HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Oklahoma City Thunder win far more often than not, they’re an elite team and, somehow, I’m having a hard time believing in them these days.
Same goes for the Los Angeles Clippers, another member of the Western Conference elite.
I know what the numbers say about the defending Western Conference champion Thunder: they’re 8-2 in their last 10 games, still have the best 1-2 punch in the West with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and they have the experience of knowing exactly what it takes to climb the playoff mountain. This is a 50-win team (already) with a crew capable of taking it to the next level.
But that 11-4 record since the All-Star break includes losses to James Harden and the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs and two defeats at the hands of the sizzling Denver Nuggets, including Tuesday night’s eye-opening affair that saw Denver shred OKC for a jaw-dropping 72 points in the paint at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
I’m obviously not ready to write the Thunder off. But my belief in them has been shaken and stirred after watching them lose to these other elite teams.
I’m even more concerned about the Clippers, my one and only guilty pleasure in the league (I watch them religiously, against the best of the best and the lowest of the low because I’m afraid I’ll miss something like this, this or this). When Chris Paul gets rolling and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and the crew are flying around, there isn’t another team that entertains more.
Long before the Miami Heat went on their 23-game (and counting) tear and the Nuggets kicked off their 13-game streak, the Clippers owned the season’s most impressive win streak at 17 games.
The other contenders in the West have been sound during this same stretch, particularly against their peers. The Thunder and Clippers, though, just seem to be missing something right now.
For the Thunder, the glaring difference (even though I know Thunder fans don’t want to hear it) is not having Harden around to help finish games.
My examination of the Clippers needs more time, which is the one thing a true contender doesn’t have much of. The playoffs are on the horizon and the question remains … do you still believe in the Thunder and Clippers?
HANG TIME WEST – Best dunk of the season? Please.
Try among the best dunks in Clippers history. The edge still goes to Blake Griffin mauling Danilo Gallinari with a full arsenal of power, agility and hops into a concussive finish, although others will choose different Blake Superior moments. But DeAndre Jordan turning innocent Piston Brandon Knight into road kill Sunday night in Los Angeles was a crescendo for the ages.
Seriously, for the ages. Jordan uncommon athleticism for a big man capped by the coordination and the power move at the basket deserves to be in any John Starks-Michael Jordan-Tracy McGrady-Baron Davis-Scottie Pippen-Kevin Johnson-Ronnie Price conversation for the best NBA dunks, non-contest category. (The best dunk by an NBA player in any setting is Vince Carter turning Frederic Weis into a punchline at the 2000 Olympics. End of discussion.)
In the moment, though, the seismic event Sunday at Staples Center is the slam of the season, for the league and certainly for the Clippers.
1. Heir Jordan a
Knight will get a ton of grief because that’s the way it works, but, really, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t even challenging the shot. Knight’s move was to try to intercept a Chris Paul pass that seemed to be thrown into the middle of the lane, out of harm’s way.
DeAndre (not Michael) Jordan moved it into harm’s way. He was a left-hander who controlled the lob with his right hand, a 7-footer with the dexterity of a wing, a defensive specialist at center who will now forever be remembered for a play on offense.
2. Butler Did It a
Caron Butler easily ditched Carter’s defense in the corner, drove baseline and threw down on Chris Kaman. Those are the facts of the thunderous moment.
That we’re talking, yes, Caron Butler is an added sidelight. Not Griffin. Not Jordan. Not Eric Bledsoe. Not even Travis Leslie in preseason, before getting waived. Butler, 32, is a highlight of flight.
3. The Two-Man Game a
Monta Ellis lost the ball after Milwaukee reached the front court. Bledsoe gained possession and threw ahead to Jamal Crawford for what should have been an easy breakaway basket. No Buck was close to Crawford. But Griffin was.
Griffin can dunk, as you may have heard. But Crawford’s delivery doused the play in glitter: left hand to right hand between the legs and flips up the lob at the perfect height for the trailer, Griffin, to finish. It was more the pass than the dunk.
4. Point Well Taken a
Good things can happen with Paul running the break and fellow point guard Bledsoe on the wing. CP3 can get where he needs to get on the court and the athleticism of Bledsoe means he can get where he needs to get in the air even at 6-1.
Paul’s hook-shoot pass over his right shoulder arced into the lane, where Bledsoe took over by controlling the ball with his right hand and hammering the ball through the rim. The little men ruled the paint.
