Posts Tagged ‘Jae Crowder’

Celtics surprised by Rondo’s finish in Dallas


VIDEO: Charles and Kenny are on board with the Mavericks parting ways with Rajon Rondo

BOSTON — Whatever issues led to Rajon Rondo and Rick Carlisle butting heads in Dallas were somehow avoided in Boston with the Brad Stevens.

Stevens, the Celtics coach, admitted to being a bit surprised that Rondo’s time in Dallas seems to have to come to an ugly finish.

Rondo has been ruled out for the remainder of the team’s postseason run, technically by a “bad back.” But his conflicts with Carlisle have been well documented, the latest coming in the Mavericks’ Game 2 loss to Houston Tuesday, when Rondo was benched in favor of Ray Felton and J.J. Barea.

Rondo was solid in 22 games with Boston this season before he and Dwight Powell were traded to the Mavericks for Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, a first-round pick, a second-round pick and a trade exception. He averaged 8.3 points and at the time a league-leading 10.8 assists.

“I felt like Rajon had played really well at the start of the year,” Stevens said. “I had coached him during a really tough time for him, simply because last year he was just coming back from that ACL tear and not having any practice, which is really unique, and so it was just a matter of him getting the feel a little bit better. I was around him a lot this summer. I was around him a lot this fall. He had the unfortunate hand break at the start of the season and it put him a little bit behind again. But I thought he played pretty well here, so yeah, I was a little bit surprised.”

Celtics boss Danny Ainge, a longtime Rondo advocate, admitted his surprise at the drama that’s gone down in Dallas in a local radio (98.5 the Sports Hub’s “Toucher & Rich”) show earlier this week:

“I’m very surprised,” Ainge said. “I thought it would be a good fit for the Mavericks and Rajon. I don’t really know what’s going on down there. I read a little bit (Wednesday) and heard some things, but I’m very surprised. I thought it would work out well for both people.”

“I don’t know what’s going on down there,” Ainge said. “Rajon was terrific here with coach (Brad) Stevens. I think they got along. The whole question is, Rondo was good this year for us. He worked really hard in the offseason. I really did think it was going to be a big year for him, and Rajon just hasn’t played as well, for whatever reason, as he hoped and as we had hoped and as the Mavericks had hoped.”

Rondo will be a free agent this summer, so he’ll have the opportunity to start somewhere fresh for the 2015-16 season. But this residue of this tumultuous season will no doubt travel with him, wherever he goes.

That said, Carlisle and the Mavericks stand by the deal.

Carlisle told a Dallas radio station Thursday that it was a risky move, but one worth taking.

“In the case of anything, there is risk, but there are risks worth taking,” Carlisle said Thursday on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM. “That trade was a risk worth taking. We all agreed on that. Now, we’re at a point where, hey, it’s time to move on.”

Blogtable: Ready for an East upset?

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


BLOGTABLE: Spurs or Warriors out West? | Upset-minded East team? | Lasting moment of 2014-15?



