Big minutes matter in rookie race


VIDEO: The Starters make their picks for Rookie of the Year

The cut line has been established: 30.5 minutes. No one has been voted Rookie of the Year the last 10 seasons averaging fewer per game, and Kyrie Irving cruising to victory over Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried in 2012 is more anomaly than anything. Winning with that comparatively light workload does not ordinarily happen.

Really, based on recent history, a first-year player will need to log closer to 35 or 36 minutes an outing to have the kind of role that sways voters, a trend that is relevant with no clear preseason choice for the award and some of the most NBA-ready prospects opening 2014-15 in reserve roles.

Julius Randle would be a much stronger candidate in other places, but not amid Lakers plans to rely heavily on Carlos Boozer to chase that elusive 30th victory. Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott join a crowded and experienced group of forwards as the Bulls chase something other than the past. And in Boston, Marcus Smart would have better odds as opening night approaches if not for the likelihood he will spend a lot of time coming off the bench once Rajon Rondo returns from a hand injury, which could happen very early.

No one has won Rookie of the Year averaging less than 30 minutes since Mike Miller of the Magic at 29.1 in 2001, his easy victory over Kenyon Martin. In the previous 10 seasons, to be exact:

2013-14 — Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers, 34.5 minutes and 70 games.

2012-13 — Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers, 38.6 and 82.

2011-12 — Irving, Cavaliers, with 51 appearances in the 66-game, lockout-shortened schedule.

2010-11 — Blake Griffin, Clippers, 38 and 82.

2009-10 — Tyreke Evans, Kings, 37.2 and 72.

2008-09 — Derrick Rose, Bulls, 37 and 81.

2007-08 — Kevin Durant, SuperSonics, 34.6 and 80.

2006-07 — Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers, 35.4 and 57.

2005-06 — Chris Paul, Hornets, 36 and 78.

2004-05 — Emeka Okafor, Bobcats, 35.6 and 73.

Anyone hoping to crash the party from the bench this season is going to need a lot of big moments on a good team and probably even as a difference maker for a playoff club. Voters generally want numbers or a lead role, not a complementary spot for a winner (the 76ers were 19-63 last season, the Trail Blazers 33-49 as Lillard won, the Cavaliers 21-45 as Irving won. On and on. Rose is the only Rookie of the Year in the 10-year sample to play for a non-loser, with the Bulls at 41-41.)

The outlook will change with the depth charts, of course. Boozer averaged 28.2 minutes in Chicago’s last regular season and was down to 24.2 in the playoffs, so he’s not exactly an insurmountable obstacle for Randle. If the Lakers are taking on water and getting the 2013-14 Boozer, the ROY race could change, given projections that power forward Randle should be able to handle himself physically and score inside now.

The week before the new season opens, though, the same player that would have a stronger case on another team has a problem. And leading candidates Nerlens Noel and Jabari Parker have an advantage.

Conley wants All-Star, wants wins more

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill are in Mike Conley’s corner

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – So yeah, Mike Conley, one of the truly Mr. Nice Guys in the NBA, wants to see his name in lights as a Western Conference All-Star.

Mike Conley (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Mike Conley (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care about making the All-Star team. That would be the ultimate honor,” Conley told NBA.com last week. “But I also understand the way things shake out, especially being in the West, there’s a lot of good guys out there. I’m going to put myself in position, that’s all I can do; just play well and do what’s best for the team first. If we win games, we as individuals get noticed, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Conley didn’t even get a sniff in fan voting last year, and West coaches again overlooked him as a backup. It didn’t matter that he was on his way to averaging a career-best 17.2 points; or continued to extend his range beyond the 3-point arc (he made 36.1 percent on a career-high 4.0 attempts); or committed to attacking the rack more (his 548 drives ranked 15th in the league and, for comparison’s sake, were more than All-Stars John Wall and James Harden); or that he rarely turned it over (his 8.6 turnovers per 100 possessions ranked third among point guards behind Chris Paul and Jose Calderon); or that he’s strong on defense; or that his leadership was key for a 50-win team that got off to a disturbingly sluggish start under a new coach and then lost center Marc Gasol for a good chunk of of the season.

The quiet Conley knows even his best might not be loud enough in a conference loaded with noise-makers. Think about it: Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook didn’t even play in last year’s All-Star Game because of injuries. Bryant is a virtual lock to be voted in by the fans and Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, is likely to regain his reserve spot, especially if he elevates his play with Kevin Durant out for the first month.

While Conley steers Memphis’ methodical, inside-out offense, he’s watched Stephen Curry zoom to superstardom — even beat out Paul as a starter last year — and cold-blooded youngster Damian Lillard make the All-Star team as a reserve in his second season in the league. Knocking on the door is a long list of hopefuls: Ty Lawson, Suns teammates Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, plus Ricky Rubio and Jrue Holiday, an East All-Star two years ago.

And those are just the point guards.

