Posts Tagged ‘Jermaine O’Neal’

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

George Is A Perfect Fit For Pacers





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Paul George‘s birth certificate confirms what everyone already knows: he’s a Southern California native through and through, something the Indiana Pacers’ young star is extremely proud of. But he couldn’t be more of a Hoosier if he tried.

From his relentless work ethic to his off-court sensibilities (fishing over, say, celebrity party hopping), George is the ideal face of the franchise in Indianapolis, where the excitement and expectations surrounding George and the Pacers for this season are already off the charts.

That’s what makes the reported $90-plus million extension George and the Pacers are closing in on prior to the start of training camp the biggest no-brainer to date. George couldn’t have found a better fit — an up-and-coming franchise for an up-and-coming superstar — and the Pacers couldn’t have found a better ambassador for what should be their most promising team in a decade.

Pacers president Larry Bird told Pacers.com that the deal isn’t done yet, but expects it to be soon:

When asked whether the reported terms were accurate, Bird said, “I never heard that number. I wish it was my number instead of [Paul’s].

Although a new deal isn’t complete just yet and George hasn’t signed on the dotted line, everything is expected to be resolved this week.

“I know Paul’s worth,” said Bird. “I’m not banking on what’s going to happen in the future, even though you do somewhat. It’s what he’s accomplished now and that what we’ll go off of.

“It’s always good to have the leverage but the number has got to be a number we both like. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about money. Yes, he wants to be here. He’s told me that a million times. We want him here so let’s just find a number that works for both.”

Bird, a Hall of Famer, completely understands George’s mindset.

“Well back when I played, if they brought me in and was talking to me, I wanted to get it done before camp,” he said. “So I know it’s important. Security is always the best thing to have in this league.”

With a new contract, there’s more to it than just the length and value of the deal. There’s all the legal items, player or team options, and more that goes into it.

“If you come to the number first, then all the other things sorta fall in place.”

I lived in Indianapolis and covered the team the last time the Pacers entered a season with a budding young superstar (Jermaine O’Neal), a deep roster and championship ambitions. Things are going to get even crazier for George at home than he probably realizes. O’Neal was a fabulous player then, and like George, was a somewhat underrated talent coming into the Draft. He outworked and eventually outplayed that profile and blossomed into an All-Star with the Pacers. The same is true for George.

A city and state that loves its basketball like no other has embraced George in ways it never did O’Neal, who led the Pacers to the best record in the league during the 2003-04 season. Pacers fans always seemed a bit indifferent to O’Neal, who had the misfortune of having to assume leading the team while Reggie Miller was still the franchise’s true face and Ron Artest was in the midst of his most tumultuous time with the franchise. Pacers fans don’t appear to have any such reservations where George is concerned.

They saw as George went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat during Indiana’s run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. They saw George shine on the biggest and brightest stage alongside David West, Roy Hibbert and the rest of a rugged Pacers team that pushed the Heat to a Game 7.

They know that they have the genuine article in George, whose meteoric rise in three seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. His impact on this team last season, while Danny Granger was sidelined with injury, is well documented (courtesy of my main man and numbers guru John Schuhmann of NBA.com).

It’s a testament to the work Bird (as well as Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard) have done in rebuilding the franchise that George is stiff-arming the free agent process (and the lure of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers) that so many of his contemporaries would chase if they were in his shoes.

The best part for the Pacers is that they’ll have George locked up for what should be the prime of a superstar career. George is a true two-way player (not every All-Star plays defense as well as they do offense) on the short list that is headlined by James.

George is far from a finished product, another huge positive for the Pacers, and he understands that. He talked about it repeatedly in July during his time with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team and their mini-camp. How he and Granger co-exist will go a long way in determining just how successful a season the Pacers can put together.

But those are issues Pacers coach Frank Vogel and his staff will gladly sort through with George as the centerpiece of a team that should compete at the highest level for the foreseeable future.

In fact, none of those lingering issues seem terribly unsettling when you’ve got a perfect fit between a franchise and the (new and) true face of said franchise.

Where Have All The Shot-Blockers Gone?

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The demise of the true center is typically lamented by the dearth of low-post skill on offense, but we can’t ignore its effects at the other end, too.

You know what they say about every action: there is an equal and opposite reaction. Among other things, the evolution of the face-up, jump-shooting “big”, and the age of the drive-and-kick 3-pointer have taken a toll on the art of shot-blocking. With seemingly fewer one-on-one, low-post defensive opportunities there is an equally diminishing chance to deliver an opposite reaction.

There are tremendous shot blockers in the league. Thunder power forward/center Serge Ibaka will attempt to become the first player to lead the league in shot blocking three consecutive seasons and average at least 3.0 bpg in three straight seasons since Marcus Camby did it from 2006-08. Ibaka’s 3.65 bpg in 2011-12 was the highest since Alonzo Mourning‘s 3.7 in 1999-2000.

Bucks rim protector Larry Sanders could cross the 3.0 barrier. Indiana’s young, old-school center Roy Hibbert made a significant jump last season to 2.61 bpg, fourth in the league, from 1.97. A healthy and happy Dwight Howard could surge to 3.0 for the first time in his career.

Still, today’s drooping block numbers are eye-popping when compared to prior decades. Blocks weren’t recorded as an official statistic until the 1973-74 season. That season, five players averaged at least 3.0 bpg, led by Elmore Smith (4.8 bpg), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3.5), Bob McAdoo (3.3), Bob Lanier (3.0) and Elvin Hayes (3.0). In the seven officially recorded seasons in the 1970s, two players averaged at least 3.0 bpg in a season five times.

In the ’80s, it was seven of 10 seasons, and at least three players averaged at least 3.0 bpg four times. Utah’s 7-foot-4 center Mark Eaton still holds the single-season record of 5.56 bpg in 1984-85. The ’90s — with shot-swatters such as David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Shawn Bradley, Theo Ratliff, Shaquille O’Neal and Mourning — marked the salad days of shot-blocking.

Every season during the physical, hold-and-grab ’90s saw at least two players average at least 3.0 bpg. Eight times at least three players recorded 3.0 bpg or more. Four times the season leader topped 4.0 bpg, and two more times the leader finished at 3.9 bpg.

Those numbers haven’t been sniffed. Since the close of the ’90s, only four times in the last 13 seasons have at least two players finished a season averaging at least 3.0 bpg  (and largely credit Ben Wallace and Ratliff early in the 2000s for that). It hasn’t happened since 2005-06 when Camby (3.29) and long-armed small forward Andrei Kirilenko (3.19) finished one and two, respectively.

The lowest league-leading shot-block averages have all come since the turn of the century, and two of the three lowest have been posted in the past five seasons. Andrew Bogut‘s 2.58 bpg in 2010-11 is the lowest season leader of all-time. Howard’s 2.78 bpg the season before is the second-lowest and his 2.92 bpg to lead the league in 2008-09 is better than only the 2.8 bpg put up in 2000-01 by Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal and Bradley.

Could 2013-14 be the season we see one, two or even more players join Ibaka in 3.0 territory? Sanders is trending that way and Hibbert and Howard are candidates, but it’s hard to envision Tim Duncan surpassing last season’s career-high of 2.65 bpg.

Maybe 3.0 is a stretch for most. Only five players averaged between 2.45 bpg and Ibaka’s 3.03 last season.

Here are my five players that could vault into this season’s top-5 (but may not necessarily get to 3.0):

1. Derrick Favors, Jazz: The 6-foot-10 power forward is going to see his minutes jump as he moves into the starting lineup with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap gone. Favors averaged 1.7 bpg in 23.2 mpg off the bench last season. He’ll go up against more elite front-line players this season, but it’s not a reach to suggest he could average 2.5 bpg.

2. JaVale McGee, Nuggets: With Washington in 2010-11, he finished second in the league at 2.44 bpg, but his minutes dropped dramatically the past two seasons in Denver under George Karl. The 7-footer should be in for quite a change with Brian Shaw taking over for Karl and ownership wanting to see McGee earn his money on the floor. More minutes are in his future. Are more blocks?

3. Brook Lopez, Nets: Last season was the first of his young career to average more than 2.0 bpg (2.1) and that number could be on the rise this season playing next to Kevin Garnett. If KG doesn’t teach Lopez a thing or two about defending the post, he might just frighten the 7-footer into protecting the rim at all costs.

4. DeAndre Jordan, Clippers: Potential is running thin for this 6-foot-11 center from Texas A&M. Entering his sixth season, it’s time to mature and play big in the middle for a team that will need it to contend for the West crown. He took a step back last season and under Doc Rivers he’ll need to prove he’s worthy of more minutes. He can do that by swatting basketballs.

