Posts Tagged ‘Lakers’

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

Hangtime podcast (episode 155) hail to the huskies … featuring Emeka Okafor

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —  One shining moment?

How about four since 1999?

That’s what Emeka Okafor and all of the other players, former players, coaches, fans and alums of the University of Connecticut are thinking these days. UConn is back on top of the basketball world (men’s and women’s) for the second time since 2004, when Okafor was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

It’s their time to shine.

“I got the baby in a UConn onesi,” Okafor said on Episode 155 of the Hang Time Podcast: Hail to the Huskies, where talked all things UConn with one of the greatest players in the storied history of the program.

All of the NBA veterans who played under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun or alongside his successor, Kevin Ollie, know all about the UConn pride that swells at times like this. So it only seemed right to track down Okafor, who experienced the championship double-dip as a player in 2004 and now gets to marvel at it like the rest of us all these years later. The Phoenix Suns big man hasn’t played this season while rehabilitating a herniated disc in his neck.

We also handed out some awards for seasons well done (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and many others are involved), discuss the Hall of Fame class of 2014 (Alonzo Mourning, Mitch Richmond and former NBA Commissioner David Stern headline), the looming end of the Joe Dumars era in Detroit and other hot topics around the league, while also trying to get to the bottom of this lingering foolishness that has become the “Braggin Rights” this season. (it’s a c-o-n-spiracy folks, I promise!)

Dive in for more on Episode 155 of the Hang Time Podcast, Hail To The Huskies … Featuring Emeka Okafor!

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Nick Young expected to test free agency

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

Nick Young (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Nick Young (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – While Swaggy P bathes in the attention of the uncertainty, Nick Young has made up his mind to opt out of his contract with the Lakers and become a free agent this summer, he strongly indicated to NBA.com.

Holding off on a definitive statement, Young made it clear Wednesday after the Lakers lost to the Kings at Sleep Train Arena that he is going to void the 2014-15 contract at $1.2 million, aiming for a much larger salary after boosting his stock this season with 17.3 points a game.

Asked if he has made up his mind, Young said, “A little bit. It’s a mystery, though. I’ve got to keep y’all on your toes. That’s what Swaggy P does.”

Not much of a mystery, though. He doesn’t see himself as a $1.2-million player.

“Oh, no,” Young said. “Not at all. Most definitely. I deserve much more than that.”

And Swaggy P wants to have a lot of teams chasing him.

“Yeah,” Young/P said. “He most definitely does. And I believe a lot will. That’s a solid answer right there.”

That’s hardly a surprising outcome after Young went from an absence of attractive offers in summer 2013 to a season of taking advantage of what has been a 2013-14 of misery all around him. Barely any Kobe Bryant, barely any Steve Nash, a lot nights without Pau Gasol, a rare trip to the lottery for the franchise. And Young could finish as the leading scorer on the Lakers. He could even finish with a career high, ahead of the 17.4 in 2010-11 with the Wizards.

He will draw far more attention this summer than he did last season. He will love that. But the ideal outcome, the USC product said, is to remain in his hometown with a new contract with the Lakers.

“Most definitely I want to stay home,” Young said. “With the changes I see, they’re going to do some big things this summer. Of course I want to be a part of a championship program and get a chance to compete next year. But we’re just going to see what happens. I’ve got to sit down with my agent and see what happens this summer.”

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

***

No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA – Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Jump ball!!!: the Phil Jackson debate

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to make the transition from great coach to great GM and does Phil Jackson have it?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The debate will rage on for years, long after the results are in and a legitimate case can be made one way or the other about the job Phil Jackson will do as the boss of the New York Knicks.

The initial surge from the hire has subsided, just a bit, and as the Knicks’ last-gasp effort to unseat the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference plays out, it’s a good time to restart this conversation.

Plenty of experts have weighed in, most of them no more qualified to dish on the prospect of Front Office Phil than they claim Jackson is for a job in the front office after making his championship bones (11 times as a coach and twice as a player) on the other side of the line.

