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Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”

 

Pelicans stay one small step ahead of their shortcomings catching up to them, per usual

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

On Feb. 16, 2017, I published an article about how difficult it’d be for the Pelicans to get Anthony Davis a star teammate.

Three days later, they traded for DeMarcus Cousins.

How did that happen? A few months before Cousins became officially eligible, the Kings got got squeamish about giving him the super-max extension both sides had seemingly agreed upon. Sacramento lacked the organizational prowess to navigate a difficult situation by doing anything other than rushing to trade Cousins, who was still under contract for another season-and-a-half. In the process, the Kings tanked Cousins’ already-limited value even further. New Orleans had Sacramento target Buddy Hield and was willing to surrender a future first-rounder.

The Pelicans were in the right place at the right time.

That wasn’t the case this summer, when Cousins left New Orleans for the Warriors. And maybe that’s OK.

The Pelicans are a fringe playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. They couldn’t necessarily afford to wait on Cousins’ torn Achilles to heal. Every win matters to them – especially as they move toward inflection points with Davis.

Though I’m grading only this offseason, we can still note how New Orleans’ prior errors made the Cousins timing so tricky. Better-positioned teams wouldn’t stress him missing the start of the season if it meant getting a star at a big discount (though, to be fair, we don’t know whether Cousins would have accepted the taxpayer-mid-level-exception salary he’ll earn in Golden State from the Pelicans, who could have offered more).

It was a similar story with Rajon Rondo, who signed with New Orleans last year after finding an unwelcoming market. Because of their lackluster roster, the Pelicans offered the starting job Rondo coveted. So, he took a one-year deal, exceeded expectations then left for a raise in a glitzier market this year.

New Orleans replaces Rondo and Cousins with Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle. Whether or not that’s an upgrade is difficult to discern and made the Pelicans’ grade the toughest to assign this year.

Rondo fit well into New Orleans’ ball-movement system, and he stepped up defensively in the playoffs. But the Lakers’ offer to him ($9 million for one year) was steep. Still, Payton must take significant steps forward to match Rondo’s production. Maybe the 24-year-old will.

The Pelicans surged after Cousins went down last season, including sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round. So, in a sense, Randle is just an addition. He, Davis and Nikola Mirotic should form a nice big-man rotation with varying skill sets.

But Randle (two-year non-taxpayer mid-level exception with a player option) and Payton (one-year, $3 million) are locked in for only one season. If they play well, New Orleans will just have to hope everything lines up again next offseason. If they struggle, New Orleans will have even bigger problems.

In the meantime, the Pelicans have enough to deal with. They traded their 2018 first-round pick to get Mirotic last season. Randle got the entire mid-level exception, and Payton got nearly all of the bi-annual exception. That meant filling out the roster with several minimum contracts containing varying guarantees. Signing Tyrone Wallace to an offer sheet was a nice idea, but the Clippers matched, leaving New Orleans with Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Jarrett Jack, Darius Morris, Troy Williams, Garlon Green and Kenrich Williams. Maybe there’s a diamond in the rough.

That’d be nice for the Pelicans, who know all too well about playing from the rough.

They just keep trying to plug holes, because it’s too hard to build a strong foundation around Davis. New Orleans might have done well enough this year, but the same issues loom next year.

Offseason grade: C

After hip surgery, Isaiah Thomas not 100 percent for start of Denver training camp

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Isaiah Thomas didn’t want to have surgery at first — he was coming up on a contract summer and the point guard who was fifth in the MVP voting just two seasons ago wanted to prove he was still the same guy. That he deserved to get paid. But after missing the start of the season in Cleveland with a torn labrum in his hip, getting traded to the Lakers, never being himself and being a below average player last season, Thomas decided to get the surgery on his hip last April. He eventually signed a minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets.

He is still not 100 percent at the start of training camp, coach Mark Malone said on Altitude TV, via Chris Dempsey. Sam Amick adds that it may be a while before we see Thomas in action.

That has the Nuggets adding to their training camp roster in the short term.

The Nuggets are a team looking to make a playoff push this season (and if Paul Millsap can stay healthy and improve the team’s defense they should make it, even in the brutal West). Thomas — a healthy Thomas — boosting the Denver bench is part of that. However, Thomas is the poster child for why one doesn’t play through injuries or rush back on the court, there is potential long-term damage that is hard on the body and can be hard on the wallet.

Denver can wait, and if Thomas can be Thomas whenever he gets back, it could be a good fit in Denver.

Lonzo Ball will not be cleared for 5-on-5 at start of Lakers’ training camp

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Lonzo Ball called having surgery on his knee this summer a “last option” — he had a PRP injection first — but ultimately didn’t have a choice. He’s spent a lot of his summer on recovery from his surgery, a partial removal of his meniscus.

When training camp opens, Ball will not be cleared to go 5-on-5, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said on the Lakers’ cable station in Los Angeles, reports Mike Bresnahan.

Ball has been working on conditioning and getting stronger this summer, plus has undoubtedly tweaked his shot. However, it takes time to recover from a knee operation, and the Lakers have no reason to rush him back.

 

Things have changed this season for Ball and all of the Lakers’ young core. With LeBron James in-house, Los Angeles is a win-now team and all the young Lakers need to prove they can contribute to that today, there is now more patience for slow development. Ball needs to prove he can play well off the ball (he did that at UCLA) and that he has become more of a scoring threat, both with his jumper and finishing around the rim. His ability to move the rock and play at pace can fit with LeBron and the Lakers’ game, but the Lakers are not going to wait around while that slowly develops. It’s sink or swim time, especially for Ball with Rajon Rondo on the roster and Josh Hart looking all-world at Summer League.

PBT Podcast: Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

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Can any team beat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors this season?

It could happen, although the Warriors will need to participate in their own downfall, one way or another — an injury to Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, the lack of regular season focus finally catching up with them, or maybe they become too focused on free agency the next summer. But just how likely is any of that to happen?

Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News, and host of the Planet Dubs podcast, joins us to break down how Steve Kerr will work to keep that downfall from happening, how he will keep this team focused, what DeMarcus Cousins means to the roster, and what it will take for the Warriors to three-peat — and what can trip them up.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.