51 Questions: Is this Kobe Bryant’s final season?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is this Kobe Bryant’s final season?

Kobe Bryant does not want a Derek Jeter-style farewell tour.

Even if Kobe were sure this coming season — his 20th in the NBA, all with the Los Angeles Lakers — was to be his last, he’d be coy about it just so it didn’t become a thing (although, he can only slow that so much). He doesn’t want opposing teams presenting him with a rocking chair before games.

Still, the question still hangs over the Lakers: Will this be Bryant’s final NBA season?

Nobody knows.

That includes Bryant himself.

If there is one thing Kobe fans — really all hoops fans — should root for it that on April 13, Bryant will be healthy enough to run out of the Staples Center tunnel with his teammates and take part in warmups before the Lakers take on the Jazz in their final game of the season. For the past few years, the end of Kobe’s season has been determined by injury — which each time left Kobe determined to overcome that, outrun Father Time a little longer, and leave the game on his own terms. Another serious injury would pretty much answer the question about his return.

If he gets through the season healthy, then he gets to make his own decision.

He will have options.

• He can decide to walk away. I think this is the most likely outcome. We all know the mythology of Kobe’s competitiveness — much of that myth is true — and it will be a challenge for him to move on from the game. Having been around him, I believe him when he says he doesn’t want to play for any other franchise. I also think Kobe will get to the end of this season and see some hope in the direction the Lakers are headed (with D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle) but realize they are still years away from title contention (and that’s if things go right). There is not a good enough Lakers short term, so he will choose to walk away. He is a man with a business plan, charitable foundations, and a platform for his life after basketball that few players have when it’s over. He can transition.

That said, a lot of people who know Kobe better than I — Phil Jackson, Jerry West, long-time Lakers beat writer (now with Bleacher Report) Kevin Ding, among others — think he will continue to play.

• He can choose to re-sign with the Lakers. If Kobe wants to stay a Laker, the Buss family will welcome him back — he is worth too much to them financially not to. Kobe sells season tickets, he fills the luxury boxes, he draws television ratings (and that massive local cable deal the Lakers have is ratings dependant). But there are questions with this approach. First, would Kobe be willing to take $10 million (give or take) a year, Tim Duncan style deal to give the Lakers’ flexibility to go after big name free agents? Would those free agents still come to L.A. the shadow of Bryant looms over the team? (For a lot of elite players the answer there is no, even though they would never say that publicly.) Finally, will Kobe accept a role that has fewer minutes and more mentoring, as his skills decline with age, and the Lakers try to transition to their next phase?

• He can choose to sign with another NBA team. This one comes up around NBA circles when you discuss Kobe’s future, and there two schools of thought. The more common one is that he joins Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher in New York as a member of the Knicks, playing in the nation’s other major market in a sort of reunion tour. This makes no sense for the Knicks in their effort to rebuild, and I’m not sure you can play Kobe and Carmelo Anthony together for heavy minutes, but relationships play a big part in how decisions are made in the NBA. The other option you hear is he takes a big pay cut to join the Warriors (Jerry West is there), Thunder (with Kevin Durant back), Spurs, or some other contender to chase ring No. 6. I doubt any of this happens because Kobe is too protective of his brand — and part of his brand is being a Laker for life. Plus, can you see Kobe agreeing to be option No. 4 on a team?

• He can choose to play in China for a season. Because of his years of work, taking trips for Nike there every summer — he has his own Chinese-language website and a charitable foundation — Bryant is huge in China. He could go there, play only once or twice a week in games where defense borders on optional (have you ever watched a CBA game?), put up numbers and sell a lot of shoes. It would be good for the Kobe brand. But that would also mean a lot of time away from his family, something that is very important to him.

We don’t know what path Kobe will take — Kobe doesn’t know what path he will take.

All we can hope for is that he is healthy enough to choose his own path.

Report: DeMar DeRozan unhappy with Spurs

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan
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Facing the Kawhi Leonard trade saga, the Spurs had a clear objective: Remain competitive. That’s why they traded Leonard to the Raptors for veteran star DeMar DeRozan rather than accepting a pick-heavy offer. That wasn’t optimal for the franchise’s long-term health, but it at least paid short-term dividends. San Antonio made the playoffs last year, qualifying for a record 22nd straight season.

Now, the bottom has fallen out.

The Spurs are just 27-36 and will almost certainly miss the playoffs. DeRozan has a $27,739,975 player option that he’ll reportedly decline if the Spurs don’t sign him to a contract extension.

Jabari Young of CNBC on ESPN San Antonio:

Listen, I don’t have to sugarcoat anything. DeMar DeRozan is not happy in San Antonio, OK? The offense is not running as smoothly as one should think with a guy like him in the lineup, and there are problems are there, right? And so you have to decide if you’re going to take that money of if you’re going to come back to a situation that’s just not suitable. I mean, it didn’t work. They got the deal done. It’s over. I mean, the experiment is not working.

This report came before the NBA’s coronavirus shutdown, which could significantly decrease next season’s salary cap. That makes DeRozan (and everyone else with a player option) more likely to opt in. Base on the prior report, DeRozan is willing to stay in San Antonio for the right price. It’s increasingly likely that option-year salary is the right price.

DeRozan is a good player whose scoring – and, at times, passing – can be central in building decent offense. But he has a tandem of deficiencies that make it difficult to fit him onto a good team:

1. He doesn’t shoot 3-pointers to space the floor.

2. He doesn’t defend adequately.

That means his team must surround him offensively with other outside shooters. That’s doable.

