Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Feb. 13) -- Jahlil Okafor still in thick of trade rumors

Plus, Latrell Sprewell welcomed back to Knicks games, an analysis of the Blazers-Nuggets trade and more. Staff

Okafor not on team flight to Charlotte | Brooks tunes out OKC critics | Why was Sprewell back in Knicks’ good graces? | Assessing Plumlee trade to Nuggets | Thibodeau stays perfect vs. Bulls

No. 1: Okafor still caught up in trade crosshairs — Jahlil Okafor was not on the team plane to Charlotte for tonight’s game against the Hornets (7 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), fueling the speculation that Philadelphia’s young big man will be moved before next week’s trade deadline. Keith Pompey of explains where the Sixers are right now in their quest to get something done:

If there is an imminent trade involving the Sixers and Jahlil Okafor, there was another possible indicator on Sunday afternoon.

Okafor was not on the team’s flight to Charlotte, N.C., for Monday’s game against the Hornets at the Spectrum Center.

Teams usually don’t play trade targets when a deal is about to happen because of the possibility that the player might get injured. The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 23.

Okafor, 21, also did not play Saturday night when the Sixers beat the Miami Heat at the Wells Fargo Center. The second-year center has been the subject of trade discussions with the New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, and reportedly the Portland Trail Blazers, among others.

However, a league source said Sunday morning that the Nuggets and Sixers were no longer having discussions about Okafor.

Okafor posted on Twitter from Chicago on Sunday, fueling speculation that the Bulls are the front-runner to make a deal.

An imminent trade for Okafor is far from surprising. He had been the subject of trade talks shortly after the Sixers selected him third overall in the 2015 draft. The team reportedly came close to a deal to trade him to the Boston Celtics at last season’s trade deadline.

The Sixers also had opportunities to move Okafor before the 2016 NBA draft. However, they balked after they failed to receive what they perceived to be equal value in offers for Okafor.

Because of his sore right knee and his defensive struggles, it’s unlikely that the Sixers are still going to get something of equal value.

Their best bet might be making a deal with the Bulls, who were eager to bring Okafor back to his hometown.

The Bulls want Okafor to provide a scoring threat from the center position. Chicago is looking for him to be a starter and/or have a vital role with the team. The Bulls are even interested in getting a third team involved to make the deal.

The Sixers could try to acquire some of Chicago’s young talent in Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, or Denzel Valentine in addition to a draft pick.

Mirotic was held out of Sunday’s game at Minnesota because of what the team called back spasms.

On Feb. 6, the Sixers were in the middle of trade discussions with the Pelicans centered on Okafor.

The Sixers reportedly were offered center Alexis Ajinca and a first-round pick in exchange for Okafor. The first-rounder was thought to be for 2018.

* * *

No. 2: No looking back for Wizards’ Brooks — Scott Brooks endured his share of criticism as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, whether it was deserved or not. But there’s no denying what Brooks is doing in Washington with a Wizards team that, since December, has been one of the NBA’s hottest teams. With his past and present set to collide tonight (7 ET, TNT), now is as good a time as any to examine the growth and development Brooks has undergone. Candace Buckner of The Washington Post has more:

It would appear that Brooks has rewritten the narrative that dogged him through his final years in Oklahoma City. Criticized for leading an offense viewed as too stagnant and too reliant on superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and judged harshly for his late-game decision making, Brooks, who was fired after the 2014-15 season, has seemingly picked up new tricks in his second tour of coaching.

Or, maybe not.

“I’ve been in the NBA long enough as a player and as coach,” Brooks said Sunday. “Sometimes, the narrative is not reality.”

The truth: Brooks’s teams have perennially performed as highly functioning offenses and clutch-time winners.

Although in 2011-12 the Thunder advanced to the NBA Finals while ranking at the bottom in assists per game — a statistic that exposes lack of ball movement — in that same season, Oklahoma City also finished second in the league in offensive rating, which is points produced per 100 possessions. Starting in 2010, the Thunder had a top-five offensive rating for three straight seasons. Also through four consecutive years, Brooks’s Thunder teams had a winning record in “clutch” games.

