Posts Tagged ‘Mark Cuban’

Morning Shootaround — April 4


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers may be done with Gasol | Jackson acknowledges Anthony’s tough road | Cuban to fund HGH study | Riley opens up on Heat’s road

No. 1: Lakers may be done with Gasol … for good — Two days ago in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin, Lakers forward Pau Gasol recounted his bout with vertigo that, until Tuesday, kept him out of L.A.’s lineup since March 23. The former All-Star big man is still dealing with issues from vertigo and, as playoff-eliminated L.A.’s season heads into its final seven games, it is unlikely Gasol will suit up between now and then. With this season likely over, Gasol, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, might not be a Laker again, too. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times has more:

Pau Gasol might have played his last game in a Lakers uniform.

The team is leaning toward sitting him for its final seven games while he recovers from a severe recurrence of vertigo.

He won’t play Friday against Dallas after dizziness kept him confined at the team hotel Wednesday while the Lakers played Sacramento. He flew back on the team charter that night after missing a fifth game because of the illness.

It was the latest downturn in a rough season for Gasol.

In addition to various verbal tussles with Coach Mike D’Antoni about his role in the offense — and the small-ball concept in general — Gasol missed seven games in February because of a strained groin and three games in December because of a respiratory infection.

He leads the team in scoring (17.4 points a game) but is shooting only 48%, the second lowest accuracy of his career.

Gasol, 33, becomes a free agent after this season, sure to take a pay cut from the $19.3 million he currently makes but unsure where he will land. If it’s somewhere else, his last game with the Lakers will have been a nine-point, four-rebound effort in a 124-112 loss Tuesday to Portland.

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No. 2: Jackson praises ‘Melo, acknowledges his burden — As we wake up on the morning of April 3, the New York Knicks are in sole possession of No. 8 in the Eastern Conference. That’s a surprising state for a team that has grossly underachieved this season and, yet, finds itself somewhat in control of its postseason destiny. New Knicks president Phil Jackson addressed the media on Thursday and (somewhat) praised the team for its rise and singled out All-Star Carmelo Anthony as well. Jackson had compliments — but also some criticisms — for Anthony in a state-of-the-team address with New York media, which Fred Kerber of the New York Post details:

In 17 days as Knicks president, Phil Jackson has seen the best of times, he has seen the worst of times.

And he has seen a lot to like in Carmelo Anthony.

Jackson, during a 16-minute state-of-Knicks Nation address with the media Thursday at the team’s Greenburgh practice facility, praised the energy and effort he has witnessed from the Knicks while admitting they have been playing to the level of the opponent.

“They’ve been up and down,” said Jackson, who reiterated he has “no intention of coaching” again.

“I’ve thought they’ve played a lot better against higher-quality teams or tougher teams than they have sometimes against also-rans. But they’re playing with great energy now and they’re playing with purpose, and I appreciate that.”

Among other positive developments, the 13-time NBA champion – a record 11 times as a coach, twice as a player — has seen Anthony flash parts of his game that certify the All-Star forward as among the true elite. Jackson and Anthony have chatted, but the talks did not address the player’s future. The here and now – specifically a push to the playoffs in the final six games – is sort of big.

“Carmelo’s really stepped into another level of trying to help players,” said Jackson, who referred to a critical assist Anthony made during the victory at Sacramento. “That’s one of the things we see that Carmelo can do and that he’s grown as he’s gone along.”

,,,

“We’ve had a couple occasions to talk. We haven’t really delved into the future as much as what’s going on [and] getting to know each other…see how he’s feeling about playing,” Jackson said. “He’s had to carry a big load. It’s been a tough year for him. But it’s been a tough year for everyone. It’s not just isolated with him, but I think he feels the weight of it a lot more on himself.”

Looking forward and evaluating how to lessen that load is big for Jackson as he and all the president’s men try to figure out how to improve the Knicks. With collegiate games going on, Jackson has had a chance to meet with scouts and personnel evaluators.

If the Knicks make the playoffs, some players suggested the Knicks can do some damage. The chief reason, as Jackson sees it, are the contributions from the likes of J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire to ease Anthony’s load.

“Now they have more than one option out there on the floor, and I think that we’ll give teams trouble,” said Jackson, who explained the playoff format is big for evaluating the future.

“You’re playing a team in a seven-game series, you’re really seeing who’s going to be attacked, how they stand up to the pressure, who performs in the critical situations, what the grind of a multiple-game series does to a team and how they react,” Jackson said. “Those are all valuable lessons.”

While many believe coach Mike Woodson is living on borrowed time, Jackson spoke positively about how the team has responded.

“Mike has a philosophy. It’s worked for him in the past. It’s worked for him in Atlanta,” Jackson said. “One of the reasons why they’ve been successful in the last month and a half … has been their defense has improved.”


VIDEO: Knicks president Phil Jackson talks about the team’s surge of late

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No. 3: Cuban backing HGH study — Earlier in the season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he thought human growth hormone research could be done better, at least in terms of how it relates to athletes. It seems Cuban is putting his money where his mouth is, writes Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com, who says that Cuban is helping fund a university study on HGH:

Cuban said Thursday he has made a significant financial commitment to fund a potential university study on the issue.

“It’ll be a two-year study that applies HGH to injuries preoperative to postoperative injury recovery,” Cuban said before the Mavs-Los Angeles Clippers game at Staples Center.

“So if you’re able to retain more muscle going into an operation because you’re working out and HGH helps your muscle. And you’re able to regain it faster, then we cut the recovery time.

“And it’ll be geared around one type of injury that has hundreds of thousands of examples a year. So we’ll be able to do a placebo environment without hurting anybody, right? So here’s the way we do it now. And here’s how we do it with HGH. So hopefully it will accelerate recovery.”

Cuban declined to divulge many details because the study needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency. He would not specify the university that plans to do the study other than to say it has a highly respected medical school.

Because of the need for approval from the government agencies and other paperwork, Cuban is not certain when the study would begin.

Cuban broached the subject of HGH use for athletes recovering from injuries at the NBA Board of Governors meetings in October …

“I just want to know what reality is,” Cuban said. “And if we can improve recovery time, obviously that’s a plus for all of us, but there was never any basis in fact for not allowing it for use [while recovering from injuries]. It was all marketing. So let’s find out. Let’s find out what’s real and not real.”

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No. 4: Riley sees Heat’s big picture – As most know, the mastermind behind the Miami Heat’s signing of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was Heat president and NBA icon Pat Riley. His ability to land those three All-Stars have made the Heat the power they are today. And in a fantastic story by ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace, we get a look into not just how that 2010 bonanza went down for the Heat, but also how Riley and Heat owner Mickey Arison has plans to keep Miami among the NBA’s elite for as long as he possibly can:

Riley’s résumé, as a Hall of Fame coach and executive, along with his reputation one of the league’s most respected — and shrewd — businessmen in the game, have made him as polarizing as he is successful. But his methods and high-risk gambles have frequently produced championship results — seven, to be exact — from his days coaching the Showtime Lakers and overseeing major overhauls of the Heat’s roster. But even Riley, who once compared himself during trade talks to a riverboat gambler, has concerns about the uncertainty that looms after this season.

“You always fear,” Riley told ESPN.com. “It’s not a real fear. I always have concern when players are in the situation they’re in. But we feel we have the best organization in the league for those players to stay, and to also attract others to want to come here. With our three guys, we hope that this turns into a generational team. And that it’s not just we’re at the end of this four-year run right now because players have some options this summer.”

Riley’s confidence in his roster has withstood some frustrating and inconsistent stretches this season. The Heat president started his career coaching Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy to four titles over the span of nearly a decade in the 1980s. Now Riley, who turned 69 last month, has visions of a perfect bookend to his decorated career.

The goal is to retool the Heat’s roster around James, Wade and Bosh to keep them together and in title contention for another handful of years and produce another dynastic decade. Despite difficult financial decisions looming amid a more punitive luxury tax set to kick in this offseason, Riley hopes to rely on three franchise pillars that have kept the Heat proactive and productive all these years. It starts with stability.

Riley believes he still works for a team owner in Micky Arison who remains as committed to winning and producing an elite product now as he was when they first met 19 years ago. Securing James in 2010 was the most recent splash, but Riley points out that Arison has been willing to create waves for decades. The process began in 1995 when, just two months after Riley was hired, Arison signed off on a trade that brought in Alonzo Mourning and later led to deals for P.J. Brown, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway and Dan Majerle. Riley said what the Heat pulled off in the summer of 2010 was similar to what they initially had visions of doing over a nine-month span in the mid-1990s before the NBA voided Howard’s contract.

