Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Caplan’

Believe it Dirk, No. 7 all-time coming soon

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nowitzki optimistic about upcoming season in Big D

DALLAS – When the NBA season opens next Tuesday night with the Dallas Mavericks taking on the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on TNT, two of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game will resume their more than a decade-and-a-half-old rivalry.

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, 38, enters his 18th season, all with the Spurs. Dirk Nowitzki, 36, begins his 17th season, all with the Mavs. Both players have won titles in the last four years and both accepted  significant pay cuts to help keep their teams competitive. And both will continue to climb multiple all-time lists on their way to enshrinement in The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

When it comes to the latter, all eyes will focus on the 7-foot German’s rapid ascension up the NBA’s most coveted list of all — the game’s all-time greatest scorers.

Nowitzki enters the 2014-15 season at No. 10 with 26,786 career points, a number that just doesn’t seem possible to the Wurzburg, Germany native no matter how many times he hears it.

“Not really. That is still weird to me,” Nowitzki said. “All these guys on that list I admired and watched, so that’s weird. That’s weird.”

Thing is, Dirk, it’s going to get weirder. Fast.

Nowitzki is 161 points away from passing No. 9 Hakeem Olajuwon, arguably the league’s greatest foreign-born player. He’s 528 points from passing No. 8 Elvin Hayes and 624 away from passing No. 7 Moses Malone. If Nowitzki averages 20 points a game, he’ll assume No. 7 all-time just 32 games into the season, his first under a new three-year contract.

At that point, he’ll only be about 1,170 points shy of No. 6 Shaquille O’Neal, a takeover that ultimately might have to wait until next season, but it will happen. Nowitzki would need to average around 24 points if he were to play in no fewer than 75 games to do it this season.

He averaged 21.7 points last season and totaled 1,735 points, the most points he’s scored in a season since topping 2,000 in 2009-10. What Nowitzki will average this season will be intriguing. He’s surrounded by the most potent supporting cast since the 2011 title team.

During that championship season, Nowitzki scored 1,681 points. He missed nine consecutive games with a knee injury and struggled for a time after admittedly returning too early as the team fell apart without him. He played 62 games during the lockout season, struggled with knee issues early, and finished with 1,342 points, and followed that with 917 points in 53 games following knee surgery prior to the start of the season 2012-13 season.

Now, with Chandler Parsons adding scoring pop at small forward in place of Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler back at center and Monta Ellis capable of dropping 20 a night, owner Mark Cuban has said he doesn’t expect Nowitzki to average 20 a game. In fact, Cuban said he doesn’t want anyone to average 20 because if that happens it will mean coach Rick Carlisle‘s movement-based offense will be getting everybody involved.

Even if his scoring takes an expected dip (just as his minutes are expected to once again), Nowitzki, assuming good health, will pass Shaq no later than early next season. And by the time he’s closing out his contract, No. 5 Wilt Chamberlain (31,419 points) will likely be making room for Dirk, who now says he might even entertain another couple of years once he reaches that point.

“I think that’ll sink in once my career is over and as I get older and more time goes by, I think that’ll be sweet then,” Nowitzki said. “Right now I’m still so worried about winning games, staying in shape, competing with the young guys that come into the league every year. I think stuff like that is going to be way sweeter once my career is over, and then maybe I show my kids and grandkids. That will be unbelievable.”

Duncan begins the season at No. 19 with 24,904 points. He will also continue up the charts with No. 17 Jerry West (25,192), No. 16 Reggie Miller (25,279) and No. 15 Alex English (25,613) all in striking distance before the All-Star break.

However, how high Duncan moves up depends on how two more still-chugging future Hall of Famers do. No. 18 Paul Pierce (25,031) begins his 17th season and first with the Wizards, and No. 14 Kevin Garnett (25,626) is looking for a bounce-back with the Nets in his 20th season.

Blogtable: Down, but on its way up

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: Questions for the Cavs | The scoring champ | Utah, Orlando or Sacramento?



