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NBA Sunday: Kobe Bryant’s Inner Peace

For the first time in his 20 year career, Kobe Bryant is finally at peace, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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There are players who come along but once every so often: Tim Duncan and LeBron James are among them, and maybe, if he’s lucky, Kevin Durant can one day be listed in that class.

In the summer of 1996, Jerry West was fortunate enough—or, depending on how you look at it, smart enough—to get his hands on one such player: Kobe Bryant.

KobeBryantInsideImage1A full 20 years later, as Bryant is wrapping up a career with accolades a bit too numerous to list, he does so after putting forth arguably the greatest career that a generation of NBA fans have witnessed to date. And when he looks back at his storied career, yes, he may have done things a little differently. He may have tried to better understand, earlier, that winning basketball is not all about what transpires between the lines on the basketball court, but that it is just as much about what transpires between one’s ears. And yes, he may have tried harder to work things out with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. But that’s all water under the bridge now.

For the first time ever, for Bryant, this journey isn’t about the intended destination and it isn’t about him chasing his legacy; it’s simply about the journey itself.

For Bryant, the meeker, happier and softer version of himself—for the first time ever—winning is not the priority.

Finally, after all these years, after all the injuries, heartache, late nights and early mornings, the once maniacal Bryant is truly at peace with the game of basketball.

* * * * *

About three weeks before Kobe Bryant told the world that he planned on retiring at the end of the 2015-16 NBA season, I knew that the announcement was forthcoming. And no, I didn’t know because of any sort of sourced information. I knew simply because I know a thing or two about the competitive fire of a professional athlete.

The winless Lakers visited New York City on November 6 after losing their first four games. At Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Bryant played in that building for the first time since the disastrous 2012-13 season.

In that game back in the 2012-13 campaign, Bryant gave us one of the final highlight reel worthy plays of his career. During the game, due to injury, he lost Pau Gasol. After it, though, is when he seemed to have permanently lost Dwight Howard.

Bryant had just put together an impressive-enough game against the Nets on that night in 2013, including the aforementioned dunk that few thought the 34-year-old could still muster. But after the Lakers pulled out the win that they needed, Bryant spent just as much time discussing the absence of Howard. The center was unable to suit up against the Nets due to a few injuries that he was nursing, mainly a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Throughout that disappointing season, Bryant seldom smiled. He also seemed to take just about every opportunity to publicly chastise Howard. Deep down, Bryant was disappointed that the heir apparent to his throne atop the Lakers kingdom seemed unworthy. Still pursuing his own greatness and cementing his legacy, Bryant selfishly prodded Howard.

“I don’t think he’s ever had to play through injuries his entire career,” Bryant famously said of the rehabilitating Howard during the season each of the two would like to forget.

“It’s a new experience for him,” Bryant said, intimating that Howard wasn’t tough.

Two nights later, when the Lakers traveled to Boston to battle the Celtics, Howard fired back.

Paul Pierce dominated the Lakers that night, sending the team to a 23-27 record after the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in a nationally televised contest to the tune of a 21-point beating.

That night in Boston, I’ll always remember how members of the East Coast media were stuffed into the visiting locker room in TD Garden waiting for Howard and Bryant to address us. Howard was passive and dismissive of everyone, including Bryant, while Kobe tried his best to downplay the extent to which he had challenged and questioned Howard.

That night, as I walked out of TD Garden, I remembered thinking that the frustration had gotten the best of each of the two, and that their partnership was on the brink of a collapse. Months later, after the Spurs had ended the Lakers’ season, it came as no surprise to learn that Howard had opted to take his talents to Houston.

During my years of covering the NBA, I saw more of the Lakers that season than I had any other, spending the better part of two of their East road trips following the team and following their progress closely from afar. That, after all, was the team that many, including myself, thought was capable of approaching 70 wins. That capability is something that Bryant and I agreed on.

Still searching for glory, it is those expectations that would help to eventually drive Howard away. Those expectations are now a distant memory, and it is that knowledge—and peace with that reality—that has helped Bryant warm to the idea of riding off into the sunset.

As an East Coast NBA columnist, I have had the opportunity to spend a large part of the past 13 years chasing LeBron James around. Kobe Bryant, for me, at least, has always been a bit more an enigma. I recently tweeted that one of the cruelest things that the basketball Gods have done was not allow Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to end up spending their prime years together. But one thing that was even worse than that was not ever giving us LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

If you think long enough, you will easily recall that this is what we were supposed to have back in 2013. The Miami HEAT had just captured their first NBA Championship under James and were looking toward repeating, but with Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Howard having been added to the existing core of the Lakers that featured Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace, there were many—including myself—that strongly believed the Lakers would sit atop the Western Conference that year.

