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NBA PM: Lazenby on Kobe Book, Today’s NBA

Author and historian Roland Lazenby discusses his upcoming Kobe Bryant biography, today’s NBA and respecting greatness.

Jabari Davis

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Roland Lazenby is an author and basketball historian who has been around the game, writing about the NBA and sports in general, for the better part of four decades. Lazenby, a longtime close personal friend of legendary coach Tex Winter, spent time detailing the exploits of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls as well as dissecting the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-powered Los Angeles Lakers that dominated the early 2000s.

He recently joined the Triple Threat Podcast to discuss his upcoming book about Bryant. While bound to an understandable secrecy agreement with his publishing house (Little Brown), Lazenby was able to describe the project as a 600-page journey through Kobe Bryant’s life and the path his basketball career took. Outside of his most recent book (Michael Jordan: The Life), Lazenby has also written a biography on former Laker Jerry West and taken in-depth looks at the life and career of both Phil Jackson (while he was coaching the Bulls) and even a young Bryant.

He also acknowledged that the book does spend some time focusing on the life of Bryant’s father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant as an NBA player and the parallels Lazenby described as “a pretty compelling story about Kobe being the force of nature” that he has been, and how their two stories are interlinked in the obvious father/son ways and beyond.

When asked whether the book would detail the reported issues and strained relationships that appear to exist within the Bryant family – as it seemed peculiar when neither his parents nor his sisters were visible during his final NBA season and along one of the more celebrated farewell tours in recent history – Lazenby assured an explanation of the basic nature of the conflict, but made it clear the background was added for perspective and context rather than attempting to “rub anyone’s nose in it.” He describes them as an “extraordinary family,” and was quick to remind that every family has their issues.

While Lazenby described Bryant’s final year as sub par when compared to the incredible standard he established throughout his Hall of Fame career, he said a portion of the book will also center around the vintage 60-point scoring performance Bryant left us with and how unique of a farewell game that truly was.  

He also described the project as a view of Bryant as both a cultural and sports figure and said his basic focus was on the 20-year career and all the relationships that played a role in developing and maintaining Bryant’s greatness along the way.

Lazenby reminisced about a 30-minute conversation with Bryant that took place in the locker room before the 1998 All-Star Game and how he was extremely impressed by a fiercely determined 18-year-old.

Twenty years later, Lazenby thinks Bryant will have such an active and impressive post-playing career that decades from now some people may be surprised to know he even played basketball. While it was initially a point that was taken as being somewhat exaggerated for effect, we are reminded of the fact that we now have a generation, particularly on social media, that is more familiar with Michael Jordan as an incredibly overused meme and NBA owner rather than as one of the baddest men to ever palm a basketball. When specifically asked about the way we consume and judge basketball and greatness these days, Lazenby made it clear fans should be careful when attempting to compare players from different eras.

“I have tremendous respect for Bill Russell, and you know when Michael [Jordan] came along it was pretty impressive that he did things as a wing player in driving those championships and becoming a post weapon that had never been done,” Lazenby said. “The game that Wilt [Chamberlain] and Russell played is different than the one MJ played, and the game that MJ played is nowhere near the game that Steph [Curry] and these guys are playing.”

Lazenby wasn’t saying the game is necessarily “better” in one era over another. Even though he is specifically qualified to speak on the very subject, having seen the greats over the past 40 or so years, he still actively avoids comparing different eras of basketball altogether. He points to the obvious rule adjustments – and interpretations of said rules – that have taken place throughout history, specifically describing how Tex Winter (essentially, the ‘father of the Triangle offense’) often lamented how the rules were systematically altered to diminish the effectiveness of the traditional back-to-the-basket big man.

While he does wax poetic upon the days when you were actually instructed to “bump” guards and other players who attempted to cut and slash to the basket, Lazenby also very clearly appreciates the league in its current state.

“Shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are going to be brilliant in any era and that’s what the truly great players are,” Lazenby said. “I just think you have to treat each age as it was. The game has changed. There are so many great and fascinating things about this new age of offense. It’s a severe disrespect to the Warriors to say they’re merely an offensive team…We’re seeing overwhelming displays from them defensively.”

Several of the league’s former greats and longtime analysts have been outspoken in their opinions about the current state of the NBA and the dominance of the Golden State Warriors in particular, but Lazenby scoffs at the notion of them not belonging alongside the great teams of the past.

“I don’t care what you’re doing, to win 73 games, to do what they [did] to dig themselves out of that 3-1 deficit, they are one of the all-time great teams and they have established their place,” Lazenby said of the Warriors.

With that said, Lazenby isn’t willing to go quite as far as others have when it comes to writing off the game’s big men and their potential effectiveness moving forward.

“I don’t think we’ve exited the age of the big man,” he said. “It’s still a big boy’s game. It always has been. There are challenges with the game with the way it is being officiated and played, but I think OKC gave people a lot of food for thought.”

He reminded that while we’ve seen Golden State’s success over the last few seasons, the league does still have some talented young big men to remain excited about. He’s particularly a fan of Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns because, well, why wouldn’t you be if you’re a fan of the game? The 20-year-old was absolutely phenomenal during his rookie season in Minnesota, averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award unanimously.

From Towns to Anthony Davis to DeMarcus Cousins, Lazenby said that the greatest challenge for today’s big man is having to be so active defensively around the perimeter as opposed to solely protecting the rim and painted area. While acknowledging how big men have adjusted to the current style, Lazenby actually calls for rules to go back to being balanced in order to protect bigs who can actually operate in the post. He claims that while guards get the ultimate benefit of the doubt on any contact along the perimeter (which they do), big men should receive the same consideration in the paint and be allowed to play more freely as offensive players.

The conversation with Lazenby was wide-ranging, but perhaps the most spirited response from Lazenby came in regards to judging LeBron James from a historical perspective.

“Talk about somebody that would have been good to go in any era of basketball – I have so much awe and respect for LeBron,” Lazenby said. “He’s been an incredible competitor… He’s a titan of the game. He’s a titan as an athlete. He’s a titan as a person. He is impressive in every way that a human being can be impressive.”

Lazenby has seen most of the greats along the way and assures us that history will be a lot kinder to James after his career, just as it will likely be with Bryant. At times, fans find it difficult to place aside a certain bias or team affiliation when it comes to fully acknowledging greatness in the moment. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the discussion was that even though Lazenby has a clear affinity toward the players that literally shaped and molded the league as we know it, he’s able to also embrace or, at the very least, appreciate what we are seeing today. The league and game (in general) continue to be evolving products, but it is nice to see that Lazenby is able to embrace the fact that “different” doesn’t necessarily denote an inferiority.

‘Showboat, the Life of Kobe Bryant’ is the working title for Lazenby’s upcoming Bryant project and is currently slated to be released by Little Brown on October 15.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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