Russell Westbrook set to return for OKC Thunder

HANG TIME BIG CITYRussell Westbrook will return to the starting lineup tonight for the Oklahoma City Thunder against the New York Knicks, head coach Scott Brooks told reporters this morning. Westbrook had missed Oklahoma City’s last 14 games following surgery to repair a broken right hand.

Though he played just two games this season, Westbrook was averaging 20 points and 5 assists per game before the injury. The Thunder went 4-10 without Westbrook, who was expected to carry a heavy load with Kevin Durant out with a broken foot. Durant’s projected return remains unclear. The Thunder are currently six games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Melo the Bull? | East meets West? | Larry Sanders is back

No. 1: Melo the Bull?Carmelo Anthony was one of this summer’s marquee free agents, entertaining offers from teams like Houston and Chicago before eventually re-signing with the New York Knicks. But how close was Anthony to actually leaving the Knicks? According to a new documentary, he was halfway out the door before deciding to stick around. In the upcoming documentary, “Carmelo Anthony: Made In NY,” which will air on the MSG Network, Anthony talks about the choice. As the NY Post reports:

The Post obtained footage of the half-hour program, which was produced by Melo Enterprises Inc. and Tollin Productions, that shows inside conversations between Anthony, his manager, Bay Frazier, who normally keeps a low profile, agent Leon Rose and personal assistant Asani Swann. One person familiar with the program said edits are still being made to the film and it was not the final version.

“It came down to Chicago and New York,” Anthony said during the program. “Chicago was the one from Day 1 [and] was something I was very impressed with. They were looking for someone like me to come in and take them to the next level. So it was perfect.

“It was a perfect setup and perfect fit for me in Chicago. But also I had to think about just living in Chicago. Do I want to live in Chicago? Do I want to take everything I created in New York and move all of that? It came down to that. But there was one point in time I was like — oh, I’m going.”

During one conversation, Anthony and his entourage agreed they would need a sign-and-trade with the Bulls to get the maximum contract. During the show, Frazier states the Bulls could only offer $74 million.

On their plane ride from Chicago to Houston following the get-together with the Bulls, Anthony tells Rose, his agent: “Great meeting. You could see the culture they have over there. The seriousness they have, what they’re about. It comes down to winning to me, and that’s what they’re about. That’s what I like. They hit everything right on the nail. That’s hard to do.”

***

No. 2: East meets West? — During a media interview on Wednesday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban floated the idea of realignment. The West has generally been stronger the last few seasons, and Cuban’s plan would help restore some competitive balance between the conferences. As Tim McMahon writes:

In Cuban’s plan, the Mavs, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans would move to the Eastern Conference. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks would move to the West.

“It’s not like it’d be the first time we’ve ever realigned,” Cuban said. “It’s happened many times before, so there’s precedent and I just think it shakes things up and makes things interesting.”

Cuban, whose Mavs were the West’s eighth seed with a 49-33 record last season but would have been a No. 3 seed in the East, acknowledged that he had some selfish motivation for the plan. However, he believes the league would benefit as a whole.

“It’s not like you’re reducing competition,” said Cuban, who noted that the teams he suggested moving to the West are approximately the same distance from Portland as Dallas and closer than New Orleans, San Antonio and Houston. “You keep Cleveland, Washington and other good teams in the East. It kind of shakes things up in terms of not just interest but also in terms of how people rebuild.

“It just changes things up and it changes the thought process of a lot of teams. It makes both conferences very competitive, at least for the short term and I think, based on the history of the teams, for the long term as well.”

***

No. 3: Larry Sanders is back — After being one of the NBA’s most promising big men two seasons ago, last season was something of a lost campaign for Milwaukee big man Larry Sanders, who missed over half of the season with injuries and suspensions. But under new Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd, Sanders is reinvigorated, writes Charles Gardner:

Kidd and his staff made Sanders a centerpiece of their efforts from the beginning, working with him in Las Vegas during the summer and continuing during training camp.

“They came in and changed the culture; the (new) owners came in and changed the culture,” Sanders said. “It’s a whole different mind-set than I’ve ever had.

“We’re really trying to build something new here and you could feel it. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

The 26-year-old Sanders is not playing heavy minutes and that has helped him keep his energy flowing. He played 26 minutes against the Pistons on Tuesday and 28 against the Timberwolves.

Kidd has used him effectively in tandem with veteran Zaza Pachulia, who is adept in the offensive system and can battle bigger centers with his strength.

***

SOME RANDOM LINKS: The Pelicans are aiming to get the ball to Anthony Davis more often … Cuban also took a verbal jab at Knicks coach Derek Fisher … The 76ers appear close to bringing in Turkish big man Furkan Aldemir

Morning shootaround — Nov. 27


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Nov. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Stephenson not a star yet | Suns point guards slow to adjust | Butler has risen against the odds | Lopez a perfect fit in Portland

No. 1: Stephenson not a star yet — With a 4-12 record and the second longest losing streak in the league, the Charlotte Hornets have been the most disappointing team outside of Cleveland. The arrival of Lance Stephenson was supposed to give their offense a boost, but they rank 25th on that end of the floor and have regressed defensively. Stephenson is still starting, but has seen his playing time drop quite a bit in the last week. After he logged just 23 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Blazers, Hornets coach Steve Clifford provided a dose of reality regarding his team’s new “star,” as Michael Wallace of ESPN writes:

Hornets coach Steve Clifford believes Lance Stephenson’s problems adjusting during his first season in Charlotte are partly due to the guard’s struggles to live up to external expectations.

“To be fair, one of the things that’s made it more difficult for him is that he came here and people proclaimed him as the next superstar,” Clifford said Wednesday. “He’s not a star. He’s a guy that has talent to become a star. To be a star in this league, you have to do it over years.”

Clifford’s comments came after Stephenson was left on the bench for the entire fourth quarter for a second consecutive game, this time during Wednesday’s 105-97 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that extended the Hornets’ losing streak to seven straight games.

A combination of preseason injuries and struggles since then to find his rhythm and a consistent role in Clifford’s offense has made Stephenson’s transition much more difficult than some anticipated.

***

No. 2: Suns point guards slow to adjust — At 10-6 after a win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns are in a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference. But they’re still trying to find their way, especially offensively, where they’ve taken a small step backward. One adjustment is the addition of point guard Isaiah Thomas, who joins Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in an unconventional backcourt. Though the team is winning, it’s impossible for all three to get their deserved playing time every night. As Thomas tells CBS Sports‘ James Herbert, that can be tough to deal with:

With the Kings, he was shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, especially in his first two seasons. He watched Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks, Greivis Vasquez and Jimmer Fredette play the point in front of him. Thomas has learned that he can’t worry about the things he can’t control. Still, this is challenging. Thomas has proven he’s capable of producing like an All-Star, and so have Dragic and Bledsoe.

“It’s a tough situation,” Thomas said. “But you’ve just got to be ready for whatever circumstances coach puts you in. You gotta be ready when your name is called, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s tough.

“It’s not what I expected,” Thomas continued. “But coach has a tough job. Putting all of us on the floor and trying to mix up the minutes, it’s tough for him. So it’s not just tough for us as players, we just gotta be ready when our name’s called and just know, I mean, coach is trying to do what he thinks is best for the team to put us in a position to win. But the key word is it’s a tough situation. For all of us.”

***

No. 3: Butler has risen against the odds — The Chicago Bulls have one of the most improved offenses in the league, despite the fact that Derrick Rose has played just 6 1/2 of their 15 games. One reason is the continued development of Jimmy Butler, who has the best field goal percentage of the five players in the league averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds and three assists. Butler was the 30th pick in the 2011 Draft out of Marquette, where most teams didn’t see much talent in the 6-7 guard. ESPN’s Nick Friedell profiles Butler and his path to becoming a big piece of a title contender:

Jimmy Butler isn’t supposed to be here.

He’s not supposed to be in the NBA. He’s not supposed to be a key member of a Chicago Bulls team that has championship aspirations. He’s not supposed to be in the midst of an All-Star type season — the best of his career — in which he has carried the Bulls on both ends of the floor at various times. And he’s certainly not supposed to be on the verge of cashing in on a contract offer at season’s end that will likely pay him well over $50 million over the next four seasons.

The odds have always been against Butler. His path to the NBA is as unlikely as anyone who plays in the league given that his backstory (of being homeless at 13 before moving in with a friend’s family) reads like the basketball version of “The Blind Side.” No matter how many ups and downs Butler endured in his journey to the precipice of NBA stardom, the 25-year-old never stopped believing in himself. The same drive that helped get him out of Tomball, Texas, and into Marquette University is the same fuel that’s pushed him to average over 20 points a game early this season.

***

No. 4: Lopez a perfect fit in Portland — The Portland Trail Blazers made a 21-win leap from Lottery team to the second round of the playoffs last season, and have continued rolling with a 12-3 start this year. They’ve gotten improvement from all of their high-profile players, but the key to the transformation was the addition of a low-profile center. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian details the importance of Robin Lopez to the Blazers’ success:

After 96 regular season games and one memorable playoff series victory, it’s become clear that Lopez was the missing link for this franchise. A city that has watched the downfall of the beloved yet brittle Bill Walton, and the depressing breakdowns of Sam Bowie and Greg Oden, finally has a stabilizing force at the NBA’s most important position.

And while Lopez’s made-for-Portland personality and rugged, hustle-infused game have made him a Rip City fan favorite, it’s the things you don’t notice — the unselfishness, the unassuming disposition, the way he connects the Blazers’ chemistry — that have made the towering 7-foot, 265-pound center so important.

LaMarcus Aldridge is the Blazers’ best player. Lillard brings the big shots and big plays. Matthews provides defense, leadership and heart. And Batum is the glue, offering a touch of everything.

But Lopez is perhaps the most important piece, the linchpin to one of the most cohesive and talented starting lineups in the NBA. When general manager Neil Olshey shrewdly snatched Lopez in a trade for next to nothing, he didn’t just nab a starting center entering his prime, but also the 21st Century version of Buck Williams, a player plugged into an established core at just the right time that helped catapult the Blazers to the next level.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony doesn’t know how long back spasms will keep him out of the Knicks’ lineupThe Thunder waived Sebastian TelfairThe Lakers are close to signing Earl ClarkDavid West hopes to make his season debut on FridayMarcus Smart started, but couldn’t finish practice on WednesdayThe Celtics are going to EuropeMark Cuban wants to join the Eastern ConferenceSome trash talk from Philly fans motivated Kevin GarnettKyrie Irving wants to guard the league’s best point guards … and The New York Times profiled TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”

ICYMI of The Night: Tyson Chandler helped the Mavs to an overtime victory over his old team with 25 rebounds, an NBA high for the season:


VIDEO: Nightly Notable: Tyson Chandler grabs 25 boards

Coach Pop out with “medical issue”

It’s not unusual to get the pre-game notification that coach Gregg Popovich is going to rest at one or more of his veteran players.

