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.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.