DeMar DeRozan

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In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.

FACING LONG ODDS

1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.

WHAT TO KNOW

LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.

 

Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

Three questions the Milwaukee Bucks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 42-40, lost to Toronto in first round of playoffs

I know what you did last summer:
The Bucks mostly chilled on the beach last summer and did nothing. They let Michael Beasley go and waived Spencer Hawes. They brought in Gerald Green, Sterling Brown, and D.J. Wilson. Milwaukee basically returns with the same core roster as last season.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BUCKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Giannis Antetokounmpo make the leap from star to MVP level, transcendent talent? Last season the Greek Freak made the leap from nice player to star, maybe superstar level. He led the Bucks and had career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). He got to the rim (dunking almost 200 times last season, some of them genuinely spectacular) and with that shot 52.1 percent overall. Combine that with him being a good “free safety” style of defender and you have a guy who deserved to be an All-Star and second team All-NBA.

The Bucks this season are banking on continuity and internal improvements to take the next step forward, and Antetokounmpo is at the top of the list.

Amazingly, there is so much room for Antetokounmpo to improve, and if he does he can live up to Kobe Bryant’s challenge to win MVP. The most discussed thing is his shooting, he hit just 27.2 percent from three last season and is not much better on long twos beyond 16 feet. This seems to be less a mechanics thing and more a confidence thing — Antetokounmpo knows he can almost always get to the rim and so he trusts that over his jumper. He needs to just fire away at times. Also, part of it is on Jason Kidd and the coaching staff, who coach a little bit of an old school system, and while the Bucks improved last season they were 24th in the league in threes attempted.

Beyond that, Antetokounmpo can be better reading the floor and making plays coming off the pick-and-roll, he can be better in post-ups, he can be better in isolation — he gets his buckets and assists by just taking what the defense gives him and then getting to the rim. He can start to force his will on the defense even more so, and when he does there is not much of a chance to stop him.

2) Can Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon take steps forward? As noted above, the Bucks did not make big moves last offseason, nor do they have the space to do it next offseason, this is a team looking for it’s core to improve to help them up the ladder. Having a healthy Kris Middleton all season as the glue guy on this team is huge and will help. So will getting Jabari Parker back from another ACL injury, but that will be late in the season (and he likely will take a bit to be his old self).

The two guys the Bucks really need to take a step forward are Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon. By the end of the playoff series against the Raptors last season both these guys were starting — and Milwaukee outscored Toronto when they were on the court together. Neither of these guys project to be future All-Stars, not even the Rookie of the Year Brogdon, but if both can be quality, consistent starters the Bucks will have something.

Maker, in particular, can be a real threat as a mobile 7-footer who can shoot the three (and reportedly he worked on his shot this off-season). He’s never going to be a strong, physical post player (the Bucks have Greg Monroe for that, and he’s solid in that role) but he can be a modern NBA big, he just needs to be more consistent as a playmaker and not just a shooter. The Bucks need more firepower and shot creation, especially with Jabari Parker out

3) Can the Bucks become a good defensive team? More than anything, this is the biggest question for Milwaukee if it is going to take a step forward. The Bucks were 19th in the NBA defensively last season, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. For a team with a roster full of quality individual defenders, guys who are long and athletic, that is not good enough.

This is about Jason Kidd as the coach. He has his guys playing an aggressive, gambling system that opens up good shots for teams that can move the ball, particularly corner threes (and most teams want corner threes and have guys who can knock them down). The Bucks double just about everyone in the post, then they don’t get there fast enough in rotations. All of this played out against Toronto in the playoffs. In the first three games, the Raptors — who are isolation heavy with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — played a style that allowed the Bucks aggressive tendencies to work. But once the Raptors adjusted, moved the ball better out of doubles, the Bucks had no answers.

The Bucks should be aggressive — they should use that athleticism to create turnovers, but there needs to be a more disciplined, smarter underpinning that doesn’t leave the team exposed when the ball moves a little.

If the Bucks are top 10 in the NBA in defense — and they have the talent to do it — then they will take a step forward. If not, they will not, and Kidd will have questions to answer from a new front office (remember there seemed to be a movement against him from part of ownership last season, his job is not completely stable).

Ohio mom apparently confuses Isaiah Thomas for kid

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Jeremy Lin and DeMar DeRozan have crossed security guards who didn’t believe they were NBA players.

But presumably, those security guards at least recognized that Lin and DeRozan were adults.

This could be fake, but I want it to be real, so I’m choosing to treat it as such:

Kobe Bryant challenges Isaiah Thomas to make first team All-NBA in weird marketing tactic

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Kobe Bryant’s retirement is going swimmingly.

He seems more genial, he is on ESPN and ABC with his own weird, adult puppet program. It’s going great.

Plus, Bryant and the team over at Nike have clearly made it a plan to embrace the legends and now-we-know-they-are-true personality traits that surround the former Los Angeles Lakers star. He’s straight up embracing it. No doubt this is a means to keep producing the Kobe shoe line, which has continued to push out models since his retirement.

At the core of this has been the phrase “Mamba Mentality” which dominated Bryant’s Musecage puppet specials. It was also the center of an ad that was pushed out on social media on Thursday in which Bryant teased new versions of his shoe.

A Tweet then followed from Bryant’s account giving out a special phone number that users could call. If you get through, it asks you to leave a message to see if you have the #MambaMentality.

That’s when the story gets even weirder.

In two tweets directed at current NBA players, Bryant challenged Isaiah Thomas to make the first All-NBA team this season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also challenged Toronto Raptors wing DeMar DeRozan to reconnect with an old friend in his hometown.

Remember: this is all to sell shoes.

Via Twitter:

It’s been a slow burn, but this has all been crackling on the fire for some time. If Kobe is going to keep selling shoes in the decades after his retirement, he’s going to need to continue to primp his legacy. The legend of Michael Jordan has only grown in the years since he retired, and Kobe needs to follow that arc. He is.

Bryant spoke in his Musecage series about folks finding what inspires them by showing his own method as the example. Now, he’s asking people if they, like him, have the “Mamba Mentality”. Kobe is trying to get people to be like him, akin to MJ’s own “I wanna be like Mike” ad from 1991. It’s perfect.

Meanwhile, the ad from Nike for the shoe itself is made of different emotions (read: colorways) that are part of said mentality.

Bryant’s clear manipulation could easily smooth over his basketball transgressions in a generation’s time, especially if he continues to use funny puppets to make singleminded obsession seem like a simple joie de vivre. The same goes for Bryant coming out everywhere talking about how he is a “storyteller”. It softens him. It’s also quite literally what brand people call themselves in the age of permission marketing.

Can he have post-playing interests? Absolutely. Should we hear about them from time to time? Probably! Bryant is an all-time great. But if you’ve ever worked in marketing, especially sports marketing, it’s obvious there’s no reason Bryant has been seemingly everywhere this year outside of branding purposes. This is a clear, real-time massaging of legacy and history from a marketing department, and it’s incredible to watch.

In the meantime, let’s get weird with it. You can call the number above and leave a message if you want.