Jeanie Buss: Lakers chose to build around Steve Nash not Dwight Howard

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Jim Buss — the man at the top of the Lakers’ basketball operations food chain — has said all along that hiring Mike D’Antoni as coach back in 2012 was a call his farther Jerry Buss made from the hospital bed he would eventually pass away in. Father and son talked, Jerry had always wanted a return to Showtime and Jim wanted his imprint on the team, so they went with D’Antoni five games into a season with a roster that was a wretched fit for his style of play.

But was it worse than that? Did the Lakers consciously choose to build around 37-year-old (at the time) Steve Nash over then 26-year-old Dwight Howard?

That’s what Lakers president Jeanie Buss says in a Q&A she did with ESPN’s fantastic Ramona Shelburne.

“It came down to hiring a coach. [The Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni in November 2012.] When you have a big man and a guard, you have to decide whom you’re going to build your team around. The choice was to build it around Steve Nash and what suited Steve Nash instead of what suited Dwight Howard.”

Clearly Jennie Buss has a dog in this fight — she is engaged to Phil Jackson, the runner up in that coaching race. That’s who she wanted, who most Lakers fans wanted, and who Dwight Howard wanted as coach. But to bring in Jackson — at a salary three or four times what D’Antoni would make — would have shifted the balance of power in the organization toward Jeannie. Jackson would have coached the Lakers for a couple years but he wanted the kind of front office job he eventually got in New York, immediately Jackson would have had some say over players/personnel, and that eats away at Jim Buss’ power.

Jim again told ESPN this was all about what Jerry Buss wanted.

Jim: I’ve been on record as saying [hiring D’Antoni] was my dad’s decision. I know that makes Jeanie uncomfortable, but I’d sit down with him for hours going over Laker decisions. In my opinion, he was sharp.

Jeanie: [Interrupts] Dad was in the hospital. I would always run things by Dad too. But he was in the hospital, not feeling well, and that is why he counted on us to make the decisions. So I agree that he would have input, but he needed my suggestion or Jimmy’s suggestion or [GM Mitch Kupchak’s] suggestion because he was confined and did not have access to all the information that we did.

I’ll say this: I don’t believe Jim Buss thought “we should build around Nash.” He may have wanted to go to that up-tempo style and thought Nash could help bridge the gap to the next star player, but no way he thought Nash was some kind of long-term cornerstone. Nobody would.

That said, Jim may want to lay the D’Antoni hiring off on his father, but he can’t. For several years prior to this Jerry was not really involved in the operations of the team, he was more consultant than active partner. Jerry would not have forced D’Antoni on Jim, this was an idea from Jim that Jerry was good with. This was two guys thinking alike but also more about the power play than what would work on the court.

And it was a big swing and a miss.

Hiring D’Antoni was a decision that turned off Dwight Howard — he wanted Phil Jackson. The guy the Lakers shot down with a late-night call. More than that, Howard wanted to feel listened to, like his input mattered to the team, and getting a coach with a system that was the opposite of fitting what Howard wanted to do was a sign he wasn’t being taken seriously. This was one of the early dominoes that ended up having Howard opt for Houston as a free agent. Lakers fans can say “good riddance” but they got nothing in return for a superstar walking out the door. That’s a loss.

There’s many more layers to this story — obviously Howard and Kobe Bryant didn’t get along in terms of approach to basketball — but what is clear is the Lakers set themselves back with that coaching hire. It was one where most of the people around the league were scratching their heads at the time it happened, now it retrospect it was an unmitigated disaster. One of several situations that led the Lakers to the mess they are right now. And will be for a while. And the Buss family will have to own up to that.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri