Shane Larkin, a second thought as Knicks chase star free agents, trying to find his own way

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BOSTON – Shane Larkin is still learning how to play in the NBA, but if there’s one thing he can already do at an elite level, it’s get steals.

Tony Allen, John Wall, Mario Chalmers and Elfrid Payton are the only guards who’ve played as much as Larkin this season and stolen the ball on a higher percentage of opponents’ possessions when on the court.

I ask Larkin the key to getting so getting so many steals.

“Fast and short,” interjects Knicks rookie Cleanthony Early, one locker over.

After playfully chiding Early for interrupting the interview, Larkin insists the simple assessment is inaccurate.

“It’s more than that, because there’s a lot of short, fast guys who don’t get steals,” said Larkin, 22, the Knicks’ youngest player. “It’s anticipation, seeing things happening before they happen.”

Larkin sure does that.

In the last six months, Larkin has been traded and had the third-year team option on his rookie contract declined, sending his career into a bit of chaos.

Overwhelming? Nah. Larkin saw it all coming.

The Mavericks acquired Larkin, the No. 18 pick in 2013, in a draft-night trade. An injury-riddled rookie year put him on the outside looking in at Dallas’ rotation this season. He understood the Mavericks were trying to win now around Dirk Nowitzki – “Dirk deserves that,” Larkin said – and predicted a trade. Dallas dealt him to the Knicks in June.

In New York, he realized the Knicks were trying to maximize 2015 cap space. So, he also understood why they called him into an office just before the season to tell him they were declining his option for the 2015-16 season.

Now, Larkin will become an unrestricted free agent this summer – a rare predicament/opportunity for a player with his résumé and a crucial moment for the Knicks, who’ve long struggled to develop and keep young talent.

Larkin’s production – 5.4 points, 2.3 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 23.0 minutes per game – is modest, but he’s beginning to make good on the potential he showed before the draft. The 5-foot-11 point guard jumped 44 inches at the combine, the fifth-best mark in the DraftExpress database. He also had the fastest sprint time among players drafted in his class.

No doubt, Larkin, who turned pro following his sophomore season at Miami and is the son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, has talent. His upside makes New York’s decision to decline his option all the more suspect.

The Knicks’ motivations are clear. They want to pursue big-time free agents next summer, pitching Carmelo Anthony’s star power, Phil Jackson’s winning pedigree and New York’s market share. By declining Larkin’s option and presumably renouncing him, they’ll gain $1,150,227 in cap room. If they renounce all their free agents, they could create more than $22 million in cap space.

Depending where the salary cap actually lands, declining Larkin’s option could make the difference between New York being able to offer someone a max contract. If that proves to be the case and the Knicks land a big free agent, the move will be a huge success.

But it’s risky to cast aside a promising young player on a cheap contract just for the chance of signing a star, especially when dropping the young player isn’t even guaranteed to increase the odds of nabbing the star. What if the Knicks would have had enough cap room to sign their top target with Larking remaining on the roster?

It’s not as if the Knicks can afford to keep throwing away young talent. That’s what got them into their current mess.

Make no mistake: Larkin is hardly an elite prospect. But he’s a former top-20 pick under the age of 24, a combination that shows his potential. Sure, there are 68 such players in the league, making the distinction far from unique. But Larkin is the Knicks’ only one.

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The Pacers are the only other team outside playoff position with so few top-20 picks under age 24. Of course, the Pacers probably would be in playoff position if Paul George hadn’t gotten hurt.

What’s the Knicks’ excuse?

Not only are they bad (5-21), they’re choosing to let one of their better young players hit unrestricted free agency. Again, it’s not necessarily the wrong move – New York attracts free agents like few franchises – but it’s certainly intriguing.

Only one other player in the 2013 draft class had his third-year option declined – No. 30 pick Nemanja Nedovic, whom the Warriors outright waived because he couldn’t get on the court. In the last three years just five other first-round picks had their third-year options declined: Fab Melo, Kendall Marshall, Royce White, Jared Cunningham and JaJuan Johnson. Larkin has been much more productive than that group, save Marshall, whom the Wizards waived before he popped up with the Lakers for a surprisingly strong sophomore season.

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Larkin still has the rest of this season to build on his total, and if he continues to progress – his 0.5 win shares are up from –0.1 last season – he could pass Marshall. He could also earn himself a raise first-round picks typically can’t get.

Larkin said he wants to re-sign with the Knicks, and they left that door open when informing him they were declining his option.

“I love it here. I want to be here,” Larkin said. “Obviously, I want to help bring the Knicks back to what they used to be.”

But the Knicks can offer Larkin only up to the $1,675,320 he would have earned on his rookie-scale contract. Any other team can pay more.

Will any?

He’s at least trending in the right direction.

Larkin broke his ankle just before what would have been his first summer league, and he didn’t make his NBA debut until the season was a few weeks underway. He never found his footing in Dallas, struggling between D-League stints.

“He basically didn’t have a rookie season,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said.

Larkin doesn’t find that assessment far off.

“It was definitely the most frustrating time of my life,” Larkin said.

The Knicks offered him a second chance, and when Jose Calderon got hurt, a starting spot. Larkin started 12 of New York’s first 13 games, gaining valuable experience.

“This is like a redshirt rookie year,” Larkin said.

So far, one of Larkin’s biggest areas of improvement is 3-point shooting. He has made 13-of-35 shots from beyond the arc (42.9 percent), up from 12-of-38 (31.6) last season. Perhaps that’s due just to a small sample, but Larkin said he feels much more comfortable on those long-distance shots.

Of all the tough transitions Larkin made from Miami to the NBA, 3-point shooting wasn’t one he expected. He often shot from NBA range in college, but at this level, they defend that distance. Plus, gone were the easier closer 3s.

“In college, you can kind of shoot the 3 without setting your feet, without doing the right technique every time, because it’s not that far,” Larkin said. “But you get up here, and you realize that those damn near-two extra feet just make it that much harder of a shot.”

With so many talented point guards, it’s hard to carve out a niche without more of an all-around game, and maybe Larkin will develop one. Sometimes, it takes players a little while to adjust to the NBA.

Larkin doesn’t have the luxury of time, though. He’ll hit free agency twice as quickly as most of his draft-mates, unrestricted free agency four times as quickly as some of them.

But for a team looking for a backup, his skill set could work. If Larkin maintains his improved 3-point shooting, he makes a case as a feisty 3-and-D player. After all, those steals can be quite valuable.

After talking up the importance of reading plays to get steals, Larkin added one other key factor.

“You’ve just got to go out there and play hard,” Larkin said. “That’s the first thing. You’ve just got to go play hard as hell. It works out like that sometimes.”

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, if Porzingis really said that, is a toothless threat.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.

New Suns coach Monty Williams: ‘I’m here at the right time, and I’m here with the right people’

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PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Suns have gone through coaches like tear-away racing visors, the count up to five in five years.

The instability has hurt them on the court, the run of playoff-less appearances stretching to nine straight seasons with this year’s 19-63 finish.

Monty Williams, the man GM James Jones hired to coach the Suns, hopes to change the trend.

“Continuity, having a staff here for a while and putting in a system that the players can rely upon, but ultimately it will come down to James, myself and the players pushing this thing forward,” Williams said during his introductory news conference Tuesday. “The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion.”

Williams was hired on May 3 to replace Igor Kokoskov, who was fired after one season in the desert.

Williams’s arrival in Phoenix was delayed while he finished out the playoffs as an assistant to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. The 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last week by Toronto on Kawhi Leonard‘s hang-on-the-rim buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Williams’ name had been linked to numerous head coaching jobs, including the Lakers, but he wound up in the Valley of the Sun after multiple discussions with Suns owner Robert Sarver.

“In my conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck the tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that. I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city and I mean that with all of my heart or I wouldn’t have come here.”

Williams had a previous stint as an NBA head coach, leading New Orleans from 2010-15. A year after he was fired, Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash.

He didn’t know if he wanted to get back into coaching after her death, but was pushed by his kids to return to coaching the sport he loves.

“When everything happened to my family, my focus was just take care of my children,” said Williams, who has remarried. “That led me to believe I might not ever be able to coach again, and I was cool with that. But they weren’t. And to have your children want you to go back to doing what you love to do gave me even more confidence, more strength. Hopefully that translates and the players can pick up on that.”

The Suns have been known as a dysfunctional franchise, but were lauded for landing Williams, a well-respected, well-rounded coach.

Williams played nine NBA seasons with New York, San Antonio, Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia. He’s been a head coach, an assistant and spent two years in San Antonio’s front office.

“His experience in all facets of basketball as a coach, player development on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, in the front office gives him a unique perspective that I think is well suited for our franchise,” Jones said.

In the Suns, Williams takes over a young team with two star-quality players at its core: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Booker has developed into one of the NBA’s best scorers, leading the Suns with 26.6 points per game. He had five 40-point games the final month of the season, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games.

Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft and didn’t disappoint, shooting 59% while averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Phoenix should add to its talent base with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.

“There’s so much room to grow,” Williams said. “I think we have a young team that’s learning how to win and they will and I have to do my job. I have to enhance the strengths but be honest about our weaknesses and get the players to consider a new way of doing some things. I think I’m here at the right time and I’m here with the right people.”

Hornets’ Miles Bridges on All-Rookie: ‘I didn’t get snubbed. I played like a— all year’

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The NBA released its All-Rookie teams yesterday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges missed out, getting only one first-team vote and four second-team votes.

Bridges:

I love this attitude. Bridges didn’t deserve to make it. It’s silly to for anyone, including him, to pretend otherwise.

He’s obviously being too hard on himself. He had an OK rookie year. It just wasn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best this season.

Players often hold inflated opinions of themselves. That might help them succeed in a high-pressure job, and that’s obviously their priority. To be clear: I’m not criticizing them for adopting an approach that helped them reach this high level. But it leaves them as lousy analysts of their own performance.

Bridges doesn’t have that problem. It’s easy to see how this will drive him to improve.

His humility won’t work for everyone. But it works for him, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.