Oct 22, 2014 11:16 AM EDT
Part of the allure that the Charlotte Hornets presented inside a deluxe Las Vegas hotel captured the mind of Lance Stephenson. Patrick Ewing patted a son of Brooklyn on the shoulder and shared with him stories of Michael Jordan, shared endless possibilities with an old rival in Kemba Walker and a connection only these New York stars can produce.
Ewing, Jordan, Walker and a stable coaching staff formed a major draw and ideas for a new future for Stephenson, but over and over, he mostly kept coming back to what failed to happen with his old franchise.
Before Stephenson had committed to Charlotte, his representatives had recognized his successful growth with the Indiana Pacers and a desire to stay. Move a salary off the books, move a player here or there and keep your homegrown talent, Stephenson’s management team urged the Pacers’ front office. With the ability to shed part or all of Luis Scola’s and Donald Sloan’s contracts, people involved in negotiations brought up scenarios to remove those deals to create an increased Year 1 and Year 2 salary for Stephenson in a deal with Indiana. Suggestions went unanswered, without execution.
Under the direction of Larry Bird and Herb Simon, the Pacers remained resistant in their contract offer to Stephenson, and lost him. Bird had called Stephenson’s behaviors “disappointing” late in last season’s playoffs, had failed to convince ownership enough of his former second round pick to spike into a luxury tax area, but Stephenson was his guy. He always shielded Stephenson privately and publicly. Away from this partnership, Stephenson understands there’s no turning back now, no grudge to keep.
“I never noticed anything change between us, nah,” Stephenson told RealGM. “Me and Larry were always cool.”
Cool, but how was the conversation with Bird? How was the explanation to his face -- or into his cell phone -- about why he found it unacceptable to be the lowest paid starter for two more seasons in the Pacers’ proposal? In the corner of a locker room recently, Stephenson shook his head.
“We didn’t have a conversation,” Stephenson said. “Haven’t talked. I’m focused on winning here now. This group of guys is good, hungry, and we want to win. This team is young and hungry to get far.”
For Stephenson, the plane flight to North Carolina in July washed over him that he’d need to leave behind Bird and Donnie Walsh, Frank Vogel and Paul George. For all of Bird’s imprints on Stephenson, Walsh sat courtside late in the Eastern Conference finals in the spring -- pointing toward George and Stephenson shooting pregame, admiring Stephenson and vowing he was emerging behind George’s stardom.
Stephenson had people in his ear a lot there, but he had the same people in his corner too.
“I’m sure part of him, part of his heart stayed for a little while,” Steve Clifford told RealGM. “When you’re in one place for four years, playing with primarily the same guys, it’s a significant change. But change is part of this league, and he’s fit in well with our guys.”
The maturation process continues for Stephenson under Clifford, one of the NBA’s best system coaches. Even given a depleted roster at times or a difficult stretch in the schedule a season ago, Clifford prevailed with foundation, structured schemes and harmony with his players so their efforts never wane. The Hornets brought four gritty players into training camp, and so far Jason Maxiell is the leading candidate to be retained for the 15th regular season roster spot, a source said.
Before the Hornets could grant Stephenson a Las Vegas meeting, before they could ever give him a contract, Clifford needed to see something for himself.
“Before we talked to Lance about coming here, I watched a lot of film on him,” Clifford told RealGM. “That stuff in the playoffs, that’s one or two plays. The bottom line is, if you watched him last season and through the playoffs, he had a tremendous season. He’s a great pick and roll player and a great defender and rebounder.
“The two things that stand out about him are: he’s worked hard since he’s been in the league, and his competitiveness. [Jordan] spoke to Lance about the fact that it’s one of the ways he can get better. People view Lance’s competitiveness sometimes as a weakness, and sometimes he has to channel that energy in the right way.”
Hornets' officials around him, and Jordan showered a free agent target with as much praise as constructive criticism: How we’ll continue to mold you into one of the NBA’s best two-way players. How that edge in the playoffs could work on LeBron James next time around. How you need the Hornets as much as we need you.
