Posts Tagged ‘Markieff Morris’

Blogtable: Player who is most likely to be traded first is _____?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Thoughts on Rockets? | Player most likely to be traded? |
One player you’d love to see in Dunk Contest?



VIDEORyan Anderson sizzles in a win against the Kings

> Most likely to be traded before the Feb. 18 deadline: Rudy Gay, Jeff Teague, Markieff Morris, Ryan Anderson or Kevin Martin?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Kevin Martin. This league is still about offense and he’s a proven offensive commodity that could help a lot of contenders. And there’s no future for him in Minnesota, which has Andrew Wiggins penciled in at the two for the next dozen or so years. 1A) Markieff Morris. Full dumpster fire in Phoenix, and the Suns have to start cleaning things up. Sending the disgruntled Morris (and his very reasonable contract) anywhere else is a necessity for GM Ryan McDonough, who’s now on the hot seat in the Valley of the Sun.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Markieff Morris. While Gay and Anderson are best equipped to immediately help a playoff aspirant, while Teague would be much-sought as a point guard around whom a team could organize, while Martin doesn’t fit on a young team in “sell” mode, Morris has the added factor of being actively unhappy where he is. Phoenix has let his situation fester too long already.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comMarkieff Morris. If you’re cleaning house, you might as well sweep into every corner and get rid of all the unhappy pieces.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Ryan Anderson. An unrestricted free agent-to-be, on a team that has the chance to make a playoff push to salvage what would ordinarily be a bad season? If the Pelicans were certain Anderson is definitely part of the future, that would be one thing. But this may be the chance to get something for him, and to get something to boost their playoff hopes.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: I’ll take Markieff Morris, even though the Suns might not have much leverage, since everyone knows Phoenix wants to dump him. I have my doubts about the perceived demand for Rudy Gay, the asking price for Teague could be too steep (ditto for Ryan Anderson) and the best chance Kevin Martin is moved is if he’s a throw-in since he’s well past his prime.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comRyan Anderson has the easiest contract ($8.5 million expiring) to trade, but the Pelicans are still just three games out of eighth place in the loss column. The Suns may have a high asking price for Morris right now, and there’s some risk in trading for a known malcontent with three more years left on his deal. But at some point, Phoenix will have to take what they can get and some other team will be will to take a risk on a versatile forward who’s still just 26 years old.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Markieff Morris. You saw him on display in Tuesday night’s loss to Toronto, when he made the most out being inserted into the starting lineup and reminded everyone just how devastating a scoring and rebounding stretch big man he can be. The Suns would be wise to continue to showcase him in the lead up to the trade deadline. And I suspect there are plenty of teams interested in adding a player with his, skill, range and brute force to their mix just in time for the playoffs.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comMarkieff Morris. The Suns have already fired the coach and are looking to the future. Morris is not going to be part of that future. Why make a miserable situation worse by holding onto an unhappy player? They should focus on creating positive energy among their young core. Unloading Morris may also improve their position in the lottery.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog I’ll go with Ryan Anderson. He’s got an expiring contract, and he’s on a squad that isn’t going to be a playoff team. Most importantly, though, he’s a power forward who can actually knock down 3-pointers, which is a skill you can’t ever really have enough of. I can think of several teams with postseason aspirations — Atlanta? Dallas? The Clippers? — that could use another outside shooter.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 3


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nets’ Johnson may pursue buyout | Report: Rest of season may be tryout for Scott | Suns’ Watson vows to ‘nurture’ Morris

No. 1: Johnson won’t ask for trade, may seek buyout — Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson is two seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance and stats-wise at his lowest point in terms of scoring average (11.3 points) since 2002-03. But Johnson is also in the final year of the six-year, $119 million deal he inked back in 2010. While his high-scoring days are long gone, Johnson could be a vital pickup for a contender at the trade deadline. As he languishes on one of the East’s worst teams, Johnson told The Record‘s Andy Vasquez he won’t force a trade:

“I’m a professional, man,” Johnson said after practice. “Obviously this late in my career this isn’t the ideal situation. Obviously. But I’m not forcing anything, I haven’t went to management and asked for anything. I come to work day in and day out to compete and have fun, that’s what it’s about. And whatever happens, happens. Obviously this is a tough situation, but we’re all in this together and everybody in this locker room is who we’ve got. So no pointing fingers, we’re just coming out and just competing.”

It wouldn’t be easy for the Nets to trade Johnson’s nearly $25 million expiring contract. But there’s also the possibility of a buyout. Last month, ESPN reported that Johnson isn’t interested. But when asked about the possibility on Tuesday, Johnson left the door open and said he’ll explore the possibilities this week with his agent, Jeff Schwartz.

“Honestly, I don’t even know,” Johnson said when asked if he was open to a buyout. “My agent was here last night, and me and him are supposed to sit down and talk within the next week or so. So, I’m sure — whether or not it comes up, I don’t know, but we’ll talk.”

But even if Johnson demanded a trade, or wanted to negotiate a buyout, it’s unclear who would make the decisions on the Nets’ end. The franchise is still looking for a new general manager after Billy King was removed from the job on Jan. 10.

