Larry Bird sounds off | Wolves’ point guard situation and Rubio | Popovich goes politics (again) |
1. Larry Bird sounds off: The Indiana Pacers are starting to turn their season around, little by little, and once again are back in the playoff mix. A lot more was expected of the Pacers, who replaced head coaches in the offseason and seemingly upgraded their point guard situation by getting Jeff Teague. Yet the task of surrounding Paul George with enough talent to take advantage of his prime years is going slowly. Lots of this falls on the desk of team president Larry Bird. Here’s the Bird Q&A with Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis News:
Question: What are your overall thoughts on the season at the midway point?
Bird: “I think it took a little bit longer than I thought it would to come together. We’ve had stretches where we’ve played really well. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed in how we’re playing on the road. At the beginning of the year, I thought that if we come together, we can probably win a lot more games than we have so far. Overall, I can’t say I’m too disappointed. It’s just that I know going forward that we’ve got to continue to get better and get (Rodney) Stuckey healthy and see what we’ve got.”
Q: The new collective bargaining agreement was signed Thursday. What are your overall thoughts on where the league is going and some of the changes that have been made?
Bird: “It’s a little bit different. What it comes down to, basically, is that the guys are going to get paid a lot more money and you have a better opportunity to keep your own free agents. It leads to smaller markets having an opportunity to do that if they’re willing to pay the money. There’s some changes in there that we like and some we don’t like, but that’s collective bargaining. I think the Commissioner (Adam Silver) and the players got together and they did a deal that they felt was fair to both sides. That’s always good.”
Q: What are the changes that you see as favorable to the Pacers?
Bird: “Well, if you want to keep your free agents, you’re going to have an opportunity to, at least, I think, have a better chance of keeping them. If a player don’t want to be here, and he wants to go somewhere else, that’s just a part of free agency. That’s what’s in the collective bargaining for. But at least you have an opportunity to pay them a little bit more and give them an extra year and be able to keep them and sign them up earlier. I think that’s a plus. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ve read that thing inside and out because that’s what Peter (Dinwiddie) is for. We feel that there’s some advantages and the disadvantage is that we’ve got to spend the money. That’s something we’ve got to decide as a franchise, how far we’re going to go.”
Q: What are your thoughts on Paul George’s upcoming free agency and the possibility of offering the extra sixth year if he’s named to the All-NBA team?
Bird: “I don’t want to get into Paul’s free agency. Before the year started, I told Paul and I said, ‘Look, if you want to sign a long-term deal, we’re willing to do that max (contract) and if you want to wait, I understand.’ But this year, we’re not going to worry about it, we’re not going to talk about it and he’s going to make the decision that’s best for Paul when it comes down to it.”
Q: Do you see any changes in the new collective bargaining agreement having any impact on George’s free agency or is your position still the same in terms of offering him the max, whether it’s five years or six years?
Bird: “Yeah, we want to keep him here long term. That’s the plan.”
Q: You’ve mentioned in the past how you want to score more points and you’ve made a lot of moves in the offseason to get the offense to be better than previous years under coach Frank Vogel. What are your assessments of the team’s offense?
Bird: “Well, you can always get better. I think my biggest beef with the team is winning on the road and pounding the basketball. I said earlier I think the last time I talked to you guys is that one of the things I worry about is that we’ve got a lot of ball pounders. If you move the basketball and everybody gets a touch, you’re going score a lot more points. This goes back three years ago when I said this league is changing and the rules have changed. Teams are shooting more 3s and they’re going to continue to shoot more 3s and the scoring is going to go up. If you don’t try to hold pace, I don’t care how good of a defensive team you are, you better score points or you’re not going to have a chance to win. I feel that way and that’s my philosophy and I think scoring is going to continue to go up year after year. You’ve got some teams right now shooting 20-25 3s, some shooting 30-35 and there’s teams shooting in the 40s. Two, three years from now, I think everybody is going to be shooting 40 3s a game. The scoring is going to go up and you better be on pace with it.”
Q: You promoted Nate McMillan as head coach in the offseason. How would assess what McMillan has done through 41 games?
Bird: “Well, it’s going to be hard for me sit here and tell you. I like Nate. I liked him when I hired him. But anything I say positive about Nate, you’re going to take it as a negative to Frank (Vogel), and that’s not what it’s about. I like Frank. Frank did a hell of a job here. We wish him all the best. We made a lot of changes over the last two or three years, even when Frank was here. We changed a lot of guys on the roster. With Nate came in, we changed coach and a lot of guys on the roster. We’d like to get away from that and have guys longer term and have a team that he can build with and grow with as we go forward.”
