Posts Tagged ‘Bobcats’

MVP ladder: make room for big Al!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com



VIDEO: Al Jefferson takes “old school” to new heights this season with the Bobcats

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Moses Malone?

To most players currently collecting NBA paychecks that name evokes memories of one of the game’s all-time greats, but a face many of the league’s young stars might not recognize. That’s not the case for Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson, captain old school himself, who fashions his pristine low-post game after the great Moses, who put on big man clinics on a nightly basis during a career that included his ABA days and his time in the NBA.

Jefferson is bringing old school back today on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. The Bobcats big man joins the party this week at No. 9, and truth be told has been knocking on the door for weeks now. Not only is he leading the Bobcats’ march to the playoffs, he’s doing it with a style that has been lost among today’s generation of big men who prefer stretching their shooting range out beyond the 3-point line rather than mastering a two or three pet moves around the basket.

Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and James Harden comprise the top five of the Ladder this week.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!

 

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Have the Pacers lost their Edge?




VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses Paul George’s slump and the Pacers’ struggles

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The playoff bid is clinched, locked up before anyone else in the league. Yet after five games in seven nights, there is suddenly a lingering fog surrounding the Indiana Pacers.

That brash, bruising, defensive-minded machine we saw before the All-Star break doesn’t look nearly as intimidating these days. That team that vowed to chase the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, in an effort to play host a potential showdown against reigning two-time NBA champion Miami Heat in the conference finals, has been humbled lately with crushing defeats both at home and on the road.

The Pacers’ best players — All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, as well as Lance Stephenson and David West — have all endured their fair share of struggles. Coach Frank Vogel remains as confident as ever, something you’d expect from a coach who understands that seeing the Pacers reach their ultimate goals is a painstaking process fraught with trials and tribulations. Vogel and his crew know that unmitigated attention to detail is required to overcome any adversity.

Still, it’s enough to make you wonder — have the Pacers lost a little bit of the edge that led them to the top of the standings? They were so good so fast this season that a bit of a letdown was inevitable. But it’s dangerous to play this game this close to the end of the regular season.

“Over the last 20 games or so, we just haven’t had our mojo,” West said after the Bobcats beat the Pacers Wednesday night in Charlotte on the back-end of a back-to-back. “We’ve got to change some things up because these last 20 games is going to be a battle.”

“Right now I think we’re on our downs,” Stephenson said. “We just got to get back on our ups, work together and play as a unit.”

The Pacers also have to return to the identity that led them to the top of the standings.

They were a defensive juggernaut to start the season, holding teams down in every facet and allowing just 90.3 points per game through All-Star weekend. In the nine games since then, they are giving up close to 100 points a night.

“We can’t get teams under control,” West told the Indianapolis Star. “Nobody’s afraid of us and we got to regroup. We got to get back to the basics. We got tough two-game trip out West and it’s got to mean something to us to go out and do whatever we have to do to win these games.”

The road trip he’s speaking starts Friday with a date with the Houston Rockets, who have the league’s best record since Jan. 1. Then comes Sunday’s game in Dallas against the Mavericks. They’ll be tested by two Western Conference playoff teams with the ability to make the Pacers uncomfortable in many different ways.

There is also a seven-games-in-11-days stretch looming at the end of the month, a grind that includes two games against the Chicago Bulls (home and away), road games in Memphis, Washington and Cleveland and showdowns with the Heat (March 26) and San Antonio Spurs  (March 31) that will shed more light on whether or not these Pacers are as ready for prime time as they appeared to be just a month ago.

Changes to their make-up (Evan Turner and, eventually, we assume, Andrew Bynum) will also force the Pacers to continue to tweak their chemistry. They have to be proactive in terms of how they make their own internal adjustments.

But when you build up the sort of reservoir of victories and the quality body of work the Pacers did out of the gate, it’s almost impossible to squander it now. A two-game tailspin can be survived.

If there are cracks in the foundation, though, you better believe the other contenders on both sides of the conference divide have noticed. And they’ll be sure to do whatever they can to exploit that in the future.


VIDEO: The Bobcats thumped the Pacers and shut down Paul George and Roy Hibbert in the process

Walker Injury Cripples Improving ‘Cats


VIDEO: Heat vs. Bobcats, Jan. 18, 2014

This time — after Al Jefferson, after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, after Jeffery Taylor – it’s Kemba Walker. This time, it’s a sprained left ankle and the Charlotte Bobcats saying Walker will miss 10 to 14 days.

This time, it’s different.

The Bobcats have faced a series of health issues this season and remained in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, but a couple weeks without their starting point guard may become the biggest test yet. The timetable for Walker to be back is good news. Sitting a full 14 days and seven games is not bad, considering how awful the injury looked, with Walker’s ankle and left leg practically at a 90-degree angle as he stepped on the foot of Miami’s Chris Bosh on Saturday. Walker had barely hit the court before Jefferson, watching from behind while trailing the play, put both hands on his head in concern of what appeared to be a serious injury.

Otherwise, the injury is a huge concern. Walker not only leads the Bobcats in scoring (18.7), assists (5.0) and minutes (35.7), but he had been playing particularly well lately, at 21 points per game and 45.6 percent shooting in the last five outings (he’s now at 42.1 percent for the season). While never known as a distributor, Walker had at least eight assists in four of the last seven games, including in 22 minutes against the Heat. In those seven games, he had only 13 turnovers.

Walker, Jefferson told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, is the “heart and soul” of the team. The Bobcats, he said, lost their “fight” when Walker went out in the third quarter against the Heat. A 64-57  lead turned into a 104-96 overtime escape for Miami.

Playing without Walker changes everything. Opponents will be able to double Jefferson in the post more aggressively without Walker’s outside shooting, Bonnell points out, and the Bobcats will have to do without the Jefferson-Walker pick-and-roll — just as it had become a late-game option, developed over time after Jefferson missed most of November with a bruised right ankle.

Jefferson, the starting center, missed his first nine games as a Bobcat after signing as a free agent with the bad ankle. In Jefferson’s seventh game back, small forward Kidd-Gilchrist fractured his left hand, costing him 19 games. In that time, Taylor, MKG’s backup, ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon, ending his season. Yet despite the health woes, the transition to new coach Steve Clifford, an unreliable offense and concerns about a declining intensity on defense, Charlotte, even at 17-25, was just a game behind the Nets for the final playoff spot.

The Bobcats had been better after a recent five-game losing streak, with Clifford telling the Observer, “I feel a lot better about our team than a week ago. We showed the fight we were showing early in the year. … We’re playing hard and smart.” They had gone 3-4, and then came the double loss — Walker to the ankle injury and the game to the Heat — Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Now Charlotte faces home games against the Raptors and Clippers, at the Knicks, back home against the Bulls and then a Western swing that begins with stops against the Nuggets, Lakers and Suns with Walker out. Several opponents are dealing with point-guard injuries, too, but the Bobcats are beginning the stretch by playing four games in six days, further taxing a bench that will be thinned out with Ramon Sessions or Jannero Pargo moving into the lineup.

Sessions is the obvious choice for the promotion to the lineup Monday against the Raptors, but Clifford could choose the seldom-used Pargo to start, keeping the second unit intact while hoping the experienced starters step up around Pargo. The decision arrives with the Bobcats a game behind the Pistons and Nets, battling for the last playoff spot.

20 Teams Dream Big On MLK Day


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews all of the MLK Day action

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – More than Christmas or even All-Star weekend, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides the NBA a platform to showcase some of the best players and teams the league has to offer. Stars young and old, championship teams and those aspiring to join those ranks … they’ll all be on display Monday.

A total of 10 games from across the country will highlight a day of celebration of both the game and the Dream Big mantra of not only Dr. King but also the league. What to watch for during the MLK Day hoops smorgasbord, the official halfway mark of the regular season:

Dallas vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Cavaliers are feeling good after a 3-2 road trip and look to take advantage of a Mavericks team still smarting from getting blown out by Portland Saturday night. Luol Deng has infused the Cavaliers with a new energy, much like what Monta Ellis has done all season for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. That loss to Portland was a wake-up call for Rick Carlisle’s team, a group riding high after winning four-of-five prior to that humiliating defeat. “We regressed. The first three quarters are beyond embarrassing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told the team’s official website. “We weren’t playing together. We weren’t helping each other. Do that against a quality team … and they’re going to make you pay a heavy price.”

L.A. Clippers vs. Detroit, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: Losses to the league’s elite have left a cloud over the Clippers’ season to this point. They look like a championship team on paper and when everything is clicking (and when everyone, Chris Paul specifically, is healthy). The Clippers are 0-5 on the road this season against the league’s top five teams, and while this game against the Pistons doesn’t provide a similar test, Clippers coach and Senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers is constantly evaluating his crew. “I like our team,” Rivers told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes. We’re not looking to make changes, but we’re always looking just like every other team. I like our team right now. If the season ended and we had the group we have right now, I like how we look. Obviously, I’d add Chris Paul to that group — but other than that I like our team a lot.”

