Posts Tagged ‘Jodie Meeks’

More than ever, shooting at a premium


VIDEO: Pistons: Augustin And Butler Introduction

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In today’s NBA, if you want to win, you have to be able to shoot. There are lots of factors that go into good offense and good defense, but the most important are how well you shoot and how well you defend shots.

Over the last two seasons, 3-point shooting has taken a big jump. From 2007-08 to 2011-12, the league took from 22.2 to 22.6 percent of its shots from 3-point range. Then in 2012-13, that number jumped to 24.3 percent. And last season, it jumped again to 25.9 percent.

The correlation between 3-point shooting and offensive efficiency is strong. And shooting a lot of threes is almost as important as shooting them well.

Ten of the top 15 offenses in the league were above average in terms of 3-point percentage and the percentage of their total shots that were threes. Four of the other five were in the top 10 in one or the other. And teams that didn’t shot threes well or often were generally bad offensive teams.

3-point shooting and offensive efficiency, 2013-14

Team 3PM 3PA 3PT% Rank %FGA Rank OffRtg Rank
L.A. Clippers 693 1,966 35.2% 22 29.1% 9 109.4 1
Miami 665 1,829 36.4% 12 29.2% 6 109.0 2
Dallas 721 1,877 38.4% 2 27.4% 13 109.0 3
Houston 779 2,179 35.8% 16 33.0% 1 108.6 4
Portland 770 2,071 37.2% 10 29.0% 10 108.3 5
San Antonio 698 1,757 39.7% 1 25.7% 16 108.2 6
Oklahoma City 664 1,839 36.1% 14 27.1% 14 108.1 7
Phoenix 765 2,055 37.2% 8 30.0% 5 107.1 8
Toronto 713 1,917 37.2% 9 28.5% 11 105.8 9
Minnesota 600 1,757 34.1% 26 24.5% 19 105.6 10
New York 759 2,038 37.2% 7 30.2% 3 105.4 11
Golden State 774 2,037 38.0% 4 29.1% 8 105.3 12
New Orleans 486 1,303 37.3% 6 19.3% 29 104.7 13
Brooklyn 709 1,922 36.9% 11 30.1% 4 104.4 14
Atlanta 768 2,116 36.3% 13 31.6% 2 103.4 15
Memphis 405 1,147 35.3% 19 17.1% 30 103.3 16
Denver 702 1,959 35.8% 15 27.8% 12 103.3 17
Washington 647 1,704 38.0% 5 24.6% 18 103.3 18
Detroit 507 1,580 32.1% 29 22.2% 26 102.9 19
Sacramento 491 1,475 33.3% 27 21.8% 28 102.9 20
L.A. Lakers 774 2,032 38.1% 3 29.1% 7 101.9 21
Indiana 550 1,542 35.7% 17 23.5% 23 101.5 22
Cleveland 584 1,640 35.6% 18 23.6% 21 101.3 23
Charlotte 516 1,471 35.1% 23 21.9% 27 101.2 24
Utah 543 1,577 34.4% 25 23.7% 20 100.6 25
Milwaukee 548 1,553 35.3% 20 23.1% 24 100.2 26
Boston 575 1,729 33.3% 28 25.1% 17 99.7 27
Chicago 508 1,459 34.8% 24 22.2% 25 99.7 28
Orlando 563 1,596 35.3% 21 23.5% 22 99.3 29
Philadelphia 577 1,847 31.2% 30 25.8% 15 96.8 30
TOTAL 19,054 52,974 36.0% 25.9% 104.0

 

Top 5 3P% Top 5 %FGA Top 5 OffRtg
6-10 3P% 6-10 %FGA 6-10 OffRtg
Above-avg 3P% Above-avg %FGA Above-avg OffRtg

%FGA = Percentage of total FGA
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There were a couple of exceptions to the rule. Minnesota had a top-10 offense without shooting threes well or often. They made up for it by not turning the ball over, getting to the free throw line often, and grabbing lots of offensive rebounds.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were top 10 in both 3-point percentage and percentage of shots that were threes, but were a bottom 10 offense overall, because they didn’t get to the line much and were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league.

