Posts Tagged ‘Kosta Koufos’

Grizzlies showing their playoff teeth

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies storm back in Salt Lake City to topple the Jazz

This is the way you always expect Grizzlies to look. Big and scary with sharp teeth and claws.

Dangerous, too.

Pity the poor team in the upper half of the contentious Western Conference bracket that wakes up on the eve of the playoffs to find Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lumbering hungrily into their campsite.

At just the right time, in just the right way, the Memphis blues have given way to a more ominous sound. Think more of Darth Vader‘s “Imperial March”.

That should frighten everyone from San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Houston.

“Oh, you really don’t want to run into Memphis in the first round of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “Not with the style they play that is so different from most other teams these days, grinding it out and beating you up. Not with Randolph and Gasol on their games. They’re a bear.”

OK, pun appreciated.

It was, of course, no joke when the Grizzlies opened the season looking like they were in competition with the Lakers in a nose-dive competition to the bottom. Not with Gasol and eventually Tony Allen hobbled. Not when everyone in the locker room and on the court was trying to get adjusted to the coaching change and the style tweaks from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger. There were rumors that Randolph was on the trading block.

Back then, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole in the standings as deep as the No. 12 spot, yet now are at No. 7 and quite possibly climbing higher. They are just one game behind No. 6 Golden State and 1 1/2 games behind No. 5 Portland.

After last night’s 91-87 win at Utah, the Grizzlies have the best record (28-9) in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are positioning themselves maybe even make a return trip to the West finals.

Salt Lake City was the first stop on a critical five-game road trip that will also go through Golden State, Portland, Denver and Minnesota and go a long way toward determining where the Grizzlies wind up in the playoff chase.

“It’s the biggest trip of the year,” point guard Mike Conley told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “It’s going to test us a lot mentally and physically. We don’t overlook anybody. We just have to play our basketball and worry about making the plays we make, and not adjusting to what other teams do. We’re going to be ready for battle.”

Playing the Grizzlies of recent vintage has always been like a fight, with the scratch marks, bruises and scars left behind as proof. With Gasol now healthy and back in the middle to offer serious rim protection, the Grizzlies boast the No. 2-rated defense in the league since his return on Jan. 14. With Allen back and scrapping out on the wing, they are Grizzlies who can take a game — and an opponent — in their paws and squeeze the life out of them.

Memphis has won 11 of last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at Miami, Brooklyn and Toronto. The Grizzlies have been taking care of business at home in the “Grind House,” defeating the teams they’re supposed to and outright devouring the awful ones.

“It shows our focus is at an all-time high,” Conley said. “Playing against good teams over the last few weeks has got our minds in a playoff mode and our sense of urgency back. We’re playing with a higher standard.”

While the return of Gasol has been credited the most for turning the season around and getting them back to their old snarling defensive ways, the Grizzlies are also are somewhat different and better on the offensive end. Memphis still ranks dead last in 3-point shots attempted and made, but the Grizzlies’ success rate from behind the arc (35.6) has crept closer to the middle of the pack (18th). Their overall field goal percentage (46.3) ranks eighth, making offense less of the teeth-gnashing affair it has been. The additions of Mike Miller, Courtney Lee and Jon Leuer have provided much needed outside shooting and given Conley more options to direct the ball. Miller hit three key jumpers, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the comeback at Utah.

And then there is Conley, who continues to get overlooked among a crowded Western Conference crop of point guards when the spots on the All-Star teams are handed out. He’s upped his scoring to a career-best 17.1 points as he continues to hand out an average half dozen assists each game. His PER (20.1) is just outside the top 25 in the league. He’s grown steadily through seven NBA seasons to become a veteran leader of an offense and concentrating less on making steals to play solid team defense at the other end.

Toss in a bench that also has Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos and the Grizzlies have a deeper, more balanced roster than even the team that went on the long playoff run a year ago.

For a season that could have gone over the edge, the Grizzlies have pulled themselves back up to the level of real threat in the playoffs to one of the so-called elite teams at the top.

“This is a crucial stretch of the season,” said Randolph at the start of the trip. “These five games can determine where we end up.”

And which team in the West gets a big and unexpected headache in the first round.


VIDEO: Inside Stuff’s crew talks about the Grizzlies’ comeback in the standings

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.

Spurs’ Bench Propelling Hot Start


VIDEO: Spurs bench players Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner connect for a nice play

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Spurs’ starting lineup was a big part of their defensive improvement last season. It was the best defensive lineup in the league and outscored its opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in its 364 minutes.

This season, that same starting lineup hasn’t been too good It’s been pretty bad offensively (with Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent) and has actually been outscored by four points in 99 minutes. Yet the Spurs are 13-1 and rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, because they have the best bench in the league right now.

While the Spurs’ starters have basically broke even, all other San Antonio lineups have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, playing great on both ends of the floor.

