Posts Tagged ‘Marcin Gortat’

Back And Forth With Bones: Magic-Wizards

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Back and Forth With Bones is an e-mail exchange between NBA.com’s John Schuhmann and NBA TV’s Brent Barry during a Monday night game. This week, they sat down (Schuhmann at home in New Jersey, Barry in the studio in Atlanta) to watch the 6-10 Orlando Magic visit the 8-9 Washington Wizards.

Pre-game

Schuhmann: Hey Bones, we got Magic-Wizards tonight.

The Wiz have won six of their last eight games with an improved offense (103.5 points per 100 possessions vs. 98.5 in their first nine games). For the season, they’ve been great on both ends of the floor with John Wall, Nene and Marcin Gortat on the floor with two of the Trevor Ariza/Bradley Beal/Martell Webster group, outscoring opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. But all other lineups have been dreadful. So depth is an issue, especially with Beal out.

They’re a jump-shooting team. Only two teams (New York and Portland) have taken a lower percentage of shots from the paint. But they’re tied with the Heat for the league lead in corner 3-pointers. Wall has 32 assists on corner 3s (10 more than anybody else in the league) and Ariza and Webster are tied for second with 23 corner threes.

So that has to be a priority for Orlando’s defense, which ranks 26th in defending corner 3s and has been pretty bad over the last nine games after a strong start. I don’t know if Jameer Nelson is available (and the Magic offense has been pretty awful with him off the floor), but the Wall-Victor Oladipo matchup should be fun.

The Wizards have been a good defensive rebounding team with Gortat and Nene on the floor together, but pretty awful when one or both sits. So Nikola Vucevic could have some success if either gets in foul trouble.

Thoughts?

Barry: Yes, Randy Wittman is auditioning players to help take the load off of the starting group. But this game is interesting to me in that there is a lot of positivity regarding the Wizards recent play. Can they accept and continue what it is that has gotten them there?

With Beal out, I am stoked to see Martell Webster getting quality starter minutes, though 40-plus (in three of those) is too many. He’s just ready to get in there and mix it up, being a pro.

Watching John Wall balance out his game tonight will be key. Quality possessions against a team in Orlando that competes and shares the ball on offense are a must. The bigs must stay out of foul trouble for Washington.

Orlando is not a huge dribble-penetrate attack team other than Oladipo. It’s interesting that the Wiz have had this stretch with Beal (NBA minutes leader and their leading scorer) out.

Is Arron Afflalo an Eastern Conference All-Star? Hard to say he hasn’t played like one.

Schuhmann: Nah, the East All-Stars should just be six players each from Indiana and Miami.

Barry: Add four from the West to the East. Any player born east of the Mississippi can qualify for East team headed to NO!

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No Panic In Wall Or These Wizards




VIDEO: John Wall and the Wizards topple the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – He could have hidden, deflected the pressure or even blamed someone else when the Washington Wizards’ season got off to a rocky start.

John Wall is still a young player in the NBA, still learning how to lead a team. Few people would have blamed him for taking the easy way out when things weren’t going according to plan.

Wall, however, is cut from a different cloth. He didn’t flinch. He stayed the course, weathering whatever the haters and naysayers threw at him and his team, and helped guide the Wizards through the tumult of the first two weeks of yet another injury-plagued season. What looked like a potential meltdown waiting to happen two weeks ago appears to be back on track today, what with the Wizards fresh off of an 8-8 November (the franchise’s highest win total in that month since 1984).

Wall refused to panic and would not allow his teammates to do so either as they picked up the pieces early and kept grinding until they figured some things out. That 2-7 start is a thing of the past. The Wizards, winners of six of their last 10 games, are poised to continue their climb upward tonight against the Orlando Magic (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

And that’s just the way Wall planned it, as he told Michael Lee of The Washington Post, sort of:

“I think everybody [else] panicked,” Wall said after Saturday’s 108-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks. “We didn’t panic because we know we have a good team and we know we have a team that’s capable of being in the playoffs. We know we got off to a rough start . . . but we figured out a way to win.”

With Bradley Beal sidelined with injury (for at least another week), Trevor Ariza joining him on the injured list and veterans like Nene clashing with youngsters in the locker room, things could have gotten a lot uglier before they got better. That 2-7 start could mushroomed into something even worse. Coach Randy Wittman is always on the hot seat and the sluggish start can only serve to make matters more complicated for a coach in this league.

“It was a tough start to the month, to the season. I don’t think any of us wanted the start we had, but it happened,” Wittman said. “And there’s going to be stretches again during this year where we have to get ourselves out of this and get on a run. To do what we did in this month with the schedule we had and the road games, I think it’s good. I think you have to be ready to take advantage of the situation when it turns your way.”

The Wizards banded together and worked their way out of that early season mess to move into a position to reach the .500 mark, provided they handle the Magic tonight, since Wall arrived with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. This is what Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was talking about all summer, when he was praising Wall as (and paying him to be) the leader of this bunch.