Toronto vs. Charlotte, 2 p.m. ET, (League Pass)

The skinny: Playoff dreams in Charlotte this season have a lot to do with Kemba Walker and how well the point guard plays at what is the league’s deepest and most difficult position. If you don’t believe it just look at what Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors during their post-Rudy Gay-trade renaissance. So with the news that Walker will miss the next 10-14 days with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats need Ramon Sessions to step up in a major way to keep the playoff vibes alive. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and can continue their momentum with another big road win.

Philadelphia vs. Washington, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Wizards are trying desperately to reach the .500 mark, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. The break even mark gives them a chance to climb above .500 as they continue their playoff chase. And getting above that mark allows them to think about themselves in a different light, as they continue to work through the inconsistencies that have plagued their season. They haven’t had a winning record since starting the 2009-10 season 2-1. “Somebody just needs to not tell us our record and we’ll just go out and play,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “Every time they tell us ‘.500,’ we just pressure ourselves too much and end up not showing up.” Wizards point guard John Wall and his Sixers counterpart Michael Carter-Williams better show up for their showdown.

Brooklyn vs. New York, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

The skinny: There’s no shortage of subplots in this Battle of the Boroughs. Both Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Nets coach Jason Kidd have survived all of the turmoil of the early season and, courtesy of a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field, remain in the thick of the hunt for postseason positions. The Knicks are still dealing with myriad injury issues, not to mention the ongoing J.R. Smith drama. The Nets just want a little payback after the Knicks beat the starch out of them in their last meeting (a 113-83 rout on Dec. 5). “We definitely do,” Nets point guard Shaun Livingston told ESPNNewYork.com. “They came in and beat us pretty well at our place. We have to take that upon ourselves and take it personally. We’ve got to come and compete.”


VIDEO: Pacers big man Roy Hibbert encourages the children at an Indianapolis elementary to Dream Big

New Orleans vs. Memphis, 5 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

The skinny: The Grizzlies five-game win streak is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the best current run in the league. The surge couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that has been bolstered by the return of All-Star center Marc Gasol. He will do his best to help take advantage of an injury-plagued Pelicans team that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Even with Anthony Davis playing out of his mind, the Pelicans cannot find a groove. Davis is averaging 22.4 points and 11.1 rebounds during the Pelicans’ eight-game skid, both above his season averages. But he needs help if the Pelicans are going to avoid sliding all the way down the ladder in the Western Conference. “It’s adversity,” Davis said. “We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Miami vs. Atlanta, 5:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The best way for the Heat to shake out of their recent funk is to continue to find inspiration wherever they can. For LeBron James, it’s watching his biggest rival and good friend, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has been on a tear of late.  The unfortunate recipient of LeBron’s wrath could end up being the Hawks. Because Durant has raised the bar, even for a LeBron. “I do a lot of checking and seeing what guys have done overnight,” James told ESPN.com’s Heat Index of keeping up with the performances of other players. “After every game, I always go … and see what guys did. I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’ So, there it is.”

L.A. Lakers vs. Chicago, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: It’s tough to get excited about these two teams squaring off when their best players are wearing designer suits instead of uniforms. It’s a good thing the Lakers and Bulls have learned how to operate without Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, respectively. To their credit, the Lakers enter the game riding the wave, however slight it might be, of a two-game win streak. That’s a good way to hit the halfway mark of the season for team that has to feel like it’s endured 82-games worth of tumult already. “We just have a lot of injuries and a lot of stuff,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after Sunday’s win over the Raptors. “We got some guys who are improving and we’re not as good as we’d like to be, obviously this last stretch really knocked us for a loop, but our whole goal is to get back and win one at a time and play well, just get better, keep our energy up and our spirits up and see if we can have a good second half.”

