New Orleans finds path to winning runs through San Antonio

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The New Orleans Hornets are standing at the top of the hill, 7-0. They beat the Clippers last night, but the lineup before that — Milwaukee, San Antonio, Denver and even Miami — is a bunch of teams that would bring most teams to their knees.

Standing there, the Hornets have a good view. They are as good a team as there is in the league right now, but they see the long road of the season stretching out before them. Standing there the questions about the future remain — key among them is can they keep Chris Paul? — but the road looks open and the future promising.

However, if they were to turn around and look back at the road that led them to this spot, they would see it runs straight through San Antonio.

The Hornets started to retool their organization this summer, something that was expected to come with a change in ownership that has yet to materialize. But the change in the organization went forward anyway.

It started with the hiring of Monty Williams as coach then Dell Demps as general manager (in that odd reverse order, but it seems to work here). Demps was a member of the San Antonio Spurs brain trust who was general manager of their D-League affiliate the Austin Toros (among other jobs in the Spurs organization). Demps came in with a mandate to “change the culture” of the organization, to make the culture more Spurs-like. Which is what everybody says when they hire a GM, but Demps really has changed things.

He didn’t hire Monty Williams — a coach who learned the NBA game at the right hand of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — but he’s the kind of guy Demps would have hired. A like minded, Spurs culture guy.

And you can see that on the court in how the Hornets play defense. The Spurs have won four titles by defending the rim and closing out hard at the arc, forcing teams into a lot of long twos and midrange shots. The least efficient shots in the game.

Sound strategy, but could Emeka Okafor really be that guy defending the rim? He can, it turns out. Okafor has been a force all season, really controlling the paint. He’s had room to do that because David West — who seemed to sleepwalk though the last couple seasons — has brought energy at both ends of the floor. With West focused and Okafor not having to help him as much, it has freed Okafor up to defend the rim with gusto. Okafor also leads the league right now with a 72.7 shooting percentage. He can’t miss, like a Pacer in the third quarter.

Of course, the biggest change for the Hornets has been the return of a healthy Chris Paul. He is playing at an MVP level, giving the team 18 points and 10 assists per game, doing it with the highest shooting percentage of his career. Right now, when he is on the court he assists on about half of his team’s baskets scored. His PER is at 29.8, a career best by a mile (and second only to Dwight Howard so far this season).

Add in smart pickups like Trevor Ariza to fill needs, and you have really got something.

It all looks good. Does that mean Chris Paul is staying?

Nobody knows. Maybe not even Paul himself. Nothing is going to happen short term. The Hornets are not looking to move him right now, instead they are looking to woo him to stay long term by proving he can win here. The 7-0 start is just that, a nice start, but winning in the playoffs is what matters and that is a long way off.

Paul isn’t talking, and the Hornets do not face the deadline pressure to make a move that Denver does right now. But that will change — by next summer and into next season the Hornets will need to get a commitment from Paul (who will be in the last year of his deal) or they have to look to move him. They have until then to change his mind. Certainly some kind of resolution with the ownership sale and that outcome will play a role in Paul’s decisions as well (as will outside influences, such as what happens in New York).

But the Spurs never really lost their core players. If the Hornets stay with that model… maybe you can win big in the Big Easy.

Report: Gregg Popovich met with Kawhi Leonard in San Diego

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Don’t count the San Antonio Spurs out of the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes just yet.

We have been waiting on pins and needles to see whether or not Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would meet with the apparently disgruntled Leonard this week before San Antonio approaches Thursday night’s NBA draft.

According to Yahoo! Sports’ Shams Charania, Leonard and Popovich met on Tuesday night in San Diego where Leonard has been working out.

Via Twitter:

For what it is worth, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reporterd that Popovich has not yet met with Leonard, but is traveling to Southern California to meet with the Spurs forward. Even further, Leonard has reportedly requested a trade to Los Angeles from the Spurs, specifically to the Lakers.

Via ESPN:

Leonard wants a trade to Los Angeles, preferably the Lakers over the Clippers, league sources said. He has privately maintained that he no longer wants to play in San Antonio, and will eventually alert rival teams considering trades for him that his intentions are to sign in Los Angeles — preferably with the Lakers — when he can become a free agent in 2019, league sources said.

