Posts Tagged ‘Omer Asik’

Report: Pelicans’ Perkins could miss 3 months with pectoral injury

VIDEO: Pelicans big man Kendrick Perkins goes down with a pectoral injury against the Warriors

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — New Orleans Pelicans veteran center Kendrick Perkins could miss three months with a right pectoral injury, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

It’s the latest bit of bad injury news for a team beset with injuries to start this NBA season. Whatever excitement the Pelicans generated with their playoff appearance last season, the rise of All-Star big man Anthony Davis and the arrival of coach Alvin Gentry in the offseason has been doused early on with all of the injury setbacks.

Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole have yet to play this season due to injuries. And Perkins was an emergency starter in three games with starting center Omer Asik sidelined as well.

The Pelicans dropped to 0-5 after tonight’s 121-115 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, despite a monster 43-point, 10-rebound, 3-block performance from Davis.

Perkins, averaging 5.3 points and 2.7 rebounds, was as injured in Saturday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors.


Pelicans’ wings clipped again with Evans sidelined 6-8 weeks

The hits just keep on coming to the New Orleans Pelicans. And even if it’s not franchise guy Anthony Davis suffering the physical damage, it’s naïve to think that Davis’ psyche and development might not sag a bit with so many fallen teammates.

After the Pelicans announced Wednesday that guard Tyreke Evans would be sidelined for an estimated six to eight weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Davis and the remaining New Orleans players still standing had to deal with yet another setback.

Already in the preseason, centers Omer Asik (calf) and Alexis Ajinca (hamstring) have missed time, as have guard Norris Cole (ankle) and forward Luke Babbitt (hamstring). Reserve Quincy Pondexter still is recovering from offseason knee surgery, while point guard Jrue Holiday is playing on a minutes restriction that could linger deep into the regular season.

Now it’s Evans, the latest bit of bad news. Davis, a likely candidate for Most Valuable Player this season, sounded rightfully glum, as reported by’s Michael Wallace:

“It’s tough,” Davis told Wednesday. “Now with Tyreke going down, we won’t have our complete team until January sometime. … It’s tough because you’re coming in with high expectations, thinking everybody is healthy. And then, stuff happens.”

The Pelicans enter the season looking to build on Davis’ first trip to the playoffs last spring. New Orleans is widely projected to again contend for one of the final spots in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Davis, who finished fifth in MVP voting last season at age 22, was voted in a poll of NBA general managers entering this season as the player they would chose first to build a franchise around.

But the Pelicans are already struggling to maintain a healthy supporting cast for Davis, who signed a five-year, $145 million extension in July to remain the franchise cornerstone. The injuries have been piling up around Davis almost from the moment the Pelicans opened training camp last month at a West Virginia resort. They’ve tempered some of the excitement and energy that surrounded the team under first-year coach Alvin Gentry, an assistant on the Warriors staff during their championship run last season who left to install his up-tempo playing style in New Orleans.

“That’s been the main thing that’s been a little bit frustrating,” Gentry said Wednesday. “I like our team. I think we have depth. We have not been able to put those guys out there together … there’s always somebody missing. We’ll just have to battle until we get the cavalry group back.”

Gentry does not believe the injuries are the result of players adjusting to his preferred playing style while pushing through camp. “In all honesty, it’s the easiest training camp I’ve ever run,” he said.

And now, probably, the gimpiest.

For Evans, this most recent knee surgery is his second since May and third dating back to the 2014 offseason. The versatile 6-foot-6 wing player averaged 16.6 points and a career-best 6.6 assists last season, and had even greater value revealed by more advanced metrics:

John Reid, beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, shared on social media some background on Evans’ resiliency. Meanwhile, the player himself went glass-half-full for Pelicans fans.

One Team, One Stat: Too Many Layups

VIDEO: Schuhmann’s Advanced Stats: New Orleans Pelicans’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the 2015-16 season with a key stat for each team in the league and shows you why it matters. Today, we look at the New Orleans Pelicans, who couldn’t protect the rim.

The stat


The context

20151020_nop_basicsShots in the restricted area are the most valuable shots on the floor, worth 1.20 points per attempt, league-wide, last season. The numbers say that it’s more important to defend those shots than to prevent them, but there is a correlation between preventing them and overall defensive efficiency.

