Posts Tagged ‘Phoenix Suns’

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches — Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14’s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Morning Shootaround — April 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bright future in Phoenix | Kupchak still non-committal on D’Antoni’s future | Report: Knicks to add Odom? | Lillard inks big shoe deal with adidas | Raptors celebrate milestone victory

No. 1: Suns inspired about future despite tough loss — In the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise, the team has recorded 47 or more wins 23 different times. But perhaps this time of hitting that number of wins has been more rewarding than any others in the past. While Phoenix’s playoff dream died last night with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, there’s no denying the Suns proved many experts (including those on this very web site) wrong all season long. Although the Suns will miss the playoffs for a record fourth straight season, there’s plenty of reason to look ahead in Arizona, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

The franchise’s hard luck now lays claim to four of NBA history’s six winningest teams to not make the playoffs. A three-game losing streak in the final week leaves the Suns (47-34) out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, the franchise’s longest postseason drought since 1971-75.

“If we had three All-Stars and don’t make the playoffs, then you go, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I thought we did the best we could.”

Memphis is the type of team that has given the Suns problems all season because it keeps them from their fastbreaking strengths with a physical, grinding method. The Suns went 3-13 this season against the NBA’s six slowest-paced teams, with Memphis being the slowest with a great half-court defense.

“It makes it tough on the executing part,” Hornacek said. “As a team, we’re not quite at that point where we can play in the half-court and execute plays over and over. Our strength is getting out in the open court.”

“It’s always tough when you finish the season and then you look back and you’re saying, ‘OK, the game against the Lakers (a 115-99 loss on at March 30), we should’ve won that, a game against Sacramento (lost twice in Sacramento),” Dragic said. “You have to take care of business home and away against those teams that are not so successful. It’s really tough when you have to play the last three games against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis and we came out short.”

And as Coro points out in a separate story, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has made a solid case for a long-term future in Phoenix, too:

The way Bledsoe has risen to the occasion over the past two weeks has shown the Suns and their fans — and, perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe — just how special he can be. Bledsoe is figuring out his stardom on the same timeline as the Suns and their fans.

He is only 24 years old, is in his first season as a starter, has lost 39 games to injury and is coming off knee surgery. He just posted his best three career scoring games in a span of nine nights when the pressure was on the most. Bledsoe came within an assist of his first triple-double, and within a free throw of three 30-point games.

And this is just the learning stage for him.

“His strength, his scoring, his defense, his facilitating stuff,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “I haven’t seen a point guard that strong at his size in a long time that can do all the things he can do. He’s a load to deal with.”

Bledsoe’s court vision was the first thing that surprised the Suns in the fall, and it only will improve, assuming his court acumen does. His perimeter shot already is turning around.

Coupled with his powerful driving ability, it has changed his career 43.1 shooting percentage into a 48.0 clip this season.

“When he needed to step up his game, he did,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said.

“The biggest thing we’re reminding him is to keep attacking,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, who has teased Bledsoe about his conditioning, pointing out how often he walks the ball up. “If he can attack like a Monta Ellis does, he’s hard to stop. He gets through there, and he’s strong. I think he realizes he can become one of the best players in the league with hard work.

“He’s got that fire and drive.”

The Suns already knew they would match any July offer sheet that Bledsoe might sign in restricted free agency or even beat any team to it with the advantage of offering him an extra year with larger raises.

That might have been a mixed sell for an unproven player had he ended this season with no comeback or a shaky return from knee rehabilitation. To see the Bledsoe that has finished the season, it shows how advantageous it is to be a proactive front office that acquires a budding star in a trade rather than leaning on free agency.

“Hopefully, he’s capable of staying here another few years,” Suns power forward Channing Frye said. “That’d be nice. He’s just developing as a point guard. He was concerned about his turnovers, and I told him, ‘Dude, you’re passing. You’re ahead of the game.’ I’ve played with some of the best, and between him and Goran, I’m pretty excited about the future of the Phoenix Suns.”


VIDEO: Suns players react to Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies

***

No. 2: Kupchak quiet about D’Antoni’s future — Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has one game left this season — a road game in San Antonio on Wednesday, the season’s final night. Could that also be the end of D’Antoni’s days as L.A.’s leader? The word out of the Lakers’ camp remains vague at best (last thing we heard from GM Mitch Kupchak was that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have a say in D’Antoni’s coaching future). After last night’s victory in Salt Lake City over the Utah Jazz, Kupchak remains non-committal about D’Antoni, writes Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Mitch Kupchak paused for several seconds. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

What will be Mike D’Antoni’s fate?

Finally, the Lakers’ general manager spoke briefly about the Lakers’ coach.

“I’m not going to discuss Mike other than to say there is no timetable for any type of decision. So there’s really nothing to share,” Kupchak told The Times.

It represented a departure from his comments last month that D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances.”

That might still be true. The Lakers have lost a staggering 308 man-games to injury this season, making it hard to judge any coach.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aren’t fans of D’Antoni’s offense and most Lakers followers don’t support D’Antoni, even though he hasn’t had a healthy roster in his two seasons.

So there’s a lot to mull for the Lakers.

In D’Antoni’s favor, the Lakers owe him $4 million next season and are tired of paying people not to coach them. In the last 10 seasons, only Phil Jackson was not still owed money when he left the team.

Rudy Tomjanovich was paid $9 million when he abruptly resigned as the Lakers’ coach midway through the 2004-05 season. He was in the first season of a five-year, $30-million deal and later served as a consultant for the team.

The Lakers initially owed Mike Brown $7 million when they fired him five games into last season. They recouped about $2.5 million of that money, as per NBA rules, when Brown was hired to coach Cleveland this season.

The Lakers don’t want the reputation of a coaching turnstile.

D’Antoni declined to speculate on his job status Monday. Asked about his future, he said he was prepared for exit meetings with players Thursday and Friday. And he was eager for Easter.

He gave a typically self-deprecating answer when asked how he kept his sanity this season.

“What sanity?” he said.

***

No. 3: Report: Knicks, Odom nearing deal — The Knicks are out of the playoffs and have just two games left in their woebegone season. But it seems that new GM Phil Jackson isn’t about to wait until the offseason to start stirring up New York’s roster. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Jackson is close to having a reunion with his former Sixth Man of the Year winner with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lamar Odom:

Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are progressing toward a deal to sign veteran free agent Lamar Odom before the NBA regular season ends Wednesday, according to sources briefed on the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Knicks are on course, barring an unforeseen snag, to formally sign Odom this week in a move that would put him on their roster immediately and, more importantly, include a team option for next season.

Structuring the deal this way, after a tumultuous 12 months for one of Jackson’s favorite players when they worked together with the Los Angeles Lakers, would give the Knicks two months before free agency begins July 1 to get the 34-year-old into their program and start working with him.

The Knicks, sources say, would want to use the extra time to see if they can get Odom to the point, physically and mentally, where the talented but enigmatic lefty is worthy of a roster spot next season.

Still recovering from a back injury that curtailed his recent stint in the Spanish League after just two games, Odom is not believed to be healthy enough to play in the Knicks’ season finale Wednesday night in Toronto even if he signs Wednesday.

Sources say this is viewed as a long-range play for the Knicks, who are banking on the notion that Jackson — in his new role as New York’s team president — can provide the guidance to get Odom’s career back on track.

***

No. 4: Lillard inks huge deal with adidasIf you had any doubts that small-market superstars can’t get the kind of shoe-endorsement deals stars in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. get, think again. Much like Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his lucrative deal with Nike, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has signed the third-richest shoe deal in the league. CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes has more on Lillard’s new agreement with adidas:

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard and adidas have finalized a deal that makes it the third richest shoe endorsement deal in history, a source informed CSNNW.com.

The deal, according to another source, is an eight-year contract that has the potential to stretch out to 10 years if he reaches certain incentive clauses. We’ve confirmed Lillard’s new contract is slightly less than that of Derrick Rose.

“adidas has been great to me over my first two seasons,” Lillard said in the adidas release. “I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of great product, help design special versions of shoes, be a part of TV commercials and travel the world with the brand. I’m excited for what the future holds for me and adidas.”

CSNNW.com reported a few weeks ago that the deal was on the cusp of being finalized. The deal was actually signed in Los Angeles on April. 1 prior to the Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 124-112 that evening.

Due to Lillard reaching certain performance incentive clauses in his adidas rookie shoe deal, he was able to opt out at the end of the season to pursue a long-term, prosperous contract with adidas, Nike or other major competitors. Instead of waiting, Lillard’s representatives gave adidas an exclusive 30-day window to renegotiate before checking out other offers. That 30 days was up on April. 1.

USA Today reported the deal is finalized.

.***

No. 5: DeRozan rests as Raptors set wins markThe Toronto Raptors, by any measure, have had a great season. If you measure what they’ve done on just wins and losses, though, they’ve had a season for the team record books. Last night’s drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks lifted Toronto to its 48th win, the most in franchise history, and it was done while All-Star and go-to guy DeMar DeRozan took a well-deserved break before the playoffs get rolling. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more on the win:

Even with DeMar DeRozan reduced to a mere spectator enjoying a night of rest, the Raptors claimed their franchise-record-setting 48th win of the year, dumping the Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 at the Air Canada Centre in the penultimate game of the regular season.

