Saturday Starting Five: Underground storylines before the season tip

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? Five underrated storylines as we head towards the season.

The Orlando Motivated Monstrous Machine

A team with Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and J.J. Redick comes into the season as almost a nondescript non-entity. A team that reached the Finals a year ago enters the season as an afterthought. And a team that annihilated its opponents in the preseason enters without a peep (because it’s preseason). So why is no one talking about the Magic? I’ve already breached this subject elsewhere, but let me sum up: due to the circumstances under which they won the East in 2009, and given the improvements made to the Eastern powers, the window has to be considered shut for the Magic as we know them.

But what if we don’t know them? A particular element of the assessment I made of the team as based on their physical makeup. There was no big signing, no huge trade, no substantial upgrade. Vince Carter got older, Jameer Nelson got Jameer-Nelson-ier, etc. The Magic are the same team they were last season, in terms of their physical makeup. But mentally? That’s where we might see some changes.

Most notably, even having only talked to Dwight Howard briefly this summer, I can tell you there’s something different about him. It’s not the workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, instead, it’s the way he’s reacted to the hype over the Miami Triad. That level of anger that we constantly seek from LeBron? Howard has it. And with Vince Carter having another year in the system, Ryan Anderson coming into his own, and Stan Van Gundy finally relenting and pushing Rashard Lewis to the three from time to time, it’s entirely possible that this team mentally is ready to come out guns blazing. Then again, coming out guns blazing doesn’t do them much good if they run out of bullets in May. This analogy must either end or include a played-out Arenas reference, so…

The Hard Line Between Fan And Fanatic

Putting LeBron’s return to Cleveland on national television was their second bad idea. Putting it in front of an actual crowd of Cleveland fans was their first. If LeBron’s Twitter escapade showed anything, it’s that there are people out there to which the common rules of decency we all share do not apply. There are those of us out there who simply have no problem with crossing that line between “Okay, the guy used to wear the same color jersey I like and now he doesn’t, and that sucks”  and “I am now going to venture into outright racism, but first let me make a stop in Death Threat Village Boutiques.” This situation is a time bomb, and for some reason, the league is convinced it’s just good television. Even if you think the odds of a Cleveland fan or fans going berserk at the game is infinitely too small to be worried about, why are you exacerbating the situation by marketing it? “Tune in to watch LeBron possibly have a molotov cocktail thrown at his head for switching zip codes!” Cheering and booing is a great part of sport. But the projection that has been emulated by Cleveland fans, blaming James for an array of ills he had nothing to do with is a dangerous element in a highly tense situation.

There’s hate, there’s sincere hate, then there’s whatever nerve James tapped into this summer, be it racial, ethical, cultural, or otherwise. There’s a time bomb and it’s ticking, set to go off when the King returns to Cleveland.

The Top Seed in the West Is Up for Grabs

No, seriously. The Lakers are winning the Western Conference Finals, of that you can be sure of, but the top seed in the West and thereby the best chance to knock off LA? That’s still in the air. The Lakers aren’t just going to coast the second half of the season, they may struggle out of the gate with Kobe Bryant still recovering, Bynum on the shelf, and whatever random injuries they pick up. Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, Denver if Melo sticks around, any of these teams could sneak in and take home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It wouldn’t be that hard to get past LA. It’s getting past everyone else that is the trick.

Again, LA may not win the West’s top seed because they know they don’t have to. Rest is more important than dominance. They no longer have to shoot for 72. The Heat are taking care of that runaway hype machine for them. And while they’re resting their bones, another team may set themselves up to try to have a Game 7 on their floor if push comes to shove. The rest is just prayer.

New Ownership Takes Direction

Ted Leonsis has lists of all the things he’s changing. New Warriors owner Joe Lacob is already making dramatic plans for change in Golden State. The Pistons will be under new ownership from a mogul. And the Hornets? Well, the Hornets are still George Shinn’s and no one is happy about it, least of all Shinn. The Warriors will be interesting from the perspective of whether they can defend at all with Keith Smart at the helm. Alternative approaches might yield some results there, considering the talent they have.

