P.J. Carlesimo was the last coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, inheriting a team 16 years ago with rookie Kevin Durant and leading a reclamation project that eventually concluded in Oklahoma City, where the team relocated in 2008.
Carlesimo, now an ESPN analyst, still lives in Seattle, falling in love with the city during his short stint as coach. And he said there isn’t a day that passes when he walks the Queen Anne district he isn’t asked about a potential Sonics return.
That may be closer to reality than it has been since the Sonics abruptly bolted the city after settling the final two years of their lease. The NBA is exploring expansion and Seattle is at the top of its list, with many in the league office realizing it’s an opportunity to atone for a move that’s still wildly unpopular.
“I have no inside info, but I’m very, very confident. Have been for a long time, but more so now than ever that we will get a team,” Carlesimo said. “I think there’s a very good chance and a better chance that it’s expansion than [a team] moving. Either way we’re going to be on top of the list. The building, now called Climate Pledge [Arena], is ready to go.
“I just think for so many years it was a great franchise. A week doesn’t go by during the year that I don’t see somebody and they say, ‘I can’t believe we’re not in Seattle anymore.’ I think yeah, we’re going to get a team. It’s going to be sooner rather than later, but who knows the timetable?”
It’s been nearly 30 years since Carlesimo left Seton Hall in 1994, after leading the Pirates to the 1989 national championship game. He coached for parts of nine NBA seasons, and six more as an assistant, before becoming a full-time analyst.
While there could be as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot to win the NBA championship this season, Carlesimo believes the Nuggets have a legitimate chance of repeating.
“I think the Nuggets are a clear-cut favorite, but I would have said the same thing about Golden State last year,” he said. “To me, when it’s the defending champs and they return a good deal of their roster, I think they deserve to be the favorites. In my mind, Denver was the best team in the league last year. I think it was clear cut throughout the playoffs.”
The Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, Clippers, Bucks, Heat, Suns, Grizzlies, and even the Kings and Cavaliers feel they have a legitimate shot of reaching the NBA Finals. But the Nuggets, who lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in the offseason, return the rest of their core, including a healthy Jamal Murray.
“I think there are a number of teams who can win a championship, but I think if Denver stays healthy, they’re going to be difficult to beat,” Carlesimo said. “They’re going to miss Brown especially, but if Jamal Murray is ever healthy for a season . . . if Jamal Murray is 100 percent, and he wasn’t most of last season, and plays the entire year, to me they’re an even better team than they were. Michael Porter has more room to improve.”
Carlesimo said the Celtics are contenders, but it will depend on the production of recently acquired Kristaps Porzingis, expected to give Boston a new scoring element next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But acquiring Porzingis required losing the popular and versatile Marcus Smart in a trade with the Grizzlies. How the Celtics will look without Smart, and with Derrick White playing point guard, is one of the season’s biggest story lines.
“I thought it was a really gutsy move by Brad [Stevens] . . . The Celtics have been at the top of the East or knocking on the door for so long, and yet they haven’t been able to get through,” Carlesimo said. “The Celtics, the Lakers, Golden State now, every year we start on the first day and think we can win it this year, but in reality it’s probably at least five or more teams that have a legitimate chance to win the championship. Boston is one of those franchises.
“I admire the move. Moving Marcus Smart had to hurt. Marcus was in a lot of ways the heart and soul of the team. He was not the best player on the team, but he was really important. But it’s a really gutsy move, particularly with Porzingis because as good as he’s been, he’s got to get to that next level, which is to win. He doesn’t have to be the best player, but he’s got to really be special.
“All they’re going to measure it against is whether Boston wins. Are they going to get to the Finals again? It’s going to be interesting. I understand the move. It’s going to put a ton of pressure on that team, more pressure on Joe [Mazzulla] than he deserves. Given the circumstances that he inherited, given a coaching staff that were not his guys, to do what they did, I thought he did a great job. The team is relatively intact.”
The season will be fascinating, considering the first in-season tournament, the uncertain futures of James Harden and Damian Lillard, and the retooling of the Celtics and Lakers in an attempt to make deep playoff runs. But Carlesimo is convinced the Nuggets remain the league’s best, especially bringing back two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the remaining four starters from last season.