It’s part of the Spurs’ way.

But tonight at home against the Pacers it will be Popovich himself who’ll be out of action at as he is undergoing what is described as “a minor medical issue.”

Drawing the Xs and Os in Popovich’s place will be assistant coach Ettore Messina, who joined the Spurs staff this season. The Italian-born Messina is a four-time Euroleague champion.

Messina got his first taste of being in charge with the Spurs when he ran the show in a preseason game at Phoenix as Popovic stayed at home in San Antonio. The Spurs lost 121-90, but it should be noted that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili also did not travel to Phoenix and Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills were sidelined with injuries.

Popovich could miss several more games.

 

 

Hey, 19! Kids all right in Bucks-Wolves

parker

The Bucks’ Jabari Parker is second among rookies in scoring at 11.7. (NBAE via Getty Images)

Basketball fans had a full slate of college hoops games available on their cable and satellite systems Wednesday night. Or, if they preferred their competition a little younger, they had the Milwaukee Bucks facing the Timberwolves at Minnesota (8 p.m. ET on League Pass).

The game at Target Center almost deserved to have beer sales suspended in a nod to the tender years of the youngest Bucks and Wolves. In Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine of Minnesota and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker of Milwaukee, there likely would be four teenagers in the same NBA game for the first time ever. The two Bucks and Wiggins have been starting and, since LaVine has averaged 22.7 minutes in his last seven appearances, the odds were high that all four would be on the court at the same time.

Separately, the two sets of teammates had become the first players under age 20 to start for a franchise since Josh Smith and Marvin Williams did it for the 2005-06 Atlanta Hawks.

The game already had marquee power based on the matchup of No. 1 pick Wiggins and No. 2 pick Parker for the first time in a regular-season game. The two were on parallel tracks last season at Kansas and Duke, respectively, and were considered a coin-flip right through Draft night in June as far as NBA potential. Wiggins, acquired from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade, leads all rookies with a 12.5 scoring average. Parker is close behind, averaging 11.7 points and 5.9 rebounds to Wiggins’ 3.5.

LaVine was a raw, somewhat surprising lottery pick by the Wolves at No. 13 out of UCLA, and has averaged 5.3 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 33.3 percent in 19.1 minutes. Antetokounmpo was a virtual unknown taken straight from Greece by Milwaukee with the 15th pick in 2013, but he has grown two inches since then and is averaging 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 48.1 percent.

A closer look at the pink shoes the Wolves will wear during Wednesday's game. (Courtesy of Timberwolves)

A closer look at the pink shoes the Wolves will wear during Wednesday’s game. (Courtesy of Timberwolves)

Both franchises seem delighted with their youngsters as the foundation of their rebuilding teams. But as far as the teenaged thing goes, it’s a one-and-done Wednesday; by the time Minnesota plays at Milwaukee on Jan. 9, Antetokounmpo (born Dec. 6, 1994) will already be more than a month into his 20th year.

Another factoid about the Bucks-Wolves game in Minneapolis: Minnesota players will wear pink shoe laces to honor Lula Hall, mother of forward Thad Young who died Nov. 13 after an 18-month bout with breast cancer.

 

“It’s one of those things, I urge all women to get breast exams and make sure you stay healthy,” Young told reporters Wednesday morning.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 178) Featuring Greg Anthony

HANG TIME BIG CITY — It’s snowing right now in New York City — big, wet, white flakes falling from the sky.

According to my iPhone, right now in Los Angeles it’s sunny, with a projected high of 81 degrees.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, again according to my iPhone, it’s 52 and sunny.

The Hang Time Podcast crew may be spread out across the U.S., which means different weather reports for this holiday weekend, but we’ll each spent Thanksgiving with our families, munching on turkey. Which no matter how you cook it, is something worth being thankful for.

That’s more than some NBA teams can say. A few months back, Rick Fox, Sekou Smith and myself went on a road trip and visited with several NBA teams as they prepped for the new season. On this week’s Hang Time Podcast, with Sekou out on the chilling list, Rick and I went back through some of the teams we’d seen and talked turkey about the Bulls and Derrick Rose‘s injuries, about the surprising start from the Pacers, how the 76ers have been epically awful, and how Lance Stephenson and Hornets are still working through issues.

We were also joined by Turner Sports analyst Greg Anthony, as we expanded the conversation and went through some of the contenders out West, as well as what’s happening with the Clippers and the Thunder.

And oh yeah, if you’re looking for bragging rights, you better talk to me!