“Guys came out with a total focus. We lost it there a little bit in the second half, but the start of the game, our guys were locked in, attention to detail was there on both ends of the floor,” said Casey.

DeRozan’s greatest impact on the game was his short speech thanking the fans for the just-completed home season as the banner recognizing the team’s division title was unfurled in an understated, quick ceremony.

“It definitely felt good to share it with (the fans) because they played a major part in it as well,” he said. “I’ve been here through the struggles and the tough times and our fans were still right there with us on this journey.”

And there is no certainty that DeRozan will play Wednesday when the Raptors wrap up the season in New York.

“We’ll see what we decide on that,” said Casey. “Amir’s had time off, Kyle’s had time off, he’s the only guy with big minutes that hadn’t had time off. I could just see a pep in Kyle’s step since he’s had his rest, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Amir Johnson, still working his way back from ankle woes, looked better Monday than he did Sunday in Detroit, chipping in 10 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes as Casey eases him back slightly.

He was proud to be part of the historic win.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We set many franchise records and we are just going to keep pushing and see what’s next for us. We’re always looking for the next thing.”

Lowry and Johnson left to a prolonged ovation from the fans with less than 40 seconds to go.


VIDEO: Toronto raises its Atlantic Division championship banner before Monday’s game vs. Milwaukee

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire may play in Jerusalem once his contract runs out in 2015 … The Bucks secured the top odds in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery last night … Does Damian Lillard‘s new deal with adidas mean the shoe giant has forgotten about Derrick Rose? … Former first-round pick Arnett Moultrie is trying to make an NBA impact before it is too late … The Lakers and Suns may look to make pass at Luol Deng in free agency this summer … George Hill had an interesting little chat with Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on the Indianapolis Star‘s website …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Trey Burke has had a pretty solid rookie season, but this move that Jordan Farmar put on him in the backcourt is sure to stick with him for a while. On a more positive note, we had two fantastic full-court dimes that lead to and-ones — one from the master (Kevin Love) of such plays and another from a pretty solid passer in his own right (Andre Miller)


VIDEO: Jordan Farmar breaks Trey Burke’s ankles in the backcourt


VIDEO: Kevin Love throws a full-court pass to Corey Brewer for the layup


VIDEO: Andre Miller throws a great full-court dime to Bradley Beal

Blogtable: Finding a new playoff gear

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


BLOGTABLE: All-NBA center | Coaches in danger | Playoff team needs new gear



VIDEO: Bobcats big man Al Jefferson talks about Charlotte’s hopes for a long playoff run

Which playoff-bound teams (give me two or three) will play up to another level in the grind of the playoffs? Who will have trouble playing as well as they are now?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I start with the second question (ever notice how most respondents do?): Phoenix and Washington could suffer most from the just-happy-to-be-there approach, the Suns overachieving their way in (if they get in) and Washington desperate to qualify but with no real postseason experience. Atlanta figures to be a quick out but then, the Hawks haven’t played all that well anyway. Shifting into a better gear? Charlotte’s defense is suited to the playoffs and, if the Bobcats face the sideways Pacers, that could get interesting. Chicago always is a team to avoid, but that’s just the way the Bulls grind all the time, not due to any next level. I’d add Golden State, because their coach will feel urgency and the Warriors’ offense can get so dangerously hot.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Spurs, Thunder, Heat, Bulls, Clippers will rise. The Pacers, Raptors, Nets, Blazers will drop. Why? It’s pretty self-explanatory. The first five teams look like legit contenders while the latter four are not ready for the grind of the playoffs for one reason or another. In particular, the Pacers look like they’re ready to crater.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com:Oklahoma City has fought through Russell Westbrook‘s situation and injuries to two starters in the final quarter of the season, plus acclimating Caron Butler, so put the Thunder at the top of the list for teams that will play up. It seems weird to put Miami in this category, but the Heat have been coasting. They know what’s at stake starting April 19. Also give me Brooklyn’s vets. On the other side, I expect Dallas, if it gets in, will have trouble reaching another level. And, Toronto, with relatively little playoff experience, could be in for an early disappointment — especially with potential first-round foe Washington expecting Nene‘s return.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Heat will play up to another level. They can read a calendar as well as anyone. All that talk about the fatigue from carrying the trophy overhead for so many years? Ignore it. This will be the playoff Heat. Maybe someone beats Miami, but the Heat aren’t handing anything over. And the Thunder will play up to another level. Westbrook will be playing big minutes and won’t have to worry about back-to-backs, Kendrick Perkins should have his minutes up and Thabo Sefolosha will have been back about a week and a half and in a good rhythm.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ll always look at defense to answer a question like this. The Warriors have gone through some controversy and have seemingly been treading water around the No. 6 seed for a while, but they’ve been the best defensive team in the Western Conference, with top-flight defenders on the perimeter (Andre Iguodala) and the interior (Andrew Bogut). That’s a formula for playoff success. For the same reasons, Chicago and Charlotte will be tough outs. Oklahoma City has had some defensive issues of late and could be in trouble if they match up with Phoenix, because no team has been more efficient against the Thunder this season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Brooklyn Nets look like one of those teams you don’t want to tussle with in the playoffs. The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. All three have endured their fair share of troubles at some point this season and yet all three seem to have another gear they can get to in the postseason. I love what the Toronto Raptors are doing right now but I wonder if they’re ready for what coach Dwane Casey knows awaits them in the playoffs. They have put together a fantastic season that should be highlighted by an Atlantic Division crown. What comes after that, however, is the problem. A potential first-round matchup against either Washington or Charlotte could be a rough ride.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Waaaay back in October I was high on the Clippers and the Nets. And while Rick Fox and Sekou Smith may have made fun of me on the Hang Time Podcast for going all in on those teams, I’ve always felt that these were teams that would improve as the season went along, and I think they both have done exactly that. In the postseason, Chris Paul has always turned things up a notch, and now he has the players around him to be as dangerous as he’s ever been. And we’ve all seen how Brooklyn can handle Miami, so I think they’re in as good a place as they could be.

Morning Shootaround — April 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kupchak: Calipari not headed to Lakers | Irving, Waiters try to squash rift talk | Johnson to help NBPA | Report: Dumars set to resign soon | Suns making one last push for No. 8

No. 1: Kupchak: Calipari not headed to L.A. — Just before the start of last night’s NCAA Tournament national championship game between Kentucky and UConn, former Kentucky star Rex Chapman floated a little rumor/bit of potential news on Twitter about Kentucky coach John Calipari:

After the game — which UConn won 60-54 — both Calipari and the Lakers shot down the rumor. of the Los Angeles Times and Brian Hamilton of SI.com have more on the story:

Nothing like putting out a juicy oh-by-the-way rumor before the biggest college basketball game of the season.

But former Kentucky star Rex Chapman tweeted before Monday night’s national title game that Kentucky Coach John Calipari will be the next coach of the Lakers.

Chapman doesn’t site any sources or offer any timetable. Calipari said this week he was probably going to need his hip replaced shortly after Monday night’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut.

The Lakers denied have any conversations with Calipari.

“I spoke to [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak and he said the rumor is untrue,” Lakers spokesman John Black said. “Mike D’Antoni is our coach. There have been no conversations about any specific names for any replacement.”

Calipari had a 72-112 in three seasons with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s.

And here’s Hamilton’s report after the national championship game, in which Calipari shot down the rumor:

To believe a former program star’s tweet shortly before tipoff Monday, John Calipari was coaching his final game on the Kentucky sideline before bolting to the Los Angeles Lakers.

To believe Calipari, he won’t need change of address forms anytime soon.

“The Lakers have a coach,” Calipari said after a 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the national title game. “Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”

The Lakers reportedly denied any contact with Calipari. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart sounded unconcerned after the game.

“Cal’s been great, he’s been a great ambassador for this program and he cares a lot about Kentucky,” Barnhart said in the locker room Monday night. “So clearly we love how he represents what we do. He looks great in blue. You live day to day with people and you trust what they do. For five years now, I think I know him fairly well. If there was anything I need to be concerned with, he and I have had conversations, and in those conversations he’s been very, very focused on this tournament. His total focus this season, especially this last month and a half, has been to get the team to a spot where we could compete for something like this. I think he’s done a marvelous job doing that.”

***

No. 2: Irving, Waiters try to squash talk of rift — The Cavs wake up on Tuesday morning and find themselves four games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 playoff spot in the East. Cleveland has plenty of talent — led by All-Star guard Kyrie Irving — but has never seemed to get on the right page on the court all season. Some of that may stem from a chemistry issue between Irving and second-year guard Dion Waiters. There were reports earlier in the season the duo fought at a players-only meeting, and now, other Cleveland-area sports figures are chiming in on the discord. The two players talked to the media after yesterday’s practice and, as Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal reports, tried to quiet talk about their supposed discord:

It might be time for TMZ to swoop in.