Johnson also reiterated what he told The Record earlier this season: playing for a contender will he his top priority when he becomes a free agent this summer.

“I just want a winning situation,” said Johnson, who added he plans to play two or three more seasons after this one before retiring. “It’s not going to be to no highest bidder or nothing like that, I just want to make sure the situation’s right for me. … the last couple years man I really just want to enjoy it and play on great teams.”

“I’m not saying that’s not possible,” Johnson said of a return to Brooklyn. “We’ll see what happens, I think a lot can happen between now and then.”

It’s been a struggle of a season for Johnson, who is averaging 11.3 points per game (his lowest since 2002-03) and shooting 39.0 percent (which would be the lowest shooting percentage for a season in his career). But he showed flashes of a resurgence in January when he shot 48.5 percent, 47.0 percent from three-point range and averaged 13.5 points.

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Blogtable: What’s ailing the Suns?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: What’s wrong with Phoenix? | Thoughts on a game at Fenway? | Tougher to officiate in MLB or NBA?



VIDEOGameTime’s experts dig in on why Phoenix is struggling

> Things are getting ugly in Phoenix, where the Suns have lost nine in a row and have fallen out of the playoff picture. Who’s to blame here? The owner? The GM? The millennials?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Yes. It’s a franchise-wide collapse at all levels. Clearly, everyone in Phoenix went all-in after the surprise 48-win season two years ago, but the moves GM Ryan McDonough made — maxing out Eric Bledsoe, extending the Morris twins, trading Goran Dragic for Brandon Knight, signing Tyson Chandler  haven’t worked, and coach Jeff Hornacek hasn’t reached the players that he does have. (Though I get the Chandler move; the Suns were trying to lure LaMarcus Aldridge by having a center in tow, and it almost worked. Almost.) There are still some good players on the roster in Knight, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, and I still haven’t given up on Alex Len. But until the Suns move Markieff Morris, they can’t move forward.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Owners are responsible in a buck-stops-here way, whether they embrace it or not. But owners gonna own – the stuff we’re talking about with the Suns mostly is on GM Ryan McDonough. It’s his job to both navigate whatever his owner’s peccadilloes might be while overseeing the basketball operation in a much smarter and disciplined way than Phoenix has shown. If you trade a twin and the one left behind squeals as if they’re conjoined, you move the other one — fast. You don’t fire assistant coaches during a season as any sort of solution. You don’t build your team around a cluster of point guards, none of whom brings much coach-on-the-floor authority to the court. Most of all, you don’t squander the built-in advantages the franchise long has enjoyed and the reputation it built as a “destination” market for NBA players.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: That fact that Robert Sarver blamed millennials was, I think, his latest way of saying, “Look at me! I’m your answer.” The owner is rash, impulsive and wants a champagne team on a beer budget. The move to sign Tyson Chandler as a free agent lure for LaMarcus Aldridge was just plain foolish. Now three seasons in, general manager Ryan McDonough’s analytics-driven building plan has done nothing but player checkers with the roster and now leaving coach Jeff Hornacek dangling. Together they’ve turned Phoenix into a, well, desert.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comI thought the millennials are to blame for everything. And the media. In this specific situation, though, it’s the millennials, the media, the front office and the players. Jeff Horncek is on the hook as well because any coach should get credit when things go right and blame when things go wrong, but the problems in Phoenix are more about the roster that was put together and some of the players. That means you, Markieff Morris. It’s amazing to think how the world could have been different if the Suns turned out to be more than unexpected contenders for LaMarcus Aldridge.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comThere was nobody to blame a few seasons ago when the Suns won 48 games, but nothing good has happened since, especially the moves made by GM Ryan McDonough. He and the Suns loaded up on point guards, took a project center in the lottery, beefed with the Morris Twins, fell out of favor with Goran Dragic, overpaid for an old Tyson Chandler and can’t stop the bleeding now. There’s plenty of season left to get right, but this team seems headed in reverse.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Hindsight doesn’t look too kindly on the moves the Suns have made in the last year. They got only a late first-round pick in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, a terrific offensive player who’s on a very sensible, long-term contract. On the same day, they downgraded from Goran Dragic to Brandon Knight, to whom they had to give a new contract (which pays him about twice as much as Thomas) this past summer. In that same trade, they sent Philadelphia a fantastic asset (the Lakers pick). Then this summer, they gave Tyson Chandler (who’s been a disappointment) a contract that’s going to pay him $13.6 million when he’s 36 years old. All that points at GM Ryan McDonough, but success and failure in this league start at the top and from all accounts, Robert Sarver has had his hands in most or all of the decisions that have been made.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Let’s do the right thing and spread the blame around to all involved. Robert Sarver dumping the Suns’ problems on millennials, and Markieff Morris in particular, is no way to bridge the generational culture gap that exists in Phoenix right now. The fact is the Suns have swung and missed a few times in the Draft and in free agency. No crime there, it happens to the best franchises. It’s how you handle adversity, from the top down, that tells the real story. And the Suns, starting with Sarver, are handling things horribly. There’s no need to vent, publicly, about your team (full of millennials in a league full of millennials, mind you) being spoiled and whiny and unwilling to roll with a program that hasn’t even produced so much as a single trip to the playoffs. And no, cutting a practice short so the team can go bowling, or any other forced team-bonding tricks will fix what ails this team.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The coach, GM and owner are always responsible. At the same time, the Suns are going through the inevitable decline that awaits every good team after the great players (Steve Nash et al) are gone. It is – unless you can convince the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to sign on as free agents – the unalterable fact of NBA life that franchises must hit bottom for an extended time before rising up again. It happens everywhere, like a law of gravity, and it makes everyone look bad.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogSuns owner Robert Sarver’s statements about social media made him an easy Twitter target, but that doesn’t mean that he was wrong about the dangers of social media. At the same time, that doesn’t have anything to do with a basketball team. After all, there are a lot of millennials on the Golden State Warriors’ roster (heck, even their interim coach is one) and they seem to be doing just fine. The real problem in Phoenix is that their team just isn’t very good. They doubled-down on a strategy that was more of a novelty than anything, and once they accumulated four point guards they basically were wed to the idea. I like the idea of zagging while everyone else is zigging, but at some point you stray so far from the rest of the group that there’s nowhere else to go.

