small forward. “Probably more for Matt than me. I just need Matt to be a great defender, run the floor, be a great slasher. But I don’t care who you are, when you’re 3 for 31 and you’re going to keep telling him that, I’m sure and everyone else is ... you’re human. That has to affect you. It’s no doubt. It would be nice to see the ball go in.”
  • Janis Carr of The Orange County Register: After a two-plus hour bus ride to Citizens Business Bank Arena, Kobe Bryant sat in the locker room instead of watching Julius Randle play his best game in a Lakers uniform. The rookie forward scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting and pulled down eight rebounds in a 94-86 victory against the Blazers. Randle’s team-leading performance came one day after he was nearly invisible against Phoenix, going 1 for 5 for three points. “Every game he seems to get a little bit better,” Scott said. “And that’s what you want. Again, we all tend to forget that he’s 19 years old, so you have to give him a little bit of slack at times, but I don’t.” Randle almost made the Ontario crowd forget that Bryant wasn’t in the lineup. Most of the 7,174 were content to watch Randle go coast-to-coast on three baskets, and Jeremy Lin add five assists and 13 points.
  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: Speaking in the locker room before the Knicks’ 103-100 win over the the Wizards at the Garden on Wednesday night, Andrea Bargnani said, “Injuries are always frustrating." Bargnani hasn’t played since the preseason opener. A day later in practice, he tweaked the hamstring and missed his fifth straight preseason game Wednesday. He will also miss the finale in Montreal and it looks as if he won’t be ready for the season-opening back-to-back games against Chicago and Cleveland next Wednesday and Thursday. “We’re working every day to get it ready to go on the court," Bargnani said. The injury hurts doubly because the club is learning the triangle offense. “Obviously keep up with the team by watching a lot of video doing as much as possible not to get behind," Bargnani said.
  • Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: Rajon Rondo continues to make “steady” progress, according to coach Brad Stevens. Stevens revealed before last night’s game that the point guard has been participating in “limited” contact in practice with a heavily padded left hand. Rondo had surgery to repair a fracture four days before the opening of training camp. “I can’t say when he’ll be back, but he’s progressing well,” Stevens said before last night’s exhibition finale. Stevens added that Rondo has been taken off the floor when practices have morphed into full contact. “Still not fully good to go, but he’s working that way,” said Stevens. “He can do some of (contact).”
  • Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: Stan Van Gundy thinks there's a larger issue than the NBA's lottery system. The Detroit Pistons president and coach said league rules dictating maximum contracts have done more to hurt the league's competitive balance than teams tanking. "I think the thing that's been the biggest impediment to parity in this league has been the individual maximum on players' salaries," Van Gundy said Wednesday. "By artificially limiting the best players' salaries is what has allowed people to put two and three stars together. Take that out, keep the cap where it is, keep the luxury tax right where it is and have no individual maximum on players." He added it would make for a fairer system and make it harder to put more than one star on one team.