The Pelicans didn’t prevent them at all. And they were a bottom-10 defensive team, even after trading for center Omer Asik for the explicit purpose of helping them on that end of the floor. New Orleans (28, 25, 22) is one of three teams — Detroit (23, 26, 21) and Sacramento (29, 23, 27) are the others — that has ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons.

When Asik and Anthony Davis were on the floor together last season, the Pelicans did a better job of protecting the basket, and their defense was at a top-10 level. But they played just 21 minutes per game together and when one or both was off the floor, the Pelicans’ defense fell off dramatically.


Davis led the league in blocked shots (playing just 68 games), but whether he was playing power forward or center, the Pelicans’ defensive scheme often took him too far away from the basket. Blocking jump shots is cool, but defending layups is more important.

New coach Alvin Gentry will open up the Pelicans’ offense, which ranked ninth last season. But assistant coach Darren Erman, the guy in charge of improving the defense, may be the more important addition on the New Orleans bench.

Davis and the other New Orleans bigs won’t venture out as far when defending pick-and-rolls. In a Q & A in July, Gentry said that better defense will start with “better perimeter defense out front.”

If a new pick-and-roll scheme and improved dribble containment can result in better rim protection, the Pelicans could take another big step forward this season.

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

You can’t protect the rim if you’re not there

VIDEO: Inside The NBA: Rachel Nichols sits down with Anthony Davis

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Rim protection is a key element to a good defense. But your center can’t protect the rim if he isn’t there.

And while *our SportVU defensive impact numbers tell us how well opponents shoot when a player is at the rim to defend it, it helps to know just how often he’s actually there.

* Note: After you navigate to the defensive impact page, it helps to set a filter of >= 4 Opp FGA at Rim per game to narrow the list down to big men. At this point in the season, an additional filter of 15 games played eliminates anybody with a small sample size. The filters are found by clicking on the gear on the right side of the blue header bar.

And a further dig into SportVU data can tell us just how often a rim protector is at the rim to protect it.

The defensive impact page shows shots that were taken within five feet of the defender when he was within five feet of the rim. So the shot could have been taken from more than five feet out. To see what rim protectors were most often protecting the rim, I asked the SportVU folks to just show me shots from five feet and in.


So Denver opponents have attempted 202 shots within five feet of the basket with Jusuf Nurkic on the floor, and he’s been there to defend 115 of those shots. Of course, he hasn’t defended them particularly well for a guy who’s seven feet tall.

Andrew Bogut and Rudy Gobert, however, protect the rim pretty well. And by keeping them near the basket, their teams allow them to protect it more often than not. These numbers also don’t account for shots at the rim that they’ve prevented.

Here’s the other end of the list…


Most of the guys on this list spend some time at power forward. LaMarcus Aldridge has played about 75 percent of his minutes with either Robin Lopez or Chris Kaman. But he did play some center after Lopez got hurt and before he was injured himself.

Anthony Davis is a more interesting name on this list. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Pelicans allow the highest percentage of opponent shots in the restricted area. That’s still true, the Pelicans still rank as a bottom-six defensive team even though they employ both Davis and Omer Asik, and that’s still rather baffling.

Davis is the power forward when Asik is on the floor. And that he’s sometimes guarding Dirk Nowitzki or Markieff Morris partially explains why he’s on this list.

But Davis would still be on this list if he was the Pelicans’ full-time center. In his minutes without Asik, Alexis Ajinca or Jeff Withey on the floor, Davis has been at the rim to protect only 33.8 percent (125/370) of opponent shots there.

Note: Asik has been at the rim to defend 50.2 percent of opponent shots there, a rate which ranks 19th on this list of 69 centers and PF/Cs. He could certainly be higher on the list himself.

In total, no player 6-foot-8 or taller has been on the floor for more opponent shots within five feet of the basket than Davis. Yet, 20 different guys have been at the rim to defend more of those shots.

Gobert is a few inches taller than Davis, but they’re similarly long-armed and bouncy. For every 100 opponent shots at the rim, Gobert is there to defend 56 of them. Even when he’s playing center, Davis is there for just 34. That’s a big difference.

It’s cool that Davis blocks jump shots, but it would be better if he was defending more shots near the basket. The biggest reason the Pelicans rank in the bottom 10 defensively and can’t win more than two games in a row is that they don’t protect the rim.

D-League Hack-a-Shaq attack is out of whack

It could eventually mean a lot less time in the gym for Dwight Howard. Josh Smith would cut out early, too. Omer Asik wouldn’t have to waste all those extra hours on shooting form. Tony Allen, Draymond Green and Kendrick Perkins would have far less to fret about every time they show up for a game.

The NBA D-League announced a handful of rule changes for its 14th season, which opens next week. Coaches’ challenges are on the table, but effectively eliminated is the Hack-a-Shaq strategy of intentionally fouling away from the ball.

What is being sold as a way to speed up the game is actually cop-out to give poor free-throw shooters a free pass.

Labeled Hack-a-Shaq for its frequent use against Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal (career free throw percentage 52.7) to make him go to the foul line, some critics have complained that the ploy interrupts the flow and detracts from the artistry of the game.

What they miss, of course, is that all a highly-paid professional player need do is put in the time and effort to become a C-level foul shooter, say 70 percent, and no coach would ever use the strategy.

But by extending the current rule used in the final two minutes to the entire game, the change is extending the worst shooters — and quite often the biggest players — a crutch. Now if a player is fouled intentionally away from the ball at any time during a D-League game, any player on his team will shoot a free throw and his team will retain possession.

Free throws are a fundamental part of the game and learning to make them is no different than developing the skills to make a layup or hit a jump shot. The fact that Howard (44.5 in five games this season), Smith (47.4), Asik (50.0), Allen (53.8), Green (55.6) and Perkins (57.1) are virtual coin tosses from the foul line is entirely on them.

Nobody is asking the likes of Howard to become as proficient as a Steve Nash (90.0). But there is no need to bail out a perennial All-Star who cannot become acceptably average a decade into his career.

This a case of the Nanny State invading basketball. Not every Tom, Dick, Dwight or Shaq can make his free throws. So let’s spare him the trouble — and the glaring spotlight — give everyone a juice box and a cookie and go home early.

There’s always been a better way. Just make your free throws.


Morning shootaround — Oct. 29

VIDEO: Highlights from games played Oct. 28


Davis, Asik domiate vs. Magic | Howard says he wasn’t scared of Kobe | Lakers’ Randle suffers broken right leg | D-Will driven to prove himself | MJ personally recruited Stephenson to Hornets

No. 1: Asik, Davis dominate in first game together — Don’t tell the New Orleans Pelicans they weren’t supposed to be a storyline on the first night of the season. While most NBA fans had their eyes focused on the ring celebration in San Antonio and the return of Kobe Bryant in L.A. later that night, Anthony Davis and his cohorts quietly put on a show in the Big Easy last night. Davis flirted with a triple-double (coming up a block short of it), thriving as new center Omer Asik did some dirty work in the paint. Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune details how Asik’s play spurred the Pelicans to an impressive debut:

This summer when the New Orleans Pelicans set out to do some free-agent shopping, their top priority was finding an adequate center, a big man who could rebound, defend and score when needed.

The spent quite a bit but landed their man in pulling off a trade with the Houston Rockets for Omer Asik.

On Tuesday night, Asik’s acquisition certainly seemed like a good deal.

Playing in his first game as a Pelican, Asik helped the Pelicans to a 101-84 win by scoring 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting, grabbing 17 rebounds and blocking five shots.

“That’s what I saw in him when he was in Chicago (2010-2012),” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “He was only playing less than half the game, but when he came into the game there defense went through the roof. There were times where he would finish just because he was so good on that end. I want him to focus more on finishing around the basket, scoring a little bit.”

Asik was especially effective in the first-half, when he played 18 minutes and scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds and two blocks.

With Asik, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson dominating the boards, the Pelicans out-rebounded the Magic 62-56. But even more impressive, they had a 26-16 edge on the offensive glass.

VIDEO: Anthony Davis flirts with a triple-double in the Pelicans’ season-opening win


Hakeem: Howard is ‘ready’ for an MVP-type season

Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Olajuwon (left) has seen Dwight Howard’s game mature and grow of late. (Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

At least one former MVP doesn’t think it should have taken a broken bone in Kevin Durant’s foot to throw the 2015 MVP race wide open.

According to Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwight Howard was already prepared to kick the door down.

“He’s healthy. He’s strong. He’s ready,” said Olajuwon, who won the award in 1994 when he led the Rockets to the first of their back-to-back championships. “Now it’s about having the attitude to go out every night and dominate.”

The Hall of Famer officially rejoined his former team as a player development specialist after Howard signed a free agent contract with the Rockets in July 2013 and recently concluded his second training camp stint working with the All-Star center before returning to his home in Amman, Jordan. Prior to the start of camp, Olajuwon had not worked with Howard since the end of last season.

“He’s older, more mature and you can tell that he is feeling better physically,” Olajuwon said. “I like what I saw. He is a very hard worker. He takes the job seriously and you can see that he has used some of the things we talked about last season and is making them part of his game.”

Howard averaged 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in his first season with the Rockets and Olajuwon thinks the 28-year-old was just scratching the surface as he regained fitness.

“It was a good start, but last year Dwight was still trying to recover from the back surgery and to feel like himself again,” said Olajuwon. “I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what it is like for an athlete to have a back injury. It is serious. It is a challenge.

“I could see last year when I worked with him in camp that there were some things that he could not do. Or they were things that he did not think he could do. The difference now is that he is fit and those doubts are gone. This is the player who can go back to being the best center in the league and the kind of player that can lead his team to a championship. I think he should be dominant at both ends of the floor.”

Olajuwon is the only player in NBA history to be named MVP of the regular season, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season when he led the Rockets in 1994 and pulled the wagon again as Finals MVP when Houston repeated in 1995. He and Michael Jordan are the only players to win all three awards in their career.

Olajuwon doesn’t believe there is any reason the Rockets, who finished as the No. 4 seed in the West and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Portland last spring, should fall back, even with the departure of rotation players Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

“They have Dwight and they have James Harden,” he said. “That is two of the best players at their positions in the league. Those two can lead. Those two can do enough. You don’t need to have All-Stars at every position.

“The Rockets will need good play from some young players and from others who will be getting their chance to be key players for the first time in their careers. But when we won our first championship in 1994, we had Sam Cassell, who was a rookie, playing at the end of games and making a difference. When we won in 1995, we had Clyde (Drexler). But we also had Pete Chilcutt in the starting lineup and Chucky Brown and Charles Jones stepping up off the bench.

“When you have Howard and Harden, you have two players who can do much of the scoring. What you need are others to not try to do too much. Just concentrate on doing your job and coming to play every night.”

It begins and ends with Howard.

“We all know that center is the key position in the game,” Olajuwon said. “Everything should go through you — offense and defense and the right mentality. If the center is thinking about dominating, the team can go far, can go all the way.

“I played at a time when were so many players that could win the MVP each year — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone. It meant you weren’t going to win the MVP every year. But you had to play like an MVP and have your name in the conversation. I believe that’s where Dwight is now. He is healthy. He is physically fit. He is strong. He wants to win.

“It is about attitude. He should have a season that makes everyone vote for him as MVP. If that happens, they should be contenders for the championship. I believe that. Now they have to believe it.”

VIDEO: Hakeem Olajuwon schools Dwight Howard on post moves back in 2010

Morning shootaround — Oct. 4

VIDEO: Kobe Bryant — All The Way Back


LeBron to get some rest | Nash feeling good | Nets for sale? | Kings hire the Dean of basketball stats | Young out with thumb injury | Davis and Asik could sit preseason opener

No. 1: LeBron to get some rest — Over the course of his 11-year career, LeBron James has played about 5,500 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined) more than any other player in the league. That’s the equivalent of an additional 1 1/2 seasons. So, as he approaches the age of the 30 (which he’ll reach on Dec. 30), it’s time for James to dial back on the playing time. As Jason Lloyd of The Akron Beacon Journal reports, the Cavs could take a Popovichian approach this season, giving James some games off:

Throughout his career, James has been a machine who has deftly avoided major injuries. Still, his nagging back issues and high mileage were enough for the Cavs to rest James during Friday’s morning workout, and coach David Blatt said it could lead him to missing games during the season as a healthy scratch.

“Players are here to play and it’s our job to get them ready and keep them healthy so they can participate in every game, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Blatt said. “Sometimes you have to know how to rest guys without the team being at risk. That’s part of the process.”

The proof for such an idea was obvious in June, when an old-but-fresh Spurs team zipped passes over, under, around and through a tired Heat defense in the Finals. Gregg Popovich has strategically picked spots to rest his aging stars the last couple years, once famously eliciting a $250,000 fine from the league for doing it. But the Spurs’ consecutive trips to the Finals, including one championship and nearly a second with an aging roster, is proof Pop knows what he’s doing.


No. 2: Nash feeling good — Steve Nash has not been himself the last two seasons. After injuring his leg early in his first season with the Lakers, he has never been able to fully recover. Now, he’s 40 years old and we have to wonder if his career will soon be done. Nash wonders the same thing, but says that his legs feel great right now. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star spoke to Nash about trying to get a little more basketball out of his body:

And heading into what may be the final season of a brilliant career, Steve Nash feels good again. He doesn’t know for how long; he knows how quickly it could all vanish again. But it’s not over, not yet.

“I was playing soccer, and I went out there and after a few minutes I said, holy s—,” says Nash, on the phone from Los Angeles. “I’m 100 percent. Stop, start, change direction, mobility, explosiveness — I could go as hard as I wanted. So the next step was, is this going to sustain itself? Because I was used to the whole ‘hey, something will happen in the next two weeks that will kind of knock you back.’

“And it never really happened. I just kept going all summer. I never really had a setback. And it allowed me to enjoy the summer in a way I couldn’t the previous summer, where I was rehabbing twice a day for five months, basically. I think it took a little pressure off me, and just a little bit of joy, where it’s life-giving, instead of crumbling.”


No. 3: Nets for sale? — Are the Brooklyn Nets for sale, or is Mikhail Prokhorov actually trying to expand his sports portfolio? Both Richard Sandomir of The New York Times and Mitch Abramson of the Daily News confirm the original NetsDaily report that the latter is likely the case.


Now, Mr. Prokhorov is trying to capitalize as N.B.A. team values soar and new national media contracts with ESPN and TNT that are about to be announced promise a big leap in revenue for each team.

In a complex transaction, he is trying to create a new company by combining his team and arena assets with those owned by the investor group Guggenheim Partners, which bought the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago for $2.15 billion. In his current negotiations — first reported by the NetsDaily blog and confirmed by a person familiar with the talks — the team has been valued at $1.7 billion and Barclays Center at $1.1 billion.

If the deal comes to fruition, Mr. Prokhorov and Bruce C. Ratner, who sold Mr. Prokhorov the stakes in the team and arena, will receive $2.8 billion in cash, stock and potentially other forms of payment.


A source close to Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov screamed “Nyet!” on whether the Russian billionaire would surrender majority control of the team in Brooklyn.

“He’s not a seller,” the source familiar with Prokhorov’s thinking told the Daily News on Friday. “He wants the Nets and he loves the Nets and he wants to be controlling owner. This is something that he really enjoys.”

A flurry of reports surfaced on Thursday describing two potential scenarios involving the Russian oligarch and his holdings in Brooklyn: First, that Prokhorov is interested in integrating his sports and entertainment assets with Guggenheim Partners, the company that joined with former NBA great Magic Johnson to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 for roughly $2 billion.

The second is that Prokhorov is preoccupied with cashing out and selling his stake in the Nets to the highest bidder.

The source said only the first picture is accurate.


No. 4: Kings hire the Dean of basketball statsDean Oliver‘s Basketball on Paper is basically the bible of basketball analytics, outlining the “four factors” of efficiency on either end of the floor, as well as other statistical tools to evaluate players and teams historically. Oliver has worked for the Sonics and Nuggets and after three years at ESPN, is taking his talents to Sacramento, as Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee writes, thanks in part to his previous work with Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro:

At one time, Dean Oliver wasn’t widely respected in basketball for his analytic and statistical evaluations.

One of those who took Oliver seriously 10 years ago was Pete D’Alessandro, now the Kings’ general manager.

“I was just trying to get in, and Pete was one of the first people to listen to me,” Oliver said.

This time, Oliver listened to D’Alessandro, who asked him to join the Kings. D’Alessandro introduced Oliver, now recognized as the creator of many of the advanced statistics used by NBA teams, on Friday. Oliver will provide statistical analysis and have a role in personnel decisions.

“He’s going to be a big part of this team in terms of brokering deals,” D’Alessandro said. “His reputation throughout the league is stellar, and his contact base is as big as anyone’s.”


No. 5: Young out with thumb injury — The first major injury of training camp belongs to Nick Young and the Lakers. Young injured his right thumb in practice on Thursday, and a MRI revealed “a complete tear of the radial collateral ligament.” Young is set to have surgery on Monday and is expected to be out 6-8 weeks, which would have him missing at least 10 regular season games. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times has the story:

Young was injured Thursday while tying to steal the ball from Kobe Bryant at practice.

His thumb swelled up overnight and an MRI exam Friday showed a tear. He will have surgery Monday.

A day earlier, Lakers Coach Byron Scott said Young would have a chance at being the NBA’s sixth man of the year.

And earlier Friday, when the team hoped Young’s injury was only a sprain, Scott wished for the best.

“Maybe I jinxed him, I don’t know,” Scott said. “I’m not going to say anything good about Nick Young for the rest of the year. Maybe that will keep him healthy for us.”

Young apparently smacked his thumb into Bryant’s elbow on the play.


No. 6: Davis and Asik could sit preseason opener — The preseason is here! But the New Orleans Pelicans might not be at full strength when they face the Miami Heat in Lexington on Saturday night. Nakia Hogan of the New Orleans Times Picayune reports that Anthony Davis and Omer Asik will get some rest in the preseason:

New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams said he’s considering holding All-Star power forward Anthony Davis and top offseason acquisition Omer Asik out of Saturday’s preseason opener against the Miami Heat in Lexington, Ky.

Both Davis and Asik, who are expected to be a formidable duo at the power forward and center positions, are healthy. But both are coming off a long summer of activity while playing for their home countries in the FIBA World Cup, which is why Williams is thinking about resting the pair.

Before making his decision, Williams said he’d consult with general manager Dell Demps.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Spurs are heading to Europe to find Boris DiawThe league is bringing back 5-on-5 competition to the Draft CombineWesley Matthews is slowly getting back to work after being sidelined with an irregular heartbeat … A lacerated hand will keep the Suns’ Anthony Tolliver out a few daysPhil Jackson let Derek Fisher do the coaching this weekDanny Ainge doesn’t want Rajon Rondo to rush back from a broken hand … Dirk Nowitzki isn’t yet ready to reveal the skyhook he’s been working on … and you can have LeBron’s Miami house for just $17 million.

ICYMI of The Night: Blazers head coach Terry Stotts talked to Vince Cellini and Steve Smith during Real Training Camp:

VIDEO: Real Training Camp: Blazers – Terry Stotts

A dozen stories to open training camps

Little has changed with the ageless Spurs since the confetti rained down on the champs, but much is now different with the rest of the NBA. So as the first handful of training camps open this week, here are a dozen storylines that will require immediate attention:

LeBron rocks, Cleveland rolls

LeBron James, 2007 (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Is it really as simple as putting the giant sign of LeBron James back up in downtown Cleveland and turning the clock back to the days of the Cavs as contenders for them to win it all? With Kyrie Irving‘s continued growth, his performance at the FIBA World Cup fresh in our minds, with the arrival of Kevin Love to be the third leg of the stool, it only seems a matter of time before the Cavs are on the main stage in June. Let’s remember that Irving and Love have never even been to the playoffs, let alone made a deep run. But let’s also remember that this is the Eastern Conference and that means the door is open.

Kobe vs. The World

Let’s face it. Nobody — not LeBron, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kevin Durant, not anybody — will have every step he takes on the court scrutinized and analyzed more than Kobe Bryant as he battles the calendar and what would seem to be common sense as he tries to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture at age 36. He’ll be determined, defiant, maybe even destructive to his own well-being. More than anything, you have to hope he can stay healthy all the way through the long grind of the season, if for no other reason than to see how he drives and browbeats a ragtag collection of post-Pau Gasol era Lakers in a quixotic quest.

Big Man in the Big Easy

They’ve changed owners, changed their team name and solidified the face of the franchise for the first time since New Orleans was last in the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if Anthony Davis can build on his big dog experience with Team USA in the World Cup and put some bite into the Pelicans. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. But based on the way he played in Spain, that might have only been scratching the surface. There are some ready to jump Davis over reigning MVP Durant as the next “best player in the game.” He’ll get up front support this season from Omer Asik, and if Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans can stay healthy, this could be the beginning of a whole new era.

Stuck on the launch pad

Until LeBron went back home to Cleveland, it was hard to top the last two offseason jackpots hit by the Rockets — landing James Harden and Dwight Howard. But that streak hit a wall when the Rockets went all-in to bring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to Houston. It was a bold and grand gamble that required trading away Omer Asik (to the Pelicans) and Jeremy Lin (to the Lakers) to create salary cap space. It also led to allowing Chandler Parsons to become a free agent and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Now with neither prize free agent, the Rockets are a team that won 54 games a year ago, lost in the first round of the playoffs and have the depth of a one-night pickup at a singles bar. How much can they get from Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan? What does Jason Terry have left? How much of the weight can Harden and Howard realistically carry?


Round of 16 features four big games

VIDEO: FIBA: Day Six Wrap

MADRID — It’s fine to assume that the United States and Spain will face off in the gold medal game of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup on Sept. 14. But it wouldn’t be wise to wait until then to pay attention to the action in Barcelona and Madrid, because there’s plenty of good basketball to be played between the 16 remaining teams.

The knockout rounds get started with eight games on Saturday and Sunday, and there will be at least four good teams packing their bags before the weekend is done. It’s win-or-go-home time, there are still 47 active NBA players in the tournament, and the games are only 40 minutes long. Anything can happen, including an upset of one of the two favorites.

Don’t be looking for that this weekend, though. Appropriately, USA and Spain play two of the worst teams remaining. But there are four games – three in Madrid and one in Barcelona – that could go either way. And for NBA fans, there are more reasons than that to watch.

Pace = Possessions per 40 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

USA (5-0) vs. Mexico (2-3)

Barcelona – Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, ESPN2


Things won’t get interesting for the U.S. until at least the semifinals. But there are still things to work on before then. The defense could be tighter, the half-court offense could definitely be sharper, and Derrick Rose needs more court time to start finishing plays better.

This will be free agent Gustavo Ayon‘s last (and best) chance to audition for NBA teams. Mexico also has Nets back-up point guard Jorge Gutierrez and was one of the best offensive rebounding teams in group play, grabbing 37 percent of available offensive boards.

Croatia (3-2) vs. France (3-2)

Madrid – Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, NBA TV


This game features a couple of fascinating matchups between French vets and Croatian young guns. On the wing, we’ll see the Blazers’ Nicolas Batum vs. incoming Nets rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been the tournament’s sixth leading scorer at 20.0 points per game. And at the four, we’ll have the Spurs’ Boris Diaw vs. Sixers draft pick Dario Saric, one of the most intriguing young talents we’ve seen in Europe in a long time.

A more important matchup could be between two NBA draft picks at center. France’s Joffrey Lauvergne (rights held by Denver) will be outsized by Croatia’s Ante Tomic (Utah), but could use his quickness to make things tough on the seven footer.

Croatia has been inconsistent, but has a ton of talent, including incoming Pacers rookie Damjan Rudez. France is the safer pick here and beat Croatia without Diaw a month ago, but Croatia might have the higher ceiling on a good night.

Slovenia (4-1) vs. Dominican Republic (2-3)

Barcelona – Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, NBA TV


Slovenia had the No. 1 offense in group play, even though it continued to be rather conservative with Goran Dragic‘s minutes. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 69.6 percent in his team’s five games, but is just the tournament’s 10th leading scorer.

The Dominican Republic features Francisco Garcia (20.2 points per game), some solid role players, and a decent defense. It got through via a tiebreaker and didn’t have any quality wins in Group C, but if Garcia and fellow gunner James Feldeine get hot, this could get interesting, because Slovenia hasn’t proven it can get stops.

Spain (5-0) vs. Senegal (2-3)

Madrid – Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NBA TV


Spain’s point differential wasn’t as big as USA’s, but it had more impressive wins in Group A, beating Brazil, France and Serbia (all medal contenders) by an average of 19.7 points. The hosts have been a more cohesive unit with more depth.

Their success starts with their huge frontline, featuring Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who will play all of the team’s meaningful minutes at the four and five (sorry, Victor Claver fans). But their guards have done a fine job of providing ball pressure and pushing the ball in transition, where this team is a highlight machine.

Senegal, with the Wolves’ Gorgui Dieng leading the way, was one of the feel-good stories of group play. But that story comes to an end Saturday night in Madrid.

Lithuania (4-1) vs. New Zealand (2-3)

Barcelona – Sunday, 10 a.m. ET, NBA TV


Despite losing point guard Mantas Kalnietis in its last exhibition game, Lithuania has been one of the best teams in the tournament. It avoided the U.S. until the semis with Thursday’s big win over Slovenia and, therefore, should be considered the team most likely to play for the bronze medal.

Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas are the names NBA fans know, but this is a deep and experienced roster that likes to grind it out at a slow pace.

That slow pace could help New Zealand hang around for a while. But this team lacks the talent and size to match up with a European power.

Greece (5-0) vs. Serbia (2-3)

Madrid – Sunday, 12 p.m. ET, NBA TV


You might remember the infamous bench-clearing brawl, featuring Nenad Krstic throwing a chair at Giannis Bourousis, that these two teams had in a 2010 “friendly” game. And therefore, you might be curious to see what happens when they meet again.

Extracurriculars aside, this should be one of the best games of the weekend. Serbia is obviously the best team with a losing record, having lost to France by a point and having held a seven-point lead over Brazil in the fourth quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo is reason enough to tune in to see Greece, but this team’s talent goes well beyond his long arms and strides. It went undefeated in Group B for a reason.

Turkey (3-2) vs. Australia (3-2)

Barcelona – Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBA TV


This is where Australia wanted to be, seemingly throwing away Thursday’s game vs. Angola in order to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals. Doing that though, they put themselves in the best game of the Barcelona side of the bracket.

Neither Aron Baynes (who’s still a restricted free agent) nor Joe Ingles (who might get an NBA contract before Baynes does) played against Angola, but have been Australia’s best players. Jazz rookie Dante Exum has had a limited role behind the Cavs’ Matthew Dellavedova.

Turkey has had, by far, the biggest free throw attempt differential (plus-71) in the tournament, in part because opponents hack Omer Asik whenever he gets the ball near the basket. But their zone defense also keeps opponents out of the paint and off the line.

Australia ranked last in group-play 3-point attempts, but made 52 percent of the ones they took. That shooting vs. Turkey’s zone could determine who plays Lithuania on Tuesday.

Brazil (4-1) vs. Argentina (3-2)

Madrid – Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBA TV


FIBA knows how to save the best for last. These two teams ranked third and seventh in pace-adjusted point differential in group play.

If this matchup looks familiar, it’s because these two teams faced each other in this same round in the 2010 World Championship, in the final of the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament, and in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics. Each time, Argentina won by five points or less. The 2010 game, in particular, was an early-round classic.

So Brazil is out for a little revenge, and has arguably been the third best team thus far, picking up quality wins over France and Serbia. Argentina, of course, has #FIBAScola.

If you’ve only watched Luis Scola play in the NBA, then you’ve been missing out. The Scola that plays for his national team is a scoring machine. Brazil’s NBA trio of Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao will try to slow him down on Sunday.

Brazil’s own offense, fueled by a crafty backcourt of Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa, has picked up of late. It’s a shame that, for the third straight major international tournament, one of these two teams won’t make it past the first knockout round.