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2016-17 ANNUAL

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The world’s most famous basketball fan, President Barack Obama, squeezed in one last White House visit (quite possibly the best part of his job) for the most recent champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers, before he leaves office. The POTUS has shaken hands, delivered funny jabs and received commemorative jerseys from the past eight champions, LeBron James leading the way with three visists over Obama’s two terms.

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This is quite possibly the worst place to be if you’re on defense: Kyrie Irving a step in front of his man, while LeBron James is rolling hard to the basket— the very definition of choosing your poison.

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WARM UPS These young Wolves—Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—are ready to eat.

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It can get messy down in the paint. Just ask Memphis’ JaMychal Green as he’s tangled in a pretzel of limbs trying to get to the rim.

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America’s Fastest Growing TV Brand Presents the Award-Winning 4K UHD

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2016-17 ANNUAL


30 32 34 36 38 40 42 46 48 50 52 56 58 60 64 66 68 70 74 76 78

Cleveland Cavaliers: Land Defense Charlotte Hornets: Walk This Way Minnesota Timberwolves: Uptown Chicago Bulls: Trips San Antonio Spurs: Picking Up The Pieces Los Angeles Clippers: Final Voyage Orlando Magic: Vanishing Act Toronto Raptors: Brothers in Arms Phoenix Suns: Book Smart New Orleans Pelicans: Higher Learning Philadelphia 76ers: Still Processing Boston Celtics: 12-Leaf Clover Portland Trail Blazers: Dual Purpose Dallas Mavericks: The Last Samurai Milwaukee Bucks: (Re)Mix & (Mis)Match Oklahoma City Thunder: Unleashed Atlanta Hawks: Bigger & Faster Denver Nuggets: The Long & Tall of It Brooklyn Nets: Straight Out of Brook Lin Golden State Warriors: Un-Dubbable Detroit Pistons: Sleeper Car

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Indiana Pacers: Spin Move New York Knicks: NYConstellate Miami Heat: Stoking the Fire Los Angeles Lakers: Gold Appreciation Memphis Grizzlies: Grinding to a Halt Houston Rockets: Exclamation Point Washington Wizards: Breaching the Wall Utah Jazz: Deep Cover Sacramento Kings: The Gift and the Curse

Poster Choose your side: Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns. Cover illustration by Yu-Ming Huang


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#ThisIsNotAGame Mild Language

© 2005-2016 Take-Two Interactive Software and its subsidiaries. All rights reserved. 2K, the 2K logo, and Take-Two Interactive Software are all trademarks and/or registered trademarks of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. The NBA and NBA member team identifications are the intellectual property of NBA Properties, Inc. and the respective NBA member teams. © 2016 NBA Properties, Inc. All Rights Reserved. The "PS" Family logo and "PS3" are registered trademarks. "PS4" is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc. The ratings icon is a trademark of the Entertainment Software Association. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners. *According to 2008 – 2016 and NPD data.


2 Warmups 14 The Point 16 Jumpball Starting Five: Rajon Rondo has dropped many dimes to many players, including Hall of Famers. He remembers his favorite five; Know Your Newbs: Rookie Jamal Murray’s mile-high state of mind in Denver; Head 2 Head: Who’s the preeminent two-way player in the League?; Brackit: In a League teeming with point guards, who’s the point god?; 24 Seconds: We have a sitdown with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

118 Stepback Reminiscing the time when MJ met Chuck at the rim.

120 Call Out NBA good deeds go noticed.

105 HOOP Holiday Gift Guide Our recommendations for what to give and get for the holiday.


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ORDER NOW 1-855-NBA-LPLP NBA.COM/LEAGUEPASS NBA Regular Season, out-of-market games only. Blackout restrictions apply. Message and data rates may apply. Subscriptions may automatically renew each season at the then-current subscription rate. Visit for blackout restrictions and other applicable terms and conditions. NBA, the NBA logo and team identifications are trademarks of NBA Properties, Inc. and the respective member teams. © 2016 NBA Properties, Inc.  Photo by Getty Images. All Rights Reserved.

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THE POINT Volume 45 No. 1 Editor in Chief Ming Wong #2 Design Director Kengyong Shao #31 Associate Editors Phil D’Apolito #17, Dan Holzhauer #68, John Martin #16 Assistant Editor Adam Kaufman #0 Assistant Art Director Ita Goldfeder #18 Online Editor Darryl Howerton #21 Editor-at-Large Jeramie McPeek #4 Copy Editor Trevor Kearney #8 Senior Writer Michael Bradley #53 Contributing Writers Ray Bala #55, Seth Berkman #91, Frank Capa #28, Jon Cooper #10, Bryan Crawford #26, Pete Croatto #20, Jammel Cutler #33, Josh Eberley #41, Jim Eichenhofer #12, Art Garcia #50, Anthony Gilbert #1, Melody Hoffman #34, Steve Hunt #29, Andy Jasner #27, Michael Kelly #5, Holly MacKenzie #32 Basketball works in the same way that hearing a song will magically transport you back in time, and with it, the feelings of the moment. When I watch old videos of Magic, Bird and Dr. J, I’m reminded of my earliest NBA memories: Going to the local sneaker spot and looking at the Converse Weapon posters,1 reading comic books that featured Dr. J on comic-strip style Spalding ads, watching the Lakers-Celtics Finals on my 17-inch knob-driven Sony Trinitron television.2 The ’90s are filled with memories of watching Knicks games with my dad, the equal parts of anguish and awe at watching Michael Jordan beat my team. So when a great player hangs them up, a part of me goes with them. Kobe, KG, Tim Duncan and Ray Allen were bridges to my halcyon3 days. As long as they were in a uniform,4 it still felt like 1999.5 Kobe would always be the kid who took Moesha to the prom. Kevin Garnett, the revolutionary six-foot-twelve6 player who would forever change the way talent evaluators looked at players.7 I didn’t think the Spurs had anything on the Knicks in the 1999 Finals, until I quickly learned firsthand Duncan’s greatness. I sometimes wonder if Jesus Shuttlesworth ever reconciled with Jake and Lala.8 The inevitable departures of ’90s draft babies9 Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Vince Carter only serve to make me feel longer in the tooth. While memories of those players during my come-up will remain special, there is a new crop of talent10 picking up where their predecessors left. Like music, they too will be generational, imbuing themselves to the current legion of fans.

Ming Wong #2 P.S. Shouts to Yu-Ming Huang, a talented illustrator out of Taiwan for the dope cover.

Retired Numbers #6, #11, #13, #30, #99

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NBA Publishing/NBA Photos BONUS POINTS 1. The life-sized posters of Magic and Bird were pockmarked from their waist to chest from kids measuring themselves against the two 6-9 legends. 2. My old man “got a deal” off the back of a truck. 3. All four entered the NBA while I was still in college. 4. In Allen’s case, the rumor of coming back into uniform. 5. I was still dialing in through a 56K modem to get on 6. Don’t ever call KG a 7-footer. 7. Before KG, tall players with perimeter skills were “tweeners.” After KG, they were instant millionaires. 8. I’m picturing the opening scene of He Got Game 2: Jake and Jesus going at each other hard in a game of H-O-R-S-E while Lala rolls up on the two, telling them to keep it down lest they wake up the twins. 9. I didn’t forget you Jason Terry, Metta World Peace and Manu Ginobili. And word to the recently departed Elton Brand and Andre Miller. 10. Many of them on this very cover.

President and Executive Producer, Content Danny Meiseles Senior VP Content, Production Paul Hirschheimer Senior VP, Entertainment & Player Marketing Charlie Rosenzweig Executive VP, Communications Mike Bass VP, Editorial & Daily Content John Hareas President, Global Operations and Merchandising Sal LaRocca Vice President, Global Partnerships Matt Holt Coordinator, Global Partnerships Daniel Lupin Coordinator, Global Partnerships Harley Opolinsky Manager, Global Media Programs Felecia Groomster Senior Directors & Senior Official NBAE Photographers Andrew D. Bernstein, Nathaniel S. Butler Vice President, NBA Photos Joe Amati Director, Photos Imaging David Bonilla Official NBAE Photographer Jesse Garrabrant Senior Photo Editor Brian Choi Senior Photo Coordinator Kevin Wright All NBA photos appearing in this magazine, unless otherwise indicated, are copyright of NBA Entertainment. All WNBA photos appearing in this magazine, unless otherwise indicated, are copyright of WNBA Enterprises. All NBDL photos appearing in this magazine, unless otherwise indicated, are copyright of NBDL Enterprises. HOOP is published bimonthly, December through June, by PSP. © 2016 Professional Sports Publications. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part without permission of publisher is prohibited. To subscribe to HOOP, call (800) 829-3347. PRINTED IN THE USA


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RAJON RONDO CHICAGO BULLS There’s something to be said for giving, and over the last 10 years, few have been as generous as Rajon Rondo, even fewer have been as colorful while doing so. Rondo, who has dished his share of dimes to many Hall of Famers in his career spanning Boston, Dallas, Sacramento and now the Chicago Bulls, ranks sixth among active players in assists (5,614 entering the season), and third in assists per game with 8.7 (behind only Chris Paul’s 9.9, and just a tick south of John Wall’s 8.9). Rondo led the League in assists last season (839) and will likely become the 35th player to ever eclipse the 6K threshold this season. As someone always looking to set up a teammate, Rondo has been blessed to have played with many greats who have taken passes from him and turned them into points. As he describes his list of favorite teammates over the last decade: “Kind of self-explanatory, really. Everybody I name are Hall of Famers.”

SMALL FORWARD: PAUL PIERCE Teammates in Boston, 2006-13 “He’s like all these guys. He has the same characteristics. He fights. He has a killer instinct and he wants to win.”

POWER FORWARD: KEVIN GARNETT Teammates in Boston, 2007-13 “K.G.’s the best communicator that’s ever played the game. He talks all the time on the floor, he lets you know where the defense is. He’s like a linebacker out there. He’s quarterbacking everything throughout the entire game. He just competed. He’s competitive and he wanted to win every possession.”


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CENTER: DEMARCUS COUSINS Teammates in Sacramento, 2015-16 “DeMarcus is probably the best talent I’ve ever played with.”

SHOOTING GUARD: MONTA ELLIS Teammates in Dallas, 2014-15 “He’s a dog. He’s a warrior. He fights. He’s going to compete every night. He just wants it.”


WILD CARD: DIRK NOWITZKI Teammates in Dallas, 2014-15

“Myself [smiles]. I’m just going out there and competing. All five of those guys want to win. They want to try to kill the guy in front of him, whoever they’re playing against.”

“He’s a seven-footer that shoots the ball like a two. He can go off the dribble. He can do it all.”


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Adjusting to life in the NBA is tough for all rookies, but Jamal Murray has had more to do than most. After being taken seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2016 NBA Draft, the 6-4 guard out of Kentucky had to establish residency in Colorado. Murray isn’t forgetting his Canadian roots; he just needed to function in the United States. Once the 19-year-old Murray got his immigration status squared away, he got his driver’s license and bought a place close to Pepsi Center. Now his focus is basketball while developing a kinship with fellow Denver rookies Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. How has it been adjusting to NBA life? Basically, it’s just getting used to the pace and your new team. A new team, a new system, lots of travel and coming off the bench. Do you feel a lot of kinship with the many Kentucky players in the NBA? Yes. We came from the same place and we have the same goals. It’s good to see them and play against them. It’s a tight family. How was it getting settled in Denver and finding a place to live? That was the easiest part. My dad and my agent helped find a place for me, and find a good spot close to the gym. The hardest part was getting my license and the immigration papers and all that. Being international is the hardest part. I have to get all this extra stuff done. I’m a foreigner to this country. 018

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Was it a surprise to you to have to go through so much to get established here? It’s something I always forget because I played with so many Americans and played in America so much I forget about it. I’ve been in Canada my whole life. I didn’t go to high school in America—I went to college for one year, so I forget I’m actually foreign. Does it help the adjustment to pro ball to have a lot of players on the team near your age? Yeah. You see the mistakes people make as a young player. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad player, just young and they’re learning as well. We get to grow with each other, push each other, work out together. It’s a young group. It’s good but it also has its downfall as well when you play veteran teams and stronger teams. You didn’t hit your first field goal until your fifth game. Were you relieved when you finally sank your first shot in the NBA? I just wanted to get it out of the way. It was hanging around me for a while. Once I got that out of the way, it felt good and I was able to play basketball. I wasn’t thinking about my next shot because I hit one. I was able to find a groove and now I feel more comfortable. After the first two games, it was something I really

thought about. ‘Am I going to get one today?” and I didn’t get it. Next game, “Am I going to get it today?” and it didn’t happen, so it was something that was over my head for a while. Have you had any rookie initiation rituals? No. There’s no real vet unless Jameer [Nelson] or [Mike] Miller tell you something. It’s not like it’s an older team that kicks you around. We have a young team, an up-and-coming team. Did you indulge in any big purchase after you were drafted? I’m not a big spender. I didn’t grow up with cable, I didn’t grow up with the internet, didn’t have a cell phone. The first thing I did was put a PlayStation in my house and get some WiFi and that was it. Has it been hard to adjust to the Denver area? We’ve explored around. The cold weather is coming soon, so we got that out of the way. I’ve been exploring around, eating at different places with Malik and Juan and stuff, and getting a feel for a city and the mountains as well. I know my way around pretty well. It’s not that hard, but it’s good to be living alone. MICHAEL KELLY #5


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NCAA.COM/MARCHMADNESS TM & © 2017 Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. NCAA and March Madness are trademarks owned or licensed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.


Paul George vs. Kawhi Leonard Who knew Paul George and Kawhi Leonard—two unheralded Mountain West wings from Fresno State and San Diego State—would one day take their collegiate rivalry to the biggest stage, with NBA fans all over the world debating who is the better two-way talent.

01 Scoring: For five seasons now, George has been Indiana’s go-to scoring leader, playing with an array of teammates at his side. He has an assortment of weapons in his half-court, full-court arsenal—a terror both behind the arc (2.6 threes per game at 37.1 percent in 2015-16) and on the break (he ranked 11th in transition points last season). Since breaking his leg in 2014 and missing most of the 2014-15 season, PG-13 has become a more conservative offensive player, toning down his gravity-defying attacks on rim for a more precision-based, pick-and-roll game. Meanwhile, Leonard has seen his evolution turn into revolution this year, surpassing the monumental growth his offensive game made last season when he averaged 21 points in 33 minutes per game (in 2015-16, George averaged 23 points in 35 minutes per game). In Leonard’s first five games of 2016-17, the Klaw poured in 142 points in 161 minutes on only 88 field goal attempts (.659 true shooting percentage) while making 43-of-45 free throws. His repertoire included an assortment of moves that harkened back to the Be Like Mike days. The 25-year-old Leonard, who used a lethal three-point stroke (44.3 percent) in his 2015-16 MVP runner-up campaign, is now showing what working out with Michael Jordan three seasons in a row will do for your game. The Brand Jordan athlete has since added MJ-like postups, spin-moves and hanging crossovers used for drawing fouls, which he does with the best of them now. Advantage: Leonard

Kawhi Leonard

Forward, 6-7, 230 pounds San Antonio Spurs 02 Floor Game: Historically, George has been more of a playmaker than Leonard, essentially playing point forward for the Pacers’ 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference Finals teams, when he started alongside George Hill, Lance Stephenson, David West and Roy Hibbert. So it should be no surprise that George held the assist ratio edge over Leonard throughout this decade, culminating with last season’s 20.3 to 13.0 assist ratio advantage. That said, there is a new Leonard in town this season, one who is proving to be quite the Spurs playmaker now that he has been given the reins (32.8 usage rate in his first five games). Leonard, too, is posting a 20-plus assist ratio in the early campaign—23.04 percent actually—and serving as the top Spurs playmaker (4 assists per game), justifying comparisons to George now. Still, we’ll give the edge to PG-13 for longevity’s sake. Advantage: George

03 Defense: George is an elite defender and all, holding down the top defensive stopper slot on the Olympic gold-medal-winning USA Basketball team that also featured Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. But in comparison to Leonard, George and all defenders come up short to the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. George can lock down scorers about as well as anyone, but Leonard’s 7-3 wingspan on a 6-7 body gives him the distinct advantage over all his peers; the Klaw not only locks down opposing ballhandlers—he embarrasses them. Leonard, who had 15 steals in his first five games in 2016-17, has a way of keeping his feet stationary in classic defensive position. He’s mastered the outsidein technique of stealing the ball, which escapes the ref’s whistle since Leonard can do this in such open space. There really is no defender like Leonard, who has the strength of a lion, the patience of a hawk and a crocodile-like snap. Advantage: Leonard 020

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Paul George

Forward, 6-9, 220 pounds Indiana Pacers

04 Leadership: Even though Leonard realizes this is his Spurs team and he welcomes the new leadership responsibilities—he actually talks now!—George has been the de facto leader of the Indiana pace car since the 2012-13 season. Back then, PG-13 got older vets like Hibbert, West, Stephenson and Hill to follow a then-23-year-old bold enough to think the Pacers could dethrone LeBron James and the 2012 and 2013 NBA Champion Miami Heat (Indiana took Miami to seven games in the 2013 East Finals and six games in the 2014 East Finals). Now, George has a whole new cast of starting teammates, and they already know he has been there, done that before. Advantage: George








32.2 28.4



























Stats as of November 2, 2015 Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; APG assists per game; RPG rebounds per game; TOPG turnovers per game; SPG steals per game; FT% free throw percentage; 2FG% two-point field goal percentage; 3FG% three-point percentage; 3sPG three-pointers per game.

05 Intangibles: If the NBA gave out a Most Courageous award, George would surely have been the recipient this past season, for his 2015-16 All-Star comeback from a gruesome broken leg. It is impossible to measure the heart this guy has. That said, Leonard’s heart also beats strong inside a man who possesses the will to win as great as anyone in the League—lest we forget how as a 22-year-old role player he won the 2014 Finals MVP by putting three Hall of Famers and the rest of the Spurs on his back, outplaying LeBron James in seriesclinching Games 3, 4 and 5 of that series. With his 2016-17 status as an elite two-way player, we now see the continued progression from Leonard’s work ethic and silent-assassin focus in what annually makes him the NBA’s most improved superstar. Advantage: Leonard

The Verdict George has made three All-NBA and three All-Defensive teams in his seven-year NBA career, and it would not be a surprise if he won several more. But Leonard has MVP potential that was almost realized last season—he has runner-up to Stephen Curry—and could be reached this season if the 25-year-old Spur’s start can be sustained. Leonard, who is a main spokesman for Brand Jordan, really does want to Be Like Mike—not necessarily collecting MVPs, which Jordan first did at age 25 after finishing as a runner-up at age 24 to Magic Johnson, but in winning NBA championships. He already has the advantage on George there. Advantage: Leonard


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with ADAM SILVER HOOP: Talk about your own transition. They always say sliding over that one seat from assistant to head coach is a huge move. SILVER: In many ways, it is what I expected because I worked for David Stern for almost 22 years, so I can’t imagine a better training ground. Having said that, there is nothing that quite prepares you for the ultimate job and the public scrutiny by virtue of the attention you get being a commissioner. I had a sense of what it would be like, but you just have to experience it to understand it. It’s something that I have talked to David about and have talked to [MLB Commissioner] Bud Selig about, and other commissioners about. It’s such a unique job in that it’s a private entity on one hand, but it’s also viewed as a public institution, so you’re always looking to find the right balance. HOOP: You must be recognized more now. How often are you asked for autographs? SILVER: We’ve become the selfie generation, so to the extent that people notice me and are interested, it’s usually a selfie rather than an autograph. But most people share a thought that they have about a particular team or the League. People are incredibly friendly. HOOP: Did you ever ask any of the Knicks for an autograph growing up? SILVER: I was a Knicks fan, but I never had access to ask a player for an autograph. I was a big Yankee fan growing up and somewhere I have a Bobby Murcer autograph. It’s probably in the bottom of some trunk somewhere. I remember being in a restaurant with my father in Manhattan and he was there, and I got his autograph.

HOOP: Happy anniversary! This is your 25th NBA season, correct? SILVER: It is. You did your research. I started in 1992 at the League office as the special assistant to David Stern. HOOP: What’s the best anniversary present1 you’ve received so far? SILVER: Actually, you’re the first one to mark the anniversary [laughs]. HOOP: How different is the NBA today to when you entered the League in 1992? SILVER: When I first entered the League, there was no internet in the way we use it today. People didn’t send e-mails and, of course, there was no digital and social media, and print media was much more dominant than it is today. HOOP: For most of your NBA career, guys like Kobe, KG, Duncan were among the game’s elite. How strange is it this year with all of them retired? SILVER: Now in my 25th season, I’ve seen the changing of the guard multiple times. What’s so amazing about this League is that it’s constantly reinventing itself. A player like Steph Curry, who is transcendent. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade...there is a whole new generation2 of players, and another generation coming into the League through the draft, that are putting their own imprint onto the game. An additional change from 25 years ago is that those players are increasingly coming from outside the United States to a point now where 25 percent of our current players were born outside the U.S.

