Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah Thomas’

Warriors Trio Headlines ‘Big’ All-Star Saturday Night

VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew gives analysis.

NEW YORK CITY — All-Star Saturday night is going to be big. Literally.

Tonight’s announcement of the participants for All-Star Saturday night revealed a lot of familiar names and faces, but also a couple of intriguing players taking part in contests they haven’t been involved with in previous years. And while the Golden State Warriors have been nearly unstoppable on the court this season, on Saturday, Feb. 13, in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the Warriors’ big three will attempt to bring home several different kinds of hardware.

NBA All-Star 2016The evening will open with the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, which will be radically different this season. Last year, the event was populated entirely by point guards, with Houston’s Patrick Beverley winning over Brandon Knight. This season, Beverley is slated to return and compete against several guards, such as Portland’s CJ McCollum, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Jordan Clarkson from the Lakers.

But the twist here is that they will be in a field that includes several big men, including Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns. It will also be interesting to see what kind of performance we get from New Orleans’ multi-talented center Anthony Davis, who played guard throughout high school before a growth spurt moved him to the post. And the leading contender among the big men participating must be Golden State’s Draymond Green, who currently leads the League in triple-doubles with 10.

VIDEO: Wolves’ Zach LaVine will defend his title.

We can also safely assume that the evening will close with a bang. Last year’s Verizon Slam Dunk was one of the most electrifying contests in years, as then-Minnesota rookie Zach LaVine completed a series of athletic jams. LaVine will return this season, and be challenged by a field that includes Denver guard Will Barton, who has had something of a breakout campaign in this his fourth NBA season.

LaVine and Barton will be joined by two big men, in a contest where big men have traditionally struggled to score highly. Second year Orlando forward Aaron Gordon has had plenty of athletic dunks in his short NBA career, and Detroit center Andre Drummond has also shown plenty of bounce and skill around the basket, as the NBA’s leading rebounder this season.

In between these events will be the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, which in a league increasingly reliant on the three-point shot, is rapidly becoming the evening’s signature event. While last year’s three-point contest was recognized as having one of the sweetest-shooting fields in the history of the event, this year’s event appears to be equally star-studded:

VIDEO: Steph Curry will bring his sharp shooting to Foot Locker Three-Point Contest

Stephen Curry – Curry won last year’s event, then went on to win the NBA’s MVP award and an NBA title. Leads the NBA this season in three pointers made (232) by a wide margin (77 more than his Golden State teammate Klay Thompson).

James Harden – The Houston guard finished just behind Curry in last season’s MVP voting, and the Rockets have gotten off to a slow start this season. Still, Harden is third this season in total three-pointers made (140).

Klay Thompson – The other Splash Brother has a chance to outshine Curry. Thompson is making 43-percent of his three-point attempts this season.

Khris Middleton – The Bucks swingman is averaging a career-best two made three-pointers per game, and knocking them in at 41-percent clip.

Kyle Lowry – The Raptors guard will surely enjoy a home court advantage. Lowry is averaging a career-high 2.8 threes per game, and making them at a career-best 39 percent success rate.

JJ Redick – Clippers guard Reddick has always been known as a sharp-shooter, but this season has been his masterpiece. In 45 games for Los Angeles, Redick has made 120 threes, converting at a league-best 48-percent clip.

Chris Bosh – Why just have big men in the other two Saturday night contests? To be fair, the power forward Bosh has made himself into a good three-point shooter, and he’s relied on his long-range shot more than ever this season. Consider this: During Bosh’s first nine NBA seasons, he attempted a combined 228 threes; This season he’s attempted 213 threes in Miami’s first 50 games.

Devin Booker – Booker is the youngest contestant (he’s 19 years old) in the three-point shootout, but he’s already proven he’s one of the NBA’s best shooters, connecting on threes for the Phoenix Suns at a 42-percent rate this season.

State Farm NBA All-Star Saturday Night will be televised live exclusively on TNT on Saturday, Feb. 13, from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.

 

Irrelevant no more: Steady Celtics guard Thomas makes All-Star turn


VIDEO: Relive great moments from Isaiah Thomas’ solid 2015-16

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

To say Isaiah Thomas has come a long way in his NBA journey would be an understatement. The diminutive floor general, listed at a generous 5-foot-9, was consistently overlooked in the 2011 NBA Draft and wound up being that class’ “Mr. Irrelevant” for being selected with the final pick (No. 60 overall to the Sacramento Kings).

On Thursday, it was announced Thomas was voted an Eastern Conference All-Star for the first time in his career. He’ll also be the first player ever to ascend from the last pick in the NBA Draft to All-Star status, according to Marc D’Amico of Celtics.com.

That’s an incredible point of validation for Thomas, who was selected after fellow point guards Nolan Smith, Norris Cole, Charles Jenkins and Josh Selby. Those four guys have combined for 1.6 win shares, and Cole is the only one still in the NBA.

As for Thomas? He’s collected 29.2 win shares and counting — more than Klay Thompson and the 2011 Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving.

The Los Angeles Lakers bungled four shots at drafting Thomas in the second round of 2011, taking point guards Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock and forwards Chukwudiebere Maduabum (who they traded to Denver) and Ater Majok. The latter two never suited up in an NBA game, while Morris and Goudelock combined for negative win shares. In short, the Lakers’ passing on Thomas in favor of those unheralded prospects was a complete and utter failure.

Interestingly, scouting reports didn’t even paint Thomas in an aggressively negative light. NBADraft.net pegged Thomas as a “crafty scorer” who possessed “good speed” and “excellent quickness.”

The negatives, as you might expect, focused almost exclusively on being vertically challenged.

“Very small, even for a point guard,” the report reads. “Ability to get inside will be largely negated by the size of NBA players,” was another note followed closely by, “Will struggle to matchup (sic) with NBA guards defensively.”

And, as Matthew Kamalsky wrote for DraftExpress in 2009, “One thing that scouts won’t be questioning is what Thomas can do when he puts the ball on the floor.” He went on to praise the youngster’s “absolutely outstanding first-step” and “excellent speed in transition.”

He also proved to be an assassin in the clutch. While suiting up for the University of Washington, Thomas hit a difficult step-back fadeaway at the buzzer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament championship.

He possessed an impressive skill set and didn’t shy away from big moments, which you’d think NBA scouts would value. Somehow, Thomas tumbled down draft boards, but once he arrived in Sacramento, he made an immediate impact … and kept on improving.

Thomas averaged 11.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while sinking 37.9 percent of his 3-pointers as a rookie. His second season was much like his first and in his third season, he blossomed with averages of 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 72 games (54 starts).

He left Sacramento as a free agent and landed with the Phoenix Suns via a sign-and-trade deal. In Arizona, his numbers took a dip as he filled a role as the sixth man behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. But a trade deadline-day deal in 2015 Boston gave him a fresh opportunity that he ultimately parlayed into his first All-Star game.

Through 47 games (44 starts), Thomas is averaging career bests in points, assists, rebounds, steals and free throw percentage. The Celtics (26-21) are No. 5 in the East thanks in large part to Thomas, who leads Boston with a 28.9 percent usage rate.

Individual and team accomplishments point to Thomas earning a nod. But the Washington product also stacks up quite well when compared to his peers.

Among NBA point guards, Thomas ranks tied for fifth in player efficiency rating behind Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. All four of those guys are All-Stars as well (sorry, Damian Lillard).

From being passed over 59 times in the 2011 Draft, to being traded by twice to making his first All-Star team, Thomas has had to silence doubters all along the way. For those who believed in him, this moment must be pretty sweet.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA PlayersNBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

All-Star 2016 Reserves Announced


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from 2016 All-Star Draymond Green

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Millions of fan votes decided who the starters would be for the 65th NBA All-Star Game next month in Toronto.

Only 12 to 14 were required, from coaches around the league, to decide the 14 other players who would fill out the rosters for the Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars.

And there will be a new school flavor to the festivities with a trio of rookie All-Star reserves joining the party.

First time All-Stars highlight the list of reserves, that was announced tonight on TNT. That group includes Golden State’s Draymond Green in the Western Conference and Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas in the Eastern Conference.

Joining Green on the Western Conference reserves list are LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento), Anthony Davis (New Orleans), James Harden (Houston), Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers) and Klay Thompson (Golden State).

NBA All-Star 2016Joining Drummond and Thomas on the Eastern Conference reserves list are Chris Bosh (Miami), Jimmy Butler (Chicago), DeMar DeRozan (Toronto), Paul Millsap (Atlanta) and John Wall (Washington).

Noticeably absent from the list are Portland’s Damian Lillard, Clippers’ star Blake Griffin (whose injury issues wouldn’t have allowed him to participate anyway), the Cleveland duo of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Atlanta’s Al Horford and perennial All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas) and Tim Duncan (San Antonio).

The Cavaliers have just one All-Star, LeBron James, despite owning the best record in the Eastern Conference and having their staff, headed by Tyronn Lue, in charge of coaching the Eastern Conference team.

James, Indiana’s Paul George, New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry are the Eastern Conference starters.

Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, playing in his 18th and final All-Star Game headlines a Western Conference starting unit that also includes Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, first-time All-Star and San Antonio defensive ace Kawhi Leonard, reigning KIA MVP Stephen Curry of Golden State and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.

Western Conference reserves


VIDEO: Discussing the West All-Stars

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio: Aldridge’s numbers are down but that was expected when he made the move from Portland to San Antonio and the ensemble cast he’s playing with now. This is his fifth straight All-Star Game appearance.

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento: Cousins has staked his claim to the title as the best big man in basketball and is the only true center on the Western Conference roster. This is his second straight All-Star Game appearance.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans: The Pelicans’ rough start to this season did not keep the coaches from making sure Davis made it to the All-Star Game for the third straight year.

Draymond Green, Golden State: The NBA’s leader in triple-doubles this season, Green missed out on a starting nod but takes his rightful place alongside Warriors teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in his first All-Star appearance.

James Harden, Houston: The runner up for KIA MVP honors last season is still playing at an elite level, individually, even if his Rockets are nowhere near their conference finals pace of a year ago. This is his Harden’s fourth straight All-Star Game appearance.

Chris Paul, LA Clippers: Paul has been the Clippers’ rock with Blake Griffin out with a torn quad tendon the past 15 games (and now a fractured hand for the next 4-6 weeks). This is CP3’s ninth All-Star appearance.

Klay Thompson: The Warriors’ sweet-shooting swingman reminded everyone just how dangerous he can be with a season-high 45 points in Wednesday’s win over the Mavericks. He’s making his second straight All-Star Game appearance.

Data curated by PointAfter

Eastern Conference reserves


VIDEO: Discussing the East All-Star reserves

Chris Bosh, Miami: The 11-time All-Star has come all the way back from the pulmonary embolism that ended cut his season short a year ago. Bosh and Dwyane Wade have led the Heat back into the top four mix in the East after last season’s lottery twirl.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago: The new face of the Bulls has been the motor for a team that has battled inconsistency during the transition from the Tom Thibodeau era to the Fred Hoiberg experience. This is his second straight All-Star Game appearance.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the driving forces on a Raptors team that is entrenched in the top three of the Eastern Conference standings this season, will play co-hosts for the All-Star festivities. This is DeRozan’s second All-Star Game appearance.

Andre Drummond, Detroit: The league’s runaway leader in double-doubles and rebounds this season, Drummond, like Cousins in the West, is the only true center on the East roster.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta: The Hawks’ summer re-investment in Millsap has paid off handsomely. He’s been the best and most consistent player for a team that had four All-Stars hit the floor in New York last year. This is the third straight All-Star appearance for Millsap.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston: The unquestioned leader of a Celtics team that wasn’t supposed to have any true stars, Thomas has shattered that myth since joining Boston last season and become the catalyst for Brad Stevens’ upstart crew.

John Wall, Washington: Wall has done yeoman’s work this season for a Wizards’ team that has dealt with a parade of injuries to other key players, most notably Wall’s backcourt mate Bradley Beal. This is Wall’s third straight All-Star Game appearance.

Data curated by PointAfter

The 65th NBA All-Star Game will be exclusively televised on TNT from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sunday, Feb. 14.


VIDEO: Who should’ve been an All-Star?

All-Star Reserves announced tonight on TNT

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We already know who the first five are for both the Eastern and Western Conference. And we know Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue will coach the Eastern Conference and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich will coach the Western Conference.

Now we’ll find out who will fill out those rosters for the 2016 NBA All-Star Game next month in Toronto.

The seven reserves for both teams will be announced tonight, live on TNT at 7 p.m. ET. Will Golden State’s Draymond Green and Detroit’s Andre Drummond make it for the first time? Will Portland’s Damian Lillard make the cut in a crowded field in the West and will Washington’s John Wall do the same in a thick mix in the East?

There is plenty of intrigue remaining. Will Kobe Bryant contemporaries like Dirk Nowitzki NBA All-Star 2016and or Tim Duncan be in uniform for Kobe’s 18th and final All-Star Game appearance? What about Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge, two players most of us expected to be locks for the game in the preseason?

The final decision comes from the coaches in each conference, who vote on the reserves (and are not allowed to vote from players on their own team). The fans vote for the starters, so it’s up to the coaches to ensure that the “right” (and most deserving) 14 players are selected to fill out the rosters.

The reserves will be revealed during a special one-hour edition of “NBA Tipoff presented by Autotrader” featuring Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith. The special will air prior to TNT’s exclusive doubleheader featuring the Knicks at the Raptors (8 p.m. ET) and the Bulls at the Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET).

NBA All-Star 2016 in Toronto will bring together some of the most talented and passionate players in the league’s history for a global celebration of the game. Along with the NBA All-Star Game, the Air Canada Centre will also host the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, Feb. 12 and State Farm All-Star Saturday Night on Saturday, Feb. 13. Other events at NBA All-Star 2016 include the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game and the NBA Development League All-Star Game presented by Kumho Tire.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 17


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Jan. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Should the Blazers break up their backcourt?| Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix, but Suns haven’t | Are the Wolves in the right hands? | Kobe cancels out Rio, speaks on other topics

No. 1:  Should Blazers trade CJ McCollum? — Just when it appears the Blazers have a solid young backcourt for the future, along comes a thought: Are they better off trading CJ McCollum? The thinking is both McCollum and Damian Lillard are smallish guards who collectively run into defensive matchup problems, and since both are scorers, the Blazers could trade one to shore up the front court. Here’s what John Canzano of the Oregonian wrote recently:

The Blazers remain $13 million below the salary floor, and are sitting just four games in the loss column out of the No. 8 spot in the playoffs. The Feb. 18 NBA Trade deadline is looming and for those holding out hope that Portland may try to alter its future by obtaining a front-line player at the deadline, there’s a move that could be made.

CJ McCollum (20.9 points per game) is putting together a nice bounce-back season. At $2.5 million annually he’s currently a terrific value. But anyone who has watched McCollum play when paired with Damian Lillard knows that you can’t play them successfully together on a team that will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

That’s the goal, right?

They can score together, but they’re a defensive disaster when paired. They’re both chuckers, too. And there’s no way that Olshey is trading Lillard, his prized draft pick. Further, the Blazers don’t want to get into a position beyond the 2016-17 season where they have to pay both Lillard and McCollum.

They’re not the “Splash Brothers.” We know that. But we don’t want them to become the “Cash Brothers.”

Even as Olshey has a man-crush on McCollum, and has privately said he wouldn’t dream of trading him, the general manager should be looking and listening when it comes to offers for the guard between now and Feb. 18.

Portland also has a potential first-round lottery pick as trade bait (but theoretically would have to wait until the draft to make that deal). And even as Olshey feels stuck on a refusal to part with any of his future draft picks, the Blazers general manager should be quietly shopping McCollum, gauging his trade value. If the return resulted in a front-line player who would start for multiple seasons and better complement Lillard, you’d have to consider making it.

To be clear, I’m not saying “McCollum must go,” here. I like his game. Just not as much as Olshey does. I’m saying, McCollum’s value isn’t going to be greater than it is in the next two seasons. It’s just not sustainable. Also, I’m saying that this season shouldn’t just be viewed as a throw away in which the Blazers roll out a the lowest-paid roster in the league and pretend that’s all there is to see.

***

No. 2: Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix; Suns haven’t —  It was a strange marriage and a strange breakup. The Suns signed Isaiah Thomas to a very team-friendly free agent contract over a year ago, which angered Goran Dragic, who felt threatened by another point guard on a team that already had Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both Bledsoe and Thomas got paid while Dragic at the time was awaiting free agency. Well, Thomas was traded to the Celtics and Dragic to Miami and of the two, Thomas is clearly having the better transition. Here’s Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic on Thomas and the team he left:

Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is keeping the book open on the trade history now that he has become the starting point guard that he wanted to be. Thomas is being called an All-Star candidate, averaging career highs in points per game (21.6) and assists per game (6.7) although his 3-point percentage (33.5) is at a career low.

Isaiah runs the show for a 21-19, eighth-place team in Boston. When he was traded from Phoenix, the Suns were a three-point-guard show for a 29-25, eighth-place team.

“When we recruited him, we pitched the sixth-man role to him and to be one of the top scorers in the league,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “That was with (Eric) Bledsoe and (Goran) Dragic on the roster. We signed Isaiah before we ended up getting Bledsoe’s contract resolved. It’s one of those things that seemed better to him in July than it did maybe during the season.”

The Suns pursued LeBron James first in 2014 free agency. Once that door closed after a meeting with James’ agent, the Suns targeted Thomas as the best available free agent after Sacramento did not pursue re-signing him. Thomas’ four-year, $27 million contract (via a sign-and-trade for Oriakhi) was – and is – considered a strong value, especially with how rapidly the NBA salary cap will rise over the next two years.

Thomas averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists for the Suns in 25.7 minutes per game, nine fewer minutes than he played in Sacramento. Thomas said he was competing for a starting job from the start of 2014 Suns training camp and commented during the season that the Suns situation was not what he expected. After the trade, he said playing time was his only issue in Phoenix, where he made 39 percent of his 3-pointers.

***

No. 3: Are the Wolves in the right hands? — The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team built for the future; everyone knows this. But the present-day Wolves aren’t doing very well; we can all see that, too. The question then becomes: is the team being brought along properly? And is Sam Mitchell the right coach in their development? Mitchell is the interim coach this season and the Wolves haven’t made any guarantees about his future, which means the organization is taking a wait and see approach. Meanwhile, Mitchell spoke with Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune, who offered up this report:

And so, despite a nine-game losing streak, Mitchell loves the team he has. And, after practice Saturday, Mitchell defended his work developing that Wolves young roster.

“Our three leading scorers are our young guys,” Mitchell said of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. That will be a blessing a year or two from now. It’s tough when they’re developing. But everything they’re going through is going to make them better.”

It’s clear Mitchell would like to still be the coach when the benefits of that development are reaped. He also knows that, as the Wolves losing streak has gotten longer — it reached nine Friday — the criticism has grown louder. But Mitchell — who went through a similar situation in Toronto — is confident he is the right man for the job of developing this young team.

“Explain to me how we’re blocking the young guys?” Mitchell said. “When Andrew Wiggins is a 20-point scorer, and there are only 20 of those in the league? Karl-Anthony Towns is doing something that no rookie has done in 20 years. Zach LaVine is in the process of learning a new position and is our third-leading scorer. And Shabazz Muhammad has made tremendous strides. Gorgui Dieng has made strides …

“Now tell me, how are we hurting them?”

Mitchell is a self-described old school coach. Again Friday he left many of his young players in the game in the fourth-quarter of a one-sided loss, hoping they’d learn from the experience. He has admitted being hard on LaVine, even allowing as his style hasn’t always been fair.

“Yes, I tell him that all the time,” Mitchell said. “I tell him, ‘It’s hard, Zach, and sometimes it’s unfair.’ But that’s the way young players learn.”

As an example Mitchell offered Muhammad. The coaches were trying to get him to look for his teammates more, make the extra pass, play better defense. When he didn’t do that, his minutes took a tumble late in December. But, once Mitchell saw Muhammad making the effort, the minutes increased.

“I didn’t give him those minutes,” Mitchell said. “He earned them.”

But, as the losses mount, so does the pressure. Mitchell admitted Saturday that his team very much needed to experience a win, and soon, just to see some return on his players’ investment.

But he’s not going to change his approach. He said his experience in Toronto — where he won 33 and 27 games in his first two seasons before jumping to 47 wins and a division title in his third — gives him the confidence he’s doing the right thing.

“Two years from now, if we don’t do what we’re doing now, we’re never going to win, or compete, for playoff spots, or for the Western Conference or an NBA championship,” he said. “So my job is this. Even though it’s painful to do the right thing. And the right thing is to teach the young players — with the help of the veterans — how to play. And if I had not been through it before, maybe I’d panic. Maybe I’d be worried.”

***

No. 4: Kobe cancels himself out for Rio — Yes, Kobe Bryant does have a realistic grip on his basketball abilities at this point. Previously, Kobe openly wished he could be considered for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, but with his struggles this season, he finally conceded that maybe taking a spot from a more deserving player wouldn’t be the best idea, even if he could pull it off. Remember, Olympics chief Jerry Colangelo didn’t promise Kobe a spot – only Paul George is virtually guaranteed one — but would consider it out of respect for what Kobe has done for international basketball. Anyway, Kobe some about this and other topics before playing in Utah. Here’s some of the Q and A:

 

Q: Lot of memories with the Jazz team. Do you have any memories with this Jazz crowd here in this arena?

Kobe: [Laughing] Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. Yeah. They were really, really tough on me, man. More so than the other crowds. They were tough. Signs when I’m shooting a free throw to literally just yelling it in my ear. Taking the ball out. They pissed me off so much. It was like ’08 in the playoffs where I just kind of erupted after a play, talking back to the crowd because they just kept driving me. With that said, it’s fond memories truly because it was like that’s what sports should be. That kind of bantering and that kind of competition or whatever. I’ve always loved playing here because of that.

Q: A man that is so driven like yourself, if you can, as you think about life after basketball, have you thought about ownership, coaching, broadcasting? Have you had a chance to just let it soak in and say what about life – because you’re still a young man – but after basketball that will keep you motivated and focused?

