Ricky Rubio hopes to convince Kevin Love to stay, says winning will be important when it’s his turn at free agency

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TREVISO, Italy — There has already been one big change to the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason, with Flip Saunders deciding to step out of the front office and back onto the sidelines after interviewing others for a head coaching position he ultimately decided would be best filled by taking the job himself.

Another, far more substantial change is potentially on the horizon.

Kevin Love reportedly wants to leave the Timberwolves in free agency as soon as that time comes, which would be at the conclusion of next season — if he remains in Minnesota for that long. The team is reportedly considering trading him before then in order to get something in return, which may be the right decision depending on the compensation offered, and assuming that Love can’t be convinced to stay.

Ricky Rubio was in attendance for day two of adidas Eurocamp on Sunday, and spent some time speaking with the Next Generation group of 15- and 16-year old international players. He was open in discussing Love’s situation and how it may affect the franchise, and of course, would want his teammate to stay. But seeing as he hasn’t yet heard it directly from Love himself, Rubio was speaking mostly in hypotheticals rather than accepting Love’s reported feelings as a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a lot going on,” Rubio told NBCSports.com. “He’s a great player who has been playing for the Timberwolves for six years, and gave everything. And he think he can still give us a lot of things, but it’s something more on the business part that the front office has to do, to try and convince him (to stay) if he wants to leave. Because I really only know that he wants to leave because of the media, but what I saw last year was him giving everything in every game, and that’s all you can you ask of any player.”

Love put up his traditionally impressive numbers last season, averaging 26.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists, while shooting better than 37 percent from three-point distance and playing 36.3 minutes per contest. But the Timberwolves failed to make the playoffs, which extended the team’s postseason drought to 10 straight years.

That recent history of failure is right at the top of Love’s list of reasons for wanting out. But despite missing out on the playoffs yet again, Rubio believes last season was a step in the right direction.

“I would say that every year we have improved,” Rubio said. “That’s something that you have to be proud of. Maybe everybody was expecting something more last year, but actually we won 40 games, something the franchise hadn’t done in the last eight or nine years. So it’s something to be proud of, but we know we have to improve. We know we have to make it to the playoffs. And with a lot of young guys with talent, I think we are playing the right way, but we really need to add some veteran players who can help us to understand what we need to get to the postseason.”

The last time the team won at least 40 games was in 2004-05, which ironically was Saunders’ final one in his first stint as Minnesota’s head coach that lasted into a ninth season. Rubio didn’t expect Saunders to take the job this time around, but looks forward to seeing what his role will be under his new head coach.

“I was kind of surprised,” Rubio said. “Because we were looking for a coach, and then suddenly he came down (from the front office) and wants to coach. But he’s been a coach for a team, so he knows the franchise and he knows the team. We’ll see how it goes, I want to sit down with him and talk because as a player, I want to know what the coach expects from me, expects from the team. But I was kind of surprised.”

Saunders can only do so much, and a lot of his success will depend on whether or not Love stays — or at least what may come back in a package for him if a trade is made this summer. One day it will be Rubio’s turn to make a similar free agent decision, and like many players, he said that being in a situation that offers him a key role on a winning team would be the one he’d be most likely to consider.

“The fact is, it’s about winning for me,” Rubio said. “It’s about being on a team that really has, I would say, a project with me involved. If that happened in free agency, and I’m not (already) on a team where there’s a project where you can get far enough to get a ring and win … I would say I would like to be on a winning team.”

That brings us back to Love. Rubio hasn’t spoken to his teammate about his reported trade request or his upcoming free agent decision, but plans to do so soon. If the reports are true, however, and that’s the way Love is leaning, then Rubio would try to convince him to stay — even though he knows that could be a very difficult process.

“It’s hard to convince someone who wants to leave,” Rubio said. “But I don’t know if he wants to leave or not; that’s the media. So I want to know his opinion. And it’s something that I don’t know yet, so I don’t know what to say to him. But of course, if I talked to him I’d say that I love to play with him and we can do great things tougher.”

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.

After full season in Europe, Luka Doncic not expected to play in Summer League

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Deandre Ayton played 35 games for Arizona last season. Marvin Bagley III played 33 games last season for Duke. Jarnen Jackson Jr. played 35 for Michigan State. None of them played past March.

Luka Doncic played 61 games for Real Madrid — at a higher level than NCAA basketball — and the season ended two days before the NBA Draft. Plus in Europe, the practices are often far more strenuous than the games (many teams keep doing two-a-days through the season).

Not surprisingly after that long a season Dallas is not going to ask Doncic to play in the Las Vegas Summer League, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

This was expected in most quarters no matter who drafted Doncic. Rest and recovery matter more than getting him into the glorified pickup games of Summer League.

Doncic will be ready to go when the season starts, and he will be one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.