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By Sam Smith| 3.16.2015 | 8:31 a.m. CT
So how would Dwight Howard look with Carmelo Anthony next season? How about DeMarcus Cousins? Could the Knicks be back?
Don’t dismiss it all so quickly given Phil Jackson’s comments last week with the Knicks in Los Angeles. Jackson said, “We know what the first round pick is going to mean for us, but we also know we're going to build our team with free agents; 190 players or so are going to be free agents. Like a third of the [league]. So that's where our priority stands."
The draft sounds exciting and fans love the promise, but even maybe the best player of the next decade, Anthony Davis, in his third season still probably won’t be in a playoff game. Jackson also added you don’t turn teams around in the draft these days unless you get LeBron James. I checked. He’s not in this draft. And you are not waiting three years when you just paid 30-year-old Carmelo Anthony. That’s the big ‘melo in the room for the Knicks. You are not about to go on a three-to-five years building plan (check the Jazz, that’s at least how long it takes) with that sort of investment in Anthony.
"When you have 19 and 20-year-old players that are coming in the league, which is what the majority of the draft picks coming into the league right now, it's really hard to project what that player is going to be in three years," Jackson told reporters. "Once in a while you get a player like a LeBron or (Kevin) Durant, but that's few and far between. There are a lot of kids that don't make it that have to go back and struggle."
Jackson knows what makes champions. He’s seen enough. And as Jackson always counseled Jerry Krause and Tex Winter when they raved about this draft pick or that, “You win with men.”
No matter the vitriol that’s been aimed at Anthony, he’s a star scorer in the NBA and one of the best players. What Jackson needs is a big man. Remember, it was Jackson lobbying with Doug Collins to persuade Krause and Michael Jordan the team needed center Bill Cartwright to succeed and to trade Jordan and Krause favorite Charles Oakley. Why did Jackson go to the Lakers in 1999? Shaq. Remember, the Bulls bringing in center after center over the years, a never ending succession of three headed monsters? So the speculation about the Knicks, naturally, has been big men free agents, like Marc Gasol. It seems unlikely he’d leave a winning team in Memphis. There’s LaMarcus Aldridge, also not likely to leave Portland, and Greg Monroe, the latter two not true big men centers, anyway. But Howard and Cousins are, and it wouldn’t be that big a surprise to see some changes this summer.
Howard obviously is a risk turning 30 this year with who knows how many injuries as he’s missed most of the season. But a few years back Jackson was asked which player he’d select to start a team. Jackson named Howard at a time LeBron was playing. If the Rockets flop in the playoffs again, there’ll be changes there. And we know general manager Darryl Morey most loves draft picks and churning his roster.
Would you trade the No. 1 pick if it were Duke big man Jahlil Okafor? Risky. But Jackson isn’t into five-year plans. If it’s not No. 1, you’re surely not building a team for this decade with Karl Towns, D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay.
And then there’s Cousins, who puts up fabulous numbers but always in losses. Now that George Karl is in place with a long term deal and ownership recommending an uptempo game like Karl espouses, it’s questionable even whether Cousins fits. Centers like Cousins have never fit Karl’s basketball eye. The Kings have a lot of talent, and maybe you would trade No. 1 for an experienced, if erratic, big man like Cousins. Who perhaps just needs some Zen sessions. It’s hardly like the Kings yet again in the league’s bottom 10 can have any untouchables. Like Branch Rickey famously said when his home run champion Ralph Kiner for his last place Pirates wanted a big raise, “We can finish last without you also.” Jackson clearly indicated his building plan doesn’t include babies, which is pretty much all you find in the draft. It’s going to be another intriguing summer.