Threes aren’t everything, but three is greater than two. And if you have shooting threats on the perimeter, other guys have more space to operate inside. The teams near the bottom of the table above know that to win more games, they have to score more efficiently. And to do that, they need more shooting in their rotation.

Here’s how some of them addressed their lack of shooting…

Detroit Pistons

OffRtg: 102.9 (19), 3PT%: 32.1% (29), 3PA%: 22.2% (26)
If the Sixers hadn’t played conscious-less offense at the league’s fastest pace, the Pistons would have ranked dead last in 3-point percentage. Josh Smith took 265 threes at a 26 percent clip, partly because Joe Dumars thought he could play small forward and partly because he lacks self-awareness. Of 315 players in NBA history who have attempted at least 1,000 threes, Smith ranks 314th (ahead of only Charles Barkley) in 3-point percentage.

So priority No. 1 for Stan Van Gundy is to get Smith to stop shooting threes, or get him to shoot threes for some other team. If we don’t consider Smith a small forward (and we shouldn’t), Detroit would have a frontcourt log-jam if Greg Monroe (a restricted free agent) is brought back. Though it’s not completely up to Van Gundy (he would need a trade partner), a choice between Monroe and Smith needs to be made.

Either way, the Pistons didn’t have many other options from beyond the arc last season. So Van Gundy added four shooters in free agency, signing Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin to contracts that will pay them about $15 million this year. Of the 70 available free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season, those four ranked 11th, 12th, 15th and 18th respectively in 3-point percentage, all shooting better than 39 percent.

There’s still a question of how much of that shooting can be on the floor at one time. If Smith is traded, then the Pistons can play a decent amount of minutes with Butler or Luigi Datome playing stretch four. But in that scenario, their defense (which was already awful last season) would suffer.

Chicago Bulls

OffRtg: 99.7 (28), 3PT%: 34.8% (24), 3PA%: 22.2% (25)
The Pistons grabbed the Bulls’ best 3-point shooter from last season (Augustin), who will be replaced by Derrick Rose. Rose has never been a very good shooter, but obviously creates a lot more open shots for the guys around him than Augustin or Kirk Hinrich.

That will benefit Jimmy Butler (who regressed from distance last season), Mike Dunleavy (who took a smaller step back), Tony Snell (who was pretty shaky as a rookie) and rookie Doug McDermott.

In his four seasons in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau has never had a big man who can step out beyond the arc. But the Bulls’ other rotation rookie – Nikola Miroticshot 39 percent from 3-point range over the last three seasons for Real Madrid. So he gives the Bulls the ability to space the floor more than they ever have in this system.

The Bulls also added Aaron Brooks, who, at 38.7 percent, ranked 20th among available free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season. But if Brooks is playing a lot, it would mean that there’s another issue with Rose.

Charlotte Hornets

OffRtg: 101.2 (24), 3PT%: 35.1% (23), 3PA%: 21.9% (27)
Josh McRoberts (36.1 percent) and Marvin Williams (35.9 percent) shot about the same from 3-point range last season. But that was the first time McRoberts was a high-volume shooter from distance, while Williams has had a more consistent history.

And he should get more open shots playing off of Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson than he did in Utah. But neither Walker nor Stephenson is a very good 3-point shooter themselves and the Hornets lost their best 3-point shooter from last season – Anthony Tolliver – in free agency.

The hope is that, with Stephenson taking some of the ball-handling burden away, Walker can improve as a shooter. Gerald Henderson‘s 3-point percentage has improved every season, and a healthy Jeffery Taylor could help. Still, without any much proven shooting on the roster, the Hornets’ offense has a ceiling.

Cleveland Cavaliers

OffRtg: 101.3 (23), 3PT%: 35.6% (18), 3PA%: 23.6% (21)
LeBron James changes everything. And the biggest beneficiary could be Dion Waiters, who shot 41.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season. With James attacking the basket and drawing multiple defenders, Waiters will get a ton of open looks.

James himself shot a ridiculous 48.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so he should be able to play off Kyrie Irving pretty well and make the Cavs a more potent team from deep. Mike Miller (45.9 percent) will obviously do the same.