“Ever since I came here, and Micky and I hooked up, the whole concept was you wanted to win,” Riley said. “He really wanted to win and wanted to put on a great show and have a great product. Right off the bat, right out of the blocks, we were able to trade for Alonzo. Then the league took Juwan away. But Micky has always been one that tactically and with great thought, weighing all the pros and cons, has swung for the fences. And I have too.”

While many believe James, Wade and Bosh — three of the top five picks in the 2003 draft — began plotting their course to eventually becoming teammates during their time together in the 2008 Olympics, Riley already had planted his own seed the day Wade signed his first major extension in 2006.

“This is how I think you plan and have a vision and look forward, hoping you can do something that’s special,” Riley said. “Coaching Kareem and Magic and James Worthy, and playing against [Larry] Bird, [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parrish, and [Joe] Dumars, Isiah Thomas and [Bill] Laimbeer, you need to have three really, really great players. There’s two superstars and another truly great player. You’ve seen that on pretty much all championship teams have had that kind of element.”

Riley remembers getting a call from Heat general manager Andy Elisburg on July 11, 2006.

“Andy was at a gas station,” Riley said. “And he said Dwyane had accepted his extension, and it was a three-plus-one [three years guaranteed, plus one option year]. And it was Dwyane and LeBron James and Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire and a bunch of other guys that signed their extensions and they’re all three years with one option. And I said, ‘Well, who are the other guys?’ And he gave me the list. And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to be players in 2010.’”

But amid all of Riley’s roster building and burning and rebuilding over the years, very little emphasis was ever placed on the draft or tapping into the foreign-player market.

“Everything we did from 2006 to 2010 was to be able to sit down at the table with LeBron and Chris and Amar’e and [Carlos] Boozer and Mike Miller, all these guys, to try to bring them to Miami,” Riley said. “We were fortunate that they came, but we also planned for it. There have been some deals that we’ve made that haven’t worked, but they haven’t really been deals that really cost us a lot or hurt us.”

But Riley admits he’s had to adapt in some other ways to better relate to modern NBA culture. In the past few seasons, he has opened a Twitter account, relented on his stance against players wearing headbands and has allowed James’ manager and the personal trainers for James and Wade greater access.

But mostly, Riley steps back and allows coach Erik Spoelstra to legislate the team culture.

“LeBron, being who he is in this world, in this game, has a very heavy load,” Riley said. “There’s a heavy load off the court and on the court. It’s a lot different than what it used to be. He manages everything he has to manage that maybe Magic Johnson didn’t have to manage back in the 1980s. I’ve adapted to that.”

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No. 5: D’Antoni, Kaman burying the hatchet? — Just a little over a week ago, Lakers center Chris Kaman was openly complaining to the media about coach Mike D’Antoni‘s gameplan and useage of him this season. But it appears a chat with D’Antoni’s agent may have helped Kaman see just how hard D’Antoni’s job has been and softened the tension between the two, writes Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Warren LeGarie, the agent for embattled Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, was doing all the talking.He was doing the pointing, jabbing his index finger into Chris Kaman’s chest. LeGarie also stood up periodically to yell down at the Lakers center hunched in a courtside seat Tuesday night, ball in his lap, postponing his pregame court work to listen.

Head bobbing in emphatic declarations, LeGarie gestured numerous times toward the Lakers bench where D’Antoni is positioned during games. Kaman threw his hands up a few times but had little to say to LeGarie, who represents so many NBA coaches and executives that he qualifies as more of a power player in this league than any 7-footer.

Kaman is the type who has done far more talking than listening in his life, and some of his talking this season has been about D’Antoni’s rigid, uncommunicative, distrustful coaching of the Lakers while not giving Kaman consistent playing time. Just one week earlier, Kaman had revealed that D’Antoni hadn’t talked to him for the previous three weeks.

D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.

But Kaman’s 15-minute conversation with LeGarie ended with the agent yelling two words to Kaman: “Thank you. Thank you.”

After the Lakers’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was complete, I asked Kaman about his pregame chat with LeGarie and whether it had given him any new perspective on D’Antoni’s situation.

“We were just talking,” Kaman said. “We were just talking about everything. He’s just a good buddy of mine.”

I asked Kaman where he stands now in his feelings about D’Antoni.

“It’s been a tough year for him, as it has been for a lot of guys,” Kaman said. “Me, in particular, just being in and out, in and out, just trying to figure my way through all of this, I can sort of put myself in his shoes and try to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What would I do if I was him?’ And it’s hard to answer that question; it’s a tough position.

“Especially with all the injuries we’ve had and all the different things we’ve had to go through, I think it’s no easy task for a coach. Especially with the Lakers. This is a first-rate organization, and they do things better than most. They’re used to winning, and it’s a lot of pressure. And all these injuries didn’t make it any easier for him.”

Bear in mind, just one week ago Kaman was saying this season was “by far” and “tenfold” worse than any other in his 11-year NBA career.

While not naming a name and saying “it doesn’t get anyone anywhere” to spout negativity with the season a lost cause, Kaman said last week that the key to good coaching is “being a mediator as opposed to being someone in authority all the time. It’s about putting little fires out—small fires here or there—and keeping everybody’s egos together and managing that. Players know how to play if you give them enough guidance in the beginning.”

Late Tuesday night, when I asked Kaman if D’Antoni’s communication could’ve been better, Kaman said generously: “It always can be better with any coach, not just Mike. It’s such a big balance to be a head coach. It takes a lot. It takes a lot out of you. You see guys who can’t even finish years sometimes; they have to defer and hand it over to someone else. It drives people nuts.

“It takes a special person to coach a team, and in this day and age, the way the game is played, it’s a lot of pressure. You get two, three years, maybe, and then you’re outta there if you don’t produce. It’s no easy task. So I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and put myself in his shoes; it’s tough. It isn’t easy. With all the injuries and everything, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if we would’ve had a healthy team.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rockets point guard Pat Beverley expects to return in time for the playoffs … UNC forward James Michael McAdoo is headed to the NBA Draft … Rockets assistant coach-turned-University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson could earn $1 million a season in his new gig … The Celtics might be interested in re-signing forward Kris Humphries this summer … Guard Jodie Meeks wants to stick with the Lakers next season … Former Heat center Alonzo Mourning is reportedly headed to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

ICYMI of the Night: The Mavs’ Brandan Wright gives Blake Griffin a taste of his own (dunking) medicine … 


VIDEO: Brandan Wright powers home a dunk over Blake Griffin

 

Goaltending should have been called, but changes nothing

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is all for transparency when it comes to NBA officiating. However, the league’s admission Wednesday that the referees should have called goaltending late in overtime of Dallas’ 122-120 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night won’t make him feel any better.

Cuban was furious over the no-call that saw Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal block Mavs guard Monta Ellis‘ baseline floater with 16 seconds left in overtime and with the score tied 120-120. O’Neal passed to Draymond Green, who quickly got it to Stephen Curry, who made the game-winning shot with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. Cuban leaped out of his baseline chair and continued to voice his disagreement to the officiating crew of Danny CrawfordSean Corbin and Eric Dalen from behind the scorers table after the game.


VIDEO: O’Neal’s block leads to Curry’s game-winner

After a review of the play by the league office, Rod Thorn, NBA president of basketball operations, issued the following statement:

“Upon review at the league office, we have found that a shot taken by Dallas’ Monta Ellis with 16.0 seconds remaining in overtime was on the way down when initially contacted and ruled a block by Golden State’s Jermaine O’Neal, and should have been ruled a goaltend. The exact trajectory of the ball when touched was impossible to ascertain with the naked eye, and the play was not reviewable.”

Playoff implications were high. Golden State entered as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference and Dallas as the No. 7 seed. Had Dallas won it would have moved just one-half game behind the Warriors. The loss instead dropped them to ninth place and out of the playoff picture, at least temporarily. Had the Warriors lost, their already slim margin for error to maintain playoff position would have shrunk with a tough matchup ahead tonight at West-leading San Antonio.