Kobe: Yeah, those are tough questions for athletes, I think. I’ve been kind of searching for what that was going to be for years now – 15 or 16 years – kind have been searching for that next passion and I’ve been very fortunate enough to find it to the point where it keeps me up at night. Constantly working, studying, and trying to get better at it, and I’m really looking forward to moving into that next phase. Ownership is in terms of being there day-to-day or coaching and things of that sort don’t interest me. I just don’t have a passion for it. Or broadcasting for that matter, I just don’t have a passion for it.

Q: Speaking of the future, the other day you said it was Draymond’s and Steph’s time to pursue championships and gold medals. That you’ve had your turn. Have you closed the door on pursuing the Olympics this summer or is that something you’re still considering?

Kobe: I think it’s their time. I think it’s their time. It’s funny; during a game in Golden State, it was a break in a play or whatever. Leandro Barbosa, who I’ve known for a very long time, comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in Rio.’ I just turned around and go, ‘Nah.’ [Laughs] He said, ‘Come on, man, it’s Rio.’ I said, ‘Nah, I think it’s the young guy’s turn to go play and perform.’

I’ve been fortunate enough to win two gold medals. I’ve had my moment. I think it’s important for them to go ahead and play. I’ll watch from afar, support from afar. If they want me to come down and speak to the guys, I will. That’s about it. I think as beautiful as it would be to play for our country, when I say my last game is going to be my last game I’m going to retire, then that’s it. It’s not like I’m going to walk off the stage and then but… I’m going to come right back for a minute. [Laughs] ‘Hold on one second.’

I think it’s pretty sweet to have the final game in a Laker uniform and to support the players from afar.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suppose the moves made by Sam Hinkie eventually help rebuild the Sixers? How will he be viewed? … After a show start, Amir Johnson is starting to finally fit in with the CelticsLeBron James, whose company dropped Johnny Manziel, says the QB needs to turn things aroundCody Zeller at center? It might work. He has played better with the Hornets missing Al JeffersonJared Dudley says the Bucks were smart to trade him.

Numbers notes: Small Celtics, LeBron’s jumper, Spurs bench and more


VIDEO: Evaluating the NBA’s top teams

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Usually, we think of small ball (playing one traditional big and moving a small forward to power forward) as an offensive strategy. It doesn’t only give you an extra guy who can shoot from the outside, but that, in turn, creates extra space for ball-handlers to drive or screeners to roll to the rim.

But on Tuesday, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens went small to start the second half in New York, replacing Kelly Olynyk with Marcus Smart, who teamed with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson (the lone big). And afterward, Stevens said the change was for defensive purposes.

“I thought in the first half, we didn’t have any pressure on the ball,” Stevens said. “And that’s why we went smaller and quicker in the second.”

The Celtics did play better after the change, but the improvement came on offense. That lineup that started the second half outscored the Knicks 27-23 in less than 10 minutes of action (over the first and second halves) on Tuesday.

The next night, though, the same lineup had the desired effect against the Indiana Pacers. In eight minutes on Wednesday, the Celtics outscored the Pacers 26-10 in a little over eight minutes. That included a 17-4 run over the final 5:08, where they turned four steals into four layups and turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point win.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel somewhat foreshadowed that whole sequence, as ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg wrote

Before Wednesday’s tilt, Indiana coach Frank Vogel noted that Boston’s three-guard lineup of Crowder, Smart, and Bradley was full of “pitbulls.” Added Vogel: “The defensive pressure that their guards bring to the table is unparalleled in this NBA season. They have great defensive guards. It’s a big reason for their season.”

That Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Johnson lineup played a few minutes in the Celtics’ first game of the season, but had been on the floor together for just a few possessions between then and Tuesday. The Celtics have a plethora of serviceable bigs on their roster and have played about 75 percent of their minutes with two of them on the floor.

20160115_bos_bigs

Those numbers follow the conventional wisdom that small equals better offense. But that small-ball lineup with Crowder at the four may be something that Stevens turns to more often when he wants to crank up the defense.

Tracking LeBron from outside

You probably saw the story where a particular stat about LeBron James‘ outside shooting found its way to the four-time MVP and motivated him to put some more work in.

“I actually saw [it] on my Instagram feed that I was the worst-shooting player in the NBA,” James said. “I actually saw that when I woke up from a nap. I remember exactly when that was. Denver. Right before the Denver game, so I answered the call.”

He was 3-of-5 from 3-point range on Sunday and hit multiple midrange shots. He’s shooting 43 percent from deep since that game in Denver. When asked if graphics like that bother him, James said, “It doesn’t bother me. It puts me back in the gym.”

James immediately started shooting better that night in Denver. And though he was just 3-for-9 from outside the paint in San Antonio on Thursday, the post-wake-up-call numbers still look much better.

20160115_james_outside

James’ jumper has seen gradual improvement over the course of his career, but still comes and goes and will always be under the microscope in the postseason, when opposing defenses are more likely to play him soft on the perimeter.


VIDEO: The Starters on LeBron’s recent shooting upswing (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 10


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

A kinder, gentler Bryant? | Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn | Stevens rejoins Celtics | NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio

No. 1: A kinder, gentler Bryant? For the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant‘s farewell tour has become the focus of their season. Which may be a good thing, since the Lakers otherwise haven’t been very good, compiling an 8-30 record thus far. Yet despite all the losses, Kobe seems to be enjoying himself as he plays out the string, and the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan writes, has Kobe’s legendary burning desire to win faded a bit in this his final NBA season?

It was bad to be a trash can if Kobe Bryant was mad.

This was years ago, back when there were championship expectations, but Bryant booted one clear across the Lakers’ locker room at Madison Square Garden after a rough loss.

It was also sometimes bad to be toilet paper, apparently. Bryant angrily called his teammates “soft like Charmin” during a rant at practice in which he didn’t feel challenged. This was a little over a year ago.

The smoldering Bryant is now replaced by a smiling one, even as the Lakers (8-30) pinwheel toward the worst season in their 68-year history.

They played well Friday but lost a tight one to Oklahoma City. The new, lighthearted Bryant showed up again in the interview room, just like the previous night after a close loss in Sacramento.

The losses don’t seem as devastating to him.

“I just hide it a lot better,” he said Friday.

***

No. 2: Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn Last summer, Brooklyn center Brook Lopez was one of the most talented big men available in free agency. He eventually re-upped with the Nets, and though the team has struggled this season, Lopez has been a bright spot, averaging 19.8 points to go with 7.8 rebounds. The Nets may face an uncertain future, but as Andy Vasquez writes for the Bergen Record, Lopez says he has no regrets about re-signing with the Nets…

The Nets are in the midst of another disappointing season, certainly far from what Lopez envisioned when he re-signed. But the 27-year-old doesn’t regret his decision.

“No, no, no. I’m happy to be here,” Lopez said Thursday at the team’s practice facility.

“Time and time again I’ve said I wanted to see something built here, I see a special opportunity, a great situation to be in.”

The current situation isn’t exactly a bright one. Brooklyn just lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack for the season with a torn ACL.

Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who showed promise, is at least another month from returning from a broken ankle that has sidelined him since early December.

While the Nets aren’t mathematically eliminated from the NBA playoffs — it’s not even halfway through the season — they may as well be.

Brooklyn is closer (seven games ahead) in the standings to the awful Sixers than to the final playoff spot in the East (nine games behind).

The Nets don’t have control of their first round draft pick until 2019 thanks to the 2013 trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

So the franchise’s best chance is to hope free agents agree with Lopez about there being a special opportunity in Brooklyn.

Despite all the doom and gloom, the Nets do have some things going for them.

They should have about $40 million in cap space next summer, enough to offer two max salaries to free agents.

