When labor talks restart, who can be NBA’s Robert Kraft?

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Right now, the lawyers are the guys putting on the show. The players have their big-gun attorney David Boies filing an antitrust lawsuit. Within a couple days David Stern (a lawyer) and his legal team will respond with their own legal maneuvers trying to crush the rebel alliance, and that will garner headlines.

But the way this will end is with settlement talks.

The argument technically shifts from “how do we build a collective bargaining agreement?” to “what collective bargaining agreement can we reach so we can throw the lawsuit out?” but it is essentially the same — two sides talking across a table. When the owners and players agree on a CBA the lockout and all this will end.

They did that in the NFL when Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Colts center Jeff Saturday threw the lawyers out of the room and agreed to keep negotiating, regardless of what advice they got from said lawyers. From ProFootballTalk, here is what Saturday said:

“The big shift came when owners and players began to negotiate by ourselves,” Saturday told NFL Network. “You really began to see men’s personalities and what they believe in. Robert Kraft was instrumental in getting this deal done. … Each and every one of us understood what he was going through.”

Have the NBA negotiations ever been humanized like that?

The NFL sides met for 16 straight days and hammered out a deal. The NFL season started on time.

For all the legal wrangling (and the differences in the talks), that is how the NBA lockout will end. Lawyers will want to use litigation to solve problems the same way surgeons will want to cut even when it is not the best strategy. Somebody needs to take charge, be rational, put Stern and the hardliners to the side, and just make this happen.

The problem is, who can be the NBA’s Robert Kraft?

Mark Cuban? He has the personality, but would the hardliners really accept the deal from one of the biggest spending owners (The only team that has spent more in the last decade on salary is the Knicks. Thanks, Isiah!). Small-market owners see him as part of the problem, not the solution.

Michael Jordan? He’s a hardliner that the players don’t trust right now so he will not work. It’s not the personality of Jerry Buss (or even Jeanie) to leap into this kind of fray, plus they again are big spenders. James Dolan? Do you really want him to craft a complex business deal about basketball? Same with Micky Arison. He can pick the place I go to dinner anytime but not sure he gets to be the man here.

Could a hardliner from the owners become the voice of reason and pull it off — Ted Leonsis (Washington), Herb Kohl (Milwaukee), or even, gulp, Dan Gilbert? (Insert your own “CBA written in Comic Sans” joke here, I’m not doing it for you.) Maybe a moderate such as Peter Holt (San Antonio) could, although he has been in front the whole time and nothing.

It’s the same on the players’ side — who could be their Jeff Saturday? Derek Fisher, Chauncey Billups, maybe even Etan Thomas?

Both sides are not going to like the ultimate deal struck, that’s how negotiations work. But if the NBA season is to be saved in some form, the sides need to start viewing each other as people not enemies to vanquish. Somebody is going to have to take charge, be rational and not take no for an answer.

Sadly, I just don’t see who can do it.

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).