Mike Woodson’s big hurdle: Fitting Amare Stoudemire back in

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If your biggest problem is how to fit a six-time All-Star who gives you 18 and 8 a night back into the lineup, you should be feeling pretty good about yourself.

But this is the New York Knicks, a team with a rabid fan base and a small margin for error, so even something like brining back Amare Stoudemire to the lineup is seen as a challenge. And potential disaster.

The Knicks are on a hot streak entering the playoffs — including a win over the Celtics Tuesday — and in the next few days they will get Stoudemire back. Likely by Friday. So far, Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony — two guys who like the offense to work through them at times and who like some of the same spots on the floor — have not blended well. John Schuhmann has the numbers at NBA.com, but since last year’s trade the Knicks have been four points per 100 possessions better when Anthony is on the floor without Stoudemire than they have been together. And the defense has been better with just ‘Melo, too.

With coach Mike Woodson admitting that ‘Melo has found a comfort level in the offense right now, and with the Knicks winning, how do you fit Stoudemire in and get him touches without throwing off the rhythm that has been built? Yes, the Knicks went 6-1 with Stoudemire and Melo together when Woodson took over, but this team now is different.

The obvious answer is to keep one of them on the floor at all times and try to stagger their minutes — they are going to have to play together at some points, particularly crunch time, but you can have one on without the other for long stretches.

Which has led CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger and others to suggest bringing Stoudemire off the bench.

He should take a page from the book of Doc Rivers, who had the clout and cojones to leave Avery Bradley in the starting lineup over Ray Allen once the aforementioned future Hall of Famer returned from an ankle injury. How did Rivers do it?

“He just sat me down and said, ‘You’re coming off the bench,'” Allen said.

Woodson has said Stoudemire “absolutely” is starting. As Berger notes, it’s easy for Rivers — with a multi-year deal and the backing of management — to tell a star to come off the bench, it’s tougher for the interim Woodson. At the end of the season he will be the Knicks fallback as coach, owner James Dolan will be reaching for the stars first.

If the Knicks had even a few weeks to work out the kinks with their star combo, this might not be as big a deal. But they are going to have three games or so, then they are going to likely get the Miami Heat in a best of seven series. The only way the Knicks stand a chance is if they are firing on all cylinders and are knocking down shots like they did against Boston.

Mike Woodson, welcome to coaching the Knicks. Never a dull moment, even when your All-Star returns.

Clippers executive Jerry West raves about Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green

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A former great player who’s now an executive for a Los Angeles NBA team praised an opposing player.

The last time this happened, Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

How will Jerry West fare with these comments about Warriors stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?

West, via the TK Show:

Kevin Durant, I don’t know. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever watched play. His size, the efficiency that he plays the game is scary. And then you have Steph over there, your little, your next-door-neighbor kid. Let’s go play with him. And then you get out there, and then you find out, oh my god, this guy’s a killer. But pretty unique with that. And the complementary players, in their own right, they’re great. There’s Klay Thompson. He just goes and plays and never seeks any credit. He just plays and really competitive. Draymond, the guy that drives the horse. They’ve got some really unique players up there, and it’s still fun for me to watch. I watch them play. I root for them, because I know some of the players.

As a reminder, here’s what Johnson said about Antetokounmpo. Nick Friedell of ESPN:

As Johnson watches from afar, he can’t help but see and enjoy the parallels between his game and that of the Bucks big man.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson told ESPN recently. “With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”

Two key differences between West and Johnson:

West didn’t help get his team fined for tampering last summer. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there’s no clear line for tampering, but that the Lakers face a higher bar due their previous violations.

Johnson didn’t previously work for Milwaukee. West worked in Golden State’s front office while those players were there and knows them personally.

But Silver also provided a rough outline of when tampering will be enforced when addressing Johnson’s latest fine:

“It’s one thing when you’re asking a coach a question about an opposing team right after a game. It’s another issue when a general manager or president of basketball sort of gratuitously issues a statement that is complimentary of a star player on another team.

“In essence, what we’ve said to him, and it’s a clear message to other team executives, is that stop talking about star players on other teams. There are plenty of other issues they can address. And there is sensitivity around it throughout the league.”

Given that line, I don’t know how West avoid a fine – which is a shame.

What he said is harmless. No player is going to join another team due to benign compliments from an opposing executive.

It’s also a disservice to fans and West himself if he’s discouraged from speaking publicly about current players. The all-time great has valuable perspective, and he shouldn’t be silenced just because he works for an NBA team. His entire interview with Tim Kawakami of The Athletic is interesting. Everybody would lose if West turns down interviews in fear of a fine.

Meanwhile, more meaningful tampering – making plans on future contracts – is rampant. But that’s difficult to curb. So, the NBA enforces silly stuff like this.

The NBA never should have fined Johnson for the Antetokounmpo comments. It just opens too many cans of worms in a fight not worth fighting. Seriously, what’s the point?

If I were the Lakers, I’d be bothered if West skates free on this. But if I were West, I’d also resent a fine.

The league has backed itself into a dumb corner.

C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari trade halfcourt buzzer-beaters (video)

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Warriors star Stephen Curry drained a halfcourt shot to end the first quarter. Not to be outdone, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari hit a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter.

I’m just marveling how much less of a heave Curry’s shot was, even if it was slightly closer. His range is incredible.

Golden State won, 134-127, behind 44 points from Curry.

Report: Markelle Fultz, Kyle Kuzma among NBA players who received agency money while in school

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Details are emerging in the FBI’s probe into college basketball – specifically how former NBA agent Andy Miller distributed money (through college coaches) to players, i.e., potential clients.

Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports:

An ASM balance sheet in the hands of federal investigators shows accounts through Dec. 31, 2015, with the subheading, “Loan to Players.” It listed several who were in high school or college as receiving four-figure and five-figure payments from ASM Sports. Among the largest listed loans:

  • Dennis Smith, who would go on to play at North Carolina State in 2016-17, received $43,500 according to the documents. Another document headed “Pina,” for ASM agent Stephen Pina, says Smith received a total of $73,500 in loans, and includes notes about “options to recoup the money” when Smith did not sign with ASM.
  • Isaiah Whitehead, at the time a freshman at Seton Hall, received $26,136 according to the documents. The “Pina” document says Whitehead received $37,657 and was “setting up payment plan.” Whitehead signed with ASM but later left the agency for Roc Nation.
  • Tim Quarterman, at the time a junior at LSU, received at least $16,000 according to the balance sheet.
  • Diamond Stone, at the time a freshman at Maryland, received $14,303 according to the documents.
  • A listing that refers to “BAM” for $12,000 is later identified in the documents as Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who would go on to play at Kentucky in 2016-17. He did not sign with ASM. There’s a later reference to Adebayo that says he received $36,500. “Bad loan,” reads the document.
  • Markelle Fultz, who would go on to play at Washington and become the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, received $10,000 according to the documents. He did not sign with ASM.

Former Utah star Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 while in school, according to the documents.

Former Wichita State player Fred VanVleet. Documents show he received at least $1,000.

Apples Jones, the mother of former Kansas player Josh Jackson, received $2,700 according to documents.

Images attached to the article also show more NBA players, dating quite far back.

My simple reaction: Good for these players. They have a marketable skill, and they deserved to be compensated by the open market for it. It’s a shame the NCAA’s cartel system prevented that.

As Kevin Pelton of ESPN put so well: