Posts Tagged ‘Joe Dumars’

Mr. Big Shot one cool customer


VIDEO: Veteran Billups calls it a career

There are players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin, whose careers throw off smoke and sparks and noise like drag racers, right from the starting line.

Then there’s Chauncey Billups, who simply hummed as quiet and cool as an air conditioner.

For 17 seasons and seven different NBA teams, Billups was the proverbial duck who might have been paddling furious beneath the surface, but never gave the appearance of doing anything but gliding across the water.

He moved fast by taking it slow and he always seemed to be taking it slow, even when pushing the ball down the court in the middle of a fast break. He was the strong man who never felt a need to flex his muscles until the game got late and there was heavy lifting to do. He played with a warm smile on his face that could chill a defender. He was often the shortest one on the floor, yet the player who stood tallest when it was needed most.

Mr. Big Shot.

The standard line about the 2004 Pistons is that they were the last team to win an NBA championship without a superstar.

But that’s if you measure a star only by its brightness, as one that grabs headlines along the way to the more critical task, which is grabbing games by the throat.

Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace did work in concert, a symphony orchestra in high tops and shorts. But it was Billups who stood on the rostrum with the baton in his hand, making sure everyone hit the right notes.

“He’s at the head of the table and he determines how people eat,” none other than Kevin Garnett once said when they were teammates in Minnesota.

That’s the way Billups had always been since his days as a teenager at Denver’s Skyland Rec Center, when he was often the youngest player on the court. He not only found a way to fit in, but developed a way to earn the respect and the trust of the older kids.

Funny thing is, it took a while to gain that same respect in the NBA. After a standout college career at Colorado, he was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft by the Celtics. But the franchise that prides itself on recognizing smarts didn’t keep around. Neither did the Raptors, Nuggets, Magic or Timberwolves.

So Billups finally wound up in Detroit in 2002 with a resume list of ex-teams that was longer than his arm, but not even a trace of doubt.

“My demeanor, how I am, it never swayed,” he said back then. “A lot of guys in this league when they’re not playing a lot of minutes, they get a chip on their shoulder, they’re mad at everybody. I’ve never been that way.”

Billups came to the Pistons at a time when then-president Joe Dumars was constructing a team in the “three-peat” era of the Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant off-court bickering, where he wanted talent to work together like five fingers inside a glove doubled up into a fist, where effort took a backseat to ego.

The point guard with the butler’s name and the sniper’s nerveless confidence was the perfect choice to pull it all together and be the driving force. Billups was the steady hand on the reins of disparate personalities that knew how and when to take clutch situations in the biggest of games into his own grasp. Thus, the nickname, Mr. Big Shot. The player who could miss his first 10 shots of the night and then coolly put No. 11 into the bottom of the net with a game or a playoff series on the line.

You could picture him in a tuxedo ordering a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Billups, Chauncey Billups, was always the player who could lock and bar the door, the one that took the guessing and drama out of that final minute. Send him to the line and he’d drill those six straight free throws to seal a win. Leave him an opening and he’d stop up and drain that long 3-pointer without thinking twice.

“Who else would you want with the ball in his hands at that point than Chauncey?” Dumars asked.

He was a five-time All-Star from 2006-2010, was MVP of The Finals when the Pistons took down the mighty Lakers in 2004, a two-time All-Defensive second team member and, notably, in 2013 was named NBA Teammate of the Year by a vote of his peers. The only question left is whether Hall of Famer voters five years from now were really paying attention.

Let the others throw off loud sparks. For 17 seasons Billups just hummed. Perspiring, but never letting you see him sweat.

Bledsoe’s gamble bigger than Monroe’s

bledsoe

In his first season as a full-time starter, the 24-year-old Eric Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Greg Monroe and the Detroit Pistons made it official on Monday: Monroe will play this season for $5.5 million, the amount of the one-year qualifying offer. He could have pocketed more than $12 million next season and reportedly more than $60 million over the next five seasons had he agreed to the Pistons’ offer.

Few players shun their first opportunity to ink a big-money extension. But that’s how disillusioned the 24-year-old power forward has become after four seasons of totaling 86 games under .500 in the Motor City, even as Stan Van Gundy offers stability and, potentially, a new direction as coach and team president.

The 6-foot-11 Monroe is gambling millions that he’ll remain a picture of good health (he’s played in 309 of 312 games in his career) and will keep improving (he averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds last season), allowing him to control his free agency and cash in with a team of his choosing next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Monroe was a restricted free agent this summer. The Pistons offered to make him their highest-paid player, but reportedly never put a max contract on the table. Sign-and-trade scenarios couldn’t be worked out, setting up the stalemate that lasted into September.

Former Detroit general manager Joe Dumars forced this situation by overreaching for power forward Josh Smith last summer and squeezing him in as a small forward. The Redwood-like frontline of Smith, who loves to shoot the 3, but isn’t good at it, plus Monroe and up-and-coming center Andre Drummond didn’t work. Monroe decided he wasn’t going to hitch himself to the franchise long-term without a better idea of how the team will look beyond this season.

While it certainly would appear that Monroe will be playing one last season in Detroit, Van Gundy can attempt to change that by catering to Monroe and working to somehow unload Smith’s contract which has three years and $40.5 million remaining. Still, with the large number of teams that will have cap space and shopping for a quality, young big next summer, Detroit stands to lose Monroe no matter what magic Van Gundy can pull.

“I have said from Day 1 that we have great respect for Greg as a person and like what he brings to this team as a player,” Van Gundy said in a statement. “We have had good dialogue with Greg throughout the off-season, with the understanding that there were multiple options for both parties involved, and we respect his decision. We look forward to a great year from Greg as we continue to build our team moving forward.”

To his credit, Monroe issued a statement in which he said he was looking forward to playing for Van Gundy. So at least it appears relations between the two sides haven’t grown completely sour, which can’t be said for the last remaining high-profile free agent, point guard Eric Bledsoe, and the Phoenix Suns.

Bledsoe, 24, long ago rejected the Suns’ reported four-year, $48-million offer, a deal that would have paid the restricted free agent the same as Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and put him on par with many of his peers despite having only started 78 games in his four seasons and missing half of last season with a knee injury.

He has yet to sign the qualifying offer that would pay him $3.7 million and make him an unrestricted free agent next summer.

With $48 million on the table, Bledsoe is taking a significant risk, an even bigger risk than Monroe. He doesn’t have the track record of good health like Monroe, and big men always — eventually — get paid because good ones are so hard to find. Monroe is confident max money will be waiting for him.

Bledsoe can’t confidently claim the same even if he produces an All-Star-worthy season.