Dallas led 106-102 with 1:43 to go in regulation and 108-105 with 1:16 to go, but it couldn’t close it out, a central theme in the Mavs’ disappointing 4-4 homestand that concluded with the loss to Golden State. They also led 117-113 with 2:32 to go in overtime, but were then outscored 5-0 in relinquishing the lead. Tied 120-120, Ellis tried to beat his defender Klay Thompson to the right, but Thompson stayed in front of him and forced Ellis to take a fallaway near the baseline. O’Neal, who was dunked on by Ellis late in the fourth quarter, went up and snatched the ball out of mid-air.

The Mavs raised their arms in unison, stunned that no goaltending call had been made.

“I think his [Ellis'] layup has a chance to get to the rim, and if that’s the case, you can’t just get it out of the air,” Nowitzki said. “To me, that’s a goaltend. I asked the referees what happened. The explanation was that the ball was two feet short. If that’s the case, then he can get it out of the air, but where I was from, I think it had a chance to at least hit the rim. That’s a goaltend to me.”

O’Neal disagreed as he described the play in the  Warriors’ locker room.

“It was like a second away from goaltending, if you’re too late, and I was on top of it,” O’Neal said. “I blocked it, grabbed it and outlet it. There’s no way they could have called that. When your hand is on top of the ball, that’s a good block. I caught it like this (showing his hand on top of the ball), I didn’t bat it, I caught it like this, so there’s no way they could have called it goaltending.”

Turns out O’Neal was wrong and Cuban was right. It doesn’t matter. The league’s admission does nothing to change the outcome of the game.

Warriors stand together in huge OT win

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Golden State guts out big overtime win in Dallas

DALLAS – Jermaine O’Neal will always be remembered most for his days as an Indiana Pacer. But now the 18-year veteran seeking one last shot at glory plays for the Golden State Warriors, a team that’s fought through injury and adversity, and down the pressure-packed stretch run just might be the antithesis of O’Neal’s fraying former club.

Starting at center once again Tuesday night for the injured Andrew Bogut in a game magnified by playoff implications for both the Warriors and Mavericks, O’Neal ripped Dallas for 20 points, eight rebounds and one massive, game-altering blocked shot. Late in the fourth quarter, Mavs guard Monta Ellis dunked over O’Neal to give Dallas a 102-97 lead and a wave of momentum in an arena buzzing with playoff-style excitement. This time, as Ellis tried to turn the corner, O’Neal made his move. He snared Ellis’ baseline fallaway with his right hand with 11.6 seconds to go in overtime, and in one motion brought it down and fed it out to Draymond Green, who got it to Stephen Curry, who ended it with a tough, contested jumper over Jose Calderon from the left wing with 0.1 seconds showing on the clock.

As time expired, the Warriors, rallying late in the fourth and again in overtime, celebrated the 122-120 victory as furious Mavs owner Mark Cuban, befuddled that no goaltending was called on O’Neal, engaged in an animated discussion with the referees.

“When he dunked it, I was a second slow, almost the same identical play,” O’Neal said. “This time, I’m understanding where I need to be and Klay [Thompson] did a great job on making him pick up his dribble and really it was just perfect timing. It was like a second away from goaltending, if you’re too late, and I was on top of it. I blocked it, grabbed it and outlet it. There’s no way they could have called that [goaltending].”

The victory, achieved in front of Warriors owner Joe Lacob — who is taking in the road tripdulled the pain of Sunday’s home loss to the New York Knicks. That defeat came on the heels of another dramatic victory, this time against a Memphis team that, like Dallas, is trying to not just make the playoffs but had the sixth-seeded (and David Lee-less) Warriors within their sights.

The margin for error in Tuesday’s game was as razor thin as the separation in the standings. A Dallas win would have moved them one-half game behind Golden State, who now head to San Antonio to grapple with the Spurs’ 18-game win streak. Instead, it’s the Mavs who slipped from seventh to out of the playoff picture in ninth, one-half game behind Memphis and Phoenix.

This one carried tremendous importance for the Mavs. They were just 4-3 heading into their final game of a franchise-long eight-game homestand. All three losses came down to the wire, two in overtime. This was one they simply had to have, but couldn’t get against a team that came in lacking frontcourt starters Lee and Bogut.


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki talks about the Mavs’ tough loss at home to the Warriors

“Heartbreaker,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who did all he could with 33 points and 11 rebounds.

The Warriors, feeding off a belief that many see them as down and out, found a different interpretation of a wild 53 minutes in Big D.

“This is late in the year and I have seen teams say how easy it is to let go of the rope,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “This is a team that’s not going to do it. Contrary to anything, we’re not going to do it. This is a quality win against a team  that had everything going their way and I’m proud of these guys. They deserve the credit.”

Jackson called his bunch a “tied-together team,” and emphasized, “I don’t think you need more evidence.”

Sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who had 27 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:01 to go in regulation, played up the Warriors’ unbreakable mindset.

“People think we’re down and out, it just proves we have a lot of basketball in us,” Thompson said. “We never hang our heads. We might have done that in the past, but this is a changed team. When we get those guys [Lee and Bogut] back, we’ll be even better.”

Said Curry on the heels of his second last-second game-winner against Dallas this season: “We understand that we lost some games that we should have won, but we don’t listen to any noise outside our locker room. For us, we understand we still control our own destiny. If we take care of our business we’ll be fine. So if we shut out all that noise, it’ll be the best situation for us.”

As the Warriors cleared out of the cramped visiting locker room, O’Neal, 35, hadn’t finished saying his piece, hadn’t finished putting this season, expected to be his final one, in perspective for himself, his team and everybody who follows it.

“So many people around us are trying to tear us apart,” O’Neal said. “I’ve never seen, even in your own town, so much adversity and so much negativity around a team that’s really striving to do special things. It baffles you a little bit, but it says a lot about our head coach, our staff, an organization that really supports us and keeps us in open arms. And it says a lot about these guys in this locker room who aren’t willing to let negativity tear us apart.

“We’re going to continue to try to learn and be a better team, continue to learn from our mistakes and I think tonight showed that we have a  lot of character on this team. We don’t have a lot of extended playoff experience, but we’re learning and we’re learning on the fly, and we’re fighting.

“We’re fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our coach, we’re fighting for our city, we’re fighting for our organization.”


VIDEO: The Warriors bask in their big win in Dallas

D-Will getting stronger as Nets surge

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Deron Williams scores 28 to lead the Nets past the Suns

DALLAS – Following Sunday night’s inspired overtime win, a relieved Deron Williams walked deliberately — limped is more like it — on delicate ankles toward the Texas barbecue buffet Mavericks owner Mark Cuban provides visiting teams after games.

As Williams stacked brisket, sausage and potato salad onto his to-go plate, the Brooklyn Nets point guard, who grew up 30 minutes up the highway, had no intention of discussing his physical state. Not that that’s anything new for the ornery Williams, who’s known to grow testy when interrogated about the difficulty of playing on bad wheels.

“It is, but what can you do?” Williams said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I feel great right now. We just got a win, I’m happy about that, and I want to get one [tonight]. That’s my concern.”

The Nets, now 37-31 and just 1 1/2 games behind Atlantic Division-leading Toronto, have won 11 of 13 and seek a fifth consecutive win tonight at New Orleans (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).

With 15 points on 3-for-9 shooting and three assists, Williams didn’t play his best game in the 107-104 come-from-behind victory against the hometown team he spurned as a free agent two summers ago to instead lead the Nets out of New Jersey and into the promised land of Brooklyn. Still, Williams logged a team-high 42 minutes and stuck with it long enough to drop a 3-point dagger, the only one he’d hit on five attempts, to give the Nets, who turned to solid defense on a poor-shooting night, an eight-point cushion with 1:26 to go.

The workload was his highest since Feb. 13 and well above the 33.2 mpg Williams has averaged since returning on Jan. 20 from more ankle issues that sidelined him for nearly three weeks. In early January he received a cortisone shot and platelet-rich plasma injections in both ankles.

“I think he’s getting to where he wants to be,” teammate Joe Johnson said. “I can see that pop coming back. He’s playing aggressive, getting to the rim, so that’s what we need out of him. He’s working, man, everyday, coming in, getting his shots up, doing whatever it takes to be effective. I think he’s getting there.”

Williams, 29, might never again challenge Chris Paul for point-guard supremacy in the league, but a physically and mentally sharp Williams is the Nets’ only hope for making a long playoff run that seemed improbable, if not impossible, just two months ago. Jason Kidd, a close friend of Williams’ before he became his coach over the summer, has preached patience.