Leonard had told confidants that he did not want to sit down with Popovich and has been purposely difficult for the Spurs to reach recently. Among the issues, Leonard is angry over what he believes was the Spurs’ mishandling of a quad injury, and remains irate with public comments out of teammate Tony Parker and Popovich that he felt were not supportive of him, league sources said.

We had to know this was coming. San Antonio wasn’t going to let Leonard dictate the terms of his departure from Texas all by himself. Although Leonard has put the Spurs in a tough situation given his reported open request to play in Los Angeles, no doubt both parties would be better off from a basketball perspective if they were together. San Antonio apparently doesn’t want to make a deal with a Western Conference team, either.

Since the Spurs were trying to get in touch with Leonard before Thursday’s big selection night, it could be a signal that Leonard is on the move. Several teams, including the Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers are rumored to be interested in Leonard’s services.

Rumor: Cavaliers could have trade interest in Kemba Walker

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to do everything in their power to retain LeBron James. They are also doing everything they can do to prepare themselves for if James decides to leave Cleveland once and for all.

Last week we heard rumors about how the Cavaliers were trying to prepare an offer to snag Kawhi Leonard away from the San Antonio Spurs. That move could be seen either as an intent to entice James to stay, or as a replacement for The King.

Now, we have rumor that the Cavaliers could be interested in acquiring an Eastern Conference point guard, presumably to help LeBron next season.

According to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, the Cavaliers have inquired to the Charlotte Hornets about the availability of point guard Kemba Walker.

Walker, 28, just became the Hornets all-time leading scorer this last season. The University of Connecticut product has just one year left on his current deal at $12 million, and could be both a good rental for a season as a means to bolster another James Finals run, or as a focal piece moving forward.

As is the issue with any package for Leonard, a trade to the Cavaliers from Charlotte for Walker really depends on what a third trade partner can bring into the mix. Not many of Cleveland’s young players have performed well enough to be used as trade bait for marquee guys. That necessarily means that Kevin Love will be the main trade bait, and it is tough for many teams to have interest in the sharp-shooting forward given many already have that position filled.

We are just 48 hours away from the 2018 NBA Draft and no doubt rumors like this will continue to heat up as we get closer to 4 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night.

Michael Porter Jr. compares himself to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo

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It has been rumored that Michael Porter Jr could be the player the Sacramento Kings draft at No. 2 overall on Thursday night in the 2018 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, according to Porter himself, there is good reason for his sudden leap up the draft boards.

Speaking on CBS Sports Radio on Monday, Porter said that he thought the players he most compared to right now were Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady.

Of course, the context here is that Porter was prompted to give a current NBA comparison, and as a shooter and physical player, he was unlikely to compare himself to a role player. Still, it’s a bold statement from Porter to say that he is akin to the second best player in the league at this moment. Durant has a skill set that hasn’t been replicated or really seen in the NBA, so it’s tough for anyone to really compare themselves to him.

Here is the quote, transcribed thanks to Deadspin:

Right now, I’m a little, I’m a mix of Giannis and KD. You know, I like going to the hole a little more than KD does, I like bumping into people a little more physical than KD. But I also, you know I like to shoot the ball more than Giannis. So that’s what I like to compare myself to. Then also Tracy McGrady. I get compared to him a lot and I like that one a lot too. You know, those are three amazing players. So it doesn’t feel bad to be in the same conversation as them.

In a recent interview with Dime Magazine, Porter said that he thinks Durant is the best player in the league, particularly when he plays against LeBron James. So really, Porder compared himself to the best player in the league.

The Missouri product has a litany of both character and injury questions. Rumors are abound about how well he will fit into an NBA locker room, and he famously decamped to Missouri Lorenzo Romar was fired in Washington.

Porder sat out most of the year with a nagging back injury, and had to call off some of his draft workouts because of a hip issue. Porter has tried to downplay his injury concerns, and has said that former Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy told him to remain patient through injury.

The draft is less than 48 hours away, and most believe that taking Porter at No. 2 is a huge risk for the Kings. We will see just how confident Sacramento is about Porter’s ability to become an NBA teammate and stay healthy here soon enough.

Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”