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NBA’s top-seeded teams mull longshot alternatives to home court, sources say

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Just days away from Thursday’s vote of the NBA board of governors to approve a plan to restart the season with 22 teams in Orlando, Florida, several of the franchises considered to be title favorites are internally discussing how to retain some semblance of the home-court advantage they fought to earn through 60-plus games in the regular season.

No plan has been formally proposed, and one would be unlikely to pass because it would require a two-thirds board of governors vote in addition to an agreement from the players’ union. Nevertheless, teams that would have traditionally had home court have tried to figure out incentives to reproduce the leg-up that hosting four games in a seven-game series would have offered, sources told ESPN.

If nothing else, the league has learned these past several months that innovation and creative thinking are its lifeblood to navigate a global pandemic that threatens to cancel the NBA Finals and prevent a champion from being crowned for the first time in the league’s 74-year history.

And so in a Hail Mary, some teams are trying to invent a way to exchange the home-court advantage they lost for an alternative advantage down in Orlando.

Executives from the teams that would host a first-round series in the playoffs told ESPN that they had internal discussions within their own front offices about reviving their home-court advantage in some fashion, and that some have already shared ideas with other teams in the same situation with the hopes of having an ally when making an appeal to the league.

Yes, some of the very teams that could soon be trying to eliminate one another in the postseason have been recently working together in a shared pursuit to regain the advantage they would have enjoyed at home.

Strange times make for strange bedfellows.

Some of the scenarios discussed, sources told ESPN, include:

  • The higher-seeded team being awarded the first possession of the second, third and fourth quarters, following the traditional jump ball to begin the game

  • The higher-seeded team being allowed to designate one player to be able to be whistled for seven fouls instead of six before fouling out

  • The higher-seeded team receiving an extra coach’s challenge

  • The higher-seeded teams being able to transport their actual hardwood home court from their home arenas to Orlando to try to preserve the feel of their home playing experience

  • An off-court feature where playoff teams, in order of seeding 1-16, receive first dibs on picking which hotel they will stay at in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Disney World Resort

“I do think the NBA cares about it,” one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN when asked about making up for home-court advantage. “I do not think it’s a top priority for them.”

The NBA’s competition committee — made up of owners, general managers, players and coaches — held a meeting Tuesday and none of the potential home court advantage alternatives were raised, sources told ESPN.

The competition committee acts as the league’s incubator to discuss the merits of incorporating competitive rule changes into the game. It’s a brain trust that serves as a buffer for the league, discussing new ideas before recommending them to the board of governors for a formal vote.

Among the questions posed by league executives to ESPN when discussing the replacement options included wondering how many of the proposed benefits would form a rough equivalent of the boost that home court brings. They also questioned whether the tweaks could come off as too gimmicky and compromise the legitimacy of the eventual champion in a postseason that’s already atypical.

One executive suggested to ESPN that the NBA should present the higher-seeded team a menu of league-approved options before each game — or possibly each series — and have them pick one. On the one hand, it could be an added wrinkle to the home viewing experience for fans to look for when they tune in. On the other, it could come off akin to a contestant on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” choosing between lifelines to help with a final answer.

Another “radical” idea pessimistically floated in background discussions, one Western Conference executive told ESPN, would be allowing the higher seed to pick its first-round opponent.

The executive did not believe the league would go for it.

An Eastern Conference front office member, working for a team currently slotted for the playoffs, didn’t like the radical idea either.

“Picking your opponent can lead to bad karma,” he told ESPN, noting that previous G League experimentation led to upsets. “You can offend the basketball gods.”

Of course, as one league executive warned ESPN, the league could determine that any first-time rule change in a playoff setting would just cause more hurt to the integrity of the game than it would be worth.

“For each problem you’re trying to fix,” he said, “you’re potentially creating other problems.”

ESPN’s Malika Andrews and Tim Bontemps contributed to this report

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First teams take the court for practice in NBA bubble

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Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotels and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the #JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor. Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

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Rockets’ James Harden, Russell Westbrook expected to travel to Orlando on own

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Star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook were among a small group of Houston Rockets players and staffers who did not travel on the team flight to Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, sources told ESPN.

Each member of the group is expected to join the team later at Walt Disney World after traveling on his own.

Coach Mike D’Antoni was on the team flight, although he has yet to receive official word from the NBA that he has been cleared to coach the remainder of the season, sources said. D’Antoni, 69, said earlier this week that his medical screenings did not reveal any issues that would be considered red flags.

