Morning Shootaround

Jan. 20 Shootaround -- LeBron James calls Gregg Popovich 'greatest coach of all time' Staff

LeBron praises Popovich | Smith won’t be back with Cavs anytime soon | Report: Wade’s future may hinge on Butler’s | Gasol plans to opt-in with Spurs

No. 1: LeBron offers high praise for Popovich — Two of the NBA’s heavyweights — the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs — meet Saturday in a prime-time showdown (8:30 ET, ABC). The star power on the court will be immense, from All-Stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the Cavs to fellow All-Star Kawhi Leonard and his crew on the Spurs. As that game looms, James paused to reflect on the legacy of a Spurs legend, coach Gregg Popovich, and what he means to him and the NBA at large. Brian Windhorst of has more:

LeBron James has faced Gregg Popovich in three NBA Finals, and on Saturday night he will play his 24th regular-season game against him, not to mention the uncountable number of San Antonio Spurs games he’s watched.

In other words, the Cavaliers star has had plenty of time to form an opinion.

“I think he’s the greatest coach of all time,” James said Thursday, echoing comments he made last summer.

“You have to be sharp, mentally and physically, when you go against his ballclub. If you were an NFL player, it’s probably the same as going against a [Bill] Belichick team,” James said after scoring 21 points with 15 assists and nine rebounds in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns. “What they’re going to do, they’re going to do and you have to try to figure it out.”

James first got to know Popovich in 2004, after his rookie season, when the Spurs coach was an assistant for Team USA. James was part of the team that took Olympic bronze in Athens that summer. James has been studying Popovich ever since.

“To be able to do what he’s done where the basketball has changed so much and he’s been able to have a growth mindset and change with the game [is impressive],” James said. “We went from a league where it was inside out, where every time you came down it was throw it to the big, and then it goes to every time down pick-and-roll, and then it goes to every time down shoot a 3.

“Pop has been able to adjust every single time and still, for some odd reason, keep those guys under the radar. I don’t understand it.”

* * *

No. 2: Smith says return to Cavs a ‘long ways away’ — J.R. Smith hasn’t played in a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers since Dec. 20, when he fractured his right thumb and needed surgery for it. The initial diagnosis was that Smith would be lost for three months, and he told’s Joe Vardon last night that hopes of a return sooner than that are not very realistic:

.R. Smith hasn’t done any cardio exercises since fracturing his right thumb Dec. 20, but hopes his doctor’s appointment goes well Friday and he can begin to break a sweat soon.

Beyond that, though, Smith has no idea when he might return to the Cavs from his now surgically repaired thumb, which the team originally said would keep him out 12-to-14 weeks.

“Right now it’s just healing,” Smith said. “I can’t really do anything.”

Smith spoke to following the Cavs’ 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. He watched the game standing near the Cavs’ tunnel, the hard protective cast that encased his thumb replaced by a brace.

Cleveland’s now 10-5 since his injury.

This has been a trying season for Smith, 31, who missed most of training camp negotiating a four-year, $57 million contract (the contract was nice) and struggled on the court until just before he got hurt.

Smith said “it sucks not being able to play, but I’m doing good.” He did not accompany the team on it’s six-game road trip, and also missed the Cavs’ previous home game Jan. 4.

Right now he’s focused on simply being allowed to ride a bike or run. Eventually shooting, and dribbling, and catching and shooting, and defense, and conditioning, and then playing — all of those things are on the backburner.

“I just want to be able to take it one day at a time,” Smith said. “I need to be able to do something to get my heart rate up before I can even think about playing again. It’s crazy cuz it’s still a long ways away. From when I start being able to work out, it’s still a long ways away from me being able to get on the court.”

With Smith out, the Cavs traded for Kyle Korver, who’s ahead of Smith on all the all-time 3-point lists. Korver hasn’t started (yet) in Smith’s old spot — first it was DeAndre Liggins and now Iman Shumpert, who’s averaging 16.5 points over his last three games — but Smith is thrilled Korver is on the team.

“I’m glad I don’t have to chase his ass no more,” said Smith, who guarded Korver in the playoffs when he was on the Hawks. “He’s good. Space the floor. Gives a great effort on the defensive end. And we really need the shooting.”

* * *

No. 3: Report: Wade’s future in Chicago may hinge on Butler’s — The Chicago Bulls are the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference today, but are also in the thick of a scrap with the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons and, perhaps, New York Knicks, for that final playoff berth. The question most Bulls fans have is whether or not to hang onto that low seed or fully engage a rebuild and — more than likely — fall in the standings. The path Chicago chooses next, and if it moves All-Star Jimmy Butler in the process, will shape what Bulls guard Dwyane Wade does, too. Nick Friedell of has more:

As Dwyane Wade waits to see which direction the Bulls’ front office goes in advance of next month’s trade deadline, the future Hall of Famer told ESPN that Jimmy Butler’s future will play a large part in whether he decides to stay in Chicago.

Sources told ESPN that there continues to be debate within the organization about whether to press the button on a full-scale rebuild, and the 35-year-old Wade doesn’t sound like a man who wants to go through that at this stage of his career.

“At the end of the year, you sit back and see what the team is, what direction they’re going in,” Wade told ESPN on Wednesday night. “I would be a liar to say that I want to play on a team with all 21-year-olds. You know what I mean? And be a part of the future building. I would be a fool to say that. But you also want to be in the best position for what you think is for you at that time, too.

“… One of the main reasons I’m here is Jimmy. He’s the one who called me and got me to come here. So that’s a big part of my decision and everything else, is what Jimmy’s doing, what his future looks like and all that. And I’ve made it very clear. So I have no idea from that standpoint. You just have to wait and see and then see what works out.”

While Wade is keeping an open mind about his own future, he’s definitely watching to see what the Bulls do with Butler, who has been at the center of trade speculation for more than a year. While the Bulls would prefer not to move the 27-year-old Butler, the team understands the two-time All-Star is their most valuable asset.

When given multiple chances during the past year, Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson have yet to publicly commit to Butler as the face of the organization moving forward.

Butler, meanwhile, is having a career-best season, averaging 24.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He was named an All-Star starter Thursday night.

Wade knows that Butler’s future — if he’s traded in the coming weeks or months — will have an impact on his own.

“You would think so,” Wade said. “You don’t know. You think about guys like, let’s just go with Mike Dunleavy, who didn’t want to go to Atlanta. I think he had 20 off the bench the other night. You don’t know what situation is going to be right for you. In the moment, yeah, you have an idea of what you want to do. And this is the way you wanted it to go and then when it don’t go that way, you got to respond. So I don’t know.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here. It’s been a learning experience, it’s been challenging and it’s been cool all in the same. I feel — for my career, for me — I needed this. I needed to see what the other side was like, too. … But I’m definitely very open and honest that Jimmy is one of the reasons I’m here from a basketball standpoint and, as we sit here right now, he’s here, I’m here, we’re happy. You don’t know what’s to go from there.”

In the meantime, Wade will continue to wait and see what happens.

“You evaluate the year from an organization standpoint, from a player’s standpoint: How you loved it, how you liked it, how you hated it, whatever the case may be,” Wade said. “So I think that’s the biggest thing. You kind of sit back and — being 35 — you kind of evaluate your years. What do you want to do? How many more years you thinking about playing? What’s the best thing to do? Is it to sign a contract, or is it to opt out and try to get a longer [deal]?

“It’s a lot of things you weigh. But when the season’s over with, I’ll let this season kind of speak for itself, and (I’ll) kind of sit back, like I always do with my family, and then decide on what their future looks like for us.”

* * *

No. 4: Gasol plans to opt-in with Spurs — The San Antonio Spurs got some tough news before last night’s game against visiting Denver even got started. Pau Gasol had broken his finger during pregame warmups and is out indefinitely with the injury, which put a decided damper on the Spurs’ win last night. But before the game, Spurs fans got some good news as Gasol vowed his allegiance to the Spurs and revealed he is unlikely to go anywhere when free agency comes around this summer. Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News has more:

The question was simple: With half the season complete, is Pau Gasol satisfied with the decision to sign with the Spurs last summer?

The answer was just as simple: yes.

“It was a great decision,” Gasol told the Express-News. “I came here to have a chance to win a title and we’re second in the league right now, second best record, so that puts you in a position to win a title. That was a priority, and it still is.”

Gasol signed a two-year deal worth roughly $30 million with the Spurs. The second year of the deal is a player option worth $16 million. Asked if he intended to opt-in Year 2 of his contract, Gasol agreed it’s a safe bet.

“My intention is to continue here, and to be here as long as I can,” said Gasol, who will turn 37 before the start of the 2017-18 season.

With the NBA salary cap expected to increase to $102 million next season, Gasol could sign a new deal for more money, though. He admitted signing with the Portland Trail Blazers last offseason was a strong possibility. After Gasol decided to sign with the Spurs, the Blazers landed forward-center Festus Ezeli, which hasn’t worked out.

If Gasol decided not to opt-in this summer, no reason the Blazers, or another team in need of a veteran big, wouldn’t make a run at his services and pay more than $16 million.

“To be honest, I don’t look that far ahead, but I would see that that as very unlikely,” said Gasol, who reiterated his decision to return to the Spurs. “I would love to continue here as long as a possible.”

* * *

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis says he’s definitely going for the All-Star MVP in this year’s game in New Orleans … Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez doesn’t think his squad has the right level of ‘fear’ game in and game out … Oft-injured Orlando Magic guard Jodie Meeks will miss 4-6 weeks with a thumb injury … The race for No. 8 in the Western Conference isn’t exactly pretty … Houston Rockets star James Harden is pretty happy about his first All-Star start …