Posts Tagged ‘Goran Dragic’

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues — The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

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No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

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No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

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No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

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No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum — His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Morning Shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers find life at top tough | Butler delivers for OKC | Grizz shift into playoff mode | Dragic weighing national team decision | Charlotte hoping for All-Star Game bid

No. 1: Pacers finding life at the top hard — Expect to read more on this today from our Steve Aschburner, who was at last night’s Pacers-Bulls tilt from the United Center. But as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out this morning, the Indiana Pacers — who are just two games ahead of the Miami Heat for No. 1 in the East — have had a rough time since about February of maintaining their torrid early-season winning pace:

Somewhere along the path to a magical season the Indiana Pacers lost their innocence. Now they’re losing their way.Monday night the Chicago Bulls beat the Pacers with one of their signature defense-based wins 89-77, avenging a loss in Indianapolis last week. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games the Pacers have gone down. Previously, they’d lost seven times over a span of 28 games. They didn’t even have their seventh loss of the season until Jan. 8.

“We started off this season so great and we were excited for the end,” Pacers star Paul George said. “But we forgot about the middle and the middle is the toughest part.”

But the Pacers have so far been slow to readjust their comfort zones. Instead, they’ve been slowly getting frustrated with each other in the classic mode of a team that is underachieving.

Several Pacers players have pointed to February when things started turning for them, a month when Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded long-tenured Danny Granger for Evan Turner in an effort to bolster the roster heading into the playoffs. The Pacers’ players, however, were stunned by both moves. Granger’s departure was treated like a mini-funeral.

“Larry is the man is charge,” Hibbert said. “He made the decisions and we have to go out on the floor and figure it out.”

Then, two weeks ago, Bird lashed out publicly at his players and his coach. Vogel has built a reputation for being positive, sometimes coming off as downright cocky. He has an air of assurance about him that he’s passed to his players, the sort of vigor that had them talking about getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference back in the first days of the season.

Though its defense has been a little less consistent than desired in the second half of the season, what is causing the team the most angst is its offense. In losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls in the last few days, the Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in back-to-back games for the first time in seven years.

There are slumps abounding. Over the last 15 games, Hibbert is averaging just nine points and shooting just 44 percent. After he shot 56 percent in February, David West is shooting just 46 percent in March. George is shooting just 37 percent in March and averaging 19 points, well below his season average.

It’s also not hard to miss how annoyed some Pacers are with Lance Stephenson, the young sparkplug guard who was a huge key to their early season. Stephenson has four triple-doubles this season but at times he’s been too focused on getting those stats, robbing rebounds from teammates and generating some frustration.

Other times he flat-out hogs the ball. And while this happens with many players on every team, the tolerance for the younger and rougher Stephenson is much less than for the veterans elsewhere on the roster.

On Monday, Stephenson had no assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss. When he drops his head and ignores open teammates, heads shake and shoulders slump visibly. After averaging nearly six assists a game in the season’s first three months, Stephenson is averaging only three assists over the last two months.

“We have [guys trying to be heroes] at times and we choose the wrong moment at times,” George said.


VIDEO: Pacers players discuss the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

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No. 2: OKC’s bench delivers vs. Nuggets — With their All-Star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as solid contributions from Serge Ibaka — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup never seems to be lacking in scoring punch. But once the bench crew steps into the game, how well OKC’s offense fares can be a game-by-game roller coaster ride. That instability might be nearing its end, though, especially if new addition Caron Butler puts in performances like he had last night against the Denver Nuggets. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more on Butler’s play:

For the final month before the All-Star break, without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant captured headlines with his fantastic play and his team’s surprising success.

But the Thunder’s impressive late January run was about far more than Durant. He was the catalyst, but the consistent roster-wide contributions helped spur the 10-game win streak and the 15-2 close to the first half.

For the first 11 games after the break – an anemic 5-6 run – that was missing. But of late, it has returned, an impressive four-game win streak culminating in a 117-96 domination of the Nuggets on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant, predictably, was the leading scorer with 27. But on a night where he shot below 50 percent (10-of-21), his team shot above it.

Reggie Jackson had an efficient 16 points and 11 assists, needing only six shots. Steven Adams scored in double-figures for the first time since January. And even Nick Collison dropped in 10, including a corner 3-pointer that drew the loudest ovation of the night.

But Caron Butler shouldered the biggest non-Durant end of the scoring load. In 29 minutes, Butler had his best offensive performance since joining the Thunder, going for 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable every single game,” Durant said of the Thunder’s newest member.

But Butler’s most important offensive contribution on this night – and the most encouraging sign moving forward – was his ability to take advantage of mismatches in the low post.

With so much length and size at rare positions, the Thunder forced the Nuggets to throw smaller defenders at Butler. He exploited it on multiple occasions, dropping in easy short range jumpers.

“He had that post-up working tonight,” Durant said. “They have that smaller guy on him, and he takes advantage. That’s what we need him to do.”

On Monday, the Thunder played with the kind of confidence, effort and balance that allowed them to not only survive, but thrive without Westbrook before the All-Star break.


VIDEO:
Reggie Jackson and others discuss OKC’s blowout win against Denver

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No. 3: Grizz getting into playoff mode? — Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have rolled up a 13-5 mark that has included wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Bulls, Bobcats, Blazers and Pacers. After last night’s wire-to-wire drubbing of the faltering Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis has amassed 10 straight wins at FedEx Forum and is looking more and more like a powerful playoff team, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

Memphis’ 109-92 victory Monday night accounted for its 10th straight in FedExForum, and perhaps sent a message to the teams floating around them in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies look like a team that’s moved beyond simply trying to make the playoffs to one seeking to steal a higher seed that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

The Griz improved to 42-28, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for a fourth consecutive season. That, however, is something the Griz expect to make a footnote in this campaign. Memphis sits a half game ahead of Phoenix in the seventh spot and remains within striking distance of the fifth and sixth seeds. The Griz are just 2½ games back from fifth place.

The Griz improved to 31-3 when leading after three quarters while the Timberwolves fell to 3-24 when they trail at the start of the fourth. Minnesota entered the game averaging 106.5 points, fourth-most in the NBA. This was the 11th straight game that the Timberwolves allowed their opponent to score 100-plus points.

***

No. 4: Dragic weighing decision on national team – The Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase thanks to the play of star point guard Goran Dragic. It’s been a banner year for the Slovenian standout and while he’s hoping Phoenix can complete its playoff push, he’s still weighing whether or not to suit up for his country’s national team in the World Cup in Spain this September, writes Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

With the Suns enjoying a 6-1 stretch, Dragic’s results are back to the norm of his outstanding season by no coincidence. He is shooting 53.8 percent overall and 46.2 percent on 3-pointers over the past seven games with averages of 18.1 points and 4.7 assists.

The team success makes him feel emotionally better but the physical wear and tear still exists and makes him consider not playing for his Slovenian national team this September at the World Cup in Spain.

“Sometimes, it is too many games,” Dragic said. “I still have to sit down with my national team and talk with them about making a decision if I’m going to play or not. I’m thinking more toward not playing and trying to get my body some rest to be fresher for the next season.

“That is hard because, back home, all the people judge you that you have so much money and you’re a star and now you don’t want to play for the national team. That bothers me a little bit but those people don’t know how the season goes, how many games it is and being in a different hotel every night. I’m more on the plane than in my car.”

Playing for Slovenia when it hosted last summer’s European Championship helped Dragic come into the season in a good rhythm but he is feeling the effects of nine consecutive months of basketball at times as the Suns’ playing time leader and primary point guard most of the season.

“I think I feel pretty good, especially my legs are not so heavy like 15 games ago,” Dragic said. “Even if you’re tired for the last 12 games, you have to go through that and try not to think about it so much.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic lead the Suns to a win in Atlanta

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No. 5: Charlotte needs arena upgrades before it can host All-Star Game — It’s been 23 years and counting since the city of Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game … and it might be a few more years before it gets to host it again. Commissioner Adam Silver was at last night’s Houston Rockets-Charlotte Bobcats game at Time Warner Cable Arena and said while he’s hopeful that a basketball-mad city like Charlotte will host a future All-Star Game, some upgrades to the arena must take place first. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more:

First, he said, the city must upgrade Time Warner Cable Arena, which needs $41.9 million of work, according to a list of needs compiled by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“I’d love to bring the All-Star Game back here,” Silver said before the Bobcats game with the Houston Rockets. “This is a wonderful community, a hotbed of basketball, not just pro but college as well.”

He added: “There are some upgrades to the building that are needed. I know those discussions are underway right now. It’s part of the understanding here that the building remain state-of-the-art. Nothing dramatic is needed. But certainly an upgrade to the scoreboard, some things with the suites and the lighting.”

The Bobcats’ 25-year arena lease calls for the city of Charlotte to keep Time Warner Cable Arena among the league’s most modern. After the first seven years, the lease requires the city to make improvements, so long as half of other NBA facilities have them.

The team has requested money to upgrade suites, overhaul restaurants, build a new play area for children and move the ticket office, among other improvements.

The city said it will scrutinize the list of requests to see what is required under the lease agreement.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said the prospect of hosting the league’s All-Star Game shouldn’t make the city spend more money than necessary.

“The city should only be guided by what it’s obligated to do by way of the agreement,” he said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city must study the “business case” for possibly making additional upgrades to the arena.

“What kind of opportunity will there be (for improving the arena)?” Carlee said.

Silver said awarding the 2017 event should come in about a year. Then he reiterated his link between Charlotte’s chances and those upgrades.

“The team has time,” Silver said. “The first order of priority is making sure the building issues are dealt with.”


VIDEO: Adam Silver discusses what it would take for Charlotte to host a future All-Star Game

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tim Duncan says he’s taking it “game-by-game” about whether or not he’d retire at the end of this season … Five minor investors have been added to the Hawks’ ownership group … The New Orleans Pelicans might have found a go-to combination in the duo of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans … Lakers guard Nick Young says close to $100,000 worth of clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage were stolen from his house during a home game … Good little chat with Steph Curry about his golf game, the Warriors-Clippers rivalry and more … What kind of chance does Mitch Richmond have at the Hall of Fame? Our Scott Howard-Cooper examines it … Former high-flying Raptors swingman Jamario Moon is thinking about an NBA comebackBrandon Jennings is hitting his stride at long last for the Pistons …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes a play can personify the style of play of a team. Such is the case with this defensive sequence by the Bulls and a hustle follow-up jam by Taj Gibson


VIDEO: Taj Gibson follows up the Jimmy Butler miss with a power jam

DeAndre Jordan … most improved?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com




VIDEO: Chris Paul talks about DeAndre Jordan’s growth and impact on the Clippers

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Award season is basically a month away.

A regular season filled with plenty of candidates and campaigns that roll with the ebb and flow of the marathon that is the 82-game season will come to an abrupt end. Who will be left standing at the end of that roller coaster for remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, no race has more viable candidates than the Most Improved Player honor.

My sparring partner on almost every debatable topic, NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, weighs in with a case for a somewhat unlikely prospect … Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who has seen his game change dramatically under the tutelage of Doc Rivers:

Throughout the season Lance Stephenson (IND), Gerald Green (PHO) and Goran Dragic (PHO) have drawn praise for the Most Improved Player (MIP) award, but one that’s often overlooked is Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Is it because Jordan is a big man? Since the award was handed out (after the 1985-86 season) 5 of the 28 winners played the center position. In fact, the last big man to win the award was Jermaine O’Neal after the 2001-02 season. While the team’s anchor typically gets the least amount of touches, some may argue that they have the smallest impact on a game. Jordan is currently posting career highs in four statistical categories (PPG, RPG, BPG and FG%), proving he’s enhanced his game on both ends of the floor. If that doesn’t sway voters, the center has recorded 35 double-doubles, something he did a total of 39 times in his first five seasons combined.

​In recent years, the hardware has gone to the player who had the biggest improvement in the points per game category, as illustrated by the last five MIP winners.

SEASON — PLAYER — PPG Improvement

2012-13 — Paul George +4.9

2011-12 — Ryan Anderson +5.5

2010-11 — Kevin Love +2.7

2009-10 — Aaron Brooks +8.4

2008-09 — Danny Granger +6.2

In NBA debates fans and experts alike tend to have a love affair with number of championships won and an infatuation with scoring barrages. While winning is the goal and scoring entertains, one should be awarded for their overall improvement of their game and not just their ability to put the ball through the basket. For sake of argument let’s look at the top 5 candidates for MIP this season and their PPG improvement.

PLAYER — PPG IMPROVEMENT

D.J. Augustin (CHI) — +9.5

Gerald Green (PHO) — +8.6

Goran Dragic (PHO) — +5.8

Lance Stephenson (IND) — +5.2

DeAndre Jordan (LAC) — +1.5

At a quick glance, Chicago guard D.J. Augustin should run away with the award. However he’s only appeared in 46 games for the Bulls and his improvement is based on the gaping hole left at point guard by the MVP Derrick Rose. Suns Forward Gerald Green bounced around Europe and the D-League before landing with the Pacers last season. After showing flashes in Indy he signed with the Suns where he was met with an array of minutes and shots on a young team. We’re finally getting a chance to see what Green can do in the NBA, this does not mean there was improvement. Dragic’s opportunity to score was created by the absence of Eric Bledsoe due to injury. As for Stephenson, he has the best argument to win the award. Not only does he lead the league in triple-doubles (4), but he’s been the Pacers second best player and a big reason why they continue to have the best record in the East.

All candidates are worthy of being mentioned, but Jordan was the motivation behind this post. Jordan’s stat line reads: 10.3 ppg 13.8 rpg 2.4 bpg 66.7 FG%. Those are gaudy numbers for a player known solely as a dunker. As for his circumstance, it has been about accountability. In the past Jordan has spent more time on the bench in the final period than in the paint. To support his overall improvement, he averages 7.5 (fourth quarter) minutes per game as opposed to 4.9 last season. To simplify the numbers, Jordan played in all 82 games last season and appeared in just 4th quarters. That has improved drastically this season, as he has appeared in all 69 games and fourth quarters.

Like any league awards, voters will find a way to be critical of players in the most miniscule way to determine their winners. In Jordan’s case some will point out his 45.3 FT% as reason enough to not win the award. That too is up from an embarrassing 38.6 FT% from a year ago. DeAndre has gained confidence at the line having made 40 more free-throws this season than all of last season, a big reason why he’s playing well into the 4th quarter.

Last postseason the Pacers and Spurs were left wondering what would have been if their big men were on the floor in crucial moments of 4th quarters to protect the basket and secure game-winning rebounds. Due to Jordan’s off-season work, the Clippers should not be left wondering “what if” this postseason.

Furthermore, DeAndre Jordan should not have to wonder what it would be like to be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

I’ve had Stephenson and Dragic atop my theoretical ballot for much of this season. They’ve both been so good for so long this season that it’s hard to imagine one of them not walking away with the MIP hardware.

But the case for Jordan is legitimate. And the way he is playing and the Clippers are performing this season, Jordan’s campaign could go well into the postseason.

Pierce cares not about your hand in his face


VIDEO: Pierce’s big three seals Brooklyn’s win vs. Toronto

BROOKLYN – Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t think Paul Pierce was going to play Monday night.

Pierce, dealing with an injured shoulder, played. He played 30 minutes, scored 15 points, and hit the biggest shot of the night, a 3-pointer that gave the Nets a three-point lead with 1:14 left and propelled them to a big win over the visiting Raptors.

It was a tough shot, because Kyle Lowry was in Pierce’s shirt with a hand in his face. But Pierce had to take it because the shot clock was about to expire.

And maybe it didn’t matter that Lowry was there, because, according to SportVU, Pierce has shot better on contested jumpers than uncontested jumpers. Among 92 players who have attempted at least 100 of each, only one — the Pelicans’ Brian Roberts — has a bigger discrepancy.

Players who have shot better on contested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Brian Roberts 82 213 38.5% 63 128 49.2% -10.7%
Paul Pierce 83 236 35.2% 62 151 41.1% -5.9%
Russell Westbrook 73 203 36.0% 57 138 41.3% -5.3%
Dirk Nowitzki 200 439 45.6% 210 431 48.7% -3.2%
LeBron James 140 370 37.8% 47 117 40.2% -2.3%
Marcus Morris 102 252 40.5% 61 143 42.7% -2.2%
Rudy Gay 87 223 39.0% 105 259 40.5% -1.5%
Evan Turner 107 288 37.2% 88 231 38.1% -0.9%
Rodney Stuckey 67 178 37.6% 55 145 37.9% -0.3%
Jamal Crawford 142 355 40.0% 143 356 40.2% -0.2%
James Harden 141 375 37.6% 69 183 37.7% -0.1%

Minimum 100 of each.
Contested = Any jump shot outside of 10 feet with a defender within four feet of the shooter.

Note: We’re looking at standard field goal percentage and not effective field goal percentage to simply see the effect on a player’s success rate.

That LeBron James has shot better on contested jumpers is more incentive for defenses to play off him on the perimeter, as the Spurs did (successfully, until Game 7) in The Finals.

The league has shot 5.4 percent better on uncontested jumpers this season. But a contest will affect some players more than others. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Roberts and Pierce is the Suns’ Goran Dragic

Players who have shot at least 10 percent better on uncontested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player Name FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Goran Dragic 145 279 52.0% 52 178 29.2% 22.8%
David West 142 288 49.3% 35 102 34.3% 15.0%
C.J. Miles 86 191 45.0% 36 118 30.5% 14.5%
Khris Middleton 148 302 49.0% 57 161 35.4% 13.6%
Jameer Nelson 118 312 37.8% 35 143 24.5% 13.3%
Kevin Love 201 473 42.5% 45 152 29.6% 12.9%
Bradley Beal 181 431 42.0% 78 263 29.7% 12.3%
Jerryd Bayless 91 217 41.9% 41 137 29.9% 12.0%
Terrence Ross 107 240 44.6% 59 181 32.6% 12.0%
Randy Foye 150 363 41.3% 39 132 29.5% 11.8%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 121 296 40.9% 30 103 29.1% 11.8%
Josh Smith 126 380 33.2% 28 129 21.7% 11.5%

For some of these guys, the difference is about how well they shoot when they’re left open. For some, it’s about how poorly they shoot when there’s a defender nearby. Josh Smith probably shouldn’t shoot jumpers at all.

Morning Shootaround — March 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Leonard delivers against LeBron, Heat | James open to talking with Pacers’ GeorgeNoah has sprained thumb | Raptors to use retro unis next season | Hornacek proud of Suns’ improvement

No. 1: Leonard proves difference against LeBron, Heat — Third-year Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has only been back in the San Antonio lineup since Feb. 26 after missing a couple of weeks with a broken hand. Since his return, the Spurs have gone 5-0 and won four of those games by 10 points or more. Last night, in the Spurs’ 24-point romp of the Miami Heat, Leonard proved crucial in frustrating star LeBron James all game long. Our own Fran Blinebury was on the scene and has more on Leonard’s impact on the victory:

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard talks about his play in the Spurs’ win over the Heat

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No. 2: LeBron open to chatting with Pacers’ George — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, Pacers swingman Paul George told BasketballInsiders.com recently that he hopes to one day talk with Heat star LeBron James about a variety of topics. Would James be interested in having such a conversation? According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, LeBron has an ‘open door’ policy with other players on such a thing:

LeBron James would be open to mentoring rival Paul George this summer if he’s asked by the Indiana Pacers’ star, James said Thursday night.

In an interview this week with BasketballInsiders.com, George said he hoped he could spend some time talking to James this summer to get some advice.

“It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level,” George said. “I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to — not during the season because I’m too competitive during the season — but maybe in the summertime.”

James’ Miami Heat and George’s Pacers have faced off in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and currently are in a heated race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. James has worked out with rivals during past summers, notably the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant.

“Pick [my brain] like Hannibal Lector?” James said jokingly. “You know me, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t mind giving guys [advice], whatever he wants to ask. Guys know I have an open door/phone policy.”

***

No. 3: Noah has sprained thumb — All-Star center Joakim Noah suffered a thumb injury against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night and his status going forward may be in question. Nick Fridell of ESPNChicago.com has more on Noah’s injury, which is being termed a minor one:

UPDATE: Noah is expected to play tonight vs. the Grizzlies per coach Tom Thibodeau

Initial tests run on Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah’s injured right thumb revealed a sprain, according to a league source.

It is unclear whether Noah will have to miss any time or will be available to play Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Noah injured the thumb during Wednesday night’s win against the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t want to go into detail about the injury after the game, calling it just a “boo-boo,” but he did wear a protective brace on it as he headed out of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Bulls have to be extra cautious with the injury. Noah has become their most valuable player and is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He racked up his second triple-double in three games in Wednesday’s win as a focal point on both ends of the floor. More importantly, Noah tore ligaments in the same thumb during the 2010-11 season and had to miss two months after having surgery to repair it.

The key for the Bulls will be to see how he responds to treatment. He has shown a high pain threshold in the past, having played with the ligament tear for almost a month before having surgery in December 2010.


VIDEO: Bulls.com takes a look at Joakim Noah’s impact on the team this season

***

No. 4: Raptors to wear original jerseys for select games next season — Over on the All Ball Blog, our own Lang Whitaker has kept track of any and all possible uniform changes for the Toronto Raptors, with talk of a black-and-gold number the most common topic of discussion. While we have no idea if or when the Raptors will change their colors, one thing is certain: they are going back to the purple “dino” jerseys for select games next season. Raptors.com has more:

The Toronto Raptors announced today the return of the team’s original purple jersey for select home games during the 2014-15 season. The throwback uniform will be worn as the franchise celebrates its 20th Anniversary in the National Basketball Association.

“We are excited to bring back a piece of team history as part of our 20th Anniversary celebration,” said Masai Ujiri, President and General Manager of the Raptors. “Our fans have shown affection for the original purple uniform and I think our players will enjoy the chance to wear them next season.”

The front of the uniform top features the unique Raptors font in silver with the team’s dinosaur motif in action with basketball in hand. The uniform showcases the original team colours of Raptor Red, purple, black and Naismith Silver, the latter in honour of Dr. James A. Naismith of Almonte, Ontario, the multi-faceted Canadian who invented basketball in 1891. The uniform also features the unique jagged pinstripe design.

The club will announce details at later dates regarding 20th Anniversary events to be held throughout the 2014-15 campaign.


VIDEO: Raptors will go back to the ‘dino’ unis for select games next season

***

No. 5: Hornacek proud of every player’s improvement on Suns — As another week of the NBA is nearly in the books, the standings continue to sport the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the Western Conference playoff chase. That something few thought we’d be able to say in early March about this Suns team, but Phoenix has taken pride all season in exceeding expectations. From new coach Jeff Hornacek to a rag-tag bunch led by Goran Dragic and Co., the Suns seem to have improved in every way imaginable from last season. As Paul Coro from The Arizona Republic notes, Hornacek has trouble picking any one player who has improved most:

When you are arguably the NBA’s most improved team, singling out which player has improved the most is like choosing a favorite child.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek can’t do it.

“They’ve all done something more than they’ve done last year,” Hornacek said.

The Suns are vying for most improved team with Portland but with a completely different dynamic. The Suns had three players who were on the active opening-night roster for each of the past two seasons. They had a first-year head coach with a new staff. The canvas was blank for roles and reputations, creating an environment for many players who were still trying to prove themselves in their careers to advance as Suns.

As the sage veteran, Channing Frye was just trying to rediscover his game after a year away from basketball. He has seen the maturation in teammates around him and gives credit to that environment created by Hornacek and the front office.

“They felt like this year they’re going to get a real opportunity,” Frye said of his teammates. “We all do something different and so they’re flourishqing in that role. When you have a coach like Jeff, even though you make mistakes, you’re still going to get opportunities if you put in work outside the court. With some teams, they go in as the one piece and that piece is interchangeable and they don’t feel like they’re important. But everybody on this team is important. Everybody is doing the best they can and staying ready every night.” The reason we’ve been successful is, at any moment, somebody could get their chance so they’re staying ready. That is really the pressure for everyone to constantly get better and be ready and to really embrace what we’re trying to do.”

Frye calls it a tie for most improved Suns player between Gerald Green and Markieff Morris.

Green, on his seventh NBA team, was coming off two seasons in Russia and a season in Indiana that ended with him out of the rotation and on the trade block. Now, he averages more than 15 points, increasing his 3-point shooting percentage from 31.4 last season to 38.1 this season, entering Thursday night’s game, with 6.3 attempted per game.

