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The Nets have praised newcomer Mike James as a player. But in an explosive new report, coaches in both Russia and Italy pilloried him as a person.
If James helps the Nets the rest of the regular season — or potentially even in the postseason — they may not care that CSKA Moscow suspended him or Olimpia Milano bought him out after he was the EuroLeague scoring champion. None of that will matter if James can help them become champs themselves.
Still, the comments, brought to light on Eurohoops.net, were scathing.
Wednesday, a day after James had an 11-point, six-assist fourth quarter to help the Nets beat the Raptors, CSKA Moscow’s Dimitris Itoidis, who coached James the past two seasons, was asked about him at a press conference for the EuroLeague Final Four. Without ever using James’ name, the Greek coach — with whom James had clashed — got his point across loud and clear.
“You know, traditions are not winning,” Itoudis said. “We have a great tradition, but the culture is winning, the everyday effort is winning, being composed is winning, being well prepared is winning, and definitely last but not least in such an organization as a head coach, I can’t do discounts on ethics. Otherwise, you are going to lose the team. And we are not losing the team.
“They gave their answer over here. You can see that. And I am proud of what I am seeing every day in practice, on trips, on meetings. Every decision is a hard decision. I am always in favor of the team effort and for those who feel that they belong. We feel that we belong and we like what we do.”
After James’ spat with Itoudis, CSKA — with which he’s under contract with through 2023 — let him come to the NBA for the rest of this season. The Nets signed him to a 10-day deal that runs through Sunday, and can offer him a second.
For a team without injured James Harden, Bruce Brown, Spencer Dinwiddie and Chris Chiozza, signing James was a low-risk, high-reward flier. After a stellar 21-minute, plus-17 debut in an April 23 win over the Celtics, there seems to be no possible downside.
Unless one listens to respected former Spurs assistant Ettore Messina.
Before James’ tiff with Itoudis, he had starred in Italy. He averaged 19.8 points and 6.8 assists for Olimpia Milano in the 2018-19 EuroLeague campaign, finishing as the league’s top scorer.
Yet Olimpia Milano still bought him out in July 2019. La Gazzetta dello Sport published an email that Messina, who took over as Olimpia Milano coach in June 2019, wrote to James at the time. It’s less than glowing, saying James’ talent didn’t outweigh a disregard for rules that threatened his locker-room morale.
“The only thing that matters is that these behaviors will never be tolerated under my guide, from here forward, from every person belonging to the team,” Messina wrote, according to the report. “After our telephone conversations, I talked to members of Panathinaikos, the Phoenix Suns [James played for both teams] and even with your youth coaches.
“Those conversations have reinforced my convictions: I believe that, despite your incredible talent, in a controlled environment there is a high risk that you may violate the rules and become a problem for the team, more than a resource. I am not willing to accept the risk that those behaviors can happen during the season. If they happen, I would have to take extreme measures too late. And it would be unfair towards the team, the owners and the fans of the Olimpia Milano.”
The Nets, who are known for doing due diligence on their players, had no response to the report. Players, from Kevin Durant to Joe Harris, heaped praise on James, as did coach Steve Nash, who implied the guard could have a role with the team.
“He’s an athletic and skilled player. As long as he plays simple and makes good basketball plays — like he has with us those first few games — he can play a role for us,” Nash said. “He has a burst of pace, he can get into paint, play draw-and-kick.
“He obviously showed he can score the ball, and we know that from his history. But if he can be that guard that ups the pace, that penetrates, draws the defense and makes the extra pass, that’s a huge value add for our team. So, really, really great performance from him. Those are some of the tools that he can bring to the table for us.”
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