Imagine taking a flight, landing in an airport and immediately turning right back around with news that will change your life. This scenario became a reality for Robin Lopez when he was traded from the New York Knicks to the Chicago Bulls in June.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Lopez told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “I’m sure you heard that I found out when I landed in LAX [Los Angeles International Airport]. But you know, that’s how the league works and I’m grateful for my experience in New York, for the season I was there, and I’m excited to be in Chicago as well. Very excited.”
Lopez’s only season in New York was eventful.
On the court, the Knicks began the campaign with cautious optimism and a 22-22 record. However, the team proceeded to lose nine of the next 10 games and coach Derek Fisher was fired. Kurt Rambis took over on an interim basis, but didn’t fare much better with a 9-19 record as the Knicks missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Off the court, both coaches garnered back page headlines from local newspapers. Fisher’s relationship with former teammate Matt Barnes’ estranged wife, Gloria Govan, became a distraction. Rambis had his Twitter account hacked and “liked” a pornographic tweet.
“I think it was a really interesting season for me,” Lopez said. “It really, I think, was pretty eye opening. I played and worked with a lot of really intelligent basketball minds. Players like Carmelo [Anthony], obviously Phil [Jackson], Kurt [Rambis] and Derek [Fisher]. They all know so much about the game of basketball, and I think I was fortunate to play in a situation like that just because it was really a new experience for me. The way the Triangle operates, throwing the ball into the post so frequently, I was grateful I had a chance to kind of flex that basketball muscle. It atrophied a little bit, but it was something I was able to sharpen.”
I asked Lopez if he would’ve signed with a different team in free agency knowing he would be traded only one season after inking a four-year, $54 million contract with the Knicks.
“Oh, not at all, not at all,” Lopez replied. “Like I said, I think there are a lot of positives [that come] to mind from that experience.”
The Bulls acquired Lopez, Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon in a trade with the Knicks for Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday on June 22. At the time, Lopez appeared to be joining a rebuilding situation. However, the Bulls signed four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo and 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade in July. The signings of Rondo and Wade indicated Chicago was prepared to reload instead of rebuild.
Despite the additions of Rondo and Wade, it remained to be seen if there was enough spacing on the floor for All-Star Jimmy Butler and the new additions to succeed together on offense. Both Rondo and Wade entered this season as 29 percent career three-point shooters. Butler is a 33 percent career three-point shooter, which is just below the 34 percent league average from downtown last season.
Butler, Wade and Rondo all previously enjoyed individual success as All-Stars with the ball in their hands as primary playmakers. But would the trio be able to coexist?
Through the first five games, Wade has been a three-point marksman, shooting 53 percent (10-19) from downtown. Butler has also found his range early on, shooting 45 percent (9-20) from beyond the arc. Rondo remains a three-point liability at 11 percent (1-9), but he’s done a little bit of everything otherwise by averaging 7.2 points, 7.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
Butler (22.2 points) and Wade (19.6 points) have been able to coexist as the primary scoring options for the Bulls.
According to Lopez, Chicago’s success will stem from the diversity of the team.
“We’ve got a wonderful mix of players and we’ve got a lot of savvy veterans, a lot of young guys with potential, skill and talent,” Lopez said. “I think the most important ingredient is we’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to work hard and work together and, hopefully, that’s something we stay consistent with all season long.”
Role players Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Isaiah Canaan and R.J. Hunter complement Chicago’s star trio with their ability to shoot. Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis – both of whom were first-round picks – represent key pieces of Chicago’s future.
If Wade and Butler continue to shoot the ball well from downtown, along with the usual production from Mirotic, McDermott and Canaan beyond the arc, Chicago’s expected weakness coming into the season may become a strength after all.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors the presumptive top three teams in the East, the final playoff spot for homecourt advantage may come down to the Bulls, Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks.
Pacers center Myles Turner recently told Basketball Insiders he believes Indiana can be a top-four seed. Atlanta lost Al Horford and Jeff Teague over the summer, but Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder have adequately replaced their production.
Is Chicago being underestimated in the Eastern Conference?
“I certainly think so,” Lopez replied. “I think we’ve got a lot of great players, like I said.”
While the star trio gets many of the headlines, it’ll be equally up to Lopez and the shooting ability of Chicago’s role players to determine the team’s success this season. Will the roster diversity lead to prosperity?
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN