Posts Tagged ‘Nuggets’

Vucevic Wears Scars Of Progress

Coaches are always looking for those signs of production that go deeper than stats in a box score. Scratches on the back. Black and blue marks on the shoulders. Welts on the chest or even the side of a face.

Nikola Vucevic probably couldn’t have looked more beat up if he were a crash test dummy, and that had Magic coach Jacque Vaughn grinning from ear to ear.

Vucevic blocks Howard

Vucevic blocks Howard (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

“I love it,” Vaughn said. “He has a bruise on his arm and under his eye a little bit, so that means he came to play. You should go home every night with some sort of scar, scab or Band-Aid to prove that you came to play. So he got a couple of bruises and I loved seeing it.

“He just has to understand that [physical play] is part of the game. Everyone understands that when you are a big there is more contact down low than there is up top, so accept that that’s the way it is and embrace it. Just do what you have to do to survive in this league and he’s learning to do that.”

As the Magic continue to shape and establish a roster that is full of solid, athletic, potentially explosive prospects at forward and guard, it is the development of Vucevic in the middle that will likely determine how fast Orlando returns to the playoff race.

The 22-year-old center has already shown in his first two NBA seasons that he has offensive moves around the basket and was a surprise last season as the league’s second-leading rebounder (11.9 per game). But there remained questions about his ability to defend the rim and not get outmuscled in the paint.

So it was nothing less than a revelation Wednesday to see Vucevic go toe to toe with the big man he’s replacing in Orlando, more than holding his own against Dwight Howard. He opened the night by blocking Howard’s shot in the low post on the Rockets’ first possession and then played aggressively by fronting and denying passes.

“You’ve got to do your job early against a guy like Dwight because he’s very physical,’’ Vucevic said. “If you let him catch it deep there’s not a lot that you can do. So I was trying to be as physical as I can be. I tried to make him catch it as far away as I could and my teammates did a great job of helping me on the backside when I was fronting him. I tried to limit him as much as I could and still help on the guards when they drove.’’

It was more than just limiting Howard to a 2-for-6 shooting night. It was the way that Vucevic never backed down from the rippling muscles of the would-be Superman.

“I am going to have to play physical against a player like Dwight, against all of the best big men in the league,” Vucevic said. “It is not trying to feel comfortable playing a physical style. It is just what I must do.”

The Magic, of course, have already received credit, though a year late, for getting the most out of the complex deal that sent Howard out of town. They are the only team that has any of the principals left from the trade — Howard gone from the Lakers, Andrew Bynum from the Sixers and Andre Iguodala from the Nuggets.

It figured that Orlando was getting a potential scoring piece on one wing in forward Maurice Harkless, but Vucevic was more of a question as someone who might give up on defense anything that he added offensively. In his first two seasons in the league, he had a tendency to avoid contact.

If that can change, so can the character of the young Magic. That’s why standing in and standing up to Howard was so important.

“It tells me I can go against the best players in this league,” Vucevic said “I think I held my own pretty well. I think I limited him pretty well. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of energy to do it, but it showed me that I can do it. I’ve got to keep building myself, keep going and keep working. When I go against the best guys, it’s only going to make me better.”

Those scars and bruises are signs of progress.

In Philippines, Passion For NBA Runs Deep

.

MANILA, Philippines – It could have been the high-pitched busload of school kids that shrieked its giddy joy and approval as they passed by on the traffic circle while All-Stars Dwight Howard, James Harden and the rest of the Rockets were lining up for a team photo in front of the giant-sized steel globe outside the Mall of Asia.

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Fans mob Paul George during his visit to a local basketball court in Pasay City in Manila.

It could have been the pulsing throng of photographers and well-wishers that swarmed and followed Hall of Fame legend Larry Bird’s every step, even two decades past his retirement, now just trying to find his way to a team bus in his current role as Pacers president of basketball operations.

But to truly get to the depth of the passion Filipinos possess for the NBA, one needed to look no further than the jubilant crowd inside the Cuneto Astrodome. The cozy gym in the Pasay City section of Manila, which regularly hosts neighborhood rec league play, was interrupted during an afternoon “drop-in” visit by George Hill, Paul George and Jalen Rose.

A young bespectacled fellow was standing almost slack-jawed at courtside.

“Oh man, I’ve been following George Hill since his days at IUPUI,” said 24-year-old Lorenzo Hortaleza. “The San Antonio Spurs have been my favorite team since 1999 and I was excited when they drafted him a few years ago. I was disappointed at first when they traded him to Indiana, but now it gives me a reason to be a fan of the Pacers, too.

That half a world away somebody actually had taken notice of a player from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis would be generally regarded as surprise. That is, anywhere but in the basketball-mad nation of the Philippines where the game is as much a staple as lumpia and pancit.

