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.

San Antonio Spurs retire Tony Parker’s number

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Tim Duncan went up first. Then Manu Ginobili.

Monday night it was Tony Parker’s turn — all of the Spurs’ big three have now had their jerseys retired.

This is obviously well deserved.

The No. 28 pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, Parker went on to win four NBA titles, was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. He was part of core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty.

Everyone was on hand for the ceremony, with coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan, and Ginobili all speaking before Parker, and all of them talking about their bond.

It was an emotional and touching night.

The next stop for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili? The Hall of Fame.

 

Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox out at least 3-4 weeks with ankle sprain

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The Sacramento Kings — everyone’s League Pass favorites — have been snake bitten this season. First it was Marvin Bagley III, who broke his right thumb in the season opener.

Now point guard De'Aaron Fox will be out at least 3-4 weeks (that’s when he’ll be re-evaluated) after suffering a grade three ankle sprain in practice Monday. From the official Sacramento press release:

An MRI conducted this afternoon on Kings guard De’Aaron Fox confirmed that he sustained a left ankle sprain at the end of practice on Monday. He will be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks and his status will be updated as appropriate.

After a breakout season a year ago, this season Fox had come back to earth a little in new coach Luke Walton’s system — his turnovers were up and his efficiency had slipped, a 52.8 true shooting percentage that is close to the league average, for example — but he was still putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game. He has been the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

This is a blow to the Kings and their development. Sacramento had won 3-of-4 and seemed to be finding more of a groove.

Sacramento does have depth at the point guard spot, however. It signed Cory Joseph over the summer to a three-year, $37 million contract, plus it picked up a team option on Yogi Ferrell. They have some depth at the spot.

However, those players do not have Fox’s explosiveness. The Kings just will not be the same until he returns.

Greece coach Rick Pitino plans to enter 2020 Olympic qualifying without Giannis Antetokounmpo

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Greece coach Rick Pitino is planning on trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics without Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Pitino officially took over as coach of the Greek national basketball team on Monday. He said he would leave a roster place open for Antetokounmpo in qualifying games but is not sure if he will be able to rely on his best player.

Greece will try to reach the Tokyo Olympics by winning a qualifying tournament. But the dates could clash with the NBA schedule, probably ruling out Antetokounmpo.

“It is a possibility he will not be playing with us in the qualifying round if he goes far (in the playoffs). I understood that coming into this situation, and that’s why it’s such a high mountain to climb,” Pitino said. “But Giannis is something, it’s a bridge we have to cross later on. But we are going to leave a roster spot even if he has to take my place.”

Pitino said he hoped to meet Antetokounmpo and his brother, Milwaukee teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo, in March when the Bucks travel to Miami.

The 67-year-old Pitino is a veteran of the college game and the NBA, coaching the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks as well as Kentucky and Louisville. He has returned to Greece after coaching Athens club Panathinaikos last season and remains popular.

Pitino said he also felt that attachment.

“(Coaching Greece) is the crown jewel for me as a basketball coach,” Pitino said. “This is one of the greatest honors I’ve had as a coach. I consider this so special because it’s a mountain that is so worth climbing.

“And for the next eight months. I’m not American. I’m not Italian. I’m Greek. And that’s the way I’m going to carry myself. You won’t see anybody who will bleed every possession like I will bleed to try and win a game.”

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.