“The East is deeper. Now you have the depth and you have a lot of good teams in the Eastern Conference,” Carlesimo said. “Phoenix, nobody knows really what to expect. You know they are a good team. How good a team? I don’t know. I think it’s going to be a hell of a year. If people ask me who do I like, it’s an easy answer for me to say Denver. Jokic is so good, and if Jamal is healthy, they’re really good.”
Doncic continues to lose composure
One of the highlights of the FIBA World Cup was watching an engaged and in-shape Luka Doncic representing Slovenia as it advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Canada. But the same issues — Doncic’s inability to control his temper and constant chattering with the officials — crept up during the tournament. Doncic was ejected in the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss to Canada for his second technical. While Team Canada, primarily Dillon Brooks of the Rockets, guarded him physically, Doncic continued to allow officiating to impede his development.
Slovenia is not loaded with NBA players; Doncic is the only one, after veteran Goran Dragic retired from international play. So Doncic is a one-man team at times, and whether his country qualifies for a second consecutive Olympic Games will rely on Doncic maintaining his composure.
“I think everybody knows what my frustration was. Playing for the national team, a lot of times I have to control myself, which is what I have been having problems with,” Doncic said. “But one of the referees told our guys, ‘We’re not going to call a foul on [Brooks] because he’s coming at us.’ That is not fair. I know I complain a lot, but this is not fair. They have been very physical with me. But if you say that, it’s not fair. But on the other side, I think Dillon played great. He’s very physical like he always [is]. A lot of people don’t like him, but I respect him for what he does and he does that stuff really good.”
Doncic could have followed contemporaries such as Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia), who passed on the World Cup to rest their bodies and prepare for the NBA season. Greece was eliminated early in the World Cup and will have to qualify for the Paris Games next summer. Serbia reached the semifinals and has qualified for the 2024 Olympics. Doncic took all the blame for Slovenia’s shortcomings and inability to qualify.
“It starts with me, I’ve got to be better for my team,” Doncic said. “Playing for your country, you want to give your best. You want to die out there. It starts with me, for sure.”
As for Canada, Jordi Fernandez, a rising coach who will be a top NBA candidate next summer, admonished Brooks for getting ejected himself against Slovenia. Brooks, always the jokester, put on a pair of boxing gloves and shadow boxed in the tunnel while his teammates finished off the victory.
“He has to be better. We need him on the court. He can’t be disqualified,” Fernandez said. “We have to have better composure as a team. After that, I think with Lu Dort, he’s the best perimeter defender in this competition. I think today, it was a defensive clinic of leading with his chest, showing his hands, pressuring full court, and if you don’t think that way, you don’t like basketball.”
Eight of the 12 slots have been filled for the Olympics, the United States, Canada, Serbia, Japan (Asia representative), Germany (World Cup finalist), Australia (Oceania representative), France (host country), and South Sudan (African representative). The remaining four will be filled next summer in various qualifiers.
Thomas should be in the mix for MVP
While Las Vegas’s A’ja Wilson and New York’s Breanna Stewart are battling for the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, leading their teams to the league’s two best records, the true MVP may be playing just two hours from Boston. Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas has produced a remarkable season, punctuated by her sixth triple-double in Tuesday’s win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
Thomas also broke the WNBA’s season assist total in that game, and she’s not a point guard. Thomas may be one of the more versatile players in professional sports, becoming the first WNBA player to record a 20-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist, 5-steal game for a team that lost its best player when Jonquel Jones demanded a trade to the Liberty, then lost center Brionna Jones to an Achilles’ tear.
In her 10th season with the Sun, Thomas is playing the best basketball of her career, setting career highs in scoring, rebounding, and assists. It’s going largely unnoticed because of the success of Wilson and Stewart, plus a workmanlike style that has not garnered national attention. To put it in perspective, Thomas is the WNBA leader in rebounding despite being 6 feet 2 inches. She’s second in assists, third in steals, and 18th in scoring.
Thomas should be a legitimate MVP candidate, especially since the Sun have the league’s third-best record.
