Another NBA season is upon us, and it has become a late Thursday night/early Friday morning ritual to watch Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal debate league issues, criticize players and teams, and chide each other while host Ernie Johnson officiates on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”
O’Neal and Barkley are never short on opinions, and they addressed the Celtics, who are beginning to draw more national attention as they ascend in the Eastern Conference. O’Neal and Barkley were asked about the team’s chances of taking the next step and whether Boston could be a destination for a premium free agent.
“I think the two players they added, adding some veteran leadership [is good],” O’Neal said. “Coach Brad [Stevens] has done a great job of having their guys ready every night. They come out and play with a lot of energy. David Lee has always been one of my favorite players. I know he’s going to be a fan favorite.
“Can Boston get a big-name guy to come to Boston? I’m not sure. It’s a fun town. I had fun there. I think these guys are going to squeak into the playoffs.”
Said Barkley, “I think Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have done a fantastic job. That team is getting better. They’ve got a nice, deep squad with the new additions. They are not on the level with Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Those are the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
“As far as a free agent? Man, I just don’t know about that. This ain’t the old days, these guys all want to get the most money. They all want to play in major, major markets. I know Boston is a major market, but I just don’t know.
“I take my hat off to Danny and Brad, they do a good job and they get better every year.”
Barkley on how LaMarcus Aldridge will adjust in San Antonio: “There are going to be some bumps in the road. It will be very difficult for LaMarcus because he’s not going to get all of the touches that he got in Portland. He doesn’t do other stuff to help the team enough to offset his lack of touches.
“In Portland, he was the guy, taking 25-30 shots a night. That’ll go to 10 or 15 in San Antonio and it’ll be tough to adjust for him. Is he a good enough defender or rebounder to offset that? When you go to another team and are the third option, that’s a major adjustment.
“He’s going to have to learn and say, ‘OK, I’ll be a better rebounder and a better defender.’ He’s a very good player, don’t get me wrong; it’s going to be an adjustment for him not getting all of those touches.
“That’s one of the reasons further why they are not my favorites in the West.”
O’Neal on Kobe Bryant playing beyond this season: “For him to be a Laker his whole career [is one motivation]. He’s already passed Michael Jordan; knowing the guy he is, I could see him trying to pass Karl Malone.
“It would be nice if two Lakers are No. 1 and 2 all time on the scoring list. That’s probably his only motivation at this point, is to keep climbing up the charts.”
Barkley on Bryant: “I hope it is his last year. He is one of the greatest players ever. I don’t want to see him out there just playing, just for the heck of it. He could play, but it wouldn’t, obviously, be the same.
“One of the reasons he keeps getting hurt, his body can’t take the NBA pounding anymore. Everybody’s body gives out at some point. I want to remember the great Kobe Bryant. I want him to come out and play 20, 25 minutes a night and have a farewell tour.
“The Lakers are not going to be any good. They’re the fourth-best team in California. They’re the second-best team in their own building. They’re not better than the Golden State Warriors. They’re not even better than the Sacramento Kings.
“They are the fourth-best team in California. They’re lucky the [WNBA] Sparks ain’t playing, they’d be the fifth.”
COMFORTS OF HOME
Bennett happy to be in Toronto
Anthony Bennett was smiling brightly as he drained jumpers wearing the jersey of the Toronto Raptors, his third team in three years. Bennett was the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 by the Cavaliers, but he was labeled a bust after he showed up to training camp in poor shape following shoulder surgery.
Bennett spent last season with the Timberwolves after being involved in the Kevin Love deal, but he didn’t receive much of an opportunity to play, and management decided to buy him out.
A former No. 1 pick has never had his contract bought out so quickly, but the ending may be happy for Bennett, who signed with the team in his native country.
He feels a sense of comfort.
“It’s good to be back, family, friends, a great fan base,” said Bennett, who did not play in the Raptors’ season-opening win against the Pacers. “I’m definitely happy about it. This is a business. You can’t just base your career off one game.”
Bennett is in considerably better shape than he was a rookie, but he hasn’t received much of an opportunity to prove that his game and approach have improved.
“Coming into the league, I was 260, 265 after surgery, and playing at the [power forward], I just felt way too heavy,” he said. “So every year I just shed a lot of pounds, and this summer with Team Canada, it definitely helped me out a lot. I got in shape, cardio going, shots are falling, and I’m ready for the season.”
Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk teamed with Bennett to lead Canada to the semifinals of the FIBA Americas qualifying, where it lost a 1-point game to Venezuela, costing it a chance at an Olympic berth.
“He’s a big guy who can dribble, who can shoot, pretty much do everything on the court,” Bennett said of Olynyk. “He’s a very intelligent, smart guy. He taught me some things over the summer, too.”
The 76ers’ rebuilding plan seems to be on a treadmill, going nowhere, as the organization works arduously to develop players who don’t stay around.
The 76ers continue to sign players such as Scottie Wilbekin, Jordan McRae, Pierre Jackson, Furkan Aldemir, and J.P. Tokoto and then release or waive them. Aldemir will be paid $2.6 million this season for leaving. He averaged just 2.3 points last season after signing a three-year contract.
The shuttle system is producing nothing but losses, as the 76ers are nothing but a bunch of rookies and journeymen surrounding Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. They played well for about two quarters Wednesday against the Celtics before relenting. The loss dropped coach Brett Brown’s record to 37-128.
Asked how the rebuild is progressing, Brown’s response was, “Slow. And I say that primarily directed toward injury. When you have Jahlil only a fraction of the time, no [Nik] Stauskas, and you expect Kendall Marshall to be a significant piece of this, and you’ve got [Carl] Landry that’s not going to be back for a while, so you’re just moving slowly.
