NBA Season Preview: The Charlotte Bobcats

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This post was written by Rob Mahoney.

Last season: 44-38, which was good enough to score the Bobcats their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They’re taking steps forward (talent upgrades, internal improvement), even if they’re marching further into the desert (temporary fixes, financial commitments, bad draft picks) with no oasis in sight.

Head Coach: Larry Brown. The man needs no introduction, but the new and improved LB might. After systematically alienating his players at practically all of his previous coaching stops, it’s been so far, so good for Brown in Charlotte. Maybe his eyes wandered to the open Clippers coaching job earlier this summer or maybe they didn’t, but regardless, Brown’s Bobcats were the top defense in the league last season in spite of some obvious roster limitations.

Key Departures: Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, Raja Bell, Theo Ratliff, Stephen Graham, Larry Hughes, and any semblance of offensive success.

Key Additions: Shaun Livingston, Kwame Brown, Matt Carroll, Eduardo Najera, Sherron Collins, and lots of heavy sighing.

Best case scenario: Charlotte makes a move or two to acquire (1) a point guard worthy of a starting job (2) some young talent, all while maintaining or improving their relative place in the Eastern Conference.

For that to happen: Michael Jordan is going to have to charge up that Bluetooth headset I’m sure he has, dial, talk, rinse, and repeat. Over and over and over again. Charlotte needs a trade in a bad, bad way.

The Bobcats were this close to essentially trading Boris Diaw for Devin Harris straight-up (though D.J. Augustin was possibly involved) as a part of the now-dead four-team Carmelo Anthony deal. That acquisition would have given Charlotte exactly what they need for the time being, as Harris is a bonafide building block who would have conveniently filled the Bobcats’ biggest positional void.

Hope isn’t dead, but Charlotte need to do something. Raymond Felton was quite valuable last season, even though he was the clear third-billing behind Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. Augustin isn’t ready to step into that role and may never be, which puts the Bobcat offense — which was already a miserable 24th in the league last season on a per possession basis —  in an impossible spot. They aren’t loaded with talent, and the talented pieces the Bobcats do have aren’t all that straightforward (What’s the best way to utilize Tyrus Thomas? Gerald Wallace? Stephen Jackson?). Now, a point guard who plays like he’s completely lost confidence in himself will have to make the most of it, and I fear that ‘most’ won’t be very much.

If Charlotte is going to take a step up, they’ll have to relieve Augustin of the starting gig he’s clutching with sweaty palms.

More likely the Bobcats will: Que será, será, and Charlotte será tough to watch at times. The offense could easily go from blech to ungghghghg, though the Cats should still be among the league’s elite in free throw rate. Congrats?

It won’t save them. It can’t. They need ball-handling and playmaking fast, and no one should be deluded into thinking that the current backcourt crew is satisfactory. Augustin hasn’t shown the aptitude as an NBA player yet. Giving Jackson free rein shouldn’t even be considered an option. Shaun Livingston is a fine addition to the team, but he’s not steady enough (in either health or production) to play major minutes. Even Raymond Felton’s biggest critics would concede that he’d be a saving grace under these circumstances.

Still, the defense will be there. Even though losing Felton and Tyson Chandler will likely mean the end of Charlotte’s run as the best D in the league, the Bobcats will still be a top five defense next season. On top of that, Wallace will remain very productive and one of the NBA’s most engaging watches. Jackson will continue to pour in the points while picking up a few assists and almost as many turnovers. Tyrus Thomas could continue to find success with the Bobcats, but I won’t for a second presume to know what Thomas will accomplish in any given year. Boris Diaw will fill in the gaps, Nazr Mohammed will have another quietly successful offensive season, and Matt Carroll could even resurrect his career from the three-point specialist graveyard.

There are bright spots in Charlotte, and enough of them to make the Bobcats a current favorite for one of the East’s final playoff seeds. Nothing is guaranteed, though. Charlotte didn’t get any better in the offseason, and with six Eastern Conference teams as locks for April (Miami, Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta), there isn’t much room for error. The most likely outcome lets the Bobcats slip in the playoff door, but is that good enough? Shouldn’t the Cats be building something from their first-ever playoff appearance last season?

