NBA Season Preview: Memphis Grizzlies

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Last season: 40-42, which was a revelation because going into the season with Zach Randolph, OJ Mayo and Allen Iverson many expected no passing, followed closely implosion and disaster. But Iverson was shipped out and the team coalesced, Marc Gasol took a huge step forward, Randolph had a career year and they were about average. They may have overachieved expectations more than any team in the league last season.

Head Coach: Lionel Hollins, who deserves credit in part for that turnaround in record. He did it by having a tight rotation of the few guys he could trust, but on a team without much depth that’s how you win.

Key Departures: Ronnie Brewer (who was let go so they could offer Rudy Gay a max deal… just like Kevin Durant got), the ability to sneak up on teams who don’t think they are any good.

Key Additions: They kept Rudy Gay at five years, $82 million. Max deal. These contracts often have one of two impacts: Guys play better because they are both driven and now want to live up to that money; or they think they’ve made it and can coast. No predictions on Gay here — he played well for USA Basketball this summer — but we’ll see which way he goes. Or maybe he just stays who he is.

Tony Allen is the new Ronnie Brewer (solid signing), also on board are rookies Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez.

Best case scenario: This team takes the next step forward into one of the lower playoff spots in the West.

For that to happen: The dreaded internal improvement — everyone on the team that took a step forward last season needs to do it again, and other guys need to step forward so Hollins can trust his bench more.

That can happen, but it’s rare.

It starts with Rudy Gay, who needs to be a leader for this team now. And that starts on the defensive end — the place he was weakest. We know he can be dynamic on offense and particularly in transition, but if the Grizzlies are really going to improve it has to start with their 19th in the league defensive rating. Wing defense was particularly sad. Gay can lead by example here. OJ needs to follow and needs to be himself on offense, as well.

The other key is Mike Conley at point guard improving, he needs to become better at creating shots for those talented post and wing players around him. He is the key to their offense getting better, and in a contract year we’ve seen amazing things happen. Not going to bet on it, but it could happen and it’s key.

Zach Randolph can continue to just shoot and rebound. The Grizzlies need to feed him on the low block every time he gets good position (he is one of better post scorers in the league). They need to use Marc Gasol as the roll man on the pick and roll more. These two need to remain one of the better front lines in the league. Hasheem Thabeet has to give them some depth along the front line. Quality depth, not what he did last year.

They have to get contributions from Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez right away, giving them needed depth.

More likely the Grizzlies will: Look a lot like last year’s Grizzlies, nice but not thrilling. That’s what happens when you don’t really address your flaws (say, point guard). Potential is there but will remain untapped in a real way. A team that can post you up but one you can run on.

To expect players to make those kind of steps forward seen last season — even young players — in consecutive years is asking a lot. To expect it across the board is foolish. Some on the Grizzlies will continue to improve, others will remain stagnant or fall back. But it will not be consistent, and neither will the Grizzlies be.

Prediction: 38-42, which leaves them in the NBA’s no-mans land — not good enough to make the playoffs, too good to get a high lottery pick to jumpstart the franchise. You’d say maybe the team could spend a little or make a smart personnel move, but with Michael Heisley as owner nobody should expect it.

Indiana museum to tell story of basketball great Larry Bird

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A museum is being planned to tell the story of basketball great Larry Bird, an Indiana native.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Saturday that the museum will be located in a new convention center that’s being built in Terre Haute in western Indiana. The Tribune-Star reports Bird plans to donate personal items and memorabilia from his career with the Boston Celtics, Indiana State University, the U.S. Olympic team and beyond.

Holcomb predicts the museum will be a global draw, describing Bird as “Larry the Legend – Indiana’s favorite son.”

Details about the museum are still being developed, but plans include interactive displays to detail Bird’s life and career. He won three NBA championships with the Celtics.

Construction on the convention center is expected to start in the spring.

Kris Dunn to miss 4-6 weeks for Bulls with knee injury

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Kris Dunn is trying to convince the Bulls he can be their long-term point guard.