“We spent a lot of time through practices and games and spend some time together off the court,” Kidd said. “The biggest thing for an athlete or anybody at that level, health is the first thing. He wasn’t healthy and now he’s starting to get healthy. He feels good and you can see his play, he’s playing at a high level.”

With the 6-foot-3, 209-pound Williams averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.9 apg since his latest return, with Paul Pierce engaged, Joe Johnson continuing to be clutch, a boost from deadline acquisition Marcus Thornton and general good health beyond Kevin Garnett, the high-priced Nets have at least made themselves a threat to potentially challenge Indiana or Miami if they can get out of the first round.

“If you’re in the East looking at them in the first round or second round,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, “you wouldn’t want to play that team.”

Kidd, one of the league’s most durable players throughout his 19-year career, knows his team’s fortunes depend on good health. He’s done a terrific job of utilizing his bench and spreading minutes to ease wear-and-tear on the veterans he’ll lean on in the playoffs. Johnson leads the team logging just 32.8 mpg. Williams, at 32.0 mpg, by far the lowest of his nine seasons, is the only other Nets player averaging more than 30.0 mpg.

Williams said early season criticism of Kidd was unfair because of the onslaught of injuries to key players. Since Jan. 1 they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league, going 27-10.

“We’re healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Williams said. “At the beginning of the season we were injured. We were injured and that’s tough on him [Kidd], not having guys at full strength and not having his guys out there, so that made it difficult. And now we’re still not whole, but we’re more healthy, we’re playing with more confidence.

“A lot of it is us. He was doing a great job earlier, we were just not, I don’t want to say not buying in, we were buying in, it just wasn’t clicking like it is now. It took us a little longer than we thought to learn what he wanted and get on the same page.”

Morning Shootaround — March 24


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: Sunday’s top 10 plays

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

Morning Shootaround — March 18


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

What might have been for Denver | The Barnes effect | World according to Thibs | Poking Dirk

No. 1:  So these are the Nuggets? — The Nuggets had an offseason that everyone in Denver would just as soon forget. Their general manager, Masai Ujiri, left for Toronto, their Coach of the Year, George Karl, was fired. And the only thing that was worse than that offseason was … well, the regular season. The once high-flying Nuggets are out of the playoff picture a year after winning 57 games. It hasn’t been pretty.

But after their big win over the Clippers Monday night, a win which snapped Los Angeles’ 11-game winning streak, the Nuggets were left to think about what might have been. From Christopher Dempsey at the Denver Post:

But the Nuggets have found a way to play a better brand of basketball this month. They’re 5-5 in March after losing all but three of their 12 games in February. The Clippers had won 11 straight games before the Nuggets took them down, powered by a 14-2 run to end the game.

“You look at it, we shot ourselves in the foot a lot this season,” guard Randy Foye said. “Had a lot of injuries. But everything happens for a reason.”

“We’d definitely be in the playoffs right now if we took care of the Sacramentos and the Minnesotas of the league,” Nuggets guard Ty Lawson said. “We definitely could be in playoff position. It’s a little bit frustrating.”

Because the Nuggets aren’t in playoff position, the finish of the season is getting acute attention. There are things the Nuggets want to accomplish in the final month of the regular season, which for them will end on April 16.

Topping that list is carving out an idea of exactly what kind of team they will be in the future.

“I think we’re playing better,” Lawson said. “We’re starting to find ourselves a little bit better, doing exactly what coach wants. I think we’re gaining a little bit of steam, giving ourselves an identity.”

VIDEO: Nuggets end Clippers’ streak

***

No. 2: Matt the man – The Clippers may have an L1 next to their line in the daily standings, but there’s not a team in the league that doesn’t realize how good this team is and how good it can be come playoff time.

That’s been the case for a while, now. The big difference lately. Well, to hear Dan Woike of the Orange County Register tell, it, it had to do with a key decision — of many he makes all the time — by coach Doc Rivers:

On Jan. 20, Rivers made one of those decisions, moving Matt Barnes into the stating lineup for Jared Dudley. Since then, the Clippers have gone 20-6.

“I thought his energy matched that group better,” Rivers said Monday. “Matt’s defense has really improved as the year has gone on, and that’s really helped that unit.”

Before the Clippers’ game with the Nuggets, Barnes was a part of the top two five-man lineups in terms of net efficiency, with a minimum of 150 minutes played.

In those 26 games, Barnes is averaging 11.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists. As a starter, Barnes is hitting 40.3 percent from 3-point range compared to just 26.6 percent from deep in the 23 games he came off the bench.

A key to that has been Barnes getting to the deep corners in transition, spotting up for the highest-percentage 3 on the floor while opening driving lanes for Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

“You just want to create space,” Barnes said.

Barnes said adjusting to playing with the starters hasn’t been too difficult.

“Defensively, it’s always been easy for me, no matter what group I’m playing with. I think offensively, there’s so much attention paid to Blake and Chris that if you find space and keep the floor spaced, you’re going to find open shots,” he said. “They’re trapped and doubled a lot. If you make yourself available and cut, passers are going to find you.”

***

No. 3: Thibodeau gets all philosophical on us – Few teams in the Association follow the lead of their coach more than the hard-nosed, no-nonsense Bulls. Coach Tom Thibodeau is a demanding, defense-first mastermind who has an injury-riddled team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

ESPN’s Scoop Jackson caught up with Thibs to ask him how he has taken the Bulls, a team that has had so much going against it this season, to the point where no one wants to go against them in the playoffs:

What do you believe in the most?

 Balance.

Really?

For me, there’s five things I look at after every game. It’s the defense, the rebounding, low turnovers. I think those three things put you in position to win. Then its inside-out and sharing the ball. So it’s five-man offense, five-man defense. Make a commitment to one another and be balanced.

Is this basketball we’re talking about or life?

[Laughs] Well, basketball is really a microcosm of life. There’s a lot of things you can take from this game and learn. And a lot of lessons from basketball that you can apply to life and certainly a lot of things that you can take from life and apply to basketball. Adversity. Hey look, you are going to face it in life. Being mentally tough when you face adversity, I think, whether you face it in life or basketball, it’s similar.

But if you have that balance in both, it applies the same?

Yeah, yeah. As it applies to us, we feel good about our team. We love the challenge. And at the end of the day, it’s what we think, it’s what we believe. And whatever that is, we’re probably right.


VIDEO: All-access with Tom Thibodeau

***

No. 4: Moral: Don’t go to sleep on Cubes – The Mavericks seem to have awakened from their slumber. They’re a solid-14-6 since a yawning 9-8 in January, they’re on track for a 50-win season, they’ve won three in a row (including a stomping of Oklahoma City the other night) and they’ve climbed to within a game of sixth-seeded Golden State.

We’re not saying this is all the doing of Dirk Nowitzki or owner Mark Cuban. But Cuban may have had something to do with it, according to Dwain Price of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram:

Cuban took time before Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics to tell the media of a conversation he had with Nowitzki earlier in the day. It’s about as critical as Cuban as ever publicly been about Nowitzki.

“I think sometimes he loses concentration, and I think we’ve got to get past that,” Cuban said. “I mentioned it to him today. I asked him how his nap was during the game [Sunday at Oklahoma City]. He laughed. At least that’s while I was facing him. When I turned my back and walked away, I don’t know.”

Nowitzki had two first-quarter rebounds against the Thunder and finished the game with just four boards and 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Cuban also was none too pleased that Nowitzki had just 12 points and six rebounds during last Tuesday’s 108-85 loss on the road to the Golden State Warriors.

Asked why he was publicly challenging Nowitzki, Cuban said: “That’s only because I did it already personally.”

“Dirk always goes through a little slump during the year where he needs to remotivate. And I think we’ve seen that for a couple of games, and I think he’s going to come back stronger, particularly after three days and those naps he’s gotten through the last couple of games.”


