Posts Tagged ‘Nuggets’

Morning shootaround — Oct. 5




VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony on chemistry with new teammates and more

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Melo wants less burden | McHale still confident | Lawson primed for jump | Rose gets physical
No. 1: Anthony hopes to get help carrying the load Carmelo Anthony could have jumped to Chicago or Houston or Dallas over the summer in order to join lineups where he wouldn’t have been the only big gun in the ammo belt. Of course, there was that matter of signing for $124 million in New York that changed his mind. But now with the season opener rapidly approaching, Melo says he looks forward to a time when he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting at Madison Square Garden. Al Iannazzone of Newsday reveals Anthony’s discussion with new boss Phil Jackson, along with the news that Melo wants to jump back in the Olympic pool in 2016 at Rio:

“For this season right now, we have what we have,” Anthony said after practice Saturday. “We’re going to deal with that. That was a big discussion with me and Phil talking about — that was one of my things. I didn’t want to have to do it night in and night out. I wanted some nights when somebody else can pick up the load.
“Right now with the way we’re playing, I don’t have to do everything. But we haven’t had a game yet. We haven’t played one game.”

Jackson has shaken up the roster, trading for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Travis Outlaw, Quincy Acy and Shane Larkin, signing Jason Smith and drafting Cleanthony Early. His biggest move, though, was re-signing Anthony.

But Jackson and new coach Derek Fisher are trying to establish a way they want the Knicks to play — unselfishly, and with a commitment to defense. Even if the Knicks aren’t a contender this season, Anthony sees some relief for him.

“It will be less pressure on me,” he said. “I can see that now in training camp. I feel that. I can see what we’re able to do with the little bit of time we’ve been together this week. I see other guys’ roles and how they’re implemented into the system and what they’re capable of doing. I think it’ll be easier. It’s still going to be a dogfight, but I think it’ll be a little bit easier where everybody is not keying in and focusing on me every single time down the court.”

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No. 2: No new contract, no problem for McHale – The sting of Damian Lillard’s shot is still deep in his bones. The empty free-agent fishing expedition of the summer still hangs over his team. But even through Kevin McHale goes into the last year of his contract in Houston, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle says the Rockets coach is comfortable in his own skin and confident that he can get the job done:

“I got pretty comfortable with myself a lot of decades ago,” McHale, 56, said. “I haven’t changed much.”
As he began his fourth training camp as Rockets coach, with only coaches and staff remaining from his first, there have been adjustments to the Rockets’ style. He has demanded the more physical style he once played. The Rockets have collected more of the types of players he had wanted all along. There are defensive tweaks.

Almost the entire second unit was rebuilt from last season.

Yet, as he enters the final season of his contract, McHale cites the same values, the same priorities he has been trying to instill since that difficult, rushed first season as Rockets coach. The most tenured players with the Rockets, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, said there have been slight changes in schemes but not in their coach’s style.
“We’re all in this together,” McHale said. “The crazy thing about coaching is I’ve had players say I’m way too hard, I’m way too strict. And then you have guys that say, ‘You need to get on that guy.’ I always laugh at the guy that says, ‘You need to get on that guy more.’ I say, ‘Do I need to get on you more?’ They say, ‘No.’ When you’ve had 14, 15 guys on the team, and I learned this a long time ago, I’m not going to connect with everyone. But they’re going to play the system we’re playing. And I’m not playing. I have to give them the ability and the confidence so they can succeed.”

McHale inspires an unusual mix of reactions from players. He is referred to as “a players’ coach” so often it is practically in his job description. In many ways – particularly when demanding uncompromising effort – he is unbending, with little patience for a lack of commitment.

He has even less tolerance for excuses. That includes any suggestion that he is hampered by coaching in the final season of his contract. The other Rockets head coaches hired by owner Leslie Alexander – Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman - never received a second contract after completing their four-year term. But neither seemed like a lame duck looking over his shoulder in his final season with the team.

McHale seems so secure in the way he works and what he values, he appears as unaffected by his contract situation in its final season as he was in its first.

“That has no bearing on me,” McHale said. “I never believed that. If you’re going to play better in the last year of your contract because it’s the last year of your contract, I question who you are. If you are going to coach better because you’re in the last year of your contract, I question that guy.

“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve always done. I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can with these guys, try to get these guys to be the best possible team we can be, and you know what, like as a player, you do the best job you can. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”

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No. 3: Lawson says he belongs with elite at point — Coming off a season in which he posted career highs in points and assists per game, the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post that he belongs in any conversation about the best point guards in the league. But Lawson knows that he will only get that recognition if he can turn his team’s performance around and make the Nuggets winners again in the rugged Western Conference:

Q: How big a year is this for you to establish the type of player you are?
A: For my career, this is the next step. I’ve got to make the next step. This year has to be that next step. I’m entering the prime of my NBA career, so this is where it either goes up or goes down.
Q: What do you need to do to get to that next level?
A: I feel like we have to win — because I feel like my numbers are elite numbers, what I did last year. The only thing separating me from everyone else is just winning. Chris Paul has gotten out of the second round. Russell Westbrook went to the NBA Finals. I feel like to get to that level, you’ve got to win games. Kyrie (Irving) this year, he’s going to get out of the first and second round. So that’s the goal.
Q: You mentioned Paul, Westbrook and Irving. Do you see yourself in that group as an elite point guard?
A: I do, minus just the winning. Especially for a point guard, that takes you to the next level. If you’re a point guard and you’re not winning but you’re killing it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a leadership role.
Q: When you look back at last season, how tough was it to go through?
A: It was huge. It was the first time I didn’t go to the playoffs in my whole career, from high school to … even elementary. I’m always used to winning or being in the playoff run, playing for something. It was tough.
Q: Is there a lesson to be learned from what happened last season?
A: Yeah, I think so. Just being professional. Going toward the end of the season, not saying that I didn’t feel like playing but saying we’re not playing for nothing, that’s not really professional. So, just learning that, learning professionalism, that took a big hit last year.
Q: Every year about this time, the leadership question comes up. Are you tired of that?
A: No, not really, because that’s an area I should work on, and that I think I have worked on. Being a leader, being out here being more vocal and also just showing by example is what it’s going to take.

***

No. 4: Thibodeau wants physicality from Rose — Just getting back onto the court and starting to building up his legs and his stamina at the FIBA World Cup in Spain was important for Derrick Rose. But coach Tom Thibodeau tells Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times that it’s the physical nature of tough training camp workouts that will get the former MVP back to the level that the Bulls will need this season:

”He’ll be able to handle it,” Thibodeau said. ”He just has to get used to it again. That’s why the USA Basketball stuff was so important, to get used to having contact. The more he does it, the better it is for him and the more you see the rust come off.
”Now you see him start to make some of the plays he’s capable of making. Now he’s starting to get a little bit of a rhythm and starting to shoot better, which we anticipated. That’s why him practicing and practicing hard is so important.”
A physical approach would seem to contradict what Rose was preaching this summer, when he said he had to be smarter about contact. Two season-ending knee surgeries since the 2012 playoffs might have an influence on his attitude.
”I think you’ll see that next year, just trying to keep people off my body,” he said in late July. ”Using a lot of floaters, using a lot of pull-ups, things like that, so that I won’t be touched as much.”
But the kind of contact that being aggressive around the rim brings isn’t concerning Thibodeau as much as the general physicality of an NBA game.
”In the NBA, you get into a pick-and-roll and there’s going to be a guy on your body,” Thibodeau said. ”And your challenge is you’re trying to create separation and get away from people. But when you’re a player like him, you’re also going to be trapped a lot. When someone is on you all the time — and someone will be on him all the time — you have to get used to that. . . . We’re not talking about driving to the basket and someone knocks him down. We’re talking about catch-and-shoot, pick-and-roll, even isolation — someone will be on him all the time.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James will be back on the court in a Cleveland uniform when the Cavs open the preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight. … Steve Nash says he’s not concerned about a tweaked ankle at practice … Doctor says Rajon Rondo should return at 100 percent from broken hand.

ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George, now rehabbing from a broken leg, remains among the best two-way players in the game today:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam

Optimism continues to rise in Denver


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried talks about the USA win over Mexico

So, yeah, Kenneth Faried. He’s everywhere for Team USA, finishing on the break, crashing the boards, pounding away with typical bottomless energy, and emerging as the NBA player whose reputation has benefited most from the FIBA World Cup.

This is a step forward for Faried, even with the disclaimer that the event once known as the world championships does not automatically translate to NBA play, not when the international game is different and now when roles are much different for some national teams than they will be starting in late-September. That makes it an obvious step forward for the Nuggets back home as the latest in a series of offseason boosts, and that makes Denver more intriguing than before.

Maybe even playoff intriguing. Faried will be better for his time with Team USA and the positive performance will become an injection of confidence and energy, if that’s possible. Danilo Gallinari is encouraged about being ready for Day 1 of training camp and a full regular-season schedule, save perhaps avoiding back-to-backs early, in the return from two surgeries on his left knee and all 2013-14 on the sidelines. Arron Afflalo was added in a steal of a trade that sent Evan Fournier and a second-round pick to the Magic. JaVale McGee should be back after missing all but five games last season with a fractured left leg. No. 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic was the second-best center prospect in the 2014 draft, after the injured Joel Embiid, and No. 19 pick Gary Harris could crack the rotation as a rookie.

The Nuggets go from 36-46 and missing the playoffs by 13 games to opening training camp in a few weeks with the possibility of essentially three new starters, and veteran starters at that: Afflalo at shooting guard, Gallinari at small forward and McGee at center. There is the uncertainty of Gallinari and McGee because of injuries — and of McGee because it’s JaVale McGee — but it’s easy to see Denver in the conversation with Phoenix and New Orleans as Western Conference teams pushing into the playoffs.

There’s an extra 13 wins to be cobbled together from Gallinari at small forward plus Afflalo and some Harris at shooting guard plus McGee and some Nurkic at center. That’s in addition to the carryover starters, Faried at power forward and Ty Lawson at point guard, plus Randy Foye, in the opening lineup at shooting guard last season but likely bound for a reserve role now, and Wilson Chandler in the same situation at small forward and J.J. Hickson at center.

“I think at every position we’re pretty deep,” Lawson told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan last month. “At center, we’ve got JaVale and Timofey Mozgov, who started playing well throughout the last year. We’re so deep, I think that’s a gift and a curse. Everybody is going to want to play. I already told (coach Brian Shaw), I was like, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a problem that you’re going to have, divvying up minutes and making sure everybody’s still happy.’ That’s a gift because say somebody goes down, God forbid, we’ll still have somebody step right in. Also, there’s so many different lineups we can have. We can go small, go big, we’re so versatile.”

Small forward is the specific watch, and not just with Gallinari’s recovery. Draft night changed that. The Nuggets traded the No. 11 pick to the Bulls for 16 and 19, taking Denver out of contention for Doug McDermott in a double-down of the bet that Gallo would have a full recovery. McDermott would have been for the same position and the projected help for a team that had just finished 19th in the league in shooting. Chicago took McDermott with the selection instead. If he plays to expectations and Gallinari never gets all the way back, June 26, 2014, becomes a haunting memory.

It’s easy to see the Nuggets’ logic, though. They got a lot deeper and, with the Afflalo deal the same day, a lot stronger with Nurkic, needing to now address how a center not known for mobility will fit into the up-tempo game of Lawson and Faried. Nurkic was a candidate for the lottery and Denver got him at a position that has lacked stability for years, plus potential help at shooting guard with Harris. And if Gallinari does make it back, the decision looks even better.

Mr. Big Shot one cool customer


VIDEO: Veteran Billups calls it a career

There are players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin, whose careers throw off smoke and sparks and noise like drag racers, right from the starting line.

Then there’s Chauncey Billups, who simply hummed as quiet and cool as an air conditioner.

For 17 seasons and seven different NBA teams, Billups was the proverbial duck who might have been paddling furious beneath the surface, but never gave the appearance of doing anything but gliding across the water.

He moved fast by taking it slow and he always seemed to be taking it slow, even when pushing the ball down the court in the middle of a fast break. He was the strong man who never felt a need to flex his muscles until the game got late and there was heavy lifting to do. He played with a warm smile on his face that could chill a defender. He was often the shortest one on the floor, yet the player who stood tallest when it was needed most.

Mr. Big Shot.

The standard line about the 2004 Pistons is that they were the last team to win an NBA championship without a superstar.

But that’s if you measure a star only by its brightness, as one that grabs headlines along the way to the more critical task, which is grabbing games by the throat.

Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace did work in concert, a symphony orchestra in high tops and shorts. But it was Billups who stood on the rostrum with the baton in his hand, making sure everyone hit the right notes.

“He’s at the head of the table and he determines how people eat,” none other than Kevin Garnett once said when they were teammates in Minnesota.

That’s the way Billups had always been since his days as a teenager at Denver’s Skyland Rec Center, when he was often the youngest player on the court. He not only found a way to fit in, but developed a way to earn the respect and the trust of the older kids.

Funny thing is, it took a while to gain that same respect in the NBA. After a standout college career at Colorado, he was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft by the Celtics. But the franchise that prides itself on recognizing smarts didn’t keep around. Neither did the Raptors, Nuggets, Magic or Timberwolves.

So Billups finally wound up in Detroit in 2002 with a resume list of ex-teams that was longer than his arm, but not even a trace of doubt.

“My demeanor, how I am, it never swayed,” he said back then. “A lot of guys in this league when they’re not playing a lot of minutes, they get a chip on their shoulder, they’re mad at everybody. I’ve never been that way.”

Billups came to the Pistons at a time when then-president Joe Dumars was constructing a team in the “three-peat” era of the Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant off-court bickering, where he wanted talent to work together like five fingers inside a glove doubled up into a fist, where effort took a backseat to ego.

The point guard with the butler’s name and the sniper’s nerveless confidence was the perfect choice to pull it all together and be the driving force. Billups was the steady hand on the reins of disparate personalities that knew how and when to take clutch situations in the biggest of games into his own grasp. Thus, the nickname, Mr. Big Shot. The player who could miss his first 10 shots of the night and then coolly put No. 11 into the bottom of the net with a game or a playoff series on the line.

You could picture him in a tuxedo ordering a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

Billups, Chauncey Billups, was always the player who could lock and bar the door, the one that took the guessing and drama out of that final minute. Send him to the line and he’d drill those six straight free throws to seal a win. Leave him an opening and he’d stop up and drain that long 3-pointer without thinking twice.

“Who else would you want with the ball in his hands at that point than Chauncey?” Dumars asked.

He was a five-time All-Star from 2006-2010, was MVP of The Finals when the Pistons took down the mighty Lakers in 2004, a two-time All-Defensive second team member and, notably, in 2013 was named NBA Teammate of the Year by a vote of his peers. The only question left is whether Hall of Famer voters five years from now were really paying attention.

Let the others throw off loud sparks. For 17 seasons Billups just hummed. Perspiring, but never letting you see him sweat.

Losing a star does not mean losing hope


VIDEO: Flip Saunders talks about trading Love to Cleveland

What next for the Timberwolves was, predictably, damage control. Ads promoting the future that now includes Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 picks, their own 2014 first-rounder, Zach LaVine, and veteran Thaddeus Young. A catchy slogan — “Eyes on the rise” — to accompany the planned ascension.

Really, though, there was nothing else to do. President of basketball operations Flip Saunders, also the coach, was forced into a trade he wouldn’t have made without a loaded contract to his head, so an outbound ticket for Kevin Love it would have to be. There was something to be said for putting the mess behind them, and Saunders did about as well as could be expected while bargaining from a position of weakness, with the entire league knowing he had to deal at some point, and the Warriors drawing the line in the sand at the toes of Klay Thompson.

There is also the tangible reason for encouragement, the fact the other teams have been pushed down the same dark hole and lived to tell. The Timberwolves can look west to Denver and see that starting over doesn’t have to mean a giant step back. They can turn another direction, southeast to Orlando, and be reminded that losing the best player does not have to equal losing hope.

While each of the major trades forced by players in recent years is unique, depending on time and place, the first days of life without Love should come with knowing that moving an All-Star power forward against their true wishes does not have to be a major hit. The Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony, heard a lot of talk about needing time for the package of prospects to develop, then made the playoffs the same season. The Magic were pressured to offload Dwight Howard, took criticism for passing on what seemed to be the obvious idea of Andrew Bynum as replacement center, and got a better outcome, times a million, with Nikola Vucevic.

Some recoveries have been muddled by additional circumstances. Some have yet to lead to so much as a playoff appearance. But it also shows there is reason to actually keep an eye out for the rise in Minnesota.

TEAM: JAZZ

Player: Deron Williams

Trade: Williams to the Nets for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and cash on Feb. 23, 2011.

Long-term perspective: Utah moved Williams before the situation had a chance to deteriorate into the distraction other franchises had, and would, endure. The Jazz got back to the playoffs the next season, but have mostly gone through difficult times that have yet to lead to a clear direction. They will start this season amid predictions of another lottery finish.

It has not gone unnoticed that the lack of a consistent point guard has been an issue since Williams’ departure, though the arrival of Trey Burke in the 2013 draft and Dante Exum in 2014 has raised hopes that it is a problem of the past. The biggest redemption factor for the front office, strangely, is D-Will himself. He generally has not performed like a max player and was stained by the impression his actions led to the departure of beloved coach Jerry Sloan, so the split, however much of a setback on the court, probably does not feel like much of a loss around Salt Lake City.

TEAM: MAGIC

Player: Howard

Trade: Howard to the Lakers on Aug. 10, 2012, as part of a four-team deal that included Bynum and Jason Richardson going to Philadelphia, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, Arron Afflalo and Vucevic to the Magic.

Long-term perspective: The Howard breakup was different than any other, played out over seasons, plural, and with theaters full of drama that eventually felt like nausea. And when it happened, there was wreckage everywhere. New roster, new coach, new questions about which superstar Magic center in his prime would end up with the Lakers next.

Two seasons later, it doesn’t look so bad. Drama followed Howard to L.A. in some coincidence, reminding people in Orlando what else they were losing, before he left the Lakers for Houston as a free agent. Wanting Vucevic instead of Bynum has turned out to be a genius move and the Magic will open 2014-15 as a possibility for the playoffs. It helps to be in the East, as opposed to the others trying to make the climb, but there is a real future in Orlando. Again.

TEAM: HORNETS/PELICANS

Player: Chris Paul.

Trade: Paul and two second-round picks to the Clippers on Dec. 14, 2011, for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick.

Long-term perspective: That hurt Paul too, after the years of building a connection to the city of New Orleans. The team he left behind suffered on the court, with losses piling up, an ownership change, a name change and very little to show in return for the face of the franchise. Kaman and Aminu are already gone, the pick was spent on Austin Rivers — ironically the son of the current Clippers coach — and Gordon has struggled to stay healthy or come close to reaching what once seemed to be star potential.

TEAM: NUGGETS

Player: Anthony

Trade: Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Shelden Williams and Anthony Carter to the Knicks on Feb. 22, 2011, as part of a three-team trade that sent, among others, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, three picks and $3 million to the Nuggets and Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph to the Timberwolves.

Long-term perspective: Denver made the playoffs that season, signaling there would be no post-Carmelo rebuilding, and then built on that by pushing the heavily favored Lakers to seven games in the first round the next year. Coach George Karl loved the spirit of that group, and there would even be a third consecutive postseason appearance.

And then it went wrong. Karl was fired. General manager Masai Ujiri, Denver’s point man for the complicated negotiations, left for Toronto. Gallinari blew out his knee. The Nuggets are an uncertainty heading toward this season, waiting to see how much they can count on Gallinari and prospects, but not because of the trade. That generated forward momentum. It’s everything that happened after.

Gallinari hopes to be ready for camp

TREVISO, Italy –An upbeat Danilo Gallinari, speaking while attending the last of the three days of the adidas Eurocamp at the La Ghirada Sports Complex, says his knee rehab is going so well he could be on the court for the start of Nuggets training camp

Gallinari is still recovering from two operations on his left knee that has sidelined him for more than a year and remains 2 1/2 months away from his next rehabilitation benchmark. He said he is ahead of schedule in being able to run and jump without limits in June — after surgery in January that marked the second procedure on the knee within nine months.

Next, he plans to join the Italian national team for seven to 10 days of practices, but not games, in mid-August.

Those would be his first full workouts, free of restrictions, and become a major progress report. If there are no setbacks in his native Italy, and the scheduled visit with his doctor in late August in Colorado goes well, Gallinari is hopeful of being cleared for Day 1 of Nuggets camp and the chance to play in exhibition games.

It is far enough in the distance, though, and enough hurdles remain that Gallinari cannot say with any certainty he will be ready by the end of September. Besides, he’s about the last person who needs to be reminded how tenuous the recovery can be. Gallinari was about eight months into the comeback from surgery to repair a torn cartilage suffered April 3, 2013, when it was determined, before Gallinari had returned to the court, that a second operation would be needed to reconstruct a ligament in the same knee.

“I think training camp is realistic,” he said. “It’s something that we really talked about with the doctor. It’s something that we really want to achieve and we believe is going to be possible.”

Gallinari has not played in 14 months. His return, whenever it happens, would be an emotional lift and, depending on his play, potentially a practical boost for a team that will also add the No. 11 pick heading into the second season under coach Brian Shaw.

“I’m not feeling any pressure,” Gallinari said. “The only thing that I’m feeling is that fire that I have inside right now. I never had it before in my career. When you cannot do what you love for more than one year, it’s like I was saying to the Italian media, it’s like, I don’t know, a mom that doesn’t see her son for more than one year. When you see him, it’s one of the best feelings ever. That’s what I feel right now.

“I think it’s going to change a little bit my mental approach. I’m going to be more aggressive. I think it’s going to help my leadership. I’m going to ready and very focused on the goals we have as a team. It’s something that is going to be in my mind every day. I don’t want nobody to stop me from winning.”


VIDEO: Danilo Gallinari showed Nuggets.com how his rehab was coming along in May

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

Don’t Tell Rudy Gobert He’s A Project


VIDEO: Rudy Gobert misses but follows with a slam

 

RENO, Nev. — You can call Rudy Gobert young, inexperienced and maybe even still growing at 7-foot-2.

Just don’t call him a “project.”

“I know that’s the way a lot of people look at me,” said the Jazz rookie center from France with a shake of his head and crinkling of his face. “I don’t really like the word. I think it comes from people who have maybe seen me play maybe one time and they don’t really think that I know how to play.

“There are definitely things that I know I have to work on to improve my game, but I believer that there is much I can contribute if I get a chance to play.”

The 21-year-old Gobert has been assigned to the Bakersfield Jam for the NBA D-League Showcase and was impressive making 7-of-9 shots for 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in just 23 minutes of a win over Sioux Falls. It was the fifth game he’s played for the Jam, having gotten just limited minutes in 17 games with the Jazz.

“I try to work defensively on jumping straight up against my man,” he said. “That’s what the coaches want me to do. Work on my rebounding and offensively on my post game when I get touches.

“Everybody is probably not happy when they tell you they want you to do this, come to the D-League. I was not. I thought about it and I thought maybe it is not bad. I try to bring a positive attitude and say that it is good to get a chance to runs and play and see that it makes me better for the future. It’s good for me to get some playing time and just have fun.

“But I don’t want to say that it is better to be here than in Utah. I think anybody who is a professional would rather be in the NBA.”

Gobert set records at the NBA draft combine last year with a wingspan of 7-8 1/2 and a standing reach of 9-7 and was the 27th pick in the first round by the Nuggets before moving to the Jazz in a draft night trade. The physical traits are enough to make you drool even before combining them with a high revving motor that has him going after virtually every shot on defense.

“I think the main thing I have to do is build up by body and make myself stronger and I believe I am making progress,” he said. “I think I’m better at handling the physical parts of the game than when I came to training camp.”

In a season that the Jazz have committed to a youth movement with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Trey Burke, Gobert can’t help champing at the bit to get more of his own opportunity.

“I know that I am not going to play ahead of Enes at the five position, so I understand how it is,” Gobert said. “But it’s hard. I’m not very patient. I tell myself I’ve got to keep working and just stay focused. When I come to these games I have to just have fun and play and everything will be alright.

“Like I said, it’s hard. We have a rebuilding year with many young players and I want to be a part of that. My hope and my goal is in about three years we can be trying for the title and, of course, I expect to be a big part of that.”

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nets get good news on Lopez | Cavs have no deals for Bynum | Report: Nuggets trying to deal Miller | Report: Barbosa set for 10-day with Suns | Wade is back … to back

No. 1: Nets get good news on Lopez surgery – Not only are the Brooklyn Nets winning games in 2014, but the reeling franchise got some good news about Brook Lopez after he had surgery this weekend on his right foot. He’s still done for the season, but at least there is light at the end of the injury-filled tunnel for the Nets’ big man, according to Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News:

For once, the Nets received a bit of good medical news when it comes to an injury. Nets center Brook Lopez underwent successful surgery to fix a fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot on Saturday morning, and Nets general manager Billy King expects Lopez back for offseason workouts this summer, fully recovered. A second procedure — a first metatarsal osteotomy — was also completed on Saturday to “unload and protect the injured area” and to reposition the bone to lessen the strain and reduce the chance for another injury, according to a press release put out by the Nets. Lopez, who was injured on Dec. 20 at Philly, is out for the remainder of the season.

“With this procedure, we both fixed the broken bone (fifth metatarsal) in Brook’s right foot and repositioned another bone, so that his sole of his foot will bear weight more evenly than before,” said team medical director Dr. Riley Williams, one of three doctors who were involved in the procedure.

Still, despite the positive tone of the statement by Williams, King admitted before Saturday’s game to the uncertainty involved with a surgery such as this.

“They said it was going to be a successful recovery, so I mean, we can’t sit here today on Jan. 4 and say what’s going to be when he starts playing (again),” King said. “We can’t speculate and that’s what I’m not going to do.”

“Right now, he had(the surgery), and I expect him to have a full recovery and be playing next year,” King said.


VIDEO: Take a look at Sunday’s Top 10 plays

***

No. 2: Cavaliers running out of time with Bynum? – The countdown clock is ticking on the Cleveland Cavaliers and their attempts to make something of the mess that is the Andrew Bynum affair. They’ve engaged several teams (most notably the Los Angeles Lakers, for Pau Gasol) in trade talks about their disgruntled center in advance of Tuesday’s deadline, but still have nothing concrete to choose from in terms of options. They’ll obviously push it to the deadline, but there is nothing imminent, writes Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Any team that acquires Bynum must waive him by Tuesday in order for him to clear waivers in time to have his salary removed from their cap, but any players the Cavs acquire will have to first pass a physical unless the team agrees to waive it.

ESPN.com reported the Cavs and Lakers were hopeful of completing a deal Sunday for Pau Gasol, but that didn’t happen. Gasol played for the Lakers on Sunday night while the two sides continue negotiating. The Lakers are insisting on assets beyond luxury tax relief, but thus far Cavs General Manager Chris Grant hasn’t budged. The Cavs are offering tax relief and little else.

One source described the talks as stalled late Sunday night, but another source said talks have been off and on throughout the negotiations. No deal is considered dead until 5 p.m. Tuesday, when the deadline is reached for Bynum to be waived for cap relief.

Bynum’s agent, David Lee, said Sunday he has been told nothing by the Cavs. Wherever Bynum is traded, his stay will be brief. He is expected to be released, since only about half of his $12 million contract is guaranteed. Any team that acquires Bynum can waive him without paying him a dollar and shed $12 million off their cap. He will then be free to sign with any team in the NBA, likely for the league minimum.

Cavs coach Mike Brown didn’t want to discuss the trade talks prior to Sunday’s game against the Pacers.

“Those are great questions for Chris,” Brown said. “I’m coaching the guys in the locker room.”

Yahoo! Sports reported Sunday the Lakers were seeking Dion Waiters as part of the trade, but a league source said Sunday the Cavs weren’t interested in parting with Waiters for what will likely be a brief rental of Gasol.

***

No. 3: Report: Nuggets actively looking to deal Miller  – In a loss to the Sixers last week, Nuggets point guard Andre Miller blew up at coach Brian Shaw during the game in a vocal outburst that was witnessed by practically everyone in attendance. As a result of that outburst, Miller was suspended by the team for detrimental conduct, but the team rescinded that move on Friday. Miller was not with the team as he was granted leave to deal with a personal issue, but it seems more and more unlikely that Miller will ever suit up for the Nuggets once he returns, writes Christopher Dempsy of The Denver Post:

Andre Miller, who was excused from all team activities for four days, won’t be part of the Nuggets for long after he returns.

The Nuggets are actively trying to trade Miller, according to a league source. If accomplished, it would be the second time Denver traded him. He was traded in 2006 in a package that brought Allen Iverson to the Nuggets.

It has been a dicey few days for Miller, who had harsh words for Nuggets coach Brian Shaw during Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia. Miller was initially suspended, but then the suspension was rescinded, in part so Miller would be able to continue getting paid during his time off.

Miller has spent all or parts of seven seasons in Denver, in two stints, this latest one starting in 2011, when Portland traded him back to the Nuggets.

***

No. 4: Report: Barbosa set for a (10-day) return to Suns  – Eric Bledsoe‘s knee sprain could be the New Year’s blessing Leandro Barbosa was hoping for as he readies to sign a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns, according to a report from Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. The Suns, who remain one of the surprise teams in the league this season, need the added depth in the backcourt and are turning to a familiar face in Barbosa:

Barbosa has not played in the NBA since Feb.11, 2013, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing for Boston when Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough was the assistant GM there. Barbosa was part of a later trade to Washington but the torn ACL made him just a salary-slotting part of the Jordan Crawford deal while he was at home rehabilitating in Brazil.

After going unsigned this season, Barbosa began playing for Pinheiros in Brazil to try to get his body ready for a NBA opportunity. Barbosa averaged 20.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals in eight games while making half of his 3-pointers.

Barbosa is expected to join the Suns in Chicago, where they begin a five-game road trip Tuesday and where Barbosa made a game-winning shot for the Suns in 2007. The 10-day contract is pending a physical. Barbosa was recently considered by the Lakers, who later signed ex-Suns point guard Kendall Marshall.

Barbosa played the first seven of his 10 NBA seasons with Phoenix, playing a key bench role for the winningest era in franchise history. Barbosa was the 2006-07 Sixth Man Award winner, when he averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game. He averaged at least 13 points for four consecutive Suns seasons and is a 39.1 percent career 3-point shooter.

Barbosa last played with the Suns in 2009-10, when he was bench teammates with current Suns starters Goran Dragic and Channing Frye.

NBA teams can begin signing free agents to 10-day contracts Monday. Signing Barbosa will put the Suns roster at the 15-man maximum.

***

No. 5:  Wade goes back-to-back, ready for the grind? – Dwyane Wade chose the first weekend of the New Year to test himself and his knees to see if he was ready for the grind of the remainder of this NBA regular season. Wade played on back-to-back nights for the first time this season, gauging his own progress from July shock-wave knee therapy, a process that Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel points out, is believed to take six months to recover from. The two-time defending champs can afford him all the time he needs (it’s easier to do with LeBron James and Chris Bosh healthy and rolling) but Wade is ready to push it now. The Heat, by the way, are 4-4 in games Wade has missed this season:

“I just want to be able to go,” he said of Sunday’s start. “I got a good workout in. It felt OK. There’s no guarantees. But there’s got to come a point where I feel comfortable with trying it. So I thought this would be a good time.” …

“It’s getting better,” he said. “I feel like it’s less sore now in the beginning of January than it was in the beginning of December.

“So, it’s all about continuing to progress. So hopefully it’s better as the months go on.”

He wound up playing 35 minutes in Sunday’s 102-97 victory, after playing 36 in Saturday’s victory over the Magic. He closed with 14 points, nine assists and four rebounds, making a pair of critical late free throws.

“He was competitive, particularly in that fourth quarter,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “His legs were live and he had to make some defensive plays at the end.”

Wade has missed eight games this season, seven as part of his knee maintenance program.

The last time Wade played both games of a back-to-back set was Nov. 15-16 against the visiting Dallas Mavericks and at the Charlotte Bobcats. He said he felt compelled to play in Charlotte because of the suspension of starting point guard Mario Chalmers due to a flagrant foul the night before. He scored just four points in that game in Charlotte.

Wade later said he regretted playing on those consecutive nights, sitting out the next two games, inactive for six days.


VIDEO: A career night for Reggie Jackson worked wonders for the Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kobe Bryant doesn’t want your All-Star votes, and get off his lawn while you’re at it … The Warriors did their best to break the scoreboard Sunday night … Russell Westbrook speaks about his three surgeries since last spring and where he goes from here … The Colts are following the Pacers’ postseason lead in Indianapolis … The Nuggets care, they really do!

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: J.R. Smith continues his weird ways with the New York Knicks, this time checking into the game and promptly going to work on Shawn Marion‘s shoelaces. At least the Knicks won this game without Smith’s antics interrupting their flow …


VIDEO: JR Smith unties Shawn Marion’s shoes at the free throw line

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…)

Let The Season (And The Questions) Begin

There are always questions in the NBA, even with 28.6 seconds left in Game 6 of The Finals, as the Spurs will attest. Here are five of the most interesting for the 2013-14:

No. 1: Can the Heat “three-peat” be beat?

It’s certainly trendy these days to pick against the two-time defending champions due to trades, coaching changes or just sheer boredom. After all, isn’t it far more intriguing to figure out how Doc Rivers is going to upgrade Lob City from sideshow to real contenders, how Kevin Durant is going to climb to the top with a mending Russell Westbrook, how Derrick Rose will restore the Bulls, how Gregg Popovich is going to convince the Spurs that they can spend the next eight months chasing down a redo of those last 28.6 seconds? But sometimes it’s just overreaching and over-thinking things. As long as LeBron James is healthy and engaged, and perhaps because he is just entering what should be the prime of his career, the Heat have the single weapon nobody else can touch. Maybe things will change next summer when the Big Three all enter free agency. Then it will be time to take stock of Dwyane Wade’s health and Chris Bosh’s value as a max-contract player. Until that time, they have something to prove, which can be achieved by a fourth straight trip to The Finals and a third championship. There is no indication that the Heat are satisfied or slipping, only more sure of what they’re doing at crunch time. Count on the “three-peat.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks with David Aldridge about three-peat hopes

No. 2: Who is the first coach fired?

It’s an unusual season since we can eliminate nearly half (13) of the franchises since they’re already working with first-year coaches. But it would seem that there is a trio on the firing line. The Wizards’ Randy Wittman was a bit of a surprise to survive last season’s 4-28 start and definitely is feeling the heat with the return of a healthy John Wall and the recent trade for solid veteran center Marcin Gortat. Washington’s first month is quite tough and could put Wittman’s neck back in the noose if the Wiz stumble out of the gate. Everybody will be watching the every inhale and exhale of the Lakers every time they step out onto the court or any kind of appearance in public. It would seem hard to evaluate Mike D’Antoni at all until Kobe Bryant returns to the lineup and shows whether he is close to defying the odds at 35 and returning to his old form. But these are the Lakers, the league’s highest-profile franchise. They dumped Mike Brown after five games last season and if the product is horrible early on again, D’Antoni will be under pressure. Especially if Doc Rivers and the new-look Clippers are flying high and doing more than just covering up Lakers banners at Staples Center. But with all of those difficulties in Washington and L.A., the first move could be made in New York. Just a season ago, the Knicks were peddling (and fooling) themselves as true contenders. But after another somewhat early playoff flameout, they are an afterthought in the East. They’re not even the best team in the five boroughs and the tabloid heat applied by the New York media could burn down the Mike Woodson era. Carmelo Anthony has announced that he’ll entertain free agency and we all remember what a ridiculous distraction “Melo-drama I” became in Denver. Woodson will pay the price.


VIDEO: Bob Ryan on NBA’s coaching carousel

No. 3: Who makes first big trade?

Danny Granger will open the season on the shelf in Indiana, but is likely to finish on another team’s roster by the February trade deadline. At 30, with reduced role and a future price that will be too steep for the small-market Pacers, he’s prime for moving. If the Sixers want to continue their move to do everything except hijack the Andrew Wiggins lottery, they’ll ship out their best player, Thaddeus Young. He’ll be too old to be a factor by the time Philly’s long-term rebuilding project is complete. But when it comes to finding the first square peg that no longer fits, it will probably be Houston’s Omer Asik. A season ago he got his chance as a starter and averaged a double-double for the Rockets. Coach Kevin McHale is determined to try to make a twin towers combination work with Dwight Howard. But it is hard to see this making anyone happy for the long term. The Rockets will have trouble guarding power forwards and the pair of big men will choke off the space James Harden needs to operate in the lane. At this point, Asik is more valuable to the Rockets as a trade chip than as a misfit piece to the puzzle.


VIDEO:
Will the Dwight Howard-Omer Asik combo work?

No. 4: Who is the Comeback King?

The candidates are everywhere, a slate lead by players who’ve become permanent fixtures in the All-Star Game. Kobe Bryant is at the top of the list because of his status and what he means to the Lakers. He’s tough, determined, unwilling to give in even to age and nature, but it’s hard to see him approaching his former self until at least Christmas (and more likely, the All-Star Game). The Thunder need Russell Westbrook to get back into the lineup and begin launching himself into space again as soon as possible. But it is hard to see any return being more successful and more complete than Derrick Rose‘s. He not only brings his explosiveness back to the lineup, but also the leadership skills and sheer desire that will likely make Chicago once again the top challenger to Indiana in the Central Division and Miami in the East.


VIDEO: A slow-mo look at Derrick Rose’s season debut vs. Miami

No. 5: Who crashes and burns?

The Nets have the most money on the line as owner Mikhail Prokorov is on pace to spend $80 million in luxury-tax payments alone on his star-studded lineup. While Brooklyn will likely be the best team in the New York area and keep the pressure on the crosstown rival Knicks, it is hard to see a geezer-laden lineup that relies so heavily on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce leapfrogging Indiana and Chicago. In Denver, the Nuggets have to account for the losses of coach George Karl and do-it-all forward Andre Iguodala to follow up a 57-win season. However, the team that could take the biggest tumble is in Memphis. The Grizzlies not only let coach Lionel Hollins, who carved out their rugged identity, walk out the door, but they still can’t find any kind of an outside shooting game to offset Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph‘s play. If Tayshaun Prince doesn’t bump up his offense considerably, even the return of local favorite Mike Miller won’t be enough to let the Grizzlies make a return to the Western Conference finals. In a worst-case scenario, they could miss the playoffs entirely.


VIDEO:
NBA TV previews the Grizzlies’ season