HOOP: Do you remember your first NBA game? SILVER: Not specifically. I remember as a kid going to Madison Square Garden with my father in the late ’60s, which are some of my earliest Knicks memories, and there was always a cloud of smoke around the scoreboard. Smoke would rise and, of course, people could still smoke cigarettes in arenas back then. HOOP: You mentioned your father. He actually worked with David Stern and was a mentor to him, right? SILVER: I would leave it for David to say whether he was a mentor, but my father was a senior lawyer at the same firm that David worked at before he came to the NBA. David was a litigator and my father was a labor lawyer there, so they were in different departments, but he was someone that I know David has told me he respected. HOOP: What’s your NBA origin story? SILVER: I was working at a law firm in New York City and wanted to make the transition into business. At that point, I wasn’t specifically thinking about sports. I was most interested in the media business, and most of the work I was doing was representing Time Warner, which was a large client of the law firm. As part of my job as a lawyer, I was reading a lot of industry trade magazines about the media industry and I increasingly saw references to David Stern and what he was doing at the NBA. So I wrote David an old-fashioned, snail mail letter, and said, “Dear


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Commissioner, my father is such and such. Would it be possible to talk to you and get some advice about making a transition from law into business?”—which David had done. David’s assistant called me a few weeks later to say that David Stern had received my letter and asked if I was free to come talk to him. I did, and the first time we met, we never talked about an NBA job. He just gave me some advice about a transition to the media industry; advice I did not take [laughs]. But several weeks later, he called me again and said, “I have an idea.” He was interested in hiring someone who had a legal background, but did not want to work in the legal department, to be his special assistant. In essence, that’s how I ended up at the NBA. HOOP: You’ve joked that you had a 22-year apprenticeship under David. What did you learn working for him? SILVER: I learned to pay attention to everything around you. I learned how important detail is in whatever you’re involved with. I learned to always be prepared and the importance of hard work. I learned that it was important to have a very broad understanding of the media and entertainment industry to understand NBA programming and distribution, and always be aware that we are competing against many different forms of entertainment, not just other sports events. It’s a long list. HOOP: Did you move into his old office after he retired? SILVER: I did, although I waited about six months. It needed a small amount of

redecoration, but largely it just took me a while to make that move. For at least the first year, we all called it “David’s office.” HOOP: Did he leave any surprises for you in the office or desk? SILVER: Not intentionally. A lot of paper clips. HOOP: He had the nickname “Cyber Dave.”3 Do you have a nickname? SILVER: Not that I’m aware of [laughs]. HOOP: You helped launch NBA.com4 and NBA TV.5 What are some technologies that the NBA is looking at now to enhance fan experience? SILVER: We’re spending a lot of time looking at virtual reality.6 It’s still in its early days, but I think that’s a technology, especially for people that will never get to an NBA arena or even get to the United States, that could be transformative. HOOP: How much has social media impacted the NBA? SILVER: Social media has had a huge impact. It allows our players, regardless of the size of market that they’re in, to talk directly to their fans on a global basis. Same for the teams, same for the League, to the point where now we estimate that roughly 1.2 billion people connect with the NBA in some respect through social media, whether that’s following a particular player, following a team, following the NBA’s feeds. That’s more than one out of seven people on the planet experiencing the NBA in some manner through social media. 027

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HOOP: We love your Instagram account7 and how you give fans a behind-thescenes look at the NBA. But why no pictures of you? SILVER: Well, I don’t take every photo myself. But the idea is that the Instagram followers are getting the commissioner’s perspective on the NBA, so therefore, I’ve always felt I shouldn’t be in the photos. I got that notion from spending so much time following David Stern around those many years and being in situations where I thought, “This is something that others would like to see, as well.” So that’s really what drives the inspiration behind both my Facebook and my Instagram accounts. HOOP: We were hoping to see some photos of you dapping with the players. SILVER: I may have to move to some selfies at some point. HOOP: Yes, with the hashtag #SilverSelfie. Where did you hone your smooth dap game, by the way? SILVER: [laughs] I’m not sure I’ve quite honed it.8 I think mine comes more from being a hugger by nature, so it’s half dap, half hug. But I generally follow the players’ lead and I think it’s more just a sort of a way of a friendly greeting, or a shared experience. HOOP: How about some pics of you running9 in Central Park? We hear you are an avid runner. SILVER: I run probably, on average, four times a week. If I had more time, frankly, I would run seven days a week. I really enjoy running, but given my travel schedule and work schedule, I can’t always get a run in. I live in Manhattan, near Central Park, and I think it’s one of the great runs in the world.10 I’ve been fortunate through the NBA to travel to many, many countries and run outside in many of those places, but running in Central Park is still the most special run to me. HOOP: A lot of fans probably don’t know that you were married in 2015. How did you and Maggie meet? SILVER: Maggie and I were fixed up through a mutual friend. 028

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HOOP: How did you propose? SILVER: Oh my, I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody that. All I will say is that I did take a knee [laughs]. HOOP: Fair enough. We understand she is a big basketball fan? SILVER: Yes, she grew up in Stamford, Conn., and she played in high school. She is a big fan and she attends a lot of games with me, and we watch a lot of basketball on TV at home. HOOP: We read in the Players Tribune that you said she is almost as good12 as you? SILVER: [laughs] I hope she didn’t read that. I think she thinks she is better than I am, but she is pretty good

BONUS POINTS 1. If you would like to get the commissioner a present, the traditional 25th anniversary gift is silver. 2. Commissioner Silver named Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Anthony Davis as just a few of the players who will fill the void left by the NBA’s retired greats. 3. The moniker was given to Stern for his vision and belief of the internet in marketing the League. 4. went live in 1995. 5. NBA TV (initially called TV) launched on March 17, 1999. 6. The NBA partnered up with NextVR to deliver one game per week in virtual reality, becoming the first professional sports league to do so. 7. Follow @adamsilvernba on Instagram and on Facebook. 8. The Commish is being overly modest. Peep the dap games of other sports commissioners and no one holds a candle to Silver. 9. Silver used to listen to music or podcasts while running, including Adrian Wojnarowski, Bill Simmons and Marc Maron’s podcasts, although now he gives his “full attention” to navigating on his run. 10. Although he doesn’t take his Labrador running in Central Park because of all the bicycles and cars, he likes to take his dog running when traveling. 11. Silver took part in the New York Marathon as part of the NBA All-Star Relay in 2014. 12. At 6-3, Silver is eye-level with many NBA point guards, but he describes his game as “very mediocre.”


11/30/16 5:40 PM

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DEFENSE The Cleveland Cavaliers are in uncharted territory—defending a title—but they’re acting like they’ve been there before.


t seemed that almost from the minute Golden State signed Kevin Durant over the summer, Bay Area officials were making plans for another late-June parade. The combination of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would prove too much for the rest of the League—and perhaps even an all-star team comprised of players from every other team. The prevailing sentiment was that whoever won the Eastern Conference this season had better celebrate enthusiastically, because there would be no champagne after the Finals. The Warriors’ early coronation didn’t play too well in Cleveland. Even though Cavaliers star LeBron James said the Durant signing was “great for our League,” an article that ran in Sports Illustrated during the summer reported that James had starting setting his alarm an hour earlier—to 5 a.m.—to get to the gym earlier. It was clear he wasn’t about to let the city’s first world title in 50 years be the end of his basketball journey. James would continue “chasing a ghost [that] played in Chicago,” and the rest of his Cavaliers teammates, while happy and proud, were not about to relax and let the glow of the 2016 championship overshadow the work still to be done. As training camp convened, a confidence pervaded the team. But it wasn’t to be confused with satisfaction. The perception that the Warriors would be hungrier, because they collapsed in record fashion (the first team in NBA history to lose after a 3-1 lead) in the 030

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Finals last year, was the preferred storyline. Nobody in Cleveland was too fond of that tale. "I don't think for us to try and say we have a championship hangover right now,” says James. “I think everyone has come in in great shape, guys look good, they're performing well, so that's always a good sign." The Cavaliers enter the 2016-17 almost completely intact. It went down to the wire, but J.R. Smith was brought back. The core is there: The Big Three of guard Kyrie Irving, forward Kevin Love and James, along with Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, ageless Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. A few players had moved on, most notably center Timofey Mozgov and guard Matthew Dellavedova, but the Cavs remained the best of the East, and for the first time in franchise history, defending champs. Last year’s challenge was significant. Cleveland had to knock off the team that had won the most regular season games in NBA history. Many thought the 73-win Warriors should be working on championship ring designs even before the playoffs started. But the Cavs prevailed, dramatically. The 2016-17 assignment could be even more difficult. Perhaps the Warriors won’t win 74 times to set a new record. But with Durant joining the team to create a “Big Four,” there is a sense of invincibility surrounding the team. To match that, the Cavs must stay healthy, maximize their roster and work perhaps harder than they did last season. New addition Mike Dunleavy, a smooth-shooting wing with 14 years experience with four different NBA teams, recognized the team’s commitment and work ethic right away. As much as the presence of James, Irving and Love matters, so does their leadership and willingness to do anything necessary to repeat. "[It’s a] pretty humble group for coming off winning a championship and going to the Finals two years in a row," says Dunleavy. "They like to joke around and have a good time, but when it gets down to doing work, they're serious, put the time in and you don't always see that with teams. "I've been on a lot of teams where guys come and go, show up five minutes before practice and leave right after. We have our best players here an hour and a half early and stay an hour and a half late. Quite honestly, that's kind of new to me.” Defending a title is certainly new to the Cavaliers, not to mention any Cleveland professional team. While there is no set formula for a repeat, it’s clear from James’ early morning training sessions that he understands that hard work is part of the equation. He hasn’t been alone in that approach. Shumpert, who struggled with his shot last year, spent countless hours working on his jumper during the offseason, when he could have been basking in the title. It’s clear he feels he will need to provide additional production to offset Golden State’s nuclear grade offense. "Shump is just ready to step in," says Irving. "As a professional it's his job as well as our job to make sure we all integrate ourselves— whoever is out there. As a two-guard for us, he's been working on his jumpshot a lot and coming into this preseason definitely impacting the ball like he does defensively. He understands that.” The Cavaliers have plenty of answers. But the question posed from the Bay Area may be too much for anybody to solve. One thing fans can count on is that despite the big celebration that took place in Cleveland after June’s historic title, there is no hangover. Everybody is back to work and ready to accept the challenge. No matter how many All-Stars the Warriors happen to sign.


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THIS W He has no time to talk about the game. Kemba Walker is too occupied trying to win them.


f you ask Kemba Walker what his favorite part of basketball is, he may pause for a few seconds before he says, “Winning. Winning is definitely my favorite part of the game. I want to win, that’s the ultimate goal: win as much as possible.” That’s what you want to hear from the guy who will run your team—a team owned coincidentally by a man known for winning in his career. For the Charlotte Hornets to make their first back-to-back playoff appearance since 2001-02, it it will be up to Walker to lead the way. This year has a parallel to both his maturity as a player and as leader. Walker will have the responsibility of taking a team that looks to be on the verge of making the next big step in the Eastern Conference to another milestone, and he is primed for that. In 2014-15, Charlotte was coming off a playoff appearance before Walker and veteran Al Jefferson were sidelined by injuries midway through the schedule. This would effectively end the team’s postseason hopes. Last year the team again lost Jefferson to injury early, and this seemed to seal another early summer for the Hornets. That’s when he took charge. Walker was able to seamlessly step into the leadership role and it was no coincidence that the winning began happen. The team wound up 48-34, which was a 15-win improvement from the previous season. “Before [last year] he looked at it more as Al’s team since he was the veteran,” says assistant coach Steve Hetzel, who has been working individually with Walker for the past two seasons. “When Al came here he had such a positive impact on him [and] he allowed Al to be the go-to guy. I think he seems more [comfortable now] where he can step up and lead by example—letting his everyday work, effort and on-court performance do the talking.” And that work wasn’t hard to notice. Last year, Walker averaged career highs in points (20.9) and rebounds (5.2). He worked hard to change his shot and also improved his shooting percentages across the board (.427 field goal percentage .371 from three, .847 from the free-throw line were all career highs). The 2015-16 032

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season was a coming-out party of sorts for him and it showed that he could be the next great player for the organization. The Hornets have become Kemba’s team and he’s acutely aware of what that entails for him. As the leader you don’t have the latitude to take it easy. Walker is aware that there has to be a certain level of effort that he needs to expect of the team. Most importantly, he knows that there is a certain level of effort and commitment that he has to expect of himself. He knows he needs to be the catalyst for the team in any situation, even during practice. “When practice isn’t going so well and the energy isn’t up, I think the guys are looking for me to get it going,” Walker says. “They expect that from me, especially my coaching staff, and I expect it from myself. It’s about working as hard as possible so we can get [what we need] done” And for him, this is all done in a very low-key manner. Kemba’s probably one of the more unassuming young stars in the League. Most of the NBA’s team centerpieces have labels like vocal, demonstrative, emotional and even occasionally abrasive attached to their names. Kemba’s demeanor is more reserved. He describes himself as a lead-by-example kind of guy who doesn’t feel the need to say much, but his presence has spoken volumes. As last season unfolded, it was clear that the team looked to him to be the one to carry them when it came to crunch time. “There were moments when the team would look to him and just say, ‘It’s winning time in the fourth quarter,” basically telling him it’s time to take over the game whether he made or missed the shot,” Hetzel recalls. “He’s fully embraced that.” And it may be perfect timing now. Sometimes the desire to lead and ability to do so needs time to develop. At 25 years old with five notches on his NBA experience belt, Walker may have reached the level of comfort necessary to take that next step for the Hornets.He knows that his teammates, his coaches and the fans will look to him to pilot the team to another playoffs. That’s what happens when you’re as good as Walker is. But Kemba, being as Kemba is, credits his teammates for helping him assert himself, as well as his newfound success in the role. “The guys I have around me allow me to lead,” says Walker thoughtfully. “Regardless of my age, they let me be who I am and make things easier for me. They’re great at that and I really appreciate them for that.” This has put him at ease in his role, as well as with the expectations that come with it. He knows they’re behind him, period. He’s grown some and the team’s fortunes seem to have followed along. Now he has his sights on the ultimate prize: building on the team’s successes from last year and winning as much as possible—the favorite part of his game.


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UPTOW Things are looking North in Minnesota with the emergence of Karl-Anthony Towns.


orget any debate. The Minnesota Timberwolves are loaded with young talent such as Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. But their eventual ceiling depends on how high the 7-foot Karl-Anthony Towns pushes the roof of the Target Center. The 21-year-old, who is entering his second season in the League, looks like a perennial All-Star, and if all goes well, a potential Hall of Famer. Lofty predictions? Absolutely. Given Towns’ incredible Rookie of the Year season (18.3 PPG on .542 field goal shooting, 10.5 RPG and 1.7 BPG), it might actually be conservative. All signs point to the Timberwolves moving up in the Western Conference standings this season. Wiggins and LaVine are expected to form a high-flying swingman duo that can wreak havoc with athleticism on both ends. Rubio will finally have a full array of weapons to turn his ball wizardry into dimes. Center Gorgui Dieng is a sleeper center who at the beginning of the season was flirting with a double-double average. This past draft's No. 5 pick Dunn is as poised as any previous rookie point guard. And the addition of head coach Tom Thibodeau brings that much-needed defensive edge that all championship contenders need. Towns said at media day that the team’s 12-year playoff drought is “annoying.” That shows how motivated Towns is to help turn around the struggling franchise. Minnesota won 29 games, 13 more than the previous season. Much of the improvement is directly attributed to Towns.Towns’ per-game numbers last season were impressive, but it was how he put them up that really makes it likely the Wolves will end their postseason streak come April. Towns showed durability by playing all 82 games and displaying consistency, capturing Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in all six months. Towns played like a veteran while showcasing a varied game on both ends that transcends his just-one-year-ofcollege experience. If you think Towns was satisfied, think again. “I’ve always been a big philosopher of in the offseason, you work on every single facet of your game,” Towns told Bleacher Report after the season ended. “Don’t pinpoint something. Because you limit yourself if you 034

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specialize in something, and I’m not a specialist in anything. I’m a person and a player who bases off of versatility, trying to do every single thing really well. That’s what I’m going to do this summer. I’m going to do everything I can to my body, to my physical skill set, even adding some components that I feel I can add. I’m just going to do that to be the most complete player I can be.” Down the road, if the Timberwolves run deep into the playoffs, they’ll revert back to the day that Towns was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Towns received all 130 votes for Rookie of the Year, which were handed in by sportswriters and broadcasters in the United States and Canada. He became the fifth unanimous choice since Ralph Sampson in 1984. Other unanimous selections through the years included David Robinson in 1990, Blake Griffin in 2011 and Damian Lillard in 2013—pretty good company, indeed. Good company also describes the Timberwolves talented roster, a core that can conceivably challenge Golden State’s current supremacy in the West with the potential of a long run like the San Antonio Spurs. Towns is the whole key. There’s no debate. “This is a great time for Minnesota, not just for the draft but because of the direction we're going,” Towns told reporters. “This is a great direction. We're going upward. We're a team on the rise. I see special things for us, not years from now, but next year. We made some great moves. The team is on the right path. We're doing a great job every single day, minute, second of improving our team to be the team we want to be. I see nothing but aspirations to be in the playoffs next year and trying to make a run.” Unlike the University of Kentucky, which contends for a national championship every season, the development for a young team in the NBA is a much longer and more involved process. The Timberwolves are trending upward led by Towns. “I’ve been patient my whole life,” Towns said at media day. “This is the moment that I’ve been waiting for. This exact year, this exact moment, this exact team. I feel more comfortable going into this year than I did any year earlier in my career feeling that success is imminent.” Minnesota brought in Thibodeau to help this young group anchored by Towns. “Each step has been a positive, but I think for us, the most important thing is to confront the facts of where we are as a team,” Thibodeau said at media day. “I think that’s the big thing, to commit to improvement, that’s the next step, and then we have to close the gap. We were 12 games out of a playoff spot last year. We were a 29-win team, 11th in offensive efficiency, 27th in defensive efficiency, so we have to strive to get in the top 10 in both areas.” Towns gained plenty of experience as a rookie. He picked up extra life lessons from veteran and Minnesota lifer Kevin Garnett for a year. Perhaps sensing Towns ready to assume the role of franchise cornerstone that he once held, the future Hall of Famer opted to retire before this season, unofficially handing the keys to the Minnesota star. Those lessons will surely be carried into the 2016-17 season and beyond. “I always told him when the season was coming to an end that he could leave on his own terms, and that no matter what, I will always be his little brother,” Towns said. Except he’s now the unquestioned big brother. 035


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TRIPS The Bulls shuffled their deck and flopped a pair to go with their ace in the hole.


how me a team without leadership and I’ll show you a team that can’t win. As cliché as that statement sounds, no one has actually said it. But in the case of the Chicago Bulls, it certainly rings true. For five seasons under Tom Thibodeau, there was no question that he was the leader on the sidelines, and Joakim Noah was the leader on the court and in the locker room. The end result of that dynamic was a Chicago Bulls squad that won an average of 51 games a season, made five straight playoff appearances, appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals, produced an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year and sent four players to the All-Star Game—the second most successful era in team history behind the Michael Jordan halcyon era. That all changed when head coach Thibodeau was fired and Fred Hoiberg was brought in as his replacement. Despite

the championship platitudes offered by the front office at the introduction of Hoiberg, many knew that the coach’s mild-mannered nature probably wouldn’t mesh well on a team built around an in-your-face leadership model. Enter Jimmy Butler, whose selfproclamation as the player others should look to for governance caused an irreparable split in the locker room and the Bulls freefall out of the playoff picture for just the second time in 12 seasons. Sensing the need for strong accountability on the court, practice floor and in the weight room, the Bulls' front office went out this summer and picked up two of the NBAs most dominant personalities, one a future Hall of Famer who have not only won championships, but are respected League-wide by their peers. In short, Dwyane


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Wade and Rajon Rondo weren’t just brought in to help the Bulls win right away. They came to Chicago to change the culture. “I've come from a different place, a different culture,” explains Wade. “I sat down and listened [to the guys on the team from last year]. Some of the things they talked about, I know are not going to take place—not while I'm here. Not while Rondo's here. Not while Jimmy continues to grow as a leader… Rondo's won a championship, I've won a championship, we demand respect on the court…so they'll listen.” On the first day of training camp, both Wade and Rondo chided guys for being too chatty and unfocused. They even stopped

practice at times to get everyone on the same page. While both players have publicly deferred to Butler, privately the two veterans are showing the Bulls' young star that leadership is much more than being vocal—it’s setting an example and earning the respect of those you want to follow you. “I told Jimmy a leader can't pick and choose when he wants to lead,” says Rondo. “You have to come out here every day, every practice… If you're down, you need to get your head right because you have to bring it every day. Every. Day.” Butler has embraced the additions of Wade and Rondo to the team, even going so far as to place phone calls to both during free agency and asking them to join him in Chicago. In contrast, Derrick Rose’s unwillingness to be a recruiter as the team’s best player opened him to much criticism. To Butler’s credit, no player in the NBA has worked as hard to establish himself as one the League’s best players. That’s certainly a mark of a great leader and a foundation that can be built upon. “I think everybody that's on this roster now just knows how hard that I've worked to get to this spot that I'm at. They've seen it. They've witnessed it,” says Butler. “I think hard work can get you anywhere that you want to get to.” Both Rondo and Wade have the utmost respect for Butler’s ability to push himself to the limit every night. And each of them seems to have a vested interest in helping Butler become the best player he can be, not only on the court, but off it as the face of a franchise representing a city known for its toughness and blue collar mindset. Still, there have will be questions on the dynamic between what some have called “The Three Alphas,” and how such strong personalities will be able to coexist. Rondo is known for his fiery tongue and curtness, while Wade has never been shy about speaking his mind to anyone. How that plays with the other guys on the roster, especially Butler, is anybody’s guess. Luckily, Wade isn’t pessimistic about those prospects. “I don't see that being a problem with Jimmy at all,” he says. “It's my job to help him in ways that I see he can be better. I think me and Rondo coming in and saying [we want him to be better] early is just giving him the confidence that he doesn’t have to worry about taking a step back or anything…All we want him to do is play his game.” It’s in their games that the three players look like ill fits. Rondo might have the reputation as a pass-happy point guard, but he also requires the ball in his hands so he can dole out the dimes as he sees fit. Despite being one of the best shooting guards ever, Wade is very comfortable running an offense and making decisions with the ball. Butler, particularly in his emergence the past few seasons and while Rose was injured, has been the primary focus of the Bulls' offense. This leaves Chicago with three ball-dominant stars and only one basketball. In the early go of the season, it has proven to be a working experiment. Rondo has sacrificed touches, Wade has ceded shots to Butler, and Butler has taken advantage of the two veterans’ presences to jump out to a good start this season. Good things do come in threes. 037


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The San Antonio Spurs will be looking to fill the franchise's void with another championship.


he Gasol Brothers—Pau and Marc—used to talk about what it would be like to play together in the NBA as teammates, harkening back to the moments the two Spaniards shared the court, playing together for their home country when competing in global competitions every two years, such as the Olympics or FIBA World Cup. If it was to happen, they pictured it perhaps occurring in San Antonio, the franchise that helped transform 14 international players into NBA champions over the last two decades. Pau actually thought his brother Marc would leave Memphis for San Antonio in 2015 when his contract was up, but, alas, that did not happen. However, when the six-time All-Star center’s own contract was up in Chicago, Pau Gasol made it known to Spurs architect Gregg Popovich that his first—and only—free-agent choice was indeed the organization he and his brother fantasized about. Granted, his brother is not here to assist, but Gasol’s bold move is just what this Spurs family needs with its franchise is undergoing such a major renovation, thanks to the offseason retirement of center Tim Duncan, the Spurs’ Hall-of-Fame big man and leader for 19 unparalleled seasons. Quite frankly, he is the only other NBA player who has the makings—in talent, credentials and personality—to come close to the legendary gold standard set by Duncan himself. “I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot he left,” Gasol said to the San Antonio Express-News. “But I’m here to make the best fit as best I can with the guys that are here to win a title basically.” It will be a tough mountain for Pau and his new brothers to climb. For with the retirement of 15-time All-NBA and All-Defense honoree Duncan—along with the exodus of power forwards Boris Diaw, David West and center 038

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Boban Marjanovic—the Spurs simply aren't the giants of the West that they used to be. Yes, the all-around All-Star Gasol, former All-Star David Lee and athletic rim protector Dewayne Dedmon fill the void somewhat, but if everyone thinks this trio can replace the 4,834 minutes of elite defense that exited the door, they're in for a rude awakening. “Defensively, Tim was always a guy who was in the right spot at the right time,” Gasol told the Express-News. “He might not have been as athletic as he used to be, but he was always altering shots, communicating comfort and confidence to his teammates.” Nonetheless, the addition of the Bulls’ 2016 All-Star center to a 2016 All-Star frontline featuring All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and MVP runner-up small forward Kawhi Leonard is intriguing to say the least. What that unit loses in Duncan’s defensive dominance (San Antonio led the NBA in 2015-16 defensive efficiency), it just may make up for on offense, thanks to Leonard’s annual isolation-game improvement, Aldridge’s growing comfort in the Spurs’ offensive system, and Gasol’s comparable all-around game to Duncan. Because of those upsides, look for Popovich's 2016-17 troops to become even more offensive-minded, playing more small-ball lineups than ever before—with third-year Spur Kyle Anderson and Leonard flourishing in the stretch 4 role, at times. Look for lots of high-low passing attacks from bigs Gasol and Aldridge, who basically are mirror statistical images of each other (Gasol, 17 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes per game at 21.7 Player Efficiency Rating; Aldridge, 18 points and 9 rebounds in 31 minutes at 22.4 PER). Look for even more isos from Leonard when the offense breaks down, as the 2014 Finals MVP has already seen his scoring average rise each season to a now robust 21.2 points in 33.1 minutes per, while

his efficiency has increased too, to last season’s career-high 26.0 PER. Look for Tony Parker, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills to resuscitate “The Beautiful Game” offense that helped the Spurs win the 2014 NBA Championship. And also look for the Spurs to draw from foreign soil as they’ve done time and time again, not only with current Spurs (Ginobili, Parker and Mills), but from Gasol (Spain), sharpshooter Davis Bertans (Latvia), athletic Livio Jean-Charles (France), and 3-and-D wing Patricio Garino (Argentina). If things go according to plan, do not be surprised if Pop's crew supplants the Golden State Warriors for the NBA's top offense. It's both possible and plausible. Wouldn’t it be something if the Spurs were able to maintain last season’s incredible 67-win pace by somehow sustaining a semblance of last season’s League-leading defense, while also perhaps rising a notch on offense? After all, nobody dominated on defense in the modern-game era as Duncan did the past 19 years, capping his final regular season at age 39 with a League-leading +5.43 Defensive Real Plus-Minus score. Still, a 36-year-old Pau (+3.07 DRPM) may be able to match a 39-year-old Duncan’s rim protection numbers, with both centers posting defensive metrics that ranked amongst the top 10 at their position (Gasol, 46.3 field goals defended at rim percent; Duncan, 47.0 field goals defender at rim percent). So if Pau becomes that defensive anchor, who knows how the rest of the Spurs defenders—led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year wing Leonard—will respond in kind. “It’s a lot of fun just to think about new bodies and new blood in the gym,” Popovich said at Spurs media day. “It will be exciting who comes up with what ideas, who plays well and who fits together.”


