Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio discusses his development, the rumors surrounding Kevin Love, Flip Saunders’ decision to coach the team and much more in this exclusive interview.
Hate Doesn’t Faze HEAT
If you haven’t noticed, the Miami HEAT have quite a few people rooting against them in the NBA Finals. Miami is easily the most hated team in the NBA and one of the most despised franchises in all of professional sports. Some fans root just as passionately against the HEAT as they root for their favorite team, and social media can get downright ugly during Miami’s games.
LeBron James is a lightning rod for criticism, Chris Bosh seems to appear in a new mean-spirited meme every day and the HEAT as a whole are labeled dirty, soft and cocky among other things by many fans.
Ever since James and Bosh decided to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach back in the summer of 2010, Miami has had a target on their back. The Decision, followed by the over-the-top pep rally celebrating the Big Three’s arrival, rubbed many people the wrong way and many fans haven’t moved on.
That’s why four years later, there are many fans who revel in Miami’s struggles. James, Wade and Bosh have grown accustomed to this and no longer let it get to them, but that wasn’t always the case.
James and Bosh, in particular, struggled with the criticism early on. Bosh wasn’t used to the scrutiny and James, who is someone that cares about how he’s perceived, was used to being the NBA’s golden boy. James admitted that he didn’t enjoy the game of basketball as much during that first year in Miami and didn’t feel right in the villain role.
However, after being scrutinized so much in recent years, the hate no longer fazes the Big Three.
“I don’t care – that’s the main part – I don’t really care about criticism,” Bosh said. “If it doesn’t help me, then I don’t listen to it. Throughout my career, it’s changed, ever since I’ve gotten here, but you just have to put that behind you. Everybody gets criticized, and I understand that. I’m not immune to it. To know that that it’s happened before, I’m not the first, I won’t be the last. This team won’t be the first or the last. Each guy gets picked on. But I think it makes you stronger as a person and I believe in my craft. I work hard at my game and that’s all that matters. … I really let it go a long time ago. I don’t care about those things. I just care about the game. I focus on the game and what we’re supposed to do with it. We have a chance to compete for another championship. That’s all that matters to me right now.”
“You have to [push it aside],” James said. “It’s very difficult at times, very challenging, but for me, I’m here and I know who I’m playing for and what I’m playing for and what I stand for, not only as a basketball player but as man and as a role model. I know what I stand for. To be able to put an NBA uniform on every single night with my name on the back, knowing where I come from, it let’s me know that I’ve done something special. I just try to give back to the game as much as I can while I’m here. … I’ve got a great supporting cast around me that allows me to vent at times. [I] try not to hold it in. I also understand at this point in my life what’s important and what’s not important and what’s important is my teammates, what’s important is my two kids at home, my wife, my family and my friends. That’s what I can control and that’s what’s important to me. Obviously, the game of basketball has brought me so much, and I love to play this game at a high level. And without this game, I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I also know what’s important. Everything else kind of just falls by the wayside.”
After James had to exit Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals due to severe cramping, he was criticized endlessly. Pictures of fans “LeBroning” (pretending to be injured and carried away) trended on social media and he was blasted by fans, media and fellow athletes alike. James took it all in stride, understanding that he’s going to have these critics no matter what he does because of who he is.
“I know I’m the easiest target that we have in sports, I’m aware of it,” James told ESPN. “I really am. I believe it. … I can’t play the game of basketball and live my life on what other people expect me to do or what they think I should do, that doesn’t make me happy. What makes me happy is being able to make plays for my teammates, to be able to represent the name on the back of my jersey. That’s what makes me happy. What everybody else thinks? That doesn’t really matter to me.”
The next day, James didn’t back down from his comments when they were brought up. When a reporter asked why he thinks he’s the easiest target in sports, James interrupted.
“I don’t think it, I know it,” James said. “I just am, because I’ve been in front of the camera and the camera has been in front of me since I was 15 years old. You guys have seen everything from me, from being an adolescent kid just playing the game of basketball because he loves it as a hobby, to now playing as a professional, to succeeding, going to the top, to falling off the mountain, to going up to the top again. You guys have seen everything that my life has had to offer since I was a 15 year old kid. I don’t know if Brian Windhorst is in here somewhere, is he? He could tell you my life story almost better than my mother could (laughs.) So I think that has a lot to do with it. Half of my life I’ve been in front of this, so it makes me an easy target.”
Bosh agrees that James is the most criticized player in the NBA, but he says he’s not too far behind.