“It’s fun to be in this era of basketball where there’s so many great players, so many great guards, especially in the West where I get to play against them four times a year,” Conley said. “Every night you have your hands full no matter who you’re playing. That goes across the board. Every night you’re playing against a top-notch guard or a top-notch-caliber player, so you have to have your mind right, be focused and be on your best game.”

Conley’s best bet to crash the Big Apple All-Star bash this season is, as he said, to get the Grizzlies off to a fast start and steal the headlines. He believes Memphis is positioned to do just that.

“We’re going to be a team that people are going to hate to face, and have a chance to be considered as one of the teams contending for a title,” said Conley, who is entering his eight season in the league. “Going into the end of [last] year we started finally playing our basketball. We fought our way back into the playoffs and feel like we’re still on the up-and-up from that last run that we had.”

All that seemed to be spinning out of the players’ control during a very strange start to the offseason. Young owner Robert Pera wiped out the front office that had wiped out former coach Lionel Hollins, and before that had wiped out newly reinstated general manager Chris Wallace. Coach Dave Joerger, who took over for Hollins last year, interviewed with Minnesota before agreeing to stay in Memphis, where he arrived as an assistant in 2007, two years before Hollins took over and began to turn the program around.

“It was a little weird right after being in the playoffs and the first month or so of the summertime was a bunch of uneasy, unsure feelings,” Conley said. “Not knowing what coach’s situation was, what management’s was, you just kind of had to sit back and let all that play out. Luckily, I think things worked out for the best for us, and I’m glad that’s behind us and we’re able to focus on going forward.”

Yes, there finally does appear to be a calm and optimism in Memphis. Zach Randolph, suspended for last year’s first-round Game 7 loss to Oklahoma City, received the extension he wanted. Vince Carter was signed to knock down 3-pointers and Quincy Pondexter, injured almost all of last season after starting to emerge in the 2013 postseason, is a key returnee around an ego-free core that’s come of age together.

“When Lionel was here, a lot of us were still young, still learning and still trying to improve in a lot of different areas,” Conley said. “Now with the help of Lionel grooming us, to now Joeger — we’re doing the same things — he’s got us in our prime and we’re playing great basketball.”

Morning Shootaround — Oct. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Oct. 18

Pop fires back at Sarver | No scoring title for ‘Melo in triangle? | Thunder’s Adams rising | Lin-sane-ty this season in LA

No. 1: Pop fires back at Sarver — You didn’t really think Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was going to let Suns owner Robert Sarver get the last word, did you?  Sarver fired shots at the Spurs after Pop and most of his biggest stars no-showed for an exhibition game in Phoenix Thursday. Pop addressed Sarver and his words before the Spurs knocked off the Miami Heat at home Saturday. Dan McCarney of the Express News explains:

It’s the kind of question Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on any other day, would greet with an exasperated smirk.

And he definitely did that Saturday at the AT&T Center when asked about Phoenix owner Robert Sarver grabbing the mic late in Thursday’s exhibition blowout to apologize for the lackluster game and offer credit to ticketed attendees after the Hall of Fame coach and five Spurs players missed the game. But Popovich also had plenty to say.

“As I said, the silliness begins,” he said. “Most wise individuals would check facts before they made statements. Unless you’re interested in putting on a show. In that case, the facts get in your way, as in this case.

“We had five guys we didn’t send. Patty Mills had a shoulder operation over the summer. Tiago Splitter (calf) has been out the whole preseason. Kawhi Leonard (eye infection) was out and is still out for 10 more days. The other two, Duncan and Ginobili, are two of the oldest guys in the league who just came back from a 13-day European trip.

“The only thing that surprises me is that he didn’t say it in a chicken suit. I’ll just leave it at that.”

***

No. 2: No scoring title for ‘Melo in triangle? — Even with Kevin Durant sidelined to start this season, Knicks scoring star Carmelo Anthony does not expect to run away with the NBA scoring title. Not in his first year in the triangle offense installed by new coach Derek Fisher. Like everyone else on the Knicks’ roster Anthony is just trying to get adjusted to the new system. And that means fewer shots and a tougher road to the scoring title than usual. Ian Begley of ESPN New York has more:

Carmelo Anthony doesn’t expect to win the NBA scoring title this season, his first in the triangle offense.

In fact, he suggested Saturday that he may score less and take fewer shots in the Knicks’ new offense.

“I don’t think I’ll be the scoring champ. Especially with this system, the way we’re playing — the way that it’s going to be well-balanced, the style of play we’re going to have, I don’t think I’ll have to lead the league in scoring this year,” Anthony said after the Knicks’ practice.

Anthony has established himself as one of the top scorers in the NBA over his 11 seasons in the league. He won the scoring title in 2012-13 by averaging 28.7 points per game, two-tenths fewer than his career high. Last season, he finished second to Kevin Durant.

Anthony has averaged 21.8 field goal attempts per game over the past two seasons. He suggested that number, along with his scoring, may dip this season thanks to the triangle offense, which the Knicks hope will produce quality shots for Anthony’s teammates.

“I think shots will be fewer,” Anthony said. “I think it will be more effective shots. So if that means taking fewer shots, then that’s what’s going to happen.

“But I really don’t know. We’ve been playing preseason; it’s still early. It’s not until you get in the flow of the game that you start knowing the minutes you’re going to play, knowing the group you’re going to be out there with most of the time. Until you find that rhythm, you’re not going to really understand.”

***

No. 3: Thunder’s Adams rising — The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t need a savior with Kevin Durant on the shelf to start the season. They do need someone to step up, though. And who better to fill that void than second-year big man Steven Adams? That’s right, the bruising Adams has found his offensive niche in the exhibition season and aims to keep it going as the regular season draws near. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman explains:

As the locker-room crowd thinned out following the Thunder’s recent preseason win in Dallas, Steven Adams tried to sneak by the media.

Adams is a great talker. His quirky style and dry humor play well in interview settings. So he’s never shy. But there’s one thing Adams doesn’t seem to enjoy — speaking about his own success.

But when you’re the breakout player of the preaseason — including a 19-point performance during that win in Dallas — that’ll be tough to avoid.

“Really, 19?” Adams sheepishly asked, stumbling back toward reporters. “Gotta be a misprint.”

Not a misprint. And not a fluke.

Adams returned to training camp this year a much-improved offensive player. He showed flashes last season — even scored 17 points on an Andre Drummond-led Detroit Pistons frontline in his fifth career game.

But NBA life was new, the speed was different and the minutes fluctuated. His production was inconsistent and limited.

“I think he’s just settling down,” Kevin Durant said. “Getting more comfortable.”

And though it’s only preseason, the difference has been clear.

In the opener, Adams scored 15 points in 21 minutes against Denver. Two nights later, he had that 19-point outing against the Mavs, doing the brunt of his work against former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler. Then, in his highest-scoring performance to date, Adams had 22 points in 21 minutes against the Grizzlies.

“I thought he made a leap last year in the playoffs,” Russell Westbrook said. “I think that’s when the leap started. If you kind of watch the games and see the different things he was doing in the playoffs, you could tell it was going to lead into the summertime and now into the preseason and now to the regular season.”

Overall, Adams is averaging 15.2 points on 74 percent shooting (34-of-46) in five preseason games.

***

No. 4: Lin-sanity? More like Lin-sane-ty this season in LA: — There won’t be a repeat of the craziness that was Linsanity in New York three years ago. Lakers point guard Jeremy Lin knows better.  That’s why he’s taking the sane approach to what could be his first and last season in a Lakers uniform. Again, there will not be a repeat of the hair-raising phenomenon that took place in New York, per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times:

That wild run in New York might as well have happened three decades, not three seasons, ago.

The Lakers guard now considers himself more Linteresting than Linsanity, in case you missed his online spoof of the debonair man in the popular beer commercial.

He’d rather be known as a hard worker than a flash-in-the-Big-Apple-pan who once had 38 points and seven assists against the Lakers in a frenzied, unbelievably overjoyed Madison Square Garden.

Lin was never arrogant — too much time in the Development League and too many appearances on the waiver wire took care of that — but the trek from Knicks star to Houston Rockets afterthought to a troubled Lakers team has reminded him of the importance of … let’s call it humility.

“Pretty much everything I expected or anticipated or hoped for didn’t happen,” Lin said.

The same could be said for the position he’s hoping to assume for the Lakers, a black hole for years.

They haven’t had a game-changing point guard since Derek Fisher, a turnstile that included Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake, and, of course, Steve Nash.

Lin will happily be a salve while looking for some personal salvation as well.

His savior status with the Knicks didn’t quite work out as expected when he left them as a free agent for more money in Houston. That didn’t end well either when he lost his starting job in year two to relative unknown Patrick Beverley.

All-Star shooting guard James Harden liked to play with the ball in his hands, leaving Lin as a spot-up shooter. Not his strength. Moving Lin to the second unit allowed him to assume his more natural point-guard role.

Also, quite simply, Houston liked Beverley’s defense better than Lin’s.

So the Rockets sent Lin to the Lakers in July as a salary dump, pure and simple. They were furiously trying to clear cap room to sign Chris Bosh and had to throw in their lottery-protected first-round pick next year to get the Lakers to bite on Lin’s $14.9-million salary this season.

A few days earlier, the Rockets added temporary insanity to insult in their attempt to woo free agent Carmelo Anthony, posting digitally enhanced images of him in a Houston jersey outside their arena. Anthony wore No. 7 in the images. That was Lin’s number.

