NBA Season Preview: Memphis Grizzlies

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Last season: Memphis had hoped to turn a magical second-round playoff run (which included pushing OKC to seven games) into momentum for the next season. They were still good — 41-25, which earned them the four seed — but when Zach Randolph went out with knee issues the Grizzlies were not the same. He came back in time for the playoffs but was still not 100 percent and it showed. Memphis had their chances in the first round against the Clippers — they blew a 21-point lead in Game 1 and had Game 7 at home — but were bounced earlier than they planned.

Key Departures: O.J. Mayo never really found a fit in Memphis so now he’s going to try and find a home in Dallas. It’s a loss in that it saps Memphis of bench strength that they got nothing back for in return. Zip. That was the only real name loss, although Dante Cunningham had potential that may blossom elsewhere now.

Key Additions: They brought in Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington and Tony Wroten. We will see if any of these guys actually turn out to be key, but they are going to get the chance. With Mayo gone there is plenty of room and opportunity for someone to step up off the bench and grab minutes and a role.

Three keys to the Grizzlies season:

1) Are Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph healthy and ready to lead the offense? If you’re an optimistic Grizzlies fan, your mantra is that we have yet to really see the Grizzlies running on all cylinders. Rudy Gay missed the playoffs two years ago, Zach Randolph wasn’t right last year. Once we get everyone together…

But will they? And really, just how good can they be, particularly on offense. The Grizzlies are fun because they are a throwback team — Marc Gasol is an old-school bruiser on both ends but with a mid-range shot you have to respect (but he’s so old-school you almost expect a two-hand set shot). Randolph is as gifted a back-to-the-basket scorer from the block as there is in the league. Rudy Gay can slash into the lane with the best of them (although he too often settles for contested midrange jumpers). The question is can they all co-exist? As part of that, who is spacing the floor with shooting? Not Mayo anymore. Solid point guard Mike Conley hit a solid 37.7 percent from three last season and he was the best shooter from three on the team. They didn’t add a shooter this summer. Memphis both avoids and can’t hit the three, so despite all their talent you can defend them. You can pack it in.

Gay and Randolph have to be very efficient for the Grizzlies to score enough to be a real threat. And they have to stay healthy. Can they do that?

2) They need to get some good bench play from someone. Anyone. The Memphis can roll out five quality players to finish games — Conley, Tony Allen, Gay, Randolph and Gasol. But after that the drop off is pretty severe and they need someone to step up. Josh Selby will get his chances, as will Bayless. Are you counting on Flip Murray and Wayne Ellington to give you quality minutes every night? The bench is an issue for the Grizzlies.

3) Are there going to be changes when Robert Pera takes over as owner? The sale seems to be dragging out a bit, but Robert Pera (with minority investors like Justin Timberlake and Peyton Manning) should take over the team at some point this season. That doesn’t mean the team is moving — the lease is rock solid for another nine years — but it does lead to questions about direction of the franchise on the court.

Pera may bring in new people on the basketball side that will chart a new course. Or, he may make more gradual changes. But we don’t really know what those changes will be or what that means for the Grizzlies roster as it exists now. We don’t know, but the sale could be the first step in a roster shakeup.

What Grizzlies fans should fear: That you’ve seen the best of what this Grizzlies roster can do. And this fear feels pretty close to reality. Back when the Thunder beat the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the second round two years ago it felt like those teams could be on similar trajectories, but while the Thunder continue to take off like a rocket ship the Grizzlies regressed. And when you look at this current roster it’s hard to see them being much more than they were last year. Meanwhile the Thunder and Lakers keep getting a lot better, and you can likely throw the Clippers in that same category (not contenders, but getting better than Memphis). Unless there are changes, they heyday of this Grizzlies roster could be in the rear-view mirror. And it feels like that is the case.

How it likely works out: This season is going to look a lot like last season — is a good team and will win a lot of games with a front line only the Lakers can really match. They will play good defense and most nights get enough offense. Gay will show flashes but never really explode like you’d hope. They make the playoffs for sure, but dreams of a title should be dashed quickly, likely even before the second round.

Prediction: I’ll say 48-34, with a 4-6 seed in the West and a real dogfight of a first round matchup against someone like Denver or San Antonio or the Clippers. If they are healthy and get a favorable matchup they can advance to the second round, where they will test whoever they face but it won’t be enough. Most likely this is a one-round and out team with dreams of the second round now. At least until the team is sold then who knows where things go.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.

Ex-Sacramento Kings exec gets 7 years for siphoning $13.4M

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison for siphoning $13.4 million from the team.

Jeffrey David, 44, the team’s former chief revenue officer, pleaded guilty in December to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

David diverted the sponsorship payments of five companies to a bank account he controlled from October 2012 through July 2016, using the money to buy and remodel Southern California beachfront properties, pay for a private jet membership and pay off credit card bills.

“The brazen scheme involved forgeries, stolen corporate executive identities, money laundering and even instructing a former colleague to destroy evidence,” U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said in a statement. “Today’s sentence should deter others from committing substantial frauds such as this one.”

David’s lawyer, Mark Reichel, disagreed with the sentence from U.S. District Judge William Shubb.

“We see no appropriate purpose served by a sentence this lengthy,” Reichel wrote in an email, citing David’s “tremendous life work” before and after his crimes as cause for a reduced sentence.

“The Kings received back every single penny of the previously purloined money, and Mr. David worked very hard to make sure that happened. He is tremendously remorseful,” Reichel said.

The Kings have received over $13.2 million in restitution to date, according to the Department of Justice.

David is scheduled to begin his sentence on Aug. 20.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

It was a long road to this point, Antetokounmpo was playing second-division ball in Greece when the Bucks drafted him at No. 15 back in 2013. The word we used to describe his game at the time was “raw” — he was a long way from the player he would become. What he also turned out to be was driven. Willing to put in the work, be coached, and put in the long hours to get better and maximize his potential. Antetokounmpo earned the chance to walk up on that stage and accept the MVP award.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first-place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results: