More than gold, Kyrie Irving heads to Rio seeking long planned title with Krzyzewski

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LAS VEGAS — Kyrie Irving has gone all the way to Rio this summer seeking the culmination of a conversation that started in Irving’s parent’s New Jersey home back in 2009.

That’s when he and Mike Krzyzewski first talked of winning a title together.

“I did win a World Championship with him (in 2014), and this will cement our relationship of finally getting to play for a championship that we envisioned when I was 17 years old and he was recruiting me,” Kyrie Irving said. “I’m glad I have this opportunity with him.”

Seven years ago when that conversation began, Krzyzewski and Irving pictured that title as one in Durham — but the basketball gods were not going to let that happen. Irving played just 11 games at Duke due to a toe injury his freshman year. Rather than return to the Blue Devils, he went on to the NBA where he was the No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 (the season after LeBron James left them to take his talents to South Beach).

Now, the culmination of that title conversation could come with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics — in Coach K’s final run as the coach of USA Basketball.

“It’s definitely emotional — and I don’t shy away from that at all,” Irving told NBC Sports during a break in the shooting of a Kids Foot Locker commercial in Las Vegas, after a Team USA practice. “The 2014 World Championships was great, but being this is his last hurrah, thinking about the storyline of him and Jerry Colangelo taking over USA Basketball and what they did just to shape American basketball in general, and the honor of playing for USA Basketball.

“We were all reminded when they took over. It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic. Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country. I enjoy that it’s now a generational shift. Constantly, constantly, we’re getting kids coming in and playing a part of USA Basketball. I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against). I get a chance to, every summer, get better with USA basketball.

“That it’s being his last year is definitely an emotional one, but I’m glad I could be part of it.”

Krzyzewski also is emotional, although the West Point graduate and veteran coach tends to play the personal side down.

“I know he wants to play for the U.S., wants to win a gold medal. I think down the list, he wants to play for me,” Coach K said after a USA practice. “I’m not saying way down the list. But the primary thing, Kyrie wants to be a great player, and this gives him an opportunity to play with different people. It brings out different qualities of him… like leadership. And our guys usually become better in this. They usually have really good years [coming off USA Basketball], and then he can rest after. He’ll still have about six weeks before the season. I’m proud of him.”

As he has since Irving came to Duke, Coach K trusts the high IQ game of Irving to execute his vision on the court. With Team USA that vision is to overwhelm opponents with athleticism and pressure — defend aggressively, force turnovers and misses, then just get out and run.

Irving loves it.

“Basketball is fun when you’re getting stops,” Irving said of the defensive focus. “The other team’s not scoring. You’re getting out, just playing a free motion basketball. For me, I’m looking forward to it, because I know I’m out pressuring the ball and I know I’ve got Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler — I have all these guys behind me on defense. That’s just an exciting game to watch and play.”

He’s also got other ball handlers he can trust to share the load in transition and the half court — Butler, George, Thompson, Durant, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and on down the line Everybody can pitch in — and everybody needs to sacrifice on this team. Great players have to accept smaller roles.

That is where Irving feels he can lead — especially after learning the sacrifices needed to win an NBA title.

“Being part of a great team is even bigger than personal accomplishment,” Irving said. “I stand true that I’ll always want to be part of a great team because the atmosphere and culture that’s built around it you guys are bonded forever if you do something that’s bigger than all ya guys. And that right there is winning a gold medal.

“I understand that. It took me a little bit to understand that coming up as a kid. That was kinda Day One when my dad was coaching me as a kid is that team is the only thing that matters. You don’t want to outshine anybody or feel you have to step on anybody’s toes, you want to establish yourself as an individual, show people how talented you are, but integrate yourself into the team.”

Being on a great team also means the pressure of winning gets spread out and carried by more people as well.

Sure, it Coach K’s last run and they feel the pressure to win for him. However, just putting that USA on your chest brings pressure, Irving said — adding that he welcomes it.

“There’s pressure every single year,” Irving said. “I mean American basketball is at the top of everything, we’ve proven that through the World Championships as well as the Olympics, and as well as the NBA — everyone wants to be part of this. So for us it’s not any added pressure — because I don’t know what pressure is — all I know is going out there, going all out, leaving it all on the floor and living with the results after that.”

Irving didn’t have to take on the pressure.

Coming off an NBA title season, Irving could have spent the summer partying on boats and soaking in the good life — he earned the right with a vintage pull-up three over Stephen Curry that won the Cavaliers an NBA title (Cleveland’s first in 52 years). Irving could have taken a summer off and basked in the championship glow.

But that’s not how he’s wired.

“I think a player has a dog’s life in their career, 13, 15 (years),” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully that long. So when you feel that momentum going where you’re getting better, I’m not sure you want to stop.”

Irving said on that level nothing has changed — he still wants to test himself. For example, he loves the post-practice one-on-one and knockout battles where the team USA players face-off. Those moments drip with intensity.

“It’s definitely a personal challenge, because in a team environment, with your respective team, I can’t necessarily go one-on-one with a Paul George. I can’t go one-on-one with Kevin Durant. And I can’t go one-on-one with Jimmy Butler,” Irving said. “We all have positions that we have to fill, and when you bring all those onto one team, and we’re a very significant contributor on our respective teams and you bring everyone here, then it’s like, okay, this is the time when we test our skills against one another — and it’s all in good fun and great competition.”

While the title didn’t change his summer plans for Rio, Irving admitted this summer has been different — being a champion raised his profile.

“Not any other summer in my life have I won an NBA championship, which has been great,” Irving said. “It’s just been awesome because of partnerships I’ve had throughout the years in my career, and now we get to put a lot of great ideas out there, and I get to be part of a lot of great things. I’m just thankful and I’m just trying to take advantage of it, but also do it in a creative space I’m comfortable with.”

That includes being front and center for Kids Foot Locker, where he is the company’s main spokesman and will star in three ads between now and the end of the year. The first is a back-to-school spot that will dropped today (just in time for the Olympics, you can see it above) and there will be a Christmas ad (which will drop right about when the Kyrie 3s do).

“Partnering with Kids Foot Locker was just a great thing to do…. This is our next generation, so for me I’m just trying to impact our next generation any way I can,” Irving said.

In the short term, he’s focused on winning gold — of fulfilling the dream he and Coach K first talked about. The challenge he sees for Team USA is not talent — no matter how many big names stayed home — but rather developing chemistry.

“Us just coming together as a team,” Irving said when asked about the biggest obstacle Team USA faces. “A lot of other teams, other countries, have been playing together since however long. For us, we all have our seasons of 82 games, then of course the playoffs, and after that we go straight into (Team USA camp). So we have to come together a lot quicker than other teams….

“We’re representing something that’s bigger than all of us, and that’s our country. For me, I just relish the opportunity to have a guy like a Klay Thompson, a KD, and Draymond Green all on one team, and I know those guys are going to compete as hard as ever.”

And win a gold medal.

A title for Irving and Coach K. Just like they always talked about.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awesome to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?