Not only did Wall raise his game — earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors last week and cranking out 22.6 points,  8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals — he made sure that his teammates assumed their positions as well. They’ve responded in words and actions, taking advantage of a feeble field in the Eastern Conference to move into the playoff picture, as many of us expected them to this season.

“Never in our minds did we doubt that we were not this team that we’ve built all these expectations up to be,” said Martell Webster, whose contributions during this resurgence have been critical. “We’re headed in the right direction. We’re not at .500 yet. We have the opportunity to be there Monday. The goal is to get, of course, way above .500. It’s just consistency. Realizing the fact that when we play the game the right way, we tend to get great results.”

Now that they are on the rebound, chasing those expectations should be a bit more manageable. That brutal opening stretch of the schedule that saw them face a virtual who’s who of league powers from both sides of the conference divide, and 10 of 16 away from home, is over. Once they get Beal, their leading scorer, back, things should get a little easier for Wall. And we still haven’t seen prized rookie Otto Porter Jr. (hip flexor), who just started practicing full tilt.

But no matter what happens, we’ve already learned a good lesson about the Wizards.

There is no panic in them or their fearless young leader!

Wolves, Wizards On Different Paths




VIDEO: Kevin Love is all smiles after a win over Cleveland

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – In an effort to soften the blow, we put our sunglasses on when scanning back at our preseason predictions for this season.

There are so many hits and misses, it helps to have a little shade to work with for the ugly misses. For every prediction we hit out of the park (thank you Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves), there is a prediction that seems to go horribly wrong (there’s that mess in Cleveland and, of course, that wobbly start from John Wall and the Washington Wizards).

The BluBlockers are needed for tonight’s Timberwolves-Wizards matchup tonight in D.C. (7 p.m. ET, League Pass), a duel between teams on very different paths early on this season. Both teams are loaded with young talent and have quality depth. But the results have been vastly different for the two teams that are inextricably linked — Wizards coach Randy Wittman used to be Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman while the boss in Minnesota, Flip Saunders, once coached the Wizards.

While Wall and the Wizards have struggled to an ugly 2-7 start, including their current four-game losing streak, Love and the Timberwolves have shown themselves to be an exciting and aggressive crew.

At 7-4, the Wolves are living up to all of the hype, internal and otherwise. Love, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Co. have managed to take on heightened expectations and handle them appropriately. Throw in that Chase Budinger is back and practicing with the team and Minnesota is looking even better.

Love is in the MVP mix, coach Rick Adelman‘s got his supporting cast thriving and the roster’s balance and depth is finally paying dividends. The Wolves are in the midst of back-to-back grueling stretches of five games in seven nights, a mettle-testing, early-season grind that will could serve them well months from now.

Tonight’s game kicks off a monster week that will see Adelman’s team face off against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at home and the Brooklyn Nets Friday at the Target Center. Then comes a road date in Houston with the Rockets on Saturday and they’ll finish this stretch up in Indiana on Nov. 25.

Happy Thanksgiving!

“I don’t know if [the league schedule-makers] know that we’re almost to Canada and Houston’s almost all the way to Mexico,” Adelman told reporters Monday.

When your team is top three in the league in scoring and set to get another boost whenever Budinger returns to the rotation, none of the teams you are blindsiding will grant you any sympathy.

The Wizards, meanwhile, could use a little sympathy … and anything else they can get right now. When their owner, Ted Leonsis, used every opportunity in the lead up to the season to tout his team as a legitimate playoff contender in the East, he surely did not envision this humbling start.

Signing Wall to an $80 million maximum contract extension in August was supposed to be a sign of the commitment Leonsis was making not only to the young face of the franchise, but to the future. Wall was not only going to be the change agent for the Wizards on the court, his extension was also supposed to serve as the symbolic change in the way the Wizards did business going forward.

Veterans would see that the organization was serious about putting the resources in the right places and taking that next step from playoff pretender to contender. But it didn’t take long for reality to set in. As sound as the plan looked on paper, the Wizards simply didn’t have the right mix.

As talented as Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal one of a handful of early candidates for the league’s Most Improved Player award — surely are, something is still missing.

As my The Beat colleague and TNT’s own David Aldridge pointed out in The Morning Tip, Wall does not shoulder the burden of the Wizards’ slow start on his own. They’re not the same defensive monster they were a year ago, not with Marcin Gortat taking Emeka Okafor‘s place in the lineup.

A top-10 defensive unit last season, the Wizards are now a top-10 scoring team but falling woefully short on the defensive side. As DA pointed out, the slightest tweak to the Wizards’ rotation and chemistry has altered the product on the floor dramatically:

Nene, whose antipathy for banging in the post was well-known, was especially good with Okafor. The quintet of Nene, Okafor, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal and Wall was one of the league’s best defensive fivesomes last year. It’s not that Gortat is a horrible defender. He tries. But opponents, according to the league’s player tracking stats, are shooting 56.7 percent against him on shots at the rim. (By comparison, opponents are shooting 31.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, on shots at the rim against New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez.)

