Five years in, we still don't have a lock on Andrew Bynum

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We need divisive figures in the NBA. There are so many players that simply are what they are. Lou Amundson, for example. Tim Duncan. Andrei Kirilenko. It’s those other players that make debates fun, and Andrew Bynum is certainly one of them.

We’re entering our sixth season of Bynumite, and we still have little way to determine exactly who he is in the landscape of the NBA. News came out this week that Bynum will likely not be around for the start of the season, meaning he’s missing an expected recovery goal… again. Bynum missed about seven recovery dates in 2008, with a January injury leading to an expected return date of mid-March, to late April, to mid-May, to “eventually.” He returned the next season, and everything was on track again for him to dominate as he’s been expected to for years. Then another injury, followed by missed deadlines, in-between Playboy bunny hoisting events.

Bynum has been criticized consistently since he started to burst on the scene, and for every person to salivate over his size, athleticism and freakish arms, there’s been someone to question his work ethic. Like, oh, say, Tex Winters. So when Bynum suffered yet another knee injury late last year, everyone kind of rolled their eyes, shrugged, and asked what else was on. But then a funny thing happened. He battled through the playoffs and the Finals, dragging that leg around. He was a huge part of the early bursts the Lakers often got out to, and his ability to create mismatches lead to other Lakers having more rest and being able to finish games strong. He was brave, having put his body on the line like that.

So maybe this was a new Bynum!

Or… not. Bynum pushed back surgery so that he could attend the World Cup and a European vacation (with Clark W. Griswold) unencumbered. Phil Jackson said it doesn’t matter if Bynum is ready for the season opener, it matters if he’s ready for April or May. And he most likely will be. This doesn’t have to do with whether Bynum can help the Lakers, he obviously can, he has. It’s a question of whether or not he is what he’s proclaimed to be.

There were discussions headed into that first, injury-destroyed season, of whether Bynum would become the best big man in the NBA. Better than Yao. Better than Dwight Howard. But what no one ever stopped to consider amidst the tremendous length and towering frame, was if Bynum has the work ethic to get there. Our esteemed Blogger-in-Chief Kurt Helin thinks that Bynum’s just a slow-healer. Well there’s slow-healing, and there’s lazy rehabbing, and they’re not the same. If a player wants to get back, we’ve seen them get there. We’ve seen the effort to do what it takes to get back in shape. Yao Ming does it time and time again and has to be restrained from getting on the floor.

Bynum by contrast has pretty much shown a reticence to commit to the process, including sloughing off the Lakers doctors for his own. That’s not that bad of an idea, the Lakers’s staff isn’t exactly put on par with Phoenix’s. But it’s the way in which he went about it, which consistently resonates a reluctance to put the work in.

The next comment that arises is whether he’s just young. After all, Bynum will only turn 23 this season. There’s still plenty of time for him to mature and gain that work ethic we all hope he could have. But this is his sixth season upcoming. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like a whole lot of personal growth goes on when you shuffle from game to club to hotel to bus to plane to game to club, etc. When exactly is he going to develop into the hard-worker he needs to be to reach the plane his talents would put him at?

This is without talking about Dwight Howard and the fact that every single season, despite already being by far the best center in the NBA, Howard improves. He hasn’t had to deal with significant injury setbacks, but he definitely has put the work in to become a better player each season. Yet we tear down Howard for his lack of a post-game and say “just wait till Bynum develops!”

This isn’t about whether Andrew Bynum is a good player. He is. He’s tall, long, has great touch, tremendous athleticism and is generally a freak of nature. It’s not even really about whether he’s tough. He did drag around that leg through the Finals to help the Lakers reach the summit yet again. It’s about whether we really think he’s going to get to that level we all want to put him on, that top tier of players, the kind of dominant force he’s been predicted to be for years.

Short answer: maybe it’s time we see the work put in before we place the wreath this time. Bynum doesn’t have to work his tail off to be ready for the season opener to be a significant role player on the Lakers. He has to improve his work ethic to be the player the Lakers paid him to be.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.

After full season in Europe, Luka Doncic not expected to play in Summer League

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Deandre Ayton played 35 games for Arizona last season. Marvin Bagley III played 33 games last season for Duke. Jarnen Jackson Jr. played 35 for Michigan State. None of them played past March.

Luka Doncic played 61 games for Real Madrid — at a higher level than NCAA basketball — and the season ended two days before the NBA Draft. Plus in Europe, the practices are often far more strenuous than the games (many teams keep doing two-a-days through the season).

Not surprisingly after that long a season Dallas is not going to ask Doncic to play in the Las Vegas Summer League, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

This was expected in most quarters no matter who drafted Doncic. Rest and recovery matter more than getting him into the glorified pickup games of Summer League.

Doncic will be ready to go when the season starts, and he will be one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.