First Cup: Wednesday

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
4:56
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: Chris Kaman endured a bizarre injury Tuesday night that would be fitting for his reality web series. The Trail Blazers' backup big man suffered a head laceration when Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov inadvertently gnawed on it during the Blazers' 93-75 victory at Coors Events Center. While playing defense, Kaman backed into Mozgov in an effort to box him out as a Denver player attempted a shot from the perimeter. But as Kaman pushed Mozgov, the 7-foot-1 center toppled on Kaman's back and chomped down on his head with his teeth. "I went back pretty hard and I must've hit him in the chest," Kaman said, retelling the story. "He kind of folded over and his teeth went down on my head." Kaman instantly cupped his head, felt a gash and blood. He was pulled from the game and taken to the locker room, where he was given three stitches. After the game, he was wearing a big bandage on his balding head, but said he felt "pretty good."
  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: Alonzo Gee has made the Nuggets roster, a move set in stone when the Nuggets released forward Quincy Miller after Tuesday night’s preseason game against Portland at the Coors Events Center. Miller occupied the only roster spot available for competition on the team, and had hoped to hold onto it. But the play of Gee, a free agent signee who had been traded a number of times during the summer in salary cap moves, was too much for the young player to overcome. The Nuggets trimmed Miller from the roster with one game remaining in the preseason. Marcus Williams and Jerrelle Benimon also will be waived from the Nuggets roster, bringing it down to the mandated 15 ahead of the Oct. 27 deadline. Miller took to Twitter to thank fans who wished him well late Tuesday night.
  • Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com: Miserable might not be a strong enough word to describe Anthony Bennett's rookie season. The Cavaliers surprised many by taking the Toronto native first overall and Bennett did nothing to prove them wrong. He had undergone shoulder surgery in May 2013 and he dealt with injury issues throughout last season. He averaged only 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds. When he did begin to regain his health, Bennett started to take off some of the weight that was slowing him down. He continued that into the offseason and then, after he was traded, he joined new teammates Shabazz Muhammad and Ronny Turiaf in working with San Francisco based athletic trainer Frank Matrisciano. Matrisciano's claim to fame is the fact he has trained Navy SEALs. His work over several weeks with Bennett and Muhammad was obvious when they returned to Minnesota having shed any flab they were carrying and looking chiseled. Bennett is now listed as carrying 245 pounds on his 6-foot-8 inch frame. ... One factor that is easy to overlook about Bennett is the fact he's only 21 years old and won't turn 22 until March. He played one season at UNLV before declaring for the draft. That means in many ways he likely was completely unprepared for what would come with being the surprise No. 1 pick in the NBA last season.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Through six preseason games, it has become abundantly clear that the Indiana Pacers will need time to mesh as a unit. Almost just as much, they require stability. The first five need minutes together on the court while the rest of the rotation needs the steady drum of routine. These will remedy those problem passes and reticent touches through the exhibition season, where the Pacers have failed to reach triple digits in five of six chances. Though Indiana demands these simple solutions, the team has neither the luxury of time nor the blessing of stability -- facts that also came into focus during its 107-89 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. David West did not make the trip. Rodney Stuckey did not play. C.J. Watson did not change out of his warm-up suit. And later in the night, George Hill left the game, his left knee swelling, to pile on the team's woes during a preseason that has produced more injury reports than traces of promising play. "It takes time," center Roy Hibbert said. "Especially with guys out, it's going to take even more time."
  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: When Kevin Durant was in the lineup, Russell Westbrook could afford the occasional bad shooting night. Those 4-of-14’s could be masked by KD’s 12-of-18’s. But with Durant gone — carrying with him that extreme efficiency — Westbrook’s makes-to-takes percentage will likely carry more weight. If he’s off, it’s tough to see the Thunder beating many good teams. In the final three preseason games, Westbrook went a combined 14-of-43 from the field. OKC lost each by wide margins. Against Utah, he had his dominant spurts — he followed a nice first-half post-up of Dante Exum by swiping the rookie and slamming in the open court. But his mid-range jumper has been off. And that’s hurt the offense. Westbrook was 6-of-16 on Tuesday night, and the Thunder was outscored by 20 points with him on the court. Can’t happen in Portland next Wednesday.
  • Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune: Dante Exum recently found out that he and Oklahoma City Thunder rookie forward Josh Huestis are third cousins through their parents. While Exum is well known as Utah’s lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft, Huestis is also a first round pick, a former all-conference forward at Stanford and a part of OKC’s future. "It’s certainly a blessing," Exum said. "To have family so close to where you’re playing is a great thing. We all just learned this a few days ago, so I’m excited to get to know them." Huestis is expected to play in the NBA Developmental league this season. He’s a 6-foot-8 small forward who parlayed a great senior season at Stanford into being selected in the first round. The Thunder see him as a wing defender who can hit 3-pointers, spotting up while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook do the bulk of the playmaking. The two are related through their fathers. Cecil Exum and Poncho Hodges are second cousins. Both played professional hoops, which is how the Exum family moved and planted roots in Australia. Exum said he will meet Huestis for the first time on Tuesday night. ... "The chances of two kids so close to relation getting picked in the same draft are slim to none," Hodges said. "I’m now an OKC and Utah Jazz fan."
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: By halftime, the Rockets might already have considered the night a success. Dwight Howard had shown signs of picking up speed toward being ready for the season opener next week against the Lakers in Los Angeles, and he took a giant step in that direction Tuesday against Miami.Howard put in a pair of lefthanded jump hooks, but the more impressive part of his night was the explosiveness around the basket. By halftime, Howard had 15 points and eight rebounds in a 90-85 preseason loss to the Heat. With his first touch of the second half, Howard turned on Chris Bosh, used a basic drop step to his left, and dunked over him. Howard finished 7-of-10 for 19 points in 28 minutes.
  • Ava Wallace of The Miami Herald: With just one preseason game left before the Heat’s home opener on Oct. 29, coach Erik Spoelstra is still missing one important piece to his puzzle. Forward Josh McRoberts, who has been recovering from toe surgery that he had over the summer, has yet to make his debut with the team. The free-agent acquisition is expected to be Spoelstra’s starting power forward when he’s cleared to play. McRoberts sat again in the Heat’s game against Houston on Tuesday. “If you ask him he would’ve wanted to play tonight,” Spoelstra said. “We’re being very patient and diligent with this. It’s still early, everybody’s anxious, he’s anxious, everybody wants to see him out there, he’s been able to practice now, that’s what I care about." With the start of the regular season looming, the Heat is still in flux — Spoelstra went with five different starting lineups across seven preseason games, to mixed results. But Miami might have to wait to find stability until McRoberts returns.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The budding chemistry between Bledsoe and Plumlee was short-circuited last season by Bledsoe's injuries. Apparently, nobody has seen anything yet. At least, nobody outside Suns practices has. Bledsoe has an affinity for tossing lobs to Plumlee in half-court sets even more than transition. Plumlee has an equal liking to slamming them, although his preseason began with his hands being shaky on any sort of pass until recent preseason games. Plumlee said he was overexcited in early games but is finding his pace and rhythm. That has been most apparent in pick-and-rolls with Plumlee driving down the middle of the floor. ... Plumlee said he worked on catching passes in traffic to build on his breakthrough season with better habits. That has meant being more cognizant of going to the ball to avoid deflections and snatching the ball with a firm, two-handed catch.
  • Bill Oram of The Orange County Register: After missing three games because of a sprained ankle, Lin demonstrated just how much of a difference he can make for the Lakers. Offensively limited without him, the Lakers were far more varied with their offseason acquisition in the fold. Lin finished with 15 points, five assists and four rebounds but, more importantly, he meshed well with Kobe Bryant. “Jeremy makes a huge difference,” said the Lakers’ superstar, who finished with 27 points, “creating shots for others. We’ve got somebody else who can penetrate, make plays for others and put pressure on the defense. It’s a really big difference.” Acquired in an offseason trade with Houston, Lin was penciled in as the Lakers backup behind Steve Nash, but the presumed starter in case Nash’s health limited his time on the court. With Nash out for the foreseeable future, it may be Lin time.
  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: Festus Ezeli hadn’t played in a basketball game in more than 750,000 minutes, so waiting nearly nine minutes before getting called to sub into Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers seemed like nothing. The Warriors’ backup center, who has been sidelined with right knee surgery and subsequent right shin inflammation since playing his last game May 16, 2013, remarkably didn’t show any rust in the team’s 125-107 win. Head coach Steve Kerr actually wanted to wait until late in the second quarter to give Ezeli his first playing time in 17 months, but the stars aligned for the big man’s wait to end sooner. Starting center Andrew Bogut missed the game with an illness, and reserve centers Ognjen Kuzmic and Marreese Speights each quickly got into foul trouble. With 3:05 remaining in the first quarter, Kerr called timeout and then sent Ezeli onto the court. He made an almost immediate impact, swatting a Jared Cunningham layup attempt, making a short turnaround jumper and dunking an alley-oop pass from Andre Iguodala in the quarter’s final two minutes.
  • Robert Morales of the Los Angeles Daily News: We wrote Monday about how newly acquired backup post Spencer Hawes likes playing alongside fellow Seattle native and sixth-man Jamal Crawford. Safe to say, the feeling is mutual. “I’ve know Spence since he was 17,” Crawford said. “Every summer, when we play pick-up, we play together. We’ve always been on the same team, even when he was with Philadelphia and I was with New York. For us, we have a great synergy. But we’re just trying to complement the guys that are out there.” Crawford is 34, Hawes 26. Crawford is averaging 21.3 points through five exhibition games. Only teammate Blake Griffin and Golden State’s Klay Thompson are averaging more and they are both at 21.6 points per game. Crawford is shooting 60.7 (17 of 28) percent from 3-point range.

Can Hollins forge a new path for Nets?