“March has done a good job for us,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday. “No question, ‘Mek was solid back there for us, the last line of defense for us, with his basketball knowledge. I think what March brings, though, is that big guy who can challenge at the rim. He’s also got a very good IQ. Defense is a matter of getting your knees dirty each and every night. It’s not a fun thing, but it’s a valuable thing. That’s where we have to get back to, understanding how valuable that is for us to be a good team.”

A good team?

How about a playoff team?

After all, that’s what we all predicted for the ‘Wolves and Wizards this season. But as of right now only one of these teams is living up to that expectation.

Spurs Bury Past By Playing For Today


VIDEO: Charles Barkley gives credit to Spurs before joking on city of San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — It’s still there, rattling around inside their heads like a ghost in the attic.

Whether you’re Danny Green willfully using the harsh memory as a painful everyday fuel or you’re Manu Ginobili trying hard to push it back into the shadows, it’s as much a part of what they take onto the court as their sneakers and jerseys.

Those 28 seconds at the end of Game 6 in the NBA Finals when the Spurs let a five-point lead over the Heat and a fifth franchise championship slip through their hands is now who they are and, maybe because of that, what they can be. Again.

They are the same old Spurs for whom the camouflage uniforms they wore against the Wizards were redundant, since nobody ever seems to notice them until they get to the end of yet another 50-win season. It’s a league record 14 in a row and counting.

These Spurs have won six straight, running their record up to 8-1, which trails only the unbeaten Pacers in a year after when it might seem natural to have a hangover.

“I’m sure it crosses everybody’s mind once in a while,” Green said. “I’m sure it gets brought up in a lot of conversations, not just with (media), but with mutual friends, family.

“This is a new year, a new season. You try to let that go, but I think it’s a good motivational tool that could keep us at it. February, March, sure. Let it keep pushing us.”

The veteran Ginobili takes the opposite approach.

“If somebody asks me, you can’t force not to remember it,” he said. “But if not, I’m just focused on … the next game and my health and the next game and trying to get better. I really don’t think about what happened last year.

“It’s something that we’re going to have in the back of our heads forever. It’s not that it’s going to leave. I still remember the semifinals I lost in 1997 with the Under-22 team (in Argentina) because it was a game like that. So it is going to stay there forever. You’re going to bring it when you need to, not on an everyday basis because it doesn’t help.”

What helps is simply getting back to the basics, getting back to what the Spurs do best, which is to play the game to their own selflessly exacting standard that comes together like a symphony.

“San Antonio runs offense perfectly,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat. “It was like listening to Mozart. It’s just ridiculous how they play.”

What would seem insanely impossible anywhere else is that the Spurs have sprinted out of the starting gate while other would-be contenders — Grizzlies, Nets, Clippers, Rockets — stumble, all with perennial All-Star Tim Duncan struggling to find his shot.

When Duncan went 1-for-12 against the Wiz, it was the third time this season that he scored a single field goal. He is shooting 32 of 83 (.386) to open his 17th NBA season and matched his single-game career low with two points. Nevertheless, the Spurs have trailed for a total of only 11 seconds in their last four wins over Golden State, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

It has been about Tony Parker setting the pace with his scoring, passing and constantly attacking style on offense, about Green getting back his shooting stroke following a bumpy start, Kawhi Leonard continuing to bloom and Ginobili coming back healthy and confident to begin the season. The Spurs are also getting production up and down the lineup from Tiago Splitter to Marco Belinelli to Boris Diaw.

While everyone on the outside keeps looking at the calendar and the clock and thinking that the time running out on the Spurs Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would make them lost in the fog of what got away last June, the point that’s missed is the sense of urgency they take into each season, each game, every possession at both ends of the court.

The Spurs simply keep playing the game according to the Xs and Os you would expect to see drawn up in a coach’s textbook, based on an organizational style and philosophy that is plainly demanding and with an inherent sense of responsibility to the whole.

“We don’t talk about it as a group,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “We did that the beginning of the year like we do every year. We start with the end of the season before, whoever knocked us out of the playoffs. We go through that film … We went over it in every single detail. We do it excruciatingly, honestly … We already did it, so there’s no sense doing it again.

“But you never forget that. I still remember 0.4 (when Derek Fisher’s 18-foot fadeaway for the Lakers beat San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2004 West semifinals). It goes through once every month or something.

“The Miami thing goes through my head every day. Pretty soon it will be every two days and then it will be every week and every month. That’s the way it is. Everybody remembers things good and bad. It’s not something to be dwelled on. Like I told the team, it’s just another episode in your life, one of the easier ones that you’ll face. When you think about all the things we have to face — family-wise and friends-wise and all that stuff. The things that go on in our lives, basketball, that’s a joke compared to the real stuff.”

Which is how the Spurs inch away from the past while keeping it within everything they do today.

Air Check: Sometimes You’re Hot

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – For NBA fans like us, there’s nothing better than League Pass. Having the ability to watch every game every night (and then again the next day) is heaven.

aircheck-250Of course, with local broadcasts, you get local broadcasters, which can be good and bad. It can be good, because these guys know their teams better than most national broadcasters. It can be bad, because these guys love their teams more than most national broadcasters. And they’re usually not afraid to show that love.