Portland vs. Houston, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: It’s funny the way things work out sometimes in the NBA. The Trail Blazers are every bit of the elite, title-contending team most of the pundits predicted the Rockets would be last summer when they landed Dwight Howard in free agency. The Blazers have done it all season with a steady mix of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and arguably the most underrated supporting cast in the league. It won’t be that way for long if it’s up to Nic Batum, who told our very own Jeff Caplan that he believe he’s an All-Star. “You know, KD, is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

Indiana vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: Paul George‘s 360 dunk has been the talk of the basketball world the past 24 hours and rightfully so. But that one dunk shouldn’t overshadow what is a most appropriate nightcap of a monster day of hoops. We get the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league against arguably the most exciting team, though not the most consistent, in the league. George, Steph Curry, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson will provide the offensive fireworks. But the fellas up front on both sides love to mix it up (David West‘s pockets are $15,000 lighter after he was fined for that elbow to the jaw of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin). Keep an eye on West, Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and HT fave Draymond Green of the Warriors. They’ll wage their own battle during the game.


VIDEO: Pacers star Paul George leads the top 10 dunks of the week

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Jefferson Credited For — Yes — Defense

Charlotte Bobcats v Sacramento Kings

Al Jefferson is pleased to get a rare compliment about his defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Because his hearing was never the problem, the comments about his poor defense registered loud and clear, as did the diplomatic non-answer answers through the years whenever a coach or teammate was asked about the topic and didn’t want to trash Al Jefferson. He got it.

So when Jefferson joined the Bobcats this season, coach Steve Clifford quickly made the point that Jefferson’s defense wasn’t really as bad as people made it seem. There was a back-handed compliment in there somewhere, but there was also a match strike that led to the veteran center being newly motivated on that side of the ball and becoming a key component of the team that is fifth in the league in shooting defense and sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions.

“It means a lot,” Jefferson said of Clifford’s comments, words of praise that have continued long past the start of the season. “It motivates me. It motivates me to continue to get better on defense. I never heard my name and ‘great defense’ in anything. People always criticized me about my defense. I really don’t care what people think, but just to finally hear somebody giving me a compliment.”

Clifford gave him that compliment, but also a challenge. Tapping into pride, the new coach talked to Jefferson about his reputation. He put the image of a talented post scorer who gives a lot of the points back in the other end in front of Jefferson.

“He didn’t want to be the weak link defensively,” Clifford said. “And I think as he’s come in, despite the fact that he’s not healthy, he’s really done a good job.”

The bruised right ankle that cost Jefferson nine games in November remains a problem, reducing his lift, but he is at 17 points and 10.1 rebounds while 34th in defensive impact,  a measurement mostly of big men on blocks, steals and protecting the rim.

“I think he’s played a lot better defensively than anybody ever gave him credit for in the past,” Clifford said. “Whatever the knock on him, I guess, when he was younger was that he didn’t pass the ball out of the post, which he does very efficiently now. And the knock on him when we got him was that he wouldn’t defend. His defense has been good. It’s been solid. What people don’t know is, he’s not near a 100 percent. His ankle is what it is. I don’t think for the rest of this year he’s going to have the lift or the explosiveness he had last year and yet he goes out every night, doesn’t say anything. He competes hard.”

The Bobcats, at 15-21 on pace for the playoffs, are trying to recover from a decline in defensive intensity. Clifford has wanted to see better focus, but Charlotte should also benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who fractured his left hand Dec. 3, as soon as Tuesday against the Knicks.

Bobcats Target Kidd-Gilchrist Return


VIDEO: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stuffs Gerald Wallace at the rim

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Bobcats are targeting an important stretch of games in the middle of the month, possibly as soon as Jan. 14, for the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a fractured left hand, coach Steve Clifford said.

“Next weekend we’re at Minnesota, at Chicago, and we’re hoping to have him back after that,” Clifford said Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena, where Charlotte beat the Kings to close an otherwise-disappointing 1-4 trip. Under that scenario, Kidd-Gilchrist would rejoin the team for the Jan. 14 home game against the Knicks, a particularly welcome addition at a time the defense is slipping after previously leading the Bobcats into the playoff conversation.

That night would also be the start of an important time in the schedule, with six of eight games against teams either with worse records than the Bobcats (New York twice, Philadelphia, Orlando) or close to them in the standings (Toronto, Chicago), while also facing the Heat and Clippers. While it is impossible to truly be out of the postseason race in the Eastern Conference, Charlotte needs to either take advantage of that time or survive to re-establish itself as a defensive-minded group capable of something bigger than just an encouraging start.

The Bobcats are still on pace to finish in the top 10 in defensive rating, shooting defense and scoring defense, but Clifford has grown concerned the last couple weeks over a declining intensity, calling out the focus of players by saying “I think it’s our mentality. Even when we were winning four out of five, we weren’t defending the way that we had before.” That would become the other important timing aspect of a Kidd-Gilchrist return with Charlotte at 7-9 while the hand has been mending – his biggest contribution will come on that side of the ball, almost at the very time they need to be re-energized and the chance for a couple weeks ahead to find stability and in the standings.

“I’m the leader of the defense on this team,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I’m like a middle linebacker, so, yeah, I’m going to take it upon myself on the defensive end. On the offensive end, there’s Al (Jefferson) and there’s Gerald Henderson and there’s Kemba (Walker). But on the defensive end, there’s me. I put it on myself to get us back there.”

The starting small forward and No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft fractured his left hand Dec. 3 at Dallas. He was initially in a cast, has advanced to wearing a splint and is able to do a lot of running and other cardio work. But Kidd-Gilchrist has not been cleared to catch a ball yet, let alone for contact in practice.

“I miss the game of basketball,” he said, admitting there were times he took it for granted. “I miss it a lot.”

Five Coaches Who Are Getting It Done

There is a healthy Kevin Love back to hanging up double-doubles for the Timberwolves, Russell Westbrook repaired and reloaded again in the Thunder lineup, Paul George planting his flag firmly into the elite class and LeBron James — ho-hum — routinely churning out more MVP numbers.

The focus, of course, is usually on the players. But unlike those tiny delivery drones that Amazon.com might one day have dropping books and blenders out of the sky onto our doorsteps and heads, most NBA teams don’t fly themselves. So as we creep up on the quarter pole in the 2013-14 season, here are five coaches who have steered into early consideration for Coach of the Year:


VIDEO: Terry Stotts discusses Blazers’ big win over the Pacers

Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers — It’s always risky to make too much of a fast start. Just think back to a year ago at this time when so many gullible folks were lining up to buy tickets on the Knicks’ Fantasy Express. But the Blazers, while shooting 3s almost as much as those Knicks, could be in the mix more for the long haul because Stotts has them sharing the ball with an offensive style led by LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum that is a joy to watch at the same time that they’re paying more attention on defense. There are still miles to cover before they become stoppers. However, the defense that has been upgraded and anchored by Robin Lopez in the middle does a good job of guarding against the pick and roll while continuing to close out on long range shooters. A team that missed the playoffs the past two years and seemed to be in turmoil over the summer with rumors that Aldridge was looking to get out is suddenly the wildest of wild cards in the Western Conference race, sitting atop the list of heavy hitters as the No. 1 seed.


VIDEO: Frank Vogel talks about playing hungry and staying on course

Frank Vogel, Indiana — There have been all the knocks on the Pacers’ schedule through the first five weeks. Sunday’s opener of a five-game road trip against the Clippers was their first of the season against a team that currently has a winning record. Even with a loss at Portland, 16-2 is still 16-2. Vogel has not only forged an identity for his team as the league’s top and most rugged defensive club, but has driven home the point that every night and every game counts. The Pacers don’t want to play Game 7 of any playoff series on the road next spring and that means maintaining focus and consistency through the long regular season. Vogel’s got them giving up the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA to opponents, the fewest assists and are ranked second-best in 3-pointers attempted in a league that has become behind-the-arc crazy. The Jersey Boy has established a blue collar contender out of a black-and-blue style that is built to last.


VIDEO: Mike D’Antoni talks about the Lakers’ Dec. 1 loss to the Blazers

Mike D’Antoni, Lakers — What? We want to give recognition to a guy whose team ranks a thoroughly mediocre 16th in offense and 19th in defense and checks in with a smack-in-the-middle record of 9-9? You bet. Have you looked at the purple and gold roster and the way the favorite whipping boy of Laker lovers and haters has pushed and cajoled this team to keep its head above water while giving Kobe Bryant’s Achilles’ tendon a chance to recover? While the countdown clock is still ticking on the return of the Black Mamba to the lineup, it was not out of the question before the season began that the Lakers could have already been flattened and finished by now. Remember how ESPN ranked the Lakers 12th overall in the West? That was before Steve Nash went hobbling off again with back problems, before Jordan Farmar was sidelined. D’Antoni is getting it done by shuffling lineups with a leading scorer (Pau Gasol) averaging just 14.3 points a game, nine different players scoring at least eight and with the indiscriminate shooter Nick Young looking like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.