Q: Are you pleased with the way McMillan has tried to hold players accountable in trying to get them to play hard every night?
Bird: “I’m pleased with Nate. I’ve always admired Nate as a coach and as a person and I think he’s a great fit for us. I thought Frank was great for us while he was here. He did a lot great things and had some success. Now, it’s a different time and it’s Nate’s turn.”
Q: What has surprised you most this season?
Bird: “That it took us longer to come together than I anticipated, knowing that we weren’t going to be a top-1o defensive team. We want to keep our pace up. You get rid of George Hill and (Ian) Mahinmi and you know you’re going to lose something on the defensive end. It’s hard to compare, but George Hill is a hell of a basketball player and he was great for us. But Jeff Teague is a different type of player. He can make plays and score the basketball and he can get to the foul line. It’s just a different team and a different look. I want to score points and our bench has been struggling at times. Some nights are decent and a little streaky. But overall, if you need a basket we know we can go to big Al (Jefferson) and maybe he can get it for us. I think the guys are still learning one another. I’ve never played on teams where I thought it would take this long for guys to really mesh. They’re starting to play better. I think they’ll continue to get better. Obviously, our schedule is going to be tougher from here on out. That’s just part of it. We should be better as a team.
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2. Wolves’ point guard situation and Rubio: Ricky Rubio was granted an excused absence Saturday for personal reasons, which has nothing to do with the trade rumors once again surrounding the Wolves’ starting point guard. A few days ago an ESPN.com report linked Rubio to the Pistons, which Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy denied would happen. The real reason Rubio is expendable is because the Wolves have two promising youngsters, rookie Kris Dunn and second-year man Tyus Jones, who has been helpful off the bench lately. Here’s Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on where Rubio fits in the Wolves’ point guard situation:
In the immediate aftermath of the Wolves’ 104-101 victory over the Clippers on Thursday, TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith took pretty aggressive stands on what they think of the Wolves and their point guards.
Some caveats are, as usual, necessary before we proceed here.
First, as Britt Robson pointed out, any opinions coming from national analysts should be graded on a curve because they likely aren’t watching the Wolves night in and night out. Barkley and Smith might have only seen a handful of Wolves games this season.
Second, these are guys who get paid to talk, and the more interesting subjects are often the ones with some controversy or edge to them.
Third, there’s definitely some recency bias to consider with their comments. After all, they had just watched the Wolves’ first victory after 10 losses this season in games decided by four points or fewer. And it had happened with Jones and Dunn on the court during crunch time while Rubio was out with an injury. (In fact Dunn, a 22-year-old rookie, was the oldest player on the court for the Wolves down the stretch).
All that said: Many of us heard what they said. I wrote it down. Let’s recap the highlights in three parts.
First, Barkley: “Tom Thibodeau has to step back and say, ‘I’ve got to play Dunn and Jones.’ He never plays those guys a lot of minutes. I wonder if he would have played those guys minutes if Rubio hadn’t gotten hurt. He’s got to turn them young guys loose. I know he’s a terrific coach. I know he likes to be in control. But you’ve got to turn those young guys loose. Ricky Rubio is a good little player but he’s never going to be able to do what Jones does and Dunn does.”
Well, that’s pretty far over the top (which is Barkley’s specialty). Rubio crushes Dunn in pretty much every category this season — even those involving shooting. Sure, you can argue that many of Rubio’s shots are uncontested. He’s still been far and away the better offensive player than Dunn on a consistent basis this season.
Where Barkley stumbles into some reasonable talking points are on 1) Jones playing more and 2) Thibodeau turning things over to the young guys and letting them play. Jones has done well in limited time this season and could be worth an extended look. Dunn is just halfway into a rookie season and is at least a good defensive player so far. There are three viable point guards on the roster — either in terms of current production or future development — and really only enough playing time for two of them when everyone is healthy. Something has to give, which is perhaps why Rubio is reportedly being shopped in trades (or at least was until this latest injury).
Next, Smith piled on: “(Jones and Dunn) play faster and they’re threats on the court. What happens when Rubio comes off pick and rolls — not saying Rubio’s not a good player, just not for this team — is it’s 5 against 4 and it’s easy to guard them. When you put Jones in the game, he’s like ‘yo, you leave me open, I’m going to take it.’”
Smith is onto something here. This facet of Rubio’s game is what can make him a crunch-time liability. When defenses tighten and possessions matter more, it’s hard to get great shots when defenses sag off of Rubio and dare him to shoot.
