NBA season preview: New Orleans Hornets

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Last Season: The player the franchise had built itself around, Chris Paul, decided he wanted out before last season began. He did so in a far less-aggravating way than his superstar counterparts (we’re looking at you, Mr. Anthony and Mr. Howard), but he did it just the same. Since the key piece the Hornets received in the deal, Eric Gordon, only appeared in nine games for them before going down with injury, that helped the team to finish dead last in the Western Conference standings.

Lottery luck was on their side, however, as the Hornets were rewarded for their dismal season by receiving the number one overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, despite the fact that they didn’t end the season with the league’s worst record.

Key Departures: Big men Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, and Carl Landry.  Point guard Jarrett Jack, who only led the team in scoring once Gordon went down, though he did appear in just 45 games.

Key Additions: The number one overall pick in the draft, Anthony Davis. Ryan Anderson, a solid offensive threat, was brought in from Orlando. Robin Lopez was traded for, after the Suns decided they had spent enough time trying to develop him into a legit NBA center.

Three keys to the Hornets season: 

1) Developing Davis: By all accounts, Anthony Davis should provide an immediate impact in his rookie season, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The rebounding and shot-blocking ability should be present from Day One. But offensively, it’s not a stretch to use the word “raw” in describing where Davis is in the development process. Turning him into at least a competent player on the offensive end of the floor should be the team’s goal in his rookie season, while enjoying the production he should provide immediately on D at the same time.

2) And your point guard is … Greivis Vasquez? Looks like it, at least initially. Vasquez was surprisingly serviceable in the role for the Hornets last season, posting averages of 12.4 points and 7.6 assists in almost 26 minutes per game. But he’s hardly considered a speedy initiator of the offense with a basketball IQ beyond reproach, so we’ll see how that works out. Vasquez to this point has seemed like someone who would come in and not totally ruin things for you off the bench, rather than a player who you’d want running your team for extended periods. But hey — we’re rebuilding here, right? Beyond that, rookie Austin Rivers may see some time there (even though he’s really a two), and Eric Gordon-if-he-can-stay-healthy can play with the ball in his hands, as well.

3) Eric Gordon, Superstar: Gordon was supposed to be a legitimate trade piece in return for Chris Paul; he’s someone who by almost all accounts is one of the league’s top two-guards. The good news is he’s getting close to returning to action, and is even pushing to be ready on opening night. But when he returns isn’t necessarily all that important; what the team needs from him is superstar production, considering the max contract it gave him in the offseason. Four years and almost $60M is a ton to invest, so no matter how Davis turns out, the team will be in a tough spot from a salary cap standpoint in the future if Gordon doesn’t turn out to be the real deal once he’s back from injury.

What Hornets fans should fear: In the first year of a full-fledged rebuilding situation, patience is the key for Hornets fans. If by the end of the season the development isn’t there, the team doesn’t turn into a cohesive unit, or Davis or Gordon aren’t playing to their expected levels of production, then go ahead and panic. But for now, enjoy the young team that’s been put together and hope they provide some entertainment and show some signs as the season progresses.

Prediction: A second straight year near the bottom of the Western Conference standings seems likely, though there are a few other teams that New Orleans may be able to leapfrog if things go as planned. But playoffs? Yeah, no.

Dwyane Wade signs ‘lifetime’ deal with Li-Ning

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MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade has signed a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning.

Wade made the deal official at an event in Beijing on Wednesday with the company’s CEO and namesake Li Ning, who is revered in China for his gymnastics success.

Wade’s relationship with Li-Ning began in 2012, after he previously was an endorser for Converse and Jordan Brand. In addition to the continued production of basketball and lifestyle apparel, the new deal calls for Wade to take “a greater role” in youth developmental camps and basketball clinics in China and other parts of the world over the coming years.

Wade finished last season with the Miami Heat. He has not decided if he will return to the Heat next season, which would be his 16th in the NBA.

New Bulls forward Jabari Parker: ‘They don’t pay players to play defense’

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Jabari Parker never found his footing with the Bucks. Parker’s injuries and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ascension left Parker – a top recruit then No. 2 overall pick – trying (and often failing) to to fit into a complementary role he clearly never envisioned for himself.

After signing a contract to become the Bulls’ highest-paid player, Parker is unapologetically embracing a new mission.

Parker, via 670 The Score:

I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two people historically that play defense. I’m not going to say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. Because I’ve scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense.

If you know the game, you also know that everyone’s a pro, right? And you know that certain guys have an average. No matter what you do, they still get that average. They pay people to score the ball, and I would hope that somebody scores the ball on me if they pay them that much. So, I’m not saying that to cop out or nothing. It’s the NBA. We’re professionals. Everybody scores. It’s just about limiting them as much as you can, trying to contain them.

A better offense wins a championship.

Parker is generally right. Scoring is rewarded far more than defense. If NBA teams don’t want to encourage that attitude, they ought to pay players more for other skills. Until then, players like Parker – who has no salary guarantee beyond this season – will continue to be drawn to scoring.

Parker is also correct that certain players get their points-per-game average no matter what. What he fails to explain: If that player needs too many shots to get it, he hurts his team. Good defenders force inefficiency from their opponents.

But, again, players who get theirs in the points column are often rewarded in salary.

So, expect Parker to hunt his points during his upcoming contract year.

These quotes only reinforce what we’d already seen from Parker. He showed glimpses of strong defense during this year’s playoffs, but that was rare for him. His skill set and approach are offense-first.

And great offense probably beats great defense. But offenses are rarely reliably great. Defense more often can be. The Warriors, as exceptional as they are offensively, are also elite defensively. I’m not sure Parker grasps that.

It’s on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to convince him, but managing this issue is easier said than done. Not only does Parker bring years of habits to Chicago, he’s playing to prove himself next season. The Bulls have a team option on him for 2019-20.

Parker will most positively affect winning by trying hard on both ends of the floor. He might most positively affect his bank account by saving his energy for offense.

You might not like him saying it, but it’s also reality.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.