Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Moscow court

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MOSCOW — Jailed WNBA star and USA Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner on Thursday pleaded guilty to drug possession during her trial in Moscow but said she had no intention of committing a crime.

Representatives for Griner confirmed to The Associated Press that the WNBA star pleaded guilty to drug possession charges.

Russian news reports quoted Griner as saying through an interpreter at the court hearing that she had acted unintentionally because she was packing in haste.

Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil allegedly were found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

The trial of the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medalist began last week amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her freedom nearly five months after her arrest.

Griner’s court appearance and plea come one day after the White House said President Joe Biden spoke with Griner’s  wife, Cherelle Griner, and said that he is working to win Griner’s freedom as soon as possible. Biden’s conversation with Cherelle followed Brittney’s personal appeal to the president in a handwritten letter that the White House received on Monday. Griner said in the letter that she feared she would spend forever in detention in Russia and asked Biden to not “forget about me and the other American detainees.”

Cherelle Griner, who has criticized the way her wife’s case has been handled, said later that she was “grateful” for the outreach but would keep up the public pressure. Vice President Kamala Harris also spoke with Cherelle Griner.

“I am grateful to the both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home,” Cherelle Griner said, using her wife’s initials.

Before Thursday’s hearing, Russian police escorted Griner, handcuffed and clad in a bright red T-shirt and sports trousers, into the courtroom past a crowd of journalists.

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters after the hearing that she spoke to Griner in the courtroom and shared a letter from President Joe Biden that she read.

“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said of Griner.

“I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia,” Rood said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bristled at the U.S. description of Briner as “wrongfully detained” and warned that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”

Washington hasn’t made public its strategy in the case and the United States may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity due to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. The State Department has designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, noted that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”

He warned that U.S. criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”

“The persistence with which the U.S. administration … describes those who were handed prison sentences for serious criminal articles and those who are awaiting the end of investigation and court verdicts as ‘wrongfully detained’ reflects Washington’s refusal to have a sober view of the outside world,” Ryabkov snapped.

Griner’s trial was adjourned after its start last week because two scheduled witnesses did not appear. Such delays are routine in Russian courts and her detention has been authorized through Dec. 20, suggesting the proceedings could last months.

Although Griner’s supporters initially kept a low profile, calls for the United States to take action spiked after the trial’s first day.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America’s most prominent Black activists, this week called for Biden to arrange a prayer meeting with Griner, saying, “Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the President acts on her pleas to come home.”

An organization called Win With Black Women sent Biden a letter saying Secretary of State Antony Blinken “has called Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, assuring her and stating publicly that Brittney’s safe return was a matter of personal priority; however, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to align with the actions taken to date. We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly.”

Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s alleged offense and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to Washington.

Russia has shown no signs of backing off.

“This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence … Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said Wednesday.

“The law has been violated, and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some U.S. states, are inappropriate in this case,” he said.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).