5. Paul Bearer a
CP3 really is everywhere. The defense. The drive, the finish.
The dunk itself is nothing out of the ordinary. But it’s Paul controlling the moment, and that’s never ordinary either.
If Thursday’s NBA trade deadline was a movie, the audience would have walked out in the middle from boredom. This freeze came straight from the script that is the league’s new collective bargaining agreement — with its harsher luxury tax penalties and diminished roster flexibility for tax offenders — it put the clamps on a stunningly uneventful deadline day.
The big names were on the opening credits: Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Yet, when the curtain closed at 3 p.m. ET, Orlando Magic sharpshooter J.J. Redick stole the show as the lone player of significance to switch teams. The Milwaukee Bucks acquired the career 39.8 percent 3-point shooter in a six-player deal that involved five other relatively anonymous NBA names.
Only one potential blockbuster deal percolated, but ultimately died on the vine with the Atlanta Hawks going the distance in an attempt to strike a deal with the Bucks for Smith before pulling back. One reason so few big deals were discussed was simply because there wasn’t much talent realistically in play, a point that goes beyond any ramifications of the CBA.
The CBA that took effect in December 2011, and begins to smack tax-paying teams with stiffer fines next season, has clearly put franchises on the defensive. Teams that were once willing to add salary to consummate a deal no longer are. Teams that once didn’t think twice about sweetening a deal with a first-round pick, suddenly guard them with their lives.
“Cap room and draft picks, which are usually the currency of how these [big] deals get done, were at a huge premium and are something that everyone wants to have,” said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who steered the most active club at the deadline with a couple of lower-tier deals.
There’s really no greater example of the effect of these changes than the Dallas Mavericks and their braintrust, owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. Chronic and strategic over-spenders and tax payers under the old CBA, Cuban, who took on salary in deadline deals for Jason Kidd in 2008 and Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson in 2010, analyzed the new rules and reversed field last year.
He dismantled the 2011 championship team, choosing to covet cap space and the roster flexibility granted to teams that remain under the tax threshold, as well as newfound valuing of first-round draft picks as low-priced labor and trade assets.
It’s a strategy that no longer has the Mavs on speed dial of teams looking to make a deal and dump salary.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Nelson said of the CBA’s chilling effect Thursday after the deadline expired. “There’s no question that folks have their eye on the inevitable, and there’s no question that people are getting their collective houses in order.
“There’s some teams that see that on the horizon and act early, and other teams that will procrastinate and pay a dear price. But I think we’re right in the middle of that. It’s not brand-new news and so, yeah, I think you’re going to see a lot of teams try to correct themselves financially.”
The so-called “repeater” tax really has teams scared. Several clubs tried to deal away lost-cost players to avoid the repeater tax, which will whack franchises with an additional fine if they go over the tax line in three of four seasons. Golden State was successful in this venture. Chicago was not and will pay a luxury tax for the first time since its implementation.
This “repeater” penalty deterred teams from making deals that would have pushed payroll even slightly over the tax line, deals they might have normally green-lighted in the old days. So, is this the way of the future under the current rules?
“I can’t predict the future,” Morey said, “but I think the trend is more this way.”
Rockets: Morey’s stockpiling of assets the last couple years has been questioned, but he’s turned it into quite a haul starting with James Harden prior to the start of the season. The day before the deadline, Morey acquired the No. 5 overall pick, Thomas Robinson, from Sacramento. Morey’s dealing didn’t damage an abundance of cap space next summer that will be used to pursue a top free agent such as Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Bucks: GM John Hammond didn’t get his big fish in Smith, but he pulled off the deal for Redick, who should really help a club that’s been skidding down the East standings and needs a boost. Hammond held onto Jennings and Ellis and will have room to maneuver in the summer to add more pieces.
Thunder: GM Sam Presti continues to make shrewd moves. The acquisition of Ronnie Brewer from the New York Knicks for a second-round pick gives OKC another strong perimeter defender to help Thabo Sefolosha.
Celtics:Jordan Crawford might not be Jamal Crawford, but he can score in bunches and Boston was desperate to bolster its injury-ravaged guard backcourt. Boston fans are the winners here, too, with the team’s heart and soul, Garnett and Pierce, staying put.
Mavericks: Sure, on the surface, picking up 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow for defensive-minded guard Dahntay Jones doesn’t sound like much. But then SheridanHoops.com reminded us of this Dwight Howard interview in Russia when he named Morrow as one of a handful of players he’d like to have as a teammate.