“It was a time for me to go through some bumps and some hurdles and learn how to grow,” Lin said in retrospect. “When I first got there, I was supposed to be the guy and they were supposed to kind of hand the torch to me. And I ended up getting traded away basically for nothing. Actually, they had to give up a draft pick to convince someone else to take me. Pretty much given away for nothing. Definitely not how I envisioned it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Trail Blazers have decisions to make in the frontcourt … It’s Groundhog Day in Sacramento for Ray McCallum … The time is now for Jazz big man Enes Kanter … Shabazz Napier and the Heat reserves carrying their weight in the exhibition season … The Bulls’ McDermott-Dunleavy quandary …

Morning Shootaround — Oct. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Oct. 17

Griffin reaching breaking point | No longball for Lakers | Dwight for MVP? | Pistons and Celtics make deal

No. 1: Griffin reaching breaking point — Clippers forward Blake Griffin is one of the most athletic and high-flying players in the NBA. And as frequently as he drives hard to the rim, he just as often finds himself at the end of a lot of hard fouls. Thus far, Griffin has managed to take the physicality in stride, keeping a cool head time after time. But after another incident last night in a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, Griffin noted that his patience is reaching its breaking point. Dan Woike of the Orange County-Register has more

After the game, Griffin was asked if it was difficult to keep things from escalating.

“I was going to (take things further), and I thought, ‘It’s preseason. It’s not worth it. That’s not the person I’m going to waste it on,’” Griffin calmly said.

[Trevor] Booker was called for a flagrant 1 foul, and Griffin, Booker and Chris Paul were all called for technical fouls for their roles in the incident.

After the game, Paul didn’t hide his amazement at picking up a technical, as he said he was trying to play peacemaker.

“That was ridiculous,” he said. “…He gave me a tech. He said it was because I escalated the fight. You can fine me, do whatever. I know Trevor Booker. I’m trying to keep him away. Like, I know him personally. And they give me a tech. It’s preseason. Everyone’s trying to figure it out.”

Griffin admitted to trying to figure out what to do with the extra contact he takes. Following the Clippers win, Doc Rivers said he thought Griffin gets hit with more cheap shots than anyone in the league.

“I don’t think it’s close,” Rivers said.

Griffin, who has been often criticized for his reactions to hard fouls, realizes he’s in a bit of a Catch-22.

“On one hand, everyone tells me to do something. On the other hand, people tell me to not complain and just play ball,” Griffin said with a smile. “That happens. You’re not going to please everybody. I just have to do whatever I think is right and use my judgment.”

***

No. 2: No longball for Lakers — Over the last decade, NBA teams have increasingly noted the importance of the 3-point shot, even designing offenses around the long-range shot. But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean the Lakers under new coach Byron Scott will do the same. This is not only because the Lakers are currently coping with injuries to perimeter players such as Nick Young and Steve Nash, but it’s more of a philosophy Scott is embracing. Baxter Holmes of ESPN Los Angeles has more:

“You’ve got a lot of teams that just live and die by it,” Scott said after the team’s practice here Friday. “Teams, general managers, coaches, they kind of draft that way to try to space the floor as much as possible. But you have to have shooters like that; you also have to have guys that can penetrate and get to the basket, because that opens up the floor.”

But does Scott believe in that style?

“I don’t believe it wins championships,” he said. “(It) gets you to the playoffs.”

Seven of the last eight NBA champions led all playoff teams in 3-point attempts and makes.

And it’s not as though Scott isn’t familiar with the 3-point shot. During his second season with the Lakers as a player, he led the NBA in 3-point field-goal percentage in 1984-85 (43 percent) and was in the top-10 in that category in three other seasons. Scott also ranked sixth in the NBA in 3-point attempts (179) and ninth in makes (62) during the 1987-88 season.

But are the Lakers’ low 3-point attempts this preseason a reflection of injuries or of how the Lakers will really end up playing this coming season?

“I don’t think that’s an indication of what we’ll be when we’re fully healthy,” Scott said. “I think it will still be 12, 13, 14, 15 (attempts per game), somewhere in that area, when we’re fully healthy.”

***

No. 3: Dwight for MVP? — With Kevin Durant out with a fractured foot, the MVP race doesn’t have a clear leader at the start of the season, at least if you’re eating at our Blogtable. But with all the names being tossed around, former MVP Hakeem Olajuwon says don’t forget about Houston big man Dwight Howard, who by all accounts is healthy and ready to return to the dominant style of play he showed in Orlando. Dwight himself says he’s never felt better. Our own Fran Blinebury has more

“He’s healthy. He’s strong. He’s ready,” said Olajuwon, who won the award in 1994 when he led the Rockets to the first of their back-to-back championships. “Now it’s about having the attitude to go out every night and dominate.”

The Hall of Famer officially rejoined his former team as a player development specialist after Howard signed a free agent contract with the Rockets in July 2013 and recently concluded his second training camp stint working with the All-Star center before returning to his home in Amman, Jordan. Prior to the start of camp, Olajuwon had not worked with Howard since the end of last season.

“He’s older, more mature and you can tell that he is feeling better physically,” Olajuwon said. “I like what I saw. He is a very hard worker. He takes the job seriously and you can see that he has used some of the things we talked about last season and is making them part of his game.”

Howard averaged 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in his first season with the Rockets and Olajuwon thinks the 28-year-old was just scratching the surface as he regained fitness.