Finally, it’s a holiday tradition unlike any other: Rick Fox’s Turkey Dynasty call makes its annual appearance.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the new best sound designer/engineer in the business, Andrew Merriam.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Blogtable: LeBron teams, then and now

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Miami 2010 vs. Cleveland 2014 | POR, TOR or WAS? | Tick, tick, tick in OKC


LeBron James (left) has played in 158 playoff games. Kevin Love, zero. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

LeBron James (left) has played in 158 playoff games. Kevin Love, zero. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

> Think back … what’s the difference, talent-wise, between LeBron’s first team in Miami and this Cleveland team? Can this Cleveland team be as good as that Miami one? As constituted, can it be better?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Looking back at the 2010-11 Heat, there was a lot of ordinariness on that roster with LeBron James. But – and this is a Rick Mahorn-sized “but” – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were more advanced as teammates, having played in 72 postseason games to Kyrie Irving‘s and Kevin Love‘s none. Erik Spoelstra already had coached 160 NBA games with two playoff appearances. And Mike Miller and James Jones, same as James, Wade and Bosh, were four years younger. Also, Udonis Haslem brought toughness that these Cavaliers could use. My sense is that Dion Waiters is a more talented but more headstrong “little brother” than Mario Chalmers was. And a final thought: The rest of the league might be past the shock and awe with which it regarded that earlier Super Friends edition – it was an unnerving assemblage of talent, shown to be fallible and beatable over time.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Talent, schmalent.  If it were just about raw talent, Tracy McGrady would be walking about with more rings than a Beatles drummer with tinnitus.  LeBron arrived literally on stage in Miami with two other guys who had talent plus the veteran game smarts and battle scars to be championship contenders.  I’ll drop another Sixties reference and ask the Jimi Hendrix question: Are you experienced?  Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love do not have a single playoff game on their resumes and have never before had to get in sync with another All-Star caliber teammate. When you ask if these Cavs in their first year together can be better than that Heat team, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have every right to say, hey, you, get off my cloud.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: LeBron’s first team in Miami had Dwyane Wade, a great advantage in experience: Wade had already won a title. He knew exactly what it took. But the core of this roster in Cleveland can get there. It can be as good as Miami. While this is a wobbly start amid great scrutiny, it’s no more unsteady or under brighter lights than the Heat of James’ previous lifetime. “Spoelstra should be fired that first season because the Heat will never win with him,” … remember? In fact, the pressure was greater then as LeBron was being condemned almost everywhere outside South Florida. The Cavaliers can absolutely find their way. Maybe it will be a repeat of Miami and it will take a season. But, yes, it can be as good.

Kyrie Irving (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

Kyrie Irving (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: That Miami team had Dwyane Wade, already a certified NBA champion. If anything, Wade had to teach LeBron how to win, and now here is LeBron trying to distribute wisdom in Cleveland. Also, keep in mind Erik Spoelstra had taken the Heat to the playoffs without LeBron, while David Blatt is new to this NBA thing. All of that was/is in Miami’s favor in any comparison talk. That said … there’s plenty of time for the Cavs to prove themselves, in the end, as good as the 2011 Heat, although nobody seems to be saying that too loudly right now.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The biggest difference is that the Heat’s three stars were all two-way players. Dwyane Wade isn’t the most disciplined defender, but he’s an impact player on that end of the floor and much better than Kyrie Irving. And Chris Bosh is a much, much, much, much, much better defender than Kevin Love. His importance to the Heat’s pick-and-roll defense can’t be understated. At the point that the 2010-11 Heat were 9-8, they ranked sixth in defensive efficiency. The Cavs will get better defensively (they rank 19th through Tuesday), but given their current personnel, they won’t be as good as the Heat were on that end of the floor.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The difference between the two is simple. The Miami Big 3 all had playoff experience and, in Dwyane Wade’s case, championship experience. The Cleveland Big 3 has no playoff or even winning regular-season experience outside of LeBron. And the fact that people overlooked that when they put the Cleveland crew together mystifies me. I don’t think this Cleveland group can be better. I think Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, at this stage of their careers, are as talented individually for their positions as you could want. But I don’t think they are better players than Wade and Bosh were in 2010.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: That Miami team operated as an established program committed to the values of defense and teamwork as set forth by Pat Riley. This Cleveland team has none of that. The Cavaliers spent the last four years without LeBron flailing for the kinds of answers that were taken for granted in Miami. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving know nothing about what it takes to win in the playoffs. I don’t see how LeBron can do better now than his first team did in Miami, because this organization in Cleveland has so much more to learn from top to bottom.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: To me the most glaring difference is that the 2010-11 Heat played Mike Bibby at the point some. Mostly stationary by that point and not a great defender (who was eventually benched during the Finals), Bibby could still run a team and had loads of veteran savvy. Kyrie Irving is all guts and speed and quickness, but he lacks a certain steadiness this Cleveland team could use at the top. Not saying he can’t uncover that by the time the postseason rolls around, but for now he has work to do.

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: The main difference between LeBron’s first team in Miami compared to Cleveland is their overall NBA experience. Dwyane Wade was already a Finals MVP, Chris Bosh has led the Raptors to the playoffs in several seasons and they signed veteran players to complement the team. While in Cleveland LeBron will have to do the heavy lifting in terms of leadership chores. They have the personnel and talent to be as good as that team but it’s up to LeBron to nurture this young group into a mature squad.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: The 2010-11 Heat were way more deep than these Cavs. LeBron, Wade and Bosh were obviously the most talented players on that roster, but coach Spoelstra had a lot of options for the supporting cast. These Cavs have three phenomenal players in LeBron, Irving and Love, a good center in Varejao, a veteran in Marion, an interesting youngster in Thompson and … that’s pretty much it, at least for now with Miller, Jones and Dellavedova dealing with injuries. Once they’re back, coach Blatt will still need a rim protector and a wing defender. These Cavs need way more depth to be as good as the 2010-11 Heat.

XiBin Yang, NBA.com/China: On the paper, this Cleveland team could be great, and I do think LeBron and Kevin Love were a natural fit.The only difference is Kyrie, who just stepped into his fourth year in the league. Maybe he’s not explosive as Wade in 2010, but he can also go to the basket at will, not to mention he’s a much better 3-point shooter than Wade. As LeBron said, guys need some time to figure out how to play winning basketball. But the only question is, can Kyrie figure out how to sacrifice his ego before LBJ is past his prime? Per NBA.com/Stats, in the seven losing game of the Cavs, Kyrie’s got a higher USG (24.7%), and the team played a slower pace (93.22). Kyrie’s isolation is a good show down the stretch, but that’s not the type of winning basketball. They definitely could be better, only after Kyrie, who doesn’t have that kind of blood connection with the city of Cleveland, realizes that truth of the game.

Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/India: The difference is not so much talent-wise as much as it is about experience. The biggest advantage LeBron’s Miami had was that the stars and the coach, Erik Spoelstra, had significant postseason experience. Dwyane Wade had won a ring in 2006 and LeBron had made his way to the NBA Finals in 2007. That helped them navigate the turbulent waters of the rough start and turn into winners. Here, at Cleveland, besides LeBron, neither Kyrie Irving nor Kevin Love has ever been to the postseason. David Blatt is still learning the NBA’s ropes. So they have to come to terms with a winning mentality on the fly. Can they be better?   Sure, they can. For that to happen, Love must play the five spot a la Kevin Garnett in Boston and Brooklyn or Bosh with Miami. That would allow Cleveland to outrun their opponents, spread the floor and free up the paint for James. Also, instead of Love sacrificing his scoring averages and field-goal attempts, Irving has to sacrifice his scoring average and become more of a facilitator. Right now, Irving’s assists average (4.8) is at an all-time career low.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: The big difference is experience. In Cleveland there is no Flash, no Bosh and no Allen. Love and Irving have all the potential in the world, but none of them have proven themselves in postseason basketball. Moreover they have a rookie coach who is trying the adjust in the NBA playing style. I am sure that the Cavs will get better, because they have the most important thing: talent. Don’t forget that back in 2010 when LeBron took his talents in Florida, the Heat had a 9-8 start.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: The main difference is the experience. LeBron had Dwyane Wade on his side. A superstar, Finals MVP and NBA Champion. In addition Chris Bosh, who came to South Beach as the All-Time Leading Scorer of the Toronto Raptors. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love might be as talented as Bosh and Wade, but they haven’t the experience yet. Both haven’t played any postseason game. This is the first time in his career Irving has teammates who are better than he is. He has to adjust his game and that needs time. The same with Love. He’s now only the third option. That’s quite new for him. Give them the time they need and you will receive a big outcome.

Blogtable: Hot start, staying hot

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Miami 2010 vs. Cleveland 2014 | POR, TOR or WAS? | Tick, tick, tick in OKC



VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan steps into the studio with Ernie, Greg Anthony and Chris Webber

> Which of these teams do you believe can best maintain its hot start? Which team has the most room for improvement? Your picks: Portland, Toronto, Washington.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comGimme the Trail Blazers. As much as I like the Raptors and the Wizards – and as desperately as the Eastern Conference needs them for depth and swagger – I’m not sure their ensemble approaches will hold up as well over the long season as Portland’s reliance on All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers’ depth concerns me but Nene’s sore foot is a red flag for the Wizards, in my view, and Toronto still seems to lack experience or a strong enough veteran influence to ride out the season’s rough spots. Happy to be proven wrong on all counts.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: While the Cavs try to figure out a way to play together and the Bulls try to figure out a way to keep Derrick Rose on the court, coach Dwane Casey has the Raptors playing confident and effectively at both ends and could be on their way to the No. 1 seed in the East.  The Blazers are just as solid and have added depth in Chris Kaman and a healthy C.J. McCollum.  I’d put them just slightly behind the Raptors because they play in the much tougher West.  Because Bradley Beal has just four games under his belt and the Wizards rank just 20th in offense, they’ve got the most room to improve.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Tough call because I thought all three of the teams were the real deal all along, so I don’t see hot start as much teams that will be at or near the top the entire way. (Not at the same win pace, though. The Raptors aren’t going to win 70.) But most room for improvement? The Wizards. Bradley Beal is a difference maker, and he has barely played. Otto Porter, in his second season, will continue to develop and become an important contributor. Plus, unlike the Blazers, Washington and Toronto have the benefit of being in the East.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Of the three, only the Wizards were missing a big piece (Brad Beal) for much of November and so I’ll go with them, in terms of maintaining their start and showing the most improvement. Remember, the Wiz play in the (L)East, which gives them an envious advantage over the Blazers, and their bigs are better than Toronto’s bigs.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comI believe in Portland, because their improvement has come mostly on defense, which is an extension of in-season improvement last year. In the same vein, we can’t forget that Toronto was 41-21 after the Rudy Gay trade last season. And really, Washington has the most room for improvement, having just got Bradley Beal back and still waiting on Martell Webster. They have a strong defense, but desperately need the floor spacing those guys provide on offense. So, I guess I like all three of those teams.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: All three of them have a great chance to sustain this early season effort, provided they stay healthy at key positions. But I think the Raptors, given their position in the Eastern Conference, have the best chance to grind all the way through this season at a high level. Their make up, from head coach Dwane Casey to catalysts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan all the way down to crucial role players like Lou Williams, James Johnson, Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez, gives them the sort of sound foundation that lends itself to long-term success.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Let’s go with the Raptors as the team most likely to stay on top, because they’ll face the least resistance from their weakling division. The Wizards will show the most upside as Bradley Beal keeps working his way back in and Paul Pierce becomes more ingrained.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: One thing’s for certain: All three of those franchises have fan bases that are fired up and ready to see their team contend. I love Toronto. They’re deep, they have a nice mix of quality and different positions, and they’re playing in a depressed division with a lot of teams they can beat up on. Washington is the team of that trio which gives me a bit of pause. Getting Beal back is helpful, yes, but they’ve got several players with a history of injuries, and I still think they could use one more veteran off the bench to add depth and help stretch the floor.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: I believe this time the Blazers will remain constant. Their starting five is as good as ever, Damian Lillard improved again and finally arrived in the point guard elite. And LaMarcus Aldridge is a beast of a power forward. But the most important thing is that they finally have a bench mob. Chris Kaman and Steve Blake fit perfect and they help with their experience. But I think that Toronto and Washington will easily reach the playoffs as well. Paul Pierce is a perfect addition for the Wizards. The young core will learn intangible much from him. Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. have lots of room for improvement. And if the frontcourt stays healthy it can cause big matchup problems.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: I really like all three of them. I believe that the Wizards have the complete package to because the underdog that can make a lot of noise this season. Now that Beal is back they have a great duo in the backcourt, they have a lot of bodies in the frontcourt, they have a great bench (don’t forget Paul Pierce), so they have it all.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: I bet on Toronto to keep doing what they’re doing right now. They’re deep, talented, they’ve great offense and good defense, they’re well coached. Portland has the most room for improvement: Lillard had a slow start, Batum came back few games ago from an injury, their bench is finally giving them something. And Washington? Great, interesting team: they can be dangerous