Better yet, it might make for a new reality series.

The Cavaliers are on the verge of being eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff race. One more Atlanta victory in its last six games will end the Cavs’ run.

Yet the Cavs were more intent on showing what bosom buddies Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are. They also wanted to deny a claim by Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon there is any kind of a rift between the two guards.

The Cavs propped up Irving and Waiters in front of the media on April 7 after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts, just to promote an aura of unity.

Waiters said he was friends with Irving long before he came to the Cavs. They crossed paths in the AAU circuit.

“I just think, man, throughout this whole year with us two not liking each other, it’s total BS,” Waiters said. “We’ve been friends before we even made the NBA, before any of this. I just think y’all saying we don’t like playing with one another. … Yeah, we still need to learn certain things, but I think at the end of the day, we’re genuinely friends. I love him as a friend, teammate, everything. I just want everybody to know that. I don’t hate this guy.

“I’m pretty sure he don’t hate me. I know he don’t hate me. I hope he don’t hate me. Rome wasn’t built in one day. We’re still young. We’re still planning to stay together. We’re still working. As long as we’ve got great communication down, it’s fine.”

Waiters admitted he was neighbors with Gordon and the two often play pool. But he said that’s where the story ends.

“He plays football. I play basketball. Two different sports. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go down there running my mouth on something that he don’t even know what’s going on.”

Irving said he called Gordon and cleared the air.

“I just let him know that the whole situation kind of got blown out of proportion,” he said. “There was no disrespect on my end to him or anything he does. I have the utmost respect for him. But what I was just trying to clearly say was what Dion has been reiterating: What goes on with us, we want to keep it within us.

“We’ve had numerous occasions where we’ve been in the media about me and Dion’s relationship. I think me and him are just tired of it. I just want to move past it and play basketball.”

“I just hate when people put out stories that aren’t true,” he said. “Be man enough to come ask me. I’ll give it to you uncut. I don’t got nothing to hide. I think everybody knows my personality. I may not come off the right way, but I don’t mean no harm. Everybody gets tired of it, especially with our relationship. They don’t know what we do. You’re not going to always see eye to eye on the court.”


VIDEO: Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving address talk of a rift between them

***

No. 3: Ex-Suns star Johnson to help NBPA exec search — Sacramento mayor and former Phoenix Suns All-Star Kevin Johnson already has an off-the-court NBA win, of sorts, by playing an instrumental role in helping keep the Sacramento Kings in town. Now, Johnson is trying to help the National Basketball Players Association find its next executive director as it recovers from the fallout of the firing of former NBPA president Billy Hunter. Our David Aldridge has more on the move:

Responding to criticism of its ongoing selection process to find a new executive director, the National Basketball Players Association announced Monday that former NBA player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson would head a retooled search to fill the position no later than the start of the 2014-15 season.

Johnson, who spearheaded the effort that kept the Kings in Sacramento last year after the team’s former owners had agreed to a deal with a Seattle-based group that would have moved the team to Washington state, will chair a search committee of, according to a statement released Monday by the union, “outside professionals with unique NBPA and executive search connections and experiences to guide the Executive Committee.”

Johnson will continue to serve as mayor while helping the union pick a permanent successor to Billy Hunter, who was fired by the NBPA in 2013 amid investigations into his business practices while running the union.

“I have a deep passion for the NBA and the promise it has for everyone connected to it,” Johnson said in the statement. “Everything I’ve been able to achieve in life was a result of embracing the opportunities I had as an NBA player.”

Bringing in Johnson, a former star with the Suns who has credibility with players and displayed his coalition-building chops in putting together the unlikely group that kept the Kings in Sacramento, is a signal by the union that its membership—many of whom, including its president, Chris Paul, will be busy the next couple of months in the playoffs—may need outside assistance in getting its house in order.

During All-Star weekend in February, union members were introduced to two candidates that were believed to be the finalists for the job — David White, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, and Michele Roberts, a partner at the powerful law firm Skadden, Arps. But the process was decried as too secretive and not inclusive by agents and by potential candidates for the job, most notably former player Danny Schayes.

***

No. 4: Report: Dumars poised to resign soon — Since June 18, 1985, Joe Dumars has known no other NBA franchise as well as he knows the Detroit Pistons. It was on that day that Dumars was selected by the team with the 18th pick in the 1985 Draft, starting a lengthy career in the Motor City. But after winning two championships as a player (1989, 1990) another one as the team’s president (2004), Dumars has had a rough go with the team as he’s tried — and failed — to rebuild them following that last championship run. Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News reports that Dumars, who has been rumored to be fired at season’s end, may resign once 2013-14 is in the books (if not sooner):

As the Pistons prepare to ride out the last two weeks of the regular season, the sun might be setting on Pistons president Joe Dumars’ reign with the only franchise he’s known.

Dumars has told multiple sources within the NBA that he plans to resign — possibly as soon as this week — after a busy offseason that included the signings of high-priced free agents Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings and led to an underachieving 2013-14 season. The Pistons, who many experts picked to return to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, are 28-49 and out of playoff contention.

Pistons owner Tom Gores had expected before the season that the team would return to the playoffs.

Compared to his contemporaries, Dumars has been reluctant to be front and center with media as Pistons president of basketball operations and has been quieter than usual recently, perhaps another signal that his time with the franchise — 29 years of work as a player and executive — is coming to an end.

Dumars took over in 2000, one year after retiring as a player, and immediately began making changes, culminating in an NBA title in 2004 and a return trip to the Finals the next season.

After the Pistons’ run ended in 2008, Dumars began a plan to tear down his aging team, in an effort to prevent an extended period of irrelevancy — not unlike his Bad Boys teams after they fell from dominance.

Trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in November of 2008 was the first salvo, as he wanted to build around second-year guard Rodney Stuckey, but months later, after Davidson fell ill and soon passed away, Dumars’ plan was put on hold indefinitely.

Davidson’s widow, Karen, soon announced her plans to sell, so Dumars couldn’t rebuild on the fly — or even reload. Dumars signed free agents Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to deals neither lived up to, and Davidson ceased all transactions soon thereafter.

In the 2009-10 season, the first with Gordon and Villanueva, the average salaries of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs was $74.37 million. The Pistons’ overall salary was $58.59 million, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and haven’t returned since.

Dumars didn’t execute a single transaction during the 2011-12 season, as Karen Davidson negotiated with local sports owner Mike Ilitch and Gores all season long.

It was a backdrop in the most tumultuous season in team history, as Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton began to openly defy then-coach John Kuester, even taking part in a team boycott in Philadelphia in February 2012.

A little over a month later, Karen Davidson and Gores reached an agreement, right before the NBA lockout, and Dumars was unable to create the same magic working with Gores that he’d accomplished with Bill Davidson.

Gores wanted Lawrence Frank as his coach, and Dumars wanted Mike Woodson, a former assistant with Detroit who’d just led the Atlanta Hawks to a string of playoff appearances.

Frank became the choice, and the sides have not been able to get on the same page. Gores was a new owner with his own ideas, often consulting others outside the Pistons organization for advice, such as Dave Checketts and later, Phil Jackson, acts that never occurred under Bill Davidson’s watch.

***

No. 5: Suns hoping to seize their playoff moment — Who hasn’t loved the story of the Phoenix Suns this season? The squad was written off before the season as a group that would be lucky to win 20 games by some experts’ estimation (including some on this very site). But under the guidance of new coach Jeff Hornacek and their star guard combo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix finds itself with a tenuous grasp of the No. 8 spot in the West. As Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic writes, the Suns aren’t about to get all warm and fuzzy about their season — they’re too focused on finishing the job and making the playoffs:

With their best back-to-back wins of the season this weekend, over Portland and Oklahoma City, the Suns kept control of their fate.

“We know that time is running down and we just can’t fail,” Suns guard Gerald Green said. “It’s all or nothing right now. We don’t have a month left to try and make up. We’ve only got a few games left. It’s either win or go home for us.”

The Suns’ playoff picture seems to have been whittled to a three-team race for the final two spots in the Western Conference. The Suns are in the eighth and final playoff slot at 46-31, a half-game behind Dallas (47-31) and a game ahead of Memphis (45-32) with round-robin scheduling ahead when each of the three teams faces each other over the season’s final five nights, starting Saturday.

No team in the 16-team playoff era has failed to make it to the postseason with 49 wins (Golden State was left out at 48-34 in 2008). No 50-win team has ever been left out, although a 49-33 Suns team did not make the 1972 playoffs, when only four teams in the Western Conference qualified.

Although they just won two of the toughest games of their nasty April, tough tests remain: Four of the five remaining games are on the road, starting with a three-game trip this week to New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas. On Saturday, that crucial Dallas game falls on the second night of a back-to-back set.