Love of basketball woven into everyday life

When the Rockets traveled less than a decade ago to Beijing and Shanghai to play a pair of preseason games against the Kings, it was mostly an acknowledgement and celebratory homecoming for 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming. As the same time, the league was making a foothold in the China market, where the first live broadcast of an NBA game had been the 1994 Finals between Houston and New York.

However, long before it became fashionable to pull on NBA shirts, jackets and assorted merchandise in China and the rest of Asia, the NBA had an established passionate following in the Philippines that frankly outstrips the rest of the world — even as commissioner David Stern continues to plant the NBA’s marketing flag in every far corner of the planet.

This year’s Global Games are part of the largest schedule of international games with 12 teams playing 10 games in 10 cities in seven countries. The league is playing games for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Bilboa, Spain and Manchester, England. But here in Manila, the wait has been the longest and the interest runs deeper than the Marianas Trench.

The raw numbers don’t lie. NBA.com gets more page views and the league’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter has more “likes” and “follows” from the Philippines than any country outside the United States. The Facebook page of the two-time defending champion Heat has more “likes” from Manila than from Miami, in part due to the Filipino roots of coach Erik Spoelstra.

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Jeremy Lin (center) talks with reporters before the Rockets’ practice at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.

But the level of interest in the game is about far more than just one favorite son. The sport that was reportedly introduced by American missionaries more than a century ago has been an integral part of the sports fabric of the Philippines since the 1930s.

“The only reason I know a little about that is because I have a neighbor who’s Filipino and he’s often asked me to sign things for him to send back here to friends and relatives,” said Pacers forward David West. “Even then, it’s one thing to think that somebody has a group that follows the NBA. It’s entirely different to hear the numbers about the support we get from the Philippines. It’s staggering. It’s humbling. It gives these games that we’re going to be playing here a little bit more weight, even tough it’s preseason. These people have waited a long, long time to see something like this, to have us here. It’s important that we honor their commitment to us.”

The league has been sending emissaries here since 1975 when Knicks legend Walt Frazier headed up a team of NBA players. Eight members of the 1979 Washington Bullets championship team visited, Shaquille O’Neal led a dunking delegation in 1997 and in 2011 it was an All-Star collection that included Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Harden.

Even though Thursday’s game (7:30 AM ET, NBA TV) does not count in the regular-season standings, it is a significant step of progress and recognition for what has long been the league’s hotbed of international interest.

“This means everything to us,” said Glenn Agranzamendez, 35, who plays regularly in the games at the Cuneta Astrodome. “This is a country that loves sports. We love boxing, Manny Pacquiao. But basketball is by far the most popular sport, the favorite of the country. You should have seen what it was like here when we had the Asian Championship in Manila this summer.”

The Philippines posted a 7-2 record overall, lost to Iran in the finals and qualified for a spot in the FIBA World Championship in 2014.

“It was craziness,” Agranzamendez said. “It was like bedlam everywhere. This place is crazy about basketball.”

It is a place where basketball goals — regulation size or makeshift backboards — can be found around almost every corner. It’s also where, as Rafe Bartholomew noted in his book, Pacific Rims: Beerman Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair With Basketball, your average street game can find amazing moves made often in bare feet or sandals by a population where the average height is 5-foot-5.

There is a devoted following of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), which plays assorted competitions virtually year-round.

Manila is a city where basketball is ubiquitous. The dozens of players ranging from four years old to their forties who took part in shooting games with Hill, George and Rose on Tuesday wore an assortment of jerseys that represented the Rockets, Nuggets, Nets, Lakers, Bulls and even one throwback Sonics number.

Fans more than just star-watchers

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Hundreds of fans turn out for a local basketball clinic as part of 2013 Global Games in Manilla, Philippines.

When a group of Rockets players went cruising through the Mall of Asia on a sightseeing expedition Monday night, they were recognized and followed immediately. Of course, it probably didn’t help that Donatas Motiejunas wore a Rockets practice shirt.

“Yeah, he kind of gave us away,” said Jeremy Lin, who had tried to go incognito with a ball cap pulled down over his face. “We gave him a little grief about that.”

It is a far cry from 1988 when Rockets coach Kevin McHale was a member of the Celtics team that played in the first preseason international game, the McDonald’s Cup, held in Spain.

“Yeah, we did the first global trip and I don’t think anybody at that time ever envisioned coming one day over to the Philippines or going to Taiwan and how huge the NBA would become globally,” McHale said. “I think it’s great for the game. I think our guys get exposed to a whole new culture. It’s something that a lot of guys, if they didn’t take a trip here with the Houston Rockets or Indiana Pacers, in their whole lives would never get to this part of the world. I think it’s good. I’m amazed at where the NBA has grown from the fall of 1980 when I entered the league as a rookie.