VIDEO: Steve Clifford comments on the Bobcats’ Nov. 29 win over the Bucks

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — What are we calling it for Michael Jordan — third time’s the charm? Or fourth? Or fifth? Can we finally stop counting the carcasses of Bobcats coaches now that Clifford has put a sense of organization, direction and purpose into the league’s perennial doormat? Did anybody think that five weeks into the season the Bobcats (8) would have as many wins as the Nets (5) and Knicks (3) combined? The long-time assistant coach waited almost forever to finally get his chance in the big chair and is relying on his two big guns inside and out in Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker at the offensive end, but making his mark with a no-nonsense approach that has Charlotte with the No. 4 ranked defense in the league.


VIDEO: Erik Spoelstra speaks with the media after Dec. 2 Heat practice

Erik Spoelstra, Heat — It’s just not as easy as it looks getting a team that has won back-to-back championships and made three straight trips to The Finals to come out with the hot fire and the right attitude every time out. That’s especially true when you’ve got to keep the condition of Dwyane Wade’s knees in the back of your mind at all times. But Spoelstra has this machine humming as the No. 1 rated offense that usually gets the shots that it wants, also leading the league in effective field goal percentage. The defensive bite is always there, creating mistakes, forcing turnovers and thriving in transition. He’s learned to live in the shadow of Wade, James and Chris Bosh and be the rudder that keeps guiding the Heat ahead as a quiet roaring force, if you will, and still the team to beat.

Biyombo Experiment Takes A Bad Turn

Bismack Biyombo has seen his minutes shrink under new coach Steve Clifford. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bismack Biyombo has seen his minutes shrink under new coach Steve Clifford. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Bismack Biyombo Project, good theater anyway, just got more interesting. Or more tenuous. Or more telling about new coach Steve Clifford.

It certainly just got better for Jeff Adrien, the relative unknown taking the minutes at backup center in another positive development for the Bobcats in a 7-8 start, except that it’s also a hit for the Bobcats: Biyombo, once projected in Charlotte to be part of the foundation of the future, is now officially regressing, out of the rotation for the first time in the two-plus seasons since the risk pick at No. 7 in the 2011 draft.

In the five games before starter Al Jefferson returned from a bruised right ankle, as Rick Bonnell noted in the Charlotte Observer, Adrien was a plus-24, Biyombo was a minus-38, and Clifford was convinced. The rookie coach made his move once Jefferson was back in the lineup last Friday, supposed plans for tomorrow be damned.

In the three games since, Adrien has played 48 minutes, an average of 16 per outing. Biyombo has played five. Total. The dreaded Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision against the Suns, five in Milwaukee the next night and another DNP-CD when the Celtics visited Time Warner Cable Arena.

Biyombo out of the rotation is a significant development after the rookie season of 23.1 minutes while playing in 63 of the 66 games and the 27.3 minutes with 80 appearances last season, but more after the bold move by the Michael Jordan front office to take Biyombo out of Spain in 2011 despite league-wide concerns. Biyombo clearly had a very high ceiling then as an athletic marvel at 6-feet-8 and 225 pounds and with what some teams saw as the potential to be a game-changer on defense and the boards. But he was very raw – maybe more than any lottery pick in years – had a limited body of work against the top competition in Europe and a nonexistent offensive game.

The Bobcats, while keeping their own spot at No. 9 to take Kemba Walker in a choice that went well in a lottery filled with pot holes, added the seventh selection as part of a three-team deal with the Bucks and Kings at the cost of Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and No. 19. Biyombo arrived with the pre-draft promise to one day lead the league in rebounding, but as the ultimate project requiring patience and playing time.

He got both. He even got his 2014-15 option picked up before the season. But Charlotte also invested heavily in its big-man rotation in the summer, landing Jefferson as a free agent and Cody Zeller as the fourth pick in the draft. Clifford took over as coach.

And then it took a few weeks for Adrien to pass Biyombo.

“Jeff Adrien did so well – and I told Biz this – that I couldn’t not give him a chance to play more,” Clifford told the Observer.

“These are facts and numbers, not a feel. If you look at plus-minus in those games when (Adrien) played, we played so well as a group. His plus-minus was so good I would have felt guilty with the guys if I didn’t give him a chance.”

Adrien has responded with double-digit rebounds in two of the last four games, pushing him to 6.4 boards in 20.3 minutes the last five outings. Biyombo has responded by promising to stay focused.

“I’ve got to control what I can control,” Biyombo said. “It’s obvious I believe that I can be a better player. I’ve just got to keep positive, keep working and be there for my teammates. There’s a long way to go. The season is just getting started, so you’ve got to learn from all this.”