Posts Tagged ‘pistons’

5 restricted free agents worth chasing

Smaller guards Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe could get some looks this summer. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Despite their stature, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe are big-time guards. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

The unrestricted free agents are the ones that draw the most attention every summer, and for good reason. You pick your team and you go there. It’s all clean and simple.

It’s those restricted free agents that muddy the waters. The would-be new team has to overpay to get their attention and then the current team is put on the spot to match. Think the Pacers wouldn’t like to re-think that $58 million commitment they made to Roy Hibbert two summers ago when the Trail Blazers put them on the spot with an offer to their big man?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top five restricted free agents who’ll be available on July 1:

Eric Bledsoe, Guard, Phoenix Suns — After the Big Three of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, the 24-year-old shooting guard is the top player available in free agency, though he will come at a cost. He missed 39 games with injury, but averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals in the half season played and makes a great slashing backcourt combination with Goran Dragic. The Suns were 28-15 with him in the lineup and GM Ryan McDonough says the team will match any offer out there to keep him. Since Phoenix has plenty of salary cap space, he’ll be able to do it, even if McDonough has to grit his teeth.

Greg Monroe, Forward, Detroit Pistons – He might as well have spent the past four seasons pedaling on a stationary bicycle, getting nowhere fast with the Pistons. He’s a solid big man who gives you the feeling he might turn into an All-Star level performer with the right coaching on the right team. Since he arrived in Detroit, the Pistons added Andre Drummond and Josh Smith on their front line and there simply wasn’t room for all three in the rotation. With Joe Dumars — the GM who drafted him — gone, Drummond a foundation player and Smith perhaps untradeable (or is he?), it would seem the Pistons won’t want to lay out big money to keep him. If the Rockets strike out shooting for the big names, he’d be a good consolation prize. The New Orleans native might also fit nicely with the Pelicans, if they could find the salary space.

Chandler Parsons, Forward, Houston Rockets — Houston rolled the dice on the Parsons, choosing not to pick up his option in an attempt to clear the most salary cap space to pursue James, Anthony or Bosh. The 6-foot-9 leaper and shooter has been a high-energy gem since the Rockets plucked him in the second round in 2011. He can get to the basket, fill it up from behind the 3-point line and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in on defense. He won’t lead a team, but is a solid third option, exactly the role he’s been playing in Houston. If the Rockets get a name-brand star, he’d go to fourth option and that could make a pricey offer from another team too rich to match. There are a lot of teams where he could slide right into the lineup and really blossom.

Gordon Hayward, Forward, Utah Jazz – After four seasons, it’s pretty clear the Jazz aren’t completely convinced, as evidenced by not agreeing on a contract extension prior to last season. It seems Hayward thinks he should be paid as part of a 1-2 punch, but the truth is he’s probably more of a No. 3 type, just like Parsons. When he was put into the primary scorer role last season, his shooting numbers went down. He needs to land in a spot where he can play off his teammates, especially passers, and get back to being a very solid complementary part. Chances are, he wants to be paid a good bit more than the Jazz think he’s worth and therefore could be “gettable.” The trick will be not to overpay him by too much.

Isaiah Thomas, Guard, Sacramento Kings -- The 5-foot-9 dynamo put up 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals last season. He’s a hard worker, but definitely a score-first point guard at a position that requires spreading the ball around. His biggest deficiency is on defense, where his lack of size makes him too easy for opponents to pick and exploit. The Kings go through point guards faster than pairs of basketball shoes and now they seem to be leaning heavily toward the new flavor of the month in Ray McCallum. His lack of stature will limit the size of the stack of big bills placed in front of him in an offer, but still could be enough to land him in a new home.

24-Second thoughts — May 13

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bradley Beal and the Wizards stayed alive

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Quick Change is my favorite halftime act at NBA games.

Has been for years.

And they will be until something or someone comes along to dethrone them …

They are also our honorary moniker for tonight’s action, because things do indeed change quickly in the conference semifinals. Just ask Roy Hibbert.

Game 5s for both the Pacers and Wizards and later on the Thunder and Clippers will show us exactly how all four teams react to the quick change that has come in their respective series.

Things changed so quickly in both the last time we saw them all on the floor, with both the Clippers and Pacers rallying back from huge deficits to win Game 4s on Sunday.

This very easily could have a been a night for closeouts. The Pacers have that chance, up 3-1 and playing on their home floor. The Thunder, of course, are deadlocked at 2-2 after the Clippers’ miraculous Game 4 comeback.

So while it’s win-or-go-home night in Indy for John Wall and his Wizards …

It's #WINorGoHome for @john_wall & the @officialwashingtonwizards tonight!

A video posted by NBA (@nba) on

The Clippers and Thunder are guaranteed to go at it again, no matter what happens tonight.

Get your popcorn ready …

24 – Unbelievably sloppy start for the Pacers and especially the Wizards (seven turnovers in the first quarter), and yet they still lead after the first. It helps when your big man, Marcin Gortat, is working harder than anyone else on the floor during that span (11 points, six rebounds, one steal, one block and 12 hustle plays).

23 – Wait a minute, Luis Scola time! A 10-0 Indiana run gives the home team 27-25 lead …

22 – The Wizards are not playing like a team in the midst of their defining moment. So careless with the rock. Playing like it’s a preseason game …

21 – Hey, guess who’s on his way bizzzack to the bench (and more)?