“It was a good start, but last year Dwight was still trying to recover from the back surgery and to feel like himself again,” said Olajuwon. “I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what it is like for an athlete to have a back injury. It is serious. It is a challenge.

“I could see last year when I worked with him in camp that there were some things that he could not do. Or they were things that he did not think he could do. The difference now is that he is fit and those doubts are gone. This is the player who can go back to being the best center in the league and the kind of player that can lead his team to a championship. I think he should be dominant at both ends of the floor.”

***

No. 4: Pistons and Celtics make deal — Neither Detroit nor Boston are expected to contend for an Eastern Conference crown this season, but they found themselves able to do business together yesterday. The Pistons moved reserve point guard Will Bynum to Boston in exchange for reserve big man Joel Anthony. According to the Detroit Free Press, the trade clears room for recent draft pick Spencer Dinwiddie.

The first trade of the Stan Van Gundy era wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it does give insight into the Detroit Pistons’ thinking as the Oct. 27 deadline for roster finalization looms.

The Pistons today added frontcourt depth by acquiring NBA veteran Joel Anthony from the Boston Celtics in exchange for point guard Will Bynum.

The move signals that the team is comfortable with second-round draft pick Spencer Dinwiddie as the No. 3 point guard as he continues to rehab the left knee injury he suffered in January.

Dinwiddie is progressing nicely and recently took part in 5-on-5 drills for the first time. So Bynum, whose days were numbered when the organization hired Van Gundy as its president and coach, became expendable.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Sixers organization is offering support for Joel Embiid, who’s younger brother was tragically killed in a vehicle accident in Cameroon … After undergoing “a minor outpatient surgical procedure,” Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders will miss the rest of the preseasonDeMarcus Cousins is dealing with achilles tendonitis … Glen “Big Baby” Davis is out indefinitely with a strained groin … Jason Kapono says if he doesn’t make the Warriors, he will “go back to chillin'” …

Suns try lineup with three point guards


VIDEO: Suns look to build on momentum from last season

It was probably inevitable the Suns would go there eventually, and exhibition games are the time to push the envelope, so push away. The details just happened to be Thursday night, US Airways Center in Phoenix, 3:12 remaining in the second quarter against the Spurs.

Point guard Goran Dragic, point guard Eric Bledsoe and point guard Isaiah Thomas were used together for the first time and probably not the last. There is no indication it will be a common sighting, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if coach Jeff Hornacek opts for microball in situations during the regular season, depending on the opponent and whether Phoenix simply needs a burst of energy at that time of the game.

The appeals and drawbacks are obvious: The Suns could force the tempo they like, but would risk getting turned into little more than speed bumps on defense by going 6-foot-3 (Dragic), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 5-foot-9 (Thomas), not to mention risking injury from getting stepped on. They would have to counter by staying in scramble mode the entire time, trying to force turnovers or get the opponent horribly out of rhythm since playing straight up wouldn’t be much of an option.

The immediate feedback Thursday was an 11-2 run with the Bledsoe-Dragic-Thomas grouping, although that doesn’t really count as evidence of anything, not when it’s against the pseudo-Spurs with three starters and sixth man Manu Ginobili getting the night off or nursing injuries. Coach Gregg Popovich didn’t even make the trip to Phoenix. The actual value for Phoenix was the chance to take the unique lineup out for a test drive to see how all five Suns on the court played off each other, especially the three, in something other than a scrimmage setting.

“We were small but everybody got in and rebounded and we pushed the tempo and the lead just went up,” Bledsoe, who had three defensive boards during the run, told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. “We definitely was having fun out there. Everybody was sharing the ball. I know Isaiah did a great job.”

It’s an adjustment period for all three, and not just if they’re on the court together. Thomas is coming to a new team as a free agent and making his first move as a pro after three seasons with the Kings, Dragic is learning how to play with him, and Bledsoe is back for his first full season after missing 33 games in 2013-14 with a knee injury, with added expectations after re-signing at five years and $70 million. It worked with Dragic and Bledsoe then and it can work with IsaiahDragsoe now, with the same starters as before and Thomas winning Sixth Man of the Year.

Phoenix has three more exhibition games before opening the regular season Oct. 29 at home against the Lakers.

Bulls’ Butler a high-volatility stock


VIDEO: Butler plays preseason hero against Hawks

Asterisks abounded Thursday night, when Jimmy Butler went vintage-Derrick Rose – or one-off-Michael Jordan – down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks.

* Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau had starters, including Butler, on the floor late in the Bulls’ mostly dismal performance.

* His Atlanta counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, was rolling with third-string Hawks.

* Rose, the Bulls player who would normally be called upon at such a point, was on the bench (prompting some predictable hand-wringing from critics who aren’t happy when the point guard plays a lot or when he plays a little).

* It still was the preseason.

* And Butler is in the midst of a salary drive, his performances this month potentially out of character, with the real impact of deal-or-no-deal in his contract extension talks to be determined later.