“When we were in Spain, whatever year that was, I was real surprised that there were fans there that had Celtics jerseys and the kind of knowledge they had about us. They weren’t just wearing the shirts. They were fan-fans.

“Hey, I got in the league in the fall of 1980 and in my first time to play in The Finals (1981) it was taped delayed and my parents couldn’t even watch it how. So I’m thinking, ‘How in the hell could those people in Spain watch it and know who we are?’

“One thing that surprised me was the amount of Celtics jerseys and stuff that followed us around. Look, maybe at the time there were really only 500 Celtic fans in all of Spain and it just so happened they all came out at once to see us. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, to see this stuff now, to see the reception we’re getting halfway around the world in the Philippines, wow, it makes you shake your head. Somebody’s doing something right.”

Since the days of Yao as the symbolic tall bridge across the Pacific to a burgeoning Asian market, the NBA has held more than 125 international events in 27 different countries and 67 cities. The league has 125,000 retail locations in 100 countries and a commercial presence on every continent except Antarctica.

Now, decades after the average Filipino sports fan engaged in the classic Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird rivalry and debate, the NBA has finally come to Manila for the most practical of business reasons — the shiny Mall of Asia Arena that opened in 2012. All around the world, the Global Games are tipping off in far-flung cities with NBA-caliber arenas, complete with luxury suites. Ticket prices for the Rockets and Pacers run as high as $700 for the best seats, a price that is well beyond the means of most of the citizens. Yet, the game will be sold out.

It is quite one thing for a bus load of school kids to recognize stars such as Howard, Harden and Lin. But stand outside the team bus as the players disembark for practice and listen to one nearby arena worker who has nudged a companion.

“Look, that’s Patrick Beverley,” he said.

The NBA passion here truly runs deep.

New Coaches: Heat Is On Already

 

HANG TIME, Texas – It’s not very often that 13 different teams decide to change coaches during one offseason. It’s a sign of these impatient times in which we live, especially when six of those teams finished last season with winning records.

It used to be “what have you done for me lately?” Now it’s “what have you done in the last 10 minutes?”

Of course, not every new coaching situation is the same. No one expects a pair of newcomers like Brad Stevens in Boston and Brett Brown in Philly to perform water-into-wine miracles with stripped-down rosters.

Doc Rivers goes coast-to-coast to show a 56-win Clippers team how to take the next step while Mike Brown returns to Cleveland with a roster full of young talent ready to bloom.

However, not everybody gets to settle in comfortably. Here are the five new coaches who’ll find that seat warm from Day One:

Dave Joerger, Grizzlies – Sure, he’s paid his dues and learned his craft in the minor leagues and as an up-and-coming assistant coach in the NBA. All he’s got to do now is take over a club that is coming off the best season in franchise history, including a run to the Western Conference finals. While that means the Grizzlies have a contending core in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and a supporting cast to repeat their feat, it also means that every decision, every move that Joerger makes from the first day of training camp through the end of the playoffs will be judged against his predecessor Lionel Hollins, who evidently could do everything except make his stat-driven bosses appreciate him. In a Western Conference that just keeps getting stronger, it will be tough enough survive, let alone thrive with a ghost on his shoulder.

Larry Drew, Bucks — After spending three seasons in Atlanta, where he always had a winning record but could never get the Hawks past the second round of the playoffs, Drew moves to a Bucks franchise that overachieves if it climbs into the No. 8 seed to play the role of punching bag for the big boys in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee has turned over its backcourt from an inconsistent pair of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to a spotty trio of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal. Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has size, athleticism and a bundle of talent. But he’s only 18 years old and the question is whether Drew will be given the opportunity to stick around long enough to watch him grow. The Bucks are one of two teams with plenty of space under the salary cap, but have no real intention of spending it except to get to the mandated league minimum. This is a Bucks franchise that doesn’t have a sense of direction and that hardly bodes well for a coach. It’s not even a lateral move for Drew and could make getting the next job that much harder.

Brian Shaw, Nuggets – After waiting so long to finally get his opportunity to become a head coach, Shaw steps into a situation that is almost the opposite of Joerger. The Nuggets let 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl walk along with Masai Ujiri, the general manager who built the team, and then blew a gaping hole in the side of the 57-win, No. 3 seed in the West roster by letting Andre Iguodala get away, too. Shaw still has Ty Lawson as the fire-starter in the backcourt, but one of these seasons 37-year-old Andre Miller has got to run out of gas. As if the rookie coach didn’t have enough to juggle with the mercurial JaVale McGee, now he’s got Nate Robinson coming off his playoff heroics in Chicago with that ego taller than the Rockies. It’s never a good time to be stepping into a new job when management seems to be pulling back.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats – He’s another one of the longtime assistant coaches that has paid his dues and was ready to slide down the bench into the boss’s spot. But Charlotte? That’s more like the ejector seat in James Bond’s old Aston Martin. The Bobcats have had six coaches in the seven years that the iconic Michael Jordan has been head of basketball operations and then majority owner. From bad drafting (Adam Morrison) to bad trades (Ben Gordon, Corey Maggette), through constant changes of philosophy and direction, the Bobcats simply go through coaches faster than sneakers. Now it’s general manager Rich Cho calling the shots, but that didn’t stop the firing of Mike Dunlap after just one season. Clifford gets veteran big man Al Jefferson to anchor the middle of the lineup, but he’d better have his seat belt fastened tight and watch out for those fingers on the ejector button.

Mike Malone, Kings — Not that anyone expects Malone to be under immediate pressure in terms of wins and losses. What the Kings need now that they have a future in Sacramento is to re-establish a foundation on the court. Of course, the multi-million-dollar question is whether that base will include the talented and petulant DeMarcus Cousins. Everybody knows that he’s physically got what it takes to be a dominant force in the league. But the jury is still out when you’ve played three years in the league and you’re still getting suspended for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team.” Paul Westphal and Keith Smart couldn’t get through to Cousins to make him somebody the Kings can rely on and were spat out. Now as the big man heads toward a summer where he could become a restricted free agent, the franchise needs to know if sinking big bucks in his future is an investment or a waste of time. That’s the intense heat on Malone and the clock will be ticking immediately.

BWB Africa: Fulfilling The Dreams

Basketball Without Borders Africa

NBA players, coaches and others attended the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg.

HANG TIME, Texas – It was just a few days after the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Kyrie Irving saw other dreams.

They were in one of the impoverished townships outside of Johannesburg. They were in classrooms where hungry minds craved answers for a better life. They were on the basketball courts where raw talent gathered to show their skills and sought a way out. They were on so many of the faces that crossed his path during the 11th edition of Basketball Without Borders, Africa.

“In my short NBA career, I’ve had lots of great experiences,” said the Cavs’ 21-year-old point guard during a phone conversation from South Africa. “Just being in the league, winning Rookie of the Year, playing against guys that I looked up to. But being here is an amazing experience in a completely different way.

“Kids are kids no matter where you go in the world and they’re always going to get a smile out of you and make you happy. But these kids that we’ve worked with here in the camps and the younger kids that we’ve met in the schools, they seem to draw even more out of you, because of the environment they come from.

“I’ve traveled around a bit and taken part in some UNICEF programs in the past. You think you’ve seen some situations that are bad. But the poverty in Africa is overwhelming. There are levels of poverty that I’m not sure we can understand as Americans without actually having been here.

“Some of the kids knew my name, who I was, where I played in the NBA. Others didn’t. All they wanted was somebody to be with them and be there for them. That’s the way we have to approach it — help one kid at a time.”

Basketball without Borders is the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and social responsibility program that aims to create positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness. To date, there have been 36 BWB camps in 21 cities across 18 countries on five continents.

The program has featured more than 150 current and former NBA/WNBA players and nearly 140 NBA team personnel from all 30 NBA teams as camp coaches and mentors.

The inaugural BWB camp was in July 2001 led by former NBA players Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc, for 50 children from five nations of the former Yugoslavia. In 2013, BWB were held in three countries on three continents: Argentina, Portugal and South Africa.

FIBA and local federations help identify 50 to 65 of the top basketball players 18 and under from countries across the related continent to attend.

BWB has featured over 1,700 campers from over 120 countries and 28 BWB campers have been drafted into the NBA. There are currently 11 BWB alumni on NBA rosters: Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors/Lithuania; Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets/Lithuania; Enes Kanter, Jazz/Turkey; Greivis Vasquez, Kings/Venezuela; Omri Casspi, Rockets/Israel; Luc Mbah A Moute, Kings/Cameroon; Danilo Gallinari, Nuggets/Italy; Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers/France; Marco Belinelli, Spurs/Italy; Marc Gasol, Grizzlies/Spain; Andrea Bargnani, Knicks/Italy.

Four former BWB campers were drafted in 2013: Sergey Karasev, Cavaliers/Russia; Kelly Olynyk, Celtics/Canada; Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves/Senegal; Arsalan Kazemi, 76ers/Iran.

Other NBA players in South Africa were: Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Hasheem Thabeet of the Thunder, Jerryd Bayless of the Grizzlies; Bismack Biyombo of the Bobcats, Luol Deng of the Bulls, Al Horford of the Hawks and NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo.

NBA coaches took part, too, including Tyrone Corbin (Jazz); Luca Desta (Mavericks); Mark Hughes (Knicks); BJ Johnson (Rockets); Jamahl Mosley (Cavaliers); Patrick Mutombo (Nuggets); Monty Williams (Pelicans) and ex-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.

The BWB program has been a favorite of Dikembe Mutombo, who attended the first in Johannesburg more than a decade ago.

“The biggest difference that I see from when we held the first camp here is the level of play,” Mutombo said. “Back then, a lot of guys were just lucky to be able to get into the gym and show a little bit. Now they’re getting coaching, getting direction and they are giving themselves a real chance for a better life.

“We all know that it is a long shot for anyone to make it into the NBA, even more when you’re coming from the background of Africa. That’s why the real goal for a lot of these kids is to come here and attract attention and maybe get an opportunity to come to the United States for a high school education, to play basketball and then maybe to attend an American university.

“To me, that’s how we make the world, and Africa in particular, a better place. We lift these kids up, educate them and hopefully many of them will return to their countries and try to make things better.”

Irving recalled that he had learned about apartheid in schools while he was growing up, but that had not prepared him for an up-close experience with people who had lived through it.

“To me, Steve Biko and Hector Pieterson were names I read in books,” Irving said. “But here I’m walking where they walked and talking with their people. It’s had more of an impact. It makes me know that I want to come back to Africa and do what I can in the future.”

The 47-year-old Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rarely misses an opportunity. He had spent millions of his own dollars building a hospital in his mother’s name in his homeland and has spent more to erect dormitories and classrooms during his many BWB trips to South Africa.

“On the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, I took time to stop and think,” Mutombo said. “I have achieved so many blessings in my life after a childhood of poverty. I achieved a dream of working and getting noticed and getting myself an education.

“I realized a dream of playing basketball for a living and having the NBA doors open for me. I realized a dream of making a fortune and being able to use it to go back home and help my people. I realized a dream to build a hospital in my country.

“We all have to dream because big things are possible, especially in a world that has gotten smaller with things like cell phones and Facebook and Twitter.

“I tell these young players that come here that we’re all connected. What Dr. King was talking about fifty years ago was not African-American dreams or American dreams. These are human dreams all over the world and every time I come here see a young player like Kyrie with his eyes wide open on his first trip, I feel like we can fulfill more.”

Summer Dreaming: Comeback Player

HANG TIME, Texas – Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.

But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:

Kobe Bryant, Lakers – Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets – Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.

Derrick Rose, Bulls – He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves – Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics – When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.

Danny Granger, Pacers – On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder – Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.

Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers – If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.

PREVIOUSLY: MVP | Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Shaw Tries To Bring Stability To Nuggets

.

LAS VEGAS – This is instability?

This?

Give Brian Shaw a minute. He needs to break out laughing.

“There’s instability and there’s dysfunction that I’ve been a part of and through all of that stuff,” he said. “To me, this is nothing. Change happens.”

Well, it’s something. And change may happen, except that this is really a lot of change all at once for the Nuggets. Masai Ujiri is gone as head of basketball operations and replaced by Tim Connelly. Coach George Karl gone after being named Coach of the Year and replaced by Shaw. Lastly, superstar Andre Igoudala is gone from the roster and truly replaced by nobody. Denver has fallen face-first into an unwanted transition in the aftermath of a 57-win season, albeit followed by a first-round playoff loss.

summer-league-logoBut Shaw played for the Lakers when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were standing back to back and counting off 40 paces. He was an assistant coach for the Lakers under Phil Jackson, a man who looked at locker-room tension as a sociology experiment. Shaw knows turbulence.

Whatever Shaw’s primary qualifications to get the Nuggets job, and there are many, it doesn’t hurt that few can rival his experience in dealing with drama. There will be a learning curve as a first-time coach, just not an uncertainty on how to handle the hectic offseason, beginning with Summer League and continuing into a question-filled training camp.

“Life is unpredictable and you just have to be ready for whatever it is that you have to face,” he said. “Nothing is insurmountable and in this business you’re going to see some crazy things. I think for me, I have a steadying hand. I have to be calm. If I’m nervous and I’m looking like I’m not confident about what’s going on, it’s going to trickle down to the team. I’m laid back by nature, so I just want to exhibit that calmness and not get too high or not get too low.”

His background will be a plus, in other words, in more ways than 14 seasons as a player and eight as an assistant with the Lakers and Pacers.

“I don’t think that that happens overnight,” Shaw said of bringing stability. “Naturally they should feel a little shaken because they have a new general manager, a new coach, a new assistant general manager. One of the best players, if not the best player on the team, is gone now as well. So the reality of the situation is there has been a lot of change. But what I think it’s my job to do is to try to simplify everything so that they can just concentrate on playing the game and understand that with all those changes being made, the guys that are here are the guys that are going to be counted on and to give them confidence in that.”

Shaw will also contend with the other roster absence, the knee injury that the Nuggets say is expected to keep Danilo Gallinari out until near midseason. Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post reported last month Gallinari could be back by December, but Shaw said he has not been given any update by the medical staff.

Billups Agrees To 2-Year Deal With Detroit



.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Brandon Knight is going to finishing school for NBA point guards without ever leaving the Detroit Pistons’ practice facility.

No one should be happier to hear the news that former Pistons star Chauncey Billups, The Finals MVP in 2004, is returning to Detroit on a two-year, $5 million deal, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

Billups, a five-time All-Star, was the ringleader of a Pistons crew that was dominant in the Eastern Conference for a five-season stretch from 2004-08. After being traded from Detroit to Denver, he helped guide his hometown Nuggets to the 2009 Western Conference finals alongside Carmelo Anthony. Last season, he helped Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead the Los Angeles Clippers to the best season in franchise history and their first Pacific Division title.

His return to Detroit, though, represents a homecoming of a different kind. Billups made his name with the Pistons, going from a journeyman existence early in his career to one of the most well-respected players in the entire league.

Pistons boss Joe Dumars has already added Rasheed Wallace, who also starred on those teams with Billups, to the coaching staff. And Billups will not only play a vital role in the backcourt rotation, but perhaps his greatest value will be as a mentor to Knight, a talented young point guard who will learn plenty from a player like Billups.

He’s nearly a decade removed from his greatest moments with the Pistons, but he proved last season that he’s still got plenty left in his tank. He returned from a torn Achilles (suffered in February of 2012) to play in 22 games this season, averaging 8.4 points and 2.2 assists while playing 19 minutes a night.

The Pistons signed Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million deal Wednesday, solidifying a frontcourt rotation that also includes budding young stars Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond as well as Kyle Singler, Jonas Jerebko and second-round pick Tony Mitchell.

What wasn’t clear until now is what they were going to do to fortify the backcourt rotation after veteran point guard Jose Calderon left for Dallas via free agency. Adding Billups softens that blow and gives the Pistons a significant upgrade in the leadership department.

Projecting The West Playoff Order



.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Adding Dwight Howard to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was one of the top teams in the Western Conference was supposed to vault the Lakers into the championship elite last summer.

It never happened. Howard and Steve Nash failed to move the needle for the Lakers, who had to claw their way to a seventh seed in the playoff chase, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

So please forgive me for not crowning the Houston Rockets prematurely. They’ve got Howard in the fold now, adding the best big man in basketball to an explosive core that includes All-Star James Harden and a solid supporting cast.

Legitimate playoff outfit?

Absolutely.

But contenders … not so fast my friends.

They should be in the mix. And as coach Kevin McHale told NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, they should be able to “play with anybody.” Playing with the best and beating the best come playoff time, however, are two very different things. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, who thought they had arrived last season and were disposed of in the first round of the playoffs.

We’ve already delivered our projections, based on what we know now, for the Eastern Conference playoff-chasers for the 2013-14 season. These are the projections for the Western Conference:

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

.

Any suggestions that the Thunder would be better off without Russell Westbrook at the controls were answered in the playoffs. The Inside The NBA crew (above) knows as well as the rest of the NBA-watching masses. OKC was a shell of its regular-season selves without the All-Star point guard, who suffered a knee injury in their first-round series against Houston. Kevin Durant is a behemoth, the second best player in the league behind LeBron James, but no one superstar is going to climb the Western Conference mountain on his own. The Thunder are in a precarious position because all of their competitors seem to be making power moves to catch and surpass them. Without sufficient cap space to deal themselves, they have to rely on a rock-solid core group maintaining their respective positions. That means Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to show better than they did in the playoffs. Reggie Jackson has to play a more prominent role this season and appears to be ready for that. And Jeremy Lamb has to move into a regular spot in the rotation as well. Rookie Steven Adams, the 12th pick in the Draft, is more of a project right now. But the Thunder don’t need him to be an impact player. Not if everyone stays healthy and Westbrook returns to form.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

.

When training camp begins, the Spurs will probably still be answering questions about the championship they let slip away. Two 30-second intervals during Games 6 and 7 of The Finals got away from them and cost Tim Duncan title No. 5 and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili title No. 4. And make no mistake, that trio, and Duncan in particular, is the key to the Spurs getting back to that stage again. If Duncan can crank out another fountain-of-youth, All-NBA-type performance like he did this season, the Spurs have a shot to rule the Western Conference again. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green emerged during the playoffs as more than just young prospects. Leonard could be a legitimate All-Star candidate himself if he picks up where he left off in The Finals. The Spurs always find a way to mine the Draft and free agency for young talent to incorporate into their system. But they won’t need as much assistance with both Ginobili and Tiago Splitter sticking around in free agency. Keeping their biggest stars healthy and rested, something coach Gregg Popovich paid for dearly last season, is of the utmost importance. As long as they do that, a top-four spot in the playoff chase should be a given.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

.

