Posts Tagged ‘Monty Williams’

The Rise Of New Orleans’ Pelicans

Tom Benson (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Pelicans owner Tom Benson (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

NEW ORLEANS — While the geographic incongruity of the Lakers slam dunking near the ocean in Los Angeles and the Jazz playing pick-and-roll music in conservative Utah have become ingrained parts of NBA tradition, the feeling was that for pro basketball to finally thrive in southern Louisiana, a new name to match the region would finally help put down roots.

Thus were born the New Orleans Pelicans. Or, more accurately, a rechristening of the Hornets, arrivals from Charlotte, N.C. in 2002 and temporary refugees in Oklahoma City from 2005 to 2007.

Part resurrecting the banner of a beloved minor league baseball franchise (1887 to 1959) and part homage to the official and resilient state bird that appears on the state flag, seal and commemorative quarter, the new team nickname was an instant hit before the start of the 2013-14 season.

“Actually, it was funny that the reaction all over the country was surprised and, in some cases, not good,” said team president Dennis Lauscha. “Because as soon as the name spread around here, people got it. Immediately. The pelican means something in Louisiana.”

The name-change was the most public evidence of a total revamping and rebranding of the franchise since the purchase by Tom Benson in April 2012. Since the 86-year-old owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints spent a reported $338 million to buy the club from the NBA, there has been a full-court press to make upgrades to every level of the organization in a city that has had a mutually noncommittal love affair with professional basketball since the days after World War II. From the Hurricanes to the Sports to the Buccaneers to the Jazz to the Hornets, loyalty has often been discarded like a plastic beer cup on Bourbon Street.

“That’s why it was important for us to demonstrate right away that this, in no way, was stop-gap ownership,” Lauscha said. “The mandate from Mr. Benson was that if we were going to get into the NBA, then we were going to get in all the way and make the same kind of commitment that eventually produced a Super Bowl championship for the Saints.”

Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Pelicans president Dennis Lauscha (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

That push is coming every day, more than eight years after the devastation inflicted upon the city and the entire Gulf Coast region by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the population within the city limits is 369,250, down from a 2000 high of 484,674. But there has been a gain of 28.2 percent since 2007. The greater metro area is now at 1.2 million, off just 8 percent from 1.3 million in 2000.

New Orleans, ranked 53rd, is the smallest television market in the NBA, yet the Pelicans have made significant inroads by finally getting distribution into the prosperous North Shore area of Lake Pontchartrain. The Pelicans had the largest increase in part- and full-season ticket sales in the league and ranked among the top third in merchandise sales coming into the 2013-14 season when the new name became official. Two weeks ago, the team announced a 10-year deal worth a reported $40 million to rename 14-year-old New Orleans Arena as the Smoothie King Center.

“There’s a new energy, a new sense of excitement around the team and whole franchise,” said coach Monty Williams, now in his fourth season. “When I first got here, all I heard was the reasons why guys didn’t want to come here. Practice site, location of the practice site. All these things that to me were excuses. Because you’re not in the game in the fourth quarter, about to shoot free throws and thinking, ‘Man, if we had a better practice site I’d make these.’

“All that stuff can be an excuse. But now I’m listening to people around the league. I’ve got players coming up to me during the game and saying, ‘Hey Coach, don’t forget me this summer.’ I wasn’t hearing that the first few years. Everybody just wanted to get out of here. I didn’t have a problem with that. They weren’t doing anything illegal. I just wanted guys to give it a chance. You can see the potential here. We’ve got an unbelievable fan base. We just need them to come to games more. I’ve been lobbying for that and I think they will once we give them a better reason to.”

Jack Sperling mid-wifed the team through the period when the Hornets were owned by the NBA. Then Mickey Loomis, also general manger of the Saints, became the head of basketball operations, and he and Lauscha undertook a plan that has produced a $10 million Pelicans practice facility that adjoins the Saints in nearby Metarie. It is state of the art and then some, the finest in the NBA.

“They showed me blueprints and plans last summer when I first got traded to the team,” said point guard Jrue Holiday. “I said, ‘OK, that’s nice.’

“Then I got down here for training camp and it was open and all you could say was ‘Wow!’ I think there is definitely a different feel. I’ll be the first one to tell you that two years ago I would say, ‘No, don’t send me down here.’ But now that I’m here and now that we have a new facility and, especially with the team that we have, the players, the coaching staff, it’s definitely one of the top places to be.”

The Pelicans are led by 2012 No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis, who in his second NBA season has posted unprecedented numbers for a 20-year-old. He is the hoped-for franchise anchor for the next decade.

“I can’t and won’t look way off into the future at anything that could happen,” Davis said. “But I’ve got to say that everything that has taken place with the team and around the team tells you that everyone in charge is doing all they can to make it possible for us to succeed on the court.

“I can’t speak for what the atmosphere or the operation might have been like before I was drafted. I can only say that I like my teammates, our coaching staff and the way every effort is being made to improve. And it’s great to play in New Orleans. Except for one trip in the NCAA Tournament in college, I was never here before I was drafted. But I feel at home here. The fans have opened their arms to me, to all of us.”

This will be the second NBA All-Star Weekend held in New Orleans in the post-Katrina Era, yet there is a noticeable difference from the last time in 2008. That game was a kind-of personal pledge from former commissioner David Stern, who wanted to demonstrate to the world that his league was fully behind the recovery effort. That was at a time when there was talk of the team relocating permanently to Oklahoma City. It was before the league stepped in and bought the team from George Shinn and ran it for more than two years.

“I had a sense just before we purchased it that there was not really the necessary effort and muscle to make that team successful,” Stern said. “It deserved a chance to be successful. So when we took over, we put a little elbow grease behind it, improved the business prospects and had some conversations with the mayor and the business community.

“When you are talking about someone with the experience and the know-how and the connections in the city to make the franchise not just viable but very successful in the long run, of course, Tom Benson is the first name on that list in New Orleans.”

The octogenarian is a tireless businessman and promoter of his teams. He attends every Saints game, home and away, sits courtside for every Pelicans home game and has his calendar filled most nights of the week with appearances around town.

“I don’t know a lot about owner-coach relationships because this is my first time doing it,” said Williams. “But I hear some of the other things some coaches go through with their owners and I just sit here and think, ‘I don’t have that problem at all.’ I don’t have anything to say about Mr. B at all, other than he gives you everything you need. When you look at this practice site and the type of money he’s spent on young talent, he makes you want to win for him.

“He comes to the games. He’s talking about my wife and kids. He’s saying, ‘You were busy last summer. You were in Africa, Team USA.’ He’s talking stuff, he wants to win, no question. He’s tasted Super Bowl. What he’s done for us and for all of this to happen in a matter of two years, that’s phenomenal.

“My rookie year as a coach we went to the playoffs and this town, it was like we were in The Finals, and I want our guys to experience that. They haven’t yet. I got a taste of it in my rookie season. There’s no question that it can work here and it will.”

Avery Johnson is a New Orleans native, a graduate of St. Augustine High, who attended Southern University in Baton Rouge and watched his beloved Jazz move away to Salt Lake City in 1979. He spent 16 years in the NBA as a player, five as a head coach and is now an ESPN analyst.

“I always crossed my fingers and hoped for New Orleans, but I wasn’t sure about the NBA ever coming back,” he said. “Then the Hornets showed up, then Katrina hit and you had to figure it was all lost again.

“But now, with Tom Benson owning the club, man with all the contracts, the corporate infrastructure and the synergy that’s possible with the Pelicans and the Saints, I can honestly say for the first time that it’s possible for the NBA to be a success in New Orleans, a big success.”

There is work to do, plenty of it. Lauscha, a native of the area, has dreams of drawing fans from northern Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast region — to Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.

“Football is in the blood of the people, but there is a lot of history of basketball in Louisiana — Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Karl Malone, Willis Reed. Of course, Pete Maravich at LSU and with the Jazz.

“Its about tapping into that history and tapping into a sense of local pride and connecting this team to the city. I believe we can do that.”

Dell Demps has been the general manager since 2010. In that short time, he’s seen some great change.

“My first year here the team was in the process of being sold. The league took over the team in year two and part of year three. Then getting the leadership of the Benson family, Mickey Loomis, Dennis Lauscha, it gives us an stability.

“Then with the rebranding of the Pelican name, the symbolism of being the state bird and how the pelicans have been able to survive the hurricane, the gulf oil spill a few years ago. Just what that bird stands for — the resiliency of the state, the people, the city of New Orleans. It just gives us an identity that is our own. I think it puts us on the map with a whole new start.”

All-Star Appearance A Welcome Accolade For Pelicans’ Superstar Davis

Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is a multifaceted All-Star.

Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is a multifaceted All-Star.

NEW ORLEANS — There should be only so many different ways for one player to make you jump off the sofa.

But there’s Anthony Davis posterizing Joel Freeland of the Trail Blazers with a tomahawk dunk; there’s Davis reaching up and back and nearly to the top of the backboard to get a one-handed throw down on Luis Scola of the Pacers; there he is roaring down the lane with the force and ferocity to make Glen Davis of the Magic hit the deck like a bowling pin at the end of an alley.

Then there’s the defensive end, where Miami’s Chris Bosh seems to have him pinned down on the low block and tries to go up for an easy bucket once, then twice. Both times, Bosh has to eat the ball.  When the Lakers’ Pau Gasol gets an offensive rebound and whirls away from traffic, Davis goes right along, a figure skater in tandem. At the finish of the 360 spin, Davis slaps the ball back with disdain.  And there he is suddenly sprinting way out into the left corner to reach up and slap away a 3-point shot by an utterly shocked Tobias Harris of Orlando.

“How many times have I seen a ‘Wow!’ moment out of A.D.?” ponders teammate Ryan Anderson.  “Let’s see, how many games have we played and how many times have I been out there on the same floor at practice?  Every day he’s doing something that makes me shake my head.”


VIDEO: Brent Barry breaks down Anthony Davis’ game

The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft officially became an NBA All-Star when commissioner Adam Silver tabbed him to replace Kobe Bryant on the Western Conference team.  Davis’ ascension to that elite level of play has been there since opening night this season, when he scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots against the Pacers.

Except for a period of two weeks in December when he was sidelined by a fractured bone in his left hand, Davis has been everything the Pelicans had hoped. Yet he’s also shown he is a unique player, one no one could have imagined even with the advance hype that he brought out of his one college season at Kentucky.

His most identifying physical mark remains The Brow, which crawls like a single entity over one of his large, curiosity-filled eyes to the other. But at 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-5 1/2,  those long, lethal, larcenous limbs enable him to cover space on the court like a basketball version of the four-armed Hindu god Vishnu.


VIDEO: Davis scores 22 points, grabs 19 boards and blocks seven shots against Orlando

“He knows what he’s doing on offense and he’s a smart, aggressive player on defensive,” said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.  “Anthony Davis will shine in the NBA for years and years.  I’m telling you, he’s the truth.” (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 11


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Paul will play in All-Star Game | Evans, Williams mum on tiff | T-Mac solid in Sugar Land practice | Bucks’ Sanders out indefinitely

No. 1: Paul confirms he’ll play in All-Star Game– The Los Angeles Clippers finally got Chris Paul back in their lineup on Sunday night and while his stat line against the Philadelphia 76ers wasn’t overly impressive, his presence meant a lot to the squad. The Clips and their fans got some more good news Monday when Paul confirmed that he will take part in the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans this weekend and is looking forward to the game for both sentimental and on-court reasons, writes Eric Patten of Clippers.com:

After returning to the court from a separated right shoulder in a 123-78 victory over the76ers Sunday, Chris Paul announced Monday that he will play in this weekend’s All-Star Game at New Orleans Arena.

“It was all about me getting healthy,” Paul said. “It was more important for me to get healthy and be there for my team and my teammates. The All-Star Game is an honor and a privilege, but being healthy is the most important thing. The All-Star Game was second, but it feels good to be ready to go.”

Paul was the 2013 All-Star MVP and was selected as an All-Star for the seventh time in his nine-year career when he was named as a reserve two weeks ago. But there was still some doubt about whether or not he would be ready to play in time for the game.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said there may not be a more perfect situation for Paul to get court time than a game that is traditionally bereft of defense.

“I like him playing in the All-Star Game, personally,” Rivers said. “I think this is a rare case where he’s ready to play and the All-Star Game is probably the safest venue for him to play because it’s such a defensive struggle. Guys are taking charges and diving on the floor. I think it will just be a good thing for him to just go up and down. It allows him to go up and down in NBA game with really good players that don’t play defense in the game.”

Paul’s appearance in New Orleans will come seven years after his first All-Star Game in the city. Of course, Paul also played six seasons with the Hornets, making his return to New Orleans a momentous occasion.

“For me in 2008, it was an unbelievable experience,” said Paul, who had 16 points, 14 assists and four steals in that game as a 22-year-old. “It was our first year back in New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina], everyone on our team was excited to be back there and we had me and [David] West plus Byron [Scott] as the coach in the game. I am not sure what the NBA knew to expect coming to New Orleans, but once everyone got there, no one wanted to leave. It was one of the funnest times of my career and a game that I will never forget.”

***

No. 2: Evans, Williams mum on situation in New Orleans Former Rookie of the Year winner Tyreke Evans has had an up-and-(mostly) down first season with the New Orleans Pelicans as he has more or less struggled as the team’s sixth man. Perhaps the lowest point came Sunday night against the Brooklyn Nets, when Evans was a healthy scratch from the game and coach Monty Williams refused to offer up why he benched the swingman. Evans played Monday night in the Pelicans’ road loss to the Toronto Raptors and finished with 23 points, but both he and Williams remain quiet on what caused the Sunday benching, writes John Reid of NOLA.com:

Unlike Sunday night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans swingman Tyreke Evans played Monday night against the Toronto Raptors.

And he finished with a game-high 23-points on 10-of-14 shooting in the Pelicans’ 108-101 loss to the Raptors.

But for the second-straight day, Pelicans coach Monty Williams would not elaborate other than to say it was an unspecified internal matter on why Evans was benched the previous night.

Evans declined comment before Monday night’s game about not playing against the Nets.

But he did say there is not a communication problem going on between Williams and him as been speculated.

“I just want to help the team anyway I can,’’ Evans said.“The media can put whatever they want to put. But I know what was said and here for my teammates. I want to help them win. I’m still hurting, but I’m out there still battling and fighting.”

Evans said he’s still experiencing pain from a cartilage tear between his ribs. But a team source said, Evans’ injury had nothing to do with why he was benched Sunday night.