Everyone will wait for the next outburst, Jordan told Stephenson, but controlled emotion is key to competition. Now, Stephenson knows cameras will heighten on him for soundbites and endless highlight scrolls come postseason in Charlotte. This is why he spent part of the summer receiving training and guidance from his representatives on ways to handle being the player sent to the press conference room after a playoff game, ways to win over an interview in victory or defeat.
Already, Stephenson’s had interest off the court in local endorsement deals, but he has made clear to hold off on any commitments until the season starts. His deal with AND1 runs for two more seasons, so any discussion of a shoe partnership with Jordan is simply speculation for now. Whatever, because Stephenson is still configuring his knowledge of Clifford’s play sets.
“I’m trying to learn the offense still,” Stephenson said.
Before 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. No one would be released or traded by the Pacers for this; negotiations held firm. “No regrets. I just want to win games,” Stephenson says, and so he bet on himself and took a deal to enter free agency again for the NBA’s cap spike.
No forever bond with Larry Bird and the Pacers. No turning back now for Lance Stephenson.
Oct 13, 2014 11:20 AM EDT
Televisions flickered football matches from the Spanish League and English Premier League, competitive games staged on grassland, and, growing up, this was Nikola Mirotic’s destiny, a pursuit of a career on the soccer field. His passion for the sport swelled in grammar school, and Mirotic’s increasing height gave him such vision in passing, such ability to take advantage of scoring creases across yards and yards of area. Only at 13 years old, his life’s calling forever changed.
Mirotic had come to visit his family one day, when his grandfather looked into the eyes of a floppy-haired grandson, a thin physique on an ever-growing boy. A nearby soccer field was the destination for them on this afternoon, but Mirotic only remembers listening to the elderly figure in his childhood sway him from a most popular sport to a 10-foot rim, a 20-ounce ball and a hardwood floor.
“One day, my grandfather, he told me, ‘You’re very tall. You need to just try to play basketball.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t like basketball,’” Mirotic told RealGM. “But he said, ‘No, just try.’ He wanted me to just try basketball, he showed me a good school and told me to go, practice and see if I like basketball. I go there, I started to love basketball and I worked hard, and that’s how I’m here.”
Mirotic’s eyes lit up the other day, a bright smile to divide his scruffy beard. Now, he’s here. Nikola Mirotic is in the NBA.
“Now look at this,” Mirotic says. “I would never think before that I will be here, but I worked very hard to be a professional player. I think I’m here now because I do a lot of great things.”
Mirotic’s grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to the European powerhouse Real Madrid, but soccer still consumes part of his mind -- and a part of his cell phone, scanning scores and stats. “I always will like soccer, always will watch Spanish league and Premier league,” he says.
He’s so grateful now, and leaving Europe had never crossed the mind until his agent, Igor Crespo, placed his name in the 2011 NBA Draft. Three teams had secured his rights on that June night, the Houston Rockets’ and Minnesota Timberwolves’ dealings ultimately delivering the 6-foot-10 project to the Chicago Bulls. Everyone knew he needed more experience before signing an NBA contract, and so the Bulls monitored his development in the Spanish ACB league.
Two years ago, expectations already mounting everywhere, Mirotic emitted the praise of an NBA All-Star. Zach Randolph had played Mirotic in a preseason exhibition game, calling him a blend of Dirk Nowitzki and Danillo Gallinari, a prospect who needed the proper environment to flourish. This made its way to Mirotic once he left the United States for the Spanish camp, and he brought with him greater validation and vigor to Real Madrid’s season.
“No pressure, because for me, I started to think that now I need to work even more,” Mirotic says. “It was more energy for me. If someone says that, it is because he thinks high of you. I worked hard, and now I get a chance to play against [Randolph]. I get to play against Dirk Nowitzki. Every day I am practicing with Joakim [Noah], Taj [Gibson], Derrick Rose. I want to enjoy this.
“Before Chicago drafted me, I didn’t think about the NBA. Three years ago when they drafted me, I started to watch the games and fell in love with the NBA.”