Air Check is where we highlight the best and worst of NBA broadcasts.

He must work on these lines

Sixers analyst Malik Rose has become an Air Check favorite and you may recall his Hawesome call from a couple of seasons ago. Well, Rose is back with another great line, this time using poetry instead of a pun after Marcin Gortat gives Spencer Hawes two free points with a major blunder.


VIDEO: Malik Rose gets poetic about Marcin Gortat’s gaffe

“Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re Gortat.”

Classic. Hat tip to The 700 Level for tweeting that one out when it happened. You have to wonder if Rose’s game prep includes coming up with one-liners for the Sixers’ opponents.

“Let’s see, we got the Wizards tonight.

“John Wall … didn’t get the call, lost the ball, had a rough fall.

“Hmmm…. Bradley Beal has lost his zeal…

“Nah…

“Uh oh, Eric Maynor, better call the trainer!

“Close, but not quite….

“Every day he doesn’t play, Otto Porter‘s career is getting shorter.”

“Heh.”

Hyperbole in Hollywood

If you were watching that great Wolves-Clippers game on Monday night, you may have heard Ralph Lawler go a little over the top in regard to Chris Paul‘s steal in the final minutes …


VIDEO: Ralph Lawler gets a little too excited about CP3′s steal

Lawler called it the best steal he’s ever seen. Yeah, you could say that’s hyperbole … or maybe Lawler just doesn’t watch a lot of basketball, missed the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, and missed all the contact on the play (which he acknowledged upon seeing the replay).

Of course, Lawler’s has a partner in hyperbole in analyst Michael Smith. Check out the following calls from a preseason game against the Blazers.

First, after DeAndre Jordan gets fouled on a fast break, Smith lauds Jordan’s ability to run the floor…


VIDEO: Clippers analyst Michael Smith loses perspective on DeAndre

Smith: “That is so difficult to do. I don’t even know if it’s fair to say that it’s more difficult for a big man to do that than a small man. But people would say that often, that it’s harder for a big to shoot free throws or it’s harder for a big to run and catch on the fly. I don’t subscribe to that, because D.J. runs like he was 6-foot-2 and catches like he’s 6-foot-2 on the fly.”

OK. He runs well and can catch the ball. Fine. But then Smith takes it over the top…

“Of course, he’s 6-11 and I think he’s the best running big the game maybe has ever seen.”

Lawler: “Settle down, Mike.”

Smith: “Can you name one better, partner?”

Anthony Davis. Just sayin’.

Later in the same quarter, Jamal Crawford missed a pull-up, mid-range jumper…


VIDEO: Clippers’ broadcasters need to check their stats on Crawford

“Jamal Crawford,” Smith says, “will make that shot 8 times out of 10.”

So Jamal Crawford shoots 80 percent on mid-range shots. OK.

World Of Wizards’ Gortat Goes Bizarro

Marcin Gortat is confident in the Wizards despite their slow start. (Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images)

Marcin Gortat is confident in the Wizards despite their slow start. (Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images)

DALLAS – In this upside-down NBA, Marcin Gortat is enveloped in a bizarro world after getting traded from a team undergoing a top-to-bottom rebuild to one that believes it means business.

Only the rebuilding team Gortat came from, the Phoenix Suns, have raced to a stunning 5-2 start, and show a very real pulse for being feisty enough to compete all season. Conversely, the team he came to, the Washington Wizards, brimming with young talent and a directive from above to get it done, at 2-5, seems as farcical as ever.

This is particularly distressing for the 6-foot-11 Polish center, viewed as the final piece for the franchise to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. A week before the start of the season, the Wizards traded for Gortat, quickly averaging 13.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg, in the wake of Emeka Okafor‘s neck injury. The salary-slashing Suns happily sent Gortat and three other players to Washington for Okafor even knowing he might not play this season.

“Obviously it puts a lot of pressure [on me],” Gortat said of Washington’s playoff expectation. “Obviously it’s too early to say, but if we’re not going to make the playoffs, then you know, the blame is going to also be on me. I don’t want to be pictured as a guy that left Phoenix, and all of a sudden now the team plays well; and you go to Washington and you play bad. I don’t want to be pictured as a guy that lost all his games. We just got to turn this thing around. We lost the game [Tuesday], we didn’t come out ready to play, and I’m 100 percent sure we’re capable of winning a lot of games in this league. We’ve just got to bring it every night.”

Why Washington didn’t bring it in a 105-95 loss at Dallas is confounding and a question the players failed to answer adequately. They seemed far hungrier in the aftermath, scarfing down plates of barbecue brisket and sausage and fixings supplied to every visiting team by Mavs owner Mark Cuban, than they did during a game they lost control of late in the first quarter.

“We get complacent and we don’t finish our job a lot of the time,” veteran forward Trevor Ariza said.

