Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) reacts after hitting a three point shot during the second half of their NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz  in Salt Lake City, Utah

NBA Season Preview: Dallas Mavericks

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Last Season: Coming off their incredible championship season, the Mavericks let defensive anchor Tyson Chandler go to New York in order to retain future cap flexibility. While that decision certainly hurt the chances of a true title defense, the acquisition of Lamar Odom probably buried it altogether. Despite those massive offseason failings, the veteran Mavs grinded out the regular season and survived a few nagging injuries en route to a return appearance to the playoffs. The young Thunder would ultimately take out the reigning champs, but the Mavs put up a strong fight and proved once again that if you have Dirk Nowitzki, you have a chance.

Key Departures: The championship backcourt is now completely gone. Jason Terry was the Mavericks second best offensive option by a wide margin, and now he’s in Boston. That hurts, but Jason Kidd joining Chandler in New York also deprives the Mavs of some stability on both ends of the floor. Backup big man Ian Mahinmi is now in Indiana. Shipping Lamar Odom back to Los Angeles was addition by subtraction.

Key Additions: The Mavericks went into scramble mode after swinging and missing for Deron Williams, but considering the circumstances, they added some nice pieces. You could make a strong case that Elton Brand was the Defensive Player of the Year last season, and although he’s a different type of defender, he’ll fill a void that was left unfilled by Chandler’s departure last year. The Mavs also added Dirk’s German Olympic teammate Chris Kaman to the frontcourt, who should provide some stretch if he can somehow manage to finally stay healthy. Lightning bug Darren Collison will take over as starting point guard, and O.J. Mayo gets a chance to live up to the hype and fill the Jet’s shoes as a big time scorer.

Three Keys to the Mavericks season:

1) Will the defense be elite?

It’s not easy to build a top defense with so many rotating parts, but Rick Carlisle’s defensive schemes are more important than the individual personnel. Dallas ranked second in defensive efficiency in the West last season (8th overall) despite trotting out a few undesirable defenders on the wing (Terry and Vince Carter), missing Kidd for much of the year, and having no real “plus” defender regularly on the court outside of Shawn Marion and Delonte West. It’s scary, but the Mavericks should be even better defensively this season and really have legitimate top 5 defensive efficiency potential. Collison will provide plenty of ball pressure and annoy opposing point guards, while O.J. Mayo is capable of playing a very physical style of perimeter defense when he’s motivated to do so. Kaman and Brand have years of experience playing together from their Clipper days and should solidify the backline. The defensive ace in the hole here is second round draft pick Jae Crowder, who can help the Mavs tremendously when they employ the trapping schemes this defense is built on.

2) A few veterans are still there, but it’s time to focus on developing young talent.

What direction is this going? Dirk Nowitzki has at least one or two killer seasons left in him, but he’ll soon be approaching the twilight of his career. Although it may not always be pretty, the Mavs would be well served to really see what they have in guys like Rodrigue Beaubois, Jared Cunningham, Dominique Jones and Jae Crowder and begin to wean themselves off of Carter, Marion and West. The great Mavericks rebuild looks more and more inevitable by the day, but it can’t truly begin until the Mavericks know if they have future pieces in place right now.

3) Can Dirk carry even more of the load offensively?

Already a high usage player (29.21 usage percentage, 13th in league), Nowitzki will be relied upon even more than usual to pace the Mavericks offensively. Although a 34-year-old with knee trouble taking that much of the scoring load would typically set off all kinds of alarms, no one makes more impossible shots than Nowitzki. He’s indefensible in the sense that degree of difficulty means nothing to him, as evidenced by his insane shooting percentages from 16-23 feet over his career (50 percent last year), which is the most inefficient shot in basketball for regular humans. All that said, Nowitzki is already slated to miss time this season, and the Mavs are ill-equipped to handle that. Can O.J. Mayo step up as a number one option? It’s a scary thought, but it may be a reality for the Mavericks, who could sport one of the league’s worst offenses (20th in offensive efficiency last year with Terry) without Dirk’s magic touch.

What Mavericks fans should fear: Basketball purgatory. The Mavericks don’t have enough offensive punch to be considered among the West’s elite any more, even though their defense is good enough to have them battle it out with Utah and Minnesota for one of the last seeds out West. Dallas is a franchise truly tied to their one star — if Nowitzki is healthy and at his best, they’ve got a puncher’s chance against anyone. But with that blue sky looking less and less likely, the Mavericks may be headed for another first round exit or a narrow miss of the playoffs, and may have an ugly decision awaiting them that their fanbase won’t love.

