Posts Tagged ‘Emeka Okafor’

Hangtime podcast (episode 155) hail to the huskies … featuring Emeka Okafor

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —  One shining moment?

How about four since 1999?

That’s what Emeka Okafor and all of the other players, former players, coaches, fans and alums of the University of Connecticut are thinking these days. UConn is back on top of the basketball world (men’s and women’s) for the second time since 2004, when Okafor was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

It’s their time to shine.

“I got the baby in a UConn onesi,” Okafor said on Episode 155 of the Hang Time Podcast: Hail to the Huskies, where talked all things UConn with one of the greatest players in the storied history of the program.

All of the NBA veterans who played under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun or alongside his successor, Kevin Ollie, know all about the UConn pride that swells at times like this. So it only seemed right to track down Okafor, who experienced the championship double-dip as a player in 2004 and now gets to marvel at it like the rest of us all these years later. The Phoenix Suns big man hasn’t played this season while rehabilitating a herniated disc in his neck.

We also handed out some awards for seasons well done (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and many others are involved), discuss the Hall of Fame class of 2014 (Alonzo Mourning, Mitch Richmond and former NBA Commissioner David Stern headline), the looming end of the Joe Dumars era in Detroit and other hot topics around the league, while also trying to get to the bottom of this lingering foolishness that has become the “Braggin Rights” this season. (it’s a c-o-n-spiracy folks, I promise!)

Dive in for more on Episode 155 of the Hang Time Podcast, Hail To The Huskies … Featuring Emeka Okafor!

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.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 4


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Suns, Lakers still talking Pau | Lakers may get Nash back tonight | Report: Sixers shopping Turner | Warriors put new arena plan on hold

No. 1: Report: Suns, Lakers still talking Gasol deal — A days worth of buzz around the Internet about a potential Pau Gasol-to-Phoenix trade hasn’t scuttled the deal. Phoenix remains open to acquiring the former All-Star big man, but is waiting to see how he mends from a strained groin before going further, writes Ramona Shelbourne and Marc Stein of ESPN.com. As well, the other option to consider for the Suns, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, is how Gasol would fit into a pretty tight-knit bunch in Phoenix:

The Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns engaged in a fresh round of trade discussions Monday focused on four-time All-Star center Pau Gasol as both sides continued to assess their options in advance of the Feb. 20 trade deadline, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that, while there is substantive interest on both sides, it’s believed Suns officials want to see how Gasol recovers from a strained groin before deciding whether to take talks to the next level.

Gasol noted on his Instagram page that he’d received a PRP injection on his groin on Monday.

One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor’s $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol’s $19.3 million. A trade for Okafor’s expiring deal would save the Lakers $4.8 million, taking them less than $3 million away from the league’s luxury-tax threshold, meaning one more smaller deal before the trade deadline could conceivably be enough to take them out of tax territory completely.

Because the trade would not bring the Lakers all the way under the luxury tax, sources said L.A. remains insistent on getting back draft picks or young players in addition to salary cap savings for the 33-year-old center.

The Lakers are also comfortable with keeping Gasol beyond the deadline to maintain as much financial flexibility for free agency this summer and beyond, sources said.

While it is attractive to try and get under the luxury tax threshold this season, it is not imperative, and the Lakers believe they have several other options to do so, sources said.

And here’s Coro’s report on how the Suns’ players are viewing potential trade talks:

The Suns are exploring many options for the Okafor trade chip, but Gasol leaked to light. Even with Gasol’s $19.3 million contract, the Suns could make the deal because of their cap space. But it would come at a cost of about $7 million for what the Suns would lose in Okafor contract savings and take on in prorated payroll.

The greater cost to weigh with Gasol, or any other deal, would be the effect on the team’s rhythm and chemistry with two months left. The Suns have risen from a last-place pick to the eighth-best NBA record somewhat because of how the team bonded on being young and lacking big-name stars. Gasol is a four-time All-Star who, at 33, is older than all of the Suns and currently is out because of a groin injury.

“I know he’s a great guy,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said. “He is not a troublemaker. He would be a good fit. You never know. He played for the Lakers so many years. They’ve got that three-angle offense, and it’s a totally different offense than we’ve got here. We have to run. We like to run.”

The attention is on Gasol, but the Suns have considered other players. Those have not been revealed, but they could involve other teams with no postseason aspirations. Philadelphia has Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner for youth. Milwaukee has Larry Sanders to fortify a front line’s defense and rebounding. Orlando has Arron Afflalo, a defensive, shot-making guard.

Falling short of a sure thing such as Kevin Love becoming available, there is no certainty to a midseason acquisition improving a 29-18 team.


VIDEO: Suns coach Jeff Hornacek talks about the team’s recent success

***

No. 2: Lakers get point guard reinforcements tonight?– A lack of depth at point guard — along with an injury to that Kobe Bryant guy — have played a big part in the Los Angeles Lakers’ freefall from fringe playoff contender to third-worst team in the Western Conference. Things might look up a little bit tonight in Minnesota (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) as point guards Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar might all be available to play. Trevor Wong of Lakers.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin have more on the Lakers’ backcourt:

Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all participated in a second straight practice on Monday before the Lakers departed for their three-game road trip.

“They’re all good,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I think they’re all ready to go. There’s a possibility all three could play (at Minnesota).”

Blake addressed the media post practice and did not explicitly state he’d suit up at Minnesota, but acknowledged he’s felt much better with two consecutive days of practice.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I felt pretty good today. We’ll see how I feel when I wake up and go from there.”

Farmar, who has been out of action for one-month plus, echoed similar sentiments regarding his imminent return.

“I’m not sure about tomorrow,” Farmar said. “We’ll see. I’m available if they allow me (to play).”

Big man Pau Gasol will not play against the Wolves (strained right groin), which could also mean changes for the L.A. frontcourt, writes McMenamin:

The coach said he wondered if Nash, out since Nov. 10 with nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings, would ever make it back to the court.

“With the age and how his back is, yeah, I definitely [wondered],” D’Antoni said. “Again, it just shows his perseverance to overcome whatever just to play. He wants to play, obviously. And he’s done an unbelievable job to get himself ready up to this point and we’ll see how it goes.”

Gasol’s absence and the presence of the three point guards will present D’Antoni with lineup options. He said either Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill or Robert Sacre could fill in as the starting center.

The question remains whether Kendall Marshall, who has averaged 11.9 points and 11.5 assists in 15 games as the starting point guard, will suddenly find himself without a role.

“I think he knows he’s going to play,” D’Antoni said. “Whether he starts or whether he doesn’t, he’ll have to [get used to the fact that] it won’t be the same. He’s not going to get 35 minutes no matter what he does. So, that’s how the NBA is and he’ll have to keep carving his niche out. He’s played well, so he’s got to continue that.”

Kaman, who received a Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision in 10 of the Lakers’ 15 games in January, sympathized with the position Marshall is in.

“I think Kendall is kind of in a whirlwind right now, trying to figure out what to do,” Kaman said. “The poor guy has been doing it on his own for the last month and a half and now that everybody is back, he’s like, ‘What am I doing? What do I do?’”

For his part, the 11-year veteran Kaman said he has stayed ready to play.

“Unfortunately it comes with someone getting hurt before I have a chance to play, but it’s part of the game,” he said. “You kind of wait your turn.”


VIDEO: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni discusses the team’s injured point guards

***

No. 3: Report: Sixers shopping swingman Turner The Philadelphia 76ers are in the midst of a rebuilding season, but despite the struggles that come with that, swingman Evan Turner is enjoying his best season as a pro. Turner leads the Sixers in scoring (17.9 ppg), has delivered a couple of game-winning shots this season and generally is developing into a solid starter in the NBA. But Turner is also in the last year of his rookie contract and is hearing his name bandied about in trade talks. The Sporting NewsSean Devaney writes that several teams are inquiring about Turner, but his ability to potentially be an unrestricted free agent next summer might hold up any deals:

The Philadelphia 76ers, deep into a rebuilding project that kicked off last June on draft night with the trade of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, have been stepping up their efforts to make a move before the trade deadline, and swingman Evan Turner has been at the forefront of those discussions, sources told Sporting News.

The Sixers are eager to net a draft pick for Turner—they’ve also shopped free-agent-to-be center Spencer Hawes and forward Thaddeus Young—and that has been a hang-up in their efforts to find a trade.

The problem, one league executive said, is that Turner can become a restricted free agent this summer—or unrestricted, if the Sixers decide not to extend the $8.7 million qualifying offer he is slated for this offseason. If Turner is to become an unrestricted free agent, trading for him now makes little sense.

.,.

The Thunder, who will own Dallas’ draft pick this year if it is outside of the Top 20, expressed interest in Turner earlier in the year. A source said, too, that Phoenix—which potentially has four first-round picks in the 2014 draft and would be willing to part with at least one—discussed Turner with the Sixers, but nothing solid resulted.

For Turner, now in his fourth season after having been the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, none of this comes as a surprise. Once the Holiday deal was announced, he knew the Sixers would be taking a step backward, and that he might not factor into the rebuilding plan.

That was confirmed this fall when not only did he fail to reach a contract extension with the team (players drafted in 2010 were extension-eligible this offseason), but there were not even any discussions between new Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie and Turner’s agent, David Falk, on a contract.

“I never expected to get a contract extension, especially when we switched GMs, you know?” Turner said. “I always said, Mr. Hinkie is going to do what he wants to do, and he has his own vision and everything like that. So when you trade an All-Star like Jrue, I mean, what occurs next isn’t going to surprise me. I was just trying my best to keep focused, keep helping the team win and getting better.”

Averaging 7.2 points as a rookie and 9.4 points in his second season caused him some anxiety—he was all too aware that he was already being labeled a disappointment and a bust, and he took that to heart.

“That’s what the No. 2 tag comes with,” he said. “Sometimes there are people who write stuff and say stuff that don’t even watch the game, you know what I am saying? I enjoyed my first two years.

Turner admits that dealing with the criticism was hard for him. He had been a star at Ohio State, and signed with Falk (who was retired) mostly because Falk had represented Michael Jordan. While Turner never expected to be Jordan, he did expect to be a star in the league.

“I was young,” he said. “When it came down to it, I got blamed for dang near everything. I wasn’t this, I wasn’t that. You become insecure about it.”

After the Sixers’ loss on the road to the Brooklyn Nets last night, Turner responded to the trade rumors with the following comment (per the Philadelphia Daily NewsBob Cooney):

“I really don’t read the paper; whatever is going to occur is going to occur,” said Turner, who is having his most productive season with a team-leading 18.1 points a game entering last night’s game against the Nets. “I just focus on the next day. That’s the honest-to-God truth. Until it happens, it’s nothing to really worry about.

“I bleed Sixers red, white, blue. At the end of the day, I never really worry about it. If something needs to be discussed, [his agent] will let me know. Other than that, you go with the flow and go about your business. Whatever happens, happens.”

***

No. 4: Warriors put new arena plans on hold Way back in May of 2012, Golden State announced it would be building a new arena on the San Francisco waterfront with hopes of opening it in 2017. Since then, renderings have been released and Warriors fan fervor over the new digs has been rising all along. Apparently, that excitement will have to be put on the shelf for a while, per Phillip Matier And Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Warriors are halting plans on the arena for at least a year, if not longer:

The Golden State Warriors are putting their goal of opening a waterfront arena in San Francisco by 2017 on hold for a year – and maybe longer.

“It’s about getting it right, not about getting it done fast,” said Warriors President Rick Welts.

In the past 20 months, the team has produced three rough designs in an attempt to come up with one palatable to its prospective waterfront neighbors and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which must approve the deal. In the meantime, cost estimates for preparing Piers 30-32, on which the arena would sit, have doubled to $180 million.

The Warriors’ acknowledgement that a 2017 opening won’t happen comes just days before arena opponents are expected to turn in more than 15,000 signatures for a measure that would require the Warriors – and any other developer – to win voter approval to exceed current height limits along the waterfront. The deadline is Monday.

“We are going to ensure that the Warriors arena goes before voters,” said Jim Stearns, the political consultant who is running the campaign for a June vote with the backing of the Sierra Club and others opposed to the 18,000-seat arena.

Backers had to gather the valid signatures of 9,702 registered voters to qualify their measure for the ballot. “The fact that this could get the needed signatures in just three weeks is a reflection of the kind of passion that is behind it,” said former Mayor Art Agnos, the most prominent politico opposing the Warriors’ proposal.

Meanwhile, the team is in talks to stay at Oracle Arena in Oakland beyond the 2016-17 season.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Thunder star Kevin Durant maintains his position that he’s not a fan of the ‘Slim Reaper’ nickname … Nuggets coach Brian Shaw expects Andre Miller to talk to him — not the other way around — if he wants back on the team … Rookie phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo has a bright future, but how can he realize it? … Good look at what role Andrew Bynum might serve with the Pacers this season … Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey says the team isn’t ‘on the same page’, but he’s open to remaining in Detroit long-term, too … Austrailian Draft prospect Dante Exum already has ideas on where he’d like to play in the NBABrandon Knight has his first hero moment in Milwaukee as the Bucks top the Knicks

ICYMI of the Night: In case, for some reason, you forget just how freakishly athletic LeBron James can be, this alley-oop against Detroit last night was a great reminder …


VIDEO: LeBron James gets up for the power alley-oop slam

Hang Time Q&A: John Wall On ‘His Wizards,’ The Evolution Of His Game And RG III




VIDEO: John Wall and the Wizards topple the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — John Wall is far from a finished product. And he knows that better than anyone. 

The Washington Wizards’ point guard and one of the budding stars in a league filled with potential young stars, Wall is currently working through the process of handling responsibilities as the face of a franchise and a player capable of leading his team to the playoffs.

Wall’s off-the-court leadership has grown considerably the past couple of seasons and might be the most critical component for a Wizards franchise that has invested in him for the future to the tune of five-years and $80 million.

Wall reflected on his journey, his future, the Wizards’ playoff hopes, Robert Griffin III and much more in a recent sit down with NBA.com:

NBA.com: What is different about this vibe of this group as opposed to last year or the year before?

JOHN WALL: I think how we came back as a group when I returned from my injury and just playing with the guys, we all liked each other as a team, even though we weren’t winning as much, and enjoyed playing with each other. It’s a trust thing. It’s the first time I can honestly say in my three years playing here that we all enjoyed one another. Nobody cared who scared who scored. We were all committed to what coach wanted us to do defensively and that’s how we came into this season and knew how good we could be.

NBA.com: What about the consistency factor, you guys had so many names and faces come in and out of the lineup? There’s been a lot of movement, personnel wise, since you were drafted.

JW: Basically, the biggest thing was staying consistent in everything we do. Me, trying to get healthy and doing the same things to get better. Staying consistent and knowing what guys you would have on the team in a given year and that guys weren’t going to get traded. We’ve got a good core of guys that we know will be there and what we want to do with those guys. It helps when you are planning long term because a plan is in place and you know exactly what your roles are and what you need to do.

NBA.com: Guys always talk about that turning point or that moment when the light goes on for them. For you, was that moment sitting out the start of the 2012-13 season, learning, watching, processing what goes on from a different perspective other than being on the court?

JW: I think that was the biggest turning point for me, sitting out that long, even though I didn’t want to sit out. Just getting the chance to study the game better helped me. Watching my teammates and seeing what they were great at and then knowing how I could come back and make the situation better, is what helped me. I think those guys made it a lot easier for me. Having Nene and Emeka Okafor knock down shots and finish. Having Brad [Beal] and Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza playing as well as they played. It was the first time I had guys do that and trust in me to lead the team and be their point guard. It makes a difference.

NBA.com: When you came into the league the East was loaded with top teams from Boston, Miami and Chicago to Atlanta and even Orlando. Things have changed dramatically since then. The Eastern Conference is wide open. Is there a now or never feel to this season for you guys, sort of like the door is open and you better get through it now or else …?

JW: It’s a great opportunity. And if you fall short right now, you are basically not committed to getting to where you want to be in this league, whether it’s the playoffs or whatever. My first three years, everybody was loaded. Now there is like four or five teams rebuilding at the same time. And that’s rare in this league. You have to make sure you have a good understanding of where you are as a team and be ready to jump in there if it’s your time. And I think it’s our time right now.

NBA.com: You had an owner (Ted Leonsis) who wasn’t shy about putting the pressure on his shoulders and also yours in terms of bringing the franchise back to a playoff level. He’s banked on you being an elite player and a franchise player. Does that add any extra pressure when you are already the No. 1 pick in your Draft and get the huge contract extension?

JW: I could tell the difference last season when I came back from my injury, just by the type of conversations I was having with my coach (Randy Wittman) and the things we were talking about and my owner and the meetings we were having. It wasn’t just about me improving and getting better, it was about a vision we all had for me and what that means for this team and this franchise. Being in on the planning process and being there from the start makes it different. The general manager coming to me throughout the summer and letting me know this is my team and making sure I understand that I have to lead, that’s all a part of the plan now. And I think I’ve put in the work to do it.

NBA.com: People always talk about putting in the work, but how has your work ethic changed since you’ve been in the league?

JW: My rookie season I didn’t know what to expect coming in. My second year was kind of tough because it was the lockout year. I was working my tail off but I really didn’t know what to do, because there was so much uncertainty. Last year was my first year to really understand the NBA game and comprehend what it was I needed to do and what I needed to work on. Then I get diagnosed with the knee injury and everything went sideways. So this summer I came in early and made sure everything was right, made sure I was healthy. And learning how to change the pace of a game, working on my body and improving my jump shot, those were the things I worked hardest on. I’m constantly getting better in all facets of my game and I think I can keep getting better and better.

NBA.com: Has the leadership component, particularly the vocal part, been tough for you? You’re not an older guy and you certainly don’t strike me as a very talkative guy. How hard do you have to work to remind yourself to be a leader in that respect?

JW: Coach Cal [Kentucky coach John Calipari] helped me work on that. I’ve always been a guy that led by example. The vocal part I worked really hard on at Kentucky. He basically said you have to learn how to talk to certain guys. And you can’t go out and try to fuss and cuss guys out. You have to respect each and every guy in your locker room as a man. So I think that’s something I improved in. It helped that when I came back last year my teammates trusted me to be that guy, both with the ball in my hands on the court and without the ball in my hands off the court. Talking to them helped me improve in that area.

NBA.com: You’re also a part of USA Basketball’s Men’s Senior National Team group. When you’re out there with all of the other best young players, all of the other top young point guards, what changes in terms of how you handle yourself and compete in that environment as opposed to being the face of the franchise in Washington?

JW: The toughest thing with that is you get to thinking like high school, especially when all the top point guards are out there. You want to battle it out with those other guys. But you are ultimately out there for USA Basketball, and that’s bigger than your name or the franchise you represent. So you try and just go out there and just play the game and get better, but also show the people in charge at USA Basketball that you can do whatever is asked of you if you are lucky enough to get the call and get asked to play in one of the international competitions. So it’s not an ego thing when you are in that environment.

NBA.com: You seem so much more measured and relaxed about things these days. Is this the most comfortable you’ve been on and off the court since you’ve been in the league?

JW: Yeah, 100 percent. I’d say 120 percent, the most comfortable I’ve been just talking to anybody and going into games, being on the court, and just feeling confident knowing this is the old me. My first three years, I was always kind of searching, how do I present myself and how do I do this or that the right way? The uncertainty is gone. This is the hardest position in the league to me. Every night somebody is coming at you. Seriously. You get no breaks. People can look at the schedule and you see Kyle Lowry or Jose Calderon and those guys aren’t always talked about, but some of the toughest challenges I have is against guys like that. Because you have to show them the same respect you do a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook.

NBA.com: You have a unique dynamic in D.C. right now, being the young face of a franchise in a city where another player in similar position (the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III) is going through a similar stage of his career at the same time. How strange is it to watch that roller coaster from so close and comparing it your own evolution?

JW: I feel for him right now, I really do. There are some parallels, but then again it’s totally different. He started off hot, Rookie of the Year and all of that stuff. My first couple of years there was a learning curve, some stumbles and a lot of learning to do. Now I feel like I’m finally getting there now, hitting my stride and now he’s struggling. It’s tough and it’s also a reminder of why you have to stay humble and hungry no matter what’s going on around you. Take nothing away from him, he’s still that same guy and still humble and hungry. But you have to be mindful of the fan base and what type of support they’re going to show you. When you’re struggling it gets frustrating for the fans and even more frustrating for us, because you know what you want to do for your city, the things you want them to experience with you playing your heart out day after day. It’s the same for him and the Redskins as is it for us, we’ve got a lot of young talent and people want that to turn into winning. The fans do and so do we.

Wolves, Wizards On Different Paths




VIDEO: Kevin Love is all smiles after a win over Cleveland

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – In an effort to soften the blow, we put our sunglasses on when scanning back at our preseason predictions for this season.

There are so many hits and misses, it helps to have a little shade to work with for the ugly misses. For every prediction we hit out of the park (thank you Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves), there is a prediction that seems to go horribly wrong (there’s that mess in Cleveland and, of course, that wobbly start from John Wall and the Washington Wizards).

The BluBlockers are needed for tonight’s Timberwolves-Wizards matchup tonight in D.C. (7 p.m. ET, League Pass), a duel between teams on very different paths early on this season. Both teams are loaded with young talent and have quality depth. But the results have been vastly different for the two teams that are inextricably linked — Wizards coach Randy Wittman used to be Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman while the boss in Minnesota, Flip Saunders, once coached the Wizards.

While Wall and the Wizards have struggled to an ugly 2-7 start, including their current four-game losing streak, Love and the Timberwolves have shown themselves to be an exciting and aggressive crew.

At 7-4, the Wolves are living up to all of the hype, internal and otherwise. Love, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Co. have managed to take on heightened expectations and handle them appropriately. Throw in that Chase Budinger is back and practicing with the team and Minnesota is looking even better.

Love is in the MVP mix, coach Rick Adelman‘s got his supporting cast thriving and the roster’s balance and depth is finally paying dividends. The Wolves are in the midst of back-to-back grueling stretches of five games in seven nights, a mettle-testing, early-season grind that will could serve them well months from now.

Tonight’s game kicks off a monster week that will see Adelman’s team face off against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at home and the Brooklyn Nets Friday at the Target Center. Then comes a road date in Houston with the Rockets on Saturday and they’ll finish this stretch up in Indiana on Nov. 25.

Happy Thanksgiving!

“I don’t know if [the league schedule-makers] know that we’re almost to Canada and Houston’s almost all the way to Mexico,” Adelman told reporters Monday.

When your team is top three in the league in scoring and set to get another boost whenever Budinger returns to the rotation, none of the teams you are blindsiding will grant you any sympathy.

The Wizards, meanwhile, could use a little sympathy … and anything else they can get right now. When their owner, Ted Leonsis, used every opportunity in the lead up to the season to tout his team as a legitimate playoff contender in the East, he surely did not envision this humbling start.

Signing Wall to an $80 million maximum contract extension in August was supposed to be a sign of the commitment Leonsis was making not only to the young face of the franchise, but to the future. Wall was not only going to be the change agent for the Wizards on the court, his extension was also supposed to serve as the symbolic change in the way the Wizards did business going forward.

Veterans would see that the organization was serious about putting the resources in the right places and taking that next step from playoff pretender to contender. But it didn’t take long for reality to set in. As sound as the plan looked on paper, the Wizards simply didn’t have the right mix.

As talented as Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal one of a handful of early candidates for the league’s Most Improved Player award — surely are, something is still missing.

As my The Beat colleague and TNT’s own David Aldridge pointed out in The Morning Tip, Wall does not shoulder the burden of the Wizards’ slow start on his own. They’re not the same defensive monster they were a year ago, not with Marcin Gortat taking Emeka Okafor‘s place in the lineup.

A top-10 defensive unit last season, the Wizards are now a top-10 scoring team but falling woefully short on the defensive side. As DA pointed out, the slightest tweak to the Wizards’ rotation and chemistry has altered the product on the floor dramatically:

Nene, whose antipathy for banging in the post was well-known, was especially good with Okafor. The quintet of Nene, Okafor, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal and Wall was one of the league’s best defensive fivesomes last year. It’s not that Gortat is a horrible defender. He tries. But opponents, according to the league’s player tracking stats, are shooting 56.7 percent against him on shots at the rim. (By comparison, opponents are shooting 31.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, on shots at the rim against New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez.)

“March has done a good job for us,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday. “No question, ‘Mek was solid back there for us, the last line of defense for us, with his basketball knowledge. I think what March brings, though, is that big guy who can challenge at the rim. He’s also got a very good IQ. Defense is a matter of getting your knees dirty each and every night. It’s not a fun thing, but it’s a valuable thing. That’s where we have to get back to, understanding how valuable that is for us to be a good team.”

A good team?

How about a playoff team?

After all, that’s what we all predicted for the ‘Wolves and Wizards this season. But as of right now only one of these teams is living up to that expectation.

New-Look Suns Getting It Done


VIDEO: Suns keep rolling, drop Pelicans

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Of the 16 players that suited up for the Phoenix Suns last season, 12 are gone.

Then there was the ultimate short-timer Caron Butler, a Suns player this summer just long enough to model the franchise’s new uniforms at a Scottsdale mall. In all, eight players are new to the roster, and straight from the feel-good department is Channing Frye returning from a scary heart condition that robbed him of the entire 2012-13 season. Frye is the Suns’ longest-tenured player, signed as a free agent way back in 2009, before current general manager Ryan McDonough had celebrated his 30th birthday.

The Suns’ starting five includes two players from last season: P.J.Tucker and Goran Dragic to go with Frye, Miles Plumlee and star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe.

And here they are, a team that figured to lose games at a rapid rate is 5-2 and leading the Pacific Division. So how is it possible for an organization that hired a new GM, hired a new coach, cleaned house and then traded its talented starting center Marcin Gortat to Washington a week before the season started (for an injured one who might not play at all) to have already secured one-fifth of its win total from all of last season?

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Wizards Going All In With Gortat-For-Okafor Five-Player Trade

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors

In Marcin Gortat, the Wizards have the big man they need to fill out their supporting cast.

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – No excuses in Washington this year.

That’s what Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis has been preaching for months. Injuries will not be used an excuse for the Wizards not chasing a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

So, out goes injured center Emeka Okafor, who is out indefinitely after neck surgery, and in comes Marcin Gortat from Phoenix. It’s a deal that bolsters the Wizards’ frontcourt rotation and allows them to continue on with their plans to ride John Wall, Bradley Beal and a talented young core group into playoff contention this season.

It’s the sort of aggressive, risky move you would expect from a team with playoff aspirations that they want to realize now rather than later. Leonsis planted the seed after last season, when injuries to Wall and others prevented the Wizards from taking off the way they expected.

When Wall signed his five-year, $80 million extension in August, it became a playoffs-or-else proposition in Washington. The injury to Okafor, as well Chris Singleton and rookie swingman Otto Porter Jr., took some of the steam out of the hype train. But the arrival of Gortat, a 7-footer who averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds last season in Phoenix, pumps some adrenaline back into things in Washington.

The deal, first reported by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, will also include the Wizards getting veteran guards Shannon Brown, Malcom Lee and Kendall Marshall, who was at one time expected to be the heir apparent to Steve Nash, for Okafor’s expiring contract and a protected first-round pick in the 2014 Draft.

The Wizards are not expected to keep Brown, Lee or Marshall on their already stocked roster, waiving all three to get to the league-maximum 15-man group in time for the start of the regular season next week.

The Suns acquisition of both Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in consecutive summers, however, pushed Marshall into the margins in a rebuilding process in Phoenix that has yet to find a true foundation.

With a new direction and a new boss, general manager Ryan McDonough, the Suns are essentially waiving the white flag in the Western Conference playoff hunt and plotting a course with assets, cap space and a robust crop of talent in the 2014 Draft pool. Contract extension talks with Bledsoe are reportedly ongoing, but he appears to be the only established player safe from the trade chatter. (There have been rumors for months about Dragic being dangled as trade bait for the right asset).

It’s an interesting move by both parties, one that signals a definite shift in strategy by a Wizards team focused on the here and now and similarly deliberate move by a Suns team planning for the long-term future.

Randy Wittman and the Wizards have the big man they need to fill out that supporting cast around Wall and Beal. And Gortat gets his chance to prove he’s not just a great backup (to Dwight Howard in Orlando) or a guy who can put up solid numbers on a struggling team.

The best part, though, is the Wizards are not just talking about doing whatever it takes to become a part of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, they are making the moves necessary to make sure those words have a chance to become a reality.

It’s like the owner said, no excuses.

One Team, One Stat: One Great Lineup For The Wizards


From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Washington Wizards, who had something to build on last season.

The basics
WAS Rank
W-L 29-53 t-23
Pace 94.4 15
OffRtg 97.8 30
DefRtg 100.6 8
NetRtg -2.7 20

The stat

84.4 - Points allowed per 100 possessions by the Wizards’ lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Nene and Emeka Okafor, the league’s best defensive lineup among 158 that played at least 100 minutes together.

The context

Not only was that lineup ridiculously good defensively, but it was pretty strong offensively, scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Overall, only one lineup around the league was better in as many minutes. That Knicks lineup included Jason Kidd, so you could say that the Wizards’ lineup is the best returning lineup in the league.

The unit allowed opponents to shoot just 50 percent in the restricted area and 13-for-53 (25 percent) from 3-point range. It didn’t force a lot of turnovers, but kept its opponents off the free-throw line and was great on the glass.

The video above is from a Jan. 26 game in which the Wizards’ starting lineup outscored the Bulls 27-16 in 12 minutes. It turned into a 13-point win for the Wizards, who went 11-7 in games that this lineup played together. That included a 6-1 mark against playoff teams.

The issue, of course, is that 18 games and 142 minutes isn’t a lot. Wall missed the first 33 games of the season, Beal missed 24 of the last 39, and Nene was in and out of the lineup all year. The lineup wouldn’t have been able to sustain a +24.0 NetRtg over 1,000 minutes, but the Wizards would have been a much better team if these guys were all healthy.

This year, Okafor is already out with a neck injury and Nene says his knee is “still sore” and his foot “still hurts a little bit.” The two were a big reason why Washington ranked eighth in defensive efficiency last season. The Wizards allowed 97.1 points per 100 possessions in 912 minutes with the bigs on the floor together.

Wizards opponents attempted only 43.8 percent of their shots from the paint last season, the lowest rate in the league. That number was just 41.2 percent with Nene and Okafor on the floor together.

With those guys protecting the paint, the Wizards’ perimeter defenders were allowed to be more aggressive. And when the Wizards got stops, Wall was able to get out on the break. He ranked third in the league with 5.5 fast break points per game. If Okafor isn’t healthy, Washington will have a difficult time remaining a top 10 defensive team and Wall will get less fast-break opportunities.

But the developing chemistry between Wall and Beal is still something to look forward to. Beal shot 50 percent (33-for-66) from 3-point range and 47 percent overall with Wall on the floor last season. He shot 34 percent from 3-point range and 39 percent overall with Wall off the floor.

One final note: Given the success of this lineup, it was surprising to see Randy Wittman start Trevor Ariza instead of Webster in the Wizards’ first preseason game on Tuesday. Even if you ignore the bigs, the Wiz were a plus-18.7 points per 100 possessions in 303 minutes with Wall, Beal and Webster on the floor together.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Wizards Hit With Early Injury News

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Mid-September is the time when basketballs start bouncing at a more frequent rate in NBA gyms around the country, a sound that brings hope and joy to all involved. But when players get back to playing full-speed basketball, they also get back to getting injured.

For the second straight season, the Washington Wizards got a head-start in the injury race. Last September, they announced that John Wall would miss two months with a stress fracture in his left knee. This September’s news isn’t as bad, but it could certainly affect Washington’s outlook.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the Wizards announced that Chris Singleton has a Jones fracture in his left foot and will be out 6-8 weeks. An hour later, they announced that Emeka Okafor has been diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck and will be out indefinitely.

The Singleton injury is tough, but he could be back for the start of the season and the Wizards have depth at the forward positions. The Okafor injury is obviously a lot more worrisome.

Washington is a team that promised to improve this season and possibly snatch a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Last season, they were 22-19 in games where both Wall and Nene were healthy, had a top-10 defense, and had a starting lineup that was excellent in limited minutes. Only four lineups that played at least 100 minutes had a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than the unit of Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Nene and Okafor.

So the hope was that Washington could maintain its top-10 standing on defense while improving its offense with the development of Wall and Beal. But the defensive part of that equation looks a little more doubtful with the Okafor news. He was a big part of that top-10 defense, anchoring the middle for more than 2,000 minutes last season.

Kevin Seraphin can step out an hit a mid-range jumper, but his shooting numbers were barely better than Okafor’s last season. And Seraphin is obviously not the defender that Okafor is. So the Wizards will have to help that Okafor isn’t out too long.

Bobcats Pay Up To Nab Jefferson

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From NBA.com staff reports

In a potentially perception-altering move for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, the Charlotte Bobcats reached a verbal agreement Wednesday with one of the most sought-after big men after Dwight Howard, Utah’s Al Jefferson, who agreed to a three-year, $40.5 million deal.

The 28-year-old Jefferson was Charlotte’s top priority in free agency, as the Bobcats sought to finally find a low-post presence that would help their perimeter players get move driving and shooting space.

Jefferson will receive $13.5 million in each of the three seasons of the contract. He will have a player option for the third season.

The Bobcats, according to a source, will amnesty forward Tyrus Thomas in order to create enough cap room to sign Jefferson, who will, along with first-round pick Cody Zeller, give Charlotte a bolstered frontcourt next season, along with second-year small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Last season, Byron Mullens (when healthy) was the de facto starting center for Charlotte, notching 41 starts in 53 games played. But the Bobcats also gave playing time in the middle to second-year big man Bismack Biyombo as well as veterans Thomas, Brendan Haywood, DeSagana Diop and Josh McRoberts.

The Bobcats are finally free of Diop, a monumental bust who played in just 92 games over the past four seasons after Charlotte took him off the Dallas’ Mavericks’ hands, and they did not make a qualifying offer to Mullens, setting the forward-center free.

Haywood and Biyombo, who started 65 games last year and will enter his third season, are both on the books at bargain rates for next season. Charlotte signed Haywood before last season after Dallas used the amnesty clause to release him. He’ll be paid $2.05 million by the Bobcats next season. McRoberts is an unrestricted free agent.

The 6-foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson is a low-post tactician on the offensive end, but he certainly is no Bill Russell on the defensive end. He averaged 17.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 1.1 bpg last season with the Jazz.

Acquired by Utah from Minnesota in a July, 2010 trade, Jefferson could be the kind of acquisition for Charlotte that Vlade Divac was for Sacramento in 1998, when he left the Charlotte Hornets for the Kings in a free agent deal. With Divac aboard and Chris Webber coming from Washington, the Kings turned their up-to-then terrible fortunes around, becoming one of the league’s most exciting teams.

Charlotte has a way to go to get to that level, but Jefferson’s presence will make things easier for everyone. Averaging 16.4 ppg over nine NBA seasons, Jefferson has never shot less than 49.2 percent from the floor. He offers a creative low-post game that utilizes both hands along with an improved jumper.

Now with four centers on the roster for next season, it will be interesting to see Bobcats owner Michael Jordan’s next move is in a possible attempt to thin out the position and seek help elsewhere for the club.

Jordan has been criticized for poor drafts and seeming unwillingness in recent years to spend money, but in signing Jefferson and eating the final two years and $18 million of Thomas’s contract, Jordan is making a significant investment in trying to turn around the Bobcats’ fortunes. They’ve been the worst team in the league the last two years, with a combined 28-120 record, including a 7-59 season in the Lottery-shortened 2011-12 campaign.

Jefferson averaged 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds last season for the Jazz, who could also lose their other free agent big man, Paul Millsap. The two sides met in the opening minutes of free agency on Monday but Utah did not make an offer to Millsap.

NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan and TNT analyst David Aldridge contributed to this report

Wall’s Return Puts Heat On Wittman

 

HANG TIME, Texas – The win over the defending champion Heat in the first week of December was an eye opener. Taking down the Thunder in the first week of January was no less impressive.

But if the goal of the Wizards is to provide more than a once-a-month shock to the NBA system, then the season begins tonight.

Point guard John Wall will make his season debut tonight against the Hawks after missing three months due to a stress injury in his left patella. While nobody is expecting to see the player that averaged 16.3 points. 8.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds in his first two seasons, just having the former No. 1 draft pick on the court is finally a lift for the club that is again foundering at the bottom with a 5-28 record, the worst in the league.

Wall is trying to keep a lid on expectations, as he told Michael Lee of the Washington Post:

“I figure the first couple games probably won’t be the best games,” Wall said after practicing for the third consecutive day without complications from his left knee.

“Just go out there and play my game,” he said. “Don’t do too much. I know that’s the main thing I’ve got to do for my first game back. Just let the game come to me and just try to help my team out.”

Wall also doesn’t expect to have a difficult adjustment to playing alongside several new teammates after sitting next to the Wizards coaching staff for nearly every game and observing their tendencies. His teammates have already marveled as his speed and decision-making, which has been sorely missed for a team has started five different point guards this season – A.J. Price, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Crawford, Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple.

When asked if he felt any external or internal pressures with coming back, Wall quickly responded, “No pressure at all.”
The biggest challenge for him, Wall said, will be “getting my legs underneath me but just working the offense, being the point guard, finding my teammates and knowing guys’ sweet spots is pretty easy to me.”

Without Wall to run the show, the Wizards have been virtually clueless all season, unable to attack defenses and score. In one more season when Washington made significant changes to the lineup — Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, rookie Bradley Beal – they have clearly lacked a leader to pull it all together.

While the medical staff will have Wall operating under a limit on playing minutes as he works his way back into game shape, Wizards coach Randy Wittman says there will be no limits to what he asks of his franchise player in terms of leading his team.

“John is going to have the ball in his hands a lot,” Wittman said. “I don’t want to take any pressure off him. He hasn’t gotten any pressure yet this year. I want him to feel some pressure. John likes pressure.”

Of course, Wittman can only hope that Wall will relieve any pressure on his own situation, which has to be in the crosshairs of a season when Mike Brown, Avery Johnson and Scott Skiles have already been relieved of their head coaching jobs.

If there has been a reason that Wittman has been spared the same fate, it’s because he’s been coaching with one hand tied behind his back without Wall. Now that the Wizards’ main man is back in the lineup, the heat is on and the clock is ticking.