Posts Tagged ‘Charles Barkley’

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 138) Featuring Inside Stuff Co-Host Kristen Ledlow



HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For those of you old enough and bold enough to admit it, Inside Stuff was your gateway to the NBA growing up.

Long before NBA TV and League Pass, before mobile apps and smart phones, there was Inside Stuff on Saturday mornings to help feed your insatiable appetite for all things NBA (yes, Ahmad Rashad was the man of the hour on Saturday mornings during our formative years).

Kristen Ledlow, the new co-host of Inside Stuff with Grant Hill, is doing her best to bring that feeling back for the next generation of NBA lovers.

She drops by for her first visit to the hideout on Episode 138 of the Hang Time Podcast, where we discuss everything from  Kobe Bryant‘s return to practice with the Los Angeles Lakers, the work LeBron James is putting in without Dwyane Wade in the lineup for the Miami Heat, the simultaneous meltdowns by both the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, the players’ only team meeting in Cleveland and plenty of news, notes and observations from around the NBA.

You get all of that — not to mention the latest edition of Sounds of The Game and this week’s update of Braggin’ Rights (there is a tie at the top that does not involve Lang Whitaker) — on Episode 138 of the Hang Time Podcast featuring Inside Stuff Co-Host Kristen Ledlow:

LISTEN HERE: LISTEN HERE:


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

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


Kia Race To The MVP Ladder: The Clippers’ Chris Paul Takes Over The No. 1 Spot



VIDEO: Chris Paul dominates in Clippers’ victory over Wolves

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Well, that didn’t take long.

After just one week atop the heap on the KIA Race To The MVP Ladder, the two-time reigning MVP has been displaced. Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul takes over at No. 1 this week, replacing the Miami Heat’s LeBron James., whose tumble down the Ladder has more to do with the work of the new faces near the top than it does with anything James has or has not done.

Kevin Love, Paul George, James and Kevin Durant complete the top five of a star-studded list, while Tony Parker, James Harden, Stephen Curry and newcomers Anthony Davis and Eric Bledsoe round out the second half of the Ladder.

Paul is off to a historic start, joining point guard luminaries Magic Johnson and John Stockton as the only players to score 10 or more points and dish out 10 or more assists in the first nine games of a season. And despite being dismissed already as a championship contender by TNT’s Charles Barkley, Paul and the Clippers are right where they need to be at this stage of the season.

Dive in here for more of this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 135) Western Conference Preview Featuring Kevin Ding Of Bleacher Report (Oh, and Shaq!)

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — One game doesn’t make a season, not even when it’s a win for the battle of Los Angeles won by the underdog (yes, underdog) Lakers.

But the Lakers’ win over the Clippers was the nightcap of a fantastic start to the 2013-14 season, complete with LeBron James and the Miami Heat dismantling Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls on ring night and Paul George and the Indiana Pacers handling the Orlando Magic in their debut.

While the Heat and Pacers are free from the question marks, the Lakers are not. TNT’s Charles Barkley is convinced the Lakers are going to “stink” this season with and or without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant, an opinion shared by many (though not anyone else on the Hang Time Podcast crew … we’re not that easily swayed).

While Bryant and the Lakers figured to be something of an afterthought this season, you couldn’t tell by what they did on opening night. They thumped the Clippers and forced us to take a hard look at our predictions on Episode 135′s Western Conference Preview Featuring Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

Maybe the Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves will all battle it out for one of those final playoff spots in the West this season. At the top, however, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the rest of the reigning Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs will fight it out with the new-look Clippers, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot.

If our crystal ball is correct, though, that party at the top will be crashed by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and the Golden State Warriors and perhaps even Dwight Howard, James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets.

You get all of that and more on Episode 135 of the Hang Time Podcast, our Western Conference Preview featuring Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report (and that includes some encouraging words of wisdom for us from TNT’s Shaquille “The Big Impersonator” O’Neal).