“They’ve supported me my whole career,” Thomas said of the Sun faithful. “Whether it’s out at the grocery store or here in the [arena]. They mean a lot to us and they know good basketball when they see it. They’ve respected everything I’ve done throughout my career.”
Teammate and fiancée DeWanna Bonner has to take over for the understated Thomas in boosting her MVP campaign. Thomas is not a real talker and isn’t on national commercials, but she may be the best basketball player casual fans have never heard of.
“When she plays like that and gets everybody involved with that much energy, it’s contagious,” Bonner said. “It’s impressive what she does night in and night out. I don’t really have words, but to be the leading [single-season] assists in WNBA history is insane for a [frontcourt] player. She’s the MVP of this season. I love my teammates, they’re the best in the world to me, but if you look at other teams, they’ve got All-Stars, [Team] USA players. We don’t have but one, and that’s [Thomas], and it’s impressive how she leads us.
“It’s kind of a privilege we take for granted playing with her every single night.”
The Sun were supposed to be in rebuilding mode after Jones was traded and Curt Miller left to coach the Sparks. But Thomas helped the club remain one of the league’s best and a dark horse to unseat the Liberty or Aces in the playoffs.
“Nobody does what she does, and that’s really all that needs to be said,” first-year Sun coach Stephanie White said. “It seems so routine that Alyssa Thomas gets a triple-double, but it’s not. It’s exceptional. No one in this league does what she does. And to me, that’s what an MVP is.”
The question is whether Thomas should receive serious consideration for MVP because of her numbers. Wilson and Stewart, each of whom has won an MVP, may have contributed to more wins or may be more popular analytical choices, but Thomas’s versatility is difficult to ignore.
“As a basketball analyst, I love those [analytical] numbers,” White said. “As a coach, I hate those numbers, because numbers can be manipulated into anything you want them to be. Not having Brionna Jones on the floor affects some of those numbers. I would say while analytics and looking at numbers is great, you also have to use the naked eye.”
Stewart and Wilson are second and third, respectively, in scoring behind Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, while Wilson and Stewart are second and third, respectively, in rebounding behind Thomas. Wilson leads the WNBA in blocks per game, while Stewart is fourth. Wilson is also fourth in field goal percentage.
“If you’re someone who doesn’t study this game and watch this game and all you’re doing is basing it on numbers, you’re probably not going to vote for Alyssa Thomas,” White said. “I think that does every player in this league a disservice.”
The Lakers boosted their frontcourt by adding the best free agent on the market, former Dallas center Christian Wood. The Lakers had been interested in Wood for weeks and agreed to a two-year contract with the former UNLV standout. The question here is why Wood always seems to be available despite an impressive skill set. He was traded from Houston to Dallas last summer after a solid stint with the Rockets. He was tabbed to be a cornerstone piece for the Mavericks but was relegated to the bench. He still averaged 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, yet Dallas was not interested in bringing him back. Wood said he has been promised a prominent role with the Lakers, but whether that means he will start alongside Anthony Davis remains to be seen. The Lakers were considerably better last season when Davis played center minutes. Wood could serve as a second-unit big who can run the floor and score. The Lakers have had a sparkling offseason, adding Taurean Prince, Gabe Vincent, Cam Reddish, and Jaxson Hayes in addition to re-signing Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura . . . One player who emerged as a superstar during the World Cup was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a first-team All-NBA player who carried Canada to the semifinals and the country’s first Olympic berth since 2000. He will be the cornerstone for an Oklahoma City team expected to contend in the Western Conference with the addition of rookie Chet Holmgren, who missed last season with a foot injury. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 5 assists for Canada, which lost to Serbia in the semifinals Friday. Team Canada is filled with NBA players, including Lu Dort, Kelly Olynyk, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, and Dwight Powell. Canada could be further boosted in the Olympics with the additions of Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins, who passed on playing in the World Cup . . . Former first-round pick Harry Giles has landed a training camp invitation from the Nets after sitting out last season. Giles conducted a workout during the Las Vegas Summer League for scouts and has been trying to show he’s completely over the serious knee injury he suffered in high school.