Posts Tagged ‘Nick Young’

Blogtable: Kobe hot, Lakers in playoffs?

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: Home sweet new home | Kobe and the Lakers | Is there a hot seat?


Kobe Bryant (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

> With Kobe healthy and playing like he was, say, two years ago, are the Lakers a playoff team this season? Why (or why not)?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comWhat Charles said. It’s over for the Lakers as a playoff team as currently constructed. They dare not use Kobe Bryant as heavily as they were before his Achilles injury, unless they’re looking for a way for insurance to pay a chunk of his noxious salary, for he surely would break down again. And he doesn’t have enough help, not in the West, not to be taken seriously.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: With Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, a pair of All-Stars, joining him in the starting lineup, Kobe was pushing his body to the the limit two years ago — and still the Lakers barely made it into the playoffs. He’d played 92 consecutive minutes in two games on the night his Achilles tendon blew out. Howard left. Now Gasol is gone. Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle hardly fill their shoes. Steve Nash is broken and you just can’t sell me that Swaggy P is a difference maker. If Kobe can drag the Lakers to the No. 8 seed, it would be one of the great achievements of his career. But there aren’t enough margaritas left in the summer to get me to the point where I’d see that happening.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I don’t think so. First off, which team that finished in the top eight is going to drop out? The bottom three teams — Golden State, Memphis, Dallas — all seem to be better off. Phoenix and New Orleans should continue to improve and challenge for a playoff spot. Anybody envision Portland or Houston free-falling out of the playoffs (barring significant injury)? Secondly, the Lakers roster is an odd mix of talent cobbled together after the franchise was shunned by the summer’s top free agents. Only then did L.A. hire new coach Byron Scott. If they do make the playoffs, mark me down for Scott as Coach of the Year.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: No. Because they finished 22 games out of the playoffs last season and would need Kobe playing like he was eight or 10 years ago to come close to making up that difference when there are so many holes in other places. Because it’s not easy to identify a 2014 playoff team in the West that will drop out and Phoenix and New Orleans are easily ahead of the Lakers and the other hopefuls for “next in” predictions. And healthy or not, Kobe will still be 36. He can still be good, and anyone who counts him out right now is making a mistake, but he can’t be enough to lift this team that high.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Absolutely not, because their defense is going to be awful and the Western Conference is too good. The last time Kobe was healthy, he was pretty efficient offensively, but was often the source of L.A.’s defensive breakdowns. And at 36 years old and coming off of two leg injuries, he may be the best defender in the Lakers’ backcourt this season. The frontline, meanwhile, is lacking guys who erase mistakes on that end of the floor.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comNo. You are asking if we can put Kobe in a time machine and have him play healthy the way he did two years ago would this current Lakers’ crew be a playoff team, which is wholly unfair to Kobe and all of the players who will join him on this team. The Lakers from two years ago have been scattered to the wind. Dwight Howard is in Houston. Pau Gasol is in Chicago. Earl Clark is in … sorry Earl. The fact is, as good as the Western Conference was two years ago, it took Kobe pushing himself to the brink to help the Lakers claw their way into the playoffs with the eighth and final spot. The Western Conference is better and deeper now than it was two years ago. The Lakers, quiet frankly, are not.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThey are not. Two years ago they squeaked into the playoffs, and that was with Kobe literally breaking himself down the stretch to try and will them into the postseason. They made it, Kobe didn’t. Even if Kobe is 100 percent this season, his supporting cast isn’t as strong as that 2012-13 team, that still had Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. This year’s Lakers team should see a rotation around Kobe including Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young and Jeremy Lin. But in a stacked Western Conference, I just don’t think that’s enough firepower to carry these Lakers to the postseason.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: Let’s be honest. Nobody can expect that Kobe will play like he used to. Many players have defeated injuries in the past, but none managed to beat Father Time. Bryant is 36 and that’s the bad news. Answering the “if” question, I think that the Lakers can become a playoff team, because Kobe has proven himself as a leader of a team that revolves around him. It will be interesting to see how Carlos Boozer will play (especially if he will be used at the 3 spot) and what kind of impact will Julius Randle, potentially one hell of a scoring big man, will have.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: They’re a better team with Kobe Bryant but I certainly don’t think they’re a playoff team. The West is so competitive right now that it would take a monumental effort for an aging Kobe to take this team all the way to the playoffs. Aside from, say, Phoenix, a lot of those borderline playoff teams like Dallas and potentially Memphis have improved in the offseason so you could legitimately have a 45-47 win team miss out on the playoffs again. Can you see the Lakers winning 48 games? It’ll be fun to watch Kobe try though, he’s probably the only guy in the organization with a ferocious win-now edict, while the rest of the organization looks to preserve money, sign guys on short-term deals and look ahead to free agency in 2015. Also, are there multiple defensive stoppers on this Lakers team? Didn’t think so.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: Yes, if they stay healthy; that is the biggest issue they have the last two years. I think their rotation at the bigs this year is better with a healthy Jordan Hill and new additions; veteran Carlos Boozer, athletic forward Ed Davis and highly touted rookie Julius Randle. Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Clarkson will provide the help at the wings with specific strengths to their games to complement Kobe while Jeremy Lin and Steve Nash form a good combination at point guard. Although they will be at a disadvantage on defense they will surely be great on the offensive side of the court. But the main reason is Kobe himself: a healthy ‘Black Mamba’ is a complete player who will provide leadership, clutch shooting, defense and scoring outbursts thereby taking over some games.

Byron Scott taps brakes on Showtime

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

VIDEO: Lakers introduce Scott

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – “Showtime” did, sort of, return to Los Angeles on Tuesday.

During the press conference to introduce former Lakers guard Byron Scott as the team’s 25th coach, old teammates Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes strolled into the Lakers’ practice gym to show their support. Johnson, a constant public critic of the last Lakers coach, Mike D’Antoni, nearly suffocated Scott with a massive, joy-filled hug.

Johnson declared this as “a great day for all the former Lakers as well as Lakers fans all over the world,” and then proclaimed the impossible: “Showtime’s back, baby!”

Scott, 53, flanked Magic in the Lakers’ backcourt for three of the Showtime Lakers’ four championship runs during the 1980s, plus three other Finals appearances through 1991. Scott, a native of Inglewood, Calif., home of the old Fabulous Forum and then the renamed Great Western Forum where those teams dazzled the senses, obviously has intimate knowledge of how those high-powered teams excelled.