VIDEO: Mavericks dump Thunder on March 16

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Our Jeff Caplan points out the un-luckiness of the Celtics on the road … If the NBA playoffs were a one-and-done, like March Madness, the smart money would be on the Phoenix Suns. So reports NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury … The Sixers lost their 21st straight game on Monday night. But it wasn’t very pretty, even for the victors, the Indiana Pacers …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes you have to look all over to find a really cool play. Sometimes, it just smacks you in the face like a Play of the Day …


VIDEO: Gerald Green can dunk

Morning Shootaround — March 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Mar. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ariza’s huge game | McHale approves of age limit | Fredette joins Bulls | Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time | Cuban favors D-League over college

No. 1: Ariza’s huge game – Trevor Ariza took over in the first quarter of Saturday’s game between the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 24 points with six three-pointers to help the Wizards open up a 13-point first quarter lead against a sold-out Philadelphia crowd. Ariza finished with a career-high 40 points, with eight three-pointers, and helped teammate John Wall collect his own career-high of 16 assists. J. Michael from CSN-Washington has more on Ariza’s career-night:

Trevor Ariza left the floor early during warmups at Wells Fargo Center because it was too cold. An NHL game had taken place earlier and several players, including Andre Miller and Chris Singleton, could be seen blowing into their hands and rubbing their arms in an attempt to generate heat.

Ariza didn’t take long. He just went to the locker room and waited until the opening tip in Saturday’s 122-103 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers when he scored a career-high 40 points, 24 coming in the first quarter when he made his first six three-point attempts. A free agent after the season, each time Ariza swishes a three it should come with the sound effects of a cash register.

“It was cold early but the fans and the excitement and all the things that was going on here made me feel a little bit warmer,” said Ariza, alluding to the sellout crowd that was primarily there to witness the retirement of Allen Iverson’s No. 3 jersey at halftime. “The flamethrower was out there.”

“You want to see the guy that has put in work, doing the extra sacrifice to help our team, guarding the best players on any given night, to have one of those big nights,” said Wall, who tied a career high with 16 assists. “You try to reward him for that. That’s what I wanted, for him to get a 40-point game.”

Marcin Gortat had another double-double with 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Even he wasn’t impressed by his own performance. He could only talk about Ariza.

“It was a one-man show,” Gortat said. “My rebounds and John’s assists, I don’t think they count.”

***

No. 2: McHale approves of age limit – Houston Rockets coach and Boston Celtics great Kevin McHale agrees with new NBA commissioner Adam Silver that the NBA should enforce an age limit to help avoid college one-and-dones. Sam Amick from the USA Today has more:

The Houston Rockets coach has a unique vantage point on this front. He spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota before beginning his Hall of Fame NBA career and later transitioning to a post-playing career as an executive (Minnesota Timberwolves) and head coach (Timberwolves, Rockets). McHale could see this situation from all sides, it would seem, and so it was that Silver went seeking his counsel leading up to his February ascension into former commissioner David Stern‘s seat.

The advice, which McHale reiterated this week in an interview with USA TODAY Sports, was to push hard for the end of the one-and-done era.

“I’m totally against it,” McHale said. “I understand (the argument) that it’s America and everybody has a right to work. I understand that. But the guys aren’t ready. (When) you’re 16 years old or 15 years old, they don’t put you into doggone smelting or anything. Man, the NBA is a man’s league, and I think a lot of these young guys come in early and their careers would prosper if they stayed (in college).

“I’d like to see us do the three years out of high school or 21 (years old), like football. I just think it would help the colleges. I think it would help the kids. And I know they don’t think so, because they want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get in the market. I’ve got to make all my money and all that stuff.’ But you don’t make money if you have a three-year career, if you come in at 18, 19, and you’re not ready.”

As Silver said at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, the owners’ proposal to raise the league’s minimum age from 19 to 20 was negotiated with the players during the 2011 lockout but ultimately tabled as a B-list item to be resolved at a later time. Silver argued in a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports that owners and players alike would reap the benefits of increased profits as a result of raising the minimum age.

McHale, not surprisingly, agrees. What’s more, he thinks players would approve of the change in a vote.

“Why would a bunch of NBA players vote to say, ‘Yeah, I want guys coming in to take my job?’” McHale continued. “They would say (have a minimum age of) 28 if you’re an NBA player, you know what I mean? So 21? I just think it would make it a better product, and I think it would help the kids. I really do.

“I think they’d learn leadership. I think they’d learn more responsibility. … When you get in the NBA, this is your job and you have to be really professional. But a lot of guys who come in just aren’t ready for that. It’s hard to do a man’s job when you’re 19.”

***

No. 3:  Fredette joins Bulls – Jimmer Fredette has not experienced a smooth transition from college to the NBA. He struggled to find playing time in Sacramento and many have already written off the 10th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft as a bust. But after clearing waivers, he now has a chance to start fresh in a much more developed system in Chicago. Teddy Greenstein of The Chicago Tribune has more:

Fredette officially cleared waivers Saturday and has agreed to sign with the Bulls for a prorated portion of the veteran’s minimum contract, sources said. Fredette is shooting a career-best 49.3 percent from 3-point range and is expected to attend Sunday’s matinee against the Knicks.

The Bulls hope Fredette will provide them with what they desperately need: scoring.

“The more shooting you have, the more it opens up the floor,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We want to open things up to attack off the dribble, with our cuts, things of that nature. We feel that is an area of need.”

Fredette, seeking to revive his career heading into free agency, can point to how the Bulls helped resurrect D.J. Augustin, whom the Raptors dumped. Since joining the Bulls, Augustin is averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds in 30.6 minutes.

“There are a number of guys who are good, and sometimes, as you see with D.J., it’s an opportunity to step in and add to what a team may need,” Thibodeau said. “Whoever we sign, if we do sign someone, we want to play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses.”

The 6-foot-2 Fredette is not a strong defender, but the last time he got extensive minutes, Feb. 12 at Madison Square Garden, he torched the Knicks for 24 points on 6-for-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Guard Kirk Hinrich said adding a top-flight shooter such as Fredette would make defenses “play honest.”

The Bulls entered Friday night 27th in 3-point shooting (34.1 percent), 28th in field-goal shooting (42.7 percent) and last in scoring (92.7 ppg).

***

No. 4:  Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time – The Detroit Pistons (23-36) have struggled this season after an offseason which saw them sign Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to large contracts. Another part of their offseason overhaul was the hiring of Maurice Cheeks to be head coach. This job proved to not be secure as Cheeks was fired after just 50 games, which was not a decision Jennings agreed with, reports Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:

Although there would certainly be some Pistons players who weren’t unhappy to see former coach Maurice Cheeks go, Brandon Jennings isn’t one of them — and Cheeks isn’t out of sight, out of mind for the starting point guard.

“I don’t have a problem with John (Loyer), just with the whole thing of changing coaches was one of the more difficult things for me,” Jennings said at Houston’s Toyota Center, while nursing a sore right big toe that caused him to miss the second half of Wednesday’s game in San Antonio.

“John was our assistant, so I know a lot about him. It was just a personal problem with Mo leaving.”

Jennings and Cheeks would often watch film together, and Jennings had a coach who could teach him the nuances of playing the position, given Cheeks’ stellar career.

Cheeks was fired on the morning of Feb. 9, mere hours after Jennings posted perhaps one of his best games as a pro, certainly atop the list in efficiency — 35 points and 12 assists with only two turnovers against the Denver Nuggets.

He echoed literally the thoughts of most folks who believe 50 games was nowhere near sufficient time to judge a coach, let alone one with Cheeks’ experience. It came as a shock to many around the NBA and Jennings’ head is still spinning.

“You give a coach half a season with new faces and new chemistry, that’s not enough time,” Jennings said. “I felt like he was in a losing situation. We were winning and now we’re playing like the old Pistons, in the beginning.”

Considering the Pistons have lost six of eight since Cheeks’ firing — albeit against better competition — Jennings doesn’t buy into the school of thought of Cheeks being the problem with their season.

“To be honest, I don’t think the team is tripping. It’s still the same,” Jennings said. “Not much has really changed, if you ask me.”

The two have talked a couple times since the firing, and Jennings hasn’t flourished under Loyer, although it doesn’t appear as if his responsibilities have changed too much. Aside from the first game following Cheeks’ firing, Jennings hasn’t shot over 40 percent in a game — and has three games where he hasn’t scored in double figures, including Wednesday, when he played only 13 minutes.

“I think I have been thinking too much,” Jennings said. “That’s with everything. Dealing with the coaching change and everything going on. Now, we keep slipping out the playoff race and you get worried.”

Jennings was open and candid about the high expectations that have given way to the disappointment surrounding the team to date. He thought his arrival in Detroit would mean the mediocrity from his days in Milwaukee was long gone, but clearly, there’s something missing with this team.

