Posts Tagged ‘Houston Rockets’

Morning Shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: ‘Melo to explore ‘options’ in free agency | LeBron backs off vs. Cavs | Bynum suffering from swollen knee | Rondo struggling with how to lead rebuilding Celts | Pau backs Jackson’s move to N.Y.

No. 1: Report: Bulls, Rockets top suitors for Anthony — As Phil Jackson was introduced as the Knicks new team president yesterday, one of the main topics of conversation was the future of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony intends to opt out of his contract this summer and test the free-agent waters and while the Knicks can offer him more money than any other team on the open market can, rumors have bubbled up about him being interested in leaving. In a review of the Knicks’ addition of Jackson, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski says that two teams — the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets — are in the lead to make a big push for ‘Melo this summer:

Jackson has limitless resources to construct a front office, coaching staff and roster. Everything’s on him now. James Dolan won’t be cramping Jackson’s style in those big free-agent meetings, because it will be Jackson playing the part of Miami’s Pat Riley now. Throwing his rings on the table, selling management credibility born of coaching genius.

And make no mistake: One of the most important things Jackson offered on Tuesday was a nod toward his old Chicago Bulls nemesis and GM, Jerry Krause, whom, he said, set a standard for thoroughness and legwork in the evaluation of talent. All of them mocked Krause, but no one – not Jackson, nor Michael Jordan – would’ve had multiple titles without him. Or maybe even one.

The NBA is a talent business, and the Knicks’ most important asset, Carmelo Anthony, will welcome listening to Jackson’s pitch on the future. Anthony heard part of it in the news conference when Jackson went out of his way to suggest the Knicks star’s freewheeling, isolation-scoring days are done.

Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.

“He’ll give New York every option,” one source with knowledge of Anthony’s plans told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “But he has options – and he’s going to explore them all.”


VIDEO: Phil Jackson talks about his desire to keep Carmelo Anthony in New York

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No. 2: LeBron backs off a bit after epic start vs. Cavs — After the first quarter of last night’s Heat-Cavaliers game from Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron James had 25 points on a 10-for-11 shooting performance in the first quarter. In short, it looked like James was headed for another record scoring night just weeks after he set the team mark for points in a game with 61 against the Charlotte Bobcats. But a funny thing happened as the game went along: James tapered off his field goal attempts and worked to get others involved. While he still finished with 43 points, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst notes how James chose to back off against Cleveland after his hot start:

LeBron James had the hammer raised on his former team Tuesday night, the chance to inflict another lasting scar with the sort of record-setting performance that would hang on the books for years.Maybe it was mercy, maybe it was maturity and maybe there was just some pride from the injury-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers. It was hard to figure exactly what happened, but James uncharacteristically stood down and perhaps allowed a chance at a record to pass and left satisfied that his Miami Heat took a 100-96 victory.

James, who possesses a flash-drive memory, easily remembered Allen Iverson scoring 54 points on the Cavs back in 2001 when he was a teenager in nearby Akron. It was a vendetta that night, Iverson upset the Cleveland crowd had mistreated him in his view in an earlier visit and he was determined to make a statement.

Iverson’s angry night still stands as the Quicken Loans Arena record and it was so within James’ grasp. James himself carries the date Dec. 2, 2010, around in his head like a family member’s birthday because of the rancor he encountered in the building in his first game back after signing with the Heat. He mentions that date numerous times a year, usually when brushing away someone insinuating he’d run into a hostile crowd that particular day.

He referenced that date again Tuesday, in fact. But James doesn’t seem to have the same desire to strike back as Iverson. If nothing else, James played almost 400 games in his life in the building and never eclipsed 50 but was halfway to that number just 12 minutes in.

“With that type of start, you see if you can go for 70,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s just human conditioning to think like that.”

And it’s human conditioning for the coach to let his player try. Instead of sitting James to start the second quarter as normal, Spoelstra sent him to the floor to continue the streak.

Then something odd happened. James backed off. He started passing up open driving lanes. He started looking for teammates inside. He started calling plays for teammates, especially looking to get Ray Allen some open looks. He eased off the pure attack mode he seemed to be reveling in only moments before.

“When I started the game off, I felt like I could have went for 50 or 60,” James said. “But you can’t really dictate what’s going to happen.”

James would take just eight shots the rest of the game, which is simply incomprehensible after one starts 10-of-11. He took just three shots in the entire second half when the Cavs, who were also without All-Star Kyrie Irving because of a biceps injury, were pushing back and trying to pull an upset.

Just imagine how many shots Iverson might’ve taken had he started a game 10-of-11, much less a game in Cleveland during his prime.

James did reach the 40-point mark, getting there with some late-game free throws when the Cavs starting intentionally fouling him to stop the clock to keep comeback hopes alive. In all, he had 43 points on 14-of-19 shooting. It was barely above normal: James averages 17.5 shots a game and most of the time he’s sharing the load with Wade.

“He’s not a selfish player, never has been,” said Chris Bosh, who was the Heat’s main offensive weapon in the second half as he scored 12 of his 21 points despite a little scare when he twisted his right knee in the third quarter.

“He’s still had [43], that’s pretty good. Some guys probably don’t have the maturity to handle that but he did a pretty good job of playing a complete game.”


VIDEO: LeBron James gets off to a quick start in Miami’s win in Cleveland

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No. 3: Bynum dealing with swelling in knee — The Pacers have to be more than pleased with what they’ve seen from center Andrew Bynum in the two games as the big man is averaging 11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg while shooting 40.9 percent. But it appears they’ll have to wait a while to see him on the court again as knee swelling will keep him sidelined as the Pacers travel to face the Knicks tonight, writes Scott Agness of Pacers.com:

Andrew Bynum won’t join the Pacers on their trip to New York, but instead will stay in town to treat swelling in his knees that are causing him pain — and to miss games.

“The knees are still swollen so he’s going to stay behind to get some work in here and some treatment here,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said following Tuesday’s practice. “We’ll see where he’s at when we get back.”

Bynum, who was in practice gear but didn’t participate on Tuesday, admitted there’s some concern for his recent setback. After scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds in exactly 20 minutes of work Saturday night in Detroit, Bynum has experienced significant swelling in his right knee to the point where he underwent an MRI and had it drained Monday afternoon.

“This one is a little concerning for me because it caused a lot more fluid,” he said. “I haven’t had that much fluid in there since like the (2010) Boston Finals in L.A.”

That was almost four years ago.

“It’s not fun,” Bynum added. “It is what it is at this point.”

Doctors analyzed the MRI Tuesday morning, according to Bynum, and he expects to know more Tuesday afternoon.

As Vogel has said, they knew what they were signing up for. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to deal with.

“[It's] not really disappointing at all, to be honest,” he said. “We knew he was going to be in and out of the lineup. He’s got some problems with his knees, we’re well aware of that, and we’ll be excited with what he can give us when he’s in there.”


VIDEO: Andrew Bynum talks about his knee injury

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No. 4: Rondo struggling to lead Celts during rebuild – After Monday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Boston Celtics have an 0-15 road mark against the Western Conference, a feat no other Celtics team had accomplished. If nothing else, that’s proof of a rebuilding season in Beantown as Boston tries to figure out its direction for next season and beyond. Star point guard Rajon Rondo is the de facto leader of these Celtics, who are comprised of many players on expiring contracts, and as Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe points out, Rondo is finding it tough at times to lead a group with an uncertain future:

There’s always some degree of uncertainty as the front office works to reshape the roster.It’s an unsung challenge for rookie coach Brad Stevens to keep his players united even though they know they might be on unsettled ground.

Likewise, it’s an unsung challenge for the team’s captain, Rajon Rondo.

And around the time Rondo returned to action in January after missing nearly a year following a knee injury, former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he brought up this topic with his former point guard.

It’s not unusual for the two to talk, even with Rivers now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers. They have history, with Rivers coaching Rondo from 2006-07 until last season.

“I speak to Doc all the time,” Rondo said. “I’ve talked to him on the phone. I’ve talked to him after games, text-wise. He gives me advice all the time.”

“Everybody is not going to buy in, because all they hear is that they’re all getting traded because they’re in the middle of a rebuild,’” Rivers said he told Rondo. “So you’re going to go in there and talk about, ‘Hey, let’s buy in as a team,’ and half of them are going to say, ‘I’m not even going to be on this team.’ ”

“Well, the first concern is to make it through the trade deadline,” Rondo said.

Indeed. The Celtics made two swaps before the deadline. And though he involved in numerous rumors, Rondo wasn’t moved.

But the roster is by no means settled.

The Celtics figure to be especially active this summer, and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck recently told the Globe, “This June there could be some fireworks.”

Technically speaking, only Rondo, Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger are on guaranteed contracts for next season.

Jerryd Bayless, Kris Humphries, and Avery Bradley will become free agents, though Bradley will be restricted, meaning the Celtics can match any offer he receives.

“For the most part, guys are playing for contracts,” Rondo said. “It’s not a matter of being here. It’s a matter of staying in the league.”

That pressure can weigh on a player.

“If a guy is not under contract, obviously he wants to play well every game,” Rondo said. “He wants to make all his shots, do all the intangibles.

“I’m not necessarily saying that a guy under contract won’t do all those things, but obviously it’s amplified when you’re playing for your life or you’re playing for your career.”

Leading a locker room in which players might be playing for their career is new for Rondo, but Wallace recalled being in that situation in Charlotte.

In 2004-05, his first season there, the team was rebuilding (it finished 18-64) and most of the players were set to become free agents. Ideally, Wallace said, players buy into the system, but that’s easier said than done.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said, “because even though you don’t want to think about that, once you start losing, you start thinking about your career — ‘Oh, I’m up next summer, I’ve got to figure this [expletive] out.’

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No. 5: Pau backs Knicks’ signing of Jackson — With Phil Jackson officially entrenched as the Knicks new team president, he’s got his work cut out for him in trying to turn New York into a stable franchise again (as our John Schuhmann points out). But for now, many folks are commending New York on getting a person of Jackson’s caliber to lead the charge and one of those backers is none other than Lakers power forward Pau Gasol. Gasol won two championships and made three Finals trips under Jackson when both men were in L.A. and Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin he backs the Knicks’ latest personnel move:

The New York Knicks officially announced the hiring of Phil Jackson as their new team president Tuesday, and will reportedly pay him $60 million over five years for the job. It may have been an unprecedented payday for a front office executive, but it also qualifies as a sound financial decision by the Knicks in Pau Gasol’s eyes.

“I think the Knicks are fortunate to have him,” the Los Angeles Lakers big man said after practice Tuesday. “I know they gave him a big contract and a big investment, but I think he’s worth every cent of it.”

Gasol, who played under Jackson in L.A. from 2008-11 and reached three NBA Finals while winning two championships in the process, said it will take some adjusting seeing Jackson working on the opposite coast.

“It’s weird,” Gasol said. “It’s weird to see him with a Knick logo behind him in the picture today. But I know he’s in a good place.”

Gasol said he still sees Jackson “regularly” since the 11-time champion coach retired from the sidelines following the 2010-11 season, but will have to curtail that contact because of Jackson’s new role.

“Apparently we can’t really talk to each other from now on since I’m going to become a free agent and he’s an executive for another team, so it’s under rules that we can’t communicate,” Gasol said, referring to the league’s tampering clause. “He can be penalized. So, our communication has been cut off until July 1st.”

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who was hired over Jackson last November, said Jackson will do a “great job” in New York, but also detailed the challenge the former coach will face. D’Antoni coached the Knicks from 2008-2012 before being unceremoniously showed the door, so he knows the pitfalls associated with the franchise more than most.

“It’s a big job anywhere,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think just New York. I think it’s a big job anywhere to turn it around. I think you have to look at the cap room and what they have and how quick you can do it? Can you get lucky? So there’s a lot of things. I know that there will be a lot of effort put into it. Good, sound decisions. And you hope — well, I’m not a Knick now so I don’t hope — it works out for him. But it’s a tall order for anybody at anywhere at anytime. This league is not easy to get on top. And we know in New York, you’re either winning or you’re a failure. So, it will be tough but they got a good man and he’ll do a heck of a job.”

D’Antoni does not believe that Jackson’s coaching resume will automatically translate to front office success.

“I don’t think one correlates to the other,” D’Antoni said. “I think they’re two completely separate jobs. It’s like turning a great player into a coach. It’s a different job. So you don’t know if they can do it or not. I think that obviously he’s got a good basketball mind, so he’ll approach it a different way and let’s see if it works out. I think there’s a lot of great qualities there, so there’s no reason it doesn’t. But there’s no reason it does. So we’ll see what happens.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: As our Scott Howard-Cooper reported last night, the Hall of Fame is weighing a potential change to the voting format … A detailed look at what it might take for Chicago to bring over prized foreign talent Nikola Mirotic to the NBA next season … A groin strain will sideline Lakers guard Jordan Farmar for at least two weeks … Cool little chat with Pacers coach Frank Vogel about his game day routine and more … Blake Griffin doesn’t think he has much of a chance in the MVP race this season … The shared grandfather of the Magic’s Tobias Harris and the Suns’ Channing Frye was a Tuskegee AirmanMo Williams has been playing better since LaMarcus Aldridge has been out of the lineup … Quick guards have been giving the Raptors fits of late … Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas may get some rest down the stretch of the season

ICYMI of the Night: Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza is in the midst of a great season, to be sure. But sometimes even a great season needs a little luck, as demonstrated by his wild fadeaway bank shot last night in Sacramento …


VIDEO: Trevor Ariza nails a wild off-the-glass fadeaway jumper

Down goes Dunleavy…before getting back up to spark Bulls


VIDEO: Stitched-up Dunleavy scores 21 second-half points to lead Bulls to rout of Rockets

CHICAGO – Despite his years at Duke and his status as NBA offspring, factors that might cast him as one of the game’s bluebloods, Mike Dunleavy made it painfully clear he bleeds Chicago Bulls red Thursday night in his team’s 111-87 victory over Houston at United Center.

Dunleavy’s head got in the way of Chandler Parsons‘ elbow as the Rockets forward bore down on a fast break in the second quarter. Dunleavy got the call – a charge on Parsons – along with a gash over his right eye that bled instantly and profusely. The Bulls wing player, though dazed, pushed himself up to the floor and hurried to the dressing room, where he took 10 stitches.

Video and photos showed blood running down his face, and ball boys had to mop on the diagonal from the lane nearest Houston’s bench to the far corner to clean up the trail.

Naturally, since he wasn’t more seriously injured, Dunleavy’s mishap was met with amusement and a little locker-room admiration – especially since he returned in time to start the second half and score all of his game-high 21 points from that point, despite the bandage, the throbbing and the swelling.

“That gash looked scary, man,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “That gash looked like a Rocky cut, like when Rocky was in the movie going ‘Cut me, Mick. Cut me!’ Everybody was like, ‘Yo, if you get hit one more time, it’s over for you.’ And he kept a smile on his face. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna light it up.’ “

Said Dunleavy: “It was pretty hard initially and kind of knocked me back. But once I hit the ground and realized I was bleeding, you’ve got to go to the locker room and get stitched up. No point in hanging around the court and getting blood everywhere. … I just knew, once they got the stitches done, I was coming back.”

He hit 7 of his 11 shots in the third quarter, including 3 of 4 3-pointers, for 18 points. The Bulls, up 50-42 at halftime, outscored Houston 35-16 in the third. But Dunleavy stuck around for nearly nine minutes in the fourth anyway – Rockets coach Kevin McHale largely had yanked his starters by then – to finish 8-of-15 with seven rebounds. He even took another charge.

“That was very impressive and I think it inspired the team,” Chicago’s Joakim Noah said. “He had a huge knot on his head. Looking like Holyfield – the white version. And just coming out there, putting on a new jersey and gutting it out in the second half … it was good for Duke’s street credibility.