Still, the Bulls shooting guard did score 29 points – one more than his career high in three NBA seasons – in his team’s scramble back from 21 points to win. Butler got 20 of those in the final 5:11, an explosive stretch that might have been aided by the various asterisks but explosive nonetheless.

He did it, too, in ways that made the worriers feel a little better about Butler’s offense – no one questions his defensive effort or effectiveness – at a position where Chicago needs more oomph. Butler, who shot 39.7 percent from the floor (28.3 percent on 3-pointers), dramatically beat the buzzer from 26 feet in good form. He wound up shooting 8-for-14 and 12-for-16 from the line (9-for-11 in the fourth), and got some big love from teammates.

“We always tell him to take more [shots], but it’s going to be up to him to break that seal,” Rose said. “Thank God that he’s catching his rhythm right now and he’s building his confidence. He’s another threat offensively.”

Not last year, he wasn’t. But Thibodeau played Butler long minutes anyway, for his defense, out of need and in spite of distractions coming at the wing player from Marquette. Butler battled injuries early, played only eight games with Rose before the point guard went down again, then had his role tweaked after the Bulls traded veteran small forward Luol Deng in January.

“Jimmy has grown,” Thibodeau said Thursday night. “He’s more a scorer than to characterize him as a straight shooter. He’s an all-around scorer. He’ll find ways to put the ball in the basket.”

Butler, though you’d wonder where it came from, is said to have arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter. He looks more athletic and clearly has been more aggressive, leading Chicago after five October games with 18.6 points, 60.4 field-goal shooting, 43 free throw attempts and 144 total minutes.

“All summer I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots I know I can make,” he said.

So, salary drive? Butler has two weeks left to land, per NBA rookie-scale rules, the contract extension available to players heading into their fourth seasons. Two years ago, Bulls forward Taj Gibson felt preseason pressure while his talks played out, and though he got his deal (four years, $33 million), the episode seemed to bleed into a subpar season. Butler has some folks wondering if he might go the other way if he gets paid – throttling back – or be adversely affected if he doesn’t get the extension done.

He said Thursday it hasn’t been a distraction. “Nope. Not at all,” Butler said. “I just try to play the game the right way. The whole contract situation is up to my agent (Happy Walters) and the Bulls organization. I just want to win games. Then the contract will take care of itself, whenever.”

And however much. The market for Butler figures to be as hot as it is fluid. Chicago reportedly would like to sign him now for what’s becoming called “Taj money,” close to Gibson’s 2012 extension. Butler might be anchored more by the three-year, $30 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bulls put in front of Deng before trading him.

Then there’s the unpredictable marketplace of free agency, even with restrictions, should Butler get that far. Gordon Hayward landed his four-year, $63 million max deal that way – offer sheet from Charlotte, matched by Utah – and Chandler Parsons scored a three-year, $46 million contract with Dallas. And if Butler, who will make $2 million this season, were to play this out twice on a year-by-year basis, he would hit the unrestricted marked in 2016 as the new bonanza of TV rights cash officially kicks in.

Bulls VP of basketball John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, who will already have $50 million committed to four players next season (Rose, Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol), won’t have Thibodeau at the bargaining table, that’s for sure. The coach who has leaned hard on Butler for two years will look to him even more.

Chicago added shooters over the summer but after Rose, Butler is the best choice to put real pressure on opponents, getting to the rim, getting to the line, throwing himself around to wreak havoc and create energy on nights when there’s none, like Thursday. With Deng’s departure, he is the defender who will draw the toughest assignments, the only one Thibodeau trusts to check other guys’ most potent scorers.

Butler was drafted last in the first round in 2011 and still sounds like an absolute underdog. “I’m from Tomball, [Texas],” he said earlier this week. “I’m not even supposed to be in the NBA, let alone be a star player. I just want to be wanted. I just want to play hard. I just want to help [us] win. End of story. Star player, role player, bench player, whatever it takes. Just let me win.”

Oh, Butler definitely is going to win, either with the Bulls or someone else. In this case, the victory will be noted not by a ‘W’ or an * but by a bunch of $’s.

Hakeem: Howard is ‘ready’ for an MVP-type season

Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Olajuwon (left) has seen Dwight Howard’s game mature and grow of late. (Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

At least one former MVP doesn’t think it should have taken a broken bone in Kevin Durant’s foot to throw the 2015 MVP race wide open.

According to Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwight Howard was already prepared to kick the door down.

“He’s healthy. He’s strong. He’s ready,” said Olajuwon, who won the award in 1994 when he led the Rockets to the first of their back-to-back championships. “Now it’s about having the attitude to go out every night and dominate.”

The Hall of Famer officially rejoined his former team as a player development specialist after Howard signed a free agent contract with the Rockets in July 2013 and recently concluded his second training camp stint working with the All-Star center before returning to his home in Amman, Jordan. Prior to the start of camp, Olajuwon had not worked with Howard since the end of last season.

“He’s older, more mature and you can tell that he is feeling better physically,” Olajuwon said. “I like what I saw. He is a very hard worker. He takes the job seriously and you can see that he has used some of the things we talked about last season and is making them part of his game.”