Yet even Scott, who along with all Lakers fans can appreciate Magic’s exuberance for bringing a Laker Man back to the helm, had to tap the brakes on Magic’s “Showtime” giddiness here in the real world of 2014.

“We can’t play that way,” Scott said during his press conference. “We don’t have a Magic Johnson.”

Touché.

Remember, it was D’Antoni when hired five games into the 2012-13 season who embraced the faux return of Showtime, declaring his inherited edition would score 110 points a game or something ridiculous. Such bravado presumably came from either an attempt to capture angry Lakers fans enamored with Phil Jackson, or from his past successes running-and-gunning in Phoenix with two-time MVP Steve Nash, whom the Lakers had acquired that summer, only at a slightly more advanced age than he was in those heady Suns days.

Nash remains with the Lakers. He’s 40 now and has played 65 games in the last two seasons because of injuries, and just 15 last season. Kobe Bryant was a bushy-haired rookie during Scott’s final season. Scott returned to L.A. for the 1996-97 season for a final hurrah after playing a few seasons elsewhere a couple years after Magic’s initial stunning retirement.

The offense Kobe and Nash will run, Scott said on Tuesday, will be a mixture of everything he’s ever done at his previous stops with New Jersey, New Orleans and Cleveland, where he was the poor sap who took the gig just before LeBron James declared he was taking his talents to South Beach.

His greatest chore, Scott said, going full anti-D’Antoni (who truthfully had no shot last season with the unending injuries that ravaged the team), will be turning this group into a defensive-minded unit. Scott probably choked just a bit as he glanced at the Lakers’ stats last season. They finished 28th overall in defensive rating, giving up 107.9 points per 100 possessions.

“The main thing I have to do right away is establish ourselves as a defensive basketball team,” Scott said. “These three gentlemen [Magic, Kareem and Wilkes] that’s sitting in this front row, the first thing that Magic taught me when I got in this league is that we win championships by defending every single night. That’s the one thing we can control.”

Just prior to making that statement, Scott said he told general manager Mitch Kupchak that he assembled a roster that will be “very competitive.” Hopefully Scott remembered the Lakers are still in the Western Conference. Anyway, there’s nothing like new-coach optimism.

On the bright side, the Lakers were so awful last season that it figures to be next-to-impossible to be as bad. The Lakers lost a franchise-record 55 games. Kobe played in six. He’ll be back. We know he’ll be paid a handsome $23.5 million next season, but we don’t know at what level he’ll perform or how he’ll adapt his game to his changing athleticism and physical capabilities following the torn Achilles tendon of two seasons ago and last season’s knee injury. Or how his patience will stand up to a mediocre team and a new coach, even one this time he personally endorsed.

Nash, as mentioned, is back, too, but how long he can play or how effectively is a total mystery.

Pau Gasol is out. Vetaran power forward Carlos Boozer is in.

The rest of Scott’s team looks like this: No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle, then Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, Ed Davis and Robert Sacre.

Showtime? The straight-faced Scott was right to tap the brakes.

Give him credit for that, and now give him time to implement a system and gain some cohesion, and time for trusted management to work some magic in the coming summers that missed the mark with available superstars this time around.

Only then will we know if Magic can truly crow that Showtime’s back, baby.

Middle class getting rich in free agency

The Lakers brought back Jordan Hill (left) and Nick Young for a combined

The Lakers brought back Jordan Hill (left) and Nick Young (right) for a combined $39.5 million

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Early into this free-agency period there was hand-wringing over the alleged travesty that superstars commanding the highest salaries were being prodded to take less money for the good of the team.

And certainly under the current salary-cap structure of the collective bargaining agreement, if highly paid players want to band together, but also expect to have funds available to sign quality role players, the price (as dictated by the current salary-cap structure) is settling for less than market value.

James Harden didn’t want to settle so Oklahoma City traded him to Houston. In Miami over the last two weeks, we saw how steep of a cut each of the Big Three (and really Chris Bosh and Dywane Wade) were in for if the group was to stay together and have a legitimate shot at signing a difference-making-type player such as Kyle Lowry or Marcin Gortat.

If superstars opt not to form super powers and the top-tier talent spreads to more teams (the goal of ownership in this CBA) than they can all collect their max money. LeBron James is expected to get his max deal, roughly $21 million next season by leaving Miami for Cleveland. Bosh’s loyalty to the Heat (aided by not having to pay James) was rewarded with a maximum $118 million over five years and Carmelo Anthony will accept a deal close to the max, reportedly about $120 million over five years, from the New York Knicks.

The next tier of talent has also done quite well this summer. Lowry re-upped with Toronto for $48 million over four years, almost doubling last season’s take. Gortat re-signed with Washington for $60 million over five years. He made $7.7 million last season and is 30 years old. Not bad if you can get it.

The Utah Jazz on Saturday matched Charlotte’s aggressive offer sheet of four-years and $63 million for 24-year-old small forward Gordon Hayward. He’ll earn more next season, about $14.7 million, than he did in his previous three seasons combined ($11 million). The Dallas Mavericks have made Chandler Parsons, 25, a rich man with their three-year, $45 million offer sheet that Houston has until Sunday night to match or pass. Neither player has ever been an All-Star, yet both will get paid like one.

It’s theme of the summer. Players at every level of the talent hierarchy are cashing in big. Why? It’s simple: The big fish, as long as they swim their separate ways, are going to get paid, while this league-wide run for cap space has greatly inflated salaries for a widening middle class. It’s produced eye-opening contracts such as these: Jodie Meeks (Detroit), three years and $19 million; Jordan Hill (L.A. Lakers), two years and $18 million; Darren Collison (Sacramento), three years and $16 million; Nick Young (L.A. Lakers), four years and $21.5 million; Chris Kaman (Portland), two years and $9.8 million; C.J. Miles (Indiana), four years and $18 million; Ben Gordon (Orlando), two years and $9.8 million.

The CBA hammered out during the lockout of 2011 placed a premium on cap space. Harsher luxury tax penalties and tighter controls designed to restrict roster flexibility for tax teams has created a much larger pool of teams than ever before that strategically plan to create maximum cap space each summer to dive into free agency and chase max-level free agents.

Only there aren’t that many big fish, far fewer than there are now teams ready to pay team. It leaves an overload of cap space around the league that must be spent and this summer role players — the league’s middle class — are reaping the benefits.

Any player it seems who has been in the league a handful of years can turn his nose at any offer starting at less than $4 million. Thirty-seven-year-old Vince Carter wanted to return to Dallas, which was offering $2.73 million for next season. So he took the $4 million ($12.2 million over three seasons) Memphis showed him.

And then there’s free-agent shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha coming off an awful year shooting and who twice fell out of the Thunder’s rotation during the playoffs. He secured a raise from Atlanta — three years and $12 million.

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.

Morning Shootaround — June 19


VIDEO: The San Antonio Spurs celebrate their championship at the Alamodome

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Celts may be on outs for Love | Anthony discusses meeting with Jackson | Young willing to give Lakers hometown discount | West calls Popovich ‘best coach’ he’s ever seen

No. 1: Report: Celtics may be on outs in any Love deals — From the moment Kevin Love visited Boston on vacation a few weeks ago (and shared a brief hello with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo at a Boston Red Sox game), the popular sentiment around Boston was that it had the inside track on landing Love. But according to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, the team’s chances of landing the somewhat-disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves power forward isn’t looking too hot:

The reality, however, is that this may be not be a blockbuster summer for the Celts. They may very well be left with a slower and steadier option as they seek to rebuild from their most recent run as a contender. And it may be their best choice.

The latest sparkler to be dimmed came when it was learned the Timberwolves are looking at other allegedly more palatable offers than that of the Celtics when considering a trade for Kevin Love. League sources from multiple sides told the Herald that Minnesota is seeking a player of substance as well as draft picks, if they are to part with their best player.

Those same sources cited Golden State and Denver, with others in the running, as well. The Celtics have expressed strong interest in Love, and they will continue working on a package that may entice the Timberwolves. But word is even a selection of picks, led by Nos. 6 and 17 overall this season, and either Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk isn’t going to be enough.

Is there a chance that Minnesota changes its opinion on the type of rebuild it wants to do and begins to look more favorably on the Celtics’ assets? Possibly. But a week out from the draft, the Wolves were hoping for something different.

At this point, the Celts are looking to find out more precisely what it will take to get Love, so they can see if they can cobble together the proper pieces.

“Minnesota looks at it that the team who gets the best player wins the trade,” one source said. “If they do make this deal, they know they’re going to be giving up the best guy in Love. So the picks they get will be nice, but they also want to get back a guy they know can play, a guy with some kind of track record.”

To meet Minnesota’s apparent need, the Celts may have to get more creative and involve at least one other team. If the Wolves are not enamored of what the C’s have to offer for a player, Danny Ainge could try to find such a player on another club and tailor the transaction to get him to Minnesota.

There is all evidence from league sources that the Celtics are already looking at these possibilities.

But all signs point to next week’s draft being the most likely time the Wolves make a move with Love. If they realize they are eventually going to have to build without him, it makes sense to start the process now and take advantage of this draft.

That may also be the Celtics’ position a week from tonight. And it may be the best course of action if they hope to build a team that gets into the championship equation and has the kind of depth to stay there a while.

And, Bulpett also tweeted out these interesting nuggets (if you mind the pun) about Denver getting in the thick of the Love chase …

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — April 11


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors stumble again at home | Pacers, Heat ready for showdown | Howard quietly recreating his image | Report: Mavs PA announcer suspended | Young ‘confident’ he’ll be back in L.A.

No. 1: Warriors racking up bad home losses — The Golden State Warriors boast one of the more dedicated, vocal fan bases in the NBA and last season, that support paid off mightily as the team amassed a 28-13 record at Oracle Arena. That mark was Golden State’s best home mark since 2006-07, when the Warriors went 30-11. The fans at Oracle still remain as die-hard as ever, but Golden State has had trouble holding up its end of the bargain this season. The Warriors fell to 26-14 at home with last night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets and as Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com points out, bad home losses have become a norm of sorts for the team:

The first quarter reminded us of how Oracle Arena can be a harrowing place for visitors. Andre Iguodala put the ball behind his back before violently yanking it back across his body, sending Quincy Miller into an embarrassing tumble. Fans stood in a sudden wave, jeering Miller’s misfortune. The older-style concrete stadium makes for disorienting acoustics. The crowd noise spills from the rafters, bounces around the walls and descends on opponents and disliked referees with a force that feels almost dangerous. In last year’s playoffs, the Warriors were struggling to hear play calls on the floor. The crowd energy, and its subsequent ref-intimidation powers, was worth it, though.

Given their vaunted “Roaracle” advantage, why are the Warriors suffering embarrassing home losses to lesser opponents? Since Feb. 1, they’ve suffered home losses to Charlotte, Cleveland, New York and now Denver.

The trouble at home has frustrated owner Joe Lacob, who back in February told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, “The road’s been fine. But at home we’ve lost a couple games — to Minnesota and to San Antonio when they played their scrubs, if you remember … and Denver and Charlotte. Maybe another four games that we just absolutely should’ve won. We didn’t. And I’m not sure why. The team wasn’t ready in those games. I can’t explain it — why we don’t play so consistently at home as we should. We have a great home-court advantage, great fans, great atmosphere. It’s not clear.”

Thursday night’s game ended in a one-point loss, sealed by a tough Kenneth Faried post-up fadeaway. It’s easy to dismiss that as poor luck for the Dubs, but Denver’s energy far outmatched an opponent who could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory.

“There’s a lot of reasons this is such a terrible feeling in the locker room,” a downcast Stephen Curry said after the game. “We could have taken care of a playoff spot.”

When asked about what it means in the big picture, Curry said, “We gotta learn these lessons, man. Simple as that. We can’t take off possessions, we can’t take off quarters and just expect to turn it on when you need it.”

Draymond Green expressed disappointment about Golden State’s rebounding effort but felt the loss came from getting too comfortable: “We got up 20, took our foot off the gas pedal, and when you’re playing a game against a team like that, who doesn’t necessarily have the best shot selection and nothing to lose, if those shots start falling, you’re in for a long night.”

The loss means the Warriors likely won’t get to play an ailing Houston Rockets team in Round 1. To emerge from the first round, they’ll probably have to go through one of the West’s big-three teams (Clippers, Thunder, Spurs) as a substantial underdog. Losing to bad teams put them in this position, but at least they’ll have incentive to conjure necessary energy against the West’s elite.


VIDEO: The Warriors blow a big lead and lose to the Nuggets at home

***

No. 2: Are you ready for some Pacers-Heat? –The race for the East’s No. 1 seed between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers has been one of the main storylines as the season approaches its final week. In case you’ve been asleep or in a cave somewhere, this chase has traded hands a couple of times over the last few weeks, but Indiana has the oh-so-tenuous grasp on No. 1 as of this morning. But as the Pacers get ready to head to South Florida and take on the Heat, our Sekou Smith looks ahead to a matchup that is a lot bigger than both teams are making it out to be:

LeBron James insists the collective health of the Miami Heat means more to him than chasing the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel rested his entire starting five Wednesday night in Milwaukee, swearing that his starters needed a break (mentally, physically and emotionally) more than they needed to continue their season-long quest to wrest away that top spot from the Heat.

What do you take us for, gentlemen? Surely you don’t think we’re buying this business about the No. 1 seed in the East, and the home-court advantage that will come with it in the Eastern Conference finals, suddenly morphing into some trivial pursuit at this late stage of the season.

We all know what’s at stake Friday night in Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) in your final regular-season matchup of the season. Don’t toy with our emotions because yours are frayed after a wild, roller coaster of a season that has seen both of your teams endure your fair share of struggles  (relatively speaking, of course, for two teams with a combined 107 wins and just 50 losses). It’s basically a winner-take-all showdown for that No. 1 spot, a chance for the struggling Pacers to make one last statement to the world about their intentions for the postseason and the Heat’s opportunity to remind the upstarts from Indianapolis that if they want the crown they better be ready to bleed for it.

It doesn’t matter that neither the Heat nor Pacers have looked like a championship team for much of the past six weeks. The Pacers have won just eight of their past 20 games and struggled to get most of those, while the Heat (playing without Dwyane Wade for eight straight due to a hamstring injury) have won just 10 of their past 21 while struggling to find the groove that guided them to 27 straight wins down the stretch last season.

The Heat, grinding through a fourth straight season with a target on their chests every night, appear to be wearing down just a bit under that relentless pressure. The Pacers, who thought they knew what it took to be an elite team night after night, are finding out that it’s much easier to talk about it than to be about it.

“If I’m Indiana, I just want to get my mojo back,” TNT and NBA TV’s Chris Webber said, “go to wherever Stella went and get my groove back. Right now, they’re not playing well and it’s obvious to everyone in the league.”

They know that controlling your own destiny based on home-court advantage comes at a price. That regular-season grind is expensive, it takes a toll on the body and mind, one that the Heat are a bit reluctant to pay when they know that they have an extra gear they can get to in the postseason.

“It’s not controlling our destiny about the No. 1 seed,” LeBron told reporters after the Heat lost in Memphis on Wednesday night. “We want to get healthy. That’s all that we care about, going into the postseason healthy. Once everyone comes back, then we can get everything rolling.”

Why wait for the playoffs when you can get it rolling against the Pacers one last time? The playoff-level intensity is already embedded on both sides. They cannot stand each other and play like it every time they suit up against one another. This fourth time this season will be no different.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew looks ahead to tonight’s Pacers-Heat showdown

***

No. 3: Howard quietly reminding folks of his greatness — If you have some time today, settle in and read this great piece from Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck on Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard. In short, it touches on how the happy-go-lucky big man has gone from a player many viewed as a franchise pillar (during his Orlando Magic days) to a reviled figure (during his L.A. Lakers days) to, now, being somewhat of a quiet force on a dark-horse contender:

Dwight Howard is still a very tall man, just shy of seven feet, with a wingspan and personality to match. He still dominates the painted area of a basketball court. If you are an opposing player or coach, he is still difficult to ignore.

And yet something odd has happened in this, his 10th NBA season. Howard, this towering personality with the Superman complex has become nearly invisible. Obscured. An afterthought.

Check the MVP leaderboards. Dwight Howard is not there.

Listen to the pundits gush about the league’s great young bigs. Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert have commandeered the discussion. Anthony Davis generates the most excitement. DeMarcus Cousins, the most angst.

And Howard? What does he generate? Polite applause? Quiet appreciation?

By the time he arrived in Houston last summer, he was a broken player and a reviled figure.

And now? Now Dwight Howard has quietly turned the Rockets into a dark-horse contender in the rugged Western Conference. And he’s generating indifference. He seems fine with this.

“I think people forget,” Howard said in a recent phone interview, referring to his fleeting status. “But it takes time. It takes time to get stuff back. It’s something that I know that I can get back, everything that I’ve lost. But all that stuff takes time. My focus is really on helping this team, and helping these young guys be as good as possible.”

By any standard, Howard is having a perfectly productive season, averaging 18.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. His field-goal percentage is a stout .590, his best mark in three seasons. His player efficiency rating (PER) is 21.5, down from his peak Orlando years, but two points higher than last season.

Howard, now 28 years old and two years removed from back surgery, might never match his Orlando production. But he doesn’t need to.

Here’s the number that matters most: .675. That was the Rockets’ winning percentage as of Wednesday morning, their best mark since 2007-08, when Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were in their prime.

“We had a very good defensive center (in Omer Asik),” said general manager Daryl Morey, “but with Dwight we were hoping to get something close to the Defensive Player of the Year, which we have.”

The payoff has come more quickly than anticipated. The Rockets, who finished eighth in the West last season, are 52-25 and in fourth place as of Tuesday night, trailing only San Antonio (60-18), Oklahoma City (56-21) and the Los Angeles Clippers (55-23). Of those teams, the Rockets are by far the youngest, and with the least amount of time together.

Ultimately, the Rockets will go as far as James Harden and Howard can carry them. That partnership is still in its early stages, but the results have been promising. Harden is averaging 25.5 points and a team-high 16.6 field-goal attempts per game, while Howard has settled into a complementary role.

Harden, with his bustling beard and his electrifying offense, is the scruffy face of this franchise. At times, Howard is more sidekick than superhero.

“James, he has to score,” Howard said. “So that’s not my concern. I can do other things besides scoring the basketball.”