“It shows a lot about the character of this team, that somebody could get hit the way he got hit. I’d never seen nothing like that really, getting rocked the way he got rocked. It [blood] was really coming down. Ten stitches. Then to play the second half the way he played? I like that [stuff].”

Easy for Noah to say. Dunleavy said the Bulls’ medical staff checked him for symptoms of whiplash and also peppered him with some questions as part of the NBA’s concussion protocol. “They were asking me questions and I was answering them in a way that wouldn’t lead them to believe I had a concussion,” he said.

At that point, Dunleavy said he had no doubt he would play in the second half, though he didn’t attribute his performance to the blow or any emotions from it.

“It was just a matter of how long it took ‘em to stitch me up. I’ve had that happen a couple times. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 20,” he said. “It wasn’t a malicious hit on Parsons’ part. Sometimes in that case, when it is intentional, yeah, it can fire you up. But I was kind of sitting back here bored, getting stitched up. I wanted to play.”

It’s been a long season for Dunleavy, who signed a bargain contract (two years, $6.5 million) with the Bulls last summer in the hope of becoming a valuable reserve on a championship contender. Then Derrick Rose went down again, Luol Deng got traded and Dunleavy got bumped into the starting lineup for 44 of 65 games so far.

He’s averaging 30.4 minutes, his most in six years, while shooting just 42.8 percent, 37.0 percent from the arc. Right up to the trade deadline three weeks ago, there were rumors that Dunleavy might be moved, an extra shooter for an ambitious team. But the Bulls kept him, and coach Tom Thibodeau has used him every which way.

“That is the price of winning,” Thibodeau said of Dunleavy’s gash, “and that is why he is so valuable to our team. When you talk about toughness, that is toughness.”

Teammate Jimmy Butler said: “He’s on this team for a reason. He’s a tough SOB. Mike’s been big for this team. Helluva player, helluva shooter, helluva scorer.

“But I will make fun of him when he comes in tomorrow with a black eye.”

Beverley’s latest antics were bush league

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Chris Webber and Rick Fox discuss Patrick Beverley’s defense

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Is Patrick Beverley a dirty player?

Portland’s Damian Lillard thinks the ornery Houston Rockets point guard takes his agitating tactics beyond the spirit of the game. During last year’s first-round playoff series, Russell Westbrook certainly didn’t appreciate Beverley’s controversial lunge – hustle play or reckless theatrics? — as he pulled up near the Thunder bench to call a timeout. Even so, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks and star Kevin Durant were quick to exonerate Beverley.

Tuesday night was the first time Westbrook and Beverley were back on the same court since the April injury. After the Thunder’s morning shootaround, Westbrook, preparing for just his ninth game back from a third surgery related to the initial injury, stared straight ahead with no interest in giving legs to questions about animosity toward Beverley.

“I don’t care about it to tell you the truth,” Westbrook said. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”

And then Beverley made it all about Westbrook, again. The two tangled immediately with Beverley’s hyperactive defensive tactics stirring up emotions. Then, midway through the first quarter, Westbrook nearly lost it, and for good reason. Just like in the playoff game, he dribbled toward the Thunder bench to call a routine timeout. Beverley brazenly ran up on Westbrook, bumped him torso to torso and got his hands up around Westbrook’s chest.

Westbrook quickly shoved him back as the Thunder bench rose and players and coaches from both teams converged in a completely unexpected and intensely bizarre moment of deja vu. Beverley got hit with a technical.

What did Westbrook think?

“Nothing,” he said. “Just win the game. That’s what my whole objective is, win the game.”

At least in the playoff game, Beverley could go to the video and rightfully claim that he went low on Westbrook targeting the ball, seeking to swipe it before Westbrook could call the timeout, and thus the ensuing collision was purely circumstantial and wholly unintentional.

Not this time. This move was reckless, irresponsible and unnecessary. It was bush league with no intention to make a steal, no intention beyond igniting emotions to potentially dangerous levels between nemeses. Throughout the Thunder’s eventual 106-98 victory, skirmishes flared among multiple players. Three technicals and a Flagrant 1 were called.

Beverley, whose edginess and agitating defense is a needed and appreciated ingredient in the offensive-minded Rockets’ success, said he approached Westbrook as he does every other opponent on every night. It wasn’t personal, he said.

“That’s how I play against everybody,” Beverley said. “No personal battles against anybody. I go out there and fight and do what I do to try to win a basketball game.”

Brooks didn’t seem as sure this time as he did in April.

“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said. “There’s really not much to talk about.”

Said Rockets coach Kevin McHale: “He should be aggressive. This is a game where you play aggressive, good things happen.”

Not this time. Beverley’s over-the-top aggression earned him three first-half fouls, rendering him virtually impotent to slow the bigger, stronger Westbrook, who maintained his composure and shredded Beverley for 24 points on 6-for-14 shooting, plus 11-for-14 at the free-throw line. Westbrook scored nine consecutive points and 11 of 15 during the key stretch of the game during the second quarter to give OKC a 56-41 halftime lead. He opened the third quarter by blowing by Beverley for a layup.

“He just went out there to play to win,” Durant said. “That’s how Russ always plays, with that edge, that intensity.”

Beverley’s teammates defended him with similar words, that his play was not out of character, that the snarling, unbridled tenacity is part of the package.

“Unfortunately it was Russell, but Pat is going to play the same way no matter who it is,” James Harden said. “Unfortunately it was him caught in that situation, but Pat is going to do the same thing Thursday [against the Bulls]. That’s how he makes his money. That’s his identity.”

Nobody wants to change that. But Beverley must understand there are limits of aggression for even the most dogged competitors.

Because nobody wants to be known as being dirty.

Morning Shootaround — March 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks, Jackson have agreement in place | Report: Kobe done for 2013-14? | Westbrook, OKC stymie Beverley, Rockets | Noel unlikely to suit up this season | Bynum impresses in Pacers debut

No. 1: Report: Knicks, Jackson have agreement in place — In the case of Phil Jackson returning to the NBA in a front-office role with the New York Knicks, it looks like all that needs to happen next is a news conference date and time. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Jackson and Knicks officials have agreed to a deal in principle and all that’s left is to have loose ends tied up by each sides respective legal teams. The news that Jackson and the Knicks had a deal was reported yesterday by ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, but Berman provides additional details on the move:

Phil Jackson has reached an agreement in principle to oversee the Knicks basketball operations and “president’’ will be in his title, according to a league source.

All that’s left is the lawyers finalizing the last contract details by week’s end before Jackson officially returns to the organization that drafted him and where he won two titles as a player.

The Post has learned Jackson gave the Knicks a verbal commitment on Saturday. The Garden still will not comment on Jackson’s status.

Knicks president/general manager Steve Mills will remain on board in a revised role and work with Jackson. Knicks owner James Dolan hired Mills because of his vast network of contacts with NBA agents and GMs. That isn’t the strong suit of Jackson, winner of 11 titles as coach of the Bulls and Lakers.

Some issues during the last couple of days revolved around his living arrangements. Jackson lives in Marina Del Rey, Calif., with his fiancée, Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Jackson is expected to live in New York during the season, but do some commuting. Buss visits New York on business periodically.

Jackson has spoken fondly about his mentor, former Knicks coach Red Holzman, who Jackson said was the reason he wanted to get into coaching.

“There’s no doubt Red took special affection toward our relationship,” Jackson told The Post in 2004, when he was about to break Red Auerbach’s coaching-title record. “He always called me after a winning season. When it was Bulls-Knicks in the conference finals, he always made a point of seeking me out, right up until the end. I’m sure he’s somewhere up there smiling down.”

Now it appears Jackson will attempt to help resuscitate a Knicks franchise that has collapsed this season. The Knicks began to rebuild in 2008 to get under the salary cap in an attempt to sign LeBron James.

Apart from last season’s No. 2 seed, the results didn’t materialize, with the Knicks a long shot to make the playoffs and looking to rebuild again with Carmelo Anthony as their centerpiece. Anthony is a free agent this summer and doesn’t know Jackson well, but Jackson has 11 championship rings with which to woo Anthony.