Unfortunately, infighting, injuries and chemistry issues undercut all of that, with the lowest point of the season coming when Bryant suffered his career-altering ruptured Achilles tendon in the third-to-last game of the regular season.

In the end, the Lakers would clinch their token playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, end up with a 45-37 record and a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Since then, neither Bryant nor the Lakers have been the same.

The Lakers for the worse, but Bryant, perhaps, for the better.

* * * * *

It’s a fairly brisk evening in January 2016. By this point, Bryant has put to rest the questions surrounding his ability to play the game.

Long gone are Phil Jackson, Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. Dwight Howard is in Houston, Pau Gasol is in Chicago and Bryant looks around at a locker room featuring the future of the franchise. As Julius Randle works out on the floor before tip-off, the shirtless Bryant receives treatment on his ailing shoulder. He pops in and out of the locker room with an ice-pack bandaged on it, stopping to briefly converse with members of the media and the team’s public relations staff.

Even after the Lakers lose a game that will ultimately go down as meaningless, in terms of demeanor, Bryant seems truly happy and upbeat. Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder are visiting and the nationally televised game, Bryant knows, is the final time he will host Durant and Russell Westbrook in his building.

Neither before nor after the game would you know that Bryant’s Lakers were closer to the bottom of the league than the top.

In fact, 2013 may have been just three years ago, but in basketball years—and for Kobe Bryant—it seems like a lifetime ago.

“Yea, of course it does,” Bryant says when asked whether the losses still matter to him.

KobeBryantInsideOnly2“I just hide it a lot better now,” he says with a chuckle.

And in that moment, Bryant gave a glimpse into the relationships that he has fractured over the years, mainly with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.

“It’s tougher when you have a championship team,” he said. “You’re playing for a championship level when you have championship talent. It pisses you a lot off a lot more when you’re not playing up to that level of potential.”

Potential is a word that has become synonymous with these Lakers, who will enter play on January 11 at 8-30. But a championship is seemingly as far away as Bryant’s rookie season.

“I think the team we have now, we’re playing hard,” Bryant said with a nod and a somewhat proud tone.

And alas, he declared the war to be over.

Bryant being satisfied with his team merely playing hard is conclusive evidence that the battle that he waged with his inner demons—the battle to win at all costs—was finally over. It’s something that he knew long before he announced it to the world back in November, but still, for me, it is something that was quite profound. It was the first time I’d heard Bryant make such an admission with my own ears.

Wiser and more mature, Bryant extols the virtues of Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle and, yet again, takes an opportunity to remind everyone of his age.

“I’m from the generation that didn’t learn how to flop,” he said in response to a question posed to him about teammate Lou Williams. And as he chuckled and answered every question posed to him, openly, honestly and loosely, I couldn’t help but to walk away smiling.

For the first time ever, I was able to witness Kobe Bryant at peace.

And with the Lakers rolling along to the finish line of the 2015-16 season—Bryant’s 20th wearing Lakers purple and gold—the fight was over, the chase had ceased and, it was quite obvious, that the competitive fire had been extinguished.

Since entering the league back in 1996, Bryant has been pursuing greatness. The chase may have cost him a lot—relationships, health and sleep, to name a few.

But as he takes one final lap around the NBA, going out on his own terms and, for once, enjoying the journey itself more than its intended destination, it’s pretty obvious that Bryant is fully at peace with himself.

Had he found a way to patch things up with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, who knows what could have transpired. After winning three of the four NBA Finals they competed in during the 2000-04 seasons, the team seemed only tweaks away from returning to the Finals in 2005.

But had he patched things up and had he remained beneath the massive shadow cast by O’Neal, would Bryant ever have been considered one of the greatest?

A long time ago, the roads diverged. Bryant took the one less traveled. And now, finally, almost 12 years after his famous divorce with O’Neal—after he dedicated his life to proving that he could succeed without the ‘Big Aristotle’—Bryant has finally found his inner peace.

