Talking Jordan’s competitive fire with Roland Lazenby, author of “Michael Jordan: The Life”

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You can’t think of Michael Jordan without thinking about his competitive fire — it was the cornerstone of who he was as a player and what the Bulls became with him leading the way. Jordan wore that competitiveness on his sleeve (well, if jerseys had sleeves back then).

That competitive streak is one of the central, running themes in Roland Lazenby’s new biography, “Michael Jordan: The Life” which was released Tuesday. Lazenby is one of the best, most thoughtful and thorough people writing books on the NBA today, which makes all his books fascinating reads and great looks at the psychology of teams and great players. His stuff is must read.

Lazenby said that Jordan’s fire was something of a family trait, one honed in Michael’s case by family experiences. He talked about it with PBT (the full interview will be available in the PBT Podcast to drop later this week.

On Jordan’s family history and how that was the foundation his competitiveness: “I went back and started with the birth of his great grandfather in 1891. His great grandfather was 5’5” and crippled, but a really bad guy. Jordan was descended from a bunch of hard-core moonshiners on the coastal plain in North Carolina, and they were tough customers. They had a hard life, but corn liquor was their cash crop…

“His great grandfather, who died when Michael was 14, ruled over the whole family and his great grandfather was the original ‘Jordan tongue.’ And Michael’s father James idolized this old man and picked up the tongue from him, and of course Michael picked it up from his old man, and from his great grandfather.”

Jordan’s family and him playing baseball: “His parents were the original ‘helicopter parents.’ They were the kind of parents, and this was back in the ‘70s before people did a lot of this, that they were at every practice, they were everywhere, making sure their son was involved. Baseball was a largely white sport yet they were very much involved and cared deeply, yet they were never the kind of people to say something to the coach or to complain about something. They were just involved all the time….

“Michael, before he didn’t make the varsity team (as a freshman) in basketball, he was a state Little League player of the year in North Carolina. He almost took them to the Little League World Series as a pitcher and a hitter. He was a fabulous, fabulous player as a 12-year-old. Then the next three years of Babe Ruth League, particularly the next year, he hardly got off the bench. He batted four times the whole season. The base paths had lengthened and he didn’t have the arm to play. You know youth sports could be cruel like that and they were very cruel to Jordan. “

How Michael playing one-on-one with his brother shaped him and the Bulls: “His father put up a hoop in the back yard, then put up two facing hoops in the back yard of their house, right out side of Wilmington…

“The battles he had with his brother — and his brother beat him every single day for about a year and a half — were fierce. Michael was taller but his older brother was a lot stronger. But these were not fun battles. George Mumford, the great psychologist who worked with Phil Jackson at the Lakers but before that he worked with Jackson at the Bulls, he said Michael related to his teammates the same way he related to his brother in childhood. He just battled his teammates and it was always about dominating them.

“James Worthy was a junior at North Carolina when Michael Jordan came in as a freshman, and in the interviews for this book Worthy told me ‘Michael was a bully and he bullied me.’”

Michael Jordan’s ability to get into “the zone”: “The thing that George Mumford found, the psychologist working with Michael, is that most people want to be in the zone but they can’t get there, but Jordan could access it on a regular basis. And he had all these devices for pushing his psyche into the zone of really high levels of performance. And if he didn’t have something to get him there, he would just make up things to get himself going, then he would take umbrage at things he had made up, but it didn’t matter as long as it got him into that state of high performance.”

The flip side of that was that Michael held himself accountable to the same standards.

“Michael laid his heart on the line every single night. (Former Bulls GM) Jerry Krause, who loathes Michael — in his interviews for the book he was always pointing out this or that — but when you hear Krause talk about Michael the player and how much he cared and how hard he played, you know if there was anything negative Jerry could say about it he would say it, but he said ‘I have no complaints about how he played for the Bulls.’”

Jordan and Scottie Pippen: “He was brutal on Pippen, but that’s what toughened Pippen up as a young player. They would have fierce battles. Phil liked to pit them against each other like two pit bulls in practice.”

Jordan’s reluctance to take political stances: “North Carolina had more (Klu Klux) Klan members than all the other Southern states combined and African-Americans in North Carolina were violently barred from politics…. Michael Jordan didn’t come from the kind of culture where people felt comfortable getting involved in politics, that was a quick way to real trouble. Once he got older he was willing to do his share, but boy people were all over him as a young player.”

Jordan’s gambling (and why he was never suspended for it): “No one, at any time, had the slightest allegation that Michael bet on basketball or bet on his own team. Michael’s gambling was either in a casino or on the golf course, or playing a card game at his house in Hilton Head. And if they were going to suspend him for that kind of gambling I’m not sure they could have an NBA, because the NBA is filled with people who gamble.”

Michael Jordan the team owner: “He goes to Charlotte and some of his draft picks are called into question. But as time goes on, everybody looks back at Michael the owner, or Michael the executive, and they see that his learning curve is and they see his worth ethic is much more than they realized. He has gone into Charlotte — which is the Chernobyl of the NBA, the old Hornets with George Shinn trashed the place, then the roll out of the Bobcats, which was a horrible roll out, and thanks to that Charlotte was a horrible market.

“I’m sure you saw some of those crowds with Charlotte playing Miami, that place was packed again. It was like the old Hornets. The longer people look at Jordan the owner the more they are going to realize he is there and he is doing a lot better. He is making something happen. People have underestimated him again.”

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.