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
11:57
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Lionel HollinsNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesNew Nets coach Lionel Hollins must figure out a new identity in the team's third year in Brooklyn.
At this time last year, the question in Brooklyn was whether the Nets’ old roster could stay healthy enough to make an impact in the postseason. Not whether they’d make it, mind you. That seemed a foregone conclusion after the team mortgaged its future to add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to its pricey veteran core.

Expectations were quickly recalibrated once the Nets struggled out of the gate and Brook Lopez was lost for the season, but an Eastern Conference championship, even with Miami’s big three still in tact and boasting the past three East titles, at that time seemed within the realm of possibility.

Today, no one is looking at the Nets as a contender. After the offseason departures of Jason Kidd and Pierce, and the recent injury setback to Lopez, the question this season is whether Lionel Hollins, the franchise’s fourth head coach since the move onto Flatbush Avenue and into the NBA conversation in 2012, can forge some semblance of an identity from the remnants of last season’s all-in approach.

Hollins’ history is a mixed bag. His Memphis teams stressed defense first, with offenses that were below average. In training camp Hollins crowed that the Grizzlies players who ended up making first and second all-NBA defense teams weren’t known as shut-down defenders until he started coaching them.

Is what Tony Allen does really something you can coach? Is the way Marc Gasol moves 7-feet and 260 pounds to stymie a point guard something anyone can learn?

We’re about to find out.

It would be a mistake to expect Lopez to cover ground like Gasol, or anyone in the Nets backcourt to chase, harry and disrupt like Allen and Mike Conley. Hollins’ system in Memphis was a team effort, but it relied on superb individual defenders controlling one-on-one matchups. In contrast, last season’s Nets defended best when they switched with abandon, squeezing their opponents up against the shot clock as the offense searched for an opening against interchangeable defenders. Deflections, turnovers and long possessions: The effects were similar, the methods divergent.

Will Hollins follow in Kidd’s footsteps? It sounds like he is advocating the same all-out pressure and physicality he did in Memphis. “We want to make it so every possession is so hard that when we get to the last four or five minutes of a game, shots that may have been going in now start falling short because they’re tired, or because they’re getting lazy with passes, maybe they don’t execute as well and we get steals. It’s a process for 48 minutes.”

But is such a style sustainable in Brooklyn? It is a fool’s errand to expect his Nets, who may not start a single player under 30, to play with the same defensive energy as his much younger Grizzlies did. Back-to-backs, road trips and customary bumps and bruises that accompany the 82-game season will simply wear more on the Nets older joints. You just aren’t getting more than 20-25 minutes a night of all-out effort from Garnett these days.

[+] EnlargeNets
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe holdovers from last season's all-in approach will try to piece together a contender in Brooklyn.
Ironically, Hollins’ reputation for uninventive offensive tactics may not be much of a problem in Brooklyn. In Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, the Nets have three of the best post players at their respective positions. You could do worse than running something simple to get one of those three the opportunity to go to work from the mid post. Of course, you could also do better, do more.

That’s sort of where the Nets as a whole stand right now. You could do worse than what they have. Johnson is still a heck of a two-way player. Lopez, if healthy, is entering his prime and was wrecking opposing frontlines before he hurt his foot. Whether Williams ever recovers the burst that made him a superstar, he’s still a solid two-way guard.

But with the Nets’ obscenely bloated payroll and the attractiveness of the New York market to players around the league, you could also do a whole lot better. There’s little inspiration in the borough that is the creative hub of the world’s most powerful city. No draft picks, no projects, no imagination.

Pierce, who said the Nets told him they were not interested in chasing a championship this year, put it this way: “They're kind of in the middle right now. And I really didn't want to be in the middle.”

GM Billy King was more bullish. “Our goal is still to try to win a championship,” King said. “We're not taking steps back or anything like that.”

In broad terms, that may be true. But with owner Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly exploring selling his majority stake in the team, and yet another coach looking to reshape things, it’s hard to see how the Nets can move forward. Instead of championships, simply establishing an identity and culture that can last for more than eight months would count as a success.

Are the Grizzlies better than ever?

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
11:47
PM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Memphis Grizzlies Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesDoes the core that brought life to NBA basketball in Memphis have another run left in it?
While much of the NBA’s offseason fracas centered around free agents and player movement, down in Memphis, Tennessee, the Grizzlies are recovering from a third consecutive summer of front-office tumult.

It started in 2012, when tech-fueled tyro Robert Pera replaced industrial tycoon Michael Heisley as owner and installed a new management team. That was followed a year later by an unconventional coaching swap, with Pera-appointed CEO Jason Levien cutting ties with Lionel Hollins after a franchise-record 57 wins and a franchise-first trip to the Western Conference finals. And winds of change blew down Beale Street yet again this past summer, as Pera abruptly dismissed Levien and nearly let head coach Dave Joerger leave, yielding an arranged marriage of old school (returned-from-exile GM Chris Wallace) and new school (ESPN stat head turned VP John Hollinger) in the front office.

And, yet, despite all of this upstairs upheaval, down on the court the Grizzlies stand as one of the league’s most stable franchises. As decision-makers have come and gone and come back, the core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen has weathered it all, and they are now set to begin their fifth season together.

Since this foursome has been together, the Grizzlies are one of only five teams to make the playoffs each season and compile at least 20 postseason wins. Two of the others (the Heat and Pacers) lost their top players this summer (LeBron James, to the Cavs; Paul George, to injury), which leaves Memphis trailing only Western Conference favorites San Antonio and Oklahoma City when it comes to competitive continuity.

In the 15 seasons before their core four arrived, the Grizzlies had never won a playoff game. In their four seasons together, Conley, Gasol, Randolph and Allen have won 21. It’s the most productive and durable local quartet since an earlier “Memphis group,” Stax Records house band and instrumental hit makers Booker T. & the MGs.

But these players mean more to Memphis than their individual or even collective on-court accomplishments would demand. Once one of the most forlorn franchises in all of professional sports, the Grizzlies have finished first(!) and fourth in ESPN The Magazine’s “Ultimate Standings” franchise rankings the past two years, spurred in large part by No. 2 and No. 6 finishes in “player likability.”

Given their arrival together at a time when a record three playoff sweeps had been bracketed by long periods of ineptitude, is it going too far to say that the new MGs -- Memphis Grizzlies, natch -- saved professional basketball in Memphis?

But because time is forever tight, threats of a band breakup are ever-lurking. Allen appeared in serious trade rumors last season. Randolph threatened to leave in free agency this summer before signing a three-year extension. And Gasol’s looming free agency will cast a shadow over this entire season.