NBA news and notes
It’s too bad no one is watching out for the best interests of the fans, the latest being those in Washington, D.C., who paid a lot, of course, many of whom waiting for their one chance of the season Thursday to see the Memphis Grizzlies. Coach Dave Joerger chose to sit basically his entire starting lineup, most to rest, which essentially produced a variation of a D-league roster against the Wizards, who won easily. This is nothing new as Gregg Popovich has done it regularly and years back Pat Riley tried it. The difference previously was commissioner David Stern, having the backs of fans, fined those organizations for acting contrary to the best interests of the game. It doesn’t make you popular with players and even your owners. Guardians don’t always win popularity contests. I understand the team and player rationale. The Grizzlies were in a slump, it was the fourth in five days. The Spurs have won titles doing it. So I don’t fault the teams and coaches as much as the league. Steve Kerr pulled it with his Warriors in Denver last week and said he answered some fans who angrily wrote. Kerr said he understood, but he was about his team only. Fine, but there’s a higher power and responsibility, the good of the game. It transcends any team. Where would they all be without the game? Someone has to watch out for the paying fans now that the players and coaches don’t much care anymore. You never saw that with Jordan and Dominique and Magic. Notice teams never sit their guys at home. Owners don’t like that. Sit them on the road where they don’t collect revenues. How are your players are only tired on the road? Players like Jordan and Dominique, especially when they were in a city once a season, understood fans paid to see them and waited all year. They didn’t want to disappoint. But more so they understood, endorsed and appreciated it was important for the league and the game. It was not about yourself; there was something bigger. Washington is a unique city because of its transient nature with administrations and congresses coming and going, thus so many out of towners. Many waited all year to see the Grizzlies’ stars, and they did, though in suits. Play 10 minutes; it won’t hurt you. The confrontational nature of the players’ association suggests the idea of a partnership that Jordan, Bird and Magic embraced for the good of the league and fans isn’t what it was. That will be negotiated, apparently. But someone needs to protect the fans. Rest a player. Sure. But not everyone. At least try to be competitive every game. It’s interesting Kerr never noticed Jordan from 1995-1998 never missed a game. How much is that really to ask 82 times over six months? Though Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau sometimes gets questioned about methods, credit him for respecting the game and not employing the days off scam. Today’s players enjoy comforts never imagined by Jordan, Dominique, Bird and Magic. Some don’t appreciate them. Fine. That doesn’t make them unique in society. But the league needs to take a stand for its fans. No player or team is more important than the league, and no league should take its paying fans for granted.
Homecoming for Mark Aguirre?
The door may finally be open for longtime NBA star Mark Aguirre to return to DePaul and the hope is DePaul doesn’t mess it up again. Aguirre, perhaps not the most famous DePaul player ever though he probably could beat George Mikan one–on-one in their respective primes, carries the legacy of the great Ray Meyer with him everywhere. You talk to Aguirre and you hear Ray Meyer axioms like you hear about John Wooden from Bill Walton. Aguirre has been interested in returning to DePaul to coach. DePaul last told Aguirre he needed to complete his degree, which is why he began taking online courses to finish a degree in sports management. OK, I can accept needing a degree to work in college. But I never get why colleges trying to gain credibility for their programs keep hiring these retread college coaches that yell a lot and no kid has ever heard of. Instead of a guy like Aguirre, who has been where all these kids want to be and knows that life and, by the way, really knows basketball. If you want to learn post moves and footwork, there may be nobody better in the world. Now that Oliver Purnell has resigned, the way should be clear for Aguirre, who helped out the basketball program last season as a student assistant. And how better to raise the profile and interest in your program than bringing in a guy who has succeeded at the highest level in the sport. And is a Chicago native from the toughest neighborhoods. Who relates better? They always say these former NBA guys don’t want to recruit, which is the way all these college guys protect their phony baloney jobs, as Mel Brooks would say. Another local guy who’ll be a great choice is Darrell Walker, the Corliss grad and longtime NBA player and pro coach who now wants to go the college route and has had some interviews. Are you more likely to want to play for guys who have played at the highest level for the best coaches in NBA history? Or some guy who lost to Mike Krzyzewski twice a year? DePaul’s had an amazing run of basically bad coaches since 1997, though Dave Leitao seemed OK. Still, they’re all the same guy, overachievers who bounced around the college world instead of men who have been there and know that.
The future of free agnecy?
It’s labor/union/bargaining/management stuff. So that talk last week about not “smoothing” in the upcoming TV financial bonanza for the league was mostly a shrug from fans. It’s not until 2016 anyway. You know, a pox on both their houses. And it is. The players voted for the money to come in with a lump sum in 2016, likely pushing the salary cap from around $65 million to about $90 million. The NBA wanted gradual increases so teams could plan. The money would be the same. The practical effect of the lump sum addition is 2016 becomes spectator sport with basically now every team having free agent money. Although the effects can only be speculated upon, it’s going to be a wild summer with free agents that could include LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Brook Lopez, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, DeMar DeRozan and who knows how many others who may take short term deals. But with Paul and James the leaders of the union, it sure sounds like a power play for the top stars of the game. Of course, many say why not as they should make the most. The way the salary cap works, a top free agent can get a maximum deal with more seniority up to 35 percent of the cap. Thus the larger the cap, the larger the salary for the top players. Though the salary cap is rising dramatically, it seems likely a big part of the increase will be skimmed off by the top players. Of course, the definition of a “max” player has been liberalized since there are so few players deserving that title but so many teams needing one. So you pay your best guy the same as the best guy on the other team, who is James or Durant. The rich will get richer, and you certainly can make the case for James. As in society, the income gap is only likely to increases between rich and “poor.” But, hey, there’s at least one more full season before we have to listen to all that really boring stuff.