“If we don’t make the playoffs, it’ll be very disappointing and kind of embarrassing,” Jennings said. “The fact that myself coming here, Josh (Smith) coming here, we make these big moves and we don’t get it done — it’ll be real disappointing.”

***

No. 5:  Cuban favors D-League over college – Mark Cuban has rarely been afraid to speak his mind, so it’s no surprise he has a unique view on the age limit discussion. Unlike Kevin McHale, Cuban believes players would be better trained with a year in the NBA Development League over a year in college. Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas has more:

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of elite prospects to play in the NBA Development League instead of spending one season in college.

“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Under the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement, players must be one year out of high school and 19 years old to play in the league. However, the minimum age for the D-League is 18.

Cuban would like to see the NBA take steps to make the D-League a more attractive alternative to players who intend to spend only one season playing college basketball. While Cuban said he hasn’t analyzed the situation enough to make a formal proposal, he envisions the NBA working with nearby universities to provide straight-out-of-high school players an opportunity to pursue a college education while playing in the D-League.

Cuban suggests guaranteeing college tuition for such players, whether or not they pan out as NBA prospects, as an incentive.

“We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” Cuban said. “If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.

“You don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to pretend. A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete, and it’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie. At least at most schools, not all. … But we can put more of an emphasis on their education. We can plan it out, have tutors. We can do all kinds of things that the NCAA doesn’t allow schools to do that would really put the individual first.”

Cuban’s biggest concern about one-and-done prospects is that they’re often not mentally, emotionally and psychologically prepared for the NBA after spending only one season in a college environment.

He believes the D-League could provide a better atmosphere for freshman-age players to develop on and off the court.

Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of top prospects to play in the NBA D-League instead of spending one season in the “hypocritical” NCAA.

“You have to develop some level of maturity, and that has to be part of the process,” Cuban said. “You don’t want to bring kids in and just abandon them. That’d be the worst thing we could do.

“We’d have to make it so where there’d be very strict policies and rules so that, even if you’re not going to go to [college] class, there’s going be life [skills] classes — how do you deal with the world? — and you have to attend those. You have to keep up with those. We’d have very strict [rules] on why you’d be suspended if you didn’t live up to them. Things that should be done to student-athletes in college and are just not. Or not always.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah wasn’t happy with Tony Snell‘s celebration. … Yao Ming believes he would struggle in today’s NBA. … Isiah Thomas is reportedly being considered to replace Joe Dumars in the Pistons’ front office. … Derrick Williams continues to try to find his footing in the NBA.

ICYMI of the Night: It appears some of Chris Paul‘s passing ability may have rubbed off on teammate Blake Griffin. Example? This behind-the-back pass from Griffin to Matt Barnes:


VIDEO: Play of the Day – Blake Griffin

Morning Shootaround — March 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s mask dilemma | Knicks eyeing Jackson as Woodson’s replacement? | OKC and Butler a perfect fit | Bulls confidence soaring during current run | Colangelo: “I tried to tank”

No. 1: LeBron’s black mask days appear to be over after just one game – Well, it was fun while it lasted, LeBron James in that black mask to protect his broken nose. Our Bleacher Report brother Ethan Skolnick broke the news that the NBA prefers LeBron wear the clear mask and no the black carbon-fiber shield he wore during Thursday night’s win over the Knicks. And according to Skolnick, this isn’t just the league being heavy handed. It’s more about them sticking to the precedent that’s already been established in regards to goggles and facial ware being clear so there is no advantage for the player who is forced to play with goggles or a mask (go figure):

In an email, Skolnick explained why the league prefers a clear mask as opposed to a black one: “The reason the league prefers the ‘clear’ is so that opponents can see a player’s eyes. They have set rules about goggles, which came into play with (Dwyane) Wade in New York in 2011.”

Defenders already have enough trouble stopping James. If they’re unable to read his eyes as a means of guessing where he plans to attack, guarding him would become even more impossible.

Still, this change will be a bummer for the Internet world. Twitter exploded with various comparisons, GIFs and Photoshop creations as King James donned the Zorro-esque mask in a 108-82 win against the New York Knicks Thursday night.

LeBron isn’t going to let the black mask go away without a bit of a fight. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that an appeal has been filed and that LeBron, while prepared to comply with the league’s request, would like to continue wearing the black mask. It’s complicated, of course, as is anything this seemingly trivial:

“It is our understanding LeBron used the black mask because a clear one he was comfortable with wasn’t ready,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

James appealed the decision and is still trying to get clearance to wear the black mask because he likes the lightness and fit of it, a source said. He also said he liked the style and how it matched the Heat’s black throwback uniforms. It gave him no issues when he put up 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the Heat’s 108-82 win against the Knicks.

But James is preparing to use a clear mask Saturday, though he still may find a way to personalize it.

The black mask was a huge hit among fans, and James and several teammates posted pictures with it on social media. On Friday, the Heat started selling T-shirts with a masked James on them.

“Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

***

No. 2: Knicks eyeing Mark Jackson as Mike Woodson’s eventual replacement? – The Knicks are in the midst of an absolutely dreadful stretch right now, one that has brought into question the futures of almost all involved but especially coach Mike Woodson and resident superstar Carmelo Anthony. Anthony will make his own decisions about his future, this summer in free agency. Woodson, however, will see his fate decided by the Knicks’ big bosses. And if the fans get their wish, a familiar face would be the choice to replace Woodson. New York native and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, who happens to have a job coaching the Golden State Warriors right now, is the dream pick, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:

The big meeting took place right out on the Garden floor, for all to see.

Knicks president and GM Steve Mills and his top lieutenant, Allan Houston, were double-teaming Mark Jackson a little more than an hour before the Knicks pulled a no-show and were routed by Jackson’s Warriors, 126-103, on Friday night.

Go ahead Knicks fans, dream a little.

We can tell you on good authority, no job offer was made. We know this because it was just small talk, chit-chat among old friends.

But it was fairly obvious to everyone in the place that the Knicks have a crush on their old playmaker.

Early in the game, they paid tribute to Jackson on the big scoreboard with a nice video of his career, showing some of his highlights during his two-part career in New York.

Then came the ultimate tribute, at the end of the video, when the PA announcer introduced Jackson, saying, “Once a Knick, always a Knick.”

When they say that about you at the Garden, you know you’re family.

Even MSG Network seemed to be doing its best to give Jackson an inordinate amount of air time in its postgame coverage.

It sure does seem as if the Knicks have their eyes on Mark Jackson, out of Bishop Loughlin and St. John’s.

It’s not as if Jackson hadn’t been back at the Garden before this night. So their show of affection seemed a tad excessive.

But maybe the Garden was just sending signals about who it wants to coach down the line. Jackson got his win, which wasn’t very hard to do. His meal ticket, Stephen Curry, notched his triple-double and there were still two minutes left in the third quarter. His team rebounded nicely off a 20-point loss two nights earlier in Chicago.

Mike Woodson is walking around with a look on his face as if he knows the end is near. Well, after these final 23 games.

“I’m not aware of it, I’m coaching my basketball team, so I haven’t kept up,” Jackson said beforehand about his old team.

Of course he was playing dumb.

He called the Knicks “a dangerous team.”


VIDEO: Masked LeBron was great against the Knicks but will he make another appearance in black?

***

No. 3: Butler a good fit for Thunder on and off the court – The Thunder ended that skid with Russell Westbrook back in the lineup, courtesy of Kevin Durant‘s 30-point second half in a win over Memphis Friday night. But they’re focused on regaining their winning ways and more right now. Caron Butler is set to join the Thunder’s title quest now that his buyout in Milwaukee is complete and once he’s cleared waivers. As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman makes clear, Butler is an excellent fit for the Thunder’s culture, on and off the court, and should be play an integral role in whatever they do going forward this season:

You’ve probably read or heard about all that he brings: toughness and experience, professionalism and character, defense and 3-point shooting.

But what few among us know is why Butler, free to sign with any team after being bought out by Milwaukee on Thursday, chose to come to Oklahoma City.

For now, all we can do is assume it’s because the Thunder gives him a chance to win his second championship. But there’s got to be something more.

That alone is something other franchises, like Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers, also could offer. And the Thunder, for myriad reasons, couldn’t offer the most money or the most minutes or the biggest and best metropolis.

So what’s bringing Butler to OKC?

One reason could be the Thunder’s culture closely matches Butler’s mentality.

Butler would become only the second player the Thunder has signed after another team agreed to a buyout. Derek Fisher in the 2011-12 season became the first.

Both carried with them well-established reputations for being upstanding citizens, community-minded individuals and championship-driven players. Their attraction to Oklahoma City could say as much about the Thunder as it does about them.

It could say the Thunder is now a prime destination for players who want to win.

***

No. 4: Bulls confidence soaring after latest show of toughness – The Chicago Bulls take pride in their toughness. Coach Tom Thibodeau has instilled that in them from the start. And with leaders like Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich around to spread the message, it’s no wonder the Bulls are thriving during what would be tumultuous times anywhere else. They know that no matter the circumstance, no matter who is or is not in uniform, they will compete to the very end. They showed off that intestinal fortitude in an eye-opening comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas Friday night. It was the Bulls’ eighth win in 10 tries. They are cut from a completely different cloth than any other team in the league in that regard, notes Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com:

The difference between the Bulls and many other teams in the league is that they rarely lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. They believe in themselves and they believe in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. They believe, no matter how good their opponent might be, that they can win each night. That’s why, when they got into a 16-point hole in Friday’s first half and had to knock down shots late in the game, their demeanor never changed. They never stopped believing that tough defense and big shots would be the elixir against a Mavericks team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

“I just think we didn’t panic,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, “I think guys understood what we have to do. … We’re just focused right now. Our defense is really clicking. Our offense is really clicking. Guys are really taking big-time shots, we’re never panicking late, we’ve been in this situation. Our poise is just through the roof right now and we’re really in a rhythm.”

That’s the key for Thibodeau’s team as it streaks into March. The rhythm Gibson talked about was missing before the turn of the new year. The same Mavericks team came into the United Center in late December and beat the Bulls by 22 points. Gibson and his teammates are finding ways to adjust on the fly, something that was apparent in the defining fourth quarter, when the Bulls tightened up their defense and held the Mavericks to only six makes from the field in 25 attempts.

“We’re tough whenever we’re playing defense,” Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Rotating, getting into the ball. I think that’s where the basketball starts for us. We let our defense dictate our offense.”

The Bulls are only going to go as far as their defense takes them this season. That’s why Friday’s comeback win meant a little more to them. They realized yet again that they have the ability to shut down good teams on the road — a trait that will serve them well in the playoffs. They realized that they could overcome their surroundings, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban barked at officials under the basket and Dallas assistant coaches Mike Shedd and Mike Weinar screamed out most of the Bulls’ sets whenever Thibodeau made a call. It’s games like this, victories like this, that remind the Bulls just how important the little things are to winning.

“I feel like when people call you resilient that’s a compliment,” Noah said. “But we just got to stay hungry, stay hungry, keep this mindset, we got punched in the face early in the game, we stuck with it and we kept fighting. I think that’s what this team represents. We got one of our best wins of the year today.”

***

No. 5: Ex-Raptors boss Colangelo: “I tried to tank” – The Colangelos, the first family of basketball to many, has upheld the NBA shield for decades. But Bryan Colangelo, the former boss of both of the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, admitted committing the cardinal sin for a franchise when admitted to trying to tank with the Raptors a couple of years ago. Colangelo came clean on a panel discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Colangelo said he did so during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, a move he said was a basic necessity for the Raptors, given their predicament at that time. USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick delivers the details:

As part of a Basketball Analytics panel in which a current proposal was discussed in which the league’s draft lottery system would be replaced by a structure in which the incentive for losing would be eliminated, Colangelo shared the sort of story that the NBA community is well aware is somewhat commonplace but that executives typically keep to themselves.

“I like (the proposal) because there’s no assurances (of getting a good pick) when you do tank,” Colangelo said. “Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago.

“And I didn’t ‘come out and say, ‘Coach (Dwane Casey), you’ve got to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to have him establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that, but I never once said, ‘You’ve got to lose this game.’ “

Colangelo reflected on the ripple effect of that season, as the Raptors finished 23-43 and ultimately drafted Terrence Ross out of the University of Washington with the eighth pick. Because Toronto had finished with the same record as the Golden State Warriors, they had a coin flip to determine which team picked first.

Less than a year later, Colangelo was, in essence, replaced by former Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri. Colangelo stepped down as team president three months later.

“Just one less loss (that season) would have put us in a coin toss for (the Portland Trail Blazers’) Damian Lillard potentially (he was taken sixth), and that was a need that we had on our team that year, a point guard need,” Colangelo said. “So it would have kind of taken us on a whole different route in this rebuilding process, and of course if we had lost a lot more games we would have had better odds to get (the New Orleans Pelicans’) Anthony Davis, the big prize that year. We’re looking at it, and it didn’t work out.

“There’s no assurances (in the lottery). I do like the certainty of the (proposed) process. I think there are some merits to obviously take it to the next extent, except I wish we could start it sooner because there really is some ugly basketball being played.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Friday night was a bonanza for mercurial performances around the league. Not only did Kyrie Irving go off for his first triple double … but Goran Dragic scored a career-high 40 points in the Suns’ win over the Pelicans … and Jordan Farmar made Los Angeles Lakers fans forget their woes, at least for a moment, with a career-high 30 points of his own in a win over the Sacramento Kings … Rachel Nichols sat down with Nets center Jason Collins for an in-depth interview about the veteran big man’s journey back to the NBA … and finally, the “Fire Woodson” chants and boos are getting louder and louder at the Garden

ICYMI of The Night: Steph Curry, needed just three quarters to record a triple double and help the Warriors dump the Knicks at Madison Square Garden 


VIDEO: Steph Curry loves working at Madison Square Garden

Driving Oscar To The Hoop


VIDEO: The Starters pick movie roles for some of the NBA’s biggest stars

It was just last week when LeBron James had to disappoint fans in the basketball and cartoon worlds by shooting down rumors that he was getting ready to star in “Space Jam 2″.

Oh, what heartbreak not to have LeBron and SpongeBob SquarePants go toon-on-toon against Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to settle the G.O.A.T. debate once and th-th-th-at’s all, folks!

But with the Oscars ready to tip off Sunday night, it occurs to us that there were plenty of movies released in the past year that could use a slam dunking NBA touch:

Monuments Men — Who needs a fourth stone head to construct a Mt. Rushmore in Miami when more than enough in their own granite-hard trio to chase a third consecutive NBA title? Everybody from Indiana to OKC and points all around are trying to steal away with the priceless Larry O’Brien Trophy, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are counting not one, not two, not …


VIDEO: LeBron James makes his famous ‘Mt. Rushmore’ comments to Steve Smith

Frozen — After winning the MVP award in 2011, Derrick Rose has the next two seasons of a budding superstar career put on ice with major injuries to both knees. A hopeful city of Chicago that was ready to usher in the post-Jordan championship era has turned cold.

American Hustle — When Rose went down on Nov. 22 and was once again lost for the season, everyone expected his teammates to roll over. They even traded away a big offensive gun in Luol Deng, but producer Tom Thibodeau has done a combover and is pulling off the greatest con since ABSCAM with the Bulls sitting at No. 4 in the East with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

The Lego Movie — First-year general manager Sam Hinkie arrives on the job in Philly and promptly locks himself in his room, where he spends all hours of the day and night trying to fit together dozens of little pieces into something that will one day look like a competitive basketball team. Or a rocketship.

Almost Human — He’s almost tall enough to bump his head on the backboard, but has 3- or even 4-point range from practically anyplace on the court. Not since the menacing Gort touched down in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” has anyone appeared as unstoppable as box-office smash Kevin Durant.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has simply been on fire in February

Vampire Academy — The front office in Brooklyn hatches a plan for world domination by forming an army around the walking undead creatures of 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett. But rather than biting opponents on the neck, they were mostly toothless, ineffective and scared nobody.

Paranormal Activity — It was one to thing leap over a Kia at All-Star weekend and turn every game into a slam dunking highlight reel. But Blake Griffin eventually tired of being typecast and under new director Doc Rivers has worked on his shot, expanded his repertoire and now does unearthly, inexplicable things that nobody thought possible just a couple of years ago.

Dallas Buyers Club — For all the money, all the bombast and all the talk about positioning the Mavericks to be big players in the free-agent market and getting Dirk Nowitzki a superstar playmate after dismantling his 2011 championship, Mavs owner Mark Cuban struck out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Right now, he’s where he used to be: stuck in the sale aisle at Sam’s Club.

