Posts Tagged ‘LaMarcus Aldridge’

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Blazers get double dose of injury news


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge suffers a back injury in last night’s loss to the Spurs

From NBA.com staff reports

The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the clear surprises in the Western Conference standings this season, at times finding themselves in the upper crust of the league thanks to the play of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and a somewhat-improved bench that boasts sixth man Mo Williams. But the Blazers, who are working on a 2-5 record in March and have lost four straight, now will see their depth considerably sapped.

Aldridge, who suffered a back injury in last night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, will miss at least two games with a back contusion while Williams, who hurt his hip in Tuesday night’s loss to the Grizzlies, will be out two weeks with a right hip strain.

Aldridge’s injury was particularly frightening for Blazers fans. He had to be helped off the court and did not return. Williams missed last night’s game in San Antonio.

Big moment of truth for Blazers


VIDEO: Blazers rally but come up short to Mavs

DALLAS –  The Trail Blazers’ locker room was a quiet place Friday night. No solace was taken in running down Dallas’ 30-point lead. Only lament that they could somehow trail by 30 and then allow an avalanche of late-game miscues to bury their own lead.

Maybe the 103-98 defeat wouldn’t have stung so deeply if it were not a virtual repeat of Monday night when the wayward Lakers popped Portland in its own building, racing to an early 15-point lead and then winning it in the final seconds.

These are losses teams don’t get back, not at this stage of the season. They’re losses that ultimately swipe homecourt advantage for what promises to be a rugged first-round series regardless of opponent.

Neither loss, however, triggered a team meeting a la Indiana following the Pacers’ third consecutive loss Friday, a thumping at red-hot Houston. That’s where these Blazers head next for a Sunday showdown. Then their five-game, nine-day, potentially season-defining road trip winds through Memphis and San Antonio before finally ending Friday at still-feisty New Orleans.

Entering Saturday’s game, Portland is in fifth place in the West, one game behind third-place Houston and now one-half game behind the Los Angeles Clippers. The current road trip could make or break the Blazers’ chances of homecourt advantage, but they say playoff seeding is not a conversation they’re having.

“Nah, we just try to take care of business,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who broke out of a post-injury shooting funk with an 18-point third quarter Friday for a game-high 30 points plus 17 rebounds. “We feel like if we go through every game and take care of business then we should be where we want to be. We definitely notice that we are right there with them. We do want homecourt, but we don’t want to get caught up into watching all those things. If we take care of business it should all work out.”

That would suggest falling behind by 30 is not exactly taking care of business. Nor is losing on their home floor to a last-place team. It’s not time to panic. The best teams struggle at times, just as the Pacers and even the Heat are doing now. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be concern over recent patterns.

“We weren’t playing very well at either end of the court,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the start of Friday’s game when Dallas surged to a 40-10 lead. “We weren’t communicating well defensively, we had miscues reading each other, there were a lot of things that weren’t going right. Dallas made no secret, this was a must-win for them, they were approaching it like that and Houston, you go down the line, we’re going to be in a lot of situations like this, and we know what we’re capable of doing, but it’s going to be a dogfight every night.”

Portland plays good enough defense to get by with a high-octane offense. But when the shots aren’t falling as they weren’t early in Dallas, it can spell big trouble. Incorporate sloppy turnovers, six in the first quarter and three during their final, scoreless 4:26 of the game, and eventually that path will lead to a closed-door team meeting.

At 42-20 and 18-12 on the road, the Blazers, a surprising success story throughout the season, have proven themselves as resilient time and again. With 20 games to go, this would be a poor time to allow a couple of clumsy losses to teams beneath them in the standings to linger.

“You always worry about that,” Aldridge said. “But I think guys are just angry about it and I think just want to take it out on Houston.”

Mavs blow it, then win It vs. Blazers

VIDEO: Mavericks win wild one against Blazers

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks described their listless defeat at Denver on Wednesday night as embarrassing. What might have they called losing to the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 30?

Because they did indeed upchuck a 30-point cushion and it wasn’t looking pretty as they trailed 98-92 with 4:26 to go. Ultimately, Dallas avoided the humiliation of a super-sized “L” lassoed around their throats. What would have gone down as the largest lead tossed aside on their home floor in franchise history turned into the strangest of comeback wins, an 11-0 spurt down the stretch securing a 103-98 win the hard way.

“We’ve been blowing leads all year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, leaving the carnage of five blown leads of at least 17 points unspoken. “We’ve blown a lot of big leads, so this is one of the realities that we face with this team, and we’re going to keep working to prevent it from happening next time. That’s all we can do, that’s all we can do. … With 19 games left, we’ve got to work to prevent because tonight, if you talk about doing it the hard way, there’s no harder way to do it than tonight.”

Dallas built a 40-10 lead and then was outscored 79-42 and trailed 89-82 with 8:36 left in the game.

Five times this season Dallas has blown leads of at least 17 points. Just a few nights ago inside the American Airlines Center, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls crushed a 16-point first-half deficit and beat Dallas. Afterward, Dirk Nowitzki said he almost wished they hadn’t of built such a big lead so early.

He’ll also recall the 21-point bulge the Mavs had in the first quarter at Toronto on Jan. 22 and eventually lost. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been overly shocking since Dallas led the Raptors by 19 in Dallas and sill lost.

The worst relinquished lead, though, had to be that January night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The Mavs were burying the Clips in the fourth quarter and cruising toward a huge road victory. They led 123-106 with 4:35 to go and lost in a wild ending, 129-127.

This one was equally crazy in the final minutes. Portland wasn’t amused that Dallas got into the bonus basically three minutes into the fourth quarter, and then a close blocking call on Damian Lillard with 24.6 seconds left in a tie game allowed the driving Devin Harris to complete a three-point play for a 101-98 lead.

“I didn’t agree with the call,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said not surprisingly. Lillard agreed. Harris, also not surprisingly, said he didn’t believe Lillard had squared his shoulders, therefor the proper call was executed.