After the Wizards’ Sunday afternoon practice, Brooks listened to the line of questions about the former criticism. The topic, he clearly has heard before. While Brooks has often said he accepts performance critiques as part of a coach’s job description, this time he offered a counter argument.

Brooks highlighted the Thunder’s five straight years of finishing within the top five in scoring — a feat achieved even during the injury plagued 2014-15 season in which Durant appeared in only 27 games — and though late-game coaching was a popular rebuke, Oklahoma City still found a way to win at least 45 games in his final six seasons.

“We won a lot of close games. We won 60 games (in 2012-13). You can look at it, you don’t blow out teams every night in this league. There are too many good teams, especially back then in the West,” Brooks said. “I hate to defend myself, but those are the facts. A few people made more of it than it really was. You look at every team, your two best players are going to take the most shots.

“You get criticized for that, which I was willing to take,” Brooks continued, then spoke of his present situation, “but I like what we’re doing now.”

* * *

No. 3: Garden reunion or public relations ploy? — Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks snapped a four-game losing streak with a win over the San Antonio Spurs Sunday, a much-needed jolt of positive energy for a team and franchise in desperate need of a boost. Doing so in front of a litany of former Knicks stars — Bernard King, Larry Johnson and Latrell Sprewell among them — only made for better optics. But was the impromptu Madison Garden reunion genuine or a public relations masterstroke to take some of the sting off of the franchise in the wake of the Charles Oakley mess? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News has a theory:

James Dolan once had to reprimand Madison Square Garden security for not protecting him from Latrell Sprewell. Do you sense a pattern here?

So maybe there is hope for reconciliation with Dolan and Charles Oakley, another immensely popular former Knick who was banned indefinitely from the World’s Most Famous Arena two days before Sprewell’s lifetime ban was magically lifted.

Oakley, though, will have to exercise patience. It took 14 years for Dolan to extend an olive branch to Sprewell and invite him back.

That this reunion would take place this week is just one of those crazy coincidences in life, right? Funny how that worked out.

Of course we know this is a transparent public relations ploy to portray Dolan as the warm and cuddly owner while continuing to paint Oakley as the crazed drunk. And more to the point, the only former Knick with whom he’s ever had an issue with.

“This is an anomaly,” Dolan said on Friday.

Two days later, Sprewell, a dreadlocked anomaly for 14 years until Sunday, is seated next to Dolan during the Knicks’ impressive win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Honestly, Spree is the last person on earth you would have expected to agree to be part of something like this. But it confirmed that Dolan is committed to winning this — whatever this is — at all costs. He showed this same commitment to beating Anucha Browne Sanders in a court of law despite his advisers instructing him to settle the sexual harrassment case.

Dolan didn’t listen and it cost him $9 million in damages. He’s not going to settle with Oakley anytime soon either.

On Sunday, the Garden was filled with former players, including two sitting directly to Dolan’s right: Sprewell and Larry Johnson. Considering the poor optics from Oakley’s removal last Wednesday, this image made you cringe the same way you would when someone says, “I have friends that are black.”

Sprewell, John Wallace and Kenny (Sky) Walker even received video tributes. Afterwards, the alumni and Dolan visited the winning locker room.

Just one big happy family. Minus Oakley, of course.

* * *

No. 4: Trail Blazers waive white flag with Plumlee trade — The standings suggest the Portland Trail Blazers are still very much in the Western Conference playoff mix. But their actions, namely the trade of Mason Plumlee and a first round Draft pick to Denver for Jusuf Turkic and a Draft pick, say otherwise. John Canzano of The Oregonian believes the white flag is being raised in Portland, where the Trail Blazers face off against the Atlanta Hawks tonight (10:30 ET, TNT):

It’s been a while since there’s been anything to cheer at One Center Court. So I’ll greet the trade of Mason Plumlee with a round of applause.

Nothing against Plumlee. He’s a pro. But what Sunday marked was the waving a white flag from the Trail Blazers headquarters. That’s worth cheering because the sooner the organization acknowledges that the current path was a dead end, the better.

