Kawhi Leonard says he’ll return “soon,” no friction between him and team

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Part of the reason for all the rumors and speculation around Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs — when he would play again, about tension between him and management — was the lack of real information. Leonard doesn’t say much, the Spurs are not a leaky organization, and the Internet abhors a vacuum. Without real information, speculation and rumor will fill in the space.

Wednesday, Leonard spoke to the media and tried to quash all those rumors (video above, courtesy ESPN).

First, he said his pain level with his quadriceps tendon issue is “diminishing” he plans to return “soon” but left it open.

“Soon. I don’t have a set date right now. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing. The progression that I am making has been great. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”

He also tried to quash the idea that there is a lot of tension in his relations with the Spurs, saying he wants to stay a Spur for his entire career. The reports of tension between him and management while he sought second opinions were not true, Leonard said.

“Everything was done as a group. I don’t feel like nothing was friction. I talk to Pop (Gregg Popovich) every day. He knows what the progression were. He knew what I was doing the whole entire time, as well as the front office. We made a group decision, so it was me just going out and saying, ‘I am going to go out and do this thing.’ “
Spurs general manager RC Buford admitted previously that Leonard’s injury and slower-than-anticipated recovery has been “difficult for everyone” but everyone involved said there was no real tension. It’s just some frustration at a slow process that has changed the Spurs season.

San Antonio has a decision to make this summer: Leonard is eligible for a Designated Veteran contract extension, which would lock him up with the Spurs for six seasons at around $200 million (maybe just a little short of that, depending upon the final salary cap numbers, but it would be the one guaranteed year remaining on his current deal at $20.1 million, plus five years after that at 35 percent of the salary cap).

If he returns and looks like vintage Leonard during the playoffs, there’s not much of a call, the Spurs make the offer. He’s a top-five, franchise cornerstone player who already has won a Finals MVP. But if he’s not all the way back, do the Spurs wait? It’s going to be an interesting process to watch.

But first, he just needs to get back on the court because the NBA is more entertaining with him.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.

Mavericks reportedly reach out to Joakim Noah to help at center

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Dallas’ starting center Dwight Powell is lost for the season due to a torn Achilles suffered Tuesday night.

The Mavs have other centers on the roster, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, but they want more depth behind those guys. That has led to them touching base with Joakim Noah, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

The Lakers worked Noah out before the season but decided to go with Dwight Howard.

Noah had a solid second half of last season with Memphis, coming off the bench and providing good defense and 7.1 points per game. He was moving well and fit in as a role player at giving them 16.5 minutes a night.

That’s all Dallas would need, someone to grab rebounds and do the dirty work inside that lets Kristaps Prozingis play his pick-and-pop game. We’ll see if Dallas goes this direction, or another one.