VIDEO: The Jazz finally may be on the right track

> Which of these down-on-its-luck franchises strikes you as on the fastest track forward: Utah, Sacramento or Orlando?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Give me Orlando. They strike me as having the best fit of young pieces – Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Mo Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon – to develop together, if they can manage to score enough points along the way. Sacramento should have been better by now, and for every Kings player who intrigues me, there’s another who cancels out the optimism. Utah’s talent is good but a new coach and system suggests a reset of the learning curve.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Can I say Philadelphia?  Even with more bumps and plenty of pain ahead this season, the Sixers are stacking young talent and will get more from the 2015 Draft. But if you’re making me pick from these three, I’ll go with the one that has the best player. That’s the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins, for all the known questions about attitude, could be a franchise-carrying talent. The Jazz and Magic are scoops of vanilla ice cream: filling but hardly exciting.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I keep wanting to believe in the Kings, to believe in DeMarcus Cousins, to believe in new ownership, new management and coach Mike Malone. But, man, they really make it hard. In Orlando, I do like their young talent, but I’m not sold on Jacque Vaughn at the helm and I think there will be a coaching change at some point. Utah has fully committed to a youth movement and I’m sold on Trey Burke and have high hopes for Dante Exum as a game-changing playmaker. Gordon Hayward has to step it up to an All-Star-caliber level, so we’ll see about that, but there’s other young, emerging talent and more picks in the trove. They got the coach question out of the way and Quin Snyder will breathe some freshness into the program. Maybe this is my West bias coming into play, but I’ll take Utah over Orlando by a smidgen.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comOrlando. For one thing, the Magic are in the East, which gives them an easier path to the back of the playoff pack, even this season despite a lot of youth. For another: Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. That’s a nice foundation built on defense and rebounding. They obviously have a lot of growing to do while relying heavily on two rookies and a second-year player, but that’s a lot of potential for the fast track.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’m not very excited about the 2-3 year prospects of any of these teams. The Kings have the best player of the three, but nothing around DeMarcus Cousins (or a clear plan of action) that says they definitely have a shot at making the playoffs in the next three years. The Magic and Jazz both have a decent collection of young talent, including rookie guards – Elfrid Payton and Dante Exum – with high ceilings, but nobody that is definitely a future All-Star. If I have to take one team, I’ll take Orlando, just because they’re in the Eastern Conference, where a playoff spot can be had with a decent amount of talent and good coaching.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: All three of the these teams believe they have the ideal core group in place for lift off. The promise of what could be always rules the day in lottery land. The one place where I believe that there has been a true altering of the DNA for the better is in Utah. The continued stockpiling of versatile, young talent is at a point where the process can be accelerated a bit this season. Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Dante Exum, Alec Burks and even new coach Quin Snyder will operate without the added pressure of playoff expectations, which are not realistic for the Kings or Magic either. The Kings and Magic, however, are still sorting through their talent base to see who does and does not fit. The Jazz already know who and what they have.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Utah and Orlando are each inching forward, not a slowly as Philadelphia, but at intentionally deliberate paces. But from the ownership down, Sacramento seems like a team that doesn’t want to wait any longer. While Utah and Orlando each have a few nice young pieces, the Kings have players like DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay who are further along than most of the guys in Orlando and Utah. They’ve got a new arena on the way, and there seems to be a real urgency to win and win now.

Blogtable: Concerns for the Cavaliers

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: Questions for the Cavs | The scoring champ | Utah, Orlando or Sacramento?



VIDEO: Sekou Smith takes a quick look at the 2014-15 Cavaliers

> Outside of injury, what do you see as the biggest concern for the Cavs, something that might not work as anticipated? Could it keep Cleveland from the East finals?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comMy biggest Cav-eat, so to speak, pertains to their size. Anderson Varejao has been prone to breakdowns, Brendan Haywood is 34, Kevin Love is outside half the time and everyone else is 6-foot-9 or shorter. But Miami overcame a similar “bigs” problem in the paint and I think Cleveland will, too. If Chicago figures out how to stay healthy and fresh for the postseason, maybe that trips up the Cavs. Otherwise, LeBron James will play in his fifth consecutive Finals.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comDefense. All indications from the preseason are the Cavs have plenty of offensive firepower. But the question is whether they can stop opponents, especially in the fourth quarter. I expect that to be a running theme throughout the season.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comWithout getting too technical here, defense has to be at the top of the list, right? Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love haven’t exactly stamped their careers as being stoppers. Anderson Varejao needs to stay healthy for interior protection (sorry, you said, outside of injury). Yes, if the Cavs turn out to be a porous defensive squad and make LeBron run all over the place, it could keep them out of the East finals — that is if they’re playing the Bulls in the second round.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Just the obvious: It takes time. Grand success doesn’t always happen right away. Ask 2010-11 LeBron, the first season in Miami. The Cavaliers have some (not all) unselfish players and experience and talent, but there will be a transition period with so many new people and a new system with the coach. Maybe that transition period will be a couple months. Maybe it will be the season.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comDefense is clearly concern No. 1. Their offense is going to be ridiculous, with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James attacking and plenty of guys to place the floor. But their best offensive lineups – James at the four and Kevin Love at the five – aren’t going to be great defensive lineups. And their interior defenders – Brendan Haywood and Anderson Varejao – have each had problems staying healthy. That’s not keeping them from the conference finals, though.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: If we’re excluding injury and the Chicago Bulls, I’d argue the Cavs have all of the human resources to get to wherever they are aiming to go this season. Still, there are chemistry concerns for this group headlined by LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving that still bother me just days away from the start of the regular season. The sacrifices that will have to be made by not only the marquee stars but also role players like Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and others should not be overlooked. This is a five-man game and the Cavs need to make sure they have the right five to ride through the regular season and into the postseason. Any glitch in that chemistry matrix could derail the championship plans.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogDefense. Obviously there are a lot of moving parts and stuff to figure out for the Cavaliers this season, but I think the offense is the least of their worries. Worst case scenario, you put Kyrie on one wing and LeBron on the other and let them go one-on-one against their defenders, with Kevin Love grabbing rebounds. But defense is the one place where they can’t just get by on talent. They don’t have a rim protector, and other than LeBron, none of their starters are really known for his defensive ability. Time will tell if they’re able to implement a system where they’re able to cover for each other. A defensive deficiency may not matter in terms of escaping the Eastern Conference, but when you’re facing a team like San Antonio without a strong defense in place … well, I think we all saw how that can go.

Blogtable: Putting up big numbers

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: Questions for the Cavs | The scoring champ | Utah, Orlando or Sacramento?


> ‘Melo says it won’t be him. LeBron’s not worried about scoring and has other weapons. KD is hurting for awhile. Do you see a new scoring champ this year?

Carmelo Anthony (Ned Dishman/NBAE)

Carmelo Anthony
(Ned Dishman/NBAE)

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comRussell Westbrook has the tools and the mentality, but he’ll be back to sharing the OKC offense with Durant soon enough. So I’m going with Houston’s James Harden, who will be able to play just selfishly enough – based on what the Rockets will need from him – to chase the scoring crown.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comHello, James Harden. He’s coming off consecutive seasons of averaging more than 25 points per game (ranked 5th in 2014), the Rockets have lost a considerable bit of their punch from last year in Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin and that likely means Harden will be asked/needed to put up more shots to fill the void. He’s never had to be asked twice to shoot more.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Well that was nice of ‘Melo to take himself out of the scoring race, sort of how Kevin Durant bowed out late in the 2012-13 season to sort of let ‘Melo get his one scoring title. But, geez, looking at the Knicks’ roster, it seems to me that ‘Melo’s gonna have to light it up nighty. But since he says he’s out, we’ll omit him. And let’s say Durant won’t come back and take it, and surmise that LeBron James will spread the wealth with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. So go to the next guy on the list, and last year that was James Harden. With Chandler Parsons now firing 3s in Dallas, Harden has even more opportunity to pump in the points, and, quite frankly, the Rockets just might need him to score 30 a night.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Sets up nicely for Stephen Curry, doesn’t it? I don’t agree with Carmelo’s premise, and I won’t count Durant out, but for the sake of conversation, Curry is a solid choice with the Warriors emphasizing ball movement. Just what the rest of the league needs. Steph getting more open looks. And Paul George should be mentioned in the question among the missing. If not for the knee injury, I probably would have gone with him for the non-Melo, non-LeBron, non-KD scoring title.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comI don’t believe Carmelo. Yes, he’s being asked to move the ball more in the Triangle offense. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t still get his shots or that the Knicks won’t still rely on him to carry their offense. And they’re going to need a lot of offense, because their defense will be pretty poor. I wouldn’t take Melo against the field, but he’s my pick.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comNo. I don’t care what Carmelo thinks or says, it’s his scoring title to lose, even with the new triangle-based offense in New York. But that doesn’t mean there are not plenty of eager candidates — James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and others — willing to step into the fray and chase that top spot. The truly elite, scoring championship chasers are far and few between. There are only a handful of them playing at any given time, and even fewer of them who stay healthy long enough and stay locked in long enough and consistently enough to stay in the mix for an entire season. Triangle or not, it’s ‘Melo’s title to lose.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHow about Kobe? Have you watched the Lakers in the preseason? Kobe is taking a lot of shots — in the last two games combined he’s taken 45 field goals and 24 free throws. The Lakers probably aren’t going to be very good, but Kobe’s gonna be Kobe, which means he’ll keep getting buckets and will play as many minutes as he possibly can. And if he’s in the mix for scoring leader with a few months to go, that might be the only thing the Lakers have to play for.

Forgotten Villanueva hopes to stick

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

DALLAS – Charlie Villanueva could have packed his sneakers, walked away from the game and lived a happy life with his wife and two young kids wherever they so pleased, and no one might ever have noticed he’d left.

Memphis Grizzlies v Dallas Mavericks

Charlie Villanueva is looking to turn a non-guaranteed training camp invite into a full-time spot on the Mavericks.
Danny Bollinger/NBAE/Getty Images

It’s been that long since the 6-foot-11, sweet-shooting, headband-wearing Villanueva — once a No. 7 overall pick and once an ascending player with the Bucks who became the Pistons’ prized, $37-million free-agent acquisition — did much of anything in the league.

What should have been prime years of his career instead wasted away on Detroit’s bench, Villanueva rendered impotent by a toxic mix of various and seemingly unending injuries, a frustrating coaching carousel and a series of organizational missteps. He became the NBA’s forgotten man.

“I think a lot of people forgot about what Charlie Villanueva can do,” he told NBA.com on Monday night, seated in the corner of the Dallas Mavericks’ locker room, awaiting preseason game No. 6 of eight of his hopeful resurrection. “Sometimes you’ve got to take two steps backward to take three steps forward. It’s just what happened in my career. But now I’m trying to change things around. I’m trying to reinvent myself.”

For the last five weeks, Villanueva, 30, has lived out of a couple of suitcases at the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas, a 1.2-mile walk to the American Airlines Center and Mavs headquarters, leaving behind his family in Michigan. He agreed on Sept. 23 to come to training camp on a non-guaranteed contract.

“I’m not used to this, but everything happens for a reason, so I’m going with the punches,” Villanueva said. “I’ve spent a lot of time by myself. I’m away from my family now, away from the kids, a lot of alone time and a lot of eating meals alone.”

The Clippers were a potential option, but no guaranteed money was being offered there either. He chose Dallas, saying it just felt right, even though it already has the maximum 15 players on guaranteed contracts. If Villanueva is going to make the team, he’s going to have to convince owner Mark Cuban (who is open to being convinced) to trade (Gal Mekel?) or buy out (Bernard James?) a player on a guaranteed deal.

“I had a great conversation with coach [Rick Carlisle] and I just felt there was a serious opportunity here if I do my part,” Villanueva said. “I love the team, I love the city and I felt like every guy complemented each other real well, and this team is real deep as well. I felt why not go for the challenge and see what happens?”