The league office informed the National Basketball Coaches Association that nobody would be placed in the high-risk category — meaning they wouldn’t be allowed to coach in the bubble — due to age alone.

The Rockets’ hopes of making a deep playoff run rest largely on Harden and Westbrook, two recent MVPs.

Harden has averaged a league-leading 34.4 points, 6.4 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game this season. Westbrook has averaged 27.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

The Athletic first reported that Westbrook and Harden were not on the team flight.

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Zion Willamson’s stepfather allegedly took $400K payment, court filing says

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Zion Williamson‘s stepfather solicited and accepted a $400,000 payment from a marketing agent in October 2018 prior to Williamson’s only season with the Duke Blue Devils, according to a court motion and sworn affidavit filed by his former marketing representative’s attorneys in federal court on Thursday.

Gina Ford’s attorneys say the affidavit and other exhibits show that Williamson was ineligible when he played for the Blue Devils in 2018-19 because his stepfather received impermissible benefits from Slavko Duric, a Canadian marketing agent.

“[W]e obtained newly discovered evidence impacting the issue of whether Zion Williamson was a ‘student-athlete’ that we believe makes it transparently clear, verifiable and indisputable that he was not a ‘student-athlete’ long before there was any communication or contact between Zion Williamson, and/or any third party acting on his behalf, and our clients,” Ford’s attorney, Alvin Pittman, wrote in a letter to Williamson’s attorney on Monday.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent, and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Williamson’s attorney, Jeffrey Klein, said in a statement to ESPN. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway. This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

Exhibits attached to the motion include an affidavit from Donald Kreiss, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, who says he engages in fundraising, deal-making and investing. Kreiss said he was introduced to Duric by a third party and agreed to invest in Duric’s company, Maximum Management Group, in exchange for a percentage of the money generated from its exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson.

In the affidavit, Kreiss wrote that after Williamson signed with CAA to handle his marketing opportunities, he and his stepfather, Lee Anderson, agreed to “repay all monies given to his Family in 2018 and pay us seven to ten million dollars.” Kreiss also wrote that Duric had to “‘shred’ any record relating to payment of money and the contract” between Williamson and MMG.

The exhibits included a purported marketing agreement with Maximum Management Group, which was allegedly signed by Williamson and Anderson, on May 2, 2019, and a purported letter of declaration from Dec. 8, 2019, in which Anderson and Williamson agreed to repay $500,000 to Duric before Jan. 7 “for a repayment of a loan rendered by him to our family in October 10, 2018.”

Klein said in a letter to Pittman that a Google search revealed that Duric “purportedly attempted to defraud [Dallas Mavericks player] Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract.”

“The signatures on the documents you attach are also clearly fraudulent,” Klein wrote in the letter. “The signature on the purported agreement between Maximum Management Group and Mr. Williamson does not match Mr. Williamson’s signature on the Agreement he signed with your clients. And the signatures of Lee Anderson and Mr. Williamson on the Letter of Declaration are also inauthentic, as made clear by the fact that they are highly pixelated in comparison to the remainder of the document, and there is a break in the line beneath the ‘Z’ in Mr. Williamson’s name where the signature was superimposed onto the document.”

Last month, according to the letter, Klein received a letter from a different individual who also might have fallen victim to Mr. Duric’s scam, which contained the same allegations and documents.

“We immediately referred the matter to the appropriate law enforcement officials, and have passed along to them today the new allegations contained in Mr. Kreiss’s declaration,” Klein wrote. “Accordingly, we ask that you advise Mr. Kreiss of our position as to the contents of his sworn declaration. Virtually nothing in Mr. Kreiss’s declaration comes from personal knowledge, and instead consists of hearsay from Mr. Duric, so Mr. Kreiss may be unaware of the nature or extent of Mr. Duric’s scheme.”

Williamson’s attorneys have asked a federal judge in North Carolina to void his marketing agreement with Ford and Prime Sports Marketing, claiming it wasn’t valid because Ford wasn’t a registered agent in the state and the contract didn’t include a warning that was required by a state law designed to protect amateur athletes from unscrupulous agents.

Ford and Prime Sports Marketing sued Williamson and Creative Artists Agency (CAA) for $100 million in state court in Florida for allegedly breaching their marketing agreement and signing with CAA.

Last month, a state appeals court in Florida granted Williamson a full stay of a civil lawsuit brought by Ford, meaning the New Orleans Pelicans star won’t have to answer discovery requests about whether his parents received improper benefits before or while he played one season at Duke, or at least not until after a federal case involving the same issues is resolved.

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