And because time is merciless, incompatible career trajectories have perhaps doomed this quartet’s ideal moment to never materialize. Conley and Gasol have grown into terrific two-way players at key positions, anchoring the team on both ends of the floor. But to maximize their gifts, both seem to need an alpha dog scorer to play off. Randolph has that demeanor, but no longer has that game. At least not every night. Not against every matchup.

When Randolph was having 30-point playoff performances in this group’s first postseason run, Gasol and Conley were still putting their games together. Now that they’re cresting, Randolph has turned the corner into a so-far-soft decline.

And yet even with that bittersweet undercurrent of limitation and missed opportunity, the practical best could, just maybe, still be yet to come.

[+] EnlargeZach Randolph
AP Photo/Brandon DillThe Griz hope Zach Randolph has enough offensive punch left to buoy their attack again this season.
A return to elite defense after last season’s injury-provoked slippage is a prerequisite. The Grizzlies fell from second in points allowed per possession in 2012-13 to eighth last season, when three reigning all-defense honorees (including Gasol, the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year) combined to miss 59 games.

With better health from that trio and offseason import Vince Carter (fourth among shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus last season) replacing Mike Miller (71st among small forwards) on the wing, the Grizzlies' defense should have sharper claws this season. That’s provided Carter recovers fully from offseason ankle surgery that has slowed him down in preseason.

The other end prompts bigger questions. Even a league-best defense won’t yield a contender if Joerger can’t squeeze an above-average offense from a team that hasn’t finished in the top half of the league in points per possession since Hubie Brown patrolled the sidelines. And doing so will take more than strong play from Gasol, Conley and Randolph.

The four-man core that established the Grizzlies’ “grit and grind” identity was mostly assembled by Wallace. (Conley was technically Jerry West’s final pick, or maybe Marc Iavaroni’s first, but Wallace gave him an extension when many still had doubts.) But given the apparent emphasis on 3-point shooting this season, it appears Hollinger’s fingerprints are all over trying to forge a more modern approach on offense.

There’s Carter, not quite as pure a shooter as Miller, but more prolific, hoisting 138 more 3s last season in similar playing time. There’s Jon Leuer, who cracked the top 30 in made 3s among power forwards as a part-timer last season and has a chance this season to triple his long-distance workload as the franchise’s first rotation stretch-4 since Brian Cardinal. And there’s stat-fave rookie Jordan Adams literally waiting in the wings to boost the team’s offense with a free throws-and-3s style at the first opportunity.

The NBA is still a superstar’s league, and the Grizzlies don’t really have one. But they were the equivalent of a 58-win team last season in games in which Conley and Gasol shared the floor. If the core stays healthy and a hopefully positive new balance in the front office is mirrored by a new balance on the floor, this could still be the best Grizzlies team yet.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Kyrie Irving's challenge

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
1:16
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kyrie Irving has far better teammates this season, but will he get the ball enough to do what he does best? Amin Elhassan and Henry Abbott discuss.

video

Charlotte searching for something more

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
10:22
AM ET
By Matthew Poindexter
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Lance StephensonJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsLance Stephenson comes with some risks, but he'll be worth it if he can build buzz again in Charlotte.
Over the past few years, I rarely was able to convince anyone to watch Charlotte Bobcats basketball. But one evening last season, while visiting a friend who grew up attending Hornets games, I saw on my phone that the Bobcats were tied late in the fourth quarter. When we turned the television on, we watched only two late Charlotte possessions. First, a Bobcats bench player who was trapped along the sideline dribbled the ball off his own foot and out of bounds; the next trip down the floor, they were hit with a shot-clock violation. I’d seen it so often it barely fazed me, but my friend couldn’t take it. The game went to commercial and he changed the channel. “Watching that is masochism.”

He wasn’t wrong, either. Though successful overall, last season’s Bobcats were dreadful on offense, 24th in the NBA. A fan who watched them with any frequency could be easily convinced they were dead last. Charlotte’s slow-paced approach would be called methodical if its methods didn’t produce a team that was in the bottom third in 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage and offensive rebound percentage. Only a league-best turnover rate kept the offense afloat.

The Bobcats instead rode a stellar defense to a winning record and the playoffs, the franchise’s first in four seasons and the second in the Bobcats era. Local fans weren’t along for the ride, though: Time Warner Cable Arena showed almost no change in how many people showed up over the previous season, with the Bobcats coming in 25th in attendance. The Bobcats may have been moderately successful, but they were decidedly not sexy. They made opponents take difficult shots, they didn’t foul, they collected defensive rebounds … and that was about it. Fans apparently wanted something flashier.

This season, Charlotte should get just that. The team’s big offseason signing, Lance Stephenson, should space the floor and create shots like Charlotte hasn’t seen in over a decade. If that happens, expect fans to find their way to Charlotte basketball again. Sure, Stephenson has a well-earned reputation for questionable decisions. He has repeatedly demonstrated poor judgment on the court, in the locker room and perhaps most concerning, off the court. On multiple occasions, he thought it wise to goad the best player in basketball. Teammates reportedly took offense to his actions in Indianapolis. And if Stephenson’s domestic assault arrest had occurred in 2014 instead of 2010, who knows when he would see the court again.

But the 6-foot-5 New Yorker also may be the best guard to wear a Charlotte jersey since Baron Davis. He alone should help make the Hornets' offense easier on the eyes. As should P.J. Hairston, who is quite Stephensonian himself: A spotty off-court track record forced him out of college at North Carolina, but his shooting skills -- especially from behind the arc -- made him worth the risk at pick No. 26 for Charlotte, which ranked in the bottom third in the league in 3-point percentage last season.

Like any fan base, Charlotte will quickly overlook past indiscretions if Stephenson and Hairston make the team’s offense worth the price of admission. But that doesn’t mean the two will receive full pardons from Hornets fans, either. The trust that characterized the 1990s team/fan base relationship is gone, and there’s reason to think it won’t be back for years. Justified or not, local fans feel they have been betrayed more than once. The hurt and loss felt when George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans never totally went away, though the recent Hornets rebranding helps. When the Bobcats arrived, already-distrustful fans were paired with inept ownership and unexplainable front-office decisions. The result was bad basketball that only compounded fan skepticism. More recently, watching Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson use the threat of relocation to force Charlotte taxpayers to foot the bill for millions in unnecessary stadium renovations only furthered fan distrust.

