Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving starts $1.5 million fund for WNBA players opting out of season

Kyrie Irving starts $1.5 million fund for WNBA players opting out of season

Kyrie Irving is stepping up for WNBA players who chose to opt out of the league's shortened, "bubbled" 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monday morning, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported Irving "has started a $1.5 million fund for WNBA players who choose to sit out the 2020 WNBA season due to personal, professional, health, and/or safety-related reasons."


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The Associated Press reported that players will be allowed to apply for support through the KAI Empowerment Initiative website through Aug. 11 and be notified of their status by Aug. 24.

“Whether a person decided to fight for social justice, play basketball, focus on physical or mental health, or simply connect with their families, this initiative can hopefully support their priorities and decisions,” Irving said in a statement obtained by the AP.

In the run-up to the NBA's restart, Irving was a leader in discussions around the ethics of sports returning during a time of great social unrest and health risk, both physical and mental. Since George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, protests have exploded around the country and world. The WNBA postponed its season, which typically kicks off in May, months ago due to the pandemic.

The W returned on Saturday for a season housed in a "Wubbe" at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. to carry out a campaign "dedicated to social justice." Players suited up with Breonna Taylor's name on the back of their jerseys, "Black Lives Matter" emblazoned on the court and public demonstrations a theme (all three will continue throughout the season).

But some of the league's top stars have already opted out of the campaign. As of July 18, NBC Sports Washington reported that at least 14 players have opted out for reasons ranging from health, to advocacy, to personal. The W made headlines last week when it denied a medical waiver submitted by reigning MVP Elena Delle-Donne of the Washington Mystics, who suffers from chronic Lyme disease, meaning Delle-Donne would have to forego her salary for skipping the season.

Hopefully, Irving's initiative is a way for players in similar predicaments to get by.

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Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh submitted a wonky, but undeniably intriguing idea Friday morning. As part of a solution to the post-coronavirus sports world’s depletion of live action, why not explore a one-on-one tournament of sorts -- a shot in the arm fo sports-starved fans, with the potential to raise money for charitable causes at a moment many are grappling with the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19.

In non-pandemic times, the idea has been attempted. Once, as Haberstroh notes, the pitch came to fruition, with then-retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving squaring off in an plodding affair:

And then there was the instance which Haberstroh used as the overarching hook for his proposal (which fell through on the doorstep of it occurring): Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O’Neal, fresh of The Dream’s Rockets shaking down O’Neal’s Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals.

An Olajuwon back injury stopped this absolutely blessed event from happening back in the day, but now, the man who incepted the plans, Leonard Armato, former agent to both O’Neal and Olajuwon, is ready to see it again.

“I think it would be huge for the league to do this,” Armato told Haberstroh. “It could be a massive revenue stream. Think of it a little like Phil vs. Tiger.”

For an in-depth look at the potential and pit-falls of the idea, check out Haberstroh’s piece. But we at NBC Sports Chicago are going to seize on the smallest of nuggets among the ocean of information in the feature -- for blogging purposes, of course.

Here are our picks for the ideal NBA one-on-one fight card, amassed from matchups O’Neal told Haberstroh he wants to see. The rules, we’ll adapt to fit Armato’s current vision: No retired players, with games consisting of 10 two-minute rounds (with one-minute breaks in between), and a 12-second shot clock on each possession. We’ll assume the total score wins, as opposed to breaking up bouts round-by-round.

Let us begin:

Heavyweight

Joel Embiid vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The matchup: In Habertstroh’s piece, O’Neal quickly dismissed the idea of an Antetokounmpo-LeBron James matchup, despite the embedded ‘incumbent vs. disruptor’ trope it could evoke. In Antetokounmpo and Embiid, O’Neal argues, you have two like-sized bigs of varying (but in some ways overlapping) skillset, which would provide unique spectacle. And this rivalry is not without intrigue: When healthy and engaged, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are perhaps the two most gifted players in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks and 76ers, as burgeoning contenders (er, at least Philly is on paper), share something of a rivalry.

The verdict: In this non-traditional format, Antetokounmpo probably has the edge. With only 12 seconds to create a shot, it’s easy to envision his extendo reach bothering Embiid’s dribble on face-ups starting at or around the 3-point arc, and his quickness presenting issues as the rounds wore on. Embiid is nimble for his size with the mass (280 pounds), wingspan (7-foot-6) and array of in-between moves to overpower Antetokounmpo on occasion, but the bet is Antetokounmpo’s conditioning would win out.

Middleweight

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James

The matchup: A timeless classic. James and Durant are the two signature forwards of this generation, and have faced off in three NBA Finals, with Durant leading their personal head-to-head 2-1 (both wins with the Warriors, his one loss as a member of the Thunder in 2012). This matchup would rest comfortably at the top of this hypothetical card.

The verdict: This one could easily go either way. With a score to settle, James probably comes rearing out of the gate, he’s a terror defensively when engaged and even at an advanced age his mass could give Durant trouble. But assuming Durant is fully healthy and on par with the legitimate unicorn we were accustomed to pre-achilles tear, his arsenal of pinpoint handles, pull-up shooting and impossible length would be a handful to deal with. I’d probably lean Durant because of how tailored his game feels to the mono a mono format of this competition. 