Spurs efficiency

Lineup GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 10 99 95.8 93.5 92.7 +0.8 -4
Other lineups 14 572 97.2 108.3 92.2 +16.1 +173
Total 14 671 97.0 106.1 92.3 +13.9 +169

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There are two aspects to having a great bench, and neither have to do with how many points the players off the bench score. You just have to go back to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Chicago Bulls for an example of a great bench that didn’t score a lot of points. That group built on leads because they were great defensively.

Building on leads (or decreasing deficits) is obviously the most important trait of a good bench. But keeping your starters fresh is also critical (and obviously related to how well you build leads). Through Tuesday, every player on the Spurs is averaging less than 30 minutes a game and the five starters have played just 52 percent of the teams total minutes. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the season from a roster.

No other contender in the Western Conference has had the bench success that the Spurs’ “Foreign Legion” crew has had, but some have done well with their reserve minutes.

Note: Before the season started, six West teams would have been considered as “contenders.” Portland has been added to this group, because they’re off to such a hot start and also because their bench was their primary issue last season.

Efficiency from lineups other than starters

Team GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Golden State 15 532 98.3 97.8 97.2 +0.6 -1
Houston 15 665 100.4 106.4 101.5 +4.9 +36
L.A. Clippers 15 448 100.4 107.1 105.9 +1.2 +10
Memphis 14 513 91.8 99.4 104.0 -4.6 -47
Oklahoma City 12 483 99.6 106.0 96.1 +9.9 +81
Portland 15 442 97.1 106.9 101.6 +5.2 +64

Note: This includes lineups with 1-4 starters on the floor. It also includes lineups that started games when regular starters weren’t healthy or before a coach (Kevin McHale) made a lineup change.

Each team is its own case. Some have had their starters healthy for every game, some have not, and one – Houston – has already made a major change to its starting lineup.

Golden State

The Warriors’ starting lineup – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut – has been ridiculously good offensively, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes together. Combine that with solid defensive numbers and they’ve been the league’s best lineup (minimum 75 minutes) thus far.

Bench units (which include lineups that have started games that Curry and Iguodala have missed) have been strong defensively, but weak offensively. When Curry has been off the floor, the Dubs have scored an ugly 87.5 points per 100 possessions.

Breaking even will do when your starting lineup is so good, and the Warriors are in good shape if they’re healthy. But it’s clear that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be missed if injuries keep popping up.

Houston

The Rockets moved Terrence Jones into the starting lineup just seven games ago and have been without James Harden in three games since then, so their optimal starting lineup has played just 69 minutes together and their numbers above include lineups that have started 11 of their 15 games. That set includes lineups with both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik that we know were bad offensively.

So it’s difficult to gather much from these numbers. We do know that the new starting group, with Patrick Beverley and Harden in the backcourt, has been terrific so far. And we do know that the Rockets have been strong defensively – allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions – with Asik on the floor without Howard. So that’s a good sign for their bench … at least until Asik gets traded.

L.A. Clippers

As we all expected, the Clippers’ starting lineup has been great, especially offensively. It currently ranks as the fifth best lineup in the league. But the five starters have played over 68 percent of the team’s minutes, the second highest mark among the seven teams we’re looking at here.

Last season, when the Clippers had a great defensive second unit, that number was 51 percent. This season, they’re suffering on both ends of the floor when they go to their bench and though their starters have been solid on defense, they currently rank as a bottom 10 defensive team.

A healthy Matt Barnes will help, but a defensive big off the bench is needed. Lamar Odom was exactly that for them last season and you can understand why the Clips are monitoring his progress as he works his way back into shape.

Memphis

The Grizzlies’ starters weren’t what they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions after the Rudy Gay trade. This season, they were just a plus-0.8 in 169 minutes together. But losing Marc Gasol (out indefinitely with a sprained MCL) is obviously a huge blow.

The new starting group (with Kosta Koufos in Gasol’s place) was an encouraging plus-12 in 33 minutes against the Spurs and Rockets. But the impact of Gasol’s injury might be felt most in the bench units, which have been poor already. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, two guys who are supposed to bring offense off the bench, have shot a combined 32 percent.

Oklahoma City

We thought that, in the wake of Kevin Martin‘s departure, bench production was going to be a problem for the Thunder. But OKC’s bench units have been terrific, ranking second to only the Spurs in terms of NetRtg. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by an amazing 17.7 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor.

The issue with the Thunder is the starting lineup, which has been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in its 97 minutes. Of the 27 lineups that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, that ranks 25th, ahead only the original starting lineups of the Kings and Jazz. In those situations, both coaches have already made changes.

Scott Brooks will surely have more patience with his group, which was excellent (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions) last season. The starting group has basically been bad in three games (minus-31 against the Pistons, Wizards and Nuggets) and OK in three games (plus-7 against the Suns, Mavs and Clippers). And the success of the bench units has far outweighed the starters’ struggles. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.

Portland

Last season, the Blazers’ “other lineups” got outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions. No team suffered more offensively when a particular player stepped off the floor than Portland did when Damian Lillard sat down. So the bench, along with better defense from their center position, was the focus of their summer moves.