Blazers: The team with the leanest bench in the NBA finally got some help in a minor deal that netted OKC guard Eric Maynor, who lost his job early on to Reggie Jackson. Maynor will help Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard reduce his 38.5 mpg workload.
Hawks: They didn’t get the deal done to ship out Smith and now it seems they will lose him for nothing in free agency. On one level, however, it’s hard to say that this is a definitive loss. They’ll keep Smith (who might or might not come away from this experience deflated) for the rest of the season, and, with any luck, try to keep him while recruiting friend and fellow Atlantan Howard next summer. If GM Danny Ferry wasn’t pleased with the deals presented, it doesn’t always pay to take something, anything just because in the end you could be left with nothing. If Smith leaves, the Hawks will take the cap space and look to spin it in their favor.
Magic: They deal away a useful player and one they drafted in Redick and hand over his Bird Rights to the Bucks. There was no guarantee that Redick would re-sign with Orlando, but he at least had said the door was open to a return. The Magic’s Josh McRoberts to Charlotte deal for Hakim Warrick is a head-scratcher.
Knicks: They didn’t upgrade at any position and gave away a solid defender in Brewer, who was starting for the club during their hot start out of the gates, but had slipped out of the rotation. New York did use the roster vacancy to sign veteran power forward Kenyon Martin.
Nets: They failed to land another high-priced player in Smith and failed to unload one of their own, Kris Humphries.
Do either of these star-less teams have a chance to win big? (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Calling these “second-half storylines” would be both misleading and bad math, because All-Star Weekend didn’t exactly split the 2012-13 with Solomon-like equanimity. So we’ll go with “home-stretch storylines,” situations and people that NBA fans should keep their eyes on over the final two months of regular-season play. By dealing with trade-deadline drama separately on this site, we can limit this list to the five most compelling things to watch between now and the best-of-sevens:
1. Can the Lakers avoid making the wrong kind of franchise history?
It happened once in the “aught’s,” once in the 1990s, twice in the ’70s and then, continuing backwards, you’ve got to go back to their Minneapolis roots to find an NBA season that wasn’t followed immediately by a postseason for the Lakers. But math is beginning to loom large as a course this team will not pass in 2012-13.
Four games under .500 and 3.5 games out of the final playoff berth in the West wouldn’t ordinarily seem like a failing grade. But there is another team, Portland, wedged between L.A. and Houston that doubles the leap-frog challenge — and no suggestion that any of the clubs above them are headed downward in the conference standings. Then there’s the schedule: More intra-conference games for everyone means that one or more of the Lakers’ chief competition will be winning on many nights. And given their 9-18 road schedule, March looks tortuous with 10 of 15 away from Staples Center.
Stir in all the issues – coach-talent disconnect, miserable defense, fractious locker room – that have been part of the league’s No. 1 storyline to this point and it doesn’t look fixable. The passing of Jerry Buss as Lakers owner seems, sadly, like a clear sign this is not their year.
2. Can the Spurs’ regular-season success translate for a change?
OK, the “for a change” part is a bit snarky, given San Antonio’s four NBA championships since 1999. Yet it’s going on six years since the last one and even in 2007, there was a sense that the club’s window of contention was closing, based on its marvelously constant but aging core.
Coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have retooled in both precise and daring ways, shifting from the team’s old grinding defensive style to something sleeker, more offensive-minded and more democratic. Still, the Spurs’ three most important players are the same as a decade ago: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
All the controversial “resting” that Popovich practices and all the supposed advantages to old legs and big reputations that we see in the playoffs – no back-to-backs, slower pace, star whistles – haven’t paid off for San Antonio since before the Sonics left Seattle and Gilbert Arenas was a big NBA deal (for good reasons, that is). (more…)
Celtics officials have made no decisions about the future, even with rookie power forward Jared Sullinger (back surgery) joining point guard Rajon Rondo (knee) last week in seeing their seasons end.
The Celtics came into Sunday’s game on a four-game winning streak and will wait until closer to the trade deadline to decide whether to keep this team together. The deadline is 3 p.m. ET Feb. 21.
For now, the Clippers wait on their injured guards. [Chauncey] Billups is working his way back from a foot injury. There is no timetable for the return of star point guard Paul from a knee injury. [Jamal] Crawford, the team’s sixth man, is wearing an industrial-strength facemask to protect his broken nose.