Lightweight

Steph Curry vs. Kyrie Irving

The matchup: If the Durant-James bout is the headliner of this card, this has the potential to be the spiciest matchup. These two have waged many a battle in their day, with Irving’s game-winning step-back over Curry to cap the Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals the punctuating point. 

Further, these are the two slickest-handling guards in the league, both with an array of in-between floaters and obscene layup packages. Especially given each’s penchant for matador defense, oo’s and ah’s would abound from start to finish.

The verdict: Another one that could go either way, especially depending on whether or not Curry is dialed in from deep. But Irving is probably the safer bet. The things he can do with a basketball simply defy reality. In real games, his exploits can inspire ball-watching or showmanship that belies true downhill shot creation, but with only Curry in his path in this hypothetical format, the immediate impact of his wizardry would be ever-apparent. Curry is a peskier defender, but Irving is a slightly better tough-shot maker (crucial for the quick 12-second shot clock). For that, he gets the slightest of edges.

Classic Division

Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

The matchup: O’Neal rather wistfully pontificated about this matchup to Haberstroh. “Then,” he told Haberstroh to cap his list of dream matchups, “since it’s come up and there’s a lot of bad blood, Isiah (Thomas) and Mike (Jordan).”

And wouldn’t it be something? A bulldog defender with a supremely tight handle and diverse layup package in Thomas (who backs down from no one) against the smoothest scorer (and greatest player) to ever do it -- with the weight of decades of personal contentiousness and inter-city vitriol as backdrop.

The verdict: You know the deal. It’s Jordan -- assuming both players are in their prime in this alternate reality -- and it’s probably not particularly close. Thomas is as tough a customer as they come, but Jordan’s got five inches on him (6-foot-6 to 6-1) with a 6-11 wingspan that would likely engulf the Pistons star as the game wore on. Thomas pestering his way to an early-round advantage wouldn’t be surprising, but as we know, Jordan gets better as competitions wear on -- especially when spurred by internal motivation. His devastating isolation scoring and tenacious physicality on the other end would win out.

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How losing Kris Dunn could force Bulls to view rest of season differently

How losing Kris Dunn could force Bulls to view rest of season differently

NEW YORK — The Bulls have navigated 14 games without Wendell Carter Jr., their best interior defender. Now, they could be forced to make do without their best perimeter defender for a while.

Kris Dunn is scheduled to return to Chicago Saturday, where team physicians will evaluate the right knee injury he suffered just 13 seconds after tipoff in the Nets’ 133-118 blowout of the Bulls.

Coach Jim Boylen wouldn’t speculate on the severity of Dunn’s injury, which occurred when Thad Young’s head smashed into Dunn’s knee as Young took a charge from Joe Harris. But there was considerable concern emanating from the Bulls as they prepared to travel to Toronto without Dunn.

“It sucks man,” Zach LaVine said. “I always say the worst thing in sports is injuries. He plays through a lot. We already know his background, how tough-minded he is. It sucks seeing anybody get injured, but especially a good friend and someone who has been with me throughout the NBA so far.

“I think if our record is better, he’ll get more national coverage. I think he’s an All-League defender. He’s tops in steals. He guards the best player each night. Sometimes he takes him out, makes it tough for him. He has meant a lot for us. He’s the toughest dude on the team, not scared of anybody. He means a lot to us. It’s going to suck.”

It certainly did Friday night. Kyrie Irving is the type of talent that can go nuts on even the best defenders. But without Dunn, Irving carved up the Bulls for 54 points on 19-for-23 shooting, including 7-for-9 from 3-point range. Irving’s output marked his season-high and an opponent season-high against the Bulls.

“He made 3s, contested 3s. That got him going,” Boylen said. “Early, I thought we needed to pick him up higher. We didn’t. He got into a groove. And sometimes it’s hard to break a guy out of a groove.”

Irving produced his prodigious output in just 32 minutes. And his 82.6 percent shooting marked the highest percentage in a 50-point game since Michael Jordan shot 82.8 percent while scoring 52 points on Nov. 16, 1988.

That’s a long time ago.

“We’ve been a very good defensive team. We’re going to continue to work at being a good defensive team,” Boylen said. “We’ll coach our guys to maintain that. That’s what we do.”

The Bulls whittled a 21-point deficit to six points early in the fourth. But in shooting 62.5 percent while making 50 field goals, the Nets posted Bulls’ opponent season-highs in those two categories as well as points.

LaVine said he offered some words of encouragement to Dunn at halftime, when the Bulls were getting their “ass whooped.” LaVine paused.

“It didn’t change a lot by the end of the game,” he said.

If Dunn faces an extended absence, the Bulls may have to get used to more defensive efforts like this one. Beyond that, a possible extended absence on top of all the other injuries could force management to view the remainder of this season differently.

The Bulls are now 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, and their closing schedule is brutal.

LaMelo Ball, the possible No. 1 pick in this June’s draft, watched the proceedings from a baseline seat. The third season of the rebuild was supposed to bring relevancy. Could it again bring chasing dreams in the form of draft lottery ping-pong balls?

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