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: The Washington Wizards are the best equipped team to maintain their hot start, they did damage minus Bradley Beal, one of the top young shooting guards in the game. They are a complete team from top to bottom with the addition of veteran leader Paul Pierce they will be able to take in stride any challenges ahead because he is there to guide them. “The Truth” picked wisely in the past off-season.

Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/India: I will go with Portland because they do play in the tougher conference which is the West. Also, Toronto, which has the best record of the three at the moment, has played just four games on the road. Besides that, the core of Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are as good as you will get across the league. And Lillard and Aldridge are qualified stars, who can turn a game on its head with their performances. Surprisingly, I think Toronto can still improve. As good as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are, they lack the same intimidating presence of Nene and Marcin Gortat in Washington or Aldridge and Lopez in Portland. The frontcourt is something Toronto can improve upon and should look to do so before the mid-season trade deadline.

XiBin Yang, NBA.com/China: The Raptors finally regained their identity. With the loaded roster, they could be a really good team in the regular season, when they’re playing that Canadian team basketball. They’ve got a good chemistry, an enhanced defensive mind, and amazing rotation lineups. Each night there could be one guy step up in the Air Canada Centre. My pick on the team which could still improve more is the Wizards. When you got John Wall making plays, Bradley Beal and Pierce stick to their spot, you really should be a better offense team. They’re already  a better team than last year, even if the Wizards’s offense(104.8 on ORtg, 20th in the NBA) has not fully clicked yet.

Blogtable: Does OKC have enough time?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Miami 2010 vs. Cleveland 2014 | POR, TOR or WAS? | Tick, tick, tick in OKC



VIDEO: Do the Thunder make the playoffs? The Starters can’t agree, either.

> Russell Westbrook is coming back soon. KD may not be far behind. Gut feeling: Will their returns be in time for the Thunder to make the playoffs?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Make the playoffs? I say yes. Let’s do the math: Oklahoma City won 72 percent of its games across three seasons prior to this one (166-64). So might the Thunder be able to win at a 70 percent clip over, say, their final 60? If they did, they’d pick up 42 victories. Add the five or six they should have over their first 22 games and that gets them to 47 or 48. They’ll be dealing losses head-to-head with their rivals for the West’s 8th seed, too, so those games will count double. Of course, if OKC pulls this off, it might be gassed by the playoffs, but that wasn’t the question then, was it?

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook
(Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It’s getting tougher and tougher each day and every additional loss will mean the Thunder will have to expend more energy.  At this point, I still think they make it, just barely.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Yes. I don’t have any sound evidence to back that up, no home/road splits or back-to-back numbers. It makes sense, though. The Thunder at full strength can make up six games, the distance to catch No. 8, in five months. They won’t get to No. 1 and they may not even get home-court advantage, and then that becomes an issue for their playoff chances. But making the playoffs? As long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook return on schedule and the first four weeks of the season don’t turn out to be the start of a season-long epidemic, yes.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: You take two of the top 10 players off a team for a month and, yeah, we can expect a drastic and perhaps sudden improvement when they finally suit up again. The West is a dangerous place to start slowly and for the most part would prove unforgiving to almost any other team … except one bringing back Westbrook and Durant. Getting a top-four spot seems next to impossible, I’ll admit. That’s a mighty steep climb in a conference with the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, Blazers, Clippers and Grizzlies. If that’s the pecking order, that means OKC must overtake the Mavericks and Suns, and I like Durant and Westbrook in a fight for the seventh or eighth spot.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Yes, because I don’t believe the Kings can keep up a 50-win pace. The Suns and Pelicans are good, but not 50-win teams either. So there’s a playoff opening available if Durant and Westbrook stay healthy and can win 47 of their final 66 games, which is the winning percentage they had last season with Westbrook missing 36 games. It should be noted that OKC has played one of the league’s toughest schedules thus far. They’re the only team that hasn’t played an opponent that played the night before.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: They are so upside down right now in the standings, I just don’t see the return of Westbrook soon and KD a little later, will be enough to get the Thunder to the 50-win plateau it will take in the Western Conference to be in the playoff mix. There’s a ton of ground to be made up right now and if they can’t get those guys back healthy and in a groove before Christmas, it’ll be a monumental effort for them to get back into the playoff race. And I’m not dismissing the power of two superstars when healthy. But we don’t know how effective either one of them will be when they return, let alone when they’ll both actually be back and leading the Thunder charge.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: They absolutely will make the playoffs. And if they do, they’ll have an authentic chance to become the first bottom-half seed to win the championship since the No. 6 Rockets prevailed in 1994-95.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I was doing the math yesterday during the Hang Time Podcast, and they’d have to go something like 45-22 the rest of the way in order to make it to 48 wins, which was the threshold for making the playoffs in the West last season. But our podcast guest Greg Anthony had a great point: The better way to look at it is that the Thunder are currently six games back of the 8th place team, which as of today is the Clippers. And with 67 games remaining, I think a full-strength Thunder team could absolutely make up that difference the rest of the way. My only concern is that the complementary players, who have been asked to do so much in the meantime, will still have something to give.

Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/India: The sensible reasoning on the Thunder’s chances of making the playoffs appears to be slim. But I disagree. I think OKC will make it, riding on some really sensational, turbo-charged performances by Westbrook and Durant. And it’s not only emotion that dictates gut feeling, but even the numbers don’t seem to be insurmountable. Remember, last season Dallas were the No. 8 seed with a 49-33 record. That leaves OKC requiring to win 46 of their last 67 games i.e. an expected win percentage of 0.686. In their last three regular seasons, OKC has had a win percentage of 0.710 or more (and much of 2013-14 was despite Westbrook’s absence), so 0.686 shouldn’t be that difficult for the Thunder to emulate with both their All-Stars back.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: The Thunder need Westbrook and Durant now, at their best, to make the playoffs. Last season, Dallas finished 8th in the West with 49 Ws. OKC has three right now, so they probably need 46 more. In 67 games. They need to start amassing Ws right now, hopefully with Westbrook back starting Friday and KD well before Christmas. Maybe it’s already too late.

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: Yes, they are too talented together to not to make a run at the playoffs. OKC will string together a couple of win streaks throughout the season. KD and Russ are two transcendent players in one team, the Thunder will not be denied an invite in the postseason party.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: Before the two superstars got injured, we would include the Thunder in the contenders list. So that means that with both of them back, OKC can go out there and get a lot of wins. Their start is awful, but they can still make it to the playoffs. If — and here comes the big “if” — they stay healthy and don’t lose time trying to find their chemistry as a team.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: It will be hard. If the Thunder would play in the East – no problem! But in the loaded Western Conference it will be a very, very difficult journey. On the first view it’s only five games to the 8th seed. Westbrook and Durant might be back, but they will need time to be back on their top level. It’s the first big injury of Durant and he must learn to handle with it. Westbrook knows how long it takes to get the rust off. Besides that it’s a matter of head. Russell had three bigger injuries in a short time. That won’t leave him untouched. They should try it, but don’t force it. The team is still young and they have one more shot in the next year. And in private: To win the championship they need a better bench anyway.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 26


VIDEO: All the highlights from Tuesday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry’s MVP case | Who’s scapegoating Chandler now? | Not panicking in Windy City … yet | Slow going in Detroit

No. 1: Curry’s MVP case — If the first level of staking a claim to the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award is impressing teammates, Golden State’s Stephen Curry already has that cinched. Curry’s ‘mates and coaches were again effusive about his talents and his season after he dropped 40 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals on the Miami Heat in a cushy victory in south Florida Tuesday.
Consider center Andrew Bogut, who took to Twitter:

And then there was this, as reported by the Contra Costa Times:

“Who better than him…at the point guard spot,” [forward Draymond] Green said. “I don’t know someone that’s better than him, so I definitely think he’s taken over that top spot at the point guard spot. Obviously, with winning comes accolades, so we keep continuing to win, all that stuff will take care of itself.”

“He’ll be an All-Star. He’ll be all that stuff. You continue to win games, and those wins add up, it’ll be hard to deny him the MVP.”

[Said coach Steve Kerr]: “I know I wouldn’t trade him for any point guard in the league, that’s for sure.”

***

No. 2: Who’s scapegoating Chandler now? — Dallas center Tyson Chandler didn’t appreciate it when New York basketball boss Phil Jackson piled on, not merely trading the big man to Dallas but then scapegoating Chandler and guard Raymond Felton for the teams’ dismal 2013-14 season. He’ll get his chance to demonstrate just how much that irritated him when he and the Dallas Mavericks face Jackson’s Knicks Wednesday night. As reported by the New York Post’s Marc Berman, Chandler is playing well (10.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks) for the 10-5 Mavericks and seems to have moved on mentally from the maneuver but it still could – and probably should – impact the teams’ clash in Dallas:

“I don’t know why they did that,’’ Chandler said of Jackson’s remark about needing to change the chemistry with the Chandler-Felton trade in late June. “Only they can answer that question. I’ve since then moved on and don’t pay it any much attention. I know a lot of the media will be returning and me going against my former team. But in all honesty I’ve kind of swept it behind. It’s in the past and under the rug and I’m moving on with my future here.’’