My colleague and Hang Time California bureau chief Scott Howard Cooper, born and raised in Los Angeles and as knowledgeable about the Lakers and their lore as anyone in the business, lit the flame this time, questioning Phil’s credentials (it’s blasphemy, and will get you banned from Original Tommy’s Hamburgers for life all over the Southland SHC!).

I had to come to the defense of the Zen master, anyone who has been the common thread in as many championship situations as he has shouldn’t really need defending … but I had to go there in Jump Ball!!!  …

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 3:00 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: JUMP BALL !!!

I get why Knicks fans and players are excited: because they need any reason to be excited. But all the organization did by hiring Phil Jackson was win the press conference. James Dolan did something popular for a change and brought in a superstar. But Phil is a coaching superstar, not a front-office success. He has a lot to prove to earn this attention in the new job.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 1:48 PM, Smith, Sekou

You get Knicks fans, huh? They’ll boo you at the Garden for even suggesting something like that. The Phil factor is much like the Bill Parcells factor was in the NFL, his mere presence alone signals bigger things to come for whatever franchise he is working with. Seriously, ask folks in Dallas and New England. The Knicks need someone who can be held accountable for the big picture vision of the franchise. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with a plan … but if you can get one, why not?

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 5:43 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Would you like a straw or will you drink the Kool-Aid straight from the jug? His mere presence doesn’t signal anything other than the Knicks willing to spend a lot of money. “Bigger things to come” is a slogan, not based in fact. Phil is a brilliant basketball mind. I think, if anything, he is underrated as a coach. I am a fan. But they did not hire coach Phil Jackson. They put someone in charge of basketball operations who has not worked in a front office. And if it’s such a thin line from one job to the other, let’s see how people react when New York names R.C. Buford or Sam Presti or Masai Ujiri head coach. There will obviously be others handling the day-to-day work while Phil handles the big picture and deals in final rulings. But the Knicks are a tangled mess, from salary cap to the roster itself, and he has to get a lot of things right before the Knicks can say they’re at bigger things.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 2:56 PM, Smith, Sekou

Actually, I prefer one of those fancy Camelbak adult sippy cup/water bottles when drinking my Kool-Aid, Scott. You know how I do it. Seriously, though, you are selling Phil short and the job of a general manager in this league way long. I won’t run down the list of knuckle-draggers who have been general managers in this league the past 40 years or so, but there haven’t been a ton of Hall of Famers to speak of in that regard. And to suggest that anyone’s success in the NBA isn’t rooted in equal parts blind luck and superior personnel is a farce. You can’t mention R.C. Buford or Sam Presti without also mentioning Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant, the cornerstone/Hall of Fame(caliber in Durant’s case) talents that their organizations are built around. I’m not saying those guys aren’t good at what they do. I’m just saying their jobs are much more manageable because of the personnel in place. Presti was no one’s genius before Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden came into their own. And he’d be the first one to shoot down that label. Phil deserves some time and the benefit of anyone’s doubt right now based on his Lord of the Rings status alone.


VIDEO: WRick Fox discusses the nuances of Phil Jackson’s system and how it will work in New York

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 6:10 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Then let’s do it this way: What has Phil done to win you over? Are you basing his success as a GM on what he did as a coach? (And, again, I’m the last guy who sells him short. I’m the one who said he was underrated as a coach. He is an all-timer. But that’s a different job.)

On Mar 28, 2014, at 4:37 PM, Smith, Sekou

Seriously! We’re haggling over Phil’s credentials to do a job that has been bequeathed to the children of owners, former agents, guys who have graduated from the video room and folks whose credentials pale in comparison to what the Zen master has accomplished in his storied career. Coach or GM, it doesn’t make much difference to me when we’re talking about management style. Phil’s style has produced unmatched success everywhere he’s been. So he didn’t take the GM training course. Folks have to get over that and let’s see what he can do.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 1:08 AM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

So your argument that Phil Jackson is a good hire is centered on “There have been plenty of bad hires before”? And we’re not haggling. We’re having a discussion in the loftiest of all debate societies: the sports media.