It’s Irving who will have to adjust to playing off the ball. He shot just 32.1 on catch-and-shoot threes last season. And at this point, the Cavs don’t have a second forward that can both shoot threes and defend the four (the Shane Battier role). Anthony Bennett could develop into that role and Kevin Love would obviously be that guy if the Cavs pull of a trade with Minnesota.

Indiana Pacers

OffRtg: 101.5 (22), 3PT%: 35.7% (17), 3PA%: 23.5% (23)
There was a lot of bad shooting (and bad offense, in general) in the Central Division last season. The Pacers poached C.J. Miles (39 percent on threes over the last two seasons) from Cleveland and added a stretch big in Damjan Rudez, but lost Stephenson’s playmaking.

So there’s a ton of pressure on Paul George to create open shots for everybody else. Unless another shake-up is in store, it’s hard to see the Pacers escaping the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency.

Memphis Grizzlies

OffRtg: 103.3 (16), 3PT%: 35.3% (19), 3PA%: 17.1% (30)
The Grizzlies replaced Mike Miller (44.4 percent from three over the last three seasons) with Vince Carter (39.2 percent). That’s a slight downgrade from beyond the arc, but Carter brings more playmaking to take some of the load off of Mike Conley.

Still, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince remain integral parts of the Grizzlies’ rotation. So unless Jon Leuer emerges as a reliable stretch four off the bench, they lack the ability to put more than two (and occasionally three) shooters on the floor at once. They’ve ranked last in made 3-pointers for two straight seasons and could definitely make it three in a row.

New Orleans Pelicans

OffRtg: 104.7 (17), 3PT%: 37.3% (6), 3PA%: 19.3% (29)
Those are some strange numbers. Great shooting, but only the Grizzlies attempted fewer threes.

The absences of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday over the last 50 games of the season was a huge issue. Another was that two of the Pelicans’ best 3-point shooters – Eric Gordon and Anthony Morrow – played the same position and spent just 192 minutes on the floor together, while Tyreke Evans and Al-Farouq Aminu – two perimeter guys who can’t shoot a lick – ranked third and fourth on the team in minutes played.

Evans still takes a starting perimeter position (and $11 million of salary) without supplying a reliable jumper. And replacing Jason Smith with Omer Asik also hurts floor spacing. But the Pels were ridiculously good offensively (and awful defensively) in limited minutes with Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson and Anthony Davis on the floor last season, Aminu has been replaced by John Salmons, and better health will go a long way.

Additional notes

  • As noted above, the Pistons added four guys who ranked in the top 20 in 3-point percentage (minimum 100 attempts) among available free agents. The only other team that added (not re-signed) more than one was the Clippers, who added Jordan Farmar (3rd) and Spencer Hawes (5th). The Mavericks added Richard Jefferson (7th) and re-signed Dirk Nowitzki (13th), the Suns added Anthony Tolliver (6th) and re-signed P.J. Tucker (19th), and the Spurs re-signed both Patty Mills (4th) and Boris Diaw (10th).
  • The Cavs (Hawes and Miles) and Lakers (Farmar and Meeks) were the two teams that lost two of the top 20.
  • Of those 70 free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season, only three shot above the league average (36.0 percent) and are still available. Those three are Chris Douglas-Roberts (38.6 percent), Ray Allen (37.5 percent) and Mo Williams (36.9 percent).

Blogtable: Summer, when gabbing is easy

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: Idle summertime chatter | LeBron + Cavs = ??? | The Good & Bad of ‘Melo in NY


> It’s been a confusing, chatter-filled start to the NBA summer. What’s the dumbest, most forehead-slapping headline or storyline that you’ve seen?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Geez, so many from which to choose —  Jodie Meeks‘ contract, Carmelo Anthony supposedly leaving New York and $30 million or more on the table, Klay Thompson suddenly being regarded as a combo Jerry West/Dwyane Wade in trade value. But I’m going with the hand-wringing in Chicago over Derrick Rose’s alleged “unwillingness” to recruit free agents. That sort of thing, in the best of places, probably ranks 8th or 18th or maybe 28th in what sways a player to choose a new team/market. All Rose should be doing is what he did – allow the targeted player, like Carmelo Anthony, to watch a workout so he can gauge Rose’s health and comeback potential. Beyond that, it’s sheer high-school silliness.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I was very tempted to say “all of the above” since the entire free agency period is mostly rumor, innuendo and flat-out lying posing as pseudo-journalism.  But if I must choose, well, Jodie Meeks at more than $6 million per is a head-slapper.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Orlando agreeing to pay Ben Gordon $9.5 million over two years. That slightly edges Portland agreeing to pay Chris Kaman nearly $10 million over two years.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: You’re asking me to pick one grain of sand on the beach. We know, for example, that the Heatles are definitely splintering, unless that they’re not and are simply giving Pat Riley time to make moves before closing their own deals. And Kobe, Carmelo and Kevin Love definitely magically appeared at the same pickup game at UCLA, except that they didn’t. The silly season in full effect. If there an option to expand beyond free agency and make it the entire offseason for dumbest, most forehead-slapping storyline, it’s an easy call: Jason Kidd.

Gordon Hayward (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

Gordon Hayward (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: How about the latest one, “Hayward get max offer sheet from Hornets.” In a summer when financial haircuts are being discussed for All-Stars — superstars in some cases — a guy who has never sniffed the All-Star team gets a $60 million offer from an Eastern Conference playoff team. Hayward is worth whatever someone is going to pay him, so I’m not mad at him. But, as I said on Twitter last week (when Hayward was supposedly on tap for a max offer from the Cavaliers that never happened), something is awry in this system when Lance Stephenson (as flawed or deficient as he might be in some areas) sees this headline about Hayward and is supposed to be cool with an offer $16 million lighter in total. Even if Utah matches, as they have said all along that they will, this is still one of the gems of “Crazy Season!”

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Well to be fair, it was probably a headline that I wrote that was dumb. But as far as a wild storyline, the thought that signing Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts will put Miami over the top is pretty out there. I mean, the Pacers basically let Granger walk, and Basketball Jesus a.k.a. McBob is a nice player but … putting Miami over the top? That’s a head-slapper. The Spurs beat Miami up and down and left and right in the Finals. It’s going to take more than just one or two additions to make the Heat a Finals winner. Then again, getting LeBron to re-up would be a pretty good start.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA Deutschland: The most confusing thing for me is that everyone is waiting for everyone. Melo is waiting for Bosh’s decision, Bosh and Wade are waiting for LeBron’s decision. LeBron is waiting what the Heat will do, but the Heat have to wait, what their Big 3 will do to know how much cap space they will have. Then the second row with Deng, Parsons and Ariza are waiting what Melo, Bosh,Wade and LeBron will do. And all teams with cap space are waiting for the decisions of the superstars to remain flexible. So everybody is waiting and the worst is, we have to wait, too. LeBron, get the ball rolling!

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I’ll go with Jeremy Lin being upset because Houston used his uni to court Melo. Free agency is like love and war: all’s fair. It has been done before (Rockets GM Daryl Morey remembered they used Patrick Beverley‘s #12 last year to recruit Dwight Howard) and you shouldn’t be upset when your team is trying to get  one of the best players in the game, especially if you are in the trade rumors mill.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: After LeBron’s “Decision” in 2010, nothing in the NBA off-eason really surprises me anymore, and I truly leave all options open to possibility. That said, there were a couple of stories that made me shake my head with mild disbelief. One was The Pick-Up Game that Never Happened rumours of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and even Kevin Love playing ball at UCLA, as reported by some sources, as a hopeful indication of what the Lakers roster could look like next season. The second was the Recruitment Pitch that Wasn’t Made, a saga of Derrick Rose – did he or didn’t he try and recruit Carmelo Anthony to Chicago.

Steal of a deal? Bazemore has a shot

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

bazemore

Kent Bazemore opened eyes by averaging 13.1 points over a 23-game span. (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the world waits for the big fish to name their teams already, a few eye-popping (-rolling?) contracts have been agreed upon, such as Orlando eager to prop up Ben Gordon for a couple more seasons at $9.5 million, Detroit promising Jodie Meeks $19 million and Portland giving Chris Kaman a raise!

All three players have logged enough NBA service time that we know more or less what each brings. Maybe Gordon will magically adjust his attitude along with his 3-ball, and maybe Kaman mixes in a pass, but all-in-all there’s not a lot of unknowns here.

