Six months ago, Tristan Thompson was helping the Cleveland Cavaliers perform on the game’s highest stage, the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers reached the Finals four years in a row, a stretch of unprecedented success for that organization.
Fast forward to December, and Thompson is just trying to play hard and be a leader through all of the chaos in Cleveland. LeBron James? Gone. Tyronn Lue? Gone. Kyle Korver? Gone. J.R. Smith. Told to stay home until he is traded. Thompson, who spent his first three seasons teaming with Kyrie Irving to help the Cavaliers recover from James’s first departure from Cleveland, is now the central figure of the franchise, the only contributor left from the title runs.
The Cavaliers traded veteran point guard George Hill to the Bucks on Friday as they continue a rebuild. So there was Thompson, back at TD Garden last week — where his franchise enjoyed so many key playoff victories over the past four years — just trying to keep the Cavaliers respectable.
“Obviously our record is not where we want it to be but guys like to be around each other,” he said. “Guys like to spend time with each other on and off the court. And guys have fun playing, which you don’t see too often when your record is not what you want it to be. I think the love of the game and guys enjoying playing basketball every night is still there with this team.
“We’ve been playing hard for multiple games, 48 minutes and doing what [coach Larry Drew] wants us to do.”
Drew took over after Lue was fired six games into the season. His job is to facilitate the retooling plan behind rookie point guard Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson. The talent is lacking, especially with Kevin Love out with a foot injury.
“We’ve got to approach it game by game and chip away,” Thompson said. “And if you can take one step forward, that’s what you’ve got to do. Obviously we’ve got some young players we’re trying to develop and help them establish themselves in the NBA. It’s our job as veterans to help these young guys do what it takes to be pros, and that’s how I approach it.”
One of the issues between Lue and general manager Koby Altman was the playing time given to Sexton, who started the season as a reserve with Hill starting. Lue felt the club was good enough to compete for the eighth playoff spot with Love, Thompson, Smith, Hill, and Rodney Hood. Altman wanted Lue to play younger players and prepare for the draft lottery.
As a starter, Sexton is averaging 17.8 points and shooting 45.9 percent from the field.
“Collin is playing well in the starting group, it takes a lot of pressure off of him because you have so many different threats,” Thompson said. “Myself setting screens for him, getting him open. When he’s in the first unit, it’s less pressure and we can simplify the game more for him. I think it’s been going good for him and that’s our job — to make the transition as smooth as possible. He’s in here early doing what he needs to do as a rookie. I’m glad that even though he’s playing at a high level, he’s still doing what he needs to do as a young player to get extra work in. That’s the key.”
Thompson is a free agent after next season, so his status with the Cavaliers will come into question as the rebuild progresses. But until then, he said he will remain a positive influence and veteran leader. He understands the Cleveland run would eventually end.
“Obviously it’s different, being on a team that’s championship-level, and that’s the expectations,” he said. “This is different but it’s part of the journey of being a pro. You’ve got to enjoy the good times when you have them being on a championship-level team, but this is also part of the journey of growing up and becoming a leader, losing LeBron and having that voice gone. It’s an opportunity for me to step up and take control of that and absorb this opportunity. I look at this as a positive. Of course you always want to be on a championship-level team, but there are peaks and valleys in your career. I’m happy I’m here.”
Fizdale, Knicks on the right track
The New York Knicks are off to an 8-18 start and likely headed for the draft lottery for the sixth consecutive year. But the Knicks showed the Celtics in their stunning win at TD Garden last month that they are a team that’s improving, following the blueprint laid by general manager Scott Perry to build through youth and then eventually free agency.
New coach David Fizdale has helped rejuvenate the culture of an organization that hasn’t won an NBA title since 1973 and has been largely insignificant over the past two decades. The Knicks thought they were headed in the right direction by hiring all-time great coach Phil Jackson as team president, but instead it just delayed the rebuilding process by five years.
Jackson made poor free agent signings, hired and fired coaches Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek, and then was abruptly fired before last season. Fizdale, who was unfairly removed in Memphis after his troublesome relationship with standout center Marc Gasol, was hired to instill a defensive mind-set, determine which of the young core can contribute long term, and help eliminate the negative cloud hovering over the organization since Carmelo Anthony facilitated a trade to New York nine years ago.
Fizdale is saying all the right things. The Knicks have played respectable basketball despite the absence of their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, who is recovering from surgery last season to repair a torn ACL. It’s uncertain when Porzingis will return. The Knicks are pushing forward with Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter (who will be a free agent this summer), reclamation projects Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Noah Vonleh, and promising rookies Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox.
Perry, Fizdale, and president Steve Mills have conducted themselves professionally, working feverishly to rid the organization of its reputation for mismanagement.
“It’s much more about your organization,” Fizdale said. “I think what we’ve done together is change the perception of how we operate, how we treat each other, and what’s important. That’s the first step in getting people to come to New York. We have to make it clear, we really take care of our guys and we get better. We have to get better.”
Fizdale, who was well respected in assistant coaching stops at Golden State, Atlanta, and Miami, said he has been told by colleagues that the Knicks are no longer a laughingstock, but rather regarded as a sleeping giant.
“There’s been a lot of people, we all know each other around the league, and so I get a lot of feedback from other people about what people think about us, how hard our kids play,” Fizdale said. “Hopefully our relationships will help bring it all together.”
Fizdale said he talked with many people inside the organization about how the club should conduct its business.
“The feedback from the people who have been with the Knicks for a long time, that’s who I want to hear from, the people in the building,” he said. “There was some stuff that was good in the building that I didn’t want to change that. Those were the folks that really helped us navigate it.”
Fizdale dabbled in television after being fired by the Grizzlies 19 games into his second season. But he emerged as a hot coaching commodity when the Grizzlies continued to struggle after his departure. The Knicks were looking for a fresh voice after firing Hornacek, and Fizdale won management over with an elaborate plan to overhaul the team’s approach on developing players.
“I had an opportunity to be the head coach of the New York Knicks,” he said. “I want to be able to say I took that shot. Hopefully I’m part of building a champion. I’m not here celebrating it like we’ve arrived or we have this whole thing figured out. I feel like we’re doing it the right way, step by step, piece by piece.”
There are going to be nights like Thursday, when 15 days after beating the Celtics, the Knicks lost to them by 28. “We can’t get to the end tomorrow,” he said. “We have to build it the right way and by not skipping steps. We’re getting to that point. No one is getting out of sorts because this is exactly what we expected. Not skipping steps, that is what we talked about. We’ve got to build it the right way.
“Mr. Dolan’s thing is, are we sticking to our process?” said Fizdale, referring to team owner James Dolan. “Our guys are working hard, getting better. Our situation with our roster is where we want it. Our stars are getting healthy. When it comes to free agency and all of those things, I think we’re going to be in a good position.”
Kanter has embraced playing in New York and wants to stay long term. But the Knicks have bigger free agents, such as Kevin Durant and perhaps even Kyrie Irving, in their sights. Kanter doesn’t appear fazed by the pressure of playing in New York. What’s more, he enjoys the city, the culture, and the team.
“You carry New York with you. You have to have that mind-set,” he said. “You play bad with some other teams, they care less about it. You play bad in New York, it’s definitely extra motivation and what is it called? Stress.
“My Twitter and Instagram followers are up. It’s all about New York, man. You play in one of the biggest cities in the world and it’s a media city. Reporters are always asking questions and talking to me. Some of the cities I’ve been to, it’s not like that at all.”
Is Kanter in the Knicks’ long-term plans? That’s an interesting question. Robinson, a freakishly athletic and potentially dominant defensive center, could be the team’s big man of the future. Until then, Kanter will enjoy the experience and the city.
“I was excited and nervous at the same time because you play for the Knicks, it’s New York,” he said. “When I come here I see the people around me, I see my teammates, I don’t know why people are scared to come here or people don’t want to come here. It’s a beautiful place and if you live here, it’s a great city.”
Jordan no longer a liability at line
With 12.7 seconds left in the Dallas Mavericks’ victory over the Celtics two weeks ago, DeAndre Jordan was summoned by coach Rick Carlisle to attempt a technical free throw after Marcus Smart was whistled for pushing Maxi Kleber.
Jordan stepped to the free throw line, concentrated, flipped it with his left hand, and missed. He was upset. It was the first time in his career he had attempted a technical free throw and he missed his chance.
Just being selected to attempt a technical free throw was a tribute to the remarkable improvement Jordan has made at the free throw line. For years he was one of the league’s worst free throw shooters and opposing teams, including the Celtics, would foul Jordan during critical parts of games to put him on the line.
He shot 39.7 percent from the free throw line just four seasons ago. That average has jumped to 75.8 this season, which has enabled Carlisle to keep Jordan on the floor in key moments of the game and even give him an opportunity to take a technical free throw — a responsibility usually reserved for a team’s best free throw shooter.
The NBA changed its intentional foul rules because poor free throw shooters such as Jordan and Andre Drummond were getting fouled on purpose and slowing the pace of games. The league passed a rule that teams now retain the ball and get two free throws if a player is intentionally fouled within two minutes of the end of the fourth quarter or overtime with an away-from-the-ball foul.
Since his 39.7 mark in 2014-15, Jordan had gradually improved, making 58 percent of his free throws last season. But his 17 percent jump this season is one of the league’s most surprising story lines, especially considering Jordan is in his 11th season and made just 44.6 percent of his attempts in a decade with the Clippers.
“I believe there are examples but I don’t know them off the top of my head,” Carlisle said of Jordan’s improvement. “But I had no doubt that he would continue to improve. He’s been improving each year. Fifty-five percent is kind of that buffer line to where you foul guys off the ball or you don’t. He was a guy last year with his percentages that you weren’t looking to do that. This year, he’s leading the team. We talked to him about a couple of things that could help and he put in the work. I’m real happy for him. This is a big thing, to be able to work at conquering something like that.”
With the city of Seattle being awarded an NHL team that will begin play for the 2020-21 season, there has been growing support for an NBA team to follow. The NBA has interest in Seattle and it’s held that interest since the Sonics uprooted to Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008. Ten years later, Seattle is just beginning to devise an arena plan that would interest the NBA — but not so fast. The league is pretty comfortable with 30 teams because it’s a neat system of five six-team divisions, 15 teams in each conference. The NBA has no interest in expanding at this point and if it did, it would likely have to expand to 32. Commissioner Adam Silver does not want to further dilute the talent pool, although there would be several cities along with Seattle — Kansas City, Louisville, Las Vegas — interested in housing those teams. There is growing support for a Seattle team but until an ownership group, an arena plan, and something more definitive occurs, the league will continue to take its wait-and-see approach . . . There is discord in Sacramento between management and coach Dave Joerger regarding whether to try to win now with some of the team’s veteran players or go young and develop. Joerger has opened up opportunities recently for emerging forward Harry Giles, who scored 13 points in 10 minutes in Wednesday’s win over Phoenix. Giles, who sat out all of last season recovering from knee issues while at Duke, had an impressive summer league and was expected to be in the team’s rotation. He sat on the bench or was in the G-League for most of the first month before getting action. The 6-foot-9-inch swingman is an intriguing prospect because of his athleticism, but the Kings have opted for players such as Iman Shumpert and Justin Jackson. Sacramento is hovering around .500, tied with Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. So the question the rest of season is whether the Kings will push for a playoff spot or continue to develop youth for a real playoff run next year.