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51 Questions: Will Lakers management be patient while rebuilding with youth?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Will Lakers management be patient while rebuilding with youth?

As he was doing interviews before being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last weekend, former Laker and current TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal summed up what many people believe about the post-Kobe Lakers this season:

“They’re definitely going to be exciting, but I don’t see them being a contender for a while. I mean, they’ve still got to go up against Golden State in the West, they’ve got to go up against OKC, still got to go up against Cleveland, the Rockets. So they have a long way to go to be a contender.Every now and then they’ll make some noise and get the people in the Staples Center excited.”

The Lakers have a young core with a lot of promise. D'Angelo Russell will take a step forward next season off a rookie campaign where he averaged 13.2 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, shot 35.1 percent from three, and had a PER of 13.2. More importantly, he improved over the course of the season — his PER for the month of February was 18.8.

Russell played in Summer League last July in large part to develop chemistry with Brandon Ingram, the Lakers new No. 2 pick. The lanky forward flashed the skills — good handles, face-up shooting game, smooth stroke — that intrigued the Lakers and made him the clear choice for them in the draft. He just needs to polish those skills and get stronger.

Then there is Jordan Clarkson, the combo guard playing the two who is working on the skills to play that role (he needs a more consistent jumper, for example). He gives the Lakers another ball handler and options for initiating the offense. After him, the Lakers have Larry Nance Jr. — a guy other coaches regularly bring up when talking about the Lakers’ core — and Julius Randle, two quality young forwards who have shown flashes of potential. Randle, in particular, has the athleticism to be a quality four in the NBA if he can develop his shot and his off-hand.

Put them all together with a young coach who the young players relate to and who wants to play up-tempo in Luke Walton, and there is real potential. The Lakers have hope for the future. It’s going to take a couple of years to develop into the kind of foundational core that will win enough games to think playoffs — and, more importantly, lure top free agents — but you can see that path in front of the Lakers. A good goal for the Lakers this season is to win more than 30 games, which is a leap from the franchise low of 17 a year ago. Then in two seasons they be in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West. It’s like what happened in Boston, where it took a few years for their solid young core and quality coach to win enough that a free agent such as Al Horford would jump on board.

The Lakers just need to be patient and let the players develop.

The question is will Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak let that happen?

Remember that Jim Buss, the man his father left in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ franchise, said back in 2014 he would have the Lakers back to “contending” in three or four seasons or he would step down. Contending has come to mean at least getting into the second round. There is some disagreement about exactly when Jim Buss’ deadline falls, but the other Buss siblings have reportedly lost faith in his ability to do the job and are pushing for a change sooner rather than later.

The fear is that push forces Buss to make decisions thinking only about wins and the short term. He wouldn’t be the first NBA executive to make poor long-term decisions to save his job in the short run.

Buss seemed to think rebuilding the Lakers would be easier and quicker than it is, that free agents would just flock to the team because of the brand and because of the city. That’s not the way the modern NBA works. The reality was clear this summer: The Lakers couldn’t even get a courtesy meeting with free agent Kevin Durant. The age of social media and the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement have changed the dynamic for big market teams, lessening their advantages with free agents. The Lakers can’t just skim off the cream of the crop and rebuild on the fly anymore. Players will go where the money is regardless of market, and they will go where they will win.

The Lakers are a few years away from being one of those teams.

There are multiple pressures on the Lakers to win sooner rather than later. There is Jim Buss’ deadline — he’d like to keep his job, but that means winning. There is the pressure to fill the seats on game nights and keep team sponsors in a post-Kobe Bryant era. And there are the local television ratings, which have slipped the past couple of seasons — and part of that massive Lakers’ rights deal with Time Warner Cable is ratings based (as ratings slip, the Lakers get less money).

On top of all that Lakers fans, spoiled by decades of success, are not always the most patient and understanding of fan bases. To put it kindly.

Could all of those pressures lead to rash decisions? Trades that short circuit the future in hopes of a few more wins now?

Possibly.

But not likely.

Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are Lakers’ lifers — even if Buss gave up his power he’d still have a large ownership stake in the team — and they certainly see the potential for these Lakers. They are smart, they see the path in front of the team, and they know that the climb to the top is gradual. Of course, if a “Godfather” trade falls in their lap (one they can’t refuse) then they take it, but that is highly unlikely in today’s NBA climate. Maybe some big names become available later this season or into next summer, but the Lakers shouldn’t give away too much of a promising young core to get a DeMarcus Cousins (not currently available) or someone of that ilk. It’s that young core that would make a top player want to stay with the Lakers in the first place, or for a free agent to come to L.A.

The Lakers are on a path that could lead to a return to the upper echelons of the NBA, but it’s going to take years. It’s going to take patience, both from fans and management. They can’t let a combination of pride and pressure force them off that path for a quick fix and a couple of extra wins.

That is the path to long-term mediocrity.

 

 

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.

 

Report: Mavericks have “Animal House” predatory work environment; team investigating

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The overdue wave of pushback against sexual harassment and predatory practices against women in the workplace, and the #metoo movement, which has toppled many powerful men, has come crashing down on the Dallas Mavericks.

Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther have released a lengthy expose looking at the business and game operations side of the Dallas Mavericks organization, and the picture of a Mad Man-esque old boys club is damning. While some of the detailed instances date back seven years, part of the point of the article is that the culture continues.

“It was a real life Animal House,” says one former organization employee who left recently after spending roughly five years with the Mavs. “And I only say ‘was’ because I’m not there anymore. I’m sure it’s still going on.”

(Former team president and CEO, Terdema) Ussery, who left the Mavericks in 2015, was hardly alone. Interviews with more than a dozen former and current Mavericks employees in different departments, conducted during a months-long SPORTS ILLUSTRATED investigation, paint a picture of a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior: alleged public fondling by the team president; outright domestic assault by a high-profile member of the Mavs.com staff; unsupportive or even intimidating responses from superiors who heard complaints of inappropriate behavior from their employees; even an employee who openly watched pornography at his desk. Most sources did not want their names used for a variety of reasons including fear of retaliation and ostracization and limits imposed by agreements they signed with the team.

While sources referred to the Mavericks office as a “locker room culture,” the team’s actual locker room was a refuge. Says one female former senior staffer: “I dealt with players all the time. I had hundreds of interactions with players and never once had an issue…they always knew how to treat people. Then I’d go to the office and it was this zoo, this complete shitshow. My anxiety would go down dealing with players; it would go up when I got to my desk.”

The Mavericks hired an independent investigator to look into the issues, both specific allegations in the story — such as domestic abuse by former Mavs.com writerEarl K. Sneed which was allegedly ignored (he has been fired in the wake of these revelations) — and the business-side culture. The Mavericks also released a statement that said in part:

The Mavericks organization takes these allegations extremely seriously. Yesterday we notified the league office and immediately hired outside counsel to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. The investigation will focus on the specific allegations related to this former employee, and will look more broadly at our company’s workplace practices and policies. In addition, an employee whose job was to receive and investigate such complaints and report them accurately and fully, has been suspended pending the conclusion of our investigation.

In a separate matter, we have also learned that an employee misled the organization about a prior domestic violence incident. This employee was not candid about the situation and has been terminated….

We are committed — to our employees, our team and our fans — to meet the goals of dignity, security and fairness that define the Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban, the very prominent Mavericks owner, told SI he knew nothing of this. He said while very hands-on and active on the basketball side of the operation, he let his CEO and other executives run the business side. The report said that the head of Human Resources was very aware of the problem but did nothing about it (he has just recently been fired over all of this). Cuban told SI he had no idea.

“…this is brand new to me. Brand new, relative to when you started looking into it. Brand new to somebody’s assertions and questions you’ve asked. Brand new to me. It’s wrong. It’s abhorrent. It’s not a situation we condone. I mean, I literally, I can’t tell you how many times particularly since all [#metoo] stuff has been coming out recently I asked our HR director ‘Do we have a problem? Do we have any issues I have to be aware of?’ And the answer was no. I asked him again today. Have we done exit interviews like you refer to? Has anybody said anything? Are there any indications that maybe there was something out there and we didn’t pay enough attention to it? No, no, no, no, no, every time.”

“I want to deal with this issue,” Cuban told SI. “I mean, this is, obviously there’s a problem in the Mavericks organization and we’ve got to fix it. That’s it. And we’re going to take every step. It’s not something we tolerate. I don’t want it. It’s not something that’s acceptable. I’m embarrassed, to be honest with you, that it happened under my ownership, and it needs to be fixed. Period. End of story.”

Did Cuban not know? He always portrayed himself as very involved, as a guy who was on top of the little things in the organization, but he missed this? Did he not want to know and looked the other way because the revenue numbers were good from the business side?

The NBA released this statement:

“The Dallas Mavericks have informed us of the allegations involving former team president Terdema Ussery and Mavs.com writer Earl Sneed. This alleged conduct runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees. Such behavior is completely unacceptable and we will closely monitor the independent investigation into this matter.”

Ussery denied the allegations, saying there were no charges were filed against him.

This is a massive black eye for the league — the NBA has cultivated an image as the most progressive and inclusive of the professional sports leagues in America. This blows it up. Dallas is also not the only team rumored to be facing potential serious sexual harassment issues on the business side.

Expect Adam Silver to come down hard on the Mavericks as an example — he has to both send a message to other teams and to the world that this is not okay. What he might do really depends on what the future investigation finds, but this isn’t going to be some little tampering slap on the wrist fine. This is about the image for the league and Silver fiercely protects that.