Dec 17, 2014 2:40 PM EST
Sometimes, Nicolas Batum senses irritation within people expecting more than his passive offensive game, his penchant to involve teammates and orchestrate scores with vision and rebounding. He never grew up taught to score in the volume of the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants, instead idolizing Scottie Pippen and becoming inspired by a statistical line: 17 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists. This was the drive, Batum’s idea of a most balanced basketball player.
Every summer, his old French buddies return to their native country for the national team’s training camp and words of the practices in San Antonio, of the culture and free-flowing system, fascinate Batum. Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and San Antonio gave Batum and the Portland Trail Blazers a clinic in the Western Conference semifinal playoff series last season, and Batum pondered how he could play for those Spurs amid all the connected passes for wide-open shots, all the cuts and drives born of the sport’s fundamentals.
As Batum thought aloud, “Yeah, maybe I could. Maybe.”
Batum wasn’t looking outside Portland, but rather gauged his fit on a champion, any title winner, really. The Spurs showed the Blazers how basketball should be played, Batum says, and now Portland has started the season more cohesive, more potent. Away from Parker, away from co-stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Batum learned the responsibilities of a leading scorer with the French team over the summer, a task Diaw bestowed upon him. Your team, your time.
And so Batum went for 35 and 27 points in the final two games of the World Cup to give France the bronze medal, and he noticed his Portland teammates urging him in training camp: Shoot, Nic. Shoot.
“I try to do everything on the court, but I know I got to be more aggressive,” Batum told RealGM. “The team needs it. Everybody’s pushing me here. When Tony Parker didn’t play with us this summer, Boris Diaw and I had to step up our games. That was a cool learning experience for me. Here, we’re all young and I would like to be the guy for LaMarcus and Damian. I would like that a lot. But I know I need to be aggressive, and it is coming.”
The Blazers believe their internal improvements along with the offseason’s bench additions will bring an elevated level of play in the postseason, but Batum has the ability to expedite the process, skills to alleviate droughts that their offense suffers at times. In his mind, Batum knows he must shoot more than eight-to-nine attempts a game, triggering significant drops in his shooting percentages and scoring outputs this season.
Even so, Batum still hasn’t fully recovered from a right knee injury troubling him from the outset of the season. He won’t blame his play with France for the wear and tear over the summer, a run further cementing his determination for the game, but regaining full strength in the knee is an ongoing process.
“I’m working on the knee, working to get it back to 100 percent,” Batum said. “It isn’t yet and it has bothered me a little bit, but it is coming along. I’ll get it right. But this is my game. I’ve always tried to do it all on the court. I never really was a scorer when I was young. Never had 25 points, 30 points per game. Growing up, I was always around 17, 10 and seven.
“That’s what I love to do, play both sides. Scottie Pippen was my favorite player, and I grew up watching him and always wanting to follow him.”
He has elevated the facilitating, the wing defense for the Blazers for seven seasons now, and scouts around the NBA agree: Batum has a mentality playing to score, not scoring to play. There’s no ideology of: let me score and then start to function other facets of the game. From Terry Stotts and his coaching staff to the veterans, Batum has been implored to score, to shoot, but he’ll forever defend and play for the best shots even when they aren’t coming his way.
Batum looks around the league, hears everyone already discussing the free agency of Kevin Durant. They’ll both fall in 2016, yet Batum believes he and Durant are made of the same disposition with different external temperaments. Durant’s been swarmed with questions about his future with the Oklahoma City Thunder. For Batum, the case is simple: Why leave Portland?
“I still have time and I like low key so there’s no reason to think yet, but why not stay in Portland?” Batum told RealGM. “I’ve been here for seven years now, so why not?”
His longtime friends came into a second-round series a season ago and showed the sport at its peak, and Batum left the matchup believing he could fit on a champion one day. In so many ways, he is a classic Spur: Passing, cutting, playing for the optimal score. Still, Portland needs to reach another level to supplant the West’s top contenders, relying upon Batum to tap into the next tier in his skill.
All around the Blazers, they’re pushing Nicolas Batum to be more assertive, to find the next echelon, and he promises one thing on his health and his game. “It’s coming.”
