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Danny Ainge’s leadership in spotlight as Celtics chase 18th title

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BOSTON (AP) — When you work for the Boston Celtics, there’s no need for daily reminders about your motivations. They’re constantly casting shadows overhead.

“There’s only one goal in Boston,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently said. “There’s 17 banners hanging above us. We only go for one goal here.”

And few people are as keenly aware of that chase as Danny Ainge.

Boston’s front office chief has already been to the NBA’s mountaintop; first as player winning a pair of championships in the 80s and then as the architect of the Big 3 that brought the Celtics their 17th NBA championship in 2008.

He’s since progressed from Kevin Garnett’s triumphant “Anything’s possible” declaration in `08, to believing in the possibilities of the present with a corps of young talent that’s two wins away from returning the franchise to the conference finals for the first time since 2012.

But with the East’s top seed locked in 2-2 tie with Washington, the outcome of this series could go a long way toward affirming the recent moves Ainge has made, or exposing the holes that still exist as his team chases banner No. 18.

Ainge, who has shown willingness to make big moves, stood pat at February’s trade deadline despite holding a wealth of coveted assets. It’s a decision Ainge hasn’t second-guessed.

“Make no mistake that we did try to improve our team,” Ainge said. “But we do have a lot of confidence in our team and the guys that don’t get a chance to play. It doesn’t seem really fair when we have guys that are healthy and that we like and aren’t even getting on the court to bring in other guys just because they’re playing and everyone assumes they’re better.”

After brushing off initial overtures, Ainge was lured back to Boston as the president of basketball operations in 2003 with the endorsement of none other than Celtics’ legend Red Auerbach.

The way Ainge once told the story to a church group, Auerbach called Ainge “the luckiest guy I know” in recommending him to owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca.

While Ainge has acknowledged some fortunate outcomes to get the Celtics back to this point, such as the rise of Isaiah Thomas into an All-Star, there have also been plenty of pivotal moves by Ainge.

One of the league’s most-tenured front office heads, he has recently used that experience to his advantage.

It started with the hiring of Stevens, then just a 37-year-old college coach at Butler, in 2013. That was followed by the trade of Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, which netted the Celtics three first-round picks and the right to swap picks with the Nets this season.

That led to the drafting of rookie Jaylen Brown last summer and a wealth of possibilities with this year’s Brooklyn pick, which has the best odds of being No. 1 overall.

It’s a bargaining chip that only still exists because of Ainge’s decision to not make any trade deadline in each of the last two years.

Though Boston did miss on wooing Kevin Durant to town last summer, it was able to land big man Al Horford, who has since credited Ainge’s vision as one of the major factors that swayed him to sign.

Horford’s addition has not only has provided the Celtics with needed veteran leadership, but he’s been one of the sustaining elements for a group that was able to rally behind Thomas after his sister’s sudden passing on the eve of the playoffs.

“I think that that showed the character of all the players involved,” Ainge said. “I think the first two games (of Chicago series) there was a little bit of a cloud because one of our family was hurting really, really bad…It was like no one knew how to really react to the whole situation. Credit goes to Isaiah, first and foremost, for inspiring his team and the team for fighting for Isaiah.”

TNT analyst and former NBA coach Kevin McHale played alongside Ainge as a player and later saw him in action as an executive. He said while the word patient didn’t used to be one he’d have used to describe his friend, it is one example of how his style has evolved.

McHale said Ainge has also shown a willingness to bring tools like analytics into how he looks at his roster – even if at the end of the day he ultimately still relies on his instincts.

“He’s not a pigeonhole guy,” McHale said. “He uses everything and I think you have to…He has a good eye for grit and toughness. None of that analytics can show that.”

Whether it’s luck or skill, Ainge isn’t waiting for an 18th banner to fall in his lap.

“It’s like being player…You don’t sit around and wait for luck,” Ainge said. “You work your way into having good fortune go your way. You behave and act certain way with integrity and character so that when opportunities present themselves you’re ready.”

 

Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps shifts to become Jazz assistant coach

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While teams have moved away from anyone in a dual coach/GM role, some people bounce between coach and the front office around the NBA: Steve Kerr was once the Suns’ GM before being the Warriors coach; Sean Marks was on the bench in San Antonio before moving to their front office and eventually the head guy in Brooklyn.