So what of an actual surprise, a virtual unknown out there who could become the steal of free agency?

The versatile, 6-foot-5, 201-pound Kent Bazemore always thinks he’s capable of making believers. He always has.

He went undrafted after four years at Old Dominion, where he won NCAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. In 2012, after signing with Golden State, he was ranked No. 499 on ESPN.com’s list of the top 500 NBA players. So he had “499″ stitched into his sneakers the ensuing July and turned in the best Las Vegas Summer League performance of anybody.

On Feb. 19, 2014, with the Warriors needing a veteran backup point guard and Bazemore in his second season riding the pine, Golden State traded him to the depleted Los Angeles Lakers for Steve Blake. Suddenly, the kid from rural North Carolina, and an admitted Kobe Bryant admirer growing up and who is equal parts fun-loving and hard-working, was granted real playing time.

Mike D’Antoni threw him into the starting lineup, played him at shooting guard, at small forward, at point guard. He gave the developing talent the green light to shoot the 3. Bazemore’s infectious, goofy smile and full-time hustle and work ethic became instant hits. And then as if catching the injury bug that decimated L.A. last season, his came to a screeching halt five games shy of completion when he tore a tendon in his right foot that required surgery.

But he had opened eyes around the league by averaging 13.1 points, 3.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and shot 37.1 percent from deep in 23 games, 15 of which he started.

At the time, Bazemore described the injury as stemming from “overuse,” which it might have been considering he more than doubled his total minutes played with the Lakers (643) in half the number of games he played in with the Warriors (268 minutes in 44 games) before the trade.

In that short span, Bazemore put up numbers similar to those of rejuvenated journeyman Gerald Green in his first season with Phoenix. Green finished fourth for Most Improved Player of the Year. Now Bazemore, who turned 25 on July 1, the first day of free agency wants to show he can do it over 82 games.

The Lakers could have retained him for a qualifying offer of $1.1 million, but they passed to ensure as much cap space as possible on the gamble that both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would want to join Kobe. It allowed Bazemore to become an unrestricted free agent.

According a source, Bazemore is seeking a boost in salary, around $3 million per season, as well as a little stability in the form of a two- or three-year contract. Such a commitment would suggest any team that makes it will be willing to give the athletically gifted Bazemore what we really desires — consistent playing time.

Interest in the long-limbed and innately motivated swingman has been encouraging. The Lakers remain interested in bringing him back. Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston and Utah join L.A. in the top five in terms of teams that have shown consistent interest.

Dallas, Houston, Golden State, Phoenix and Philadelphia all had at least preliminary discussions with Bazemore’s camp.

Bazemore met with the Hawks in Atlanta on Monday. His representative has meetings scheduled this week with San Antonio, Boston and Charlotte, and Utah could be added.

Bazemore will be back in Las Vegas later this week to check out the start of Summer League. He won’t be playing this time around, but it is the perfect backdrop for the long shot to continue the pursuit of his next team, his next contract and a breakout season.

The steal of free agency? Bazemore has a chance to be just that.

Caldwell-Pope bouncing back big


VIDEO: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drops 30 points on Day 2 in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. – Nobody had to tell Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that it was time for him to step up his game this season.

The Pistons delivered that message when they brought in free agent shooting guard Jodie Meeks on a three-year, $19 million deal to play his position.

Two days into the Orlando Pro Summer League, Caldwell-Pope’s response has bounced loudly off the walls of the Amway Center. He followed up a 26-point, six-assist effort in his first game with 30 points and 12 rebounds Sunday as the Pistons beat the Grizzlies 85-82.

“Just creating my own shot, getting to the basket and finishing strong,” said Caldwell-Pope. “I been working on that a lot during the summer and it’s coming on.”

It didn’t hurt that he banged home back-to-back 3-pointers on the Pistons first two possessions of the game. But much more impressive has been the way the 6-foot-6 guard has played at both ends of the court with a competitive zeal and self-confidence that had drooped considerably during a rookie season where he yo-yoed in and out of the starting lineup. He shot just 39.6 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Caldwell-Pope showed flashes of his potential, but only just enough to make everyone to want more from the player that Detroit made the eighth pick in the 2013 draft. He became quiet, even sullen and it showed.

Here in the first two games, he’s been vocal, always aggressive and constantly on attack.

“It’s just coming more natural,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have a lot of different players on our team right now. We have to learn how to communicate, how to talk to each other.”

In addition to hitting 18 of 39 shots in the first two games, he’s been trying to affect play any way that he can.

New Pistons head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy has said the big scoring from Caldwell-Pope is secondary to being aggressive and sinking his teeth into games defensively. The team also wants him to improve his ball handling.

“Our expectations are for him to play well every night and he did again tonight,” said Pistons assistant Bob Beyer, who is running the summer league team. “Not only statistically. But he was matched up in the beginning of the game against (Jordan) Adams who had a great game yesterday shooting the ball. He took the challenge defensively as well. One thing I really like about KCP is just his overall spirit and competitiveness.”

A year ago, Reggie Jackson of the Thunder came to the summer league and dominated in every game he played, then used that as a springboard to having his best NBA season.

“I don’t want to say no. I hope yes,” said Beyer. “There’s a lot of guys that go through the summer league and some guys use this experience to do exactly that. Some other guys struggle through it and they come around eventually. I just think it’s a great, great stage for KCP to kind of demonstrate all the things that he can do as an NBA player.

“I think the one thing, and we’re gonna continue to put him in pick and rolls, we want his ball handling to get a little bit better. But the way he attacks the glass defensively, the way he’s aggressive in catch-and-shoots, that’s been very impressive and he’ll get those opportunities during the regular season as well.”

One opportunity Caldwell-Pope is looking forward to is giving his own response to the Pistons’ signing of Meeks.

“Something like that,” he said. “I am looking forward to it. I just want to continue get my game better so I can get ready for the season coming up and for training camp.”

Big year and a bigger decision for Lowry


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry is one of the more coveted free agent point guards on the market

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kyle Lowry faces the decision of his career: Cash in with the Raptors and maybe one day walk away a Canadian folk hero (you saw those crazed playoff crowds, right?), have faith in the leaky, but legendary Lakers or settle for a mere pittance to play with the King.

But wait, there’s more …

To start free agency at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale were in Philadelphia seated in front of Lowry. The two men who shipped Lowry north of the border in the first place were now telling him how perfect he is for the team he actually aided in assembling.

Plotting a path to form a super team in Houston, Morey was hoarding drafts picks and the first-rounder he got from Toronto for Lowry two summers ago was supposed to be another carrot to finally lure Orlando into a deal for Dwight Howard. A month later Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the draft pick wound up in Oklahoma City as part of the package for James Harden. Howard, conveniently, followed as a free-agent acquisition last summer.

As Morey, McHale and Lowry dined, or whatever it is that goes on in these after-midnight meetings, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was working his own plan (reportedly a contract starting around $12 million) to keep the spark plug point guard behind Toronto’s resurgence, a spark plug Ujiri was prepared to trade to New York at the deadline if not for the reluctance of the  Knicks’ former regime to throw in a future first-round draft pick.

Meanwhile, back in South Florida, Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley was maneuvering for his own meeting with free agency’s top point-guard target. The Riley pitch, if he gets to make it, will get straight to the point: Come to Sacrifice City and compete for these shiny rings with LeBron James.

Amazing what a career year will do for a guy’s fortunes. Lowry, not long ago down on his luck, last season averaged career highs in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (7.4), minutes (36.2) and 3-point percentage (38.0), while tying his career-high in rebounds (4.7).

Many believed Lowry, 28, should have made his first All-Star team of his eight-year career. After the All-Star break he reinforced that notion by averaging 20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 5.1 rpg, while maintaining his bulldog approach to defense. The Raptors finished the season 20-10 and won a franchise-best 48 games, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2006-07.

So perhaps a contract starting at $12 million isn’t too high for this big-market franchise desperate to maintain its playmaker and elusive momentum.

Yet becoming just as desperate are the Miami Heat.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents, too. They’re waiting to finalize new contracts while Riley works to re-tool the roster. Big men, wing depth and a point guard are needed. On Tuesday, Heat target Marcin Gortat reached an agreement to return to the Washington Wizards at a price (five years, $60 million) far too rich for the Heat. Another report stated small forward Luol Deng will not sacrifice pay to play for Miami. A later report had Washington nearing a deal to bring back yet another Heat target, small forward Trevor Ariza.