“[If LeBron is the easiest target], I’m probably the second,” Bosh said.
The criticism of Bosh, in particular, annoys HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra since the big man is just doing what his coaches ask of him. Since joining the HEAT, Bosh has changed his game a lot and made many sacrifices for the good of the team. Spoelstra doesn’t understand why Bosh is constantly being harassed by fans, who downplay his importance to the team and question his mental toughness.
“He’s stable, one of the most stable, mentally tough guys I’ve ever been around,” Spoelstra said of Bosh. “That’s why it raises the hair on the back of my neck when people question him. He has absolutely championship DNA. It’s that mental toughness that comes through because he understands he’s going to be criticized from the outside, because of how we ask him to play, which is paramount, that’s critical for our success.
“He’s arguably our most important player. We’ve said that now for four years. If he’s not getting the normal opportunities and he’s not scoring or doesn’t have big rebound numbers, it seems from the outside everybody is so critical about his game. But for us he has a lot on his plate. He’s a two‑way player on both ends of the court. He has to facilitate and space the floor, and he has to find opportunities to be aggressive. It’s a tough balance. He’s versatile enough and important enough for us that he’s been able to find that.”
For all of the hate that this team receives, it hasn’t slowed them down in recent years. The HEAT are three wins away from winning their third straight title and cementing themselves as a modern dynasty.
Divac Remains Involved in International Basketball
There’s no question that Vlade Divac is one of the most successful international players in NBA history. Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, Divac averaged 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals. He made the playoffs in 14 of his 16 NBA seasons, and he was named an All-Star as well as one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players.
He’s one of only two players born and trained in Europe to appear in 1,000 NBA games (along with Dirk Nowitzki) and one of only three players born and trained in Europe to have his number retired by an NBA team (along with Dražen Petrović and Zydrunas Ilgauskas).
Divac retired from the NBA after the 2004-05 season, but he has remained involved with international basketball players who are trying to follow in his footsteps and make it to the NBA. He tries to help foreign players maximize their potential and mentor them throughout their basketball journey.
“Thankfully, I have experience to tell the guys and help them not to make mistakes that we did when we came over there,” Divac told Basketball Insiders at adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy. “I think it’s very important to talk to the kids about the future of their career. … I feel happy that in the late 80s we kind of opened the door for all of them to start thinking maybe one day they can be part of the NBA. I think that is the best league in the world and a dream of any kid around the world to become an NBA player.
“I owe it to basketball to do things like this. I would be very happy that I had a mentor and somebody who could help me, especially the first six months, and I did. I talk about it in my speech, the Lakers organization really helped me a lot and my teammates. I think it’s very important for the kids to know what they can expect in the league when they go there.”
Divac is staying very busy these days, as he has carved out a successful post-playing career.
“I’m in management of the sports; I’m president of the Olympic Committee of Serbia,” Divac said. “I try to help Serbian athletes reach their goals and become Olympians; so far it’s a great opportunity for me.”
The 46-year-old has some concerns about international basketball, particularly when it comes to “the structure of the teams.”
“In Europe, you see it goes country by country – every year they’re changing the budgets,” Divac said. “It’s not the real rule like the NBA, [where] you have a salary cap and you know exactly how you deal with those things. In Europe, one day it’s a Greek team, one day it’s a Spanish team, a Russian team – the talent moves around and I think it’s not good for basketball.”
When Divac looks at the NBA landscape today, he believes the league has changed and gotten better.
“It’s not just the NBA, every year the sport starts changing, it’s always going a level up,” Divac said. “I think it’s more physical. What’s great about it, especially on the west coast, teams are scoring more points and it’s exciting for the fans. … Some new teams are rising above the shadow. The Clippers, during my career, they always were on the bottom then finally they became a very serious contender. It’s more spread out, it’s not two or three teams anymore, half of the league can think about winning the championship.”
Divac played against Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs a lot during his career, and he’s not shocked that they have remained one of the league’s elite franchises over such a long period of time.
“Knowing the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich, I’m not surprised at all,” Divac said. “I think that is a true example of true athletes and true management and somebody who really loves the game of basketball; they should be an example for everybody else. I like the San Antonio Spurs, the way they play. I hope they win the championship this year; they had bad luck last year.”
In Treviso, Divac is speaking to the adidas Eurocamp players and running clinics, passing on his wisdom and molding the next wave of international players who will enter the NBA.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.