Who’s the best player you won’t see in the playoffs but wish you would? (And, please, let’s leave the injured stars off this list.)
Steve Aschburner: The “no injured stars” qualifier to this question, in my mind, applies to Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire or Andrew Bynumbut not to Kyrie Irving, whose various absences have not been as debilitating. Nor have they been the reason why Cleveland floats near the bottom of the East river; the Cavs’ 17-32 pace (.347) with him wasn’t getting them to the postseason any more than their 22-47 mark (.319) overall. As it was, this was a breakthrough season for Irving, from his All-Star weekend highlights to all the pre-21-year-old history he has achieved. With Anderson Varejao healthy and a stiffer defense, Cleveland might have gotten in and put the point guard’s transcendent talents on display for a coming-out party much like Rose’s in 2009 against Boston, when he was about Irving’s age.
Fran Blinebury: Kobe Bryant. (I’ve always wanted to know how many expletives a Laker fan could type in 60 seconds.)
Jeff Caplan: I know my Eastern brethren will likely choose Jrue Holiday and that’s a wonderful choice. Another is John Wall, who is playing spectacularly. But, allow me to suggest Ricky Rubio. There are few magicians in this league and Rubio is one of them. He’s quietly put together a very nice second half to the season since regaining confidence in his surgically repaired left knee, and doing so with a decimated roster due to massive injury woe. Minnesota fans should again be excited for next season when we can only assume the Wolves will have a fully healthy roster and still have Rick Adelman as their coach. Rubio has improved each month and in March he is averaging 13.2 ppg and 7.8 apg. The playoffs were made for such a performer. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for next season.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Based on the last few weeks, I am tempted to say John Wall. But let’s say LaMarcus Aldridge. A playoff series, or more, would be a deserved spotlight. If it’s any consolation, he will have a lot of them with the Blazers in the years ahead.
John Schuhmann: Well, either Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki is going to miss the playoffs, and I hear they’re both pretty good. But the one guy I can’t wait to see in the postseason is Kyrie Irving, so I’m kind of rooting for the Cavs to put some pieces around him this summer (and for him to stay healthy). Irving is a 21-year-old star who plays with an electricity and embraces the big moment. He’s made to star on the big stage, and hopefully that time comes soon.
Sekou Smith: There is still an outside chance we could see him in the playoffs, depending on what happens with that eighth and final spot in the Western Conference standings, but watching the bearded Dirk Nowitzkigo to work against the Clippers Tuesday night on TNT is a reminder of just how wicked the big fella can be when he’s got it going. His season got off to a rugged start with the injury and the Mavericks struggling to find their way. But I keep having flashbacks to the 2011 playoffs, when Dirk made his case as one of the game’s truly great players. You know he’d go down in a blaze of glory in a first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. Crazy as it sounds, John Wall of the Wizards would be No. 2 on my list. With the way he’s playing these days, you have to wonder what might have been for the Wizards in the East had he been healthy all season …
HOUSTON – NBA All-Star weekend is upon us and it’s time to take a break from the condensed schedule to celebrate the best basketball players in the world. Before we get to Sunday’s game (8 p.m. ET, TNT), we’ll dig deep into each All-Star’s first-half statistics.
You already know the basics (scoring, rebounding, etc). So here are some noteworthy, below-the-surface numbers regarding each of the 13 Eastern Conference All-Stars, coming from the new NBA.com/stats site. Click on the nuggets below to go even more in-depth.
All stats are through Wednesday, Feb. 13. Minimum requirements were set at 100 field-goal attempts for shooting stats, 500 minutes for non-shooting stats, and 100 minutes for lineup data, unless otherwise noted.
Has assisted Blake Griffin on 135 baskets. Russell Westbrook has more assists (149) to Kevin Durant, but the Paul-Griffin combination has more on a per-minute basis: 5.1 vs. 4.2 per 48 minutes played together.
DALLAS – Portland’s energetic J.J. Hickson has played himself into a great position even while playing out of position.
At 6-foot-9, Hickson is the Blazers’ undersized center who’s putting up double-doubles at a higher rate than even his All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. Hickson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s loss at Dallas was his 27th double-double, tied for third-most in the league.
It’s the kind of production that will put Hickson, 24, atop many teams’ offseason shopping lists when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.
“I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to it, but that’s something I’ll get more excited about when that period hits,” Hickson said. “It’s something that me and my agent will talk about, but right now I’m just worried about playing basketball and trying to make these playoffs.”
Hickson is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game, 12.9 ppg and a career-best 10.7 rpg to help a Blazers team with little depth to stay in playoff contention.