Jackson does have experience building an NBA roster. Before his coaching exploits with the Bulls and Lakers, he worked for five seasons in the defunct CBA in Albany, where he constructed fluctuating rosters in a chaotic environment.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the pending union between Phil Jackson and the Knicks

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No. 2: Report: Kobe done for the season? — Perhaps the one thing Los Angeles Lakers fans had to hold on to in this abysmal season for them was seeing Kobe Bryant suit up for the last handful of games. Apparently, not even that is going to happen, writes Kevin Ding of BleacherReport.com. Our own Sekou Smith breaks down the news that Bryant is likely to be officially shut down for all of 2013-14 by the end of the week:

Kobe Bryant‘s 2013-14 season is soon to be declared officially over after just six games. All that’s left is the word from either Kobe or the Los Angeles Lakers, according to a report from Bleacher Report columnist Kevin Ding.

It’s yet another blow in a season full of them for Lakers fans, who have been reeling since last summer when Dwight Howard bolted from the scene via free agency for Houston. Bryant missing the remainder of the Lakers’ season, though, is just the latest dagger

Some of us have been calling for Bryant, as well as Steve Nash, to punt the remainder of this injury-plagued season for a while now. There’s nothing that can be salvaged from the wreckage of the tire fire that has gone on since last summer. Not even a few late-season appearances from one of the most beloved Lakers of all time.

When the trade deadline came and went last month and Pau Gasol was still a part of the team, it was clear that the Lakers were waving the white flag on this season and preparing for the future with a healthy Bryant as the centerpiece.

The timing of this pending announcement comes during the same week former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who joined forces with Bryant for five of his 11 titles as a coach, is set to be announced as the basketball operations chief (the title is reportedly still being negotiated) of the New York Knicks.

The Lakers chose Mike D’Antoni as their coach last season over a third round of Jackson, who has chosen not to return in that capacity this time around.

Bryant apparently won’t come back in any capacity this season, either. All that’s left is the official announcement, which could come before the end of the week.

***

No. 3: Westbrook, OKC get better of Beverley and Rockets — Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley has made a name for himself on the court this season for his defensive grit and all-out energy ways. He’s made one off the court, too, both this season — and in the past. Just yesterday, we pointed out how Beverley had taken some verbal shots at Portland Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard by saying that he ‘whines’. Perhaps what Beverley is best known for — other than his play this season and some of his chatter — is that he was the player who tried to steal the ball from Russell Westbrook as Westbrook was calling a timeout during last season’s OKC-Houston playoff series. That move played a part in Westbrook suffering a string of right knee injures that has had him in and out of OKC’s lineup all season. A similar incident took place last night, as our Jeff Caplan reports, but in the end, Westbrook and OKC prevailed:

Loud City vented on the Rockets’ alley cat of a point guard Patrick Beverley, who returned to the scene of the crime for the first time Tuesday night bearing no remorse, no regrets and certainly no apologies.

He did come looking to scrap and claw and needle his nemesis Russell Westbrook, and it took only 44 seconds into it for the lid to pop off with the first of three intense entanglements between the two before this wild and woolly game throughout, won by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 106-98, was barely seven minutes old.

With six minutes to go in the opening quarter, Beverley solidified his role as No. 1 villain in these parts with a bold, deja vu move, running up on Westbrook as the Thunder point guard dribbled toward the OKC bench to call a timeout, just as he had done in that fateful Game 2 of the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Instead of Beverley going low as he did last April, a move that tore the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and landed him on the operating table — and then back there twice more — and OKC’s championship dreams on life support, Beverley went high, practically body bumping Westbrook and planting both his palms on Westbrook’s chest.

Westbrook bowed up, Beverley didn’t back down and tempers revved on both sides. The officials huddled and emerged with a technical foul on Beverley.

Was the ballsy play a message from Beverley?

“No, no messages,” the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder said. “That’s how I play against everybody. No personal battles out there today, just try to go out there and fight and do what I do to try to help my team win a basketball game today.”

It was Westbrook’s night, facing Beverley again, staying cool when the Houston guard tried to stir it up and producing a mostly composed effort that included no turnovers in 15:31 of action in the second half. Before and after the game, Westbrook was short on words, saying he held no grudges, that he’s only out to win. His coach, Scott Brooks, had more to say.

“You guys know I love Russell, and this is why I really love him — he doesn’t like the 58 point guards that he plays against,” Brooks said. “He’s not out there to make friends, he’s not out there to be anybody’s buddy and he competes with everything he has in his body. He’s about playing the right way, about playing a game that we as a coaching staff, as fans, as an organization can be proud of. And that’s what he does every single night. I will never ever think anything else that he does, he just plays the way it’s supposed to be played.”

What did Brooks think about Beverley lunging at Westbrook near the sideline again?

“You saw the same thing I saw,” Brooks said. “There’s really not much to talk about. We played a good basketball game and I’ll just leave it at that. I’m not worried about what they do and don’t do. I’m worried about what we do.”

It made this third consecutive win over the Rockets this season all the more impressive. Dwight Howard, up against rookie Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, had just nine points and 10 boards. Ibaka had 12 points and 16 rebounds. Newly signed Caron Butler, who has quickly supplanted youngster Jeremy Lamb, brought spurts of tenacious defense plus 11 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.

There was no doubt Beverley came in bearing fangs, but Westbrook ultimately provided the much bigger bite.


VIDEO: Westbrook, Beverley get physical in first half during a timeout call

***

No. 4: Despite tweet, Noel unlikely to play this season — Just two days ago in this very space, we informed you of a tweet by injured Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel that simply read “4-14-14″ and led some to believe that he would make his NBA debut on that date. However, that may not be the case, reports Marc Narducci of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as team officials reportedly are not counting on Noel suiting up at all this season. Despite that news, Noel continues to practice with the team and took part in four-on-four drills yesterday, too:

Rookie center Nerlens Noel continues to impress observers in the closed-door sessions during 76ers practices.

Though a source with knowledge of the situation doesn’t expect Noel to play this season as he recovers from last year’s knee surgery, all who see him are encouraged about what he will bring to the future.

On the one-year anniversary of knee surgery, Noel remains a mystery, at least to the public.

The team sees him every day and considers him and rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams the foundation of what is hoped will be a promising youth movement.

The Sixers say that Noel isn’t obligated to talk to the media until he goes through five-on-five full-court workouts.

Others are more than willing to act as a mouthpiece.

“He is one of the quickest guys I have seen off his feet,” forward Thaddeus Young said after Tuesday’s practice.

As for Noel’s recent tweet of “4-4-14″ that supposedly means he would like to play on April 4 at Boston, coach Brett Brown said he hasn’t brought it up to his rookie and he won’t.

“I have purposely ignored it,” Brown said.

***

No. 5: Bynum impresses in Indiana debut — One of the best ways to endear oneself to a new basketball team is with rebounding, defense and some occasional offense … and that’s exactly what Andrew Bynum provided in his Pacers debut last night against the Celtics. The former Cavs, Lakers and Sixers center finished with 10 rebounds, clogged up the paint on defense and had nine points to boot while showing flashes of his All-Star form at times. While he’s still rusty and getting acclimated to his new NBA home, he made a solid impression on his teammates, writes Phil Richards of The Indianapolis Star:

Just for starters, and this was one, Andrew Bynum and Indiana appeared to be a good match. The Pacers are 1-0 with him in uniform, a convenient 94-83 whipping of the Boston Celtics that broke a four-game losing streak.

“I felt great. Couldn’t do anything wrong today,” the 7-foot, 285-pound strongman said after working the Celtics for eight points, 10 rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “All the rebounds came my way and I just grabbed them.

“Looking forward to the next game.”

He had impressed in recent practices but his teammates were eager for a real look. So was the sellout crowd of 18,165. It welcomed him warmly.

Bynum didn’t disappoint. He pushed around the Celtics not-so-big big men, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger. Mostly, he rebounded. And rebounded. And rebounded.