Obviously. This just isn’t their time, and that’s the Bobcats’ ownership and management’s own doing. Playoff appearances mean a lot to a small-market team like Charlotte (and you better believe they mean a hell of a lot to a player like Wallace), but the Bobcats overall strategy isn’t going to take them much further. They can continue to tinker in order to keep their heads above water, but this is what we can expect from Charlotte until they change course. It’s not all that sunny, but it’s playoff basketball.

Prediction: 40-42 and a playoff spot. They’ll fight. They’ll defend. They’ll lose to one of the conference’s elite teams. Hope it sounds cozy, Bobcat fans.

Bill Russell takes a knee while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

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When we talk of Bill Russell, it’s often the on-the-court accomplishments — an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP who anchored the Boston Celtics through the greatest dynasty in NBA history, one of the best defensive players ever to set foot on the court. He’s more than simply a Hall of Famer, he is one of the game’s all-time greatest players.

With that, we often overlook Russell the activist, who took part in the Civil Rights movement. A man who faced plenty of racism as a player — being jeered by white students in college while he played, not being allowed to stay in the same hotel as white players in North Carolina during an All-Star tour in 1958, and much more — he was public in his refusal to tolerate any of it. It was his efforts on that front as much as basketball that led then President Barack Obama to award Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell tweeted out this photo of himself wearing that medal and supporting the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Russell is not going to be silenced. Not now, not ever. He remains a strong voice that the NBA should heed.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against violence and social injustice last season by taking a knee during the national anthem, more players were doing so this season. When President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “fire” the players taking a knee during the anthem, it led to a backlash among players and a much more widespread adopting of players taking a knee this past weekend. Even backers of the president — Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom donated to Trump last election — called Trump out for his comments.

It will be interesting to see how NBA teams handle anthem protests this season. Last season teams linked arms in a show of solidarity (the NBA has a rule that players must stand during the anthem) but you can be sure the league and players union are already discussing this. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was among the multitude of voices calling out Trump for what he said, let along high-ranking union members such as Chris Paul and LeBron Jamesthe latter of whom called the president a “bum.” Those slams of the president continued on media day Monday.

Report: T.J. Warren agrees to $50 million extension to stay in Phoenix

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T.J. Warren has potential — he’s an athletic wing who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, who loves to play in transition and can finish when he gets to the rim, plus he can defend multiple positions. Part of the motivation for the Suns in trading P.J. Tucker was to open up more time for Warren. However, injuries have held that potential back, he played in just 66 games last season and that is the most in his young career (he suffered a broken foot that required surgery the season before and it delayed his entry into last season).

The Suns bet on that potential Monday, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million rookie contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren has agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension, league sources told ESPN…

Warren has shown tremendous potential as a versatile wing with significant scoring potential. He had his best — and healthiest — pro season in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 59 of his 66 games played.

That $12.5 million average salary — basically fourth/fifth starter money — is higher than the market for Warren likely would have been, to put it kindly. That the Suns were willing to pay it speaks to how high they see his potential. If he can develop a more dangerous jumper he becomes is worth that money, but he has yet to show real shooting range. A lot of people saw the drafting of Josh Jackson last summer by Phoenix as a sign they were not sold on Warren, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly isn’t one of those people

The Suns have an athletic young core on the wings that they like with Warren, Jackson, and second-year players Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. This is a team with a couple of veterans such as Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe (the latter of whom is available via trade) to help guide that young core. The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Jaylen Brown wants Celtics to protest Donald Trump as a team

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The Latest on Monday’s events from NBA media days (all times local):

1:40 p.m.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown says he has talked to the rest of the team about protesting President Trump’s comments about athletes.

Brown said Monday at that Celtics media day that he’s also spoken to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and “he’s all for that.”