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VOYAGE The Clippers have been sailing for a championship for a while now. After this season, it might be time to chart a new course.


elieve it or not, if you’ve been watching NBA basketball over the past five seasons, you’re a witness of the Los Angeles Clippers' golden age. When you reflect on the Clippers' past five seasons of mounting expectations and failed executions, it might not feel that way. However, consider that the Clippers have won 66 percent of their games over the past five years. Weigh that steep winning percentage against the 36 percent of games the Clippers won in their 41 previous seasons and it’s easy to see how this era of Clippers basketball has marked a pivot in the franchise's fortunes. If all goes accordingly, they’ll be qualifying for the postseason for the sixth year in a row come April. Prior to this period of enlightenment, the Clippers had seven total playoff appearances. Just as important, for the last three postseasons, the only team representing Los Angeles has been wearing red and blue—a first for Southern California basketball. The notion that the Clippers are thriving by their previously set standard is surprising to some. Even three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford was speechless, only mustering a “wow,” and a long pause upon hearing the numbers. The 262 wins from the Clippers over the last five years surpass all but the Oklahoma City Thunder (266) and San Antonio Spurs (292) over the same span. The 192 wins from their city and arena mates, the Lakers, are way back in the rearview mirror. The Clippers have produced 10 All-Star selections in the last five years, compared to a woeful 16 in the 41 years prior. On the Clippers varied success the past five seasons, Crawford says, “We want to build a model of consistency and be one of the elite teams out there. I think 040

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we’ve done that in the regular season but for the playoffs we need to take that next step, and I think that’s what we’re ready for.” It’s a big year for the Clippers, and that goes beyond the regular trials and tribulations of being the other franchise in Los Angeles. The biggest is the possible free agent defections of superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The two are the biggest reasons for the Clippers recent resurgence and both have player options at the end of the season. Sharpshooter J.J. Redick is a free agent. Bench veterans Crawford and Paul Pierce are not in the team’s long-term outlook. Crawford is still an effective offensive spark off the pine but he turns 37 come March, while the future Hall of Famer Pierce has already announced that this will be his final NBA season. It’s now or never for a Clippers team that has had the same goal the last few campaigns: Put up a red and blue championship banner in Staples. The team hasn’t been lacking in individual glory. Paul and Griffin have been in the MVP race over the past five seasons. First-time All-NBA First Team selection DeAndre Jordan is in the Defensive Player of the Year sweepstakes, and Crawford has been in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, an award he’s taken home three times in the past seven seasons. Asked about the individual success the team has seen, Crawford has this to say: “I have no individual goals to be honest with you. It’s really about winning the championship, that’s the only goal that we all have. That’s what’s so special about this group. Nobody else cares about anything else going on.” The Clippers have never in their entire 46 years of history reached the Conference Finals. It’s not something they are focused on either. To Crawford and company, the Larry O’Brien Trophy is the only measure of success. “We understand that you can still have small wins, some success along the process. But for us, we’re playing for one thing. That’s not commercials, or highlights, or our contracts, or anything of that nature. We’re playing to be the last team standing,” he says. The Clippers are playing for more than themselves, they are playing for a wounded fan base that has been aching and itching the last five decades. The Clippers are going to have to battle through insane criticism and cynicism on their way to a title. Truthfully, they are playing against stacked odds. The rival Golden State Warriors loom large, a team boasting a ridiculous 140-24 record over the last two years, and that’s prior to adding former MVP Kevin Durant. Often rumored to be at violent odds, Crawford elaborates on the WarriorsClippers rivalry. “We’ve seen each other in the playoffs, and we’ve had some really good battles over the years. Obviously, they’ve been terrific the last couple years. For us, I don’t think it's hate. Hate is a strong word. They are trying to stake their claim and they have, they have been to the top. We want to get there and along the way we aren’t going to be the best of friends, that’s for sure.” The Clippers’ talent is undeniable. Crawford has established their focus, so other than injuries what has held them back in years past? Crawford’s answer might surprise you: “I think having that mental toughness, that resolve. We’ve had leads when we’ve been up 2-0, we’ve been up 3-1, these are situations we can control other than the health aspect.” In a year with so much at stake, the Clippers can’t afford mental lapses. Nor should a veteran team, with an established coach, and cemented stars, struggle to keep its cool in big moments. The Clippers stand out amongst teams to possibly challenge the NBA’s elite. In a time of three-year plans, the Clippers are a group with continuity to their core. When asked whether the familiarity of the squad was an advantage, Crawford said, “I think so, I think chemistry is underrated. The really good teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s stayed together for long periods of time.” When asked what sets this Clippers team apart Crawford says: “It’s the right guys, the right coach, the right leadership, the right players, at the right time. It’s a great mix of people and this is our time.” Time will tell of course. But you can’t help but wonder if the ship has sailed.


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The Orlando Magic will attempt to pull off a new trick this season: making the points disappear.


here’s no place like Orlando for kids to have fun playing and for parents to capture their smiles and memories. It’s been that way for NBA teams, as well, as opponents playing the Magic have had plenty of chances to make happy memories without the fear of much defensive resistance. Last season, Orlando’s opponents scored 103.7 ppg while shooting a healthy 46 percent. Only three other teams in the Eastern Conference gave up more points and only four allowed a higher opponents’ percentage. Opponents better have enjoyed those moments and uploaded their celebratory pics because things are about to change. If the Magic have their way in 2016-17, Amway Arena will be better known as “No-Way” Arena. It’s part of new head coach Frank Vogel’s plan to upgrade the defense or, in his words, “Build a defensive monster.” “We’ve got a defensively talented group,” says Vogel, who was hired by Orlando to shape its new image. “We’ve got some good shotblocking inside, good switching bigs, which gives us a lot of flexibility in today’s small-ball era.” Acquiring the pieces began on draft night, when the Magic dealt their most explosive scorer Victor Oladipo and best three-point shooter Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to No. 11 overall pick Domantas Sabonis to 042 FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

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Oklahoma City for seven-year veteran Serge Ibaka, who finished sixth in the NBA in blocks last season. But remember Vogel said “monster,” which meant the block party didn’t end there. A few days after, they brought in Toronto shotblocking machine Bismack Biyombo, who was 13th in blocks and a big reason for the Raptors' Eastern Conference Finals run. That same day, they signed Jeff Green, an athletic 6-9, 235-pound pest, who can guard all five positions. All those pieces join an Orlando defense that was fifth in the League in blocks (5.09 per game) last season, led by 7-0, 260-pound Nik Vucevic (29 double-doubles, seven 20-rebound games and 1.1 blocks per game) and another versatile, multi-position defender in 6-9, 220-pound, Aaron Gordon (2.3 combined blocks and steals per game). Running point for the Magic is one the game’s most tenacious ball hawks in Elfrid Payton. The prowling guard has averaged a tick under 1.5 steals per game over his career while making strides as a ball distributor (17 10-plus assist games and 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio). “Defensively, Elfrid’s a beast,” says Gordon. “It’s one thing to defend somebody throughout the game. It’s another thing to go at somebody throughout the game. He does a much better job of pushing the pace, making sure that we’re under control and now he’s knocking down his jumper.” Vogel comes to Orlando after a six-year run in Indiana that included 250 wins, a .580 winning percentage, two division titles and five playoff appearances, twice reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. This was mostly accomplished on the strength of a tough defense. Twice, Vogel’s Pacers were the best defensive team in the League (2013 and ’14) and finished in the top 10 in 2012 (ninth overall), 2015 (seventh ) and 2016 (third). But that’s old news to him. “You have to continue to re-prove yourself,” he says. “Just like players have to continue to perform for their coach during the year, have to earn minutes in their role, the same is true for what I’ve done. We had success in Indiana, but that’s all in the past and we have to get the job done here.” Getting the job done in Orlando means returning to the playoffs and snapping the current four-year drought, which matches the franchise’s longest since their expansion days. While Orlando is one of only five teams to increase its win total in each of the last three seasons, Vogel’s job is to make a substantial increase, starting with defense. The Magic were 8-15 last year in games decided by five or fewer points, 6-10 in games decided by three or fewer, and 3-5 in contests that went into overtime. The Magic were 15 games over .500 when holding teams under 100 points and only lost once when holding them under 90, but were only able to do that 31 times and eight times, respectively. Making it tougher to score for the opposition seems like a simple path to success. Ibaka sees a parallel with this Orlando team and his former team. The Oklahoma City Thunder went from 23-59 in 2008-09 to 50-32 the next season and would miss the playoffs only once while he was there. “It’s the same idea,” says Ibaka, a three-time NBA All-Defensive Teamer. “A young, talented team trying to fight its way to make the playoffs. We have goals this year to make it to the playoffs. So it’s a

big challenge. You get better when you challenge yourself.” Also new to Orlando but not Ibaka is Green, who was on that 27-winturnaround Thunder team. Green will play a big role with his versatility on the floor, and his mentoring of Gordon, who the organization is very high on. Having persevered through an injury-riddled rookie season, Gordon displayed tremendous athleticism last season in 77 games— enough to possibly move to small forward—and a stickiness on defense that drove opponents crazy. He admits that he went crazy during the offseason seeing all the players Orlando was attracting. “Playing against Serge and Bismack was a nightmare,” he says. “I’m super-happy that they’re on our team. They’re those guys that you don’t like when you’re playing against them, but you love them to be on your team.” Biyombo loved the potential of this team enough that he left the winning situation in Toronto for the opportunity to play in Orlando, where he will reunite with countryman Ibaka. “The opportunity that presented itself for me to grow on the court and off the court,” he says. “Orlando is a new start, a new chapter in my career.” Biyombo, who dominated the boards, pulling down a Raptors record 26 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland, likes what the defensive monster can become. “Our defense is what’s going to help us win games each and every night. Obviously, Serge will be a big, big, big help to our defense. He’s the best at what he does. Defense has to define Orlando Magic Basketball. We have to be at least in the top five defensive teams in the League by the end of the season.” Gordon likes knowing so many bigs have his back. “I encourage people to drive into the paint,” he says. “The only thing that we can’t do is over-help and over-rotate so when they drive into the paint they get easy kick-outs for threes. If we can get teams off the three-point line and funnel them into those big guys, it’s going to be a long night for the guards.” “It’s very intimidating,” agrees Ibaka. “You’ve got guys like Nik and Biz and myself. There is no reason we shouldn’t be the best shotblocking team in the League.” They also should be one of the top eight teams in the East, and with all of the new faces, potentially dangerous in the postseason. The Magic imported some 200 games of postseason experience, something that could pay off for guys like Vucevic, Payton, Gordon, and the rest of the young roster that has never played beyond 82 games a season. “Seeing Bismack, Jeff and Serge speak up, they understand a lot of different things,” says Gordon. “We haven’t really had that on our team before. It feels like a sense of security, having these guys on here and having the IQ be shown to us.” “It’s not easy for an all-young group to find a way to get over that hump,” says Vogel. “You have to have a few guys that have been there before that have had success in the playoffs and I think those guys will definitely bring that experience to our young core to help us get over the hump. I want to set the bar high. I’m hopeful we can reach our potential, which will be a playoff team in the East and a team that has hopefully built something that will win in the playoffs.”


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BROTHERS While DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are at the forefront of the of the “best backcourt” discussion, what isn’t up for debate is the tight bond between the two teammates.


fter most of the franchise-record 56 wins the Toronto Raptors notched a season ago, there would be a familiar sight at the Air Canada Centre: DeMar DeRozan’s three-year-old daughter and Kyle Lowry’s four-year-old son each hitching a ride to the side of the stroller occupied by Lowry’s year-old son. The friendship between the two children of Toronto’s All-Star backcourt is a reflection of the bond built between their fathers in the five seasons since Lowry was traded to Toronto from the Houston Rockets. Following those 56 regular-season wins, the connection between Lowry and DeRozan—on court and off—helped propel Toronto past the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in two separate seven-game series and into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Although the Raptors fell to the eventual NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers in six games, the team made history, with the backcourt leading the way. While success can happen without players forging friendships away from the floor (see Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman as one example, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as another), it sure makes the whole thing more enjoyable. “It makes it easier,” says Lowry. “Especially when you’ve got a guy who you know wants to win as badly as you.” During the first two rounds of the playoffs, DeRozan and Lowry each dealt with offensive struggles and shooting slumps. Neither gave in to outside pressures or criticism, and each was the other’s loudest supporter. Lowry’s college coach, Villanova’s Jay Wright, spent time with both players over the summer when they represented Team USA in the Rio Olympics. It’s the tight-knit connection between the two that he believes helped them survive those early postseason tests. “[Kyle] doesn’t talk about their relationship as much as he talks about how much respect he has for DeMar and how much they love each other,” says Wright. “I’m always watching the relationship. I think that chemistry on the court—when times are tough, the playoffs, when they were in some tough situations on the road—you can see how those two stick together. Nothing is going to break them. It’s rare in professional sports. I think it’s something special that Toronto has.” DeRozan echoed both Lowry and Wright’s assessments.


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S IN ARMS “It makes it a lot easier,” says DeRozan. “That connection that we have off the court makes it easier on the court. We understand each other. He lets me be me and I let him be him and we never try to change one another. We just try to help each other with knowledge on the court and away from it, too. It just transitions and I think that’s why we’re able to play so well together.” Although both players are quick to clown the other, especially when cameras and recorders are on, it’s easy to see their relationship extends well beyond their time in the arena. Following the team’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards in 2015, the two spoke daily over the offseason through text and phone calls, discussing how to improve as a unit as well as what needed to be done to ensure a disappointing repeat would not happen. That offseason plotting meant the two showed up to training camp in peak shape. The offseason work paid off in February when the two represented Toronto as the starting backcourt in the first All-Star game held outside of the United States. It paid off again in April when the playoffs began, and into May before the Cavs ended their season. “I think it’s just the fact that we love the game of basketball and we want to win,” Lowry says of what made the two click immediately after he arrived in Toronto. “We really appreciate each other. We appreciate that I know he’s going to be there for me and he knows I’m going to be there for him.” For Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, having his two leaders and All-Stars so close makes things better for everyone. It’s much easier to sell 15 players on your program when the two best and most important players are the ones leading by example. “It helps tremendously,” says Casey. “The good thing about those two, they’re invested. They have a personal investment in the growth of the program, the direction we’re headed into and that’s huge. Their families are close and when you have that unity, there’s a closeness there. An investment by each player, knowing their role and knowing the chemistry and what it’s about.” After giving Toronto its most successful season to date, the duo followed it up by winning gold medals with the U.S. National team. Getting the opportunity to represent their country is just another memory that strengthens the history between Toronto’s backcourt. “To be able to share that with your teammate, being through so much together, it’s amazing,” DeRozan said. “We were All-Stars together, we took our team to heights it had never been. We accomplished something in life that’s going to keep us bonded forever. It’s bigger than basketball.”


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BOOK S What makes Devin Booker destined to be a future star shooting guard in the League isn’t his stroke (though it’s pretty good), but his work ethic.


he shooting guard position has always been considered the sexiest in all of basketball. It’s the only spot on the court where the role of the person playing in it has a role that is singularly defined: shoot. By definition, the role of the shooting guard is to score. Some of the greatest, most recognizable players in the game have had “SG” by their names. Michael Jordan, Joe Dumars, Mitch Richmond, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant are just a few names that immediately come to mind. Today, players like DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson have picked up where those Hall of Famers left off. However, as great as these players are, Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns has the potential to be the best of them all. He’s already received high praise from the likes of Wade, Bryant and even LeBron James. But despite the positive co-signs from such masters of their craft, the second-year guard has remained level headed and knows that at barely 20 years old, he’s still traveling 048

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SMART down the same path to greatness that his positional predecessors did. He has a long way to go before he arrives, and understands the importance of appreciating the journey. “My rookie season, I learned a lot about the NBA both on and off the court,” says Booker. “It wasn’t the type of season that I’d have liked to have winning-wise, but I was thrown right into the fire. My dad was a pro and from talking to him and other guys I know in the NBA before I got here, they all told me that you’re going to get your chance. So when it comes, be ready.” [Ed Note: Devin’s dad Melvin Booker played for the Rockets, Nuggets and Warriors over two NBA seasons.] After a few spot starts early in his rookie run, Booker’s opportunity as the full-time shooting guard in Phoenix came at the expense of Eric Bledsoe’s season-ending knee surgery. Nine games after cracking the starting lineup, Booker found himself as Phoenix’ first option on offense when Brandon Knight was sidelined with a sports hernia. A month later, having quickly developed a reputation as one of the NBA’s best outside shooters, Booker found himself squaring off against two of the League’s deadliest snipers in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the Three-Point Contest during All-Star in Toronto as the youngest player ever to compete. By year’s end, Booker had put up respectable numbers as a rookie, averaging 13.8 points on 42 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from beyond the arc. In his 45 games as a starter, Phoenix’s shooting star scored in double figures all but five times, and cracked the 30-point threshold six times. The Suns may have finished the year with a dismal 23-59 record, but the bright spots from that campaign came when Booker was named to the All-Rookie First Team in May, chosen to play on the USA Basketball’s Select Team in June, and in

September had Drake rocking his jersey during his Summer Sixteen Tour stop at Talking Stick Resort Arena. All of this at just 19 years old, the youngest player in the NBA last season. “When I wasn’t playing early in the season and getting in games with just two minutes left, I stayed hungry,” says Booker of his rookie success. “I would work out after games and stay late in the gym, just waiting on my moment because when it came, I never wanted to look back. I know that rookies usually don’t get to play, but I’ve always tried to go against the grain.” With one year in the NBA under his belt, Booker remains a gym rat. Even though he’s already reached his goal of playing in the NBA, he understands the real accomplishment is to stay and carve out a career. He lives in Tempe, mere steps from the Arizona State Campus, and has a great relationship with Sun Devils head coach and former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, who lets him get in the gym at the Weatherup Center whenever he doesn’t feel like taking the 25-minute drive to Phoenix. And even on a college campus, Booker never has a problem finding pro-level competition to help keep his game sharp. “Over the summer, James Harden was out here in Arizona a lot playing pickup with us at ASU,” he says. “Every time I get a chance to go at a guy like that, at my position, I’m bringing it full throttle because when we get in between those lines, it’s a competition. I want to earn my respect from a guy like Harden, or players I grew up watching and idolizing like D. Wade and Kobe. The only way I can do that—and the only way I can get to where they’ve been in their careers—is to work hard, never back down and take it to them any chance I get.” Consider all shooting guards warned.


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LEARNI Anthony Davis has proven he is a star in the League. He just needs to lift his team to the same heights.


hen he had a quiet moment or two, Anthony Davis’ first NBA head coach sometimes sidled up to the No. 1 overall draft pick to explain the cold reality of life in the League for franchise players like Davis. “Just remember,” Monty Williams would tell the fresh-faced teenager about the NBA's media corps and passionate fans, “whenever things go wrong for a team, they’re not going to come to the last guy on the bench to blame him, or ask him what the problem is and how to fix it. They’ll be coming to you.” It’s a harsh lesson Davis would inevitably learn firsthand, in his fourth year in the NBA. Ravaged by injuries and doomed by a 1-11 start to the regular season, the New Orleans Pelicans suffered through a brutal 2015-16 season, finishing with a completely unforeseen 30-52 record, a mark that looked doubly worse for a team many had forecast to be a surprising contender in the West. Along with the high prospects for his team, Davis entered that campaign carrying lofty expectations—the “Unibrow” had been discussed as a legitimate MVP candidate in his fourth season. Both notions evaporated by Thanksgiving. Despite the fact that Davis produced nearly identical counting statistics in 2015-16 (24.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg) as he had in 2014-15 (24.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.9 bpg), the common perception was that there’d been a drop-off in his performance. That idea clearly manifested itself at the end of the season, when the 23-year-old was not selected for any of the three All-NBA teams (costing him over $20 million in contract incentives). A year earlier, when New Orleans went an unexpected 45-37 and earned a playoff 050

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berth in the brutally competitive Western Conference, Davis was an All-NBA First-Team pick and placed fifth in MVP voting. Apparently, context matters. The 2012 NCAA champion with Kentucky has always been a team-first player, both by actions and words, so the turn of events merely reinforced the idea that no matter what he does individually, perception of his status among the League’s stars will be dictated by wins and losses. Amid numerous huge games, Davis authored a Wilt Chamberlain-like 59-point, 20-rebound game at Detroit in February and two other 40-point outings. Yet even that historic 59-20 game was quickly forgotten during the stretch run of the season, with the Pelicans rendered bystanders (by the way, that 59-pointer was the most by an NBA player all season, until a certain outgoing Lakers legend put up 60 on the final night). The conversation regarding young frontcourt standouts mostly shifted to the likes of Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, all of whom were honored with All-NBA status. Even Atlanta power forward Paul Millsap—a very good pro, without a doubt, but not a franchise centerpiece—finished slightly ahead of Davis in All-NBA balloting. So how does Davis return in 2016-17 to his previous trajectory as the League’s next big thing? It’s pretty simple, actually: Play in and win more games. Amid a variety of injuries, Davis appeared in a career-low 61 games last season; to no shock the Pelicans went 6-15 without him. The three-time All-Star has missed at least 14 games in each of his four NBA seasons, something New Orleans simply cannot afford this year. That explains why Davis has said that his primary individual goal is to be on the floor all 82 games, adding: “I hate being hurt and missing games.” No player can consistently win big by himself, so with that in mind, the Pelicans changed course this summer, adding free agents partly to try to improve a 28th-place finish in defensive efficiency. Incredibly, despite Davis being one of the NBA’s elite shotblockers from Day 1, New Orleans has finished in the bottom 10 of that statistic every year of his career. The Pelicans hope the additions of Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway—gritty, hard-nosed defenders—will make an immediate impact. “Our team is definitely better than we were last year,” Davis says. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are ready to fight, guys who want to win. Guys who just want to work hard and don’t care what they do, they just want to be a part of a winning team. When you have that mindset, it’s a lot easier for your team to win. I think we brought in guys who are going to be blue-collar guys, with the mentality [of] whatever it takes to win. That’s what we need to get back to where we were. That’s the mentality we had my third year, when we made the playoffs.” True to the Pelicans’ uncanny misfortune in recent years, they opened the season with several critical players unavailable, including No. 2 scoring option Jrue Holiday, along with the versatile Tyreke Evans and invaluable 3-and-D wing Quincy Pondexter. It certainly won’t be easy in what promises to be a heated playoff race in the Western Conference, but Davis knows that for him to achieve any individual accolades, the Pelicans must make a return postseason appearance. “I come into every season thinking I want to get it,” Davis said in October, when repeatedly asked by media during a trip to China if winning MVP is one of his goals. “If it happens, it happens. I’m just



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PROCESSING After years of futility and “playing” for draft picks, the Philadelphia 76ers are ready to start winning.


or a little while, there, everything looked great. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid talked trash about who was better at FIFA. Jahlil Okafor assured everybody his offcourt difficulties were over and revealed that he thinks he can score on just about anybody. Old Elton Brand wanted the world to know that he was killing it during pre-camp pickup games, and everybody was impressed by the Philadelphia 76ers new practice digs, which may be in New Jersey but are spacious, sharp and definitely among the best in the League. The process was working.