Gravity — He’s 35 years old, has played 17 full NBA seasons, has more miles on his odometer than a hand-me-down pickup truck and is trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee. Yet, 16-time All-Star Kobe Bryant simply won’t acknowledge what Isaac Newton learned sitting under the apple tree — what goes up, must come down.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks during the All-Star Game about being a spectator this season

Philomena — When the losingest, ugliest, most painful season in modern team history finally and mercifully limps to the end, executive VP of player personnel Jim Buss fires Mike D’Antoni and at a star-studded Hollywood news conference. Buss then introduces a 68-year-old Irish widow with a vaguely reminiscent limp, wearing a gray wig and with a familiar twinkle in “her” eye and says Phil-omena is back to put everything right with the Lakers.

I, Frankenstein — Team president Larry Bird wasn’t happy enough with having the best record and the most fearsome, downright scary defense in the league that was sewn together with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson. He performs more surgery in his lab by adding Evan Turner to bolster his Pacers bench and now thinks he’s ready to take down that other monster: the Miami Heat.

The Nut Job — Everybody in the world thought Dwight Howard was out of his mind for the way he slow-walked his ugly departure from Orlando and then bolted out the door of the royal Lakers, leaving $30 million on the table. But who’s crazy now as Howard rides tandem with James Harden and has the Rockets looking like one tough nut to crack in the playoffs?

Despicable Me — As if he hadn’t done enough already to polish his reputation as someone who cannot be trusted as the cornerstone of a franchise and leader to take the Kings back to the playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t even bother to get one of his minions to slug Patrick Beverley in the stomach and just does it himself, earning a fine and one-game suspension.

Endless Love — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager team up for a buddy movie where they criss-cross the country in an old VW bus, stopping at thrift shops to buy old horse blankets and bedsheets while exchanging long hopeful questions and grumpy one-word answers.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has some good-natured fun with Craig Sager

The Wolf Of Wall Street — He bats his eyes at the Lakers. He flirts with the Bulls. He head fakes in the direction of any other would-be suitor that will glance his direction and then, Carmelo Anthony decides he’s got the world on a string living the high life … and hungrily signs on for a repeat performance of his lone wolf act. Then, the reviewers in the New York media give him a standing ovation and immediately declare the Knicks contenders.

Pompeii — After Isiah Thomas and Jerome James and Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani, a massive volcanic eruption like the one that came from Vesuvius in 79 A.D. hits Madison Square Garden. The past is finally buried under a blanket of lava, giving away at last to a new beginning.

Season’s First Half Has Offered Plenty, Including A Sprint Toward Draft’s No. 1


VIDEO: The Beat discusses LeBron James’ evolution as a player in 2013

Rarely has an NBA season played out to its midpoint — at least for many around the league — less about the journey than the late-June destination.

Even the Great LeBronapalooza Free Agency of 2010 didn’t bleed back into the season that preceded it the way some obsessions with the 2014 Draft have tried to pre-empt this one. Even before Anthony Bennett heard his name called, rather surprisingly, as the No. 1 pick last June, the focus for a lot of franchises and their like-it-or-not customers already was fixed on a game of chance 11 months away.

“Tanking” will show up more often in your Google search of this season than “three-peat” (which still is rather special in historical terms, with the Miami Heat positioned to join the Celtics, the Bulls and the Lakers as the only teams ever to achieve that). NBA fans have become nearly as familiar with the names of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Joel Embiid as they are with the likes of Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons, Andre Drummond, Michael Carter-Williams and a bunch of other low national-profile guys already making significant contributions.

It’s as if everyone was getting bored with Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury and only wanted to talk about Masahiro Tanaka – who has yet to throw a pitch.

Milwaukee, somewhat surprisingly, is leading in the rush to the bottom, earning its lottery odds on merit because the Bucks expressly disavowed any notions of tanking and re-stocked the roster with established NBA role players. Other contenders in the down-is-up standings are Orlando, Utah, Philadelphia, Boston, Sacramento and a few others – several of whom didn’t exactly plan it that way.

It didn’t help to keep people’s attention on the present when some of the game’s biggest and high-impact names started succumbing to injuries. You wince just stringing together the list: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard and on and on. Some are down through summer, others have missed or are missing significant chunks of this season and a lot of teams’ ambitions have been whipsawed by events both unexpected and unfortunate.


VIDEO: GameTime breaks down the many injuries to star point guards this season

New players — the rookies — have plugged some of the holes or added to healthier rosters. Fellas such as Carter-Williams in Philadelphia, Victor Oladipo in Orlando, the Jazz’s Trey Burke, the Knicks’ Tim Hardaway Jr., the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo have stepped up. (No. 1 pick Bennett? Not so much.) As their careers play out, they might benefit from the chips on their shoulders, put there by getting stuck in coach, relative to the fawning first-class treatment next year’s rookies already are receiving.

Besides injuries and a low-watt class of newcomers (again, compared to what’s supposedly on the horizon), the first half of the 2013-14 regular season featured a warping to the West. It wasn’t just that Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Golden State and others from the Western Conference had more intriguing players, rotations and styles of play than their counterparts in the East. It’s that the superiority has been more than just a matter of taste.

At this writing, with less than half of the 450 interconference games in the book, West teams have dominated by a 143-74 (.659) margin. Only Indiana (11) and Miami (10) have hit double-digits in victories against the opposite conference, compared to eight West clubs vs. the East.

If the season had ended Wednesday night – we can wait while you make your own joke there – two West teams sporting .500 records would be outside looking in, while three East teams lugging sub-.500 marks would be prepping for first rounds. It’s largely a cyclical thing, teams’ competitive arcs and all that. But it was worse earlier and had panicked pundits grasping at extreme fixes, like seeding 16 playoff teams without East-West regard.

Waking up to five .500 teams in the East seems to have calmed that, fortunately.

There have been some happy stories east of the Mississippi. Former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has had a solid start as coach in Atlanta, leading a reconfigured and Horford-less roster to third place. Toronto has benefited from the jelling of its young core, coach Dwane Casey‘s steady message and GM Masai Ujiri‘s arrival, along with the well-documented addition-by-subtraction of shooter Rudy Gay.


VIDEO: The Starters discuss how the Raptors have turned thing around since the Rudy Gay trade

Chicago has no business chasing a top-4 seed with Rose down and Luol Deng gone. Washington broke .500 briefly – hope someone minted a coin. Brooklyn is dusting itself off after a horrendous and humiliating start. And Charlotte will try to hang on to a projected playoff spot without Kemba Walker for a while.

The West’s biggest surprise has played out in Portland, where the offense is out-Warrior-ing Golden State in points and 3-point potency. Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek has pushed into Coach of the Year conversation despite shedding veterans such as Luis Scola, Caron Butler, Michael Beasley and Marcin Gortat before the season.

As for disappointments, Cleveland promised its fans a playoff team but, at 15-27, faces a struggle to deliver, even in the East . Memphis and Minnesota both envisioned more than hovering around .500 midway through their schedule. New York can deal with its Knicks when it digs out from the latest polar-vortex dump; they’re buried somewhere in those drifts.

Individually, LeBron James still is the NBA’s best player. But his “valuableness” has been under assault from the Pacers’ George and, most of all, that bad man in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant plays for the Thunder and strikes like lightning, stringing together scoring performances lately that call to mind Bryant in his prime and Jordan back in the day. If enough MVP voters suffer from the so-called fatigue of automatically scribbling James’ name first on their ballots, a No. 1 seed in the West for OKC and another scoring title for Durant – with the added heft of working without Westbrook for so many games – might shift that Podoloff trophy to the Slim Reaper. (The Interwebs has been test-driving that nickname for Durant. Thoughts?)

Special mention must be made here of a couple historic events in 2013-14: By the season’s midpoint, not one of the 30 head coaches had been fired, which has to at least tie the record. And we’ve just wrapped up the last of David J. Stern‘s 60 half-seasons as NBA commissioner. In so many ways, especially in light of the Forbes franchise valuations out this week, there already is a creeping sense of “Commish, we hardly knew ye.”

Enough reflection, though. The season’s second half has begun. And somewhere, Kyle Korver just hit another 3-pointer.


VIDEO: Paul George’s rise to stardom has driven Indiana to new heights