Dec 06, 2014 12:29 PM EST
For so long over the summer, Stan Van Gundy salivated over three promising talents in the Detroit Pistons’ frontcourt, so misfit together yet so individually gifted apart, and told executives and agents: Give me this chance to make them right, a season to prove I’ll execute and complement their offensive and defensive skills. Andre Drummond. Josh Smith. Greg Monroe. Just give me the opportunity of a year, and this Pistons' franchise will survive the consequences, Van Gundy felt.
All along, Monroe never wanted to return to the Pistons and summer sign-and-trade possibilities streamed into Detroit’s front office. Van Gundy is a top-tier head coach in the NBA, proud of his system and acumen to establish a franchise. As trading Monroe became the most inviting option, Van Gundy knew the stakes, knew Monroe was likely gone after one season under his qualifying offer deal anyway.
Several NBA teams had pitched sign-and-trades scenarios to the Pistons’ front office, but Van Gundy responded with a turn-off: The president and coach requested All-Star caliber players in return, league sources told RealGM. In one instance, two other franchises had agreed to a three-team deal that needed the Pistons’ acceptance, delivering Monroe a maximum-level contract. Opposing team executives involved pushed for it. Only, Detroit rejected.
Monroe is an All-Star talent, but his trade merit across the NBA didn’t justify that value last summer. Simply, Van Gundy’s response showed he wanted these three big men again, wanted to successfully coach Drummond, Smith and Monroe and prove he could bring out production that has clearly proved imbalanced.
When the one-year qualifier was signed, Van Gundy understood Monroe would almost assuredly walk in 2015 free agency, and nothing has changed.
“There were a few teams that were serious, but that’s in the past now,” Monroe told RealGM. “The Pistons were very much within their rights to do what they did. It’s a business, so they chose to do what was best for them. Stan’s been great and his NBA track record is proven. He’s had a lot of success in this league.
“For me, I think there’ll be more freedom this time around.”
Over a dozen teams should have the necessary cap space to attract Monroe. The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks are two prospective suitors for the 6-foot-11 center, with the Knicks’ possibility to move onto Monroe should Marc Gasol re-sign with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Hawks already placing an interest in the offseason. Despite speculation in top markets of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, neither were an interested party when Monroe sought offer sheets, sources said. For now, Monroe and these Pistons have staggered to a 3-16 record and everyone is responsible.
To say Monroe has checked out on the locker room may be too harsh, but no one in his position is as fully engaged to a team, a program, as someone who sought and received a long-term contract. For Monroe, this is about being a professional, a steady producer, surviving the year healthy, and likely move on.
Across the roster, Josh Smith continues to compete, to try to buy into Van Gundy’s coaching, Drummond has taken a step back in offensive stats despite a four percent increase in usage and everywhere has been a fluctuating struggle. This team is better than needing a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night to record four victories through 1½ months of the season.
When asked about reasons to pinpoint one crumbling season after another, about why this compiled roster and coaching staff has already fallen out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, Monroe looked up to the ceiling and returned centered, shook his head and had nothing.
“I mean, I don’t know,” he said. “I mean … it’s just … it’s … I don’t have any answers.”
Monroe has tried to avoid discussion of his free agency status, sidestepping questions, and he’ll remain a pro under Van Gundy. Still, Monroe has been part of this team problem -- far under .500 and a scattered group. The Pistons haven’t won 30 or more games since Monroe’s rookie season in 2011.
“Losing wears on you, yeah, and nobody likes to lose,” Monroe told RealGM. “If you ask anyone around here if losing wears on them, they would say yes. And if you’re losing a lot and it doesn’t have a pull on you, you’re not playing the game right.”
The game of free agency is off Monroe’s mind publicly, and everyone around the Pistons and Monroe understood over the summer that this was inevitably inching toward a final run in the partnership. After Detroit deposed of two head coaches, Van Gundy so believed he would be the one for Monroe, Drummond and Smith, the man to coax a playoff contender out of ball dominant post-up players and a slashing wing.