“I think we can take the group that we have and move it further forward perhaps than other groups, but I think it’s going to take longer than the other groups we’ve coached because of a lack of availability. So in my head, I’m trying to coach myself to show an even greater level of patience.”
Brown has remained positive in his two-plus seasons in Philadelphia, despite coaching players who weren’t NBA-caliber or were on the team simply to maintain the league’s minimum payroll. General manager Sam Hinkie has brought in NBADL-level talent in this mysterious resurrection plan that has produced little more than losses and lottery picks.
Okafor is a definite cornerstone along with Noel, who is a defensive menace and an improving offensive player. Joel Embiid, the 2014 third overall pick, entered the draft with a fractured foot, an injury that has cost him two years.
Other than those three, the 76ers don’t have much.
“I couldn’t say it any clearer or more sincerely, it’s going slow,” Brown said. “I say that not as a negative. I say that not to cry or moan, I just say it because that’s what I’ve gone through the past month.
“But I believe that when Jahlil goes from 19 to 20 years old, and Stauskas can actually play, I see daylight. I can see why some of these players that we have have a legitimate chance to be keepers, whereas other teams that I’ve coached, great people, great competitors, gave me everything they had but in my heart of hearts, I knew there was a ceiling.
“That’s the excitement that I have that motivates you day to day, to get them healthy and try to move them forward.”
So the philosophy is to deal with the roster, regardless of its weaknesses, and teach basketball, sometimes at the most basic level.
“You go to the gym and coach and you do what you do if you were coaching a championship team,” Brown said. “You see the world through that lens.
“I tell my guys all the time, we may not be talking about championships and still have a championship mind, a routine, a lifestyle, habits. That matters. That doesn’t get watered down because you have injuries and your first-round pick is 19.
“It’s exacerbated with just all the little things. You’re trying to teach these guys how to be professionals. That’s all I know. That’s all I got.”
Brown’s biggest issue in the early season is blending the talents of Okafor and Noel, who combined for 40 points and 19 rebounds in the season-opening loss to the Celtics.
“They haven’t played but half of a preseason together,” Brown said. “I think the fact that one of them isn’t a legitimate 3-point threat is a challenge. How do you space the floor around those two? And how do those two coexist with each other?
“The good thing is they want to please. They want to pass to each other. They get along. There’s a relationship. They know they are under the microscope. People think that it’s not going to work. Can big ball come back?
“So all those things help me to motivate and cultivate. Time is the biggest thing we haven’t had.”
Noel, who missed his rookie season recovering from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, understands that he has to become one of the team leaders.
“Most definitely, I’m 21 years old and this is my third year in the NBA, I feel a lot of weight on my shoulders to help this team,” he said. “I’m a leader, being the longest-tenured Sixer. I’m most familiar with the system. I take a lot of responsibility and accountability on myself to lead the young guys in the locker room.
“I want to be this guy on this team moving forward.”
Charles Barkley, a 76ers great, was actually optimistic about the team’s future.
“I think they got screwed by the Embiid injury,” said Barkley. “I like what the Sixers have been doing. If he’s healthy, they would really be on the right track.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got to be patient in Philly. This season is about Noel getting bigger and stronger, getting Okafor together and finding some guards. You traded away the Rookie of the Year, now you have to find out who your guards are going to be.
“They’ll be in the lottery and will get another nice piece. I hope Embiid comes back. I like everything they did the last couple years but unfortunately he got hurt. That kid from overseas [Dario] Saric is going to come over, and if you can get Embiid back, they are going to have a bright future.”
Robinson out, perhaps for good
It may be the end of the line for Nate Robinson, who was waived by the Pelicans last week after just two games, including an opening night start against the Warriors. Robinson has relied on his athleticism, but at age 31 he may have lost a step. There are so many guards on the open market that it may be difficult for him to get another NBA job. The Pelicans brought back journeyman point guard Toney Douglas, who had been waived in training camp by the Pacers.
Former Celtics training camp invitee Perry Jones cleared waivers and is now eligible for the NBADL draft. He could play in the D-League and hope for an NBA call-up or pursue international opportunities. Jones was considered a talented player but lacking in passion and confidence in Oklahoma City, and that appeared to be the case in Boston. The Celtics needed Jones to command a roster spot, but he appeared unwilling to make a splash and instead blended in with his teammates and made little impact . . . The Lakers made the odd decision of waiving promising swingman Jabari Brown to keep Metta World Peace on the roster. Los Angeles, with little chance of reaching the postseason, is attempting to build for the future, so it was bizarre to let go of a 23-year-old prospect for World Peace, whose impact could be minimal . . . Former Celtic Phil Pressey was waived by the Trail Blazers, losing a training camp battle to Tim Frazier, before signing with Utah. The point-guard-thin Jazz waived Pressey with the hopes of adding him to their NBADL team in Idaho. When the Celtics drafted point guard Terry Rozier, it made Pressey expendable, and his contract option was not honored for this season . . . Former University of Connecticut standout Ryan Boatright was waived by the Nets but signed by the Pistons to join their NBADL franchise in Grand Rapids . . . Monday is the deadline for teams to sign players entering their fourth year to long-term contract extensions, and it appears that the situation of Washington’s Bradley Beal will go down to the final moments. Signing him to an extension seemed a certainty, but there has been no deal. Detroit’s Andre Drummond is also a candidate for an extension.
Kobe Bryant, at age 37, has indicated this could be his final season in the NBA. If it is, he’ll try to go out on top with the only team he’s ever known. A look at the final seasons of other players who made at least 10 All-Star teams and played their whole careers with one team:
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team source was used in this report.