VIDEOGeorge Hill lifts the Pacers to a big win over the Wizards

> The Pacers, Celtics and Nets are all battling for the last two seeds in the East. Which of those teams has the best chance to pull off a first-round upset?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Indiana, of the teams you’re offering, has the best chance of a first-round upset – and it’s itty-bitty. I like the Celtics the best of that bunch but there is no way they’re getting past Cleveland in the 2-7 showdown. If Brooklyn gets in, that’s it, they’re done – while they have some big-name players who might ordinarily give Atlanta or potentially anyone else some tough challenges, there’s a lack of spine or fortitude in that team dating back to its Game 7 loss at home to undermanned Chicago that still is an issue, in my view. That leaves Indiana, which couldn’t crack 100 in its double-overtime slog vs. Toronto Wednesday but would have to keep up with Atlanta’s high-octane attack. So yeah, Pacers, itty-bitty.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Pacers because of their roster loaded with veterans who have been through the playoff wars and because they are capable of playing elite level defense.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The actual answer is “Nobody.” But if I have to pick one, it’s the Pacers. They’re playing well now, the return of Paul George has been an emotional lift as well as an additional scoring punch despite struggling with his shot, coach Frank Vogel on the sideline is always a good thing, and defense, rebounding and playoff experience is a good place to start building an upset scenario.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The easy answer is “none of the above” but if I must choose, then it’s the Pacers. At least their core players know what playoff basketball is about, and there’s the Paul George factor. The basketball gods could repay the Pacers for all they’ve been through with George and take it out on the Hawks, which of course would confirm Atlanta’s status as the choking dog of all sports towns.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: None of them will win more than a game from the Hawks or Cavs, but Indiana is best suited to put a scare in ’em. They’re the best defensive team of the group, so they can keep games ugly and close. They’ve been the best team of the group (in regard to point differential) since the All-Star break and have gotten a boost from the return of Paul George. That being said, I don’t know if they’re even going to be playing this weekend, because they’ll need to win in Memphis on Wednesday to edge out the Nets for the No. 8 seed.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: These teams are doing whatever they can to claw their way into the playoffs and you want to talk about upsets? Actually, the Pacers have the best roster to pull an upset. They’ve got experience and size, decent depth and a star (Paul George, even on limited minutes) capable of going on a tear in a playoff series. They appear spent physically, which is not uncommon this time of year for a team that has been fighting uphill just to stay in the playoff chase. So they’d have to find a way to rest and recharge within the framework of the playoff schedule to even think about pulling off an upset. But again, for teams crawling into the postseason, an upset tends to be more pipe dream than reality.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comLet’s start by acknowledging that the Nets and Pacers won’t be able to run or execute with the Hawks, who went 7-0 against them this year. The Celtics are going to have problems of their own finishing close games against Cleveland, but their small lineup, quickness and ball movement could scare the Cavs for 42 minutes. What coach Brad Stevens has done with young role players over the last two months (23-12) is no fluke: He has been doing for the Celtics what he did for Butler.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: None of them? Honestly, I don’t think any of those teams really have a chance to win a first round series against Atlanta or Boston. But if I had to pick one, which I guess is what you’re saying, I’ll go with the Celtics. Boston has played Atlanta pretty well this season, even beating them once just before the All-Star break. And they beat Cleveland (resting players) twice recently. Adding Isaiah Thomas has given the Celtics another scorer and ballhandler. Is he enough to help the Celtics beat the Hawks or the Cavaliers? That’s a horse of a different color. But what the heck, let’s give them the nod.

Mavs get even more unconventional


VIDEO: Summer League: Rick Carlisle Interview

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — After three years of mediocrity, the Dallas Mavericks could be one of the best teams in the NBA again. They’ll be one of the most unique teams, for sure.

Over the last two days, the Mavs signed Jameer Nelson and agreed to terms with Al-Farouq Aminu (a replacement for and a much different player than the injured Rashard Lewis), making their depth chart look even more lopsided than it already was.

Nelson joins a backcourt that already includes Raymond Felton and Devin Harris, while Aminu joins Chandler Parsons, Richard Jefferson and Jae Crowder on the wing. Seven of the Mavs’ top 11 guys are nominal point guards or small forwards.

The other four include hybrid guard Monta Ellis, stretch four Dirk Nowitzki, and Brandan Wright, who’s basically a power forward disguised as a center. At least we’ll know what position Tyson Chandler is playing whenever he’s on the floor.

Otherwise, it’s going to be positionless basketball for the Mavs. They’re going to have two point guards on the floor quite a bit. One of the small forwards (likely Aminu) is going to be backing up Nowitzki at the four. And Ellis will be a two who handles the ball more than the three point guards.

Offensively, it should work just fine. Ellis/Nowitzki pick-and-pops were already potent. But they now have, in Chandler, a better finisher down low. And they now have, in Parsons, a better attacker on the weak side.

Jose Calderon and Vince Carter will be missed. They were the Mavs’ best catch-and-shoot shooters last season. But both Parsons and Jefferson were strong in that regard as well, and Ellis and Nowitzki will make better shooters of Felton and Nelson.

It’s defense that will determine where the Mavs ultimately stand in the brutally tough Western Conference. That’s why they got back Chandler, who was the anchor of their top 10, championship defense in 2010-11.

But Chandler was also the anchor of New York defenses that ranked 17th and 24th the last two seasons. He can’t turn Dallas’ 22nd-ranked D around by himself and Shawn Marion will be missed on that end of the floor. That championship team also had Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood backing up Chandler.

In the backcourt, they can’t get worse than what they had last season. Calderon and Ellis were the Mavs’ most-used two-man combo and they allowed almost 108 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor together. They were better both offensively and defensively — though in a fraction of the minutes — with Harris and Ellis on the floor together.

Aminu is a plus defender, but his inability to shoot will limit his minutes. Otherwise, the Mavs will need guys who haven’t been great defenders to play good defense as a unit.

