Kobe reaches deal to play in Italy. Almost. Team calls it “95 percent.”

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UPDATE #2, 9:56 am: And as fast as it came together, the deal may already be falling apart. Virtus Bologna had requested a special schedule during the 40 days the team was to have Kobe Bryant, but that has been rejected by the Italian league. This may lead to the entire deal to collapse as the team would not have enough games to cover its expenses.

I don’t think this can be emphasized enough: The timing of this news leaking out hours before the owners and players are to meet in a crucial bargaining session in New York is not a coincidence. Kobe is in his own way trying to put pressure on the owners, that said if you don’t think he’ll follow through on a threat like this you haven’t watched him jack up leaning 28-foot threes with the game on the line. Don’t question if he will go through with just about anything.

UPDATE 9:21 am: Bloomberg is reporting that Kobe Bryant will return to Italy to sign the deal on Oct. 5, by then all the kinks will be worked out.

The deal is $3 million or 10 games at the start of the Italian league season. Kobe’s a smart cookie, he’s probably getting a cut of jersey sales and other merchandise.

4:34 am: Kobe Bryant and Italian League team Virtus Bologna have reached a deal for Kobe to play in Italy during the lockout.

Well, almost. There is one little problem — the team still has to find the money to pay him. (Although you would think finding a sponsor to step forward for the most popular player world-wide would not be all that hard.) There also are work visa issues and other details to work out. Anyone who has done a business deal know that until the papers are signed a deal is at risk.

Virtus Bologna has by all accounts reached an economic deal with Kobe Bryant to play for them, something the Associated Press reports.

The sides have settled on a $3 million contract for the opening 40 days of the Italian league season, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Friday….

Bryant will get a work visa and return to Italy next week, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has still not been signed. Virtus had been due to open the season Oct. 9 against Roma, but schedules now need to be reworked after Venezia was added to the league as a 17th team.

However, Virtus Bologna’s owner Claudio Sabatini is notorious for announcing deals that do not come to fruition. Sabatini was speaking in Italy Friday and Sportando has his comments:

“First news is that we have reached an economic agreement with Kobe Bryant” said Sabatini, as reported by Bolognabasket.it. “Second is that I don’t have that amount of money” added joking the owner of the Italian team.

Sabatini also said that there are some details to finalize as the image rights of the player. “Deal is done at 95%” ended Sabatini.

You can bet he is trying to round up a sponsor and finalize the deal, but that is a long way from having Kobe signed on the dotted line. Any deal would be required to have an NBA opt-out so he could return to the Lakers if a labor deal is struck.

The timing of this announcement, hours before the NBA owners and players union are getting together for crucial meetings in New York that could determine if the NBA season starts on time or remains locked out, is not a coincidence.

Kobe is flying back from a European promotional tour and is expected in New York for Friday’s labor meeting, where this signing would be a bombshell. The players union has stressed that its players have other options, but no player as big a name as Kobe has singed. While NBA owners have not blinked at their role players signing overseas, their biggest stars actually playing in Europe would get their attention — Kobe is the reason the Lakers sell out the building and dominate the Los Angeles sports market (and sell out arenas on the road). Him playing in Italy would be a risk for the NBA.

But if this is not iron clad, owners will just roll their eyes. They will see the timing as a negotiations tactic.

Kobe grew up in Italy while his dad played professionally there and feels comfortable in the country. He speaks fluent Italian. It’s also just in Kobe’s go-for-it personality to jump at this, something Kevin Ding explored well at the Orange County Register. While I can give you plenty of logical reason for Kobe not to go — injury risk, wear and tear on a weakening knee — he is a guy who pushes himself and takes on every challenge. This would be a new challenge to conquer.

Still, I’m curious what Kobe has to say about this and if the Italian club can come up with the money.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.