The opportunity is real. The Mavs have long searched for a true stretch-4 to back up Dirk Nowitzki to maintain the offensive flow when he sits. Small forward Shawn Marion, now in Cleveland with LeBron James, was strong enough to move up a weight class when Nowitzki rested. Marion’s replacement, the 6-foot-10 sharpshooter Chandler Parsons, will be asked to play some power forward. The Mavs also acquired Al-Farouq Aminu, who Dallas coaches are taking great care to refine his defensive skills and 3-point shot. Brandan Wright plays more center than power forward because his best offensive skill is rolling to the basket.

The 240-pound, floor-spacing Villanueva seems the fit Dallas has been seeking. The Mavs signed Rashard Lewis in July, but voided the contract after discovering an injury, something that finally isn’t the first thing mentioned when Villanueva’s name comes up.

“Oh, I feel good. I haven’t felt this good in a while, man,” Villanueva said. “Feeling good, in great shape, healthy, just excited about basketball again.”

Within the Mavs’ organization there seems a genuine interest in getting Villanueva on the roster.

“He’s an extremely intelligent basketball player and he knows what he can and can’t do,” Carlisle said. “Those are the kind of guys that you like to have … He’s done a good job. He’s making a strong case.”

His start to the preseason — 32 points, 8-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc and nine rebounds in 35 minutes spread over three games — was more promising than his last three games — 13 points, 2-for-10 on 3s and five rebounds in 25 minutes over three games. He played just six minutes in Monday’s game against Memphis, the type of team with a big front line that would figure to make Villanueva valuable to Dallas. However, one weaknesses so far has been his low-post defense.

“I definitely feel like [I've been] given a fair shot,” Villanueva said. “I felt good about my chances, but at the end of the day, until I hear that word, I can’t be comfortable, I can’t get this monkey off my back.”

He’s far removed from 16.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 2008-09, the season that convinced Detroit to make him a swift and lucrative offer the ensuing summer. It’s been a long five years since. He essentially disappeared.

His five-year deal with Detroit finally up, having played only limited minutes in just 102 games over the last three seasons, Villanueva could have convinced himself to walk away, to enjoy his family and pursue new interests.

But he couldn’t walk away. It’s been a training camp like none other for Villanueva. Now two preseason games remain. The regular season begins next Tuesday.

“I love playing basketball,” Villanueva said. “I’m feeling good, feeling healthy, so trying to maximize my abilities until they take the basketball away from me.”

Conley wants All-Star, wants wins more

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill are in Mike Conley’s corner

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – So yeah, Mike Conley, one of the truly Mr. Nice Guys in the NBA, wants to see his name in lights as a Western Conference All-Star.

Mike Conley (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Mike Conley (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care about making the All-Star team. That would be the ultimate honor,” Conley told NBA.com last week. “But I also understand the way things shake out, especially being in the West, there’s a lot of good guys out there. I’m going to put myself in position, that’s all I can do; just play well and do what’s best for the team first. If we win games, we as individuals get noticed, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Conley didn’t even get a sniff in fan voting last year, and West coaches again overlooked him as a backup. It didn’t matter that he was on his way to averaging a career-best 17.2 points; or continued to extend his range beyond the 3-point arc (he made 36.1 percent on a career-high 4.0 attempts); or committed to attacking the rack more (his 548 drives ranked 15th in the league and, for comparison’s sake, were more than All-Stars John Wall and James Harden); or that he rarely turned it over (his 8.6 turnovers per 100 possessions ranked third among point guards behind Chris Paul and Jose Calderon); or that he’s strong on defense; or that his leadership was key for a 50-win team that got off to a disturbingly sluggish start under a new coach and then lost center Marc Gasol for a good chunk of of the season.

The quiet Conley knows even his best might not be loud enough in a conference loaded with noise-makers. Think about it: Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook didn’t even play in last year’s All-Star Game because of injuries. Bryant is a virtual lock to be voted in by the fans and Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, is likely to regain his reserve spot, especially if he elevates his play with Kevin Durant out for the first month.

While Conley steers Memphis’ methodical, inside-out offense, he’s watched Stephen Curry zoom to superstardom — even beat out Paul as a starter last year — and cold-blooded youngster Damian Lillard make the All-Star team as a reserve in his second season in the league. Knocking on the door is a long list of hopefuls: Ty Lawson, Suns teammates Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, plus Ricky Rubio and Jrue Holiday, an East All-Star two years ago. Not to mention four-time champ Tony Parker.

And those are just the point guards.

“It’s fun to be in this era of basketball where there’s so many great players, so many great guards, especially in the West where I get to play against them four times a year,” Conley said. “Every night you have your hands full no matter who you’re playing. That goes across the board. Every night you’re playing against a top-notch guard or a top-notch-caliber player, so you have to have your mind right, be focused and be on your best game.”

Conley’s best bet to crash the Big Apple All-Star bash this season is, as he said, to get the Grizzlies off to a fast start and steal the headlines. He believes Memphis is positioned to do just that.

“We’re going to be a team that people are going to hate to face, and have a chance to be considered as one of the teams contending for a title,” said Conley, who is entering his eight season in the league. “Going into the end of [last] year we started finally playing our basketball. We fought our way back into the playoffs and feel like we’re still on the up-and-up from that last run that we had.”