Indeed, Howard never seemed entirely comfortable as the No. 1 scoring option in Orlando, and he seems happy to be trading shots for wins. He’s also playing just 34 minutes a game, the least since his rookie season.

“Every day we bring it in (for the huddle), we say ‘Family,’ we say, ‘Together,'” Howard said. “Me and James, our relationship has grown throughout the season—the road trips that we’ve had, the time that we’ve spent together off the court, just made us a lot better. And it’s showing up on the floor.”

“I don’t think we’re at our peak,” Howard said of the partnership. “We’re still developing as players. I always had to create for others. Having a guy like him that can create for him and create for others, it just makes both of our lives better.”

***

No. 4: Report: Mavs public address announcer suspended for tweets — When someone in the Dallas Mavericks organization is suspended by the NBA for comments or tweets, most of the time the person getting penalized is owner Mark Cuban. However, that wasn’t the case in this instance, as the team’s public address announcer, Sean Heath, was the guilty party. Heath sent out some tweets after the Mavs’ OT loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 1 that had a controversial ending that incensed many Mavs fans. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com has more:

The NBA issued a two-game suspension to Dallas Mavericks public-address announcer Sean Heath due to tweets criticizing officiating, multiple sources briefed on the situation told ESPNDallas.com.The suspension will begin Saturday night, when the Mavs face the Phoenix Suns in the final home game of the regular season. Heath will complete the suspension either in the first home game of the playoffs or next season’s home opener, depending on whether the Mavs advance.

The league office acknowledged in a statement the next day that Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal should have been called for goaltending when he blocked a potential go-ahead shot by Mavs guard Monta Ellis with 16 seconds remaining in overtime.

Three of the tweets from Heath’s account with 253 followers were directed to the NBA’s account, the most inflammatory of which said that games such as the Mavs’ loss to the Warriors are why the league has a “reputation that the games are rigged.”

Sources said that the league issued the suspension Thursday but granted a request from the Mavs to postpone it until the next game to give the team time to find a suitable replacement for Heath, who is known for his high volume and passion.

***

No. 5: Young ‘confident’ he’ll return to Lakers — The man known as “Swaggy P”, Lakers swingman Nick Young, has enjoyed being in Los Angeles … even if his team has had an awful season. Young is an L.A. native and former standout at USC, so playing before more friends and family than he had at any point in his career has been a boon for him. But Young, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, tells ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin that he’s (not surprisingly) confident he’ll be back with L.A. next season:

As Nick Young‘s first season with his hometown Lakers winds down, the high-scoring guard is starting to wonder if these will be his last days in Los Angeles.Young, who can opt out of his $1.2 million contract for next season with the Lakers to test free agency this summer, said he anticipates a lot of upheaval in the team’s future.

“I always wanted to be a Laker and it will be a dream come true to still be here, but it’s crazy,” Young said after practice Thursday. “You never know what happens. Last year they had a whole different team. It’s obvious they’re going to make some changes.”

Young’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPNLosAngeles.com in February that his client played at a discount for L.A. this season, accepting a big pay cut to $1.2 million from the $6 million Philadelphia paid him in 2012-13.

“His value is certainly much greater than what the contract is,” Bartelstein said. “There’s no question about that. But our goal is to sit down with [Lakers general manager] Mitch [Kupchak] and hopefully work something out so Nick can be with the Lakers for a long time.”

Young echoed the same goal.

“This is home,” Young said. “I would love to finish off here as a Laker. My kids get to go to school and say, ‘My dad is a Laker.’ That’s big.”

“Just wearing that purple and gold has been great, it’s been amazing,” Young said. “Especially to learn from and share the same locker room as Kobe [Bryant] and pick his brain a little bit. That helped me a lot. Just going out there and being able to play and play my game in front of my fans and family and eat home-cooked meals and wake up and not have to deal with that snow every day.”

Young, who went to Cleveland High School in the L.A. suburb of Reseda, Calif., and attended USC for college, was asked if he feels like he has any unfinished business to take care of with the Lakers.

“Most definitely,” Young said. “Of course I want to be here and be a part of a team that’s going to the playoffs and fighting for championships and really get a chance to get that feeling of being a part of that Laker parade and having my little speech like [Shaquille O'Neal] did, ‘Can you dig it?’ Have my own sayings, you know? So, I’ve thought about that a lot. That would really be a great dream come true.”

Young made it sound like he thinks those dreams can be realized.

“I’m very confident,” Young said when asked about his chances of returning to the Lakers. “I think we’re going to come to some kind of agreement and hopefully it happens. We just got to see what they’re going to do.”


VIDEO: Nick Young talks after the Lakers’ practice Thursday

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: University of Tennessee star Jarnell Stokes may soon be making a decision about the NBA … Here’s a good little interview with Magic rookie standout Victor Oladipo … ICYMI, referee Dick Bavetta treated Bucks big man Zaza Pachulia a little cold the other night … And speaking of refs, here’s our own Steve Aschburner on what officials will be looking for in the playoffs …

ICYMI of the Night: Is there any play worth talking about other than Andre Iguodala‘s sick crossover on Quincy Miller last night? …


VIDEO: Andre Iguodala crosses up the Nuggets’ Quincy Miller

 

 

Nick Young expected to test free agency

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

Nick Young (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Nick Young (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – While Swaggy P bathes in the attention of the uncertainty, Nick Young has made up his mind to opt out of his contract with the Lakers and become a free agent this summer, he strongly indicated to NBA.com.

Holding off on a definitive statement, Young made it clear Wednesday after the Lakers lost to the Kings at Sleep Train Arena that he is going to void the 2014-15 contract at $1.2 million, aiming for a much larger salary after boosting his stock this season with 17.3 points a game.

Asked if he has made up his mind, Young said, “A little bit. It’s a mystery, though. I’ve got to keep y’all on your toes. That’s what Swaggy P does.”

Not much of a mystery, though. He doesn’t see himself as a $1.2-million player.

“Oh, no,” Young said. “Not at all. Most definitely. I deserve much more than that.”

And Swaggy P wants to have a lot of teams chasing him.

“Yeah,” Young/P said. “He most definitely does. And I believe a lot will. That’s a solid answer right there.”

That’s hardly a surprising outcome after Young went from an absence of attractive offers in summer 2013 to a season of taking advantage of what has been a 2013-14 of misery all around him. Barely any Kobe Bryant, barely any Steve Nash, a lot nights without Pau Gasol, a rare trip to the lottery for the franchise. And Young could finish as the leading scorer on the Lakers. He could even finish with a career high, ahead of the 17.4 in 2010-11 with the Wizards.

He will draw far more attention this summer than he did last season. He will love that. But the ideal outcome, the USC product said, is to remain in his hometown with a new contract with the Lakers.

“Most definitely I want to stay home,” Young said. “With the changes I see, they’re going to do some big things this summer. Of course I want to be a part of a championship program and get a chance to compete next year. But we’re just going to see what happens. I’ve got to sit down with my agent and see what happens this summer.”

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 23



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Granger to discuss buyout | Young feels left out | Nick Young not sure about opt out | Villanueva seeks buyout | Love records first triple-double

No. 1: Granger to discuss buyout — It’s no surprise that the Philadelphia 76ers and newly acquired Danny Granger are in talks to buy out his contract. The Sixers have the second-worst record in the NBA at 15-41 and have little use for Granger, who could aid many teams’ playoff push. Rumors have already emerged that the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls would have interest in the former All-Star. But the situation is not so simple because if Granger is bought out he would lose his Bird rights, which allows him to sign for more money this offseason, potentially as part of a sign-and-trade out of Philadelphia. Here’s more on the situation from John Gonzalez of CSN-Philly:

“We’re going to speak with him,” Hinkie said. “He’s coming in, like all the players are, they’ll come in, [take] physicals, we’ll meet with them, we’ll talk with them. Danny I hold in really high esteem. It’s going to be interesting. I think we’re going to just sit and talk like men and say ‘What is it that you want out of the rest of this year?’

“You want to talk about shell-shock, he’s been in one place his whole career, and he’s had a heck of a career already, and I think has a good bit to go. So we’re going to sit and talk to him about what it is he wants and the kind of role he sees on our team and vice versa. Where that goes, I don’t exactly know.”

Granger, who will turn 31 in April, is in the final year of a $14 million contract and will become a free agent this offseason. The former All-Star played just five games for the Pacers last year after suffering a left knee injury. He started just two of 29 games for Indiana this season, averaging 8.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 22.5 minutes.

Given how Hinkie put the situation — that he and Granger would sit down and “talk like men” — someone asked whether it was possible that the Sixers might “buy out” Granger. Here, again, Hinkie had a vague but interesting answer.

“I think there’s a chance for us to have a discussion,” Hinkie replied. “How that goes, I don’t exactly know. He hasn’t come, but we’re organizing a flight for him to be here soon.”

***

No. 2: Young feels left out — Staying in Philadelphia, forward Thaddeus Young is having a career year and he feels like he was left out of the trade-deadline action. His name was in rumor discussions, but many reported that the asking price given by the Sixers was too high for potential suitors to sustain interest. Now stuck in a situation without Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, Young decided to speak out, as reported by Bob Cooney of Philly.com:

“Come on,” he said with a smile. “I know y’all want to talk.”

Young doesn’t hide on or off the court. Thursday’s trades that sent away fellow starters Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes left him as the elder statesman of the team, and the lone remaining vet left to endure what is sure to be gut-wrenching end of the season.

“This situation, I don’t know how much worse it can get, but there’s a lot of great guys in this locker room who can play,” he said dutifully. “Hopefully, we can just go out there and get better as a team and continue to play hard.”

“I am not going to lie, a little bit,” he said of feeling left out on trade day. “Certain things don’t always happen in your favor or it doesn’t happen the way everybody else thinks it should play out. It’s been a very tough year so far, but you try to make the best of the situation.”

***

No. 3: Nick Young not sure about opt out — Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak recently guessed that guard Nick Young would opt-out of his $1.2 million player option after the season in hopes of finding a more lucrative deal on the open market. Young’s agent Mark Bartelstein says not to be so sure, as reported by Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

This week, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak credited Young for having a “great year,” averaging 16.9 points per game and showing a better commitment toward defense. Kupchak then added, “my guess is he’s going to opt out” of his $1.2 million player option in hopes of securing a longer and lucrative deal.

Young politely declined to address Kupchak’s foreshadowing. But Young’s agent, Mark Bartelstein told this newspaper it’s presumptuous to think Kupchak’s prediction will pan out.

“Nick wants to be a Laker,” Bartelstein. “But his focus right now is to get healthy, get back on the court soon and finish rest of the season. That’s a conversation Mitch and I will have, but it’s too early at this point to talk about what he’s going to do.”

If Young exercises his player option, he secures his standing with the Lakers for one season albeit with money perhaps below his market value. If Young opts out of his current contract, he could secure a longer and more lucractive deal with the Lakers. But that scenario could prompt the Lakers to allow Young to sign with another team considering the team’s hope to maintain financial flexibility.

Considering his scoring output ranks second only behind Pau Gasol, is Young at least leaning toward opting out of his contract?

“No. Look, Nick’s play speaks for itself,” Bartelstein said. “He’s proven that he’s worth more than what his contract entails when he signed with the Lakers. But again, we’re not focused on that right now. He’s focusing on getting healthy and continuing to play well.”

.***

No. 4: Villanueva seeks buyout — It seems everyone is in the market for a buyout. This time it’s Detroit Pistons power forward Charlie Villanueva. The nine-year veteran out of the University of Connecticut is currently in the middle of the worst shooting season of his career with percentages of 38.5 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from 3-point (but this doesn’t stop him from shooting nearly three 3-pointers per game). He spoke about his frustrations in Detroit with David Mayo of M Live:

Charlie Villanueva said he already has made the difficult transition from frustration to accepting his exclusion from the Detroit Pistons’ rotation, and if he happens to be playing elsewhere by the end of the month, he would accept that too.
“Nobody wants to accept that, you know?  But what can I do, other than work hard and keep working?  That’s all I can do is keep working.  If my name isn’t called, I can’t do nothing about that,” Villanueva said.
It’s still possible that he and the Pistons could agree on the buyout of the remainder of his salary, which could allow another team to pick him up by March 1 and still have him eligible for postseason.
If that opportunity arises, “we could look at it, for sure,” Villanueva said after today’s shootaround before a 7:30 p.m. home game against the Atlanta Hawks.
“I want to play.  If it’s not here, then I’m still young, I’ve still got a lot of years of playing left.  I just want to play,” he said.
He hasn’t gotten that chance regularly for three seasons, under three different head coaches, which has left him “past frustration.”
Villanueva has appeared in 14 games this season and played 125 minutes.
“It’s hard because I love this game, I’m very passionate about this game, so it’s hard not to let my frustration out,” he said.  “But you’ve just got to come to grips with it.  They made their decision.  It is what it is.  So there’s nothing I can do about it.  There’s nothing I can do about it.  It doesn’t matter what I do in practice.  It doesn’t matter what kind of work I put in.  It doesn’t matter.”
John Loyer‘s promotion to interim coach after Maurice Cheeks was fired last week brought with it a restoration of the Will Bynum-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll combination.
That pairing worked best last year when coupled with either Villanueva or Austin Daye, forwards who offered perimeter shooting options.
Bynum said several weeks ago that he clamored to see the trio restored, to no avail.
“I’m no coach,” Villanueva said.  “I’m not gonna say nothing about it.  But amongst players, we talk amongst ourselves and, I mean, has it been looked at?  No.  I feel like it’s something that can definitely work.  But again, I’m no coach.”
A buyout could prove too expensive for Villanueva to accept.  He makes about $105,000 per game, so even if the Pistons bought him out after this three-game homestand with 25 games remaining — they currently have 28 games left — Villanueva would have to balance their offer against his $2.6 million remaining salary at that stage.
For all the criticisms, Villanueva has been a good soldier during his three years of inactivity.
“My situation ain’t so bright right now,” he said, “but I’m still living my dream.”

***

No. 5: Love records first triple-double — Kevin Love put on a show Saturday in Utah to record 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists to notch, surprisingly, his first career triple-double. This performance could act as ignition for a run by the Timberwolves, who sit 6.0 games out of the Western Conference playoff picture. Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on Love’s career game:

With his top two centers and starting guard Kevin Martin all out injured Saturday, Wolves coach Rick Adelman asked Love for as much as he could conceivably give him, within the bounds of reason, of course.

That turned out to be a 37-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double reached before Love sat down for the final nine minutes after he had propelled his team to a 21-point lead and its third consecutive victory.

“Just do more,” Love said.

That was the challenge that faced the All-Star forward and all of his teammates with Nikola Pekovic, Ronny Turiaf and Martin out. Love responded by scoring 22 points in the third quarter alone, when the Wolves stretched a 10-point halftime lead to as many as 21. Love made five of his six three-pointers in the third quarter.

“He’s unbelievable and because he does it all the time, sometimes we don’t realize how big it is,” teammate Ricky Rubio said.

“He put up video-game numbers. It’s just fun to play with him.”

“He was incredible, that third quarter was incredible,” Adelman said. “To get a triple-double in three quarters, that’s pretty darn good. I think he really realizes now that he can go out there, not have that many points and in a four-minute span just explode.

“That’s what we need. That’s what we needed at the start of the third quarter. He certainly dominated the game, but that third quarter was incredible.”

Love tied [Kevin] Garnett’s franchise record for consecutive 30-point games by reaching his fourth in a row, and he extended a streak of 25-point, 10-rebound games to nine, the NBA’s longest single-season mark since former Utah star Karl Malone did so in 10 consecutive games in the 1991-92 season.

“That’s good company to be in, especially when you do it in a game where you win,” said Love, who reached a career high in assists while still playing fewer than 35 minutes. “I just go out and play. I’m not looking for assists or rebounds or stats. I’m just going out there and playing hard.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Celtics coach Brad Stevens received his first NBA technical and ejection. … The Hawks sign Dexter Pittman to a 10-day contract. … Four players scored over 30 points in the Pacers-Bucks game. … Nene dunked a game-winner with .3 seconds left for the Wizards.

ICYMI of the Night: The Sacramento Kings have been one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA this season, despite their lack of wins. This off-the-backboard alley-oop from Isaiah Thomas to Derrick Williams proves the point:


VIDEO: Backboard Jam

Young, Augustin Shine As Understudies


VIDEO: The Bulls outlast the Lakers in an overtime thriller

CHICAGO – The guy in purple and gold with the nifty Nike low-cuts, playing shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, tormented Chicago all evening. He scored 17 points in 20 minutes in the first half, coolly drained three free throws near the end of regulation to tie, then scored five of the Lakers’ seven points in overtime.

The Bulls’ point guard, meanwhile, was just as busy, scoring 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting – and an uncommonly hot 5-of-7 from the arc – to lead Chicago to a two-point victory. He didn’t get to the foul line all that much (2-of-3) and his four assists were matched or surpassed by four teammates. But the Bulls need scoring these days from the guy dominating the basketball, so the point guard gave them that.

Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose? Nope. Not unless you squinted really, really hard, at which point you might have mistaken crew chief Joey Crawford for George Clooney.

It was Nick Young and D.J. Augustin, respectively, on Understudy Night at United Center Monday. They took on the roles normally played by the more famous-but-injured stars and nailed those performances that it drove some of the conversation afterward.

“I can’t play like Kobe. There’s only one Kobe, right?” said Young, who had 29 points against Toronto 24 hours earlier and has scored 28 or more in three of his last four games.

A couple teammates within ear shot started to react to that storyline. Lakers big man Jordan Hill, dressing a few feet away, laughed and said, “Kobe gets dimes, he gets assists. He gets rebounds.”

“Kobe’s been a great mentor to me,” Young said, sounding a little embarrassed. “Just telling me all kinds of things during games. That’s been unbelievable for me this whole year, learning from one of the greatest players to play this game.”

Denials aside, the apparent ease with which Young and Augustin have stepped into their teams’ voids has some folks asking that age-old NBA question: Individual talent or system? No one is suggesting that either has swiped the superhero cape out of Bryant’s and Rose’s closets quite yet, but this is more than Little Man clomping around in Dad’s shoes. Both came off the bench Monday but played starters’ minutes, which will keep coming.

If Young can parlay a half season of some on-court and more off-court wisdom from Bryant into 29 points a game, if Augustin can air-drop into Chicago seven weeks ago, learn Rose’s lines and hits his marks at game time, there is more going on here than impersonations.

“I know Coach [Tom Thibodeau] is just giving me ultimate confidence and running a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, which I feel comfortable with,” Augustin said. “That’s what I’ve been known for.”

It’s no small feat for Young to find his scoring opportunities within Mike D’Antoni‘s game plan each night for the Lakers, though having Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and even Xavier Henry sidelined has cleared the way lately. Augustin’s responsibilities for Chicago include running the offense and finding open teammtes in their spots.

But then, Nate Robinson plugged the Rose hole last season to great effect. Augustin has done it without a training camp, on the fly, with a team freshly demoralized by another Rose knee injury.

“D.J.’s playing great basketball for us,” center Joakim Noah said. “He’s playing really confident basketball right now. He’s a good fit. He makes the right play all the time. The right pass. The big shots. He can really shoot the ball.

“We need scoring. And he’s been doing a good job of just getting guys the right shot, and scoring as well.”

In his past six games, Augustin has averaged 18.0 points, 7.0 assists and 2.8 assists. Rose, in the 10 games he logged before going down with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, had worked back to 15.9 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.2 rpg.

“All I’m thinking about right now is just going out and playing hard,” Augustin said. “Whatever Thibs runs, whatever plays he runs, I’m just trying to run it and do the best I can. Like I said, he runs a lot of pick-and-roll stuff. That’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s working for us.”

Augustin, in fact, said, he is feeling Charlotte-comfortable again. That’s the last place he played this much — 29.3 minutes per game in 2011-12 with the Bobcats, on par with the 29.4 he’s averaging for the Bulls — and the last place he was this productive.

“I didn’t get an opportunity the last two years in my career,” Augustin said. “When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years at Toronto and Indiana, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I play a lot of minutes, I think I play pretty good.”

Young’s minutes — with Bryant limited to a six-game cameo appearance in December between his Achilles tendon comeback and his current left knee fracture — are up to 28.7, his most since 2010-11 in Washington. His per-36 stats — 21.4 points, 16.8 FGA — are personal highs, if not at Kobe levels.

“Each guy’s an individual,” D’Antoni said before tipoff Monday. “Nick does a great job. He’s got a lot of energy, he brings a lot of energy. He’s a good guy. A good teammate.

“When he gets the ball in his hands, he can score. That’s what he does. You can see the joy on his face when he’s playing and he has no fear. So the fourth quarter is no problem, but it could be the first quarter, second quarter. He’s still coming at you.”

It’s the NBA equation: Talent plus confidence equals success. At the moment, it happens to be coming for the Lakers and the Bulls, respectively, from familiar spots.


VIDEO: Nick Young takes it up strong on the Bulls’ defense

L.A.’s Stunning Role Reversal


VIDEO: Lakers at Bucks, Dec. 31, 2013

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Happy New Year, Mike D’Antoni. A”We Want Phil” chant, however silly, percolated through Staples Center in L.A. on Tuesday as the glamorous-turned-anonymous Lakers faded to black again in an ugly loss to the now seven-win Milwaukee Bucks.

Total bummer of a New Year’s Eve party.

Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, of course, wouldn’t touch this sinking M*A*S*H unit with a bionic-kneed Andrew Bynum. At this point, any talk of the league’s worst teams has to include the purple and gold, who are 13-19, have lost six in a row (half of those by an average of 17 points) and show no sign of snapping back any time soon.

How could they snap back? Consider D’Antoni’s starting five in the 94-79 loss to Milwaukee: Jordan Farmar (who tore his left hamstring in the game and will miss a month), Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Pau Gasol. His available bench was limited to: Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre and Chris Kaman (who has fallen so far he couldn’t even get in the game).

Look at it this way: These unidentifiable Lakers are closer to last-place Utah than to eighth-place Dallas in the Western Conference standings. That gap will either shrink or grow Friday night when the Lakers welcome the Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) – who, ahem, just beat L.A. in Salt Lake City a week ago.

When these two teams meet Friday, the most exciting player on the floor just might be Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke, who’s quietly making a major move in the Rookie of the Year race. No offense to the impressive Burke, but that’s how far the mighty Lakers have plummeted: A rookie on the opposing team — a team with 10 wins — is the most exciting player on the floor.

With Dwight Howard in Houston after turning his back on the Lakers in free agency, Kobe Bryant on the sidelines again with a fractured knee, Steve Nash still plotting some way to get back on the floor and Pau Gasol sniffling through recurring physical and emotional trauma, the Lakers’ star power is flickering like a faulty neon sign.

The Clippers, once known as the “other” L.A. team, are another story altogether.

We may never truly understand all the reasons that prompted outgoing commissioner David Stern, acting as the de facto head of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets two years ago, to veto the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade.

(Stern said in a statement shortly after the December 2011 trade that he nixed it “in the best interests of the Hornets” and that he decided, without influence from other owners, that “the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.”)

But by now, we certainly grasp how drastically that decision altered both franchises’ outlooks. Remember, the Lakers thought they had Kobe’s future sewn up: CP3 in a deal that shipped out Gasol and Lamar Odom, followed by getting Dwight in a deal for Bynum. It’s hard to imagine a Kobe-CP3-D12 trio going up in flames like last season’s Howard-Kobe-Nash gathering did. Or like this season’s team has. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe to start this season and have gone 3-10 since his brief return and subsequent exit.

The Clippers (22-12) haven’t been nearly as consistent as coach Doc Rivers would like. But they are fourth in the West playing without injured sharpshooter J.J. Redick. They have won seven of their last 10. They’ll try to move 11 games over .500 Friday night at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

Off the court, the Clippers have been even better. Every second commercial on TV has Paul selling insurance with his equally assisting faux-twin brother Cliff, or a white-caped Blake Griffin saving us all from buying a lame automobile.

Meanwhile, the best news about the Lakers, off the court, is what they’re trying to do to fix their on-court woes. They are paying about $6 million more in payroll this season than their co-tenants, with close to $50 million wrapped up in Kobe and Gasol. The rest of the roster accounts for nearly $30 million. It’s why a rumored Gasol-for-Bynum swap with the Cleveland Cavaliers — followed by waiving Bynum — would be so attractive to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. It would wipe out millions in salary and costly luxury tax from the Lakers’ 2013-14 slate.

Whether that happens or not won’t change the Lakers’s fortunes any time soon. They’ll still be the talk of L.A. They are, after all, still the Lakers.

But until further notice, the star-studded Clips carry the bigger stick.


VIDEO: Bobcats at Clippers, Jan. 1, 2014