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Morning shootaround — April 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? | Walton offers Lakers hope | Wade digs deep, goes deep | Portland’s underdog ride blazes on

No. 1: What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? — One day and two months. That’s the latest way to frame this so-called curse that hangs over the Los Angeles Clippers, who failed to push their first-round Western Conference playoff series to a Game 7 Friday night in Portland. For one day – the time between Stephen Curry‘s sprained right knee and their own calamitous injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – it looked as if the Clippers might have gotten a fortunate break (admittedly due to Curry’s and Golden State’s misfortune). But then their own stars went down with even more serious injuries (Paul’s hand fracture and Griffin’s quad strain). That brought the Clippers’ history of lousy luck roaring back, and a team that hoped to be playing into June couldn’t even make it out of April. Here are more thoughts on the seemingly snake-bit Clips from ESPN.com’s Arash Markazi:

It was another dramatic and heartbreaking close to a season for the Clippers. They have now squandered a 2-0 first-round series lead by losing four straight games twice, and last season blew a 3-1 second-round series lead by losing three straight games. No team in NBA history has ever blown a two-game series lead three times in four years. The last team to do it in consecutive seasons was the Phoenix Suns in 1994 and 1995.

Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series are 258-16, and teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series are 222-9. As good as the Clippers have been recently, they continue to find themselves on the wrong side of history and fate this time of year.

Of course, the way the Clippers’ season ended Friday, with Paul and Griffin watching the final game of the season back home in Los Angeles while recovering from surgeries, made the result more understandable. But it doesn’t change the end result.

Paul has now been on three of the last four teams to blow a 2-0 series lead, and no player in NBA history has played in more postseason games without getting past the second round than he has. Doc Rivers also becomes only the second coach in NBA history to have his team blow three best-of-seven series when leading either 2-0 or 3-1.

So where do the Clippers go from here? They are the only team other than the San Antonio Spurs to win at least 50 games over the past four seasons, but they have nothing to show for it except for two Pacific Division banners that hang in their training facility along with a handful of game balls from some memorable wins. Even the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have found a way to sneak into the conference finals during that time.

Paul, Griffin and [DeAndre] Jordan are all under contract for next season, but Paul and Griffin probably will opt out of the final year of their deals and become free agents in the summer of 2017. Jordan can be a free agent the following summer (2018).

Looking at the rest of the roster, J.J. Redick will be a free agent after next season; Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute will be free agents this summer, and Austin Rivers, Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson probably will opt out of their deals and become free agents as well.

Paul Pierce, 38, signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Clippers last year, but said after the game he’s “50-50” on whether he will retire following the worst season of his professional career. Pablo Prigioni, who turns 39 next month, probably will retire after also having his worst season.

In short, the Clippers are a team in flux that has hit a ceiling.

***

 No. 2: Walton offers Lakers hope — For a team so down-trodden this season, the past couple of weeks sure turned out to be heady ones for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. Starting with Kobe Bryant‘s 60-point farewell performance in the season finale, right through the announcement that Byron Scott – a popular former Lakers player but hardly that as the teams’ most recent head coach – had been fired, there actually was some buzz about the proud-but-sputtering franchise. Then came the word Friday night that Luke Walton, another former Laker but more important Golden State coach Steve Kerr‘s right-hand man up in Oakland, had been tabbed as L.A.’s replacement for Scott. The honeymoon began instantly, though Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com was quick to remind readers that the task Walton faces is a daunting one:

By hiring Walton, the Lakers accomplished several feats. They’re hiring a young, smart, well-regarded, up-and-coming coach from a successful, forward-thinking organization. They’re once again bringing back one of their own, as Walton will become the eighth former Lakers player who went on to coach the team. And the fact that the Lakers are bringing in a beloved familiar face — a Southern California native, no less — will undoubtedly help them not only win the media conference but establish patience from their fans as Walton tries to steer the team out of the depths of rebuilding.

And yet the reality is, for as happy as the Lakers and their fans are now, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. Walton will become the youngest active head coach in the NBA. In fact, at 36 years, 32 days old, Walton is 1 year, 218 days younger than the just-retired Bryant. And Walton’s first NBA head coaching job will be leading a rebuilding team that currently offers a few promising young players but little else. Walton will be tasked with developing those fledgling talents and helping lure free agents back to the Lakers after the team has struck out in that arena for three straight offseasons, though it’s unclear what kind of sway he’ll have with free agents, let alone his own players.

Beyond that, the Lakers aren’t considered to be the most modern-minded franchise, so Walton will have to assist in installing a new culture that helps them turn the page from their past (and Kobe) to whatever successful future he hopes to forge.

This is an extremely tall task for someone who two years ago was a part-time assistant with the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders. Though, in an odd way, Walton’s experience dealing with those players should come in handy considering the roster he’s now taking over.

There will be expectations for Walton to replicate some measure of success that he had when keeping the seat warm for Kerr, and to infuse some of that Warriors’ DNA into the Lakers. However, such expectations must be tempered.

[It’s] fair to wonder if Walton would’ve been given this offer a year ago.

It’s fair to wonder if his 39-4 mark with the Warriors may have hypnotized some. The Lakers will back him and say that Walton will be a great coach, as they should. But they’ve said that for their previous three coaches, too, all of whom departed before their contracts expired.

Walton has learned under Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, as well as Mike Brown and Byron Scott, and now the Lakers have gone back to a familiar well, bringing back one of their own. Walton could be the greatest hire in Lakers coaching history, a perfect fit. But, if we’re being honest, no one knows much about Luke Walton as a head coach, as someone who can hire a staff, observe a roster and set a course for success.

The once and future Laker is entering an organization that, on many levels, couldn’t be more different than the one he’s about to depart. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine with total buy-in, a modern-day top-down philosophy, a confluence of so many good elements that, together, have produced something almost magical — that’s truly a joy to watch.

The Lakers are none of that.

Jim Buss, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations, could well be gone next summer and so could Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Could Phil Jackson return? Such questions loom heavy over the Lakers’ future.

“The number one thing is this,” said one source familiar with both the Warriors and Lakers. “The Lakers are dysfunctional as an organization. A coach can’t change this.”

Indeed, but at the very least, Walton will be (or should be) better than Scott, who is one of the worst coaches in recent memory. Walton has a chance to be good if he develops and is given time, which the Lakers should certainly grant him. Walton knows the Los Angeles market, the Lakers organization, their fan base, the expectations and history. He wanted the Lakers and they wanted him.

He has his dream job and now the Lakers have something they haven’t had in a while: hope.

***

No. 3:  Wade digs deep, goes deep — Neither Dwyane Wade nor Udonis Haslem was ready to have it end Friday night. They have been together in Miami for 13 years, through five trips to The Finals and three NBA championships, so the idea of falling short in Game 6 in Charlotte held no appeal whatsoever for the veteran Heat players. Wade was the one in position to do the most about it, and that’s what he did. In the most unlikely way possible: digging deep and shooting deep. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald chronicled the events:

They’re not men prone to all that much mistiness, though the years can do something to you, and so can the fears of another ending. And so, after Friday’s shootaround, hours before what could have been the final game of the 13th season they’ve shared together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem paused to reflect.

“About how much this meant to us,” Haslem said. “About how much this has meant to us. This opportunity, this organization, being able to lead these guys, and be able to pass the torch at some point…”

“Just being here together,” Wade said. “For 13 years. We’ve been a part of making this organization a championship organization. We’ve been to five (NBA) Finals in 10 years, and we know how hard it was to do that. We just talked about trying to get the guys who have never been here to understand how hard it is to be successful.”

And, when the conversation concluded, Haslem understood clearly:
“Not tonight.”

Not tonight, because, to secure a 97-90 victory and a 3-3 tie in this first-round series — with Game 7 coming Sunday afternoon — Wade truly did need to use whatever means necessary.

Even the least likely of all.
“I’m Kyle Korver now,” Wade joked later.

Well, not really. Not when, before Friday, he hadn’t made a three-pointer in the calendar year 2016, missing all 21 attempts since Dec. 16. But he’s warning reporters that he can still stroke it — he did make 88 during the 2008-09 season, and reminded Joe Johnson that he “bombed” Johnson’s Hawks out of Game 2, with six makes, in the 2009 first round. He’s spoken of some sort of mental block, that stops him just as he readies to release.

But, after scoring 13 points in the first half and just two through the first 21 minutes of the second half (”my stroke left me”), Wade did rise up after receiving a pass from a doubled Luol Deng.

And he did rattle it in, off the rear of the rim.

Then, after [Kemba] Walker’s dazzling reverse layup in transition cut the Heat lead to two — and both the Heat and Hornets had empty possessions — Wade did take the ball from Haslem after a rebound, dribble to the top of the circle, then bounce away from traffic in the middle, and step back to the left into another steady 26-footer.

Then he did gesture toward a purple-shirted harassing Hornets fan, who had been angrily advising him the entire game to retire.

“Yeah, I was tired of his mouth,” Wade said. “I mean, I hadn’t said nothing to him.”

Nothing was required, as it turned out.

He’d made his point.

With three points. Twice.

“They gave it to me,” Wade said. “This is a good defensive team. Courtney Lee is a good defensive player. You’re not always gonna get what you want.”
But what you get can still be what your team needs.

“He was shooting them yesterday, and I told him, ‘Man, we’re gonna need you to make some of them [bleep],’ ” Joe Johnson said. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna shoot ’em. I’m gonna shoot ’em.’ So we come down the stretch and I was not surprised, because Courtney Lee kept backing off of him, playing him for the drive. I mean, nobody expected D-Wade to shoot the three. And if he does, you’re like, OK, I’ll live with that. And he made two huge threes.”

After not making one since mid-December.

“Man, are you serious?!” Johnson said, before shouting across the room. “Damn, D-Wade!”

Haslem, naturally, had no issue with the shot selection.

“He was working on it,” Haslem said. “I didn’t know he was going to shoot it, but he was working on it. Clutch situation, that’s my guy, man. I trust every decision that he makes, and every shot that he takes.”

***

No. 4: Portland’s underdog ride blazes on — The story of the Portland Trail Blazers’ overachieving 2015-16 season has been written often and in multiple ways lately. It’s evident in the voting results for NBA annual awards that have come out, what with guard C.J. McCollum‘s triumph as Most Improved Player and Terry Stotts‘ ballot-love in Coach of the Year voting. But the chapter added Friday night with their dispatching of the Clippers and advancement to the playoffs’ conference semifinal round was special enough to earn inclusion here, courtesy of Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com:

There are no asterisks in the NBA postseason — not for abbreviated seasons, and not for series wins over short-handed teams missing two All-Stars. Coaches and players sound this trope all the time: It’s so hard to win in the NBA. Hard to win a game, hard to win a series, hard to win a title.

So please excuse the Portland Trail Blazers if they see their 106-103 Game 6 closeout win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Moda Center on Friday night not as a fluke born out of Chris Paul’s fractured hand or Blake Griffin’s aggravated quad injury, but as a logical extension of a season-long process.

“Behind closed doors, we felt like we could make the playoffs in September,” guard CJ McCollum said. “We felt like we had enough pieces to get there, but it was going to be a process. We needed to get everybody together. We needed to execute. We were going to take some lumps.”

Even as the Trail Blazers drained seven consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, they still couldn’t shake the Clippers. More Rivers’ vengeance off the bounce, and Jordan reversed the Blazers’ fortunes on the glass. As the game moved into the fourth nip and tuck, the prospect for irony was ripe: The league’s most opportunistic underdogs might squander their ready-made ticket to the conference semis.

Ultimately, Portland became their best selves when they needed to in the fourth. A merry-go-round of multiple offensive actions created a drive-and-dish for [Damian] Lillard, who found McCollum for a 3-pointer with a little over four minutes remaining. Same thing a couple of minutes later: Movement, drive, kick, three from McCollum to keep Portland a length ahead of the Clippers

“I was really happy with the way we executed down the stretch,” Lillard said. “We didn’t panic when they put up a fight for us. We did the things necessary to win the game.”

The Trail Blazers had little time to reflect on the closeout win before the departure time for their Saturday afternoon flight to San Francisco was scrawled on the whiteboard. Golden State awaits in 36 hours time, and the Warriors without Steph don’t resemble the Clippers’ skeleton crew.

The mood following the game was lively, but like a class that finished one exam and has to trek down the hall to the next final, there was a certain focus, even among the relief. “There wasn’t no champagne popping or anything,” big man Ed Davis said.

While Lillard has the most stage presence, and McCollum might be the most expressive of the core, Davis displays the most unvarnished thoughts in the locker room.

“We have nothing to lose,” Davis said. “We go out and [get] swept, that’s what everyone is expecting so that’s how we have to play it — give it all we got, the whole 48 minutes out there and see what happens. We really have nothing to lose. All of y’all are expecting us to lose and the only people who think we’re going to win it are the 15 on the roster and the coaching staff.”

As the scrum dispersed, Davis pleasantly added, “All of y’all expect us to lose, don’t even lie to me.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: It was Indiana’s night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday but it was Toronto’s nightmare, with pressure shifting back big-time onto the Raptors’ heads in Game 7 Sunday night. … Injured Warriors guard and presumptive repeat MVP Stephen Curry is trying to beat his target date of May 9 in recovering from that sprained right knee. … Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue apparently hasn’t actually signed the contract offered by the Cavaliers when he got promoted from assistant to head coach, taking over upon David Blatt‘s firing. In a fluid market, it makes one wonder whether the numbers verbally agreed to might change. Maybe something bigger? … The Lakers’ gain is the Warriors’ loss, with Steve Kerr now faced with replacing another lieutenant on his bench. … Looking like Dallas point guard Deron Williams will be opting out of his deal with the Mavericks, if only as a good business move. … We’ll say it again: It’s possible that Paul Pierce has played his last NBA game. If so, the memories he made are remarkable ones.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 236) Featuring Dan Woike

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The “Clippers Curse” seems all too real these days for Doc Rivers and his crew.

You lose Blake Griffin to a quad injury for the remainder of the playoffs after losing Chris Paul (broken hand), on the same night, and yes, you are entitled to believe in any urban legend you’d like if you are a Los Angeles Clippers fan.

Rivers still has a chance to do the unthinkable and guide his team to the conference semifinals without Griffin and Paul in uniform. It’ll require him trusting the role players and supporting cast in ways no coach has had to in years.

It’s up to you Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers. And you Paul Pierce, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And yes, even you Cole Aldrich.

It’s going to take everyone for the Clippers to survive the Portland Trail Blazers in this first round series and that still might not be enough to get past Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and their suddenly confident supporting cast.

That curse … it’s real.

We discuss that and all things Clippers and playoffs on Episode 236 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. And Woike is pronounced “woy-key.”

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.

– 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.

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VIDEO: Can the Clippers win without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? We’re all about to find out

Blogtable: How will Blake Griffin’s return impact Clippers?

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


BLOGTABLE: Another early exit for Raptors? | NBA’s best backup point guard is …? |
Impact of Griffin’s return?



VIDEODoes Blake Griffin’s return make the Clippers a contender?

> Blake Griffin’s return to the Clippers’ lineup will be _____.

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Mandatory for any hopes the Clippers have in the playoffs. It’s a rite of spring to bash Blake’s postseason production — and coming off his recent shenanigans, he won’t get the benefit of the doubt from anyone, nor should he. But dude averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists in the 2015 playoffs. Let me say that again: 25.5 points, 12.7 boards, 6.1 assists. Per game. And he shot 51 percent. Yeah, he’ll help.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Intensely chronicled. No one likes it when their office, store or factory runs too smoothly without them around — everyone wants to be missed and feel wanted, at some level — but the Clippers’ 29-14 mark without Griffin this season (compared to 17-13 when he has played) has convinced some they’re better off without him. I disagree, while acknowledging that he’ll probably need to tread lightly in his return so as to not upset the current pecking order. He can’t play chastened but he needs to be appropriately humble about the position he put L.A. in with his foolishness. Then it’s on coach Doc Rivers to bring it all together Ubuntu-style. All the while, writers both locally and nation wide will have their hands clamped to Griffin’s and his teammates’ wrists, constantly monitoring their pulses. It’s a tricky situation at an inopportune time.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com Overwrought and overanalyzed. As soon as Griffin hits the floor, the chat and rumors about him getting traded over the summer will grow louder with every missed shot and Clippers loss. The silly talk that the Clips are actually better without him will be resurrected. Just plain dumb. For the Clippers to be contenders, Griffin has to be a big, big part.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Filled with drama. It’s the Clippers so that’s a given, right? But especially in this case. Griffin was out this long after a leg injury because during that absence he also punched an assistant equipment manager. The Clips had their best stretch of the season when he was out. The playoffs are coming soon and he needs to get back in a good place with his rhythm and conditioning pretty quick. There are layers of intrigue as he returns.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com Scrutinized. He let his teammates down with that silly decision to clobber a club employee and perhaps cost Los Angeles a chance to move to the No. 3 spot and avoid the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals. I also wonder if the time off will create rust, which won’t go over well in the playoffs which demand intensity. Griffin will likely feel guilty enough to elevate his game and make up for lost time, but he needs to play at MVP level to help Chris Paul and the Clippers finally reach the elusive conference finals.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Interesting, to say the least. So many roles have changed since Christmas, the last time we saw Griffin in game action with his Clippers teammates. Someone will have to sacrifice a bit of what they’ve been doing if Griffin is going to resume his role as one of the Clippers’ top two players. I said it before the season, before Griffin’s torn quad and long before he lumped up his buddy/equipment staffer at that restaurant in Toronto. The Clippers did better than expected in Griffin’s absence, thanks in large part to the heavy lifting done by Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Having Blake back in the lineup and ready to go for the playoffs should provide a huge boost for a team that will need it throughout its playoff run.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com Stunning. One of two outcomes is sure to follow: Either the Clippers will struggle to reintegrate him, or else this resilient team that persevered without Griffin will be inspired by the return of a Top-10 star playing on fresh legs with a lot to prove. I’m guessing on the latter.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog *Insert fire emoji*. Absence seems to make the heart grow dumber, if not fonder. I think with Griffin out and the Clippers winning, at least initially, it was easy to forget that Griffin was one of the NBA’s best players last season, who finished top ten in MVP voting and third-team All-NBA. While he’s done a valiant job carrying the load in Griffin’s absence, Chris Paul is seemingly wearing down, as evidenced by his backing out from USA Basketball consideration, and could use some scoring help. The Clips are adding an elite talent at exactly the right time.

Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls’ season on the brink | Blake Griffin’s return date set | Heat want to keep Whiteside, even with price rising | Kobe plans on playing final nine games

No. 1: Bulls’ season on the brink — Three straight losses to sub .500 teams has caused a panic in Chicago, where the hometown Bulls have been struggling with consistency all season. But a team meeting before Sunday’s practice and tonight’s game against the Atlanta Hawks (8 ET, NBA TV) exposed some issues that have plagued the team all season. With their season on the brink, the Bulls finally cleared the air, writes Vince Goodwill of CSNChicago.com:

There’s been a lot of talk and rhetoric in this underwhelming Bulls’ season to date, but perhaps there hasn’t been enough honest and raw communication between the principle parties as things have gone south.

To that end, there was a team meeting before Sunday morning’s practice, following their third straight loss to a sub .500 team, the latest a drubbing at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

There didn’t appear to be any furniture moving or expletive-filled rants by the coaching staff or the players, which one can interpret myriad ways.

“We did get together and talk. That was a big part of what today was about, getting in there and talking about some things and hopefully airing some things out,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We came out and competed. We got after it in practice, not for long stretches because of our upcoming schedule. But I thought it was a productive day.”

As for the meeting, it seemed to have a measured tone, not necessarily one where guys got after each other for mishaps and mistakes, but presumably there was an air of responsibility for the current state of affairs.

“I don’t know about angry. I think just disappointed,” forward Mike Dunleavy said. “I think we feel like we can play better and win more games. I don’t think we’re a 60-win team or anything, but I think we should have some more wins right now, and probably be in a better position to get into the playoffs. But we are where we are, and we’ve got to make the most of it.”

Hoiberg termed the meeting “productive”, but with the schedule turning more treacherous and the Bulls having squandered a huge opportunity to close the gap on Detroit and Indiana, one has to wonder if it’s too little, too late.

“As always happens in those type of meetings, yeah,” said Hoiberg when asked if voices were raised. “You talk about things and obviously we have a lot to correct right now. We had a three-game win streak and the last three have been very poor performances by our team to say the least. I think it had to be done. And again, I thought it was productive.”


VIDEO: The Game Time crew tackles what’s going on in Chicago

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(more…)

Report: Players union, NBA agree to shorter free agent moratorium

So now the Clippers are going to have to be quicker with their planes, trains and automobiles emojis. Coach Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin will have to get the sofa barricaded in front of the door faster.

In plugging what has long been an annoying, unnecessary — and last summer an embarrassing — hole in the off-season talent bazaar, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have agreed to shorten the moratorium period for free agents from 10 days down to five.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, teams were informed with a memo on Thursday that verbal commitments can be made with free agents starting July 1 and the moratorium would end on July 6.

The DeAndre Jordan Rule has found its way into summer free agency.

In the aftermath of the free-agent center’s tortured change-of-heart that led him to return to the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA and the players association agreed to shorten the July free-agency moratorium and allow verbal commitments to become signed contracts in a shorter period of time, league sources told The Vertical.

The NBA and union agreed to make an alteration to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, shortening the moratorium this summer to July 1-6, sources said.

Teams were informed with a memo on Thursday evening, sources said.

As the NBA points out, though, contracts cannot actually be signed until July 7.

Of course, it will forever be known as the “DeAndre Rule” in the aftermath of last summer’s silly circus played out on Twitter and in headlines after a dramatic change of heart by the Clippers’ free-agent center, DeAndre Jordan.

Jordan had agreed to terms on a maximum contract to jump from the L.A. Clippers to the Dallas Mavericks in the opening days of the 2015 free agency period. The Mavs had promised to make Jordan the centerpiece of their offense and touted him as their next franchise player to eventually succeed Dirk Nowitzki.

But a full-court press by Rivers, various Clippers players at Jordan’s house in Houston, resulted in a flip-flop by the leaping 7-footer and he eventually jumped at the opportunity to return to L.A. as part of the core trio with Griffin and Chris Paul.

All the while that the Clippers entourage was holed up with Jordan, the Mavs were unable to make contact with him. Team owner Mark Cuban was angry with the reversal and the way the whole affair played out publicly.

The reason there is a moratorium period is so the NBA can have an ample time to calculate revenue figures and deliver teams the exact figures on the next season’s salary cap. Still, it often left fans puzzled and angry and the fiasco of 2015 was evidently the last straw.

Simple solution: hire more accountants.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 230) Featuring J.J. Redick

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When Doc Rivers revamped his bench in the offseason he made sure the Los Angeles Clippers would be one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA this season.

Even now, after shipping both Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson out, the Clippers remain a team of intrigue. They have an elite coach in Rivers, superstars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (yes, he’ll be back), one of the league’s best rim protectors and rebounders in DeAndre Jordan, a super sixth-man in Jamal Crawford and one of the league’s deadliest pure shooters in J.J. Redick.

So what’s holding them back?

Why are they stuck in the fourth spot in the Western Conference standing?

It might have something to do with the reigning champions up in Oakland. The Golden State Warriors on a historic roll this season and the San Antonio Spurs aren’t far off the pace. And then there is the matter of that two-headed superstar monster from Oklahoma City.

So perhaps it’s understandable, the Clippers’ current predicament. Even as they continue to shine without Griffin in the lineup, they still have ground to make up in the standings.

We dig deep on the Clippers and much more on Episode 230 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring J.J. Redick.

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.

– 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.

***


VIDEO: Clippers sharpshooter J.J. Redick put up a 20-spot in the first round of the Foot Locker Three Point contest during All-Star Weekend in Toronto

Morning shootaround — Feb. 20


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from busy Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard out-MVPs the MVP | Spurs bid Kobe adieu | Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks | Mavs need more from Matthews

No. 1: Lillard out-MVPs the MVP — It was offered as high praise, but when Golden State coach Steve Kerr invoked Steph Curry‘s name as a way of lauding Damian Lillard‘s electric night against his Warriors — “He looked like Steph Curry out there” – it felt a little wrong. For one night, the Portland Trail Blazers guard deserved to stand alone in the spotlight, not sharing it with the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player or Portland’s stunning 32-point throttling Friday of the league’s defending champs. Even the Blazers’ surprising 28-27 record, far better than a lot of so-called experts imagined, could wait in the kudos line behind the point guard for whom there wasn’t room on the Western Conference All-Star team. Here is some of Oregonian beat writer Joe Freeman‘s report:

An undeniable reality surfaced during the 48 hours leading up to the most prolific individual performance of Damian Lillard’s career.

He felt like crud.

His legs were rubbery. His feet ached. His body wasn’t quite right. In two Trail Blazers practices following a weeklong All-Star break, Lillard committed turnovers in bunches and hoisted more bricks than he could count.

So on Thursday, after a particularly forgettable display, the two-time All-Star turned to assistant coach Nate Tibbetts with a surprising statement.

“Every time I feel like this,” Lillard told Tibbetts, “The next day, I just always have it.”

And he certainly had it Friday night. In one of the best individual performances in franchise history, Lillard recorded a career-high 51 points, a career-high six steals and seven assists to lead the surging Blazers to a stunning 137-105 victory over the Golden State Warriors at the Moda Center.

Lillard was so good, he did the unimaginable — he upstaged the Blazers’ startling 32-point victory over a seemingly invincible team poised to finish with the best record in NBA history. With a barrage of deep three-pointers, slick slashing layups and pull-up jumpers, Lillard was virtually unstoppable, making 18 of 28 field goals, including 9 of 12 three-pointers.

Lillard started hot, scoring or assisting on seven of the Blazers’ first nine field goals. And he finished even hotter, recording 21 points in a dazzling fourth quarter that had the Moda Center rocking like no other time this season. During Lillard’s most breathtaking stretch of the game, midway through the fourth quarter, he scored 13 consecutive Blazers points, breezing past the 40-point mark so fast he said he couldn’t remember doing so…

“He got into a zone twice,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “At the end, it was just ridiculous.”

And any outsider who watched Lillard during the 48 hours leading up the game, when he was bricking shots and tossing turnovers, would have been stunned.

Lillard said he was restless Friday, eager to fix his body and settle his mind, and he unintentionally altered his game-day routine. Following the Blazers’ morning shootaround, he hopped in the cold tub at the practice facility for a frigid 15-minute soak, then moved to the steam room, where he joined Al-Farouq Aminu for a 15-minute steam.

Afterward, he drove to his Lake Oswego home, slipped a splint on his left foot and took a nap, which he rarely does.

“I usually don’t even take naps,” he said. “I got up and I just felt good.”

Before he knew it, Lillard was driving to the Moda Center ahead of schedule. He strolled into the locker room about 3:50, roughly 30 or 40 minutes earlier than normal, and ran into Ed Davis, the only other person in the room. They shot the breeze for a while and Lillard killed time before going about his normal routine. By the time he started hispregame workout, his felt his mojo creeping back.

“When I did my routine before the game, I just felt good,” he said. “Going side to side, when I was pulling up off the dribble, I just felt in a good rhythm. The ball felt good in my hands.”

Lillard shot chart

***

 No. 2: Spurs bid Kobe adieu — Competitive to the end. How it had gone for most of Kobe Bryant‘s clashes with the San Antonio Spurs over the years is pretty much how it went in his final meeting with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, coach Gregg Popovich and the rest Friday in Los Angeles. Across two decades of regular-season and postseason showdowns, Bryant and Duncan faced each other 82 times – the equivalent of a full NBA season – with the Spurs’ big man owning a 43-39 advantage. Then again, Bryant was quick to point out their head-to-head in playoff series: “Four to three.” The principals had met shortly before the All-Star break but this time was for the last time, so it’s worth reviewing, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald:

The Lakers star was as competitive as ever, at one point popping a dislocated finger into place so he could finish this game. As has been the case for much of the 37-year-old’s farewell tour, the Spurs got the best of the Lakers, winning 119-113.

“It’s been fun competing against those guys for all these years,” Bryant said after scoring 25 points in his Spurs swan song. “I’ve truly enjoyed it. They’ve pushed me to fine-tune and sharpen my game.”

In many ways, Friday marked the end of a rivalry two decades in the making, between two players emblematic of their generation.

“We’ve played against each other for so many years,” said Duncan, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds for his first double-double since Jan. 3. “It was always a great game against him. You knew you had to bring your A game, because he’s going to bring the best out of you.”

Even toiling for a Lakers team that could not avoid its 46th loss Friday, Bryant refused to go down without a fight.

Benefitting from the absence of All-Star Kawhi Leonard, out for the second straight game with a calf injury, Bryant finished with 25 points.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Spurs clinging to a five-point lead, Bryant dislocated a middle finger tracking a loose ball. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti popped the digit back into place, taped it to his index finger, and Bryant returned for the final 1:56.

“He’s played through stuff that nobody will ever know about,” Popovich said. “He’s a warrior.”

Bryant made one field goal with his finger injured, a runner that pulled L.A. within 111-107 with 1:23 left.

Later, in what will go down as the final shot of his career against the Spurs, he fired up an airball 3-pointer.

Bryant’s career against the Spurs was over, and Popovich had trouble pinpointing how he felt about it.

“In some ways, it will be great,” Popovich said. “In other ways, we will miss him a lot. The whole league will miss him. But I won’t have to worry about guarding him, that’s for sure.”

***

No. 3:  Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks — At 22-22, the New York Knicks were looking like this year’s version of the 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks, who took an Andre the Giant-sized stride from horrible (15-67) to respectable (41-41) in a single season, boosting themselves all the way into the playoffs with a few nips and tucks (and, in the Bucks’ case, a new coach in Jason Kidd). But now Knicks fans have begun to puzzle at the gaps between victories, their team sinking fast at 23-32 with no optimism in sight. Losing to crosstown rival Brooklyn Friday night brought on the best in New York critics, focusing on the worst of Knickerbocker basketball. Consider snippets here of New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro:

That was the Nets — not the Thunder, not the Clippers — who rattled off a 20-2 run in the third quarter to turn a five-point Knicks lead into a 13-point Nets lead. That was the Nets who, after letting the Knicks draw within three points early in the fourth quarter, put them away with an immediate 10-0 surge.

That was the Nets who made the Knicks look so enfeebled, so non-competitive, so slow, so …

“We didn’t execute. On either end,” interim coach Kurt Rambis said. “That’s disappointing.”

Yes. That is one word. Here are a few others: Putrid. Lousy. Rotten. Unwatchable.

Playoffs?

Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

This is no longer a regression. The Knicks had lost 10 out of 11 heading into the break, the season already had gone sideways, the postseason already was looking like a longer long shot than Chuck Wepner.

You could talk yourself into anything you wanted to: the floor had started to tilt on the Knicks when Carmelo Anthony tripped over that referee’s foot. Kristaps Porzingis was dealing with the rookie wall. All of that. And to add red meat for the masses, Fisher was sacrificed. Is there more of a time-honored solution for turning things around — at least for a week or two — than axing the coach?

The Knicks had been off since Feb. 9. They were rested. They were as healthy as they had been in weeks. The first time these teams played, in December, the Knicks took a 30-point lead by the midway point of the second quarter.

Those were the heady days — hard to conjure now — when every small victory the Knicks posted was celebrated, because anything — just about everything — compared to last season’s 17-win dumpster fire could be celebrated as progress. That was before anyone figured this could end up in the playoffs, when just not watching stink rise up from the Garden floor was worth rejoicing.

Yeah. That feels like an awfully long time ago.

***

No. 4: Mavs need more from Matthews — When Dallas owner Mark Cuban reacted to the DeAndre Jordan switcheroo last summer by throwing even more guaranteed money, in a longer free-agent contract, at damaged-goods Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews, it didn’t just seem impulsive; it seemed like retail therapy, the sort of things shopaholics do to self-medicate in times of unrelated stress. It even seemed a little out of character, given the red flags that were unmissable thanks to Matthews’ season-ending Achilles surgery last spring. So what the Mavericks are getting – or missing – from Matthews deep into his comeback season isn’t any big secret, but it is a legitimate concern, given how much time and money remains on his four-year, $70 million deal. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com looked at the gap between Matthews’ production and compensation:

The Mavs certainly aren’t getting their money’s worth right now. They must get much better bang for the buck from their highest-paid player to have any hope of being more than first-round fodder — and perhaps even to make the playoffs.

The fact that the 29-year-old Matthews is struggling through the worst season of his career can’t be considered surprising. The history of players coming back from torn Achilles tendons, if they come back at all, is frighteningly poor.

It was an expensive vote of confidence from Cuban in Matthews’ remarkable will and work ethic. It was also a vote of confidence in the Mavs’ support staff — specifically head athletic trainer Casey Smith and athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple — and the new medical technology that wasn’t available to players whose careers were ruined by a ruptured Achilles in the past.

And it was a decision made with the long term in mind.

“We didn’t sign him for this year,” Cuban said recently when asked if Matthews’ extended slump concerned him.

Not that Matthews, who surprised many by making good on his vow to play in the season opener less than eight months after suffering his injury, is looking for excuses for his struggles. Nor does he expect Mavs fans to have much patience in him if he doesn’t perform well.

“I’ve got to play better,” Matthews said after scoring only five points on 2-of-10 shooting in Friday’s overtime loss to the Orlando Magic. “I take that onus up. I take that ownership. I will.”

Matthews’ value to the Mavs can’t be measured simply by his stats. He’s a tremendous teammate who leads the Mavs in minutes played, a respected voice in the locker room and a proud defender who readily accepts the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis.

But Dallas desperately needs Matthews, who established himself as one of the NBA’s premier perimeter shooters the previous five seasons in Portland, to snap out of his offensive funk.

Matthews gave the Mavs one really good offensive month. He averaged 15 points and hit 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in December, numbers that were pretty close to the norm during his five-year tenure with the Trail Blazers. Matthews was plus-89 in those 14 games. Not coincidentally, the Mavs had their best month of the season, going 9-5.

The Mavs are 9-13 in games in which Matthews has played since the calendar flipped to 2016. He has averaged only 10.7 points during that time, shooting 37.4 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. He is minus-69 in those 22 games.

It’s not trending in the right direction, either. Matthews is minus-55 in six February games, averaging only 8.8 points per game. Not coincidentally, the Mavs are 1-5 this month, sliding to 29-27 overall, putting them four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for fifth in the Western Conference and giving them only a 1 1/2-game cushion before falling out of the playoff pack.

“This is not a Wes thing. This is a team thing,” coach Rick Carlisle said, downplaying concerns about Matthews’ slump.

Matthews sat down the stretch of regulation Friday night. He played the entire overtime, missing both of his shot attempts — a driving layup and an open corner 3 that both would have tied the score.

“I’ve been making those shots since I’ve been in the league. As soon as I get frustrated, it takes away from everything else that I can do on the court. When I start doing that, then I’m selfish. I’ve just got to continue being me [and] stay confident, which I am. I’m not worried about it. The team trusts me. Coaches trust me, and I’m going to work my ass off.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dallas’ loss in OT in Orlando included a few sweet-nothings between big man Zaza Pachulia and wing Chandler Parsons. … Don’t think the Golden State Warriors didn’t learn anything from their loss to Portland Friday, or what it had in common with their four previous defeats. … If Thursday’s trade deadline didn’t scratch your itch for player movement, enjoy what transpires in the coming days of “buyout season,” as noted by our own Shaun Powell. … Then there’s the guy in Cleveland about whom trade rumors never seem to end, deadline or no deadline, writes our man Steve Aschburner. … Ricky Rubio enjoyed all the trade gossip – with a certain exception. … The guy most likely to be moved by the deadline was not. So what’s next for Dwight Howard?

Morning shootaround — Feb. 14


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from All-Star Saturday Night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LaVine, Gordon wow in Dunk Contest | Hack-A-Gone? | Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother | Horford embraces uncertain future

No. 1:  LaVine, Gordon wow in Dunk Contest For years, the Verizon Slam Dunk was All-Star Weekend’s marquee event. The electricity surrounding the event may have waned in recent years. But last season, Timberwolves rookie Zach LaVine gave it a jolt of excitement, notching his first win. And Saturday night in Toronto, a couple of 20 year olds, LaVine and Magic forward Aaron Gordon, took turns making jaws drop, posting alternating perfect scores in the contest’s final round until LaVine was ultimately able to grab the win in arguably the greatest dunk contest in All-Star Weekend history. And as Lang Whitaker writes, with the contest on the line, LaVine went to the free-throw line

High expectations? No problem.

After bringing the Dunk Contest back to prominence one year ago with a series of electrifying dunks, Minnesota’s Zach LaVine picked up where he left off, with help from Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.

And with the Verizon Slam Dunk on the line, Zach LaVine went to the free throw line. Well, almost.

With a through-the-legs dunk from just inside the charity stripes, Zach LaVine earned his fifth score of 50 on the night, making him the 2016 NBA dunk champ. The 20-year-old LaVine became the first back-to-back winner since Nate Robinson in 2009 and 2010.

Going against Magic forward Aaron Gordon in the contest finals, LaVine and Gordon got locked into a heavyweight bout where they traded incredible body blows. After the contest, LaVine said, “We should share the trophy, because [Gordon] did some stuff I’ve never seen before.”

To begin the final round, Gordon completed a dunk with an unbelievable degree of difficulty, snatching the ball from Orlando Magic mascot Stuff — who was spinning on a hoverboard — and throwing down a twisting dunk. This earned a 50. LaVine countered by throwing himself an alley-oop and floating through the air for a one-handed finish, earning another 50.

Gordon then again used Stuff, this time clearing the mascot with his rear end while passing the ball below for a lefty finish. That earned another 50, putting the pressure on LaVine.

LaVine responded coolly, with a windmill from just inside the free throw line, for another 50. This marked the first time in Dunk Contest history the final round saw four scores of 50.

They didn’t stop. In the first dunk-off, Gordon enlisted teammate Elfrid Payton to throw an alley-oop off the side of the backboard. Gordon caught the ball and completed a reverse dunk while flying through the air. 50. LaVine responded by throwing an alley-oop to himself from the baseline, catching the ball and passing it through his legs for a reverse dunk. This earned another 50.

On the second dunk-off, Gordon ran along the baseline and did a two-handed double-pump reverse reminiscent of Dominique Wilkins. Gordon scored a 47. To win it, LaVine went back to the free throw line.

***

No. 2: Hack-A-Gone? A Q&A with the Commissioner of the NBA has become a staple of All-Star Saturday Night, and last night Adam Silver faced the assembled media to address several topics. As Steve Aschburner writes, among the many topics addressed, one change Silver is clearly looking to implement is an end to the Hack-A- intentional fouling that has become en vogue around the NBA lately …

If the Hack-A-Whomever strategy currently raising such a ruckus in some NBA precincts is actually something you like, take solace: It’s going to be with us, extending the real time of games, disrupting any sense of flow and showcasing a whole lot of bricked free throws, at least through the end of the 2016 playoffs.

If, though, you believe in the tactic as a coach’s best friend — something to encourage bad foul shooters to improve, lest they look silly and cost their teams victories — those guys had better get in the gym soon and practice their form, release and follow-through fast.

Change almost certainly is coming, based on NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s comments Saturday in the annual state-of-the-league All-Star news conference.

Silver, addressing and fielding questions from reporters before the skills, slam dunk and 3-point shooting contests at Air Canada Centre, reiterated what he has said on several recent occasion. “I’m beginning to feel that a change needs to be made,” Silver said, citing conversations he has had with broadcast partners, sentiment expressed in fan data and feedback from players, GMs and owners.

As for coaches, Silver said “Clearly our coaches who are smart and using very complex analytics believe it is benefiting them.”

But changing the rules wouldn’t be pursued to make life tougher on the league’s coaches, any more than it would be done to let the most frequent targets of the tactic — notoriously poor free-throw shooters such as DeAndre Jordan (.423 free-throw percentage), Andre Drummond (.351), Dwight Howard (.532) and a handful of others — off the hook. It would be a decision driven more by the NBA product as entertainment, not merely athletic competition.

Silver did share that, when the league’s competition committee discussed the strategy last summer, it sought data from an additional season before making a recommendation. That data so far? “We’re seeing the Hack-a-Shaq strategy used at roughly a five-and-a-half-times greater rate than it was used last season,” the commissioner reported.

That’s a lot of standing around, stoppages in play and, for folks viewing from the stands or on TV at home, a procession of finely tuned, multi-millionaire athletes failing at one of basketball’s fundamental skills. That’s not a good look for anyone involved.

Interestingly, Silver said that there is no consensus among the practice’s critics what remedy should be pursued. Treat the entire game like the final two minutes, when fouls away from the play equal one free throw and retained possession? Come up with something more stringent to snuff even the temptation to hack a targeted player intentionally?

Silver said he would want to have a specific alternative to propose. And even then, that sort of change would need the approval of two-thirds of the league’s members (20 of the 30 teams).

“So we’re nowhere near that point where we’re even starting to count heads,” Silver said. This summer would be the soonest, he indicated.

***

No. 3: Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother It was no big surprise last season in Brooklyn when Stephen Curry managed to win the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest; after all, he was midway through an MVP season and establishing himself as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Last night in Toronto, when it came time for Curry to defend his title, he posted a fine performance, making the final round, until his Splash Brother and Warriors backcourt ‘mate Klay Thompson was able to get hot and edge Curry. As Sekou Smith writes, if there was any questions left about the league’s best-shooting backcourt, those doubts were officially laid to rest night

For the second straight year, one of the Golden State Warriors’ Splash Brothers walked off the All-Star Saturday night stage as the champion of the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.

But it wasn’t defending champion and NBA three-point king Stephen Curry. This time it was teammate Klay Thompson taking home top honors in a competition that, by the final round, looked like something the Warriors might do at the end of every practice.

It marks the first time in Three-Point Contest history that different players from the same team have won it in consecutive seasons.

“Back-to-back years for Splash Brothers, it’s pretty cool,” Thompson said.

Thompson saved his best for last, finishing with 27 points in the final round to conquer one of the deepest fields in the history of the competition, a group that includes some of the best long-range shooters in the game today and perhaps ever.

“He definitely shot well tonight,” Curry said. “I still think I can hold my own in the competition, but the way that he finished off that second round was amazing. So trust me, the pressure of knowing what number he had to hit and making five out of five was fun to watch.”

Curry collected 23 points in his final round, but was on his feet cheering with the rest of the contestants as Thompson drained shot after shot on his final rack. Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker, the youngest player in the league, finished third after netting 16 points in the final round.

***

No. 4: Horford embraces uncertain future All-Star Weekend is traditionally something of a swap shop for trade rumors, and with his contract expiring this summer, All-Star Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford hasn’t been immune from hearing his name. But considering the trade rumors and that he was swimming in the Caribbean when he got the last-minute call to get to Toronto, stat, as Sam Amick writes, Horford says he’s thrilled to be in Toronto and taking everything day by day

It’s no secret that the Hawks have been exploring trade options that include Horford, but that doesn’t mean the four-time All-Star’s days in Atlanta are necessarily done. The relationship between the player and the team that drafted him third overall in 2007 remains strong, with nine seasons of history between them and a dynamic between Horford and president of basketball operations/coach Mike Budenholzer that could still lead to him re-signing this summer. And yes, it should be noted, the Hawks are well aware that retaining a talent like Horford in today’s NBA will come with an enormous price tag not only because of his talents but because the league’s salary cap is about to spike from $70 million to $89 million next season (and $108 million in 2017-18). He would earn approximately $25 in his first season.

But the 31-24 Hawks, like any team that isn’t playing to its anticipated level, must consider all options this time of year. They are also known to be engaging in trade discussions relating to point guard Jeff Teague, who is less of a flight risk than Horford because he has one year left on his contract ($8 million). The New York Knicks and Utah Jazz, to name a few, could be serious suitors for Teague in the coming days.

The Boston Celtics are widely believed to be a potential fit as a Horford trade partner, but the real level of interest from general manager Danny Ainge remains to be seen in the coming days. And while Horford continues to speak positively about the city and his situation, there’s an inherent uncertainty to this process that always acts as the driving force.

“I’m very happy in Atlanta,” Horford said when asked if the Hawks had reason to be concerned that he might leave. “I’ve said it repeatedly. I love the city. My family, we all live in Atlanta, we stay there in the offseason, so my focus is just to keep playing and taking it day by day and, right now, it’s to enjoy this weekend. … Just taking it day by day. That’s the only thing I can do. We really can’t worry about three or four months from now.”

Especially when a welcome All-Star berth comes your way.

While Horford wasn’t selected to the team initially, he was given the nod on Friday when Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh unexpectedly pulled out because of a calf strain. Horford was vacationing with his family near Cancun, Mexico, when he got the call.

“I had my phone off (and) I was in the water,” said Horford, who is averaging 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds this season. “I was doing my morning swim out there, and I got the call (around 9:30 am).

“I’m so excited to be here, man. Words don’t describe it. Being here in this city, in Toronto. I remember last year looking at it, and I was like, ‘It’s going to be in Toronto, I would love to be a part of that,’ because, you know, the fans here are so lively and just being around these guys and it happens to be Kobe’s last All-Star. It’s kind of a big deal, and for me to be a part of this I’m very grateful.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony says he’s not getting tradedKarl-Anthony Towns struck a blow for bigs in the Skills Challenge … If you haven’t heard, it’s really, really cold in Toronto this weekend … The Indiana Pacers are eyeing a future All-Star Weekend bidJimmer Fredette was named MVP of the D-League All-Star GameKevin Hart tied Draymond Green in their own three-point shootout.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 7



VIDEO: Highlights of Saturday’s 10 games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

George Karl hanging by a string? | Mark Cuban says leave hacking strategy aloneKobe reflects on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich | What’s in the future of the struggling Wolves?

No. 1: Karl hanging by a string? — If it’s Sunday, then George Karl‘s job must be in jeopardy. Every other week, it seems, the Kings coach is headed out the door, and the most recent reports of trouble were intensified when the Kings were clobbered in Brooklyn, of all places, and DeMarcus Cousins said some cryptic statements that hinted of a possible coaching change. Well, Karl will coach Sunday in Boston — at least we think — and did take time to answer questions about his future (or lack thereof). Would the Kings really fire Karl and bring yet another coach to the franchise? Yikes. Here’s Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston writing about the latest on Karl:

Karl seemed amused by a string of questions about his future after he led the Kings through a 90-minute off-day workout Saturday at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, but he kept steering the conversation back to Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

“I don’t have any control over what other people are thinking or saying. That’s their storm,” Karl said. “My preference would be it wouldn’t be there. But there’s always energy today. Then once something gets out, it magnifies and grows and becomes a storm. That’s not my storm. My storm is the Boston Celtics.”

Added Karl: “I have no control of what other people think or whatever people are circulating. My job is to get prepared for Boston. We had a good practice [Saturday], and I’m happy with the practice. Boston’s playing at a great level. Probably the best they’ve played in two years. Their win [Friday] night [in Cleveland] was pretty impressive. They kept coming after a team that thought they had them beat about four times and stole the end from them. It was really a gutty win by the Celtics.”

Increasingly concerned about their floundering play under Karl, the Kings entered the weekend hoping to delay any decision about the coach’s future until the All-Star break, league sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein.

Sources said the nature of the team’s 128-119 loss Friday night to Brooklyn — Sacramento’s sixth defeat in seven games — and the fallout it generated have the Kings contemplating an immediate coaching change.

Does Karl believe he’s in danger if the team is mulling a change?

“I don’t think I’m in limbo,” he said. “I think I’ve got a heckuva challenge [against] a team that’s played damn well — probably it’s best basketball in the last six weeks. If you want to overreact to the last four or five games, that’s somebody else’s reaction, not my reaction. I think this team is still in a place that we can solve some problems and be good.”

Kings point guard Rajon Rondo said he hasn’t paid much attention to the chatter surrounding his coach.

“I haven’t heard it,” he said. “I talked to my agent this morning, but it was just about how the team is doing, how the team morale was. But I haven’t bought into it or read into too much of [the Karl reports]. It’s just part of the business. Coaches fired, players being traded — there’s no difference.”

Both Rondo and Karl noted that the Kings had been playing better before a recent funk. Rondo said it’s not time to panic … yet.

“When we don’t have an opportunity to get into the playoffs, that’s when we can panic,” Rondo said. “But the last 10 games, I think our record is 5-5. It’s not the worst; it’s not 3-7. We started off the season 1-7, so we’ve hit a tough stretch, some games we could have won. Brooklyn played amazing [Friday] night, shot the heck out of the ball. That’s part of it. There’s going to be games like that. Hopefully we can turn it around and get a win [Sunday] afternoon.”

Added Karl: “Ten days ago, we were on a five-game winning streak. … Every NBA season has scheduled parts that say, ‘Hey, this is a tough time.’ And since our beginning, our bad start, we’ve been a .500 team. We’re still a .500 team.”

Karl said it has been a process to get everyone on the same page, given the roster turnover this past summer.

“The whole season, when you change your roster with 10 players, you’re consistently trying to build better communication and a better connection and trying to get a commitment that’s a winning commitment,” Karl said. “Players question coaching. Coaching questions players. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth of the matter is I think this team has hung together pretty well through a lot of ups and downs this year.

“Our perseverance level has been maybe not an A but a B-plus. And when we play good teams, we usually play well. Our weaknesses have been home court, intensity and maybe overlooking a team with a bad record. But you can watch that film last night. Brooklyn played damn well.”

***

 No. 2: Cuban says leave hacking strategy alone — The technique of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters is the rage among coaches and another kind of rage among fans. There’s the belief that the game is worse off when DeAndre Jordan is shooting 15 free throws, although others believe that it’s part of the game and the league shouldn’t alter the rules just to relieve pressure from a half-dozen players with severe free-throw issues. Count Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the latter group. Cuban doesn’t feel it’s necessary to make drastic, if any, changes to the intentional fouling rule, or fouling players off the ball. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last Friday that he may favor a change. We’ll see. Here’s Tom Haberstroh of ESPN on Cuban:

On Friday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today Sports that he was “increasingly of the view” that the league will implement new rules this summer to prevent intentional fouling of poor free throw shooters.

“At the end of the day,” Silver said, “we are an entertainment property, and it’s clear when you’re in the arena that fans are looking at me shrugging their shoulders with that look saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do something about this?'”

Cuban disagrees with the notion that it is hurting the game’s entertainment value and told ESPN.com on Saturday morning that he believes fans actually feel more part of the game in hack-a-player situations, citing the example of fans getting on their feet to challenge an opposing player at the free throw line.

Cuban also said hacking adds an element of intrigue.

“Will they leave him in or leave him out?” Cuban said. “How do both teams feel about it? How will they foul? Is it a new creative way, or is it just chasing?”

The hack-a-player strategy has been on the rise around the league. As of Friday, according to tracking by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton, there had been 266 hack-a-player instances this season, already far exceeding last season’s total of 164. There were 52 instances through the All-Star break last season, and the NBA has surpassed that total by more than 200 ahead of next week’s All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

The majority of intentional fouls have come against tall, poor free throw shooting big men such as Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.

Cuban said hack-a-player strategies offer a teachable moment for fans and young athletes, especially parents who could spend time “watching the shots and telling your kids why practice matters and how amazing it is that they can do something that an NBA player can’t.

“Will a 7-foot man try to run and escape a foul so he doesn’t have to do what so many 12-year-olds do in games every day?” Cuban added.

Cuban argues that the chess match of hack-a-player makes the game more fascinating for fans.

“Does he make the free throws?” Cuban said. “If he makes one or two, will they do it again? Did the strategy work?”

Cuban contends that the league might be overreacting to a small minority of “basketball purists” outside the media.

“We have to realize that the number of basketball purists that aren’t in the media is probably under 1,000 people globally,” Cuban said. “There is no special basketball beauty in walking the ball up the court and dribbling around the perimeter. Will we change that too?”

***

No. 3: Kobe sounds off on Lakers-Spurs, Popovich — If nothing else, Kobe Bryant is in a reflective mood in this, his final NBA season, especially in places where his memories are deep and meaningful. San Antonio is such a place, and Kobe spoke glowingly about the Spurs, and what they’ve meant to his development as a future Hall of Famer, and also his thoughts on Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. As Kobe spoke, his thoughts were recorded by Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

What do you recall of the Spurs-Lakers battles?

It was fun. The most fun was when they had home-court advantage, and we had to come up here and play, and we wound up getting both games up here. It was intense — we knew what they could do, we knew how they would play, we knew their momentum, we knew how they liked to execute — but their were just some nights where we never could get in front of them. Their ball movement, we were always kinda chasing the game. I do miss The Dome, though. I do miss that. I remember playing in there, there was something about the rims there that I really enjoyed. Then when they moved here, the first couple of games really threw me off. I hated playing here. I couldn’t shoot for crap. But, playing at The Dome was a lot of fun.

How has your relationship with Gregg Popovich evolved?

It’s been amazing. I mean, he’s been so open with me and I’ve been a sponge every chance I get to be around him. I talk to him a lot about the game, I ask him questions about the game, how he teaches the game. One of my favorite times that I spent with him was during the All-Star game when he was coaching. He came up to me right before practice and he said, ‘Hey, should I do a real practice or like a whatever walk-through All-Star practice?” I said, ‘Do a real practice, because I want to see what the hell goes on in San Antonio, so you’ve got to do all the real stuff.’ The guys were kind of looking around like ‘What the hell.’ Tim just looked at me like, ‘You’re killing me.’ I wanted to see what goes down.

Is that going to be the plan for this All-Star Game?

“I hope it is because it’s rare to play for one of the all-time greatest coaches. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had Phil and played under Pop for several times. It’s been great.”

Was Tim’s success ever a driving force for you?

“It’s strange. No, because the competitiveness was always centered around us vs. them. You have to beat them. In the process of us getting to the next level you wind up beating Tim Duncan but against San Antonio you cannot afford to think individually for one second because they’ll burn you so I never had that personal rivalry with him.”

Is it weird to play them without Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan suiting up?

“Nah. I’ve played against them for so many year, it’s like, ‘enough already.’ We’ve had all those battles before.”

Can you compare facing Bruce Bowen to facing Kawhi Leonard?

“It’s very difficult to give you a very intelligent … I could give you a BS answer but it’s hard to make that comparison. I saw Bruce so many times. Kawhi I’ve only played against one-and-a-half times and nothing at a really high level of a matchup. So it’s very hard for me to compare the two. From what I see on TV Bruce uses length a lot more. He was kind of in and out, tapping the arms and trying to break your rhythm, things of that nature. Kawhi tends to use his body a lot more and plays position a lot more. But they both have phenomenal hands.”

Could you have imagined playing for Pop for 20 years?

“Of course.”

That wouldn’t have been a problem?

“Nah. I’d have won a lot of championships.”

Does this rivalry mean more to you than the Celtics?

“It’s more personal because it’s the rivalry that I played through. The Celtics rivalry is something I grew up watching. IK played against them a couple of times in The Finals. But San Antonio was year in and year out. The year we won the championship it was like, ‘Well, Tim was hurt so it really doesn’t count.’ So the second run it was, ‘OK, you guys had a shortened season and we had Tim when he was hurt so now let’s see what’s up.’

“That rivalry was what fueled the majority of my career.”

How do you think you would have dealt with Pop wanting to sit you if you were dinged up or tired?

“I’d have been fine because he never would have known I was dinged up or tired … ‘You on the training table? No. I’m good.’ “

You said last year there is some jealousy Tim’s had the same coach all these years … you had that a bit with Phil but he’s gone. Is there a jealousy factor for Spurs having that continuity, the group of players who have been with him so long?

“I think that starts at the top with Pop, starts at the top with the ownership. They’re very clear on what the identity is, very clear on what they stand for, what they represent. They’re very clear on the style of player that they want to have. They’ve been consistent with that year over year. That’s why it becomes easier for them to select certain players to draft, certain players to trade for. Because they’re looking for certain type of player. That leads to consistency.

We’ve had changes. We have Dr. Buss passing away, have Jeannie and Jim, you have Phil coming and going. You have all these things going on and so as a result system changing as well. So there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here which is phenomenal, probably compared to the Patriots, is had so much consistency from top to bottom.”

Ever wonder what you could have done with that kind of consistency around you?

Of course, you wonder that. But just for fun. I can’t sit here and complain. I’ve eaten pretty well. So I can’t complain that there’s no dessert left.

***

No. 4: What’s in the future for the struggling Wolves? — These are interesting times for the Wolves. On one hand, they appear headed in the right direction for the first time in over a decade, with a batch of intriguing young players on the roster and a possible lottery pick coming in June and plenty of room under the salary cap. However, there are questions about the leadership of this team, from Glen Taylor (who has resisted overtures of selling the majority of the team) and GM Milt Newton and the coaching staff led by Sam Mitchell, a situation that was thrown in question with the passing of Flip Saunders. Despite all of their promise, the Wolves have struggled this season and therefore it wouldn’t be surprised if they underwent an off-season shakeup. Here’s a report from Chip Scoggins of the Star-Tribune:

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.

KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.

Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.

The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?

Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are the Bucks simply experiencing growing pains, or is it something more troubling? … Jimmy Butler is feeling good about his chances of returning to the court soon, maybe within days … Can Russell Westbrook average a triple-double for a season and pull an Oscar Robertson? .. The Sixers should extend their talent search overseas, given their dire straits …

Report: Silver says changes coming to hack-a-Shaq rule

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Changes are in store for the dreaded Hack-A-Shaq (Dwight or DeAndre or Andre) rule this summer.

Or at leas that is the sentiment from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who addressed the topic on USA Today Sports‘ NBA A-to-Z Podcast.

Like many fans, coaches, players, executives and observers, the Commissioner has grown weary of the often-used strategy, which basically consists of fouling the poorest free throw shooter on an opposing team in an effort to limit said team’s scoring opportunities.

More from USA Today Sports:

“Even for those who had not wanted to make the change, we’re being forced to that position just based on these sophisticated coaches understandably using every tactic available to them,” Silver said. “It’s just not the way we want to see the game played.”

Hack-A-Player is up this year. The number of those intentional fouls through mid-December surpassed the number of times it happened last season (164), and the league is closing in on 300 Hack-A-Player instances before the All-Star break.

Through Tuesday’s games, fouls against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond and Houston Rockets Dwight Howard have accounted for 69% of Hack-A-Player fouls. Jordan accounts for 34%.

Silver knows the data. But the interaction with fans as he watches a game has made an impact, too.

“Again, as I travel around the league, there’s that one school of thought ‘Guys have got to make their free throws,’ ” Silver said. “But then at the end of the day, we are an entertainment property, and it’s clear that when you’re in the arena, that fans are looking at me, shrugging their shoulders with that look saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do something about this?’ ”

 


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