New Orleans finds path to winning runs through San Antonio

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The New Orleans Hornets are standing at the top of the hill, 7-0. They beat the Clippers last night, but the lineup before that — Milwaukee, San Antonio, Denver and even Miami — is a bunch of teams that would bring most teams to their knees.

Standing there, the Hornets have a good view. They are as good a team as there is in the league right now, but they see the long road of the season stretching out before them. Standing there the questions about the future remain — key among them is can they keep Chris Paul? — but the road looks open and the future promising.

However, if they were to turn around and look back at the road that led them to this spot, they would see it runs straight through San Antonio.

The Hornets started to retool their organization this summer, something that was expected to come with a change in ownership that has yet to materialize. But the change in the organization went forward anyway.

It started with the hiring of Monty Williams as coach then Dell Demps as general manager (in that odd reverse order, but it seems to work here). Demps was a member of the San Antonio Spurs brain trust who was general manager of their D-League affiliate the Austin Toros (among other jobs in the Spurs organization). Demps came in with a mandate to “change the culture” of the organization, to make the culture more Spurs-like. Which is what everybody says when they hire a GM, but Demps really has changed things.

He didn’t hire Monty Williams — a coach who learned the NBA game at the right hand of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — but he’s the kind of guy Demps would have hired. A like minded, Spurs culture guy.

And you can see that on the court in how the Hornets play defense. The Spurs have won four titles by defending the rim and closing out hard at the arc, forcing teams into a lot of long twos and midrange shots. The least efficient shots in the game.

Sound strategy, but could Emeka Okafor really be that guy defending the rim? He can, it turns out. Okafor has been a force all season, really controlling the paint. He’s had room to do that because David West — who seemed to sleepwalk though the last couple seasons — has brought energy at both ends of the floor. With West focused and Okafor not having to help him as much, it has freed Okafor up to defend the rim with gusto. Okafor also leads the league right now with a 72.7 shooting percentage. He can’t miss, like a Pacer in the third quarter.

Of course, the biggest change for the Hornets has been the return of a healthy Chris Paul. He is playing at an MVP level, giving the team 18 points and 10 assists per game, doing it with the highest shooting percentage of his career. Right now, when he is on the court he assists on about half of his team’s baskets scored. His PER is at 29.8, a career best by a mile (and second only to Dwight Howard so far this season).

Add in smart pickups like Trevor Ariza to fill needs, and you have really got something.

It all looks good. Does that mean Chris Paul is staying?

Nobody knows. Maybe not even Paul himself. Nothing is going to happen short term. The Hornets are not looking to move him right now, instead they are looking to woo him to stay long term by proving he can win here. The 7-0 start is just that, a nice start, but winning in the playoffs is what matters and that is a long way off.

Paul isn’t talking, and the Hornets do not face the deadline pressure to make a move that Denver does right now. But that will change — by next summer and into next season the Hornets will need to get a commitment from Paul (who will be in the last year of his deal) or they have to look to move him. They have until then to change his mind. Certainly some kind of resolution with the ownership sale and that outcome will play a role in Paul’s decisions as well (as will outside influences, such as what happens in New York).

But the Spurs never really lost their core players. If the Hornets stay with that model… maybe you can win big in the Big Easy.

Rip Hamilton says 2004 Pistons would beat 2016 Warriors

CLEVELAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons looks up during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 22, 2009 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Cavaliers won 99-78.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Add Rip Hamilton to team #getoffmylawn.

The long list of veteran players who somehow feel their legacy is threatened by this era’s Golden State Warriors and their freestyling system has now added one of the key players from the 2004 Pistons title team to their ranks. CBS’ NBA Crossover asked the masked man Rip Hamilton about it, and he thought the vaunted Pistons defense was well designed for dealing with the Warriors.

“It would be no comparison.” Hamilton said on CBS Sports’ NBA Crossover. “We can guard every position. Every guy from our point guard to our five, can guard any position. We were big. We were long.”

Hamilton is right that it would be an interesting defensive matchup. The book on the Warriors — especially when facing the smaller “death lineup” — is to switch everything, and those Pistons would have been well suited to that task. Of course, there are two ends of the court and the Warriors are also a good defensive team going against a Pistons team that had limited offensive options (people underestimate how great Chauncey Billups was playing during that 2004 playoff run, he was elite, but that was not a deep offensive team). The real issue would have been pace — the Warriors want to play fast, the Pistons wanted to grind it out, who won that battle would be huge?

But that last graph talking strategy doesn’t address the biggest question: Whose rules are the games played under? 2016 or 2004?

Those 2004 Pistons were the height of the grabbing/hand-checking on the perimeter era that would be an automatic foul today. (There was a lot more hand checking uncalled in the NBA last season, but not the level of grabbing and holding that was allowed in 2004 and before back into the Jordan era.)

Tayshaun Prince said it well.

“It depends on what the rules are.” Prince said. “Because back when we played, we could play hands-on, physical. As you can see from the Pacers rivalries and all of the rivalries we had back in the day, we were scoring in the high 70s, low 80s. We were physical. So now if you play this style of play, where they’re running and gunning and touch fouls and things like that, all of sudden we would start getting in foul trouble because back when we played, we were very, very aggressive on defense.”

He gets it.

The Warriors are built for this era of basketball, one where the rules encourage space so players to have freedom and can be more creative with their playmaking. The Pistons were built for the 2004 physical games of that era. (And most of you who remember that era fondly do so through rose-colored glasses, there’s a reason ratings were down for those 84-78 slugfests.) It’s possible to have great teams built differently for different eras and say that’s okay.

But it’s the nature of sports fandom to compare things that can’t actually be compared apples to apples. So have at it in the comments (and I expect one person to tell us how Jordan was better than all of them, because somehow people always feel the need to defend his legacy in these debates).

51 Questions: Does Al Horford change perception of Celtics?

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We are in the final days PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past month we’ve tackled 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. Today:

Does Al Horford change the perception of the Celtics?

This summer, Al Horford shattered the myth that Boston couldn’t attract elite free agents.

It was always a perception that lived more in the heads of frustrated Celtics fans than it did NBA reality. The Larry Bird-era Celtics didn’t attract free agents because there wasn’t free agency until that dynasty was starting to slide (and free agency didn’t fully take hold for a few years after that). Then the Celtics struggled for a long stretch, and we know it’s hard to get players to go to a team that’s not winning. During the most-recent big three era, the Celtics did land name free agents — Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Terry — that helped round out a roster already loaded with stars.

The past couple of summers, Celtics fans saw the potential, but the reality was the team was not yet ready to win on the big market — even as much as players raved about Brad Stevens as coach. It took the Celtics getting to 48 wins and showing real promise to get the attention of top free agents. Last summer the Celtics finally in position, and they got their man in Horford.

Now Horford should put that perception to rest.

For one thing, he will throw open the door to more wins — just through the preseason the spacing of the Celtics’ offense looks better than last season. Watching them through these games, the early high dribble-hand-off move the Celtics often use between Horford and Isaiah Thomas to initiate the offense has defenses spread out. Follow that with good ball movement off the multiple actions from that early set and defenses scramble with help coverages. Celtics are getting open looks. The Celtics pretty-good-but-defendable-in-the-playoffs offense of last season already looks far more dangerous, plus we know Horford will help on defense, too.

Horford puts the Celtics on the brink of contention, either the second or third best team in the East (depending on what you think of Toronto). If you’re worried about perception, know that other players (and their agents) notice that. They notice the ball movement, they notice the players like the coach. Another strong season will cement Boston as a team where other stars will want to go because of that coach, because of the system, because they can win, and most importantly because they can get paid (it’s always about the money).

In that sense, Horford does change the perceptions of the Celtics. Although Stevens had already started that process, opening the door for Horford.

It remains more likely that the next star the Celtics land is via trade. They have the picks, they have the young players a team losing a star and considering a rebuild likely wants, plus they have a couple interesting veterans whose contracts only have a couple of years left — Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. It’s the worst-kept secret in the NBA — right up there with Rudy Gay is not loving Sacramento — that Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge is working the phones for any star player who becomes available. What’s holding those deals up is not a perception of the Celtics, it’s that trading for a star is difficult. Very difficult.

Celtics fans, enjoy what should be a very special season. Boston had the point differential of a 50-win team last season, and Horford makes them better on a number of levels. This is a team poised for a strong regular season and a deep playoff run. They are still a player away from challenging the team LeBron James is on, but so is everyone else east of Oakland. That shouldn’t diminish the joy of the ride this season.

And know the perception around the league of the Celtics is very good.

Anthem singer at Heat-76ers game kneels during performance (video)


MIAMI (AP) — A woman performing the national anthem before an NBA preseason game in Miami on Friday night did so while kneeling at midcourt, and opening her jacket to show a shirt with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

The singer was identified by the Heat as Denasia Lawrence. It was unclear if she remained in the arena after the performance, and messages left for her were not immediately returned.

Heat players and coaches stood side-by-side for the anthem, all with their arms linked as has been their custom during the preseason. Many had their heads down as Lawrence sang, and the team released a statement saying it had no advance knowledge that she planned to kneel.

“We felt as a basketball team that we would do something united, so that was our focus,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Throughout all of this, I think the most important thing that has come out is the very poignant, thoughtful dialogue. We’ve had great dialogue within our walls here and hopefully this will lead to action.”

The anthem issue has been a major topic in the sports world in recent months, starting with the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to not stand for its playing. Kaepernick cited racial injustice and police brutality among the reasons for his protest, and athletes from many sports – and many levels, from youth all the way to professional – have followed his lead in various ways.

“All I can say is what we’ve seen in multiple preseason games so far is our players standing for the national anthem,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in New York earlier Friday, at a news conference following the league’s board of governors meetings. “It would be my hope that they would continue to stand for the national anthem. I think that is the appropriate thing to do.”

The NBA has a rule calling for players and coaches to stand during the anthem.

Heat guard Wayne Ellington often speaks about the need to curb gun violence, after his father was shot and killed two years ago. He had his eyes closed for most of the anthem Friday, as per his own custom, though was aware of Lawrence’s actions.

“At the end of the day, to each his own,” Ellington said. “If she feels like that’s the way she wants to stand for it, then more power to her.”

Making a statement in the manner that Lawrence did Friday is rare, but not unheard of in recent weeks.

When the Sacramento Kings played their first home preseason game earlier this month, anthem singer Leah Tysse dropped to one knee as she finished singing the song.

Tysse is white. Lawrence is black.

“I love and honor my country as deeply as anyone yet it is my responsibility as an American to speak up against injustice as it affects my fellow Americans,” Tysse wrote on Facebook. “I have sung the anthem before but this time taking a knee felt like the most patriotic thing I could do. I cannot idly stand by as black people are unlawfully profiled, harassed and killed by our law enforcement over and over and without a drop of accountability.”

Report: When Kings hired George Karl, Rudy Gay greeted him with, ‘Welcome to basketball hell’

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 18:  Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings reacts after their 103-97 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 18, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Kings were 18-34 when they hired George Karl in February 2015. They hadn’t made the playoffs in eight years. Sacramento fired coach Michael Malone earlier in the season, because – after a better start than anyone could’ve reasonably expected – the team slumped while its best player was out sick. The Kings gave the job to Tyrone Corbin and promised him the rest of the season, though they obviously reneged by hiring Karl. Owner Vivek Ranadivé declared he wanted a jazz director. The front office was chaotic, and general manager Pete D’Alessandro and special advisor Chris Mullin would soon depart. DeMarcus Cousins stewed.

Rudy Gay had been in Sacramento barely a year, but he had the franchised figured out.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

An aside on Gay: He’s quoted in an advance copy of George Karl’s forthcoming book “Furious George,” due to be published in January by Harper-Colins, as telling Karl when he met the new Sacramento coach for the first time in February 2015, “Welcome to basketball hell.”

Karl just worsened the situation – alienating Cousins, bothering other players and running flawed schemes. He deserves plenty of blame for the Kings continuing their malaise – though obviously not all of it.

Sacramento hired Vlade Divac to run the front office but completely bungled it. Once Divac got up and running, he was in way over his head. Ranadivé sets a toxic tone. Cousins remains moody.

No wonder Gay wants out.

At least he coined a term – “basketball hell” – that could stick when describing these Kings.