With all apologies to Howard and even Chris Paul, the biggest fish of the free-agent summer of 2013 was coach Doc Rivers — not one of the players projected to be the big prize. The fact that Rivers was under contract for three more years in Boston when the summer began makes what the Clippers did even more remarkable. Not only do the Clippers get one of the best coaches in the game, they got a senior vice president of basketball operations who paid immediate dividends by keeping Paul in free agency and helped them add J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in trades. They had to move backup Eric Bledsoe and veteran swingman Caron Butler to make it happen, but they replaced him with Darren Collison. And they still have the key component from that explosive bench crew in Jamal Crawford, whose role could increase dramatically without Butler, Chauncey Billups or retired veteran Grant Hill in the mix. The one glaring issue they have is their frontcourt tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They weren’t up to the challenge against the Grizzlies and it cost the Clippers in a first-round defeat. Are they willing to accept the challenge Doc will pose to them? He won’t allow them to be outworked on defense and will demand they show the toughness that has eluded them in the past.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

.

Welcome to paradise Jeremy Lin. Now you can officially put Linsanity behind you and play the role of facilitator. The real superstars are on the roster now, as both Harden and Howard will be the opposition’s focus every night. Lin, Patrick Beverly and Chandler Parsons have clearly defined roles on this team before they ever hit the floor together in an official capacity. Howard makes life easier on all of the Rockets’ specialists and role players, not to mention his fellow starters. Guys like Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and even Omer Asik, should he stick around and back off his trade demand, will find out just how different life can be with a healthy, happy and motivated Howard operating in the middle. Despite two straight down seasons (by his own lofty standards), he still led the league in rebounding and looked like he had shaken off the ill effects of his back surgery. McHale has to pull this all together quickly to ensure these young Rockets don’t get swallowed up by the expectations sure to come with their newfound celebrity.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

.

Adding Andre Iguodala essentially at the expense of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, two key veterans who gave the Warriors superior bench production and quality locker room leadership, might not seem like a steep price to pay for some. But when you already have Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the roster … let’s just say that is a luxury most teams wouldn’t indulge this early in the process of trying to build a contender. The Warriors showed us some serious flashes of being a big-time player in the Western Conference for years to come with the work they did in the playoffs. They had the Spurs plenty nervous in the conference semifinals. But their shortcomings came back to bite them in the end. And they didn’t solve those issues in the Draft or free agency. Andrew Bogut and David Lee will have loads of work to do this season, provided they both make it to training camp. Both of their names surfaced in trade rumors leading up to the Draft and through the first week of free agency. Lee is an All-Star and, when healthy, an absolute force. But Bogut, due to injuries, has only shown glimpses of what he’s capable of. And at this stage of his career, a $14 million spot starter is certainly not a luxury the Warriors can afford.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

.

How important was Lionel Hollins to the Grizzlies during their run to the Western Conference finals? We’re going to find out this season. Because for all of the promise Dave Joerger brings to the position, there is no denying the impact Hollins made on Zach Randolph and reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. And even Hollins couldn’t get them in a comfortable groove against the Spurs. The Thunder proved that nothing is guaranteed from one season to the next, not with injuries and the race for the top spot being as competitive as it has ever been in the rugged Western Conference. Bringing this group — Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, too — back intact might not be sufficient for returning to the Larry O’Brien final four tournament. The Grizzlies didn’t have the flexibility to tinker with the roster in free agency. The one change they could have made that could shake things up was to replace Hollins. By doing so with a guy who is familiar with this roster gives them some advantage that a completely fresh face would not have recognized. It won’t take long to see if Joerger has a handle on those intangibles. And if he does, the Grizzlies will climb this list.

DENVER NUGGETS

.

The Nuggets will survive a tumultuous offseason that struck three significant blows to a team that seemed to be on the rise before yet another first-round playoff exit. The NBA’s Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. The league’s Coach of the Year, George Karl, was relieved of his duties. And Iguodala is set to be signed and traded after agreeing to terms on that deal with the Warriors. That would normally be enough to knock a top team all the way back down to the lottery. The best move they’ve made so far this summer was hiring Brian Shaw to replace Karl. He’ll bring a steady hand to what was a shaky situation. The Nuggets will have an active and talented frontocurt rotation to work with in Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur and free-agent pickup J.J. Hickson. Wilson Chandler will step in for Danilo Gallinari, who continues his recovery from knee surgery, and Evan Fournier, Corey Brewer and Randy Foye will provide depth on the wing. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller combined to form one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at point guard and they should be allowed plenty of freedom to operate in the system Shaw will employ. The Nuggets will continue to play at a tempo that suits their talent and home environment. They shouldn’t lose anything defensively either. Shaw isn’t the wild card that some of these other new coaches (Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens) could be in other situations. So don’t expect the Nuggets to crumble just because they’ve lost a few familiar faces.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

.

