Author: Rob Mahoney

Norris Cole

Norris Cole works out with LeBron James, gets introduction to Heat culture

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The lockout has added upheaval to every phase of the NBA’s off-season, but the process has been particularly tumultuous for incoming rookies. The lucky rooks have been able to establish some kind of contact with their team (preliminary conversations with coaches or general managers, introductory press conferences, etc.), but there are plenty of other first-year players that were left out in the cold by the strict barring of contact between players and teams, isolated by the lockout’s iron curtain.

Miami point guard Norris Cole, the No. 28 overall pick, lies somewhere in the middle. He’s smiled for the cameras and shaken hands with Pat Riley, but the lockout had prevented Cole from actually meeting any of his teammates-to-be until a recent phone call put him in touch with one of the Heat’s most powerful employees. From Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

Despite playing four years at Cleveland State, the speedy point guard said he had never met or spoken with LeBron James until receiving a phone call last week. It was James, extending an invitation to work out if Cole would make the short trip from Cleveland to Akron, James’ hometown.

“He welcomed me to the family, the Miami Heat family,” Cole said Wednesday. “He found out I was in the area. He asked if I wanted to come work out. He said I could come work out any time he’s in the area, and I said, ‘OK,’ and I took advantage of it.”

Together, the two ran drills, with James filling in Cole on the Heat’ approach. Until that session, Cole said he had not met another member of the team since he was drafted in June. “It was good just to see how he worked out, how serious he takes the game,” Cole said. “Reaching out, it shows how sincere of a person he is, of a teammate he is.”

LeBron inviting Cole to work out with him doesn’t exactly make him a saint, but it’s still a nice gesture to a rookie without a country. NBA vets should all be more or less on the same page once the lockout is lifted, but a rookie getting acclimated to the NBA game, a new home, a new coach, and new teammates is in for quite the challenge. The more familiar Cole is with the players around him and the way the Heat go about their business, the easier it will be to deal with the steep post-lockout learning curve. No need to make LeBron’s workouts with Cole any more than they are, but those little bits do help in the grand scheme of things, even if only in offering the rook a few points of reference for his first real day on the job.

What the Mavericks should do when the lockout ends

Dallas Mavericks Victory Parade
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Welcome back to an ongoing series here at PBT, in which we examine the post-lockout course of action of every team in the league. Kurt kicked things off yesterday with a look at the Lakers’ preseason plans, and today we’ll dive into the docket sitting in front of the WORLD* CHAMPION Dallas Mavericks. Tomorrow you can enjoy a look into the basement, with an Analysis of the Timberwolves’ projected plans for the summer.

*The world is not flat, the sun doesn’t orbit around the United States, and the NBA is not the world. 

Last season in Dallas: Pretty ho-hum, really. The Mavs just played high-level basketball throughout the regular season, endured a season-ending injury to their second best player, succeeded while their preseason x-factor sat on the bench, added new contributors mid-stride, rallied through yet another costly injury, beat a murderer’s row of playoff opponents in amazing fashion, and capped it all off by hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history. No big.

Since we last saw the Mavericks: Not much has changed. A million talk show appearances later, this team is more or less where we left it; ready to compete in the coming season (after a few moves in free agency to either preserve the current core or bolster it), but likely still a step removed from the title favorites. Dallas went on a miraculous run to take the 2011 title, but they can likely do no more than put themselves in a position to roll the dice come next year’s playoffs. That was good enough to roll all the way through the Finals in 2011, but it’s no guarantee that they’ll be favorites come next postseason.

A few other notes: Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea are representing their countries (err, country and territory, respectively) in EuroBasket, Tyson Chandler told Henry Abbott of TrueHoop that his preliminary negotiations with the Mavericks didn’t exactly go swimmingly, and Rodrigue Beaubois and Caron Butler have continued working toward healthy seasons in 2011-2012.

When the lockout ends, the Mavericks need to… Choose one of the following paths: (1) re-sign Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, and possibly J.J. Barea in order to maintain their current competitive core, (2) re-sign either Chandler or Butler while covering for the other’s loss with positional depth, or (3) let both Chandler and Butler walk while bracing for a bit of a drop-off. Dallas’ off-season — in whatever form the lockout allows — leans heavily on free agency and the decisions made by all parties within it.

