Ricky Rubio hopes to convince Kevin Love to stay, says winning will be important when it’s his turn at free agency

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TREVISO, Italy — There has already been one big change to the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason, with Flip Saunders deciding to step out of the front office and back onto the sidelines after interviewing others for a head coaching position he ultimately decided would be best filled by taking the job himself.

Another, far more substantial change is potentially on the horizon.

Kevin Love reportedly wants to leave the Timberwolves in free agency as soon as that time comes, which would be at the conclusion of next season — if he remains in Minnesota for that long. The team is reportedly considering trading him before then in order to get something in return, which may be the right decision depending on the compensation offered, and assuming that Love can’t be convinced to stay.

Ricky Rubio was in attendance for day two of adidas Eurocamp on Sunday, and spent some time speaking with the Next Generation group of 15- and 16-year old international players. He was open in discussing Love’s situation and how it may affect the franchise, and of course, would want his teammate to stay. But seeing as he hasn’t yet heard it directly from Love himself, Rubio was speaking mostly in hypotheticals rather than accepting Love’s reported feelings as a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a lot going on,” Rubio told NBCSports.com. “He’s a great player who has been playing for the Timberwolves for six years, and gave everything. And he think he can still give us a lot of things, but it’s something more on the business part that the front office has to do, to try and convince him (to stay) if he wants to leave. Because I really only know that he wants to leave because of the media, but what I saw last year was him giving everything in every game, and that’s all you can you ask of any player.”

Love put up his traditionally impressive numbers last season, averaging 26.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists, while shooting better than 37 percent from three-point distance and playing 36.3 minutes per contest. But the Timberwolves failed to make the playoffs, which extended the team’s postseason drought to 10 straight years.

That recent history of failure is right at the top of Love’s list of reasons for wanting out. But despite missing out on the playoffs yet again, Rubio believes last season was a step in the right direction.

“I would say that every year we have improved,” Rubio said. “That’s something that you have to be proud of. Maybe everybody was expecting something more last year, but actually we won 40 games, something the franchise hadn’t done in the last eight or nine years. So it’s something to be proud of, but we know we have to improve. We know we have to make it to the playoffs. And with a lot of young guys with talent, I think we are playing the right way, but we really need to add some veteran players who can help us to understand what we need to get to the postseason.”

The last time the team won at least 40 games was in 2004-05, which ironically was Saunders’ final one in his first stint as Minnesota’s head coach that lasted into a ninth season. Rubio didn’t expect Saunders to take the job this time around, but looks forward to seeing what his role will be under his new head coach.

“I was kind of surprised,” Rubio said. “Because we were looking for a coach, and then suddenly he came down (from the front office) and wants to coach. But he’s been a coach for a team, so he knows the franchise and he knows the team. We’ll see how it goes, I want to sit down with him and talk because as a player, I want to know what the coach expects from me, expects from the team. But I was kind of surprised.”

Saunders can only do so much, and a lot of his success will depend on whether or not Love stays — or at least what may come back in a package for him if a trade is made this summer. One day it will be Rubio’s turn to make a similar free agent decision, and like many players, he said that being in a situation that offers him a key role on a winning team would be the one he’d be most likely to consider.

“The fact is, it’s about winning for me,” Rubio said. “It’s about being on a team that really has, I would say, a project with me involved. If that happened in free agency, and I’m not (already) on a team where there’s a project where you can get far enough to get a ring and win … I would say I would like to be on a winning team.”

That brings us back to Love. Rubio hasn’t spoken to his teammate about his reported trade request or his upcoming free agent decision, but plans to do so soon. If the reports are true, however, and that’s the way Love is leaning, then Rubio would try to convince him to stay — even though he knows that could be a very difficult process.

“It’s hard to convince someone who wants to leave,” Rubio said. “But I don’t know if he wants to leave or not; that’s the media. So I want to know his opinion. And it’s something that I don’t know yet, so I don’t know what to say to him. But of course, if I talked to him I’d say that I love to play with him and we can do great things tougher.”

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.

James Harden, Chris Paul lead Rockets to 13th straight victory

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HOUSTON (AP) — Nursing a sore knee, James Harden said he came close to not playing Saturday night.

When team doctors warned him that it would be painful, but he could play through it, he said, “Let’s go.”

Harden scored 31 points and Chris Paul had 25 and the Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 for their 13th straight victory.

The winning streak is the Rockets’ longest since a franchise-best 22 straight in 2007-08.

Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer over Malcolm Brogdon and was fouled, giving Houston an 11-point lead with less than six minutes remaining. In the last two minutes, Paul hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.

“Mentally, this was a big win for us,” Paul said. “We never let go of the rope. Every time they made a little push, we stayed right there down the stretch. James was out there, basically, on one leg. The mental toughness we showed as a team is what we take from this game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton had 23 points, and Brogdon added 20. Milwaukee has lost three in a row after winning six of seven.

“Harden made some tough shots and Chris Paul made some big shots down the stretch as well,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We gave ourselves a chance, but we just came up short.”

The Rockets grinded through frustrations, 15 turnovers and a below-average shooting night. Paul had a technical foul, Harden had a delay of game warning, and the Rockets faced serious adversity for the first time in weeks. Entering Saturday, Houston had dominated teams in its streak, winning all but two games by double figures with an average margin of victory of 16.9 points.

“We just didn’t have our best stuff tonight,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But we found a way. It was one of those typical grind games where you’ve just got to find a way somehow.”

Paul scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, overcoming a rocky first half where he missed all five shots he attempted and turned the ball over five times.

“I had never coached him in a back-to-back, but I’m thinking he’s kind of dead,” D’Antoni said. “Then, all of a sudden, he comes out in the third quarter and turns into Superman.”

Paul made 7 of 8 shots in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, also making all eight free throws in the game.

Harden scored 20 points or more for the 29th straight game, matching Houston’s franchise record set by Moses Malone.

Both Harden and Clint Capela (left heel contusion) were game-time decisions after suffering injuries on different collision plays in Friday night’s win over San Antonio. Capela sat out the game, and P.J. Tucker started in his place, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Behind Tucker, Nene scored a season-high 16 points, largely on thunderous one-handed dunks. The Rockets were outscored by the Bucks 44-40 in the paint and outrebounded 40-38.

Milwaukee and Houston traded blows in the first half, with the Rockets leading by three at the end of the first quarter. They were tied at 55 at the half. The Rockets haven’t trailed at the half since Nov. 25 in a 117-102 win over the Knicks.

The Rockets took an 84-79 lead into the fourth quarter.

At 24-4, the Rockets are tied for their best 28-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993-94 season when they won their first championship.