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.”

Atlanta G League affiliate promotes Tori Miller, first female GM in league

Tori Miller
Photo courtesy College Park Skyhawks
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The Atlanta Hawks aren’t just talking about progress and giving Black women a chance. They are acting.

The College Park Skyhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate, has promoted Tori Miller to general manager. She is the first female GM in the G-League.

Miller, who grew up in Decatur (a city next to Atlanta), had worked for the team in Erie (when they were the Bayhawks) and followed the team with its move closer to its parent franchise. Miller served as an assistant GM last season before being promoted.

G League front office positions can be a stepping stone into an NBA front office.

The Hawks progressive move comes just as the team’s WNBA franchise, the Dream, has players trying to oust co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senator, because she advocated against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler has said she will not sell. It’s a problem not going away anytime soon.

Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley calls for NBA to put more politics into sports

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley
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Americans are increasingly inviting progressive politics into sports. Football players kneeling the national anthem are no longer an easy target. Even President Donald Trump has softened his tone on Colin Kaepernick.

So, some Republicans are pushing for MORE politics – their politics – in sports (sometimes under the guise of less politics in sports).

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, like Tennessee U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn, has criticized the NBA for its relationship with China. It’s grandstanding while the United States itself has a trade deal with China.

Now, Hawley is objecting to the NBA’s pre-approved list of social-justice messages players can wear on their jerseys.

Hawley press release:

Today Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is sending a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver blasting the league’s apparent decision to strictly limit messages players can wear on their jerseys to a few pre-approved, social justice slogans while censoring support for law enforcement officers or the military and any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Senator Hawley writes that, as the NBA is now sanctioning political messages, they must stand up for American values and make clear where they stand on China’s human rights abuses.

Senator Hawley writes, “The truth is that your decisions about which messages to allow and which to censor – much like the censorship decisions of the CCP – are themselves statements about your association’s values. If I am right – if the NBA is more committed to promoting the CCP’s interests than to celebrating its home nation – your fans deserve to know that is your view. If not, prove me wrong. Let your players stand up for the Uighurs and the people of Hong Kong. Let them stand up for American law enforcement if they so choose. Give them the choice to write ‘Back the Blue’ on their jerseys. Or ‘Support our Troops.’ Maybe ‘God Bless America.’ What could be more American than that?”

OF COURSE the NBA was going to limit jersey messages to a pre-approved list. The league doesn’t want the pressure of censoring players’ individual choices. Nor does the league want to condone messages that would offend offend customers and jeopardize revenue. Support for Hong Kong protesters would definitely qualify as financially perilous.

The NBA – a business trying to make money – wants to support its employees and appeal to its audience. These relatively benign phrases accomplish those goals.

That doesn’t prevent NBA players from criticizing China. I take NBA commissioner Adam Silver at his word (especially after the Daryl Morey controversy) that the NBA endorses its employees right to speak out.

The NBA just isn’t going to allow players to give just any message through their jerseys.

Some players are understandably bothered by that limitation. But the biggest pushes for change aren’t going to come through multi-billion-dollar corporations. That’s just reality.

Likewise, though Hawley raises legitimate concerns about China’s treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kongers, scolding an American company for legally acting in its best financial interest is… um… certainly a choice for a U.S. Senator.

Also, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski sent a profane two-word response in response to Hawley’s press release.

Wojnarowski:

NBA executive predicts every team will lose money next season

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The NBA is launching an unprecedented and ambitious operation – hosting the rest of its season in a centralized location with frequent testing – because that’s what’s necessary to play amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What about next season?

Coronavirus will likely remain a danger on Dec. 1, when the league hopes to begin. That threatens fan attendance. Heck, that could undermine teams playing at all in their home markets. All 30 teams, rather than just 22, adds complications.

Even if the season gets off the ground, there will be financial issues.

Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“The truth is, things are changing so fast that, when it comes to next season, the best we can do is put a stake in the ground and make a guess,” an Eastern Conference team president said. “The reality is nobody is probably going to operate in the black next season.

“The only question is how much each of us are going to lose.”

NBA owners love to cry poor. The actual math often reveals a different picture. There are complexities that teams can hide.

Some teams have already cut employees salaries. But some teams are also doing extravagant things like shipping their courts to Disney World for practice:

Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver estimated 40% of league revenue comes from ticket sales and other game-day sources. If teams are ever believable about losing money, it’d be now. Coronavirus has wrecked so many sectors of the economy.

Revenue falling significantly would be felt by players, who – per the Collective Bargaining Agreement – receive about half of Basketball Related Income. (That 50-50 agreement supersedes players’ stated salaries in their contracts.)

It’s undecided how and when players would suffer those losses.

The 2020-21 salary cap could be reduced. But that would put the burden on players – free agents, draft picks – signing new contracts next offseason.

That’s why the salary cap is reportedly expected to remain roughly flat. There are a couple options within that scenario.

Players could have a larger share of their salaries withheld (as they’re doing this season). Then, at the end of the season, owners would return whatever money is necessary to reach the 50-50 split. However, that would reduce players’ spending power during the season.

Or players could collect their usual salaries with an artificially high salary cap. However, that would likely mean they get more than their entitled 50% share and the salary cap would be reduce in future seasons to offset. Current players – some of whom won’t be in the league in future years – would probably love that. Owners likely wouldn’t accept paying players more sooner.

Increased withholding from player salaries is probably the best option. But there’s plenty to decide about the exact withholding amount and how long the money is held. To ensure enough money is withheld, the percentage should initially be fairly high. Then, as the revenue picture becomes clearer, the withholding amount could decrease in future paychecks.

Of course, that assumes the league finds a safe way to play. Which is the biggest challenge.

Report: Wizards’ Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II test positive for coronavirus

Wizards players Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II
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Bradley Beal not playing sunk the Wizards’ for the NBA’s resumption, anyway.

If that and Davis Bertans sitting out weren’t enough, Washington is also without Thomas Bryant, Gary Payton II and Garrison Mathews.

Ava Wallace of The Washington Post:

The NBA announced 25 players tested positive from June 23-29. It’s unclear whether Bryant and Payton were among that group or additional positive cases.

It’s also unclear whether Bryant, Payton and Mathews will join the team at Disney World.

Bryant would be a particularly significant loss. His optimism and energy in tough situations are exactly what the Wizards need right now.

With the Nets severely shorthanded and the Magic looking uninspiring, Washington still has a path to the playoffs.