If favorites won the remainder of the games, the Mavericks and Suns would finish 49-33 and advance to the playoffs as the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively, by finishing a game ahead of Memphis at 48-34. Unpredictability still probably lies ahead, which would be right in accord with a Suns team pegged for last place but in a playoff hunt.

While ESPN and other outlets’ playoff-probability odds leave Phoenix out, they do not account for momentum. The Suns are 8-2 in the past 10 games, while Dallas is 6-4 and Memphis is 5-5. The Suns shot a season-high 58.4 percent Sunday against a Thunder team that was ranked third in the NBA this season with a 43.3 opponent field-goal percentage.

As the Suns’ postseason chances grow, so does their support. The Suns had a sellout crowd Sunday for the third time since the All-Star break. Their ratings boom on Fox Sports Arizona continues with an average game broadcast rating of 2.2, nearly doubling last season’s 1.2 average. Sunday night’s average rating was 3.9 (70,301 Valley households), with a peak of 5.4 (97,340 Valley households).

Award votes are being cast around the league with growing sentiment for the Suns to pull off a sweep that would be unprecedented if the franchise had not already been the only one to do it.

Dragic, Markieff Morris and Jeff Hornacek could pull off a team sweep of the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Sixth Man and Coach of the Year awards for the first time in a quarter-century. When Hornacek played for the 1988-89 Suns, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson and Cotton Fitzsimmons won the same awards for a team that went from 28-54 to 55-27. These Suns will wind up with nearly the same win increase after last season’s 25-57 eyesore.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the race for No. 8 in the West

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tony Parker will be day-to-day with a back strain … Like it or not, it looks like the Atlanta Hawks are playoff-bound … Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has a challenging offseason of roster moves ahead of him … Sixers coach Brett Brown has learned a lot about analytics by working under GM Sam Hinkie

ICYMI of the Night: Yesterday was all about the NCAA Tournament and the national championship game (congrats to UConn, BTW), but before all of that took place, the Hall of Fame named its class of 2014. Among the names were NBA legends Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond, both of whom chatted with GameTime last night about their hoops immortality … 


VIDEO: Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond talk about their Hall of Fame election

 

Plumlee brothers make their marks

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mason Plumlee spikes an alley-oop pass

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Traded to Phoenix last July, center Miles Plumlee‘s had a closeup view of the inseparable bond the Suns’ twin brothers Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have always shared.

Miles and Mason Plumlee, a rookie center-power forward with the Brooklyn Nets, each might stand 6-foot-10 and around 240 pounds, but these brothers are not twins. Their version of brotherly love growing up was more like the push-and-shove of a textbook sibling rivalry.

“It’s funny, we were so competitive growing up, we fought more than we got along most of the time,” Plumlee told NBA.com recently during a phone interview. “But basketball was the one thing that kind of kept us together and brought us together even when we weren’t on good terms with one another.”

Surely then they had grown so close through basketball during high school that making the decision to do it again at Duke, with Miles, 25, heading there first, followed the next year by Mason, 24, was always part of the Plumlee plan.

“Not at all,” Miles said. “I committed to Stanford and he was going to Duke, so for a whole year that wasn’t the plan until certain things transpired. My coach [Trent Johnson left for LSU] and Duke came into the picture. If you asked me a year before, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to play with Mason.

“We grew up and realized we don’t have to fight about everything and from then on we’ve been super-close, and it’s been fun to go on this journey with him.”

These days the brothers talk on the phone as often as best friends.

“We talked today,” Mason said, smiling, during the Nets’ recent trip through Dallas. “You spend a lot of time on the road, so just seeing what city he’s in, seeing what he’s up to. We’re very close.”

They’ve got plenty to talk about, too, as each is coming to the end of unsuspectingly successful seasons. Miles walked out of Indiana, traded with Gerald Green for Luis Scola after having spent 68 of 82 games his rookie season planted on the Pacers’ bench behind Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi. Mason, the 22nd overall pick by the Nets in June, figured to get much the same bench treatment on a veteran team and behind the likes of Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche and Brook Lopez. 

Both are carving out a place in the league. Miles, the 26th pick by the Pacers in 2012, stepped into the starting center position with the Suns, a team most saw as one that would be bringing up the rear in the Western Conference. He got off to a fast start, averaging a double-double by showcasing an evolved low-post game and running the floor in the Suns’ up-tempo attack, while dispelling any notion he’s little more than a physical, solely defensive-minded player.

“The big thing for me has always been my confidence and being a little more calm mentally on the court,” said Miles, a candidate with Green for Most Improved Player of the Year. “I’ve always kind of had the skills and the talent, I just hadn’t had a chance to get that confidence going. I [played] roles in college and I played on a lot of winning teams and I loved it, but it’s part of the reason people were surprised I was drafted as high as I was.

“I showed some of the coaches and GMs in the draft process I had more to my game than the general public probably perceives. I just built on that, and you play through the post a lot more in the NBA than at the college level and that helped me slow down and extend my game.”

With five games left, Miles is averaging 8.3 ppg, shooting 57.4 percent, and 8.0 rpg. Phoenix (46-31) is clinging to a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

“He got going early and often, so that kind of made me want to get going myself,” Mason said. “Once I saw him doing it, I’d tell him if he had a good game and we were about to play that team, the coaches would see it in scouting and I would say, ‘I can do what he does.’ So I’d try getting a little playing time out of that, and just knowing that if he could make it happen, I could make it happen.”

Mason has played in 64 games, aided by the early, season-ending injury to Lopez, and he had his 19-game streak in the Nets starting lineup snapped Saturday when Kevin Garnett made his return from injury. Moving to the bench didn’t bother Mason, who scored 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds in a win over Philadelphia.

He’s averaging 6.8 ppg on 64.0 percent shooting, and 4.1 rpg in 17.4 mpg, and will be playing in the postseason with the rejuvenated Nets. He’s played a key role. In the last 20 games, Mason is averaging 7.9 ppg on 66.3 percent shooting and 5.8 rpg in 21.2 mpg, like Miles, showing he’s more than just a physical big man.

“I never thought that,” Mason said. “I don’t really put too much stock into other peoples’ opinions. I just kind of do my thing and keep it moving.”

And don’t look now but in a couple years, there could be a third Plumlee in the league. Marshall is a 7-foot, 260-pound center at Duke. He’ll be a junior next season.

“It would be crazy to play against Marshall because he’s always been so much younger than us,” Miles said. “I’ve never had to take him quite as seriously because even when we were at Duke during practice, I was like I’m going to laugh it off.

“I’d have to take him seriously, so it would be a lot of fun to have him in the league.”

Ah, brothers.

Mavs, Suns put playoffs in own hands

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant gets a record, but the Suns get the win

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Memphis Grizzlies, the team supposedly no high seeds want to see in the first round, is on the outside looking in. The Oklahoma City Thunder, a favorite to win the West, is 0-4 in the last month against the current No. 7 and No. 8 seeds they very well could face.

Following a busy Sunday in which the San Antonio Spurs showed zero fear for the slumping Grizzlies, the Phoenix Suns outlasted the Thunder again and the Dallas Mavericks sweated out a two-point win at Sacramento, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race continues to be as unpredictable as it is tight.

The Mavs and Suns have put their playoff fates in their own hands. Beyond that, any sorting out with 10 days left in the regular season remains premature because No. 7 Dallas (47-31), one-half game up on No. 8 Phoenix (46-31), which is one game ahead of No. 9 Memphis (45-32), all play each other in the season’s final five days (see remaining schedules below).

Anything remains possible. Everything’s on the table.

The miracle Suns, predicted at the start of the season to be a franchise banking on a high lottery position, have bounced back strong after arguably the season’s most devastating loss at the Los Angeles Lakers a week ago, followed by a heartbreak home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the last three nights, Phoenix has won at Portland and beat OKC, 122-115. The Suns also outran the Thunder on March 6, 128-122. Meanwhile, it makes OKC 0-4 over the last month against potential first-round foes Phoenix and Dallas. Of the Suns’ five remaining games, four are on the road.

Dallas has rebounded from a disappointing 4-4 homestand and looks to finish its road trip 4-0. The Mavs play a third consecutive West bottom-feeder Tuesday when it visits the Jazz. After holding on for dear life against the Clippers on Thursday, they followed up with wins at the Lakers and Sunday’s 93-91 nail-biter against the Kings.

An interesting twist in the schedule has Dallas playing host to San Antonio on Thursday, then the Suns playing at San Antonio on Friday and then at Dallas on Saturday. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could opt to rest multiple players in either game of the back-to-back considering the No. 1 seed is all but sewn up.

As for the Grizzlies — who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Phoenix, but not Dallas — they’ve dropped four of six, and were no match for the Spurs in Sunday’s 112-92 trouncing. Next up is a home date with Miami on Wednesday before absolute must-have games against Philadelphia at home and the Lakers on the road.