Now, not even the best get adulation mixed with guarded skepticism. Michael Jordan, North Carolina’s basketball Jesus, was seen as a questionable presence even before he became majority owner. Cam Newton, the Panthers’ star quarterback with the perfect smile and otherworldly potential, is routinely blasted on local sports talk radio for perceived immaturity and inability. If Jordan and Newton can’t generate unqualified adulation in Charlotte, baggage-laden free agents like Stephenson have no chance to be welcomed with open arms.

Regardless of fan wariness, rolling the dice on players such as Stephenson and Hairston was the right decision. The only thing that can reasonably bring fans back to Hornets games, both at the arena and on television, is making Charlotte’s offense something worth watching again. Even if the fans never fall in love with Stephenson, he should at least make them show up and cheer. And after everything Charlotte fans have been through, that alone is a welcome change.

Then & Now & Later: Kyrie Irving

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
9:31
AM ET
Foster By DJ Foster
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kyrie IrvingGetty ImagesKyrie Irving looked like a future star as a rookie. Will he become one next to the NBA's best player?
"Then & Now & Later" is a scouting profile series that analyzes the perception, development and potential of young players in the NBA. Previous editions tackled Anthony Davis and Ricky Rubio. Up now: Kyrie Irving.

Then


Kyrie Irving was the rebound for a spurned sports town.

As impossible as it might have been, it was on the then-19-year-old to bring the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the grieving process after LeBron James left for Miami.

To his credit, Irving played that role well. He demanded attention right from the start, his brilliance with the ball forcing you to live in the moment, not the past. Though the sample size was only 11 games at Duke, he played almost exactly as most predicted -- an average athlete with an unreal handle and smoothness around the rim. Though James' shadow still lingered, Irving was a budding superstar Cleveland could really grow with.

But that process was quickly accelerated. General manager Chris Grant, perhaps mandated to live up to owner Dan Gilbert's guarantee to beat James to a title, made multiple win-now moves and routinely tried to outsmart the draft process.

In large part because of that, the perception of Irving became complicated when the "next level" to his game never came. Some of the shine wore off as time went on and the losses continued to pile up, and it didn't help matters that Irving rarely looked engaged defensively or that his key percentages (true shooting, effective field goal, rebound and assist) all declined after his marvelous 2011-12 rookie of the year campaign.

But despite the hit in production and reputation, Irving provided post-James Cleveland with what fans needed: a pleasant distraction and, more important, a recruiting chip. Maybe James would have come home regardless, but Irving’s potential probably made that decision a little easier.


Now


Up to this point, Irving has spent most of his professional career on an island. His best moments have come almost completely independent of his teammates, whether during All-Star Weekend or in isolation at the top of the key in the regular season.

Irving’s greatest strength is his ability to create for himself off the dribble, a skill he has been able to hone thanks to the ineptitude of his teammates and the stale offensive systems he has been in. Irving makes opposing big men in the pick-and-roll look like dancing puppets -- a quick in-and-out dribble makes limbs go limp, a crossover sends them flying comically in the wrong direction.

There have been negative side effects to the overreliance on those abilities, though, as Irving has developed into a sometimes reluctant distributor, content with taking the first shot that is available to him. Irving’s usage percentage was practically identical to Stephen Curry’s last season, but Curry’s 39.9 assist percentage was drastically higher than Irving's 31.6.

A lot of that has to do with the quality of teammates around Irving and the general lack of trust. Irving and Dion Waiters would reluctantly take turns trying to go 1-on-5 while the other stood around and watched -- the type of offense usually reserved for bad pickup basketball.

And if Irving wasn’t hitting, the Cavs were pretty much toast. He shot 47.9 percent from the field in the 28 wins he was a part of last season, but just 40.1 percent in 43 losses. His isolation scoring could give Cleveland a puncher’s chance, but his negative impact defensively and the lack of two-way talent around him made every game an uphill battle if he wasn't on fire from the field.

Could Irving have done more the past three years to help the bottom line? Absolutely. His defensive real plus/minus rating was 71st out of 82 eligible point guards last season, and at least some of the blame for his team’s lack of chemistry has to fall on him.

But it’s not that Irving is incapable of playing a complete game. Some of the league’s poorest defenders just don’t have the foot speed or the intelligence to be useful on that end, but that isn't the case here. There’s just very little consistency in terms of his effort and technique, as he’ll often lazily walk into perimeter closeouts or provide faux help and actually guard no one.

Some of that is understandable. Buzzing around the court defensively is much less appealing during meaningless games, which make up the majority of Irving's career as a pro thus far.

Scoring has taken clear priority, as it often tends to for a bad team’s most gifted player, and that has created some clear accountability issues. Your best player can be a below-average defender, but not an unwilling one. Irving and Cleveland were caught in a vicious cycle that we see swallow up some of the league’s most talented young players time and time again.


Later


Wipe the slate clean. Locker-room tiffs, shabby defense, bad body language, empty stats. Forget it all.

Irving, just 22 years old, has received a fresh start. He has a new max contract, a new coach in David Blatt, a new pick-and-pop big man in Kevin Love, and the reigning Best Basketball Player on the Planet next to him in James.

The big question is how Irving will adapt to all of it. You would hope he knows better than Ricky Davis, who once famously said: "I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score." The ball is going to be in Irving’s hands a lot less, whether he’s ready for that or not.

Some established habits may die hard, but if his ramped-up defensive efforts this summer with Team USA during the FIBA Basketball World Cup are any indicator, Irving is mentally prepared to redefine his game. His role will be more complicated and will fluctuate on a game-to-game basis, but James has a habit of making basketball much easier for everyone on his side.

Where we might see the biggest difference in Irving’s production is away from the ball. He shot just 35.3 percent on 3.3 spot-up attempts per game last season, according to NBA.com. But with defenders unable to stay glued to him because of the presence of James and Love, those numbers should improve. Gone are the days of hoping Alonzo Gee will find him open on a drive-and-kick; defenders will have to actually pick their poison now instead of staying glued to Irving.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Irving’s play, but no point guard in the league is in a better position. After a temporary delay, Irving is right back on track to have the type of career befitting his immense talent.