On Mar 29, 2014, at 12:06 AM, Smith, Sekou <Sekou.Smith@turner.com> wrote:

Don’t put words in my mouth … er, on my email, or whatever. What I’m saying is this, for you or anyone else to doubt Phil Jackson’s ability to do this job is shortsighted. You clearly have not embraced the Zen! I’m simply a believer in the power of experience. And no one interested in running a franchise has more championship experience than PJax!

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 4:19 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Experience is great. And Larry Bird successfully made the transition to head of basketball operations without previously working in a front office, so it can be done. But Larry Legend had two advantages. He was very familiar with the personnel after coaching the Pacers. And, Indiana was a good team. Bird had to make adjustments to a stable situation. Jackson doesn’t need to make adjustments. He needs to marshal an overhaul. The Knicks are a mess of salaries and personnel. He will be relying heavily on others for scouting and for cap management. I don’t think I’m being shortsighted. I’m being practical. Phil was a winner like few others, but that was Zen and this is now. He has to prove he can deliver in a new job. Don’t swoon over a GM because of his coaching record.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 29, 2014 6:51 PM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

You’re making this about all of these other guys and not about Phil. Does he have to prove himself as a GM? Sure. Just as all of those other guys did. But you’re acting like all of the work he’s done in the game hasn’t prepared him for this next step and I think that’s ridiculous. I’m not saying Phil is perfect and can wave his magic Zen wand and fix all of the problems facing the Knicks. But whatever issues arise, they won’t be foreign to Phil. He’s worked in championship situations and has the benefit of that vast experience to use in his new role with the Knicks. Don’t knock a guy as a GM before we give him some time to dig in on the job.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper

Date: March 29, 2014 at 11:35:28 PM EDT
To: Sekou SMITH
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

I hope he does well. I just think it’s fair to be skeptical. If he proves it, if he delivers big results, great. But let’s let him prove it.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 30, 2014 7:38 AM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

I knew I’d get you to come around to my side. And I agree, it’s fair to be skeptical. Just as it’s fair to assume, based on his lengthy history, to give Phil the benefit of the doubt we might not give someone else who doesn’t own more championship rings than fingers!


VIDEO: Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas talks Phil, the Knicks and the fit

Hang time podcast (episode 153) featuring NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury and Iowa Energy Coach Nate Bjorkgren

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —  The Miami Heat, a team everyone assumed was immune to the doldrums that smother teams made up of mere mortals, suddenly look every bit as vulnerable as the rest of the field.

The Indiana Pacers are scarred, too. The Oklahoma City Thunder? Yep. The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, too.

What once looked like a clear-cut championship field to the naked eye has a very different feel to it these days.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat will get a chance to solve their own drama with Wednesday night’s head-to-head battle (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) with the Pacers and their own struggling cast of stars, led by All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert.

We’re analyzing the contenders and pretenders on Episode 153 of the Hang Time Podcast with help from NBA.com’s very own Fran Blinebury and Iowa Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren, who was crazy enough to let a member of the crew join his staff for a brief stint last weekend. We couldn’t help but touch on some of the hot topics of the day — Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and more — and we score yet another Dwight Howard debate (some folks never tire of the Dwight debate).

There is no shortage of drama as the regular season winds down and we cover it all here. And don’t forget about this week’s edition of Braggin’ Rights.

Check out all of that and more on Episode 153 of the Hang Time Podcast Featuring NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury Iowa Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Blake suddenly back in playoff hunt

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

VIDEO: Golden State’s Steve Blake dishes it out

Coach Mike D’Antoni called Steve Blake into his Staples Center office approximately 90 minutes before tipoff against the Rockets on Feb. 19 to tell Blake the Lakers had just traded him to the Warriors. The full-court press of emotions started instantly.