The aggressive, 6-foot Lowry fits the Heat needs to a T. Only they won’t be able to match the Raptors’ reported offer and fill other needs. Earlier Tuesday, Jodie Meeks agreed to a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons for three years and $19 million, a hefty pay raise for a middling player, and one that would make it seem highly unlikely that Lowry could feel good about taking a deal that wouldn’t pay him much more.

The wild card here, as it always is with the Heat, is a lower pay grade is the price to play with LeBron. We’ve seen it with players nearing the end of their careers, but not necessarily from one in his prime.

Lowry has seven postseason games to his name since 2009 back with Houston when he reached the second round. All seven came this past season with Toronto. The Raptors, boasting an emerging star in DeMar DeRozan and rising talents in Terrence RossJonas Valanciunas and restricted free agent Patrick Pattersonlost a heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round.

For a franchise that has experienced two winning seasons in the last dozen, and has had its troubles keeping and recruiting star-level players, Lowry would be welcomed back as hero.

But then there’s always LeBron … or the Rockets … or the Lakers …

The decision of Lowry’s career will be coming soon.

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks interested in Miller | Turkoglu impresses Doc | Report: Toronto plans to keep Lowry | Drake Night a success | Meeks nears court incentive

No. 1: Report: Knicks interested in Miller — The New York Knicks are finally hitting their stride and much of their recent success can be linked to the return of point guard Raymond Felton. Felton has missed a lot of time this season with a lingering groin injury, which conceivably could return at anytime. The success the Knicks have experienced with solid point guard play makes their reported interest in the Denver Nuggets’ disgruntled Andre Miller reasonable, as ESPN’s Marc Stein reports:

You’ll recall that the Knicks were originally at the front of the queue trying to trade for [Kyle] Lowry in mid-December when the Raps were shopping him hard in the wake of the Rudy Gay deal with Sacramento. The Knicks are now said to want to work their way into the bidding for Denver’s very available Andre Miller, but the same problem that doomed New York in the Lowry chase a month ago — limited assets to offer — doesn’t bring much hope.

***

No. 2: Turkoglu impresses Doc — Longtime NBA veteran Hedo Turkoglu has made it known to contenders that he still wants to play in the league after he was waived by the Orlando Magic a little more than a week ago. He’s received interest from both teams in Los Angeles and recently put on a show for Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:

The Clippers also brought in forward Hedo Turkoglu for a meeting and a workout Thursday. They liked what they saw but don’t plan on signing him anytime soon. The Clippers would have to cut a player to make room for any new additions.

“He made shots from everywhere,” Rivers said of Turkoglu. “He looked good. It was a good workout, but we’re not doing anything anytime soon, but he did look good.”

***

No. 3: Toronto plans to keep LowryAfter the Toronto Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, reports out of Toronto suggested that it was the first of many deals as new general manager Masai Ujiri planned to tear-down the current roster. But since the trade, the Raptors have surged and now lead the Atlantic Division with a record of 18-17. Now reports say the Raptors plan to keep point guard Kyle Lowry, who recently made his first appearance on our Kia MVP Ladder. From ESPN’s Marc Stein:

For the first time, there are certifiable rumbles emanating from Toronto suggesting that the Raptors might well keep point guard Kyle Lowry for the rest of the season. Word is new GM Masai Ujiri continues to resist locking into any sort of firm position — leaving open the possibility of a Lowry deal if the offers suddenly get sweeter — but team officials appear to be growing increasingly comfortable with the idea that it’s better to go for what would be just Toronto’s third playoff berth in 13 seasons rather than try to do the absolute uber-tanking it would take from here for the 17-17 Raps to get [a top draft pick].