D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @fosterdj. All stats via NBA.com, Basketball-Reference.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

First Cup: Tuesday

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
4:57
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Rick Gethin contributor for CSNChicago.com: With the Halloween matchup just around the corner, tonight’s game between the Bulls and Cavaliers was the first shot fired in what is considered to be a two-horse race for the Eastern Conference. Although it’s only preseason, it was treated as a regular season contest and the victors will take this as a momentum builder moving forward. On the second night of a back-to-back, it was apparent the Bulls were lagging at times. They started slow and trailed Cleveland much of the night. But there’s one thing about Tom Thibodeau’s team that stood out in Columbus, Ohio, and that was a never-say-quit attitude. As Cleveland’s starters played the majority of the game, Thibodeau elected to spread his minutes along the bench. Derrick Rose played some good minutes and led all players with 30 points. LeBron James said he wasn't surprised how quick Rose looked.
  • Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: There are some theatrics coming between LeBron James and David Blatt. Just ask James. He said he expects some tribulations along with the way with his coach. James said he went through obstacles with Mike Brown and later with Erik Spoelstra. The same thing is probably going to happen with Blatt. “Every day it’s a learning process,” James said. “You have to go through something in order to create a bond — for the worse. We have to lose a ball game we should have won. We have to get in an argument, just to test each other out. I know it’s going to happen. That’s the only way we’re going to grow. You don’t define yourself during the good times. It’s the bad times.”
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: From 2008 through their championship season and on into 2012, the Mavericks had one starting point guard. It was Jason Kidd’s show. Since then, they’ve had three new starters at the point in three seasons. It’ll be Jameer Nelson when the regular season begins next week. He’s following Jose Calderon and Darren Collison as the opening-day starters the previous two seasons. Nelson, by the way, has a thought about the yearly turnover. “There won’t be another one after that for awhile,” Nelson said. “The plan is for there not to be another one for several years with me, Devin [Harris] and Raymond [Felton]. It’s good to be alongside those guys.” Nelson emits a quiet confidence that has already made a big impact in the locker room. He’s coach Rick Carlisle’s kind of player. Not as physically gifted as Kidd was, but clearly the kind of smart player who can guide a team in similar fashion to the way Kidd did. And Carlisle would like nothing more than if Nelson became a long-term fixture at the point.
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: It’s still happening. The Hawks are going lengthy stretches where they are unable to score or stop the opposition. At times the Hawks are running near perfection – like when they went on a 20-0 run between the first and second quarters to take a 40-24 lead. Yet less than 12 minutes later, the 16-point lead was gone and the Hornets were right back in the game. “We are playing well in stretches and we are playing beneath our standards for significant stretches,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “All of us, we have to get better." ... The inability to play a complete game was an issue last season. It is easy to shake the inconsistency off during the preseason, but the Hawks will have things to fix moving into the regular season.
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Hornets rookie P.J. Hairston said he’s considering changing agent representation. One possibility: Former UNC Greensboro player Rodney Blackstock. Hairston originally retained Juan Morrow who, it turned out, was not certified as an agent by the players union.
  • Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune: When New Orleans Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis walked to the bench 37 seconds into the third quarter to get his right wrist checked out, there likely was a collective "Here we go again" sigh from the Pelicans' fan base. But it was only a scare. Although Davis was officially diagnosed with a sprained right wrist, he downplayed the injury after the Pelicans' 88-84 victory Monday night against the Washington Wizards at Royal Farms Arena. "It's all good," Davis said. "I went up for a lob and came down on it. I'm fine," Davis said. Davis said he injured his wrist while attempting to catch an alley-hoop pass and landed awkwardly on his hand. Davis said if it had been a regular season game he would have played on after getting the wrist taped by trainers.
  • Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post: Forty-two years after the Rockets cut James Silas, a 26-year-old Xavier Silas is competing for the 15th and final spot on the Washington Wizards’ roster. He is a 6-foot-5 shooting guard willing to run with a smooth shooting stroke — the precise combination the Wizards seek after a slew of injuries has sidelined a trio of three-point threats on the wing. ... Silas didn’t play in the Wizards’ first two preseason games but compensated in his debut with 16 points. He was averaging 13 points on 32.4 percent shooting from the floor in three games before scoring two points in 10 minutes in Monday night’s exhibition against the New Orleans Pelicans. Injuries to Bradley Beal (wrist), Martell Webster (back), and Glen Rice Jr. (ankle) have left the door open for Silas to break in like his father did four decades ago. “He’s a fighter,” James Silas said. “He’s going to keep fighting. I’m proud of him.”
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Kings coach Michael Malone knows how he wants to start games when the regular season begins Oct. 29. The lineup isn’t unexpected, as it’s the same group that started the first exhibition game. Darren Collison and Ben McLemore will start at guard, Rudy Gay and Jason Thompson at forward and DeMarcus Cousins at center. That was the starting lineup for Monday’s 106-99 exhibition loss to the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. ... There’s also the matter of sorting out the rotation off the bench. Malone likes Ramon Sessions as a replacement for Collison or complement to him. Stauskas, Reggie Evans, Omri Casspi, Derrick Williams and Carl Landry figure to play key roles as reserves to start the season.
  • Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: The availability of starters Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter for next week’s season opener remains in question as they continue to recover from their respective maladies. Splitter has yet to play in the preseason after straining his right calf early in training camp. He has been spotted doing rehab work but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he “probably” will miss Wednesday’s home game against Atlanta. “I don’t know when he’s going to be ready,” Popovich said. “Hopefully by the time the season starts.” Leonard appeared in the exhibition opener against Alba Berlin, but has been out since picking up a viral eye infection almost two weeks ago. Leonard continues to be held away from the team after the infection switched from one eye to the other. “He had a really strong strain of whatever virus it is,” Popovich said. “He’s still out and they’re going to re-evaluate on Thursday.”
  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: O.J. Mayo, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Bucks in the summer of 2013, said he is energized by playing under Kidd and will take whatever role the coach gives him. "He definitely was one of the greatest players ever to play the game, and his game was all about trusting the pass and leading by example," Mayo said. "When you have him as your head coach, why not try what he's preaching?" ... Suddenly the Bucks bench group is looking much improved with Mayo, Dudley, John Henson and Kendall Marshall poised to play major roles. Henson and Marshall started against the Knicks with center Larry Sanders and point guard Brandon Knight sidelined by injuries. Mayo was an iron-man starter in his first two years in the NBA, when he played for the Memphis Grizzlies. Then he adjusted to a sixth-man role the next two years in Memphis. "I don't even care, man," Mayo said of starting or coming off the bench.
  • Scott Cacciola of The New York Times: Derek Fisher has yet to coach a regular-season game for the Knicks, but he can sense a distinct advantage to his new occupation. “My body feels great, that’s for sure,” said Fisher, who, as an NBA point guard for 18 seasons, absorbed his share of contact. “Maybe not as much sleep, but my body feels absolutely wonderful.” Fisher patrolled the small parcel of property in front of the home bench at Madison Square Garden on Monday when the Knicks fell to the Milwaukee Bucks, 120-107, in a preseason game. Fisher was opposed by none other than Jason Kidd, late of Brooklyn, and perhaps there was a bit of symbolism — if not exactly symmetry — as two former point guards went about the business of coaching their new teams. For Fisher, it is all still brand new. For the first time, he is responsible for shuffling lineups and seeking chemistry and managing minutes as the Knicks build toward their opener against the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 29. On Monday, the job meant experimenting with Amar’e Stoudemire at the center position. It also meant coping with the unexpected absence of Jose Calderon, who strained his right calf in the first quarter and did not return.
  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: The Nets have tried to be diplomatic about their preseason trip to China, but the aftermath has made it hard to justify it as something other than a nuisance. There have been widespread complaints about jet lag and exhaustion after spending eight days last week in a time zone that was 12 hours different. There also is a stomach virus apparently brought over from China, affecting Kevin Garnett to the point that he missed his third straight game Monday at the Barclays Center and “probably” won’t travel to Boston for the preseason finale Wednesday, according to Nets coach Lionel Hollins. “We’re still trying to get China out of us,” Deron Williams said after Monday’s 99-88 victory over the Sixers. I don’t want to get into his personal bathroom habits,” said Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who missed the first game in China last week against the Kings with an illness. “But he’s been sick — sick enough to the point where he’s not playing."
  • Tom Moore of The Intelligencer: The 76ers had hoped that Nerlens Noel would've worked off most of the rust from sitting out his rookie year while rehabilitating a torn ACL by the Oct. 29 start of the regular season. Prior to Monday night's 99-88 preseason loss to the Nets at the Barclays Center, Sixers coach Brett Brown admitted it's not turning out that way. The slender big man appeared in five of a possible 11 summer league games and has played in just three of seven exhibition contests. He missed his third straight game with an upper respiratory infection and was sidelined by a quad strain Oct. 10 in Minnesota. “The plan was to really maximize summer leagues and have a great preseason and move quickly into the regular season,” Brown said. “That has taken a hit. It's all good, but it hasn't gone to plan. It's a minor setback. We'll just move him on at, I hope, an intelligent pace.” Brown said Noel, who hasn't played since an Oct. 14 defeat to the Knicks, might have suited up if it were the regular season, but he would prefer for Noel to practice before getting on the court.