Family concerns flashed first into Blake’s mind. How Kristin had essentially just become a single parent for at least two months, and probably longer, because their three boys had to stay in Southern California until the end of the school year. How he, Blake, would have the hurt of missing his wife and Nicholas, Jameson and Zachary, even if the Los Angeles-Oakland flight was a weekend hop compared to many other NBA relationships.

And then it hit him.

The playoffs. He would be going to the playoffs after all.

In that instant, Blake went from missing the postseason for the first time since 2010 to an important role in the playoffs as backup point guard on a team searching hard for depth, depth at point guard in particular, and someone who could be dependable with the ball. Perfect, then. The Warriors needed him as much as he needed them.

Blake was the farthest thing from anxious to get away from the Lakers, even in this 2013-14 of misery, but being swapped for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks provided an opportunity that would not have come otherwise. He would be on a club where every game, regular season and after, meant something, not playing out the string. Barring a collapse — Golden State is only two games ahead of No. 9 Dallas, but falling into the lottery would require being passed by the Grizzlies, Suns and Mavericks the final 11 contests — there would be a playoffs.

“I’m very grateful for that, to be on a great team,” Blake said. “If I was going to get traded, this is the ideal place to go to for me. I’m very grateful for that.”

Ideal location, only an hour in the air from the rest of the family, and ideal situation. It would be playing behind Stephen Curry, yes, and no one is more important to their postseason hopes than the starting point guard, but the backup for the Warriors is no ordinary backup. Jarrett Jack proved that last season by finishing a lot of games in a move that allowed Curry to play off the ball.

When Jack left for Cleveland in the summer as a free agent, Golden State hoped Toney Douglas could step into the role, with Andre Iguodala playing there as well in addition to starting at small forward. That didn’t happen. Turnovers piled up. The Warriors traded for Jordan Crawford, hoping he would be the answer. That didn’t happen either, with Crawford more of a shooting guard.

Enter a player with the experience of winning an NCAA championship at Maryland and 23 games of playoff time the last three seasons alone as a Laker, usually making sound decisions with the ball and making 3-pointers, a history that prompted his new coach, Mark Jackson, to say, “We know he is not afraid.” Then it was Golden State’s chance for an immediate reaction: Blake’s first 17 games have resulted in 59 assists and 16 turnovers in much-needed stability for an offense that too often gives away possessions, quickly making him a valuable part of the rotation even while shooting 40 percent.

“Big picture it was going from a disappointing season to a contender,” Blake said. “It’s a great feeling.”

It’s an unexpected opportunity to play beyond April 16.

Defy the odds … the Spurs way?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Spurs just keep on chugging along, 14 straight and counting …

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Trying to identify the specific reasons for the San Antonio Spurs’ sustained excellence for the better part of the past two decades requires vision clear enough to notice that living legend of a big man sitting quietly in whatever corner of the locker room he occupies on a given night.

Yes, Tim Duncan was, is and remains the secret to the Spurs’ success formula. You have to start with superstars in the NBA. Toss in a Hall of Fame coach (Gregg Popovich), a couple more superstar players (in their own right) and a steady cast of young and veteran role players willing to sacrifice for the greater good and it’s not hard to fathom a well-run franchise putting together years and years of quality, championship-caliber production.

No one, not even the Los Angeles Lakers, have been as consistently good (and some folks would insist “great”) as the Spurs have been during the Duncan era. And yet, they have never been to The Finals in back-to-back years. Might this be the year that the Spurs defy those odds?

I say why not? This has been a strange season all around, what with the Eastern Conference depression in the standings and musical chairs being played by contenders by the supposed contenders all year-long. My sparring partner on almost every debatable topic, NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, has his own theory and weighs in on the Spurs and the “Spurs’ Way” …

Since Tim Duncan was introduced to the NBA (1997-98), the San Antonio Spurs have compiled a 959-439 record (68.6%), best in the league over that span. It should come as no surprise that Monday night the Spurs extended the Philadelphia 76ers franchise worst losing record to 25 games. If the defending Western Conference Champs can continue their winning ways, they too will establish a franchise first, reaching the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons.

