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Spurs promote Buford to CEO; Wright to serve as GM

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Spurs Sports & Entertainment has promoted two-time NBA executive of the year RC Buford to chief executive officer, effective Sept. 3.

Buford is credited along with coach Gregg Popovich for building the Spurs into one of the most consistently successful franchises in sports, with five NBA championships since 1999 and 22 consecutive playoff appearances. Popovich is returning this fall for his 24th season.

Buford started his current run with the Spurs in 1994 and has climbed the ranks, including being named general manager in 2002 and his promotion to president of sports franchises in 2008.

The Spurs also said Tuesday that Brian Wright will serve as GM after three years as an assistant and Lori Warren and Bobby Perez have been elevated to executive vice president roles. Longtime executives Rick Pych and Lawrence Payne will transition to advisory roles.

On Monday, the Spurs said former NBA MVP Tim Duncan will join the Spurs as an assistant coach this season.

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Dwight Howard says he’ll join Lakers for NBA restart, donate salary from Orlando games

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Dwight Howard‘s bounce-back season will continue in the place where he started his NBA career.

The Los Angeles Lakers center, appearing as a guest on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon on Monday, told the host, “Yes, I will be joining my team in Orlando,” after there was some uncertainty surrounding his status for the league’s restart at the end of the month.

Howard said he will donate the remainder of his salary for the 2019-20 season — approximately $700,000, according to ESPN’s NBA front office expert Bobby Marks — to a charitable initiative, Breathe Again.

“I have a contractual obligation to my teammates, to my fans, the Lakers, the organization and everyone, but at the same time, I also have an obligation to my family and to my community,” Howard said. “We will be getting a lot of work done here in Atlanta and around the nation as far as making sure people don’t forget about us and what’s going on in our communities.”

Howard, who started Breathe Again through his D12 Foundation back in 2015, said he is restarting the campaign.

In a letter posted to the Breathe Again website — which is currently out of service — upon its launch, Howard wrote, “My sadness has grown deeper as I watch people firmly plant themselves on one side or the other, usually based on race. We need new perspective, a new life. We need to Breathe Again. Oxygen represents life. We need to fill our bodies with new life. It is time for us to look past color, zip codes, the problems and look toward the causes and solutions.”

Howard conducted the interview with Lemon from his Georgia home, where he has been satisfying the NBA’s home quarantine and testing protocol required of all players who will participate in Orlando, a league source told ESPN last week.

The 34-year-old big man has been taking care of his 6-year-old son, David, during the hiatus, along with other family members. David’s mother, Melissa Rios, died of an epileptic seizure on March 27 at her home in Calabasas, California.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka told reporters last week that the team was working with Howard; his agent, Charles Briscoe; the NBA Players Association; and the league in order to navigate the veteran center’s “extenuating circumstances” and find a solution for him to join the team in Florida.

Howard, in his 16th season after being drafted No. 1 by the Orlando Magic in 2004, averaged 7.5 points on a career-best 73.2% shooting along with 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks and appeared in all but one of L.A.’s games before the season was suspended in March.

Howard issued a statement to CNN through Briscoe last month that initially led the Lakers to believe he might opt out of the remainder of the season.

“What better time than now for us to be focusing on our families? This is a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking full advantage of,” the statement read, in part. “When have we ever had this amount of time to sit and be with our families? This is where our unity starts. At home! With family!!”

Howard also participated in calls led by teammate Avery Bradley, as well as Kyrie Irving, put together in order to give players an outlet to share concerns and dissenting opinions about the league’s restart plans together — including the necessity to focus on racial inequality and systematic inequities in this country — in order to try to shape the NBA’s approach.

“During my time in the bubble, I will use that time to talk about Breathe Again and I’m going to use my salary — all the money, the paychecks that I’ll be getting from going down in the bubble, to help push this Breathe Again [initiative], push out movement and just make sure that people don’t forget about what’s going on in our society,” said Howard.

The Lakers are scheduled to fly as a team from L.A. to Orlando on Thursday in order to reconvene their quest for the championship at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

“I feel like we have a great opportunity, the Lakers do, for winning a title this year,” Howard said.

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JR Smith was ‘very depressed’ when out of game

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LOS ANGELES — Out of the NBA for more than a year and a half, the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers, JR Smith, detailed the mental toll the time away from the game had on him.

“I went through a very depressed state for a long time,” Smith told reporters on a video conference call Monday. “And it lasted for a few months, where I just didn’t — I’m a big video gamer, I didn’t even play 2K anymore. I don’t want to hoop, I don’t want to work out, I don’t want to play 2K, I don’t want do anything with basketball.”

Making his first public comments after signing with the Lakers last week to replace starting guard Avery Bradley, who opted out of the remainder of the season primarily because of family concerns, Smith said he will not take this opportunity for granted. Despite other replacement players around the league joining teams with some sort of language in their contract addressing next season, he is only focused on the immediate role that’s being asked of him.

“I was gone for a while, and for being somebody who has been around the league predominately for most of their adult life, when that’s kind of taken away from you, it kind of gives you that culture shock and you obviously don’t understand what you lost until it’s gone,” said Smith, who parted with the Cleveland Cavaliers on rocky terms in November 2018. “So, for me more than anything, I just want to appreciate the moment for what it is and whether it be next year or never again, I just want to enjoy every possible moment that I get.”