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The beginning of every NBA training camp is filled with hope and anticipation. No matter how bad things were the year before, improvement is always on the horizon. New faces and promising rookies have the potential to lift teams to big things. It’s nothing new. Things sure seemed different for the Sixers as camp opened, and it wasn’t just because they finally had their own practice spot, after decades of being workout nomads. The last three years have featured near historic futility for the team, which sank to new levels in 2015-16 with a mere 10 victories—just one more than the epically awful 197273 Sixers managed. After highly publicized commitments to losing in the pursuit of high draft picks and other “assets,” the franchise has declared that it’s time to win. “There was a losing culture,” says GM Bryan Colangelo. “Hopefully, this [season] is a step forward toward winning.” Then came the injury, a Jones fracture to Simmons’ right foot that coach Brett Brown said was “like a punch in the stomach.” Simmons, part of a trio of rookies expected to bring hope to the Sixers, underwent surgery and is expected to miss at least three months. He might be shelved for the entire season, if the Sixers’ recent behavior regarding rookie injuries is any indication. It was a setback, but it wasn’t a crushing blow. Sixers fans have been excited to see Simmons play since the team drafted him first overall in late June. More importantly, they wanted to watch him and fellow rookies Embiid and Dario Saric begin the process of lifting the franchise out of the tailspin that has characterized its last three years. The team was dealt another—albeit less stinging—gut punch with the retirement of Brand a week before opening night. The 17-year vet was far removed from his days as a steady 20-10 guy, but he brought a lot of work ethic, professionalism and experience to a young team in much need of those things. With the Sixers trying to establish a winning culture, Brand’s presence will be missed. All roads lead back to the Sixers’ youth though. Simmons, Embiid (third overall pick, 2014) and forward Dario Saric (12th, 2014) have joined a roster that has been short on talent and hope. Each has substantial skill. Simmons is a 6-10 passing savant with the ability to play four positions and has a rare feel for the game. Embiid, a 7-2, 275-pound interior monster, has inside-outside scoring potential and a nasty streak on the defensive end. And the 6-10 Saric comes to Philadelphia after impressing on the international stage with his diverse game. “There is a lot of young talent on this team,” the 37-year old Brand said before his decision to retire. “These guys can play.” The Sixers were expected to depend on that youth—particularly Simmons and Embiid—in a way that is rare in recent NBA history. Although fourth-year forward Nerlens Noel and sophomore pivot Okafor return, and the team has imported veteran perimeter players Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez, this season was supposed to be about the young guys, who were looked at as the reasons Philadelphia can finally commit to winning. It wouldn’t be

smooth or easy, but the Sixers were betting on a big future payout. It’s still about the future, especially now that Simmons has been shelved. Not even the most optimistic prognosis had Philadelphia in the playoffs, which means another Lottery-bound year. The process continues, especially since the Sixers could have two Lottery picks next June, not to mention the prospect of a healthy Simmons for 2017-18. For a team committed to the long play, waiting for another year isn’t so bad, provided Simmons recovers completely. Even though Simmons spent one year at LSU, he was the presumptive top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft from the moment he graduated from Montverde Academy in Florida. Like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Simmons has the playmaking gene in a physical package that contradicts that ability. The possibility of Simmons sweeping clean the boards and leading the break, finishing himself or setting up a teammate is a thought that GM dreams are made of. “I have a different skill set,” Simmons says. “I could be the one running the break or being on the wing. I could be the primary ballhandler.” Sixers fans have been waiting for Embiid since the team surprised everybody by selecting him third overall in 2014. Two foot surgeries and an epic rehab stretch kept him from the court, leaving fans with only the big man’s vibrant social media personality and reports of his growing three-point shooting ability—and frame—as indications that he might some day get on the court. Embiid is healthy, and though Colangelo and Brown have been clear that he will be subject to playing time restrictions, he has the potential to be an immediate force. “I’m really excited,” Embiid says before the season. “I’ve gone through a lot. It’s been two years…I’m healthy and ready.” The arrivals of Saric, who spent the past two seasons with Anadolu Efes in the Turkish League, and Simmons, along with Embiid’s return to health, complicate matters somewhat, since they join Noel and Okafor in a crowded frontcourt that has created some public frustration and will most likely lead to a roster move at some point during the season. But the trio is ready to go and represents the Sixers’ best chance in a while for progress and a move toward contention. The Sixers still need help in the backcourt, and it will take time for the young talent to coalesce. The newcomers’ presence will no doubt provide excitement and hope, something fans have wanted for several seasons. Though Simmons could miss the entire season, Embiid and Saric will definitely create excitement. More importantly, the decision to win after three years of choosing to lose is quite welcome. “This is not dissimilar to a construction site or a skyscraper,” Colangelo says. “There is a lot of work being done to our infrastructure. We’re looking ahead with a lot of excitement and anticipation to where it might go.” And how the youngsters will chart the course, now and in the future.


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CLOVER The Boston Celtics’ roster is a deep and enviable shade of green.


s the NBA preseason wore on, fans and media began to speculate which players would sneak onto the tail end of the Celtics’ 15-man roster. It might be guard R.J. Hunter, who in his second year is still trying to find his NBA role. Maybe rookie Demetrius Jackson, who will be paid this season whether he makes the team or not, gets a spot. Or perhaps veteran Gerald Green’s strong play in exhibition games—and veteran’s minimum contract—survives. [Ed note: Hunter was a late cut before the regular season.] It makes sense Boston would have problems at the bottom of the roster, because it has so many choices at the top. The Celtics aren’t a star-laden squad, but few, if any, teams can replicate their depth, and that is what the team will rely on to keep moving up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Last year, the Celts won 056

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48 games, eight more than they did the previous season and 23 more than they did in 2013-14, when the franchise began its remodel. “I think we still have really good depth,” says coach Brad Stevens, who cut his NBA head coaching teeth during that 25-57 campaign in 2013-14. “That’s one of the strengths of our team and has been the last couple of years.” While other NBA teams revolve around their “Big Threes” (or “Fours” if you’re Golden State) and try to fulfill the 21st century requirement of contending—remember when the Bulls got by with just a “Really Big Two?”—Boston is operating according to the idea that a strong nine-man rotation can overcome three stars. After failing to land closers like Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook during the offseason and “settling” for the third spot in the draft, which effectively disqualified them from acquiring projected franchise gamechangers Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram, the Celtics are continuing the strategy that has helped them move forward the past couple years. Yes, they added big man Al Horford to the mix, creating an All-Star configuration featuring him and guard Isaiah Thomas, but the Celts will still attack opponents in waves. The key for the Celtics is versatility. They have a variety of options up front and in the backcourt line and aim to use them to play nasty defense and create a collection of scoring possibilities that stresses rivals. Thomas can get 20, as can Horford, but for the most part, this is a team with a lot of talent and an identity that is decidedly egalitarian. Even Horford, who is expected to be a frontcourt stalwart, fits into the Boston philosophy because of his versatility. “He’s a player that can play with anybody,” says GM Danny Ainge. “He can play center with [forward] Jae Crowder, he can play center or power forward with Kelly Olynyk, he can play with Tyler [Zeller], he can play with Amir [Johnson]. He just fits with whatever way that we want to play and any grouping.” As Ainge continues to stockpile draft picks and make small moves he hopes will blossom into bigger maneuvers, he has built a team that has multiple parts but none of the star power that has characterized recent champions. When the Celtics last won, in 2008, they were led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, three future Hall of Famers, who were supported by steady contributors like Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics roster doesn’t have anyone of that caliber right now, no matter how talented Thomas and Horford may be. So, Stevens must find a way to arrange the roster according to situations and opposition, the better to leverage its flexibility into wins, which is perfect for a new-school basketball mind like Stevens who likes to tinker in the name of efficiency. Stevens has gotten pretty good at it, having had to piece together lineups and rosters over the past three seasons, two of which saw the Celtics reach the playoffs. “Some days it’ll be a solid eight [players] plus two, but that plus two may change game to game depending on who we’re playing, how they’ve played against them, how they’re playing in practice, how they played the game before, etc.,” says Stevens. “But I think any time you can get to a solid eight or nine in the rotation, that’s beneficial.” This is not a team of mere role players and afterthoughts. Boston has depth, but it’s talented depth. Thomas quickly shed his “overlooked and underrated” status in the midst of a career year, and Horford is a four-time All-Star who could well become a 20-10 performer this season. Guards Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart form a formidable perimeter defensive wall, with the former continuing his development into an offensive threat. Crowder does just about everything on the court and is the glue for the team. The Olynyk/Johnson/Zeller troika inside can lay claim as the deepest in the NBA. Don’t forget about third overall pick Jaylen Brown, who has impressed even four-time MVPs “He's a strong kid. You can see he knows how to play the game,” said LeBron James after Brown’s first career start in a Nov. 3 game against the defending champs. “Oh, they’re good,” says Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford. “They’re going to be good. I mean, I would think that most people would say they’re top three in the East. They have a good team, they’re well coached, they’re terrific defensively and they’re hard to guard. So I think they can play balanced, which is what all the best teams do. “Everything is so related to health, and there are so many factors, but certainly they should be excited about what they could become.” There is definitely optimism in Boston this year. And though the Celtics can’t play 10 men at a time, they definitely have a growing talent base and the depth to be factors in the East. And even more star power than in recent years.


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DUAL PU Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum came from small beginnings to form one of the highest-performing backcourts in the game.


ottery picks in the NBA Draft are usually household names to basketball fans—big names from big schools and even bigger basketball programs that played in the “Big Dance.” The Portland Trail Blazers bucked this trend two years in a row and in the process, created one of the best backcourts in the League. Starting in 2012, when the Blazers selected Damian Lillard from tiny Weber State (to save you the Googling, it’s a public university located in Ogden, Utah) with the sixth pick, the first piece of their backcourt was in place. It isn’t often that the perfect match is available just a year later, but in 2013, with the 10th pick in the draft, the Blazers again went with a mid-major program, selecting C.J. McCollum from Lehigh (a private institution in Bethlehem, Pa.). Fastforward three years and the Lillard/McCollum backcourt is one of the best—and most difficult to defend—in the League. “They can both shoot off the dribble,” says Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who knows explosive backcourts since he coaches DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. “It makes them so dangerous and deep. They have the ability to score off the dribble from any point on the floor and that makes their tandem [a nightmare to prepare for]. They have two guys you need to worry about. Your pick-and-roll defense and one-on-one defense with basically two scoring point guards makes it doubly tough.” The similarities between the two guards didn’t happen by accident. 058

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PURPOSE “We work out together often, especially during the season,” says McCollum. “We get shots up together and put in work almost every day. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s game— what we like to do, where we like to shoot the ball from, what sets we like, and like Coach Casey said, we’re both interchangeable. We can both play on and off the ball and it makes things a lot easier— being versatile enough to catch and shoot, play in pick and rolls, play in isolation situations. It keeps good floor balance because you can never really help too much on one of us.” McCollum was the recipient of the Most Improved Player of the Year award last season after he went from 6.8 PPG in 2014-15 to breaking the 20-PPG threshold in 2015-16. Lillard is a two-time All-Star who won the 2012 Rookie of the Year award by unanimous decision and has quickly developed a reputation as a clutch performer. Despite their successes, neither has lost sight of the journey nor work it’s taken to get to where they are right now. “I’m just thankful for the organization for giving me an opportunity, specifically coming from a mid-major school,” says McCollum. “I’m thankful Damian played well in his rookie year. If he didn't play so well, they probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on me. I owe him, I owe Steph Curry and all of those other mid-major players some credit because they kept the door open.” McCollum and Lillard reflect a history of dynamic guards in Portland that has included Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter leading the franchise to two Finals appearances, and more recently, Brandon Roy capturing the hearts of Blazers fans before knee injuries forced him into early retirement. McCollum calls playing in Portland “a great honor” because of the fan support and rich tradition. While McCollum plays with a collected coolness, Lillard plays with an intensity that burns bright, aiming to extinguish every doubt ever cast upon his game with each impossibly deep three-pointer or perfectly timed drive to the rim.

“[Lillard] plays with a chip on his shoulder,” says Casey. “That makes him extremely tough. His range—his and C.J.’s range—is uncanny. It catches you off guard because you think you’ve got him pretty under control and he’s still in shooting range. He’s got what I call an Oakland killer instinct, which we [saw with] Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. There’s something about those guys—they’re hard to stop and have a laser-like focus. They always seem like they have something to prove.” Off-court chemistry isn’t a necessity for success, but it makes things a lot easier when a star is as invested in the success of the teammate playing alongside him as his own. “We were friends before we became teammates so that makes everything a lot easier,” says McCollum. “I understand where he came from and what he’s been through. We both went through the struggle of being doubted and having to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this point. We weren’t blue chips or McDonald's All-Americans—the red carpet wasn’t rolled out for us to get to this point. There’s a bit of appreciation for how we got here the unconventional way.” What makes the Lillard and McCollum paring work so well is mutual respect and understanding mixed with a familiarity that develops over time. “I think we just kind of read and react now,” McCollum said. “After you play with somebody for so long, you understand where they’re going to be at before they even get there. You’re in sync just because you spend so much time together on and off the floor.” The path that each player has followed has created a bond that extends beyond the locker room or arena. “You have that trust there, that chemistry and that cohesiveness because you understand each other,” says McCollum. “You understand the struggle, you understand that we are lucky and fortunate to be in this position and we don't take it for granted.”


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Dirk Nowitzki is almost 20 years into his NBA career and his game is still as sharp as ever.


ne by one, the old guard is saying goodbye. A championship generation of NBA compatriots, peers and rivals alike, dribble into the next phase of their lives with legacies intact, having made the game better by their presence. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have already walked. Paul Pierce plans to do so after this season. Dirk Nowitzki is going to miss them. “That’s a generation going away,” says Nowitzki, one of the last few remaining drafted in the 20th century. “Some great players, some of the greatest players this League has ever seen." “That’s obviously unfortunate, but this League has always had young talent and young stars come through. I think the League will be fine.” And five years from now, a certain ceremony in Springfield promises to be a hot ticket. “The speeches in 2021 should be amazing,” Nowitzki adds. That day is surely coming for Nowitzki. Just not quite yet. “I always said I wanted to kind of take it year by year,” he says. The Dallas Mavericks will hold a place for Nowitzki as long as he wants to pick up a basketball. The franchise’s singular icon inked a two-year extension this summer for a cool $50 million. Nowitzki fully intends to honor the deal that’s as much a career “thank you” from Mark Cuban as it is deserved for his continued place in the League. But don’t mistake it for an early pension. Nowitzki can still play. The 7-foot German led the Mavericks in scoring again last season, the 15th time in the last 16 years (the lone blip being Monta Ellis in 2014-15). Nowitzki has averaged at least 17 points per game for 17 consecutive seasons 060 DANNY BOLLINGER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

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Photo by Jake Lyell

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(Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 18 in a row is the only longer streak). Nowitzki is the NBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer, he should become the sixth player to reach the 30K points mark (entering the season, he’s 509 points shy) and is tops among all foreign-born hoopers. Time remains to add to a legacy that’s long been cemented. That foundation was laid years ago, as a skinny teenager with a bad haircut and loop earring who willed himself into an MVP and NBA champion. Nowitzki remains an undeniable constant for the Mavs, even as the cast continues to evolve around him. The endless merry-go-round of teammates since the surprising 2011 title took another spin this past summer. The carousel brought another new haul to Dallas, highlighted by a pair of Golden State exiles in Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says. “We caught some good luck on that.” Namely, Kevin Durant’s Bay Area relocation. Oklahoma City’s bad fortune started the chain of events that led to the two championshiptested pieces finding a new home in Texas. The sweet-passing Bogut is the most-skilled defensive center in Dallas since Tyson Chandler. (The Mavs’ center last season, Zaza Pachulia, ironically signed with Golden State.) Nowitzki is a Bogut fan. “All the good teams must have a rim protector and be good in the paint defensively, and he’s been doing that his entire career,” Nowitzki says. “He’s very smart. Whether zone or man-to-man, he should be back there anchoring our defense.” Harrison picks up the torch as the next franchise centerpiece, and Cuban hopes this one works out better than the last one. Chandler Parsons was supposed to take the Mavs into the next era. He’s now in Memphis.

The plan is to be deliberate with Harrison, allowing him to grow from being a system piece with the Warriors into taking a “front and center” role eventually in Dallas. Carlisle spent a great deal of time with Harrison in the offseason, and raves of his work ethic and intellectual curiosity. There’s also the responsibility that comes with being a $90-million man. “I talked to him this summer a lot about that,” Carlisle says. “Bottom line is that it’s a challenge that he’s got to love to take on. The important thing is that an elevation in responsibility comes at the right rate.” Nowitzki, a legendary gym rat, has taken notice of the long hours Harrison puts into his craft. “He wants and he has the work ethic to develop into a great allaround player,” Nowitzki says. “I already heard all summer long he’s in the gym all the time. “A lot of guys come here, sign here or get traded here and they’re telling me they’re gym rats, but I haven’t really seen many in my 18 years. But he’s the one guy that walks the walk.” The Mavs are a blend of youth and experience. Harrison leads a young group that includes second-year swingman Justin Anderson and power forward Dwight Powell. Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris put the “grizzled” in front of “veteran.” At the center of it all remains Nowitzki. He knows at some point the end is coming. He’s just not in a rush to get there. “We’ll see how next year goes, how the body responds and then we’ll make that decision next year,” he said. “But obviously, I would love to play the next two years and then just see how it goes.”


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(RE)MIX & (M The Milwaukee Bucks are embracing the position-less movement with a roster that fits any playing style.


ersatility. It’s the buzzword that provokes a Pavlovian response in scouts. GMs open up the coffers and start trading away talent and draft picks to attain. Head coaches dream of it like kids do the hot toy during Christmas. For the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s tied to the DNA of their roster. If you rock the antlers, you’re probably a tall and long player who can shoot a little, handle the ball some, mix it up a bit inside and have a slash in your position listing. The Bucks went heavy on the position-less movement, stockpiling more than anyone’s share of versatile players that gives them the freedom to go NikeID on its lineup. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’—and possibly the League’s—best example of the hybrid player, has developed into a cornerstone for Milwaukee. With his 6-11 frame, 7-4 wingspan and the nimbleness of someone a foot shorter, Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare. He is bigger and longer than any guard, and if he’s placed in the paint, he’s quicker than any center in the League. Besides his unique skill set, Antetokounmpo is dubbed the Greek Freak for some other otherworldly attributes. Antetokounmpo can bound across the court like a, well, deer. He’s been documented going end to end for a dunk after a rebound. He possesses a set of giant mitts. Antetokounmpo’s hands, from thumb to pinkie, measures 12 inches. Contrast that with the average male (7.4 inches), LeBron James (9.25 inches) and even a guy nicknamed the Klaw (Kawhi Leonard), whose hands span 11.25 inches. And for the first two years in the League, it was reported that Giannis was still growing. He was drafted as a 6-9 19-year-old out of Greece, and the Bucks now list him at 6-11. His ascension has matched his physical growth. Giannis averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists last year. Antetokounmpo was a curious rookie who averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.8 064

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(MIS)MATCH blocks. Every year since, he’s improved in every category, to the point he's reached eight games into the season: 20.6, 8.6, 5.4, 1.8 and 1.9. More importantly, he is playing point guard. Antetokounmpo running point isn’t just a mad scientist experiment. Lest you forget, Milwaukee’s head coach is future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd. Even though he was a more traditionally sized PG, Kidd sees the potential in taking advantage of Antetokounmpo’s unique game to exploit defenses, something he sees across his entire roster. “It gives us the opportunity to play guys in different positions and take advantage of their speed, length and athleticism,” says Kidd. The Bucks' other young and unconventional talent is Jabari Parker. At 6-8 and 250 pounds, Parker appears to resemble a prototypical power forward. And you’d be right, as he can bang in the trenches. But the Bucks float him out to the three-point line (where he shoots 42 percent this season) and let him go to work. Depending on the defender, Parker can use his size to play bully ball or he can flash his handle to get to the basket or set up a teammate. This season, Parker has adapted to his role to score more (averaging a careerbest 19.5 PPG), but he is just as freakish (in his game, not stature) as Antetokounmpo. “I have an advantage of being able to stretch the floor, being able to play alongside my teammates in any situation or any group of guys and it allows me to stay on the court more often,” says Parker. The Antetokounmpo and Parker duo is serving the Bucks like a pair of 10-pointed antlers, plowing through the mismatches and making other teams look for similar players in hopes of matching up, except Milwaukee is cornering the market of these unicorns. This past June, the Bucks used their first round pick (No. 10 overall) to snatch up 7-1 Thon Maker. A value pick with low returns early but hopefully high yields down the road, Maker is a lanky defensive threat who could one day develop offensively. If he pans out, Maker could be a clone of a player who ushered in the position-less player,

Kevin Garnett. Mirza Teletovic, like many European imports, entered the NBA with big man size to go along with guard skills, particularly in the shooting department. Teletovic uses his 6-9 height to shoot over smaller defenders. He’s shot about 38 percent from three over his five seasons and eight games into the season, he was shooting a sizzling 42 percent. The Bucks have needed the perimeter boost, too, with the absence of 6-8 Khris Middleton, a versatile player in his own right, as he recovers from a hamstring injury. The Bucks' versatility has also paid dividends on defense. With Antetokounmpo and Parker, the Bucks have two players who can check any shooting guard, small forward and power forward in the League, while spotting up to defend the occasional point guard and center. The pair also puts a crimp on pick and rolls that many teams like to employ to find mismatches. The tandem can extend out to the three-point line to chase ballhandlers and/or fall back to protect the rim, negating every team’s pet play. Adding to the Bucks versatility theme is their pair of bigs, John Henson and Greg Monroe. They both stand 6-11, and while they lack the tool boxes of Antetokounmpo and Parker, they each give Kidd flexibility in the frontcourt. Henson is a pogo stick defender who can get his hands on shots around the rim. Monroe is the offensive threat who can knock down the midrange shot while showing off a varied back-to-the-basket game. Kidd won’t get bored with this team, because with their versatility the Bucks could literally transform into something new just about every game. The team is aware that playing time is a mixed bag, so it’s forged a competitive spirit on the court. “I think we have a lot of internal competition which I think is great for practice,” says Kidd. “Guys are pushing one another and can only make the game a little bit easier.” Especially when they can be played anywhere on the court.