He’s been a steal for Portland at $4 million this season. The Blazers signed him off the waiver wire last March after Sacramento released him. The Kings acquired Hickson in a trade earlier in the season from Cleveland, the team that drafted him 19th overall in 2008 out of North Carolina State, but moved him out to make room for rookie Tristan Thompson.
Portland attempted to go the more traditional route at center last offseason, making an offer to restricted free agent Roy Hibbert, but Indiana matched to hold onto the promising big man. The Blazers also eyed Chris Kaman, who chose to sign with Dallas. Portland signed Hickson to a one-year deal.
“Nah,” Hickson said when asked if he imagined himself playing center on a daily basis. “But, you know, it’s what my team needs me to do and it’s what my teammates and coaches have asked me to do, so it’s something I’m willing to sacrifice for the team.
“I’ve just been strong mentally, I think, all season. I’m a physical player so that’s not a problem, but mentally I think I’ve been locked in and I’ve just been consistent with my play.”
He and Aldridge complement each other well. In first-year coach Terry Stotts‘ offense, Aldridge is extended out of the low block more often with Hickson occupying the weakside.
“L.A.’s the kind of player that can mix it up so I’m just playing off him,” Hickson said. “He knows my situation and we all know he hates to be called a ’5,’ so we make it work and we’re doing a good at it.”
At 6-11 and equipped with a solid post game, Aldridge is closer to a traditional 5 than Hickson will ever be.
“Sometimes we get too concerned in pigeon-holing players in what he is or what he isn’t,” Stotts said. “I think [Hickson] is a frontline player, whether you want to say he’s a 4 or a 5, he’s an effective frontline player. He can score, he can run, he can rebound and I’m a little reluctant to pigeon-hole him as he’s this or that.”
Even if Hickson does feel pigeon-holed as a pseudo-center.
“Yeah, I do,” Hickson said, frankly. “But like I say, that’s something I sacrifice for the team. The NBA world knows what my true position is and they know I’m sacrificing for my team and I think that helps us even more knowing that I’m willing to play the 5 to help us get wins.”
So what’s next for Hickson? Aldridge isn’t going anywhere, so big minutes at the 4 wouldn’t seem to exist in Portland, which drafted 7-foot center Meyers Leonard last June and could make a run in free agency (or through trades) at legit centers that potentially will hit the market such as Al Jefferson, Nikola Pekovic, perhaps Andrew Bynum or even Kaman again.
Suitors and a handsome payday won’t be in short supply come July, and Hickson certainly sounded as if he’d look long and hard at a starting power forward gig elsewhere. Which could make it difficult for Portland to retain him.
“Well,” Stotts said, “we’ll worry about that later.”
DALLAS – Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum is clearly battling pain in his ailing right wrist.
It has recently hampered the all-around solid play he’s delivered this season to a Blazers team that lacks depth and desperately needs his versatility to remain in playoff contention. He’s averaging just 9.8 ppg since he hurt his wrist going for a dunk during a Jan. 19 practice, and in the three games since an MRI revealed no structural damage, the forward has averaged just 7.0 ppg and he’s taken just 18 total shots.
“It doesn’t always really bother me, but today it was really painful. I was really scared about every contact.”
Tonight, the Blazers, who at 25-23 are one game back of Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot, play at Dallas (8:30 ET, League Pass).
“I’ll use him the same way as we usually do and if the ball swings to him and he doesn’t feel comfortable shooting, he can still make plays off the dribble,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Batum after the team’s Tuesday practice in Dallas. “It’s just a matter of time before it starts feeling better, but he needs to be productive in other ways and that’s as much as he can do. I may or may not run the same type of things for him, but he still needs to do what he can do.”
Batum, 24, has delivered on his big payday during the offseason. Portland matched Minnesota’s four-year offer sheet and signed Batum to a deal worth more than $43 million. He’s increased his production in several areas to career highs. His scoring average (15.7 ppg) is up nearly two points a game and his assists have risen from 1.4 last season to 4.9 this season, second behind rookie point guard Damian Lillard. His 6.1 rpg are up 1.5 over last season and he’s also averaging career highs in steals (1.4) and blocks (1.8).
Illustrating just how thin the Blazers’ bench is, Batum is on the high end (38.8 mpg) among three Blazers, including Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, who average more than 38 minutes. Going without their third-leading scorer and most versatile player for any extended period of time would diminish Portland’s playoffs hopes.
For now, Batum is expected to continue to play, and Stotts will look for small contributions from others to pick up the slack.
“I think everybody has to do a little bit more,” Stotts said. “I don’t think one guy has to do a lot more, just everybody has to do a little bit more.”
