NBA Notebook: Season Update, Last Dance Talk and An Outlandish Giannis Antetokounmpo Prediction

Not everyone is open to the idea of returning to NBA practice facilities and more news in Chris Mannix's latest NBA notebook.
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News, notes and observations as NBA facilities re-open …

· Several teams will open the doors to its practice facilities over the next few days, with the NBA approving a re-opening for teams in states that have relaxed stay-at-home restrictions. The league—as has been reported here before—sees the opening of facilities as an important safety measure, preferring players work out in safe and sanitized environments rather than flocking to local gyms. Not everyone is for it, with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum among those questioning the NBA’s decision. This is certainly a development but it in no way indicates the NBA is moving closer to restarting the season. The availability of testing continues to be the league’s benchmark, and with the U.S. still woefully behind on its testing ability the NBA will remain in limbo. Government officials have suggested the U.S. will be testing two million people a week by June, which is promising. I’m told the NBA could wait as long as late June before making any decisions on the season.

· Are we really talking about Kevin Durant returning to the Nets for an abbreviated postseason? Brooklyn GM Sean Marks (again) refused to rule it out this week, telling a New Zealand outlet Durant’s availability this season was “the $110 million question.” It’s been 11 months since Durant’s Achilles snapped in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and it will likely be a couple more before the NBA has a chance to play meaningful games. It stands to reason that Durant probably could play. But should he? Even with Durant—who won’t be Kevin Durant for a while—the Nets aren’t title contenders. This team’s window really opens next season, when Durant and Kyrie Irving will be back. The idea of dropping a just-recovered Durant into the most intense basketball environment possible just seems foolish.

· Episode six of The Last Dance covered Michael Jordan’s famed trip to Atlantic City the night before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks. Jordan’s Bulls lost that game, though Chicago (obviously) went on to win the series. I asked a few NBA coaches if they would have had a problem with Jordan making the 2 ½ hour trip (each way) to AC the night before a game. The general response: No—if Jordan, who said he was back at his New York hotel around midnight, was telling the truth. The New York Times reported a Jordan sighting on the casino floor at 2:30 am which, if true, meant Jordan likely didn’t get back to Manhattan until after 5 a.m.—at the earliest. That, the coaches agreed, would have been a problem.

· Also covered (briefly) in The Last Dance: The 1992 Dream Team, specifically Isiah Thomas’s exclusion from it. Over the years the finger has been pointed at Jordan for Thomas—then still an All-Star and well established as one of the NBA’s all-time great point guards—was left off the team. Jordan denied it in the documentary, and others have suggested it was more of a group decision to keep the polarizing Thomas out. I asked SI’s Jack McCallum, who has written repeatedly that Jordan was the driving force behind Thomas’s absence, how sure he was of that. After reminding me he’s saving the full story for his upcoming Dream Team podcast, he said this:

“Isiah had a couple people who should've spoken up for him. Chuck Daly was his coach for Christ's sake. Pistons GM Jack McCloskey was a supposedly powerful member of the committee. And they couldn't get him on. In my opinion, the one person who really got off scot-free on the Isiah stuff was Chuck. And then they go to Barcelona and who is MJ's best bud and golfing partner? Chuck. That had to hurt Isiah, and I feel bad that he's reliving this whole damn thing. [Bill] Laimbeer told me something interesting. Had the Dream Team been selected, oh, 10 months earlier, would Isiah have been left off? It would've been awfully difficult. But the team selections were pretty much being made and finalized in June, July, August of 1991. By then? The Pistons were a done deal, and Jordan was king of the world.”

· With The Last Dance likely pointing the spotlight at Jordan’s baseball career this weekend, I’m reminded of the infamous SI cover that ended the magazine’s relationship with Jordan. The cover—which showed Jordan in a White Sox uniform flailing at a pitch beside the headline BAG IT, MICHAEL! was not well received by Jordan, who vowed to never speak to SI again. On Tuesday, I emailed Mark Mulvoy, Sports Illustrated’s managing editor at the time, and asked him if, with the benefit of the knowledge that SI’s relationship with the NBA’s biggest star was permanently fractured, he would run the cover again?

“You could never run a magazine if you worried about the reaction to your stories/covers/pictures,” Mulvoy wrote. “Car companies weren’t happy when we ran crash pics from Indy and Nascar. College and pro teams made things difficult for us when we ran stories critical of them. [Former NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle didn’t talk to me for like two years after we did the Don Reese cocaine menace cover back in like 1982. Jordan was not the only athlete who refused to talk to us because he didn’t like something we wrote about him. The NHL didn’t like our coverage and wouldn’t let us put up strobe lights at arenas …. so i didn’t put the NHL on the cover because without strobes the quality of the color pictures was not good enough for the cover. I mean, we took on all the issues in sports and never, ever worried about the backlash. Pollyanna Illustrated we were not.”

· Speaking of The Last Dance, ESPN would be wise to have some kind of wrap-up show the week after the ten-part documentary wraps up. TLD has drawn huge audiences, averaging nearly six million viewers. There will undoubtedly be an appetite for more—and plenty of questions to answer.

· No, I’m not upset I didn’t earn a spot among the Mediadel in Game of Zones (Yes, I am).

· Bucks players have a group chat going. Most Bucks players, anyway. The Bucks have excluded Brook and Robin Lopez from the chat, according to Robin. Why? The Lopez’s apparently are Android phone users, and the rest of the team didn’t want them in an iPhone only chat.

· Clippers owner Steve Ballmer completed his $400 million purchase of The Forum this week, clearing the way for Ballmer to build a new arena for the Clippers. That could spell the end for The Forum, an iconic building that housed the Lakers and Kings for more than 32 years. The Forum still holds live events—I worked a boxing card there last year—but once Ballmer’s new building goes up, don’t be surprised to see The Forum razed to the ground.

· I like the idea of Tom Thibodeau coaching either New York team next season. It seemed like Thibs would be sidelined for a while after flaming out in Minnesota, but less than two years later, here he is, back in the mix. The Nets seem to need a veteran coach with playoff experience, something Thibodeau certainly has. And while he should never, ever be in charge of personnel again, his coaching skills are proven. The Knicks fit is less seamless, but New York is run by Leon Rose, who worked closely with Thibodeau at CAA.

· Outlandish prediction: Giannis Antetokounmpo rejects a contract extension from Milwaukee this summer, is traded to Toronto and the Raptors—backstopped by Giannis and Pascal Siakam—win the 2021 NBA championship. Masai Ujiri strikes again.