Fine, Monroe might walk but we’d rather roll this dice and lose him for nothing than take inconsequential parts in a sign-and-trade, the Pistons’ front office believed. No trade will come on Monroe -- not with his veto power to maintain Bird Rights -- and he didn’t sign a one-year deal to delay his re-signing in Detroit. He’ll be highly valued on the available market. One more complete year together for Greg Monroe and the Pistons, moving in the direction of another lost season and an inevitable end.
Nov 24, 2014 1:07 PM EST
For Bradley Beal, the progression of his talent and skill only needed to balance a properly structured upbringing. His parents and brothers had carefully sculpted a maturity beyond his years, reminding him of the people whom he’d require in life’s quest for intellect. From the moment Beal entered the lives of the Washington Wizards, everyone knew this was a neatly constructed person, a grown man relishing the challenge to conquer his tasks with an inner peace on who he is.
“Listen to your elders,” Beal’s parents and older brothers would tell him. So, he has, whether it is a former assistant in Sam Cassell as a rookie up until last season, veteran players who come and go and, sometimes begrudgingly, the honest and unyielding voice of Randy Wittman.
“You can learn a lot from all the coaches and the vets, so I’m all ears,” Beal says. “When you have a guy in Sam who’s scored 15,000 plus points in his career and who had a successful career, you have to listen to him. He’s won championships before, he’s a coach now, and a great mentor. I even watched him a little bit growing up.
“My family’s always instilled that in me, listening to elders. I’m really family-oriented. Watching my older brothers growing up and everything they’ve been through, all the adversity we’ve been through, that always humbled me. Humbled me, motivated me, to be the best that I can be.”
Beal’s best had been recognized as one of the NBA’s best young shooting guards, and now his best is one of the top at the position outright. While Wall came in the league onto a misfit cast of players, using experience and grueling offseasons on his craft to discover his space, Beal had the luxury of a sureness to him and a more refined roster. So many transactions on and off the court, so many lessons only the league’s competition provides, but Beal’s personality has forever been to stay honest to the grind of the sport, try to obliterate opponents and let that sink in with them.
And nothing has changed.
Beal swears the only business on his mind is the work, the day-to-day improvement, and work has been good. Beal and John Wall join Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the NBA’s best backcourts across the country’s coasts. As league executives believe in Beal’s ability to command a maximum salary extension, the Wizards have made clear around the NBA that they’ll do whatever necessary to secure Beal’s long-term deal, sources told RealGM.
So, yes, Beal heard of Thompson’s maximum-level extension with the Golden State Warriors before the season, but he simply shrugs his shoulders. Nothing changed here, Beal promises.
“Money never will change who I am,” Beal told RealGM. “I kind of distance myself from the business part because when you get too caught up in money, it takes your mind off why you really play the game. I play for the love of it. I’m not going to think about contracts or any of that. If that [max] contract is what it is, then it is what it is. But it’s not going to change who I am. Money never will.
“Now, I definitely want to be an All-Star. Who doesn’t? But I don’t set too many crazy, extravagant goals for myself, and the ones that I do, I hold them close to my heart and make sure I focus and lock in.
“We have a solid core here. It’s going to be important for us to keep this core together moving on down the next couple years, because we have something special here. We got a taste of the playoffs, and now we have bigger hopes in mind. Our aspirations are bigger now.”
Beal has played as the sixth man in three games back from a fractured left hand, but his wind and performance stamina have returned and reclaiming his spot in the starting lineup is near. Even as his floor game and passing vision improve, Beal wants more out of himself.
As a team, these Wizards remember hastened shots in the second round series loss against the Indiana Pacers and spent the summer and training camp drilled about the value of each possession, about draining the energy of the defense for quality shots.
“Our ultimate goal is taking care of the ball and moving the ball,” Beal says. “Whenever we move the ball, we usually get whatever we want. Some defenses don’t like to play for 24 seconds. We’re going to do whatever it takes to wear defenses down. We have to continue moving the ball. The least we can do is get a shot up.”
Around Beal, 21, veterans are passionate in the process of a regular season. The 35-year-old Rasual Butler has persevered and produced for an NBA role again. Down the roster, Glen Rice Jr.’s role has been marginal, but the Wizards’ front office has no plan to move the 23-year-old and believes in his ability to produce when given increased minutes. Some of the vets will go through the normal adjustments and trials -- the pain of injury here and there -- but Paul Pierce has been unafraid to become animated in the faces of Wall and Beal while the season is still young.