Now Dell Demps is making that move. The former general manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, who was let go a year ago, will be an assistant coach on Quin Synder’s staff in Utah. Demps was the GM of the Spurs G-League team years back and hired Snyder to coach it.

“I was fortunate to work with Dell to begin my career as a head coach in professional basketball and I know he will delve into his role on the bench,” Snyder said in a statement. “He has an incredible work ethic and commitment to his craft. His vast experience both as a player and in front office roles brings a unique perspective that will be invaluable to our team. We’re excited to welcome him to the Jazz.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Coach Snyder again,” Demps said. “I have always had tremendous respect for Quin and the Jazz organization. I look forward to joining this talented coaching staff and working with our players. My wife Anita and I couldn’t be more excited to make the move to Utah and become a part of a tremendous community.”

Demps was not the only hire by Snyder, who is also bringing former NBA player Keyon Dooling. He played for 13 years in the league and then has worked with the National Basketball Players Association in various roles — most recently as a wellness counselor and mental health advocate — in recent years. Dooling played for two years at Missouri in college, a team coached by Snyder.

“Keyon is a fantastic addition for us on multiple levels and someone I’ve always had tremendous respect for since our time at Missouri where we formed a close bond that has continued throughout the years,” said Snyder. “He’s a natural leader who was a captain on multiple teams in the league and I have no doubt that the way he approached the game as a player will translate to the work he puts in with our roster on the court.”

New Kings’ GM doesn’t change fact De’Aaron Fox expects max contract extension

De'Aaron Fox sprained ankle
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New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair is just getting the photos of his family framed and settling into his office, but he’s made one critical decision already: Luke Walton will be back as Sacramento’s coach. McNair also decided he wants to see the Kings return to more of the up-tempo style of a couple of seasons ago (before Walton arrived). Looming after that is the 2020 NBA Draft, where the Kings have the No. 12 pick.

When free agency comes, the question becomes: Will the Sacramento Kings offer De'Aaron Fox a max contract extension?

The young point guard expects one, reports James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area.

League sources have confirmed to NBC Sports California that the Kings, under previous management, already had a discussion with Fox’s representation on an extension.

Depending on where the NBA’s final salary cap numbers come in, Fox is eligible for a five-year max money contract worth between $150-180 million. Don’t expect a discounted rate. He will ask for and likely get whatever the maximum is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

If the salary cap were to remain flat for two years (possible, but not probable), a five-year max extension to Fox’s rookie contract is $158 million. The number will likely be higher than that, and if Fox makes a huge leap and becomes an All-NBA player, it jumps up to nearly $190 million (not likely to happen, but not impossible).

Fox averaged 21.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, but fully healthy he stepped up his play in the bubble averaging 26.2 points a game on 50.4% shooting and dishing out 7.3 assists a game. He was by far the Kings’ best player.

In the bubble, the Kings seemed to lack an identity. What kind of team did they want to be? McNair has come in and decided that — this is going to be an uptempo, transition team. Fox would be at the heart of that plan.

McNair said at his introductory press conference he sees Fox as a cornerstone piece.

“De’Aaron is an incredible young talent,” McNair said. “I’ve loved to see what he’s done and what he’s improved on over the years and he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”

If this team is going to get back to running more, Fox is as good a ball-handler and decision-maker in transition as the league has. The Kings need to pay to keep him happy, then get players to go around him that fit that style. Expect McNair to spend the next season evaluating and shifting the roster around to fit that style. The problem is the pressure of the playoffs — the Kings haven’t been in 14 years, one short of tying the Donald Sterling Clippers for the longest drought in league history. There is pressure from ownership to make the playoffs and start winning sooner rather than later. It will be a tough balancing act for McNair. Welcome to sitting in the big chair.

Deciding to pay Fox may be the easiest of his decisions.

 

LeBron James one win away from history: 10th NBA Finals apperance

Lakers star LeBron James
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LeBron James can reach a 10th NBA Finals, done by only three greats of the game.

Anthony Davis is on the verge of his first.

The final step for the Los Angeles Lakers shapes up as the toughest.