What Bledsoe has that Monroe doesn’t, and what should not be discounted by the young talent, is his is a team on the rise with a coach, Jeff Hornacek, who implemented an up-tempo system well-suited for Bledsoe’s game.

In his first season as a full-time starter (remember he was behind Chris Paul with the Clippers for three seasons before being traded to Phoenix), Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32.9 minutes. He shot 47.7 percent overall and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.

When Bledsoe was healthy, he and Goran Dragic were dynamite as the Suns’ starting backcourt. If Bledsoe had not missed half the season, the 48-win Suns might not have missed the playoffs.

If sharing the stage is a problem for Bledsoe, he should be looking ahead to 2015-16 when Dragic could well be playing elsewhere. Dragic will almost certainly exercise his opt-out clause next summer (he’s scheduled to make $7.5 million in each of the next two seasons) and seek a much bigger payday. If Bledsoe is already on the books for $12 million for three more years –and with Isaiah Thomas recently added at $27 million over the next four seasons — the Suns might be reluctant to pay Dragic the kind of money other teams will offer him on the open market.

But Bledsoe hasn’t agreed to the long-term offer and it doesn’t appear he will. If he’s dead-set on shooting for the moon financially, the Suns would be wise to be content to bid him farewell next summer, pay Dragic, an All-Star candidate last season, and spend their cap money to fill a different position, like maybe power forward for somebody like, oh, Greg Monroe.

Report: Van Gundy to coach, run Pistons’ front office

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Stan Van Gundy to coach Pistons and run the front office

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Stan Van Gundy the basketball coach is a proven commodity, with five 50-win seasons on his resume and not one losing season. Stan Van Gundy the team president, however, is a rookie with no front-office experience to speak of.

The Detroit Pistons reportedly have tabbed Van Gundy to fill both positions, reaching an agreement in principle with the former Orlando Magic and Miami Heat coach, according to multiple reports and confirmed by TNT’s David Aldridge.  ESPN.com’s Marc Stein was the first report the deal.

The deal is reported to be worth an estimated $35 million over five years. The official announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.

Van Gundy joins a short list of elite coaches who also serve as the personnel bosses for their franchises. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers also have final say on player personnel.

Popovich and Rivers, of course, have won championships. And they both have their teams playing in the Western Conference semifinals right now. Van Gundy’s teams did rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in five of his seven full season as coach. Van Gundy, who was also being pursued by the Golden State Warriors, is taking over a Pistons franchise whose basketball operations were in shambles at season’s end.

Hall of Famer Joe Dumars stepped down as team president, and interim coach John Loyer — who replaced the fired Maurice Cheeks andlasted just 50 games on the job this season — was obviously not considered as a permanent replacement.

Van Gundy will have his work cut out for him. The Pistons have a talented but uneven roster, including young big man Andre Drummond as a building block for the future. They also have Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a part of the current core.

But there’s no telling what direction Van Gundy will go this summer in putting his own imprint on this team and franchise. He’s spent the past two seasons as a broadcaster and spending time with his family. While he’s been candid about missing the competition and adrenaline rush that comes with coaching in the league, he said last week on an Orlando radio show that he would need a “great situation” to consider getting back into the mix somewhere.

Apparently, he found exactly that in Detroit.

Morning Shootaround — April 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Changes ahead in Minnesota | Dumars leaves conflicting legacy in Detroit | Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland | Pacers back in control of No. 1 | Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one

No. 1: Timberwolves head into offseason with many unanswered questions — It’s no secret. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a ton of work to do when this season ends, namely figuring out how to proceed with All-Star big man Kevin Love, head coach Rick Adelman and point guard Ricky Rubio. The futures of all three men will be in the crosshairs in the coming months, as the Star Tribune lays out … and if you thought things were sticky with Love, they might be even stickier with Rubio:

Three pending contract situations loom large for the Wolves heading into the offseason:

Kevin Love

Why don’t the Wolves just rip up his contract and sign him to a maximum long-term contract extension right now? Well, because they can’t.

Here are their options after they convinced him in January 2012 to sign a four-year contract that gives him an opt-out clause after three seasons and makes him an unrestricted free agent in 2015:
• They can sign him to a two-year extension in January 2015. It would keep him put until 2018, but he has no reason to accept that because he can sign for twice as much if he waits six months.

• When he opts out in July 2015 — a slam dunk, if you will — they can sign him to a five-year extension, one year longer than any other team. They also can give him larger annual raises, so he would be refusing an extra $26.5 million if he signs a four-year deal elsewhere.

Rick Adelman

Either he or the Wolves can choose to opt out of the final season of a four-year contract he signed in September 2011. Both parties say the issue will be addressed after the season ends Wednesday. There’s a two-week window at season’s end for either side to opt out.

If one side doesn’t exercise the opt-out for next season, the other side almost certainly will. Adelman is 67 and his wife, Mary Kay, has had health issues the past two seasons.

There’s a provision for Adelman to continue as a consultant if he doesn’t return to coach next season.

Ricky Rubio

The Wolves can negotiate a contract extension starting July 1 and they will make it a priority during a window that lasts through October. But this one could get complicated.

If former Wolves boss David Kahn insisted Love take a four-year deal so he could save his one five-year maximum “designated player” slot for Rubio, well, the third-year point guard hasn’t played nearly well enough to deserve it, even if he is finishing the season with a flourish.

Look for the Wolves to position themselves offering something less than the four-year, $44 million deal Stephen Curry signed or certainly the four-year, $48 million contract Ty Lawson received.

Both sides want a deal done, but the disparity between what each thinks Rubio is worth could create a situation similar to those involving Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Detroit’s Greg Monroe. All three didn’t sign extensions last fall and this summer will test the restricted free-agent market. Their current teams will have the right to match any offer.

***

No. 2: Dumars leaves behind a conflicting legacy in Detroit — For the better part of his adult life Joe Dumars has given his life to the Detroit Pistons. He’s spent thirty years as a player and executive in the Motor City, living through and helping orchestrate some of the franchise’s highest highs while also being there for some of the lowest lows. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press shines a light on the conflicting legacy the Hall of Famer Dumars will leave when he walks away, but insists that Pistons fans need to focus on the good that he helped facilitate more than anything else:

Dumars, now 50, treated players fairly, honestly and professionally. He kept them informed if they were on the trading block. He had them to his home, mentored the younger ones, shared laughs with the older ones. There’s a reason you’ve almost never heard a traded or cut player bad-mouth Dumars. That should bring applause as well.