Smith certainly had his moments in Cleveland. He helped lift the Cavs to their first and only championship in franchise history, getting hot in the third quarter of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to allow Cleveland to keep pace with a record-setting Golden State Warriors team. He also helped the Cavs blow an upset opportunity in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals by forgetting the score late in regulation before Cleveland eventually lost in overtime.

The latter sparked a meme that still makes its rounds on the Internet, showing a perplexed LeBron James holding his arms out in frustration, directing his disgust at Smith for the blunder.

Smith said that having been through high-stakes experiences like those with James — they made it to four Finals in four years as teammates together — is value he’ll bring to the team, beyond the shot-making ability he’s known for.

“Firsthand, I know how Bron can get pissed, and there’s people that are not going to know how to deal with it,” Smith said. “So it gives that gap of understanding, it’s still all about winning.”

Smith referenced the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, which caused some viewers to critique Michael Jordan‘s sometimes harsh interactions with his teammates on the Chicago Bulls.

James, Smith said, has a similar will to win.

“It kind of comes off in the wrong way sometimes,” Smith said of James. “And you need that bridge as a player to be able to go to the next player and be like, ‘Listen man, it’s nothing personal, [don’t get caught up in] who was right, who was wrong.’

“It’s just a good balance, I think, between myself and him, because he knows just as well he can challenge anybody else, I’ll challenge him, and vice versa.”

Smith, 34, has known the 35-year-old James since they were both in high school. He can interpret the four-time MVP’s demeanor throughout a season better than most.

“When you get a person on that level, it’s kind of intimidating for a lot of those people who don’t know how to challenge authority,” Smith said. “But that’s something I’ve never really had a problem with. So talking to him, getting [into] stuff like that, getting into tough conversations with our teammates, I think that’s the biggest thing. Because that’s the only way we grow as men and as a team.”

A career 37.3% shooter from 3 in 15 seasons with New Orleans, Denver, New York and Cleveland, Smith gives Lakers coach Frank Vogel another new scoring option on his bench, along with Dion Waiters who was added to the team before the coronavirus hiatus but is yet to play a game in a Laker uniform.

“It’s clear that he’s done a remarkable job of keeping himself in shape and staying ready,” Vogel said. “And I think this is really a great story. When you look at a guy who could potentially be out of the league and was a starter on a Finals team a couple years back, a champion, for him to have the perseverance to stay ready and give himself this opportunity, I think is to be commended.

“Watching him work out, hey, his nickname is ‘Swish’ for a reason, right? He’s a shot-maker, a big-time shot-maker. Like I said, he looks like he’s in terrific physical condition. And like I’ve said all along, I think he’s really going to help us.”

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Heat’s Meyers Leonard puts bubble into perspective

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As the Miami Heat prepare to head to Orlando to participate in the NBA’s restart at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World, Heat big man Meyers Leonard is confident that his team is ready for the challenge that the environment will provide.

While he knows the mental grind will be difficult, Leonard is buoyed by the fact that being sequestered in the league’s bubble for potentially over three months isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things.

“I’ve actually had a couple back and forths with [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra], via texting, good back and forths, because he had asked me ‘How are you feeling about this?'” Leonard said during a Monday conference call with reporters. “And I said ‘Look, man, let me explain something. Number one I’m getting paid millions of dollars to play basketball. Let’s start there. Something I love to do anyway. Number two, my brother did two nine month tours in Afghanistan. For a lot less pay. We’re going to be [in the bubble] for three or four months max.”

Leonard, an avid admirer of Navy Seals, tried to put into more context how he was putting the whole experience into perspective.

“I get it, life’s not always easy, but what do we really have to complain about, right?” Leonard said. “I think about those guys [Navy Seals], they’re taking out the worst people in the world for way less money and putting their life on the line every single day. So it’s not going to be easy [in the bubble] I know that, but I do work with a sports psych. We’ve been having discussions for months about what this is going to be like, how I’m going to dial in every morning … but ultimately also I want to frickin’ win.”

Leonard, like several Heat players have stated throughout the last weeks, believes that his team comes into the restart with a mental advantage over other teams because of the basketball-centric mentality that the Heat have installed within their program over the years. Leonard also noted how important the restart for both the short and long term future of the league as a whole

“So whatever I got to do for the team,” Leonard said. “Whether that’s making sure I’m going out for lunch with a couple of the young guys, and then with a couple of the vets for dinner. Whatever it may be, we all have to understand there’s a sacrifice in place number one for our team, but also for the future of the NBA. Make no mistake.

“This is a very strange time. The salary cap is going to take a frickin’ hit. And let me tell you, if we didn’t commit to playing, it would have taken a bigger hit. I always say ‘Listen, I’m just a normal guy who happens to play in the NBA.’ Do I love what comes with it, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Trust me, it comes with a lot of frickin’ stress too, but we just have to be willing to get through it. Period.”

Leonard was confident that the NBA would do all it could to keep players and team staffers safe in Orlando.

“I would be shocked if there were numerous cases popping up in Orlando,” he said. “Because of how strict the guidelines [in the bubble] seem to be. But, this is a very unknown world of sorts that we’re about to go into. The NBA’s never been through this so I’m not concerned and I’m ready to rock and roll. I know that.”

Leonard also noted that while there has been a lot of chatter regarding the incessant nature of coronavirus testing for players and staffers, the same mentality of pushing through adversity applies.

“The same as the COVID test by the way,” Leonard said. “[Some people may say] ‘Do you want a tissue?’ No, just give me the stupid thing and let’s get it over with. It’s not that bad. Come on people! What the hell? Seriously. Could we all just maybe toughen up just a touch?”

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