The Clippers are a battered bunch and losers of five of their previous seven games.
Coach Vinny Del Negro hopes to get Paul and Billups back during the team’s eight-game trip, which runs through Feb. 11.
“Right now, it is all about winning games,” Del Negro said. “We need to get guys back to win at a higher rate than we are right now, then we were used to at the beginning of the season. It’s a long season; you have to manage it the right way. When we think we’re getting everyone back, it seems like, so far this year, someone’s been injured. You have to manage that. You have to take the highs and the lows.”
But still, the Clippers are going for it. And why not? When healthy, they count themselves among NBA title contenders. That’s saying something for a franchise that had long been considered not just among the NBA’s worst, but in all of sports.
Considering, too, the struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers see this season as a chance to reach at least the Western Conference finals and in doing so to reorder the hoops hierarchy in LA.
Garnett, who makes his offseason home in Malibu, has a no-trade clause in his contract and two years left on his contract. So there is that one, gigantic hurdle to deal with. He’s not going anywhere he doesn’t want to go.
But he could have worse options than joining a Clippers team that could be one or two healthy stars away from making a championship run. The championship window in Boston is closed, no matter how hard Celtics coach Doc Rivers tries to fight it.
Garnett has a limited amount of time left to chase a second title to pair with the one he won with the Celtics in 2008. Rolling with the Clippers could be his best and last chance to add to his already Hall of Fame worthy resume. For a player as consumed by winning as Garnett has been his entire career, it would be hard to dismiss an opportunity like this were it actually on the table.
And that brings us back to the core of crazy season in the NBA. No matter how far-fetched an idea seems in theory, the possibilities will get floated to the basketball-loving public between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Los Angeles Clippers’ four-game losing streak isn’t nearly as distressing as the sight of Chris Paul dressed like Cliff Paul on the bench night after night.
CP3, the West All-Star’s starting point guard, missed his sixth game in the last eight — and third in a row — Saturday night. And once again, the Clippers came away with a loss, 101-100, at Portland. It was L.A.’s fourth consecutive defeat and second in a row where Paul’s crunch-time cool was needed against two teams out of the playoff mix.
But really the losses are insignificant compared to the health of Paul’s bruised right kneecap. He injured the knee in the stunning home loss to Orlando on Jan. 12 when he bumped knees with Magic guard J.J. Redick. He missed the next three games, all wins against Memphis, Houston and Minnesota.
Paul returned on Jan. 19 against Washington, going for 22 points and 11 assists in 35 minutes. All seemed right.
But two nights later in the loss to Golden State, the start of four in a row, Paul re-aggravated the injury and hobbled throughout the game, finishing with four points and nine assists in 33 minutes.
He hasn’t played since.
Back on Tuesday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro called Paul’s injury a “day-to-day thing.”
“How long, I don’t know,” Del Negro told The Los Angeles Times. “But I don’t want to bring him back and then he’s out again like this time. So we’ll be as cautious as possible and try to work through it.”
The Clippers led 100-91 with 2:38 to go at Portland on Saturday night, but they’d never score again as Portland rattled off the final 10 points of the game. Eric Beldsoe has taken over as the starter with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford used to help close with Blake Griffin.
“We’ve got to learn with this group without [Paul] to finish games,” Del Negro told reporters after the game. “It was an opportunity for us to finish the game.”
The next one comes tonight in a rare road-home series against the Blazers. Del Negro said after Saturday’s game that Paul is not expected to suit up, saying he’ll have a better idea of when Paul will play once he begins some contact drills.
The sooner the better for the Clippers, who begin a massive, eight-game road trip after tonight’s game. It starts at Minnesota on Wednesday and then takes on a distinctly East flavor including stops at Boston, improving Washington, Miami, New York and Philadelphia.
While James Harden of the hometown Rockets will be in the lineup to serve as unofficial host for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, evidently the voters — fans and coaches — haven’t received the memo that the NBA is making a big splash in Brooklyn this season.
Harden, who was traded from Oklahoma City four days before the season opener and made a splash by scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games, will make his All-Star debut in his brand new home town.
Yet despite their being the hottest team in the league with nine wins in the last 10 games and currently holding down the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, the Nets were shut out when the reserves were announced for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game Thursday night.
A poll of the league’s head coaches added seven players to each team.