***


VIDEO: Drake announces Raptors starting lineup

No. 4: Drake Night a successThe Toronto Raptors made a great decision when they decided to name rapper Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham their global brand ambassador. The first of what one would assume will be many Drake Nights was held at the Air Canada Center last night. Drake announced the starting lineup, wore this amazing suit and sat courtside next to the Raptors bench. Best of all for fans who attended the game, the Drake Night shirts which were given to each fan at the game are now selling on Ebay for $150+. Erik Koreen of The National Post writes a great recap of the night:

The great thing about Drake — and there is no irony in the use of “great” here — is the dichotomy that defines him. Sometimes, he is just so darned earnest, such an emotional open book. To the openhearted, that is wonderful; to the jaded, it is a bit embarrassing. And then sometimes, he is able to wink at that.The guy has a sense of humour about himself, which is a large part of his appeal. He charms you into liking him. If he took himself as seriously as it seems he does in his confessional lyrics, it would be absurd. The fact that he embraces the mockery, and even takes part, puts the hip-hop artist standing in as the Toronto Raptors’ global brand ambassador just on the right side of tolerable.

As soon as you want to give him, and this whole idea of him representing the Raptors, the benefit of the doubt, the preposterousness of the whole arrangement looms again.

“Tonight isn’t a Drake show. It has nothing really to do with Drake,” Drake said before Drake Night, an evening that was a glorification of Drake’s brand, only tangibly related to the Toronto Raptors’ 96-80 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It has nothing really to do with me. I’m just going to be sitting there. The fact that people want to come out, participate, get a free t-shirt: if that’s what it takes to put people in the stands, than every night could be Drake Night if you want.”

To be fair, Drake was  involved throughout the whole evening, not content to just sit in his courtside seats. That was a frequent criticism of Jay-Z during his short tenure as a minority owner of the Nets. Drake took over from long time public-address announcer Herbie Kuhn to introduce the Raptors’ starting lineup. Within, Drake shouted out Scarborough Town Centre, noted that Kyle Lowry kind of looks like Chris Tucker and called head coach Dwane Casey “dashingly handsome.” (“That’s not what my mirror says,” Casey said after the game) He was clearly having some fun.

During the first quarter intermission, Drake joined the team’s cheerleaders and second-string mascot, Stripes, to toss t-shirts into the sold-out crowd. At halftime, Drake’s official DJ, Future the Prince, played a brief set. After which, Drake gave out some branded Jordan sneakers, as most of the sold-out crowd looked up at the 27-year-old star in awe. Most importantly, he was visibly into the game as DeMar DeRozan took it over in the third quarter.

“I think we’re just trying to give people something exciting to look at and give them an atmosphere that’s just a little bit more invigorating,” Drake said.

***

No. 5: Meeks nears court incentiveMost NBA contracts are laced with incentives. Play this many minutes, get this much money. Start this many games, get this much money. It’s a typical practice and allows teams to have some confidence that they won’t pay a player too much for limited contribution. It also allows a player to earn his worth. In Los Angeles, Jodie Meeks is more than halfway towards some pretty nice incentives from the Lakers, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:

Injuries have opened up an opportunity for Lakers guard Jodie Meeks, who has started 30 of 37 games this season.

Meeks is now more than halfway to hitting an incentive in his contract that would reward him with an additional $200,000.

According to his agreement with the Lakers, Meeks has a base compensation of $1.45 million for the 2013-14 season.

If he averages at least 20 minutes through a minimum of 70 games, Meeks will earn an additional $100,000.

Meeks hit a similar incentive last season, averaging 21.3 minutes a game to bump his $1.4-million salary to $1.5 million.

Should Meeks stay at 25 minutes a game or higher, he’ll be rewarded with an additional $100,000.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Josh Smith hit a game-winning runner for the Pistons … The Wizards-Rockets game was lengthened due to two rain delays … Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak wants Nick Young to be a Laker for a “long time”Taj Gibson threw down a huge dunk over Bismack Biyombo

ICYMI of The Night: Brandon Jennings dished out 16 assists in the first half against the Phoenix Suns last night. Although it’s disappointing he only finished with 18 dimes (still a Detroit Pistons franchise-record), this one to Andre Drummond off the backboard makes up for the second half slump:


VIDEO: Jennings to Drummond off the window

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Suspense Runs High As Kobe Returns


VIDEO: Rick Fox analyzes the impact of Kobe’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?

Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?

Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.

Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.

How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?

The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.

What have the Lakers become without Kobe?

Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni – himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.

No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.

Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.

Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.

No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.

Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.

So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.

Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.