They have to knock out the Denver Nuggets, who have been on the brink of dismissal from the bubble six times and every time refused to go.

“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We’ve been in the situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away.”

Game 5 is Saturday. The Lakers have ended both their series thus far in five games.

But the Nuggets were also down 3-1 against both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers, fell far behind in Game 5, and then battled back to not only win the game but eventually the series.

No team had ever erased two 3-1 deficits in one postseason and now the Nuggets need to do it a third time. It’s a predicament they could have avoided, if they’d gotten one more defensive stop in Game 2 or given up a few less second-chance points in Game 4.

“These are all close games we’re playing,” guard Jamal Murray said. “Going to keep battling it out.”

Murray was sensational again in Game 4, though James slowed him enough down the stretch after taking on the defensive assignment to help the Lakers pull out a 114-108 victory.

One more win, and James ties NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for third on the career list with 10 NBA Finals appearances. Only Hall of Famers Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) of the Boston Celtics have gone to more.

It would be James’ first with the Lakers after five appearances in Cleveland and four in Miami, and the Lakers’ first trip to the finals since winning the last of their 16 championships in 2010.

James and Davis have been the unquestioned catalysts of this run, and they’re good strong support from some playoff-tested veterans. Dwight Howard had 12 points and 11 rebounds Thursday in his first start of this postseason, helping send Los Angeles to its overwhelming 25-6 advantage in second-chance points.

Rajon Rondo contributed 11 points and moved into eighth place on the career list with seven more assists.

“In the postseason, every possession is so important,” James said. “When you can have guys that have been in the moments and can understand and also be able to make adjustments on the fly, and know that you can count on them down the stretch, it just makes the team and you individually feel so much more confident in the outcome.”

The younger Nuggets don’t have those type of veterans, but they have the experience of this historic postseason run that could have ended on Aug. 25, the night of Game 5 against Utah. A month later, they are still at Disney World, still trying to prove that hope is not lost until four games are.

“I think people out there probably think this is exactly where we want them. It’s not. We would much rather be up 3-1, but it is what it is. We put ourselves in this position,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

“Our team has shown tremendous resiliency and grit in getting out of these before. I have no doubt that tomorrow night we’ll bring that same fight to the game and hopefully we can keep this series alive.”

If they do, Game 6 would be Monday night. If not, the Lakers will be preparing to face Miami, in its first appearance since James left in 2014, or the Celtics, their greatest rival they could tie with a 17th NBA title.

The Lakers won’t think about any of that until the Nuggets are finally gone.

“Like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away,” Davis said. “They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. We just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”

Report: Mutual interest in Cavaliers keeping Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson
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Tristan Thompson has played every one of his nine NBA seasons in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

There have been questions about where the free-agent big man will play his 10th season. The Cavaliers traded for Andre Drummond to become their starting five, limiting both Thompson’s role and the money Cleveland would spend for the backup center role.

There is still “mutual interest” in a return, Cavs GM Koby Altman told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s mutual interest for sure,” general manager Koby Altman said about the possibility of re-signing Thompson. “He’s been with this franchise his entire career since we drafted him. He’s won a championship here. Obviously, he means a lot to the players on the team right now, but it has to make sense. There are some events coming up — the draft, free agency — where we have to see if it makes sense for him. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and explore opportunities at this point in his career. So, we’ll see.”

Tristan Thompson, 30, has battled nagging injuries in recent seasons but started most of the Cavaliers’ games before the shut down of the league last season, stayed healthy, and averaged 12 points and 10.1 rebounds a game playing 30 minutes a night.

How much of a market there will be for Thompson remains to be seen, especially in uncertain financial times around the league, but it will not be anywhere near the $18.5 million he made this season. He brings rebounding, defense, and a veteran presence to a team, but in general teams are not spending on the center spot right now, seeing that as a mercenary position where they can get a solid player at a cheap price. Thompson may have other suitors offering a larger role than Cleveland can, but the money is not likely to be much different.

Thompson’s camp asked for a trade at the deadline this past season (Cleveland couldn’t find a deal it liked), but when it comes time to decide this offseason he may want to stay with the organization he knows not a new one, if the money is the same. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Thompson and the Cavaliers.