How it likely works out: Carlisle and Nowitzki should keep the ship afloat for another year and have the Mavs contend for a playoff spot, but the big challenges will come during survival mode without Nowitzki. So long as their big star is still in big D, the Mavs can’t truly justify being a seller or a buyer at the deadline, so they may just have to punt this season and hope they don’t butcher another chance this summer to acquire a star.

Prediction: 43-39, winning the 8th seed in a battle with Minnesota down the stretch. Another first round tilt with the Thunder would likely be on deck, which would spell doom for the Mavs hopes at another miraculous playoff run.

Lakers GM Kupchak tries to brush off Jim Buss’ timeline discussion

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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Consider this a little preview: On Thursday the ProBasketballTalk podcast returns, opening with a discussion of the Lakers and the Pacific division with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. We talk about the young core — D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, etc. — and how Luke Walton fits with them. How this is a team that if handled properly could develop into something of quality in a couple of years as these players come along. Patience is key.

But then we got to what Medina called the “elephant in the room”: Jim Buss’ timeline for returning to contending. He’s the head of basketball operations and vowed to at least make the second round of the playoffs at least by this season. Which is not happening. Will Buss be patient? Is he grounded in today’s NBA reality? Will the woman with the hammer, Jeanie Buss, hold him to that timeline? Does she have the backing of the other Buss children to push him out? (Reportedly she does.) It has Shakespearian drama potential.

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was asked about that Tuesday and wanted no part of the question. Via Medina at the Daily News.

“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff….

“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”

The Lakers should win more than the 17 of last year, maybe climb into the upper 20s, with 30 wins being the goal. That would signify a good season. But what matters is development, and if the Lakers are better at the end of the season, if their young players are on the right track, then that is success for this season.

Everyone around the Lakers understands that.

But is that enough to save Jim Buss’ job? That’s a different question.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”

Report: With new building set to open, Sacramento pushes to host 2020 All-Star Game

The Sacramento Kings released the NBA basketball team's new logo, Tuesday, April 26, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. The new logo has a reshaped crown and new typeface meant to convey a modern look. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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In just a few weeks, the new arena that kept the Kings in Sacramento is set to open. It’s a well-designed basketball-first facility that both the fans and players should love.

Now the Kings want to show that building off to everybody and host a future All-Star Game, reports James Ham of CSNCalifornia.com.

It’s not uncommon for a team with a new building to get to host the All-Star Game. The 2017 game is in New Orleans, 2018 is in Los Angeles, 2019 will go to Charlotte if the “bathroom bill” is repealed (or strongly modified). That makes 2020 the next one up.

The Kings new building is in downtown Sacramento, in a growing area close to the California state capital. The only question is whether that area has enough hotel rooms and nearby convention space to handle the massive influx of people that come to an All-Star Game. The league office has this mapped out, it knows how many hotel rooms it needs in close proximity to the arena, for example. If Sacramento can meet all those qualifications, it could well land the February showdown.

Sixers players have dinner with Will Smith

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24:  Actor Will Smith attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Focus" at TCL Chinese Theatre on February 24, 2015 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Ali. Men in Black. I am Legend. Fresh Prince. Suicide Squad. Independence Day. Plus more than a few movies he’d like us to forget (hello Hancock).

Will Smith is all that — and part owner of the Philadephia 76ers.

As training camp opened, Smith took his team out to dinner, according to the Sixers official site.

Jahlil Okafor and his teammates weren’t told that the Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning entertainer from West Philadelphia would be dining with them.

“It was great, it was a lot of fun,” said Okafor, who participated in Tuesday’s practice, despite sustaining a minor ankle sprain a few weeks ago. “Will Smith is my favorite celebrity, my favorite actor. It was great to hear him speak.”

Smith shared stories and passed along advice to a crowd consisting mostly of early to mid 20-year olds who grew up on his movies and albums.

“I think the main thing he said is the company you have around you,” Joel Embiid said. “He was trying to explain the people you have around you affect the type of person you are. He was just trying to tell us to have good people around. That’s the main thing I got from that.”

It’s a good lesson for the Sixers in what could be a season of lessons coming for the Philadephia. This team is going to be better than it was a year ago, but don’t confuse that with good. They may get there someday, but there are a lot of hard lessons to learn between now and then.

But it’s a lot more fun to get some of those lessons from Will Smith.