No team endured more maddening injury issues this season than the Timberwolves. A healthy Kevin Love, however, changes their playoff outlook dramatically for the 2013-14 season. With their talent and dept, a legitimate run for the final playoff spot is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Ricky Rubio should be full healthy this season and the Timberwolves retained Chase Budinger, added Kevin Martin and have to do whatever it takes to keep restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic in the fold. Sure, it’s been a professional sports eternity since the Timberwolves last breathed playoff air (Kevin Garnett was still wearing the uniform in 2004). But coach Rick Adelman finally has the horses to make some serious noise. The franchise’s new head man, Flip Saunders, was the coach of that 2004 team that made the Western Conference finals, so he knows exactly what it takes for a Minnesota crew to cash in on its promise. It starts with Love and Rubio, their two biggest stars, staying healthy and playing up to their immense potential, both individually and as a dynamic duo.

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers

Open For Business On Free-Agent Sunday



.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – There are still potentially two big fish available in a shrinking free-agent summer pond. And while Sunday saw no concrete offers for either Andrew Bynum or Monta Ellis, the general sentiment is that things could change dramatically at either time for one, if not, both of them.

The Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets are reportedly interested in acquiring Ellis, who can slide into a specific role in either location. The Hawks need to restock their ranks with impact players and Ellis, a legitimate 20-point scorer, could add immediate punch at shooting guard. Denver has a hole to fill where Andre Iguodala worked last season and Ellis could also be a fit there.

The market for Bynum’s services seems to have taken a familiar turn in this wild free-agent summer, and that’s to Texas, where the Dallas Mavericks are looking for a frontcourt anchor to pair with Dirk Nowitzki. They had their sights on Dwight Howard, of course, but since that didn’t work out they’ve had to work down their list. Now Bynum appears to be in their sights, though they are cautious about his knees, as any team would be at this point.

That said, some folks believe a surprise team could win the Bynum sweepstakes.

This one could get really interesting before it’s all over.

Making things even more intriguing is what will happen with incumbent Rockets center Omer Asik, who reportedly wants no part of playing behind Howard and has asked to be traded. The Rockets have no intention of trading him, according to ESPN.com, making for an extremely intriguing next few days for any team desperate for a center.

Free agency is only a week old but there are already tons of wrinkles. As for the other business that went down Sunday, here are some of the highlights:

g

d

Free Agent Tracker

Warriors Take Another Step Forward

x

HANG TIME WEST – It was the first two rounds of the playoffs all over again, with the Warriors a blur of action, unpredictability and unspoken statements about the future, only this time with enough crowd noise to blow the lid off more than Oracle Arena. Try the entire Western Conference.

Golden State was going hard after Dwight Howard, weighing trade options, digging for cap space in a final push Friday before his planned decision, planned being the operative word with any Howard expedition. And then: Andre Iguodala.

Brilliant. Better than coming away with Howard, the glitzy result but one that would have reduced the Stephen Curry impact and threatened team chemistry while potentially costing additional players in a sign-and-trade.

Trading Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and first-round picks in 2014 and 2017 to the Jazz for Kevin Murphy to clear the cap room to sign Iguodala could become the no-look pass of the 2013-14 season.

The Warriors are coming off a trip to the second round despite injury and inexperience and just added a versatile veteran who makes them better on both sides of the ball. Without costing them anyone from the rotation. And saving about $11 million in salary next season.

The loss statement is misleading – they also had to renounce Jarrett Jack, a major contributor off the bench, and Rush would have had a prominent role if not for tearing two ligaments in the left knee in his second and last game. But still. The Warriors were considering high-risk moves of dealing Andrew Bogut and Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes, among others, if that’s what it took to land the finicky Howard in a sign-and-trade and instead got a lot better while barely touching the core of a roster that pushed for the Western Conference final without coming close to its potential.

They got better.

The Nuggets, one of the teams that finished ahead of Golden State, got worse by losing Iguodala without compensation.

The Jazz, one of the teams that finished close behind, won’t get better off this deal for at least one season and maybe two.

It probably means a move to the bench for Barnes, impressive showing by a rookie in the playoffs or not, but he should be as visible on the wing as shooting guard Thompson and Iguodala as the successor at small forward. With Iguodala’s versatility, especially as a standout defender, the three could play together.

The Warriors need to find a reserve point guard and a backup center with Festus Ezeli expected to be out until approximately midseason after knee surgery, but David Lee, Curry, Bogut, Iguodala, Thompson and Barnes is a very good first six. Getting Iguodala, while also hitting the Nuggets hard, is another step forward.