This seemed a game that would have a serious-minded team keenly focused. The Wizards were coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday, losing a late double-digit lead that allowed the Thunder to pull it out in the extra five minutes. Now John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Wizards stare down an 0-fer road trip against the red-hot San Antonio Spurs tonight (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). Dallas, with nine new players and coming off a 1-2 road trip, likely offered the best hope for a road win, let alone a winning road trip.

Coach Randy Wittman, an early hot-seat candidate who can ill-afford for his bunch to dig too deep a hole, lamented his team’s lazy defensive effort that allowed Dallas to shoot 50 percent and outrebound them through the first three quarters.

“We have to commit to playing defense. We are not playing any defense,” Wittman said. “We are last in the league in points, last in the league in field-goal percentage. We have to get the commitment of doing that. We don’t have that. I’ve got to figure out why and I have to figure out guys that are going to do it. That’s what it boils down to.”

Now listen to Gortat explain what he witnessed during training camp with the Suns, a team with zero expectations, that has led to their unexpected surge in the first two weeks:

“I’ve seen a lot of guys with a lot of energy, young guys who want to work hard, which is obviously a big thing in the NBA,” Gortat said. “But, I would say the big success on that team is actually Mike Longabardi, the assistant coach from the Boston Celtics. He’s the defensive coordinator. He’s just an incredible defensive coordinator. He gets his team ready for every game and I think the success of the team, a lot goes to him. He knows how to win the games.

“There’s a lot of young guys that want to work. You’ve got two guards [Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic] that are pushing the ball extremely hard. You’ve got hungry guys like [center] Miles Plumlee, who just walked in as a starter. You got P.J. Tucker, who is a pitbull every night. So, you know, they play well. Obviously I wish them all the best.”

If it sounds like Gortat has sudden remorse following a deplorable 25-win season with Phoenix, that’s not altogether fair. He was excited to join what still should be a rising team with enough talent to secure a playoff spot in the wishy-washy Eastern Conference. Seven games — and five losses — in, Gortat remains optimistic that the Wizards are both talented enough and steely enough to steer the franchise in a new direction.

“I definitely see potential in this team,” Gortat said. “I definitely see a group of guys with character, that can really battle when the most important moment comes. I see a lot of veterans who went through hell and now they just want to perform and get back to the playoffs. At the same time, I see a lot of  young guys, a lot of rising stars on this team, and players who want to be successful in this league. Like I said before, I see a talented group of guys that want to make it to the playoffs and I’m 100 percent sure we’re capable of doing it.”

New-Look Suns Getting It Done


VIDEO: Suns keep rolling, drop Pelicans

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Of the 16 players that suited up for the Phoenix Suns last season, 12 are gone.

Then there was the ultimate short-timer Caron Butler, a Suns player this summer just long enough to model the franchise’s new uniforms at a Scottsdale mall. In all, eight players are new to the roster, and straight from the feel-good department is Channing Frye returning from a scary heart condition that robbed him of the entire 2012-13 season. Frye is the Suns’ longest-tenured player, signed as a free agent way back in 2009, before current general manager Ryan McDonough had celebrated his 30th birthday.

The Suns’ starting five includes two players from last season: P.J.Tucker and Goran Dragic to go with Frye, Miles Plumlee and star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe.

And here they are, a team that figured to lose games at a rapid rate is 5-2 and leading the Pacific Division. So how is it possible for an organization that hired a new GM, hired a new coach, cleaned house and then traded its talented starting center Marcin Gortat to Washington a week before the season started (for an injured one who might not play at all) to have already secured one-fifth of its win total from all of last season?

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Never Too Soon For Snap Judgments


VIDEO: Sixers begin season with strong start

 

So what if we’ll have to skip the clocks ahead again before we even finish the long grind of the regular season? Does it really matter that it will take more than seven months for somebody to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy? It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about what we know — or think we know — one week into the 2013-14 regular season.

Heat – Nobody this side of Miley Cyrus gets more scrutiny, criticism and hyperventilating overreaction than the two-time defending champs. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade already have to talk over the alarm bells, trying to put out the fires of two losses in their first three games. They still have the best player in the game, still have a more than capable No. 2 man if he stays healthy and still will be the team to beat when the playoffs begin in April. That won’t stop the sky from falling on nearly a weekly basis. But you still want to pick them for next June.

Clippers – So much for the closing down of Lob City by the new mayor Doc Rivers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still running free and easy with the top-rated offense in the league (119.5), but we’re going to have to see more out of DeAndre Jordan and that unicorn defense before we consider the Clips to be true playoff contenders in the West.

Derrick Rose — The Bulls’ star will be right behind the Heat with the Chicken Little crowd that will fret and worry and complain with every missed shot and turnover. He’ll have the most scrutinized repaired leg in the league until Kobe Bryant returns. The good news is that Rose hasn’t shown any ill effects from the knee surgery and it’s only a matter of time until he regains the stroke and the confidence that make him an MVP candidate and Chicago a threat to push Miami and Indiana in the playoffs.

Advantage Howard – The 2-2 Lakers might be saying they’re having fun without the 6-foot-11 distraction, but Dwight Howard is healthy and living up to all expectations in Houston as both an inside force (15 rebounds per game) and solid veteran presence in the Rockets locker room. No longer suffering from back and shoulder problems, Howard is playing joyfully and stress-free for the first time in three seasons. He’s been accepting of instruction from coach Kevin McHale, willing to move out to guard power forwards as part of the twin towers tandem experiment with Omer Asik, and has the Rockets on track to their stated goal of getting home-court advantage in the West playoffs, at the very least.

Lakers – If they were in a swimming pool, the Lakers would be wearing an orange life jacket and just trying to bob their heads above the water line. It’s a two-part season that’s B.K. and A.K. — Before Kobe and After Kobe – and things just don’t look good for the long haul with Steve Nash struggling badly and a bench that provides as much real support as a, well, bench.

Sixers – Other than LeBron and Wade declaring that they were taking the season off to visit an ashram to find inner peace, could there have been a more shocking start to the season than a 3-0 start in always sunny Philadelphia? Michael Carter-Williams, Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is the real deal. But the Warriors proved Monday that the Sixers will eventually settle down to their real level in the Andrew Wiggins Derby, especially after GM Sam Hinkie possibly parlays the quick starts by Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and maybe Thaddeus Young into deals for more draft picks.

Thunder – OK, everybody kicks five bucks into the pot and the winner is the person who picks the exact time — day, hour, minute and seconds — when some knucklehead rips Russell Westbrook for being the kind of bad/selfish teammate that will never help Kevin Durant win a championship. The truth is, since GM Sam Presti’s benevolent giveaway of James Harden to Houston, Westbrook is Durant’s only chance of getting back to The Finals. No more Memphis getting past half a Thunder team. No more avoiding the toughest challenge in the West, Spurs. Yes, Durant is OKC’s best player. But Westbrook, healthy and with a chip on his shoulder, is the hard edge on the court.

Wizards – How many times can we wait on the revamped Wizards to have that bust-out season that propels them back into the playoff picture in the East? John Wall is fine, Trevor Ariza is averaging a double-double, they have a healthy center in Marcin Gortat and yet Washington is still 0-3 with a defense that is simply dreadful. Coach Randy Wittman still leads the race for first coach fired.

Warriors – They’re like the magician that has your eyes glued to his pretty assistant in the skimpy outfit that is their high octane, high scoring offense, while coach Mark Jackson’s team really wants to pull rabbits out of their hats with a defense that will get in your face and get after it. Andre Iguodala couldn’t have been a better fit if he’d been sewn into the lineup by a British tailor.

Love Is All You Need – Well, it would certainly help to have Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the star-crossed Timberwolves remain ambulatory through the 82-game schedule. But if there were a Comeback Player of the Year Award for the first week of the season, it would have to go to Kevin Love, who’s been nothing short of a beast scoring and rebounding. This is why it was never rash to envision the Timberwolves Western Conference playoffs the past two seasons. If Love stays healthy, they make it even in a crowded race.

Nets – While losing two of their first three was seen as a sign of the apocalypse in Miami, that trendy, high-priced collection of talent in Brooklyn might be the real candidate for being oversold as championship contenders, a win over the Heat notwithstanding. It still remains to be seen if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can continue to produce like their old selves as they become older selves. In the end, it will all come down to whether Deron Williams can get himself back among the elite level of point guards. So far, the shot just isn’t falling.

Knicks – Like the buzz over Gangnam Style and Zero Dark Thirty, Carmelo Anthony and his friends are just so last year. In fact, since their blazing start out of the gate in 2012-13, the Knicks have been positively mediocre and there is no indication that things will change soon. They were laughably “all-in” for a championship run last season, came up way short and now the brightest news is Melo saying he’d like to retire as a Knick. Perfect. Looks like a lot of them already have.

Anthony Davis – The No. 1 pick from the 2012 draft has positively exploded with his growth in the league, almost doubling his scoring from 13.5 to 23.7 ppg, bumping rebounds up from 8.2 to 12.3 and blocks from 1.8 to 4.0. This the Davis who had everyone drooling over his potential at Kentucky and makes the Pelicans a fun stop when flipping channels on League Pass. Now, if only coach Monty Williams could find a way to put some zip into an offense that is only mediocre because they play at such a horridly slow pace in an up-tempo league.

Pacers — Let the Nets spend all the money, the Knicks suck up all the oxygen with talk of Melo’s free agent destination and the Bulls ride the frenzy around every peak and valley in Rose’s return. Meanwhile in the heartland, Paul George keeps getting better, Lance Stephenson keeps learning about consistency, coach Frank Vogel keeps cranking up the intensity on the league’s best defense and the Pacers happily keep playing in the shadows as the real top threat to Miami in the East.

 


VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about Westbrook’s swift return

Wizards Going All In With Gortat-For-Okafor Five-Player Trade

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors

In Marcin Gortat, the Wizards have the big man they need to fill out their supporting cast.