True, the man who built the 2004 championship team has had his stumbles. Nobody now thinks Darko Milicic was worth the second pick in the 2003 draft (although plenty did then). And the 2008 trade for Allen Iverson (although partly about money) was a terrible turn. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and other recent moves are questionable, but you are limited when you’re a losing team with an impatient owner (more on that in a moment).

Remember, no GM is infallible. Jerry West is considered possibly the best ever. But he left the Lakers (and their L.A. allure) for Memphis, where his first team lost 54 games and his last, five years later, lost 60. The Grizzlies never won a playoff round in his tenure.

Milwaukee’s John Hammond was the NBA’s executive of the year in 2010; this year his Bucks are the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge, hailed as a Boston genius, traded his biggest stars last year; now the Celtics are behind the Pistons.

The job is a roller coaster. The salary cap is insanely frustrating. Dumars has won and lost. But if you think he suddenly lost his keen ability to evaluate talent, you don’t know him or basketball.

***


VIDEO: Joe Dumars is out in Detroit

No. 3: Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland is a somber one — Pau Gasol knows it wasn’t supposed to end like this. His ride with the Los Angeles Lakers included it’s fair share of drama, but it also included two championship parades alongside Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. It was a glorious time, interrupted lately by drama, injury and losing in ways the Lakers hadn’t seen in … forever. And now comes, Gasol’s walk into free agency this summer, and in the view ESPN‘s J.A. Adande, Gasol’s emotional divorce from a franchise that helped make his career:

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and — just when he was ready to cut things off — a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas. 

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers’ locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar — something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It’s also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market — or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

.***

No. 4: Pacers back in charge of No. 1 in the East — For all of the bellyaching that’s gone on in recent weeks and months about the Indiana Pacers and what they haven’t done, here they stand with one game remaining in charge of their own destiny and in prime position to secure that No. 1 seed they’ve been talking about all season. Did we all make too much of their struggles? Or is this just a product of a depressed Eastern Conference? Mike Wells, formerly of the Indianapolis Star and now working for ESPN.com, weighs in:

Patience. Execution. Discipline.

The Pacers didn’t always do those things Sunday afternoon against the Thunder, but they did just enough to move their magic number to clinching home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs to one game with a 102-97 victory. A Heat loss in either of their final two games or a Pacers victory at Orlando on Wednesday will give Indiana the No. 1 seed.

Hard to imagine that after the way the Pacers have played over the past month, huh? “We’re just trying to put together good basketball at this point and hopefully carry momentum into the playoffs, being positive and upbeat about where we are,” David West said.

The talk of being the No. 1 seed has died down from the Pacers after they spent the majority of the season discussing it with anybody who would listen.

Coach Frank Vogel brought it to his team’s attention days before their March 31 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Pacers had become too distracted reading their own clips, watching themselves on the highlights and believing stepping on the court would be good enough for them. Success went to their heads, and for a team that got to this point playing with a purpose, that was the worst thing that could happen to them.

Center Roy Hibbert looked around, noticing how teams like the Heat, Thunder and Spurs went about their business. It didn’t take long for him to realize the Pacers didn’t have that same professional approach.

“Most of us have never been in that position before,” West said. “Since I’ve gotten here and most of the guys, with the exception of Evan [Turner], everybody is sort of under-drafted, not drafted or simply passed over. Everybody’s attitude has been with the underdog mind-frame.

“Then you get out front, nobody doubts you because you have a five-game lead and everybody is pumping you up. I don’t think we handled that the best. Only way you can deal with it is to go through it and experience it. That’s what we’ve done.”

Indiana is at its best doing the little things, even if that meant staying silent about its goals: defending the pick-and-roll, talking on defense, moving the ball and having fun playing with each other again.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players talk about their big win over OKC on Sunday

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one for the playoffs — Has it really come down to this, just one more win (in two tries) and the Memphis Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season? Indeed. The Grizzlies miraculous turnaround this season could come full circle with their next win. Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal sets the table:

The Griz only need to win one of their two remaining games — either at Phoenix on Monday or against Dallas in FedExForum on Wednesday — and they’ll lock up a fourth straight postseason berth.

“It’s amazing that we’re in this position,” Mike Conley said. “If you would have asked me in November and December, I don’t know. You didn’t know what was going to happen with the year. So we’re happy with where we’re at. We still have a lot of work to do but we’re looking forward to (Monday).”

Memphis moved to a game ahead of Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix needs to beat Memphis to keep alive its postseason hopes. The Griz, though, own the tiebreaker against the Suns in the season series.

“It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you want,” Griz reserve swingman Mike Miller said. “We are real fortunate. I don’t know if the NBA knew it was going to turn out this way. For us to be able to control our own destiny playing two teams we’re chasing is lucky for us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Is there a double standard in the Portland locker room for Damian Lillard? … Concerns and excitement abound in Toronto, where the Raptors are chasing the franchise mark for wins in a season on their way to the playoffs for the first time in six years … The season is already over for Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins … Someone in the Nets’ big man rotation will have to sit and wait his turn in the playoffs, and it won’t be Mason Plumlee (if his recent work is any indication)

ICYMI: Steph Curry didn’t get the win but he got everything else he wanted against the Trail Blazers …


VIDEO: Again, the Steph Curry show travels anywhere

Ex-Hawks teammates Smith, Horford ponder what might have been

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Al Horford talks about his relationship with former teammate Josh Smith

ATLANTA — As different as they were and are, as players and people, the chemistry was undeniable. And it was instantaneous on the court for both Josh Smith and Al Horford, the former staples in the Atlanta Hawks’ frontcourt for six seasons.

Most folks agree they both played out of their comfort zones — Horford at center and Smith as some sort of hybrid power/small forward — but they did it with and energy and fervor. That duo fueled six straight playoff trips that spanned from Horford’s rookie season in 2007-08 through last season, Smith’s ninth and final campaign with his hometown team. After a first-round loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, Smith left town for free-agent riches in Detroit that weren’t available here.

Nearly a full season later, the No. 8-seeded Hawks host the playoff-eliminated Pistons tonight (7:30 ET, League Pass) in a make-up game that was postponed because of a snowstorm. Neither Horford nor Smith are expected to suit up for due to injuries. Still, the questions linger.

Were they friends … or merely co-workers? Was their a rift between them that made working together for say another six years impossible … or was their split precipitated simply by the business of the NBA? And what might have been if the Hawks had decided to build around and play through their undersized frontcourt stars from the start?

“I think we both have only wanted the best for each other in life,” Smith said of his relationship with Horford. “He’s a little different from what I’m accustomed to off the court, in terms of just our personalities and where we come from, but we were always cool on and off the court. We fed off of each other. Even when he made those All-Star teams when I was here, it was like I made it I was so excited for him. It took some of the sting away for me knowing that one of us was representing for our team. And that chemistry was instant because it equaled success. Playing with a guy of his caliber and feeding off of each other each and every night … it was special.”

The answers to those questions, and plenty more, flow freely from both men now that they’ve had some time to reflect on just how hard it is to sustain playoff-level success. The pain and disappointment of seasons filled with injury and unmet expectations have a way of clearing the past’s haze.

“I think we had different personalities, definitely. Josh is probably louder or whatever and I’m probably more laid back, but we got along because we’re both competitors and wanted to win,” Horford said. “He’s very smart. He’s a very smart basketball player. He gets the game and understands the game. I learned so much from him. We had a good relationship. It was definitely good.

“His mom and my mom would have karaoke nights, so I would definitely be over there hanging out with them and things like that. It was good, we definitely had a good relationship. Josh is a good guy. Like you said, there probably wasn’t a lot of emotion going on, but I respect his game and I respect him.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith had big hopes for himself in his first season in Detroit

Smith believes there was more they could have accomplished together, had they been allowed to finish what they started.

“I don’t think we hit a ceiling as teammates,” he said. “I think we didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to maximize our potential together. I think it could have worked. We could have a been a smaller version of the twin-towers down there on the block where we were both getting featured. Who knows what it might have been? You never know … until you have a coach who says these are the guys we’re going to go through every night and we’ll see what happens.”

The Hawks should be headed back to the playoffs, provided they survive the next two weeks. But they’ll have to do so without Horford, who tore his right pectoral muscle on Dec. 26 and has not played since. He tore his left pectoral muscle in 2011 and eventually came back for the playoffs, but he’s already ruled out trying to do so this time around. Paul Millsap, Smith’s replacement in the lineup, was an All-Star berth this season. But he’s never gotten the chance to develop the sort of chemistry with Horford that Smith had.

The Pistons, picked by many to be one of the upstarts in the Eastern Conference this season after adding Smith and Brandon Jennings to a core that included promising young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, struggled mightily to start 2013-14. They never mounted a comeback in the standings, coach Maurice Cheeks was fired 50 games into the season and now, it’s no secret that longtime Pistons boss Joe Dumars is expected to resign sometime soon.

Smith will shoulder much of the burden in Detroit. As the team’s highest paid player, the player Dumars targeted and landed in free agency, he’s paid to carry that weight. And he’s fine with that. He believes the Pistons can do what the Hawks once did: turn a struggling outfit into a playoff regular.

Talented big men in Drummond and Monroe are good building blocks, but the Pistons must work through whatever issues arise and cultivate the right chemistry, the kind Smith and Horford used to use to torment opposing big men.

“The thing that stood out to me was how they could both rebound and push the ball in transition,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the Smith/Hoford combo. “They could find each other and have plays that made them special. But they could find shooters on the perimeter, too. And just to have two big guys that could really rebound and push and make plays in transition, the ballhandling and passing, it made them different and unique.”

It was the differences that clicked with Smith and Horford. But there were plenty of similarities as well. Most notably, they are both fiercely loyal family men, and that included their extended, work families. Their mothers became fast friends while they were teammates, with those karaoke nights, dinners and card-playing parties at the center of many gatherings. Their moms, Paulette Smith and Arelis Reynoso, were perhaps even better friends off the court than their sons.

“My mother is an open-arms type of person, always wanting to cook for somebody and hang out,” Smith said. “When Al’s mom came here she was the same way, so naturally they embraced each other. And it was great to see. You never forget how someone treats your family. And I consider Al and his entire family as an extended part of my own, and I always will.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith’s high-flying ways have continued in Detroit

Morning Shootaround — April 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kupchak: Calipari not headed to Lakers | Irving, Waiters try to squash rift talk | Johnson to help NBPA | Report: Dumars set to resign soon | Suns making one last push for No. 8

No. 1: Kupchak: Calipari not headed to L.A. — Just before the start of last night’s NCAA Tournament national championship game between Kentucky and UConn, former Kentucky star Rex Chapman floated a little rumor/bit of potential news on Twitter about Kentucky coach John Calipari:

After the game — which UConn won 60-54 — both Calipari and the Lakers shot down the rumor. of the Los Angeles Times and Brian Hamilton of SI.com have more on the story:

Nothing like putting out a juicy oh-by-the-way rumor before the biggest college basketball game of the season.

But former Kentucky star Rex Chapman tweeted before Monday night’s national title game that Kentucky Coach John Calipari will be the next coach of the Lakers.

Chapman doesn’t site any sources or offer any timetable. Calipari said this week he was probably going to need his hip replaced shortly after Monday night’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut.

The Lakers denied have any conversations with Calipari.

“I spoke to [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak and he said the rumor is untrue,” Lakers spokesman John Black said. “Mike D’Antoni is our coach. There have been no conversations about any specific names for any replacement.”

Calipari had a 72-112 in three seasons with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s.

And here’s Hamilton’s report after the national championship game, in which Calipari shot down the rumor:

To believe a former program star’s tweet shortly before tipoff Monday, John Calipari was coaching his final game on the Kentucky sideline before bolting to the Los Angeles Lakers.

To believe Calipari, he won’t need change of address forms anytime soon.

“The Lakers have a coach,” Calipari said after a 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the national title game. “Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”

The Lakers reportedly denied any contact with Calipari. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart sounded unconcerned after the game.

“Cal’s been great, he’s been a great ambassador for this program and he cares a lot about Kentucky,” Barnhart said in the locker room Monday night. “So clearly we love how he represents what we do. He looks great in blue. You live day to day with people and you trust what they do. For five years now, I think I know him fairly well. If there was anything I need to be concerned with, he and I have had conversations, and in those conversations he’s been very, very focused on this tournament. His total focus this season, especially this last month and a half, has been to get the team to a spot where we could compete for something like this. I think he’s done a marvelous job doing that.”

***

No. 2: Irving, Waiters try to squash talk of rift — The Cavs wake up on Tuesday morning and find themselves four games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 playoff spot in the East. Cleveland has plenty of talent — led by All-Star guard Kyrie Irving — but has never seemed to get on the right page on the court all season. Some of that may stem from a chemistry issue between Irving and second-year guard Dion Waiters. There were reports earlier in the season the duo fought at a players-only meeting, and now, other Cleveland-area sports figures are chiming in on the discord. The two players talked to the media after yesterday’s practice and, as Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal reports, tried to quiet talk about their supposed discord:

It might be time for TMZ to swoop in.

Better yet, it might make for a new reality series.

The Cavaliers are on the verge of being eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff race. One more Atlanta victory in its last six games will end the Cavs’ run.

Yet the Cavs were more intent on showing what bosom buddies Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are. They also wanted to deny a claim by Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon there is any kind of a rift between the two guards.

The Cavs propped up Irving and Waiters in front of the media on April 7 after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts, just to promote an aura of unity.

Waiters said he was friends with Irving long before he came to the Cavs. They crossed paths in the AAU circuit.

“I just think, man, throughout this whole year with us two not liking each other, it’s total BS,” Waiters said. “We’ve been friends before we even made the NBA, before any of this. I just think y’all saying we don’t like playing with one another. … Yeah, we still need to learn certain things, but I think at the end of the day, we’re genuinely friends. I love him as a friend, teammate, everything. I just want everybody to know that. I don’t hate this guy.

“I’m pretty sure he don’t hate me. I know he don’t hate me. I hope he don’t hate me. Rome wasn’t built in one day. We’re still young. We’re still planning to stay together. We’re still working. As long as we’ve got great communication down, it’s fine.”

Waiters admitted he was neighbors with Gordon and the two often play pool. But he said that’s where the story ends.

“He plays football. I play basketball. Two different sports. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go down there running my mouth on something that he don’t even know what’s going on.”

Irving said he called Gordon and cleared the air.

“I just let him know that the whole situation kind of got blown out of proportion,” he said. “There was no disrespect on my end to him or anything he does. I have the utmost respect for him. But what I was just trying to clearly say was what Dion has been reiterating: What goes on with us, we want to keep it within us.

“We’ve had numerous occasions where we’ve been in the media about me and Dion’s relationship. I think me and him are just tired of it. I just want to move past it and play basketball.”

“I just hate when people put out stories that aren’t true,” he said. “Be man enough to come ask me. I’ll give it to you uncut. I don’t got nothing to hide. I think everybody knows my personality. I may not come off the right way, but I don’t mean no harm. Everybody gets tired of it, especially with our relationship. They don’t know what we do. You’re not going to always see eye to eye on the court.”


VIDEO: Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving address talk of a rift between them

***

No. 3: Ex-Suns star Johnson to help NBPA exec search — Sacramento mayor and former Phoenix Suns All-Star Kevin Johnson already has an off-the-court NBA win, of sorts, by playing an instrumental role in helping keep the Sacramento Kings in town. Now, Johnson is trying to help the National Basketball Players Association find its next executive director as it recovers from the fallout of the firing of former NBPA president Billy Hunter. Our David Aldridge has more on the move:

Responding to criticism of its ongoing selection process to find a new executive director, the National Basketball Players Association announced Monday that former NBA player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson would head a retooled search to fill the position no later than the start of the 2014-15 season.

Johnson, who spearheaded the effort that kept the Kings in Sacramento last year after the team’s former owners had agreed to a deal with a Seattle-based group that would have moved the team to Washington state, will chair a search committee of, according to a statement released Monday by the union, “outside professionals with unique NBPA and executive search connections and experiences to guide the Executive Committee.”

Johnson will continue to serve as mayor while helping the union pick a permanent successor to Billy Hunter, who was fired by the NBPA in 2013 amid investigations into his business practices while running the union.

“I have a deep passion for the NBA and the promise it has for everyone connected to it,” Johnson said in the statement. “Everything I’ve been able to achieve in life was a result of embracing the opportunities I had as an NBA player.”

Bringing in Johnson, a former star with the Suns who has credibility with players and displayed his coalition-building chops in putting together the unlikely group that kept the Kings in Sacramento, is a signal by the union that its membership—many of whom, including its president, Chris Paul, will be busy the next couple of months in the playoffs—may need outside assistance in getting its house in order.

During All-Star weekend in February, union members were introduced to two candidates that were believed to be the finalists for the job — David White, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, and Michele Roberts, a partner at the powerful law firm Skadden, Arps. But the process was decried as too secretive and not inclusive by agents and by potential candidates for the job, most notably former player Danny Schayes.

***

No. 4: Report: Dumars poised to resign soon — Since June 18, 1985, Joe Dumars has known no other NBA franchise as well as he knows the Detroit Pistons. It was on that day that Dumars was selected by the team with the 18th pick in the 1985 Draft, starting a lengthy career in the Motor City. But after winning two championships as a player (1989, 1990) another one as the team’s president (2004), Dumars has had a rough go with the team as he’s tried — and failed — to rebuild them following that last championship run. Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News reports that Dumars, who has been rumored to be fired at season’s end, may resign once 2013-14 is in the books (if not sooner):

As the Pistons prepare to ride out the last two weeks of the regular season, the sun might be setting on Pistons president Joe Dumars’ reign with the only franchise he’s known.

Dumars has told multiple sources within the NBA that he plans to resign — possibly as soon as this week — after a busy offseason that included the signings of high-priced free agents Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings and led to an underachieving 2013-14 season. The Pistons, who many experts picked to return to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, are 28-49 and out of playoff contention.

Pistons owner Tom Gores had expected before the season that the team would return to the playoffs.

Compared to his contemporaries, Dumars has been reluctant to be front and center with media as Pistons president of basketball operations and has been quieter than usual recently, perhaps another signal that his time with the franchise — 29 years of work as a player and executive — is coming to an end.

Dumars took over in 2000, one year after retiring as a player, and immediately began making changes, culminating in an NBA title in 2004 and a return trip to the Finals the next season.

After the Pistons’ run ended in 2008, Dumars began a plan to tear down his aging team, in an effort to prevent an extended period of irrelevancy — not unlike his Bad Boys teams after they fell from dominance.

Trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in November of 2008 was the first salvo, as he wanted to build around second-year guard Rodney Stuckey, but months later, after Davidson fell ill and soon passed away, Dumars’ plan was put on hold indefinitely.

Davidson’s widow, Karen, soon announced her plans to sell, so Dumars couldn’t rebuild on the fly — or even reload. Dumars signed free agents Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to deals neither lived up to, and Davidson ceased all transactions soon thereafter.

In the 2009-10 season, the first with Gordon and Villanueva, the average salaries of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs was $74.37 million. The Pistons’ overall salary was $58.59 million, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and haven’t returned since.

Dumars didn’t execute a single transaction during the 2011-12 season, as Karen Davidson negotiated with local sports owner Mike Ilitch and Gores all season long.

It was a backdrop in the most tumultuous season in team history, as Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton began to openly defy then-coach John Kuester, even taking part in a team boycott in Philadelphia in February 2012.

A little over a month later, Karen Davidson and Gores reached an agreement, right before the NBA lockout, and Dumars was unable to create the same magic working with Gores that he’d accomplished with Bill Davidson.