“He did well, not forcing anything, playing a dominant, smash-mouth type of play,” Pacers guard George Hill said.

“There’s not much on the court he didn’t do for us tonight,” Pacers wing Paul George said. “He really did a great job of controlling the paint, on the boards, and offensively, he was huge.”

Bynum, 26 is a seven-year veteran who earned a reputation for being immature at times, even indifferent. After sitting out the entire 2012-13 season because of his aggrieved knees, he signed as a free agent with Cleveland during the offseason.

He played only 26 games before the Cavaliers suspended him, then traded him to the Chicago Bulls, who released him Jan. 7.

When the Pacers signed him it prompted concerns not shared by management that he might adversely impact team chemistry.

So far, so good.

“He’s really bought into the whole locker room,” George said. “He’s been a great teammate.”


VIDEO: Andrew Bynum talks after his debut with the Indiana Pacers

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Durant plays coy about the whole beef between him and rapper Lil B … Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs can see that Tony Parker‘s break during the season is starting to pay off now … Golden State recalled Nemanja Nedovic from the NBA D-League yesterday … Detroit showed some rare defensive chops in toppling Sacramento last night … Great look from the always solid Jason Quick of The Oregonian on LaMarcus Aldridge’s impact on Portland’s playoff hopes

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Whether they like it or not this week, a bunch of notable players (we’re looking at you Corey Brewer, Taj Gibson and Dwight Howard) will probably find themselves on Shaqtin’ A Fool after spectacular on-court fails like these …


VIDEO: Corey Brewer blows a breakaway dunk


VIDEO: Taj Gibson gets rejected by the rim on a power jam


VIDEO: Dwight Howard throws a perfect pass … to an out-of-bounds Omer Asik

Morning Shootaround — March 11


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Knicks, Jackson headed for union | Gortat chimes in on NBA fights | Beverley: Blazers’ Lillard ‘whines’ | Boozer shuns media

No. 1: Knicks, Jackson appear headed for a union — The more time passes, the more it looks like ex-Lakers and Bulls coach Phil Jackson is coming back to the NBA in a front-office role with the team he once played for, the New York Knicks. The latest stories yesterday had it looking like Jackson to N.Y. was pretty much a done deal (and, as usual, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski delivers a solid assessment of the situation). Our own Sekou Smith also chimed in on the pending marriage between the two NBA power players and how the panache Jackson adds to a franchise can do nothing but help New York:

Jackson and the Knicks, according to multiple sources, are working through the sticky points of a deal that would bring him back to the league in a front office capacity, and not as coach of the Knicks (a job, mind you, that is currently occupied by Mike Woodson).

And make no mistake, it’ll take all of the legendary coach’s Zen powers to help fix what ails the Knicks. In short, they are a mess right now. A lame duck coach. A superstar (Carmelo Anthony) basically being forced to consider his free agent options elsewhere this summer. And a roster bogged down with so many bad assets that legendary front office maven Donnie Walsh (the man who tried fixing this mess already) couldn’t fix it all.

Most of us have no idea how Jackson will fare in a job he’s never actually done before. But when you’ve accumulated the sort of championship hardware he has over the years — he played on both of the championship teams the Knicks have fielded and won 11 more titles as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers) — the benefit of the doubt is included in the compensation package.

If anyone alive who has had a hand in the game of basketball can clean up the mess that is the Knicks, it has to be Jackson. Be it good fortune or shrewd calculation, or a healthy dose of both and plenty of blind luck, Jackson always seems to find himself in the middle of championship-level success. Why wouldn’t the Knicks want to find themselves affiliated with the same things?

Now he’ll get the chance to see if his magic works from a different angle, as the man pulling the strings from on high as opposed to doing it with direct contact with the players. I defy anyone to challenge Jackson’s coaching credentials.

For all the grief he gets for having won with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, among so many others, it should be noted that the only member of the Hall of Fame group of players he coached that has won a title without him is Shaq (in Miami, alongside Dwyane Wade and perhaps the only other coach of his generation to come close to being on Jackson’s level, Heat boss and former coach of the Showtime Lakers Pat Riley.

Jackson doesn’t have to sully his reputation by trying to salvage a Knicks team that is clearly beyond repair. But he could send his mythical aura into a new stratosphere if he were somehow able to clear the debris from the wreckage that is the current Knicks operation and bring some sort of championship flair back to Madison Square Garden.

That’s why Knicks owner James Dolan had no choice but to seek out the services of the one man whose name is synonymous with success, the one man whose mere mention sends fans into flights of fancy about championship parades, even when their haven’t been any such plans in the works for decades.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the pending union between Phil Jackson and the Knicks

***

No. 2: Gortat jokes that he’d like NHL-style fights in the NBA — Pound-for-pound, Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (along with the Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic) might be the strongest guy in the NBA. That being said, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to get in a fight with him at any point, anywhere. In a wide-ranging, insightful interview with TrueHoop.com’s Kyle Weidie, Gortat jokingly explains how he’d be a fan of the NBA allowing designated fighting timeframes during each game:

Any rule changes that you think would help the NBA game? For instance, sometimes they talk about instituting FIBA goaltending rules in the NBA. Any thoughts on that or any other changes that would help the game play?

The goaltending? It definitely wouldn’t help. You have too many athletic guys in this league that would tip the ball out of the rim, so pretty much to make a basket you will need to swish it, you know what I’m saying?

I would say I would loosen up a little bit the rules about the fighting fines. That’s what I would loosen up. Because today you go to an ice hockey game, and the one thing they’re waiting for is a fight, you know what I’m saying? So if they could set it up something like that in the NBA. That if there are two guys and they have a problem, if they could just separate everybody. And these two people that have problem, if they could fight …

During the game?

During the game. Quick, 15-20 seconds, throw few punches, then referees jump in and break this thing up. I think the game … these two guys, they resolved their problem. They’re both suspended and they’re leaving. But end of the day, they fix the problem between each other, fans are super excited, and I think that would be a pretty cool idea [chuckles].

You’d need bigger refs. You couldn’t have Dick Bavetta out there.

At some point when the referees jump in, then you’d have to stop. You’d have to stop. So I think that would be a great idea, just like the ice hockey fans waiting for that, that’s would NBA fans would get into, as well.

And, I think we’re definitely going to mention this in the players’ meeting, but we definitely have to mention the situation about the fans. When we say something to the fan, and when we curse him out, or when we definitely throw a punch, or we’re trying to hit the fan, we are suspended for half of the season. But when they yell at us or insult us or are cursing at us using bad words, they don’t get anything. So what I would say is that there’s definitely supposed to be a rule where if one of the fans is disrespecting us, then he got to leave the gym automatically.

This summer you will be an unrestricted free agent. This being your seventh year in the league, you’ve never really been a free agent, as you signed an offer sheet with Dallas in 2009 but Orlando matched, which is something you did not like. So what’s in your mind right now about being able to go through the free-agent process and really be able to be courted for the first time?

All I know is that I’m going to be a free agent. I don’t know how it is to be a player that actually is going to be able to pick the team he wants to play for, you know what I’m saying? I’m hoping that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to pick the team where I will play. I hope there will be a team, let’s put it this way first.

We still have 20 or so games to play. I’ve got to finish strong, and then we’re going to make a run into the playoffs, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen. Then I’m going to call my agent and say, “Hey, you gotta do your job. I did my job, now you gotta do your job. I’m looking forward to holidays now.” So, we’ll see.

There’s a lot of different things I’m going to look at. The team situation. The goal of the team. I’m going to look at the point guard. I’m going to look at the coaching staff. I’m going to look at a lot of different things before I’m going to pick the team, and obviously Washington is going to be really close to me right now. I feel really comfortable here. They have two rising stars in Bradley Beal and John Wall, and this team’s definitely going to get better and better. They have Otto Porter, who’s going to be a good player one day. And there’s going to be a lot of different things I’m going to look at. But quite honestly, right now I just want to make sure that we’re not going to lose five in a row and that we won’t lose a spot in the playoffs, because that would be the worst thing. I’m more pumped up for being in the playoffs again and not watching them in front of the TV. Back in the day I was spoiled by [Stan] Van Gundy playing all the way to the conference finals. With Phoenix, I was in the playoffs, so finally now [I have] an opportunity again.