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Can we please finally put to rest this lingering and nonsensical talk that LaMarcus Aldridge is not a worthy All-Star? What planet are you living on anyway?
Yeah, so, the Portland Trail Blazers power forward’s shooting percentage has been down this season from the lofty 50 percent mark of the last three seasons, but even that excuse is flimsy. After Tuesday’s heroics in a 106-104 comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in which Aldridge buried his first 3-pointer of the season with 4.9 seconds left to tie and then canned a turnaround jumper on a play that started with 1.5 seconds to go to win it, capping a 12-for-20 shooting night for 29 points, Aldridge’s rising shooting percentage is now up to 47.3 percent.
Yes, it is still a career-low and he’s a lousy 1-for-10 from beyond the arc. You haters just won’t stop.
That shooting percentage puts him just outside the top 20 among all forwards, yet his 20.7 scoring average is tops among power forwards, unless you consider Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to be power forwards. It’s a full point higher than Golden State All-Star representative David Lee, yet a full point lower than when Aldridge was unjustly left off the 2011 All-Star team.
Maybe Aldridge’s 8.9 rpg, good for eighth among all forwards and a mark that will be a career-best if he maintains it, is what should keep him off the All-Star team. So he’s not one of two forwards — Lee and Zach Randolph — currently averaging a double-double. Fine, toss his All-Star credentials.
At 38.1 mpg, maybe the 6-foot-11 Aldridge just isn’t logging enough heavy minutes. After all, Durant, Luol Deng, LeBron and even Aldridge’s own teammate Nicolas Batum average at least a half-minute more per game. What a slouch.
So what to make of games like Tuesday night when Aldridge played 42 minutes, scored 29 points — including five points on two huge shots in the final five seconds — grabbed 13 rebounds, four offensive boards, dished out three assists, made a steal and blocked two shots?
“We needed those two shots,” Batum said. “They show people that he really is an All-Star. He is an All-Star. He’s a go-to guy.”
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
Rondo seeking second opinion on ACL — A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com reports that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who was found to have a torn ACL on Sunday, will meet with several other doctors — including the famed Dr. James Andrews — as well as players from other sports to get a second opinion on the severity and recovery process from his injury:
“He (Dr. Andrews) is one that we’re definitely considering,” Rondo’s agent Bill Duffy, told CSNNE.com. “If he’s No. 1, there’s a couple 1As and 1Bs we’re looking at as well.”
Duffy said the second opinion on Rondo’s knee will not be made for at least another four or five days in order to allow the swelling to go down.
In addition, Duffy said they are in the process of setting up meetings with other athletes who have had similar injuries.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is among those that Rondo’s camp hopes to speak with very soon.
Peterson suffered a torn left ACL and MCL injury on Christmas Eve in 2011, and was back on the field for the season opener in September – less than nine months after the injury.
Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose suffered a torn left ACL injury during the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia on April 28th last year, with his return likely to be shortly after the all-star break next month.
Duffy said Rondo’s trying to be as positive as he can about his injury.
“He’s distraught but he understands what he has to do,” Duffy said. “We have to have him channel all that energy into getting stronger and healthy as soon as possible.”
“I’m a competitor, I’m a guy that thinks I bring a lot to the table, and not being on the floor is something that I don’t like, I don’t appreciate,” Gasol said.
Gasol had seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 21 minutes as the Lakers built an 83-73 lead through the first three quarters.
“It’s a challenge,” Gasol said when asked about toeing the line and accepting D’Antoni’s decision so that he doesn’t take away from the team while still defending his personal ability. “We’re challenged every day, and I’m challenged every day to keep my calm and keep my peace and not let my emotions take over my words.”
Speaking out after a win against the Hornets might seem like poor timing from Gasol, but even while begrudgingly accepting a bench role, he stated his desire to continue to play in crunch time.
“I think the finishing is more important (than starting),” Gasol said recently. “I think the best players should finish off games. That’s just the way it’s got to be. When the game is on the line, you want to be on the floor. That’s more important.”
It was the same sentiment that led Gasol to be upset Tuesday.
“It’s fun to win but when a team comes back on you the way the Hornets did tonight and you are not there as a high-quality player and as a competitor, it’s frustrating,” Gasol said.
Aldridge always happy to see Dallas — Not surprisingly, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s phone was blowing up after his game-winning turnaround shot to sink the Mavs last night. What’s interesting, as The Columbian’s Candace Buckner points out, is that the former prep and college standout from Texas seems to particularly enjoy tormenting his hometown team:
LaMarcus Aldridge, a Dallas native, saved his best to down his hometown team, hitting the game-winning jump shot as time expired for the Trail Blazers’ 106-104 victory.
With a well-executed inbounds play, a flick of the wrist and a perfect jump shot, the Blazers (23-22) shook off a large second-half deficit after the Mavericks pulled ahead by 21 points. So by the time Aldridge returned to the Blazers locker room, his phone had over 20 messages on it. Just a glance and he could tell that his mother, Georgia, was about to make his cell phone battery die.
“She’s watching (the game),” said Aldridge, who finished with a game-high 29 points and also contributed 13 rebounds. “She texted me like five or six times.”
The family celebrated, the 18,888 in the Rose Garden rejoiced and even Aldridge – who so often just describes this whole NBA thing as a “job” – beamed broadly as teammates bum rushed him near the Dallas bench.
“He was smiling like a rookie after his first NBA game,” Nicolas Batum said, describing Aldridge.
He seems to be happiest devastating the hometown team.
Last April at the American Airlines Arena, Aldridge carried the Blazers to the 99-97 victory over the Mavericks with a step-back jumper at the buzzer. Then, Terry Stotts watched from the other sideline as a Dallas assistant coach. Surely, from Stotts’ perspective, this Aldridge game-winner felt a bit better.
“People can think what they want to think, but LaMarcus, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an All-Star,” Stotts said. “He didn’t have to make that shot to prove he’s an All-Star. He proves it every night.”
He also happens to prove it whenever he plays against Dallas.
Aldridge scores 21.2 points per game against the Mavericks, according to basketball-reference.com and the figure ranks as second highest in his career against any NBA team. Through the last four games versus Dallas, Aldridge has averaged 26.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Oden wants back in NBA; Cavs next? — Former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is readying himself for an NBA return and the Heat and Cavs are reportedly on the top of his destination list. How likely is it he’ll be a Cav? Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer digs in:
Former Ohio State star Greg Oden is confident he will return to the NBA after his many knee injuries, but he would not venture a guess about whether he’ll wind up in Cleveland.
“I’m worried about the knee,” he told The Plain Dealer when asked if the Cavs could be a destination for him. “That’s it.”
Oden was in Columbus to take in the Buckeyes’ 58-49 victory over Wisconsin. He has been living in Columbus and taking classes, but he said now that he’s working out in his hometown of Indianapolis and splitting time between the cities.
Asked if he was playing at all, Oden said, “I’m just getting my knee ready so when things do happen I’ll be ready to play next year.
“I’m still in the rehab process, but I’m it taking slow. I could possibly be playing at this point, but I’ve done that before and I got injured before, so I’d rather take everything I am doing slow. Right now I’m just doing strength stuff with my knees.”
He said he was confident he would return to the NBA.
“I like how my knee is going, the way it’s going,” he said. “I still like the time I’m taking, just to make sure nothing happens. You can’t predict the future. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m happy.”
Stuckey, Frank mend fences — Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey and coach Lawrence Frank have had a touch-and-go relationship the last few days. But Terry Foster of the Detroit News reports that’s all behind both men now:
There’s peace again at The Palace. That’s if you believe Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and reserve guard Rodney Stuckey.
Frank ended the one-game benching of Stuckey in time for Tuesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Palace. But Stuckey was a non-factor during the Pistons’ 117-90 blowout loss to the Bucks at The Palace. He played 27 minutes and finished with just seven points.
Stuckey admitted the men clashed before the Pistons’ game Sunday in Orlando. Frank punished Stuckey by benching him for that game and refused to tell the media why. Frank was mostly close-mouthed again but he equated to a family squabble.
“Things happen every single day,” Frank said. “You deal with it and you move on. There are no grudges. Made a decision and we move on today. During the course of the season you are going to have a bunch of disagreements.”
Neither man would say what happened but it is believed they had a disagreement during practice.
Jazz corner market on youth?– The West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder often get a lot of credit for the way their youthful, lottery-picked duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has helped them develop into a contender. But you’d likely be surprised to learn that the Thunder don’t have the most under-25 ex-lottery picks on their roster. According to Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News, that honor belongs to Utah:
Remember the NBA list of the 50 greatest players ever that came out about 15 years ago? Of those 50 players, all but a handful were top-10 selections and 32 of them were top-5 picks. Of the players who have played since that list came out, those that would be considered among the all-time greats — James, Duncan, Kevin Durant — most have been high draft picks.
That brings us to the Utah Jazz.
While five teams have more total lottery picks on their rosters (New York has the most with nine, but four are 38 years or older), no team has more under the age of 25. And the Jazz has the most under the age of 22 with Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (21), Alec Burks (21) and Enes Kanter (20).
One of the teams closest to the Jazz in terms of young, high lottery picks is Wednesday night’s opponent, New Orleans, which has three under the age of 22 in 19-year-old Anthony Davis, 20-year-old Austin Rivers and 22-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu.