Sarver blames generation gap for Suns’ ills



VIDEO: The reeling Suns fall to the Lakers, 97-77

There’s plenty wrong in Phoenix when the Suns get thumped by the lowly Lakers, trailing at one time by 38 points, when nobody can defend at a suitably professional level, when coach Jeff Hornacek is left out there flapping in the breeze concerning his job status following a ninth consecutive loss.

But Suns owner Robert Sarver isn’t digging through advanced metrics or any old school basketball books for the solution. He says it’s simply a generational problem with Markieff Morris as the prime example. Sarver told Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic that he just can’t figure out those darn kids:

“I’m not sure it’s just the NBA,” Sarver said. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can’t seem to recover from it.

“I’m not sure if it’s the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I’m not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it’s like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations. We’ve had a number of setbacks this year that have taken their toll on us, and we haven’t been resilient. Therefore, it’s up to our entire organization to step up their game.”

Perhaps a mult-player deal to bring in “pre-millenials” Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki?

Meanwhile the rumor is circulating that former coach Mike D’Antoni’s name is back in the mix if the Suns decide to move on from Hornacek.

Fresh 2016 NBA bench rumble: There is active buzz in coaching circles that Mike D’Antoni will be on Suns’ list if/when that job comes open

— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 4, 2016

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Why Suns have fallen on hard times


VIDEO: The Phoenix Suns shook up their coaching roster

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

The Phoenix Suns hit a new low point on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) by losing to the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, 111-104. It marked Phoenix’s fourth straight loss, and Philly’s second win of the season.

Adding injury to insult, point guard Eric Bledsoe suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee after eight minutes of action. He underwent successful surgery, and although initial reports indicated he’d be out approximately six weeks, the Suns officially announced Tuesday that Bledsoe will miss the remainder of the season.

Of course, Bledsoe’s injury is just the latest black mark on Phoenix’s laundry list of problems — issues that began to surface long before its star was felled to the sidelines. The frustrations prompted the organization’s front office to sever ties with assistant coaches Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who led the team to an entirely unexpected 48-34 record in his first season, remains on the hot seat as his Suns are 13 games under .500 combined in the two seasons since.

So, what happened? How did the franchise go from Western Conference upstart to hitting rock bottom?

The Markieff conundrum

While in pursuit of free-agent power forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason – who was reportedly deciding between Phoenix and San Antonio – the Suns opted to trade Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons. The salary dump freed up cap space necessary to chase the former Texas Longhorn, but Aldridge ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. That move prompted a tailspin in the desert. Up-and-coming power forward Markieff Morris was incensed at the organization for trading his twin brother, Marcus. He even tweeted that his basketball future would not include the colors purple and orange.

Morris eventually backtracked from the tone he struck throughout the summer on Suns media day, saying, “I want to be here,” per AZCentral’s Paul Coro.

With that, it seemed the Morris drama had ended, but he still needed to prove his worth on the court. Through the early stages of 2015-16, the former Kansas Jayhawk has failed miserably to do so.

Morris’ player efficiency rating has tanked all the way down to the single digits – a career-worst 9.2. That PER ranks Morris No. 280 out of 324 qualified players, one slot ahead of teammate P.J. Tucker (Phoenix’s starting small forward).

After evolving into a reliable offensive option who could knock down tough shots from a variety of distances, Morris has regressed dramatically as a scorer.

Unless he’s taking shots at the rim, Morris hasn’t even been able to crack 35 percent shooting from any distance. He’s shooting a woeful 37.9 percent overall, the worst mark of his career.

On top of the ghastly production, Morris was recently suspended two games by the Suns for throwing a towel in the direction of Hornacek. Though the towel toss was deemed “conduct detrimental to the team,” you could argue the poor shooting from Morris has been just as damaging throughout the campaign.

It appears from the outside that the best course of action for both parties is to part ways via trade. At this point, however, Morris’ trade value has diminished to the point where Phoenix would be lucky to get any sort of worthwhile return.