***

No. 3: Beverley says Blazers’ Lillard ‘whines’ — A couple more wins here for the Blazers, a couple more losses there for the Rockets and we could be looking at a Houston-Portland series in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Given the classic OT game the two teams turned in on Sunday night, it is doubtful few NBA followers would turn down a best-of-7 series between those two teams. And, to add a little spice to what might be a budding rivalry out West, Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley took to a Houston-area sports radio show and had some words for Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.com has more, including some select quotes from that interview:

Lillard lobbed the opening salvo after Houston’s win over Portland on Sunday, basically calling Beverley a dirty player.

Appearing on Houston radio SportsTalk 790 today, Beverly went through eight and a half minutes of interview until this happened:

  • Host: “Hey, Pat, thank you for the time. We’ll talk with you next week.”
  • Beverley: “Are you going to ask me no questions me about Damian Lillard?”

Beverley:

Damian Lillard whines. So, I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t go out there and try to start fights with anybody. I go out there and play my game.

Beverley on Lillard again:

The way I guard him, the way I guard Steph Curry, the way I guard Chris Paul, the way I guard Goran Dragic, the way I guard Kyrie Irving – I all guard the same players the same. I don’t look at film on players. I don’t look at players’ habits. I go out there and impose my will on people, and I do what I do, and I’m aggressive on defense.

I don’t care what he says. You’re a grown man. You’re a professional basketball player – professional first.

You always push and shove, and that’s basketball. I don’t know how other people were raised, but that’s basketball. That’s how you grew up playing, battling. You get pushed down. You get back up. You battle the next guy. You should enjoy the competition. No one is going out there to hurt someone, and I was kind of offended the way that he was talking. I’m a positive person. I usually don’t say anything about anything, but if I feel that something is not right, I’m definitely going to mention about it. And the things that he was saying yesterday really bothered me.


VIDEO: James Harden and the Rockets top the Blazers in OT

***

No. 4: Boozer shuts out Chicago media — The words “warm fuzzies” and “Carlos Boozer” are rarely used in the same sentence with Chicago Bulls fans. The oft-maligned power forward has been a target of criticism for his performance (particularly on defense) at times and for his hefty contract at other times. As our own Steve Aschburner pointed out a few weeks ago, though, none of this chatter seems to bother Boozer. Well, at least maybe it didn’t anyway. Apparently, the end of the season (and a possible contract amnesty date) drawing near might be getting to Boozer, as he has stopped talking to the media, writes Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Whether it’s a lack of playing time in the fourth quarter or the reality that his contract could be amnestied this summer, there seems to be a disconnect lately between Carlos Boozer and the media.

Case in point: Asked to talk to awaiting reporters after a recent practice, Boozer declined and said loudly, “I don’t give a damn.’’

Tom Thibodeau was asked on Monday if he thought Boozer was less engaged because of his diminished role. The Bulls coach defended his power forward but also made it obvious who is calling the shots on minutes in crunch time.

“We’re at the time of the year where we need everyone at their best,’’ Thibodeau said. “We have to put maximum work into it. Everyone has a job to do. You have to put the team first. … If you play well, you’re going to play.’’


VIDEO: Carlos Boozer talks after the Bulls’ recent win over the Warriors

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Oklahoma City’s defense has all of the sudden become pretty terribleRamon Sessions has settled in as the Bucks’ “closing” point guard … Ex-Jazzmen Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap provided the fuel to give the listless Hawks a win in Salt Lake City … Bulls center Joakim Noah apparently is not a fan of “M-V-P!” chants directed his way by Chicago fans … An in-depth look at how San Antonio’s defense is able to often effectively corral LeBron James

ICYMI of the Night: What’s gotten into Brandon Knight lately? A couple of weeks ago he had this tasty fastbreak slam against the Sixers, and then last night, he delivers another power punch — this time against the Magic …


VIDEO: Brandon Knight finishes strong on the break against the Magic

A disciple of Wooden, Del Harris wins award in legendary coach’s name

Del Harris

Del Harris spent 14 seasons as a head coach in the NBA.

 

DALLAS – Former NBA coach Del Harris grew up in Indiana idolizing fellow Hoosier Stater John Wooden. During Final Four weekend next month in North Texas, Harris will receive the Coach Wooden “Keys to Life” award at the Legends of Hardwood breakfast.

Harris, 76, coached for more than 50 years, starting at junior high, high school and college before guiding the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. He spent many more years as a top assistant, including in Dallas under Don Nelson. Harris, who lives in Dallas, remains tied to the game as the vice president of the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate Texas Legends in suburban Dallas. Harris is also a part-time studio analyst on New Orleans Pelicans broadcasts.

The “Keys to Life” honor is akin to a lifetime achievement award. That it is in the name of the legendary Wooden means the world to Harris, who as an ordained minister started out in life as a preacher, “and I still do that most of the time,” Harris said Friday prior to the Mavs taking on the Pacers, “but it became obvious early on that what I was called to do was coach basketball, primarily.”

The significance of coach Wooden’s influence on Harris’ life and his career is best told by Harris, a walking, talking basketball encyclopedia in his own right:

“When I was growing up in Indiana, I grew up 30 miles or so from Martinsville, where he played. When I was quite young and starting to play, the NBA hadn’t started yet. So our heroes in those days in Indiana were the high school players and the college players that had established themselves. Guys like coach Wooden, he was the No. 1 as a player winning the championships in high school and then being at Purdue, the best player at that time, in our little world. Those were our heroes.

“Then in the ’50s in high school, the NBA by then had started up. There were eight teams playing, nothing on TV or anything like that. John Wooden was a guy that was the epitome of basketball for me and for a lot of others when we were kids. And so when I started coaching, he was on top, obviously, and I went wherever I could to listen to his clinics. I went to New York one time just to hear him. I patterned as much as I could from his work and what I learned from him and also from Dean Smith, just a little bit later on he came into our place in 1966-67 and spent a few days in my home. Those two guys were the foundation for what I tried to do. Now, I was a poor representation of John Wooden I’m sure, but later on when I was in L.A., I was able to spend time with him, I sat in on UCLA practices and watched the team practice, I took him to lunch, I sat in his apartment for an entire afternoon and talked about basketball and life.

“My dad, when he died, I was going through his things and he always — he called coach Wooden, coach Wooten, but he also thought Iowa was Ioway, too, so — but anyway he thought he [Wooden] was the best ever and so forth. When going through his things, he had a picture, I don’t know where he got it, of the Wooden family — he had a Wooden family photo among his things. And so I know that, he’s been gone now since 1998 and it was a life-changing event for me when he died, I know that of all the things that might have come my way, this would be the most important thing that my dad would have appreciated.”

Congratulations to Del Harris.

Also to be honored during the Final Four is another Dallas resident and basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. She has been named the Naismith Outstanding Contributor to Women’s College Basketball.

Lieberman became the first women to coach a professional men’s team when she guided the D-League Legends for one season. She currently joins Harris in the franchise’s front office and is a full-time studio analyst on Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasts.

Morning Shootaround — March 8


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played March 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers’ woes start from within | Other side to that coin was Rockets’ paybackPhil Jax rumors blow up in New York | Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, him | Noah bored by whines about “tampering”

No. 1: Pacers’ woes start from within – To hear Indiana coach Frank Vogel, his team’s claim on the NBA’s best record this season put a target on the Pacers’ backs, turning them into every opponent’s favorite target. While that might be true to some extent, the slump in which Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West & Co. find themselves now – after suffering their third consecutive loss in the 112-86 rout at Houston Friday – owes more to what Indiana isn’t doing at either end of the court the way it had through the schedule’s first four months. Only the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers have avoided a three-game losing streak now, with the Pacers turning to post-game meetings and some mirror-gazing to check theirs, as ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote from Houston:

The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.