Barclays Center is still the league’s newest arena and the team’s state-of-the art Brooklyn practice facility opens next month. And then there’s the lure of the nation’s largest media market.

“The opportunity to play in New York, first and foremost,” Lopez said, when asked how he’d pitch the Nets. “The facilities we have. I think, for me, it’s all about potential.”

That potential starts with Lopez and Thaddeus Young, 27, two nice players with several prime years remaining in their careers. Both are having seasons worthy of All-Star consideration.

Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson was better than expected when he played. And the Nets have an intriguing young prospect in Chris McCullough, who has spent the season rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered at Syracuse a year ago.

Add the right pieces and the Nets could be a good team next season. And Lopez said that matters more than anything.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, regardless of where you are,” Lopez said.

“Whether we’re luring free agents or want people to stay or whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to show them that there’s opportunities here for that. We have to have the right product on the court.”

***

No. 3: Stevens rejoins Celtics Before joining the Boston Celtics, coach Brad Stevens led Butler University to several memorable NCAA Tournament appearances. And with his former Butler player Andrew Smith in the hospital battling cancer, Stevens recently missed a Celtics game in order to spend time with Smith. Stevens rejoined the Celtics on Saturday and, as the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn writes, says the last few days helped put things into perspective…

Celtics coach Brad Stevens returned to the team Saturday, conducting a rather important practice at the University of Memphis in his quest to end the team’s recent doldrums.

He returned from his trip to Indiana with a heavy heart. He acknowledged visiting former player Andrew Smith, who has been suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but wouldn’t offer specifics on his condition, only to say he felt compelled to visit him immediately.

Stevens left the club in Chicago on Thursday afternoon, missing the team’s 101-92 loss to the Bulls.

“It’s very tough, not as tough on me as it is certain on [Smith and his family], but certainly emotionally, very challenging,” Stevens said following practice at the Larry Finch Center. “It certainly puts things in a lot of perspective. The conditions [of Smith] were worsening. I’ll let [his family] talk about his condition. I’m glad that I went.”

Stevens returns to a team that has lost four of five games and fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have been abysmal shooting from the field in their past two losses — 36.5 percent from the field, 25.5 percent from the 3-point line — and are playing with wavering confidence.

“We could have controlled things to give ourselves a little bit better chance,” Stevens said of the Chicago loss. “I told [the players] this today. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas. But we usually play hard.

“Sometimes we play a little haphazard but we usually play hard, so we need to bottle that up and play a little more controlled at times.”

Isaiah Thomas, who has made just 11 of 37 shots in the last two games, took full responsibility for the Bulls loss, saying his poor body language and frustrations spilled over to his teammates. Stevens didn’t fully agree.

“I think it says a lot about him from an accountability standpoint,” Stevens said of Thomas. “And at the same time, that’s an overreaction too, because we don’t feel that way. He’s going to have his moments. Other guys are going to have their moments. Other guys are going to have bad moments. We just all have to be in this thing together. We need to improve.”

***

No. 4: NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio — The NBA has become a global league, followed worldwide and played by athletes from all corners of the earth. Australia, in particular, has become a hotbed of hoops, with its own popular domestic league and several NBA players who originated Down Under. As Roy Ward writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australians in the NBA are looking forward to trying to find Olympic glory this summer in Rio…

The 82-game NBA season engulfs the lives of all players and Australia’s basketballers are not immune from this.

But on planes, buses or in down time, the country’s leading players admit their thoughts turn to the Rio Olympics and the glass ceiling that sits in front of a first men’s Olympic medal.

Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles are all in thick of the action this season while Dante Exum continues to rehabilitate his reconstructed knee.

In Europe, in US college basketball and in the NBL sit the rest of the Boomers aspirants with the final 12-man squad not due to be announced until later in the year.

Since the team qualified for Rio in August last year, they have made public their goal to win the gold medal in Brazil despite Team USA’s long-running dominance in the men’s competition.

What adds credence to the Boomers’ brave stance is Bogut, Mills, Dellavedova and Bairstow are playing on NBA championship contenders while Bogut, Mills and Baynes have won NBA championship rings since 2014.

“There is a lot going on here but while it’s not the every day to day focus it’s always in your mind that it’s coming up and that all the boys are playing well, not just in the NBA but in Europe and the NBL,” Dellavedova said.

“We are all very excited and keep in regular touch through group message, we are going to catch up at All-Star break.

“We are all very excited, focused and committed to trying to do something really special at Rio and we realise the time is now for that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks got a career night from Al Horford last night in a convincing win over the Bulls … Some changes may be in store for the D-League Showcase … Chicago is hoping to get Joakim Noah back from injury this weekRobin Lopez is starting to focus on his offensive post playIsaiah Canaan pays attention to advanced stats … Powerball fever may have been sweeping the nation the last few days, but don’t expect Dirk Nowitzki to get excited about it …

Morning shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Dragic: Suns ‘always changing something’ | Curry annoyed by shin injury | Hoiberg, Bulls praise Butler’s play | McCollum’s star turn | Davis doesn’t mind criticism from Gentry

No. 1: Dragic questions loyalty of Suns’ front office — Goran Dragic has been in the NBA for eight seasons and spent roughly half of that time as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Although he’s currently on the Miami Heat and spearheading the attack of one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, he can look back at his most recent stint in Arizona (2012-15) and see how Phoenix has gone from potential upstart team to one of the league’s worst squads. In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee, Dragic claims that the Suns were too willing to tinker with a core that seemed primed for success:

Dragic is too concerned with his own adjustments in helping Miami regain a spot among the Eastern Conference elite to be overly consumed with the situation in Phoenix. But he has his own theory for why a franchise that seemed so promising is suddenly foundering, based on his own experience with the Suns.

“It feels like they’re always changing something,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “They’re not like Miami, San Antonio, those teams that are really loyal when they find something.”

Dragic still has fond memories of his time in Phoenix – six seasons spread out over two stints – and is especially grateful for the opportunity the Suns provided after he chose to return for his second run with the team. They put the ball in his hands and allowed him to use his jet-ski speed and creative improvisations to earn third-team All-NBA honors during a surprising 48-win season in 2013-14 that now looks more like a mirage with the passing of time.

While claiming “no regrets” about his Suns tenure, Dragic remains disappointed by the ending, which he claims was the result of too much tinkering – primarily at point guard, a position the 6-foot-3 Slovenian had already proven he could handle. Dragic made it work after the team traded for point guard Eric Bledsoe in July 2013 and helped the Suns emerge as that overachieving darling. But Dragic was pushed away further from the ball – and inevitably, the team – the following season, when the Suns added another ball-dominant guard, Isaiah Thomas, in July.

“Me and Bledsoe, we built really great chemistry together, we played well and the whole team did. Everybody expected that we’re going to get some big guys that we thought we needed, but they did another move, they bring in a point guard and it was tough,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I was a little bit frustrated. It was tough, especially for me, because I was playing off the ball all the time, and I was guarding [small forwards]. That was tough for me, but they did what they did.”

The Suns don’t have the NBA’s worst record this season, but they have arguably been the worst team in the league over the past two weeks. Phoenix has lost nine straight games, including a home defeat to Philadelphia and an embarrassing road loss to the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers. During the free fall, Markieff Morris was suspended two games for throwing a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek; two of Hornacek’s top assistants were dismissed; and Bledsoe – the team’s best player – sustained a season-ending knee injury.

And on Friday, amid all of that turmoil, the Suns will welcome back Dragic, who noticed the fissures in the structure and got out before the unseemly collapse.

“I always believe when you find some pieces that you leave those pieces [alone]. But then you upgrade the other positions. Like San Antonio is doing. They always have the Big Three, but then it’s a good team. They always find another player at another position, so they’re always good. But that’s not my call,” Dragic told Yahoo, with an uncomfortable chuckle. “I was just there to play basketball. I tried to do my job.”

The Suns used dealing Dragic as a chance to again remake the roster as they got rid of Thomas and used a valuable trade chip – a top-three-protected pick from the Los Angeles Lakers – to acquire Brandon Knight at the deadline. They later split up the Morris twins, dealing Marcus to Detroit to clear cap space in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. And the addition of Tyson Chandler has not yielded much. Dragic is sympathetic to the plight of his former teammates.

“I wish them all the best,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I already went through the season with only [25] wins … and it’s not pretty. Most of the guys, we’re really competitive and you want to win a lot of games. And when you get to that mix where you don’t win [in] like 10 games in a row, that’s really tough. That’s really tough. Everything is worse. In your personal life. Everything. I always say I’m hurting sometimes, have a lot of injuries. But if you win a game, I feel great. But if you lose the game, those injuries, they come up. I don’t know how to explain it, winning is such a unique thing.”

Dragic sought that “unique thing” in Miami, where Pat Riley has built a franchise that has been stable and consistently good over the past two decades, with only four non-playoff seasons during his reign with the organization.

“That’s why I didn’t hesitate to sign in free agency, because they are always on top,” Dragic told Yahoo. “They are always looking at that big picture to win a championship. I still remember that year with the Suns, when we made the [conference finals in 2010]. That was one of the best moments in my career and I want to feel that again, to be in the playoffs and to be a contender.”

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — Dec. 20


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Bulls’ ‘transition’ game in crisis | Welcome back, Kyrie | Tweaking the Trail Blazers | Taking Celtics from solid to super

No. 1: Bulls’ ‘transition’ game in crisisJimmy Butler‘s criticism Saturday night in New York of new head coach Fred Hoiberg‘s work style seemingly peeled back the curtain on an issue that is costing the Chicago Bulls chemistry and ultimately victories. If, as Butler alleges, Hoiberg hasn’t been tough enough on the Bulls in practices or on game nights, the responsibility for that falls … everywhere in the organization. Certainly it’s on Hoiberg to do whatever it takes, even if riding herd on grown men isn’t what earned him this job via his success in college at Iowa State. It’s on the Bulls players, who have been less than professional in their preparation and focus on multiple nights, whether they’ve won or lost. And it’s on management – chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, VP of basketball John Paxson and Gar Forman – for giving the locker room the license to drift sideways last season during the Cold War with since-fired Tom Thibodeau, and still sees the team saddled with some of the bad habits that produced. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com analyzed the team’s plight overnight:

First and foremost, it’s not every day that an NBA player calls out his head coach so publicly. Former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was a taskmaster, and the relationship between his players, including Butler, frayed last season before he was fired at the end of the season. But despite all the friction, no player ever called out Thibodeau publicly. They couldn’t stand him at times because of his domineering ways, but they always respected him because of his work ethic. Twenty-five games into Hoiberg’s tenure, he has to face the reality that his best player just called him out on a public stage.

While it has been clear to many around the team that the Bulls are struggling to adjust to Hoiberg’s style after five years under Thibodeau, that storyline, at least in the short term, will ride shotgun next to this one: How will Butler’s comments be received within the organization?

It’s possible that Butler might face some disciplinary action for calling out his coach in the media. But it’s also possible that Butler was speaking not just for himself, but for other teammates who also feel that Hoiberg’s style isn’t working for them. Either way, the foundation for Butler’s future as the face and voice of the Bulls will either be cemented or crushed by his comments on Saturday. They might serve as a turning point for a player who desperately wants to be seen as the focal point of the organization — a final vocal push to get out from underneath Derrick Rose’s long shadow.

Or, Butler’s comments may become the beginning of the end for a talented player who bit off more than he can chew within the organization. To say that Hoiberg has the full support of the front office would be an understatement. Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson have supported Hoiberg both publicly and privately at every turn. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract six months ago and is entrenched as the coach for the future.

But that’s where this saga gets tricky for the Bulls. Butler was supposed to be the future king of the roster, the player they would build around, after signing a five-year extension worth over $90 million in July. Along with Hoiberg, Butler was supposed to be at the forefront of everything the Bulls did. Now, those questions will be left under a microscope for the rest of the basketball world to see.

So with Monday’s game against Brooklyn looming before a couple days of practice and the Christmas date at Oklahoma City, the Bulls and their fans are waiting for the next shoe to drop like…

***

No. 2: Welcome Back, Kyrie! — As excited as NBA fans are for the Christmas Day slate of games, with Cleveland at Golden State as the holiday’s centerpiece, they ought to be at least a little jazzed about the Philadelphia at Cleveland matinee today. OK, the Sixers will be responsible for 50 percent of the basketball offered up at Quicken Loans Arena, but the game marks the 2015-16 debut of Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Back finally from his recovery from knee surgery, which ended his playoffs in June in Game 1 of the Finals, Irving hardly could be more eager. “I’m pretty [expletive] excited to be back out there,” he told reporters Saturday. Our man Shaun Powell wrote about Irving’s comeback challenge and so did Jason Lloyd, the Cavs beat man for Ohio.com:

It has been a long time coming.

He fractured his kneecap in Game 1 of June’s NBA Finals after fighting knee problems throughout the postseason. The Cavs and Irving remained cautious and conservative during his rehab. He was finally cleared for full practices a couple of weeks ago and he kept building for this moment.

It has been clear for about a week Irving would make his debut against the 76ers. Realistically it’s an easier opponent to begin against since they’re the worst team in the league and it will serve as a way for Irving to ease back into competitive basketball. He’ll be on a minutes restriction to start, but doesn’t anticipate problems falling back in rhythm with his old teammates.

“There is no specific reason on why now,” he said. “Just wanted to take the doctor’s precautions as well as our team’s precautions. Obviously, as a competitor, you want to get out there. But for me, I let go of all my selfish, inside emotions and just put them aside and did what was best for my body and did what was best for the team.”

The Cavs went 17-7 in Irving’s absence and remain atop the East despite not having a full roster for any game this season. They ended the Oklahoma City Thunder’s six-game winning streak Thursday night despite missing Irving, Mo Williams and Iman Shumpert.

That just reiterated to Irving a team that finds ways to win regardless of who is on the floor.

“There’ll be an adjustment period, but knocking the rust off is something I’m looking forward to,” Irving said. “It’s not like I’m coming in and just trying to take 15 to 20 shots right after I come off injury. It’s just trying to gel back in and continue to play the right way. My basketball knowledge, I’m pretty confident in coming in and not trying to overdo it in any single way and just be aggressive.”

***

No. 3:Tweaking the Trail Blazers — There was some player-on-coach criticism in Portland, too, though it didn’t rise nearly to the level of Butler’s comments about Bulls boss Hoiberg. Big man Mason Plumlee had made a plea after Friday’s loss in Orlando for the team to add variety to its 3-point-heavy attack. So by Saturday, Blazers coach Terry Stotts was responding to Plumlee’s remarks and the player was rephrasing some of the things he said or meant, as reported by Jason Quick of CSNNW.com:

After Saturday’s practice in Miami, Plumlee clarified that he wasn’t taking a shot at Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his offensive system, but rather pointing out the Blazers have to do more than just shoot threes.