On both ends of the floor, the Mavs will be fascinating to watch. They’ve used trades (Chandler), a major free agent signing (Parsons), and great deals on vets (Jefferson, Nelson, Aminu) to put a lot of talent around Nowitzki, who turned 36 last month.

It’s just a matter of how it all comes together.

Mavs’ Carlisle Rolls With Plan B, Revolving Roster

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DALLAS —
 Rick Carlisle earned his reputation as one of the game’s top coaches by bending, flexing and adjusting all the way to a six-game championship take-down of the Miami Heat in 2011.

Recall 5-foot-10 point guard J.J. Barea as an NBA Finals starting shooting guard?

The Dallas Mavericks have since gone 77-72 and haven’t won another playoff game. And despite a roster that’s read like a well-worn Rolodex, Carlisle has seemed only to enhance his image as an elite tactician and motivator. Carlisle’s agility will be put to the test again this season in guiding a team that again barely resembles the one that preceded it.

From the 2010-11 championship team only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion remain. From the revamped squad insufficiently stocked to defend the title, add only Brandan Wright and Vince Carter as keepers. And from last season, add draft picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James. It’s doubtful any coach, especially one that won a ring with the same franchise just three Junes ago, has witnessed such roster upheaval in three consecutive offseasons, and particularly so in these back-to-back summers.

“Back-to-back, probably not,” Carlisle admitted. “But look, we’re living in a different time. We’re living in a time now where there’s going to be more one-year deals, there’s going to be more turnover, so everybody adjusts to the dynamics of the new CBA, and I don’t know that that’s going to happen for another year or two, at least. That said, if you’re going to be a head coach in this league you’ve got to be very open-minded, you’ve got to be open to change and adaptation. You always want continuity, but you’re not always going to have it.”

The Mavs suffered the indignity of a lockout and the ratification of a game-changing collective bargaining agreement on the heels of their championship parade. On the fly, owner Mark Cuban championed new roster-building strategies that entailed allowing key members of his title team to walk. Plan A, to create cap space and lure max-dollar free agents to crowbar Nowitzki’s championship window, hasn’t panned out and Dallas has instead scrambled the last two summers to produce competitive rosters.

That can be a disheartening road for a coach who is just one of four currently in the league with a ring. Carlisle, though, has consistently endorsed his boss’ decisions. Entering his sixth season in Dallas and the second year of his second four-year contract, Carlisle seems to embrace the challenges he inherits under Plan B. Of the four active championship coaches — including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers, now in charge of the Clippers — Carlisle’s task is by far fraught with the most uncertainties.

“I just made a conscious decision that I’m not going to be a coach that’s limited to a certain system,” Carlisle said. “I’m hanging my hat on my ability to adapt each year to potentially a roster that’s quite different, and with the new CBA we’re going to have more of that in this league. I’ve done a lot of it in my career leading up to now anyway, so it’s always challenging in those situations, but it’s also exciting.”

Just look at the players that have come through Dallas since the lockout ended: Kalenna Azubuike, Yi Jianlian, Lamar Odom, Delonte WestSean Williams, Eddy Curry, Troy Murphy, Elton Brand, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Jared Cunningham, Derek Fisher, Mike James, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Morrow, Chris Wright, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Justin Dentmon and Josh Akognon.

And here’s the players new to Dallas for this season: Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Wayne Ellington, Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair, Gal Mekel, plus draft picks Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo.

Last week Cuban set the bar for this team: The playoffs, and capable of doing damage once there. Carlisle didn’t flinch.

“I think you have to view it that way,” Carlisle said. “And, you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to eliminate the external noise and the doubters and the naysayers and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to have just a real positive enthusiasm and focus on your group, and you’ve got to see in your mind how they can get better. Then you’ve got to facilitate that.”

Among Dallas media, at least, Carlisle was hailed as a Coach of the Year candidate for guiding last season’s mismatched squad out of a 13-23 hole, one dug mostly without Nowitzki. Dallas finished 28-18 and was in the thick of the playoff chase almost until the end.

“Actually, I think Rick’s system is just very comprehensive and he lets the players pick up as much of it as they can and so I think rather than try to force-feed things that they might not be able to do, Rick, I think, is more accommodating,” Cuban said. “But I don’t think he really changes his system, per se, or changes what he does. I think he just recognizes the skill set of his players. Like, he went from calling plays to just playing ‘flow’ all the time [with Jason Kidd]. That’s his preference more than anything else, just let guys play basketball, and hopefully that’s what we’re going to be able to do a lot more of whereas last year we had to call plays every possession. This year I don’t think we’ll have to.”

Last season’s backcourt of Collison, who couldn’t hold down the starting job, and Mayo never clicked. Fisher ditched the team after a month and James was erratic. Cuban believes this team offers Carlisle more raw material with which to work.

He believes it will be collectively smarter and less turnover-pron with Calderon at the controls, Harris backing him up and the speedy Ellis being able to get to the hole with a frequency the Mavs just haven’t seen. All that, Cuban surmises, should play into the hands of a healthy and motivated Nowitzki.

“Each team is different, each team has different needs, each team develops differently and has to make different kinds of adjustments mid-stream,” Carlisle said. “All that stuff is one of the real intriguing things about coaching. It’s one of the reasons I love it. And one of the reasons I love working in this organization is we’ve got an owner with a fertile mind that likes the right kind of change.

“I’m down with that.”

Ellis Gives Dallas A Badly Needed Jolt

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Dallas Mavericks finally appear to have their big-name free agent and Monta Ellis finally gets his big contract.

Only neither is as big as originally hoped. The Mavs dearly wanted Dwight Howard. He’s in Houston. Ellis opted out of $11 million with the Milwaukee Bucks for one final season. He didn’t find the market he expected. Now he’s headed to Dallas for a reported three years at between $25 million and $30 million.

He joins a roster under extreme reconstruction that, at the moment, is stacked with newcomers in the backcourt. The athletic, volume-shooting Ellis figures to start at shooting guard next to high-IQ point guard Jose Calderon, who signed on for four years and $29 million. Dallas will pay those two around $15 million next season.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein first reported the Ellis agreement. Stein also reported that the three-year deal that Devin Harris (who has dislocated toe) and Dallas agreed to has been shelved.

Sixth man Vince Carter is the lone returnee and only producer from last season’s train-wreck backcourt. He enters the final year of his deal at $3.2 million.

Dallas also brought in guards Wayne Ellington on a two-year deal, plus rookie free agent Gal Mekel and draft picks Shane Larkin (who will miss possibly three months with ankle injury) and Ricky Ledo. After realizing top free agents (Deron Williams last summer and now Howard) weren’t enamored with a thin roster that wasn’t winning any trades either, the Mavs are in the asset acquisition business.

It’s a different approach than the last two offseasons when owner Mark Cuban sought short-term bang for his buck, and consistently said he would save his money for foundation-type players. Perhaps the Mavs now believe that the 27-year-old Ellis, who has played in two postseasons in his eight-year career, is one. He was certainly the last remaining “impact” free agent on the market.

At the moment, eight of the 12 players Dallas has or soon expects to have under contract are guards. Talk about going small-ball. Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Jae Crowder fill the forward position and second-year center Bernard James, a low-minute player when he got off the bench, is the only big man in the middle.

That has to change, although how is the big question considering the Mavs’ cap situation. Dallas remains in pursuit of stop-gap veteran Samuel Dalembert (a sign-and-trade with Milwaukee could be an option) and they’ve been in discussions with their own hybrid forward-center Brandan Wright. Elton Brand also remains a possibility.

The agreement with Ellis seemed unlikely just a couple days ago when president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said he didn’t expect more backcourt additions. With all eyes focused on the depleted center position, Ellis did perk up a fan base wondering where the franchise was headed after missing out on Howard a week ago.

Ellis doesn’t turn the summer around for the Mavs, but he does bring with him some needed swag back to Big D. The roster had been virtually bare of playmaking electricity. He gives Dallas excitement, if not also unpredictability, and he’ll happily fill the role as the second — and sometimes lead scorer — the Mavs so desperately need next to Nowitzki.

The 6-foot-3 Ellis averaged 19.2 ppg and 6.0 apg sharing the backcourt in Milwaukee last season with Brandon Jennings. He shot just 41.6 percent overall and 28.7 percent from beyond the arc, but he can light it up on any given night and seemed to have a knack for fireworks when he played Dallas.

A rim protector must be on the way, though, or the Mavs’ defensive standing at No. 27 in scoring (101.7 ppg) last season could get worse. Ellis’ defensive efficiency last season benefited from the Bucks’ swat machine Larry Sanders. Ellis consistently ranks high in steals, but his overall defensive prowess is not considered a strong suit, and starting next to Calderon could cause coach Rick Carlisle to go completely bald.

The Mavs aren’t done massaging their roster. Friday at least provided a jolt and a little more intrigue for a proud franchise that was quickly looking lottery-bound for a second consecutive season.