“A charge or a no-call, yeah,” Stotts said of what should have been where he stood. “It was [a big play]. I’m not going to complain about the officials. I disagree with the call. It was the play of the game because it was a tie game and a three-point play. It changes everything.”

But it wasn’t the only play. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the third quarter, shooting 63.6 percent to win the quarter 36-18. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the period. But in the final 4:26, Portland failed to score on nine consecutive possessions and Aldridge missed his last five shot attempts after his alley-oop dunk gave the Blazers a 98-92 lead. He couldn’t convert late near the hoop in all manner of traffic and Aldridge couldn’t believe he didn’t hear a whistle.

“I definitely felt like there were some calls that they got earlier that I didn’t get late,” Aldridge said. “The one that Dirk pump-faked and the guy went up in the air, I did it in the paint, they didn’t call it. I feel like one of the offensive rebounds I got hit a few times, so I mean, I don’t know, but I have to be better in the stretch.”

With 19 seconds left and the Blazers needing a 3 to tie, there was a cross-up and Aldridge threw the ball out of bounds, effectively ending any chance of coming back in a game they had already come back from down 30.

“I had some big miscues down the stretch,” the Dallas native Aldridge acknowledged. “I missed some shots down the stretch, so you know, fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win — not taking care of business.”

Is Aldridge’s pick-and-roll defense a problem for Blazers?


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge talks after the Blazers’ win against the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – When we looked at the teammates that had defended the pick-and-roll the best on Wednesday, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez were sixth on the list, but the Portland Trail Blazers were nowhere near the top 10 in team rankings.

According to SportVU, the Blazers ranked 26th in pick-and-roll defense through Monday’s games and are up to 22nd after a game against the reeling Hawks on Wednesday. They’ve allowed 1.06 points per pick-and-roll possession overall, even though they’ve been pretty good when Lopez has been the guy defending the screener, allowing just 1.01. That ranks 55th among 134 players who had been the screener’s defender on at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions through Wednesday. Not great, but above-average.

Note: All stats included here are through Wednesday, March 5.

But near the bottom of the list is Lopez’s frontcourt-mate, LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers have allowed 1.17 points per possession when Aldridge has been the guy defending the screener. Of those 134 players who have defended at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions, only one – Trevor Booker – has a higher mark (1.18).

The discrepancy between Lopez’s and Aldridge’s numbers is rather remarkable, because both bigs basically defend pick-and-rolls the same way (though Portland will mix things up a little with Aldridge). While the Pacers drop back with their centers and show high with their power forwards, both Aldridge (most of the time) and Lopez drop back…

20140307_aldridge_pnr

20140307_lopez_pnr

Who are they guarding?

Is it a power forward vs. center thing? The players Aldridge is guarding (Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, etc.) are generally more potent offensively than those Lopez is guarding. And the biggest difference in Aldridge and Lopez’s numbers is the field goal percentage that the screener has shot when he has got the ball…

Pick-and-rolls vs. Lopez and Aldridge

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss BH FGM BH FGA BH FG% S FGM S FGA S FG%
Lopez 948 908 914 1.01 140 347 40.3% 59 131 45.0%
Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 102 249 41.0% 75 132 56.8%

BH FGM, FGA, FG% = Ball-handler shooting
S FGM, FGA, FG% = Screener shooting

But other defenses in the West don’t have the same discrepancy.

When the starting power forwards from the other top 10 teams in the West have defended the screener on a pick-and-roll, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. And when the starting centers on those same teams have defended the screener, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. No discrepancy at all.

The Suns’ pick-and-roll defense has been slightly better when Miles Plumlee has defended the screener than when Channing Frye has, and the same goes for the Warriors, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. But none of the other nine teams has nearly the difference that we see with the Blazers.

The eye test

Watching film, Aldridge doesn’t come across as a noticeably bad pick-and-roll defender. He’s usually in the right position, he doesn’t get caught standing still, or get turned around and lost on possessions (like a couple of bigs in New York).

The Blazers track every defensive possession themselves and say that Aldridge grades out closer the league average on pick-and-rolls (and that Lopez still grades out as better). And when we look at the 57 percent that the screener has shot on Aldridge-defended pick-and-rolls, we’re only talking about 132 shots, not the greatest sample size.

But Synergy Sports grades him as “poor” in regard to defending the roll man. And it’s not hard to find examples (via NBA.com/stats video boxscores) where he fails to close out and lets an opposing big shoot in rhythm…

You can also find examples of him closing out fine, but other West power forwards grade out better via SportVU. The screener takes more shots and shoots them better against Aldridge than any of the other nine guys listed below (from the other West teams at or above .500), even though they’ve all had to defend Aldridge himself, who has attempted almost 200 more mid-range shots than any other player in the league.

Pick-and-roll defense, West power forwards

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss Rk S FGM S FGA S FG% Rk
LaMarcus Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 10 75 132 56.8% 10
Tim Duncan 849 817 854 1.05 8 42 96 43.8% 4
Channing Frye 729 698 755 1.08 9 39 96 40.6% 2
Blake Griffin 925 896 935 1.04 7 46 91 50.5% 7
Serge Ibaka 733 706 687 0.97 2 32 71 45.1% 5
Terrence Jones 584 561 560 1.00 4 30 72 41.7% 3
David Lee 657 629 592 0.94 1 31 77 40.3% 1
Kevin Love 638 609 593 0.97 3 38 71 53.5% 9
Dirk Nowitzki 668 645 659 1.02 5 44 85 51.8% 8
Zach Randolph 794 767 788 1.03 6 48 98 49.0% 6

Right shots, wrong results

Again, we’re only looking at 132 of the 5,350 shots that Portland opponents have attempted this season. And the Blazers do force the right shots.

The intent of their drop-back scheme is to force the least efficient shots on the floor, between the restricted area and the 3-point line. And 45.4 percent of Portland opponents’ shots have come from there. That’s the fifth highest mark in the league, behind only teams that rank in the top five in defensive efficiency. Portland also ranks in the top 10 in percentage of jump shots that they’ve contested.

But their opponents have made 41 percent of those shots between the restricted area and 3-point line, the fourth highest percentage.

Highest percentage of opponents shots from between
the restricted area and the 3-point line

Team FGM FGA FG% Rank %FGA
Indiana 943 2,462 38.3% 7 48.5%
San Antonio 974 2,469 39.4% 15 48.2%
Golden State 964 2,503 38.5% 8 47.9%
Chicago 905 2,377 38.1% 4 47.6%
Portland 994 2,428 40.9% 27 45.4%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts

Whether that’s a case of bad luck or because they don’t really contest that well, that’s still just 0.82 points per attempt, which is fine defensively. The Blazers also rank 11th in 3-point defense and second in defending the restricted area.

So, in terms of defending shots, the Blazers do a pretty good job, despite the Aldridge pick-and-roll issue. They rank seventh in opponent effective field goal percentage. But they rank 19th in defensive efficiency, mostly because they force the fewest turnovers in the league, just 12.3 per 100 possessions. And they force only 11.3 with their starting lineup on the floor.

In part, that goes back to their pick-and-roll defense. Not only do the bigs drop back (which means that ball-handlers don’t have to pick up their dribble and make a pass as often), but the guards (especially Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews) don’t apply much pressure up front and can get caught on those screens. No Blazer ranks in the top 80 in steals per game.

Still, the Blazers are OK when Lopez defends pick-and-rolls. And it may be that his ability to stop the ball-handler and stay in contact with the roll man that allows his teammates to better defend their own guys. If Aldridge is a step slower, that can have a domino effect two or three passes away.

Trending up?

The Blazers actually have the No. 1 defense since the All-Star break. That number has been schedule-aided though, as they’ve played the Jazz, Lakers, Hawks, and two games against the depleted Nuggets. It also may have been aided by Aldridge’s absence in the first five post-break games, as they found some defensive success playing smaller and quicker.

Aldridge is back and we’re going to find out if the Portland defense is really improved over the next 10 days, when five of their six games are against teams that rank in the top 12 offensively (and the other is against the improved Grizzlies).

A five-game trip begins against the fourth-ranked Dallas offense on Friday and we’ll see how well Aldridge contests Nowitzki.

What The Contenders Could Use

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, the race for the 2014 NBA championship is relatively wide open, and there are plenty of players available for the right price.

So, the league is seemingly ripe for a ton of action at the deadline. But the whole “the right price” thing could limit the number of deals that are made. Buyers may be hesitant to give up first-round picks for players that they’re only “renting” for a few months, and sellers may prefer to keep their guy if they’re not getting the assets they want in return.

But maybe a deal could be made that turns a contender into a favorite or a tier-two team into a contender.

Here’s a look at what those teams could use — from a numbers perspective – to put themselves over the top (in the case of the contenders) or in the mix (in the case of the next group).

OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City (43-12)

OffRtg: 107.6 (6), DefRtg: 99.3 (3), NetRtg: +8.3 (2)
The Thunder are the most complete team in the league, the only one that ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And their bench has been terrific, even with Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery forcing Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup over the last seven weeks.

The only lineup numbers that look bad are those of their original starting group, which has been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions and which will be back together when Westbrook returns on Thursday. In 280 minutes, the lineup has scored just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 29th in the league.

In general, the Thunder have been much better playing small. In fact, they’re a plus-203 in 1,954 minutes with two bigs on the floor and a plus-204 in 694 minutes with less than two. Some added depth on the wings could make them even more potent.

Indiana (41-12)

OffRtg: 102.4 (18), DefRtg: 93.8 (1), NetRtg: +8.6 (1)
The Pacers are, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And that may be enough to win a championship.

But they’re a below-average offensive team and only seven of those have made The Finals in the last 30 years. The Pacers turn the ball over too much, don’t get to the rim enough, and aren’t a great 3-point shooting team.

George Hill is a key cog in that No. 1 defense and the starting lineup scores at a top-10 rate, but Indy could certainly use a more potent point guard, or at least a third guard that can create off the dribble. Their bench is better than it was last season, but it still struggles to score.

Danny Granger has a large expiring contract, but acquiring a player on a deal that goes beyond this season could compromise the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer.

Miami (38-14)

OffRtg: 109.8 (1), DefRtg: 103.4 (16), NetRtg: +6.4 (5)
Is the Heat’s defensive drop-off a serious problem of just a case of them being in cruise control most of the season? Their ability to flip the switch on that end of the floor will depend on Dwyane Wade‘s health and Shane Battier‘s ability to play more minutes than he has been of late. As much as rebounding is an issue, so is defending the perimeter. And if there was a way they could add another shooter/defender on the wing, it would help.

Rebounding is an issue. The Heat have rebounded better (on both ends) with Greg Oden on the floor, but he’s played just 78 minutes all season and compromises their offense to some degree. So he’s probably not going to neutralize Roy Hibbert in a matchup with the Pacers.

San Antonio (39-15)

OffRtg: 107.5 (7), DefRtg: 100.4 (5), NetRtg: +7.1 (3)
The numbers look good on the surface. Only the Thunder rank higher than the Spurs in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But their defense has failed them, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, as they’ve gone 2-8 in games against the other teams over .600 (every team on this list, except Golden State). Last season, they allowed just 101.8 in 22 games against other teams over .600.

Injuries have played a role in their defensive decline and if the Spurs are healthy, they’re still a great team. But there’s no getting around that, going back to Game 3 of the 2012 conference finals, they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games against Oklahoma City and could certainly use more athleticism up front with that matchup in mind.

Houston (36-17)

OffRtg: 107.7 (5), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: +5.6 (6)
If there’s a fifth contender, it’s the Rockets or the Clippers, two more West teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Houston is actually the only team that ranks in the top five in both effective field goal percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense hasn’t been very consistent though, and it’s allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 games against the other eight West teams over .500. And that’s why they might want to hold onto Omer Asik. One of their biggest problems defensively is rebounding, especially when Dwight Howard steps off the floor. Only the Lakers (15.8) have allowed more second-chance points per game than Houston (15.1).

Portland (36-17)

OffRtg: 108.7 (2), DefRtg: 105.7 (23), NetRtg: +3.1 (10)
Diagnosing the Blazers’ issues is pretty easy. You’re simply not a contender if you rank in the bottom 10 defensively. The worst defensive team to make The Finals in the last 30 years was the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 19th and who, as defending champs, knew how to flip the switch. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Not only are the Blazers bad defensively, but the their bench is (still) relatively weak. Lineups other than their starting group have outscored their opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the teams on this list (even Golden State). So they’re going to be tested with LaMarcus Aldridge out with a groin strain. They’ve been outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge off the floor.

L.A. Clippers (37-19)

OffRtg: 108.7 (3), DefRtg: 102.2 (10), NetRtg: +6.5 (10)
The Clippers are very similar to the Rockets. They rank in top 10 defensively, but have struggled on that end of the floor against good teams. Furthermore, though Howard and DeAndre Jordan rank in the top four in rebounds per game, their teams rank in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage.

Blake Griffin and Jordan rank 2nd and 3rd in total minutes played, and the Clippers basically have no other bigs that Doc Rivers can trust for extended stretches in the postseason. Though the Clippers’ injuries have been in the backcourt, they’re more in need of depth up front.

Golden State (31-22)

OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 99.5 (4), NetRtg: +4.7 (7)
The Warriors and not the Suns (31-21) are the last team on this list because they have a much better defense and a higher ceiling. They also have a much easier schedule, which could allow them to get into the 3-5 range in the West, going forward.

Golden State’s issues are pretty simple. Their starting lineup has been terrific on both ends of the floor, but their bench … not so much. Things have been a little better with Jordan Crawford in the mix; They’ve scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry off the floor since the Crawford trade, compared to the putrid 86.7 they were scoring without Curry before the deal. But one of their most important defensive players – Andrew Bogut – is banged up and their D falls apart when Andre Iguodala steps off the floor.

All-Stars Talk Advanced Stats And Measuring Heart

Doc Rivers (left) and Blake Griffin do some research earlier this season. (Andy Hayt/NBAE)

Doc Rivers (left) and Blake Griffin do some research earlier this season. (Andy Hayt/NBAE)

NEW ORLEANS – Here at Hang Time, we spoke with a cross-sampling of All-Stars about their views and understanding of the sports world’s accelerating use of statistical tools. There is no turning back, of course, from the inexorable march of player-tracking cameras, EPVs, lineup breakdowns, PERs, points-per-possession rates and other “big data” components.

But it was interesting to hear from some of the very best guinea pigs on whom that all is being foisted.

“Everybody’s kind of moved towards a ‘Moneyball’ statistical and analytical breakdown of … everything,” Minnesota forward Kevin Love said. “I mean, it’s unbelievable what some obscure, crazy stat will pop up and tell you. People will tell me I’m the first player since So-And-So [to do something]. Or KD [Kevin Durant] ‘catches 67 percent of his shots from the left wing and drives right 12 percent of the time.’

“It’s crazy to me that so many statistics can be broken down like that now. Some of them hold weight. But a lot of them, it’s just the way a certain player plays. It sometimes can be lucky or unlucky depending on the stat.

Said Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge: “I have a love-hate with it. I like it, but I think there’s a limit you can use it to. Like, a guy told me I shoot a higher percentage from the other side of the court. But I do because I don’t go over there often, because I’m better on this side.”

Aldridge also thrives in the mid-range, an area of the court that doesn’t get as much love these days as the restricted area beneath the rim or corner-3 attempts. “But I think our team is made for mid-range because we play pick-and-roll a lot and we have a lot of elbow isolations in that area. So my offense is just there a lot,” he said. “It’s kind of funny because our defense is kind of predicated to give that shot up … and then we shoot that shot so much.”

Opinions can vary considerably within organizations. The Houston Rockets, for example, are driven by general manager Daryl Morey, a known advocate of advanced stats. But he has an old-school coach in Kevin McHale and a pair of stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard, who depart significantly in their views of percentages and decimal points.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m in Houston now,” said Harden, who clearly has proven his capacity to go from sixth-man contributor in Oklahoma City to full-blown starter and star with the Rockets. “Because of the statistics and the way the NBA is using numbers, you look at the style you want to play and that’s how you build your team. GMs do a great job of focusing on that.”

Howard said: “I can’t control how Daryl thinks about any given type of situation. I just go out there and play, despite all the analytics and whatever you want to call it. It’s still basketball. There’s a human factor to everything.

“No matter what the stats say, I think guys play better when the chemistry is right. In the right situation, everything flows better. A guy might have a terrible season with one team and go to another team and be great. It’s all about the team, it’s all about good health – the human factor. Analytics may work with some guys, but I always believe that it starts with the person.”

Balancing traditional methods with new data is a pressing issue these days, as laid out by Kirk Goldsberry, billed as “a professor and a Grantland staff writer,” in his recent article “DataBall”:

On the quest for the perfect analytical device, the first discovery should always be the inescapable fact that there is no perfect analytical device. There is no singular metric that explains basketball any more than there is a singular metric that explains life. It’s hard not to improperly elevate the role of “big data” in contemporary sports analyses, but romanticizing them is dangerous. Data are necessarily simplified intermediaries that unite performances and analyses, and the world of sports analytics is built upon one gigantic codec that itself is built upon the defective assumption that digits can represent athletics.

What some have wondered in the rush of more and more numbers and measurements is whether the new tools reduce players to robots.

Said Howard: “I’d rather not know ‘If I catch the ball at the elbow or the 3-point line …’ or if I’m better on one block than the other. I’d rather just go out there and play, and learn things on my own. When you look at stats and all that stuff, that’s when you start to overthink the game. That’s when you miss shots and make bad decisions.”

But here is Howard’s teammate Harden on the potential pitfalls of a statistical approach: “That’s how it’s shaping up. You have to take it for what it is. You have to make sure your pieces are right for your team. Numbers don’t lie.”

Dirk Nowitzki, the oldest All-Star last weekend (he’s the only one who had a last-century rookie season), shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head a lot over the statistical breakdowns put before him. But he became a believer three years ago and has a ring to remind him of that.

It helped us in 2011 to win it all,” Nowitzki said. “We always had advanced stuff going; [owner Mark] Cuban, coming from that field, he always looks at stuff to make us better. We had all these crazy stats that I had no idea about in 2011, all these lineups that worked. When we put put J.J. [Barea] in the starting lineup, that was because of points-per-possession. Don’t even ask me about all that stuff, but that’s how they figured it out. We won three straight against the Heat that year. So I think we’ve been ahead of the curve with Mark coming from the Internet and computer field. He’s always looked at making this franchise better.

“I don’t only totally believe in that stuff. You’ve got to work on your game to get better and you’ve got to have guys that can play, and the chemistry’s got to be good. You can’t measure chemistry with points-per-possession, but now you’ve got to find a nice, little, solid middle way.”

One of the raps against NBA analytics is that, while baseball offense largely is the summing of a series of individual pitcher-batter confrontations, basketball is more interrelated, five players moving the ball in countless combinations, areas and sequences. Any of them can pass, dribble or shoot and each man’s game can be affected by one or more of the other four.

Some, like Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, see additional data as supportive at times and counter-productive at others. The 7-foot-2 center welcomes anything that tracks his signature “verticality” maneuvers to protect the rim and boosts his case as Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s suspicious when it tells him he shouldn’t be posting up certain opponents on certain low blocks.

“So,” Hibbert said, “in one aspect it helps, but in the other it doesn’t.”

Miami’s Chris Bosh suggested that those tracking and converting new stats into strategy might be as important as the numbers themselves. “It’s a blank canvas where people take it and paint what they want to,” the Heat power forward said. “It’s definitely a tool to try to track so many different aspects of the game. Individual performance, energy output and all that stuff. But it depends on the person who’s using it. What they’re going to do with it, what they’re getting out of it and what they’re looking for.”

Bosh called this the “age of information” and predicted that everyone’s job eventually would be subjected to further analytical studies. Even (gasp!) sportswriters?

Bosh smiled and said: “It’ll happen.” The click-counters on some Web pages would tend to back him up.

Then again, the appeal of basketball for many is that it isn’t some job to be honed to absolute, efficient perfection. Chicago center Joakim Noah was a fish out of water for most of the All-Star Game on Sunday, a player defined by intensity and defense in a game that was about showmanship and scoring. But in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, LeBron James looked hard to Noah on repeated pick-and-rolls leading to dives to the basket.

“I don’t need much [practice] time with guys like that, high-energy guys and high-IQ basketball players,” James said afterward.

Ask Noah about analytics and he sounds almost insulted that folks in lab coats might think they can take his measure with their computers.

“You can learn from it. But it’s also overrated,” he said, “because there’s more to it than analytics and I think people sometimes forget that.

“It’s how you practice. It’s how you talk to your teammates. It’s how you deal with things when things get hot, how you deal with adversity – you can’t measure that. It’s how the 14th or 15th man on the team practices. It’s the guy who’s going to lift you up when you’re down, when things are going on at home. They really can’t measure that.”

Even as they continue to try.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for All-Star Sunday

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Westbrook to return Feb. 20 | Aldridge: Players interested in Blazers | Howard on his path to Houston | Gilbert opens up on ‘Letter’, Cavs

No. 1: Report: Westbrook may return Feb. 20 — At last night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant put on quite a show en route to a 38-point night and nearly won the MVP award, too. Afterward, he spoke with our David Aldridge and said he was mostly trying to enjoy the weekend and All-Star Game, but maybe he’ll be a bit happier once he gets back to OKC with the latest news about his All-Star teammate, Russell Westbrook. According to Yahoo!Sports’ Marc J. Spears, Westbrook is closing in on a return and could play as soon as this Thurday when the Thunder host the Heat (8 p.m. ET, TNT):

The Oklahoma City Thunder are hopeful that injured guard Russell Westbrook will return for Thursday’s game against the Miami Heat, a source to Yahoo Sports.

The Thunder announced on Dec. 27 that Westbrook had surgery on his right knee for the second time since late October. He was projected to be out until after the NBA All-Star break without a specific return game. The source said Westbrook will be re-evaluated on Tuesday in Oklahoma City, which could open the door for a return against the visiting Heat.

Westbrook averaged 21.3 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in 25 games. The Thunder are 22-8 without Westbrook, mainly due to Kevin Durant playing on an MVP level.

“This whole group, they are resilient,” Durant said. “We persevered through everything and just stayed together. We had faith no matter what. We are looking forward to having Russell back and make it seem less of a transition for him.”

***

No. 2: Aldridge says some stars want to join BlazersLaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard became the first pair of Trail Blazers players to participate in the All-Star Game since 1994, when Clyde Drexler and Cliff Robinson represented the Rose City. Apparently, though, the Blazers’ sudden success this season has caught the eye of more than just All-Star voters and coaches. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that Aldridge and Lillard both said that fellow All-Stars have expressed interest to them, albeit anonymously, about playing in Portland:

When you’re winning, players want to follow. And according to Aldridge, a couple of All-Star players that shall remain anonymous have approached him, telling him that they would like to play with himself and Damian Lillard in Portland.

“Definitely a few guys have told me that this weekend,” Aldridge informed CSNNW.com.

Aldridge and Lillard say they haven’t actively recruited players over the course of the weekend, which is revealing, meaning those anonymous players went out of their way to express their interest in playing for the Trail Blazers.

“I think winning and the type of people that we are will attract people,” Lillard said. “In that way, I guess we are recruiting but I haven’t actively done so.”

The long perception of the Trail Blazers being an unattractive team in the far left coast with their closest opponent approximately 630 miles away, Portland is slowly starting to transform into a place that players have to consider if serious about their basketball careers.

“If you’re serious about basketball, Portland is the place,” Lillard told CSNNW.com. “I love it there. It’s not a big city so it allows you to concentrate on your craft. Some people need the distractions of the nightlife but for me personally, it’s the perfect place for me. I just work on my game. That’s what I get paid to do.”

All-Star Weekend is where friendships are started and developed. Having the opportunity to play with the best players in the world does something to players. They start to envision playing together. Then they talk about it amongst themselves.The Big 3 in Miami had a few All-Star Weekends together before they joined forces in the summer of 2010. All-Star power forward Chris Bosh admits guys do think those thoughts, but claims that most of the time, talk is all it amounts to.

“Yeah, you always do that like, ‘Man, it would be great to play with this dude. He’s very talented. He’s the best of the best in the league.’ But most of the time, it’s unrealistic,” Bosh said.

Probably so, but it’s still great when players say they want to come play with you in your city. That’s a start. Whether it happens or not is another story.


VIDEO: All-Star highlights from Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge

***

No. 3: Howard explains why he ended up in Houston – In a great, overarching story from All-Star weekend by the venerable J.A. Adande of ESPN.com, he takes a look at how the NBA has changed so much since the Michael Jordan era. One key point of his story is how in today’s era, the only way for players to maximum maintain control of their careers is by playing for less the the maximum amount of money. To his point, former Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard explains how that thinking may have shaped his decision to force a trade to the L.A. Lakers and his ultimate signing with the Houston Rockets last summer:

What’s undeniable is that LeBron’s move to Miami and Dwight Howard’s departure to Houston were the right move for both to make, even if they were handled clumsily and awkwardly. Want to talk fast? Doesn’t it already seem like a long time ago that Howard’s wobbly walk out of Orlando and his uncomfortable season in L.A. were as big a story as the NBA had? Now he’s on the hottest team in the league at the All-Star break, winners of seven straight, sitting in third place in the Western Conference and reporters were more interested in the upcoming free agencies of LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love (in 2015).

Howard couldn’t have come off worse when he left Orlando. But now that he’s finally settled in Houston he’s said nothing but the right things. On the other side of his free agency he offered an eloquent perspective on a player’s right to determine his playing place.

“That’s the only time you really want to be selfish, when you’re making the decision about where you want to play basketball,” Howard said. “A lot of people might look at you and say, ‘Hey that’s not right, you’re not looking out for my team or my city.’ But at the end of the day, you only get one time around the track, you only get one time to play this game of basketball. Our windows are so short. We have to do whatever we can to be successful. A lot of people are not going to like it … because we’re not doing what they want us to do. And people hate that. All of us have to learn, in our own way, we have to make ourselves happy first. We want to do whatever we can for the fans, sign autographs, take pictures. That’s who we are off the court. But when it comes to the business of basketball, we have to be selfish and take care of our self first.”

***

No. 4: Cavs owner Gilbert opens up in Q&AWe’ve mentioned several times in Hang Time land this season how much of a disappointment the Cleveland Cavaliers have been, especially given their offseason roster makeover and the expectations of a playoff run (or more) in 2013-14. Team owner Dan Gilbert, never one to shy away from commenting about his team, recently chatted with Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal and opened up on the rough season, his infamous ‘Letter’ to LeBron James after he left the Cavs in 2010 and more:

Q: Why has this season been such a disappointment?

A: Well up until the last week and maybe the road trip before that, you’re absolutely right the season overall has not hit our expectations. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason. We needed to figure out who we are: Who we are as a team and as a franchise and make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. I think it has taken a little bit longer to gel from a chemistry standpoint. Some of that is non-tangible, but to me not just basketball but all organizations there has to be a chemistry where people trust each other, believe in each other from the front office to the coaching staff to the players. There was a lot of static this year. A lot of that is expected as normal growing pains from a young team, but I think there was more than people expected. Hopefully now we see here within the last week, that’s beginning to change in a significant way.

Q: Do you regret saying at the lottery, ‘We’re not coming back here,’ because it seemed to really speed up the clock?

A: I think that was in response to questions. Obviously when a reporter asks you a question when you’ve been at the lottery three years in a row, I don’t think it shows much confidence to your fan base or anything that you’re not going to fee pretty good about not being there for the fourth year in a row. When people say that about the Yahoo article, is it really an unrealistic, arrogant position to say that you’re going to be in the top 55 percentile of teams to be in the East after four years? We didn’t go pump our hands and say, ‘We’re winning the NBA championship this year!’ I think it’s a good goal to say we’re going to make the playoffs. No one said make the playoffs, do or die. I think it’s a reasonable goal, so no, I don’t regret it.

Q: How about The Letter? As a whole, do you regret sending it?

A: I would’ve reworded the language in The Letter, but I don’t regret sending a letter out to our fan base. People forget the letter was not to LeBron, it was to our fan base. If I had to do it again, for sure, I would’ve reworded several parts of it. But I think it definitely needed a strong statement from me at that time. I keep a couple binders on my desk and I have a binder of the responses to The Letter from the people of Cleveland. There’s thousands, maybe 2,000 from every facet of life, from CEOs of big companies to hand-written letters from 94-year-old ladies, from street sweepers to policemen and firemen. The response went way beyond. For some reason, it appealed to this generational Cleveland thing. If you want to talk about books, someone should publish all the responses to The Letter. It was like, ‘We’re from Cleveland and we’ve been rejected.’

Q: Were you surprised by the reaction? Did you know it would cause that type of firestorm?

A: No, not to the extent that it did. I didn’t think it would. Going back now and looking, yeah probably. But at the time? I didn’t think it would become sort of the thing that it did.

Q: Has it had any negative impact on your organization over the last four years?

A: You never know for sure, but I haven’t felt it or been aware of it. People said nobody would come here, that’s not true. Do I think any players are going to not come here because Dan wrote a letter three or four years ago? I don’t think so.

Q: How important is it to re-sign Luol Deng?

A: We love Luol Deng for a lot of reasons, which everybody knows. Besides the kind of player he is, the kind of person he is and the kind of leader he is by example. But you can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. You have to look at all the pieces and see where you’re going to be.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about Kyrie and Dion and if they can coexist? Do you think they can start together, play together and succeed?

A: Yeah, I do. In fact I can make a case that as they both mature, and we’ve seen that even more recently, that kind of threat at the perimeter and driving and shooting ability of both of them, it’s going to be a hell of a load for any defense to handle. I think they can and I think there’s other examples of that in NBA history. We’ll see what happens, but I think they’re both extremely talented players and they genuinely like each other. People think they don’t like each other, they genuinely like each other. That’s sort of made up. Look, they’re both 21, 22 years old. There was a little bit of feeling out of who’s going to do what, but I do believe like I said in the news conference, I think the talent on this team is so good, but they’re so young. We’ll see what happens.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: For the record, Kevin Durant is getting awfully tired of the LeBron James comparisons … Celtics forward Gerald Wallace — a one-time star for the Charlotte Bobcats — still isn’t over being traded by the Bobcats back in 2011 … Knicks star Carmelo Anthony enjoyed meeting Celtics legend Bill Russell at All-Star weekend … The term “daily vitamins” has a whole different meaning to the Atlanta Hawks

ICYMI of The Night: If you somehow missed all of All-Star weekend, don’t worry … we’ve got the best plays and moments from all the events right here: 


VIDEO: Relive the top 10 plays from All-Star weekend

Advanced Stats: West All-Stars

NEW ORLEANS – All-Star weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the new version of NBA.com/stats. This season brought SportVU player tracking to the site and just Thursday night, player tracking stats were added on the boxscore level, so you can see how far a player ran or how many of his shots were contested on any given night.

All-Star weekend also means that it’s time to dive in with statistical nuggets for all 25 All-Stars. Here are the 13 guys representing the Western Conference…

Kobe Bryant, G, L.A. Lakers

Stephen Curry, G, Golden State

Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City

Blake Griffin, F, L.A. Clippers

Kevin Love, F, Minnesota

LaMarcus Aldridge, F, Portland

Anthony Davis, F-C, New Orleans

James Harden, G, Houston

Dwight Howard, C, Houston

Damian Lillard, G, Portland

  • Leads the league with six field goals (on just nine attempts) in the final 30 seconds with the score tied or his team behind three points or less.
  • Of 181 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from both in and outside the paint, Lillard is the only one who has shot better from outside the paint (42.5 percent) than from in the paint (42.2 percent).
  • Has attempted only 16.3 percent of his shots from mid-range, the second lowest rate among All-Stars (higher than only that of Howard).
  • Video: Watch Lillard’s six baskets that tied the game or gave his team the lead in the final 30 seconds.

Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas

Tony Parker, G, San Antonio

Chris Paul, G, L.A. Clippers

Three Flavors Of All-Star PF

A lot of people don’t like Neapolitan ice cream. They say it’s nothing but a boring compromise, maybe even a sign of commitment issues. Chocolate and strawberry and vanilla? Pick one!

But the NBA fans and coaches who put together the Western Conference’s All-Star roster this season felt neither sheepishness nor pressure when choosing their favorite flavor of power forward. The final verdict was more inclusive than decisive, an opportunity to have their cake and their ice cream, too. And their ice cream and their ice cream.

Blake Griffin and Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Pick any comparison of three you want. Even select, Goldilocks-style, the one with whom you’re most comfortable. The fact remains, each of them takes an interesting and different route to reach, more or less, pretty similar destinations. In this case, New Orleans for the 63rd NBA All-Star Game.

Percentage of shots by location

Player Paint Mid-range 3-point
Aldridge 35.8% 63.4% 0.8%
Griffin 64.3% 32.2% 3.6%
Love 44.3% 22.5% 33.1%

“When you mention each of those guys, you envision a different type of power forward,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said the other day. “With LA [Aldridge], I think it’s his length and his mid-range shooting that come to mind. All of ‘em have improved. But they score in different ways, they rebound in different ways, they defend in different ways, they have different ways in how they move.

“The only comparison is when you look at their numbers and the impact they have on their teams.”

Here are snapshots of the three West All-Star power forwards – Griffin and Love were voted in as starters, thanks to the openness of the “Frontcourt” category, with Aldridge added by the conference coaches – along with some eyewitness testimony:

Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers
6-foot-10, 251 pounds
Key stats:
23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.6 apg
53.7 FG pct, 28.1 3FG pct., 70.2 FT pct.
Misc.: 16.6 FGA, 0.6 bpg, 1.1 spg, 24.1 PER


VIDEO: Blake Griffin’s Top 10 this season

Karl Malone, the NBA’s second-leading points leader and a Hall of Fame prototype for a traditional power forward, recently gushed about all three of the big men. But he especially lavished attention on the Clippers’ brawny “four” man.

“I would love to spend some time with Blake Griffin,” Malone said while sitting in on the TV broadcast of the recent Golden State-Utah game. “The first hing I’d do is say, ‘Blake, the next time a guy cheap-shots you, just lose your mind. I’ll pay your fine. If a coach grabs you, throw him too and [later] say you’re sorry. I don’t like the cheap-shots people are taking at him.”

Griffin’s muscle-beach build is tailored for physical play, and his notorious posterizations of foes with spectacular, vaulting slam dunks has a lot of them on guard even before the opening tip. But it’s his game that has grown in Kia-leaps and bounds, particularly during L.A. point guard Chris Paul‘s recent injury layoff.

Here are some who have noticed:

Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau: “He’s seen a lot of different defenses now. I think he knows what he’s trying to get to. They’re doing a good job of moving him around. They play off him well.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers: “He’s facing up guys far more. That’s the only thing I wanted him to do more. He’s a big with a tremendous first step, and the way I look at it, if you face ‘em, you can use your first step. If you play with your back to ‘em, you can’t use your gift and they are allowed to get their hands on him. When he turns and faces, the guys guarding him, you’ve got problems.”