Here’s how the remaining schedules shake out for the Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies:

No. 7 Mavericks (47-31)

Tuesday: at Utah

Thursday: vs. San Antonio

Saturday: vs. Phoenix

April 16: at Memphis

=================

No. 8 Suns (46-31)

Wednesday: at New Orleans

Friday: at San Antonio

Saturday: at Dallas

Monday: vs. Memphis

April 16: at Sacramento

=================

No. 9 Grizzlies (45-32)

Wednesday: vs. Miami

Friday: vs. Philadelphia

Sunday: at L.A. Lakers

Monday: at Phoenix

April 16: vs. Dallas

Blogtable: The rest of the West

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


BLOGTABLE: Buying into the Spurs | Fixing Indiana | West 5-6-7-8



VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal predicts the Mavericks will hang onto a spot in the West

> How do you see the final four spots in the West finally being settled? In what order? And how do you figure that?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: With Houston and Portland rasslin’ around at Nos. 4 and 5, and Golden State’s breathtaking overtime victory at Dallas Tuesday creating a little space, I’m thinking it’s three teams fighting for the final two spots. The Mavericks better not reel long from that loss Tuesday; they’re in the midst of a tough late trip, with even Sacramento and Utah looking scary when you have more at stake than they do. Memphis faces San Antonio and Miami a little more than 72 hours apart next week, and closes with games against Phoenix and Dallas. I’ve underestimated the Suns all season, but I’m not going to do it now. They could miss the postseason and still consider this an upbeat year. Dallas and Memphis? Not so much. I’m guessing Grizzlies in, Mavs out, decided on the season’s final night in Memphis.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: When you asked a version of this question several weeks ago, I said the scrappy, overachieving Suns would be the team left out.  Then they went and won six in a row.  However, I still believe Phoenix misses the playoffs.  The Suns have the toughest schedule — three at home and five on on the road to finish, including six games against West playoff teams.  In order, I’ll go with: Portland, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas.  The Blazers have weathered the storm, and with LaMarcus Aldridge back in the lineup, they have the easiest path to the finish with five home games and only one roadie at Utah left.  Of the Warriors’ final eight games, only two tough road games at San Antonio and Portland.  The Mavs and Grizzlies will battle it out for those last two spots and if it comes down to that final showdown game of the regular season, I’ll take Memphis at home.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Warriors’ injury situation makes this especially tricky. But this is how I see it shaking out: No. 5 Trail Blazers No. 6 Warriors, No. 7 Grizzlies, No. 8 Mavericks, No. 9 Suns. I still think Golden State has enough to hold onto the spot they’ve occupied for nearly the entire season. Memphis has the least threatening schedule of the remaining three teams. Dallas doesn’t have an easy path by any stretch — and they finish with Phoenix and Memphis — but the Suns, to me, have the roughest finishing kick. They’ll look back at their non-effort blowout loss at the Lakers on Sunday as a playoff killer.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Warriors, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Mavericks. I would have dropped the Rockets into that bottom four because of the health problems, but they have a pretty easy finishing schedule of three playoff teams the final nine games, albeit with some back-to-backs. The Warriors have tough road games against the Spurs tonight and the Trail Blazers, but look at the next four after San Antonio: Kings, Jazz, Nuggets, Lakers. If there’s a momentum-builder in the Western Conference, that’s it. I dropped the Suns because their next opponents are the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Thunder, Pelicans and Spurs. But Phoenix has been beating logic all season, so watch it happen again.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Portland is safely in the No. 5 spot, with a one-game edge in the loss column and only one road game (in Utah) and three (potential) playoff teams left on its schedule. Golden State looks good for sixth, with a two-game edge on the other three teams and six of their eight remaining games against the bottom six in the West. So it will (sort of) come down to the Dallas-Memphis-Phoenix round-robin on the 12th  (PHX @ DAL), 14th (MEM @ PHX) and 16th (DAL @ MEM). I think they’ll all go 1-1 in those games, but Memphis will pick up an extra win elsewhere (they have more remaining games against non-playoff teams) and the Mavs will win the Dallas-Phoenix tiebreaker thanks to a win in that April 12 game. So I’m sticking with what I wrote a month ago. The Suns will miss out because they have the toughest schedule of the group.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: As of today, Portland, Golden State, Dallas and Memphis are in the 5-8 spots, and they are each 6-4 in their last 10 games.  And Phoenix is right behind them, 8-2 in their last 10.  If I had to choose a team not to make it, and I guess that’s what you’re making us do here,  I’d go with Phoenix. They’ve been so good all season, but at some point their magic has to run out. Doesn’t it? And as far as the other four teams finishing, I’ll go Portland, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas, although you might as well just flip a coin and see how it all plays out.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I am counting Minnesota out of the race and think that Portland and Golden State will hold on to their fifth and sixth rankings irrespective of the remainder of the schedule. Those two teams have an adequate buffer on Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas. Of the Grizzlies, the Suns and the Mavericks, the latter two teams play five of their remaining games on the road compared to the Grizzlies’ four games away from home. All three teams have one set of back-to-back games. But Phoenix’s schedule is most daunting because other than playing Portland, San Antonio and Dallas on the road, the Suns also have to host the Clippers, Oklahoma City and Memphis in their last eight games. And Dallas and Memphis, with their veteran experience, would certainly be favorites ahead of Phoenix to maintain their composure down the stretch. So — in short — my final four spots would be Portland, Golden State, Memphis and Dallas.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: That’s a tough race, but I think it will end with Blazers, Warriors, Mavs and Grizzlies in this order. I’m sorry for the Suns, but they have the most difficult schedule and they lack a veteran guide. The Blazers got their mojo back with LaMarcus Aldridge and the Warriors are too far to surpass them. The final two spots are the most difficult to predict. Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix are in a tight race that will probably be decided only in the final days of the regular season, when each team plays against the other two. And once again, I’m sorry for the Suns.

Morning Shootaround — March 30



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Doc sends Davis to locker room | Sixers win | Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs | O’Neal praises Mark Jackson | Tuckers seeks a larger contract from Suns

No. 1: Doc sends Davis to locker room — The Los Angeles Clippers are rolling. They’re 15-2 over their last 17 games, and last night, despite losing All-Star Blake Griffin early to injury, they  were able to defeat the Houston Rockets 118-107. Unfortunately, things aren’t all roses in Lob City, as coach Doc Rivers was forced to call arena security to escort forward Glen Davis to the locker room midway through the game. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times has the story:

Losing All-Star power forward Blake Griffin with back spasms had already put the Clippers in a tough predicament, but it got more difficult when Coach Doc Rivers grew so upset at Glen Davis that he had the backup forward escorted from the game.

The Clippers just pressed on, walloping the Houston Rockets yet again, 118-107, Saturday at Toyota Center, to sweep their four-game season series.

But after the Clippers clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive season, Rivers was forced to address the Davis situation.

“He was emotional tonight and we told him to go sit down,” Rivers said. “And I just thought he was a distraction. When guys are a distraction, I don’t think they should be on the bench.”

After Rivers had pulled Davis early in the second quarter, Davis yelled something at Rivers, who in turned yelled, “Sit your big … down.”

A few seconds later, associate head coach Alvin Gentry went to talk to Davis at the end of the bench, but Rivers then told the team’s security to take Davis to the locker room.

Rivers obviously still was upset at his power forward, which left the Clippers even more short-handed because Griffin was still in the locker room getting treatment.

“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was too emotional.

“And for me if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you back there until the next game. I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight so we told him go to the locker room.”

***

No. 2:Sixers win — The long, national nightmare is over as the Philadelphia 76ers are back in the win column after trouncing the Detroit Pistons 123-98 last night. The Sixers 26-game losing streak tied the mark set by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for worst streak in NBA history. However, the win also pushed the Milwaukee Bucks lead on the worst record in the league to two games over the Sixers. It should be an exciting race to end the season. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the win:

The Sixers downplayed the victory.

“It’s just like another win,” reserve guard Tony Wroten said. “It’s the NBA. You all are talking about the pressure. We weren’t worried about a streak. We were just trying to get better every day.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said he never mentioned the losing streak to his team.

“I never went into a room and said, ‘We have to get out of the streak,’ ” he said. “We talked about, ‘Let’s bang out great days.’ I’m glad tonight that the win validates that.”

The win was a big lift for a franchise that turned into the laughingstock of professional sports during the skid.

ESPN had been poking fun at the team after each of its recent losses. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon even roasted the Sixers Friday night for losing 26 consecutive games.

That’s because they equaled the run of futility established by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the 1976 and 1977 seasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers tied that record and set an NBA mark with 26 straight losses during the 2010-11 season.

No. 27 never came, as the Sixers dominated the lifeless Pistons (26-47), handing them their 11th loss in 13 games.

“I think we came out with fire like we try to do in a lot of these other games,” Sixers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “We didn’t change anything. We wanted to win the ball game just like we’ve been doing every single day, every game, and every practice, just going out there playing hard.”

While they were made fun of, the Sixers said the losing streak didn’t affect them.

Sacrificing wins has been part of the team’s plan since Sam Hinkie was hired as general manager in May. The Sixers are using this season for player development, evaluating talent, and developing a culture. In the process, they hope to lose enough games to secure a top pick in the NBA draft in June.

“Our judgment day isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow,” Brown said before the game. “We are on a three- to five-year plan. Obviously, we want to win. We want to win every time we come on the floor. I coach to win. Our players play to win.”

Surely this victory provided relief for the Sixers, right?

“Not a relief,” [Hollis] Thompson said. “It’s just a sign that we have been doing the right things and working on the right things, and it’s finally playing off.”

***

No. 3: Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs — Vince Carter is 37 years old, but this has not stopped him from having a great season in Dallas averaging 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists in just 24.4 minutes per game. He’s a key contributor for the playoff-hopeful Dallas Mavericks, who utilize Carter’s new-found 3-point game which he has developed over his last three seasons in Dallas. This contribution allows Carter to hope he will be re-signed by Dallas this offseason, despite his age. Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News has more:

In three seasons with the Mavericks, Carter has seen them go from defending champions to barely making the playoffs to missing them entirely.

Neither he nor anybody else knows if this season will produce a return to the postseason. But Carter does know two things.

This team is better than last year’s. And he desperately wants to hang around to see this rebuilding project through to the end.

Or at least next season.

“I think I’ve earned the right to stick around,” Carter said.

The 6-6 future Hall of Famer will be a free agent after this season. Carter’s three-year contract he signed before the 2011-12 season has been a huge bargain, as the Mavericks paid him only about $9.3 million for those years of work.

He hopes it is a no-brainer that he re-signs with the Mavericks.

“My fingers are crossed,” he said. “Next year might be even better. We can attract some more people, more talent. Now I know my role, and I know the system, it’s second nature to me now. I know the city very well. I’m stepping out, going to SMU games and getting out and about. I’m very comfortable here.

“I like the guys. I like the nucleus we have here. With my role and the way I play and the way I go about things, it really helps guys here. And they like that. Hopefully, that’s enough so that they can still have trust in me enough to play significant minutes and help the other guys out.”

It’s hard to say the 37-year-old Carter has put together one of the best seasons of his career if you base it solely on numbers. If you factor in personal satisfaction, however, it may be the best year he’s ever had.

Carter probably won’t win the NBA’s sixth man of the year award, but he’s deserving of consideration. He’s the true definition of the role. He plays about half the game, averages a point every two minutes played, can still levitate like it’s 1999 and has a burning desire to see this team continue to get better.

And that includes seeing what happens next. But Carter is wise enough to know that things may not work out.

“The business side, it happens,” he said. “And maybe they need the money. But I’m hoping we’re talking right here at this time next year.”

Carter’s play as this season has gone along has made it clear he’s not finished as a player. While he enjoys the mentoring role — you can see him on the sideline offering his experience to younger players during games — he’s still a gamer.

And he likes being the sixth man on a good team.

“In the beginning, that first year, it was learning how to go about it,” he said. “It’s still having the starter’s mentality, be aggressive, make plays, but within the confines of the offense. And understanding my role.

“That’s the biggest thing for all players, particularly for guys coming from a starting position into a backup role, is accepting the new position. Once I understood it, everything is easier.”

***

No. 4: O’Neal praises Mark Jackson — The Golden State Warriors, at 45-27, would be the sixth seed in the Western Conference with a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers if the playoffs started today. Not a bad spot, but lower than many expected the Warriors to be this season after their playoff run last year and with the addition of Andre Iguodala this offseason. But despite these rough spots, center Jermaine O’Neal can’t stand speculative talk about how the Warriors should fire coach Mark Jackson. Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News has O’Neal’s comments:

Warriors veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal called any talk of firing coach Mark Jackson “ridiculous” and “unfair” before offering a vote of confidence unique to his own NBA career.

O’Neal is considering retirement, and if the 35-year-old were to decide to play next season, he said it would be because of Jackson and that the team he would choose would be the Warriors.

“It’s a couple reasons why I will come back,” O’Neal said Saturday. “This fan base, this organization is first class, and obviously my teammates are great, as well.

“But the No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson. I’m absolutely, 100 percent positive about that. He makes it easy to come in this gym every day, and there’s not a lot of coaches that do that.”

O’Neal, whom Jackson noted was “underpaid” and “a steal” while playing on a $2 million, one-year contract, said he would choose Golden State despite the distance from family because Jackson has shown just how much he cares about his players.

Offering up an example, the business-minded O’Neal said Jackson allowed him to miss practice Tuesday so he could go to Mountain View to attend Y Combinator’s Demo Day, which features startup companies making presentations.

O’Neal also appreciated how Jackson has been mindful of putting too much of a physical burden on him because of his age and experience.

With Andrew Bogut going down with a pelvic contusion in Friday’s win against Memphis, O’Neal’s presence in the lineup could be needed once again for Sunday’s game against New York as the Warriors look to close out a playoff berth with 10 games left.

“To me, it’s one of the most unfair things that I’ve seen in a long time,” O’Neal said. “And it truly is a team that’s 18 games over .500. Eighteen. And we’re talking about firing a coach with 10, 11 games left?

“Here’s the facts. To everybody that’s negative out there, you may not ever see this again. I know that firsthand because I’ve been in the position. It may take 10 years to be back in that position, so do you want to accept us with open arms and continue to show the support?”

***

No. 5: Tucker seeks a larger contract from Suns — It’s no secret that Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker is a bargain at his current league-minimum contract of $884,000. He’s arguably the motor which keeps the Suns’ high-energy engine running and he does so while averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals (along with superb defense) in 30.9 minutes per game. This bargain for the Suns may not last long, as Tucker hopes to sign a larger contract this summer. Paul Coro of Arizona Central Sports has the quotes:

Suns forward P.J. Tucker picked up a technical foul recently and joked that he wants the Suns to have it taken out of next year’s salary.

For one, Tucker knows he will be making much more money next season after playing on a veteran’s minimum contract for the next two seasons. It also played his hand that he wants and expects to be back with the Suns next season despite becoming a restricted free agent in July.

“Of course, why would I not?” Tucker said. “They brought me here. I think I exceeded their expectations and mine with what has transpired. Of course, I want to retire a Sun.”

Tucker, 28, was a second-round pick by Toronto in 2006 who was assigned to the D-League and released before his rookie season ended. Tucker became an overseas star, playing in Germany, Ukraine, Israel and Puerto Rico, before he joined the Suns’ Summer League team in 2012 and signing a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

He emerged as a standout defender and the Majerle Hustle Award winner and started all season this year with improved 3-point shooting. “Forbes” magazine named Tucker the most underpaid player in the league for his $884,000 salary.

“The love I have for this organization will always be,” Tucker said. “They gave me a chance to prove myself and actually to prove that I’m a player in this league. It’s almost emotional for me to think about everything I’ve been through and for them to give me an opportunity to do it. Not just to be on the team, but in two seasons, I’ve started a whole year and a half for the team on a minimum contract. That doesn’t happen.

“When I sit back and think about it, which I never do, it’s too much. So I’ll always be indebted.”

Friday night’s game emphasizes Tucker’s value to a team beyond being a locker room leader. Knowing they have a defender of the caliber, strength and versatility of Tucker allow the coaching staff to assign him to top wing scorers like Carmelo Anthony and create a defensive game plan around that.

In restricted free agency, the Suns will be able to match any offer sheet that Tucker signs with another team and keep him. He knows his value is about to skyrocket.

“The moment you sit back and think, ‘Hmmm,’ that’s the moment you’re losing,” Tucker said. “You can’t do that. Not right now I can’t.

“I’m nervous but excited at the same time. This is the most important time in my career. I kind of took a pay cut to come so this is my one chance.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Andrew Bogut suffered a pelvic contusion and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday. … The San Antonio Spurs win their 17th-straight game. … Chris Paul recorded 30 points and 12 assists to lead the Clippers past the Rockets.

ICYMI of the Night: Ebony Nettles-Bay is an AAU high-school basketball player who was diagnosed with cancer in September. If you haven’t read her story, you can (and should) here. She’s a huge LeBron James fan who had the dream of meeting him. This inspired the hashtag #LeBronMeetsEbony which you may have seen on social media. Her dream came true last night as she met her hero in Milwaukee. James spoke about the moment after the game.


VIDEO: James on Ebony Nettles-Bay

Morning Shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers find life at top tough | Butler delivers for OKC | Grizz shift into playoff mode | Dragic weighing national team decision | Charlotte hoping for All-Star Game bid

No. 1: Pacers finding life at the top hard — Expect to read more on this today from our Steve Aschburner, who was at last night’s Pacers-Bulls tilt from the United Center. But as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out this morning, the Indiana Pacers — who are just two games ahead of the Miami Heat for No. 1 in the East — have had a rough time since about February of maintaining their torrid early-season winning pace:

Somewhere along the path to a magical season the Indiana Pacers lost their innocence. Now they’re losing their way.Monday night the Chicago Bulls beat the Pacers with one of their signature defense-based wins 89-77, avenging a loss in Indianapolis last week. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games the Pacers have gone down. Previously, they’d lost seven times over a span of 28 games. They didn’t even have their seventh loss of the season until Jan. 8.

“We started off this season so great and we were excited for the end,” Pacers star Paul George said. “But we forgot about the middle and the middle is the toughest part.”

But the Pacers have so far been slow to readjust their comfort zones. Instead, they’ve been slowly getting frustrated with each other in the classic mode of a team that is underachieving.

Several Pacers players have pointed to February when things started turning for them, a month when Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded long-tenured Danny Granger for Evan Turner in an effort to bolster the roster heading into the playoffs. The Pacers’ players, however, were stunned by both moves. Granger’s departure was treated like a mini-funeral.

“Larry is the man is charge,” Hibbert said. “He made the decisions and we have to go out on the floor and figure it out.”

Then, two weeks ago, Bird lashed out publicly at his players and his coach. Vogel has built a reputation for being positive, sometimes coming off as downright cocky. He has an air of assurance about him that he’s passed to his players, the sort of vigor that had them talking about getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference back in the first days of the season.

Though its defense has been a little less consistent than desired in the second half of the season, what is causing the team the most angst is its offense. In losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls in the last few days, the Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in back-to-back games for the first time in seven years.

There are slumps abounding. Over the last 15 games, Hibbert is averaging just nine points and shooting just 44 percent. After he shot 56 percent in February, David West is shooting just 46 percent in March. George is shooting just 37 percent in March and averaging 19 points, well below his season average.

It’s also not hard to miss how annoyed some Pacers are with Lance Stephenson, the young sparkplug guard who was a huge key to their early season. Stephenson has four triple-doubles this season but at times he’s been too focused on getting those stats, robbing rebounds from teammates and generating some frustration.

Other times he flat-out hogs the ball. And while this happens with many players on every team, the tolerance for the younger and rougher Stephenson is much less than for the veterans elsewhere on the roster.

On Monday, Stephenson had no assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss. When he drops his head and ignores open teammates, heads shake and shoulders slump visibly. After averaging nearly six assists a game in the season’s first three months, Stephenson is averaging only three assists over the last two months.

“We have [guys trying to be heroes] at times and we choose the wrong moment at times,” George said.


VIDEO: Pacers players discuss the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

***

No. 2: OKC’s bench delivers vs. Nuggets — With their All-Star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as solid contributions from Serge Ibaka — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup never seems to be lacking in scoring punch. But once the bench crew steps into the game, how well OKC’s offense fares can be a game-by-game roller coaster ride. That instability might be nearing its end, though, especially if new addition Caron Butler puts in performances like he had last night against the Denver Nuggets. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more on Butler’s play:

For the final month before the All-Star break, without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant captured headlines with his fantastic play and his team’s surprising success.

But the Thunder’s impressive late January run was about far more than Durant. He was the catalyst, but the consistent roster-wide contributions helped spur the 10-game win streak and the 15-2 close to the first half.

For the first 11 games after the break – an anemic 5-6 run – that was missing. But of late, it has returned, an impressive four-game win streak culminating in a 117-96 domination of the Nuggets on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant, predictably, was the leading scorer with 27. But on a night where he shot below 50 percent (10-of-21), his team shot above it.

Reggie Jackson had an efficient 16 points and 11 assists, needing only six shots. Steven Adams scored in double-figures for the first time since January. And even Nick Collison dropped in 10, including a corner 3-pointer that drew the loudest ovation of the night.

But Caron Butler shouldered the biggest non-Durant end of the scoring load. In 29 minutes, Butler had his best offensive performance since joining the Thunder, going for 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable every single game,” Durant said of the Thunder’s newest member.

But Butler’s most important offensive contribution on this night – and the most encouraging sign moving forward – was his ability to take advantage of mismatches in the low post.

With so much length and size at rare positions, the Thunder forced the Nuggets to throw smaller defenders at Butler. He exploited it on multiple occasions, dropping in easy short range jumpers.

“He had that post-up working tonight,” Durant said. “They have that smaller guy on him, and he takes advantage. That’s what we need him to do.”

On Monday, the Thunder played with the kind of confidence, effort and balance that allowed them to not only survive, but thrive without Westbrook before the All-Star break.


VIDEO:
Reggie Jackson and others discuss OKC’s blowout win against Denver

***

No. 3: Grizz getting into playoff mode? — Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have rolled up a 13-5 mark that has included wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Bulls, Bobcats, Blazers and Pacers. After last night’s wire-to-wire drubbing of the faltering Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis has amassed 10 straight wins at FedEx Forum and is looking more and more like a powerful playoff team, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

Memphis’ 109-92 victory Monday night accounted for its 10th straight in FedExForum, and perhaps sent a message to the teams floating around them in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies look like a team that’s moved beyond simply trying to make the playoffs to one seeking to steal a higher seed that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

The Griz improved to 42-28, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for a fourth consecutive season. That, however, is something the Griz expect to make a footnote in this campaign. Memphis sits a half game ahead of Phoenix in the seventh spot and remains within striking distance of the fifth and sixth seeds. The Griz are just 2½ games back from fifth place.

The Griz improved to 31-3 when leading after three quarters while the Timberwolves fell to 3-24 when they trail at the start of the fourth. Minnesota entered the game averaging 106.5 points, fourth-most in the NBA. This was the 11th straight game that the Timberwolves allowed their opponent to score 100-plus points.

***

No. 4: Dragic weighing decision on national team – The Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase thanks to the play of star point guard Goran Dragic. It’s been a banner year for the Slovenian standout and while he’s hoping Phoenix can complete its playoff push, he’s still weighing whether or not to suit up for his country’s national team in the World Cup in Spain this September, writes Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

With the Suns enjoying a 6-1 stretch, Dragic’s results are back to the norm of his outstanding season by no coincidence. He is shooting 53.8 percent overall and 46.2 percent on 3-pointers over the past seven games with averages of 18.1 points and 4.7 assists.

The team success makes him feel emotionally better but the physical wear and tear still exists and makes him consider not playing for his Slovenian national team this September at the World Cup in Spain.

“Sometimes, it is too many games,” Dragic said. “I still have to sit down with my national team and talk with them about making a decision if I’m going to play or not. I’m thinking more toward not playing and trying to get my body some rest to be fresher for the next season.

“That is hard because, back home, all the people judge you that you have so much money and you’re a star and now you don’t want to play for the national team. That bothers me a little bit but those people don’t know how the season goes, how many games it is and being in a different hotel every night. I’m more on the plane than in my car.”

Playing for Slovenia when it hosted last summer’s European Championship helped Dragic come into the season in a good rhythm but he is feeling the effects of nine consecutive months of basketball at times as the Suns’ playing time leader and primary point guard most of the season.

“I think I feel pretty good, especially my legs are not so heavy like 15 games ago,” Dragic said. “Even if you’re tired for the last 12 games, you have to go through that and try not to think about it so much.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic lead the Suns to a win in Atlanta

***

No. 5: Charlotte needs arena upgrades before it can host All-Star Game — It’s been 23 years and counting since the city of Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game … and it might be a few more years before it gets to host it again. Commissioner Adam Silver was at last night’s Houston Rockets-Charlotte Bobcats game at Time Warner Cable Arena and said while he’s hopeful that a basketball-mad city like Charlotte will host a future All-Star Game, some upgrades to the arena must take place first. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more:

First, he said, the city must upgrade Time Warner Cable Arena, which needs $41.9 million of work, according to a list of needs compiled by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“I’d love to bring the All-Star Game back here,” Silver said before the Bobcats game with the Houston Rockets. “This is a wonderful community, a hotbed of basketball, not just pro but college as well.”

He added: “There are some upgrades to the building that are needed. I know those discussions are underway right now. It’s part of the understanding here that the building remain state-of-the-art. Nothing dramatic is needed. But certainly an upgrade to the scoreboard, some things with the suites and the lighting.”

The Bobcats’ 25-year arena lease calls for the city of Charlotte to keep Time Warner Cable Arena among the league’s most modern. After the first seven years, the lease requires the city to make improvements, so long as half of other NBA facilities have them.

The team has requested money to upgrade suites, overhaul restaurants, build a new play area for children and move the ticket office, among other improvements.

The city said it will scrutinize the list of requests to see what is required under the lease agreement.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said the prospect of hosting the league’s All-Star Game shouldn’t make the city spend more money than necessary.

“The city should only be guided by what it’s obligated to do by way of the agreement,” he said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city must study the “business case” for possibly making additional upgrades to the arena.

“What kind of opportunity will there be (for improving the arena)?” Carlee said.

Silver said awarding the 2017 event should come in about a year. Then he reiterated his link between Charlotte’s chances and those upgrades.

“The team has time,” Silver said. “The first order of priority is making sure the building issues are dealt with.”