Losing Butler would be a shame, but losing Chandler would legitimately move the franchise down a peg in terms of their immediate competitive worth. Brendan Haywood is a good, starting-caliber center (regardless of what his 2010-2011 production would have you believe), but Chandler is a talent who can elevate a team’s collective defense while augmenting their offensive flow. Players like that don’t come around often, and as the Mavs will find out shortly, they don’t come cheap.

Butler, too, is rather important, and he’ll likely be the best player the Mavs can “add” to their current roster thanks to the limitations of the salary cap. He didn’t play a minute of playoff basketball last season, and thus if Dallas can re-sign him, Butler would bring the added boost of a roster addition with the built-in familiarity of a franchise mainstay. An interesting combination, to be sure. Plus, not only is Butler a flat-out superior scorer to the rotating cast of players the Mavs utilized on the wing, but he also brings a slew of specific skills that allow him to be particularly successful in Dallas: he’s emerged as quite a threat from the corners, can create his own shot more effectively than any Maverick not named Dirk, and is a very effective perimeter defender. Even championship teams need to find ways to improve, and adding Butler back into the rotation is the simplest way for the Mavs to do so.

Regardless of how free agency unfolds for the Mavs, Rick Carlisle must find minutes for the roster’s young talent this season. Carlisle gave Rodrigue Beaubois a legitimate shot after his initial return from injury last season, but Beaubois never found a good rhythm and was eventually shelved with a complication to that same injury. Corey Brewer found limited minutes after being picked up by Dallas mid-season, but he wasn’t familiar enough with the Mavericks’ system to become a regular member of the rotation. Dominique Jones is an interesting prospect, but he, too, didn’t have much of an opportunity in the Mavs’ crowded backcourt. There are still plenty of veterans on the roster that will be worthy of minutes, but Carlisle needs to begin preparing for the next stage of this franchise’s life cycle by carving out playing time for the neophytes. We use words like “veteran,” and “experienced,” to describe Dallas, but it’s all pretty much code for “old.” Dallas’ key contributors are aging, and while there are no budding stars on the roster who demand minutes, Beaubois, Brewer, and Jones are all capable of being long-term contributors for an NBA team. They’ll bring value to the franchise with either their production or their trade value if given the opportunity, but that process begins with seeing the floor.

Bargnani and Gallinari central figures in mini arms race between Italian clubs

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If the Pau Gasol trade proved anything it’s that the owners and operators of basketball teams are, occasionally to a fault, reactionary thinkers. Once the dominoes begin falling, some GMs just can’t help themselves, and before they know it they’ve traded a successful offensive system and a versatile two-way player for an aging Shaquille O’Neal. Or more recently: they’ve liquidated half of their roster for the sake of getting another star to put alongside Amar’e Stoudemire, in no small part due to the glut of talent collected by another team in the conference.

The same reactionary patterns seem to hold true in Lega Basket A, Italy’s top league, with both a potential inciting acquisition and a likely reactionary move centered around NBA talent. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport (via Sportando and Yahoo’s Scoop Du Jour blog), Olimpia Milano (also called Emporio Armani Milano), one of the most storied teams in Italian basketball, is considering capitalizing on the lockout by bringing back Danilo Gallinari. That consideration has made the thinking of another Italian club, Montepaschi Siena, even more cut-and-dry; Montepaschi had reportedly already been preparing to make a run at Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani to bolster their roster, but the possibility of another Lega A team securing NBA talent would make that decision even easier. Montepaschi’s interest in signing Bargnani exists independently of whatever else goes on in Lega A, but that interest is intensified should Milano up the ante by inking Gallo.

For now, the two players are teammates, attempting (along with fellow NBAer Marco Belinelli) to power Italy’s national team through EuroBasket’s preliminary rounds. But it should surprise no one if both Bargnani and Gallinari end up as Lega A rivals in short order.

The ‘Summer of Ron’ continues: Artest guarantees a championship for L.A.

Ron Artest Parade
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With the lockout having deprived the NBA world of summer league and a proper free agency period, fringe stories have all but taken over the scene. The overseas inklings of any relevant NBA player have become news, and while that’s certainly pertinent information if the lockout ends up costing the league games, it’s not exactly the same as the NBA-shifting domestic player movement that could go on in a typical off-season.