Howard To Houston Is A Two-Fisted Gut Punch For Mavs

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — If the Los Angeles Lakers recoiled at the sobering prospect of dealing Dwight Howard to an already rising divisional foe, imagine the steam clouds that spewed from the ears of Mark Cuban as if his head was an erupting Mount Vesuvius when he learned the big man had agreed to join the aspiring Houston Rockets.

Cuban seemed to take the news in stride Friday afternoon when the Dallas Mavericks’ owner was notified that his team was out of the running for the summer’s most coveted free agent. At the time, he said he was not told with which team Howard would sign.

“Got word we are out of the DH sweepstakes,” Cuban wrote in an email to various media outlets. “We gave it a shot and it didn’t work out. It was truly an experience. At some point I will post our video and presentation we made.”

The Rockets, Golden State Warriors and the incumbent Los Angeles Lakers remained in play. But only a short time later, USA Today, followed by TNT’s David Aldridge confirmed that Howard will leave the Lakers and join the Mavs’ Southwest division rival.

This one will deeply burn the Mavs, now two-time losers trying to lure a big-name free agent to pair with a now 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

All the while Cuban controversially, yet strategically was dismantling his 2011 championship club in anticipation of re-building a contender by creating cap space to lure a superstar (or two) under the guidelines of the new collective bargaining agreement, his in-division, in-state rival in southeast Texas was scheming just the same.

Daryl Morey, the gambling Houston Rockets’ general manager, set in motion a number of trades and transactions over the last two years to ultimately acquire players, cap space and other assets that would position the Rockets to strike when opportunities arose, to swing for the fences through both trades and free agency.

The Rockets should give Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti a tip of the cap for making this behemoth agreement possible. Before the start of last season, the Thunder’s salary-cap-strapped GM dealt rising star James Harden to Houston as Morey dipped into his collection of assets. Harden became an All-Star and delivered the Rockets back into the playoffs. Now Morey has Howard, too, his longtime target.

Aside from the Lakers, who practically begged Howard to re-sign, no team will find this harder to swallow than Dallas. The scenario of Howard to Houston was always the Mavs’ worst nightmare, leaving the franchise third in pecking order in its own state behind the Rockets and the ever-resilient San Antonio Spurs.

The Warriors cleared out cap space Friday and added another top-flight free agent in Andre Iguodala — a Mavs target in the case they whiffed on Howard — to a young and talented roster that challenged the Spurs in the second round. Golden State won’t be too disappointed in not landing Howard. They were always a long-shot in this race and even without Howard they look to be putting together something special.

The Atlanta Hawks, flush with cap space, never seemed to elevate their hopes too high that Howard would reverse his long-held thinking and decide to play in his hometown. General manager Danny Ferry will now attempt to piece together the best team he possibly can for new coach Mike Budenholzer.

This was Strike Two for Dallas. A year ago, it chased native son Deron Williams, but was rebuffed. It signed a slew of players to one-year deals to keep their free-agent “powder dry” — as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson is fond of saying — and to go after Howard or Chris Paul this summer.

Williams’ Nets now have the look of a contender after general manager Billy King pulled off the stunning trade that brings Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. CP3 got Doc Rivers and is staying put and now the Rockets with Howard will vault into the top four or five in the West with Warriors, CP3’s Clippers, the Thunder and the reigning West champion Spurs.

And Houston might not be done. They have long been reported to seek Atlanta free agent power forward Josh Smith, a childhood buddy of Howard, who’s reluctance to join the Mavs leaves the franchise reeling. Two seasons ago they were swept out of the first round by the Thunder and this season failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

Nowitzki, understanding his years are numbered, has repeatedly called this a “big offseason for us.”

Yet on the roster at this moment with him is Shawn Marion, 35, Vince Carter, 36, two 2012 second-round draft picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James, plus 2013 first-round pick Shane Larkin and newly signed Israeli guard Gal Mekel. 

As Howard’s drama dragged on, Dallas missed out on other free-agent targets, most notable Iguodala. The Clippers re-signed role player Matt Barnes and on Thursday center Al Jefferson signed a lucrative deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.

So where do Cuban and the Mavs go from here?

Dallas, 41-41 last season with Nowitzki playing in only 53 games after preseason knee surgery, has glaring holes at point guard, shooting guard and center. They can seek a trade but possess few assets to entice a team into dealing a player of stature. They learned that quickly in reported talks with Boston for Rajon Rondo.

Cuban said after the season that he doesn’t want to go through another year of one-year contracts, preferring to find players that are core-worthy. Now he and Nelson must decide if, for instance, still available guards Monta Ellis, Mo Williams or Jarrett Jack are building-block players they want to commit years and dollars to at the risk of cutting into cap space for next summer. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Zach Randolph, among others, could be on the market.