VIDEO: Adam Silver discusses what it would take for Charlotte to host a future All-Star Game

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tim Duncan says he’s taking it “game-by-game” about whether or not he’d retire at the end of this season … Five minor investors have been added to the Hawks’ ownership group … The New Orleans Pelicans might have found a go-to combination in the duo of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans … Lakers guard Nick Young says close to $100,000 worth of clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage were stolen from his house during a home game … Good little chat with Steph Curry about his golf game, the Warriors-Clippers rivalry and more … What kind of chance does Mitch Richmond have at the Hall of Fame? Our Scott Howard-Cooper examines it … Former high-flying Raptors swingman Jamario Moon is thinking about an NBA comebackBrandon Jennings is hitting his stride at long last for the Pistons …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes a play can personify the style of play of a team. Such is the case with this defensive sequence by the Bulls and a hustle follow-up jam by Taj Gibson


VIDEO: Taj Gibson follows up the Jimmy Butler miss with a power jam

Morning Shootaround — March 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Leonard delivers against LeBron, Heat | James open to talking with Pacers’ GeorgeNoah has sprained thumb | Raptors to use retro unis next season | Hornacek proud of Suns’ improvement

No. 1: Leonard proves difference against LeBron, Heat — Third-year Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has only been back in the San Antonio lineup since Feb. 26 after missing a couple of weeks with a broken hand. Since his return, the Spurs have gone 5-0 and won four of those games by 10 points or more. Last night, in the Spurs’ 24-point romp of the Miami Heat, Leonard proved crucial in frustrating star LeBron James all game long. Our own Fran Blinebury was on the scene and has more on Leonard’s impact on the victory:

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard talks about his play in the Spurs’ win over the Heat

***

No. 2: LeBron open to chatting with Pacers’ George — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, Pacers swingman Paul George told BasketballInsiders.com recently that he hopes to one day talk with Heat star LeBron James about a variety of topics. Would James be interested in having such a conversation? According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, LeBron has an ‘open door’ policy with other players on such a thing:

LeBron James would be open to mentoring rival Paul George this summer if he’s asked by the Indiana Pacers’ star, James said Thursday night.

In an interview this week with BasketballInsiders.com, George said he hoped he could spend some time talking to James this summer to get some advice.

“It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level,” George said. “I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to — not during the season because I’m too competitive during the season — but maybe in the summertime.”

James’ Miami Heat and George’s Pacers have faced off in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and currently are in a heated race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. James has worked out with rivals during past summers, notably the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant.

“Pick [my brain] like Hannibal Lector?” James said jokingly. “You know me, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t mind giving guys [advice], whatever he wants to ask. Guys know I have an open door/phone policy.”

***

No. 3: Noah has sprained thumb — All-Star center Joakim Noah suffered a thumb injury against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night and his status going forward may be in question. Nick Fridell of ESPNChicago.com has more on Noah’s injury, which is being termed a minor one:

UPDATE: Noah is expected to play tonight vs. the Grizzlies per coach Tom Thibodeau

Initial tests run on Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah’s injured right thumb revealed a sprain, according to a league source.

It is unclear whether Noah will have to miss any time or will be available to play Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Noah injured the thumb during Wednesday night’s win against the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t want to go into detail about the injury after the game, calling it just a “boo-boo,” but he did wear a protective brace on it as he headed out of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Bulls have to be extra cautious with the injury. Noah has become their most valuable player and is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He racked up his second triple-double in three games in Wednesday’s win as a focal point on both ends of the floor. More importantly, Noah tore ligaments in the same thumb during the 2010-11 season and had to miss two months after having surgery to repair it.

The key for the Bulls will be to see how he responds to treatment. He has shown a high pain threshold in the past, having played with the ligament tear for almost a month before having surgery in December 2010.


VIDEO: Bulls.com takes a look at Joakim Noah’s impact on the team this season

***

No. 4: Raptors to wear original jerseys for select games next season — Over on the All Ball Blog, our own Lang Whitaker has kept track of any and all possible uniform changes for the Toronto Raptors, with talk of a black-and-gold number the most common topic of discussion. While we have no idea if or when the Raptors will change their colors, one thing is certain: they are going back to the purple “dino” jerseys for select games next season. Raptors.com has more:

The Toronto Raptors announced today the return of the team’s original purple jersey for select home games during the 2014-15 season. The throwback uniform will be worn as the franchise celebrates its 20th Anniversary in the National Basketball Association.

“We are excited to bring back a piece of team history as part of our 20th Anniversary celebration,” said Masai Ujiri, President and General Manager of the Raptors. “Our fans have shown affection for the original purple uniform and I think our players will enjoy the chance to wear them next season.”

The front of the uniform top features the unique Raptors font in silver with the team’s dinosaur motif in action with basketball in hand. The uniform showcases the original team colours of Raptor Red, purple, black and Naismith Silver, the latter in honour of Dr. James A. Naismith of Almonte, Ontario, the multi-faceted Canadian who invented basketball in 1891. The uniform also features the unique jagged pinstripe design.

The club will announce details at later dates regarding 20th Anniversary events to be held throughout the 2014-15 campaign.


VIDEO: Raptors will go back to the ‘dino’ unis for select games next season

***

No. 5: Hornacek proud of every player’s improvement on Suns — As another week of the NBA is nearly in the books, the standings continue to sport the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the Western Conference playoff chase. That something few thought we’d be able to say in early March about this Suns team, but Phoenix has taken pride all season in exceeding expectations. From new coach Jeff Hornacek to a rag-tag bunch led by Goran Dragic and Co., the Suns seem to have improved in every way imaginable from last season. As Paul Coro from The Arizona Republic notes, Hornacek has trouble picking any one player who has improved most:

When you are arguably the NBA’s most improved team, singling out which player has improved the most is like choosing a favorite child.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek can’t do it.

“They’ve all done something more than they’ve done last year,” Hornacek said.

The Suns are vying for most improved team with Portland but with a completely different dynamic. The Suns had three players who were on the active opening-night roster for each of the past two seasons. They had a first-year head coach with a new staff. The canvas was blank for roles and reputations, creating an environment for many players who were still trying to prove themselves in their careers to advance as Suns.

As the sage veteran, Channing Frye was just trying to rediscover his game after a year away from basketball. He has seen the maturation in teammates around him and gives credit to that environment created by Hornacek and the front office.

“They felt like this year they’re going to get a real opportunity,” Frye said of his teammates. “We all do something different and so they’re flourishqing in that role. When you have a coach like Jeff, even though you make mistakes, you’re still going to get opportunities if you put in work outside the court. With some teams, they go in as the one piece and that piece is interchangeable and they don’t feel like they’re important. But everybody on this team is important. Everybody is doing the best they can and staying ready every night.” The reason we’ve been successful is, at any moment, somebody could get their chance so they’re staying ready. That is really the pressure for everyone to constantly get better and be ready and to really embrace what we’re trying to do.”

Frye calls it a tie for most improved Suns player between Gerald Green and Markieff Morris.

Green, on his seventh NBA team, was coming off two seasons in Russia and a season in Indiana that ended with him out of the rotation and on the trade block. Now, he averages more than 15 points, increasing his 3-point shooting percentage from 31.4 last season to 38.1 this season, entering Thursday night’s game, with 6.3 attempted per game.

“The coaches have really done a great job of putting us in places to be successful,” Green said. “Everybody gets an opportunity to go out there and play. Jeff has confidence in everybody. A lot of coaches don’t do that. He’s just so positive and has so much energy and faith in us.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to prove. I still have so much that could get better.” I could get better at my ball-handling. I could get better at my defense. I could get stronger. I feel like my decision-making could get better. My pick-and-roll could be better. I’m blessed to have the season we’re having but to me, if we don’t make the playoffs, this season means nothing to me.”

Yet, each one of the three veterans has improved.

“You learn the game a little bit more,” Hornacek said. “The young guys learn more with their skills and adjustments to playing every night and more minutes whereas the veteran guys learn the little things, things that maybe they couldn’t score on in their first three or four years, they’re now knowing the little nuances of the game that they’ve seen over and over and over and they feel comfortable and maybe more relaxed.”

Dragic’s rise has been more celebrated because he turned into a star in the absence of Eric Bledsoe, who might have been a Most Improved Player frontrunner had he not been hurt twice this season to only play 24 games. Dragic’s perimeter shooting has been the vast improvement but he also has better command of the team in half-court offense and draws fouls more than ever.

“Goran has stepped his game up to another level,” Hornacek said.


VIDEO: Gerald Green and the Suns discuss their upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James has been given the OK by the Heat to attend Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘ jersey retirement ceremony on Saturday … Great feature on everyone’s favorite Milwaukee Buck: Giannis Antetokounmpo … The Wizards are reportedly ‘likely’ to sign forward Drew Gooden to a second 10-day contract … Wolves center Nikola Pekovic is being kept on a strict minutes limit … Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge says he’s been forcing shots of late

ICYMI of the Night: With two blowouts in the books last night in San Antonio and Los Angeles, we figure it’s a good time to give Gerald Green some shine after his 41-point night against the Thunder …


VIDEO:Gerald Green scores 41 points as the Suns top the Thunder