5. Anthony Davis, Pelicans: The youngster just looks like a shot-blocker with those long arms and all. He’ll head into his second season healthy, accustomed to the NBA game, smarter and stronger. He’s got great natural instinct, athleticism and a desire to dominate defensively. During his one season at Kentucky, he averaged 4.7 bpg. The 20-year-old blocked 112 shots in 64 games as a rookie. Expect more.

David Lee Encouraged By Recovery

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HANG TIME WEST – The injury that quickly swung from season-ending to day-to-day in the playoffs has now gone from a one-time distressing finding to now a very encouraging outcome.

The torn hip muscle suffered in the playoff opener at Denver was worse than anyone thought, David Lee reported Wednesday. And, the recovery is going so well that he feels better than a year ago at this time, Lee also revealed.

So goes the roller-coaster return from the injured right hip flexor and the subsequent surgery, with implications for the Warriors and the entire Western Conference if Golden State turns potential into reality and pushes into the top tier of playoff teams.

From being declared done for the season when he went down in the first-round opener at Denver to playing in the clinching Game 6 and then again four more times in the West semifinals against the Spurs.

He didn’t play much — one post-injury minute versus the Nuggets and then three, eight, 12 and 12 minutes against San Antonio, respectively — but even the limited action came with Lee acknowledging at the time that he could do more damage to the hip by playing with the torn muscle. When the All-Star power forward had surgery in May, he said, doctors found the injury to be worse than originally thought.

In the Wednesday update for a group of reporters, though, Lee said he is fully recovered, in the best shape of his career and that the core of his body is strong as ever.

“I feel no ill effects whatsoever,” Lee said, as reported by Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group. “I actually feel a lot better moving around than I did even last year at this time.”

Lee’s health would have been an important early-season storyline for the Warriors no matter what, but is particularly relevant amid the new uncertainty surrounding the frontline. His 2012-13 backup, Carl Landry, left as a free agent; starting center Andrew Bogut is trying to prove he can get to 100 percent after a series of ankle problems; and No. 2 center Festus Ezeli is expected to be out until midseason with a knee injury. Marreese Speights was signed to be the third big man, and Jermaine O’Neal came in via free agency as well. Coach Mark Jackson will have options to play small.

“We still have a long way to go,” Lee said. “But, if you looked at where we came from three years ago, some of the questions were, ‘Why would you come here? They’ve had one playoff team in the last 150 years.’ Looking where we are now and having these conversations, it’s very exciting.”

Bench Mobs: Four That Got Better

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Every general manager’s goal is to assembly an energetic, productive bench.

A strong second unit filled with single-minded role players enhances a team’s chances at winning. Just look at the two-time champion Miami Heat and perennially contending San Antonio Spurs: both clubs received significant bench contributions throughout the 2012-13 season. Still, a deep and talented bench does not ensure success — the Los Angeles Clippers being Exhibit A.

Arguably the NBA’s deepest bench last season, L.A.’s reserves ranked fourth in scoring and second in overall production (points, assists and rebounds combined). The second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf ranked as the third-best defensive unit in the league. Yet the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose thin bench was considered a major weakness.

The goal is to build a well-rounded and deep roster that doesn’t falter when the starters sit, that can change pace when needed and can light it up just as well as lock it down.

Four teams looking to make a charge in their respective conferences — including the all-in Clippers and the go-getter Golden State Warriors in the West; and in the East the rugged-but-reinforcement-thin Indiana Pacers and the money-is-nothing Brooklyn Nets — completed significant offseason signings and trades that should bolster each club’s depth:

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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Loses: G Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Odom (still available), F Grant Hill (retired), F/C Turiaf

Additions: G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, G Darren Collison, F Reggie Bullock (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Only two members of the aforementioned third-ranked defensive unit, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, are returning as of today (Odom remains a possibility) to the Clippers’ second unit, so they could slip defensively. But the firepower is all-world with Redick (a 39 percent career 3-point shooter) and Dudley (40.5 percent) joining Sixth Man runner-up Crawford (35.0 percent). Collison has plenty to prove after twice losing his starting job in Dallas to late-30-somethings Derek Fisher and Mike James. The ultra-quick Collison backed up Chris Paul as a rookie in New Orleans and he now has a defined role that should suit his game. Plenty of experience and savvy leaves town in Hill and Billups, but they played a combined 51 games last season. Hill was not part of the playoff rotation until former coach Vinny Del Negro got desperate late in the first-round series loss. New coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has given himself plenty of options with a bench unit that might top last season’s group. Free agents Barnes, center Ryan Hollins and guard Willie Green return.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Loses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Additions: Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Simply, Andre Iguodala. Acquiring the veteran forced out Jack and Landry, but also provides instant depth for a young team that basically rode seven players in the playoffs after David Lee injured his hip. The tough call for coach Mark Jackson will be moving either semi-conscious shooter Klay Thompson or confident forward Harrison Barnes to the bench (both started every game they played last season) to make room for the 6-foot-6 Iguodala. Thompson could challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors and he’d easily replace the scoring punch Jack provided. The second-year Barnes, who truly emerged during the playoffs, can provide everything the blue-collar Landry delivered only with advanced skills in every facet, especially with his burgeoning offensive arsenal. Barnes could discover some very favorable matchups off the bench. Speights, more accurately, will be expected to fill Landry’s role. The Warriors also bring back impressive frontcourt youngsters Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, who should benefit from the presence of the steady veteran O’Neal.