Lakers aren't attracting stars with Kobe

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:18
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The Lakers have long been a magnet to the NBA's biggest names, but it's getting tough to find elite players who want to share the court with Kobe Bryant.

video

Mind of the Fan: LeBron's homecoming

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
1:05
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
videoIt took years, but LeBron James is finally more popular than ever, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. In the latest September survey, 18.4 percent of NBA fans cited James as their favorite player, almost double the 9.4 percent figure from the 2011-12 season, when he was still mired in Decision backlash.

But LeBron's surge in popularity is confined to certain demographics.

MOF 1ESPN
The "I'm coming home" bump was pronounced among whites and Hispanics polled. In the 2012-13 season, 9.7 percent of white NBA fans listed LeBron as their favorite player. That figure crept up to 13.2 percent last season and registered at 16.0 percent in the latest September survey.

Hispanics supported LeBron to the tune of 13.5 percent during the 2013-14 season and now do so at 17.4 percent. Even though LeBron rejected a heavily Latino market in Miami, his homeward turn certainly didn't hurt him with Hispanics polled.

There wasn't much evidence of LeBron's move resonating with African-American NBA fans or younger NBA fans. LeBron was the favorite player for 28.1 percent of the African-American NBA fans polled during the 2013-14 season. Our latest figures show no "I'm coming home" impact in that demographic, with LeBron most recently registering as the favorite player for 27.8 percent of African-American fans.

MOF 2ESPN
Younger demographics also received the LeBron news with apathy. Fans ages 12 to 17 went from a 22.4 percent favorite rating during the season to 21.4 percent in our September report. Support among fans age 18 to 34 crept up only 0.6 percent during this time frame. The millennial NBA fan seems to care little as to where LeBron works.

In stark contrast, older fans wholly embraced LeBron's embrace of his old team. The 35-54 demographic went from 14.7 percent support to 18.4 percent. Fans over the age of 55 went from 11.7 percent to 16.6 percent. LeBron's summer bump was powered by fans over the age of 35.

There might be a connection between how LeBron's return was received and how inclined the fan receiving it is to root for a local team. Older fans are generally more likely to support the local squad. Last season, 57.5 percent of fans over the age of 55 said they support the team in their market. Only 39.1 percent of fans 12-17 said they support the in-market team. There's a similar contrast between white and African-American NBA fans, with 58 percent of white fans supporting the local team to 37 percent black fans pledging local allegiance.

MOF 3ESPN
LeBron's popularity had been slowly building after falling precipitously in the Decision aftermath. In surveys conducted during the 2013-14 season, 16.1 percent of NBA fans named him as their favorite player. In surveys conducted over July and August, that figure jumped to 20.7 percent. Some of that positive feeling has since ebbed -- James isn't the story in the sports news cycle like he was in the summer -- but much of the afterglow still surrounds him. His latest 18.4 percent favorite rating easily exceeds his old Cleveland apex of popularity in 2010 (15.6 percent).

In terms of reputation, leaving Miami has been the opposite of leaving Cleveland. When LeBron ditched the Cavs in 2010, his favorite rating sank from that 15.6 percent figure to 10.2 percent in his first season with the Heat. Spurning Cleveland meant a sudden loss in over a third of his fans. In stark contrast, breaking hearts in Miami has led to many new LeBron converts nationwide, especially among demographics that tend to root local.

It would appear that if you root for the home team, you're more predisposed to cheer LeBron for coming home. If you like rooting for local clothing, you were probably rooting for Cleveland.

Can new offense make Klay an All-Star?

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
12:00
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Steve KerrJuan O'Campo/NBAE/Getty ImagesWill new Warriors coach Steve Kerr bring out the best in Klay Thompson's game this season?
At the Golden State Warriors' practice facility, coach Steve Kerr said something that had merit but little statistical basis: “Klay [Thompson] is at the point of his career where he’s very close to being an All-Star.”