All that seemed to be spinning out of the players’ control during a very strange start to the offseason. Young owner Robert Pera wiped out the front office that had wiped out former coach Lionel Hollins, and before that had wiped out newly reinstated general manager Chris Wallace. Coach Dave Joerger, who took over for Hollins last year, interviewed with Minnesota before agreeing to stay in Memphis, where he arrived as an assistant in 2007, two years before Hollins took over and began to turn the program around.

“It was a little weird right after being in the playoffs and the first month or so of the summertime was a bunch of uneasy, unsure feelings,” Conley said. “Not knowing what coach’s situation was, what management’s was, you just kind of had to sit back and let all that play out. Luckily, I think things worked out for the best for us, and I’m glad that’s behind us and we’re able to focus on going forward.”

Yes, there finally does appear to be a calm and optimism in Memphis. Zach Randolph, suspended for last year’s first-round Game 7 loss to Oklahoma City, received the extension he wanted. Vince Carter was signed to knock down 3-pointers and Quincy Pondexter, injured almost all of last season after starting to emerge in the 2013 postseason, is a key returnee around an ego-free core that’s come of age together.

“When Lionel was here, a lot of us were still young, still learning and still trying to improve in a lot of different areas,” Conley said. “Now with the help of Lionel grooming us, to now Joeger — we’re doing the same things — he’s got us in our prime and we’re playing great basketball.”

Five questions for OKC after Durant’s surgery


VIDEO: Coach Scott Brooks describes how the loss of Durant impacts the Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin Durant had surgery on his fractured right foot on Thursday, the team announced. He will be evaluated in six weeks. By then, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be 16 games into a most unusual season.

Durant’s injury obviously will have wide-ranging effects, from whom coach Scott Brooks will start at small forward, which could determine who then starts at the vacant shooting guard spot, to which players with previously limited roles are in line for significantly more playing time.

Durant last season averaged 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists and led the Thunder in 3-point shooting percentage. He won the MVP. So there’s plenty of making-up to do.

Here’s five questions the Thunder face with their regular-season opener 13 days away:

1. Who will replace Durant in the starting lineup?

Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are the two main candidates. Lamb, the 6-foot-5 wing, is also a candidate to start at shooting guard, although Brooks seems feel most comfortable with the second-year, defensive-minded shooting guard Andre Roberson. Roberson has started all three preseason games, and if he maintains the starting spot — which he manned last season when Russell Westbrook was out and Reggie Jackson took over point guard — that would allow Lamb to start at small forward. Jones is a 6-11 forward and a rare Thunder first-round pick who has yet to earn much beyond spot work in his first two seasons. His shooting range is improving and he’s athletic, but he’d have to prove he can guard NBA wings. The bigger issue with Jones here is he’s not much of an offensive threat, or at least we can’t claim that he is or could be because we just haven’t seen much of him. Without Durant and with Roberson at shooting guard, the Thunder will desperately need scoring threats around Westbrook. That would seem to give the edge to Lamb, an inconsistent shooter to be sure, but a player the Thunder hopes can become a valued slasher and 3-point shooter. His long, lanky frame can also be beneficial on the defensive end.

2. Since OKC needs scoring threats in the starting lineup, what does that mean at center?

Brooks is an extremely loyal coach and he loves to stick with his guys through thick and thin. That is obviously the case with center Kendrick Perkins. For everything you might think Kendrick can’t do — or no longer does well — Brooks will give you two things he loves about him. But Perkins’ starting days should be coming to an end. Even before Durant’s injury, Brooks claimed the starting position was up for grabs. Well, second-year center Steven Adams is grabbing it. He’s been excellent through three preseason games, averaging 18.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.7 minutes. Those are numbers Perkins couldn’t touch even during his heyday in Boston. Not that Stevens could sustain such lofty production, but he continues to show he has great hands to catch-and-finish, he’s developed a nice rapport with Westbrook and he’s not afraid of physical play. Perkins has been out since the start of training camp with a quad injury, which makes only more sense for him to come off the bench as he rounds back into shape. Get ready Thunder fans who’ve been clamoring for Perkins to sit, Adams is making it possible for you to get your wish.

3. How will this affect Russell Westbrook?

Twitter is full of smarty-pants suggesting that Durant’s absence is the point guard’s green light to jack up 40 shot a night. Maybe in his dreams, Westbrook sees himself running circles through defenses like stationary pylons, dunking at the rim, slapping his imaginary guns into his imaginary holster after splashing endless 3s and draining his trademark high-rising free-throw jumper at will as teammates stand and golf-clap his virtuosity. Back in reality, Westbrook just might surprise the masses who doubt he can be a team player. But that’s been the goal even before Durant’s injury. The Thunder, like most teams, want to move the ball, get more players involved, be more, well, Spurs-like. At the start of training camp, Westbrook addressed the topic and even said: “There should be something that you see new from us.” Maybe it was just talk, but Westbrook seems sincere when he talks about getting everybody involved. Maybe Tuesday’s preseason win against Memphis, the first game without Durant, was a preview. Westbrook played 26 minutes and scored 14 points with 12 assists. He took just 10 shots and OKC scored 117 points in a 10-point win. If this is the model for how Westbrook will approach the season, the Thunder could well be a better team when Durant returns.

4. What about Reggie Jackson? He says he badly wants to start. What does this do for that cause?

Not much. Brooks has already declared Westbrook as the best point guard in the NBA, so he’s probably not going to then move Westbrook to shooting guard to allow Jackson to start at the point. As for Jackson starting at shooting guard, it makes OKC small in the backcourt and Jackson’s playmaking and scoring punch is too valuable off the bench. But surely Jackson sees the bigger picture. He’s eligible for an extension at the end of the month, which might not happen (and it’s probably beneficial for his value not to sign an extension), and would make him a restricted free agent next summer. Even coming off the bench, Jackson is going to play starters minutes and finish games. Without Durant he instantly becomes a top scoring option, so he could set himself up for a big scoring season, which will only inflate his value next summer. If Jackson decides to mope about not starting over a less accomplished player such as Roberson or Jones, or even Lamb, the Thunder will have trouble. But Jackson has never shown to be that type of player.

5. Is there a wild card on the Thunder roster?

His name is Anthony Morrow. As Brooks mentioned at the start of training camp, the team actually has a player with a higher 3-point percentage than Durant. The Thunder could have used him last season, but better late than never. Morrow has never been able to stick with any one team during his career, but the Thunder offers a unique situation where he really can solely focus on shooting 3s (and mix in a little defense). With Durant out, defenses will focus on Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka, who has become one of the best mid-range, pick-and-pop shooters in the league, and if Morrow can knock down 3s at his career rate of 42.8 percent, he could certainly see more minutes than his career average of 23.7, at least until Durant returns. Through three preseason games, Morrow is averaging 16.7 points and is 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. He’s also managed to get to the free-throw line, making all 14 of his attempts. Morrow’s accuracy could be the single most effective weapon in replacing Durant’s scoring.

Can LeBron’s new ‘mates stay healthy?

cavs

If the Cavaliers hope to win a championship this season, they’ll need both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on the floor for the majority of games. (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Injuries unfortunately are making headlines again this preseason with seemingly a bushel of six-to-eight-week-type setbacks, Kevin Durant‘s right foot and Bradley Beal‘s left wrist being two of the most recent and most prominent.

Injuries to key players certainly can derail a season. Last year, Dwyane Wade‘s status was of constant concern to the Heat, and although he said otherwise, Wade seemed to labor through the NBA Finals. His ongoing knee maintenance and uncertainty of his availability week to week, and sometimes even game to game, was also the primary reason why it made sense for LeBron James to take his talents back to Cleveland and join a younger cast.

Wade missed 58 games over the last three seasons, 28 last year and there’s no guarantee this season he’ll be able to match the 54 games he played. But be careful. In Cleveland, the seemingly indestructible James (he’s never missed more than seven games in any of his 11 seasons) is paired with two All-Stars with something of an injury track record.

All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving on Wednesday already sat out his third consecutive preseason game with a sprained ankle. In the first quarter of that game, Kevin Love left and did not return because of a stiff neck, an injury that isn’t believed to be serious.

Irving has missed 49 games over the last three seasons, pretty comparable to Wade, who has much more mileage on his body. Love missed 80 games over that same stretch with 64 coming during two different stretches of the 2012-13 season due to a twice-broken hand. He originally broke his right hand in the preseason by, he says, doing knuckle pushups. He returned earlier than expected, played 18 games, and then re-broke the hand. At the end of that season, Love had surgery on his left knee to remove scar tissue.

Love missed just five games in his final frustrating season with Minnesota, and Irving gave the 33-win Cavs 71 games, missing 11. If new coach David Blatt can get anywhere near that availability from each player he’ll be ecstatic.

It’s just impossible to know. Some players seem to be more susceptible to injury than others. Maybe their bodies just aren’t as durable and their body parts succumb more easily. Irving is just 22 years old, but his list of injured body parts from one year at Duke through three seasons in the NBA could fill a medical encyclopedia: toe, biceps, shoulder, hand, finger, jaw, knees and now ankle.

Does it make him injury prone, or snake-bit? Does it mean he’ll always be one misstep away from trading in his uniform for a sport coat and a spot on the bench? Or is he just as likely to play all 82 games this season as he is to miss 10 games, or 20 games?

As Durant, who had missed only 16 of 558 regular-season games through his first seven seasons, said just 12 days before the Oklahoma City Thunder medical staff informed him he fractured his right foot and will miss up to two months: “You can get hurt walking outside. You hear that a lot, but you can get hurt anywhere. Freak accidents happen. But I’ve been playing this game so long that I know at any moment that something can happen.”

Love logged 36.3 minutes in 77 games last season. His injury history isn’t as ominous as Irving’s, but again, injuries are fickle. Love was already a bit banged up before the neck issue after he banged knees with Jabari Parker the night before.

As a rookie, Love played in 81 games. The next season he missed 22 games after he broke his left hand after banging it against a teammate’s elbow (does one of the league’s best rebounders and sweetest shooters have weak hands, or inexplicably bad luck with his hands?). In 2010-11, he missed nine games and then 11 the next season.

Health of course is a must for all teams. But for the championship-dreaming Cavaliers, already feeling a slight pinch from the injury bug, the ability for Irving and Love to remain on the floor with LeBron in their first season together is critical.

Is it possible? No one can answer that.

Blogtable: LeBron’s MVP challenger

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: Darkhorse MVP | Best backcourt | Speeding up the game


> Kevin Durant is likely out of the MVP picture, making LeBron the clear frontrunner. Who is your darkhorse MVP candidate?

Chris Paul (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Chris Paul (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I don’t think Durant is out of MVP contention simply because he’ll miss games — if OKC were to sputter along below .500 without him, then win at an .800 clip with him, that would make all the MVP case he’d need. But I’ll play along: If James doesn’t win his fifth MVP, I’m guessing Chris Paul pushes the Clippers to something special out West and snags it. Media voters love imbuing point guards will all sorts of bonus intangibles that say “valuable” (which is why Chicago’s Derrick Rose could get back in the conversation, too).

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I’m not sure you would label Chris Paul as a dark horse. But in the  second year under Doc Rivers and with the door opened by OKC, the Clippers could make a run at best record in the West/league and that could push CP3 over the top. Way outside in dark would be Anthony Davis, if he can somehow lead the Pelicans into the playoffs.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comStephen Curry. I’ve been a believer since the day Steve Kerr was hired that Golden State is going to have a fun and loose squad that will play the same way. They’ll maintain the defensive principles, but Kerr will usher in a much more appealing, go-go offense that is going to play right into Curry’s hands. He’s set to go bonkers, folks, and the Warriors (health be with them) will follow.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: On the assumption that by darkhorse you mean “Anyone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant”: Anthony Davis. The problem for Davis is that this will depend a lot on his teammates — the Pelicans are in position to make the playoffs, but if they miss, AD MVP would be a hard campaign to win. The problem for the rest of the league, meanwhile, is that he is ready to burst to the next level. He is established as a superstar into the next decade. The only question is whether that future arrives in 2014-15.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose would likely split the vote in Chicago, while Blake Griffin and Chris Paul would do the same in L.A. The Spurs are too balanced and the Pelicans won’t be good enough for Anthony Davis’ candidacy. So I’ll go with Stephen Curry, with the idea that the Warriors will improve offensively (into the top seven in efficiency) and win 50-plus games again, with Curry averaging something in the range of 25 points and 10 assists.

Blake Griffin (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Blake Griffin (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Sekou Smith, NBA.comI don’t know that “darkhorse” is the right word to use for what Russell Westbrook will be this season, but he’s my guy. With Kevin Durant out of the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup for up to two months, Russ West will have the MVP platform that has eluded him the past couple of seasons. He’s certainly played like one at times. But there has always been the Durant factor that kept him from getting the sort of MVP love his production deserved. I know his performance comes with the high-risk, high-reward factor that has always driven his biggest critics a bit crazy. But he won’t be denied if the Thunder can stay afloat in the West without Durant the way they did last season when Westbrook was recovering from his knee surgery.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogHow about Russell Westbrook? For basically his entire NBA career, Westbrook has been judged almost solely based in relation to the production of his teammate, Kevin Durant. But with Durant gone, we may finally get to see maximum Westbrook, where he can take as many shots as he wants and drive to the basket as often as he wants. Durant and Westbrook account for the bulk of OKC’s offense, so without Durant there’s a lot of making up to do. But if the Thunder manage to not just survive but thrive without Durant, it could go a long way toward proving Westbrook’s value to his squad.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italy: My dark horse is… Kevin Durant. I don’t see him out of the race, even if he’s going to miss the first 20 games of the season. But he’ll have 62 more games to show everybody he deserves the prize. He’s getting closer and closer to LeBron and I’m sure he’ll continue to do that when he’ll be back. If I have to pick a name different from LeBron and KD, then I’m going with Chris Paul: the Clippers have a new spirit thanks to Steve Ballmer and he can be the guy who guide them at the top of the West.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: Tony Parker could win it! It can go down like the Oscars: you know, when an actor wins the award not for the movie that he just made, but for those he had done before that. If that’s the case, then Tony Parker could win the MVP trophy, one season after the spectacular things he did with the Spurs. It’ll help his cause if San Antonio will wrap up another 55+ season and finish at the top.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I’m going with Blake Griffin. His offensive repertoire expanded last season and with more improvement in his game this season he should be a top candidate. There’s more tricks to his game than just dunking, he’s now a legitimate post presence and has an expanding jump shot. The next evolution of his game could be a 3-point shot. Griffin attempted 44 threes last season, hitting just 27 percent of them, but it appears that he’s testing out a 3-point shot in the preseason. Last week he showed glimpses of an expanding shot from the corner, an element that will give his game and the Clippers’ offense a new dimension. Speaking of the Clippers, they’re a legitimate contender to win the West and that generally helps when the MVP is voted on.

Takuma Oikawa, NBA Japan: Blake Griffin of the Clippers. He was in the running last season, and now is one of a real top candidate. His shooting skill seems like better than last season and he can score more points by jump shot from the perimeter this season. Kevin Durant’s injured and LeBron James will share the ball more than Heat era. So I think Griffin has a big chance to get MVP, if he keeps his condition.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Chris Paul. I really believe the Clippers’ point guard, the best in the league, has to elevate his game this season if the Clippers are to go to the next level. Doc Rivers’ arrival changed the Clippers for better, but until Paul takes his game to a whole new level, these Clippers will continue to stumble in the poststeason. I think somewhere CP3 realises this as well. He will want to come out aggressive and leave his stamp on this season through an MVP performance.