​At 54-16, the Spurs have eclipsed the 50-win plateau for the 15th consecutive season, but their current 14-game win streak is the longest in the Duncan era. Coincidence? Possibly, but the difference between this season and the previous four following a finals appearance was the painful defeat the Spurs suffered last June. As a result, there seems to be a “3-M” plan put in place: Motivation, Maintenance and Man Power. As shown below, the Spurs are really good following a Finals appearance. But the Game 7 loss may serve as added motivation separating this season from others.

Season Following Finals​Longest Winning Streak
​1999-2000​ — 7
​2003-2004​ — 13
​2005-2006​ — 9
​2007-2008​ ​ — 11
​2013-2014​ — 14 (and counting)

​It’s commonplace to turn on a Spurs game and identify a San Antonio reserve being placed in the starting lineup due to their internal maintenance plan. Many teams implore this practice to monitor the health and recovery of star players battling injuries, the Spurs are simply keeping players fresh for a deep postseason run. Regardless of the opponent or venue, when Popovich decides to rest one of his future Hall-of-Famers, the next man is expected to step in and perform at a high level.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks after his team’s 14th straight win

The youngest of the team’s “Big 3″, Tony Parker, leads the Spurs in minutes per game with a mere 30.3 minutes. Parker’s average is the fewest by any player in the NBA to lead his team in minutes. Last season many believed Manu Ginobili‘s proverbial tank ran low during the Finals, but as the table reads that shouldn’t be an issue this time around.

Spurs Minute-Men (mpg)
Tony Parker ​(30.3)
Tim Duncan ​(29.4)
Kawhi Leonard ​(29.1)
Marco Belinelli ​(25.1)
Boris Diaw ​ (25.1)
Danny Green ​ (24.2)
Manu Ginobili ​ (23.0)

​Another striking difference for this Spurs team is that they are hunters following a Finals appearance as opposed to being the hunted. The league has been controlled by the Miami Heat since LeBron James‘s big decision and with the last two titles comfortably resting in South Florida. In short, the Heatles are still the leagues measuring stick.

Since the All-star break, though, San Antonio has been a team on a mission, boasting a 16-1 record and winning their last 14 games by an average of 15.7 points. Again that’s a sign of motivation because the Spurs are not only defeating the Sixers of the NBA world, but they’ve defeated the Clippers and Heat in the midst of this historic win streak. The credit can’t be placed solely on a maintenance plan and motivation but the added man power supplied by their front office.

The Spurs most notable addition being Marco Belinelli (2014 Three-Point Contest Winner) who’s currently fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (43.8 %). Along with Belinelli, the Spurs second unit is loaded with Jeff Ayres who’s added quality depth in the front court along with Patty Mills that has scored in bunches throughout the year in Parker’s absence. Even NBA journeyman Austin Daye has shown flashes leading the team with 22 point (6-for-10 from deep) against the 76ers Monday night.

​The Spurs are on pace to surpass their win total (58) from last season. Yet, they won’t garner the national attention due to their 15 consecutive 50-win seasons. Some complain about their style of play, others claim they’re getting old but in the end they find a way to win games. Go ahead, call it boring, black and white or even the “Spurs way” but after coming up short in Miami during last year’s Finals, San Antonio seems motivated to be called NBA Champions for a fifth time.

All that said, I maintain the one other underlying factor working in the Spurs’ favor for back-to-back trips to The Finals is that they weren’t expected to get their last season. Before Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook went down with that knee injury against the Houston Rockets, that was the crew picked by most pundits to win the West.

The Spurs making the 2013 Finals was a surprise, to most folks, and the Spurs don’t do surprises.