“We have guys who are really shooting the three well, but you can’t live and die by the shot,’’ Plumlee said in Miami. “We have to add to it. I’m not being critical. Guys like Dame, CJ and A.C. do that very well, and we have to complement that in some way.’’

When the notion of broadening the offense was later brought up to Stotts, it was apparent the coach had heard Plumlee’s suggestion.

“Is that Mason’s interview?’’ Stotts interjected before the question was finished.

When told it was, Stotts had an answer ready.

“I’m open to expanding the offense, but the truth is we’ve been in the top 10 most of the year in offense, and offense has not necessarily been a problem,’’ Stotts said. “We are in the top 10 in 3-point field goal percentage … that’s a strength of ours. Our passing, moving and cutting has been good, so my biggest concern … obviously I’m always concerned about both ends of the court … but my biggest concern is where we are defensively and how we improve defensively.’’

Plumlee’s answer in Orlando was generated from a question asking whether the Blazers have figured out their identity. He noted on Saturday that his answer Friday suggested the Blazers could make defense one of their traits.

“I guess when I was saying that, I’m thinking offensively and defensively,’’ Plumlee said. “We got our butts kicked in the paint last game and it puts pressure on those guys to be perfect from three-point range. You can’t do that.’’

Plumlee also noted that he could help the Blazers in forging a more well-rounded offensive identity by becoming more consistent inside. He pointed to his last two offensive games –- 4-for-14 at Oklahoma City and 2-for-6 at Orlando – as evidence.

“As a big guy, you should be around 50 percent,’’ Plumlee said. “So, speaking to myself, I’ve got to convert better, because I’ve had opportunities. Just finishing plays and getting more second shots. Getting offensive rebounds. But we have to find some kind of presence other than three’s … I guess that’s what I’m saying.’’

***

No. 4:Taking Celtics from solid to super — The rebuild in Boston has gone well, fairly smoothly and relatively quickly. The Celtics are admired for the energy and teamwork they bring on most nights, and coach Brad Stevens already is considered one of the league’s best despite his modest tenure. But good doesn’t stay good for long, not in an NBA market so accustomed to great. Writing for SBNation.com, Paul Flannery looked at the challenges facing Boston as it tries to take the next, ambitious step:

When they play well together they can beat anyone in the league and when they don’t, they can get “exposed,” to use Stevens’ word from the Atlanta loss. One can look at their net ratings and other exotic measures and say that they’ve underachieved a bit, but it’s hard to look at their roster and reach the same conclusion.

The Celtics have a lot of solid players, but with the exception of [Isaiah] Thomas, they lack the kind of scorers who can take over games. Thomas has been great this season, but he’s the only one who is truly capable of creating his own shot in their halfcourt offense and his size limitations are an issue when teams switch taller defenders on him in the closing moments.

That’s not to say they have a bunch of scrubs. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are both having wonderful seasons, arguably the best of their respective careers. Every team in the league would love to have them on their side. Evan Turner has become a valuable and trusted reserve. Amir Johnson has been everything they hoped when they signed him in free agency and Jared Sullinger has put his career back on track. Marcus Smart was playing well before a knee injury kept him out of the lineup and Kelly Olynyk has had a breakthrough year defensively. (Seriously, he’s been very good on that end of the floor.)

That’s a solid team most nights, and Stevens has consistently said that he’s happy with the team’s progress. He hinted on Saturday that a lineup change may be coming and one possibility would be limiting David Lee’s minutes in favor of Jonas Jerebko and playing more smallball. Lee is the only regular with a negative net rating and the C’s have been more than five points better when he’s off the floor.

But that’s tinkering on the margins. If the Celtics are going to move beyond this stage then Danny Ainge will have to make a move. There’s been speculation for months — years even — about Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, but that seems unlikely at this juncture. There has never been universal agreement in the team’s front office that Cousins is the player to go all in for and it’s not even certain that Cousins would be available at all.

A knockdown shooter would definitely help matters, considering their woeful 33 percent mark from behind the arc, but there aren’t many of them available right now. Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, for example, can’t be traded until February. Not that the Nuggets have shown any interest in moving him either. The NBA’s version of parity has produced a number of interesting side effects and one of them is the notion that with more teams competing for playoff spots, there are fewer sellers than usual.

As it stands, the Celtics’ best chance to land a game-changing player is in this summer’s draft where they own Brooklyn’s pick without protection as the latest installment of the KG/Paul Pierce heist. In addition to their own choice, they also have Dallas’ first round selection (top-7 protected) and Minnesota’s first rounder if it falls out of the top 12 picks (doubtful, but not out of the realm of possibility). They’ve also got a bunch of second rounders with protections too numerous and complex to list here. Suffice to say, they’ve got a lot of picks coming and more on the way in the future from Brooklyn and Memphis.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Look out, rest of the NBA! LeBron James has a new obsession and all you can do while he pursue it is to line up and stand idly by: he’s working on his free throws. … No one needs to worry about the L.A. Clippers, according to point guard Chris Paul, except maybe the Clippers and their fans. … Kevin Durant, an unabashed Kobe Bryant fan, had a whole new batch of raves about the Lakers guard after their dinner together Friday night in OKC. … Trevor Ariza was just a local kid when he met Bryant, who eventually would become a teammate and rival, and he lauds the Lakers’ retiring star as well. … The Miami Heat have taken strides this season but aren’t quite ready to say “kumbiya!” … John Wall had to play a whole bunch of minutes to get Washington past Charlotte, but if the Wizards aren’t careful, Wall might join their long list of injured players.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 19


VIDEO: Friday night’s Fast Break, recapping a 12-game night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Brad Stevens doing work for the Celtics | Sixers hope Mike D’Antoni helps trigger a change in culture | Zach Randolph still believes in the aging and suddenly average Grizzlies | Steph Curry likes 5 Warriors for All-Stars?

No. 1: Brad Stevens is doing work for the Celtics — The Celtics are playing well and winning games and doing it without a certified star, although Isaiah Thomas might have a vice grip on Best Sixth Man in the league. Anyway, when Brad Stevens was hired away from Butler, there were the usual doubts about whether a college coach could make a smooth transition to a league where their voice and presence doesn’t carry as much weight, and where dealing with men is a lot different than 19-year-olds. Well, Stevens is clearly an asset for the Celtics; almost everyone would agree to that. Here’s Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe on what makes Stevens tick:

There was a reason the Celtics brass secretly traveled to Indianapolis 3½ years ago to negotiate with Brad Stevens, their longtime target as a successor to Doc Rivers.

There was a reason they left Indiana ecstatic about signing Butler’s coach to a six-year, $22 million contract to become the Celtics’ coach, even though he was an NBA neophyte who had never even coached a summer league game.

They knew Stevens had a humility and passion for the job and not a sense of entitlement. He was not like Rick Pitino or John Calipari, who came to the NBA from the college ranks feeling as though their mere presence was going to change the landscape of the professional game.

Stevens was more about substance than style. He was an evenhanded technician and teacher of the game, constantly searching for methods to give his team an advantage.

His search for those edges, ways to get extra possessions, creative times to call timeouts, and his constant tinkering with lineups has led the Celtics to their resurgence. Following Cleveland’s 89-77 victory over the Celtics Tuesday night at TD Garden, Stevens’ performance left LeBron James to remark, simply, “They’re a well-coached team.”

But Stevens’ search for these advantages has been a process of trial and error.

In Wednesday night’s 119-116 loss at Detroit, the Celtics were in the midst of a rally when Stevens decided to cap the surge by intentionally fouling one of the Pistons’ poorer free throw shooters, one of his favorite tools.

The Pistons had the ball and a 106-102 lead with 2:54 left when Stevens called for Isaiah Thomas to intentionally foul Reggie Jackson. It created an inbounds situation where Stevens planned to intentionally foul Andre Drummond, a 36.8 percent free throw shooter, before the inbounds pass.

With more than two minutes left in the game, that strategy would have merely resulted in two free throws. Since the chances of Drummond hitting both free throws were minimal, the Celtics would have received the ball back facing perhaps a 5-point deficit.

Stevens’ plans were foiled when Jackson spun and fired a 3-pointer. The shot had no chance, but that didn’t deter the officials from rewarding him a trip to the foul line for three free throws. It didn’t necessarily ruin the Celtics’ chances of winning, but it certainly did hinder them.

Conventional thinkers might have asked why Stevens didn’t just just bank on his team getting a defensive stop, a defensive rebound, instead of relying on intentional fouls.

The Celtics’ defense has shown — although not Wednesday — it is good enough to make consistent stops.

But Stevens is not conventional. He has devised some inventive ways to create extra possessions or limit opponents to zero or 1-point possessions instead of potentially 3.

***

No. 2: Sixers hope Mike D’Antoni helps trigger a change in culture The Sixers lost again Friday and are seemingly speeding toward another year of infamy. But when Jerry Colangelo assumed a measure of front office control a few weeks ago, one of his priorities was to make sure the coaching staff was ripe for the challenge. So he brought in Mike D’Antoni to serve as the top assistant to Brett Brown (who was given a contract extension). The idea was to not only help Brown’s offense, but lend an experienced presence to a basketball operation that desperately needed one. Ken Berger of CBS Sports likes the idea:

“I’m definitely exploring everything,” D’Antoni told me recently. “I’m really at ease, but at the same time I do clinics and watch teams, talk to teams, try to get better as a coach see what happens. I can only control what I can control.”

The Sixers’ hodge-podge of point guards will no doubt benefit from D’Antoni’s counsel; there has perhaps never been a more point guard-friendly coach in the sport. So, too, will budding star Jahlil Okafor, who at this early stage certainly has all the physical tools to be an elite offensive force. What he’s been lacking is leadership, and the Sixers finally have someone who exudes credibility besides Brown.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it odd that D’Antoni will be sitting one seat over from Brown, who came to Philly from Gregg Popovich’s bench in San Antonio. If not for the Spurs, D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns might’ve had the championship that would have, in some eyes, validated D’Antoni’s genius. That honor went belatedly to the Warriors, who rode something D’Antoni never had in Phoenix (an elite defense) and the pillars of his offensive playbook to their first NBA title in 40 years last season.

“I can tell you right now, I’m a huge disciple of Mike’s and what he did offensively,” said Alvin Gentry, D’Antoni’s former assistant in Phoenix who ran the Warriors’ offense last season and now is the head coach in New Orleans. “I think he changed the NBA, if you want to know the truth. If you go back and look and see what happened in 2004 and ’05, nobody was playing like that. Nobody thought you could be successful playing like that. And we got all the way to the Western Conference Finals and lost to the eventual champion. And the next year, we lost to the eventual champion. And the next year, we lost to the eventual champion …”

Nobody is thinking championship in Philadelphia, as a painful rebuilding process has accounted for lots of draft picks and assets but only 38 wins across three seasons — including a 1-26 record this season. After a dozen more losses or so, D’Antoni might find himself longing for a one-stroke penalty to get out of the woods at the Greenbrier.

But the Sixers do have people with track records in positions of power, and cap room and first-round picks as far as the eye can see. The impact of the latest addition to the hierarchy will be measured with a calendar, not a shot clock, but it’s reasonable to wonder if the Sixers finally have some hope.

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No. 3: Zach Randolph still likes the Grizzlies There were two teams that gave the champion Warriors fits in the postseason last summer: The Cavaliers and Grizzlies. One of those teams is still among the elite and would likely have an even greater chokehold on the East if Kyrie Irving were healthy. The other team has reached a fork in the road. The Grizzlies are still true to their grit and grind but has that style, which helped Memphis assume a 2-1 lead against the Warriors in a best of seven, turned obsolete? Or will the Grizzlies eventually overcome their Achilles heel — outside shooting — and once again use defense and toughness to advance in the playoffs. Here’s a decent Q&A with Zach Randolph by Scoop Jackson of ESPN:

Scoop Jackson: You all are hard to figure out. From game to game, you all can look like totally different teams. Can you put your finger on this team?

Zach Randolph: Man … not being the prettiest team, not being the most athletic team, not the best shooting team, I think it’s our heart. That’s what defines us, that’s who we are. It’s our grit and our grind. Honestly. That’s how we started, that’s how we started winning, that’s how we are going to win.

I came here, and we started changing the organization around. That’s that grit and grind and hard work and believing, man. You forget there was a time when nobody believed in us, counted us out. People used to think of the Memphis Grizzlies, they’d be like, “Ah, they ain’t nobody.” And now, even when we lose, it’s not like that anymore.

Scoop: That’s expectations. That happens to every team once the culture of the organization starts changing. Have you grown along with those expectations?

Randolph: In our minds everybody still counts us out, but we still believe in ourselves. Even though we haven’t been playing our best, the way we want to play, the season is still early. We still believe that we are one of the best teams in the league. We believe that. But we have to accomplish that [on the court]. Our confidence is high. We know we can compete with anybody.

Scoop: It’s just a matter of proving it.

Randolph: That’s all it is, man.

Scoop: What’s the fundamental difference in you all now than, say, two seasons ago — let’s go there — since Rudy [Gay] has been gone and since Lionel [Hollins] has been gone?

Randolph: I think our maturity and being together. You know that core being together so long — me and Marc [Gasol], then Mike [Conley] and TA [Tony Allen]. And everyone’s work ethic has improved.

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No. 4: Steph Curry likes 5 Warriors for All-Stars? — One of the fringe benefits of having the best record in the NBA is supposed to be realized in February when the All-Star Game rolls in. Last season, the Atlanta Hawks ran the table for an entire month and saw their starting five named as Players of the Month, and then four members of the team suit up for the All-Star Game. Well, Steph Curry wants to do one better — and who could blame him? — and put 5 Warriors in the All-Star Game. Far-fetched? Well, we probably can count on at least three. Five might be a stretch, but, well, stranger things have happened. Here’s Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News …

Stephen Curry wonders if there should be a ceiling for the 25-1 Warriors.

“Why not five?” he said.

All-Star voting has begun and MVP Curry is a sure thing a year after being the leading overall vote-getter. Backcourt mate Klay Thompson also made the Western Conference team last year, and do-everything forward Draymond Green seems like a strong candidate.

“The way they we play, every given night we all want to have an impact on the game,” Curry said. “Stats may look a certain way and you can make judgments off of that. But when a team goes 25-1, and hopefully we keep that trajectory going, hopefully individual guys are recognized for what they mean to the team.”

Curry said Green — who is averaging 14.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists and shares the NBA lead with four triple-doubles — now has the respect of fans across the country.

“It means a lot to have the support of fans, but the importance for him is we’re winning games and he’s helping us do that,” Curry said. “Whatever comes of that is just a bonus.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, is out of the hospital and doing fine. She holds nothing against LeBron James, who crashed into her sitting courtside and sent her to the hospital on a stretcher … So what’s the story about Justin Bieber getting baptized at Tyson Chandler‘s house?Stan Van Gundy likes where the Pistons are headed, even though his team is tired after a 4-OT win over the Bulls … Steve Nash is lending a helping hand to Klay ThompsonMeyers Leonard is in a serious slump in Portland …