This won’t help.

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Dunn will still have plenty of time to show he’s continuing his progress from last season. But this narrows the window to prove himself before becoming extension-eligible next offseason.

Dunn’s injury also increases the chances Chicago (0-3) will have its pick of point guards in the draft next year. In the meantime, the Bulls will turn to a hodgepodge of Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis and now Shaquille Harrison.

Too early to panic about Lakers, but this is a flawed team

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are going to be a quality NBA team. Sooner rather than later.

Don’t take my word for it, take Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich’s.

“They’re just going to get better and better,” Popovich said after his team became the latest to execute better in the clutch and knock off the Lakers this season. “Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically…

“The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.”

Nobody around the Lakers doubts that.

Nobody expected a 0-3 start with the sixth-worst defense in the NBA, either. Los Angeles is allowing 131.7 points per game through three games (their top three pace is part of the reason for that eye-popping number, the Lakers play fast so the opposing team gets more chances against a porous defense).

The Lakers’ shooting was a concern going into the season and those worries have proven justified — Los Angeles is taking 31.4 percent of their shots from three (close to the league average) but are hitting just 29.3 percent of those shots, third worst in the NBA. While their shooting has had hot streaks — L.A. hit 6-of-7 at one point against the Spurs Monday, after starting 4-of-20 —the lack of consistency is not keeping opposing defenses honest. Opposing defenders are packing the paint and making it difficult to execute in the halfcourt, cutting off post passes, jumping in lanes and closing off angles used by the brilliant passers the Lakers have on their roster.

It’s been frustrating. For the team and the fans (who came in with wild expectations with LeBron James in purple and gold).

Yet, nobody around the Lakers is reaching for a panic button, or even looking to see where it is located yet.

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in,” LeBron James said after the latest loss. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now but it’s such a long process….

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to have to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

“We still have to get used to each other defensively,” Josh Hart added. “We have to know individually when [we] have guys contained and work on not overhelping, not giving up open threes like that. We’re good. We have a young team and it’s a learning experience.”

“We’ve gotten better. It’s only been a month together,” said coach Luke Walton (whose name came up on the top of a gambling site’s list of odds for the first coach to be fired). “We’re rebounding the ball better, we might even have had more rebounds than they did tonight (the Lakers did have more rebounds and more offensive rebounds total than the Spurs). Our assist numbers are up where we want them and we haven’t even started hitting shots yet….

“The way we want to play, I think the pace has been great. All these things as far as who we are as a team are happening. And now we’ve got to close out games and get stops down the stretch and not foul down the stretch. I feel very good about where we’re headed.”

This Laker team is going to find its footing and win games (next up is the Suns, in Phoenix, on Friday).

However, this is also a flawed roster, and how far LeBron and the offense can lift this team is a question back in the spotlight after this start.

Continuity is one problem for Los Angeles.

In each of Lakers’ three losses — Portland opening night, Houston, San Antonio — have come to playoff teams from last season, and teams that have a strong identity. Continuity matters early in the NBA season and the Lakers don’t have any after a lot of roster turnover last summer. That lack of familiarity has come to a head in crunch time in each game — especially the first two. However, against the Spurs, it was the Lakers making plays when down 8 with 1:10 left in regulation, and a LeBron three sent it to overtime. An overtime the Lakers dominated, they were up 6 with :55 left… and then the continuity issues returned, the Spurs executed better, LeBron missed two free throws, and San Antonio went on a 7-0 run to get the win.

“I don’t like to use moral victories, but kind of bodes well,” Kyle Kuzma said. “The three teams we have played all played together for quite sometime. We are a new team and to be in every single game, it sort of means something.”

The Laker offense will be fine, mostly because of the commitment to run (27.3 percent of the Lakers’ possessions this season started in transition, the highest in the league, stat via Cleaning The Glass). The concern is the Lakers lack the shooting needed in the modern game — something Magic Johnson said the Lakers did consciously, they wanted to put more playmakers around LeBron, not just shooters as had been done in Miami and Cleveland — but LeBron is right that when the Lakers get stops and run they are a good team.