Other teams with three lottery picks under age 22 include Washington (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely), Charlotte (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Bismarck Biyombo) and Cleveland (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson).
Walton takes on mentoring role — Ex-Laker Luke Walton wasn’t sure what his role would be when he was traded to the Cavs at last season’s trade deadline. But it’s become clear that the one-time starter in L.A. is embracing his role as a coach of sorts for Cleveland’s young big men Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, writes Stephen Brotherson of HoopsWorld.com:
“At the beginning of the year, the coaches [told] me, you got to [help Thompson and Zeller],” Walton said. “So I knew that was going to be part of my role this year whether it was while I was playing or while I was not playing. I had a lot of good vets that had taught me a lot about this game, so when I am out there playing with these young talented big guys, if I see something that they are doing or I see something that would be more effective for them during a timeout, I will let them know or if we are in the game together, I will try to point it out so we can do it because if we do it in a game, it will reinforce it. They are both such great kids. They want to learn. They want to get better. It has been a lot of fun doing that.”
Thompson and Zeller have enjoyed playing with Walton this season. The veteran has been showing them how to be a facilitator and setting them up when they get open.
“[Walton is] fun,” Zeller said. “You know he is going to find you if you are open and he can make a lot of great plays. We have a lot of confidence in him that he can score, pass and defend. He is really a great all-around player.”
“He is a great passer,” Thompson said. “He keeps the offense flowing. He sees the court. He might not be the most athletic big guy or the tallest guy, but he is so smart that he knows where the ball needs to go, what works and what doesn’t work. We are blessed to have him on our team.”
“It’s awesome,” Walton said. “Obviously losing is very hard, but just being back out there on the court and being able to help some younger players, now having the opportunity to play again and play the way basketball is meant to be played with sharing the ball and passing, I am having a blast right now.”
ICYMI of the night: Before we all get a little too excited over the Lakers’ three-game win streak, let’s not forget there are still more kinks to work out … as this play below illustrates:
While James Harden of the hometown Rockets will be in the lineup to serve as unofficial host for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, evidently the voters — fans and coaches — haven’t received the memo that the NBA is making a big splash in Brooklyn this season.
Harden, who was traded from Oklahoma City four days before the season opener and made a splash by scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games, will make his All-Star debut in his brand new home town.
Yet despite their being the hottest team in the league with nine wins in the last 10 games and currently holding down the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, the Nets were shut out when the reserves were announced for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game Thursday night.
A poll of the league’s head coaches added seven players to each team.
Chris Bosh joined teammates LeBron James and Dwayne Wade on the East team, making the defending NBA champion Heat the only team with three players that will take part in the 62nd All-Star Game, which will be played at Houston’s Toyota Center on Feb. 17 (TNT, 8:30p.m. ET).
In the Western Conference, the Spurs’ old reliable twosome of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were voted in for their 14th and fifth times, respectively, while the vote split up potential duos from other teams.
– Chris Bosh, Heat — If they were the Three Tenors, LeBron James would be Pavarotti, Dwyane Wade would be Domingo and Chris Bosh will always be “that other guy.” Numbers aren’t flashy, but he sacrifices his game to make it all work. | Highlights
Tyson Chandler, Knicks — He averages a double-double of 12.1 points-10.9 rebounds, leads the league in shooting (.674) and defends the rim as if he were a hungry fat man protecting the last cheeseburger on the planet. Justice is done. | Highlights
Luol Deng, Bulls – Coaches love the lunch pail players, the guys who show up for work every night. He leads the NBA in minutes, is his team’s top scorer and top defender in a season when the Bulls are surviving without Derrick Rose. | Highlights
Paul George, Pacers — He’s not just keeping the seat warm for Danny Granger, but playing like the Pacers’ MVP. With six double-doubles in the last two-plus weeks, he closed fast and has led Indiana’s surge after a slow start. | Highlights
Jrue Holiday, Sixers – In a season when Philly fans search for rare and exotic sightings of Bigfoot and Andrew Bynum, the dynamic guard is the reason to go to the games. He’s the only player in league averaging 19 points and nine assists. | Highlights
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers — Look past the Cavs’ 11-32 record at these more pleasant numbers: 20.7 points, 5.7 assists, 39.9 3FG%, 20.7 PER. And the kid is only 20. Are the coaches already buttering him up for free agency? | Highlights
Joakim Noah, Bulls — The numbers say it all — 12.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.3 steals per game. The hyperactive one is having the finest season of his career and symbolizes coach Tom Thibodeau’s driven attitude. | Highlights
The lowdown:The pair of Bulls on the frontline probably squeezed Nets center Brook Lopez out of a spot. Deron Williams would have been everyone’s preseason pick, but struggling with his shot didn’t help. Maybe coaches also didn’t like his griping that led to his coach, Avery Johnson, getting fired. You could have made a case for Boston’s leading scorer Paul Pierce, but with Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo already voted in by the fans, it’s unlikely the coaches wanted to reward the 8th-seeded Celtics with a third man. Do you really see a group of coaches warming up to J.R. Smith? Brandon Jennings of the Bucks and Greg Monroe of the Pistons are just too far under the radar.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers — The plan was to build Blazers into a playoff team next summer. But on a roster with less depth than a wading pool, L.A. scores (20.6), rebounds (8.6) and keeps them as a surprise club in the mix this season. | Highlights
Tim Duncan, Spurs — Oh, so you foolishly left him out of the All-Star Game for the first time last season? Well, the 36-year-old geezer responds by turning back the clock and turning up the heat to keep the Spurs as a real threat in the West. | Highlights
James Harden, Rockets – A bit ironic that The Beard’s first All-Star honor comes just when he’s shot 28-97 (.289) in his last five games. But he’s shown he can carry the mantle of the top dog and will represent the home team in Houston. | Highlights
David Lee, Warriors — Statistically, a no-brainer as the top PF in the West — 19.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists. His biggest challenge was probably splitting votes with teammate Stephen Curry on a Warriors team that has truly surprised. | Highlights
Tony Parker, Spurs – Coach Gregg Popovich keeps ratcheting up the pressure on him every season by raising the bar of great expectation and Parker goes right on clearing it. Seems the coaches understand just how hard that is to do. | Highlights
Zach Randolph, Grizzlies – You could make an argument for teammate Marc Gasol anchoring the defense. But flip the light switch every night and there’s Z-Bo with 16.1 points and 11.6 rebounds, which add up to a league-leading 27 double-doubles. | Highlights
Russell Westbrook, Thunder – The most polarizing player in the NBA has struggled all season with his shot, but ranks in the top five in steals and the top six in assists while churning away with fellow All-Star Kevin Durant to build OKC’s league-best record. | Highlights
The lowdown: As difficult as it was to pare down the list, imagine how much harder things might have been if Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Kevin Love were healthy/up to par. In many cases in the West, it became an intramural competition with Lee beating out Curry, Randolph elbowing Marc Gasol aside and Aldridge getting the nod over rookie Damian Lillard. The surging Nuggets were overlooked, maybe because they’re too well-balanced. The Clippers’ turbo-charger off the bench, Jamal Crawford, was also snubbed. But if anybody’s got a reason to complain here, it’s Curry. a
Chris Paul was voted an All-Star starter for the Western Conference and Jeremy Lin, after being in contention based on early returns in the NBA’s annual popularity contest, was not. Order has been restored.
That means the West opening lineup went according to what would have been easy preseason predictions — Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard in the frontcourt, Kobe Bryant and Paul at guard — and that means the coach’s vote on the reserves won’t have to use a roster spot to right a wrong at the level of Lin ahead of CP3.
It will be down to the usual hard choices to fill out the roster. This year, that could mean picking between teammates (Stephen Curry or David Lee in Golden State), between teammates at the same position (Memphis reps Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol for the frontcourt), and whether the newest test for a rookie (Damian Lillard) will be patience.
There are always cases to be made. But here are the seven most-deserving selections for the West All-Star bench. (For Steve Aschburner‘s look at the East, click here.)
There are several names. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Tony Parker. Curry. Lillard. Jamal Crawford. There just isn’t much room for debate for the two picks.
Harden is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 ppg and the leader of the sudden recovery in Houston, the host city. Westbrook is top five in assists and steals.
My picks: Westbrook and Harden.
Now we’re talking debate. (And now we’re also talking a little strange to have a year without Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol or Kevin Love.)
Randolph (16.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg) and Lee (19.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg) are double-double power forwards for teams in or pushing for the top half of the playoff race. Gasol (13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg) and Serge Ibaka (14 ppg, 8.3 rpg) can’t keep up statistically, but defense is a major reason their teams are winning at a brisk pace. Tim Duncan, usually a popular pick for coaches in years he is not voted a starter by fans, is at 17.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg in just 30.1 minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge (20.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has helped push the Trail Blazers into playoff contention ahead of schedule. Denver’s Kenneth Faried (12.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg) and Utah’s Al Jefferson (17.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg) may get support.