Pierce will hit critical shots for the Wizards this season, and he’ll strut to the bench and remind everyone his stature.
“They don’t call him, ‘The Truth’ for no reason,” Wall said.
“Paul can adjust to our team on the fly, like that,” Beal said, snapping his fingers.
“This group, this season, is mature,” Wittman said, “and Paul has been a leader throughout his career.”
Washington is one of four teams with a legitimate chance to land out of the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals, and that is on Beal’s mind. So much jostling for money in the league, and Beal has shown everyone he doesn’t bask in the sentiments of a contract as much as he basks in its allowance to take care of family, its ability to work and ball. From trying times to a contending team, Bradley Beal has been the perfect co-star for John Wall and these Wizards, fresh of talent and his own sense of self.
Oct 22, 2014
Before Lance Stephenson attended the Hornets' meeting and was handed team material on that July night in Las Vegas, pleas were made to find salary space and a shorter-term deal with the Pacers.
Oct 13, 2014
Nikola Miroticís grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to Real Madrid and he's now in the NBA. He discusses his basketball journey with RealGM.
Aug 18, 2014
He wasnít a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.
Jun 16, 2014
Five championships later, yes, you donít hold back Tim Duncan. You set him free on the league, and reaped rewards come for Spurs players across the generations.
Jun 11, 2014
Kawhi Leonard is the connector of present and future on the Spursí legendary dynasty of championship contention. Gregg Popovich has persistent belief, they all do around the Spurs: One day, Leonard will grow out of his role as a foundational part Ė and become the foundation.
Jun 09, 2014
LeBron James didnít complete the everyday starís task. He vanquished the Spurs, tarnishing San Antonioís version of a rulebook against James once and for all, if only for one night.
Jun 06, 2014
The most dominant player on the planet has also been the most indestructible, treating injuries with tape and pressure, not rest Ė and suddenly, on the grandest stage of professional basketball, a catastrophic malfunction left LeBron James at his bodyís mercy.
May 29, 2014
No oneís amassed the identical amount of energy and physical toll defending LeBron James in the last two years, no one but Paul George. Before each matchup across the regular season and late in the playoffs, James and George pound each otherís chests in acknowledgement, and then the understudy thrusts into duty.
May 21, 2014
LeBron James continues to vindicate his free agency decision of 2010, but time and time again the Cavaliers validate everything for him. Winning and losing. Organizational structure. Worthy sidekicks.
May 18, 2014
Indiana isnít afforded Lance Stephenson behaving like every other 23-year-old, nor afforded his lapses in judgment. So, yes, Stephenson had issued a challenge on the eve of this Eastern Conference final series, a calculated approach to work Dwyane Wade, work his legs to swell on the court.
May 12, 2014
Jamal Crawford received a direct order from his new coach, a message his teammates reciprocated: donít change. Absorb the finer details of the sport. Be Jamal Crawford, one of the NBAís remarkable enduring scorers. To him, nothing was doctored for the sake of spewing.
May 03, 2014
Roy Hibbert had clapped on the sideline, gathered teammates for huddles on the court and punctuated a defensive revival in Game 7. This resembled the Hibbert of last season, and these were the Pacers of last season.
Apr 30, 2014
For years, Ted Leonsis ensured these Wizardsí rise again as long as patience sustained. Weíll be bottom-dwellers, until weíre be reputable again, and then this core will go on and on for contending runs, heíd preach. Still, he sensed teams hoping for them to rush the process; those on the hunt to capture a star let go too soon.
Apr 23, 2014
D.J. Augustin kept shooting and hitting, slashing and cutting, and soon it had come to a weary halt for the Bulls in Game 2. Ultimately, they all understand these playoffs fall upon their production, and the ranks of reliability are closing fast.
Apr 21, 2014
Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.
Apr 15, 2014
DeMar DeRozan had to prove the organizationís old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldnít be empty anymore.
Apr 02, 2014
For three seasons, Xavier Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA.
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