“The coaches have really done a great job of putting us in places to be successful,” Green said. “Everybody gets an opportunity to go out there and play. Jeff has confidence in everybody. A lot of coaches don’t do that. He’s just so positive and has so much energy and faith in us.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to prove. I still have so much that could get better.” I could get better at my ball-handling. I could get better at my defense. I could get stronger. I feel like my decision-making could get better. My pick-and-roll could be better. I’m blessed to have the season we’re having but to me, if we don’t make the playoffs, this season means nothing to me.”

Yet, each one of the three veterans has improved.

“You learn the game a little bit more,” Hornacek said. “The young guys learn more with their skills and adjustments to playing every night and more minutes whereas the veteran guys learn the little things, things that maybe they couldn’t score on in their first three or four years, they’re now knowing the little nuances of the game that they’ve seen over and over and over and they feel comfortable and maybe more relaxed.”

Dragic’s rise has been more celebrated because he turned into a star in the absence of Eric Bledsoe, who might have been a Most Improved Player frontrunner had he not been hurt twice this season to only play 24 games. Dragic’s perimeter shooting has been the vast improvement but he also has better command of the team in half-court offense and draws fouls more than ever.

“Goran has stepped his game up to another level,” Hornacek said.


VIDEO: Gerald Green and the Suns discuss their upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James has been given the OK by the Heat to attend Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘ jersey retirement ceremony on Saturday … Great feature on everyone’s favorite Milwaukee Buck: Giannis Antetokounmpo … The Wizards are reportedly ‘likely’ to sign forward Drew Gooden to a second 10-day contract … Wolves center Nikola Pekovic is being kept on a strict minutes limit … Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge says he’s been forcing shots of late

ICYMI of the Night: With two blowouts in the books last night in San Antonio and Los Angeles, we figure it’s a good time to give Gerald Green some shine after his 41-point night against the Thunder …


VIDEO:Gerald Green scores 41 points as the Suns top the Thunder

Stars rose up as key players went down

A lot of the credit for the Suns' success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

A lot of the credit for the Suns’ success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – One injury to the wrong player can be devastating to a team’s aspirations. See the Thunder during last year’s playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down.

The Lakers weren’t winning the title this season with or without Kobe Bryant, but they certainly aren’t dragging up the rear in the Western Conference with him.

But this post isn’t about sob stories. This season’s injury stories, three in particular — OK, four, keep reading — are about inspiration and not desperation, about three young stars (no, four!) rising to the occasion and pushing their teams when the receding tide could have drowned the whole thing in the deep blue sea of lost seasons.

Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin made history in February, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, as the first quintet to average 30 points or more in any month going back to 1962. Durant, Love and Griffin rose to extraordinary heights as their teams lacked a key component due to injury, and in Love’s case two.

In good conscious we could not limit this discussion to three. Yes, the Spurs were terrific without Tony Parker after the All-Star break, but that’s just the Spurs being the Spurs. And Portland did a fine job recently without LaMarcus Aldridge. No. 4 is the Phoenix Suns’ non-All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, who was playing fabulously before backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, and he’s been downright nasty ever since.

How Dragic isn’t in the MVP discussion even as a footnote is criminal. A team destined for 25 wins already has 35 and is in the heat of the ferocious West playoff chase, and Dragic is the reason why. The West coaches couldn’t give The Dragon his due. It’s the least we can do.

So here’s how the three superstars — and Goran — did it:

Love’s Quest

The skinny: First, let’s not kid ourselves. The Timberwolves are nowhere near out of the woods. Their inability to win close games during the first couple months of the season and overall inconsistent play sabotaged their hopes of finally contending for a playoff spot. Then injuries dropped their second- and third-leading scorers, 3-point-bombing shooting guard Kevin Martin (on Feb. 7) and low-post monster center Nikola Pekovic (on Jan. 27), respectively. Stick a fork in ‘em? Not exactly.

What happened?: Love went nuts. In February, he averaged 34.0 ppg, a franchise record for any month. He grabbed 14.1 rebounds to lead the league. He became the first player since Moses Malone in March 1982 to average 34 and 14 in one month. Without Pekovic, who missed 13 games, and Martin in the lineup, the Wolves went 4-3. Whole again, the they’re 2-0 in March to get back over .500 at 30-29 just when it seemed like they were sunk.

The outlook: It might not be sunshine and daffodils, but the storm clouds are parting. Minnesota enters Wednesday’s home game against stumbling New York 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. It’s a lot of ground to make up, but the Wolves have an upcoming schedule that should make them salivate: the Knicks, Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee at home, then at Charlotte and back home for Sacramento before things turn decidedly tougher against West foes. Take care of the six in front of them and who knows?

Banking on Blake

The skinny: The Clippers were 23-12 even though they hadn’t played terrific basketball adjusting to new coach Doc Rivers and meshing in new players. But my oh my, what would they do now without point guard and floor leader Chris Paul? On Jan. 3 at Dallas, Paul went down in a heap and came up with a separated right shoulder. The prognosis was negative: four to six weeks. He missed 18 games.

What happened: Griffin when nuts. In Paul’s absence, the power forward from Oklahoma averaged 27.5 ppg on 55.4 percent shooting. He grabbed 8.2 rebounds and dished out 4.4 assists. He became a vocal leader on the floor, taking over a role that Paul had dominated, a development that should aid the evolution of this team. The Clippers emerged from their CP3-less stretch with 12 wins and six losses to get to 35-18. They maintained position to seize a top four seed. Griffin didn’t miss a beat once Paul returned on Feb. 9, averaging 30.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg for the entire month.

The outlook: The Clippers are 7-2 since Paul’s return and have won five in a row to get to 42-20. They’re in a virtual tie with Houston for the No. 3 seed. The schedule plays out pretty favorably throughout March, and if L.A. continues to come together and avoids any more injuries, they could make a serious run over the next three to four weeks.

Overserved on KD

The Skinny: The Thunder were rolling along and put a Christmas Day whipping on the Knicks behind a triple-double from Russell Westbrook. Then came the stunning news that he needed a third surgery on his troublesome right knee. OKC had just racked up 21 wins in 25 games with Westbrook, and now this. OKC announced he would be out all the way through the All-Star break. Now the question was whether the Thunder could hold onto a top-four seed?

What happened: Durant went nuts. In 27 games without his sidekick, Durant racked up 35.0 ppg on 52.7 percent shooting overall and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc, plus 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg. He was so good as OKC won 20 of those games and took over the top spot in the West that he was widely considered the clubhouse leader for the MVP trophy. And why not? At 43-12 when Westbrook made his return on Feb. 20, nobody was doing it better.

The outlook: A return to the NBA Finals. The team is built for it barring anything else going wrong with Westbrook’s right knee. His triple-double in 20 minutes Tuesday night revealed an explosive player at his best. He’s regaining his shooting touch and continues to talk of being a smarter player after having sat out all but two of 11 playoff games last season and a large chunk of games this season. Any notion that Westbrook somehow detracts from Durant should finally be dead and buried.

Fire-breathing Dragic

The skinny: Remember when the Suns traded Marcin Gortat to Washington like a week before the season started and everybody rolled their eyes at the obvious tank job taking place? Recent times have gotten a bit ragged for Dragic and his mostly unknown teammates, castoffs from other clubs, but nothing can take away the effort that’s propelled them to a 35-25 record and the eighth seed in the hotly contested West. And to be there with Bledsoe out with a knee injury since Dec. 30 is beyond amazing.

What happened: Dragic went nuts. Since Bledsoe left the lineup, Dragic has averaged 22.3 ppg on 52.9 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from deep. He’s become one of the game’s premiere rim attackers, either running the break or capable of getting to the basket coming off screens seemingly at will. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Without him, the Suns would be where we all thought they’d be: deep in lottery position.

The outlook: Bledsoe is practicing and could be back soon to give this club a real boost headed into the final 20 games. The Suns’ playoff hopes are on life support, but if they can survive the next three games against Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers, they’ve got a favorable 11-game stretch through the end of March that includes eight East teams (none against Indiana or Miami), plus the Lakers. The Orange can still crush this.

Morning Shootaround — March 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Go ahead Knicks fans, dream a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he was playing dumb.

He called the Knicks “a dangerous team.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s bringing Butler to OKC?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


VIDEO: Steph Curry loves working at Madison Square Garden

Pick-and-roll Data Likes The Suns

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – On the Washington Wizards’ first possession of their big, triple-overtime win in Toronto on Thursday, John Wall and Marcin Gortat ran a side pick-and-roll. The same primary action produced two big free throws in the final minute of the second overtime and a huge three-point play in the third OT.

SportVU cameras captured every pick-and-roll run in the 63 minutes of basketball at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday. The folks at STATS LLC have been tracking pick-and-rolls via SportVU this season, opening a new door as we look to learn more about the game, and have provided some of the data to NBA.com.

Note: All pick-and-roll stats included are through Wednesday’s games.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Wall and Gortat had run almost 200 more pick-and-rolls than any other combination in the league. They’ve been a pretty solid combination, with the Wizards scoring 1.06 points per possession when the pair ran a pick-and-roll. That mark is a notch better than the league average of 1.03 (on pick-and-roll possessions) and ranks 87th among 209 pairs of teammates who have run pick-and-rolls on at least 100 possessions.

But there’s a big difference between a Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll and a Wall-Nene pick-and-roll, which has produced just 0.85 points per 100 possessions. That’s one reason why Washington ranks 29th in pick-and-roll efficiency (better than only the Milwaukee Bucks).

Wizards’ most-used pick-and-roll combinations

Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Wall Gortat 784 731 772 1.06
Wall Nene 349 324 275 0.85
Beal Gortat 240 226 224 0.99
Wall Booker 147 139 128 0.92
Beal Nene 121 116 110 0.95
Wall Ariza 111 111 119 1.07
Ariza Gortat 113 108 105 0.97
All other combinations 1,295 1,249 1,077 0.86
TOTAL 3,160 3,004 2,810 0.94

Wall has been more likely to pass to Nene than Gortat, but that hasn’t been a good idea, as Nene has shot just 16-for-48 (33 percent) on those plays.

John Wall pick-and-roll partners

Screener Scr. P&R Poss. JW FGM JW FGA JW FG% JW PTS Pass to S S FGM S FGA S FG%
Gortat 784 731 74 183 40.4% 171 188 42 85 49.4%
Nene 349 324 24 71 33.8% 56 129 16 48 33.3%
Booker 147 139 15 49 30.6% 33 34 6 13 46.2%
Ariza 111 111 14 23 60.9% 41 29 5 9 55.6%
Seraphin 85 81 4 11 36.4% 10 27 3 15 20.0%
Others 149 143 6 22 27.3% 17 25 2 10 20.0%
TOTAL 1,476 1,386 131 337 38.9% 311 407 72 170 42.4%

You see that Wall has shot worse when he’s come off a Nene screen, perhaps because Gortat sets a better pick and/or because Nene’s defenders are more mobile and able to defend Wall on a hedge or switch.

The Wizards will miss Nene, who’s out six weeks with an MCL sprain, but mostly on defense. The Wizards have allowed slightly less than a point per possession when he’s been the big defending a pick-and-roll. They’ve been almost seven points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

Offensively, they’ve been a point per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. And their pick-and-roll game might actually get better in these six weeks without him.

Top of the list

The Dallas Mavericks have been the most prolific pick-and-roll team in the league, but the Phoenix Suns have been the best, scoring 1.09 points per pick-and-roll possession, just a hair better than the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, team

Team Screens Scr/100 Rank P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Phoenix 2,640 47.8 24 2,162 2,362 1.093
Houston 2,480 44.2 27 2,091 2,282 1.091
Portland 2,805 49.7 23 2,295 2,499 1.089
Oklahoma City 2,834 50.0 22 2,354 2,554 1.08
New York 2,782 51.9 16 2,292 2,452 1.07
Miami 2,768 54.0 12 2,145 2,294 1.07
Dallas 3,955 69.6 1 3,031 3,226 1.06
San Antonio 2,752 50.7 20 2,224 2,361 1.06
Indiana 2,420 44.6 26 2,015 2,139 1.06
Toronto 3,529 66.2 2 2,696 2,848 1.06

Scr/100 = Screens per 100 possessions

The Suns’ success starts with Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, the aggressive ball-handler and the 6-foot-11 floor spacer. They’ve been the league’s top pick-and-roll combination among those with at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, tandem

Team Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
PHX Dragic Frye 425 392 510 1.30
MIA Wade Andersen 131 124 160 1.29
OKC Durant Collison 119 114 143 1.25
OKC Westbrook Durant 156 148 185 1.25
NOP Holiday Anderson 130 125 156 1.25
SAC Thomas Gay 168 165 202 1.22
POR Batum Lopez 183 180 220 1.22
POR Williams Lopez 121 111 135 1.22
IND Stephenson Hibbert 147 144 175 1.22
OKC Durant Perkins 209 196 238 1.21

Minimum 100 pick-and-roll possessions

Dragic has run almost the same amount of pick-and-rolls with Miles Plumlee (407 screens on 390 possessions) as he has with Frye (425, 392). But the Suns have  scored only 1.03 points per possession on the Dragic-Plumlee pick-and-rolls. Clearly, Dragic prefers to have a screener who pops out for a jumper, rather than one who rolls to the rim.

On those 390 Dragic-Plumlee possessions, Dragic has passed the ball 232 times, but only 59 times (25 percent) to Plumlee. On the 392 Dragic-Frye possessions, he’s passed the ball 234 times, and 113 of those passes (48 percent) have gone to Frye.

Overall, the Suns have been efficient when Dragic has the ball, scoring 1.16 points per possession from his 1,238 pick-and-rolls. That’s the best mark among 46 starting point guards and other high-usage perimeter players who have been the pick-and-roll ball-handler for at least 300 possessions. And who’s next on the list might surprise you.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, ball-handler

Ball-handler Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss. Top Partner Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss.
Goran Dragic 1,172 1,361 1.16 Channing Frye 392 510 1.30
DeMar DeRozan 690 793 1.15 Amir Johnson 261 303 1.16
Kevin Durant 732 813 1.11 Serge Ibaka 284 286 1.01
Jeremy Lin 528 586 1.11 Dwight Howard 166 181 1.09
LeBron James 659 729 1.11 Chris Bosh 188 225 1.20
Damian Lillard 1,121 1,238 1.10 LaMarcus Aldridge 441 526 1.19
Dwyane Wade 469 516 1.10 Chris Bosh 155 144 0.93
Jrue Holiday 783 859 1.10 Anthony Davis 245 256 1.04
Monta Ellis 1,451 1,583 1.09 Dirk Nowitzki 500 554 1.11
George Hill 619 672 1.09 David West 258 279 1.08

Among 46 starting point guards and other perimeter players in the top 25 in usage rate.
Top partner = Player with whom he’s run the most pick-and-rolls.

DeRozan’s numbers seem a little fluky. He’s shot just 41 percent out of pick-and-rolls, has recorded an assist on just 5.8 percent those 690 possessions (the fourth lowest rate of the group), and averages less than one secondary assist (where his pass directly leads to somebody else’s assist) per game. But he has drawn fouls on 9.4 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, a rate on par with that of LeBron James.

Some more notes from this list…

  • It’s interesting that James has had good success with Chris Bosh, but Dwyane Wade hasn’t. Wade has actually shot better (18-for-32) than James has (14-for-31) coming off Bosh screens, but Bosh has shot better when receiving a pick-and-roll pass from James (15-for-22) than he has when getting one from Wade (9-for-25). The shooting numbers, of course, are some small sample sizes.
  • Of the 46 pick-and-roll ball-handlers I looked at, the most likely to shoot is Tony Wroten, who has taken a shot on 31.0 percent of the screens he’s come off of. Next on the list are Nick Young (30.7 percent), Reggie Jackson (30.0 percent), Jamal Crawford (29.6 percent) and Rudy Gay (29.6) percent.
  • The players least likely to shoot are Kendall Marshall (12.4 percent), Patrick Beverley (12.9 percent), Mario Chalmers (14.5 percent), George Hill (15.9 percent) and Ty Lawson (16.3 percent).
  • James (20.1 percent) is less likely to shoot than Chris Paul (21.3 percent), Dragic (21.7 percent) or Wall (22.1 percent).
  • The guy most likely to pass to the screener is Stephen Curry. Of Curry’s 830 passes out of pick-and-rolls, 56.3 percent have gone to the screener. Next on the list are Russell Westbrook (55.3 percent), Michael Carter-Williams (52.1 percent), Deron Williams (50.7 percent) and Kyrie Irving (48.7 percent).
  • The guy least likely to pass to the screener is James Harden (27.2 percent). So when they come off pick-and-rolls, Curry is twice as likely to pass to the screener than Harden is. After Harden comes Carmelo Anthony (27.4 percent), James (28.0 percent), Jrue Holiday (29.0 percent) and Tyreke Evans (30.3 percent).
  • Six of the 46 have shot better than 50 percent when coming off a pick-and-roll: Chalmers (54.8 percent), Dragic (53.2 percent), James (52.5 percent), Wade (51.3 percent), Kevin Durant (50.2 percent) and Tony Parker (50.2 percent).
  • Get this: Durant has recorded an assist on a higher percentage of his pick-and-roll possessions (13.0 percent) than James (10.3 percent) and more than twice as often as Paul George (6.0 percent).

Location is key

SportVU keeps track of where every pick-and-roll takes place. As you might expect, the closer to the basket the screen is set, the more likely the offense is to score. The most efficient pick-and-roll spot on the floor is at the high post (around the foul line, inside the 3-point arc), which produces 1.05 points per possession.

But high post pick-and-rolls account for only 4 percent of all pick-and-rolls. The most common location is the top of the key, which sees 41 percent of pick-and-roll action. Next is the wing (foul-line extended), which sees 28 percent and the “sideline point” area (out by the coach’s box line) at 25 percent.

Pick-and-rolls by location

Location Most PCT PPP Best PCT PPP Worst PCT PPP Lg. avg. PPP
Center Point NOP 53% 1.05 POR 42% 1.12 MIL 41% 0.90 41% 1.02
Wing CHI 39% 1.05 GSW 16% 1.11 ORL 19% 0.93 28% 1.02
Sideline Point DAL 32% 1.10 OKC 31% 1.17 WAS 25% 0.92 25% 1.03
High Post PHI 7% 1.03 HOU 3% 1.31 GSW 3% 0.80 4% 1.05
Corner MIA 7% 0.97 MIN 2% 1.28 BOS 3% 0.76 3% 0.99

PCT = Percentage of total pick-and-rolls run from that location.
PPP = Points per possession on pick-and-rolls run from that location.

We’re just scratching the surface here. And that’s the issue with SportVU. There’s so much data to digest, it has to be compartmentalized and put into the proper context. But we’re really starting to see how much it has to offer.

Next week, I’ll take a look at pick-and-roll defense. (Hint: Indiana good, Portland bad.)

All-Star Snub Adds Spice For Dragic


VIDEO: Dragic’s big night

Keep an eye on Goran Dragic and see if he happens to put a little extra spicy salsa on those shots and passes in the Taco Bells Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday Night.

After all, the fact that he isn’t playing on Sunday with the West All-Stars might be harder to swallow than a plate of jalapeños.

The Suns’ point guard is 16th in the league in scoring (20.4 points a game), 17th in assists, (6.1), sixth in true shooting percentage (61.5), and his PER of 22.8 is 12th in the NBA. He is tied for 10th in win shares (7.0) with Chris Paul.

When new boss Adam Silver made his first public move as commissioner to add a dash of home-cooking by naming New Orleans’ forward Anthony Davis as a replacement for injured guard Kobe Bryant, it was just one more elbow nudge in the ribs.

“Oh yes, I was full of emotions,” Dragic said. “I was a little bit mad, angry, disappointed. All of those words. There it is. I think I did my job.

“If it happened it would have been a dream come true. It would mean a lot because I would know that I worked hard and it is way to be told I am on the right track.”

Not that the 27-year-old from Slovenia has done anything but barrel down the track like a locomotive in his sixth season in the league and his second as a full-time starter in Phoenix. While the Suns are a varied and interesting mix of young talent under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, there is no question that Dragic has been the spark to their offensive engine with his scoring, passing and running of the offense.

Even in the absence of injured backcourt partner Eric Bledsoe, Dragic has kept the Suns going forward as the surprise team of the league. Picked by Las Vegas oddsmakers to win 21.5 games and thought by most as a club that was getting into position for a high lottery pick, the Suns have already won 30 to hold down the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference going into Tuesday’s home game against the defending champion Heat (9 p.m. ET, League Pass). That’s more wins than every team in the entire Eastern Conference except for Indiana and Miami.

And the Suns don’t have a single representative in the All-Star Game.

All the talk about winning be the only real stat that counts, yet Kevin Love of the disappointing Timberwolves was voted into the starting lineup by the fans and then Dragic was overlooked as a reserve, first by vote of the coaches, and then by Silver.

“I don’t want to complain or put myself ahead of any other player,” Dragic said. “I am trying not to think about what happen and just trying to concentrate and win as many games as we can and hopefully make that push for the playoffs. That will be my statement.”

Yet the incongruity and, well, hypocrisy of it all is something that all of the Suns have trouble digesting. The snub had been extended to the rest of the roster until Miles Plumlee was a late replacement added to the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night of the All-Star Weekend schedule.

“When a team has a guy make the All-Star team, it’s not only a testament to what that guy does, but also his teammates,” Hornacek said. “You don’t become an All-Star if you don’t have any good teammates. Someone’s got to throw you the ball. Someone’s got to help you out. The fact is, if he made it, it ought to be a sign that, hey, we’re a team that’s above .500 and weren’t supposed to be and that reflects on the whole team. I still think we’ve got a pretty good team.”

It’s been a dramatic rise for Dragic just 2 1/2 years after he entered the 2011-12 season in Houston No. 3 on the Rockets depth chart at point guard. When Kyle Lowry was injured, he got his chance to start 28 games, and that laid a foundation for what Dragic is doing now.

“It was my first year that I got a lot of minutes,” he said. “Now it’s so much clearer, so much easier for me because I know how the game is going to go and when I have to take my shot. I’m not rushing. It’s just a good fit and I’m just happy that I’m back and part of the Phoenix Suns organization. They did a lot for me. I’m never going to forget that they drafted me and give me my first chance in the NBA.”

And there’s a part of him that won’t forget being overlooked for the All-Star team.

“I can’t be angry now,” Dragic said. “I must let that go. But what I can do is to focus on finishing the season strong, help get our team into the playoffs, then see what we can do there. That would be the best way to talk.”

All-Star Davis Gives N.O. Added Flavor

VIDEO: Anthony Davis’ top 10 plays

Not that the NBA All-Star Game is ever lacking in fireworks or flash or big names, yet it’s always a bit more fun when there is a hometown connection: Tom Chambers rolling to an MVP award before a jam-packed crowd at the vast Kingdome in Seattle in 1987, Michael Jordan at Chicago Stadium in 1988, Karl Malone and John Stockton working their magic in Salt Lake City in 1993, Kobe Bryant touching base with his Philly roots in 2002.

The 2014 All-Star Game got the spice and flavor of a hot bowl of gumbo when Pelicans’ forward Anthony Davis was named as a replacement for the injured Bryant on the Western Conference roster by new commissioner Adam Silver.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

But it was more than just a case of home-cooking since Davis has been performing at an All-Star level from the beginning of his second NBA season, and was probably the biggest snub by the vote of the coaches when the reserves were originally named.

Davis is averaging 20.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and leads the league with 3.3 blocked shots per game and shooting 51.8 percent from the field. He’s grown in confidence and stature at the offensive end, compiling a greatest hits collection of slam dunks, while also making jaw dropping blocked shots far out on the perimeter as a defensive beast.

In January, Davis blocked 51 blocked shots in 15 games. That was more than the total compiled by three entire NBA teams: Heat (50), Cavaliers (48) and Jazz (48). Through the first 101 games of Davis’s career, he had 233 blocks and 132 steals. The only player since 1985-86 to match those numbers in his first 101 games was Spurs Hall of Famer David Robinson. Davis is also on pace to become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 to average 20-10-3 for an entire season.

Davis will also take part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night of All-Star Weekend. He was the No. 1 pick by Team Chris Webber.

“I would love to be an All-Star,” Davis said in a recent conversation. “It would show that the hard work I’ve been putting into my game during the offseason and every day in practice are paying off.

“It would also bring more attention to our team, the entire Pelicans organization and make a statement, I think, that we’ve got a plan to get better and become a contender in the league. I’ve had great support from the city since I’ve joined the team and making the All-Star team would be an extra bit of excitement for everybody in New Orleans during an exciting weekend.”

Goran Dragic and the world of Suns fans will surely feel slighted that Silver didn’t replace Bryant with another guard. Their valid argument will be that the Suns have a winning record and the Pelicans are below .500. But it never hurts to have the flavor of home in an All-Star Game.