The president complained about football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and said NFL owners should fire them. The league responded on Sunday with a much wider protest that included condemnations by owners and more than 200 players taking knees during the anthem. Other teams locked arms, sometimes with their owners and coaches.

Brown says he wants the Celtics to find a way to protest as a team because “our voices are stronger together.”

1:30 p.m.

LeBron James says he would love to have Dwyane Wade join the Cavaliers.

Wade has accepted a buyout from the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland could be a potential landing spot. James and Wade won two NBA titles together with the Miami Heat and are close friends.

James said Monday at the Cavaliers media that he has spoken to Wade, and plans to again.

12:25 p.m.

The Carmelo Anthony era in New York is officially over.

The Knicks completed their trade with Oklahoma City on Monday morning, sending the All-Star forward to the Thunder for center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round draft pick.

Knicks President Steve Mills thanked Anthony for his play with the Knicks but also for what he “accomplished off the court for the City of New York by using his platform to address social issues.”

Mills announced that the Knicks were donating $100,000 to Anthony’s relief efforts to aid Puerto Rico in its recovery from the recent hurricanes.

Anthony also thanked the Knicks and New York in an online essay .

12:10 p.m.

Cavaliers point guard Isaiah Thomas has made progress with his hip injury, and officials said Monday the organization expects him to play by January.

Thomas has begun running and doing on-court activities as he rehabilitates the injury, which prematurely ended his 2017 postseason with the Boston Celtics. The Cavs acquired Thomas this summer from Boston in a blockbuster trade for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

Thomas doesn’t need surgery and the Cavs are confident he will be back on the floor in games by the end of the calendar year. While the Eastern Conference champions have been encouraged by Thomas’ recovery, they will not rush him back.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points last season for the Celtics, who sent him along with forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round draft to Cleveland for Irving.

Cleveland was concerned with Thomas’ injury and the Celtics added a second-round pick to complete the deal.

11:05 a.m.

The Miami Heat aren’t sure if they are going to Mexico City for a game this season.

The Heat are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 9 in Mexico City, a city where at least 186 people died in a massive earthquake last week. Rescuers were still digging in dangerous piles of rubble Monday, desperately seeking any more survivors.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the team sent personnel to Mexico City to see the arena before the quake, and will send people back to Mexico City in the coming weeks.

“Our hearts go out to the folks in Mexico City,” Spoelstra said. “It’s horrific to see that.”

Across Mexico, at least 324 people died in the quake. The NBA has said that, for now at least, the game remains as scheduled.

10:30 a.m.

Politics is already the talk of NBA media day.

After a weekend where President Donald Trump rescinded the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House and Cleveland star LeBron James responded by calling the president a “bum,” it was clear that Monday’s season-opening media sessions for 28 teams were quite possibly going to be as much about politics as basketball.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores released a statement early Monday that did not specifically mention Trump, but says “America’s most treasured values include equality and diversity, and the right to effect change through peaceful expression and thoughtful debate.” Gores also says he will support the Pistons players and their right to thoughtfully raise awareness to various causes.

On Sunday night, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said Trump’s “recent comments are deeply disappointing, because our focus should be on fostering a culture of sensitivity and inclusion.”

7 a.m.

The most retweeted post ever sent by LeBron James before this weekend was one in 2013 in response to the incessant who’s-better debate about him and Michael Jordan.

“I’m not MJ, I’m LJ,” he wrote. It was retweeted nearly 112,000 times.

And then LJ took on POTUS, calling President Donald Trump a “bum.” James’ Twitter account exploded from there, the 640,000 and counting retweets making it one of the top 15 shared posts ever.

If James’ tweet is any indicator, politics will be center stage across the NBA on Monday when 28 teams gather for their media days – the annual precursor to the start of training camps. Carmelo Anthony will formally become part of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Kyrie Irving’s first season in Boston will truly begin and Dwyane Wade is about to become a free agent after reaching a buyout with Chicago.

But those story lines, and probably all others, will almost certainly take a back seat to athletes reacting to politics.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball