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.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.