That said, the Wolves had a terrible possession down the stretch last night but were bailed out when Andrew Wiggins grabbed an offensive rebound and made two big free throws. They were also the beneficiaries of a red-hot Karl-Anthony Towns, who was getting good looks from the perimeter and knocking them down. And the Wolves’ guards didn’t have to go against Chris Paul, who was out.
But yes, Jones in particular is far more of a threat to pull up and take a three-pointer if a defender tries to go under a screen. He’s made enough threes this year (44.4 percent) that defenses have to respect the shot. He made a big one Thursday, cutting the Clippers’ lead to 83-80 early in the fourth quarter.
Finally, Barkley finished the discussion with this: “There were 3 or 4 plays where Jones broke the guard down and got Karl-Anthony Towns dunks. They just back up on Rubio and dare him to shoot. He can’t make those plays.”
Here Barkley was echoing Smith’s point about the Wolves being easier to guard when Rubio is on the floor. I only counted one play (not three or four) in which Tyus broke down a defender and got Towns a dunk Thursday, so that was a stretch. But I agree the Wolves were generally getting good shots and Jones was running the offense efficiently during the fourth quarter.
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3. Popovich goes politics (again): Well, you knew he couldn’t resist. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a deep thinker who’s always willing to publicly share his political and social views when the media gives him an audience, chimed in about the Inauguration and its aftermath prior to the Cavs-Spurs game. And as always, Popovich didn’t hold back. Here’s Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News on the volcanic Pop:
It wasn't the first time Popovich sounded off on Trump. It probably won't be the last.
Here are Popovich's latest outspoken thoughts on the marches (which he enjoyed) and the inauguration (which he did not):
"The march today was great. The message is important. It could have been a whole lot of groups marching. Somebody said on TV, 'What's the message?' The message is obvious. Our president comes in with the lowest rating of anybody whoever came into the office. There's a majority of people out there, since Hillary won the popular vote, that don't buy his act.
"I just wish he was more ... had the ability to be mature enough to do something that really is inclusive, rather than just talking and saying, 'I'm going to include everyone.' He could talk to the groups that he disrespected and maligned during the primary and really make somebody believe it. But so far, you've gotten to the point where you really can't believe anything that comes out of his mouth. You really can't. All those thousands that were on the rooftops after 9/11? There were two. 'We went to Hawaii and checked his birth certificate and my investigators couldn't BELIEVE what they found.' There wasn't anything there. It's over and over again.
"The CIA today, instead of honoring the 117 people behind him where he was speaking, he talked about the size of the crowd. That's worrisome. That's worrisome. I'd just feel better if someone was in that position that showed the maturity and psychological and emotional level of someone that was his age.
It's dangerous and it doesn't do us any good.
"I hope he does a great job. But there's a difference between respecting the office of the president and the person who occupies it. That respect has to be earned. It's hard to be respectful of someone when we all have kids, and we're watching him be misogynistic and xenophobic and racist and make fun of handicapped people."And what really bothers me are the people around him, the Sean Spicers, the Kellyanne Conways the Reince Preibuses, who know who he is and actually have the cynical approach and disingenuous attitude to really defend him and make him look like he didn't say what he said. When he's mad at the media for them reporting what he said, it just boggles my mind. When Kellyanne Conway said the other day he wasn't really making fun of the handicapped person. It's incredible. It really makes you wonder how far would someone go to actually cover for somebody that much. I think the comment was,' You have to look in his heart. You don't know what's in his heart. He wouldn't do that.' But he did it.
"And all the things he said during that time, if our children would have said it, we would have grounded them for six months. Without a doubt. But we ignore all that, because ... because why? That says something about all of us. And that's what's dangerous. That's what scares the hell out of me to this day and makes me uneasy.
"But I felt great today watching the march, in protest to how he has conducted himself, because it tells me I really do live in a country where a lot of people care. We have to be vigilant, to be sure. Although we all hope he does good things for our country, that we don't get embarrassed by him and roll back liberties that have been worked for for so long in so many different areas."
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Just in time for the hurting Clippers: Blake Griffin says he’s healthy and ready to return at some point on this road trip … LeBron James, partly because of his man-crush on Popovich, hasn’t ruled out playing for Pop and the US team in 2020 … Popovich thinks coaches should watch their sideline behavior and spend more time sitting on the bench instead of standing … Larry Bird is high on his second-year big man, even if Myles Turner remains inconsistent … Is there anyone who disagrees that Jimmy Butler is a deserving All-Star starter? Thought so … Can somebody please ask Russell Westbrook whom he was referring to when he went on a profane rant at the end of the Warriors-Thunder game? … Penny Hardaway now says he should’ve never left the Magic for Phoenix.