There is no guarantee they make it this time around. There are no guarantees for the Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers or anyone else deemed a contender at this stage of the season. But of all of the teams of that ilk, the Spurs are the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis.

That alone leads me to believe that they just might have a chance to defy the odds … doing it the Spurs Way!


VIDEO: Tim Duncan waxes on the Spurs and their streak

Morning Shootaround — March 24


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Woodson takes blame, Knicks postseason hopes on the brink | Bryant confident as ever Lakers will get back to the top | Heat defensive focus lags, struggles continue | Thunder will contend as long as Westbrook’s knee holds up

No. 1: Woodson shoulders blame as Knicks fall to Cavs, postseason hopes hang in the balance – Done in by Jarrett Jack. Is that the epitaph that will be written on this season for the New York Knicks? After Cleveland’s veteran point guard, filling in for All-Star Kyrie Irving, shredded them late to snap their eight-game win streak, it’s a legitimate question. Knicks coach Mike Woodson took the blame, a noble endeavor considering he was going to get his fair share anyway. But the Knicks’ postseason hopes hang in the balance every night and losses to the likes of the Cavaliers destroy the cause, as Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com points out::

Atlanta lost on Sunday afternoon, so the Knicks knew exactly what was at stake when they took the court on Sunday evening. That made the loss to the Cavs all the more catastrophic.

“We didn’t handle our business,” Woodson said, “and I’ve got to take full responsibility for that.”

“It’s tough,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We should’ve won this game. We gave it away. They earned it. They beat us.”

The Knicks were up 15 at the half but allowed Cleveland to score nine straight to start the third quarter.

“I thought we came out a little flat,” Anthony said.

Anthony led the Knicks with 32 points but went cold late, missing 11 of his last 13 shots and all five in the fourth quarter.

The Knicks as a whole went 5-for-18 in the fourth and missed 11-of-15 3-pointers in the second half.

“They were just scrapping more, I think,” J.R. Smith said. “They were more hungry than us in the second half. … It’s a huge opportunity lost, one we can’t afford. But we can’t get it back. Just got to go out there on the road and win some games. Hopefully, [the Hawks] keep losing.”

That’s what the Knicks have been left with in this roller-coaster season: hoping the eighth-place Hawks can continue to give away their lead.

For what feels like the 30th time this season, the Knicks failed to do that. And it leaves Woodson and his team in a difficult spot. According to Elias Sports Bureau, just one team in the past 30 years has overcome a deficit of more than four games with 14 games or fewer to play in the regular season to make the playoffs.


VIDEO: Sunday’s top 10 plays

***

No. 2: Kobe in touch with Jim Buss, confident Lakers will get back to winning ways – Whatever he lacks in good health Kobe Bryant more than makes up for in unabashed confidence in himself and the Los Angeles Lakers resilience. This despicable season will be forgotten, as soon as he can get back to health and as soon as Jim Buss and the rest of the Lakers’ front office brass finish their franchise makeover. These tough times, Bryant insisted during an interview with ESPN’s sports business ace Darren Rovell, will not last. He did, however, acknowledge that things are going to be different without Dr. Jerry Buss around to fix the Lakers’ issues:

Bryant, who signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the team in November to lock up his 19th and 20th seasons in L.A., reiterated his message of urgency to Buss to return to the top as soon as possible.

“This organization is just not going to go [down],” Bryant said. “It’s not going to take a nose dive. But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season. So, it’s kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now.”

Despite already airing his concerns about what direction the Lakers might be heading, Bryant said his faith is as strong as ever in the Lakers’ ability to bounce back to contender status.

“Extremely confident,” Bryant said. “That was one of my concerns [when he re-signed] and they assured me, ‘This is fair for you for everything you’ve done for the franchise and will continue to do while being able to construct a team that is going to contend for a championship here over the next couple of years.’”