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UNLEA He has spent his entire career being told to rein it in. For the first time, Russell Westbrook is asked to release his fury.


oss is a powerful motivator, a prodigious force that impacts beneath the viewable surface. When Kevin Durant chose the Golden State Warriors this summer, he launched a divisive missile into the heart of Oklahoma City. Loss affects each individual differently. It disables some, strengthens others, and the final result is rarely immediate. So when the shell-shocked Thunder fans emerged from the fallout, there was only one pillar to lean on: Russell Westbrook. Durant and Westbrook formed the foundation of a franchise for eight seasons that not long ago had an endless ceiling and infinite potential. In the wake of this summer, the path for Westbrook and the Thunder on a whole is muddled and murky. Westbrook, who could’ve opted out at the end of this season, chose to ink an extension that could keep him in Oklahoma until 2019. With the signing, the morale of those invested in the Thunder has thankfully been salvaged. Just a few months ago, OKC was on the verge of a second Finals appearance; it’s hard not to ask what’s next for both Westbrook and this franchise. While the duo of Durant and Westbrook shared the load over the last decade, Westbrook was often cast as the national scapegoat. His alpha 066

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ASHED personality and aggressive style of play has made him both a fan favorite and easy patsy when things have gone awry. In fact, that criticism stretches far beyond the fans and media. During last year’s playoffs, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, “I think [Westbrook] is an All-Star but not a superstar,” a statement that sent the basketball universe into an understandable tizzy. Cuban backed up his statement by defining a superstar in his eyes,:“There are only a few guys where you can put them on any team and they win 50 games. To me, that's the definition of a superstar." Cuban may have been off base, but Westbrook will simply add Cuban onto a long list of people to prove wrong this season. When Durant went down in 2015 following his MVP season, we got just the slightest taste of Westbrook unshackled. In 27 games without Durant to end the season, Westbrook averaged 31.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, and 9.9 APG. His per-game production was astounding, completely foreign to an era that rarely caters to one player so heavily. His output was hot, scorching magma consuming those unfortunate enough to challenge the tide. It was chaos of the wildest and most destructive quality. The only player in history to average 30 or more PPG, 8 or more RPG, and 9 or more APG was Oscar Robertson, a feat that he accomplished in the 1960s, a completely different time period with different player usage rates. Westbrook got 100.8 touches a game in March of 2015, a mark that would have ranked first over the duration of the entire season in either of 2015 or 2016. Westbrook has always deserved your attention on each and every possession—nay, he has demanded it. But the time without Durant was just the briefest teaser of what he’s capable of. He’s the most polarizing force in the NBA, and we’ve never truly seen him unleashed. It’s important to note that the Thunder aren’t the same team. Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and Enes Kanter have grown as players. The additions of Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and

Ersan Ilyasova won’t leave this team woefully depleted. That said, for the first time in his eight-year career, Westbrook will have to bear the weight of a franchise’s hopes and dreams largely on his own. It’s hard not to compare Westbrook’s upcoming season with similar campaigns of the greats who came before him. Robertson is a name that comes to the surface, but what about Kobe Bryant? When the saga of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal came to its hectic conclusion, Bryant tried to make up the divide disjointed from those around him. Two seasons after O’Neal’s departure, Bryant averaged a careerhigh 27.2 shots a night to go with a barely believable 35.4 PPG during his Lakers solo act. While Westbrook is a natural playmaker and it’s hard to imagine him detaching from team basketball to the same extent, the amount of times he is asked to carry the offense will be astronomical. In truth, the Thunder will need him to carry the load each and every night if they want to win. At a minimum, Westbrook is about to bless basketball fans everywhere with a preternatural season, and if the Thunder win enough (upwards of Cuban’s 50-win standard), a possible MVP trophy. While Durant's departure may have ripped the beating heart out of Oklahoma City temporarily, it supercharged not only its love, but the love NBA fans on a whole, have for Westbrook. David vs. Goliath is a popular narrative in sports; rarely does it apply so perfectly. The Thunder, bested by the Warriors last season, will now try to settle the score with their former MVP in the opposing trenches. The stage is set with the odds on one side and fan support on the other. Nothing less than an MVP campaign from Westbrook will be enough. While it’s hard to imagine the Thunder winning enough games for Westbrook to secure the MVP, he’s the candidate fans seem to be endorsing. For the record, the last time a player from a team that wasn’t a top three seed in either conference won the MVP was the legendary Moses Malone in 1981-82. The Thunder, who finished third in the Western Conference last year with a 55-27 record, will have their work cut out for them this season. Durant is gone, but the Thunder might still have the “real MVP.”


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With the addition of Dwight Howard in the middle and the promotion of Dennis Schroder to run things, the Hawks are betting on size and speed to keep them atop the East.


t’s a fine line between continuity and standing still. The former is every team’s goal, the latter every team’s nightmare. So while it’s difficult to picture the Atlanta Hawks without center Al Horford and point guard Jeff Teague, a duo together for eight of the Hawks’ Eastern Conference-high nine straight playoff appearances, including 2014-15’s franchise-best 60-win season—it’s easier to understand the optimism surrounding this year’s team with the addition of Dwight Howard at center and promotion of Dennis Schroder to the point. “We’re excited about what Dwight brings to our team and what Dennis as a starter can do for our team,” says president of basketball operations and head coach Mike Budenholzer. “There’s a belief and an excitement and a commitment to the changes that we’ve made. I’m sure everybody is curious to see how it works but I think our group is pretty committed to it and pretty excited about it. I think there’s going to be a lot of things that look and feel very similar with Dwight and Dennis, bringing their unique talents to what we’ve established over the last few years.” Despite being 31 and in his 13th season after entering the League out of high school, Howard is still a towering inside presence who must still be respected. Dipping scoring numbers aside, he is a career .589 shooter. He’ll never be as majestic as Hakeem Olajuwon on the low post nor will he become a Patrick Ewing (or his predecessor Horford), venturing out to the elbow for jumpers, but he will own the paint most nights and play a rigid anchor on defense, provided he’s healthy.

“Dwight is such a physical force at the rim and in the paint,” said Budenholzer. “I still think so much of the NBA and our offense is generated through pick-and-rolls. So in the pick-and-roll game, him rolling and putting pressure on the rim is going to make the offense even more efficient, more effective, because he’s going to be able to collapse weakside defense and collapse and help create opportunities for shooters.” “It’s the same offense, basically, but Dwight Howard, when he’s rolling tends to put more pressure on the rim,” says Schroder. “Al used to pop a little bit more so that’s the only thing that’s changed. I think it creates more open shots for us. We’ll find our open teammate in the corner and then try to go for the lob.” Finding those open shots and getting them the ball primarily falls on Schroder. At 23, in his fourth season but first running the show, the Hawks’ first-round pick in 2013 (No. 17 overall) is a faster and even more aggressive version of Teague—though the latter is something upon which he may need to put on the brakes to improve his career 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. So sure of Schroder, the Hawks didn't even bring on a veteran point guard as insurance policy for him. “I think it’s great. It’s just going to make my job easier. The things that we’re going to do on the offensive end will look easy,” says


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& FASTER Howard. “The way he competes, he comes in every day, puts his head down and just goes to work. His maturity, as a player. I’m excited to be able to play with him.” Paul Millsap, who may benefit most from the change, as he’ll be able to float in and out of the paint, is not worried about the transition. “I think everybody gets a little concerned with change at some point, because you don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any concern. When you look at it, when you look at the guys and how hard they’ve worked in the gym, it looks pretty simple to put it together. Hopefully it is that simple.” “I think Dennis’ toughness is going to help us out a lot this year,” says Millsap. “His energy on both ends of the floor. He’s scrappy defensiveminded, he’ll pick up the ball fullcourt, I think that’s going to turn guys over. To watch Dennis grow year by year has definitely been a joy.” Joy only begins to describe Howard’s mindset. Four less-thanideal years out West, the first with the Lakers and the last three in Houston, Howard saw his field goal attempts get gradually cut every year. The move back east to the Southeast Division has made him nostalgic for the player who in his first eight years in Orlando racked up three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, six All-NBA nods, five

All-Defensive selections and many MVP votes. The Hawks don’t expect Howard to overwhelm like he once did as a 20-something, but his inside presence will go far in keeping the Hawks lofty perch in the East intact. “It’s my job to go out every night and dominate on both ends of the floor,” says Howard. “In certain ways, I will be very efficient— offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding or just being a catalyst on both boards.” Howard’s most profound influence may be on the offensive boards. Atlanta, the 11th-best shooting team (.458) and 15th-best in threepoint shooting (.350), pulled down the League’s fewest offensive rebounds (639, 8.3 ORPG). Howard pulled in 3.4 per game on his own last season. “I think the rebounding is going to change,” says Millsap. “Dwight has been one of the best rebounders in the League for years. So to add him to our group, that’s more offensive rebounds, that’s more defensive rebounds. So I think that’s going to change more than anything.” Look for Howard and Schroder to change Atlanta defensively, too. While Horford was a very good defender, and an above-average rebounder and shot-blocker, Howard is still among the game’s elite. He’s averaging 12.7 rebounds per game in his career, nearly three more than Horford, and is blocking nearly a shot per game more— and that’s not even counting the shots he alters and his intimidation factor in the lane. “I’ve never had a rim-protector like that,” says Millsap. “Al was a great rim-protector for us, but Dwight’s been at a high level on the defensive end for years so I think that’s going to help us out. It’s going to be a little different, but I think it will be a positive change for us.” The ability to reject shots and clear the boards when opponents do get them off will fuel the high-octane Schroder, who’s always looking to bolt the other way and plans to take advantage of Howard’s presence. “Al did a great job protecting the rim, but Dwight Howard is a whole other level,” Schroder says. “When he’s blocking shots and changing shots, I think it’s big for us for the fastbreak. We can run and everybody can get out.” Both Howard and Schroder are grateful for the opportunity presented. “I still can’t believe it,” says Schroder with a laugh. “It’s amazing that the organization trusts me like that and hands me the keys to the team. The whole summer I was working on my stuff trying to show the organization that I’m ready for this situation.” “I think my time here in Atlanta will be amazing and I definitely want to stay here until I retire from the game of basketball,” says Howard. “Growing up in College Park and East Point, I had all the Hawks jerseys. I wore them like I was on the team and now to actually be on the team, it’s a dream come true.”


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THE LONG & TALL S OF IT Like the Rocky Mountain altitude that the Denver Nuggets force opponents to adjust to, they’ll be forcing the opposition to adapt to their tall lineup.

mall ball is the rage in the NBA, but don’t be quick to lump the Denver Nuggets into that group. Sure, head coach Michael Malone has the roster to use a small forward at center like Golden State, but most nights the Nuggets might resemble the Houston Rockets of the 1980s more than the Warriors. The Rockets employed two 7-footers back then and nearly won the 1986 title. Hakeem Olajuwon, at 7-foot, and 7-4 Ralph Sampson formed the Twin Towers, but the days of the big man has given way to shooters and drivers. The Warriors won the 2015 title with a small lineup, nearly won two in a row with the same philosophy and are the prohibitive favorite after adding Kevin Durant in the offseason. The copycat nature of the League says teams will follow suit. They will try to spread the floor with shooters and minimize the big man in the paint to create more room. Denver might not be one of those teams, however. Yes, the Nuggets will put up plenty of three-pointers, but they also hold a couple of unique assets in Serbian Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic of Bosnia and Herzegovina that gives them a chance to buck the trend of small ball. “In the NBA there’s a herd mentality,” says Malone. “Golden State’s doing it, so let’s do it; San Antonio is doing it so let’s to it. We don’t want to be a team that follows the current trends.” Golden State’s small lineup strategy came out of necessity – they lacked a big man who demanded attention on the block. Denver has options with their Balkan 7-footers, and the pair might put an end to the talk of the demise of the need for a post player. The Nuggets plan to use Nurkic, 22, and Jokic, 21, together this season and hope to create matchup nightmares for opponents. “We can make it work,” says veteran forward Darrell Arthur. “We can pound guys inside, create double-teams and go inside-outside.


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Nikola’s a guy we can throw the ball into anytime and he can make plays. He’s a great passer; his IQ is probably the highest on the team—run the offense through him.“ Arthur has a unique perspective on the Nuggets lineup. He played in Memphis, an outlier team that has had success with utilizing two post players on the floor together in 6-9 Zach Randolph and 7-foot Marc Gasol. In the 6-11 Jokic and the 7-1 Nurkic, the Nuggets have two willing passers on the post who see the floor better than the average tunnel-visioned big men. “The reason we like the big lineup is Nikola and Jusuf can play on the post and on the perimeter and they can make plays anywhere on the floor,” says Malone. Injuries limited Nurkic to 32 games last season, his second in the NBA, but it opened the door for Jokic. Many thought he would be stashed overseas for another year but instead he averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in 80 games. Now, both are healthy and the idea of playing them together is intriguing in the era of teams going small. If the exhibition season is an indication, the pairing will work. Through the first five preseason games, Malone started his big men together three times. In those games Jokic averaged 12.3 points and 10 rebounds and Nurkic averaged 13 and eight. Games will be more competitive in the regular season but the two big men have shown they can work together. “It’s still in the experimental phase, but I like what I’ve seen from the Balkan buddyball,” says Malone. “That’s been very intriguing and promising.” Nurkic’s rough sophomore season motivated him to work hard last summer. He looked strong in the preseason and played with a little edge. “When I was hurt and not able to play big minutes. I didn’t have the trust of my coach and my teammates. Now I have all the trust and my confidence back now. I want to show it in a game," says Nurkic. While Nurkic worked his way back to full strength, Jokic built on his strong rookie season with an impressive performance in the Summer Olympics. He led the Serbian national team to the silver medal, with his best performance coming against Team USA in the roundrobin portion of the tournament. Jokic had 25 points and six rebounds in the near-upset of the Americans. That has given him confidence going into his second year, and his ability to step out on the perimeter and knock down a three-pointer enables Malone to play both big men together. More importantly, Jokic and Nurkic like being on the floor at the same time. “He’s my guy,” says Nurkic. “It’s our time and we want to take it. I’m better than ever and I want to show it on the court.” The Nuggets want them to show it, too, and maybe buck the trend back to the playoffs. “Everybody likes to play small ball but maybe we’re going to change that,” says Jokic.


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BROOK L The Brooklyn Nets begin their climb back to relevancy with two players who are perfect for one another.


fter last year's 21-61 record, and three years after the trade turned the franchise into a victim of its profligacy, the Nets’ outlook for the 2016-17 season is bleak to say the least. Beneath their dark surface, the Nets have a one-two punch that might have some staying power. Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez are at crossroads in their careers, but if they traverse the fork together, the journey might be beneficial to both, and more importantly, the Nets. Lin is back at ground zero of Linsanity, this time trying to recapture the magic a few subway stops away and three teams later. Lin is not quite a savior for the team, but with the ball primarily in his hands, he’ll serve that de facto role if not by title. Lopez is as close to a monolith as the Nets organization has. He’s a holdover from the team’s days across two rivers in New Jersey, and if he plays 64 games this season for Brooklyn, he’ll become the franchise’s No. 2 behind Buck Williams in games played. He also has a shot at overtaking Williams for the team’s career leader in points (Lopez was 1,535 points behind entering the season). From the onset, Lopez and Lin share many common bonds. They’re born-and-raised California kids, Lin from Palo Alto and Lopez from Fresno. They both hail from strong academic institutions (Lin from Harvard, Lopez from Stanford). The two have atypical-for-NBA-player interests of comic books. Lin favors manga (during a Reddit Ask Me Anything, Lin admitted his favorite is Naruto: “Narutoooooooo #dattebayo” while Lopez is a fan of more traditional works. “I love comics, man. It takes me away from the regular hustle and bustle of everyday life. I’m a DC comics fan,” says Lopez. Hopefully, their camaraderie off the court will lead to positive results on the court. Lopez has had a carousel of point guards during his time with the Nets, and none has ever been a constant to develop any chemistry


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with. From Devin Harris to oft-injured Deron Williams, Lopez has seen inconsistency from the guy throwing the ball into the post. Lin is in a similar boat when it comes to pivot teammates. He has experienced some talented centers in Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson, but whether due to injury or playing time, he hasn’t fully had a chance to develop a point guardcenter dynamic that has fostered results. “He’ll absolutely help, he already has. I can tell we work well together,” says Lopez. What seems like a natural fit is the two of them running the pick-androll. Since his initial explosion into the basketball world, Lin has been at his peak effectiveness running a pick-and-roll-based offense. Lin is reunited with Kenny Atkinson, the assistant coach who worked with Lin leading up to his Linsanity days, now the Nets' head coach. And in Lopez, Lin will be paired with a center that was fourth in the League in points scored (315) as the roll man last season. Despite the obvious strength of the duo, Atkinson is trying to incorporate other facets into the offense, most notably a motion offense that puts extra emphasis on an accelerated pace and floor spacing. This means less obvious pick-and-roll sets as the Nets look to reinvent themselves as one of the League’s best offensive teams. The look will feature Lopez playing more on the perimeter and taking more three-point shots, and the streaky-shooting Lin in increased catchand-shoot situations. Neither is playing to his strengths, but the Nets are playing the long game in developing the offense. “It’s different, but it’s an adjustment. I’m trying to keep a good balance and read what the defense gives me,” says Lopez. “You have to jump in and do it. Everyone has to buy in or it’s not going to work.” “I really want to establish our motion offense, [not] come down and run a pick-and-roll every time,” Atkinson said to NetsDaily. “Obviously, we’re going to need that in important times. But right now we’re trying to get the ball moving, trying to get the ball side to side, get everybody their touches. And Brook and Jeremy, they’re both going to have to learn to work within that dynamic. Lin’s unselfish playing style complements Lopez. Lin drives to the basket and always finds the open man. Not a ball stopper, Lin makes sure the ball is always in motion. Whether it’s a corner three or he’s feeding a big man inside the post, Lin has always had a pass-first attitude. While in Charlotte, Lin was regularly setting up teammates, especially when running point. Last season while with the Hornets, when coming off the bench or playing alongside Kemba Walker, one of Lin’s main targets was Al Jefferson. When Lin was on the court, Jefferson received easy shots at the basket. If Lin is able to feed Lopez at a similar rate, Lopez’s overall stats will see an increase across the board. “I want to be a good leader and help the team succeed in any way possible. With our drive and effort, we will surprise a lot of people this season,” says Lopez. At 28, Lin is entering the prime of his career and he could experience a resurgence as he heads back to a familiar environment. “ I loved my time here in New York, and I loved working with Coach Atkinson. I look forward to what we can accomplish this season,” says Lin. Last season, some of Lin’s best shooting performances came against the League’s top point guards. He shot 54 percent against Isaiah Thomas and 45 against Mike Conley. Finally backed by management in his role, Lin will have the opportunity to prove himself as a starting point guard in the League. If that happens, expect the Nets to surpass expectations. 075


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UN-DUB There has never been a team like the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors. But history won’t remember them unless they win the NBA Championship.


ast year, the Golden State Warriors practically put a smile on the NBA logo. The team was dominant, but likable. Draymond Green was a talented hybrid who played with scrappiness. The bench boasted crafty and respected veterans like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa. At the center was Stephen Curry: an impish swirl of cartoonish three-pointers and mixtape drives that young fans gravitated toward because of his approachable game and stature. En route to an NBA-record 73 wins, every night for the Warriors was a highlight reel, every game like playing with the legends squad on NBA 2K with the difficulty level set to rookie, the thirst for the Dubs unquenchable. They had their own corner on Twitter, the topic of the Warriors was on every sidebar of every sports debate show, and seemingly every week brought another magazine cover. Then came the Finals. Keeping the post-mortem brief doesn’t diminish how surreal it was. The Warriors became villains. The usually unflappable Curry hurled his mouthguard into the crowd. Green couldn’t stop kicking people. The tortured sports town of Cleveland finally rejoiced over the outcome of a sporting event, while the Warriors went from flirting with immortality to going home alone. The Warriors made significant changes to ensure a happier ending—specifically a lanky (almost) 7-footer who rivals Curry’s status as an offensive supernova. But Erik Malinowski, who covers the Warriors for Bleacher Report, says the team is using last year’s bitter finale as a learning experience. “Usually, with these evolutions, it actually works more often the way it did with the Cavs, where you have a great season, you get really close, and then you learn how to win and you get there the next season,” Malinowski says. “With the Warriors, it kind of happened in reverse. They got to the mountaintop [in 2015] and 076

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UBBABLE they suffered a huge disappointment [in 2016]. Now, they’ve been to both ends of that spectrum. And now they know that is a place they want to go back to.” Livingston says the Warriors have a “fresh, new outlook” for 2016-17 and an understanding that they “cannot come out guns-a-blazing.” The signing of Kevin Durant to a two-year deal (with your superstarstandard opt-out after this season) factors into the reasoning, though the imagination reels. A lineup featuring two recent MVPs and four All-NBA players. The shooting savant trio of Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson with the two-way, do-it-all Green serving as the mortar to the those non-brick-layers? “There’s the possibility that something really incredible could happen on any given night,” Malinowski says. “In terms of a true talent level, they have every possibility to break 73, which sounds ridiculous.” But, Malinowski counters, head coach Steve Kerr continues to stress a more practical accomplishment: getting the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Before attempting to make history, the team has to coalesce. Building camaraderie and chemistry will take time, Livingston says. Most notably, two-fifths of last year’s starting lineup—center Andrew Bogut and forward Harrison Barnes—play in Dallas. “Bogut is a huge loss for them, because defensively he really cemented that team,” says a veteran advance NBA scout, citing Bogut’s ability as a rim protector. “When they needed to play big against some teams, he was able to do that. They’ve got to replace that.” Plus, he’s an excellent passer. Zaza Pachulia, the new starting center, lacks that skill set. “What they’re hoping is that Durant’s [defensive] presence is just going to offset a little bit of what they’re losing going from Bogut to Pachulia,” Malinowski says. Durant is a major upgrade over Barnes, the scout says, but the latter didn’t demand the ball or take a lot of shots. “I do like the team

as long as they can learn to share and sacrifice.” That, he stresses, includes Curry, Thompson, and even Green. “But I think it’s going to be a work in progress,” he says. Incorporating Durant into the offense will be an adjustment, says Livingston, but he’s confident that the superstar will fit. The veteran guard praised Durant’s less glamorous abilities. “He’s also really good at making plays for other people,” he adds. “I think that’s where he elevated his game as well—being able to make other guys better, making plays out of the pick and roll. We’re just going to have to trust him and find the areas of his game where he can help us out.” Warriors GM and president of basketball operations Bob Myers has said the team “didn’t win anything by changing our roster.” Nobody is ready to concede a title, even to a super team. “People know it’s going to be a really, really good team,” the scout admits. “But that being said, the West is no cakewalk…I guarantee that Steve Kerr is telling these guys the same thing today—that teams are going to be ready for us.” “We could be in worse positions,” Livingston says. “It’s all about perspective. Myself, I’ve played on nine, 10 NBA teams. You’d rather have high expectations than low expectations as a competitor, as a player. We have a chance to do something special and we have a chance to compete for a championship. Realistically, there are only a handful of teams that can say that. We understand what’s at stake. We also understand that there’s going to be a lot of commentary this year, but at the same time, we have guys who are built to last and sustain the storm.” If fans can holster their hot takes, they may witness some transcendent basketball. “We think we know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be really fun watching this team figure out its full potential,” Malinowski says. “Because they have the opportunity to do some things we’ve never seen and may never see again.”