Owner Paul Allen loves to play draft. After Jimi Hendrix and collecting big yachts, the draft may be his favorite thing. And if the deal between Denver and Portland clears on Monday as reported then Portland not only ends a futile playoff-chase charade but gets Memphis’ first-round pick next June.

It’s going to be sold [today] by general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts as the first phase of a “one step back, two steps forward” plan. Whether they’ll say it or not, the Blazers dreaded having to deal with Plumlee’s agent Mark Bartlestein in restricted free agency this summer. They skipped out on that. Also, they are now projected to have the 11th, 21st and 27th overall picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Can three teenagers save this franchise?

That’s the question to ask today. Because I’m told by a Blazers source that Stotts was consulted prior to the execution of the trade, signing off himself. Allen presumably wanted to be sure Stotts was on board given that he’ll be the chairman of the the “one step back” portion of the plan.

Again, presentation is key here. “Three first-round draft picks,” sounds sexy. You win championships with “three first-round picks.” But in a given draft there are only about 10-12 good players. Maybe this one has 12 or 14. But make no mistake, no matter what Olshey attempts to sell in the wake of the deal, the organization abandoned the course with this trade and started looking hopefully into its future.

* * *

No. 5: Thibodeau relishes staying perfect against former team — Tom Thibodeau doesn’t have to say it. But his players, both past and current, know that he relishes every win. And especially those his young Minnesota Timberwolves can get at the expense of his former team in Chicago. For the record, Thibs and the Timberwolves remain perfect against his former team, as Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune explains:

The Timberwolves’ 117-89 victory Sunday didn’t deliver the same comeback drama as their December victory at Chicago, but it nonetheless kept coach Tom Thibodeau perfect against the Bulls team he once coached.

Two months ago, the Wolves trailed 26-6, yet still won at United Center, which Thibodeau called home for five seasons.

Sunday, the Bulls came to Target Center with four players injured or ill, including All-Star Jimmy Butler and superstar Dwyane Wade. It was the last game of a six-game trip that started 12 days before — although it seemed like “35 days ago,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.

The Wolves welcomed them by leading 31-12 early and 115-85 late, with Thibodeau keeping starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio on the floor until three minutes or fewer remained in a blowout decision. Yet afterward, he said beating the Bulls after a bitter parting in May 2015 doesn’t mean more to him than defeating any other NBA team.

“No,” Thibodeau said, chuckling when asked about it. “For me, I’ve been around and there are lot of those teams. It’s always hard when you’ve been through things with people. I really root for that team, especially those guys I’ve coached before, and I want them to do well, except when we play against them.

“It’s a great basketball city. It’s a great organization. I had five great years there. I pull for them when they’re not playing us.”

But Taj Gibson played all five seasons when Thibodeau coached in Chicago, and he knows better. He heard Thibodeau bark commands toward the Target Center rafters during the season’s first announced sellout — 19,356, including a fair number of Bulls fans — from opening tip to final buzzer. He also saw Towns, Wiggins and Rubio on the floor long after Hoiberg removed four of his five starters from the game for all or most of the fourth quarter.

“Without a doubt; I know him well,” Gibson said when asked if beating the Bulls means more to his former coach. “When most people think it’s not a big deal, it’s a big deal to him. You see he kept coaching the whole game. He even left some of the [starters] in late. I could see his hand shaking from all the way on our end. I knew he really wanted to win that game.

“Nothing is going to change. He’s going to be the same guy every day.”

* * *

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry is calling for change in Toronto after yet another setback … The recent struggles of the Milwaukee Bucks cannot overshadow the ridiculous rise Giannis Antetokounmpo is experiencing this season … Pacers guard Monta Ellis is comfortable now that he’s back to doing “what he’s known for” … The Utah Jazz have absolutely no intention of surrendering that top four playoff spot they’ve battled so hard for this season … Could Carmelo Anthony wind up in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend in place of, wait for it … Kevin Love? … The Phoenix Suns are another team facing some pretty heavy questions with the trade deadline looming …


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