Instead, the news cycle has been filled with Ron Artest to the brim. He’s provided headline fodder in almost every capacity, with his latest being an out-and-out guarantee that L.A. will win the 2012 championship. Via Mark Medina of the L.A. Times:

[The Lakers’ 2010 title celebration] may all feel like a distant memory considering how the Lakers ended the 2011 postseason with a four-game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. But Artest guaranteed to ESPN Los Angeles’ Stephen A. Smith in a 40-minute interview Wednesday that the Lakers will again pop the champagne bottles after winning the 2012 NBA title. Assuming there’s a season of course.

“Win it all,” Artest said when asked what will the Lakers do in the 2011-2012 season. “Win the whole thing. That’s a guarantee.”

The guaranteed victory is kind of a big deal in sports, but largely because such comments are deemed to be “bulletin board material,” for opposing clubs or representative of some kind of hubris. This particular instance is neither, really; Artest’s guarantee is far too early to be relevant to any NBA opponent, and more indicative of Ron being Ron than any real overconfidence. If you put a microphone in front of Ron Artest, he will say things. Some will be silly, most will be earnest, and a few will be surprisingly wise. This is undoubtedly the former, but not really telling of anything save that Artest likes his team and their chances. Which, y’know, he should, considering that the Lakers are still a stacked club with a legitimate shot at the 2012 crown — should the lockout allow such a thing to even exist.

DeJuan Blair may play in Russia, perceived injury risks be damned

Image (1) dblair-thumb-250x375-17554.jpg for post 3519
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Among the flood of reported signings, flirtations, explorations, and interest between overseas clubs and NBA players, DeJuan Blair’s name and news don’t create much of a ripple. He’s no Deron Williams, after all; Blair isn’t even a steady NBA regular at this point in his career, having squandered some of the opportunity given him as a member of San Antonio’s limited frontcourt. Yet thanks to Blair’s injury history, the news that he may play professionally in Russia (per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski) has raised a few eyebrows and inspired the internet peanut gallery to take their best collective shot.

The primary risk of international basketball to NBA players is the potential for injury involved. Strange things happen on a basketball court; it’s honestly amazing that serious injuries don’t occur more often with all of the leaping into occupied space that goes on in a competitive game between hyper athletic ballplayers, but those tweaks, sprains, strains, and breaks that do happen are costly nonetheless. Not only does Blair run the risk of a freak injury by playing in Russia, but also the natural wear and tear that comes from a player with no ACLs hitting the non-NBA hardwood. The domestic logic could deem Blair insane; he’s labeled as being injury-prone as it is, and yet he’s likely chosen to spend his time away from the league playing for a team that is not his own while risking serious injury in the process.

Yet injury is an odd reason for Blair or any other player to forgo the chance to play elsewhere during the lockout. The risk of injury/lack of insurance argument can logically apply to NBAers suiting up for their national teams during a typical off-season, but this summer (and now fall) is anything but typical. The void left from a lack of team workouts, training camp, and preseason ball gives players even more incentive to ready their skills in preparation for an NBA campaign that may or may not come. There is no existing schedule or guide for players to ready their bodies for the regular season; negotiations could take a turn on a moment’s notice, and it will be up to Blair and all of his peers to be ready to play professional basketball again, be it in November, in January, or worse.

This decision, should Blair make it, would be a means to that end. Plus, lest we forget, the schedules of foreign leagues aren’t all that different from the NBA’s. Blair will be playing and training, but only in the lack of the playing and training he’d be doing with the Spurs as part of his typical NBA regimen. He — and every other NBA player interested in alternative lockout employment — would be drilling, lifting, or scrimmaging, and all it would take would be the pop of a medicine ball, an awkward fall, or a hard collision to send a training camper to the training room. Basketball is not without its risks, regardless of whether it’s being played in a foreign land or an NBA team’s practice facility. The fact that such an injury would otherwise happen under the watch of an NBA team is functionally irrelevant.

NBA fans have been conditioned to look at extracurricular basketball as an additional risk for NBA players, but let this serve as a reminder that on a normal schedule, American pro ballers would still be putting in work and minutes while risking injury. There’s nothing terribly unique about the risk that Blair runs, while the payoff is rather straightforward. Maintaining good health is crucial for Blair, but so is development, and doesn’t logging floor time — even in another country — make quite a bit of sense at this stage in his career? Particularly when the lockout is depriving him of putting in team-driven developmental time on his home floor?