Bryant also responded to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban‘s assertion that “I don’t know if the Lakers will ever be the Lakers,” because of the absence of longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who died last year.

“It will be different,” Bryant said. “You can’t lead the way [Dr. Buss] did. Because Jeanie is different. Jimmy, who is running basketball operations, is different.

“So they have to find their rhythm and get in sync with each other and figure out exactly what their leadership style is going to be. It’s nearly impossible to try to separate basketball operations from the business standpoint so you got to kind of get in sync that with that and have one voice that is leading that charge. But once that happens, the idea might take shape. But you can’t look at what Dr. Buss did and say, ‘I’m going to try replicate that,’ and be exactly what he was. That’s just not going to happen.”


VIDEO:
Mavericks guard Monta Ellis was a flash against the Nets Sunday

***

No. 3: LeBron and Spoelstra point to lagging Heat defense as their struggles continue Bellyaching about your team’s energy, effort and championship focus in the wake of seven losses in your last 11 games is not a shocker, not even for the Miami Heat. But it’s good to get some specifics. And the Heat, fresh off of yet another head-scratching defeat (Saturday night in New Orleans), provided plenty. And it’s all about their defense, which has been uncharacteristically porous of late. That’s something everyone, from coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James and Chris Bosh, in the Heat camp can agree on. Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel highlights the particulars:

    “We’re not accustomed to this type of play, these types of standards, particularly on the defensive end,” coach Erik Spoelstra said before giving his team Sunday off in advance of Monday’s visit by the Portland Trail Blazers to AmericanAirlines Arena. “And if we want to change, we have to look inward. Every single one of us, including the staff, including the players, have to make changes.”

Forward LeBron James said the Heat are failing on the defensive end both individually and collectively.

“First of all,” he said, “you have to guard your man, and rely on help second. But when you break down, you’re going to have to rely on the help, and we’re not getting both.

“First of all, guys are not playing their man. And guys get beat, which you will be, which will happen in this league, because there’s great players, the help comes. We’re not doing anything.”

Factor in the Heat’s longstanding rebound issues and the defensive pressure has been unrelenting.

“Sometimes we get stops and we don’t get a rebound. Sometimes we don’t get stops,” forward Udonis Haslem said. “It’s a lot of different things. At this point, we’ve got to put it all together, we’ve got to get stops and rebounds. We can’t get a stop and then give up an offensive rebound and get another 24 [seconds on defense].

“We’ve got to guard the ball, and then when the ball gets in the paint, we’ve got to step up, we’ve got to contest. Shot goes up, we’ve got to box out both bigs and got to get it and go.”

The frustration has shown on the court and in the locker room.

“Defensively, we can’t stop a nosebleed,” center Chris Bosh said. “No good blitz, the pick and roll coverage, one-on-one defense, everything is bad.”


VIDEO: Check out the Kevin Love Show from Sunday, starring … Kevin Love!

***

No. 4:Thunder’s title hopes rest on Westbrook’s knee – Miami and Indiana aren’t the only places where championship hopes are in doubt these days. Folks in Oklahoma are also wondering just how fragile their title aspirations are in the wake of yet another knee scare from All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. Even with MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant destroying the competition night after night, the Thunder’s confidence is tied directly to the health of Westbrook and that knee. It’s a dangerous way for an entire state and fan base to live. But it’s the only way they, according to Barry Tramel of the Oklahoman:

Nobody in our state slept well Friday night. Starting with Scotty Brooks, Sam Presti, Westbrook’s clothier, Rumble, that woman who screams “Russellllllllllllllllllllllll” during his foul shots and most everyone with a cable or satellite dish in every hamlet from Tuskahoma to Tonkawa.

For about 20 hours or so over the weekend, we all wondered if Russell Westbrook’s knee was tore up again. Westbrook limped off the court in Toronto on Friday, and the wind was replaced by “aarghs!” and “gulps” sweeping down the plain.

Of course, now word is that Westbrook is OK and might even play either Monday night (Denver in OKC) or Tuesday night (at Dallas). Whew. That was close.

Thunderland knows the feeling of life without Westbrook. Knows it all too well. And it stinks. When Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in the Houston series last playoffs, the Thunder scraped by the Rockets, then was bullied by the Grizzlies in a five-game series defeat. When Westbrook has sat out periodically this season, the Thunder has mostly struggled, save for a magical 10-game winning streak in January during which OKC was the league’s best team.

Westbrook’s latest scare is reason to ask this question. Is the Thunder better prepared to play without him this season than last season? If Westbrook limps off in some game soon, or in the middle of a playoff series, is the Thunder better-equipped to survive?

Depends on what survival means. Win the NBA championship? No. Not going to happen without Westbrook riding shotgun.

But go deeper in the playoffs? Win a tough West semifinal? At least challenge the Spurs or the Clippers or whoever emerges as the Western Conference elite? Yes.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: This is a different Raptors team than you are used to, one that is rising to the late-season challenge … Andre Miller finally clears the air about what went down in Denver … No one is doing it better these days than the bench mob from Phoenix … Kobe Bryant announces his partnership in a new business … Rockets big man Dwight Howard is practicing but remains “day-to-day” with that tender ankle … The surprising comeback for Steve Nash has already hit yet another injury snag

ICYMI of the Night: Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins wants you to know that this is his world and the rest of the big men in the league are just living in it …


VIDEO: DeMarcus Cousins goes hard for his 32 points and 12 rebounds

Nash making his case for next year

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Steve Nash talks about his love and desire for the game

Why does the basketball equivalent of an octogenarian drag a beat up, worn down body out onto the court at the tail end of a lost season?

If you’re Steve Nash, the reason is the same as the one that kept Kobe Bryant hoping and holding the door open for so long until Lakers team doctors finally slammed it shut.

It’s what you do.

When you’re one of those ancient warriors who’s been playing for so long, it’s never just about the record or the place in the standings. It’s about testing yourself, pushing at the limits and pushing back at the critics who say it’s impossible or insane. It’s always about competing in the next game.

However, in the case of Nash, this would also seem to be about next year. Over these final weeks, he’s got to make a statement with his ability to perform and a case to bring him back.

The 40-year-old recently vowed to retire from the game if the Lakers’ offseason rebuilding plan takes them in a different direction.

“If the Lakers release me this summer this is it,” Nash said during Episode 2 of the Finish Line, the documentary he’s doing with Grantland.com that chronicles his final season(s) in the league. “You know, I finally got my kids here in L.A., I’m not going to move them again, and I’m not going to be without them for another year. So, it’s either back with the Lakers next year or I’m done.”

Nash has been plagued by nerve damage in his back and hamstring injuries, averaging 7.6 points, 4.7 assists and a near career low of 22.5 minutes in just 10 games. He has not played since limping off the court before halftime on Feb. 11 against the Jazz.

After playing in just 50 games last season due to another spate of injuries in his first season with the Lakers, it would seem that Nash’s body is telling him that it’s time to call it a career after 18 seasons that produced two MVP awards and probably exceeded the expectations of everyone who saw him come out of Santa Clara way back in 1996.

Yet that’s the thing about the great ones, the players who reach that elite level. It’s not so much that they won’t ever let go as it is them being the deciders of the time and the place.

You know that’s the driving force behind Kobe’s determined bid for an unprecedented comeback, much mores than the $48.5 million on the new contract. After all the accolades and all that he’s accomplished, he doesn’t want the lasting image to be that hobbling off the floor a year ago when the Achilles tendon tore or the six ineffective games he played this season.

They may look vastly different and play two entirely different kinds of basketball, but Nash has that ingredient in his DNA makeup. He want to walk out, not limp out. He wants to retire, not have the Lakers cut him to save salary cap space over the summer.

That’s why he’ll be back on the floor tonight at the end of a long lost season. It’s about next year.