Gores wanted Lawrence Frank as his coach, and Dumars wanted Mike Woodson, a former assistant with Detroit who’d just led the Atlanta Hawks to a string of playoff appearances.

Frank became the choice, and the sides have not been able to get on the same page. Gores was a new owner with his own ideas, often consulting others outside the Pistons organization for advice, such as Dave Checketts and later, Phil Jackson, acts that never occurred under Bill Davidson’s watch.

***

No. 5: Suns hoping to seize their playoff moment — Who hasn’t loved the story of the Phoenix Suns this season? The squad was written off before the season as a group that would be lucky to win 20 games by some experts’ estimation (including some on this very site). But under the guidance of new coach Jeff Hornacek and their star guard combo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix finds itself with a tenuous grasp of the No. 8 spot in the West. As Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic writes, the Suns aren’t about to get all warm and fuzzy about their season — they’re too focused on finishing the job and making the playoffs:

With their best back-to-back wins of the season this weekend, over Portland and Oklahoma City, the Suns kept control of their fate.

“We know that time is running down and we just can’t fail,” Suns guard Gerald Green said. “It’s all or nothing right now. We don’t have a month left to try and make up. We’ve only got a few games left. It’s either win or go home for us.”

The Suns’ playoff picture seems to have been whittled to a three-team race for the final two spots in the Western Conference. The Suns are in the eighth and final playoff slot at 46-31, a half-game behind Dallas (47-31) and a game ahead of Memphis (45-32) with round-robin scheduling ahead when each of the three teams faces each other over the season’s final five nights, starting Saturday.

No team in the 16-team playoff era has failed to make it to the postseason with 49 wins (Golden State was left out at 48-34 in 2008). No 50-win team has ever been left out, although a 49-33 Suns team did not make the 1972 playoffs, when only four teams in the Western Conference qualified.

Although they just won two of the toughest games of their nasty April, tough tests remain: Four of the five remaining games are on the road, starting with a three-game trip this week to New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas. On Saturday, that crucial Dallas game falls on the second night of a back-to-back set.

If favorites won the remainder of the games, the Mavericks and Suns would finish 49-33 and advance to the playoffs as the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively, by finishing a game ahead of Memphis at 48-34. Unpredictability still probably lies ahead, which would be right in accord with a Suns team pegged for last place but in a playoff hunt.

While ESPN and other outlets’ playoff-probability odds leave Phoenix out, they do not account for momentum. The Suns are 8-2 in the past 10 games, while Dallas is 6-4 and Memphis is 5-5. The Suns shot a season-high 58.4 percent Sunday against a Thunder team that was ranked third in the NBA this season with a 43.3 opponent field-goal percentage.

As the Suns’ postseason chances grow, so does their support. The Suns had a sellout crowd Sunday for the third time since the All-Star break. Their ratings boom on Fox Sports Arizona continues with an average game broadcast rating of 2.2, nearly doubling last season’s 1.2 average. Sunday night’s average rating was 3.9 (70,301 Valley households), with a peak of 5.4 (97,340 Valley households).

Award votes are being cast around the league with growing sentiment for the Suns to pull off a sweep that would be unprecedented if the franchise had not already been the only one to do it.

Dragic, Markieff Morris and Jeff Hornacek could pull off a team sweep of the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Sixth Man and Coach of the Year awards for the first time in a quarter-century. When Hornacek played for the 1988-89 Suns, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson and Cotton Fitzsimmons won the same awards for a team that went from 28-54 to 55-27. These Suns will wind up with nearly the same win increase after last season’s 25-57 eyesore.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the race for No. 8 in the West

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tony Parker will be day-to-day with a back strain … Like it or not, it looks like the Atlanta Hawks are playoff-bound … Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has a challenging offseason of roster moves ahead of him … Sixers coach Brett Brown has learned a lot about analytics by working under GM Sam Hinkie

ICYMI of the Night: Yesterday was all about the NCAA Tournament and the national championship game (congrats to UConn, BTW), but before all of that took place, the Hall of Fame named its class of 2014. Among the names were NBA legends Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond, both of whom chatted with GameTime last night about their hoops immortality … 


VIDEO: Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond talk about their Hall of Fame election

 

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pistons’ Gores has more decisions ahead | Clippers soar in Paul’s return | World Peace has advice for Smart | No change in Kobe’s plans; another setback for Nash

No. 1: Pistons owner Gores has more work to do fix Motor City mess Tom Gores took the first step in attempting to fix the mess that is the Detroit Pistons by firing his head coach, Maurice Cheeks. That’s only the beginning of the heavy lifting he’ll have to do to fix what ails the once-proud Pistons, according to Terry Foster of the Detroit News., who reiterates what our Steve Aschburner said in the immediate aftermath of Cheeks being fired. And the list is long and starts with Pistons president Joe Dumars and includes several players who should all be in the crosshairs for a franchise that expected so much more from this season:

Gores owns this shipwreck and he probably doesn’t know what to do with it. Let me give him some advice:

He’s already issued his playoff-or-else edict for the season and can’t back down now. However, he can’t ignore long-term goals — that should be his most pressing concern.

Rodney Stuckey, Greg Monroe and Charlie Villanueva have been dangled as trade bait. The Pistons could go one of two ways. They could trade these pieces and try to get a small forward that could help them win now. Or they could trade these guys to free up cap space and retain their draft pick by slumping to one of the eight worst records in the league.

Option No. 2 means the Pistons would miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season. I am OK with that as long as they have one of the league’s eight-worst records so they can keep their pick in this talent-heavy draft.

The Pistons are a half-game behind Charlotte for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The last time the Pistons made the playoffs as an eight seed was 2009. They were swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

How did that experience work out? The Pistons are 132-226 since.

The Pistons likely would play the Pacers as an eight seed or the two-time defending champion Heat as a seventh seed. Both teams would sweep the Pistons. So what is the point?

The Pistons are a young team and playoff experience is an important learning experience. However, the Pistons might get drummed out before they can get their notebooks out.

“I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up,” Gores said.

Speaking of players, black marks on Cheeks’ record undoubtedly were the run-ins he had with Josh Smith and Will Bynum — which continue a trend of Pistons players having too much say. Does anyone remember the John Kuester mutiny?

Gores has to provide direction to this franchise. He has to establish a vision. If he doesn’t the Pistons will continue to play in front of a lot of empty seats.


VIDEO: Detroit became the first team to fire its coach this season

***

No. 2: Lob City was alive and well in Chris Paul’s return to the Clippers – Life without Chris Paul for the Los Angeles Clippers was certainly manageable. In fact, Blake Griffin ripped it up in Paul’s absence. But it’s good to have their All-Star point guard and floor leader back, as the world saw Sunday in the Clippers’ rout of the Philadelphia 76ers. It was a welcome back party, of sorts, that signals a second-half charge for the Clippers that should include a rise up the Western Conference food chain. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times recounts the return of Paul in the biggest (literally) win in franchise history:

It was Showtime at Staples Center on Sunday night, starring the return of Chris Paul, the comeback of Blake Griffin from an injury scare and the rest of the Clippers playing their roles.

Playing in his first game since he separated his right shoulder Jan. 3 at Dallas, Paul had seven points and eight assists in the Clippers’ show-stopping and franchise-record-setting 123-78 victory over the overmatched Philadelphia 76ers.

With Griffin overcoming a bruised left shin suffered in the first quarter to score 26 points, grab 11 rebounds and hand out six assists, the Clippers set a franchise record for biggest margin of victory.

The Clippers held the 76ers to an opponent franchise-low 27% (27 for 100) shooting. The Clippers set a franchise record for biggest lead at the half when they opened a 69-30 lead after two quarters.

They built a lead as big as 56 points, their largest of the season. So after missing the last 18 games recovering from his injury, this is what Paul came back to.

“It felt great to play,” said Paul, who played 22 minutes 44 seconds. “It’s one of those things you never know what it’s going to be like until you actually get out there and compete and play. It just felt good.”

Griffin went down late in the first quarter after Tony Wroten slipped while driving and stumbled into Griffin.

After he limped to the locker room with head athletic trainer Jasen Powell, Griffin checked back into the game with 7:31 left in the second quarter.

In case anyone was wondering if Griffin was fine and that he and Paul were on the same page, they got their answer twice in the second quarter.

Paul had a breakaway layup, but threw the ball off the backboard, allowing Griffin to catch it and throw down a windmill dunk.

Then later in the second quarter, Griffin dribbled up court, made a behind-the-back pass with his left hand to Paul, who threw a lob that Griffin dunked, bringing the crowd to its feet again.

So, Griffin was asked after the game, how hard was it play with Paul again?

“It was tough, but we managed,” Griffin deadpanned, laughing along with the media.


VIDEO: Who didn’t get dunked on Sunday? The Top 10 plays includes plenty from the Clippers

***

No. 3: World Peace has words of wisdom for Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart – If there is any one man on the planet who knows what Oklahoma State Marcus Smart is feeling in the aftermath of the fan-shoving incident he was in the middle of Saturday night, it’s veteran New York Knicks forward Metta World Peace. He, as Ron Artest then, was at the epicenter of the infamous Malice at the Palace of Auburn Hills. World Peace insists there are plenty of lessons to be learned from what Smart is going through now and will during and after his three-game suspension:

World Peace said Smart — who is projected to be a high NBA draft pick — might benefit from learning how to deal with obnoxious fans at age 19, before he becomes a pro and millions of dollars are on the line.

“Just in general, I heard the kid is pretty good and a potential pro,” World Peace said Sunday before his game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “So those types of challenges on the court when you’re playing and fans are rooting against you — that was a great lesson learned, so that hopefully when he does become a pro, he’ll be able to kind of withstand the fans that are rooting against him on the road.”

World Peace also said Smart needs to learn to control his energy.

“I think that emotion and that fire could be directed towards winning on the court instead of directed other ways,” he said.

World Peace said given the chance, he would advise Smart to be aware of the big picture when making decisions.

At 19 years old, when I came out of St. John’s, I was fresh out the ‘hood. I was fresh out of Queensbridge,” he said. “So my mentality was still struggle, defensive and things like that. I wasn’t really conscious. I’m 34 years old now. So he’s a young kid. I wish I would have listened when I was a kid to my elders or people who had my best interests at heart, and then I wish I would have been more conscious at that age also. Those are two things that, if you were to reach out to a kid like Marcus — a talented kid, future leader in the community — you would tell him those things.”

World Peace said more guidelines should be in place for college fans because college players don’t get paid. He said fans should have more leeway at NBA games.

“As far as the pros, people pay to come and see us, and I appreciate it because I’m able to take care of my family,” he said. “So I don’t really judge fans about what they say, good or bad.”

***

No. 4: No change for Kobe’s return and another injury scare for Nash — For all of us who think we know what’s best for Kobe Bryant, save the advice. Bryant isn’t making any changes to his comeback plans for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. He told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin as much over the weekend:

Despite continuing to be sidelined with a left knee injury and seeing his team continue to fall further out of the playoff picture, Kobe Bryant remains steadfast in his intention to return to the court this season.

“My plan hasn’t changed,” Bryant said Sunday at an event to promote his newest signature sneaker, the Nike Kobe 9 Elite Masterpiece. “I’m just going about it every single day just trying to get better. That’s my job. My job is to get my butt back out there on the court when I’m healthy enough to play and that hasn’t changed.”

Bryant, out since Dec. 17 with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee and averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 42.5 percent shooting this season, has missed the Lakers’ last 26 games. He missed the Lakers’ first 19 games this season because of a torn Achilles in his left leg.

The 18-year veteran is scheduled to be re-evaluated after the All-Star Game next week, but wouldn’t venture a guess as to when he could actually return to game action.

“That I don’t know,” Bryant said. “It’s completely out of my control. I really got to sit here and just wait until this thing heals up and then go out there and do what I do.”

He reiterated his confidence that he would not miss the rest of the 2013-14 season, however.

When asked what his best-case scenario would be upon a return this season, Bryant replied: “Play like me. That’s it.”

The news on Steve Nash isn’t quite as positive. He didn’t finish Sunday’s game against the Bulls, exiting with a nerve irritation in his left leg. He’s scheduled to be evaluated today. But things don’t look good for the NBA’s elder statesman:

Nash received contact to his left leg from Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich as he turned the ball over with 9:18 remaining in the third quarter. The contact was near the same spot where he suffered a fracture in the leg last season. He stayed in the game until there was 5:00 remaining in the quarter and went straight to the locker room.

“I just took a knee to the spot where I broke my leg,” Nash said. “Ever since I did that I’ve had a lot of nerve issues there and it just really flared up on me. I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term thing at all. Hopefully it’s something that can just settle down this week, hopefully by Tuesday.”

The Lakers host the Utah Jazz on Tuesday.

“[Once] that nerve flared up and I started to compensate, I wasn’t going to be very effective … and I also was going to risk going back on all that work I did to get back on the court,” Nash said.

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said Nash’s back started to tighten up from the nerve issues, causing the veteran point guard to limp on the court.