Kerr is not a stupid person, and he’s not exactly prone to happy hyperbole either. One jarring difference from last season is this coach’s candor in discussing shortcomings. You hear terms like “bad practice,” confessions of broken plays, admissions of vulnerability that the previous coach felt too assailed to reveal. While the last guy made basketball seem like a war conquered by confidence, the current one makes it sound like an all-obsessing job, fraught with fallibility.

So how can the Warriors' coach believe that a player who has never notched an above-league average PER stands on the cusp of stardom? How can Kerr be so confident in Thompson when his shooting guard lags in so many categories outside of points?

[+] EnlargeKlay Thompson
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsGetting to the rim in the new offense would only make Klay Thompson an even greater offensive threat.
A lot of it rests on the idea that Thompson can quite literally choose to be a much better player. As in, he can take more of the shots he’s incredible at, and fewer of the shots that give little reward. The way Kerr put it after the “All-Star” assessment: “What I talk to him about is getting greedy, but not with bad shots. Getting greedy with good shots.”

Getting greedy with good shots. That painted arc is the line between a bad kind and good kind of selfish. Kerr continued, “He can shoot 25-footers with ease. The floor is his, but he’s got to be efficient and smart with the way he uses it.”

Thompson should be one of the league’s most efficient scorers, thanks to a high-release distance jumper that’s equal parts accurate and unblockable. His scoring efficiency was, like last season’s Warriors offense, disappointingly average. Both Thompson and the Warriors were hyped as offensive juggernauts throughout the year. Both Thompson and the Warriors squandered advantages by relying too much on midrange post-ups. Golden State finished last in the league in passes per possession. Thompson finished last in the league in passes per touch.

Stephen Curry is the superstar and face of the franchise, but at the moment his backcourt partner better symbolizes where the organization is at: its potential, its improved defense, its flaws, its uncertain future. The Warriors are deliberating over Thompson’s second contract, and he’s the player who must improve for them to compete for titles. It’s difficult to envision Golden State as a contender if Curry remains the lone star.

The hope is that Kerr unlocks Thompson’s and this team’s promise with an offense that moves the ball in a manner Golden State hasn’t moved it. All the way from the practice court, through a window, you can see that the walls of Kerr’s office are slathered in dry-erase ink. The wall scribblings conjure something between intricate planning and madness. Prying eyes can’t clock just what the mysterious cave paintings mean. “What’s he building in there?” the part of your brain that sounds like Tom Waits might mutter.

If what we’ve seen and heard is to be believed, he’s building an offense that incorporates elements of Spurs motion and elements of the triangle. With the assistance of former Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry, there’s influence from the Nash-era Suns as well. The challenge for Golden State is to generate offense without floor-spreading bigs like so many teams have -- like what the Warriors would have had if they’d traded for a certain current Cleveland Cavalier. For Golden State to live up to its billing as some revolutionary, exciting “Splash Brothers” attack, it must thrive with a positively old-school look. The Warriors must score with a center and power forward passing out of the post.

Kerr is sanguine about the possibilities, though. When asked if it’s a challenge to lean on passing (as opposed to shooting) bigs, Kerr exclaimed, “It would be a challenge to not have those guys!" He chuckled, then added, "When you have great passing bigs, it makes offense so much easier. Two things can really stretch the floor: shooting and passing. If you have good interior passing, you can get the spacing that you need.”

Many teams stretch the floor with the mere presence of shooters. The Warriors hope to stretch defenses with their decisions.

It’s not as simple as just rolling the ball out and hoping Andrew Bogut and David Lee pass incisively, though. The team must move in a way that primes the passing. Kerr explained the general idea behind the new offense as, “You take whatever talent you have. What we have is a great shooting backcourt and excellent passing bigs, so that’s why you see us doing what we’re doing. A lot of dribble handoffs, a lot of moving and cutting, because we know we have the skill to move the ball around.”

The dribble handoffs have been a distinct feature of an offense that came firing out of the gate this preseason. Bogut, thought by many to be a defense-only player, operates as the fulcrum of so much offense. He doesn’t simply set screens. He confrontationally dribbles the ball directly at smaller defenders, halts and blocks their path to Curry or Thompson.

Bogut explains, “If I can attack first and then get a better [passing] angle, it creates so much havoc for that big guy guarding me because he has to show on guys like Steph.”

Teammates orbit Bogut as defenders desperately try to get around his wide, jutted body. Defenders who doggedly chase Curry or Thompson around the screen can often be evaded with a cut away from the pick. If this happens, Bogut is more than likely to hit the open man with a crisp pass. If he still has his dribble, you might be treated to the comedy of a fake handoff that tricks everybody, followed by a slow turn and stroll through a vacant paint. It’s a shocking sight, like if the Arc de Triomphe grew sick of the circling traffic, uprooted itself and strolled down the Champs-Elysees past gawking tourists.

Bogut has averaged 7.25 assists per 40 minutes this preseason, and it would appear he’s enjoying a system where, “They obviously want me to be involved more, especially the high post area to utilize my passing.” The ever-wary vet finished that thought with, “I’m not going to say, ‘I hated last year.’ I loved last year. I’m at a point in my career where I play whatever role coach wants me to, and if they want me to handle the ball more, I’ll do that.” Like a few of his teammates, Bogut is careful to stop short of slighting the old regime.

Lee has also thrived in the dizzying circles this preseason, frequently cutting behind the action for points at the rim. He’s claimed a 27.02 PER, and against Miami, he hit all 11 of his shots. Like with Bogut, Lee’s expected to export offensive creativity from inside the arc. In last season’s stilted system, Lee posted his lowest assist average since he was a reserve with the Knicks, back in 2008. More movement might mean more opportunities for Lee to tap into his skill set.

The two Warriors bigs, guys who don’t appear on “Splash Brothers” posters, are subtly linked to Thompson’s story arc. With the burden of creativity shifting from Thompson (and his post-ups) to Bogut and Lee, the thinking is that the shooter will get better shots. So far it’s working spectacularly, at least in this preseason. Thompson’s claimed a ridiculous 34.86 PER while driving more and posting less.

In the background, his agent negotiates his lucrative contract extension with Warriors GM Bob Myers. While the Warriors don’t expect Thompson to average over 34 points per 40 minutes (as he’s doing this preseason), they do expect him to validate the faith that’s implied in the rejection of a Kevin Love trade. Both sides want a deal, though this is complicated by the dizzying array of possibilities created by the NBA’s new TV contract. In theory, Thompson’s long-term Warriors commitment is only a matter of time. As for Thompson making an All-Star team, that could be more a matter of strategy.

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