Kerr and Pop pay tribute to Sager | Conley to return early from back injury | Hornacek looking like a good hire | New CBA will help Curry, but maybe not Wall
No. 1: Kerr and Pop pay tribute to Sager -- With the news of Craig Sager's death on Thursday, the tributes came pouring in from across the NBA. Warriors coach Steve Kerr presided over a "moment of joy" for Sager at Oracle Arena and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, known for both giving Sager a hard time and for his heartfelt love for the sideline reporter after he was diagnosed with leukemia, didn't speak about basketball before Thursday's game in Phoenix. His pre-game press scrum was solely about his thoughts on the passing of a friend, as Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News writes:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called his longtime friend and foil Craig Sager a "very unique and very special" person whose courage in fighting cancer set an example for all of us.
Sager, the longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter best know for his colorful wardrobe and NBA coverage, died Thursday after a brave battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 65.
"The most amazing part of him is his courage," Popovich said. "What he has endured, the fight he put up, the courage he displayed during the situation is beyond my comprehension. If any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every life as if it was his last, we would be well off. We will all miss him very much."
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No. 2: Conley to return early from back injury -- It's only been 18 days since Mike Conley suffered a fractured vertebrae in a collision with the Hornets' Frank Kaminsky. The Grizzlies' original timeframe had Conley out six weeks, but he's set to return in less than three, with the Grizzlies announcing Thursday that their point guard "has returned to the court to participate in full basketball activities." Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report Conley's imminent return, with Memphis set to host Sacramento and Utah this weekend:
After fears that Memphis Grizzlies star guard Mike Conley could miss one to two months because of a back injury, Conley is on course to return to the team's lineup soon, league sources told The Vertical.
The Grizzlies on Thursday had to waive guard Toney Douglas – who had been signed under the NBA's hardship waiver – to clear the way for the imminent returns from injury of Conley, Chandler Parsons and James Ennis, league sources said.
Conley, 29, had been medically cleared to work out in recent days and is feeling closer to a return, league sources said.
The Grizzlies have won a remarkable seven of eight games since Conley suffered a fractured vertebrae in late November, surging to an 18-9 record and the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
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No. 3: Hornacek looking like a good hire -- Phil Jackson's first 2 1/2 years as president of the New York Knicks haven't been great. Since Jackson started making roster and staff decisions, the Knicks have a record of 63-127. But Jackson deserves credit for drafting Kristaps Porzingis and, as Yahoo's Chris Mannix writes, for hiring Jeff Hornacek. After Thursday's loss to the Warriors, the Knicks are 14-12 under Hornacek, beating the teams they're supposed to beat and forsaking the Triangle for a more conventional offense:
Hornacek is doing what a coach should do: Playing to his team's strengths. That means a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls with Rose, isolations with Anthony and exploiting mismatches all over the floor with Porzingis. On Tuesday against Phoenix, Porzingis blended unguardable pick-and-pop jumpers with unblockable shots at the rim. Oh, and he connected on all four of his 3-point attempts, too. There's a New York surliness to Porzingis' game, evidenced by his response to being flung to the floor by the Suns' Marquese Chriss in the third quarter. Porzingis didn't get rattled; he responded with an alley-oop dunk over Chriss and a crossover into a midrange jump shot that made you briefly forget it was a 7-foot big man who did it.
There are more layers to explore with the Knicks' offense, too. Consider: On the surface, a Rose-Anthony pick-and-roll combination would be devastating. A dynamic, (somewhat) overwhelming point guard and one of the best pure scorers in the NBA? It's tantalizing — and it's a combination the Knicks have not yet fully exploited. It's a set Rose and Anthony have called for, and one Hornacek seems inclined to incorporate more of.
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No. 4: New CBA will help Curry, but maybe not Wall -- According to reports, the new collective bargaining agreement (a tentative deal was reached Wednesday) has a designated veteran exception, which allows certain players to get a paid a new maximum salary. As a two-time MVP, the Warriors' Stephen Curry would be eligible, as Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein write for ESPN:
Sources told ESPN that Curry stands to benefit massively from the new designated veteran player provision in the freshly agreed to labor deal, which sets up the two-time reigning MVP to triple his current salary of $12 million to $36 million next season.
Currently playing out the last year on a four-year, $44 million extension that he signed in October 2013 at a time that his long-term durability was still being questioned, Curry will be eligible in July for a new deal that sources say would be worth an estimated $207 million over five years, making it the richest contract in league history and paying out an estimated $47 million in the final season (2021-22).
This new rule enables a narrow selection of superstars who are willing to re-sign with their current team to receive up to 35 percent of the salary cap if certain benchmarks are met. As a two-time MVP who has played for the Warriors his entire career, Curry would meet all the qualifications for the maximum allowable salary. A player with Curry's experience level, under the previous CBA, would have been able to sign for only 30 percent of the cap.
Curry ironically might have new teammate Kevin Durant to thank for his forthcoming windfall. The league's introduction of two designated veteran player exceptions per team in this new CBA, which have been modeled after the designated rookie player exceptions permissible in the current labor deal for one designated player per team still on his rookie-scale contract, appears to be a reaction to Durant's departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency last summer.
But The Wizards' John Wall may fall short of the needed recognition to qualify for the exception. And it's a lack of recognition for what he's done in Washington over the last six years for which Wall already has a problem, as Candace Buckner of the Washington Post explains:
When the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement becomes official, benefits should abound for both players and teams. Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, however, might feel blocked from his full share from the honey pot.
As Wall has emerged as the face of the franchise, he has felt underappreciated by the rest of the league, and the new CBA, which was tentatively agreed to by the league and its players' union on Wednesday night, could unwittingly buttress his perception. On Thursday, Wall addressed the proposed designated veteran rule and how it might affect his contract status.
"I feel like it's amazing and crazy because I had my best year, like, two years ago, my second year [as an] all-star, I averaged 20 and 10 and was a starter but couldn't make all-NBA team," Wall said. "So I mean, you want those individual accolades but it's to the point that [if] you get your recognition, then you get it. You only get those [individual honors] by winning. When I did and had an opportunity to win, I still didn't make it."
Here's where Wall's trophy shelf comes into play. According to a person with knowledge of the CBA discussions between the league and the National Basketball Players Association, the designated veteran rule extends to those who have achieved all-NBA status or won high individual honors such as league MVP or defensive player of the year. Wall, in his seventh season, is a three-time all-star but has not made the all-NBA team nor contended for MVP or defensive player of the year.
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony and his wife La La have been supporting a Florida boy who suffered a brain injury last year ... Kemba Walkerwill miss Friday's game in Boston to attend to a personal matter ... The Clippers will be starting three guards for a second straight game ... On an eight-game losing streak, the Lakers hope to be tougher mentally ... and nobody has played for the Nets longer than Brook Lopez.