Lindsey Hunter introduced as Suns head coach, details emerge on reasons the team made a change

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PHOENIX — Lindsey Hunter met the media on the Suns practice court Sunday, just hours after formally being offered the position of interim head coach and running the team through practice.

Almost two full days after Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby held a press conference but didn’t offer up a lot in terms of reasons why Alvin Gentry and the team parted ways, GM Lance Blanks hinted at some internal things that were going on behind the scenes that led management in that direction.

When asked how Hunter’s success would be measured the rest of the season, Blanks pointed to off-the-court ideals rather than wins and losses as things the team is looking to see improve under its interim head coach.

“Some of the success will be in ways that you may not be able to see with the naked eye,” Blanks said. “First off, we’ve got to look at the culture and the environment, which you may not be able to see when you’re watching the game. Because I think the team has played pretty hard for most of the season. but at the same time, in the back we’ve seen guys become more disappointed than we would like.

“We’ve seen a culture where the guys haven’t been as responsive as we would like, so we’ll be measuring that right out of the gate,” Blanks said. “We saw an uptick already in practice with the way that things were conducted [this morning].”

Hunter’s first practice was full of all the team’s players, but noticeably absent were two prominent assistant coaches under Gentry in Elston Turner and Dan Majerle. While Blanks said that all of Gentry’s assistants were offered the opportunity to stay through the end of the season, only Igor Kokoskov and Noel Gillespie, along with player development coach Ralph Sampson were seen in the gym putting players through workouts.

Turner was Gentry’s lead assistant, so it would be understandable if he was upset about being passed over for the interim spot in favor of someone with zero NBA coaching experience. And while Majerle may not have been the favorite to replace Gentry, if he does have future head coaching aspirations, it would be tough to see him being pleased with the decision to go with someone who he may not be able to learn as much from as as he would from a more tenured head coach.

As far as the reason given for the selection of Hunter, Blanks said they needed to go in a direction that would shake things up.

“The simple answer is that the organization needed a jolt,” Blanks said. “We needed something that would shock the systems of us, the players, and risk trumps safety in this business. And we felt this was the right person to take the risk on.”

There’s no question that Hunter will be learning on the job, and Blanks mentioned that the team will look to add a veteran coach either on or behind the bench to assist Hunter through the transition. But the Suns feel that his strong personality will hold players more accountable than they’ve been in the past, and that will lead to a positive culture the team can build around.

When asked what qualities he possesses that make him a good coach, Hunter was honest and humble in his response.

“We don’t know if I’m a good coach yet, right,” he said. “It remains to be seen. But I just think playing as long as I did and growing up around the game, I think that in itself has prepared me. Being a basketball junkie my entire life has prepared me. When I got here Lon and Lance were like, you have a Ph.D. in basketball. And that’s kind of how I look at it. My entire life has been surrounded by this game.”

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.