Howard averaged 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in his first season with the Rockets and Olajuwon thinks the 28-year-old was just scratching the surface as he regained fitness.

“It was a good start, but last year Dwight was still trying to recover from the back surgery and to feel like himself again,” said Olajuwon. “I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what it is like for an athlete to have a back injury. It is serious. It is a challenge.

“I could see last year when I worked with him in camp that there were some things that he could not do. Or they were things that he did not think he could do. The difference now is that he is fit and those doubts are gone. This is the player who can go back to being the best center in the league and the kind of player that can lead his team to a championship. I think he should be dominant at both ends of the floor.”

Olajuwon joined Michael Jordan as the only two players in NBA history to be named MVP of the regular season, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season when he led the Rockets in 1994 and pulled the wagon again as Finals MVP when Houston repeated in 1995.

Olajuwon doesn’t believe there is any reason the Rockets, who finished as the No. 4 seed in the West and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Portland last spring, should fall back, even with the departure of rotation players Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

“They have Dwight and they have James Harden,” he said. “That is two of the best players at their positions in the league. Those two can lead. Those two can do enough. You don’t need to have All-Stars at every position.

“The Rockets will need good play from some young players and from others who will be getting their chance to be key players for the first time in their careers. But when we won our first championship in 1994, we had Sam Cassell, who was a rookie, playing at the end of games and making a difference. When we won in 1995, we had Clyde (Drexler). But we also had Pete Chilcutt in the starting lineup and Chucky Brown and Charles Jones stepping up off the bench.

“When you have Howard and Harden, you have two players who can do much of the scoring. What you need are others to not try to do too much. Just concentrate on doing your job and coming to play every night.”

It begins and ends with Howard.

“We all know that center is the key position in the game,” Olajuwon said. “Everything should go through you — offense and defense and the right mentality. If the center is thinking about dominating, the team can go far, can go all the way.

“I played at a time when were so many players that could win the MVP each year — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone. It meant you weren’t going to win the MVP every year. But you had to play like an MVP and have your name in the conversation. I believe that’s where Dwight is now. He is healthy. He is physically fit. He is strong. He wants to win.

“It is about attitude. He should have a season that makes everyone vote for him as MVP. If that happens, they should be contenders for the championship. I believe that. Now they have to believe it.”


VIDEO: Hakeem Olajuwon schools Dwight Howard on post moves back in 2010

Morning shootaround — Oct. 17


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Oct. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Sarver sorry fans saw depleted Spurs | Five questions loom for OKC now | LeBron wasn’t a great recruiter early on in Cleveland | Report: Wolves shopping Budinger

No. 1: Suns owner sorry fans saw depleted version of Spurs — It’s not all that unusual for NBA teams to rest a few of their superstar, veteran players in the preseason so as to perhaps work in  younger guys, or, simply, just give their best guys a night off. At around 1 p.m. yesterday, the San Antonio Spurs tweeted that Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter would miss Thursday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns due to injury and that Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich would also not travel with the team for the game. That left Tony Parker as the only household name to suit up last night and with 2:31 left in the game, Suns owner Robert Sarver addressed fans and apologized for San Antonio’s star-less lineup. Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic has more:

During a time out with 2:31 to go in the Suns’ 121-90 victory at US Airways Center, Sarver came to scorer’s table to get on the public address system.

“Hey, everybody, I want to thank you for coming out tonight,” Sarver said. “This is not the game you paid your hard-earned money to watch. I apologize for it. And I want you to send me your tickets if you came tonight with a return envelope and I’ve got a gift for you on behalf of the Suns for showing up tonight. Thank you.”

The game’s official attendance was 13,552, although many of those paid tickets were unused. After the game, Sarver said the fans who mail in a ticket stub or proof of attendance would receive a gift certificate for tickets, merchandise or food. The amount had not been determined.

“I just felt that the fans paid good money for the game and they didn’t see the players that they anticipated seeing,” Sarver said. “It was just a gesture to let them know that we appreciate their support and want to do something to compensate for that.”

Sarver said the organization had heard from fans who were displeased that they would not see all of the available Spurs.

“But that wasn’t really the reason I did it,” Sarver said. “I just think it was the right thing to do.”

Sarver said he did not believe that any league fine or reprimand was in order for the Spurs not bringing all of their healthy players to the game, the Spurs’ first preseason game since returning from a trip to Germany and Turkey last week.

“It’s their decision and it’s my decision to decide what to do for our fans,” Sarver said. “I’m fine with it.”

Some fans thanked Sarver as he returned to his seat and excited the arena’s lower bowl to head to the locker room.

“People acknowledged it and feel good about it,” Sarver said. “They know you’re thinking about them and you realize that they spent a lot of money to buy these tickets.”

It was not the first time that Sarver had a reaction to the Spurs holding out Duncan and Ginobili. In 2005, he flapped his arms like chicken wings at the Spurs bench when San Antonio chose to hold out their two stars from a regular-season game. He again drew negative social media reaction Thursday night from Spurs fans.

