Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons still a work in progress

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CHICAGO — Stan Van Gundy had to know this wasn’t going to happen overnight.

When the former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach took on a joint role as the Detroit Pistons’ head coach and president of basketball operations, he was taking over a team that had been directionless for the better part of a decade, a once-dominant Eastern Conference contender destroyed by years of incompetence and mismanagement.

This Pistons team has talent. Andre Drummond is a blossoming superstar at the center position, and second-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope still has yet to tap into his potential. Van Gundy brought in veteran shooter Jodie Meeks, who has been sidelined to start the year. There are pieces there. But Monday’s 106-101 loss to the Bulls in Chicago showed that the team is still not where they need to be, and it’s unclear when they’ll get there.

“We didn’t guard anybody,” Van Gundy said matter-of-factly after the game. “We didn’t compete. You gotta play for 48 minutes. And then you got to get stops down the stretch and you got to make plays.”

At the top of the list of issues they need to solve is the clogged frontcourt rotation. Van Gundy has been starting Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith together, a unit that was a disaster last season and hasn’t been much better in the early going of the new one. In 53 minutes this season, they’re scoring just 98.8 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor, and Van Gundy is playing the three bigs together more out of necessity than out of effectiveness.

He went to the big lineup late not because it was working, but because he wanted to have all three players available.

“”The problem I ran into, I actually didn’’t want to break that lineup but I was afraid we’’d need all of them needing a rest at the exact same time,” Van Gundy said.

Smith’s inconsistency and offensive liability is still a major problem for the Pistons. The veteran power forward is a capable defender, and he had a major impact on that end on Monday. But his shot selection is still awful. With just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, with the Pistons trailing by four, he jacked up a three-pointer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock that rimmed out.

Van Gundy is a notoriously hard man to please. He doesn’t dance around his displeasure with his team’s performance, and in his Orlando days, he was as widely known for his yelling in timeouts as he was for his playcalling. In large part, it seems like he took the Pistons job because of Drummond’s talent and the promise that he could do with the third-year center what he did with Dwight Howard in Orlando, turning him into a dominant force on the defensive end.

But it’s been a slow process. Drummond has remained terrific defensively, but has been slow to develop any kind of an offensive game. And the rest of the team has been testing Van Gundy’s patience, showing flashes of cohesion (like the run to erase the 19-point first-half deficit against Chicago) mixed in with plenty of frustration (the lackadaisical defensive effort that led to that hole in the first place). All of this has resulted in a 2-3 record and not a lot of encouraging signs that things are going to get better anytime soon.

“We know what we are capable of, we just have to do it for a full game,” Monroe said after the game. “We have the talent to play at that level of energy from the beginning to the end of the game. We just have to find a way to do that.”

Van Gundy signed a five-year deal, so he’s in this for the long haul. The team is still several roster moves from competing, and they have to do something about the frontcourt rotation. If there’s any coach who can turn this team around, it’s Van Gundy. But it’s going to take time.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.