Unable to shake injuries, Evans has not made the type of impact that was expected before the season started. In Monday’s game against the Raptors, Evans came off the bench but started the game by badly. Evans started slowly Monday night. He airballed a jump shot before getting cal for an offensive charging foul when drove the lane while crowded with Raptors defenders.

Throughout the season, Evans has shown ability to beat defenders off the dribble,but he has struggle to finish around the rim. Evans is averaging 12.4 points, but has made just 40 percent of his shots from the field.

Last week, Williams urged for Evans to become a better jump shooter.

“ I certainly feel like I’ve had to learn his game, learn how to use him and I’m still working on that,” Williams said earlier this week. “He’s also got to learn how we play basketball. He’s got to be a willing passer and understand that he doesn’t have to do it all by himself.

“For Tyreke to be an effective player, he has to play consistent on both ends. We know he can attack the basket, but he’s going have to become a better jump shooter.”

***

No. 3: McGrady solid in first minor league pitching task As our good friend Lang Whitaker covered a few weeks ago on the All Ball Blog, retired NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady is more than just pondering a career in baseball … he’s awful serious about trying to get into the big leagues. McGrady has been trying out with the independent Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters and threw to stand-in hitters yesterday. Mark Berman of KRIV-TV has more on McGrady’s debut and reports that T-Mac was impressive in his own right on the mound:

McGrady threw to hitters for the first time during a 20-minute bullpen session on Monday at Constellation Field, the home of the Sugar Land Skeeters.

The hitters did not swing, but they got a good look at what McGrady can bring.

“He’s so tall and his arms are so long. His downward slope, you’re not going to see that too often,” said Barrett Barnes, a minor league outfielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, in an interview with FOX 26 Sports.

“When you have a presence like that on the mound, it’s really hard to settle in and be comfortable hitting.

“Say his velo is 87, but with his arms and his body, it feels like it’s 90-91 (MPH),” Barnes said.

“His velo might by lower, but it feels like it gets on you way faster.”

Kansas City Royals minor league outfielder Daniel Rockett said it felt like McGrady could almost reach out and touch him from the mound.

“With a dude that big it’s like he’s in the box with you,” Rockett said.

McGrady, who is hoping to land a spot with the Skeeters, an Atlantic League franchise, is working with Arizona Diamondbacks pro scout Scipio Spinks, and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens.

“(Spinks) taught me a lot, mechanics, and just a lot of things I didn’t know about pitching, and I’m using that to my advantage,” McGrady said.

“I also have Roger Clemens out here. What better person to have teaching you some things about pitching than Roger Clemens.”

***

No. 4: Bucks’ Sanders out indefinitely with eye injury — Whatever the opposite of a breakout season is in the NBA, that’s what Bucks big man Larry Sanders has experienced in 2013-14. After bursting onto the national NBA scene and becoming a Twitter (and Bucks fan) favorite last season, Sanders’ season has gone through a series of fits and starts that began with him missing six weeks of action after a bar fight in Milwaukee early in the season. Sanders has played in 23 games of the Bucks’ 51 games and had been coming into his own in February, but after suffering a hit to the right in Saturday’s loss to Houston, he’ll be out for a while, writes Andrew Gruman of Fox Sports Wisconsin:

Larry Sanders’ turbulent season has hit another bump in the road, as the Bucks center will be out indefinitely with a fractured right orbital bone.

The Bucks did not give a timetable for a potential return, saying Sanders will see a specialist Tuesday. Sanders suffered the injury when he took an inadvertent elbow from Rockets guard James Harden early in Saturday’s loss to Houston.

Bucks coach Larry Drew said Sanders is still experiencing blurred vision and will be out at least through the All-Star break.

“That’s really unfortunate because the kid has been play well,” Drew said. “He was starting to play with a rhythm and played two of his better games this year. It’s just real unfortunate that he sustained the injury.”

Sanders was beginning to regain form of late, averaging 14.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 63.3 percent from the field in three February games before having to leave just four minutes in on Saturday.


VIDEO: Larry Sanders suffers an eye injury in Saturday’s loss to Milwaukee

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson (rib) won’t play again until after the All-Star break … Warriors center Andrew Bogut has a shoulder injury and coach Mark Jackson‘s comments about it irked the Golden State big manEvan Turner‘s production has fallen off immensely since his hot start to the season … “Surgery” is planned for New Orleans Pelicans mascot Pierre the Pelican … Bobcats coach Steve Clifford has gotten Charlotte to buy-in on defense and one of the biggest contributors has been Al Jefferson … An SUV belonging to ex-Pistons star Ben Wallace was reportedly involved in a hit-and-run accident in Virginia …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Officially, the Pacers play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But there are times when you could call the arena “Rucker Park Midwest” with the kind of fancy dribbling moves Lance Stephenson is known to show off …


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson shakes free from Jordan Hamilton with some fancy dribbles


VIDEO: Stephenson puts some more moves on Hamilton en route to a layup

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Twice-Traded Vasquez Helping Raptors


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry scores 22 points as the Raptors stun the Thunder

DALLAS – Greivis Vasquez truly believed he was on the brink of great things in New Orleans. He had the best season of his career and the franchise was quickly picking itself up from the Chris Paul trade, positioned to burst into a new era as the Pelicans.

The Venezuelan-born Vasquez, a 6-foot-6 point guard, loved everything about it: The team, the city and his personal breakout — career bests of 13.9 ppg and 9.0 apg. The thickly bearded, 26-year-old believed he was only scratching the surface. He believed that he, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis could form the backbone of a hard-working club that would do right by the city and even, as he said last year, rise together in the mold of Oklahoma City and soon be a team to be reckoned with in the West.

Then came Draft night and the three-team trade Vasquez never saw coming.

“I guess you can’t turn down an offer for a Jrue Holiday,” Vasquez told NBA.com last Friday night prior to scoring 14 points in 15 minutes in Toronto’s overtime win against the Mavericks. “I felt like we had the same numbers. He was an All-Star and all that stuff, all that crap. Like I say, I’m really thankful because [New Orleans coach] Monty Williams gave me a chance. That whole franchise was first class and still is. It was such a great experience for me to just make a name.”

Holiday, fresh off his first All-Star season with Philadelphia, was NOLA’s point-guard prize. Vasquez went to Sacramento to start at point guard. Eighteen games in and he was gone again. The Kings’ sluggish start convinced new ownership and management to reach for Toronto’s maligned, but tempting small forward Rudy Gay, himself now twice traded in the past 11 months. Vasquez headed north of the border to another foundering franchise where starting point guard Kyle Lowry has swirled in trade winds since the Gay deal.

Funny, though, that just as the Gay trade seemed a weighted strategy to clear cap space and sink the season for prime Draft position, Vasquez and his quickly bonded teammates have turned the tables, winning four of five, including Sunday night’s handing of a first home loss to the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. Toronto will try to make it three in a row against West competition tonight at San Antonio (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

“We got a great group of guys. We’re just here to do our job,” Vasquez said. “The media and everybody is going to have their own opinions. We just have to go out there and play and play hard, have fun. We can’t really guarantee that we’re going to get every win. But we can guarantee you that we are going to play hard and play the right way.”

In five games with Toronto, Vasquez has averaged 9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg and 2.8 mpg in only 18.6 mpg, far off the 34.4 mpg he averaged last season with New Orleans, and a chunk below the 25.8 he averaged starting for the Kings.

“It’s been rough, but this is one of those years I’ve got to keep grinding and keep working. I’ll be a restricted free agent [this summer] and we’ll see what happens,” Vasquez said. “It’s just the business. At first Sacramento was talking about building a future with me and then all of a sudden I get traded. If I’m going to get traded [again] it’s going to be this year because I am going to be restricted. I am going to have to sign with somebody and find myself a home.”

The Raptors, flush with added bench depth from the trade, have life. They’re just 11-14, but they’re also back in first place in the woeful Atlantic Division after Sunday’s win. Coach Dwane Casey, working in his uncertain final year, said earning the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2008 is the only goal.

“We’re at a crossroads with our organization, which way we are going to go,” Casey said Friday night at Dallas. “Right now we’re fighting like crap for the playoffs. I mean we’re right there. I know those guys in the locker room don’t want to hear anything else but competing for the playoffs because it’s all up for grabs.”

Same goes for Vasquez’s future. On his fourth team in four seasons,  Vasquez said he’s ready to plant some roots, somewhere.

“The biggest thing for me is just being happy and enjoying playing basketball,” he said. “I don’t think I was really enjoying playing basketball in Sacramento, so here I feel like I can re-find my identity and the way I play, the things I can do. Other than that, I can’t really control what is going to happen.”

Pelicans’ Big Five Seeing More Time


VIDEO: Holiday, Pelicans knock off Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Sometimes, you just have to put your five best players on the floor.

That’s what New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams is able to do now that Ryan Anderson is healthy. And on Friday in Philly, Williams played his big five – Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anderson and Anthony Davis – for 18 1/2 minutes, the most they’d seen as a group in the six games since Anderson returned from a fractured toe.

Prior to Friday, the group had played almost half of its 32 minutes in the fourth quarter. But in Philadelphia, Williams went to the lineup midway through the first quarter, with Evans and Anderson replacing starters Anthony Morrow and Jason Smith. And the big five went right to work offensively, scoring 23 points on 11 possessions to end the period.

Evans attacked in transition, while Anderson and Gordon spaced the floor, getting easy 3s off pick-and-rolls here and here (video) thanks, in part, to the attention Davis drew in the paint. Davis is the Pelicans’ best player and that lineup’s success starts with him.

“When he runs the court, all of the attention focuses on him,” Anderson said. “So he leaves an open shot for me or, if we actually get set up down at the other end, Tyreke’s going to attack the rim and force a lot of attention himself. I think we just have a group of guys that really just know how to play in that lineup.”

That lineup struggled in a stretch during the third quarter, but overall, scored 54 points on 38 possessions on Friday, a rate of 142 per 100, which is pretty incredible.

Defense was another story, and that’s the trade-off. The Holiday-Gordon-Evans-Anderson-Davis group allowed the Sixers to score 48 points on 36 possessions, a rate of 133 per 100, which is pretty terrible.

During that same first-quarter stint, they continuously got beat by Tony Wroten on high pick-and-rolls here, here and here.

“We try to get to that lineup, but that’s not a cure-all,” Williams said afterward. “It is a lineup that can cause problems. But we just have to learn how to defend and share the ball better.”

In 51 minutes through Friday, the lineup has scored 132 points per 100 possessions and allowed 116. So far, the great offense has outweighed the bad D. But Williams doesn’t just want to accept that trade-off.

“You can’t just put a defensive lineup on the floor [to get better defense],” Williams said before the game. “Whoever you put on the floor has to play better defense. We’re a month into it. Our guys are going to figure that out. I would like to find more minutes for that group.”

He did find more minutes for that group. Of course, more minutes for that group could mean a heavy burden for Holiday, Gordon and Davis, who start the game and with a different pair of forwards and will remain on the floor to give the big five a good run. Holiday and Gordon each played season highs in minutes on Friday.

Williams knows that Gordon, in particular, needs monitoring. He’s now played in 15 straight games for the first time since January of 2011.

“I want to play him more,” Williams said. “But I have to be aware that this is the most basketball he’s played in 2 1/2 years. So I didn’t want to rush him into it and I’ve been talking to him lately about how he feels.”

How many minutes the big five lineup gets, as well as how it performs both offensively and defensively, will be something to keep an eye on all season. Williams clearly likes bringing both Evans and Anderson off the bench, but he’s still searching for a starting small forward. Al-Farouq Aminu started the first 13 games there, but was replaced by Morrow on Friday.

“The [starting] lineup can change the next game,” Williams said. “That’s where we are right now. We haven’t gotten a ton of production out of our starting small forward position.”

They have gotten a ton of production – at least on one end of the floor – from the big five.

Never Too Soon For Snap Judgments


VIDEO: Sixers begin season with strong start

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Blogtable: What To Make Of The Pelicans

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


Dual dueling PGs in Houston | Tough Guy award | What to make of the Pelicans


The exhibition season doesn’t mean a thing … does it? What are we to make of the New Orleans Pelicans? Are they any good?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comAs the late, great Tony Montana said, “Fly, Pelican. Fly!” But I see this as more of a “try Pelicans, try” season. The parts are intriguing, but it’s all promise, not yet payoff. I’ll believe in a durable Eric Gordon, for instance, when I see him playing 78 games again some year. Anthony Davis‘ length and liveliness will carry him far as a defender but he still has refining to do. Most of the Pelicans’ roster has that “yes, but…” aspect to it. And while the schedule is balanced, just looking at the big boys in the Southwest Division could be daunting for bayou birds.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Didn’t you just answer your own question? I hear with the right combination of cayenne pepper and a good roux, you can make a tasty pelican gumbo.  And if coach Monty Williams stirs the pot just right, a team that can battle for the No. 8 spot in the West.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comSometimes the preseason does mean something. Specifically for a young team learning how to win. Anthony Davis‘ impressive preseason is not a fluke. The kid, we are learning, is going to be a force. Are they a good team? Good is relative. Compared to what? Compared to what they were last year? Yes, they are a good team. Compared to the Spurs or Thunder. No, they are an improving team. But to the point, the Pelicans’ preseason does have meaning for a young team with a lot of talent, if not experience.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Yes. I don’t think playoff good, but no one should be surprised at the obvious signs of progress. Anthony Davis could still turn out to be the best player from the 2013 draft, Jrue Holiday is a nice add, Monty Williams is a quality coach, Eric Gordon continues to have good moments when healthy, and Ryan Anderson is an ideal complementary fit. New Orleans will go from 27 wins to 40-42.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Here’s a Schuhmann Stat: Over the last eight full preseasons (skipping 2011), 17 teams have gone through the exhibition schedule with less than two losses, and 14 of the 17 have made the playoffs. That’s kind of encouraging, though two of the three eventual lottery teams were last year’s Sixers and Raptors. The Pelicans have the talent – a strong top seven – to make get a seven or eight seed in the West, especially if Anthony Davis can carry this type of offensive production into the regular season. Ultimately, it will come down to how well they defend, something they did terribly last season. Watching some preseason film, Davis still needs improvement on his pick-and-roll coverage.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comI have a concrete stance about preseason evaluations and I won’t abandon it in this case, even though I’m high on the talent base the Pelicans have put together. I’m ready to buy Pelicans stock, I’ll go that far. But I’m not ready to proclaim them a legitimate playoff party crasher in the Western Conference based on their work in October. I need a larger and more reasonable sample size to work with. And let’s be real, we’ve been here too many times in the preseason or early in the regular season, cranking up the expectations on a team that goes nuts trying to win every quarter of every game, only to see them falter after a few weeks of playing above their heads. The undefeated preseason mark, to date, is indeed impressive. But it comes with an asterisk, just like everything else before Halloween does. Keep it up through Thanksgiving and then we can talk. The Pelicans are worth keeping an eye on, thanks to that collection of young talent that could and should be the basis for a playoff contender in the coming years.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I like their uniforms! As far as how they are going to be this season … yeah, we still don’t know. The one thing I feel like isn’t being talked about enough is their acquisition of Jrue Holiday — in the era of the point guard, going out and getting an All-Star caliber guard really makes a statement and helps establish your team on another level. I think health is the other thing to keep an eye on with the Pels — if Anthony Davis and, more relevantly, Eric Gordon are able to give you 70-80 games apiece, the Pels might mess around and sneak into the playoffs.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA.com BrasilThe record doesn’t mean anything, but you certainly can take away something about chemistry, focus and individual player improvements. For a young, revamped team like the Pelicans, the preseason is important to develop a winning culture, so their impeccable record so far is certainly gonna translate well to the regular season. Anthony Davis looks like he stepped up his game to another level, and Eric Gordon has sparked memories of his best days as a Clipper. Nobody is suggesting the Pelicans are a title contender, but they will surely surprise a lot of people and could have a fast start to their season.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com Italy: You can’t trust preseason games, but winning’s always a good way to boost your morale. I think the Pelicans could be a fringe playoff team this year. To go back to the postseason, though, they need a breakout season from Anthony Davis, they need Eric Gordon healthy and back to his Clippers days and they need Tyreke Evans to play as well as he did in 2009-10, when he won the Rookie of the Year. Now that I write that, I’m getting a little afraid that those are too many ifs.

One Team, One Stat: No D In New Orleans

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next is the New Orleans Pelicans, who hope not to defend like the Hornets did last season.

The basics
NOH Rank
W-L 27-55 26
Pace 90.9 30
OffRtg 102.7 17
DefRtg 107.6 28
NetRtg -5.0 25

The stat

111.2 - Points allowed per 100 possessions by the Hornets after the All-Star break. They had the worst post-break defense in the league.

The context

Head coach Monty Williams often says that his team has a defensive identity, but the Hornets were the third worst defensive team in the league last season. They were a top-10 defensive rebounding team, but ranked 25th in forcing turnovers and 27th in both 2-point (50.5 percent) and 3-point (37.4 percent) defense.

As the Spurs figured out last season, rebounds are nice, but contesting shots, is, by far, the most important thing you can do defensively.

Lowest % of opponent shots
from mid-range
Team %FGA
New Orleans 23.5%
Charlotte 24.4%
New York 26.0%
Miami 26.3%
Denver 26.4%

The Hornets’ poor shooting defense was, in part, a result of the shots they forced. Only 23.5 percent of their opponents’ shots came from mid-range, the lowest rate in the league. If you want to be a great defense, you need to run your opponents off the 3-point line and keep them out of the paint, and the Hornets didn’t do that enough.

They were particularly awful, allowing a whopping 115.0 points per 100 possessions, in 697 minutes with Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson on the floor together. They basically did everything worse in those minutes. They didn’t defend the 3-point line or paint as well, they didn’t force as many turnovers, they rebounded worse, and they fouled more.

The Orlando Magic ranked 27th offensively last season and went 8-49 after Dec. 20. But on March 4, they scored a ridiculous 72 points in just 25 minutes with Anderson and Davis on the floor, shooting 29-for-47 (62 percent) from the field. Here are some of the defensive lowlights…

Anderson’s primary issue is foot speed. He has a difficult time staying in front of quick guards on pick-and-rolls. Davis, meanwhile, was probably too quick for his own good in his rookie year. He has the potential to be a fantastic defender if he can stay in control more. The Hornets might be better off asking him to contain (stay back on), rather than hedge (jump out on), pick-and-rolls.

That night against the Magic, Robin Lopez was in foul trouble. Now, he’s in Portland. Williams could start Greg Stiemsma or Jason Smith at center, but Anderson and Davis will spend a lot of time on the floor together and they’ll have to defend a lot better than they did last season.

New Orleans added talent this summer, but Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday can’t improve this team as much as better defense can.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Summer Dreaming: Executive Of The Year

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HANG TIME, Texas – Never mind that the weather map says it’ s hurricane season. This is the time of year when there are nothing but blue skies over every NBA franchise from Miami to Portland to Los Angeles to Toronto.

Draft picks have been chosen and brought into camp. Free agents have been signed and trotted out for the TV cameras. Trades have been made to fill holes in the lineups. It’s a time for championship planning among the elite class and fantasizing about moving up by the wannabes.

But the truth is that, despite so much spin doctoring that comes out of all the front offices, there are a handful of team presidents and general managers that made the most of the offseason. That’s why we don’t have to wait till next April — or even the season openers — to know who’ll be taking bows for their work. They’re our summer dreaming picks for Executive of the Year:

Daryl Morey, Rockets – Unless Dwight Howard wakes up one morning and declares it was all a mistake — that he really loved having Kobe Bryant as a playmate, that he thoroughly enjoyed Mike D’Antoni’s offense and that he never, ever meant to leave those clever recruiting banners in L.A. — this is as sure a thing as Usain Bolt outrunning a lead-boot-wearing Charles Barkley. If Howard stays healthy, he and fellow All-Star James Harden will team up to make the Rockets instant challengers for one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference and could even be a dark horse contender to advance all the way to The Finals. But before they even chalk up one “W” in the standings, Morey has put a headlock on the award simply by making the Rockets franchise relevant again for the first time in years. After drifting on a sea of anonymity and mediocrity since the star-crossed Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming pairing came undone, the Rockets are back in the spotlight. A year ago, they were on national TV once. Now they have 10 appearances on ESPN, nine on TNT, one on ABC and even made it into the Christmas lineup with a date at San Antonio.

Billy King, Nets – It’s like walking into a casino with a sack full of money, walking straight to the roulette table and plopping it all down on red. Or black. Either way, it’s a 50-50 gamble and you live with the results. King certainly has the cushion and the endorsement of Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokorhov and the understanding that paying the luxury tax bill of nearly $100 million is no problem. Still, it takes considerable nerve for King to bet it all on the hope that a 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 35-year-old Paul Pierce, 35-year-old Jason Terry and a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd can take down the two-time defending champs from Miami along with the rest of what has become a strengthened Eastern Conference lineup. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were enough to make Brooklyn a postseason sports destination for the first time since the Dodgers left town, but now it’s the old Celtics who’ll be expected to show them how to win a series or more. To get Andrei Kirilenko to walk away from a guaranteed $10 million to sign a cut-rate deal was probably the second-best move of the entire NBA offseason, trailing only Dwight Howard’s move to Houston. Kirilenko adds a tough defender and a slashing finisher to a lineup that hopes to have Brook Lopez improving on his first ever All-Star season. If he’s accomplished one big thing already, King has jumped the Nets over the Knicks as the headlining team in New York, which is signficant.

Chris Grant, Cavaliers – Things have changed considerably since that first summer on the job as GM when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and the temptation might have been to turn out the lights and simply declare the NBA party in Cleveland over. Grant has steadily reassembled the franchise one piece at time to a point where people are whispering that it’s not out of the question to think James could return next summer when he becomes a free agent. Before that, the Cavs figure to have a resurgent seasons between their splendid young point guard Kyrie Irving and all the other pieces that Grant has put around him. Anthony Bennett may have been a bit of a surprise on draft night, but should fill a need on the front line and free agent signee Jarrett Jack will be both a firecracker lift off the bench. Of course, the big bonanza would be if free agent Andrew Bynum can overcome the knee injuries that left him notable only for sitting on bench modeling outrageous hairstyles last season in Philly. A return to the form that once made him an All-Star with the Lakers makes Grant a genius and, even if Bynum falls short, the Cavs have not made a long crippling financial commitment to the gamble. And don’t forget to give Grant credit for not listening to the suggestions that he should have traded Anderson Varejao. The Cavs will likely make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference and, depending on how bright the future looks next spring, could turn the head of a familiar figure to come home.

Joe Dumars, Pistons – Let’s face it. The Hall of Fame guard-turned-GM has taken his fair share of abuse through recent seasons for allowing the once-proud franchise to drift way out of the playoff picture and even have trouble drawing crowds to The Palace. Was it a curse for making Darko Mlicic the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade? Then there was that disastrous free agent splurge on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009. But lately Dumars has been making a comeback, drafting a pair of big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond who have the potential to anchor the Pistons front line for years to come. He made his biggest play in signing free agent Josh Smith, hoping that the stat-line filler can step into the role of No. 1 option and even team leader. Then Dumars traded for Brandon Jennings with hope that he can be both reined in and unleashed and brought home former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups to show him how. Mo Cheeks gets his third shot as a head coach and it’s all a mix that could put the Pistons back in the playoffs.

Dell Demps, Pelicans – The easier path for Demps would have been to keep Nerlens Noel when the big man fell into his lap at the No. 6 pick and keep on selling a theme of acquiring young assets and building for the future. But with a new team name, new franchise colors and a new owner (Tom Benson) writing the checks, it was a time for a new and bolder direction. The young and oh-so-slender Noel was deemed too much duplication on the front line with 2012 No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and was trade to Philly for 23-year-old guard Jrue Holiday, who puts the only All-Star credentials in the New Orleans lineup. Demps then kept dealing to bring more firepower into the lineup with former rookie of the year Tyreke Evans. Of course, that immediately brought talk of a crowded backcourt with Eric Gordon still on hand, but Demps and coach Monty Williams are betting that a three-man rotation cannot only thrive, but put some punch into what was a thoroughly mediocre offense last season. Assuming Davis takes another big step forward in his second season, the Pelicans could contend for one of the final playoff spots in the West.

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