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The Detroit Pistons might be recognized by their exterior—a talented roster—but it’s what lies beneath the hood—coaching and scouting— that drives the engine.


tan Van Gundy does not get enough credit as one of the NBA’s most innovative coaches. He was one of the first to pioneer a one-in, four-out offense that in many ways became a predecessor to the three-point shooter revolution we’ve seen take over the NBA the past couple of seasons. Simply put, Van Gundy played the odds that his 2007-2012 Orlando Magic teams could win with either Dwight Howard or Marcin Gortat as his paint-dwelling, attention-drawing center, while he also spaced the floor with three-point threats all around them. It was genius because Van Gundy’s offense worked in its simplicity. But after five straight 50-plus win seasons in Orlando, including a Finals appearance in 2008-09, things ran their course when Howard wanted out to pursue perceived greener pastures. Using a two-year coaching hiatus to his benefit, Van Gundy sought other methods where he could game the system. Knowing he would only return to the NBA if a team also gave him general managerial powers, Van Gundy searched for a way to out-smart his peers. Alas, Van Gundy saw his rainbow appear when Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores gave him the dual role that many head coaches seek: the GM/coach job, a title that gives him the budget and autonomy to roster-build based on his coaching philosophy. Before his hiring, Van Gundy announced at the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that if he ever returned to the NBA, he would come back as a GM who would hire six coaches so that they could properly scout the NBA for current talent. “Our improvement is going to come one of three ways,” Van Gundy told Detroit Free-Press’ Drew Sharp. “Building the roster through the draft, trades and free agency; the continued development of our young players; coaching improvement.” Sure, there are advance scouts who help coaches do game-prep for upcoming contests, but nowhere in basketball were scouts doing due diligence on players who could be plucked via trade at any given moment or later through free agency. He told—and hired—his friend (and former GM) Jeff Bower that he wanted to staff the biggest NBA front office so that they could cover almost all of the games out there. Van Gundy told ESPN’s Zach Lowe: “Our staff probably watches 85-90 percent of all the NBA games.” Van Gundy didn’t want his people to miss a thing, with individuals filing reports on as many as two to three games a day. Van Gundy and Bower hired four full-time NBA scouts to focus on that very job, along with a various assortment of others who would contribute: SVG, Bower, three assistant GMs, a basketball operations director, six draft scouts, two analytics experts and a strategic planning director. In a nutshell, the Pistons basically tripled the size of their staff from a half dozen to 18 people in front-office support alone. There was a reason for the hiring frenzy. When All-Stars start playing like average players, Van Gundy wanted to know why that was. When an unknown started to make a name for himself, the staff was expected to have reasons why already on file. 078

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Or, as Bower posed to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg: “We wanted to know: Why does a guy go to another team and all of a sudden stand out, where he barely got an opportunity before?” By seeking the answers to these questions, the Pistons were then able to span the NBA’s 29 other teams for prospects, so that, in turn, they could build a lineup around their smart NBA Draft selections, like starting center Andre Drummond (No. 9 pick in 2012), shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (No. 8 in 2013) and sixth man Stanley Johnson (No. 8 in 2015). You can trace the timeline of the franchise turnaround back to the start of the 2015 calendar year. The Pistons first landed pending free-agent-to-be Reggie Jackson from the Thunder—for only a couple third-stringers and second-round picks in February 2015—when they discovered Jackson was on the outs with team leaders Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. A year later, Detroit acquired versatile forward Tobias Harris when the Magic thought the remaining $48 million over three seasons was too much to pay, not foreseeing the salary-cap escalation that would took place in the ensuing summer. With such front-office foresight in February 2016, Detroit received Harris for lesser talents—Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings— happily picking up the perceived high-priced tag that would become a bargain only a few months later. Similar stories could be told with former Suns forwards Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer, former Spur centers Boban Marjanovic and Aron Baynes and former 76ers point guard Ish Smith, who were all picked up at great bang-for-buck rates in today’s buy-high market. “This is a good team to coach right now,” Van Gundy told the Detroit Free-Press’ Mike Brudenell. “The first team versus the second team. We’ve even got guys behind them. There is really no easy matchups. Andre is playing against two really good players (Baynes and Marjanovic). Everybody is pushing everybody.” In retrospect, it really is no surprise Van Gundy has taken a 29-win franchise and produced back-to-back 32- and 44-win seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16. On top of that, remember this: When you see Van Gundy’s 2016-17 Pistons improve yet again, this time cracking the 50-win barrier, do not be surprised if other teams start stocking their NBA scouting staffs. This is a copycat league after all.


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SPIN MO Thanks to having one of the most dynamic two-way players in Paul George, Indiana was able to pivot into a contender in short order.


here are superstars that build franchises and there are franchises that build around their superstars. The Pacers' Paul George is on a journey to experience both and he’s geared up for the bumpy road. “He certainly is a franchise player,” says Nate McMillan, who was promoted to the Pacers head coach in May. “The organization has decided to build around Paul and Paul has recognized what the organization has done.” George is the lone survivor from the Pacers roster that reached consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014. The Pacers didn’t just randomly come to that choice. A three-time All-NBA Third Teamer, All-Defensive player and All-Star, George is the rare star that earns his keep on both sides of the court. Last year, he came back from the horrific leg injury suffered during a 2014 USA Basketball scrimmage to lead the Pacers back to the playoffs with the best season of his career, averaging a career-high 23.1 points, 7 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Just as important was George playing in 81 games to prove that he’s back in full health. Unfortunately for George, the Pacers’ season ended in a Game 7 loss against the No. 2 seeded Toronto Raptors in the opening round of the playoffs. Moral victories in the NBA are short-lived. Even though they pushed the eventual Eastern Conference finalists to the brink, the Pacers were still a middling 45-37 playoff team with a roster that was ripe for a rebuild. Instead, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird, who has said George is the Pacers best player since Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, rolled the dice on some moves to give Indiana a shot of usurping the East crown. Bird made moves this offseason to boost the roster and build around their superstar. The Pacers acquired former All-Star point guard Jeff Teague from Atlanta and small-ball forward Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. Bird also added experience to the bench, inking veteran point guard Aaron Brooks and dependable low-post scoring center Al Jefferson. Each acquisition gives the franchise more scoring options and bolsters its defense. 080

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Of course Bird had the luxury of having one of the best twoway players and legitimate MVP candidates in the NBA as a cornerstone piece. “I think the moves we made over the summer were good ones and not only complement me, but also the guys we had returning— Monta [Ellis], Rodney [Stuckey] and Myles [Turner] in particular,” George points out. “I want to impact the game and I want us


to get back to the level where we feel we can compete for a championship. You can be an All-Star, be all-league, be considered for MVP, but winning and being a championship contender identifies you for your career.” Although he has taken on the challenge of playing his best basketball every night, George believes it is what he does off the court that will allow his team to break through the East. “My role is to take more of a leadership role within the team, both on and off the floor.” Pacers forward Lavoy Allen, who has been George’s teammate longer than anyone else on the roster (this is their fourth season together), has witnessed George’s change in demeanor. “I think it’s more mental than physical. He’s talking more in the locker room, talking more on the court. When I first got here, we had veterans on the team like David West. Once those guys left I told him he really stepped up in the locker room to take the leadership role. He pretty much holds everyone accountable. When guys don’t go as hard in practice, he really tries to motivate us to get us going to finish out practice strong.” It's a change of gears for the 26-year-old George. When he was selected with the 10th overall pick by the Indiana Pacers in the 2010 NBA Draft, George’s only role was to follow and to avoid the pitfalls of a budding star. “When he went to the Eastern Conference Finals, he was the young guy on the team,” explains McMillan. “David West was a veteran—Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, all those guys—were veterans, and he has learned through his experience of playing with those guys and with the star players in the Olympics how they work. With all the experience he’s gained over the last few years it has just developed maturity. He is ready to be that leader, be that mentor, set that example. He knows the things that are needed because he’s been around good veterans.” George learned from those veterans the value of team chemistry. He says it is important to him to spend time getting to know his teammates outside the gym. “We spend a lot of time on the floor with practices and games, but the time off the floor is where you bond, build chemistry. Sometimes you take care of some differences,” says George. “We’ll go out to eat on the road, play video games and a bunch of guys on the team like to fish when we’re home, so that’s pretty cool.” While George is prepared to continue his journey with his new surrounding cast to a championship, it won't be easy as he also adapts to a new playing style. “[We] get out and run, all the time,” explains George. “Larry wanted us to score more points and I think the moves that were made showed he was pretty serious about that. It’s not about run and gun, but pushing the ball up the court, trying to get easy baskets and if that isn’t there right way, passing, screening, cutting to get open shots. I like the style. The League’s going that way and I think it will be very entertaining for the fans.” Especially with King George leading the way.


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NYCONSTELLATE W The New York Knicks need their stars in perfect alignment in order to win.

ith every New York Knicks season, there is a set of expectations that come along with playing basketball in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” The pressure is ramped up just a bit this season. As the Knicks are celebrating the team's 70th anniversary this year, New Yorkers are in the midst of a three-year playoff drought that has coincided with Phil Jackson as the Knicks’ top decision-maker in his role as team president. Jackson spent the offseason making the biggest moves since he took over at the end of the 2013-14 season. He’s betting big with two players from his former employers. Virtually no player has gone through what Derrick Rose has gone through in his relatively short career. A No. 1 overall pick of his hometown team, he was an MVP in his third year before a devastating knee injury sidelined him for the better part of three seasons, turning his home city of Chicago against him. Joakim Noah was the classic underdog—the water boy for an AAU team—who worked his way to become a two-time NCAA champion, an All-NBA First Teamer and Defensive Player of the Year. When injuries and wear and tear broke Noah down (he played in only 29 games last season), the Bulls moved on from the center who has jumped ball for the franchise more times than anyone not named Tom Boerwinkle. Few teams were willing to take on the two former All-Stars, but Jackson pushed his chips into the middle—$38.3 million, to be precise. As a side bet, Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek, whose only notable head coaching achievement is overachieving in Phoenix with 48 wins a few years ago. It's also the first nontriangle disciple head coach he's brought on to to instill the offensive philosophy that Jackson is married to, making it a curious hire. This comes together with the key holdover parts of the team, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Anthony is the proven and still-productive superstar who still gives you a scoring presence, but at 32, is entering the inevitable decline. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Porzingis, who the Knicks pray will develop overnight, or at least his second year. His rookie year was promising and early returns this season—18.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 1.3 BPG— indicate that the Knicks might just get their wish, but there is no track record for 7-3 21-yearold stretch fours playing in New York. The first puzzle piece that needs to be examined is the Knicks style of play, a point of contention since Jackson’s arrival. The Zen Master has won 11 championships with the triangle offense, so asking him to deviate from that is akin to asking a New Yorker to admit


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that pizza outside of the Big Apple is superior. In three years in Phoenix and throughout most of his playing career, Hornacek got familiar with playing an uptempo style of play predicated on moving the ball, floor spacing and getting easy buckets in transition. Adding to the identity crisis is the starting point guard’s preference of pick-and roll. While Rose has said all the right things about learning the triangle, he has admitted that the offense is “complicated.” During Rose’s best years, he was most effective with the ball in his hands, making decisions while attacking off the pick and roll. In the triangle, a point guard is supposed to throw the ball into the post, move without the ball and then react to the defense, many times spotting up for a three. The iso-heavy, poor three-point shooting Rose (career 30 percent) has a lot to learn. Another factor in the Rose reclamation project is how he’ll play alongside the equally iso-driven Anthony. The closest player Anthony has had with a skill set similar to Rose was Allen Iverson with the Nuggets from 2006-08, a partnership that was not the best fit. The key to the Knicks’ fortunes this year and beyond is the development of Porzingis. “I don’t believe in a sophomore slump. I’m just going to go out there, and play hard every single night,” says Porzingis. Last season, Porzingis averaged 14.3 ppg, and with his continued development he should see a spike in his production, especially if the Knicks play in transition. The excitement surrounding Porzingis is high, since a player at his height and skill set is exactly the unicorn that every other GM is looking to unearth. “There’s a few things I worked on this offseason. Getting stronger, my post game, and continuing to develop my shot,” says Porzingis. In order to protect their investment, the Knicks will need a healthy Noah to man the middle and ease Porzingis of any heavy lifting. Peak Noah was a one-man defensive force who could stump the opposition at the rim and extend his influence out to the perimeter on pick and rolls and close-outs. On offense, he showed a deft passing touch, earning him a few rare-for-a-center triple-doubles. Pre-injury

Noah was a point-center. He would initiate the offense by being the primary ball handler when Rose wasn’t on the court. Noah’s ability to run an offense off the post will greatly help the Knicks when they run the triangle. Backup point guard Brandon Jennings is also seeking redemption. A former starter once pegged as a future star, Jennings is returning from a devastating Achilles injury and is ready to prove to the basketball world he still has it. The lure of a career revival while playing for the legendary Jackson in New York was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I feel great. I haven't felt this healthy since my rookie season. The best part of being in NYC is playing in the Garden. So many special moments happened here, and I hope to add to it,” says Jennings, who will play the role as the sixth man after so many years of being a starter. My goal is to win, win, win. Make the playoffs and hopefully become sixth man of the year.” Anthony remains the leader of the team, and a lot of what happens for the Knicks this season will fall on his shoulders. After a summer experiencing victory securing gold for Team USA in Rio, Anthony wants to carry over the success to the Knicks. Historically, following Olympic years, Anthony has had good NBA seasons. He advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2009 with the Nuggets a year after the 2008 Redeem Team. In 2013 he led the Knicks to the 54 wins and the second round of the playoffs after London gold in 2012. Anthony is still in his prime, but at 32, his years as an elite scorer might be numbered. Last season he averaged 21.8 PPG, the lowest since his second year. However, Anthony this season has arguably the best team surrounding him in his time in New York. “We seen flashes of what we can be offensively. We’ll come in waves with different guys coming in. Our offensive can be good. We still have some work to do. [With] Derrick [Rose], you will see a faster pace,” says Anthony. The streets of New York are watching.


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STOKING THE The Miami Heat are not burning as hot as they did a few years ago, but they’re kindling a few bright embers on their roster.


here cannot be a more perfect person to be the focal point of your brand new, 2016-17 Miami Heat than Hassan Whiteside. The man who has played in China, Lebanon and on enough D-League teams to know just about everybody who has signed a 10-day NBA contract in the past four years has a fat contract, a growing portfolio around the League, and firsthand knowledge of how to handle those who wonder whether the Heat are doomed without any members of their old Big Three. “I feel like we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” says Whiteside, who inked a four-year, $98 million deal during the offseason. “All my life, I feel like I have been looked over. We’re not getting caught up into others’ expectations. “It’s not to hard for me to think we can get it done. Coach Spo [Erik Spoelstra] is still here. [Team president] Pat Riley is still here. The sun is still shining. The personnel may have changed, and we may be a different team, but we are the same organization.” This is indeed a much different Miami Heat. For the first time in 13 years, Dwyane Wade is not on the roster. He signed a free-agent contract with Chicago in July. Chris Bosh, who spent the last six years with Miami, is unlikely to play for the team this year, due to lingering problems with blood clots. That LeBron James fellow? His talents vacated South Beach two years ago. All of a sudden, the “Big Three” in south Florida has gone from a trio of Hall of Famers to Whiteside, secondyear wing Justise Winslow and point man Goran Dragic. You’ll have to pardon fans for not expecting the three of them to be sitting around talking about how many titles they plan to win. Not three? How about “Not yet.” “We’re just a bunch of hungry guys, younger guys,” Whiteside says. “We’re a different team, but the guys are willing to put in the work.” The 7-0, 265-pound Whiteside has certainly done that, transforming himself from a lightly-regarded prospect 086

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from Marshall into one of the League’s most productive big men. In just two seasons, he has emerged as an interior scoring force, relentless rebounder and a preeminent fly swatter. In a League filled with top draft picks and players on whom stardom is bestowed after two games, he is the anti-star—and therefore a real hero. He didn’t get full-time NBA burn until the 2014-15 season and almost immediately became one of the League’s most compelling stories. With Wade gone and Bosh unlikely to play, Whiteside becomes the Heat’s most important, not to mention its highest paid, full-time performer. The trick now is for him to lead the way, because on a team with no All-Stars, Whiteside can no longer be a complementary piece. That’s what happens in the NBA when you perform—and get paid. “The money doesn’t mean as much as a lot of people think,” Whiteside says. “What it means is that the Heat look at me as having a bigger role. It’s still surreal sometimes. But I know that there is a lot of work to be done each day. I’m blessed.” Since coming to Miami, Dragic has been the steady point man the team has needed. Like Whiteside, though, he is now playing a different role. Instead of being Wade’s running mate in the backcourt, he must be more like he was in Phoenix, when he was scoring a lot (he averaged 20.3 ppg in 2013-14) and setting up his teammates. Dragic did a lot of that last year, but he wasn’t the featured performer on the guard line. Now, he is, and that means he has to produce more. With his ability to get to the basket, as well as hit the three (although he has been streaky in the last couple seasons), Dragic can be a force. There’s no doubt Winslow is on his way to that status, even if this is just his second year in the NBA, and he’s only 20 years old. Last year, Winslow was a callow youngster, alternating bits of brilliance with stretches where the pro game was particularly challenging. This season, he is stronger and definitely more ready to be a full-scale contributor. So much has been made about his work to improve a shot that was shaky from the outside, but this season, Spoelstra is interested in focusing on Winslow’s overall improvement as a player, not just a marksman. "That's what I really like about Justise,” says Spoelstra. “He does it on both ends of the court. He does the small things. He does the little things that no one wants to do. And then when he gets more opportunities to be aggressive and go and make plays for his team, he's showing great improvement with that so far. He's really put in time this summer to get to this point." Whiteside sees the same thing. “He is moving from being someone who was learning to someone who can be more of a leader of the team,” says Whiteside. “He’s more aggressive and more of a leader.” One player who could have a big role for the Heat is two guard Dion Waiters, who signed a free-agent deal during the offseason. Waiters is one of the League’s most voracious offensive players, and if he can fit into the Heat’s system, he’ll be a fine piece of the puzzle. That’s Spoelstra’s challenge: to turn a group of players used to following the leads of Wade and Bosh into a group that can chart its own course. “I feel like Coach Spo learns something every year,” says Whiteside. “This year, he has a different mindset. He has to corral all the new guys into a team and make it special.” It should be an interesting ride, and one that fans won’t want to overlook.



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The Los Angeles Lakers are thinking long term in their development towards another winning era..


imofey Mozgov remembers sitting in front of his television in Russia as a youngster, waiting for a rare chance to watch an NBA game. Invariably, his TV set would showcase one of only two teams—the Los Angeles Lakers or the Chicago Bulls. Back in those days, Michael Jordan dominated the NBA while the purple and gold were always in title contention, or one inevitable signing of a megastar (see: Shaquille O’Neal in his prime) away from being back in the hunt for a ring. Either way, you never needed to wait long to see the Lakers add to their overflowing trophy case. Oh, how times have changed. L.A.’s marquee franchise has fallen on hard times, having just endured the worst three-year span in team history, lowlighted by last season’s 17-65 mark. The offseason’s big prize was Kevin Durant, and the 2014 MVP did sign with the gold. Unfortunately, it was for the intrastate and division rival Warriors. The Lakers' free agent consolation prizes came in the form Mozgov and Luol Deng, undoubtedly solid

veterans, but not League-altering, game-changers. As a result, an organization that once measured seasons in the simplest of terms—a championship was a successful year, and not winning one was a failure—has dramatically ratcheted down expectations. Just months removed from the Kobe Bryant retirement tour and his still-hard-to-believe 60-point finale, the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the Lakers is almost nonexistent. The NBA world has moved on, shifting its focus up the California coast and to Northeast Ohio. Meanwhile, the franchise that brought you “Showtime,” and essentially invented the concept of courtside celebrity fans, is extolling the virtues of sound, long-term planning. “Patience will definitely be important,” says new Lakers head coach Luke Walton, who’s coming from a Golden State team that rolled to a championship in 2014-15 and last season’s historic 73-win campaign. “Not only for me, not only for the rest of the coaching staff, but for the players, the fans, everybody. Obviously the front office will be patient—they realize that this is a process. But I think it’s


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CIATION important that we set our foundation, we set our goals, and we don’t let whether or not we are winning or losing games take us from that path. Obviously you make adjustments as coaches as you go, but we’ve got to stay the course and look at it in the big picture.” “[The goal is] to build something that’s going to have assets and will be sustainable going forward,” says longtime Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. “How many games are we going to win? I don’t know. This is a very competitive league… You may have a great team in the West and still not make the playoffs. Control what we can, which is nurture our young players, make sure they get better, make sure they develop. We’re trying to build something we can sustain, and that’s going to take some time.” Fortunately for the Lakers, the recent drought-filled seasons have resulted in plenty of high draft picks to ease the barrenness, including three recent lottery picks: No. 2 overall selections Brandon Ingram (2016), 19, and D’Angelo Russell (2015), 20, and Julius Randle (No. 7 pick in 2014), 21, joins them to form a nice core. The Lakers have even found value in late picks, unearthing value in Jordan Clarkson (No. 46 in 2014) and Larry Nance Jr. (No. 27 in 2015). Those five players form a nice nucleus to lay the foundation in Year 1 of the post-Kobe era for future Lakers success. The Hall of Famer certainly had earned a nostalgic-filled victory lap of a season, but the Lakers' 2015-16 campaign was one of the most bizarre seasons experienced by any NBA team. The Lakers would finish with 17 wins (last in the West), but they sold out arenas on the road and garnered

nonstop media attention and celebrity well-wishers like a 71-win team. The Lakers' final game—the one with Kobe’s 60-point encore— even outshined the Warriors’ 73rd win. For new Lakers like Deng, that’s all in the rearview mirror now. “Whatever happened in the past is in the past,” says Deng, a rare 30-something who’ll be asked to pick up some of the scoring load vacated by Bryant. “This is a group that is a new beginning. We’ve got a lot to prove. We’ve got a lot of young guys who have a lot to learn, but are willing to work hard. With Luke coming in, everybody’s excited. It’s going to be a different environment from what it was in the past. “Success for everybody is going to be different. We all watch the news and see what everybody says about the team. We want to build an atmosphere where we are unselfish and play together.” Walton, himself only 36, hedges slightly when asked how quickly his players can become a cohesive unit, but it’s still clear that even the most optimistic member of enormous Lakers Nation shouldn’t anticipate an overnight miracle. “It could be multiple seasons. It could be six months,” says Walton. “You just never know. It’s part of what’s fun about sports—you never know what you can you do as a group. How good can you be as a group? It doesn’t matter what other people say or the expectations they have, high or low. The only thing that matters is how much we believe what we can do.”


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HALT The Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of an identity change.


nce upon a time, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen enjoyed reputations as swashbucklers. Not saying Trouble was either man's middle name, but neither had peaked as an NBA player at that time, toiling either for losing franchises (Randolph) or playing much smaller roles for winning teams (Allen) in the early aughts. Yes, Z-Bo logged a few 20-10 point-rebound seasons while playing for largely forgettable Clippers, Knicks and Trail Blazers teams. Yet, losing records and controversy always seemed to follow Randolph wherever he went, until he landed in Memphis before the 2009-10 season. Allen, too, had some success as a role player on the Celtics’ 2008 NBA Championship and 2010 Finals squads (averaging 17 minutes per game), but even his renowned toughness was not enough to land the defensive specialist majority minutes in the League, that is, until he signed with Memphis before the 2010-11 season. Alas, that was a time long, long ago, back before the 35-year-old power forward Randolph became a two-time NBA All-Star in Memphis, and before the 34-year-old shooting guard Allen became a five-time All-Defense performer in Memphis. Indeed, that was well before Randolph and Allen—along with Grizzlies-for-life Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—became the headliners in the Memphis Grit-’n-Grind movement in the 2010s, a decade that had seen the Grizzlies grab the NBA's fifth-best winning percentage (tied with the Mavericks at .591), trailing only the Spurs (.722), Thunder (.665), Heat (.638) and Bulls (.606). Even as most of this core entered their twilight years, nobody in this gritty bunch wanted the reign 090 JOE MURPHY (2)/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

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All game-worn jerseys are tagged and individually serial-numbered by the NBA & MeiGray Game-Worn Authenticated Program before they hit the courts, photo-matched after they leave the courts, and logged in our NBA Database to ensure absolute authenticity.