Whether they can get enough stops is another question.

When JaVale McGee is on the court this season, the Lakers are a good defensive team (allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best as a team in the league). However, the team is a dismal 18.1 per 100 worse when he sits. JaVale’s rim protection and rebounding matter that much in the paint. Luke Walton has rolled McGee out there for 23.3 minutes per game, the most he has played since the 2011-12 season, and he was on the court more than 28 minutes vs. San Antonio. McGee only has so many minutes in him a night, and the Lakers may be bumping up against that.

For the Lakers, much of their issues are about communication and recognition on defense — things that come with time and familiarity. Or, continuity. The Lakers look like a team assembled this summer that is still figuring everything out.

Which is exactly what they are. What they should have been expected to be, rather than the pressure some put on them of a three-seed and 50+ win team. This was always going to take time. The only challenge is, in the deep West, time can run out much more quickly.

“It’s early in the season, it’s three losses,” Hart said. “Like you said, it’s always tight in the West. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can be one game, or half a game. It’s tough. But I feel like once we get that first win, the team will be rolling. We just have to get that first one.”

The optimism remains. And there’s not a panic button in sight in Los Angeles.

Rajon Rondo calls Chris Paul ‘horrible teammate,’ denies intentionally spitting on Rockets star

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Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul don’t like each other. Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife don’t like each other.

And Rondo isn’t letting sleeping dogs lie after the league concluded Rondo spit on Paul and suspended both players for their roles in the Lakers-Rockets fight Saturday.

Rondo, via ESPN:

“Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate. They don’t know how he treats people. Look at what he did last year when he was in LA; trying to get to the Clippers locker room. They don’t want to believe he’s capable of taunting and igniting an incident.

“Exasperating and spitting are two different things. He comes out and says I spit and the media sides with that.”

“Y’all are playing me with these tricks or these mind games, tampering with the evidence,” Rondo told ESPN on Tuesday. “Ain’t no way that I intentionally spit on you with my body language the way it was.

“One, if I spit on you, bottom line, there is not going to be no finger-pointing. If you felt that I just spit on you, then all bets are off. Two, look at my body language. If I spit on you on purpose, I’m going to be ready for a man to swing on me. You ain’t going to have my hands on my hip and my head look away at someone if I spit on them. After the [expletive] goes down, within 30 seconds, you run and tell the sideline reporters that I spit on you? If I spit on you, you are trying to get to me. You not trying to make up a story so you can look like a good guy. It makes no sense to me.

“I was going to let it rest. I wasn’t going to say much. But now I have kids and I teach my kids to speak up for themselves and don’t let the world tell their story.”

Video clearly shows Rondo spitting on Paul. Was it intentional? I can’t read Rondo’s mind. But intent should matter only to a degree. Rondo didn’t control his saliva well enough to ensure he didn’t spit on Paul. That alone should be a violation. Otherwise, players would fill their mouths with spit, start jawing with foes and let it fly wherever it goes.

Was the video we saw tampered with? I’d love to hear more about this conspiracy theory. That’s juicy, though for now (and probably forever), completely unsupported.

Rondo’s explanation that he would have looked more ready to fight if he intentionally spit on Paul also lacks credibility. I mean, maybe. But I’m also not convinced Rondo (or anyone) was acting completely rationally in that heated moment. Assigning cold logic to his actions after the fact doesn’t sway me.

Rondo also brings up the Rockets trying to fight the Clippers, Paul’s former team, after a game last season as evidence of Paul being a poor teammate. If anything, that shows how great of a teammate Paul can be. He wasn’t even with Houston a full year, and his new teammates were already ready to support Paul in his own battle.

Of course, Paul can also be a bad teammate in some ways. So can Rondo.

They’re both intensely competitive. I believe Paul can escalate a confrontation, just as I believe Rondo could.

But I saw Rondo do it this time.