So far, so good, as the Blazers’ bench units have basically turned that number around, outscoring their opponents by that same 5.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve scored a solid 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard has sat, and he doesn’t have to lead the league in minutes this year.

The issue is that those bench units still include a lot of minutes from the starters. Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez account for more than 72 percent of the team’s total minutes. It’s obviously a younger group, but compare that with the 52 percent the Spurs’ starters account for.

Five Players Who Need To Step It Up

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – We’re only approaching 10 games in, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to eyeball some concerning trends that could quickly become disturbing. I’ve pinpointed five players I believe have left something to be desired. Each is an established veteran who entered this season with a new and exciting situation, and high expectations.

1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

Supposedly happy in Houston, Howard’s stats — 18.2 ppg and 14.9 rpg — certainly look All-Star worthy. But take a deeper look. He’s shooting 53.6 percent from the floor, a mark not seen since his first two seasons in the league — and four percentage points lower than last season when he complained the Lakers didn’t get him the ball in his sweet spots. Yes, he and the Rockets, just 5-4, are adjusting, and this could take time, but Howard has looked awkward on the block and is shooting just 37 percent in the paint, per NBA.com stats. More discouraging is his free-throw shooting. He said he wanted to shoot between 75 and 80 percent — which was laughable. Instead he’s dragging a career-low 47.9 percent. Teams are already employing the Hack-a-Howard tactic and the Rockets are seeing how frustrating it is to have a big man who can’t make free throws in crunch time. They’ve been awful trying to close out games. And Hack-a-Howard isn’t just a late-game tactic anymore. The Sixers intentionally fouled him late in the first half of Wednesday’s game. Howard’s old club, the severely undermanned Lakers without Kobe Bryant, essentially won their game at Houston because Howard couldn’t make free throws when fouled on purpose.

There’s more. Where is the chiseled, 265-pound Howard’s passion? His passivity against the Lakers was mind-boggling, and running away from Lakers players attempting to intentionally foul him was embarrassing.


VIDEO: Dwight Howard gets the block of the night against the Sixers

2. JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets

A forgettable start to the season got worse with a stress fracture to his left shin that will sideline McGee indefinitely. A sluggish start might not rank high on the surprise list for many, but if there was ever a time the 7-footer was going to put it together, this seemed it. His new coach Brian Shaw was moving away from George Karl‘s up-tempo, dribble-drive offense to a more traditional, low-post system. McGee spent much of the offseason working on his game, seemingly determined to bury, on the court at least, his goofball reputation. Prior to the start of training camp he told NBA.com: “It’s up to me to work and everything, and I’m going to do that. So if I work hard and I come prepared and in shape for training camp, there’s nothing that can stop me but the coach.”

It didn’t take Shaw long to apply the brakes, trusting McGee to even fewer minutes than Karl. In five starts, McGee averaged 7.0 ppg and 3.4 rpg in 15.8 mpg. He shot 43.6 percent. Denver, 3-4 after starting 1-4, traded Kosta Koufos to Memphis anticipating McGee’s rise. Recovering from the stress fracture only complicates McGee’s path to improvement. He’s in the second year of a $44 million contract, which so far looks like a very expensive mistake by the Nuggets.


VIDEO: JaVale McGee finishes off the alley-oop from Randy Foye

3. Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans

Evans’ fresh start away from Sacramento dysfunction was supposed to be a breath of fresh air for the fifth-year combo guard. The Pelicans hyped the sixth-man role behind Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon and it made sense. Evans can score and going against other second units would seem a great idea. An ankle injury slowed him early into the preseason and it’s been slow-going ever since. Evans is averaging a career-low 9.0 ppg and is logging a career-low 24.0 mpg. His shooting has been abysmal, 36.2 percent overall and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. Evans has never truly been a high-volume 3-point shooter and he’s never shot it with considerable accuracy, but really, he could probably make 12.5 percent blindfolded.

This has to concern the Pelicans’ front office if trading Gordon, who always seems to be on the block, is still a consideration later this season. Even Evans’ free-throw percentage is suffering. A 76.4-percent shooter from the stripe over his career, he’s only at 66.7 percent. The team’s overall optimism that sprouted from a successful preseason has been shrouded by a 3-6 start, including Wednesday’s demoralizing loss at previously winless Utah.


VIDEO: Tyreke Evans on the Pelicans’ deep roster

4. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets

This is Williams’ second season as the maxed-out point guard Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban claims he’s happy to have lost out on two summers ago. Since Williams signed his five-year, $98-million contract to stay with the Nets, he has not produced like a max player, with either injuries or coaching fit being the culprit. Williams is averaging 11.1 ppg — lowest by a long shot since his rookie season) and 7.4 apg. He’s the quarterback of  a team built for instant contention with All-Star (Joe Johnson) and Hall of Fame (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett) talent, albeit aging talent outside of center Brook Lopez, yet another All-Star. Williams was again hobbled by an ankle issue during the preseason and he still might be gimpy. Meshing won’t happen overnight, but the level at which the Nets, 2-5, have played (i.e. losing by 21 at Sacramento on Wednesday) should be deeply concerning to Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who will shell out close to $190 million in payroll and luxury tax this season.

