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.

Manny Pacquiao says he has thought about buying part of NBA team when he retires

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At age 40, Manny Pacquiao is not retiring. Even if you and some boxing pundits think he should. Tonight (Saturday) he fights Keith Thurman at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and is expected to pull down about a cool $26 million for his trouble. If you’re getting paid like that, why retire exactly? He has said he wants to fight another five years or so.

After that, he’d like to buy part of an NBA team.

That’s what he told TMZ in a pre-fight interview.

He said he has thought about buying a piece of an NBA team after he retires. Pacquiao, a basketball nut who uses the sport as part of his training, owns an entire semi-pro league — the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League — in the Philippines (one of the most basketball-crazy nations on earth). Pacquiao said he thinks his experience with that league would help him as an NBA owner, that some of the skills will translate, which is likely true. Pacquiao said it’s about finding the right opportunity.

Forbes estimates that Pacquiao will have earned, after Saturday’s fight, more than $500 million in his career. Various websites estimate his net worth in the $200 million range. He’s got the money to jump in as a part owner.

In an NBA that loves personalities and characters — and one always trying to gain more traction in Asian markets — don’t be shocked if this happens someday.

Once Pacquiao retires.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.