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – No excuses in Washington this year.

That’s what Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis has been preaching for months. Injuries will not be used an excuse for the Wizards not chasing a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

So, out goes injured center Emeka Okafor, who is out indefinitely after neck surgery, and in comes Marcin Gortat from Phoenix. It’s a deal that bolsters the Wizards’ frontcourt rotation and allows them to continue on with their plans to ride John Wall, Bradley Beal and a talented young core group into playoff contention this season.

It’s the sort of aggressive, risky move you would expect from a team with playoff aspirations that they want to realize now rather than later. Leonsis planted the seed after last season, when injuries to Wall and others prevented the Wizards from taking off the way they expected.

When Wall signed his five-year, $80 million extension in August, it became a playoffs-or-else proposition in Washington. The injury to Okafor, as well Chris Singleton and rookie swingman Otto Porter Jr., took some of the steam out of the hype train. But the arrival of Gortat, a 7-footer who averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds last season in Phoenix, pumps some adrenaline back into things in Washington.

The deal, first reported by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, will also include the Wizards getting veteran guards Shannon Brown, Malcom Lee and Kendall Marshall, who was at one time expected to be the heir apparent to Steve Nash, for Okafor’s expiring contract and a protected first-round pick in the 2014 Draft.

The Wizards are not expected to keep Brown, Lee or Marshall on their already stocked roster, waiving all three to get to the league-maximum 15-man group in time for the start of the regular season next week.

The Suns acquisition of both Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in consecutive summers, however, pushed Marshall into the margins in a rebuilding process in Phoenix that has yet to find a true foundation.

With a new direction and a new boss, general manager Ryan McDonough, the Suns are essentially waiving the white flag in the Western Conference playoff hunt and plotting a course with assets, cap space and a robust crop of talent in the 2014 Draft pool. Contract extension talks with Bledsoe are reportedly ongoing, but he appears to be the only established player safe from the trade chatter. (There have been rumors for months about Dragic being dangled as trade bait for the right asset).

It’s an interesting move by both parties, one that signals a definite shift in strategy by a Wizards team focused on the here and now and similarly deliberate move by a Suns team planning for the long-term future.

Randy Wittman and the Wizards have the big man they need to fill out that supporting cast around Wall and Beal. And Gortat gets his chance to prove he’s not just a great backup (to Dwight Howard in Orlando) or a guy who can put up solid numbers on a struggling team.

The best part, though, is the Wizards are not just talking about doing whatever it takes to become a part of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, they are making the moves necessary to make sure those words have a chance to become a reality.

It’s like the owner said, no excuses.

Morning Shootaround — Oct. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Anthony open to playing SF | Nash ready to bounce back | LeBron brings back chalk toss | Bogut wants to stay with Warriors | Gortat expects to be dealt

No. 1: ‘Melo willing to move to small forward for BargnaniFormer No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani fell out of favor in Toronto and was shipped to New York in a deal that was mostly a cost-cutting one for the Raptors. Injuries limited Bargs to just 66 games over the last two seasons, but he’s feeling better and has impressed teammate Carmelo Anthony early on in training camp. There’s talk, writes Marc Berman of the New York Post, of Anthony possibly moving back to small forward to free up a frontcourt starting spot for Bargnani:

During yesterday’s halfcourt sets, Bargnani wore the starting blue jersey with Anthony, Tyson Chandler up front, and Metta World Peace wore white.

Coach Mike Woodson said his starting lineup hasn’t been determined, but a frontcourt of Chandler-Bargnani-Anthony is a distinct possibility. The Knicks coach hinted at Bargnani’s familiarity with that role.

“We’ll use camp to evaluate to see where we are,’’ Woodson said. “He’s been a starter pretty much all his career, but time will tell. I’m going to have some options this year.’’

Starting Bargnani means Anthony would have to return to small forward. Having World Peace start would allow Anthony to stay at the 4. But it should be noted Toronto insiders say Bargnani always performed well against Indiana’s David West and Miami’s Chris Bosh — likely the East’s two most formidable teams.

Anthony said he is comfortable at either position.

“Playing the 3, 4, it’s all the same. I’m cool with it,” he said. “It’s up to Coach Woodson. It’s early right now to pick a starting lineup. By the end of the week, we’ll start figuring things out.

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No. 2: Nash itching to rebound from down seasonLast season couldn’t have gone much worse for former two-time MVP Steve Nash. He played in a career-low 50 games, had his worst season since 1999-2000 in points and assists and watched as a solid-on-paper Lakers squad crumbled under various dramas. In a great story with Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears, Nash opens up about his and the Lakers’ lost season, L.A.’s attempts to re-sign and court Dwight Howard and more:

“I probably shouldn’t have played in the playoffs,” Nash said. “I was limping around. But we were so decimated [by injuries] and I was just trying to help. We had long breaks and I just wanted to give it a shot. But I couldn’t even sprint.”

Howard had said he built a solid friendship with Nash last season. Nash was among the Lakers contingent that tried to convince Howard to re-sign. Among the talking points, Nash tried to sell Howard that he should take into account the Lakers’ long list of injury problems last season – including an Achilles injury to Kobe Bryant.

Deep down, Nash thought the efforts would fall short.

“I never really felt like he was that happy here or wanted to be here,” Nash said.

Additionally, Spears provides the following quote from Nash in regards to how soon Bryant might return to the L.A. lineup:

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No. 3: MVP bringing back his familiar pregame powder toss Hop on any form of social media and find you favorite NBA players and chances are you’ll see at least one of them reference NBA 2K14 somewhere in the timeline/feed/etc. The new basketball video game, which features reigning MVP LeBron James on the cover, has been garnering a lot of buzz. James used that game — plus his own Instagram account — to let fans know he’ll be bringing back his familiar pregame powder toss, writes Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

It was iconic. And then it was gone. Now, apparently, LeBron James is about to again take a powder.

Hidden as a hashtag on an Instagram post referencing his placement on the cover of the just released edition of the NBA 2K14 video game came this early Wednesday morning:

#PowderTossComingBackToAnArenaNearYou

Given up amid his turn for the serious as part of his successful bids for NBA championships the past two seasons, James can be seen on the 2K14 cover displaying the powder toss, as seen in the Instagram he sent out.

The caption accompanying that cover shot on the Instagram read in full:

“What y’all been on tonight!?! Cause this what I’m on. I remember playing Bulls vs Blazers and Double Dribble like these are the best(which they were at the time). Crazy to me that I’m on the cover of a video game man! #NBA2K14 #CoverBoy #RealestHoopGame #StriveForGreatness #PowderTossComingBackToAnArenaNearYou”

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No. 4: Bogut wants to stick around in Golden State — Since being acquired by the Warriors in a March, 2012 deal, Andrew Bogut has played in 32 regular-season games and a dozen playoff games (all last season). He looked more like his old self during the team’s 2013 playoff run and, as a free agent next season, says he hopes to stay in Oakland with the up-and-coming Warriors, writes Tim Kawakami in a Q&A with Bogut in the San Jose Mercury News

Q: And you’ve got the little matter of pending free agency coming up after this season. Which makes this a contract year. Have there been any talks with the Warriors about an extension? They’ve said they want to sign you, pretty clearly.

BOGUT: I want to stay.

Q: So you’ve had talks?

BOGUT: There haven’t been. But I want to stay here, if I can. I like the organization, I like the direction, I like the owners, I love the coaches, I love the players.

I honestly want to stay here. But I’m not (overlooking) that I’ve been hurt, so my value has been diminished a little bit. And obviously I want to have a good year.

But I’m not one of those guys who wants to have a good year, get my deal and then shut it down. I wouldn’t do that. People might think that because of last year and the injury, but it’s a unique circumstance.

I just want to keep playing. I want to get to the playoffs and make a run at that and then let the chips fall where they may.

If I get an extension, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. But we’re not really talking about it right now. The focus is training camp.

And I think a big fellah on the open market isn’t all so bad, either, judging by the last (off-season).

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No. 5: Suns’ Gortat bracing himself for a tradeMost pundits aren’t picking the Suns to do much of anything special this year. Case in point? Grantland.com, in the midst of its best-to-worst previews of every team, has Phoenix as the second-worst team in the NBA. The goal for new coach Jeff Hornacek and the rest of the Suns’ bunch is to improve on last season’s 25 wins, which were the West’s fewest. Part of doing so may involve making mid-season deals. Veteran center Marcin Gortat is already readying himself to be one name that could be bandied about in trade talks, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

There were three centers added behind Gortat, who took notice that the team drafted Alex Len with the No. 5 pick and then traded for Miles Plumlee and Slava Kravtsov during the summer. Gortat already fears the in-season trade rumors in the last year of his contract, even though McDonough mentioned that he hoped that Gortat, Dragic and Channing Frye are young enough veterans to be part of the next great Suns team.

Gortat endorsed the summer makeover, swore to not relinquish his job and predicted that the Suns would be “a good running team.” But without prompting, the Suns’ highest-paid player at $7.7million made a thinly veiled reference to his contract status and a scenario that likely will linger until the February trade deadline.

“This is a business,” Gortat said. “We all know where I am right now, and we all know what’s going to happen probably. It’s business. I totally understand that. I totally understand the situation. I totally understand the management and front-office people. There are no hard feelings. At the end of the day, I’m a pro. I’m going to try to do everything that’s necessary to win the basketball game.

“Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I’m grateful for everything I had with this team. This team took my game to another level. Quite honestly, it was Steve (Nash).”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tyreke Evans is likely to come off the bench in New OrleansBismack Biyombo still knows his place among Charlotte’s big menSamuel Dalembert is ready to be the new-look Tyson Chandler for the MavsRudy Gay is hoping offseason eye surgery helps his game

ICYMI of the night: Tough-luck news out of OKC, where star point guard Russell Westbrook will miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the season after having another surgery on his injured right knee: