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GARY WASHBURN | SUNDAY BASKETBALL NOTES

Mark Cuban thinks the NBA is ‘in a good spot.’ But there’s room for improvement

Larry W. Smith/ERuropean Pressphoto Agency

The NBA and the Players Association are close to agreeing on a new collective bargaining agreement that would bring labor peace perhaps for another six years. The NBA is coming off a summer where record money was spent on player salaries, the result of the new television contract. Times are good for the once-troubled league, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, among the NBA’s more boisterous and opinionated figures, offered few complaints about the direction of the league.

“Generally speaking, I think we have some challenges,” Cuban said last week. “We don’t have NFL TV ratings, but we have a lot of room to improve. The fans love the game. The people participate. They play fantasy sports. They watch the games. Attendance is good.

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“I think we’re in a good spot. People look up to NBA players and that’s always a good thing.”

One topic that always bothers Cuban: officiating. Cuban has had issues for years with how the game is officiated, the power of officials, and the officials selected for games.

“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Cuban said. “We’ve got a new guy in charge [of officials]. This is like our 19th new guy since I’ve been here, but I’m cautiously optimistic things will change. I haven’t seen evidence of that yet.

“It’s more management issues, entitlement issues, game-management issues. The same [expletive] that I have [complained] about for 17 years. There hasn’t been a whole lot of change, but I am cautiously optimistic.”

Cuban hopes the NBA reaches the popularity level of the NFL and sees his league as a blossoming brand.

“We’re unique among all the big four sports that our players are brands, they are recognizable because of fantasy sports and the love of the game,” he said. “Because of video games, they know the 15 guys on a lot of rosters. I think we’re in a great spot, but we have to continue to be humble. I think that’s going to be the key for us.

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“We can’t think because we signed a big TV deal that everything is great. We’ve got to keep on grinding, keep on working hard and keep on trying to improve things because there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Cuban said he supports players speaking out against social issues and expressing their concerns with pregame statements. Many teams in the league have locked arms in unity during the national anthem to show solidarity.

“I’m a big fan of civil disobedience,” he said. “When you can send a message without throwing a punch, throwing a bomb, being mad, yelling, screaming, blocking a business, blocking a street. You can send a message because you thought it out and you have a position. To me, that’s what America is all about. You don’t have to agree with it. But everybody’s got that chance to say their piece.

“Nonviolent discussions or conversations, that makes us a better country.”

Cuban also touched on a few other league topics.

On potential expansion: “We have enough teams right now. Economically it doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot of cities that need a team, but just economically it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It was only six years ago where the league had to buy a team [New Orleans] and so we’ve come a long, long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

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On free agents: “They’re adults and they have to make their own decisions. I just try to be supportive and answer any questions. I never try to tell them what to think. Like anybody in their 20s and early 30s, the younger you are, the less you know and the more you think you know.”

CHEMISTRY LESSON

Butler sees a big difference in Bulls

Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler.
Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

It was apparent that the 2015-16 Bulls were a chemistry nightmare. There appeared to be a power struggle between injury-prone Derrick Rose, injury-prone Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler, the team’s emerging star. The Bulls missed the playoffs. Then Rose and Noah were shipped to the Knicks, leaving Butler as the unquestioned leader.

The Bulls’ acquisitions of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have only aided team chemistry and Chicago is considered a contender in the Eastern Conference, not just a bunch of aging guys vying for one last run with the All-Star Butler as the centerpiece.

“We all enjoy each other’s company, man,” Butler said. “Even when we’re not playing basketball. Even if we’re throwing a football, if we’re playing cards or just sitting there talking. Everybody’s locked in. Everybody’s having fun and everybody wants to get to know each other a little bit better. I think that’s the major difference.

“We spent a lot of time off the floor together, which I didn’t know could help so much, but it really does.”

When asked if he was surprised the team has meshed this quickly, Butler said: “No, I’m not. We’ve got a bunch of good guys; we want everybody to do well. Everybody’s in the gym. Everybody’s around one another. We’re getting to know each other in and out and I think that’s going to help us win a lot more games with the chemistry aspect of it.”

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Butler refrained from criticizing his former teammates, but did admit that chemistry and cohesion were problems.

Butler wanted more influence in the team’s direction, but Rose and Noah were more tenured, and therein lied the issue.

“I think everybody had been playing with one another, maybe it was time for a new look for a lot of different guys,” Butler said. “Not in a bad way. I think sometimes that’s the way it looked and it showed out there on the court. It’s a new team now; as much as we talked about last year’s team, I think we should start focusing on this year’s team a lot more.”

Butler talked with Wade and Rondo before free agency, recruiting them. Rondo signed a two-year deal. Wade stunned the basketball community by leaving Miami after 13 seasons and returning to his hometown.

“I know I set a great example that you want to play with guys that help you win and are going to be great in the locker room and are going to be able to get guys to do their jobs,” Butler said.

“I think Rondo is amazing at that and the same with D-Wade. So with the group of guys that we have, we’re all working but we’re all working to make each other better as well.”

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While lauding the cohesiveness of this Bulls team, Butler said he’s not disparaging last year’s squad that was a major disappointment with 42 wins.

“I don’t think it’s a slam on last year’s team,” he said. “We can only worry about what we can do now and what this year’s team is doing, and I think we’re doing great things. As much film as everybody is watching, and sometimes we don’t even watch film with the coaches, we watch film with other players. Everybody is over at Wade’s house or my house, not only talking about the game but just talking about life in general.”

Butler entered Saturday averaging 24.2 points, 47.6 percent shooting, and 6.6 rebounds, all career highs. That is not a coincidence given how well the Bulls have played. But Butler doesn’t regret his past, despite the troubles.

“I learned so much from those guys in the last five years that I did play,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the player that I am without them, so I’m not going to sit here and say I did all of this on my own. I have a lot of respect for those guys on the floor because they helped me become the player that I am.

“But for right now, the group of guys that we have, if we keep playing the way that we’re playing, we’re going to be a really good team, but we have to stay in to the whole team aspect of it.

“As much as everybody wants to talk about last year, I think it’s kind of dead, kind of over with. Moving forward, these are the group of guys that we have.”

ETC.

Antetokounmpo ahead of schedule

Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.1 points so far this season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.1 points so far this season.Darren Hauck/Associated Press

Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the game’s rising stars, so much so that the small-market Bucks signed the “Greek Freak” to a four-year, $100 million contract extension in September, three months from his 22nd birthday.

Playing point guard this season, the 6-foot-11-inch Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game.

The Bucks are off to a strong start considering they lost Khris Middleton, their leading scorer last season, for six months with a torn hamstring. With coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks are considered a team on the rise and there is pressure to make the postseason this season after winning a disappointing 33 games in 2015-16.

“I think as an organization we are on the right path,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re just getting better. Every summer, Coach, I think, has added the right pieces in the team. Jabari Parker is getting better. Khris Middleton is getting better. I’m getting better. Everybody on the team, as a team, we’re getting better.

“For me, I think I have to step up and lead this team and try to do whatever it takes to win. We are all here to win, and we know our future is going to be bright.”

Antetokounmpo has been compared to some of the game’s best European products, including Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki, the modern-day model for overseas players.

“Dirk Nowitzki is the best European player for me that ever played the game. He’s unbelievable. The things that Dirk has done for this league and for the Dallas Mavericks are unbelievable,” Antetokounmpo said. “Jason Kidd was a teammate of Dirk’s, and for Jason Kidd to compare me with Dirk Nowitzki, it feels nice. It’s a nice compliment. But I have to keep my head down and try to do what I do. Keep working hard and try to get better because I think I have a long way [to go] to do what Dirk did for the league.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jabari Parker.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jabari Parker.Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Considered a mystery during the 2013 draft process, Antetokounmpo quickly began drawing attention because of his length and defensive prowess. He also showed small forward skills, making him nearly an impossible matchup for opposing teams.

“I’m really proud of myself. I’m always having a conversation with my family, and we always think about from where we began and where we are right now,” he said. “I think I have a long way to go, but for the steps that I’ve made in my life, from where I started — I grew up in Athens not having much. And being in the situation and to keep pushing, keep pushing, it’s a great feeling because all the hard work I did in my life, it paid off.

“The aspect that I think I have to work on is a lot of things. Let’s start with putting my teammates in the right spot on the floor. As I have the ball more in my hands, I have to make plays and make sure that they are in the right spot. It is one of the hardest things to do, to try to satisfy all your teammates, because that’s what you have to do as a point guard. And obviously I have to work on my jump shot. I think I keep getting better, day by day. I’m working on it. And as we move forward, I think it’s going to get a lot better, too.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Antetokounmpo has had to accept a major leadership role perhaps before his time. He is the face of the franchise and considered one of the game’s future superstars.

“It’s hard off the court to bring everybody together, but there are ways to try to talk, ask them how they feel after a game,” he said. “We always try to go to dinners and just talk about life. And sometimes you’ve just got to leave basketball aside and just talk man to man. I try to do that as much as possible. But it’s hard. I’m still 21 years old. It’s hard to do, but now I think I’m getting better. Thank God I’ve got a great teammate, Matthew Dellavedova; he’s been helping me by doing it the right way. My teammates are making me comfortable.”

Layups

Quincy Acy was waived by the Mavericks last week.
Quincy Acy was waived by the Mavericks last week.LM Otero/Associated Press

The NBA can be a cold league. During the Mavericks’ shootaround on Wednesday at TD Garden, forward Quincy Acy was working with coach Rick Carlisle on short jumpers, close to returning from a leg injury. On Friday, Acy was waived because Dallas desperately needed roster space for a point guard. The Mavericks added summer league sensation Jonathan Gibson, whom they waived during training camp . . . The Pelicans welcomed back point guard Jrue Holiday on Friday after he missed training camp and the first 12 games to attend to his wife, Lauren, a former US national team soccer player who underwent brain surgery. And Holiday’s return can’t come soon enough for beleaguered coach Alvin Gentry, whose team was off to a 2-10 start entering Friday. The Pelicans have hindered themselves with poor drafts and poor management. Anthony Davis, the top overall pick in 2012, and 2016 first-round pick Buddy Hield are their lone draft picks on the roster. Meanwhile, general manager Dell Demps paid forward Solomon Hill an obscene $52 million over four years in the offseason; through 12 games, Hill was averaging 5.1 points and shooting 31 percent from the field. The Pelicans need some success, and quickly . . . The Wizards are suffering from poor chemistry and a major lack of production from their bench. Players such as Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith are barely playing, while former Celtic Marcus Thornton is shooting 33 percent. Meanwhile, Bradley Beal, who turned down an Olympic invitation to get healthy for the regular season, has missed four games with a hamstring injury. The lone bright spot is former No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter, who is shooting a career-best 52 percent . . . The Heat and Chris Bosh are still at odds about his health and when he might be able to play again after missing significant time because of blood clots. League sources said Bosh definitely wants to play again, but it’s likely not to be in Miami. The Heat could waive Bosh, but if he played 25 games this season with another team, they would get no cap relief in doing so. The Heat could trade Bosh to a club that feels he could play immediately and push it to a championship level.

Scoring machine

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan has been blistering at the start of the season. In his first nine games, he has poured in 306 points. DeRozan is one of just seven players to eclipse the 300-point plateau in their first nine games.

Compiled by Michael Grossi

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.