Despite winning Defensive Player of the Year and earning his first All-Star berth as a Knick, it did not work out perfectly for Chandler in New York. He got hurt at all the wrong times after signing with the Knicks months after winning an NBA championship. Last year, Chandler broke his leg four games into the season amid a hot start. By the time he returned, the Knicks had too much ground to make up in the playoff race and he never got his timing back.

Chandler was blamed for too eagerly criticizing former coach Mike Woodson’s defensive schemes. Whispers Chandler was one of the dreaded locker-room “finger pointers’’ have also surfaced. They are odd accusations for one of the NBA’s noted leaders. Of course, it could be a smoke screen for the real intentions of Jackson, the Knicks’ team president, shipping out a player who didn’t fit into his triangle offense because he’s not a good jump shooter or post-up guy. Chandler is, however, a ferocious defender and the current Knicks don’t defend a lick.

***

No. 3: No reason to panic in Chicago. Yet – Thanksgiving is hours away, so Chicago Bulls fans – and NBA followers who delight in superstar talents – can feel grateful that Derrick Rose hasn’t suffered any season-ending injuries through the first four weeks of the season. OK, so the fact that his legs have been as healthy as the ones sticking up out of your bird Thursday does remain an issue for coach Tom Thibodeau and his club. Maybe the good news is that Thibodeau now has joined the ranks of the other cautious folks in the Bulls organization in protecting their resident hothouse flower – the coach was the one who shut down Rose at halftime of the team’s loss at Denver. Here is quotage and more from Sam Smith of Bulls.com:

Perhaps Rose should not have played in the second of the back to back after being back just one game after missing four with a hamstring injury. Thibodeau may have realized that as he said he approached Rose at halftime and suggested Rose not play the second half. Rose remained in the locker room to get treatment, but said he suffered no setback and Thibodeau agreed it was merely his own personal concern. Though Rose clearly was not moving well, hesitant to drive to the basket and slow to react on defense.

Though Rose said after the game with two days off he is looking toward playing Friday in Boston, you’d have to wonder what the hurry is given players staying out two to four weeks with hamstring injuries.
Returning from two years of knee injuries, such ancillary injuries are expected to be part of the process. Perhaps frustrating, they need to be dealt with in a rational and not emotional manner. It seemed at halftime Thibodeau understood that.

“It was really nothing that happened,” Thibodeau said after the game. “Other than I didn’t want to take any chances with him. The way the game was going, the way we were going, I just felt at that point I wanted to go a different way. He’s didn’t reinjure himself or anything like that. I just didn’t want to take a chance. We’ve got a couple of days now, regroup and the way they were playing, the way we were playing I wanted to see if we could change it with a different type of ball pressure. I knew the start of the third quarter (with the Bulls trailing 56-49 at halftime), the defensive transition and the speed of the game (needed to increase). That was my big concern and I didn’t want to take a chance there. That’s basically it.”

Similarly, Rose agreed.

“It wasn’t anything where I was limping or I pulled it again or anything,” said Rose. “It was just that I wasn’t moving the way I wanted to while I was on the floor. I wasn’t able to affect the game the way that I wanted to, so I came in here and talked to Thibs and we agreed on just sitting out. He initiated it and I agreed with him… “

***

No. 4: Slow going in DetroitStan Van Gundy looked sweaty and anguished even in the best of times during his days in Orlando, a natural worry-wart for whom mistakes and losses always loomed larger than victories and success. So you can imagine how he’s doing these days in Detroit, where the Pistons have nothing in common with Van Gundy’s 2009 Finalist Magic team and where he shoulders an even greater burden with dual responsibilities on the sideline and in the front office. On the day they dropped to 3-11 by losing to Milwaukee Tuesday, Van Gundy spoke to Detroit News writer Vince Goodwill and others about the difficult conversations he and owner Tom Gores have been having as they try to balance the development of a young team with the urgency to compete every night:

Van Gundy, after a chunk of games that has his team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, paying an early deposit with the 76ers for a good seat at next May’s draft lottery, has begun to realize that balance is probably more delicate than his dual titles as coach and president of basketball operations.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be overnight,” Van Gundy said. “I’d like it to be. Tom would like it to be, but I don’t think it’s gonna be an overnight thing.”

“[Monday] night it was an hour and a half, just talking about our roster and where we’re headed and the whole thing. What I feel good about, what I don’t like. It was two days of texts.”

Whether it’s a 90-minute conversation or the usual text communication that happens 4-5 times during the week, much of the focus is on where things stand currently, as this wasn’t the start either envisioned.

“We talk once a week or so. [Monday] night for a long time,” Van Gundy said. “I think that we’re very much aware of what his thinking is and feeling and he is of mine and we’re on the same page. I don’t think somebody in my position can have much closer communication with an owner than I do. I can’t imagine that.”

The urgency is the conversations is certainly a point of emphasis, but Van Gundy said “I don’t think anyone’s on the ledge right now.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: NBA commissioner Adam Silver met with Milwaukee community leaders to discuss the need and timetable for a new downtown arena. … First you get the $4.85 million to spend, in the form of a disabled player exception for veteran guard Steve Nash. Then you have to find someone on whom to spend it. The Lakers can look for help but can they find it? … Even spotting the Pelicans 37 points when they were missing Rudy Gay (right Achilles strain) and Darren Collison (left quadriceps), the Kings were 10 points better in New Orleans. … If by “We’re not a 3-11 team” Kobe Bryant means the Lakers aren’t likely to sputter at that pace to an 18-64 record, he might be right. But they are bad, especially on defense.