If anybody knows how to get Williams going it should be his rookie coach and No. 1 golfing buddy Jason Kidd. Kidd has to figure out how to get Williams in his comfort zone, to allow him to create and use his size to his advantage, while also getting the rest of this cast involved. Maybe then Williams will exude the confident, follow-me persona of a leader that just isn’t there.


VIDEO: Nets.com tags along on a workout with Deron Williams

5. Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors

Starting from scratch with playoff-hopeful Toronto, Gay still can’t shake the inefficiency thing. Yes, he’s averaging 19.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg, which look great. But with Gay, as the stat geeks remind, you have to look deeper to see that he’s averaging those 19.7 ppg on 19.8 field-goal attempts. He’s connecting at just a 36.5-percent rate. He is shooting 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, a mark bolstered by going 7-for-14 in the last two games, including 4-for-6 Wednesday night to get the Raptors to 4-5 at the expense of his former team, the struggling Memphis Grizzlies. But since he shoots mostly mid-range jumpers, the overall percentage is stark. In an overtime loss at Houston, Gay reached rare inefficient air when he finished with 29 points on 37 shot attempts — 8-for-29 inside the arc; 3-for-8 behind it.

During the offseason Gay had eye surgery to correct a pretty serious vision problem, and, realizing he had to get his shooting percentages up, went to work with his personal trainer for hours each day at his old high school gym in Baltimore. As he put it to NBA.com: “Honestly, I had two bad years of shooting the ball and this last year was really bad, so I just had to go back to the basics. It wasn’t as much my eye sight as it was my form.” Unfortunately for Gay, so far his shooting percentage has only worsened.


VIDEO: Rudy Gay with the assist of the night against the Grizzlies

JaVale McGee Eager To Rise In Stature

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Google “JaVale McGee” and you know as well as he what’s coming: “JaVale McGee Top 10 Stupid Plays.” A YouTube staple.

The most prominent photo is a close-up of the 7-foot center’s familiar scrunched face in full-on flummoxed mode, head slightly cocked, mouth half agape. It’s practically begging for someone to draw a giant question mark inside a cartoon cloud bubble over his head. Chances are Shaquille O’Neal — McGee being a favorite punch line during TNT’s studio show and its “Shaqtin’ A Fool” segment — beat you to it.

“People around the NBA really think that I’m dumb or stupid,” McGee said. “But people that know me know that I’m actually very intelligent. It doesn’t affect me at all.”

In fact, McGee, who goes by an alter ego called Pierre on his colorful Instagram and Twitter accounts, has big plans. With a new coach and a fresh slate this season in Denver, rising to All-Star-caliber-big-man status, he said, is within his grasp.

“Definitely,” McGee told NBA.com this week. “I feel like I’m extremely athletic, extremely fast, extremely agile for being a 7-foot big man and just need the right people behind me to be able to bring what has to come out to be a dominant center in the league. There’s a lot of things that haven’t even been [brought out] of my game that people haven’t even seen. So I just feel like this is going to be the season.”

McGee ready for increased role

That job belongs to rookie coach Brian Shaw, who replaced the fired George Karl, who inherited McGee in a trade and, judging by playing time (18.1 mpg last season), ultimately viewed McGee more as the goofball in those video clips than a potential game-changer. After McGee logged just 16 minutes in a late December game at Dallas, Karl explained: “I think he’s a really good, important player for us. But in the same sense, I’m going to play the guys who I think can help you win the game.”

In a real sense, the transitioning Nuggets, who awarded McGee a $44 million extension last year, chose McGee’s potential over Karl’s success. The revamped front office traded Karl’s favorite starting center, Kosta Koufos, and still doesn’t know if McGee will mesh with starting power forward Kenneth Faried (a Karl concern) or if McGee can thrive playing 30-plus minutes a night.

They just know they’ve got 44 million reasons to find out.

“I’m definitely getting that feeling from the coaches that I’m going to be more of an impact and getting more minutes,” said McGee, who enters his sixth NBA season and second full season in Denver after 3 ½ oddball years with Washington. “It’s really up to the coach as to how he wants to use me. It’s up to me to work and everything, and I’m going to do that. So if I work hard and I come prepared and in shape for training camp, there’s nothing that can stop me but the coach.”

McGee, 25, is eager to get started. He returned to Denver earlier this month to begin working with Shaw and the new coaching staff. He said he sees an offense that will station him at the elbow to begin sets and will allow him to work the low post and also stretch the defense with a mid-range jumper he said the league has yet to really lay eyes on, but one, he added, he can drain from 17 feet and in.

Post play still a work in progress

He cedes that many fans might only recognize him for boneheaded plays on blooper reels gone viral, but he’s certain opposing players take a different viewpoint of his capabilities.