In truth, Mirotic privately believed he would complete his contract with Real Madrid, would never need to be bought out, and would part amicably with the club and its fans. In his mind, the NBA would come as soon as 2015, perhaps 2016, but Chicago’s front office urged for dialogue on a potential buyout late in Real Madrid’s 2014 season. The Bulls tracked him for years, understood the unlikelihood of signing Carmelo Anthony and progressed steadily in contract negotiations with Mirotic. Soon, his agents had negotiated a fully guaranteed three-year deal -- the NBA’s richest contract ever for a rookie, never mind simply a European player signing.
“I was thinking I would finish my full contract over there and come afterward, but life is like that,” Mirotic says. “Chicago wanted me this year, and I was feeling good to go. The decision to come this year is a great thing.”
And yet, back home, Mirotic heard backlash for leaving through a buyout of millions, heard detractors of his American dream. Some told him he should stay. Some said he wasn’t prepared, wasn’t athletic enough. Mirotic had struggled to end the Real Madrid season, dealing with a minor wrist injury. Yes, Mirotic needed to sit down with his family, his wife and his representatives for a final decision -- and everyone agreed.
“I don’t care what people say because it was the perfect moment,” Mirotic told RealGM. “Twenty-three years old, I won titles with Real Madrid, and I did great things there. The perfect moment is now. I was thinking I was ready, thinking that I belong here, and Chicago gave me a lot of interest.”
A week into preseason, Mirotic has shown promise to be an integral contributor in an NBA rotation for the next decade. And as Crespo says, “Nikola loves Chicago, loves his teammates and loves the coaches. He loves this situation.”
Mirotic is bigger than some teammates had envisioned on tape, a skillful ball handler and accomplished shooter. For Tom Thibodeau, Mirotic still must strengthen, sharpen and quicken the release on his jumper and fully understand concepts.
For the head coach, players must grasp schemes and an edge to maintain a rotation spot, and Mirotic’s there now on a championship contender should Rose and veterans like Pau Gasol stay healthy. Mirotic is still learning this new league, still learning his fresh surroundings. On his way out of an opposing arena recently, he became lost in finding the exit doors to the team bus, and soon a security personnel showed him the way.
“What an opportunity for me here … I cannot believe it. I’m learning a lot, and it’s amazing,” Mirotic says, and he’s so much more coordinated now in his pro career. He’s no longer a 6-foot-something kid running around on a soccer field, a grandfather’s persuasion turning Mirotic into a European basketball prodigy. He’s here now, far from a soccer field, far from the critics back home. Nikola Mirotic is where he belongs.
Aug 18, 2014 2:51 PM EDT
CHICAGO – Everywhere now, people probe into Kyrie Irving and his intentions as a leader. They tell him he’s been a leader on the Cleveland Cavaliers, that now is his time in the sport, and these people keep speeding the clock on his maturity beyond reality. Cleveland lucked into Irving in 2011, a franchise cornerstone to replace another, but the locker room lacked guidance and accountability and unveiled flaws of an unrefined twenty-something.
Across the NBA, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant heaved praise on Irving at such a young age, as such a genius scorer and wizard of the ball, and only he understands the truth. He knows he’s been no leader, no influence for players, but just a one-and-done collegiate athlete given apprentice status and ownership of an underdeveloped program.
“I haven’t been a leader – not at all,” Irving told RealGM.
Team USA’s practice ended the other day at the Quest Sports Complex, and Irving sat in a chair near the back of the gym, taking photo requests as a Nike representative hovered nearby. His arms tugged around surrounding seats, his knees prepared for icing, and his mind synchronized with Mike Krzyzewski’s approach in this World Cup.
He swears he’s unconditionally focused on USA Basketball, but away from here LeBron James has long since returned and helped bring Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones to Cleveland. Kevin Love is coming, too. The Indiana Pacers pushed hard for Marion, and sources say they laid out a $1.7-plus million offer and an outline of a significant role in discussions with the free agent veteran.
