Gordon Hayward’s free agency will be story of Jazz offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) All Gordon Hayward could do was smile as he fielded question after question Tuesday about his expected free agency.

It signaled the beginning of the Jazz offseason, where Hayward’s decision could have the biggest impact on Utah’s future since All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams changed teams within an eight-month span in 2010-11.

“These opportunities don’t come around very much,” Hayward said. “That’s why you hire an agent, to deal with this type of stuff. I’m sure he’s going to go through all of the options for me, let me know what can happen. I know there’s a lot of stuff that can definitely go down. So, once I sit down and talk with him, we’ll move forward from there.”

Hayward has a player option for next season on the contract he signed in 2014 but is expected to forgo that and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s likely to receive a maximum contract wherever he signs, and the Celtics are rumored to be in the mix with his college coach Brad Stevens now leading the East’s No. 1 playoff seed.

The first-time All-Star had a career year, averaging 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists and leading the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs. The franchise hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 2012 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2010.

Winning is a top priority for the seven-year veteran and the Jazz still have a young core highlighted by defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert.

“Coming from that little scrawny, shaggy-haired kid that wasn’t really playing (and grew) into an All-Star,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. “I truly believe he really likes it here. He loves the organization and the team. At the end of the day, for him, it’s about winning. … Obviously, the organization is committed to that. The next step is getting that team around him.”

General manager Dennis Lindsey has work to do to continue to build that winner. The Jazz took a huge step when he traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Joe Johnson last summer.

Hill averaged a career-high 16.9 points and shot 40.3 percent from 3-point range and gave the team the point guard it had been missing. But Hill will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Additionally, Ingles will be a restricted free agent and is expected to be courted after his career-high 44.1 3-point percentage ranked No. 3 in the NBA and after showing versatility in the playoffs.

Hill called Hayward his little brother and said the two will be in constant contact throughout the process because Hayward’s decision will influence his.

“I have a son, so that’s my first responsibility,” Hill said. “Taking care of my son and fianc�e, making sure everything is fine with them. I love to win. I love good teammates and solid locker room guys. All those things will be into play. … Where can I help the most?”

Team President Steve Starks said the Jazz will remain aggressive in improving the team.

“We want to build on the successes of this year,” Starks said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to be aggressive and be attractive for any player that’s a free agent. We’ll be aggressive first retaining our core guys and that starts with Gordon Hayward.”

The Jazz were the No. 1 defensive team during the regular season and upset the Clippers in seven games as the No. 5 seed. They were overwhelmed in Round 2 by the Golden State Warriors, who beat the Jazz on Monday night to complete a four-game sweep.

Utah could use more offense next season, whether that comes from the growth of Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum or from new acquisitions. Either way, the Jazz would love to stay healthy after being ravaged by injuries the last two seasons.

Coach Quin Snyder declined to list specific needs, saying those can evolve through development over the summer, self-scouting and depending on what the roster dictates.

“There’s uncertainty,” Snyder said. “It’s almost like those questions will be better answered then.”

Johnson’s already lobbying guys to stay.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Johnson said. “Just out of one year together, we had a pretty good season. I hope whatever has to happen happens for those guys to come back.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

PBT Podcast: Lakers, Clippers, and Nikola Jokic as Beethoven

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Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level for weeks now, outdueling even Giannis Antetokounmpo recently in a Lakers’ win. LeBron James is still a force at age 37, Russell Westbrook has accepted the role and has been a game-changer as a sixth man, and the Lakers’ role players are hitting their 3-pointers.

It’s been an impressive run, but can the Lakers keep it up and be a genuine threat in the West? Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and I discuss all that, plus whether the now-healthy Clippers can find a groove and become a threat.

In Corey’s Jukebox he dances a little salsa and explains how Nikola Jokic is like Beethoven. Then there is talk of the Kyle Kuzma trade rumors, and what exactly are the long-term plans in Washington.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap

Brittney Griner
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the U.S. in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.

Three things to know: Pelicans take over No.1 seed in West after Suns crushed by Celtics

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Chris Paul returns, Celtics don’t care and thrash Suns

There are no statement games in December, but if there were this is what they would look like.

This could have been billed as a potential Finals preview — the top team in the East, the Boston Celtics, against the West-leading Phoenix Suns, who were getting Chris Paul back (he showed his rust after being out 14 games, with as many turnovers as points, four). However, the reality is there is a gap right now — based on Wednesday night, a rather large gap — between the top of the East and West.

