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Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.

Anthony Davis wants to be great player on great team ‘every year. Not every other year. Not every few years. Every year’

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Pelicans star Anthony Davis has made the playoffs just twice in six years. Last season was the first time he won a a series.

That’s atypical for a player of his caliber.

Davis, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“When you look at LeBron, every year you know he’s going to be great and his team is going to have a chance to win the title,” Davis said. “From here on out, I want to be in that conversation every year. Not every other year. Not every few years. Every year. If that’s going to happen, we’re going to have to win, and I’m going to have to be the most dominant player.”

Davis is putting it on himself to be that player.

The big question: Are the Pelicans good enough to be that team?

Both Davis and New Orleans met his expectations in a resounding opening win over the Rockets, but it’s a long season. The Pelicans are good, though flawed. They’ve never contended for a title with Davis, let alone done so annually. As he enters the midst of his prime, it might be now or never.

Davis can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and he’s setting a bar. A high one.

Cavaliers officials reportedly joke about LeBron James: ‘The tread is off his tires’

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LeBron James has played more minutes, regular season and playoffs combined, than Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and John Stockton did in their entire careers. Last year alone, in his age-33 season, LeBron played 3,947 minutes – the most by anyone since LeBron in his first season with the Heat and the most by anyone so old since Michael Jordan in his last season with the Bulls.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cavs officials have privately joked that “the tread is off his tires” as James transitions to L.A. after playing so much last season.

I wonder how much genuine thought is behind that joke. I’d bet some, though I bet it’s also some self-perceived true belief masking a coping mechanism.

If LeBron wanted to sign a five-year max contract last summer, the Cavaliers would’ve jumped to do it. Instead, he left them for the Lakers.

I also wonder how LeBron feels about that joking. He takes his training seriously and has defied typical aging curves.

This is why LeBron was right to leave for Los Angeles if that’s what he wanted to do. For players with power to do something about it – LeBron definitely qualifies – NBA careers are too short to work with people whose vision doesn’t align with theirs. I’m not sure whether this qualifies as a divide, but there was already plenty of acrimony between LeBron and the organization in Cleveland.

That said, the Lakers unconditionally believing in LeBron’s staying power could do them in. He is in his 16th season and will turn 34 in December. He’s not worn down yet, but the clock is ticking.

Jeanie Buss: Phil Jackson fired by Knicks because ‘people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back’

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When he hired Phil Jackson as team president, Knicks owner James Dolan infamously said he was ceding control “willingly and gratefully.”

But New York kept Steve Mills, who had been running the front office, on staff as general manager. Mills also replaced Jackson as president after Jackson got fired.

That served as a lesson for Jeanie Buss, Lakers owner and Jackson’s former fiancée.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Jeanie had learned from Jackson’s mistakes in New York, where he took that job as the head of the Knicks front office in March of 2014 and was fired three years later after, as she saw it, he fell prey to the internal politics that have plagued that franchise for decades.

“He should’ve made sure (to control) who was surrounding him, because the people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back,” she continued.

Buss doesn’t name Mills or anyone. But it’s hard not to jump to man who was both Jackson’s predecessor and successor. After regaining control, Mills said he tried to steer Jackson in other directions (which, hopefully).

This reflects poorly on Dolan, whose poor leadership has cast a shadow over the organization for years. There is a toxic culture within the Knicks, from the top down.

But it’s not as if Jackson were simply a victim of that culture. With the notable exception of drafting Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson failed miserably in roster-building. He contributed to the malaise with a comedy of incompetence.

Maybe Mills stabbed Jackson in the back. But Jackson was his own problem, anyway.

Report: Knicks, Lakers, Clippers will pursue Kevin Durant in free agency

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The Warriors are reportedly bracing for Kevin Durant to leave in free agency next summer.

Just because of the New York rumors? Maybe. They’re spreading like wildfire.

But the Knicks won’t be the only team chasing Durant.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will take a run at the back-to-back Finals MVP, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, every team wants Durant. But not every team will actually pursue him. Many teams believe they have no chance of signing him and won;t waste their time.

It’s probably not coincidental this early list of suitors includes only the very biggest markets. Durant already plays for the best team in a desirable location. How do you differentiate yourself from Golden State? Maybe by being in an even bigger market.

The Clippers are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard. Could they get Durant, too? That’d be intriguing.

The Lakers are definitely looking to get LeBron James a star teammate, and Durant’s name has at least come up. But Durant is already dogged by the perception he’s just riding the Warriors’ coattails. He wouldn’t change the narrative by joining LeBron.

The Knicks don’t even project to have max cap space, though they’d rush to move Courtney Lee or someone else to get Durant. But this is already the worst team on the list. New York is going to further deplete its assets while remaining appealing to Durant? Hey, it could happen.

Or maybe Durant will look at these teams and see has it pretty good in Golden State.

It could also go the other way. If Durant gives even the slightest indication he’s interested teams not yet planning to pursue him, they’d jump to get into the race. So, don’t assume Warriors, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers is anything more than the preliminary pool of vying teams.