“With players, my reputation is of a guy that you don’t want to be caught running around with because there’s a high probability you’re going to get dunked on,” McGee said. “And my reputation is also a guy that you want to move the ball around in the air or else you’re going to get it blocked, basically.”

McGee can throw down a dunk and he almost led the league in blocks in 2010-11. Other areas are less refined. For example, he can be clumsy getting position in the low post, and when he gets the ball, he’s not yet ballerina-like with his footwork. But how many big men today are?

McGee has averaged 8.7 ppg on 54.2 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds over his first five seasons. He averaged a career-high 11.3 ppg and 7.8 rpg in 2011-12 split between Washington and Denver.

He dropped to 9.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg last season as Karl squeezed his minutes. The statistical website Basketball-Reference.com projects a 36-minute-a-night McGee to average 16.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 3.4 bpg. Those numbers would have put him in the top five in each category among centers last season. McGee said his goal is to average a double-double and two or three blocks a game.

“I definitely have post moves. I have a mid-range shot that I really never got to use my whole career in the NBA,” McGee said. “Coach Karl didn’t want his ‘bigs’ shootings at all. [Defenses are] probably going to leave me open for the mid-range, so I definitely got to take that shot.”

‘Just a big kid’ at heart

The shot getting plenty of attention recently is on a 20-second video clip that media outlets homed in on because, well, it’s JaVale being goofy again. The video shows McGee beating a pint-size kid at Pop-a-Shot, celebrating the victory and playfully proclaiming into the camera, “Who said I couldn’t shoot 3s?!”

It’s pretty funny, and harmless. It comes courtesy of McGee himself, posted on Instagram. He posts a lot of clips, all PG-rated, mostly fun-loving and all just very JaVale. Which also feeds into the goofball pipeline, one that can fill his social media pages with teases, jeers and worse, but also one for which McGee makes no apologies.

“I’m just a big kid, basically. I love to have fun,” McGee said. “I love being around positive people and making people smile. I don’t do anything malicious or anything in a negative manner. I’m all about positivity and making people smile is positive.”

When the goofiness and, yes the stupidity — how else to describe much of the YouTube montage? — invades his game, his coaches (he’s had four in five seasons) aren’t smiling. Those plays evidence a confounding selfishness and at times a perplexing obliviousness to game situations. The majority of those incidents happened with the hapless Wizards. A better situation, the belief goes, brings sharper focus. McGee touts his maturity and unselfishness last season by never complaining about playing time and accepting his role on a club that won 57 games.

“I’m definitely more mature than I was my first two or three years, but I actually was very mature last year. I just wasn’t really given the opportunity to really be what I could be,” McGee said. “But I feel like this coach has a lot more confidence in me.”

McGee must keep it by continuing to mature and by working hard to develop the tantalizing talent that often torments his own team. If not, his Google results will never change, his Twitter timeline will still fill with taunts and teases and Shaq will keep poking him on national TV.

“I don’t watch the shows,” McGee said. “Most of the time people will be at me on Twitter and stuff like that, but I just read it and move on and live my life. I tell you that a lot of the people that actually say something, they would pay anything to be in my position, and the fact that they do, that is actually a positive thing because there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

After Shaq splattered him on his “Shaqtin A Fool” segment, McGee reported his Twitter followers spiked.

The Nuggets would simply prefer a “JaVale McGee” Google search that no longer starts with a top 10 list of stupid plays.

Blogtable: Teams On The Downfall




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Surprise Teams | Teams Likely to Fall | Rookie Coaches


Which team is set up for the biggest fall next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: However many victories people expect the Denver Nuggets to cough back from their total of 57 last season, I think it will be more. Matching last year’s ensemble-driven performance was going to be tough enough with their core of Andre Iguodala on the court, George Karl on the bench and Masai Ujiri in the front office. That Musketeers stuff is hard in a star-driven league. Now, with a rookie head coach (Brian Shaw), a personnel dip defensively (losing Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos), Danilo Gallinari‘s recovery and mercenary/journeyman summer additions (Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye), I think the Nuggets’ slide well into the lottery.

Rookie head coach Brian Shaw has a lot of work to do in Denver.

Brian Shaw will have a lot of work to do in Denver.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Oh, let’s take a 57-win team and blow it up.  Mission accomplished by Nuggets ownership. The expected slippage with the departure of Karl, Ujiri and Iguodala could turn into an avalanche of defeat and disappointment.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Grizzlies keep coming back to me as a team that could easily slip, a team that let go of the coach that built the program, a team that still hasn’t addressed its glaring need for shooting, although signing an injury-prone Mike Miller and being in talks with Mo Williams is progress. However, the team I can’t help believe will ride the biggest, most disappointing slide is the New York Knicks. The brains on the floor, Jason Kidd, is coaching in Brooklyn. Aging, injury-prone players abound. The No. 2 seed last season couldn’t get past Indiana in the second round and the Pacers, along with the Bulls and Nets (heck, maybe even Atlanta with a new coach and key personnel changes) will all be improved. At best the Knicks are a No. 5 seed in the top-heavy East and any championship talk that wafted through Madison Square Garden last season will likely heat up again just a short subway ride away.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Utah. As much as it pains me as a long-time Jazz proponent, this season could be a harder fall than a fall from playoff contention. They are much thinner than before and now need Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks to play big.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Don’t be shocked if Denver goes from the 3 seed to the lottery. It’s difficult to predict exactly what they’ll do, because Shaw will be a very different coach than Karl, but their defense (which ranked 11th last season) will certainly take a big step backward with the departure of Iguodala. Kosta Koufos was more important to that team than most people realize, and they’ll miss Gallinari’s shooting as he recovers from ACL surgery.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Philadelphia 76ers don’t even have a coach yet. They should be the runaway winners here, especially when you consider the fact that there isn’t a tougher crowd to deal with anywhere than Philadelphia sports fans. Most of the pessimists believe they are headed for an awfully tough season with this latest rebuilding adventure. It could be even worse that any of us imagined if they don’t find the right coach to lead this mismatched bunch. New general manager Sam Hinkie has stripped the roster down and is going full-blown rebuild without the one player (All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, who was traded to New Orleans) who gave this crew a little spark last season. As my main man Bubba Sparxxx said years ago, this could get UGLY!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogI think Denver could be in for a fall. They’ve lost the Coach of the Year in Karl, Iguodala made a play for the Bay, and they also traded away their starting center, Kosta Koufos. I know Shaw will be a good NBA coach for a long time, and Denver still has some pieces (Andre Miller, Ty Lawson), but they’re in that dangerous middle ground between being a contender and a pretender. And it doesn’t take much to slide back down that hill.

Nuggets Considering Lineup Changes

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DENVER – Coach George Karl, noting his team did not play with the necessary energy in Game 2, strongly indicated Wednesday the Nuggets will make one lineup change and possibly two when the series with the Warriors resumes Friday in Oakland.

Karl is “definitely thinking” about putting Kenneth Faried, who came off the bench Tuesday in his return from a sprained ankle, back in the opening lineup. It is a especially predictable move with the two days off before Game 3 giving Faried additional time to regain his stamina.

But the Nuggets are also weighing the possibility of benching center Kosta Koufos after his Game 2 of two rebounds, two fouls and zero points in 14 minutes.

Asked after Wednesday’s practice at the Pepsi Center how strongly he was considering the change at center in addition to the expected move with Faried at power forward, Karl said, “Probably enough to bet on it in Vegas.”

The Nuggets have several options to replace Koufos. They could promote JaVale McGee – Karl likes him with the second unit – or reach deeper into the bench for Timofey Mozgov. Or they could put Faried at center and hope his relentless energy compensates for giving up four inches to Golden State’s Andrew Bogut and keep Wilson Chandler at power forward.

No matter what, Karl wants to see increased energy in the wake of the 131-117 loss that tied the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with the next two games at Oracle Arena.

“What I told the team, I thought we played a regular-season game in a playoff intensity,” he said. “I think we’ll learn. We’ll learn that desperate teams are dangerous and desperate teams that shoot the hell out of the ball are really dangerous. I think we’re OK. I think we’re fine. I never thought this was going to be anything except a close series. Every game we’ve played has basically been a fourth-quarter (outcome) or a very small differential. The process depends on the momentum of the series. It changes back and forth. Now it’s our turn to change the momentum back when we go to Golden State.”

So why didn’t the Nuggets bring the proper energy?

“It’s not the proper energy,” Karl said. “I think we played hard. We just didn’t play playoff hard. There’s a difference. Desperation, urgent teams, it happens all the time. Chicago outworked Brooklyn the other night. I think we’ll learn our lesson and it won’t happen again.”

Denver’s Whole Much More Than Sum Of Its Parts

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Back in 1985, give or take a generation depending on what year was dialed in, Doc Brown retro-fitted a campy DeLorean with a few spare parts he had around his workshop and spawned an entire time-traveling series of Hollywood comedies.

Nearly 30 years later, Denver Nuggets VP of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has cobbled together a roster largely out of spare parts, discards and items from the NBA’s great cutout bin and essentially made time stand still. As in another multiplex favorite, the one with Bill Murray and the rodent in which every day and night ends up the same: Win, win, win, win …

Consider the two hottest teams in The Association at the moment and how they came to be. The Miami Heat, aiming for their 26th consecutive victory Sunday evening against Charlotte, were conceived in a lightning bolt and thunderclap moment of AAU-comes-to-NBA inspiration, the brainstorm of the three key Hall of Fame-caliber players involved. Then there are the Nuggets.

Denver, which extended its lower profile winning streak to 15 games Saturday night, have made do – and made dangerous – with far more humble pieces than the crew in south Florida. At the risk of putting a silly “NBA.com has learned…” spin on something that’s been hiding in plain sight, it is worth looking again (if you haven’t done so recently) at the how the Nuggets’ roster was built:

  • Drafted (3): Kenneth Faried (2011, Round 1, No. 22 overall); Evan Fournier (2012, Round 1, No. 20 overall), and Quincy Miller (2012, Round 2, No. 38 overall).
  • Trades (9): Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler, Jordan Hamilton, Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee, Andre Miller and Timofey Mozgov.
  • Free agents (2): Anthony Randolph and Julyan Stone.

Looked at as a group, the ensemble nature of what Denver and coach George Karl are doing this season – 15 straight, 49-22, fourth-best record in the league with a legit chance to catch OKC to claim the Northwest Division and the West’s No. 2 seed – is amazing and undeniable. That whole sure had better be greater than the sum of its parts, because its parts, on paper especially, wouldn’t scare hardly anybody.

Faried’s sleeper status out of Morehead State has gotten wide play by now. But it’s indicative of Denver’s recent draft history, with the Nuggets stuck at No. 20 or lower for their last 10 picks overall. The last single-digit guy – heck, the last lottery guy – by the Nuggets? Carmelo Anthony in 2003.

As for player acquired via trades, look how many current Nuggets were disappointing Something-Elses before they made it to Denver. Brewer, Randolph and Koufos, huge contributors on a surging team, were left at the curb by Minnesota. So, in a pre-arranged draft night trade, was Lawson, on the same date the Timberwolves spent the No. 6 pick on Jonny Flynn.

Andre Miller was considered old and broken-down by some at age 34, after five teams and 12 seasons. Chandler, Gallinari, Mozgov (and Quincy Miller, as a future pick) were, at the time of the Anthony trade, the best Ujiri and the Nuggest could do when faced with a marquee player who wanted out. Hamilton was a throw-in from Dallas to Portland to Denver on the night he was drafted in June 2011 at No. 26.

McGee? He was classic addition-by-subtraction for Washington, eager to reduce the knuckleheads quotient of its locker room. Even Iguodala, so helpful at both ends and in a leadership role, had fallen out of favor in Philadelphia.

Ujiri, early this season, referred to the process as a “rough two years.” Yet the Nuggets did not drop out of the playoffs in that span. They did not, obviously, sit and pine for pricey, big-name free agents they weren’t going to get anyway.

They took what was available and, with Ujiri working as hard in the front office as Karl on the sideline and the players on the court, rigged it MacGyver-style into something special. Gourmet chefs, three-star restaurants and the finest meats and veggies often make for great meals, but occasionally so do leftovers used creatively in perfect balance.

Noah’s Controversial Tip Raises Questions About Lobs, Too

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CHICAGO – An alternative dateline for this post would be TIP CITY, except there’s no such place, no parallel metropolis to the NBA’s much ballyhooed LOB CITY.

Everyone’s been to Lob City, right … the site of literally hundreds of highlight alley-oop slam dunks at Staples Center and elsewhere? It’s simple yet exhilarating stuff: Ball gets delivered near or at the rim, grabbed in flight by a teammate and flushed down for a swift and manly two points.

But a play that was mechanically similar – except for the flushing part – got waved off to thwart the Chicago Bulls’ hopes in a 119-118 overtime loss to the streaking Denver Nuggets at United Center.

Down a point with 7.1 seconds left, the Bulls had to settle for Marco Belinelli‘s shot from the left side as their last, best chance. The shot looked to be short – until Joakim Noah reached up and tipped it through.

Pandemonium ensued. The game clock showed 1.7 seconds. And then, the celebration went dark. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau exploded, Bulls players anguished and the arena got cranky-loud as the referees, given the chance to review the play during a 20-second timeout called by Denver, invalidated the basket as offensive interference by Noah.

Chicago’s beef was two-fold. With 47 seconds left in overtime, Nuggets center Kosta Koufas had cleaned up a running layup from Ty Lawson that, to some, still appeared to be dancing indecisively on the rim. That tip put Denver up 116-115 – and it was not reviewed.

The reason given? There was no call on the floor of offensive interference. Therefore, nothing to review, per NBA rules.

The question Thibodeau and the Bulls maintained through their ire? The refs didn’t call anything in the moment on Noah’s tip/violation. Yet they did review that play during Denver’s brief timeout, as the arena’s P.A. announcer informed the crowd: “Goaltending is the call on the floor.”

Even that was off because, as an offensive player, Noah couldn’t technically have committed goaltending.

Here’s Thibodeau pointing out what he saw as the discrepancy in how the two plays were handled and ruled:

“I don’t understand it one bit. Koufos’ play, I asked why it wasn’t reviewed. … Clearly, it was on the rim, and they told me that because they didn’t make the call, they couldn’t review it. If that is the rule, then that is the rule. I thought we had the video stuff to make sure we got it right. Then down on the other end … they are tough calls for bang-bang plays, but I don’t understand why one is reviewable and the other one isn’t. After watching the replay, and I watched it when it occurred, they never made the call on that either.”

Good luck putting that toothpaste back in the tube. A league spokesman said that the very fact the officials reviewed the Noah play meant that they had something to review. Sort of a reverse-Catch 22, or something.

Here is Denver coach George Karl‘s take:

“There’s no question it was goaltending. The ball was going to hit the rim. I was too far away to see the play on Kosta’s tip-in shot.”

Players are divided, in poor position to see what happened on the two plays, or both. Denver’s Andre Iguodala said of the Noah play: “It happened so fast, it was hard to see. There was one angle on the replay, I thought you could tell it was going to at least make the rim.”

Chicago’s Jimmy Butler sounded more resigned when he said: “It was a goaltending. That is what they called. It’s not like we can change it.”

Then there was Noah, who went from disappointed to puzzled to lathered up as he repeatedly was asked about it:

“It’s very disappointing. I feel like you play this game so hard… Maybe I don’t understand the rules or something. I just don’t understand how you can review my tip-in but two plays before that you can’t review the other one. There’s got to be consistency. It’s just frustrating how things like that can happen. I know the refs are doing the best that they can in that situation, but it cost us the game today.” (more…)

Streak Over, Lakers Back In The Crosshairs?

LOS ANGELES – Well, that didn’t last long.

The Los Angeles Lakers enjoyed the glow of that Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks for all of what, 18 hours? All of that “clicking” they were doing during their five-game win streak went up in smoke in a matter of minutes Wednesday night in Denver.

That “desperate team” label Steve Nash said they needed to play with every night was nowhere in sight during their 126-114 loss to a Nuggets team that flew in after spending Christmas in Los Angeles, just like the Lakers. The 126 points is the most these Lakers have surrendered all season. The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team trying to right itself and continue its recent run.

A younger, faster and surprisingly much more physical Nuggets team — the same one that was rocked by the Clippers in the Christmas nightcap at Staples Center — ran circles around a Lakers team that seemed frustrated from the start with their inability to keep up. And just like that, the Lakers are back in the crosshairs, raising questions not only about the validity of that five-game streak but also whether or not they’ll be able to deal with teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Clippers (as young, fast and physical as they get) come playoff time in the Western Conference.

The Lakers’ youngest and most physical specimen, Dwight Howard, certainly didn’t seem up to the task against the Nuggets. He exited in the third quarter after getting ejected for a flagrant-2 foul for a hand to the face on Kenneth Faried, who worked the Lakers’ bigs all night.

Howard’s finger-pointing after a game in which the Nuggets outrebounded their guests 48-38 and piled up 25 second-chance points should be of particular interest to teammates like Kobe Bryant and Nash  as well as Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.

“Guys got to be in the right spots and they have to be taught it and it has to be something that you practice on so guys can understand,” Howard said. “They have to go through it. You just can’t talk about defense or talk about where to go. You actually have to show guys where to go.”

Howard managed seven rebounds to go along with 12 points in the 27 minutes he played. But any signs of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year that fans had grown accustomed to seeing over the years were as faint as they’ve been all season. Howard hasn’t looked like his normal self after offseason back surgery.

And in the face of a non-stop rush from Faried, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos, the Lakers’ lack of effort and energy was glaring. That’s probably why D’Antoni didn’t hold his tongue when asked what effect Howard’s absence had on the Lakers’ comeback effort down the stretch. “Not a whole lot,” he said and then looked the other way.

“You can’t play a team on the road and time after time you stop them and they get the rebound and put it back in,” D’Antoni said. “You can’t do it … You can’t just keep coming back. You can’t just keep letting them score. For whatever reason they just had more legs. Whether they’re younger or faster, I don’t know, but we couldn’t keep them in front of us.”

The Nuggets didn’t show the slightest bit of restraint in attacking the Lakers where they felt they were weakest, in the middle. Faried assaulted  the backboards and the rim at every opportunity, living up to his nickname of the “Manimal.”

“I think it was a little bit of frustration,” Faried told reporters after the game about Howard’s hard foul. “He saw my eyes. I wasn’t going to back down. I wasn’t going to try and float it, I was going to try to dunk on him. He saw it, that’s why he put his hand directly in my face. That’s when I say, ‘Dang, I wish I would have jumped higher.'”

Bryant might have said it best in his final locker room salvo on Christmas, when he politely explained that nothing the Lakers do, good or bad, during the regular season will end up on their final report card. He scored 40 points for the fourth time this season against the Nuggets, extending his streak of games with 30 or more to double digits (10).

No one but the die-hard Bryant fans cares about that this morning, though.

“People can be extremely positive of how you are performing and the job you are doing the entire regular season, the entire playoffs,” Bryant said. “But if you lose in the Finals, you are the [expletive] worst. If you suck for the entire season and win the Finals, people don’t give a [expletive] about what happened before then. It’s all about what you do in the Finals. It doesn’t matter what you do on Monday or Tuesday. It matters what you do in the Finals.”

The Lakers have a long way to go to get there … to The Finals, that is. In fact, they might want to spend more time worrying about what they do on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and every other day until they secure a playoff bid.

They can turn their attention to The Finals after taking care of that bit of business.