Chris Bosh joined teammates LeBron James and Dwayne Wade on the East team, making the defending NBA champion Heat the only team with three players that will take part in the 62nd All-Star Game, which will be played at Houston’s Toyota Center on Feb. 17 (TNT, 8:30p.m. ET).
In the Western Conference, the Spurs’ old reliable twosome of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were voted in for their 14th and fifth times, respectively, while the vote split up potential duos from other teams.
– Chris Bosh, Heat — If they were the Three Tenors, LeBron James would be Pavarotti, Dwyane Wade would be Domingo and Chris Bosh will always be “that other guy.” Numbers aren’t flashy, but he sacrifices his game to make it all work. | Highlights
Tyson Chandler, Knicks — He averages a double-double of 12.1 points-10.9 rebounds, leads the league in shooting (.674) and defends the rim as if he were a hungry fat man protecting the last cheeseburger on the planet. Justice is done. | Highlights
Luol Deng, Bulls – Coaches love the lunch pail players, the guys who show up for work every night. He leads the NBA in minutes, is his team’s top scorer and top defender in a season when the Bulls are surviving without Derrick Rose. | Highlights
Paul George, Pacers — He’s not just keeping the seat warm for Danny Granger, but playing like the Pacers’ MVP. With six double-doubles in the last two-plus weeks, he closed fast and has led Indiana’s surge after a slow start. | Highlights
Jrue Holiday, Sixers – In a season when Philly fans search for rare and exotic sightings of Bigfoot and Andrew Bynum, the dynamic guard is the reason to go to the games. He’s the only player in league averaging 19 points and nine assists. | Highlights
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers — Look past the Cavs’ 11-32 record at these more pleasant numbers: 20.7 points, 5.7 assists, 39.9 3FG%, 20.7 PER. And the kid is only 20. Are the coaches already buttering him up for free agency? | Highlights
Joakim Noah, Bulls — The numbers say it all — 12.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.3 steals per game. The hyperactive one is having the finest season of his career and symbolizes coach Tom Thibodeau’s driven attitude. | Highlights
The lowdown:The pair of Bulls on the frontline probably squeezed Nets center Brook Lopez out of a spot. Deron Williams would have been everyone’s preseason pick, but struggling with his shot didn’t help. Maybe coaches also didn’t like his griping that led to his coach, Avery Johnson, getting fired. You could have made a case for Boston’s leading scorer Paul Pierce, but with Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo already voted in by the fans, it’s unlikely the coaches wanted to reward the 8th-seeded Celtics with a third man. Do you really see a group of coaches warming up to J.R. Smith? Brandon Jennings of the Bucks and Greg Monroe of the Pistons are just too far under the radar.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers — The plan was to build Blazers into a playoff team next summer. But on a roster with less depth than a wading pool, L.A. scores (20.6), rebounds (8.6) and keeps them as a surprise club in the mix this season. | Highlights
Tim Duncan, Spurs — Oh, so you foolishly left him out of the All-Star Game for the first time last season? Well, the 36-year-old geezer responds by turning back the clock and turning up the heat to keep the Spurs as a real threat in the West. | Highlights
James Harden, Rockets – A bit ironic that The Beard’s first All-Star honor comes just when he’s shot 28-97 (.289) in his last five games. But he’s shown he can carry the mantle of the top dog and will represent the home team in Houston. | Highlights
David Lee, Warriors — Statistically, a no-brainer as the top PF in the West — 19.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists. His biggest challenge was probably splitting votes with teammate Stephen Curry on a Warriors team that has truly surprised. | Highlights
Tony Parker, Spurs – Coach Gregg Popovich keeps ratcheting up the pressure on him every season by raising the bar of great expectation and Parker goes right on clearing it. Seems the coaches understand just how hard that is to do. | Highlights
Zach Randolph, Grizzlies – You could make an argument for teammate Marc Gasol anchoring the defense. But flip the light switch every night and there’s Z-Bo with 16.1 points and 11.6 rebounds, which add up to a league-leading 27 double-doubles. | Highlights
Russell Westbrook, Thunder – The most polarizing player in the NBA has struggled all season with his shot, but ranks in the top five in steals and the top six in assists while churning away with fellow All-Star Kevin Durant to build OKC’s league-best record. | Highlights
The lowdown: As difficult as it was to pare down the list, imagine how much harder things might have been if Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Kevin Love were healthy/up to par. In many cases in the West, it became an intramural competition with Lee beating out Curry, Randolph elbowing Marc Gasol aside and Aldridge getting the nod over rookie Damian Lillard. The surging Nuggets were overlooked, maybe because they’re too well-balanced. The Clippers’ turbo-charger off the bench, Jamal Crawford, was also snubbed. But if anybody’s got a reason to complain here, it’s Curry. a
Besides the Lakers, what’s one thing you didn’t see coming this season?