INDIANA PACERS

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Loses: F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph

Additions: F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Solomon Hill (draft pick)

Why they’re better: The wild card here is forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games last season with a left knee injury but will be back. With Paul George emerging as a star, Granger could find himself as the Pacers’ sixth man — imagine that. A better bench might have pushed Indiana past Miami in the East finals. The Pacers were one of six teams whose bench averaged fewer than 80 mpg, and they ranked 29th in scoring. The veteran Watson should stabilize a backcourt that had no consistent answer (D.J. Augustin) coming off the bench last season. Watson is a solid veteran who rarely turns the ball over — less than one a game in 19.0 mpg last season with Brooklyn — and is the type of team-first player president of basketball operations Larry Bird wants for coach Frank Vogel. And then there’s the unexpected feather in Bird’s cap — forward Chris Copeland. The 29-year-old late-bloomer provided the Knicks with energetic play off the bench and surprising accuracy from beyond the arc (59-for-140, 42.1 percent). The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder gives Indy a rugged backup for David West and weakens a rival.

BROOKLYN NETS

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Loses: G C.J. Watson, G Keith Bogans, G MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries

Additions: G Jason Terry, G Shaun Livingston, G D.J. White, F Andrei Kirilenko, C/F Mason Plumlee (draft pick)

Why they’re better: While a pudgy Deron Williams hobbled about on bum ankles for the first couple of months last season, the Nets’ bench carried the team, so they were no slouches to begin with. But when you add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the starting lineup, that turns rebounding machine Reggie Evans and offensive weapon Andray Blatche into reserves and instantly improves that group. Terry remains a dangerous streak shooter even after a down season in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Livingston has quietly resurrected his career and should find a home backing up D-Will, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season. The coup was snagging Kirilenko, who signed for $3.18 million after opting out of his $10-million deal with Minnesota. Kirilenko is always a nagging injury away from missing handfuls of games at a time, but the 6-foot-9 countryman of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is a do-it-all stat-sheet-filler. He is a sneaky offensive presence on the baseline and a rangy defender the Nets can use against Carmelo Anthony and other rival scoring threats.

Coach (Rasheed Wallace) Don’t Lie?





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Jason Kidd isn’t the only former New York Knicks veteran to trade in his locker room stall for a spot in the coach’s locker room. In what has to qualify as the best news perhaps of the entire offseason, HT fave Rasheed Wallace will soon be announced as a member of the Detroit Pistons’ coaching staff under Mo Cheeks.

Wallace is in Orlando for summer league action with the Pistons and was spotted in the gym at the Amway Center this afternoon with a polo shirt on with the Pistons’ logo on the upper left side. Wallace helped the Pistons become an Eastern Conference power and won a ring in 2004 and made another trip to The Finals in 2005.

He’s expected to work with the Pistons’ young frontcourt core of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Tony Mitchell, hopefully imparting some of the same wisdom he did for guys like Jermaine O’Neal and Zach Randolph when they youngsters in Portland playing behind a then-All-Star Wallace. Both O’Neal and Randolph went on to become All-Stars after being tutored by Wallace, who saw his season and likely his playing career come to an end this season in New York when a stress fracture sidelined him.

Wallace’s presence could be a huge boost for Pistons’ free-agent pickup Josh Smith, who has agreed to a four-year, $56 million deal with the team that cannot be signed until Wednesday. For all of the hype about Wallace’s technical fouls and run-ins with officials over the course of his career, he’s been lauded by many who have played with him as the ideal teammate and one of the smartest players to come through the league in his era.

Rockets’ Playoff Return A First Step

 

HOUSTON — Maybe it was fitting that James Harden’s shot kicked off the rim, took a bounce and received an unintentional assist from Jermaine O’Neal that carried the Rockets into the playoffs.

It was Harden himself who practically fell out of the sky right into the laps of the Rockets just four days before the start of the season that began the return to respectability and relevance.

“I didn’t know who was on the team. I didn’t know what was going on,” Harden said. “I was still kind of shocked. Weeks went by and a month went by. We kind of gained confidence in one another that we can go out and compete with anybody in this league. It’s been that way through this whole entire season and now we’re in the playoffs.”

The Rockets are back in the postseason for the first time in four years, having spent the past three springs with their noses pressed up against the window pane, tantalizingly close and yet locked out of the fun. For three straight years — with win totals of 42, 43 and 34 (in lockout-shortened 2012) — they had been the last team to miss out on the playoffs. Or took the best record into the draft lottery. Any way that you said it, the result was simply frustrating.

While team owner Leslie Alexander has been steadfast to “dive” for a chance at the bonanza offered by the draft lottery, general manager Daryl Morey has been more frantic than a one-armed juggler of chain saws to make and remake the roster again and again and again. It was that constant turmoil that led to exasperation by former coach Rick Adelman and an eventual parting of the ways. It has been an ongoing process that still puts constant new challenges into the path of coach Kevin McHale in his second season.

Even now, the Rockets are a laboratory project still in development. Houston is the NBA’s youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years and opened the season as the most inexperienced NBA team in the shot-clock era, based on minutes played.

The Rockets are the sixth-youngest team in history to reach the playoffs. The Thunder teams of 2010 and 2011, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are the youngest ever. Next in line are the Trail Blazers of 2009, led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Bulls of 2006 with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and the Hawks of 2008, led by Joe Johnson and Al Horford.

Despite Harden’s rapid rise to the league’s elite level, his first appearance in the All-Star Game and rank among the league’s top five scorers along with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Rockets are still greener than most young sprouts of spring. Harden has been to the playoffs the past three seasons and went to The Finals last year with OKC, but is still only 23. Point guard Jeremy Lin is 24. Center Omer Asik is 26, but his is only his third year in the league and the first that he’s played starter’s minutes.

Though a 13-6 record over the past six weeks has made the return to the playoffs seem inevitable, it was not made official until Utah lost to the Thunder shortly after the Rockets beat Phoenix on Tuesday night.

“I actually didn’t think I would be excited,” Lin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the six seed.’ Now that it’s really here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs.”

The Rockets have been a franchise stuck in a rut, mired in mediocrity since the glory days of their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. While this is now their 18th winning record since the 1992-93 season — only the Spurs and Lakers have more at 19 — they have had precious little playoff success. In fact, the Rockets have won only a single playoff series — vs. Portland in 2009 — since 1997 when some of the names on the backs of the jerseys read: Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley.

There was always hope and unfulfilled promise during the eras of Steve Francis, then Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But never the kind of results that were expected.

So when the wheeler-dealer Morey was able to land Harden on the eve of this season, it was the first step in his long held plan to put a franchise-type player on the court to build around and then supplement with the likes of Lin, Asik and Chandler Parsons.

In the process, the Rockets have turned into a fast-paced, 3-point shooting, prolific offensive club that most often produces the most entertaining games of any given night on NBA LeaguePass.

This will all lead into a summer of trying to land another big-name free agent, another All-Star caliber player, who can vault the Rockets back onto the level of title contenders.

But first things first and that was Harden’s shot that bounced high off the rim, O’Neal’s unofficial assist by goaltending and finally the Rockets taking an initial step back into the playoff conversation.

Hollins Next To Walk Out Of Memphis?

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Lionel Hollins starred at Arizona State. I wonder how he’d enjoy coaching down the road in Phoenix (not that I’m trying to push out interim coach Lindsey Hunter).

Or maybe Hollins would enjoy taking his coaching chops to Brooklyn — he’s certainly tough enough for the borough (not that I’m wishing interim coach P.J. Carlesimo be shoved out either). Carlesimo has saved the most critical season in Nets franchise history as far as I’m concerned.

But, look, there are going to be multiple coaching openings this summer. Given the current (disappointing) direction in Memphis, the lame-duck Hollins seems to be greasing the path for his own departure. Hey, it ain’t easy having champagne taste on a beer budget — and, really, who would want to?

