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Kobe Bryant is always talking about how no one wants to win more than him, about how all his angst and acrimony comes out of an unparalleled devotion to victory. Well, three years ago, he had a chance to make it so the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn't have to choose between paying Shaquille O'Neal or paying him to keep the championship core together. He never did open his mind to a creative solution.
What Bryant wanted is what he has: All the money and all the shots.
The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan passed Bryant with his fourth title last season, and he could catch Michael Jordan's six championships before his career is over. Now, Duncan has taken a two-year contract extension for $40 million, leaving $11 million more on the table. This assures the Spurs some salary cap room in the summer of 2010 when Duncan will be closing on his 35th birthday.
But Bryant isn't alone. In sports, many players talk about winning as the ultimate priority, but few are willing to back it with deed. Recently, Kevin Garnett did with the Boston Celtics. His $60 million extension was below the max-out level because he understood that his original $126 million contract bought him everything but satisfaction in Minnesota.
Duncan recently told Spurs owner Peter Holt that he wants to go out like David Robinson.
"Tim has said to all of us that he wants to go out a winner here, and he understands that he can't do that by himself, especially (in his mid-30s)," Holt told me this week. "But David Robinson did the same thing for us (took less money), and helped us win the 2003 title with Tim.
"I think Tim hopes there will be potential for us in the summer of 2010 to help us find a player who can complement him, and maybe help him go out with a ring."
The best player in the sport is still Tim Duncan, because everything he's ever done has been with winning as his motivation. There's never a peep out of his locker room about who's getting the most shots, getting plays run for them, nothing of the sort. The Spurs talk about one thing in San Antonio, and that's winning, because Duncan makes sure of it.
1. Reggie Theus has swaggered into Sacramento selling himself as something far different than the ex-gunner who'll be player-friendly. He's brought up the names of Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich as the models for the tough-guy route he wants to take as coach.
Even those legendary tough guys never tried Theus' new edict: A midnight curfew on the road. Around the league, more than one coach has had a private laugh over the rule when asked how that's going to work out with the team. This won't work, and it's going to be challenged sooner than later, especially with a bad team like the Sacramento Kings.
And face it, too: Especially when your coach walks in the door from New Mexico State.
"It's never been done," an ex-King and pro's pro, the New Orleans Hornets' Bobby Jackson said. "And then for a first year coach to come in and say that … it's going to be hard for guys to do it. That's just how guys think these days."
When asked what happens when Ron Artest and Mike Bibby, who've so far pledged support for the rule, decide they want to stay out later, Jackson said, "It's going to be hard if those guys don't accept that. If one or two guys don't agree with it, everybody is not going to agree with it."
For now, the Kings have bigger issues. Artest is suspended for seven games to start the season, and Bibby is out at least two months with a torn thumb ligament. The Hornets crushed them, 104-90, on opening night, and it's hard to think the Kings will win more than a game or two, if that, before Artest returns on Nov. 14. The Kings have trading-deadline fire sale written all over them.
2. Nothing in the NBA – absolutely nothing – beats old-school vengeance, and you have to love the Indiana Pacers' Kareem Rush for using a grudge with Charlotte Bobcats GM Bernie Bickerstaff to fuel his fury.
"He maliciously attacked me, and tried to make me look as bad as he could," Rush said. "A lot of teams didn't want to touch me."
Two years ago, Bickerstaff, then the Bobcats coach, declared Rush a locker room problem and released him late in the 2005-2006 season. Even when his old Lakers bosses, Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak, came to his defense and insisted that sounded nothing like him, Rush couldn't find a job in the NBA a year ago.
After an MVP season in Lithuania, the Pacers signed him to be a bench player for Jim O'Brien. This is a good fit for him, because he defends and shoots the ball. No coach in the league values the three-pointer like O'Brien, so this time Rush has a chance to stay in the league.
"The NBA's a small fraternity, and once one thing bad is said about you, it doesn't matter if it's true or not," he said. "People tend to believe that. And last summer, a lot of teams didn't want to mess with a guy who got waived with nine games left in the season. They wondered what could I have possibly done to make him do what he did."
3. Please, please, let's establish a moratorium on the "Larry Brown misses teaching" stories this season.
When's the last time Brown embraced young players?
The New York Knicks?
He never wants anything but veterans, and stunted the growth of more young players than he's developed in the last years of his coaching career. Why would you let him anywhere near your young guys? So, he can bitch and moan to the owner and GM, asking to trade the future for today?
Bad enough he publicly groveled for the Kings job this spring, but he also undertook a far quieter campaign to land in Seattle. Sam Presti was a disciple of Larry Brown prodigies, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, and he still wouldn't touch Brown. Brown has found out that most of the league thinks he's too big of a pain in the ass to hire anymore, and he's stuck as a consultant in Philadelphia.
If Brown misses teaching so much, let him take that high school job that he's always promised he'd do.
4. Over the summer, Joe Abunassar's Impact Basketball training center became the hottest workout facility in the sport. More than 50 NBA players spent time there this past offseason, and Abunassar, the owner, insists that you can count on one hand the number of players who invested the hours that the Nets' Antoine Wright did.
Just days after New Jersey refused to pick up the three-year option on his contract, Wright had the game of his career for the Nets with 21 points, turning into Jason Kidd's go-to guy in the fading moments of an overtime victory over the Bulls.
Wright started playing in mid-May in Vegas, and spent most of four months in the three-a-day sessions.
"He did the key thing, which was get there early in May and start working," Abunassar said. "Early in the summer, he was one of the go-to guys in the games. But later, when Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups and players like that came, he played more to his role with the Nets. Doing both over the summer really helped him."
5. Throughout this time of year, NBA scouts travel the country, stopping into college campuses to study prospects in practice. Along the way, there are coaches whom they love to watch conduct class. In an informal poll of several scouts, here are their thoughts on a few favorite stops on the preseason tour:
Rick Pitino, Louisville: "I expected Pitino to be good and he did not disappoint. … Very organized and sharp … Everything was done with a purpose and no wasted time or energy. … Players were very tuned in throughout … Plenty of teaching points that I wrote down.made me go 'Wow, that's really good.' "
Ben Howland, UCLA: "I expected to see a drill sergeant, but he was very calm and did a lot of teaching. I'm not sure anyone teaches defense better in America."
Tim Floyd, USC: "He creates listening better than anyone else. He's never had the players others had at New Orleans, Iowa State and now USC. I think the NBA helped create his offensive creativity."
Tom Crean, Marquette: "Some of the most intense workouts that I see anywhere. It reminds you a lot of (his mentor) Tom Izzo. To me, Crean and his staff do as much as anyone in skill development. I don't think he gets the big-time recruits, but his guys always develop. You come back every year, and they've improved. Who was Dwyane Wade before he went to Marquette?"
Larry Eustachy, Southern Mississippi: "In one day I heard him mention offense zero times, but rebounding and defense for three hours. I love watching his practices. No one else will mention Larry because he probably has no pro's on his team, but you ask any college coach who they would ask for rebounding advice and Larry would be the guy."
Bruce Pearl, Tennessee: "He is a character, and I think would be the most fun to play for. Just an engaging guy who you can tell loves to be on the court."
Matt Painter, Purdue: "For a young coach, just a deep understanding of the overall game. I was really taken with his thoroughness. I'll tell you: That kid is going to win a lot of games when he has less talent."