Griffin, in a recent Los Angeles Times story: “My biggest pet peeve is probably the ‘All I do is dunk’ thing, just because I’ve felt like even from day one, I’ve done more than that. But you understand that people are going to … be critical of you no matter what.”

Kevin Love

Minnesota Timberwolves
Key Stats: 6-foot-10, 260 pounds
25.5 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 3.9 apg
45.5 FG pct., 36.4 3FG pct., 82.0 FT pct.
Misc.: 18.3 FGA, 0.4 bpg, 0.9 spg, 27.3 PER


VIDEO: Kevin Love’s top 10 this season

The opportunity for Love and Griffin to play on the same floor might give fans a chance to see some dazzling power forward-to-power forward alley-oop dunks. If, that is, Griffin can pinpoint his outlet pass downcourt timed perfectly to Love’s skywalking.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what everyone’s going to see,” Love said, smirking at the tease.

What folks will see is a hybrid player, somewhere in between Griffin’s power and Aldridge’s finesse along the talent spectrum. Love is a dominant rebounder who isn’t much of a leaper and he’s a 3-point shooting champion who will try to win that title again on All-Star Saturday.

Here are some views of Love, his game and the competition:

Love: “I’m a little more of a stretch-4 than Blake. I’m sure we’ll split our share of rebounds, but if I’m rebounding the ball and trying to outlet the ball to him, you’ll see some of those highlight dunks. Going against him when he’s dunking like that, it’s not too much fun, but playing with him, I’m hoping it will be a lot of fun.”

Rivers on Love’s uncanny nose for rebounds: “I played with Dennis Rodman in San Antonio – we’d laugh when we were watching the film. You could see him breaking toward the ball before it hit the rim. I just thought that was crazy, and he did it over and over again. So you just felt like he kind of knew where it was going. Kevin’s like that.”

Veteran NBA power forward Al Jefferson: “Kevin Love was my rookie when he first came in [with Minnesota] and I knew right away he was going to be something special, because his IQ was so high. Then me and LaMarcus been going against each other since high school, so the things he do out there don’t surprise me. I knew he was a very talented player and works his butt off. But the guy I have to say has really surprised me on another level, just so quick, is Blake Griffin. [Early] he was more about athleticism – he really couldn’t shoot, he really couldn’t make free throws. Going toward the rim, he was amazing but I always said, if he ever loses that athleticism, he’s not going to be a top player. The last two years, the way he just improved his game – his post game, his jump shot, his free throws – now if he loses all his hops and athleticism right now, he still could be a 20-10 guy in this league.”

Aldridge, who hears a little too much gushing about Love when their teams meet because the Wolves’ forward grew up in the Portland area, was a little more tight-lipped. “He’s just versatile. A good rebounder. Really good passer. And he can shoot it.”

Houston coach Kevin McHale: “All those guys are unique. Aldridge long, with his high release, beautiful 17-, 18-footers. Love has taken his game out to the 3-point line. Griffin is just so athletic off the dribble. If you took Griffin and said, ‘We want you to get a high release and be a 17-foot jump shooter only,’ he would suck. If you took Aldridge and told him, ‘I want you just to drive and spin and dunk,’ he would suck. And if you took Kevin and said, ‘I want you to be them’ … they’re all individuals. Kevin’s one of the few players – him and Ryan Anderson – in our league who can make shots and rebound. Most of those guys who are making shots at that position aren’t getting anywhere near the boards.”

LaMarcus Aldridge

Portland Trail Blazers
6-foot-11, 240 pounds
Key Stats: 23.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.8 apg
46.5 FG pct., 11.1 3FG pct., 81.8 FT pct.
Misc.: 21.0 FGA, 1.0 bpg, 0.9 spg, 22.4 PER


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge’s Top 10 this season

Aldridge might be the most defensive of the three PFs – not in his game as much as in sticking up for his game. Playing in Portland, making it to New Orleans as an All-Star sub rather than starter, he tapped into his pride when talking about his season and his style.

“I do post up. I do go to the basket,” he said after a shootarond in Indiana last week. “I do have a jump hook and a fadeaway, but I have to bang to get to my fadeaway. I still get a lot of my points on the block and I do go to the basket. I’m shooting something like 60 percent at the rim, so if I was just a finesse player, I wouldn’t be so high.

“I feel like people get so caught up in, ‘If you’re a power player, you should be at the rim.’ If I’m blessed with the skill level to be able to do both, then why not do both?”

Aldridge recalled the game at New York last week when he had to adapt to what the Knicks were throwing at him. “They doubled me on catch every time I caught it on the block. I ended up finding my rhythm going isolation at the elbow and on pick-and-pops. If I’m one-dimensional, I don’t score. They’d have totally taken me out of the game. The fact that I’m versatile, it was easier to find a rhythm by taking my jump shot out there.”

He need not protest so much. The admiration society for Aldridge is a large and growing club.

Chicago’s Taj Gibson: “He runs like a deer still and he’s more physical down low now. But yet he’s so finesse and has so many counter-moves. Other guys, they tend to have one or two moves. But he has a load of options in his pocket.”

Pacers coach Frank Vogel: “It’s his shot-making. He’s got that unguardable turnaround. His quick release on the catch-and-shoot. His pick-and-pop game is awful tough to guard, and he can put it on the deck and make plays off the bounce. With that high release and that quick release, it’s near-impossible to get to it sometimes. He’s playing with such confidence, you have very little margin for error.”

And here’s Love summing up the rivalry among them and how it most often shows itself:

“There’s not much talk. The media try to make it out that we don’t like each other. But really, we just all have an edge to us and a competitive spirit that we want to be the best.

It’s no secret when I take the floor, I want to kick their ass. And they would say the same about me – I hope so.”