Juan Carlos Campos, NBA Mexico: The theory would indicate that yes, LeBron James has a clear and relatively easy path to be the league’s MVP this year. With that said, I think that Stephen Curry is more than ready to take the leap into super stardom and compete hand to hand with “King” James to be named the most valuable this season. Already in the pre-season he’s shown signs of that – just ask Kobe Bryant.

Abraham Romero, NBA Spain: Blake Griffin. The Clippers and Cavs have the best roster and Blake has improved his game to an amazing level: he can dunk, shoot, rebound, assist … If LeBron relaxes a bit in Cleveland … the MVP goes to L.A.

Blogtable: The NBA’s best backcourt

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: Darkhorse MVP | Best backcourt | Speeding up the game


Stephen Curry (left) and Klay Thompson enjoy a taste of gold medal at the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Stephen Curry (left) and Klay Thompson enjoy a taste of gold medal at the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

> Lots of talk this preseason, little resolution: So, which team has the best backcourt in the NBA (when everybody’s healthy)?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Since you didn’t specify “starting” backcourt, I’m going with the team entry and saying the San Antonio Spurs. They’re the only defending-champion backcourt in the entire NBA. (That said, I’d love to hear Lance Stephenson answer this in an unguarded moment about himself and Kemba Walker. Would anticipate bravado and entertainment.)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: If they’re healthy and it’s June, I want Parker and Ginobili. Over the full 82 games, give me the dynamic talent, youth and sheer brashness of Curry and Thompson.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: It’s really hard not to designate Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for this distinction, but there’s a good reason why Suns management and ownership caved and paid Eric Bledsoe all that money, right? The Bledsoe-Goran Dragic combo is my pick, just a couple of hard-nosed, hustling, penetrating, 3-point shooting, defensive-minded point guards sharing the same backcourt. In the 38 games they played together (Bledsoe missed 39 games with a knee injury), they had a 108.4 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and 97.4 defensive rating, plus a True Shooting percentage of 55.7.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comGolden State over (in no particular order) Washington, Toronto and Phoenix. That’s if you’re asking about starters. If that qualifier is off, Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili should be in any conversation that has to do with best tandems, and not just in the backcourt. The Warriors get the edge because not only are Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson electric scorers, but Thompson is the kind of defender that can check multiple positions and Curry has improved as a distributor to where he is dangerous with the pass as well.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ll take Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is one of the two or three toughest matchups in the league, as one of the best shooters in the world, with the ball in his hands all the time. Thompson is another great shooter and a solid wing defender. But there are a ton of other backcourts — Brooklyn (if you count Joe Johnson as a two), Chicago, the Clippers, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, Toronto and Washington — who you could consider if you’re putting together a top-five list.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Everyone wants to claim top honors, even backcourts that have yet to play regular season minutes together. All things being equal and with each group at their best, I don’t know you could be more explosive and more dynamic than the group the Golden State Warriors can throw at you. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are two of the best shooters/scorers in the game. Adding a wild card like Shaun Livingston to this already potent mix (which also includes swingman Andre Iguodala) makes this the most dynamic crew in the game, in my opinion.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: There are three pairs of players that to me jump out as being above the rest, and I mean that in terms of their offense and their defense. in no particular order: Golden State (Curry and Thompson); Toronto (Lowry and DeRozan); Washington (Wall and Beal). If I had to pick one from that trio of duos, I’d probably go with Curry and Thompson, even though Curry’s defense can lapse below average. But I think Wall and Beal aren’t far behind them, and have the advantage of youth on their side.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: Love the question! Reminds me of my NBA Jam years. Boomshakalaka! The best NBA back-court is the “Spash Brothers”, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The make a great duo, they play excellent together (in Golden State, in Team USA) and they make a deadly one-two punch from beyond the arc.

Abraham Romero, NBA Spain: The Warrriors with the ‘Splash Brothers’ Curry and Thompson are in the top right now. More points than any backcourt in the last regular season.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italy: Easy W for Golden State here. The Splash Brothers are too good together to be compared to other backcourts: high shooting and passing skills, very high basketball IQ, they can win the games by themselves or play with their teammates. I think the Wizards’ Wall-Beal backcourt can have a chance to get close to the Splash Brother this year, but they both have to improve their respective overall game.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: The Splash Brothers! They scored more points per game than any other backcourt, had the best 3-point percentage and outscored their opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions when they were both on the floor. They can also exploit opponents in a number of ways. Curry may be the best shooter in the game and can hit all types of whacky shots off-the-dribble, his passing game seems to improve all the time and when he gets strong defensive coverage, he dishes it off to Klay. Thompson shot 41.7 percent from deep on 535 attempts and have improved as a perimeter defender, making up for some of Steph’s defensive lapses. Klay’s offensive game has expanded as well, including post-ups, slashing and even handling and penetrating. I just wish he’d pass more!

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I don’t see any reason why we should look at anyone else other than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for the Golden State Warriors. Former head coach Mark Jackson already anointed them the greatest backcourt ever.  Those two guys played a big part in Team USA’s win at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in the offseason as well. The ‘Splash brothers’ can light up at any time, turning an entire ballgame on its head.

Takuma Oikawa, NBA Japan: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors. Their shooting skill is one of the most dangerous in the league. They can shoot from every area on the court and make clutch shot.  Curry can handle the ball and Thompson can defend. Additionally, they can pass. If they played a 2-on-2 tournament, I think they’d beat all other teams.