It isn’t easy watching your team’s championship dreams be dismantled mid-season. Debate all you want about the Grizzlies’ title odds as previously constructed, but minus leading scorer Rudy Gay and key reserves Wayne Ellington and Marresse Speights, those odds have plummeted while frustration within the locker room is on the rise.

With Tayshaun PrinceEd Davis and others now in the fold, the remaining Grizzlies are begrudgingly hitting the reset button on their season. That much showed in Tuesday’s 96-90 home loss to Hunter’s Suns, Memphis’ second loss in three games since the Gay trade. It’s a small sample size and there’s plenty of games to get it right, but there has to be concern.

“It’s a real frustrating loss,” Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said. “I feel like we should have won the game. We had the chance to win and we didn’t get the win. It takes time to get acclimated and get all of the plays. It’s a variety of things. It’s a tough loss, a disappointing loss.”

Memphis wasn’t an offensive juggernaut before the trade, but in the three games after it, scoring has dropped by nearly six points to 88.0 ppg (the first of the three games was played without Prince). They’ve also committed 36 turnovers in the last two games and were fortunate to get a home win against Washington a couple nights earlier. Four turnovers in the final three minutes Tuesday doomed them against the lottery-bound Suns, who entered the game with a West-worst four road wins.

“We had every chance to win the game, but we had too many turnovers in the fourth and didn’t get any opportunities,” guard Mike Conley said. “It’s a work in progress. We have to find plays everyone is familiar and comfortable with. We just have some times where we have miscommunication with new guys and older guys who have been here. We just have to do a better job finding  plays that work for everyone.”

Defense has also taken hit with Memphis allowing 92.7 ppg after the trade, up more than three points a game. The Grizz (30-17) are hanging onto the No. 4 seed by their fingernails.

And so we get back to Hollins, the franchise’s most successful coach, who has lobbed some subtle firebombs — depending on your interpretation — at the front office since it started shaking up the roster for financial reasons.

With Marc Gasol in foul trouble Tuesday and the 6-foot-10 Speights now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Hollins lamented his inability to match up when the Suns went big.

“We didn’t have any big guys to put in the game,” said Hollins, 170-146 in now his fifth season in Memphis. “That was a big thing down the stretch. They went at Jermaine O’Neal and we didn’t have a big guy to play him because we didn’t have a big guy to put in the game.”

Hollins never wanted to break up the team — and neither did a team that wanted one more postseason shot together. A few weeks ago, Tony Allen said about this season: “This is the year.”

He didn’t mean it would be the year of cost-cutting trades and Hollins ultimately leaving Memphis.

Jamison Finds Himself In Demand





It would be a storybook ending, veteran NBA forward Antawn Jamison has conceded, to play out what’s left of his career with the Charlotte Bobcats. He went to high school in the Charlotte area, played at North Carolina, it’s where he’s raising his family and that’s where Jamison seemed headed through the moratorium period of free agency.

But who’s to stay the story has to end that way? Or that the ending can’t have another chapter or two inserted in front of it, especially one that might include a long playoff run and a championship ring?

Jamison’s name has surfaced in reports about the Los Angeles Lakers and their desire to add another frontcourt player, ideally a veteran on a minimum salary. That doesn’t preclude them from working out something with Jordan Hill or hanging onto Josh McRoberts, but ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin reported that the team and Hill still are far apart in money for his services.

That’s one reason the Lakers might be turning to the oldies bin for help up front, McMenamin writes:

Aside from Hill, appearing on the Lakers’ “short list” of names they are hoping to add to the roster for the veteran’s minimum are Antawn Jamison, Elton Brand and Jermaine O’Neal, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking.

The Lakers also have the “mini” mid-level exception available to them, beginning at $3 million a season, but prefer to hold off on using that in case a Howard deal goes down involving multiple players and they are left needing to fill a glaring void. (more…)

Help Wanted in Boston: Apply Within





HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Veteran basketball team seeks center and/or power forward for final 20 games of season and playoffs. Relocation necessary.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And right now, the Boston Celtics are desperate.

Their starting center, Jermaine O’Neal, is out for the season. Their back-up center, Chris Wilcox, is out for the season. Their third-string center is an undrafted rookie you probably hadn’t heard of before December unless you somehow have a tolerance for low-scoring college basketball games. (His name is Greg Stiemsma and he played for Wisconsin. Oh, he also missed shootaround on Monday with a sore foot.)

So yeah, the Celtics could use whatever help they can get from any free agent big man who might be available. And cue Rick Pitino, because Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish aren’t walking through that door.

(more…)