Steve Aschburner: The Golden State Warriors. No way, no how did I see these guys winning more games by the midpoint than they won last season (23 in 66 vs. 25 in 40), being 12-5 against winning teams, ranking among the top contenders in both offensive and defensive field-goal percentages, showing such road chops, boosting their rebounding diligence and on and on. The personnel changes have been modest but surgical – Landry, Jack, Barnes, Ezeli – while much of the improvement has come from within, with the chemistry and continuity of coach Mark Jackson‘s second season. (Even now, it feels weird writing that whole paragraph.)
Golden State’s Mark Jackson, by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Fran Blinebury: The Clippers challenging for the best record in the league and home-court advantage all the way through the NBA Finals. There was no doubt that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had them moving forward. But after last spring’s playoff sweep by the Spurs, this is a Bob Beamon-like leap ahead. Jamal Crawford has been a turbo-charger and Eric Bledsoe makes the backcourt an embarrassment of riches. Their offense and defense rank in the top five, they are 17-7 against teams with winning records, 13-6 on the road and 22-7 against the West.
Jeff Caplan: I could go negative here and say I didn’t see Boston struggling to this degree, although I was never one who thought they’d barnstorm through the season either. So, allow me to spread sunshine across the land and praise Mark Jackson’s Golden State Warriors, who are 25-15 and playing a total team game that’s entertaining as heck to watch. Oh, and they haven’t even seen Andrew Bogut yet.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Didn’t see these Knicks coming. If anything, I saw them going: going down a notch in New York City thanks to the Nets’ arrival, going away while relying on a lot of AARP members, Raymond Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire. Instead, they’re keeping the pressure on for the top spot in the East. Surprise, surprise.
John Schuhmann: If you told me before the season that the Warriors would win 25 of their first 40 games, rank 12th defensively and rank sixth in rebounding percentage, my response would have been, “Wow, I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew Bogut healthy and playing well.” That they’ve done all that without Bogut is pretty incredible to me. Mark Jackson and Mike Malone deserve credit for devising a defensive system that works for their personnel, and Stephen Curry and David Lee deserves credit for improving on that end of the floor. I’m still looking forward to seeing Bogut healthy and playing well.
Sekou Smith: The Knicks. Given the way they finished last season (getting trounced in that first round matchup against the Heat), I honestly didn’t see a top-two team in the East coming from whatever the Knicks cobbled together over the summer. I didn’t see “Carmelo Anthony, MVP” coming either. But he shut his critics up with some of the best basketball of his career through the first half of this season. The Knicks basically had the first half I was expecting from the Lakers.
Chris Paul was voted an All-Star starter for the Western Conference and Jeremy Lin, after being in contention based on early returns in the NBA’s annual popularity contest, was not. Order has been restored.
That means the West opening lineup went according to what would have been easy preseason predictions — Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard in the frontcourt, Kobe Bryant and Paul at guard — and that means the coach’s vote on the reserves won’t have to use a roster spot to right a wrong at the level of Lin ahead of CP3.
It will be down to the usual hard choices to fill out the roster. This year, that could mean picking between teammates (Stephen Curry or David Lee in Golden State), between teammates at the same position (Memphis reps Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol for the frontcourt), and whether the newest test for a rookie (Damian Lillard) will be patience.
There are always cases to be made. But here are the seven most-deserving selections for the West All-Star bench. (For Steve Aschburner‘s look at the East, click here.)
There are several names. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Tony Parker. Curry. Lillard. Jamal Crawford. There just isn’t much room for debate for the two picks.
Harden is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 ppg and the leader of the sudden recovery in Houston, the host city. Westbrook is top five in assists and steals.
My picks: Westbrook and Harden.
Now we’re talking debate. (And now we’re also talking a little strange to have a year without Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol or Kevin Love.)