LISTEN HERE:


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

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

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

Jordan’s First Retirement, 20 Years Ago, Hit NBA Hardest

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It was 20 years ago today, Michael Jordan said he wouldn’t play…

Hmm, nothing very lyrical about that. More like Sgt. Peppers Broken Hearts Club Band.

As anniversaries go, this one may have lost some oomph after two decades because, sooner rather than later, it lost its exclusivity. Jordan, the consensus pick as the greatest NBA player of all time, eventually would make that same statement again, and then again. But when he dropped the news on the sports world and the American culture on Oct. 6, 1993, that he was retiring from the Chicago Bulls at age 30, no more pebble-grained worlds to conquer, as far as any of us knew, he meant it.

That was it. One and done.

“I didn’t understand it,” Hakeem Olajuwon said a few days ago, looking back across time. Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets’ Hall of Fame center, and Jordan were born 27 days apart. They famously entered the NBA in the same 1984 draft. When Jordan stepped away, it was Olajuwon’s Rockets that stepped up to win consecutive championships. As the 1993-94 season approached, the two stars were in their primes, nine seasons into their treks to Springfield, Mass.

“It was more of a drastic decision,” Olajuwon said, “where I couldn’t imagine that he was comfortable to walk away for life. So I was surprised.”

Jason Kidd was a 20-year-old sophomore at Cal, one more college basketball season away from being drafted into the suddenly Michael Jordan-less league.

“As a guy you looked up to and wanted to be like, here he retires,” said Kidd, also Hall-bound and now the Brooklyn Nets’ rookie head coach. “Now you’re saying ‘The best has left the game,’ and you’ll never get to guard him or play with him. That was disappointing.”

Jordan’s decision to quit the NBA after capturing three consecutive championships with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993, earning three MVP awards and three Finals MVP trophies and winning seven scoring titles was harder to absorb and believe than it was, upon reflection, to understand. He had lived life, for most of his pro career anyway, at a fever pitch, with nonstop basketball commitments, the pressures and obligations of being the game’s most dominant player, the Olympics and other offseason endeavors, and the time and commercial demands generated by his unprecedented rise as a marketing icon and corporate pitchman.

Added to that, in barely a month after the Bulls’ ’93 title, was the loss of his father James Jordan, murdered in a roadside robbery. Then there was the ongoing speculation about Jordan’s golf and casino-style gambling habits, and his alleged association with unsavory characters who might have dragged down not just the player’s integrity but the league’s.

(more…)

Isiah On Open Court: Malone Utah’s ‘Weakest Link’; Regrets ’91 Walk-Off





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When you spend the bulk of your life pursuing and achieving the excellence that Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas has, you tend to spare yourself the agony of looking back, second guessing or worrying about the sensibilities you might have offended along the way. Winning championships at every level affords you that luxury.

But Thomas, an NBA TV analyst these days, decided to look back a little anyway when he hit the couch next to TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and a cast of other TNT and NBA TV personalities.

Isiah didn’t hold back during shooting for the premiere of the critically acclaimed show’s third season (it will air on Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. ET on NBA TV) . In fact, he made sure “Open Court” will get off to an explosive start when he identified his former rival and fellow Hall of Famer Karl Malone as the man who cost the Utah Jazz a title.

“I thought Utah, going back to that team, I thought they had everything it took to win a championship,” he said. “They had the system, the players, the toughness, they were defensive-minded and everything. I always thought like Malone was the weakest link because he wasn’t a good foul shooter. Had he been a good foul shooter they would have beat Chicago.”

When pressed by Johnson about using the term “weak link” in regards to Malone, Thomas didn’t flinch.

“That’s a weak link, because at the end of a game when you are playing at that level, you come down to the last 30 seconds or the last minute of the game, if that guy can’t make fouls shots then he’s the weak link. He’s the guy that you are fouling, the guy you want to put on the line. You’re not fouling [John] Stockton. You’re not putting him on the line, you’re not letting him take the shot. Everything is going to Malone. I thought Malone’s inability to hit free throws is what stopped them from winning a championship.”

Thomas expressed regret for not handling things better against Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons were swept at home in that series and infamously marched off the floor without shaking hands with the Bulls, a move that sparked a decades-long feud between stars on both sides — most notably Thomas and Jordan.

Ernie Johnson asked if Thomas wishes he’d have handled it differently. The response was immediate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “… looking back, we all should have taken the high road.”

But in the heat of the moment, and with what he called Chicago’s posturing in the media leading up to Game 4, Thomas said the walk-off was orchestrated because he didn’t feel the Pistons were being afforded the respect befitting two-time champions.

Don’t miss all that and more on the Oct. 8 premiere of “Open Court” on NBA TV (6 p.m. ET).

West Guards Set Up For All-Star Snub

It could be harder for Steph Curry (left) or Ricky Rubio to get their a taste of the bright lights of All-Star selection.

It could be harder for Steph Curry (left) or Ricky Rubio to get a taste of the bright lights of All-Star selection.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Remember when Steph Curry got the All-Star snub? Charles Barkley was darn well hacked off: “For them to leave Steph Curry off that team, it’s a joke; it’s a flat-out joke.”

Curry’s coach Mark Jackson also wasn’t amused by “them,” his Western Conference peers who pick the reserves, even with Golden State Warriors forward David Lee getting the nod:

“We know who the jurors are,” Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I think you have to question the process. I’m not going to go all Dr. King on us, but you’ve got to stand for what’s right, man. These guys have changed this whole organization. They have led. They have sacrificed. They have defended. They have competed.”

West coaches really might need to take cover this year. Barring injuries or unforeseen awful seasons, those 15 coaches will be locked in a no-win pickle to select the backup “backcourt” players.

Maybe this year Lee gets the snub, or some other “frontcourt” player like Zach Randolph or Tim Duncan (everyone thought he was done after his 2012 omission anyway, right?) to make room for an extra guard or two because there is going to be an absolutely outrageously long list of sure-fire or close-to-it All-Star guards.

The 2013 All-Star team featured five guards on the 12-man roster: Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant as the fan-voted starters, with Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and first-timer James Harden as the coach-selected reserves.

Which one of those guys slides and doesn’t make the 2014 team? Kobe’s coming off Achilles surgery and his return date remains uncertain. Still, he’s expected back well before the All-Star Game and no matter how he fares it’s far-fetched to think fans won’t vote him in for a 16th consecutive start. Just go ahead and pencil in the L.A. boys as starters again.

Will Westbrook falter coming off his knee surgery? Doubtful. Could Parker, a five-time All-Star who has played his best ball over the last two seasons, slip? Possible, I suppose, if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rests him from Christmas Day to MLK Day.

Here’s the thing: Even if one of those guys slide, the list of replacements is excessive, starting with the Warriors’ Curry, whose trajectory is just now starting to mirror that of the space shuttle upon liftoff. Seven of the West’s eight playoff teams from last season boast an All-Star-caliber point guard or shooting guard. Memphis point Mike Conley is gaining steam and it’s possible his 2012-13 numbers, a career-best of 14.6 pgg (and 2.2 spg, third overall) and 6.1 apg, could rise in a faster-paced offense under first-year coach Dave Joerger. Denver’s speed merchant Ty Lawson was a bubble guy in ’12, but he might be in for quite the transition with blow-it-out George Karl‘s departure probably ushering in more traditional sets under rookie coach Brian Shaw.

Still, the list rolls on…

Three West lottery teams offer undeniable candidates: Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, who is poised for a breakout after last season’s tough return from ACL surgery; Portland’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who has reinforcements this year that should help him get even better; and West newcomer and Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, who, oh yeah, was a first-time All-Star last season in that other conference with the 76ers.

Want more? Eric Bledsoe, stashed behind CP3 these last two seasons in Clipperland, is primed to bust out in the Valley of the Suns; Andre Iguodala, a 2012 All-Star, can’t be counted out with the Warriors, unless sharpshooter Klay Thompson beats him out; and Monta Ellis, an All-Star in his own mind even if he’s yet to wear the uniform, could be in for a big year in Dallas feeding off 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki (who just might want his “frontcourt” spot back).

Oh wait, did I mention that eight-time All-Star Steve Nash, who turns 40 a week before the All-Star Game, made the team in 2008, ’10 and ’12?

Obviously he’s due in ’14. Right?

Best of luck, coaches. And be prepared to duck.

Summer Dreaming: Most Improved Player

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HANG TIME, Texas — Fire up the grill. Ice down those frosty cold beers. Nothing says summer like a backyard barbecue.

Or sitting out in the hot sun daydreaming.

Sure, the NBA schedule comes out in a few days. Sure, the season openers are less than three months away. But why stop there? Let’s continue to wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my handful of picks for Most Improved Player and you can chime in below.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs Doesn’t everybody already know about the many splendored talents of the guy with Charles Barkley’s favorite name after he played a key role in the Spurs’ run to The Finals last last season? Of course, Leonard drew the toughest defensive assignment though every round of the playoffs, doing a creditable job on LeBron James. There were also nights when he had bust-out games on offense. But the feeling here is that Leonard has only scratched the surfaced of what he can do. It’s no longer a stretch to think he could live up to coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” prediction. As the years keep piling up and the minutes keep getting restricted on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, The Quiet One is going to get every chance to make big noise as he shoulders more of the burden. He could take the leap that last year’s winner Paul George did for the Pacers.

Harrison Barnes, Warriors Before he conked his head on the floor and eventually had to leave Game 6 of the West semifinals, Barnes was doing all that he could to force a Game 7 in the series with the Spurs. A member of the All-Rookie first team, he averaged 9.7 ppg and 4.1 rpg in just 25.4 mpg. When coach Mark Jackson went to him more and more in the playoffs, Barnes showed more and more of the things he can do. He got to the basket. He drained 3-pointers. In other words, as the games got bigger, he showed why Golden State made him the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft. With Andre Iguodala around to run the floor and get plenty of attention from opposing defenses, the opportunity will be there for Barnes to take that big step up.

Jonas Valanciunas, RaptorsAfter being named MVP in the Las Vegas Summer League, there are lot of folks on both sides of the border who are expecting the young Raptors’ big man to take off this season, especially now that he doesn’t give up minutes to Andrea Bargnani. He’s done work building up the upper half of his slim body without seeming to have surrendered quickness. His rookie numbers of 8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 mpg showed that there’s room for growth with increased playing time, particularly on offense for a player who makes smart decisions and doesn’t force shots. But the Raptors will have to make an effort to get him to the ball. He gets to the foul line, trailing only Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Barnes among last year’s rookies in free throw attempts. As long as he keeps building up his bulk and strength, he can be a solid rim protector on defense. There is every reason to believe he can be the guy that Toronto spent the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft on and then waited for year to get him to join the NBA. If not this season, then the next.

Eric Bledsoe, Suns There were a lot of places where Bledsoe could have wound up that would seem to make more sense than Phoenix. The Suns already have Goran Dragic at the point. But rookie coach Jeff Hornacek will likely play them in tandem and Bledsoe’s got the chops to play at the ‘2’ and use his defensive prowess to get steal and create transition chances and easy buckets for the offense. He’s been champing at the bit to get out from under Chris Paul’s shadow with the Clippers and if he can rein in a tendency to get a bit wild with his shot selection, Bledsoe could put up some nice numbers for a Suns team that will be thirsting for offense.

Jeremy Lamb, Thunder He moves around the court and makes every thing look so slow and easy that half the time you want to check to make sure that those sleepy-looking eyes are really open. He didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, doing a constant shuttle between OKC and Tulsa in the NBA D-League to get game experience. He scored big and played well at the Orlando Summer League and now with the departure of Kevin Martin, the door is wide open for the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft to come in and knock down all those wide open shots that are created by playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If those eyes are wide awake, Lamb could see his way to some very big things on the championship contender.

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Frantic Free-Agent Pursuit Of Howard Proves Talent Rules Over All



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Let the current Dwight Howard derby playing out in Los Angeles serve as Exhibit A for the defense. It’s talent over everything else where NBA free agency is concerned.

The same things that Howard has been bashed for the past year and half — his inability to make up his mind, a less than Dwight-like performance after back surgery, an emotional vulnerability while serving as a musclebound pinata for the pundits, etc. — are the same things that inspired the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers to ignore the rest of the free-agent field or what it will cost them in luxury-tax penalties (in the Lakers’ case) for an all-out pursuit of Howard’s services this summer.

Howard, 27, is far from washed up and is in the midst of his physical prime. And despite opinions to the contrary (sorry, Shaquille O’Neal, but you and plenty of others are wrong on this one), Howard is still the best big man in basketball. And Howard with a chip on his shoulder, with his talent, is a player all of these teams would love to build around.

The man Shaq suggested was ready to dethrone Howard as the top big man in basketball, Andrew Bynum, didn’t play a single second in Philadelphia this season and is low on the priority list for most teams.

Al Jefferson, the only other potential All-Star-caliber center in this free-agent class, is being pursued by the Charlotte Bobcats. But not with the fervor of these teams that are chasing Howard.

Can you envision Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Yao Ming (via Skype), Jerry West or any of the other stars who have volunteered to help their respective teams chase Howard in free agency doing the same for Bynum or Jefferson?

That’s not to say Howard hasn’t had his issues. And he’ll have to work to rebuild his brand with fans wherever he goes. But his stock is sky-high with the folks whose professional livelihood depends on them getting this right.

Howard changes the dynamic in places like Houston, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta. Those teams instantly move into a championship-level tax bracket with Howard as the centerpiece of their franchises. (The Lakers tried it already and barely made the playoffs.)

“Don’t let all of that chatter from the season fool you,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Dwight was going to be the game-changer in this free-agent class no matter what. He could have sat and rested that back through All-Star weekend and he’d still command this kind of attention in free agency. There is no one else in his class as a big man when he’s right.”

Right & Wrong: 28 Seconds Of Failure

 

Five points and 28 seconds. It’s all that stood between the San Antonio Spurs and a stunning fifth championship.

Five points and 28 seconds to knock out hero-turned-goat-turned-hero again LeBron James and the Miami Heat on their home floor.

Five points and 28 seconds to immortality for Tim Duncan, who had delivered a masterful Game 6.

Five points and 28 seconds the Spurs might never live down.

San Antonio led 94-89 with 28.2 seconds left and it could have been a six-point bulge had Manu Ginobili not missed the front end of two free throws. From there the Spurs collapsed. Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw with 19.4 seconds left that could have been the clincher. The unflappable coach Gregg Popovich will reflect on some questionable strategic calls in the crunch, such as twice removing Duncan on Heat possessions. And twice, the Heat took advantage with offensive rebounds that led to 3-pointers, first from James to slice the deficit to 94-92 with 20.1 seconds left and then from Ray Allen with 5.2 seconds to go to force overtime.

Five points and 28 seconds that could ultimately define the 2013 NBA Finals.

A look at what went right and what went wrong:

Right: His critics ready to pounce, and in this case rightly so, James came through in the clutch with his team hanging onto life by a thread. Through three quarters, James had three field goals and two turnovers. He had missed nine shots and the Heat trailed 75-65, just 12 minutes away from elimination. Then James turned in a phenomenal fourth quarter with 16 points and a tremendous block of Duncan at the rim. However, there were also the three turnovers, two on consecutive possessions in a 12-second span with less than 40 seconds to play. The Spurs went up five, but the now-headband-less James nailed the crucial 3-pointer with 20.1 seconds to go. He ultimately finished with his second triple-double of The Finals.

Wrong: Was Popovich responsible for James and the Heat catching fire to open the third quarter? On the road, up 10 and 12 minutes away from claiming the title, Popovich opted to start the fourth quarter with Parker and Duncan on the bench and a five-man unit of struggling offensive players: Gary Neal, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. Ninety-four seconds later, the Spurs’ 75-65 lead was 77-73 and Miami charging hard. Popovich quickly summoned Leonard off the bench and then Duncan at the 9:23 mark. Parker sat until the 7:35 mark with San Antonio clinging to an 82-79 lead. With a chance to bury the Heat, Popovich chose to rest his two big guns at the same time, a move that backfired.

Right: Prior to Game 6, Chris Bosh said that Spurs sharpshooter Green wouldn’t find much open space to go off from the 3-point arc, where he had made 25-for-38 in the first five games. When Green got free for a wide-open 3 that he buried in the second quarter, there was plenty of sniping at Bosh in the Twitterverse. He’d get the last laugh as Green wouldn’t make another shot from beyond the arc, finishing 1-for-5 from back there and 1-for-7 overall for three points. Meanwhile, Bosh would grab 11 rebounds, including a huge offensive board in the final seconds of regulation that set up Allen’s game-tying 3-pointer. Bosh also blocked Parker’s jumper with 32.3 seconds left in overtime and then he swatted Green’s desperation corner 3 as the final buzzer sounded.

Wrong: The Spurs’ backcourt failed to come through on both ends. Parker, Ginobili, Neal and Green combined to go 11-for-42 from the floor (26.2 percent) and 4-for-14 (28.6 percent) from beyond the arc with 10 turnovers, eight of which were committed by Ginobili. Each made just one 3-pointer and the Spurs’ five from beyond the arc were their fewest of the series. At the other end, Miami point guard Mario Chalmers killed Parker and anyone else guarding him with 20 points. He had 14 points in the first half, which was one more point than Chalmers had managed in the previous three games combined.

Right: Miami shooting guard Mike Miller remarkably recorded his first field goals of the series as a starter. Inserted into the starting lineup for Game 4 after going 9-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first three games, Miller could barely get a shot up as a starter, going 0-for-1 for no points in Games 4 and 5. In Game 6, he hit his first 3-point attempt in the first quarter and finished 2-for-2 from back there and with eight points, seven rebounds and two assists. His biggest contribution was his lone offensive rebound of the game with 22.9 seconds to go in regulation. He split a couple of Spurs and grabbed James’ 3-point miss, got it back out to James on the wing where he nailed his second attempt to cut the Spurs’ lead to 94-92.

Wrong: Manu, Manu, Manu. After his feel-good, 24-point, 10-assist breakout in Game 5, Ginobili reverted to his mostly bumbling ways in this series, low-lighted by eight turnovers, including two critical miscues in overtime. He was horrendous on the offensive end with just nine points and getting of just five shot attempts. He thought he got raked across the arm driving through the lane in the final seconds. No call was made and he could have just as easily been whistled for traveling. The ball popped free and into the arms of Allen, who was fouled and hit the two free throws for the 103-100 lead with 1.9 seconds to go.

Right: The Heat and Allen turned the tables on the Spurs from the 3-point arc, knocking down 11-for-19 while the Spurs went just 5-for-18 — and 18-point differential. Allen, the league’s all-time 3-point leader, has been overshadowed by Green during this series. In Game 5, Green broke Allen’s Finals record for most 3-pointers in a single Finals. Not to be outdone, Allen dropped the game-tying 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds to go and saved the Heat from elimination.

Wrong: After Parker hit a 3-pointer and a little dipsy-do shot in the lane and Ginobili made one of two free throws for a 94-89 lead with 28.2 seconds to go, the Heat (un)faithful started filing out of the building. Maybe for a January game against the Bobcats, but just up-and-leaving in Game 6 of the NBA Finals? No matter how dire the situation, this should never occur. In the words of Charles Barkley, “Turrrrrible!”