Apparently it wasn’t such a happy place in Boston for and with Jeff Green, who walked away from local media without speaking after the Grizzlies lost in Boston last week and Boston players talked about such a better atmosphere since the Rajon Rondo and Green deals. The Celtics started 12-23. They went 16-13 since trading Green and surprisingly have remained in position to compete for that final East playoff spot.
The Nets with their veteran group, somewhat surprisingly, are the ones sinking, though with Deron Williams you never are that surprised.
After losing in Portland Friday, the Pistons were 1-9 since starting Reggie Jackson, who forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wants to start and get a maximum salary contract. It’s early and an adjustment, of course, so it takes time. Jackson is averaging 14.7 points on 37 percent shooting—24 percent on threes—and he does shoot a lot. Jackson then got yanked out of Saturday’s 10th straight Pistons loss for not hustling. Josh Smith must feel better as the Pistons are again losing as much as when he was there.
Difficult to say it means much as who knows who’ll still be out injured for the Bulls. But the Bulls Wednesday host the Indiana Pacers, who have been one of the league’s best teams the last six weeks. Their margin of victory is second best the last month and they are 2-1 this season over the Bulls with the Bulls only win by two points and when the Pacers were still without most of their regulars. And there’s still a chance for a first round playoff meeting as the hot Pacers could get to sixth and face the Bulls if the Bulls get to third. Though Paul George now seems to be having second thoughts about a return.
There’s been talk about Kyle Korver’s slump, but his magical season continues as he’s still in position for the first ever 50-50-90 season in field goals, threes and free throws. After failing to shoot 50 percent on threes for seven straight games (everyone else’s mark is 40 percent), Korver was given a game off. And in the next three games, Korver, likely the top name on every Hawks opponent scouting report, was 14 of 19 on threes. Korver, who turns 34 this week, has missed two games this season. You wish the young stars wanted to play as much.
Don’t mess with Texas, eh? The Dallas Morning News writer about the Mavericks after the 33- point loss to the Cavs wrote: “The word gutless comes to mind.” The Mavs have played .500 ball pretty much a few weeks since acquiring Rajon Rondo.
Look who’s not horrible anymore. Eric Gordon is shooting 46 percent on threes this season, second to Korver. And to be fair it’s about finally being healthy, though he’s still missed about 20 games. He’s just 26, but he is still owed $15 million next season with an opt out it seems unlikely he’d exercise.
The Jazz have defeated the Rockets, Grizzlies, Spurs and Trail Blazers since All-Star break, winning 12 of their last 15 and yielding about 85 points per game, one of the best defensive stretches in franchise history with big man Rudy Gobert averaging 11 points and 17 rebounds in March.
The Thunder before playing the Bulls Sunday was 13-10 in games when Russell Westbrook played without Kevin Durant. Last season when Durant played without the injured Westbrook, the Thunder was 24-11. Thunder general manager Sam Presti, generally pretty invisible, had to come out to condemn media speculation they might trade Durant. It was merely based on reasonable speculation the Thunder could lose Durant as a free agent after next season. But if they had to decide it’s fairly obvious they’d want to retain Durant over Westbrook, though they might not have the choice as Durant can be an unrestricted free agents in 2016 and Westbrook in 2017.
Pretty nice seeing a picture of Wesley Matthews in his Trail Blazers jersey in the hospital after his Achilles surgery when the team played its next game. It seems clear fellow international players are pressuring one another to play for their countries as Nicolas Batum, who admitted to fatigue this summer after playing in last summer’s World Cup of Basketball, reversed course and said he’d play again for France this summer. The federation reportedly also has been pressuring Joakim Noah to do the same. For the first time since 1999, the championship rounds of the tournament this summer will take place in France. Next season is Noah’s last on his Bulls contract.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Kyrie Irving’s 57 points in last Thursday’s Cavs overtime win over the Spurs was Irving scored 57 points with LeBron James on the court. Irving had 55 earlier this season with LeBron out. Irving had 15 points all on threes and three-point plays from the last 52 seconds of regulation to 2:34 left, 15 points in just over three minutes. Also from that terrific game, you wonder if Kawhi Leonard will develop Nick Andersonitis. The Magic guard was never the same after missing four free throws in the opening Finals game in 1995 when one would have clinched a win. The Magic was then swept. Leonard missed a vital free throw that could have clinched the 2013 Game 6 that would have won the title. And he missed both free throws Thursday when one would have probably ended the game and not allowed Irving’s epic finish. Kevin Love, by the way, again sat out the fourth quarter and didn’t attempt a shot in the overtime. And he’s in Cleveland. As Tony Parker noted, however, if that’s what it takes to beat the Spurs they’re in pretty good shape. So, yes, don’t count them out quite yet. Or at all. With the Cavs close to getting a hold on the No. 2 spot in the East, James said he’s considering another significant rest period. Watch out ABC with the Bulls in Cleveland Easter Sunday, April 5.