“We haven’t talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile,” Hibbert said. “We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed.”

There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.

“Every team we play is playing above themselves,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.”

Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.

They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.

“We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be,” George said. “When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night.”

***

No. 2: Other side to that coin was Rockets’ payback – Twenty-six points isn’t 34, the number Houston’s players had in mind as a way to avenge their 33-point smackdown by Indiana in Indianapolis in December. The Rockets “only” pushed their lead to as many as 32 before settling for the final margin. But as Jonathan Feigen wrote in his Houston Chronicle blog, team and individual payback was very much in play, as the league’s hottest team in calendar year 2014 starts to sniff its potential:

“That’s all we talked about, every time out, every possession, how they blew us out,” Dwight Howard said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to get payback.”

Yet, as the Rockets put together a stretch [James] Harden would call their best on both ends of the floor, he could have been thinking of much more than just the third-quarter run to a 30-point lead.

“Always wanted to get back against them,” Harden said after scoring 16 of his 28 points in the knockout punch of a third quarter. “The third quarter was probably the best I’ve seen us play offense and defense in one quarter. We were rolling. These last weeks we’ve been rolling on both ends.”

At that moment, as the Pacers called time out the rout was certain, Harden could have been celebrating his own turnaround against the Pacers. When Harden was done for the night before the third quarter had ended, he had made 10 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 3s. In his seven previous games against the Pacers, he had made 28.4 percent of his shots, just 24.6 percent in his three games against them with the Rockets.

He could have been thinking off the credibility the Rockets had added to their 2014 rise to a 22-6 record, the NBA’s best since New Year’s, a season-best seven-game home winning streak or their 12-2 record since the start of February when the only losses were in the second half of back-to-backs.

Had he thought of it with the pairing of a win against Heat to go with the blowout of the Pacers, he even could have been marking their season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference in Houston, with the Rockets 14-0 against Eastern Conference teams.

In many ways, however, he might have just enjoyed the clearer-than-ever signs of how much the Rockets have progressed in the months in between.

“We’ve been playing well since the beginning of the New Year,” Harden said. “We kind of got a feel for each other now. We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten healthy.

“When we hold the ball and let them set up defensively, then they’re great. But if we play fast like we did and make plays for each other, it’s hard to beat.”

***

No. 3: Phil Jax rumors blow up in New York — The man had taken sabbaticals before. He roared off on his motorcycle after helping Chicago win its sixth NBA championship in eight years in 1998 and sat out the following season before acquiescing to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. He stepped away again in 2004-05 to recharge and get healthy, then came back for six more seasons and two more Lakers championships.

But Phil Jackson is going on three years now off the NBA stage and out of the daily sports spotlight, so it’s totally understandable that he might be getting a little restless. That restlessness might or might not – remember, we’re talking both rumors and Jackson weighing multiple options at this point in his life (age 68) – land him in New York, running or coaching the Knicks. Here’s some of what ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote on the topic:

 Phil Jackson is “ready to go back to work,” a source with knowledge of his thinking told ESPN.com on Friday.

The former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach has spent the last couple of years working to improve his health — which included several surgeries and a successful fight against prostate cancer — and writing a book. But the itch to return to the NBA in some capacity is strong.

While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.

He would not consider any coaching position that did not have a significant guarantee of personnel power as well, sources said.

***

No. 4: Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, himPaul Pierce, the beloved forward who returned to Boston again Friday in the jarring black-and-white of the Brooklyn Nets, has seen this Celtics movie before. He knows what it must be like for former teammate Rajon Rondo, who is used to better times and has to endure the losing and no longer sees respect or fear in foes’ faces. But Pierce doesn’t worry about the feisty Celtics playmaker because he sees better days ahead, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

“They’re a young team,” Pierce said. “They got a mix of some veterans, some young guys developing. They’re only going to get better.”

And a significant part of that improvement in Pierce’s eyes, is point guard Rajon Rondo.

Rondo continues to look more and more like the four time All-Star that he is, and not the player on the mend from a torn right ACL injury in January of last year.

On Friday, he had a team-high 20 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.

“Rondo is ready to lead,” Pierce said. “He’s leading them right now, moving them into the next generation of Celtics. Their future is going to be very bright.”

But in order to fully appreciate what awaits them at the end of the journey, first they must navigate a path that, for now, will be difficult when it comes to winning games.

Seeing the big picture when he was a young player in Boston wasn’t easy for Pierce who admits Rondo’s better prepared for what lies ahead than he was.

“Rondo understands,” said Pierce, adding “He understands a little more than I did at the time. When I first got here (in Boston), I was in rebuild mode, made the playoffs and went back to rebuild mode. Same with him (Rondo). He came in, we were rebuilding. We went through a phase where we were winning. Now he’s back in rebuild mode, but he’s still young enough to see it out to still be in his prime. I know the Celtics are going to do whatever it takes, to get back to that top level again.”

***

No. 5: Noah bored by whines of “tampering” – So what if it was true that, at some point during All-Star weekend, Chicago center Joakim Noah teased, suggested or even downright pleaded with New York’s Carmelo Anthony to consider signing with the Bulls this summer rather than the Knicks or the Lakers? If that’s “tampering,” the SEC needs to throw a net over the entire NBA for insider trading violations. After the summer of 2010, when Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together after huddles and strategy sessions great and small … after the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons inundated Dwight Howard with text messages daily leading up to his choice of Houston over the Lakers … the reports that Noah told Anthony he’d be best off by choosing Chicago seem like so much trash-talking or idle banter. Knicks coach Mike Woodson needs to focus on Xs, Os, Ws and Ls, too, more than on some alleged he-said, he-said distraction. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times addressed some of what seems much ado about nothing:

Noah was asked about the Anthony rumor after the morning shootaround and never denied it, but he chalked it up as nothing more than March gossip.

“What are you talking about, the gossip going on?’’ Noah said.

“You want me to address that? I don’t feel like addressing it. I really have nothing to say.’’

When asked if the story was accurate, Noah said, “Doesn’t matter. What does that have to do with our team now? It doesn’t matter.’’

[Coach Tom] Thibodeau did take exception to Knicks coach Mike Woodson telling a radio station that Noah broke league rules and was tampering.

“You know, legally, nobody can recruit anyone,’’ Woodson said.

“To me, it’s just a bunch of nonsense,’’ Thibodeau said. “We don’t pay any attention to it, just get ready for [the next game]. . . . It’s all nonsense. We’re just concentrating on our next opponent.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Whew! They must be breathing easier in Milwaukee now, knowing that veteran Drew Gooden, on his second 10-day contract with Washington, won’t have vengeance on his mind when the Wizards visit Saturday night for the way the Bucks warehoused him last season (while paying him a whole lot of cash). … If Sam Malone could do it, maybe Paul Pierce could too: Open a bar or restaurant back in Boston when his playing days are over. Pierce was pondering the future Friday night. … Will Saturday’s clash with UNC be Jabari Parker‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or might he return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA Draft pool? OK, we’ll play along. … Knicks center Tyson Chandler didn’t really mean to mock Kevin Love‘s defense, Chandler said via Twitter a day later. … Patty Mills listened to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wise move, Patty — and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Rockets Face Defining Test Of Their Might


VIDEO: Kevin McHale talks about Dwight Howard’s increased role of late

Since the giant ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve the Rockets have gone nowhere but up.

Dwight Howard has rocked, James Harden has rolled and a team that was supposed to be still figuring it all out in its first season together suddenly looks like it has all the answers.

Now comes the test.

Call it a dirty dozen days of the schedule. Call it a magnificent seven lineup of (almost entirely) worthy opponents who’ll peel back the curtain to reveal whether the Rockets might be merely a problematic playoff hurdle or a real contender for a Finals run.

From tonight through March 16, the team with the best record in the NBA since Jan. 1 will have to deal with a grueling stretch sandwiched on either end by a home and road set with the two-time champion Heat. As if that alone were not a mouthful, there’s a good deal of meat in between. By the time the Rockets come up for air, they’ll have also faced the Pacers (No. 1 in East) and Blazers (No. 3 in West) at home and the Thunder (No. 1 in West) and Bulls (No. 3 in East) on the road. The only breather is a road game against the young and struggling Magic, but even that comes off the second night of a back-to-back after dueling the Heat.

“It’s definitely going to be a tough couple of weeks,” Harden said. “It will be a good test.”

All season long there has been a general reticence to lump the Rockets in with the so-called true championship contenders. Much of that has to do with their predilection for launching 3-pointers like they were spitballs in a grade school classroom.

But while the 3-pointer makes them wild and crazy, the truth is that the Rockets have grown into more than a novelty act that relies on the long ball and a hyper-caffeinated fast pace.

The Rockets came off their recent five-game West road trip having averaged 55.6 points in the paint per game. Then they went inside on the Pistons Saturday for another 58. It’s all the result of the work Howard has done in the practice gym to learn how to be more effective around the basket. As well, Harden’s growth curve that has turned him into the game’s best closer, regardless of any traffic or would-be defenders in the paint. Since Kevin Durant has played most of the season without Russell Westbrook and LeBron James’ help from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh comes in fits and spurts, it’s hard to argue that there is a better 1-2 punch in the league.

Not that there aren’t holes in their game. The Rockets have a penchant for running hot and cold, often unable to maintain a consistent intensity or focus. They also tend to throw the ball around, piling up careless and costly turnovers. Then there is the matter of leaving themselves vulnerable to second chance points, which squander away whatever efforts a middle of the road defensive team puts out.

All that said, the Rockets are just three games behind the Spurs for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. That’s a reachable — and desirable — goal because it would keep them out of the playoff bracket that contains the Thunder and Clippers, who have so far been insolvable (0-5).

Since the ball first went up in the season opener, Howard has been talking about the Rockets being a work in progress as he learns about his new city, his new teammates and his new role while coach Kevin McHale puts the pieces together. Even as a season-long litany of nagging injuries has healed and those pieces have come to fit, Harden has said that life has been good and comfortable in Houston below the radar.

But how long can a dark horse remain in the shadows if the spotlight starts to shine? In the next dirty dozen days, we’re about to find out.


VIDEO: James Harden talks about Houston’s upcoming road trip

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.)

What The Contenders Could Use

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, the race for the 2014 NBA championship is relatively wide open, and there are plenty of players available for the right price.

So, the league is seemingly ripe for a ton of action at the deadline. But the whole “the right price” thing could limit the number of deals that are made. Buyers may be hesitant to give up first-round picks for players that they’re only “renting” for a few months, and sellers may prefer to keep their guy if they’re not getting the assets they want in return.

But maybe a deal could be made that turns a contender into a favorite or a tier-two team into a contender.

Here’s a look at what those teams could use — from a numbers perspective – to put themselves over the top (in the case of the contenders) or in the mix (in the case of the next group).

OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City (43-12)

OffRtg: 107.6 (6), DefRtg: 99.3 (3), NetRtg: +8.3 (2)
The Thunder are the most complete team in the league, the only one that ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And their bench has been terrific, even with Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery forcing Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup over the last seven weeks.

The only lineup numbers that look bad are those of their original starting group, which has been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions and which will be back together when Westbrook returns on Thursday. In 280 minutes, the lineup has scored just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 29th in the league.

In general, the Thunder have been much better playing small. In fact, they’re a plus-203 in 1,954 minutes with two bigs on the floor and a plus-204 in 694 minutes with less than two. Some added depth on the wings could make them even more potent.

Indiana (41-12)

OffRtg: 102.4 (18), DefRtg: 93.8 (1), NetRtg: +8.6 (1)
The Pacers are, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And that may be enough to win a championship.

But they’re a below-average offensive team and only seven of those have made The Finals in the last 30 years. The Pacers turn the ball over too much, don’t get to the rim enough, and aren’t a great 3-point shooting team.

George Hill is a key cog in that No. 1 defense and the starting lineup scores at a top-10 rate, but Indy could certainly use a more potent point guard, or at least a third guard that can create off the dribble. Their bench is better than it was last season, but it still struggles to score.

Danny Granger has a large expiring contract, but acquiring a player on a deal that goes beyond this season could compromise the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer.

Miami (38-14)

OffRtg: 109.8 (1), DefRtg: 103.4 (16), NetRtg: +6.4 (5)
Is the Heat’s defensive drop-off a serious problem of just a case of them being in cruise control most of the season? Their ability to flip the switch on that end of the floor will depend on Dwyane Wade‘s health and Shane Battier‘s ability to play more minutes than he has been of late. As much as rebounding is an issue, so is defending the perimeter. And if there was a way they could add another shooter/defender on the wing, it would help.

Rebounding is an issue. The Heat have rebounded better (on both ends) with Greg Oden on the floor, but he’s played just 78 minutes all season and compromises their offense to some degree. So he’s probably not going to neutralize Roy Hibbert in a matchup with the Pacers.

San Antonio (39-15)

OffRtg: 107.5 (7), DefRtg: 100.4 (5), NetRtg: +7.1 (3)
The numbers look good on the surface. Only the Thunder rank higher than the Spurs in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But their defense has failed them, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, as they’ve gone 2-8 in games against the other teams over .600 (every team on this list, except Golden State). Last season, they allowed just 101.8 in 22 games against other teams over .600.

Injuries have played a role in their defensive decline and if the Spurs are healthy, they’re still a great team. But there’s no getting around that, going back to Game 3 of the 2012 conference finals, they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games against Oklahoma City and could certainly use more athleticism up front with that matchup in mind.

Houston (36-17)

OffRtg: 107.7 (5), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: +5.6 (6)
If there’s a fifth contender, it’s the Rockets or the Clippers, two more West teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Houston is actually the only team that ranks in the top five in both effective field goal percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense hasn’t been very consistent though, and it’s allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 games against the other eight West teams over .500. And that’s why they might want to hold onto Omer Asik. One of their biggest problems defensively is rebounding, especially when Dwight Howard steps off the floor. Only the Lakers (15.8) have allowed more second-chance points per game than Houston (15.1).

Portland (36-17)

OffRtg: 108.7 (2), DefRtg: 105.7 (23), NetRtg: +3.1 (10)
Diagnosing the Blazers’ issues is pretty easy. You’re simply not a contender if you rank in the bottom 10 defensively. The worst defensive team to make The Finals in the last 30 years was the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 19th and who, as defending champs, knew how to flip the switch. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Not only are the Blazers bad defensively, but the their bench is (still) relatively weak. Lineups other than their starting group have outscored their opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the teams on this list (even Golden State). So they’re going to be tested with LaMarcus Aldridge out with a groin strain. They’ve been outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge off the floor.

L.A. Clippers (37-19)

OffRtg: 108.7 (3), DefRtg: 102.2 (10), NetRtg: +6.5 (10)
The Clippers are very similar to the Rockets. They rank in top 10 defensively, but have struggled on that end of the floor against good teams. Furthermore, though Howard and DeAndre Jordan rank in the top four in rebounds per game, their teams rank in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage.

Blake Griffin and Jordan rank 2nd and 3rd in total minutes played, and the Clippers basically have no other bigs that Doc Rivers can trust for extended stretches in the postseason. Though the Clippers’ injuries have been in the backcourt, they’re more in need of depth up front.

Golden State (31-22)

OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 99.5 (4), NetRtg: +4.7 (7)
The Warriors and not the Suns (31-21) are the last team on this list because they have a much better defense and a higher ceiling. They also have a much easier schedule, which could allow them to get into the 3-5 range in the West, going forward.

Golden State’s issues are pretty simple. Their starting lineup has been terrific on both ends of the floor, but their bench … not so much. Things have been a little better with Jordan Crawford in the mix; They’ve scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry off the floor since the Crawford trade, compared to the putrid 86.7 they were scoring without Curry before the deal. But one of their most important defensive players – Andrew Bogut – is banged up and their D falls apart when Andre Iguodala steps off the floor.