But New Orleans bears watching. If Shinn gets more desperate to sell the team, he may look to drop the value. Which would mean, you know, trading a superstar. Like Chris Paul. Oops. Meanwhile a new ownership group in Detroit may look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, then look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, and then things could get awkward.

Ownership changes create instability. The question will be how much, in a year that promises to be unstable regardless.

Exceptional Exceptions

There’s nothing in the NBA that can make up for the loss of a superstar. Back in the days of league-determined compensation, Cleveland and Toronto would have received picks, and, well… okay, that’s the thing. Riley managed to gut that team so completely to rebuild it they couldn’t even be punished with compensation. But the one thing those teams did get back is a big ol’ massive trade exception. Which is going to allow them to go in a few directions.

The most attractive one is to pick up  a monstrous expiring contract as part of  a multi-team trade that can net them picks, young players, and let them dump off the rest of their teams. These two squads need a clean slate, as painful as that is for fans, and this is the best way to go about it. When February rolls around, don’t be surprised if two teams that got rolled in free agency are heavy in discussions.

J.R. Smith caught on video beating up man who allegedly vandalized his truck

J.R. Smith
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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Sunday was a day of mostly peaceful protests in Los Angeles in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last week. However, some bad actors used the protests as camouflage to loot and vandalize businesses and property near the protests.

One of those people allegedly broke the window of former NBA player J.R. Smith’s truck — and Smith ran him down and beat him up for it. Video of the beating emerged first on TMZ. (Warning, NSFW language.)

Smith quickly posted a video on his Instagram story trying to get out in front of this, saying the guy broke his truck window in a residential street — and Smith was having none of it.

“I just want you all to know right now, before you all see this s*** somewhere else. One of these little motherf****** white boys didn’t know where he was going and broke my f****** window in my truck. Broke my s***. This was a residential area. No stores over here. None of that s***. Broke my window, I chased him down and whooped his ass.

“So when the footage comes out and you all see it, I chased him down and whooped his ass. He broke my window. This ain’t no hate crime. I ain’t got no problem with nobody and nobody got no problem with me. There’s a problem with the motherf****** system, that’s it. The motherf***** broke my window and I whooped his ass. He didn’t know who window he broke and he got his ass whooped.”

It’s unknown at this time if any other legal action will come out of this, the police and prosecutors have a lot on their plates right now.

Smith was out of the NBA this season, despite getting a couple of workouts with teams.

George Floyd’s death brings back painful memories for Rockets’ Thabo Sefolosha

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Thabo Sefolosha knows what it’s like to be a black man, on the ground, being beaten by police officers.

Such was the scenario when George Floyd died in Minneapolis last week.

And five years ago, Sefolosha found himself in a similarly frightening place.

“I was just horrified by what I saw,” Sefolosha said. “That could have been me.”

Time has not healed all wounds for Sefolosha, the NBA veteran who said he was attacked by a group of New York Police Department officers in April 2015 while they were arresting him outside a nightclub in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. The leg that was broken in the fracas is fine now. The emotional pain roared back last week when he saw video of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air in the final moments of his life as a white police officer — subsequently charged with murder — pressed a knee on his neck.

Sefolosha has seen the video. He hasn’t watched much news since. His experience with police in New York has left him with a deep distrust of law enforcement, the pangs of angst flooding back even when he walks into NBA arenas and sees uniformed officers. And the latest example of police brutality left him even more upset.

“People talk about a few rotten apples,” Sefolosha said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But you know, in my experience and from what we’re seeing, I think it’s deeper than that as a culture that’s deeply rooted in it, to be honest. That’s just my honest opinion. I think it’s really … part of a culture where it’s deeper than just a few bad apples.”

The four officers who were involved in the incident where Floyd died were fired; the one who knelt on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Massive protests have broken out in several cities in recent days, the country torn again over a black man dying at the hands of police.

Sefolosha — a black man of Swiss descent who plays for the Houston Rockets — considered but decided against joining protests in Atlanta, where he is waiting for the resumption of the NBA season that was shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m mad, for sure,” Sefolosha said. “That’s for sure. I mean, it’s 2020. Nobody should have to go through this in this time, especially after black people have given up so much for America. Black people have given up so much and done so much for this country. It’s hurtful to see it this way.”

Sefolosha’s perspective changed forever on April 8, 2015. Chris Copeland, an NBA player at the time, was among three people stabbed outside the club where Sefolosha was that night; police arrived and ordered everyone to leave the area. Sefolosha says he complied but began getting harassed by officers anyway.

Before long, he was on the ground.

Sefolosha’s leg was broken and some ligaments were torn in the fracas, and he was arrested on several charges that a jury needed about 45 minutes to determine were unfounded. He wound up suing for $50 million, alleging his civil rights were violated, settled for $4 million and gave much of that money to a public defenders’ organization working in marginalized communities.

“It changed me a lot, toward the way I see law enforcement in this country,” Sefolosha said. “And also toward the way I see the whole justice system. I went to court and I had to do all of this to prove my innocence. It really got me deep into the system and I’m really skeptical of the whole system.”

NBA players have used their platforms often in recent years to protest racial inequality. Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after police used a stun gun on him and arrested him over a parking incident in 2018. On Saturday, Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics were among those taking part in Atlanta protests.

“You see what happened in Minnesota where three human beings with a badge are watching another human being killing somebody,” said Sefolosha, who has played in the NBA since 2006 and intends to return to Switzerland when he retires. “And instead of saying, ‘OK, this is my duty as a human being,’ the duty was more toward not interfering with the other officer and saying, ‘We are clan, we stick together no matter what.’ It should be the other way around.”

The NBA is closing in on finalizing a plan to resume the season in July at the Disney complex near Orlando, Florida. Sefolosha and the Rockets figure to be contenders for a championship when play resumes.

For obvious reasons, Sefolosha’s mind isn’t there yet.

“I’ll be happy to be with my teammates and reunited with basketball in general,” Sefolosha said. “But you know, we’re human beings, and the fight has been going on for too long and the same protests have been going on for too long. I think it’s definitely time for change and that should be a priority for all of us.”

Michael Jordan releases statement: “I am deeply saddened, truly pained, and plain angry”

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Michael Jordan has been famously apolitical through his playing career and after, rarely commenting on social issues. While the “Republicans buy shoes, too” comment has always stuck to him, as Roland Lazenby points out in his biography “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Jordan’s “keep your head down and don’t draw attention” political outlook was passed down as a family demeanor used to survive in rural North Carolina.

However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer, and the eruptions of protests nationwide, Jordan felt compelled to speak and released this statement.

Jordan’s voice is a powerful one and carries a lot of weight, as do his actions.

How he uses that voice, and the actions he takes going forward, will be watched and can hold a lot of sway.

 

On this date in NBA history: J.R. Smith forgot the score

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There comes a point in almost every NBA playoff series when one team knows it’s beat. That team threw its best punch and the other team took it and won anyway. While no NBA team would never go into the postgame press conference and say “we’re beat,” it shows up in their tone and body language.

In the 2018 NBA Finals, that moment came after Game 1.

Two years ago today, May 31, the Cavaliers went to Golden State and were on the verge of stealing Game 1 on the road. LeBron James had targeted Stephen Curry on switches to keep the Cavaliers ahead, LeBron thought he drew a charge on Kevin Durant but it was overturned on review and called a block, and a back-and-forth end of the game saw the Warriors go up one when Curry drew and and-1 foul on Kevin Love with 23.5 seconds left.

Of course, the Cavs put the ball in LeBron’s hands out top, the Cavaliers got the switch and had Curry trying to guard LeBron, when LeBron threw a bullet pass to a cutting George Hill. Klay Thompson hooked Hill, and Hill went to the ground. The foul was called and Hill went to the free-throw line.  He hit the first and tied the game 107-107.

Then came the moment.

“He thought we were up one,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said after the game, although Smith was selling at the time he was trying to bring the ball out to get a better shot. The Warriors players thought he was trying to get the ball to LeBron, maybe.

Game 1 went to overtime, where the Warriors dominated (17-7) and got the win. After the game, you could feel it around the Cavaliers — this was their chance and they missed it. The series ended in a Golden State sweep.

It’s a legendary moment of the NBA Finals, even if it’s one Smith and Cavaliers fans would like to forget.