But the Mavs have twice seen what a crapshoot that strategy can be.

Rondo To Mavericks Makes Sense

 

HANG TIME, Texas — Game on.

With the big man spreading the word that he won’t waste time and will make his free agent decision on July 10, all the players in the Dwight Howard Sweepstakes have to come firing out of the starting blocks.

So Rajon Rondo to Dallas?

The word from Mike Fisher at DallasBasketball.com is that Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson has broached the subject with GM Danny Ainge in Boston:

The two parties continue to discuss trade scenarios, sources tell us.

Ainge and Dallas Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson have a long-standing and friendly relationship, so that might be a reason for the two teams to be exchanging ideas. Meanwhile, Mavs owner Mark Cuban is hinting at talks about a trade acquisition so large that it might preclude the “big-fish’’ acquisition of Dwight Howard.

I asked one NBA source if Cuban’s remark is intended as a smokescreen.

“Dallas, for all the right reasons, has 100 scenarios up on their board,’’ the source said. “But scenario No. 1 is Dwight Howard.’’

Previously, scenario No. 1 was Chris Paul. But Mavs officials tell me they are anticipating an official pronouncement from Paul that he’s staying with the Clippers, thus saving potential suitors their time and effort there.

There are mathematical/legal ways for Dallas to acquire Dwight and Rondo, the sort of double-play that would greatly accelerate the Mavs’ return to title contention. (Dwight could be signed outright with the trade-away dumping of the contracts of, say, Vince Carter and Jae Crowder. That would have to be done first. Then Marion would have to be a centerpiece of Dallas’ offer to the Celtics.) Both of the players come with some baggage, however. For Mavs fans, Howard’s issues are well-documented; he’s eyeballed the Mavs for over two years, and therefore his game and his persona have been picked apart in this space.

It is a deal that would make perfect sense from both sides. The Mavs, of course, are looking for another elite level player to join the supporting cast around Howard. Of course, they already have Dirk Nowitzki, but at 35 he’s close to the end and Dallas needs another All-Star level running mate into the future for Howard who can combat Houston’s enticement of playing with James Harden.

Put Howard into the middle of a lineup with Nowitzki and Rondo and the Mavs are right back battling at the top of the Western Conference race next season.

Ainge may be saying right now that he’s not looking to completely dismantle what’s left of the Celtics in the aftermath of trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But whatever pain the Celtics put their fans through could pay off in the long run, especially if they land a high pick in a top-heavy Draft in 2014.

There is also the matter of how Rondo would personally handle being on a mediocre to poor team. He’s always been a handful to deal with even in the best of times, ready to fight literally with coach Doc Rivers and go to war figuratively with Ray Allen. Only the presence of the old heads Garnett and Pierce was able to keep Rondo’s white-hot competitive streak and his sizzling temper in check. If Ainge, as expected, is going to hire a first-time coach to mid-wife the Celtics through the next couple of years of rebuilding, that guy without a long resume as a leader is not going to need a point guard who will constantly challenge his authority.

If Ainge can get expiring contracts, maybe draft choices and wind up with a team next season that gets him a high pick in what is said to be a top-heavy draft in 2014, the Celtics are on their way to a recovery.

The clock is ticking on the countdown to the Fight for Dwight and the maneuvering has just begun. But this is a bold, big move that we can get behind from both sides.

Game on.

As Mavericks Flounder, Cuban Talks Of Drafting Baylor’s Griner?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Go ahead Dirk. Shave it off.

As Vince Carter said last week after the Dallas Mavericks’ first failed attempt to get back to .500, the beard brigade served its purpose, bringing this group of mostly one-year rentals closer and focused on making a run. To their credit they did. But now, as Carter also said, the hubbub surrounding their quest to finally shave after two months of battling to break even is — ahem — growing out of control.

To the point that the Indiana Pacers used Dallas’ planned post-game shave party with the now-famous Omar the Barber as motivation for their 25-point pounding of the Mavs last Thursday.

Still, Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas’ career lone superstar — looking half uni-bomber, half-Bill Walton ’77 — promised to abide by the non-shaving pact initiated by O.J. Mayo back in late January.

“We only have 10 games left,” Nowitzki said. “I’m not going to shave now.”

Now, with eight to go, it’s time. After Tuesday’s second failed attempt for .500, a 20-point road drubbing by the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas is 36-38 and essentially out of the chase for eighth, now a two-team race between the Lakers and Utah Jazz. Nowitzki, who had 33 points in an overtime win against the Clippers last Tuesday and 35 in Saturday’s miraculous comeback to beat the Bulls, fizzled in L.A. with just 11 points, appearing as old as the 45 years his mother said that beard makes him look.

There is no shame in the longtime face of the franchise opting for a shave. It will be refreshing, perhaps even a bit rejuvenating to see your still-youthful face again and finish out this lost season on a positive note.

Nowitzki’s 11-year All-Star run came to an end this season and he could suffer his first sub-.500 season since the turn of the century. Plus, he’s on the cusp of missing the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons, a remarkable run that only the Spurs can outdo, recently cinching a 16th consecutive playoff appearance.

The offseason promises to be a long one for Nowitzki, who turns 35 in June and who will wait and see how owner Mark Cuban again reshuffles the deck entering the final year of his contract.

Since winning the NBA title in 2011, the Mavs are 72-68 with a first-round sweep. He has grown weary of a makeshift roster and even questioned Cuban’s strategy earlier this season.

Surely Nowitzki didn’t take solace in Cuban’s comments Tuesday in Los Angeles that got him trending on Twitter. Cuban said he’d consider drafting giant of the women’s game, 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner.

It’s doubtful this is the star Nowitzki had in mind to join him for his twilight seasons.

Back in star-studded L.A., where he was filming the TV show “Shark Tank” last July when Deron Williams wondered why he wasn’t in his Manhattan living room, Cuban told reporters regarding Griner:

“Would I do it? Right now, I’d lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it’s not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it.”

Perhaps Cuban saw the inevitable to come Tuesday night and figured he’d preempt Shaq’s big night and this beat-up, sub-standard Lakers team eventually demolishing of his Mavs by going headline hunting.

For one, Cuban has often talked about the heightened importance of the draft under the new collective bargaining agreement. Those more rigid, financially punishing set of rules convinced him to dismantle the 2011 title team, particularly by not re-signing Tyson Chandler and choosing to rebuild a contender through cap space and draft picks.

Dallas hasn’t hit on a draft pick since Josh Howard in 2003. Last June’s second-round pick, Jae Crowder, is the closest yet to becoming a contributing rotation player. Fellow second-round pick, 6-foot-10 former Air Force staff sergeant Bernard James, might tell Griner this gig isn’t so easy. First-round pick Jared Cunningham, a combo guard, has played a total of 26 minutes in a season the Mavs brought in Derek Fisher and then Mike James.

With free-agent star power this summer expected to stay where it is, and Dallas light on trade assets to acquire a rising impact player, the Mavs must find success in the draft — be it in the first round or the too-easily dismissed second round.

The Mavs need contributors, not marketing gimmicks. And that’s no shot at Griner, who dominated the women’s game and was recently described probably quite accurately by one Dallas radio commentator as the Wilt Chamberlain of women’s basketball.

But Griner can’t play in the NBA, and for Cuban to even suggest that he’d consider selecting her with a draft pick should only make the still-bearded, still-committed Nowitzki roll his eyes.

Dirk Practices, But Return Still Likely More Than A Week Away

DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki returned to the practice court Wednesday for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee two months ago, but he still couldn’t pinpoint a return to game action beyond some time after Christmas.

“This is the first day stopping, pushing off, moving. We’ll see how it reacts,” the Dallas Mavericks’ all-time leading scorer said. “I’m going to do that a couple times, and do some contact for a while. Maybe any time after Christmas, that’ll be fun.”

He did lament that Dallas won’t have many practice days the rest of the month with three games in four nights before Christmas and then three games in four nights after the holiday.

Nowitzki said he was pleased with how he felt shortly after Wednesday’s short team practice that included only light contact work in preparation for Thursday’s home game against the Miami Heat, the start of a grueling six-game stretch to end 2012. He followed up the team workout with a 2-on-2 session with low-minute teammates Roddy BeauboisBernard James and Jae Crowder.

“I thought I played decent. Obviously, my legs are pretty shot,” Nowitzki said. “The first time running and shooting and jumping, so it’s going to take awhile for me to get back in halfway game shape. You can run in the pool and do some elliptical all you want, but it’s not like a 7-foot guy, 250 [pounds], leaning on you, pushing around and you still got to make a move and jump and then concentrate to make a shot. So I think it’s going to take a while to get in halfway decent shape. But for the first day, I think it felt pretty good.”

