The Inbounds: The NBA’s unintentional tribute to Don Nelson

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Don Nelson was in the NBA long enough to be considered in about a hundred ways over the span of his most-winning career. Longevity comes with peaks and valleys, and Nelson had tons. From his prolific Bucks teams to the start of the Mavericks’ surge with Nowitzki, Finley, and Nash, to the 2007 We Believe Warriors, Nelson had more than his fair share of moments. Not bad for a guy who defied the very core of traditional basketball paradigms: slow it down, defend, trust the big men. Nelson did none of that, and managed to slide away with wins left and right like Puck from Midsummer’s tossing dust while the other teams were sleeping.

As Nelson prepares to enter the Hall of Fame Friday, there will be talk of all his accomplishments. Many weren’t around for his run in the 80’s with the Bucks, including seven of ten seasons with over 50 wins. And there will be criticism of his failures, such as those last few years in Golden State, running a system dependent on athleticism and yet benching the young guys, and how lost they seemed at times.

But if we look around the league, Nelson’s innovation has had its effect. Just look at the lineups for the best teams.

Much of the smallball movement that’s prevalent in the league is a result of the dearth of legitimate big men. Great big men just aren’t out there. It’s Howard, Bynum, Bogut, Hibbert, Marc Gasol and that’s about it. But there’s also an adjustment that’s a product of what Nelson showed, that if you can spread the floor and get your opponent out of their rhythm, you can win with speed.

Take the Heat. After a year of trying to find anything close to a traditional center, they finally just said “Screw it” and eliminated the center position all together. Chris Bosh kept playing power forward. LeBron James played point-forward-center. But they also used the fast break to a high degree and head coach Erik Spoelstra is already beating the “faster, better, stronger” drum for next season, advocating more speed. The Heat are not playing NellieBall, at all. They’re far too dependent on defense. They’re not trying to simply outrun and outscore the opponent. They’re focused first and foremost on defense. Once they stop you, though, the objective is to create those fast-break opportunities. It’s a simple change of utility in player abilities. See, a lot of the time coaches try and harness athleticism to improve skills. You have speed, so you can run the point to set up the offense and get the defense off-kilter. You’re tall, so you can score next to the basket. But the Heat are using athleticism for athleticism. They’re creating dunks by being bigger, stronger, faster.

How about the Thunder? Similarly fast, similarly fast-break-oriented, and they throw in another core tenet of Nelson’s impact, the willingness to put up those threes at a moment’s notice. If you’ve ever seen hesitation in transition from Westbrook, Durant, or Harden, you’ve seen it for the first time.

The Nuggets, constantly running and creating offensive opportunities, constantly spreading the floor. Even the Spurs, and if there’s a less Nelson coach out there than Popovich I ask you to let me know.

In some ways, the Bulls’ defense is even a reflection of this. Driven off of wave after wave of player, creating havoc, just using the opposite end and reacting with both instinct and resolution.

This isn’t to attribute any and all of this to Nelson. There have been smallball advocates before and will be after. George Karl’s a mad genius of his own creation, same for Popovich, same for Thibs. But we see reflections of the success Nelson brought, we see the remainder of what he accomplished. Nelson was an innovator in a game that too often falls back on familiarity. Even his approach, like taking his players to a bar (when some of them aren’t even old enough to drink) both hearkens back to an older time and goes against convention. Nelson made the game more fun. He wasn’t always successful, he wasn’t always right, but the league was a more fun place with him roaming the sidelines.

His style of play remains in vogue, only translated, his ideas still banging around. Countless beat writers have stories about him. Seriously, walk into a media room anywhere in the country and ask for Don Nelson stories. You’ll be there for hours. What says Hall of Fame more than that? So he goes off, having made the game more interesting, having left a legacy, and an enduring image that was never perfect, and not always good, but always worthy of the discussion.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

– William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.