Posts Tagged ‘Goran Dragic’

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.”

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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

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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

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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

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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?

***

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.

All-Star Saturday Gets A Makeover

Portland's Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

Portland’s Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

There will still be the rim-rattling, mind-bending slam dunks, the barrage of breathtaking 3-pointers and the dazzling array of skills on display when the greatest talent in basketball gathers.

But State Farm All-Star Saturday Night will undergo an extreme makeover this year in New Orleans with rule changes for all four of the events and an overall team competition between the Eastern and Western conferences — led by captains Paul George and Stephen Curry – with $500,000 in charitable contributions on the line.

Perhaps the most familiar name by the end of the extravaganza will be guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be busier than a trumpet player in a French Quarter brass band. He’s taking part in three of Saturday’s four events — including stints as a dunker, a long-distance shooter and a playmaker in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. The 2013 Rookie of the Year already has a busy dance card; he’s scheduled to play in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night and in the 63rd NBA All-Star Game on Sunday.

The most dramatic change Saturday is coming in the night’s marquee event, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. The competition will feature six dunkers, three from each conference, in a free-wheeling, two-round showdown to determine the best conference. For the first time in the event’s history, no individual dunker will be crowned. Instead, the title will go to the best conference. Complete rules.

Dunking for the Eastern Conference will be the team captain George of the Pacers, 2013 champion Terrence Ross of the Raptors and John Wall of the Wizards.  The Western Conference dunkers will be Lillard, Harrison Barnes of the Warriors and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings.

The 6-foot-3 Lillard will be battling in the land of the giants as the shortest participant in the slam dunk contest.

Highlights: George | Ross | Wall | Lillard | Barnes | McLemore

Before he puts on his dunking shoes, Lillard will be showing off his marksmanship as part of the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.  The other participants are Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, Joe Johnson of the Nets and Arron Afflalo of the Magic for the East.  Curry of the Warriors, Marco Belinelli of the Spurs and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves will join Lillard shooting for the West.

The major rule change in the contest is that players will have an entire rack of “money balls,” which count double, that can be placed in any of the five shooting positions around the court. Complete rules.

The Taco Bells Skills challenge has been turned into a relay race this year with each conference fielding two teams consisting of two players each.  Each team will run the course, competing in a relay format for a single overall time. Complete rules.

The ubiquitous Lillard will team with Trey Burke of the Jazz and Reggie Jackson of the Thunder will team with Goran Dragic of the Suns to make up the Western Conference lineup.  The East teams will be Michael Carter-Williams of the Sixers with Victor Oladipo of the Magic and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors with rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.

The Sears Shooting Stars will once again team a current NBA player with a WNBA star and an NBA legend in a time competition that will require four shots made from different spots on the court.

Tim Hardaway Jr. of the Knicks and Chris Bosh of the Heat will head up the East teams, while Kevin Durant of the Thunder and Curry will lead the West. Complete rules.

Each conference will be competing for charity. A total of $500,000 will be donated at the end of the night. For each competition, $100,000 will go to the winning conference’s charities, with $25,000 going to the charities of the runner-up.

State Farm All-Star Saturday night will be televised exclusively on TNT on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET).

[UPDATE: TNT will hold a fan vote during the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest to determine the Sprite Dunker of the Night. The winner of that vote will be considered the individual champion for the competition.]


Video: 2014 All-Star Saturday Night Participants

Blogtable: The Suns With Pau

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


The Suns with Pau | The Wizards? Really? | Blake, Kevin or L.A.?