Nash, who turned 40 on Friday, had played in three of the Lakers’ last four games after missing nearly three months of game action because of nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings.

“It wasn’t like I broke it again,” Nash said. “I just kind of irritated the nerve and I’m hopeful that all the stuff that I’ve been doing will be able to overcome that little bit of irritation. It’s kind of transient and hopefully I’ll wake up tomorrow and feel better.”


VIDEO: See how easy Kevin Durant makes it look in the Nightly Notable

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: You’ll have to forgive the Magic for acting like they won a championship when they knocked off the Pacers but every win, especially against an elite team, matters when they come as sparingly as they do in Orlando … Acting Cavs GM David Griffin says they are buying at the trade deadline in Cleveland … Thunder star Russell Westbrook is gearing up for his return after the All-Star breakRick Carlisle couldn’t resist the inevitable Dirk Nowitzki-Larry Bird comparisons over the weekend in Boston …

ICYMI of the Night: The Clippers went to town in their rout of the Sixers and no one had more fun in the blowout than the Clippers’ All-Star power forward Blake Griffin, who shows off a bit with one of his many dunks …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin goes off the glass, courtesy of Chris Paul

Surprise: Dumars Fires Yet Another Coach


VIDEO: Cheeks is out at Detroit after only eight months

Mo Cheeks, the eighth coach to serve during Joe Dumars‘ run as president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, lasted eight months before, as multiple media outlets reported and the team eventually confirmed Sunday, getting the ax.

Dumars is in his 14th season, six years removed from Detroit’s last .500-or-better season. And the Pistons’ lone championship on Dumars’ watch (2004) came so long ago, Yao Ming, Latrell Sprewell and Seattle still were in the league and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and the Charlotte Bobcats weren’t.

That math no longer adds up.

In fact, with the clamor for advanced analytics to measure and dictate every motion and inclination of every player associated with an NBA team’s success or failure, the league is overdue for a concrete rating system for front-office executives. They’re the guys, after all, who are lauded or ripped by a new generation of sportswriter/analyst, depending on how avidly they embrace or eschew such calculations.

Or how ’bout this? A simple ceiling on the number of coaches a GM can hire or fire before it is his head on the chopping block.

Three would seem to be plenty, though four might be a reasonable number as well. If you spot the boss one for clearing the deck after he takes the job – the way Dumars did in 2001, replacing George Irvine with Rick Carlisle – two or three more ought to be enough, after which the scrutiny needs to shift from the sideline to the executive suite.

That would have only gotten Dumars to about the halfway mark in presiding over his personal coaches’ Boot Hill.

After Irvine and Carlisle, Dumars and the Pistons turned to Larry Brown, who did precisely what everyone expected him to do: he got Detroit to The Finals in his first season, steered its ensemble cast to the 2004 championship, then won another 54 games before his AWOL DNA kicked in and he was on the move.

Flip Saunders was brought in and did even better, in terms of victories, going 176-70 in three seasons. But he never had full control of the Pistons’ veteran-laden locker room – thanks, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton – though Saunders’ non-confrontational style was well-established before Dumars ever hired him. The core of that Detroit team was in decline, anyway, so when Saunders was dumped in 2008, so was its trips to the Eastern Conference finals and, for that matter, days sniffing air above .500.

Saunders at least holds the distinction of lasting longest under Dumars. After him, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank — and now Cheeks — have followed in rather rapid succession, each staying two years or less.

The Cheeks firing borders on Kim & Kris eye-blink brief, with the added touch that Pistons players apparently learned the news Sunday through media and fan postings on Twitter. Sure, they’re the ones allegedly responsible, underperforming at a 21-29 pace that most experts felt should have been flipped to 29-21 by now. But class is as class does, and while Dumars – always classy as a Hall of Fame player in Detroit – can’t be held responsible for every leak, it does add to the impression that there’s chaos and scapegoating going on in the Motor City.

The Pistons have been in or near the league’s bottom third both offensively and defensively. As of Sunday morning, they were ninth, out of the playoff picture, despite an East standings that from No. 3 down ought to be a land of opportunity. Detroit has been OK within its conference actually (18-14) but a 3-15 mark vs. the West has been killer, as was the Pistons’ 7-15 mark at home halfway through the schedule.

The inability to meld the work of big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, some reported rancor among the players over the rotation and the confrontation/aftermatch between the coach and guard Will Bynum – that’s all on Cheeks. The question, though, of whether 50 games was enough to decide his fate – after successive two-years-and-out terms of Frank and Kuester – was answered by Dumars and owner Tom Gores.

“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a team statement. “We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress.

“The responsibility does not fall squarely on any one individual, but right now this change is a necessary step toward turning this thing around. I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up. I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach.”

Pinpointing where that approach begins or ends, that’s the challenge. And that’s the area – made up top in jest but maybe a real void in need of filling – to be addressed. There’s got to be a more concrete way of capturing Dumars’ successes and failures.

The talent of which Gores spoke is largely of the individual variety; there’s no one even casually familiar with the NBA who didn’t stack up as many or more “cons” on the right side of Brandon Jennings‘ and Josh Smith‘s ledgers as “pros” on the left. It was, in a sense, a higher risk/reward gamble on “me first” guys than Dumars had perpetrated in 2009 when he splurged on free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to little positive effect.

The Pistons constantly tout their youth – their starting lineup ranks as the NBA’s most tender (23 years and change) – and the fact that their record is best among the league’s four youngest teams. But if that’s something to overcome in the short term, the W-L mark that the kids cobble together seems an odd thing to hold against Cheeks. He didn’t wave a wand and make them young.

More Dumars: Rodney Stuckey was going to be the Pistons’ future until he wasn’t, and only lately has done better in his new zero-expectations world. Then there was the Darko Milicic gaffe, a blown No. 2 pick in 2003 from which the franchise still hasn’t recovered. All while the No. 1 (LeBron James), 3 (Carmelo Anthony), 4 (Chris Bosh) and 5 (Dwyane Wade) picks will be at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

Gores’ arrival as owner apparently was a reset button for Dumars, because new bosses need basketball people they trust the same as chaotic, distracted owners (the previous Pistons regime). But eight coaches in 14 years and, with whoever takes over on the sideline now, six in eight seasons goes beyond fickle toward feeble.

Even if, in formulating an analytic to apply to the GMs, some allowance gets made for the length of the exec’s reign, Dumars would seem to have exceeded an acceptable average for pink slips. The next one he hands out, he needs to be standing in front of a mirror.

Or better yet, he needs to take over as coach himself and demonstrate that his GM/president knows what he’s doing.

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)