Another case of the Mondays
Media Day Monday on the eve of most teams' first practice of the NBA season is supposed to be an upbeat occasion. Easier said than done for several teams after the offseason tumult we just witnessed
The first Media Day Monday in the history of this fledging Substack one year ago was an absolute downer, lowlighted by the New Orleans Pelicans’ shock announcement that Zion Williamson had undergone clandestine foot surgery and otherwise dominated by discussion about the various stars around the league (Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal and Andrew Wiggins) who had not taken the COVID-19 vaccine.
Media Day Monday to tip off our second season of NBA newslettering also struggled in more than a few cities to generate the spirit of renewal and Back to School energy that the opening burst of training camp interviews is designed to deliver.
Yet there were some dribbles of levity, too, so we strove to concoct the right mixture here in what we now consider an annual tradition by rounding up some standout exchanges from Monday’s sessions that marked a return to the spotlight for so many of the league’s marquee personalities:
🏀 My dear friend Marc J. Spears of ESPN's Andscape called Suns Media Day "the most dour" and "saddest" he has ever attended since he began covering the league in 1999. His ESPN teammate Brian Windhorst likened the mood of the afternoon to the dread that permeates a dentist office waiting room for Phoenix players and officials speaking about the Robert Sarver situation for the first time since Sarver's soft one-year suspension and subsequent announcement that he is seeking buyers for the Suns and the WNBA Mercury. Enclosed is a link to Windhorst's written coverage from the desert as well as his TV report.
🏀 Any concerns that the Committee (of One) was being too tough on the reigning Eastern Conference champions by placing Boston at No. 3 in the Training Camp Edition of our Power Rankings have been quickly hushed by all the turmoil that has engulfed the Celtics since those rankings dropped. A one-year suspension for Coach Ime Udoka and knee surgery for Robert Williams that is expected to sideline Boston’s interior defensive anchor into December (and possibly longer) have rocked the Celtics. A lesser concern but one that still has to be monitored: Jaylen Brown surely hasn't forgotten that he was included in offseason trade talks with Brooklyn when Boston appeared to have a shot at acquiring Kevin Durant. Said Brown less than convincingly:
🏀 It has to help new Lakers coach Darvin Ham, heading into his first official practice Tuesday, that LeBron James hosted a players-only minicamp last week at San Diego State that brought every Laker together for a few days of workouts apart from Dennis Schröder, who is still working through the visa process after his national team summer with Germany. But how much tension was actually diffused? Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times expertly put a question about the presumed awkwardness stemming from the Lakers' inability to find a new home for Russell Westbrook via trade rather bluntly, asking Westbrook: “You've said you're buying into the Lakers; do you think the Lakers are buying into you — do you think the Lakers want you here?" Westbrook's answer was about as candid as you could hope for in this sort of setting:
🏀 How on Earth is Steve Nash going to be able to coach Kevin Durant after Durant asked Nets owner Joe Tsai in August to fire both Nash and GM Sean Marks? Media Day forced Nash to answer that question for the first time:
“Kevin and I go way back. So families go through things like this — go through adversity, go through disagreements. This is not new to the NBA. It has happened dozens of times, I’m sure every organization has faced that. … We cleared the air and we spoke and we got on the same page. ... So I’m glad we got it behind us and he’s been outstanding since we had our chat."
🏀 The Nets were one of those teams, like Boston and Phoenix, whose Media Day discourse was overtaken by talk of summer discord rather than basketball matters and the potential of the season ahead. Yet there was one eye-catching Seth Curry line that underlined one of the forthcoming season's most significant What-Ifs: What if Ben Simmons makes it back from 15 months of inactivity and can reinvent himself as a defense-obsessed third wheel to Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn? Don't we have to at least consider the possibility that Simmons can shake free of the mental and injury woes that have plagued him since the last time we saw him on the floor in Philadelphia's Game 7 home loss to Atlanta in June 2021?
🏀 Nuggets coach Michael Malone is imploring two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokić to be more vocal than he's ever been in his eighth NBA season. Malone contends that Jokić has “everybody” on the squad “waiting for him to say something” because his words have such “a profound impact.” Yet it had to be pleasing for Nuggets fans and the whole organization to hear what Jokić did offer up Monday about his long-range goals in Denver:
🏀 San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who turns 74 in January, did not try to sugarcoat the reality that his 27th season as the Spurs’ head coach will be a rebuilding season in the extreme.
