NBA Preview: Charlotte Bobcats

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Last season: Worst. Team. Ever.

Literally, no team has ever finished with a worse winning percentage than the 7-59 Bobcats. That had to sting owner Michael Jordan. They were the least efficient team in the league on offense and defense (they both scored the fewest and allowed the most points per possession in the league). Yes, there were injuries on a team that had no margin for error, but they were destined to be terrible. Usually you try to find positives out of a season to build on, in this case just flush it. Flush it.

Key Departures: Can anyone from that last roster be called key? Anyway, Corey Maggette is gone, as is D.J. Augustin. But nobody they are actually going to moss.

Key Additions: With the No. 2 pick in the draft the Charlotte Bobcats selected Michael Kidd-Gillchrist, the high-energy wing out of Kentucky. A guy whose effort and defense stood out on a team loaded with future NBA players. In the one game Kidd-Gilchrist played in Summer League he looked good and now he’s got a reconstructed jump shot. He should be fun to watch.

They also added journeyman big Brendan Haywood, a reliable starting point guard in Ramon Sessions and they have Ben Gordon coming off the bench with a green light. (Might as well make it green, Gordon is going to shoot no matter the light’s color.) That’s not a playoff roster, but that’s not 12 wins, either.

Three keys to the Bobcats season:

1) Just how good is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going to be? This is a one-year question but rather a multi-year process. He was certainly the right call with the second pick in the draft — he’s a long, pretty athletic wing who can defend and will out work you. The question is how much his jump shot develops (he has already reworked the form) and will his handles get to the point he can create his own shot. In college his athleticism could do that, but he’ll need better handles at this level.

New coach Mike Dunlap was brought in because he can develop players. Here is his first project. Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be a key part of the rebuilding in Charlotte. How key a part we’ll see by how much he develops. He could be a regular All-Star, a guy who can defend on the wing and get you some points. Could. We will see.

2) The Bobcats have to play better defense. And they should — just by adding Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing and Haywood on the paint they have better defensive personnel. Plus they have Bismack Biyombo, who should leap forward as a paint protecting force this season. And finally Dunlap has said he wants to bring in a defensive mindset as well.

The Bobcats can make faster gains with their team and record on the defensive side of the ball. The offense will come along, but get stops and they can win more games. The pieces are there to improve fairly dramatically on this end. Don’t expect a miracle. I don’t even expect them to be average. They just need to not be historically bad.

3) Where does the offense come from? They should be better this season, if only because they can’t really be worse. This is where picking up Ramon Sessions is key — is a solid to good, dependable point guard who can set the table. He played well in the regular season for the Lakers last year, but it was his first ever playoff experience and he seemed overwhelmed by that stage. Still, for the Bobcats he provides a steady presence.

Behind him at the point is Kemba Walker, and Bobcats fans should be rooting for him to take a leap forward with his game.

As he did last year, Gerald Henderson will rack up points (nice fantasy basketball tip). Kidd-Gilchrist will get them some points, but we’ll see how many. I’d like to say Tyrus Thomas will give them more than 14 a game, he has the talent, but I’m don betting on that horse. He just never developed the handle and mental side of his game to go with the skill set.

Plus there is Ben Gordon gunning off the bench. Which is what the Bobcats need.

What Bobcats fans should fear: After you have been to the seventh circle of hell, what could be worse? What is their left to fear? Really, the fear is that GM Rich Cho misses on picks and this team continues to stumble rather than build going forward. Personally, I believe in Cho, I think the organization is acting more professionally, and I think they are moving in the right direction. Slowly, but in the right direction. That said, the fear is that those are really just wheels spinning in the mud.

How it likely works out: The Bobcats are not going to be good. Not as bad as last year, but not good. Still, there are signs of hope — watch Kidd-Gilchrist bring new energy to the team and see his offensive game develop. See if Bismack Biyombo can become a defensive force. See if Kemba Walker can start to look like an NBA starter. Heck, you can hold out hope that the switch flips for Tyrus Thomas if you want. Find a reason to hope. And expect a better season than the last one.

Prediction: 21-62, which means once again a whole lot of lottery balls. They and the Magic may well be competing for the worst record in the NBA, and they are a few years away from the playoffs. But this is the first steps back from the lowest of lows. Don’t expect miracles and find reasons for hope. Find guys you can root for, Bobcats fans.

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.

After two lopsided losses to OKC, Kevin Durant leads Warriors rout

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 28 points for Golden State while avenging an embarrassing home loss to his former Oklahoma City team earlier this month and another on the road in November, leading the Warriors past the Thunder 112-80 on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry added 21 points with five 3-pointers, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals as Golden State put on the kind of defensive performance coach Steve Kerr has been seeking from the defending champs.

Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, which failed to reach 100 points for the first time in the last five games. The Thunder had scored at least 100 in 14 of their last 16.

Durant’s pretty layup off a perfect pass by Curry with 3:06 left in the third put the Warriors up 75-66. That was part of a 37-11 Golden State run that included 30 points over the final 8:48 of the third – when Zaza Pachulia subbed in to relieve JaVale McGee.

The Warriors held Paul George to five points. George’s 3-pointer at the 7:52 mark of the third with Durant’s hand in his face was his first basket after going 0 for 9 to begin the game. He finished 1 for 14 after going off for 38 points in the last meeting when Oklahoma City left Oracle Arena with a 125-105 rout on Feb. 6.

Golden State also lost at OKC by 17 on Nov. 22.

Draymond Green added 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He picked up his 15th technical of the season with 1:04 left in the first half, moving him within one of an automatic suspension. That came after Durant and Carmelo Anthony pushed, shoved, yelled from close range and had to be separated, receiving double technicals.

It was a testy rematch after the Warriors received five technical fouls in the previous meeting. That prompted general manager Bob Myers to address the importance of keeping poised.

Durant announced his decision to join the Warriors and leave OKC on July 4, 2016, making him an instant villain in his former city.

He scored 33 in the Feb. 6 meeting but got plenty of help this time.

Earlier this month against the Thunder, Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 11 of 27 from the floor and 4 for 15 on 3-pointers as the Warriors lost for the third time in four games. Thompson had 11 points Saturday, shooting just 1 for 11 from deep.

The Warriors on Saturday improved to 8-1 this season in the next game against an opponent after losing the previous meeting.

After Shaun Livingston‘s jumper at the 8:47 mark of the second quarter, Golden State went nearly five minutes without scoring before Curry’s basket at 4:51 started a 7-0 burst.

The Thunder grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the opening quarter to score 10 second-chance points, with Westbrook getting eight boards and George five. But Oklahoma City went 2 for 11 on 3s in the initial 12 minutes – Anthony, George and Westbrook a combined 1 of 8.

 

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.