Randolph (16.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg) and Lee (19.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg) are double-double power forwards for teams in or pushing for the top half of the playoff race. Gasol (13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg) and Serge Ibaka (14 ppg, 8.3 rpg) can’t keep up statistically, but defense is a major reason their teams are winning at a brisk pace. Tim Duncan, usually a popular pick for coaches in years he is not voted a starter by fans, is at 17.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg in just 30.1 minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge (20.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has helped push the Trail Blazers into playoff contention ahead of schedule. Denver’s Kenneth Faried (12.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg) and Utah’s Al Jefferson (17.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg) may get support.
My picks: Randolph, Duncan and Lee. Randolph likely breezes in. It would be a surprise if Duncan does not make it to Houston, either this way or via the wild card, but it will be interesting to see if Duncan and Parker split votes among coaches around the West for San Antonio representation. The Spurs could get both and deserve both, but some voters may prefer to get more teams involved rather than have two subs from the same team. Lee could be a close call to make it.
THE WILD CARDS
Two players chosen by coaches regardless of position. Some voters may be weighing the other picks — starters and their previous selections by position — and some may simply go for most deserving and not care if the roster is guard-heavy. But everyone mentioned above but not added specifically as frontcourt or guard will be a candidate here.
My picks: Parker and Curry. Parker for sure. If some coaches are debating whether to pick one from Golden State’s Lee-Curry option, Curry deserves a slight edge. The position breakdown could make that moot, though.
DALLAS — Jeremy Lin didn’t hesitate with an honest answer when asked if he feels like an All-Star.
“Uh, no,” he said softly after another choppy performance Wednesday night as the Houston Rockets lost for a fifth consecutive time, unable to claw all the way back from 15 points down despite several chances late to go ahead.
Lin nearly redeemed a poorly played game with a 14-point fourth quarter, but he missed one of his two free throw attempts on two critical trips to the free-throw line in the final two minutes. A badly executed pass in the paint with Houston down three with 14.9 seconds to go for his fourth turnover essentially sealed a 105-100 victory for the suddenly surging Dallas Mavericks, who have won four in a row.
“If I could hit a free throw,” said Lin, who was 6-for-10 from the stripe, “it’d be nice.”
It’s been that kind of season for Lin with the Rockets, who also happen to be the host for the Feb. 17 All-Star Game at Toyota Center. While it’s James Harden – unable to salvage his own brutal shooting night with an aggressive fourth quarter that ended with two failed drives to the rim — who can make a strong case for consideration to be an All-Star starter (although he doesn’t have the fan votes), it is Lin who is being afforded the possibility.
If enough Linsanity fans on at least two continents stuffed the All-Star ballot boxes in the final weeks of fan voting that ended on Monday night, the ex-New York Knicks player and the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent could be an All-Star starter for the West while bumping MVP candidate Chris Paul to the bench.
Starters for both conferences will be announced Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, TNT). At last count two weeks ago, Lin was in third place among West guards, well behind Kobe Bryant, but only about 46,000 votes behind the Clippers‘ sensational Paul. CP3 is averaging 16.8 points and ranks second in the league in assists and first in steals, while pacing his team to a 30-9 record.
“That’s the furthest thing from my mind, to be honest, being on a five-game losing streak,” Lin said after finishing with 19 points and four assists, numbers that blurred a five-point night on 2-for-9 shooting through three quarters. “I don’t even care right now, I’m just trying to get a win.”
The Rockets dropped to 21-19 after racing to a season-best seven games over .500 on January 8. They have a deficient defense, but a team-oriented, jet-pack offense that has challenged West-leading Oklahoma City all season as the league’s top-scoring outfit.
Lately, the offense has sputtered and Lin, averaging 12.3 ppg and 6.3 apg this season — and shooting an abysmal 27.6 percent from beyond the arc — hasn’t matched any of those numbers during the skid.
If Lin sneaks past Paul as a starter, the West coaches who pick the seven reserves will have CP3 at the top of their lists. But a deserving guard among a slew of them producing at an All-Star caliber — from Harden to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Jamal Crawford to Stephen Curry to even rookie Damian Lillard – will unfairly be left off the 12-man roster.
Such is the risk of a fan vote, and especially one that draws from an international fan base.
“I would say I’m doing OK,” Lin said. “But I know I’m capable of more, I know I’m better than what I’ve shown throughout the first half of the season.”
Hardly the tone of an All-Star.
Which is why Lin never hesitated with an honest answer to the question.