CJ McCollum talks social justice, basketball, and wine in Orlando

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As a VP of the players’ union, CJ McCollum has had to grapple with important issues the past month as the Trail Blazers prepare to head to Orlando for the NBA restart. The health and safety of himself and other players. And how to use the NBA platform to maintain and further the social justice movement while on the Disney campus.

Then there’s how to make sure there is enough good wine in the Orlando hotel where he stays.

“I’ve already organized my shipment to come in…” McCollum said, with a smile. He (along with LeBron James and others) is a member of the league’s growing wine-loving culture. “I’m sending some of my stuff down there as well [McCollum has his own wine label], so it will be a nice change of speed, especially during that isolation period we have to go through [upon arrival] when we have to spend 24 to 48 hours in our rooms without leaving. It will be nice to watch TV shows and have a nice glass.”

Organizing wine shipments has been just one of the many things on McCollum’s plate lately, from talking to fellow players about life in the Orlando bubble to talking with his father about grooming and style through a partnership with Old Spice.

McCollum admitted he’s been glued to his phone talking to players for a month or more as momentum for the NBA restart picked up pace. As a vice president of the National Basketball Players’ Association, players were reaching out to him for answers — answers that kept evolving over time.

So did the questions. At first, the questions were about whether or not there would be a return to play, how it would work, and what life would be like in the bubble.

“But now it’s more around what impact we can make to support what is going on in the real world, to continue to support Black Lives Matter and the things we’re facing as a society,” McCollum told NBC Sports. “Those are the calls we’re having now. How can we impact? How can we spread awareness on certain things in the world that are going on? …

“The biggest thing is to take advantage of the platform [in Orlando], to coincide with the NBA and figure out productive ways we can continue to spread information, to continue to educate, to continue to put light on things that have often been behind closed doors and never been brought out to the public eye. So I think those are the conversations we’ll continue to have.”

Even those social justice questions are starting to evolve, McCollum said, changing from how players and the league can make a statement to how they can help take concrete steps to further that change.

“We’re definitely looking for actionable items and collectively we’re brainstorming ideas on how to empower the masses, especially minorities, to vote,” McCollum said. “To try to put an emphasis on voter suppression where you have cities that might have one polling place for 600,000 or 700,000 people. We’re trying to eliminate those kinds of situations and the key is to educate as many people as we can.”

Voting rights are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also a focus on other issues, such as prison reform, McCollum said. Also finding ways to get people of color move into more powerful positions in Fortune 500 and other major companies — including the NBA. McCollum emphasized the NBA needs to lead by example.

Then there was taking the time to sit down with his father and talk grooming, something Old Spice put together recently for Father’s Day.

“It was really, really cool. Thank you to Old Spice for bringing us together and helping us catch up,” McCollum said. “We discussed style and grooming from the ‘50s, 60s, ‘70s up to now. It’s really understanding why I really take so much pride in my overall grooming, my overall health and overall freshness.”

On top of all that, there’s McCollum’s day job — a 22.5 point a game two guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, a team heading to Orlando with a real belief they can catch Memphis as the eighth seed and become a dangerous playoff team.

McCollum and his teammates have been working their way back into shape, but players from all teams are concerned about not ramping up too fast after this forced break. Nobody wants an injury.

“I think going through training camp, the restart, coaches and trainers are going to have to be very careful with the load increase,” McCollum said.

It’s going to be a lot of work for McCollum, work that will not stop when the Portland charter touches down in Orlando.

At least when McCollum heads back to his room he knows there will be a good bottle of wine waiting for him.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.