🏀 A good bit of the aforementioned levity on this Media Day Monday was supplied by Miami’s Jimmy Butler when pressed about his new look:
🏀 Fresh off his team-high 27 points for Spain in a EuroBasket title game upset of France, here's Toronto newcomer Juancho Hernangómez on his double life as Bo Cruz after starring in Adam Sandler's film Hustle:
🏀 This will be my 30th consecutive season of full-time NBA coverage. Pretty much every one of those years I've vowed to come to camp 20 pounds lighter ... and it's happened maybe twice in those three decades because of my utter lack of discipline. So I have serious admiration for those players who do return to work in considerably better shape than when we last saw them. A few who stood out for me Monday: New Orleans' Zion Williamson, New York's (shirtless at the podium?) Derrick Rose and Philadelphia's James Harden, who addressed longstanding calls for him to slim down with humor.
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I returned Sunday from Tel Aviv with copious amounts of tennis and food photos. Yet I've decided not to flood this edition of the newsletter with the frivolous, since this Newsletter Tuesday happens to coincide with the return to the practice floor for 26 NBA teams.
It's time, in other words, to start getting serious again.
So the last Travelogue entry from the summer falls on the abridged side ... with your humble correspondent admittedly struggling a bit with the instant return to work after flying home Sunday. (Efficiency in the transition game apparently gets harder as you get older.)
As I mentioned in last Tuesday's dispatch, tennis was a major lure for my last trip of the summer. Little did I know, though, that a Sept. 18 tweet about Novak Djokovic partnering with my dear friend Yoni Erlich in doubles in the last tournament of Erlich's career at age 45 would prompt Clutch Points to give the full-on NBA social media treatment to my little tennis story. This one, for personal reasons, will almost surely go down as my favorite Clutch Points graphic of all-time:
Five coaches were scheduled to hold their first practice Tuesday with new teams: Sacramento's Mike Brown, Charlotte's Steve Clifford, the Lakers' Darvin Ham, Utah's Will Hardy and Boston's Joe Mazzulla in the wake of Ime Udoka's season-long suspension.
Only nine two-way contract spots remained open leaguewide as of Tuesday morning, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, meaning that 591 of a possible 600 training camp roster spots were filled on the first day all 30 teams were allowed to practice.
The Warriors officially re-signed Andre Iguodala on Monday, taking the 38-year-old into his 19th NBA season. Iguodala is one of 10 players in NBA history to win at least four championship rings and an NBA Finals MVP award, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tony Parker and teammate Stephen Curry.
Bulgaria’s Aleksandar Vezenkov, who plays for Olympiacos in Greece, finished third in the recently completed EuroBasket tournament in scoring at 26.8 points per game, behind only Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.3 PPG) and Finland’s Lauri Markkanen (27.9 PPG) and one spot ahead of Slovenia’s Luka Dončić (26.0 PPG). Vezenkov also topped the tournament at 12.2 rebounds per game and was one of only two EuroBasket players to rank among the top 10 in scoring who is not in the NBA this season (along with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Džanan Musa).
Only two players in Bulgaria’s national team history have played in the NBA: Georgi Glouchkov and former N.C. State star Cedric Simmons, who gained Bulgarian citizenship after a three-year NBA career. Vezenkov’s NBA rights were acquired by Sacramento in June from Cleveland. The 6-foot-9 forward was drafted by Brooklyn with the 57th overall pick in 2017 before the Nets dealt his rights to the Cavaliers as part of the four-team James Harden trade in January 2021.
Not until 9:34 PM ET on Monday night, four days after it was reported that the teams had agreed on a trade, did Utah and Detroit announce their Bojan Bogdanović-to-the-Pistons swap. The Jazz did the deal despite receiving no draft compensation from Detroit in addition to Kelly Olynyk, Saben Lee and cash considerations.
The Las Vegas Aces' recent WNBA championship returned basketball glory to Sin City with the first major title for a Vegas-based professional franchise. Nevada-Las Vegas, of course, won the NCAA championship in 1990 led by future NBAers Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.
The NBA has restored locker-room access for selected members of the media this season after doing away with the practice for the past 2½ seasons in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Locker rooms will be open after games following a 20-minute period for cooling off — increased from the previous 15-minute wait.