Irving is an unquestioned talent, and he admits his ongoing lessons about turning personal accolades into team success – knowing how desperately he needed this roster upgrade, in talent and professionalism.
“Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader … I haven’t been so far though, not at all,” Irving said. “I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs. Now it’s about being the best every single day and not being afraid.
“I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.
“Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.”
Moving past the vision under the old management regime, the Cavaliers essentially will have replaced Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum for James and Love in one summer, replaced a top-heavy bench for capable shooters ready for the game’s clutch moments. Irving has tremendous respect for Luol Deng, but Deng arrived too late and too unproductive in January and left as a free agent.
And out went Mike Brown; in came David Blatt, a creative offensive coach abroad. When hired, Blatt reached out to Irving and swiftly laid out an initial game plan. “My offense is tailored to you, to all my players, and what your strengths are,” Blatt told Irving.
Irving says his decision to re-sign with Cleveland on July 1 was simple, and yes, a five-year, maximum-salary deal brings ease to that choice. Yet, Irving is adamant: “I had nothing to do with the [coaching search].” No input and consultation needed, he says, and David Griffin had been entrusted with the hiring process.
Blatt is unproven in this league and must gain fresh trust, but this is unmistakable: The Cavs’ most critical relationship will lie between their best, James and Irving, and the depths to which both push themselves forward or push apart.
James has traveled the world for training and promotional events, and Irving’s committed to Team USA, so dialogue hasn’t progressed about ways they’ll blend on the court next season. After the FIBA games, Irving plans to exchange more calls and texts with James and engage in workouts together. They’ll need a quick course in chemistry, because an NBA title could be had out of the Eastern Conference, not just a retooling year.
For now, Coach K drills his former Duke point guard for better efforts on both ends and Irving insists everyone else receives the same treatment. For now, some of Blatt’s old games light up on a video screen for Irving.
Irving has studied those Russian national teams pass and cut in past World Championships and Olympics, has studied the crispness of recent Maccabi Tel Aviv clubs, searching for strategies to become more efficient in scoring and passing next season.
“I didn’t know [Blatt] before, but I’ve watched plenty of film on him,” Irving said. “When I watch tape of coach’s offense, he gives his guards freedom. I’m just going to learn from him and our veterans, and put everything into my game. [Blatt] gives a lot of freedom to make plays. That’s what you want from a coach.
“You want a coach that not necessarily will roll the ball out and tell you to go get it, but somebody who’s going to have some structure and let you make it happen instead of him trying to make it happen.”
Surely, Irving viewed the transformation of John Wall once former NBA champions and conference finalists took charge of him and challenged his capacity to lead last season. This duty came too swift for Irving in the NBA. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t 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, future Hall of Famers arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.
Jun 16, 2014
Five championships later, yes, you don’t 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 Spurs’ 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 – and become the foundation.
Jun 09, 2014
LeBron James didn’t complete the everyday star’s task. He vanquished the Spurs, tarnishing San Antonio’s 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 – and suddenly, on the grandest stage of professional basketball, a catastrophic malfunction left LeBron James at his body’s mercy.
May 29, 2014
No one’s 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 other’s 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 isn’t 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: don’t change. Absorb the finer details of the sport. Be Jamal Crawford, one of the NBA’s 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 Wizards’ rise again as long as patience sustained. We’ll be bottom-dwellers, until we’re be reputable again, and then this core will go on and on for contending runs, he’d 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 organization’s 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 couldn’t 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.
Mar 26, 2014
Upon his release from the D-League, Aquille Carr started a purifying process around him, eliminating distractions and creating a gym regimen.
Mar 11, 2014
John Wall had grown so accustom to the scene: a lackluster start to the season and segments of the Wizards' locker room slowly griping. This team meeting, teammates had settled upon the chair of the franchise’s max player.
Feb 23, 2014
How close Nuggets management ever came to consummating a deal is uncertain, and every round of speculation surrounding Kenneth Faried had presented like a hopeless plea on the outside. His youth and blend of athleticism and ferocious knack for the ball make him a self-starter.
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