His team must also surround defensively with other sound defenders. Again, that’s doable.

But it’s difficult to do both. Players who both shoot 3s well enough to attract attention AND defend well are obviously scarce.

Though DeRozan definitely has fans around the league, it’s another thing for him to expect an offer next offseason that justifies declining his player option. He and the Spurs could be stuck in this imperfect arrangement another year.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri worried about coronavirus in Africa

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Raptors president Masai Ujiri
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Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is worried about the places currently hardest-hit by the pandemic, and especially worried about the places that haven’t been hit yet.

Ujiri told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that he’s been in contact with some leaders in Africa, plus has spoken with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his talks with other African heads of state about their level of preparation for the new coronavirus .

“I think a lot of leaders are ahead of it, and the ones that aren’t are starting to pay attention because this is an unknown, this is an unseen enemy, and we have to really, really pay attention,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri is of Nigerian descent and founded Giants of Africa, a group that organizes camps and other events to use basketball as a way to promote education and growth for children on the continent. He says he’s unsure yet if his programs will go on this summer as planned.

“We’re just concerned about people, about health, about listening to what the directions are going to be moving forward,” Ujiri said.

When it comes to the NBA season, Ujiri said he’s hopeful play can resume. The Raptors won their first NBA title last season.

Report: Knicks interested in hiring 76ers’ Elton Brand as GM

76ers general manager Elton Brand
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The 76ers’ eventful offseason has fallen flat so far.

Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) has generally underwhelmed and especially struggled to fit with franchise player Joel Embiid. At 33, Horford faces even more issues as he ages.

Though Tobias Harris has been fine, it’s hard to feel good about his five-year, $180 million deal. That contract makes it difficult to build a quality bench, even if ownership is willing to pay the luxury tax. Every team has spending limits, and Philadelphia has tied significant capital to a merely solid forward.

Josh Richardson isn’t shooting as well as he did while looking like a burgeoning star with the Heat. It’s also hard not to notice Jimmy Butler thriving in Miami.

The cumulative results are also concerning. Creating enough spacing around Embiid and Simmons was always challenging. This group isn’t coming close to answering that call. That has produced some strain throughout the season.

Will 76ers general manager Elton Brand take the fall for Philadelphia’s problems?

If so, he could have a fallback job under new Knicks president Leon Rose.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

According to a league source, Elton Brand has been targeted by Rose as a candidate for Knicks GM. Brand, 41, is currently the Sixers GM and is under contract next season, complicating any designs of bringing him to New York. The source said Rose wanted to see if Brand was dismissed after the playoffs.

It’s nearly impossible to see Brand going to New York unless the 76ers fire him. Though the titles in each franchise would be the same, they’re very different roles. He holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. With the Knicks, Brand would work under Rose.

Would the 76ers fire Brand? Maybe. It could depend how they do in the playoffs, and this team still has a championship upside this season.

Even with an early-round loss, Philadelphia seems more likely to fire coach Brett Brown than make a larger change. But it’s not as if Brand – who held minimal front-office experience when hired in 2018 – has done much to instill confidence. There’s not a great affirmative case for keeping him.

The Knicks have Scott Perry as general manager, but he’s a holdover from the Steve Mills regime. After all the handwringing about Steve Stoute saying the Knicks will hire a new coach while they still had Mike Miller as interim coach, this more reflects reality. Professional sports are a cutthroat business. It’s perfectly fine for the Knicks to seek a new general manager while still having someone in that position running out the clock.

Could that be Brand? He’s smart and connects well with people. His long playing career provides invaluable experience. He’d fit well as No. 2 in an NBA front office.

But, right now, he has an even better job.

Carmelo Anthony: Nuggets should have won 2009 championship

Carmelo Anthony in 2009 Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference finals
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Carmelo Anthony said he would’ve won multiple championships if the Pistons drafted him in 2003.

Of course, Detroit picked Darko Milicic No. 2. Anthony went to the Nuggets No. 3.

But Anthony still had a big opportunity to win a title.

Denver – led by Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin – reached the 2009 Western Conference finals. Facing the Lakers, the Nuggets lost Game 1 by two points then won Game 2 by three points in Los Angeles. The Lakers then won Games 3, 5 and 6 to take the series.

Anthony on Instagram with Dwyane Wade:

I was sick, because we were supposed to beat them that year. I don’t like saying “We should have.” I don’t like saying all that. But when you re-evaluate everything. We really wanted Orlando in that Finals that year. We was like, “If we get Game 1 in L.A. or Game 2, we’re going back to Denver, we’re sweeping them.” We was going to beat them. We was going to beat them that year if we would’ve won in L.A. If we would’ve won both games, we would’ve beat them. And we would’ve swept Orlando that year.

Wade:

Orlando was alright, but they weren’t –

Anthony:

No, would’ve swept them. We would’ve swept them that year.

Yes, Denver would have likely won the series if taking the first two games in Los Angeles. The Nuggets also would’ve had a strong chance against the Magic, whom the Lakers beat in five in the Finals.

But it’s a major leap just to give Denver another win in Los Angeles. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets throughout the season. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets in that series. The Lakers were better than everyone. They had just reached the NBA Finals the prior season and were on their way to winning consecutive titles. This wasn’t some unfortunate break for Denver.

And even if the Nuggets won Game 2, the series wouldn’t have been over as Anthony says. The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant and had savvy veterans like Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. They wouldn’t have just folded with a 2-0 deficit.

Sometimes, lesser teams beat better teams. The Nuggets COULD have beaten the Lakers.

But SHOULD have? Nah. Not even close.