Pau Gasol (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Pau Gasol (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Imagine the Suns with Pau Gasol: Could he make a big difference?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI’d like to see Phoenix acquire Gasol, so that 37 years worth of trade rumors about him can finally be put on mute. He would help the Suns, a finesse big man in the tradition of Alvan Adams, and certainly grab the attention of whichever top-4 seed drew Phoenix in the first round. The Suns’ surprising season and Jeff Hornacek‘s COY-worthy work deserves a boost, I can envision Goran Dragic clicking instantly with Gasol on the floor and this Rent-a-Pau move would provide a welcome anti-tanking storyline.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: While I think Gasol has consistently been underrated during his time in L.A., I don’t see a move to Phoenix elevating the Suns significantly in the playoff hierarchy. I don’t believe they would want to change what they’re doing now to get the ball inside and I don’t think Gasol is that inside force that’s going to carry a team anyway. And his addition isn’t going to make them a threat to win several — or maybe even one — round of the playoffs. Making the playoffs is an admirable and reachable goal for a team that most thought was tanking at the start of the season, but I wouldn’t give up a valuable first-round draft pick and derail future plans.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comI think it would be a great move for Phoenix. The Suns’ front line isn’t exactly a scoring machine, but it is a blue-collar, hard-working group. Gasol would add a touch of sophistication and fit perfectly alongside the stretch-4 Channing Frye. You’ve got to admire the job young center Miles Plumlee has done (9.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg), and his game would really benefit from being around Gasol, who is masterful in the low block. The Suns need a proven, low-post option in the playoffs. My only concern is Gasol’s seemingly constant slew of minor injuries. Aside from that, he’s a great fit for the Suns and it could really fire up Gasol, whose energy, in my opinion, has been drained by an ongoing mental wrestling match with Mike D’Antoni.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: At what cost? I like Gasol on the Suns if the price is Emeka Okafor and the Indiana pick in 2014. But Okafor and a choice that could be in the teens? Or Okafor and a decent prospect? No deal. If I’m Phoenix, I’d like to get better for this season, but the long term, the next five to seven seasons, remains the priority. In that perspective, Gasol at the right cost would be a nice addition as a potential rental before free agency. He would help on the boards, be a positive in the locker room and add playoff experience if the Suns get there.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He would help, because they don’t really have a back-up center and a Gasol/Plumdog center rotation would be strong. But he wouldn’t necessarily make a significant difference, because they’ve been very good (+6.5 points per 100 possessions) with Channing Frye and Plumdog  on the floor together. Their biggest issue is defensive rebounding, and while Gasol is a very good defensive rebounder, plugging him in at center doesn’t exactly help their floor-spacing power forwards rebound better. It would be cool, though, if the Lakers could help upgrade one of the teams ahead of them and make the West playoff picture that much stronger.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThe Suns are legit without Pau, one of the best surprise stories in recent memory. But a skilled, veteran big man like Pau could push them into another category altogether. They lost a little of that post presence when they traded Marcin Gortat. Pau would be an upgrade in that department. So yes, I think he’d make a significant difference for that Suns team if I’m imagining him with Goran Dragic and the rest of coach Jeff Hornacek‘s scrappy crew.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogI think he could make a significant difference for the Suns. Pau may be older and no longer the player he used to be, but he also hasn’t been used in the post as much the last few years in Mike D’Antoni’s perimeter offense. With Phoenix’s uptempo offense, though, Gasol has the ability to play in the post as well as keep pace with his teammates. Also, Jeff Hornacek has shown a terrific acuity for making the best out of what he has.

Aldo Miguel Aviñante, NBA PhilippinesPau Gasol would provide a good, solid veteran presence in the middle for the young, athletic Suns squad. He will give them stability and experience and will prevent any sudden fall in the standings because of his leadership. He can play the pick and roll with Goran Dragic and play the high post and give beautiful passes to a cutting Eric Bledsoe, he will make the Suns a force to be reckoned with.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA GreeceI like them a lot. But I ‘m not sure if Pau Gasol is the right fit. He is a great post player, but the Suns are thriving in a certain up-tempo  playing style emphased in transition. Frye and the Morris twins are great pick-n-pop players that stretch the floor and Miles Plumlee is the quickest big guy around, a player that is very dedicated in pick-n-roll situations. The current front-line matches well with the guards, and that’s why the Suns have one of the best offenses in the league. So, as much I respect Pau Gasol, Phoenix seems like a bad idea.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA BrasilPau Gasol could still make an impact in an NBA contending team. The Suns’ defense might suffer a little bit, but Gasol could give them an offensive force on the block, and a guy who could teach Miles Plumlee a thing or two. Yeah, I think it might be a good fit.