Patient, poised and relaxed, Bryant now appreciates the smaller things about the game. The camaraderie, the preparation and the roars of the crowd. As he drifts off into the sunset and leaves the franchise he has grown to love in the capable hands of a talented young nucleus, on this brisk January evening in 2016, after 20 years, it is obvious that Bryant has found his inner peace.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And in the end, based on how things have transpired, I’m willing to bet that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t change a single thing.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project at the next level.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, more so than almost any other variable. So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his current projection. Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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NBA Daily: This Might Be the Spurs’ Final Stand

The bizarre Kawhi Leonard situation won’t resolve itself cleanly, which means the Spurs may have to pull the plug, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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“All good things must come to an end.” – Chaucer in 1374

If there is one team that has been the closest to replicating the Boston Celtics’ dynasty from the Bill Russell days, it has been the San Antonio Spurs. Over the past two decades, the Spurs have established a consistent model of winning thanks to Hall of Fame talent, legendary coaching and other-worldly scouting.

The only other team in the entire world of sports that has rivaled the Spurs’ prolonged success in the 21st century has been the New England Patriots. However, much like the Patriots, there have been more and more reports recently of dysfunction behind the scenes, with superstar Kawhi Leonard front and center to all of it. If things really are as bad as they appear to be, then Kawhi’s days as a Spur are numbered, and by the same token, so are the Spurs’ days of contention.

No one knows what exactly is going on with Leonard at the moment. There have been reports that, physically, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is fully capable of returning to the floor, but he chooses not to. Now, his rehab is expected to sideline him for the entirety of the playoffs. Leonard technically isn’t doing anything against the rules, but his actions have made both his team and the league take notice.

Leonard and the Spurs could hypothetically reconcile and put this all behind them, but given all that’s happened throughout the course of the season, that ship seems to have sailed a long time ago. Through the duration of the season, Kawhi’s teammates have called him out, his coach has been steadfastly candid when asked about what’s going on, and now, players around the league are already predicting who his next team will be.

This all spells out a potentially ugly divorce between the Spurs and their franchise player.

So, the Spurs’ obvious next move would be to trade Kawhi for as much value as they can get this off-season. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, the Spurs won’t be able to acquire nearly as much value for Kawhi now as they could have in years’ past. It is true that when Leonard is 100 percent healthy, he is one of the league’s best players. But this bizarre situation, along with his player option after next season, has demolished his trade value.

These days, teams don’t give up valuable assets for star players if there’s a risk that said star player could leave the team after only one year. Teams saw what happened to the Lakers after the Dwight Howard trade blew up in their face, and they saw how crippled the Nets became after they gave away the farm for Paul Pierce among other Celtics that they acquired. If a superstar whose contract is potentially expiring goes on the market, teams will lowball in trade discussions for him.

Case in point: last summer, pretty much everyone agreed that the Thunder acquired Paul George for peanuts when they traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That may have worked out for the best for Indiana, but that was sheer luck because Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ value was much lower than it is now. Kawhi could fetch a half decent player and maybe a late-lottery pick given his reputation, but that would probably not fill the large void that he would leave behind.

It’s for that reason that the Spurs’ reign may be coming to an end. If they trade Kawhi this summer, they’re not going to get equal value for him, which means they won’t be able to remain among the best in the Western Conference. It’s quite a shame, because Leonard’s apparent fall-out with the Spurs has overshadowed one of the better under-the-radar stories in the league: The Spurs’ perseverance.

The fact that the Spurs still made the playoffs in the Western Conference, which required 47 wins this season, is remarkable. Thanks in large part to LaMarcus Aldridge’s rejuvenation, who has averaged his best numbers as a Spur this season by far, and Coach Pop’s brilliance among other reasons, the Spurs have kept the ball rolling without Kawhi. Alas, without him, the team is firmly not in the title discussion, and the Spurs can’t do much about it.

The Spurs could ride it out by keeping the rest of the core together along with what they would bring back for Leonard, but there wouldn’t be much point. Guys as impactful Leonard are not easily replaceable in this league, and the Spurs’ competition in the West will be as strong as ever next season. As unappealing as it might sound, the Spurs may have to just start over.

That wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. Aldridge’s phenomenal season has probably skyrocketed his trade value, so the Spurs would get a good haul for him. The Spurs aren’t in a bad salary cap situation either. Besides Pau Gasol, the team doesn’t have any bad contracts. Tony Parker’s deal is up after this season while Rudy Gay and Danny Green have player options, but both are likely to opt-in given the lack of money on the open market this summer. The team even has some intriguing young talent, such as Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes. Re-building wouldn’t be the worst option for San Antonio.

With all of that considered, it would still be very disappointing to see such a glorious era end so anticlimactically. Kawhi Leonard was supposed to lead the new era of Spurs basketball, but now it looks like he may be the Spurs’ undoing, which they may have no choice now but to accept.

Many were looking forward to San Antonio’s demise, but for a team that has remained in the title discussion since the days of President Clinton, the Spurs didn’t deserve an ending like this.

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