The Celtics got 25 points each from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while the Boston defense held Phoenix to under a point per possession on offense on their way to a crushing 125-98 win. Boston led by 27 at the half and the final 24 minutes felt like garbage time.

“Feels like that game should count for two losses,” was how Devin Booker put it postgame (via Duane Rankin).

What it felt more like — especially paired with the Suns’ recent 130-111 loss to the Mavericks — is that Phoenix is the same team as a season ago: An outstanding regular season team with some deficiencies that get exposed in playoff-like (or actual playoff) games.

The loss dropped the Suns to the No.2 seed in the West for now — keep reading to check on the Pelicans — but whether it’s Phoenix or New Orleans or Memphis at the top of the conference right now, they are on a different tier than the teams at the top of the East. Boston and Milwaukee are just better.

The West’s preseason favorites — the Warriors and Clippers — both had ugly losses on Wednesday: The Warriors fell apart at the end against the Jazz (keep reading for more on that) and a Clippers team with their two stars fell to an Orlando team that had lost nine in a row. The Clippers and Warriors are keeping their heads above water and both are playing the long game, but we’re approaching a third of the way into the season neither has put it all together and looked like a threat for an extended period (injuries play into that in both cases).

Phoenix had looked like the best team in the West, and now we see the gap between them and Boston.

2) Pelicans take over top seed in West with win over Pistons

The New Orleans Pelicans are the new No.1 seed in the West.

While the Suns were getting their doors blown off by the Celtics, the Pelicans took care of a feisty Pistons team 104-98 behind 29 and 10 from Zion Williamson.

The Pelicans are legit: Sixth in the NBA in offense, third in defense (the real surprise and a sign of the work coach Willie Green is doing), and second overall in net rating behind only the Celtics. New Orleans has a balance of veterans and youth, athleticism and savvy. Having a locker room leader like CJ McCollum to get everyone pulling the rope in the same direction has been critical in the Big Easy.

The Pelicans are on a 54-win pace. If that seems high to you know Cleaning the Glass thinks that underestimates the Pelicans’ current performance and says they have played more like a 57-win team. The more conservative estimation of fivethirtyeight.com’s RAPTOR model still has the Pels winning 50 games.

Part of that is there Pelicans also have done what great teams do: Keep winning despite its stars being out. McCollum, Herbert Jones and Brandon Ingram have recently missed time, but New Orleans has won five in a row and 10-of-12 despite the shifting lineups. They have depth, balance and an identity that carries them.

The next couple of weeks will be a real measuring stick for New Orleans: They host the Suns for two games, travel to Utah for two, then face the Suns again, followed by the Bucks. Six games against quality teams.

Expect plenty of New Orleans wins in this stretch. This team didn’t luck its way to the top of the standings, and while we can debate how far they might go in the postseason they have earned the right to be in the discussion of who could come out of the West.

3) Jazz score four points in final :07 seconds, beat Warriors

The Warriors were without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, so they can shrug off this loss if they want, but when you’re up four with 13.3 seconds left — and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had just been ejected on a soft Flagrant 2 — this is a game you should close out.

The Warriors didn’t. First, they let this happen.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker curled off a pick and drove to the basket and the Warriors wisely were going to let him have it, but as he drove Klay Thompson “fell asleep” (his words) on Malik Beasley, who was wide open at the arc. Alexander-Walker passed out of the easy two to Beasley, who drained the 3 and made it a one-point game, 123-122.

Still, the Warriors should have closed this out — they were ahead with 6.9 seconds remaining and the ball. Inbound the ball, hit your free throws, get out with the W. Instead, after a timeout, this happened.

Golden State inbounded the ball to the red-hot Jordan Poole — he finished the night with 36 points — but Alexander-Walker stripped him, the ball caromed to Beasley who raced up in transition and he found Simone Fontecchio for the game-winning dunk.

Steve Kerr was understandably frustrated after this one.

“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Kerr said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We turned it over, and they took the game and it’s a shame because our guys did a lot of great stuff.

“I thought, to that point, they really fought and earned the right to win the game and then we didn’t close it. And you got to close it. You got to be rock solid with the ball. You got to be smart defensively. And we were neither of those things the last 13 seconds.”

The Warriors are 13-13 and sit as the 10 seed in the West. It’s easy to say they have looked better of late and are playing the long-game coming off an NBA title — both of those things are true — but there are games like this that are a reminder this Warriors team is different and not quite as deep as the one from a season ago.