Chandler an ill fit

One of the splashy moves Phoenix made this offseason was signing former Kia Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal. For a team with a lengthy track record of not possessing reliable rim protection, this was a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Chandler has been a shell of his former self.

In a truly incredible development, Phoenix’s opponents have been far superior offensively when Chandler plays. They score a whopping 13.1 points more per 100 possessions when the 7-foot-1 skyscraper is playing.

And if Chandler isn’t a net positive on defense, there’s virtually no reason for Hornacek to give him added minutes as Chandler has been a non-factor on offense.

Phoenix’s offense is better across the board when Chandler sits. From effective field goal percentage to offensive rating, the Suns are superior scorers without Chandler. They even boast a better rebound rate without him.

Historically, the big man has been a valuable pick-and-roll partner — diving to the hoop off screens and slamming home alley-oops. But without the proper spacing in Phoenix’s offense, defenses simply collapse to prevent those lobs.

In short, Chandler has fit like a square peg in a round hole thus far – a terrible development, because he’ll have three years and approximately $40 million left on his contract after 2015-16.

Bledsoe’s health an issue, too

Bledsoe being ruled out for the remainder of the season is a huge blow to the Suns’ hopes. Although Phoenix was likely going nowhere this season with or without Bledsoe, losing his two-way, on-court impact still stings.

In addition to ranking within the top 10 among all point guards by PER, Bledsoe was one of just four players in the league to average at least 20 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals per contest.

By a multitude of measures, Bledsoe was building a rep as one of the best floor generals in the league.

Given that Bledsoe already underwent a meniscus surgery on his other knee back in 2014, the Suns have to be concerned about his future. If health problems continue to plague Bledsoe, Phoenix will have much bigger concerns than fixing team chemistry in 2015-16.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jordan pays tribute to Kobe | Cavs right ship with team meeting | Spurs find ways to win | Report: Burks opts for surgery

No. 1: Jordan pays tribute to Kobe Kobe Bryant is in his 20th season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, so its easy to forget that Bryant was actually drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and later traded to the Lakers. Bryant returned to Charlotte last night on his farewell tour for his final game in the Queen City, and while Hornets owner Michael Jordan couldn’t make it in person, the Hornets welcomed Kobe with a video message from Jordan before the game. As ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, Kobe appreciated the tribute…

Bryant said he spoke with Jordan on Sunday and knew the video would be shown.

“It was awesome. It was awesome,” Bryant said. “He and I — as he said in the video — we talk pretty often. But it was pretty funny to see some of the reactions of my teammates. I was sitting next to Julius Randle before the game. He was like, ‘Yo, that’s amazing!’ I was like, ‘What?’ [He said] ‘That was Michael Jordan!'”

Bryant added, “We talk fairly often. I know he’s enjoying a little vacation time. I told him I was a little jealous. He said, ‘You’ll be here soon enough.'”

While Jordan transitioned into an ownership role for an NBA team, Bryant said he doesn’t expect to follow the same path.

“No, he and I differ entirely when it comes to that,” Bryant said. “He’s a mathematician. He loves math. He loves numbers, loves dealing with numbers. I don’t. I could care less. I suck at math. So from that perspective, I’m not going to be looking at cap numbers and all that other stuff. I just have no interest in it.”

Bryant again was warmly received by a road crowd that chanted his name at numerous points throughout the game, including when the buzzer sounded.

“It’s been like that every city, fortunately,” he said. “Here it’s a little bit different because this is the city that drafted me, so my journey started here. As brief as it was, it still started here. That has a little more value to it.”

But perhaps no stop means as much — or carries as much personal history for Bryant and his team — as the stop Wednesday, when Bryant will play his final game in Boston against the archrival Celtics, a team Bryant faced twice in the Finals. The Lakers lost in 2008, then won in 2010.

“Love-hate fest sort of thing,” he said of what he is expecting from the crowd. “I’m bringing my family down because my kids have never even been to Boston. They’ve never even been to Boston. I’m looking forward to them getting a chance to see the city a little bit and then just experience the green. It’s just a different green. I want them to be able to see that.”

Bryant also said he misses playing the villain, which meant being booed at road arenas.

“Yeah. It was just so natural to me for so many years,” he said. “It became something that just felt comfortable. It felt a little awkward at first, to be honest with you, to get this praise, but I’m glad they didn’t do this many, many years ago because it’s like kryptonite. It would’ve taken away all my energy and all my strength because I relied a lot on being the villain. Sometimes, the best way to beat the villain is to give them a hug.”


VIDEO: Jordan Honors Kobe

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Report: Suns’ Hornacek on hot seat

A 7-5 start through the season’s first four weeks apparently hasn’t bought the Phoenix Suns or their head coach, Jeff Hornacek, much rhythm now that Phoenix has fallen in the West standings. A bad 24 hours that started Saturday with a loss to lowly Philadelphia at home and a sprained left knee suffered by guard Eric Bledsoe turned worse with ESPN.com’s report that Hornacek’s job could be in jeopardy. As reported by Marc Stein:

Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns have been forced to contemplate a coaching change far sooner than they hoped because of a slide that has dropped them to 12-20 and 11th in the Western Conference, with fears growing within the organization that the team is no longer responding to Hornacek.

Phoenix began the season with playoff aspirations after posting records of 48-34 and 39-43 in Hornacek’s first two seasons and the marquee offseason signing of center Tyson Chandler. But the Suns have dropped 15 of 20 games since opening up at 7-5, seemingly bottoming out in Saturday night’s home loss to the Sixers in which star guard Eric Bledsoe also exited with a sprained left knee in the second quarter.

The Arizona Republic reported Sunday that Bledsoe is expected to miss “extended time” because of the injury, with results of an MRI exam forthcoming.

“Obviously it’s probably a low point for us,” Hornacek told reporters after the [Sixers loss]. “Now the confidence is lacking.”

It was Philadelphia’s first road win since last March, as well as the first game of a two-game suspension for Suns forward Markieff Morris, who threw a towel in Hornacek’s direction after being pulled from a home loss Wednesday to 12-18 Denver. Morris has been angling for a trade since the offseason.

“Pretty embarrassing, point blank, period,” Suns forward P.J. Tucker told the Arizona Republic on Saturday night. “If something doesn’t change quick, it could get really ugly, really fast.”

This is the final guaranteed season on Hornacek’s original four-year contract. Questions about his future with the club have been in circulation in coaching circles since the Suns elected not to pick up their team option on Hornacek for 2016-17 entering this season.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 25


VIDEO: LeBron James on the Christmas Day matchup with Golden State

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs not poking the bear | Bulls’ tandem not matching up | Sixers get Smith back | Hawks looking at big picture

No. 1: Cavs not poking the bear — There are a few teams around the league that have challenged the Golden State Warriors with their words more than they’ve challenged them on the basketball court. And it’s clear that some bulletin board material has kept the Warriors motivated through a 27-1 start. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the first title contender that Golden State is facing this season, but they won’t provide the champs any more motivation than that. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst writes how LeBron James and the Cavs have kept their words to a minimum in anticipation of Friday’s marquee matchup…

James has lightly touched on references to the Warriors this season as he has tried to inspire his teammates at times.

“We lost in the Finals, we didn’t win,” James said after a loss in mid-November as the Warriors were racing out to a 24-0 start. “And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are, so it shouldn’t be that way.”

But since then, James has avoided most references to the defending champions. If he has talked more about it to his team in meetings, it has stayed private. When asked how closely he watches the Warriors, as reporters probe for hints of obsession, James said he watches all games, and because he plays in the East he often watches Western teams, including the Warriors, after his team’s games are over. In other words, James is passing on offering up red meat.

In the days leading up to the trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, James and his teammates have gone full cliché when it comes to this anticipated game, even with Irving returning from his knee injury in time to make the Cavs whole again for the first time since April. The same goes for coach David Blatt.

“There’s a lot of good teams in the league,” Blatt said. “Certainly, Golden State is one of the best teams, but they’re not all we talk about. You really can’t afford spending too much time thinking about what other teams are doing in the league.”

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No. 2: Bulls’ tandem not matching up — When you’re discussing the best backcourts in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls’ duo of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler has name recognition, but not much substantive evidence in a case for inclusion. Butler is one of the best two-way wings in the league, but Rose has struggled in his third season back since originally blowing out his knee. Rose has the fourth-worst effective field goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 150 shots this season and his free throw rate is at a career low. Our Steve Aschburner goes deeper into the contrast between the Bulls’ “star” tandem and the one they’re facing on Christmas…

Then there is Chicago’s Butler and Rose, who ought to be a hybrid of Golden State’s backcourt stars and OKC’s nasty pair. One’s a former MVP, the other is an All-Star. They’re both capable of initiating offense and getting hot enough to carry a team through games, even for weeks.

But the two have taken turns more than they’ve meshed. Rose established himself before Butler arrived, then slipped into the background due to injuries. Meanwhile, Butler filled the Bulls’ void, providing as one of the NBA’s best two-way wing players what they were missing from their formerly explosive point guard.

Now that they’re both in the rotation and relatively healthy, fans at United Center have seen more chafing and dysfunction than chemistry and synchronicity. Butler recently called out new bench boss Fred Hoiberg for not coaching “hard enough,” with insiders suggesting he had Rose in mind as one of those cut too much slack. Rose, meanwhile, continues to get called out by pretty much everybody in Chicago for not being the player he once was, whether the surgeries themselves or a wariness of contact are to blame.

Durant and Westbrook are the best duo these days and, arguably, the best ever. When you look at their numbers in the seasons they’ve shared — 28.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 3.7 apg for Durant, 27.3, 6.9 and 3.5 for Westbrook in their eight seasons as teammates — a pretty good case can be made that they’re as dangerous as, or more so than, West and Baylor. Those two Lakers greats put up similarly staggering numbers across 11 seasons together: West 27.8, 6.1 and 6.2 to Baylor’s 26.7, 12.4 and 4.4

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No. 3: Sixers get Smith back — The first transaction of the Jerry Colangelo era in Philadelphia was the fixing of a mistake made earlier this year. On Thursday, the Sixers, desperate for help at point guard, traded two second round picks to New Orleans for Ish Smith, who Philly didn’t re-sign this summer. The Pelicans had signed Smith the day before the season started and, with their backcourt finally looking healthy, managed to turn that desperation signing into a couple of assets. Tom Moore of The Intelligencer has the story from the Sixers’ side…

It appears Jerry Colangelo has made his first moves since joining the 76ers.

The new Sixers’ chairman of basketball operations seemed to be the driving force behind trading a pair of second-round picks to the Pelicans in exchange for point guard Ish Smith, who played with the Sixers last season and is a favorite of Nerlens Noel.

To make room for Smith on the 15-man roster, the Sixers waived guard Tony Wroten.

Smith, a five-year NBA veteran, is averaging 8.9 points and 5.4 assists in 27 games with New Orleans this season. He’s fifth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.42) and joins a team ranked last in turnovers.

Smith appeared in 25 games (14 starts) as a Sixer in 2014-15, averaging 12 points and 6.1 assists for Philadelphia. The team was interested in re-signing him, but he turned down more guaranteed money from other teams before eventually agreeing to a non-guaranteed league-minimum contract with the Wizards (Washington waived him).

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No. 4: Hawks looking at big picture — The Atlanta Hawks have already lost as many games between Thanksgiving and the All-Star break this season (9-5) as they did last season (36-5). They’re certainly not taking the league by storm like they did a year ago. But as our Sekou Smith writes, there’s no looking back in Atlanta and right now, the 2015-16 Hawks are beginning to find their way…

The win over Detroit marked a full circle turn for the Hawks, who couldn’t handle Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson during their surprising home loss to Stan Van Gundy’s upstart team on opening night. They handled the Pistons this time, outscoring them in the paint (56-52) and doubling them up in bench scoring (34-17), thanks in large part to Dennis Schroder’s 14 points.

“We’ve just been more consistent,” Kyle Korver said. ‘We played good in spurts in the early part of the season, quarter-to-quarter and game-by-game … but this is as close to a complete game as we’ve played in a good little while. We’re a bit more focused. We’re playing with more purpose. And we’re doing it for longer stretches.”

And yet they are still not playing with enough focus and purpose for long enough stretches to satisfy Mike Budenholzer, who insists his team still hasn’t quite put it all together.

“We’re getting closer to playing a complete game,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’re obviously getting closer to where we want to be.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Suns suspended Markieff Morris two games for Wednesday’s towel-throwing incident … Our Scott Howard-Cooper compares the Warriors to the Showtime Lakers … The final game on Friday is the final Christmas Day game for the all-time leading Christmas Day scorerThe Heat like each other … A quiet fourth quarter from Kristaps Porzingis may be a cause for concern for the KnicksThis isn’t a great time for the Bulls to be playing one of the league’s four best teams.

ICYMI: The Starters rank the top 10 plays of the season so far:


VIDEO: Top 10 2015-16 plays from The Starters

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 24


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win | Suns throw in towel against Denver | Hawks starting to soar | Butler wants to lead Bulls

No. 1: Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win Wednesday night the Dallas Mavericks visited Brooklyn, which meant the return of Deron Williams to the borough where he formerly played. But with Williams out injured, leave it to the 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to post a performance worthy of the Big Apple. Not only did Nowitzki pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth all-time in scoring in the NBA, but he also hit the game-winner in overtime to give the Mavericks the victory. And as Eddie Sefko writes in the Dallas Morning News, in some ways it was business as usual for Nowitzki

“Way back when I was a skinny 20-year-old, bad haircut, bad earring, not the most confident guy,” he said, before stopping, clearly thinking about the enormity of having only five players ahead of him on the all-time scoring list.

“Sounds pretty good, huh?” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

And the way he passed Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday couldn’t have been more fitting. He nailed a midrange jumper early in the second quarter against Brooklyn, took congratulatory hugs from teammates and coaches, then, a couple hours later, slipped to the basket for the winning layup in a 119-118 overtime victory that the Mavericks needed a lot more than Nowitzki needed any milestone.

Along the way, the Mavericks needed a lot of help from a guy who’s only 23,607 points behind Nowitzki on the scoring list.

J.J. Barea had a career-best 32 points, including several key 3-pointers, paying big dividends for coach Rick Carlisle starting him in place of the injured Deron Williams.

“I think the coach threw me in there early to give us a little energy early and I got in a rhythm and was able to help my team out big time,” Barea said. “I wanted to get to 30 (points in a game) before I finished my career.”

But even he knew this night was not about him, even though he’s never had a better statistical night. He hit his first eight shots and finished 13-for-20 and also dished out 11 assists.

“I’ve been through all the battles with him and seen him break all kinds of records,” Barea said. “But this one is amazing.”

Nowitzki started fast with six points in the first six minutes. Early in the second quarter, he got the ball on the left wing and wasted no time, pulling up and nailing an 18-footer for the record.

“It was a special moment for me,” he said. “I saw the whole team getting up and everybody gave me a hug and I’ve obviously been blessed in this organization for a long, long time.

“There have been a lot of great players who didn’t score as many points because they were cut short by injuries. I’ve been lucky. And we got the win. It would have felt really salty flying home with a loss.”


VIDEO: Arena Link — Dirk Nowitzki

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No. 2: Suns throw in towel against Denver The current Phoenix Suns feel light years removed from just two seasons ago, when they unveiled a small ball lineup that raced through the Western Conference and nearly earned a playoff berth. These days they are in flux, with forward Markieff Morris recently assigned to the bench. Last night the Suns lost at home to an undermanned Nuggets team, as Paul Coro writes in the Arizona Republic, while Morris evoked Robert Horry … and not in a good way…

In one of their more advantageous scenarios of the season, the Suns posted another dreadful loss with play so frightful and no signs of stopping. The bow on Wednesday night’s stocking of coal came when Markieff Morris added to a season of distraction by harkening back memories of Robert Horry’s towel toss at Danny Ainge by tossing a towel toward coach Jeff Hornacek in Wednesday’s fourth quarter.

The Suns lost 104-96 at Talking Stick Resort Arena to a Denver team playing a night after losing at home to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers and was missing five players (two starters) with no backup point guard available.

That is not all that surprising any longer for a team that has gone 5-14 since Nov. 22. How the Suns fell behind by 22 points, rallied to lead by three, started each half with new lineups and lost is now of less interest than Morris’ towel toss.

Much like Horry on a 10-21 Suns team in 1997, Morris was upset about being pulled from the fourth quarter from a 12-19 Suns team. With 9:47 to play and Denver leading 84-75, Morris was taken out of the game and he threw the towel while barking at Hornacek. Hornacek picked up the towel and threw it back Morris’ way with his own upset words for him.

“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. So there, I took him out. … He thinks he’s better than that. Show me.”

Hornacek said the Suns staff will discuss possible discipline for Morris, who has created a stir since the offseason when he asked to be traded after his twin, Marcus, was dealt. Markieff did not arrive in Phoenix until it was required for training camp. He lost his starting job earlier this month.

In January, Marcus also engaged in a shouting match during a game with Hornacek. He apologized publicly and to Hornacek after the game.

“That’s between me and ‘H’ (Hornaceck),” said Markieff, who made 2 of 8 shots and had one rebound Wednesday. “It’s not for media. It’s something between me and him that happened. We’ll talk about it.”

***

No. 3: Hawks starting to soar They won 60 games a season ago, including a 19-game win streak, but thus far this season, even with a winning record, the Hawks have mostly flown under the radar. That may be changing now. Wednesday night the Hawks got their fifth win in a row with a convincing home victory over the Detroit Pistons, and the Hawks are now in second place in the Eastern Conference. As Brad Rowland writes for Peachtree Hoops, the Hawks hacked Andre Drummond and got a big night from Jeff Teague to get the win…

The game was highly competitive early on, with Detroit taking an 18-14 advantage after a 7-0 run. That momentum would not last particularly long, however, as Mike Budenholzer employed the aforementioned “Hack-a-Drummond” strategy freely from that point forward, and that seemed to turn the tide. Dennis Schröder exploded for seven straight points to end the opening quarter (11 in the period), and in a flash, the Hawks were in control.

The “big” spurt was yet to come, though, and it appeared to close the second quarter. Atlanta raced to a 26-9 run to end the half, with Jeff Teague taking things over, and he finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds before the break. That big run netted the Hawks a 61-45 lead, and on the defensive end, Atlanta was quite effective in holding the Pistons to just 33% shooting (27% in the second quarter) in addition to the poor free throw shooting from Drummond.

To begin the second half, the Hawks quickly increased the lead to 22 points, but the margin settled into the mid-teens for much of the remainder of the contest. In truth, Atlanta didn’t play particularly well down the stretch, including a third quarter in which they allowed 50% shooting to Detroit, but the Pistons were never able to seriously challenge on the scoreboard until the closing minutes.

Detroit managed to climb within an 8-point deficit within the final two minutes of game action, using an 11-4 run to force a timeout from Budenholzer with 1:52 left in the game. Though it wasn’t pretty, the Hawks managed to salt the game away for good using a Jeff Teague basket (that was actually a goaltend from Andre Drummond) to push the lead back to 10 with 41.1 seconds remaining and that was the end of the threat. From there, Atlanta put away a 7-point win and the winning streak reached five games in pleasing fashion.

It was a big night from Teague, and that was the biggest individual story. He has struggled, at least relatively, to this point in the season, but this may serve as a “breakout” from the 2015 All-Star, as he finished with 23 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds while keying everything Atlanta did offensively. In support, Paul Millsap added 18 points and Al Horford chipped in with 15 points in his own right, but this night was about Teague and a strong team effort on the defensive end.

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No. 4: Butler wants to lead Bulls As the Chicago Bulls try to right the ship and find some offense to go along with their defensive prowess, reports of unrest continue. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, as the Bulls consider roster moves, some players aren’t thrilled with Jimmy Butler‘s attempts to position himself as the leader of these Bulls…

While Jimmy Butler won the self-appointed leadership role unopposed, not everyone associated with the Bulls is a supporter.

One source told the Sun-Times that there are several players that often simply laugh when told of Butler’s latest thumping-of-the-chest leadership proclamations, and while Derrick Rose seems to be completely detached from the situation, his camp is very annoyed by all things Butler these days.

A veteran that is behind the Butler push, however? Well, it just so happens to be the one player in the locker room with two championship rings.

“I don’t mind those comments,’’ big man Pau Gasol said, when asked about Butler declaring himself the leader throughout this season. “I think those comments are positive. Those comments and attitudes don’t raise my eyebrows. I think it’s good certain guys want to take ownership and say, ‘Hey let’s go.’ ‘’

Gasol said that Butler worked his way into that role of leader, and was obviously paid like it this offseason, when the Bulls gave him a five-year, $92.3 million contract extension.

“I don’t disagree with it,’’ Gasol said. “I think Jimmy is obviously one of the main guys here.’’

He’s more than that. He’s the future. His deal is guaranteed through the first four years, with a player option of $19.8 million following the 2019-20 season.

Basically, last man standing of all the veterans on the roster.

Gasol has a player option at the end of this season, and there continues to be more whispers that he’s done with the Bulls experiment, while Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks each come off the books when this season comes to an end.

Rose and Taj Gibson are free agents after next season, while the Bulls own the $5.175 million option on Mike Dunleavy for the 2017-18 season.

The likes of Gibson, Noah and Gasol might not even see the end of their current contracts, as several sources indicated that the Bulls are taking calls on all three players as the trade deadline draws near.

Noah’s value has taken a hit this week with a small tear in his left shoulder, and the center told reporters on Wednesday that he is looking at a two-to-four week window now. Not the best news for a player that was starting to look like his old self.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The NBA debuted a new public service announcement campaign against gun violenceSteph Curry says he’s the best player in the worldKobe Bryant and Kevin Durant exchanged shoes after playing against each other … Mark Cuban says Rick Carlisle’s threat to trade players was a motivational moveAlan Anderson looks to be out for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, John Wall has his own set of injury issuesNik Stauskas says he’s the hardest working guy on the Sixers … The Houston Rockets are trying to help former players stay on top of their health

Blogtable: Who’s getting traded?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Lasting impression from Warriors’ start? | Who’s getting traded? |
Rondo suspension harsh enough?



VIDEOThe Starters discuss who may get traded this season

> Give me a name or two, guys who you think almost certainly will be traded between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: How ’bout Markieff Morris, Brandon Jennings, Kevin Martin and (a constant on these speculative lists) DeMarcus Cousins? Morris has wanted out of Phoenix since the Suns broke the family bond by dealing away brother Marcus. Jennings, if he can demonstrate his ability once he returns from Achilles-surgery rehab, would be redundant for Detroit behind Reggie Jackson if he can’t settle into a sixth-man role. Martin is the rare Timberwolf who is in mid-career and thus, out of place in Minnesota’s mentor-driven rebuild. As for Cousins, he’s done the groundwork to join that historical group of malcontented NBA big men who got traded two or three times in their careers, so he might as well get the first one out of the way.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Ryan Anderson. Pelicans need to do something for the future and he’s probably their most valuable trade chip. Also, Terrence Jones, who is a victim of a Rockets numbers game with Clint Capela and Donatas Motiejunas.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comJoe Johnson, brutal salary and all. But the Nets need to hurry. Even if they price Johnson to move, his offense has become more problem than attractive. I would still expect a playoff team looking for a veteran to show interest.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Taj Gibson, Brandon Jennings, Markieff Morris. The Bulls have a replacement for Gibson, Morris and the Suns are overdue for a parting (and his team-friendly contract would be in demand) while the Pistons have no need for Jennings and besides, coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t seem to be a big fan.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comIt’s hard to say that someone will “almost certainly” be traded, because it takes two to tango and a trade it’s more difficult these days to convince another team that your trash is their treasure. The Clippers may want to cut bait on the Lance Stephenson experiment, but they’re more likely to find a taker on Jamal Crawford. If the Pelicans don’t survive this five-game road trip (which is already off to a rough start) they’re on, they should start looking at the future and seeing what they can get for Ryan Anderson. The Grizzlies, Rockets and Wizards are all primed for a shake-up, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tony Allen, Corey Brewer, or Nene in a new home by Feb. 18.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Brandon Jennings is a prime target, what with Reggie Jackson making himself at home as the starting point guard in Detroit for the foreseeable future. Quality point guards are always in demand and he’d be an intriguing fit in several places (Utah, New Orleans, just to name a couple). Lance Stephenson just doesn’t seem to fit with the Clippers and what they are trying to do. If someone gets thrown overboard between now and the deadline, I won’t be shocked if it’s Born Ready.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Brandon Bass, the Lakers’ 30 year old power forward, has an affordable two-year contract totaling $6.1 million. His midrange shotmaking, defense and postseason experience could help any number of playoff contenders. By February their fans will be begging the Lakers to unload short-term talents like Bass in hope of retaining their No. 1 pick, which goes to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top three.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I’d guess either Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young. Brooklyn is in deep trouble looking ahead, with their draft future mostly belonging to Boston and their on-court future looking murky. They need to rebuild, but don’t have the pieces to do it. Their only real option is to move whatever they have left and try to get some pieces they can build upon going forward. And from what I can tell, Young and Lopez are their best bets this season to dangle at the trade deadline and hope to get a Draft pick in return.