NBA Season Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: 58-24, second seed in the East. We all know how this turned out — Miami made it to the NBA Finals in its first season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but lost the title to Dallas in six games.

Head Coach: Erik Spoelstra, who interestingly enough has not yet been offered a contract extension, and will be coaching this season in the final year of his current deal.

Key Departures: Mike Bibby, who shared the starting point guard duties with Mario Chalmers, went to the Knicks as a free agent.

Key Additions: Shane Battier, who chose to to ring-chase as a free agent instead of re-signing with the up and coming Grizzlies, should help in several areas, especially with Mike Miller sidelined for a couple of months due to injury. Eddy Curry is in training camp, although it may be premature to call him a key addition just yet.

Best case scenario: The Heat are the favorites this season to win the NBA title, but it may be more due to changes in the other contenders than to any improvements the team made to its roster. While contending teams like the Mavericks, Lakers, Bulls, and Thunder either underwent major changes, got worse on paper, or simply stood pat to this point in free agency, Miami retained its core of James, Wade, and Bosh, and added Battier for some veteran leadership, on-ball defensive help, and semi-reliable spot-up shooting.

Wade and James reportedly showed up to camp in tremendous physical shape, as did Bosh, who added significant bulk to his frame. And the fact that the team is virtually the same may be an advantage for the Heat as the league is forced to play a compressed and shortened 66-game schedule. A trip to the Finals is certainly within reach once again for this Miami team, and the experience gained a season ago may be enough to get them over the top this time.

For that to happen: The regular season shouldn’t pose much of a problem for this talented Heat squad. And, with a healthy Udonis Haslem in the fold — a player who understands his role and how to fit in on both ends of the floor — Miami will be a little deeper on its front line than last season. It’s all about preparing for the postseason run, and for the Heat to reach their ultimate goal of a championship, the team will need to figure out its late-game, crunch time identity, and then stick with it as the postseason rolls on.

As you may have heard ad nauseam, the Heat struggled mightily to produce points down the stretch of tight games. LeBron James in particular seemed to defer more than observers would have liked late in fourth quarters, and the numbers substantiate what we all thought we were seeing.

The best teams in the league tend to have a Plan A in crunch time — Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki, the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, the Bulls with the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose. The Heat seem to go back and forth between Wade and James, and James seemed too hesitant, and even uncertain at times about his role and whether or not he should take it upon himself to produce when Wade was with him on the floor. If James and Wade can clearly define exactly who is Option One and who is Option Two when the game’s on the line (and it should be Wade and James, in that order), that will make it easier to perform late with that decision already removed from the equation.

More likely the Heat will: Do exactly that. With a season under their belt, and a shorter schedule in place that should allow for Spoelstra to make the necessary tweaks along the way with his core from last year intact, Miami should be able to get back to the Finals, with a better chance this time to take home the league’s ultimate prize.

Prediction: 52-14, best record in the East, and number one overall seed entering the playoffs.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.

Shaq on free throws: ‘I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand’

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Rick Barry famously made 90% of his free throws while shooting underhand.

Shaquille O’Neal infamously shot just 53% on his free throws, inspiring hack-a-Shaq.

Why didn’t Shaq use Barry’s technique?

Shaq, via Emmanuel Ocbazghi, Noah Friedman and Graham Flanagan of Business Insider:

Shaquille O’Neal: Because it’s boring.

Business Insider: But it’s been proven to be somewhat effective.

O’Neal: No, it’s not. It’s not proven. Just ’cause a couple guys did it doesn’t mean anybody can do it.

I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand. I’m too cool for that.

O’Neal is somewhat trying to protect his larger-than-life, jokester image. But he’s also speaking to truth.

Barry would have been a good free-throw shooter overhand, too. Shooting underhand wasn’t necessarily going to fix Shaq’s problems at the line. Just because it worked for Barry doesn’t make it a “proven” technique.

Yet, every poor free-throw shooter – from Shaq to Andre Drummond to Andre Roberson – has been pestered about shooting underhand. It might be the right form for some players, but it’s no silver bullet.

Report: George Hill unhappy after Scott Perry promised him, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter that Kings would compete for playoffs

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After a recent Kings loss, George Hill tweeted:

Reading too much into vague tweets is often folly, but Hill hasn’t looked happy in Sacramento. Despite signing him, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter last summer, the Kings are 8-18.

Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

These are vets brought in to help a young team, and according to sources, were brought in with the promise of a team aiming to be playoff competitive.

But that promise was made to them by Scott Perry, who since left Sacramento and now makes personnel decisions for the New York Knicks. So the direction of the franchise has shifted since Perry left. An organization that brought in veterans aiming to win now is aiming to lose.

Not surprisingly, Hill isn’t happy, according to multiple sources

The Kings aren’t bad because they shifted direction after Perry left for the Knicks. They’re bad because they lack talent.

This team was mostly assembled by the time Perry departed, and it looked lousy. To whatever degree Sacramento is emphasizing youth post-Perry – Garrett Temple, Randolph and Hill rank in the top four in minutes – the won-loss record wasn’t changing much.

If Hill, Randolph and Carter didn’t know that, they have nobody to blame but themselves. Smart veterans like them should have understood the bargain they accepted.

Hill ($40 million guaranteed over two years), Randolph (two years, $24 million) and Vince Carter (one year, $8 million) took the money. In exchange, they’re stuck on a bad team. And that’s fine. Many of us prioritize salary in career decisions.

But now they’re dealing with the downside of that arrangement – grinding through a long, losing season. It’s disingenuous to sulk and blame Perry (though, if Perry pledged a team realistically competing for the playoffs, he overpromised).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Sacramento isn’t making rapid improvement overnight. So, something might have to give with Hill’s mood.