My picks: Randolph, Duncan and Lee. Randolph likely breezes in. It would be a surprise if Duncan does not make it to Houston, either this way or via the wild card, but it will be interesting to see if Duncan and Parker split votes among coaches around the West for San Antonio representation. The Spurs could get both and deserve both, but some voters may prefer to get more teams involved rather than have two subs from the same team. Lee could be a close call to make it.
THE WILD CARDS
Two players chosen by coaches regardless of position. Some voters may be weighing the other picks — starters and their previous selections by position — and some may simply go for most deserving and not care if the roster is guard-heavy. But everyone mentioned above but not added specifically as frontcourt or guard will be a candidate here.
My picks: Parker and Curry. Parker for sure. If some coaches are debating whether to pick one from Golden State’s Lee-Curry option, Curry deserves a slight edge. The position breakdown could make that moot, though.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The early season controversy that swirled around LaMarcus Aldridge and his shot selection has cooled over the last six weeks, to no coincidence, as the Portland Trail Blazers have reversed a rough start into a 14-5 record since Dec. 1.
Terry Stotts imported his “flow” offense from his Dallas assistant days and it requires Aldridge to often begin offensive sets at the elbow, a la Dirk Nowitzki, and to shoot a lot of mid-range jumpers.
In previous seasons under former Blazers coach Nate McMillan, Aldridge was the primary post man and McMillan ran loads of isolation sets through him, the kind that grinded away at Nowitzki when Avery Johnson called the plays, and eventually led Dallas to trade for point guard Jason Kidd and fire Johnson and hire Rick Carlisle.
J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard serve as the primary post man in Stotts’ scheme, giving Aldridge more freedom to roam and and pull his defender out and, yes, take far more shots from outside of the paint, where Aldridge does possess one of the prettier fadeaways.
Still, initially, the result was a drastically lowered shooting percentage and plenty of skepticism.
“In some ways they’re similar, obviously their size, they both have a great touch, they’re unique for their position,” Stotts said earlier this season, comparing Aldridge to Nowitzki. “LaMarcus is a great block player, but if I can get him on the elbow a little bit more — it will probably take time to get him as comfortable as Dirk is up there — but that’s one way, utilizing him in spacing the floor a little bit, not necessarily to the 3-point line, but he’s a good 18- to 20-foot shooter.
“So LaMarcus is his own player and he’s his own man, but I think there are some similarities that we can take advantage of.”
Through 33 games, according to NBA.com advanced stats, Aldridge has attempted 352 mid-range shots. In 55 games last season, he took 494 and in 81 games in 2010-11, he shot 564. On pace to put up 875 in 82 games this season, it is obviously a steep rise and a significant change to his game that has required time to adjust.
Overall, Aldridge’s shooting percentage continues to rise from the lower 40s of the early season. He’s still at a career-low 46.4 percent (he was at 50 percent or better the last two seasons and never below 48.4 percent), but Aldridge actually is making the mid-range jumper at the same rate he has the last two seasons, right at about 41 percent. This season, he’s down a few percentage points on shots in the restricted area under the rim and in the paint, contributing to his lower overall shooting percentage.
And, the Blazers just keep winning, their latest conquest being Thursday’s come-from-behind victory over Miami.
With point guard Damian Lillard putting a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year Award, the Blazers have put together a four-game win streak, including road wins over the Knicks and Grizzlies, to improve to a season-best five games over .500 at 20-15.
They’re doing it primarily with a starting five that all averages double-digit scoring and with little help from arguably the lightest bench in the league.
Aldridge is on an All-Star pace once again, leading the Blazers in scoring at 20.6 points a game, about a one-point dropoff from the past two seasons, and is second in rebounding at 8.6.
Portland’s schedule isn’t terribly unmanageable moving through January, but things get trickier starting tonight with another road game at Golden State followed by Oklahoma City at home and Denver on the road. Two games against the Clippers come later this month.
For now, skepticism has cooled as Aldridge and the Blazers have grown more comfortable in Stotts’ system.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Points, rebounds and assists are nice, but plus-minus is the most important stat in basketball.
You win games by outscoring your opponent, and plus-minus reflects how much a team has done that in a player’s minutes on the floor. If you’re not scoring points yourself, you can help your teammates score and also prevent your opponent from doing so.
But in basketball, with nine other guys on the floor affecting what each player does, plus-minus always needs context, and lots of it. Who is a guy playing his minutes with? Who is he not playing his minutes with?
Furthermore, sample size is important. Single-game plus-minus can help tell a story about key sequences or the impact of a player or two on a particular night. But if you really want to get a good idea of how a team performs when a player or group of players is on the floor, you’ve got to look at a large chunk of games.
At this point in the season, we can get a pretty good idea of where teams are strong and weak. Through Wednesday, 224 players have logged at least 500 minutes for one team this season. And when you measure how efficient their team’s offense has been with them on or off the floor, you come across some interesting numbers.
Damian Lillard is the real deal, but he isn’t the best offensive player in the league. Still, the offensive drop-off that the Portland Trail Blazers have suffered when Lillard has stepped off the floor has been greater than the drop-off that any other team has suffered when a specific player goes to the bench.
Measuring the difference in a team’s offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) when a player is on the floor vs. when he’s off the floor, here are the league’s five biggest difference makers, as well as one at the bottom of the list.
For all of them, the discrepancy between their team’s offensive numbers with them on and off the floor is as much about the guys replacing them as it is about what they’re doing themselves.
1. Damian Lillard, POR
4. LaMarcus Aldridge, POR
Breaking news: The Portland Trail Blazers have an awful, awful bench. Their starting lineup is good offensively, but not great, scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions. They have lineups with three or four starters on the floor that are better. But they have no suitable back-ups for either Lillard or Aldridge. When both have been off the floor (just 127 minutes), Portland has scored less than 90 points per 100 possessions.
Smartly, Terry Stotts has staggered his starters’ minutes pretty well. Of the Blazers’ 13 most-used lineups, 12 include at least three starters. Out of necessity, three Blazers (Nicolas Batum, Lillard and Aldridge) rank in the top 15 in minutes per game.
2. Lance Stephenson, IND
Speaking of bad benches, Stephenson’s differential is more about how awful the Pacers’ bench is than how well he’s played. But “Born Ready” has certainly improved in his third season and the Pacers’ starting lineup has been ridiculously better offensively with Stephenson at the two (109.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than with Gerald Green there (95.8).
The biggest offensive difference between Stephenson’s time on the floor and his time on the bench is turnover rate. Stephenson commits less turnovers than Green, but he also plays most of his minutes with George Hill, who takes care of the ball as well as any point guard in the league.
3. Kobe Bryant, LAL
It’s pretty simple: Bryant is a great player and Jodie Meeks is not. And at 34 years old, Bryant is getting into the paint more than he has since Shaq was his teammate. He’s also playing almost 39 minutes per game. Either way, defense is a bigger issue for the Lakers.
What’s interesting is that Metta World Peace is actually eighth on this list at +10.9 and No. 1 in on-off-court differential (+20.1) when you combine both offensive and defensive impact. World Peace has benefited from playing most of his minutes with Bryant, but the Lakers have been fine offensively (103.4) and excellent defensively (95.5) in the 150 minutes that World Peace has played with Bryant on the bench.
Overall, despite their 15-16 record, the Lakers have the eighth-best point differential in the league, because they’ve won a handful of blowouts.
5. Joe Johnson, BKN
There’s a reason Johnson is tied for the league lead in total minutes with Kevin Durant. The Nets have staggered Deron Williams‘ minutes with Johnson’s as much as they can, but Williams hasn’t been able to carry the bench nearly as well as Johnson has. In fact, the Nets have been outscored by an awful 15.6 points per 100 possessions in Williams’ 197 minutes without Johnson on the floor. In contrast, Brooklyn is a +8.2 per 100 possessions in Johnson’s 293 minutes without Williams on the floor.
MarShon Brooks was supposed to be the guy who spells Johnson, but he’s barely played. And when he has, he’s been a ball-stopping disappointment.
The Nets have also been 4.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Johnson on the floor than with him on the bench, so don’t point the finger at iso-Joe for the Nets’ struggles, but do worry how he’ll hold up playing so many minutes at the age of 31, with three more years on his contract after this one.
223. Greg Monroe, DET
At the bottom of the list is the Pacers’ Ian Mahinmi (-14.7), but we addressed Indiana’s bench issues above. What’s much more interesting is Monroe’s place just above Mahinmi. Monroe has been one of the only bright spots in Detroit recently and further development could have turned him into an All-Star this year.
Monroe’s shooting numbers are down from his first two seasons, but his on and off-court numbers are mostly about the Pistons having two entirely different lineups. The Pistons’ starters are a defensive unit and just not very good offensively. Point guard Brandon Knight is still early in his development. Wings Kyle Singler and Tayshaun Prince aren’t guys that can create shots for themselves or others, and power forward Jason Maxiell has limited range.
The Pistons’ bench, on the other hand, is a group of gunners, led by point guards Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey, that plays free and loose. It’s a complete contrast in styles. The Detroit starters play like the Pacers and the bench plays like the Rockets.
Furthermore, rookie Andre Drummond has been an athletic and energetic revelation. And only 127 of Drummond’s 664 minutes have been played with Monroe.