At 12-13, the Mavs now face the most rigorous stretch of their season, and they will be down more than just Dirk. Starting point guard Derek Fisher (right knee strain) won’t play against Miami, and forward Elton Brand (groin) and center Brandan Wright (right ankle sprain) will be game-time decisions.

After the Heat, Dallas plays Friday night at Memphis and finishes the pre-Christmas schedule at San Antonio on Sunday. After Christmas, Dallas plays at Oklahoma City on Dec. 27, then at home the next night against Denver, followed by the Spurs again at home on Dec. 30.

The road back to recovery has been a much longer one than Nowitzki anticipated, and he’s made that clear for weeks now. On Wednesday, he said that chronic swelling during the first couple weeks after surgery set him back “two or three weeks.”

The initial prognosis from the team’s medical staff was that Nowitzki would return to basketball activities after six weeks. About a month after surgery, Nowitzki hoped to make his season debut by mid-December. He’s already missed 25 games, 16 more than his previous high in any season when he sat out nine games with a sprained right knee in the 2010-11 season.

Nowitzki said at this point he sees no point in returning until he’s 100 percent and joked that in his case “rushing back” is no longer even a legitimate term.

“It’s almost, what, nine weeks? I mean we’re not rushing it anymore, it’s as slow as you can get unfortunately,” Nowitzki said. “The swelling at the beginning was just so bad, and we don’t really know why. Maybe I was trying too early to do something, nobody really knows. People react to surgery I guess different and mine was just really swollen and that really set me back two or three weeks.”

Collison, Brand Benched In Mavs’ Loss

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle looked to send a clear message and jump-start two starters Tuesday night by benching Darren Collison and Elton Brand in a game with personal meaning for both.

For Collison, it was his first chance with his new team to go head-to-head against former UCLA teammate and emerging Philadelphia 76ers star Jrue Holiday. The two were drafted four picks apart in 2009, Holiday taken 17th, and Collison 21st.

The veteran Brand played the last four seasons in Philly before the club amnestied him in the summer to wipe his $18.2 million salary this season off their books.

Early on, neither player has met expectations in Dallas. Collison has struggled with turnovers and porous defense, and Brand has struggled to do much of anything. After Saturday’s appallingly sluggish 115-89 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Carlisle sought a solution with a lineup shakeup, and Collison and Brand paid the price.

Both players responded Tuesday with mostly solid efforts, although Dallas still lost 100-98, its seventh defeat in the last 10 games to fall below .500 (7-8) for the first time this season.

As the Mavs head to Chicago to face the Bulls on Wednesday night, the benchings would appear to be one-game statements, at least in the case of Collison, a young player Dallas would love to develop into its long-term point guard.

“He’s our starting point guard, but tonight he came off the bench,” Carlisle said during his post-game interview. “Jason Terry was our starting 2-guard, but he came off the bench for four years. So it’s not that big a deal. The big deal is that we’ve got to quit doing the things that are making us shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s where it’s at.”

Collison finished with 12 points, six assists and five steals in nearly 30 minutes. But he was still dogged by four turnovers, including consecutive blunders in the fourth quarter, the type of mishaps that shoot teams in the foot and drive coaches crazy. Philly went on a 12-0 run to take a 91-81 lead.

Carlisle immediately yanked Collison after the second turnover, then subbed him back in 88 seconds later.

Collison did provide an immediate jolt off the bench after the starters got down 21-13 after just six minutes. He quickly converted two backcourt steals into layups and put up eight points, five assists and four steals in his first nine minutes.

“I love the way he played, and he impacted the game immediately with quickness and energy,” Carlisle said. “So I thought he was terrific.”

However, with shooting guard O.J. Mayo struggling from the floor and scoring just 11 points, the Mavs’ backcourt was again badly beaten on the defensive end with Holiday and Evan Turner combining for 40 points on 15-for-25 shooting, and 11 assists.

Brand came through with a season-high 17 points, eight rebounds, a block, a steal and no turnovers despite logging only 19 minutes, three below his already depressed season average. Rookie forward Jae Crowder got the starting nod at small forward with Shawn Marion moving to power forward.

Dominique Jones, mostly a bench-warmer in Dallas during his first two seasons, made the second start of his career in place of Collison. Jones has become Collison’s primary backup mostly by default because Rodrigue Beaubois has failed to step up.

The Mavs reportedly tried to trade Jones before the start of the season, but found no takers. The unpolished combo guard is a non-threat to unseat Collison and proved it Tuesday by missing all five of his shot attempts and committing four turnovers in less than 18 minutes.