Posts Tagged ‘Bulls’

Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

Award races head into stretch run

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Four weeks from today the regular season is over. All eyes will be on the playoffs. And that means the final push is on for the 2013-14 awards.

The duel for MVP honors has been a match race all season between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Michael Carter-Williams jumped out of the pack early as the one to beat for Rookie of the Year. But the other races have been wide open.

Here’s one man’s view as we head into the home stretch:

Most Improved Player

Anthony Davis, Pelicans — This is why the Pelicans were so happy to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft. This is what coach Monty Williams says Davis probably could have shown last season if the coach hadn’t kept a tight rein on his prized rookie, limiting his minutes and his exposure to getting overpowered while he built up his slender body. When Davis erupted for 40 points, 21 rebounds, three assists and three steals against the Celtics, it was the culmination of a spectacular sophomore year. He’s been steady and breathtaking at both ends of the court all season, enough to beat out the likes of worthy candidates Goran Dragic and Lance Stephenson in a crowded field of contenders. Also getting votes: DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza.


VIDEO: Anthony Davis was nominated for Kia Player of the Month for March

Sixth Man of the Year

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – Following an injury-plagued 2012-13 season that saw him enter the playoffs last spring looking bedraggled, the player who puts the jolt into the Spurs attack is back playing like a live wire in his 12th season. His field-goal percentage is up and his he’s back to doing all the things at both ends of the floor that make him a disruptive force and a difference maker. Jamal Crawford is the closest contender and has done many of the same things for the Clippers. The deciding factor has to be overall team performance. L.A. is in the top half of the Western Conference standings, but that’s once again the Spurs at the top. The return of Manu to his old form is a prime reason. Also getting votes: Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris.


VIDEO: Manu Ginobili talks about the Spurs’ season and his play

Rookie of the Year

Michael Carter-Williams, Sixers — He was the sixth guard selected (11th overall) in 2013 and wasted no time showing he never should have lasted that long. He’s put up big numbers even as the Sixers have suffered through what is a historically inept season. If all of general manager Sam Hinkie’s decisions turn out so well, the pain will be worth the price. The fun could just be starting when MCW gets to team up with a healthy Nerlens Noel next season. It’s a long way back to the No. 2 man in the voting for this category, but we’re jumping the more likely pick and going with Tim Hardaway Jr. His hard-charging style has been one of the few reasons to watch the Knicks all year. Also getting votes: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke. Kia Rookie Ladder


VIDEO: At the All-Star break, Michael Carter-Williams talks about his season

Defensive Player of the Year

Joakim Noah, Bulls — The Pacers spent the early part of the year polishing their reputation as the league’s top defensive team, with center Roy Hibbert starting to clear room on his mantle as the pre-eminent rim protector in the game. But it is no coincidence that the Pacers’ struggles fit with a slippage in Hibbert’s game. The truth is, when you get him just a little bit away from the basket, he’s not so dominant. Meanwhile the Bulls have shrugged off the loss of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng because Noah simply won’t let them stop working and scrapping and competing. He’s the heart and soul of the team, especially that ferocious defense as Chicago charges late and the Pacers try to regain their equilibrium. Also getting votes: Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard.


VIDEO: Rachel Nichols talks with Joakim Noah about his surge in play of late

Coach of the Year

Gregg Popovich, Spurs — The first instinct is to say that Jeff Hornacek has taken a Suns team that everyone assumed was diving for the lottery — and the Las Vegas wise guys had pegged for 21.5 wins — and turned them into an uplifting story and playoff contender, and that’s worthy of consideration. The next instinct is to say that Tom Thibodeau is like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, virtually getting limbs chopped off and yet ignoring the wounds and keeping right on with the fight. But when you get right down to the meat of things, it’s all about winning games and some how, some way, Popovich keeps doing that better than anybody else. Never mind that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are practically senior citizens. Never mind that an assortment of injuries has forced the Spurs to use two dozen different lineups. Never mind all of those lingering mental scars from The Finals last June. Popovich expects the best and his team keeps producing it. Excellence should be recognized and rewarded. Also getting votes: Frank Vogel, Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford.


VIDEO: GameTime delves into how deeply Gregg Popovich’s influence is felt around the NBA

Most Valuable Player

Kevin Durant, Thunder — It’s been a two-horse race between Durant and LeBron James almost from the opening tip. You can almost never go wrong picking James, who still reigns as the league’s best player with his ability. It looked like James might be making a late charge for an MVP three-peat with his 61 point game a couple of weeks ago. But an ensuing slump by both LeBron and the Heat took the steam out of that charge. Durant responded and has raised his game even higher over the past 1 1/2 weeks. We also have to go back to Durant’s body of work without Russell Westbrook for 30 games — and counting — as he keeps the Thunder in the hunt for best overall record and heads toward what should be the first of multiple MVP wins. Also getting votes: Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin. Kia Race to the MVP Ladder


VIDEO: Chris Webber and Greg Anthony debate and discuss the MVP race

Morning Shootaround — March 3


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Mar. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Riley speaks on Heat | Melo to the Bulls … at some point? | Spurs finally back to normal | Markieff Morris holds the key for the Suns | Stan Van Gundy is no fan of analytics

No. 1: Heat boss Riley sends cautious message about team, season – Perhaps it’s his personal history with trying to three-peat that’s on Heat boss Pat Riley‘s mind these days. Reality has a way of creeping into the consciousness for a man who has seen and done as much as Riley has over the course of his career. And that could explain his cautious message to Heat fans over the weekend, words spoken at a charity function, words that are sure to make their way to the locker room. And maybe that’s what Riley, always the master motivator, was trying to do all along. If he feels his team needed to be poked or prodded from on high, he took matters into his own hands. More from the Associated Press report:

“We’re playing very well right now, but every day you keep ratcheting up what you need to do to get ready for what you know is going to be an incredibly competitive playoff,” Riley said. “Right now, you have to keep in mind we have a long way to go.”

The Heat (42-14) will head into Monday’s home game against Charlotte winners of seven straight and 10 of 11. They still have to wait seven weeks before the playoffs.

“Everybody thinks it’s right around the corner. No, a lot of stuff can happen,” Riley said. “We’re in home-court advantage races, not only in the West but in the East. That’s not an objective.

“The objective, I think according to Coach (Erik Spoelstra), is that (we) stay on track with the defense and the rebounding, and I think we’ll be OK.”

Riley touched on several other topics during a brief meeting with reporters.

• On LeBron James: “The fact that he’s a confident player right now, probably the most confident player in the NBA, and it’s not born out of arrogance or born out of anything else other than the main thing, which is winning. He wants to win. That’s all it’s about.”

• On Dwyane Wade, who this season has been managing sore knees: “Dwyane is an 11-year veteran and he knows his way around the block. He knows what he has to do to get himself ready. Again, I go back 11 years with him, and I’ve seen him from the beginning to where he is today. He’s a smarter, more efficient in using his energy.”

• On not signing former Heat swingman Caron Butler, who signed with Oklahoma City on Saturday after being bought out by Milwaukee earlier in the week: “We love Caron. We reached out to him but he was very definitive with what he wanted and I don’t think it’s something we could have promised.”

• On 7-foot center Greg Oden, who has returned after missing nearly four years due to knee injuries: “He’s gone through a lot and I just cross my fingers, and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better then we’re going to be better. That’s why we brought him in.”

***

No. 2: Melo’s dilemma, Chicago or New York? – If Carmelo Anthony’s going to chase a championship at this stage of his career, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News suggests he start studying up on the situation in Chicago. Our Steve Aschburner has already highlighted the deep-rooted cultural differences between Melo and what he’s used to and what the Bulls are used to under Tom Thibodeau … and the gulf is wide. But time is running out on Melo and the Knicks, who fell hard against Joakim Noah and the Bulls Sunday. Melo has to have an escape plan in place and Chicago wouldn’t be a bad place to land, if chasing a title is truly at the top of his to-do-list:

A young fan seated behind the Knicks bench held up a sign encouraging Carmelo Anthony to consider the Bulls — again — when he weighs his free-agent options this summer.

“I saw a lot of signs,” Anthony said in delivering perhaps the best cryptic message of his career.

“It was a good sign,” he would later say. “I mean the kid went to art class … not the message.”

Anthony’s words are becoming more scrutinized, especially with July 1 drawing closer and his future already having been linked to the Bulls, among other teams.

He was admittedly “embarrassed” by the Knicks’ 109-90 loss on Sunday, yet also impressed with the Bulls’ resolve. Deep down, Anthony knows Chicago could be his best free-agent option.

The Bulls can offer Melo a stable franchise with a fierce, battle-tested roster as well as a superb head coach. The best the Knicks can do is the most lucrative payday, which may be too good to reject.

But if you take Anthony at his word, that winning a title is his top priority even if it means taking less money, well then there are few places better than Chicago.

“I don’t know, man. They always are a team who’s going to be there, who’s going to compete, who’s going to play hard,” Anthony said. “For whatever reason that is, I don’t know if it’s their system, if it’s Thib’s system. For whatever reason they’re always going to be there and compete.”

The Bulls apparently do have interest in Anthony, whom they pursued three years ago in a trade but couldn’t land. Chicago was not thrilled about dealing Deng, the emotional leader of the team whose personality and competitive fire would complement Anthony. Imagine if after all the assets the Knicks gave up to land Anthony he goes to the team that kept its core intact, has an MVP-caliber point guard and a brilliant head coach.

You better believe Melo sees signs. He sees a Knicks organization in utter disarray. He sees himself missing the playoffs for the first time in his career and it makes him sick to his stomach.

He sees LeBron James poised to win another title and sees Chris Paul with a loaded roster in Los Angeles.

The sign he should be looking for as it relates to the Knicks is a yellow one that screams, “Caution!” The Knicks’ plan is simple: re-sign Anthony and add a free agent the following summer. Makes sense. Maybe they’ll sign someone like Rajon Rondo, who has his own knee issues and who, unlike Rose, can occasionally be a head case. However, selling Anthony on the 2015-16 season is a risky proposition.

***

No. 3: Finally, Spurs get back to normal with Parker’s return – Tony Parker‘s return to the lineup for the San Antonio Spurs didn’t necessarily make global waves in the basketball atmosphere. But it should have. The Spurs have not been their usual selves without him. And for months they’ve battled injury after injury to their core group, issues that all teams face in some form, fashion or another. Still, it caused more than a little teeth-gnashing in San Antonio. Dan McCarney of the Express News explains how Gregg Popovich and crew handled the mess:

Parker’s return brought an end to a two-month crisis, started by Tiago Splitter’s sprained shoulder against the Clippers on Jan. 4, during which the Spurs missed at least one and as many as four key players for 24 straight games. They went 16-8 during that span, dropping just one game further behind first-place Oklahoma City to sit 1 1/2 off the pace in the Western Conference standings.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich couldn’t care less about seeding — “It doesn’t matter. It never has,” he said after Sunday’s game — [Manu] Ginobili and Parker are thrilled.

“Sometimes you do have a lot of injuries during a season,” he said, “but not five core players together. Pop and the team really had to figure it out. Grab players and change positions. We had Nando (De Colo) and Cory (Joseph) playing (shooting guard) a lot, even (small forward). So it’s remarkable we managed to stay in the second spot with a good record. I’m proud of this team.”

Said Parker, “It feels great to have everybody back. Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy and try to make a run at it. Everybody recharged their batteries. Everybody should be fresh. Every year I like our chances so as long as we stay healthy and play our best basketball when the playoffs come. That’s the main thing.”

***

No. 4: Markieff Morris serves as Suns’ biggest key – The “Year of the Dragon?” Maybe not in Phoenix. Sure, Goran Dragic has been great this season for the Suns. He’s high on the list of most improved players in the league and also has earned a spot on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. But the Suns’ biggest key this season? That honor belongs to Markieff Morris. That’s right, Markieff Morris. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic provides some context:

The Suns were piling up points early Sunday night, but their defensive stops could not keep up until Markieff Morris and Ish Smith entered the game.

Markieff Morris’ presence can swing a game, and it usually has been for the better — like Sunday night, when he posted 12 points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 first-half minutes to swing the Suns from trailing to a double-digit lead.

“Of maybe all of our guys, he’s probably the biggest key,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “If he plays well, we usually have a pretty good chance of winning the game. When he isn’t active, then we struggle. We rely on him a lot coming off that bench, and we run a lot of stuff to him. He’s a great passer. He’s probably one of our better passers on the team.”

The Suns need Morris to be aggressive in the post to create plays for himself and others, especially when Goran Dragic is resting. He has become a Sixth Man Award candidate by scoring in double digits in 21 of the past 22 games. The last Suns reserve to do that was teammate Leandro Barbosa, when he won the Sixth Man Award seven seasons ago.

The Suns have not strayed from the usual starting five except for injuries, using the second-fewest total of starters this season (seven) in the NBA. Morris’ connection with his twin, Marcus, makes it an effective bench unit with Smith pushing the tempo.

As a bench player, that sometimes means that Markieff Morris plays the rest of either half because he is going so well. He closes tight games with Hornacek usually trying to get a brief fourth-quarter rest.

“You say we’ll ride him out and see if he gets tired and he’s been able to get through that and finish a lot of games,” Hornacek said

***

No. 5:  Van Gundy dismisses analytics crowd – John Schuhmann and the rest of the stats-loving/analytics crowd might want to cover their ears whenever Stan Van Gundy speaks, because he is not a fan. And that’s the politically correct way of saying that the former Magic and Heat coach has not been converted to the analytics age of the game. Not yet at least. Van Gundy went off o the analytics movement during his time at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, expressing his displeasure with many of the folks who have championed the cause. Brett Pollakoff of ProBasketballTalk has more on Van Gundy’s analytics inquisition:

Van Gundy posed legitimate questions that would theoretically need to be addressed before the basketball purists at the NBA level take the data as gospel, and making sure that whoever is identifying certain play types and quantifying them knows basketball, and is doing that job to the specifications of a particular head coach.

“I don’t trust most of it,” Van Gundy said, beginning an exquisite rant on the topic. “I read some of the stuff that people write on ESPN.com, you know, I’ll read stats on pick and roll defense and stuff that came off Synergy or somewhere else — I don’t know who the hell is recording that information!”

“I read a thing in the playoffs last year that said that New York isolated like 17 percent of the time,” he continued. “I’m watching their games, they isolate half of the time, at least. So I don’t know who’s recording that. If there’s a pick and roll, and they throw it back to Carmelo and he holds the ball and isolates for eight seconds, that’s a pick and roll play, not an isolation? And a lot of pick and roll stuff … you know, I read a thing today from ESPN the Magazine on Paul George being the best pick and roll defender in the league on the ball handler. Look, a lot of pick and rolls … there’s pick and rolls designed to score, and there’s pick and rolls you run to get into something else. If you’re recording it and you’re treating those two things the same, then you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Van Gundy really does like the additional available data — he just needs to be able to trust that whoever is compiling it has the same standards basketball-wise that he does. Ironically enough, I overheard a statistician type at one of the panel discussions explaining to a colleague that of course he watches games — but only to enhance his data set.

“I mean, I do watch the games,” this person said, “to to try to pick up on some things that maybe my numbers aren’t catching.”

This is obviously completely backwards, and as far as Van Gundy is concerned, there’s simply no substitution for the eye test.

“To me, I think that a lot of the analytic stuff can be very useful, but if you’re using that in place of sitting down and watching film yourself and seeing what’s going on, you’re making a big mistake,” Van Gundy said. “And I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think one of the problems with analytics — I think it’s good; I used it, I love looking at it — but one of the problems is, there are a lot of people in a lot of organizations who don’t know the game, who all they know is analytics and as a result, that’s what they rely on. And they will use that to supersede what guys like us see with our eyes. And I think that’s a major mistake. There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again, and the only numbers I trust are the ones that my people believe.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jimmer Mania is on and popping in Chciago … Some “tanking” going on in Orlando? … Andrew Bynum is reportedly ready for action and is saying it loud and clear, “I want to play” … Jeremy Lin goes up before the All-Star break but has come crashing down since … Thunder will work without two defensive cornerstones for the foreseeable future

ICYMI of the Night: The Phoenix Suns want you to know that the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors aren’t the only Western Conference playoff teams capable of going off from distance. They peppered the Atlanta Hawks from deep Sunday, raining down 15 made 3-pointers in smashing a pie in the face of their guests …


VIDEO: The Suns let it fly from deep in a win over the Hawks

Morning Shootaround — March 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s mask dilemma | Knicks eyeing Jackson as Woodson’s replacement? | OKC and Butler a perfect fit | Bulls confidence soaring during current run | Colangelo: “I tried to tank”

No. 1: LeBron’s black mask days appear to be over after just one game – Well, it was fun while it lasted, LeBron James in that black mask to protect his broken nose. Our Bleacher Report brother Ethan Skolnick broke the news that the NBA prefers LeBron wear the clear mask and no the black carbon-fiber shield he wore during Thursday night’s win over the Knicks. And according to Skolnick, this isn’t just the league being heavy handed. It’s more about them sticking to the precedent that’s already been established in regards to goggles and facial ware being clear so there is no advantage for the player who is forced to play with goggles or a mask (go figure):

In an email, Skolnick explained why the league prefers a clear mask as opposed to a black one: “The reason the league prefers the ‘clear’ is so that opponents can see a player’s eyes. They have set rules about goggles, which came into play with (Dwyane) Wade in New York in 2011.”

Defenders already have enough trouble stopping James. If they’re unable to read his eyes as a means of guessing where he plans to attack, guarding him would become even more impossible.

Still, this change will be a bummer for the Internet world. Twitter exploded with various comparisons, GIFs and Photoshop creations as King James donned the Zorro-esque mask in a 108-82 win against the New York Knicks Thursday night.

LeBron isn’t going to let the black mask go away without a bit of a fight. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that an appeal has been filed and that LeBron, while prepared to comply with the league’s request, would like to continue wearing the black mask. It’s complicated, of course, as is anything this seemingly trivial:

“It is our understanding LeBron used the black mask because a clear one he was comfortable with wasn’t ready,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

James appealed the decision and is still trying to get clearance to wear the black mask because he likes the lightness and fit of it, a source said. He also said he liked the style and how it matched the Heat’s black throwback uniforms. It gave him no issues when he put up 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the Heat’s 108-82 win against the Knicks.

But James is preparing to use a clear mask Saturday, though he still may find a way to personalize it.

The black mask was a huge hit among fans, and James and several teammates posted pictures with it on social media. On Friday, the Heat started selling T-shirts with a masked James on them.

“Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

***

No. 2: Knicks eyeing Mark Jackson as Mike Woodson’s eventual replacement? – The Knicks are in the midst of an absolutely dreadful stretch right now, one that has brought into question the futures of almost all involved but especially coach Mike Woodson and resident superstar Carmelo Anthony. Anthony will make his own decisions about his future, this summer in free agency. Woodson, however, will see his fate decided by the Knicks’ big bosses. And if the fans get their wish, a familiar face would be the choice to replace Woodson. New York native and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, who happens to have a job coaching the Golden State Warriors right now, is the dream pick, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:

The big meeting took place right out on the Garden floor, for all to see.

Knicks president and GM Steve Mills and his top lieutenant, Allan Houston, were double-teaming Mark Jackson a little more than an hour before the Knicks pulled a no-show and were routed by Jackson’s Warriors, 126-103, on Friday night.

Go ahead Knicks fans, dream a little.

We can tell you on good authority, no job offer was made. We know this because it was just small talk, chit-chat among old friends.

But it was fairly obvious to everyone in the place that the Knicks have a crush on their old playmaker.

Early in the game, they paid tribute to Jackson on the big scoreboard with a nice video of his career, showing some of his highlights during his two-part career in New York.

Then came the ultimate tribute, at the end of the video, when the PA announcer introduced Jackson, saying, “Once a Knick, always a Knick.”

When they say that about you at the Garden, you know you’re family.

Even MSG Network seemed to be doing its best to give Jackson an inordinate amount of air time in its postgame coverage.

It sure does seem as if the Knicks have their eyes on Mark Jackson, out of Bishop Loughlin and St. John’s.

It’s not as if Jackson hadn’t been back at the Garden before this night. So their show of affection seemed a tad excessive.

But maybe the Garden was just sending signals about who it wants to coach down the line. Jackson got his win, which wasn’t very hard to do. His meal ticket, Stephen Curry, notched his triple-double and there were still two minutes left in the third quarter. His team rebounded nicely off a 20-point loss two nights earlier in Chicago.

Mike Woodson is walking around with a look on his face as if he knows the end is near. Well, after these final 23 games.

“I’m not aware of it, I’m coaching my basketball team, so I haven’t kept up,” Jackson said beforehand about his old team.

Of course he was playing dumb.

He called the Knicks “a dangerous team.”


VIDEO: Masked LeBron was great against the Knicks but will he make another appearance in black?

***

No. 3: Butler a good fit for Thunder on and off the court – The Thunder ended that skid with Russell Westbrook back in the lineup, courtesy of Kevin Durant‘s 30-point second half in a win over Memphis Friday night. But they’re focused on regaining their winning ways and more right now. Caron Butler is set to join the Thunder’s title quest now that his buyout in Milwaukee is complete and once he’s cleared waivers. As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman makes clear, Butler is an excellent fit for the Thunder’s culture, on and off the court, and should be play an integral role in whatever they do going forward this season:

You’ve probably read or heard about all that he brings: toughness and experience, professionalism and character, defense and 3-point shooting.

But what few among us know is why Butler, free to sign with any team after being bought out by Milwaukee on Thursday, chose to come to Oklahoma City.

For now, all we can do is assume it’s because the Thunder gives him a chance to win his second championship. But there’s got to be something more.

That alone is something other franchises, like Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers, also could offer. And the Thunder, for myriad reasons, couldn’t offer the most money or the most minutes or the biggest and best metropolis.

So what’s bringing Butler to OKC?

One reason could be the Thunder’s culture closely matches Butler’s mentality.

Butler would become only the second player the Thunder has signed after another team agreed to a buyout. Derek Fisher in the 2011-12 season became the first.

Both carried with them well-established reputations for being upstanding citizens, community-minded individuals and championship-driven players. Their attraction to Oklahoma City could say as much about the Thunder as it does about them.

It could say the Thunder is now a prime destination for players who want to win.

***

No. 4: Bulls confidence soaring after latest show of toughness – The Chicago Bulls take pride in their toughness. Coach Tom Thibodeau has instilled that in them from the start. And with leaders like Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich around to spread the message, it’s no wonder the Bulls are thriving during what would be tumultuous times anywhere else. They know that no matter the circumstance, no matter who is or is not in uniform, they will compete to the very end. They showed off that intestinal fortitude in an eye-opening comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas Friday night. It was the Bulls’ eighth win in 10 tries. They are cut from a completely different cloth than any other team in the league in that regard, notes Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com:

The difference between the Bulls and many other teams in the league is that they rarely lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. They believe in themselves and they believe in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. They believe, no matter how good their opponent might be, that they can win each night. That’s why, when they got into a 16-point hole in Friday’s first half and had to knock down shots late in the game, their demeanor never changed. They never stopped believing that tough defense and big shots would be the elixir against a Mavericks team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

“I just think we didn’t panic,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, “I think guys understood what we have to do. … We’re just focused right now. Our defense is really clicking. Our offense is really clicking. Guys are really taking big-time shots, we’re never panicking late, we’ve been in this situation. Our poise is just through the roof right now and we’re really in a rhythm.”

That’s the key for Thibodeau’s team as it streaks into March. The rhythm Gibson talked about was missing before the turn of the new year. The same Mavericks team came into the United Center in late December and beat the Bulls by 22 points. Gibson and his teammates are finding ways to adjust on the fly, something that was apparent in the defining fourth quarter, when the Bulls tightened up their defense and held the Mavericks to only six makes from the field in 25 attempts.

“We’re tough whenever we’re playing defense,” Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Rotating, getting into the ball. I think that’s where the basketball starts for us. We let our defense dictate our offense.”

The Bulls are only going to go as far as their defense takes them this season. That’s why Friday’s comeback win meant a little more to them. They realized yet again that they have the ability to shut down good teams on the road — a trait that will serve them well in the playoffs. They realized that they could overcome their surroundings, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban barked at officials under the basket and Dallas assistant coaches Mike Shedd and Mike Weinar screamed out most of the Bulls’ sets whenever Thibodeau made a call. It’s games like this, victories like this, that remind the Bulls just how important the little things are to winning.

“I feel like when people call you resilient that’s a compliment,” Noah said. “But we just got to stay hungry, stay hungry, keep this mindset, we got punched in the face early in the game, we stuck with it and we kept fighting. I think that’s what this team represents. We got one of our best wins of the year today.”

***

No. 5: Ex-Raptors boss Colangelo: “I tried to tank” – The Colangelos, the first family of basketball to many, has upheld the NBA shield for decades. But Bryan Colangelo, the former boss of both of the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, admitted committing the cardinal sin for a franchise when admitted to trying to tank with the Raptors a couple of years ago. Colangelo came clean on a panel discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Colangelo said he did so during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, a move he said was a basic necessity for the Raptors, given their predicament at that time. USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick delivers the details:

As part of a Basketball Analytics panel in which a current proposal was discussed in which the league’s draft lottery system would be replaced by a structure in which the incentive for losing would be eliminated, Colangelo shared the sort of story that the NBA community is well aware is somewhat commonplace but that executives typically keep to themselves.

“I like (the proposal) because there’s no assurances (of getting a good pick) when you do tank,” Colangelo said. “Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago.

“And I didn’t ‘come out and say, ‘Coach (Dwane Casey), you’ve got to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to have him establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that, but I never once said, ‘You’ve got to lose this game.’ “

Colangelo reflected on the ripple effect of that season, as the Raptors finished 23-43 and ultimately drafted Terrence Ross out of the University of Washington with the eighth pick. Because Toronto had finished with the same record as the Golden State Warriors, they had a coin flip to determine which team picked first.

Less than a year later, Colangelo was, in essence, replaced by former Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri. Colangelo stepped down as team president three months later.

“Just one less loss (that season) would have put us in a coin toss for (the Portland Trail Blazers’) Damian Lillard potentially (he was taken sixth), and that was a need that we had on our team that year, a point guard need,” Colangelo said. “So it would have kind of taken us on a whole different route in this rebuilding process, and of course if we had lost a lot more games we would have had better odds to get (the New Orleans Pelicans’) Anthony Davis, the big prize that year. We’re looking at it, and it didn’t work out.

“There’s no assurances (in the lottery). I do like the certainty of the (proposed) process. I think there are some merits to obviously take it to the next extent, except I wish we could start it sooner because there really is some ugly basketball being played.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Friday night was a bonanza for mercurial performances around the league. Not only did Kyrie Irving go off for his first triple double … but Goran Dragic scored a career-high 40 points in the Suns’ win over the Pelicans … and Jordan Farmar made Los Angeles Lakers fans forget their woes, at least for a moment, with a career-high 30 points of his own in a win over the Sacramento Kings … Rachel Nichols sat down with Nets center Jason Collins for an in-depth interview about the veteran big man’s journey back to the NBA … and finally, the “Fire Woodson” chants and boos are getting louder and louder at the Garden

ICYMI of The Night: Steph Curry, needed just three quarters to record a triple double and help the Warriors dump the Knicks at Madison Square Garden 


VIDEO: Steph Curry loves working at Madison Square Garden

Season On The Brink For The Hawks?

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Magic

The Atlanta Hawks have struggled to keep up their early-season success of late.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Sooner or later, one way or another, you knew it was all going to catch up with the Atlanta Hawks.

The injuries.

The close losses.

The missed opportunities.

The injuries.

They weren’t going to stay above the fray in the Eastern Conference mix behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat forever. Not without Al Horford. Not with coach Mike Budenholzer pushing every button possible to make up for the loss of the team’s franchise player after his season-ending pectoral muscle tear the day after Christmas.

It’s amazing it took this long for the wheels to come off for the Hawks. They held on to their top-four status in the East for a good month after Horford went down. Jeff Teague played his guts out before injuries interrupted his season and he hasn’t been as consistent since. Elders like Elton Brand and Kyle Korver and pups like Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack rose up when they were needed. Paul Millsap even earned an All-Star nod, the first of his career, stepping into the void to replace what Horford gave the Hawks on a nightly basis.

But here they are now, with the smoke clearing and the mirrors smashed, facing their most grueling stretch of the calendar with their season on the brink as they cling to the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Wednesday night’s game in Boston begins a season-defining road stretch that includes stops in Phoenix Sunday, Portland (March 5), Golden State (March 7), Los Angeles (the Clippers on March 8) and finishing up in Utah (March 10). Survive this stretch and there is still hope that the Hawks can get healthy enough in time to at least fend off late-season charges from issue-laden Detroit, Cleveland and even woeful New York.

If the Hawks get buried on this road trip, they’ll surely get caught (and be passed up) by one of those teams. Not that they are looking that far ahead.

“You never should look ahead that far,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. “We’re just trying to get better and trust the system and let our work do the talking.”


VIDEO:
Al Horford suffers a season-ending pectoral injury in Cleveland

The power of positive thinking might not save the Hawks this time around. They overachieved early this season and their above-.500 work through early February was fool’s gold. The Hawks are 2-9 this month and don’t exactly boast a road reputation that gives reason to think this big trip will end well.

They are 9-19 on the road with wins over the likes of Sacramento, Charlotte, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Of that group, only the Bobcats are in the playoff mix.

The only saving grace for the Hawks is that they are not alone. Every team in the Eastern Conference not named the Pacers or Heat have to operate like their season is on the line over the course of the next four to six weeks. That’s how fluid the playoff picture is. Whoever gets hot the fastest can chew up some real estate in the standings and push their way into that No. 4-5-6-7 mix in the pecking order.

“We talked about that Monday in our meeting after the [Sunday loss to Miami],” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, taking his cue from Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Thibs said it best, we cannot exhale right now. We have to push through these next couple of games and weeks because this next stretch can alter your season and what you want to do if you let the fatigue of the season get to you. We look at the loss columns for everybody and we feel like we’re right there. You have to bounce back from tough losses and get back at it. Miami and Indiana have separated themselves from the pack, so everybody else has to be fighting for that next spot, that No. 3 seed. And we’re grinding for it right now.”

The Bulls are also grinding without the face of their franchise, Derrick Rose. They’ve surely dealt with their fair share of injuries and adversity this season. But some teams handle it better than others. They are 16-8 since trading Luol Deng to Central Division rival Cleveland. While the Hawks struggle to dig out from under their February avalanche, the Bulls surge along.

Thibodeau oozes confidence when talking about his wounded group, insisting that they have more than enough to get the job done each night. The Bulls’ experience operating under duress in recent seasons certainly aids that cause. Their familiarity with one another (and Thibodeau’s hard-charging style) are assets as well.

The Hawks, with a first-year coach in Budenholzer and a largely revamped roster, have no such benefits. General manager Danny Ferry had a chance to look for some temporary roster help at the trade deadline, but didn’t come away with anything that would make a significant impact.

The fact is, the Hawks are still finding out if they are cut from that same tough fabric the Bulls are. Time will tell. And time, particularly the next 13 days or so, will tell about these Hawks. They are 10-17 without Horford and their confidence seems to be fading.

“The interesting thing about the East,” Hawks veteran guard Lou Williams said, “and I’m trying to say the politically correct thing here … a couple of wins in a row here and you’ll be right back in the fold. We recognize and understand that. So our job is just go out, take it one game at a time and see if we can put a string of wins together and get there.”

That’s much easier said than done at this juncture for the Hawks, who can hear the clock ticking on their season.


VIDEO: The Hawks fight back, but can’t finish off the Bulls in Atlanta

NBA TV’s Fan Night 1-On-1 … The Final Four: LeBron Vs DRose And KD Vs Kobe




VIDEO: LeBron James shows off some of his finest above-the-rim moves … after practice

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We’re down to the wire now in NBA TV’s Fan Night 1-On-1 Tournament, and that means only best of the best are still in contention for the title.

That list starts with Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, the current frontrunner for MVP honors this season, and the reigning two-time MVP and Finals MVP LeBron James. Only they won’t matchup in the Final Four four of this tournament. Durant faces off against Kobe Bryant in one semifinal while LeBron squares off with Derrick Rose. They both already own MVP hardware.

Claiming this title, however, won’t be easy for any of them, not in a 1-On-1 tournament where we are matching up the skills of each player in his prime against that of another player of equal or greater ability.

Durant has a distinct height advantage over Kobe and might be the only player of this generation whose competitive fire rivals that of the Los Angeles Lakers’ great. As great as Kobe has been throughout his career, I could easily see Durant as the superior player in a 1-On-1 setting …



Rose, for all of his fury when healthy, is simply no match for a player with LeBron’s unique combination of size, skill and otherworldly athleticism (check the video up top … we’re talking about practice?). Rose would make this interesting for a while, but LeBron is just too good and too powerful with a “mouse in the house.” …



 You need to get in on the conversation on who would win via social media (Tweet @NBATV #1on1LeBron or #1on1Rose and #1on1Durant or #1on1Kobe). The results will be announced during NBA TV’s postgame coverage of tonight’s the Fan Night game between Durant’s Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV) by NBA TV’s Matt Winer, Greg Anthony and Chris Webber.



VIDEO: Kevin Durant does it all for the Oklahoma City Thunder

All-Star Reserves Named Tonight On TNT


VIDEO: The Beat crew picks the East and West reserves

We all know that coaches are never swayed by sentimentality. What they do, by its very nature, is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of business.

NBA All-Star 2014Good thing, then, that a couple of golden oldies named Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are still producing like young pups.

The fate of the 37-year-old Duncan and 35-year-old Nowitzki are two of the biggest questions as the reserves for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game are announced tonight (7 ET) on TNT.

The results of the voting by the league’s 30 coaches will be revealed and discussed by Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith on a one-hour NBA Tip-Off special preceding a doubleheader that will have the Cavaliers at New York and the Clippers at Golden State.

Duncan, making a bid for a 15th All-Star Game,  is averaging 14.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots in leading the Spurs to the second-best record in the West. Nowitzki had a string of 11 All-Star appearances snapped a year ago due to lingering knee problems, but has the Mavericks back in the playoff hunt by averaging 21.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

After no centers were voted into the starting lineup of either team by the fan balloting, it is expected that Dwight Howard of the Rockets and Roy Hibbert of the Pacers will be added by the coaches.

In the Eastern Conference, after Hibbert of the Pacers, Chris Bosh of the Heat, Joakim Noah of the Bulls, Paul Millsap of the Hawks and John Wall of the Wizards, the questions swirl around the two wild card slots. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Lance Stephenson, Arron Afflalo and Joe Johnson are top candidates.

Along with the fates of Duncan and Nowitzki, the Western coaches will pick from a frontcourt group that includes LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, Serge Ibaka and DeMarcus Cousins. Do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum may be in the discussion, too. The backcourt is even more crowded. Still-injured guard Chris Paul could make it back in time for All-Star. But Kobe Bryant, elected a starter, is expected to miss the game. So coaches (and newly minted commissioner Adam Silver, who will name replacements for starters who can’t play) will pick from among Paul, James HardenDamian Lillard, Tony Parker, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic and maybe even Monta Ellis. 

The 63rd NBA All-Star Game will be exclusively televised on TNT from New Orleans Arena on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. The All-Star Game, also aired live on ESPN Radio, will reach fans in 215 countries and territories and be broadcast in more than 40 languages.

Fan Night 1-On-1: D-Rose vs. Kyrie




VIDEO: Kyrie Irving is an Eastern Conference All-Star starter this season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They were supposed to be the future at the point guard position, rivals for years to come. But things don’t always work out the way they are supposed to. And for Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving, we’ve never had the division rivals healthy enough simultaneously to really compare and contrast their games in real-time.

Thankfully for all of us, we get to make our theoretical comparisons between the two with NBA TV’s Fan Night 1-on-1 Tournament, and we’re down to the final stages with this matchup.

Take both of these guys at their best and it’s a magical pairing, two young and explosive players with games different enough that the beauty of their matchup would be found in the contrast. Rose attacks the rim and finishes as well as any player at the position but might not be as crafty with the ball as Irving, whose handle and deep shooting range set him apart from the pack.

It’s as even as any matchup we’ve seen during the Fan Night 1-On-1 Tournament:

Join the conversation on who would win via social media (Tweet @NBATV #1on1Rose or #1on1Kyrie). The results will be announced during NBA TV’s postgame coverage of the Fan Night game between the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV) by TNT’s and NBA TV’s Ernie Johnson, Greg Anthony, my main man Rick Fox and Chris Webber (via FaceTime).



VIDEO: Derrick Rose goes off during the exhibition season for the Bulls

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

Fan Night 1-On-1: Rose Vs Parker




VIDEO: Derrick Rose was flying high in the preseason

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Injuries have robbed us of seeing Derrick Rose for so long now that it’s easy to forget just how dynamic and explosive the injured Chicago Bulls superstar and former MVP can be on a basketball court. And this season is no different, with Rose sidelined indefinitely for the second straight season with a severe knee injury.

Tony Parker, on the other hand, has exploited every opportunity during a success-filled career that should land the San Antonio Spurs’ point guard in the Hall of Fame some day. The MVP candidate is doing his usual this season, as the head of the snake of the defending Western Conference champions.

Can you imagine what it would be like to see the two of them, healthy and in their primes, going one on one?

Our friends at NBA TV have taken it a step further than just the dream phase by staging a hypothetical one-on-one tournament that the players weigh in on weekly during the splendid Fan Night 1-On-1 Tournament. This week’s combatants are none other than Rose and Parker, two of the standard bearers at the point guard position for their respective generations.

You get to dive in on this fun as well by voting on who you think would win in this battle of the point guard superstars:

You get to join the conversation on who would win via social media (Tweet @NBATV #1on1Rose or #1on1Parker). The results will be announced during NBA TV’s postgame coverage of the Fan Night game between the New Orleans Hornets and Miami Heat (7:30 ET, NBA TV) by TNT’s and NBA TV’s Ernie Johnson, Chris Webber and Greg Anthony.



VIDEO: Mike Fratello talks about the impact Tony Parker makes in San Antonio’s offense