“It’s not really about them (the Spurs),” Sarver said. “They control what they do. We have to control what we do.”

UPDATE, 11:35 a.m.: And here’s what Sarver will be giving those Suns fans who send him their ticket …

And further details on what Sarver is offering is available via Suns.com


VIDEO: Robert Sarver addresses Suns fans during last night’s Phoenix-San Antonio game

 

Another setback for Nets’ Lopez


VIDEO: Kings vs. Nets highlights

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Brook Lopez made it through three preseason games. Specifically, Lopez’s right foot made it through three preseason games.

The Brooklyn Nets announced Thursday night that Lopez suffered a “mild right midfoot sprain” in the first quarter of the Nets’ Global Games win over the Sacramento Kings in Beijing on Wednesday. Nets medical director Dr. Riley Williams III said that Lopez is “likely to be out for approximately 10-14 days,” which puts his status for the Nets’ first game (Oct. 29 in Boston) in doubt.

Lopez apparently played through the injury, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 21:28 on Wednesday. He averaged 18.0 points and 5.7 boards in 23.4 minutes in three preseason games, shooting 13-for-17 in the restricted area.

But the numbers don’t mean anything if Lopez can’t stay healthy. That right foot has had three surgeries on it and has allowed the 7-footer to play just 96 games over the last three seasons. This injury was not a break; Lopez’s x-rays and CT scans were clear. And it’s possible that Brooklyn is being extra cautious given the time of year and Lopez’s history.

But this is clearly a setback for a player trying to reestablish himself as an All-Star and a team trying to stay in the top half of the Eastern Conference. The Nets have some depth up front, but Lopez is a player that few teams can match up with. And he continues to show a fragility that has, unfortunately, plagued many big men in this league.

Instant-replay tweaks, rules changes announced for 2014-15

An average NBA fan can go years, maybe even an entire hoops-viewing career, without witnessing an instance of one team playing with too many men on the court.

But that potential predicament got a lot of attention in the new instant-replay and rules modifications announced Thursday by the NBA. So woe to the team whose sixth man doesn’t wait for someone to sub out before subbing in.

Here is the rundown of changes and tweaks recommended by the NBA’s Competition Committee at its offseason meetings and approved by the Board of Governors. They’ll go into effect beginning with Friday’s preseason games:

Expansion of Instant Replay Rules

  • Officials may utilize instant replay whenever they are not reasonably certain a team had an improper number of players on the court while the ball was in play.

Modification of Instant Replay Rules

  • Instant replay triggers that are currently in effect only during the last two minutes of regulation and the entire overtime period(s) instead shall be in effect only during the last two minutes of regulation and the last two minutes of overtime period(s).
  • Officials may now conduct an instant replay review whenever they are not reasonably certain as to which team should be awarded possession after a ball becomes out of bounds or whether an out of bounds in fact occurred during the last two minutes of regulation and the last two minutes of overtime period(s).  Previously, officials could only use replay if they weren’t reasonably certain as to which of two players on opposing teams caused the ball to become out of bounds.
  • Officials are now permitted to utilize instant replay whenever they are not reasonably certain whether a foul that was called meets the criteria of a flagrant foul.  Previously, the foul had to be called a flagrant on the floor in order to utilize instant replay.
  • Officials are now permitted to utilize instant replay whenever they are not reasonably certain whether a foul that was called meets the criteria of a clear-path-to-the-basket foul.  Previously, the foul had to be called a clear-path foul on the floor in order to utilize instant replay.
  • Officials may now utilize instant replay any time they are not certain when any player (offensive or defensive) without the ball was fouled relative to the timing of a successful shot.  Prior to this change, officials could only review the timing when an offensive player without the ball was fouled.

Rules Changes

  • If a team has too many players on the court while the ball is in play, (i) the offending team would both be assessed a non-unsportsmanlike technical foul and lose possession if it had possession at the time the violation was discovered, and (ii) the non-offending team would continue to have the option of either accepting or nullifying the game action that occurred during the violation.  Previously, if the offending team had possession, it would keep possession of the ball despite the violation.
  • Teams may freely substitute players whenever any timeout is called.  Prior to this change, there were limited circumstances in which a team couldn’t substitute for certain players at timeouts.
  • The shot clock will no longer be reset to five seconds when a held ball is caused by the defense with fewer than five seconds remaining on the clock.

One notable change is that referees no longer will have to label a foul as a Flagrant 1 foul to trigger replay access, at which point they determine if the contact was a Flagrant 1, a Flagrant 2 or merely a common foul. The simple act of labeling the foul in advance, and then “reversing” that decision, often generated needless reactions from players, coaches and crowds.

It’s worth noting, too, that two other areas of potential replay use were not among the changes announced for the 2014-15 season. There still is no provision for a “challenge” system comparable to what the NFL and MLB have for coaches and managers. And out-of-bounds reviews still offer no remedy when an uncalled foul – contact that caused the ball to go out – is seen in the replay.