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of grind to end. It was part of the reason why Gasol, Memphis’ 31-year-old, one-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Star center, re-signed with the Grizzlies in July 2015. His teammates still felt they had more to accomplish together. However, when injuries felled the core four in the 2015-16 season (Gasol missed 30 games; Conley, 26; Allen, 18; Randolph, 14), everybody on the Grizzlies knew reassessment was in order. Something had to be done to liven up a stagnant offense that finished 21st in points per possession. Former Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale was brought in this May 2016 to replace David Joerger as the Grizzlies’ head coach, but also to moonlight as chief recruiter for July’s free agency period. His most important recruiting priority: retaining Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. More than anything, Memphis management needed Fizdale to convince the 29-year-old free agent that he would play an even larger role in the future direction of the team. Conley, long praised throughout the NBA as the best player never to play in an All-Star Game, had to be convinced by Fizdale that the new coach could turn the nine-year vet into a star, while the organization had to dig deep and give Conley a middle-maximum deal, which ended up being the biggest contract given to anyone (5 years, $153 million), thanks to a rising salary cap and Conley being at the right place to take full advantage of it. Indeed, Fiz told Conley he would overhaul the offense, which would transform the Memphis quarterback into an aggressive point guard who relentlessly attacked the basket at starts of the shot clock, as opposed to a table-setter who looked to post up his big men before he ever looked for his own shot. “It was almost like he’s felt like I’ve felt for my nine seasons going under the radar,” Conley told’s David Aldridge. “He knew that I wasn’t necessarily in the fastest system that would help me do all these things individually. He knew all that and wanted to make sure I was going to have the best options to succeed and help the team succeed.” Fizdale elaborated on the topic, saying, “Coming from a place like Miami where we developed Chris Bosh’s three-pointer, and the utilization of a big man shooting the three, I really think we could do that here in Memphis with Zach and Marc. But I think our initial attack, our initial spacing, would give Mike more opportunities to attack early in the offense.” Fizdale also knew management had to make Conley’s job easier by getting his 15-point, 6-assist playmaker a fellow energetic facilitator to fill the small forward position the team could never seem to fill. That is why the Grizzlies’ front office—headed by Chris Wallace, Ed Stefanski and John Hollinger—offered human Swiss Army knife Chandler Parsons a junior-max contract. Not only is the 28-year-old ex-Mav a floor-spacing (2.9 three-pointers per game at 41.4 percent) prototype, he also happens to rank amongst the NBA’s most active players when healthy, challenging the leaders in miles ran per game in his most recent injury-free season (2.69 in 2013-14), according to NBA. com player tracking services. Outside of the starters, there is not much there to the naked eye, with only three Grizzlies who have even logged as little as 2,000-plus. Future Hall of Famer and 39-year-old Vince Carter will try to match his own 60-game output from last season; injury-prone journeyman Brandan Wright needs to stay on the court, too, having played 40-plus games in only five of his nine NBA seasons; a pair of third-year players in James Ennis and JaMychal Green who still require seasoning. Such is the life of the Grit-’n-Grey nowadays: caught between two worlds, with the old holding on and the young coming on strong. 092

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EXCLAM POINT The punctuation mark denoting excitement might reside at the end of sentences, but for the Houston Rockets, James Harden precedes everything.


ast season was a rollercoaster for James Harden. On the positive side, Harden was the NBA scoring champ, averaging a career-best 29 points while also setting career highs in assists, rebounds and minutes per game. He also was fourth in the League in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), eighth in player efficiency rating and finished ninth in balloting for 2016 NBA MVP. However, on the opposite side of the ledger, Harden had several numbers he’d rather forget from last season. Forty-one, the number of wins in an up-and-down .500 year that saw the Rockets limp into the eighth seed in the Western Conference as sacrificial lambs to the 73-win Warriors (they had faced them in the West Finals the year before). Nine-hundred and seven, the League-leading number of field-goal misses (Harden did lead the NBA in attempts and was third in makes). Lastly, 374, the number of turnovers, which also led all NBA players. The latter two numbers definitely contributed to the first number. Those numbers linger and eat at Harden because there might not be a player in the NBA more crucial to his team’s success than the Beard. There were some distractions last season that gnawed at Harden’s production. There was the firing of head coach Kevin McHale after a slow 4-7 start to the season. The questionable chemistry between he and center Dwight Howard—and the media’s constant curiosity of the relationship—that divided the locker room, front office and fan base. With Howard gone, there’s no doubt the Rockets are now Harden’s team, so this summer Harden did some soul searching to figure out how he could make the most of this new situation. “Last year was frustrating. The numbers individually were pretty solid, but just the love and the excitement wasn’t there. So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize I got to change and get back to how I 094

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MATION was,” says Harden. He is often criticized by fans and media alike for being a one-way player, someone whose sole focus is on the offensive end of the floor while the other end serves as a stage for Shaqtin a Fool fodder and YouTube mixes. Harden dismisses such criticism as “white noise,” but after calling last season disappointing on several levels, it’s not hard to see why he enters this campaign with a big chip on his shoulder. “I know I can play defense and offense. I’m one of the best players in this league. Last year was a blur, everything was happening so fast. We all go through it in life, we have bad days, bad years, who doesn’t? It’s the bounce-back that makes you stronger,” Harden said. Harden’s confidence has been greatly bolstered by complementary additions like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, reinforcing that the Rockets are now Harden’s team and that everyone in the locker room will follow his lead whether it’s on the court during practice or during games. Knowing he has the full confidence of his teammates, coaches and the organization behind him helped further motivate Harden this offseason. “I got to be better and I will be better,” he said. “I figured out that I got to be better as a basketball player, as a person and then it’ll be easier for me to lead.” Besides accepting a bigger leadership role with the 2016-17 Rockets, there is no bigger sign of Harden’s transformation than the hiring of Mike D’Antoni as head coach this summer. The creator

of the “Seven Seconds or Less” outfit a decade ago that made the Phoenix Suns into the high-scoring darlings of League Pass and produced two MVP trophies for Steve Nash, D’Antoni’s arrival promises to play to the strengths of Harden. D’Antoni wasted no time putting the gameplan into effect, naming Harden as the point guard. It’s a role that Harden has essentially already taken in his time as a Rocket, but D’Antoni won’t bother having a second ballhandler in the backcourt, instead filling that spot with another shooter/scorer to space the floor, giving Harden more room to probe and create. “He makes really good players better players,” Harden says of D’Antoni. “He has a formula that has proven it’s worked.” In the early part of the season, Harden has made D’Antoni look like a genius. Over the first eight games, Harden saw his numbers take off from already lofty standards. He was averaging 30.6 points (on .497 shooting, .397 three-point shooting while getting to the line his customary 10 times per game), an eye-whopping 13 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has noticed plenty of positive energy surrounding the team and he credits much of that to Harden embracing his leadership role and getting everyone to buy in at a much higher level than in the past. “James has shown a lot of leadership this offseason in getting the players together,” he says. “We have done that in the past, but this is to a new level of the players really taking ownership of the team.” One player who’s quite familiar with Harden is Harrison Barnes, who signed a big contract with Houston’s division and intrastate rival, the Dallas Mavericks, this offseason. Barnes has faced Harden plenty during his time with Golden State and knows that no matter who is coaching the Rockets, Harden remains a handful for whatever team he’s facing. “He’s one of the better playmakers and scorers in this League,” says Barnes. “He’s going to be a handful to guard and he’s doing a good job of getting his teammates involved.” But one of the most telling words from Harden was when he was asked what his goal is for the upcoming season. As expected, he answered an NBA Championship, and when a follow-up question asked if he thought that was realistic, he said it was. “I think we have more than enough in that locker room to win. We’re willing and able to compete with anybody on any given night.” Point taken, but it’s also because Harden is leading the way.


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In order for the Washington Wizards to break through, John Wall has to scale his own lofty standards.


et’s be clear: the Washington Wizards will only go as far as John Wall takes them. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Wall is entering his seventh season with the new-look Wizards. There are some new players, a new coach in Scott Brooks and a whole new aura of optimism. But it all starts and ends with Wall, their lightning-quick point guard from the University of Kentucky. The threetime All-Star averaged career-highs last season in points (19.9), assists (10.2) and steals (1.9), but also in turnovers (4.1). Yet the team success didn’t follow, as the Wizards finished a disappointing 41-41. Wall has guided the Wizards to the playoffs twice in his previous six years. Heading into the 2016-17 season, Wall is faced with plenty of adversity. In early May, he had separate surgeries on both knees. Neither procedure was considered serious, yet Wall’s minutes may have to be monitored early this season. Wall has made it public in recent months of his desire for a new shoe deal after previous stints with Reebok and adidas. Oh, and there was a reported rift with fellow guard Bradley Beal, who signed a mammoth contract extension in the offseason in the neighborhood of $130 million. Wall’s current deal is worth about $80 million. For the Wizards to have any success, Wall must step up and assume the leadership role of this team. 096

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WALL It started with a tweet Wall sent out with a picture of himself and Beal: “No bad blood this my Brother !! Let the good times roll now let's Rock and Roll !! #WizSquad #WallWay.” Wall further discussed the situation in the beginning of the season, and it looks as if the flames have been doused. “Whenever you have your two best players and they both want the game-winning shot and they want those types of plays, you’re going to have disagreements on the court,” says Wall. “But other than that, we’re fine. We talk. We’ve talked about it. We’re both two grown men. Everybody wants us to dislike each other. No, we don’t dislike each other. It’s just at times any team that has two great players or players who want to be great, we’re going to have disagreements from time to time.” Beal has been injury-prone, missing 81 games over the last four seasons. Even though he was rewarded with a huge payday, this has to be Wall’s team. “You don’t always get along with your bigger brother or your little brother, but you know you love them at the end of the day,” says Beal. “That’s how John and I are. We don’t always agree on the court and you’re not always going to agree with Coach Brooks. At the end of the day, we’re backcourt mates. We’re teammates. We’re the two leaders of the team.” Wall’s era with the Wizards has been far from smooth. The skill, ability and numbers have been evident, but for this franchise to

elevate to another level, it must start with Wall. And he has to stay healthy for them to improve. It can be a fine line. “I want to play the whole season, but it’s all up to [how] my body is reacting when I’m on the court,” Wall said. “If I have a hard workout, I see how my body reacts to it the next day, and [I'm] listening to my doctors and listening to my trainers who tell me what’s best. I think that’s the key to having longevity for the season and for my career.” The transformation of the Wizards will take plenty of time and patience. Had Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Wizards, the improvement would have been swifter. Instead, Durant landed with the Golden State Warriors. It’s all about Wall and his leadership from here on out. Now a veteran at 26, Wall needs to guide this young group in every way possible. All distractions must be put aside. Wall seems to understand the responsibility that lies ahead this season and beyond. “All the burden is on me,” says Wall. “I have control to lead everything. I have to be the one to lead by example and lead by talking and just doing whatever coach wants me to do. I think I progressed and got better every year. Even with this setback I had this summer, I still improved at just taking care of my body better, eating healthier and just getting in the best shape I can, preparing myself for the season.” Time will tell. This much is known: The Wizards will only step forward as far as Wall is able to carry them. 097


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COVE The Utah Jazz are the Western Conference contenders that no one will see coming.


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he Utah Jazz didn’t grab offseason headlines like other teams, but don’t sleep on them. Utah crept into the playoff discussion last year and the young nucleus is ready for a postseason push after a summer of shrewd moves. While Kevin Durant’s signing with Golden State and Dwyane Wade going home to Chicago were the big news of the summer, the Jazz tinkered with their roster. They traded for versatile forward Boris Diaw and able-handed point guard George Hill, while signing free-agent forward Joe Johnson, a proven scorer. The three veterans add valuable playoff experience—and in Diaw’s case, championship credentials—to a group that was a game from making the postseason last year. “Those guys have been around the League for a long time, they’ve got a lot of playoff experience,” says forward Derrick Favors. “They talk to us on the court, talk to us off the court, they lead by example, during workouts, during practice, just showing the young guys how to be a professional. They’re a big help to our team.” Utah has been on the rise for a few years but its improvement has gone largely unnoticed in the highly competitive Western Conference.The Jazz were 25-57 in 2013-14, won 38 games the next season and last year were 40-42, and only a two-game losing streak to close the season kept them out of the playoffs. That consistent improvement made adding veterans, to complement the core of Gordon Hayward, Favors and center Rudy Gobert, a sign the Jazz are ready to take the next step. But adding key veterans didn’t change the style or system implemented by third-year coach Quin Snyder. It simply enhanced it. “In order to compete in the West our identity has to be the same,” says Snyder. “We have to be a very difficult team to play against on the defensive end and continue to evolve that way.” The three-team trade that landed Hill came a few days after the Jazz dealt Trey Burke to Washington. Utah drafted Burke, taken ninth overall in 2013, hoping he would be the point guard for years. He ended up coming off the bench last year while the offense ran through Hayward at the small forward. That wasn’t a bad thing for the Jazz. Hayward has increased his scoring every year of his six seasons since Utah took him ninth in the 2010 NBA Draft. Last year he averaged 19.7 points, 3.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds in a career-high 80 games. Hayward won’t play as many games this year. He suffered a fractured ring finger on his left nonshooting hand in the preseason and missed the beginning of the season. He’s one of several Jazz players dealing with injuries. Favors wasn’t practicing or playing after the first preseason game because of a knee injury; shooting guard Alec Burks had offseason knee surgery that has kept him out of the lineup; and guard Rodney Hood missed time with a hand injury. Talented point guard Dante Exum, who is expected to share the point with Hill before one day taking the reins, is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in July 2015 that caused him to miss all of last year. Snyder knows injuries can be the difference between making the playoffs and being home for the summer. “As deep as the West is, if you lose one or two players, it makes it hard because the margin is going to be so slim,” he says. “We’ve got to get healthy, and until that happens we have to be really tough minded and play defense and hang in there.” The veterans may help steady the ship while the team gets healthy. Diaw is a smart player and a big man who is a cunning post defender and can pass and shoot from the outside. The Frenchman can also be a mentor to fellow countryman Gobert and the rest of the young players, using his championship experience to help guide the roster to the next level. “Just being there as a guy that’s been there,” Diaw said. “[I just] try to bring some of my experience.” Like Hayward, the 25-year-old Favors has seen his numbers increase every season. Last year he averaged 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, and he seems primed for a breakout season. Favors also sees his presence expanding in the locker room while still producing on the court. “I’m pretty sure my role will stay the same, as far as playing the power forward and moving to center sometimes,” he says. “They will probably look for me for more leadership, being able to control the paint, play on the inside. Right now, it’s still the same.” The expectations aren’t the same, however. The Jazz may be overlooked by some, but they know they have the makeup to get back to the playoffs for the first time in five years. “A lot of people are picking us to be a surprising team and a lot of people aren’t paying that much attention to us,” Favors said. “Right now we enjoy being under the radar, we enjoy being the underdogs. We’re going to try to play hard and try to reach our goals.”



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THE GIFT AND THE CURSE After a summer of success, DeMarcus Cousins needs to take the lessons learned to earn his kingdom in Sacramento.


here is no denying his talent. Watch him and you’ll see the nimble footwork, the soft touch around the paint, the power when he gets to the rim, the range when he steps back (yes, even behind the three-point line), the quick hands that poke away balls, the superb timing on blocked shots, the immovable object in the post, and most importantly, the passion—that either drives him to greatness, or an early trip to the showers.


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This is DeMarcus Cousins—at least for the first six years of his NBA career. Coming off a spectacular summer, which resulted in his first Olympic gold, Cousins entered the season with optimism. New starts are nothing new to Cousins; this is his sixth NBA head coach. To say that the Sacramento Kings are a team in transition is an understatement. But there are tangible signs that things are on the up and up: a new arena, a fresh practice facility, a new identity in its logo and uniforms—the proverbial glass isn’t just half-full, it’s new drinkware with something different poured in. While it looks and smells good, Cousins remains optimistically cautious. "Throughout this whole season, we've shown flashes of who we can be...but we've got to get past the stage of showing flashes and be the team we can be. We've shown what we can do, it's about doing it on a consistent basis." Cousins says on the potential of the team. Through it all, the change of scenery and the bumps in the road, he has continued to establish himself as a dominant force. The Kings' future is as bright or as dim as his often misunderstood reputation will allow. He has been labeled the anti-NBA player, and while his play is spirited and his opinions somewhat unpopular, the truth in the matter is that Cousins cares about the game, his team and the bottom line of winning. In his own words, he expressed a clear understanding of how he is portrayed. "I think some of my actions are mistaken. I think the way I play sometimes…they try to judge me. They try to judge me by the way I play and make me that way as a person. It's definitely tough to deal with, but you just got to find a way. I just keep trying to prove people wrong every day...that's my motivation." When it comes to his peers, and especially the opposition, Cousins is certainly perceived differently. When asked about the toughest opponent he has ever faced, former Kentucky Wildcat and current Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel has nothing but respect. "DeMarcus Cousins is a lot to handle, he's a big guy, and you definitely have to come into the game prepared to work against him," Noel says

The two-time All-Star is putting up averages of 28.3 points per game, 9.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a combined 2.3 blocks/ steals after 17 games this season, making him the most diverse center in the game. The combination of talent and temper has made Cousins a ripe target of trade rumors. So far, all of it has been just fuel for blog posts, Twitter rants and ESPN Trade Machine clicks. "Obviously, I've heard rumors since I've been here, and you just kinda deal with it and find a way to play through it," says Cousins. The old sports axiom is that winning is the salve that cures all. So while Cousins’ temperament might now be perceived as the reason for Sacramento’s struggle, if and when the Kings turn things around, the media will quickly frame Cousins’ same passion as the fuel that fires the franchise. Right now, Cousins needs to find the magic cure. Contrary to popular belief, Cousins’ perpetual scowl did not always accompany his all-around skills to the court. Prior to the NBA, there was plenty for him to smile about. As a high school star at LeFlore Magnet in Alabama, Cousins took the school all the way to the state championship (Cousins lost to Parker High School which was headlined by future college teammate Eric Bledsoe). In Cousins’ one year at Kentucky, the Wildcats went 35-3 before losing in the Elite Eight. Since becoming a pro, three losses might come in a week for Cousins. The Kings have averaged 52 losses a season since Cousins joined the franchises as the No. 5 overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft. The hope is that Cousins caught winning fever during USA Basketball’s gold-securing showing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games (Cousins previously won gold for the country during the 2014 FIBA World Cup) and can contaminate the Kings organization after an undefeated summer. Being the team’s best player is no longer good enough for Cousins. Putting up eye-popping stat lines on a regular basis will be empty. If the Kings want to be royal, it’ll be on Cousins to act the king.


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GIFT GUIDE Coming up with gift ideas for the baller in your life—which includes yourself—can be a difficult proposition, but we have a few recommendations that will make it easier.


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Roku Ultra

The best streaming box just got better with 4K HDR support to go along with the winning features we’ve long touted: ease of use, simple navigation and remote (a push of a button on the unit also helps you locate a misplaced clicker), the democratic content finder (it’ll always help you find the free or cheapest option since it’s not tied to a content store) and the variety of channels that are supported by Roku (including the most important one, NBA).

LG V20


DxO One

Epson Pro Cinema 5040UB

When it comes to sheer picture size and cost-per-inch, you cannot beat the value of a quality projector vs. any flat panel television. The Pro Cinema 5040UB comes recommended because of its vivid picture (2,500 lumens), which is bright enough to handle some ambient light in the room (think a partially shaded window), making it a good option for a TV replacement. The black level performance is traditionally weak on projectors, but Epson’s “Ultra Black” technology gives excellent contrast that should please finicky cinephiles. Of course, the real draw is the 4K with HDR (High Dynamic Range) that brings a stunning big picture experience (depending on your space constraints, the 5040UB can project up to a 300-inch picture) to your home, making movie nights a short trip to your home theater.


As good as Apple wants you to believe the camera on the iPhone is, it still lags behind the picture of a dedicated SLR camera. As good as pictures from an SLR may be, lugging a camera around can be a chore. Consider the DxO One a compromise between the two. The add-on camera assembly mates with your iPhone via the Lightning port to join the DxO’s 1-inch, 20 MP sensor with a f/1.8 aperture lens to your iPhone (the companion app that runs it turns your iPhone into a viewfinder and camera interface), for a very big boost to your picture-taking.


In the primarily two-party system of the mobile world, the V20 stands as one of the strongest independents in the game. It checks off the requisite criteria for a power phone: peppy Snapdragon 820 processor (2.15 GHz), 5.7-inch quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) display, and a dual-lens setup for the main rear camera. The camera is a 16 MP wide-angle lens that captures more image even at a close distance and features LG’s Laser Detection auto-focus, which makes for a clearer picture, even when tracking fast action. The front 2 MP camera also has a 120-degree wide-angle lens, getting more subjects into your selfies. The V20 has a secondary display, the 160 x 1,040 Second Screen, that can be used to add customized text (24 characters), alerts and apps. Another highlight to the V20 is the strong audio support. Based on the ES9218 Quad DAC, the V20 is capable of big and distortion-free sound. Yes, a microSD card slot is available to expand memory. It sits behind the removable 3200mAh battery that is housed underneath the rear metal cover. On the software side, the V20 is the first mobile device to run Google’s latest flavor of Android (Nougat).



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Alpha Industries MA-1 Flex Slim Flight Jacket

Sony PlayStation VR

Sony is the first videogame console to dip its toes into the virtual reality arena with the PlayStation VR. An accessory to the PS4, the PSVR is a wired VR headset that connects to your PS4 console via a break out box to take you into immersive gaming. The PlayStation Camera tracks your movement via the sensors on the headset and the PS Move Motion Controllers. As wired VR goes, the PSVR is easy to set up (the mass of wires might be intimidating, but everything is keyed and took less than 15 minutes to get up and running), and the experience pulls you into the gaming world. If you already own a PS4, the PSVR would be the cheapest entry point into VR gaming.

LEGO Volkswagen Beetle

Load the surfboard and the cooler atop an iconic 1960s era Volkswagen Beetle for a beachside picnic. LEGO captured the look and feel of the classic Beetle in brick form, sparing no details—the replicated rear engine, opening doors and front trunk, real rubber wheels—out of 1,167 pieces.


Herschel Pop Quiz Backpack

The perfect everyday backpack should be compact, functional, versatile, unobtrusive, yet with enough panache to make a statement. The synthetic leather of the Pop Quiz gives the staid navy backpack a spotlight, but the clean design allows it to be a go-to for work or school. Inside, there is a 15-inch fleece-lined laptop sleeve, sunglasses compartment and mesh organizers for writing instruments and other small goods, all skinned in Herschel’s signature striped fabric.

The flight or bomber jacket is a timeless extension of the nylon jacket, with poly fill outerwear that Air Force and Navy pilots would don in cockpits in the 1950s. Alpha Industries recreates the jacket, but with a modern slim fit and that allows for the wearer to personalize it with patches. Alpha Industries has its own patch program, but any Velcro-backed flair would work.



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Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link

Combat the stagnant cold winter air with the Pure Hot+Cool Link, a multifunctional small room heater and air purifier in one. Utilizing Dyson’s bladeless fan technology, it also combines Dyson’s 360-degree Glass HEPA filter to remove 99.7 percent of particles as small as 0.3 microns from the air, while a pair of PTC ceramic plates gently heat up the clean air that gets pushed out.

Philips 9700 Shaver


We have endorsed the use of a safety razor for an indulgent and close shave, but when it comes to pure convenience, it’s hard to match an electric shaver. The three shaving heads of the 9700 move in eight directions, making for an efficient pass through your all-terrain face with every stroke. The 9700 also cops bonus points for being a relatively quiet shaver. When done, the shaver gets parked into its charging base that also cleans and preps the shaver for your next shave.

Stance Socks


Whether you’re into performance socks that the pros wear underneath their shoes, or prefer to pay homage to a legend like The Answer, Stance has your feet covered. The Logo Crew for both the Knicks and Lakers feature each city’s famous initials and all the performance benefits—ankle pads, moisture-wicking fibers and anatomical cushioning—that will up your game. The Answer sock features a print of one of longtime A.I. photographer Gary Land’s rare Iverson photos, with Land’s signature at the toe.


Under Armour Storm Swacket

Fully embracing the hybrid position-less trend in the NBA, the Storm Swacket is equal parts your favorite go-to sweatshirt and throw-on jacket. The Storm technology sheds water, but the material is as soft as the lived-in sweatshirt with the paint and pizza stains. Woven overlays insulate the body and the reflective details on arms and trim make it safe to don at night.

Samsung Gear VR

As smartphone-based VR headsets go, the Gear VR cannot be beat. Just drop your compatible Samsung smartphone (Galaxy S6 and up) and you can be transported to the fringes of reality. The best is experiencing an NBA game courtside (via the NextVR Samsung Gear VR app, through its partnership with the NBA and Turner Sports). This puts you in the expensive seats with a you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it 180-degree view of the action on (the players feel inches away) and off the court (people watching , dancers and player interactions).




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Samsung Gear IconX

In the future, portable audio will mean being implanted with sound hardwired directly into our brain via microchip. Until that creepy future, the Gear IconX is the final frontier of minimal wireless audio. The tiny kettleball-shaped earbuds get fitted into your ear like earplugs. Once in, the left and right earbuds of the IconX connect and sync up together. It can then connect via Bluetooth with your phone or be used independently, playing music of its onboard 4 GB memory, making it a perfect solution to a phone-free run or workout. Adding to the fitness angle is the IconX’s built-in activity tracker which monitors heart rate, distance, speed and calories and offloads it back to your phone when finished. The earbuds are operated through the touchpad on the The IconX, which can run for about three hours on a charge—a drawback, but still better than the thought of having an audio chip in your head.


Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Tekoa Waterproof

Out west, Chucks are a four-season shoe, but in the North, the classic shoe gets a hiatus after November due to the cold and snow. The Tekoa boot takes the stylings of the Chuck and wraps it in rubber and Counter Climate technology to keep out the elements. An inner sleeve insulates the foot to ward off the cold.


Exley Utility Vest

Anything new will inevitably become old, even New England, at least according to the folks at Exley. Based in New Bedford, Mass., the outerwear company stakes claim to repping the New New England by celebrating American textile manufacturing with hand-cut and sewn outerwear on native soil. This ethos can be seen in its Utility Vest. The sturdy construction comes together with modern sensibilities to make a rugged vest that is equally comfortable on a fishing boat as it is on a night out in town.


Bevel Trimmer

The humble barbershop hair trimmer gets the high design treatment, along with sign-off from hip hop icon Nas (who has a partnership with the company). The Bevel Trimmer has a dodecagon (12 sides for those of you not versed in Dungeons & Dragons) body, giving it an ergonomic grip in hand. The unit features a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, giving the trimmer four hours of power; an LED ring at the base indicates the runtime left. The trimmer does run on the loud side, but it cuts precisely, making it an ideal tool for line-ups on the facial hair and hairlines. An internal dial beneath the bale assembly adjusts the blade and a there’s a hidden hook that can be unfurled for hanging.



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Nike KD Long Sleeve MVP

HTC Vive

The Vive is our choice for the best consumerlevel virtual reality gaming experience in the marketplace. The setup is more involved than the others, but it’s only because the Vive is the only one that broadens the play space beyond standing in front of a single sensor. The dual sensors of the Vive means your virtual world can be the size of a small room, making for a more immersive experience. The headset displays at 2160 x 1200 resolution, and you can interact with the VR games or experiences through the two included handheld controllers. Games are run through the Steam network, and keep in mind, you will need a pretty beefy computer (our recommendation on page 117) to power the Vive.


’47 NBA Calgary Cuff Knit

Generously cut, this long-sleeved top will serve well as a base layer for winter training. The Dri-FIT fabric throughout will keep you dry, but the mesh panel across the shoulders and chest give extra breathability. Reflective details on the “35” and Swoosh keeps you safe when the lights go out from your torrid shooting.



It doesn’t get more classic than your NBA allegiance knitted into a pom-pom beanie, with the retro team logo embroidered on the cuff.

HP Pavilion Wave

It’s not a speaker nor a subwoofer, but it does output great audio (more on that later). The Pavilion Wave is a desktop PC that doesn’t have to be relegated to the dusty corner beneath the desk. Shaped like a triangular cylinder, the Pavilion Wave is wrapped in fabric (like a speaker), making for an elegant PC that you’ll want to floss. High-end audio maker Bang & Olufsen gets credit for the speaker inside that emits from the top of the unit (which also serves as a heat exhaust), making the Pavilion Wave a great home theater media PC that won’t look out of place next to the TV.

$449 (starting price depending on configuration)


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Microsoft Customizable Xbox One S Controller

Microsoft is taking a page from customizable sneakers by letting users dream up their own updated Xbox One S wireless controller (Microsoft added textured grips, Bluetooth connection and increased range). There are seven points of customization and 15 color choices, resulting in 8 million color possibilities. For an additional $9.99, you can add in a gamer tag or other text on the controller. Not a bad start to a personalized controller. Hopefully, Microsoft adds in the ability to print graphics in the future.


adidas Originals Tubular X Primeknit

Adidas weaves— or should we say knits—its Primeknit upper into one of its modern classics, the Tubular (which was inspired by the adidas Forum). The result is a street-ready shoe with the chunky tire-tube-imagined sole and a refined comfortable upper.


adidas Originals Noize Sweatshirt

Pop the tags and you instantly have a broken-in sweatshirt with a throwback vibe. The 100-percent cotton pique sweatshirt’s speckled melange design is inspired by the “white noise” static of pre-HDTV era. Adding to the retro appeal are the extra-long sleeves and the relaxed drop shoulders.


Microsoft Xbox One S Gears of War 4 Ultimate Edition

The Xbox One S is a svelte redesign of the original, making it 40 percent smaller while upping the storage to 2TB and losing the external power brick for an internal one. It also adds 4K streaming and Blu-ray playback, HDR (High Dynamic Range) support and upscales 1080p games to 4K. Included is the updated Xbox One S controller (see above). The GOW4 edition skins the console and controller in Crimson Omen, but goes the extra mile with the laser etched battle damage. To go along with the updated console is a new generation of Gears. Taking place 25 years after GOW3, the fourth installment follows the same bloodlines (JD Fenix, son of Marcus Fenix) as the Coalition faces a new protagonist, the Swarm.



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Raumfeld Soundbar

Raumfeld (going by the name Teufel) has been developing audio products in Germany since 1979, but is just breaking into the U.S. market. One of its offerings is a six-speaker Soundbar housed in a solidly built cabinet that, because of its size, looks best underneath a 60-inch and up display. The unit’s size is only matched by the sound output. Movies come to life as the Soundbar creates an excellent soundstage. Adjustable modes can enhance the type of movie: Arena and Theatre modes will add depth to action sequences by activating the side speakers while dialogue-driven films will benefit with the emphasis of the center channel. The included wireless subwoofer adds extra kick to the lows, and with its slim and long design (eschewing the typical cube paradigm), it can slide underneath a sofa or stand up vertically, making for cleaner placement.

Belkin WeMo Switches

If you’re looking to easily retrofit home automation into your abode, Belkin’s WeMo range of products makes it dead simple. The Switch is a pluggable bridge that turns one standard electric outlet into a connected device via your home’s WiFi router and the WeMo app on your phone. The Lightswitch requires more DIY skills, but replaces a “dumb” light switch into a smart one, allowing you control of the switch through your smartphone, from your own couch or a couch on the other side of the world.

Switch: $39.99 Lightswitch: $49.99

Nike KD Hyper Elite Hoodie FZ

Made with the outdoor training or hooping enthusiast in mind (remember, basketball never stops), the KD Hyper Elite Hoodie FZ is constructed with Therma fabric to insulate and wick away sweat. The stretch material and the ergonomic seams offers range of motion. The hoodie also features a multi-paneled hood and deep kangaroo pockets that can house a small water bottle, your biggest smartphone and all the dimes you plan on dropping.



Nike Elite Hybrid Tank

This base layer serves as a foundation piece for additional layering with its stretch fabric for range of movement. When things heat up, the Elite Hybrid Tank can stand on its own with its Dri-FIT material to keep moisture at bay.


Topo Designs X Woolrich Klettersack

Collaborations make the most sense when the relationship is symbiotic. Take, for example, the tried and true Klettersack silhouette of Topo Designs merged with the classic woolen fabrics of Woolrich. Both companies take pride in American craftsmanship (the bag is handmade in Colorado), and the crossing of DNA results in a pack that epitomizes the open countryside, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and the autumn/winter season.



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adidas Crazy Explosive Primeknit

Nest Cam Outdoor

Nest keeps adding to its portfolio of connected home devices, this time with its outdoor camera, the Cam Outdoor. Fully weatherproof, the Cam Outdoor is a plug-and-play camera that easily connects to a standard electrical outlet, links with your home WiFi and then gives you a wide 130-degree field of vision through the Nest app in pristine 1080p resolution in day or night. Alerts let you know when the camera detects activity (it saves it as a thumbnail event in the timeline), and the two-way audio means you can greet the UPS guy or spook off an intruder.


Nike KD Flex Hyper Elite KD

Comfort, style and performance all meet in the middle with the Flex Hyper Elite pants. Nike Flex fabric gives the wearer freedom of movement, while the Dri-FIT material wicks away heat and moisture. The relaxed fit tapers down at the ankles for a modern aesthetic.


It’s not his signature shoe, but the Crazy Explosive is a good match for the young Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins. This PE edition features stained glass graphics that pay homage to Wiggins’ Toronto roots and his second home in Minnesota. The Crazy Explosive got high grades from us (peep the performance review on hoopmag. com), with its foot-conforming Primeknit upper and reactive Boost cushioning.


Roots of Fight Basketball Collection

Taking the formula of honoring fighting legends in the ring like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee with their own apparel collection, Roots of Fight has turned its attention to masters of the basketball court, namely Allen Iverson, Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, Shaquille O’Neal and Dennis Rodman. This collection of vintageinspired tees, jackets, sweats and hats has a timeless feel and soft hand that befits the icons it is honoring.

$69.95 (Dr. J Sweatpants), $79.95 (Shaq #34 FZ Hoody), $34.95 (Allen Iverson and Julius Erving Snapbacks), $109.99 (Dr. J Stadium Jacket)


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Photo By: Peggy Sirota



I was one of our nation’s hungry kids growing up. Today, 1 in 5 children in America struggle with hunger. But when they get breakfast, their days are bigger and brighter. Learning, attention, memory and mood improve. Together, we have the power to get breakfast to kids in your neighborhood — let’s make it happen. Go to and lend your time or your voice. Viola Davis, Hunger Is Ambassador

Hunger Is® is a joint initiative of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which are 501(c)(3) charitable organizations.

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Flybrix Deluxe Drone Kit

The genius of LEGO is the infinite possibilities the brick building system affords, including a drone. The heart of the Flybrix Drone is the microcircuitry (open-source Arduino compatible), motors and propellers, but everything else is venerable and flexible LEGO parts, turning the unavoidable crashes of drone-flying into opportunities for imaginative rebuilds. You’ll likely lose a few parts along the way, but everyone has some LEGO bricks somewhere around the house. The eight-propellered drone can be controlled via the included remote (only on the Deluxe kit) or Flybrix app (iOS and Android).


Part of what made Hall of Famer Allen Iverson so captivating (besides his electric crossover and scoring exploits that belied his sub-6-foot frame) was the imagery that added to his iconic status. Like Tupac, Iverson’s photos gave the viewer intimate access into his soul and essence. And no one captured Bubba Chuck in still frame better than Gary Land. Land first met Iverson 20 years ago, and over time developed a rapport that many photographers and subjects establish. The 272-page tome documents the journey with many famous and some never before seen photos, along with anecdotes over two decades.



adidas James Harden Vol. 1

Under Armour UAS Fat Tire Boot

There will be no slip up this winter. Be it snow, ice or the combination slush stuff, the UAS Fat Tire Boot will keep your feet to the ground with its Michelin-developed outsole that draws inspiration from Fat Tire bikes. The Wild Gripper treads sit below UA’s Charged cushioning midsole and are wrapped in premium aniline leather to stave off the elements.


Unlike the facial hair that he’s known for, the debut signature shoe for the man known for his beard is pretty clean. The James Harden Vol. 1 sports a white leather toe overlay that sits atop a knitted mesh upper. Like all of adidas’ highend basketball offerings, Boost is the preferred rise. The Harden Vol. 1 features full-length, low-profile Boost in the midsole that gives a plush—but not to be confused with the pillowy Ultra Boost—ride during runs. Other highlights include the asymetrical lacing system that locks down the foot and the traction provided by the grippy hexagonal-patterned outsole. (Check for a full performance review.)



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Nike Dry Elite

A good layering piece underneath a T-shirt, the Dry Elite will keep you dry and comfortable with its Dri-FIT material. A mesh back panel exhausts heat in the rear, while body-mapping seams ensure the shooting shirt moves with the body.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Y900

One look at the deep black finish, the ominous red lighting, the faux carbonfiber front panel and the exposed interior lighting from the window panel and there’s no confusing the Y900 with your standard PC tower. The subtle touches—tool-less entry into the case, thoughtfully routed cabling, removeable dust filters and rubber fastners to dampen operating noise—and configurable high-end components—Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 8GB graphics card and Intel Core i7 processor—combine to make this a premium gaming beast that can run any game at full frame rates, including VR games on the HTC Vive (on page 111). The optional Y27g curved gaming monitor mimics the design DNA of the Y900 with its devil-like scheme, but the real draw is the Nvidia G-Sync technology that synchronizes with the graphics processor for optimal performance, and the curved screen for an immersive experience.

$1,299-2,299 (depending on configuration) $599 (Y27g Curved Gaming Monitor)

Logitech POP Home Switch


The dirty little secret about home automation, connected home devices and the “internet of things” is that they can still be complicated. These technologies usually tied to one user and almost always requires micromanaging with the phone. Logitech is looking to streamline it with the POP Home Switch—a literal “easy button” to your connected devices (as of this writing, it supports Philips Hue, LIFX, August, Sonos, Harmony, Lutron, Insteon and Belkin WeMo). The simple three-way control switch (one press, press twice or press-and-hold) gives access to devices through the pluggable POP bridge once it’s added onto the POP app, giving easy and accessible control at a press of a button.


WHERE TO BUY: ’47 NBA Calgary Cuff Knit,; A.I.,; adidas Noize Sweatshirt, Tubular Primeknit, Crazy Explosive, James Harden Vol. 1,; Alpha Industries MC-1 Flex Slim Flight Jacket,; Belkin WeMo Lightswitch and Switch,; Bevel Trimmer,; Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Tekoa Waterproof,; DxO One,; Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link,; Epson Pro Cinema 5040UB,; Exley NB Utility Vest,; Flybrix Deluxe Drone Kit,; Herschel Pop Quiz Backpack,; HP Pavilion Wave,; HTC Bolt, HTC Vive,; LEGO Volkswagen Beetle,; Lenovo IdeaCentre Y900,; LG V20,; Logitech POP Home Switch Kit,; Microsoft Xbox One S Gears of War 4 Ultimate Edition,; Nest Cam Outdoor,; Nike Dry Elite, KD Flex Hyper Elite Cuff Pant, KD Long Sleeve MVP, KD Hyper Elite Hoodie FZ, Elite Hybrid Tank,; Philips Norelco Shaver 9700,; Raumfeld Soundbar,; Roku Ultra,; Raumfeld Soundbar,; Roots of Fight Basketball Collection,; Samsung Gear IconX, Gear VR,; Sony PlayStation VR,; Stance socks,; TOPO Designs x Woolrich Klettersack,; Under Armour UAS Fat Tire Boot, Storm Swacket,; Xbox Design Lab Controller,

HTC Bolt

HTC didn’t veer far from its flagship HTC 10 for its top-of-the-line, Sprint network-exclusive phone. HTC retains the all-metal unibody that has garnered it many fans, but it does bring a few new upgrades from its older brother, namely the larger form factor (5.5 inches), IP57 water resistence (one meter of water submersion for 30 minutes) and taking a cue from the iPhone’s playbook, the removal of the audio jack. Replacing it is a USB Type-C jack which supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 fast charging. The included USB Type-C ear buds are well built, and through the included HTC software, can also tune music to the specifics of your ear canal.

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Before the season, Jordan filmed Space Jam, which was released in November 1996.

Jordan won the 1995-96 MVP easily, leading the NBA in scoring (30.4 PPG) and Win Shares (20.4). It would be his fourth MVP hardware before winning another in 1998.

This was Michael Jordan’s first full season after missing a season and a half playing baseball.

This game was a rematch of the 1993 Finals and was the first time Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley squared since playing for the championship.

Rodman was also known for his rebounding, totaling 11,954 in his career. His career 13.12 rebounding average is 11th best all time and his total rebound percentage of 23.44 remains tops in League history.

A versatile defender who guarded all five positions, Rodman was twice the Defensive Player of the Year (1990 and ’91) and an eight-time All-Defensive pick (seven of those were First Team).

The 1995-96 season was Dennis Rodman’s first with the Chicago Bulls, a team that he once had a long rivalry against while playing for the Detroit Pistons.

Barkley co-starred in Space Jam, playing one of Jordan’s antagonists, the Monstars, a group of aliens who steal the basketball talents of Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues.

The 1995-96 season would be Barkley’s final in the Valley of the Sun. His four-year run in Phoenix produced one of the best eras in franchise history, with the team reaching the Finals in 1993 and Barkley winning his lone MVP the same season.

Barkley notched his 11th and final 20-point and 10-rebound season in 1995-96 with averages of 23.2 points and 11.6 rebounds.

The United Center was in just its second season as the team’s arena. While the Bulls had brought the three championship banners from its predecessor, Chicago Stadium, the United Center had yet to be christened with a title. About six months later, the Bulls would win their first championship in the arena (and the franchise’s fourth total).

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10, formerly the best record in NBA regularseason history before the Golden State Warriors bested it by a win last season.

Entering this game, the Chicago Bulls were riding a 14-game win streak. They would win this game 93-82 to extend the streak that would eventually go to 18.



January 28, 1996 Phoenix Suns vs. Chicago Bulls, United Center


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Finley finished his 15-year NBA career with 17,306 points and two AllStar selections.

The high-flying Finley took part in two Slam Dunk Contests. He finished second in 1996. In 1997, he attempted a dunk that involved a cartwheel after he threw the ball in the air before catching it (he missed it).

Eventually Finley would become a Jordan-sponsored athlete.

Finley finished fourth (tied with Jerry Stackhouse) in Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis and Joe Smith.

Finley was a member of the 1996 AllRookie First Team, putting up per-game averages of 15 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1 steal.

A rookie in 1995-96, Michael Finley was the Phoenix Suns’ first round draft pick (No. 21 overall) in the 1995 NBA Draft.

The second-most famous pair of Air Jordan XIs might be the all-black ones Jordan wore in Space Jam, dubbed the “Space Jams” by sneakerheads.

According to Hatfield, when Jordan first saw the XI, he claimed that people would wear the shoes with tuxedoes. Three months later, R&B group Boyz II Men showed up to the American Music Awards clad in tuxedoes and Air Jordan XIs. And yes, plenty of people have walked down the aisle in them.

The AJ XI was designed by famous shoe designer and longtime collaborator Tinker Hatfield, who based the design off a lawn mower and used patent leather to satisfy Jordan’s long-running request for a “shiny” shoe.

The Air Jordan XI is arguably the most famous and best-selling pair in his still-running signature line. This particular colorway, known as “Concords,” is the original—and most popular—iteration.

Rodman joined Jordan (2009) and Barkley (2006) in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame when he was inducted as part of the 2011 class.

Never known as a scorer, Rodman only cracked double-digit scoring average once in his career (11.6) in 1987-88.

While many still think that “A.C.” are the initials for his full name, A.C. is simply his name and does not stand for anything. Green can be referred to as “junior,” since his dad had the same two-lettered name.

Green played in 1,278 of 1,281 games (99.8 percent). The three games he missed came in his second season in the League.

Green’s streak began on Nov. 19, 1986, and ran until his final NBA game on April 18, 2001.

A.C. Green was a hard-nosed forward primarily known for his iron man streak of 1,192 consecutive games played in the NBA.


At a Special Olympics NBA Cares basketball clinic during the 2016 Global Games in Shanghai, China, NBA legend Yao Ming demonstrates the finer points of a proper layup, which to be fair, is a lot different when you don’t stand 7-5. JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Ryan Anderson, known for his deadly perimeter game, is right at home making sure the perimeter of the garden is well-maintained during the Rockets’ Hoops for Troops event. BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

James Harden always displays his high usage rate, even while dishing out a holiday meal to local Houston residents. Also, someone get James a beard net. BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

We’re legit surprised that tall and long-limbed Giannis Antetokounmpo needed a ladder to reach the rim during a court refurbishment at a local park in Milwaukee. We’re betting that he was just on the first step. GARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Contrary to his reputation of doing everything on the court, Russell Westbrook cannot serve Thanksgiving dinner all by himself as part of his fifth annual Why Not? Foundation Thanksgiving Dinner. But with his triple-double game, you would think Russ would be able to at least manage all the sides by himself. LAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES


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rds, the Long known for its orcha turning locallyHendersonville area is now s into delicious hard grape and s apple grown to that five craft ciders and wines. Add local beer creations, breweries serving up their every palate on for hing somet nd and you’ll fi this new tasting trail.


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Immerse yourself in the heritage of historic Henders onville and surrounding com munities with a visit to the num erous sites that tell our story and shar e our many traditions through music, events and historic sites . Although our terra in is considered a typical mountain county, our rich heritage and frien dly people will inspire you to disc over the rich heritage of our wonderful community.


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Look closely into the mountains of North Carolina and you’ll discover a place unlike any other. Hendersonville calls out to all to seek out and explore new experiences Crest year-round. Orchard North Carolina is the 7th largest apple-producin g state in the nati on and Henderson County is the largest apple-p roducing county in North Carolina. The apple harv est season runs from late August through Octob er. Fresh apples, cider and man y other items may be purchased at the many roadsid e apple markets or produce stan ds located through out Henderson County. Som e orchards offe r tours and allo w you to pick your own apples.

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