#CantWait

20 – Wizards outworking the Pacers big time in the second quarter and pushed their lead to 10 (45-35). Hard to figure these Pacers out. No killer instinct on close-out night is a strange sign. Wizards fighting for their playoff lives, however, is what you love to see …

19 – Gortat and Co. destroying the Pacers on the glass!

18 – QUICK CHANGE!!!!!!!!!!!!

17 – BBQ Pierogi Alert … it’s a dumpling Shaq, not a sausage. Underdog, put that on a T-shirt!

At the half on TNT, the @officialwashingtonwizards lead the @pacers 45-38. #nbaplayoffs

A video posted by NBA (@nba) on

16 – It’s a make or miss league and right now, John Wall is making ‘em. Seventeen and counting for the Wizards’ All-Star PG …

Meanwhile, the Pacers are doing it again …

Or better yet, Gortat is doing it to them …

15 – Freud couldn’t figure these Pacers out …

14 – Marcin The Machine!

13 – Welp!


VIDEO: Magic Johnson responds to Donald Sterling with Anderson Cooper

12 – Looks like the winner of the Early Game 4 Hangover Sweepstakes goes to …

11 – Stan Van Gundy coaching the Pistons makes plenty of sense. His front-office credentials, however …

10 – No hometown love for Blake Griffin, not five games into this series …

9 – Thunder rolling right now, with CP3 out of the mix with the two fouls …

8 – But BG stayed hot and J.J. Redick kept the Clippers in front at the half. Impressive stuff from the road warriors in this series once again …

7 – Amen!

6 – Officials in this night-cap are taking a bigger beating in the social media universe than even the Pacers …

5 – @JCrossover  is the master of the and-1

4 – KD needs to go ahead and join that kid’s framily, anything to escape this shooting nightmare tonight  …

3 – Oof!

2 – Huge box out and rebound of a BG miss on the second of two free throws leads to a CP3 dagger with 49.2 seconds left. Clippers hanging on to a 104-97 lead. Serge Ibaka failed to box Big Baby out properly. Crucial mistake in a game filled with them for the home team … if only KD and Russ weren’t there to rescue your bacon in the final minute. #giventhawaygame4takethawaygame5

1 – Good luck trying to make sense of this finish … CRAZY!


VIDEO: The wild Game 5 finish sees the Thunder serve up revenge for Game 4

NBA coaching carousel in full swing

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss Mike Brown’s latest ouster in Cleveland

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The list stands at seven. As of this moment.

Give it a few hours and that could change.

Such is life in the roller-coaster business that is NBA coaching. Much like the playoffs, things change quickly in a tumultuous environment where everyone is looking for an advantage, for the one perfect fit that can boost a team to the next level.

Mike Brown was gainfully employed in his second stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers coach until Monday morning, when he joined a list that includes Mike Woodson, Mark Jackson, Mike D’Antoni and others who were pink slipped since the end of the regular season.

The best part: Many of the guys on the ousted list are candidates for the other jobs.

We take a quick look at what is available and the coach who fits each vacancy best:

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

This one is fresh. There were rumblings for months that Brown’s latest run in Cleveland was not going to end well. Once it started to become clear that general manager David Griffin would get the interim tag removed from his title,  it was only a matter of time before he’d part ways with Brown, a defensive-minded coach who simply could not corral a young group led by the talented but enigmatic backcourt duo of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. The Cavaliers were expected to make a run at the playoffs and did give chase late in the season — after Andrew Bynum was cast off, Griffin took over for the fired Chris Grant, and Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes were added to the mix via trade. But the Cavs couldn’t manage the eighth seed in a depressed Eastern Conference playoff chase. What they need is a system designed to fit Irving, who has to be the No. 1 priority for Griffin moving forward.

The best fit: Mike D’Antoni. He has history with Griffin from their time together in Phoenix. All Kyrie has to do is ask some of his former point guards what working in D’Antoni’s system has done for their careers.

DETROIT PISTONS

Another team that was expected to contend for a playoff bid, the Pistons posses an interesting assortment of talent — including  Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — that Mo Cheeks couldn’t figure out what to do with during his short stint at the helm. John Loyer had no chance of cleaning up that mess after Cheeks was fired. There were too many things that needed fixing. Without someone in place to take over for long-time team president Joe Dumars (who resigned at season’s end and is now serving as a consultant), it’s hard to know what direction the Pistons are headed in at such a crucial time in the franchise’s history. What’s needed is strong leadership from the bench, someone who can blend the bold personalities in that locker room into a cohesive group.

The best fit: Mark Jackson. Jackson’s issues in Golden State had nothing to do with his roster. The Warriors ran through brick walls for Rev. Jackson. The Pistons would do the same.

UPDATE: According to reports, Stan Van Gundy has agreed to become the Pistons’ coach and president of basketball operations.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

With Steve Kerr reportedly no longer an option for the Warriors, they wisely have turned their attention to candidates with completely different sets of credentials. Both former Magic and Heat coach Stan Van Gundy and former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins have moved to the front of the list. Van Gundy, whatever his faults might have been in his previous stops, is still held in the highest regard among front-office types around the league. He’s gotten consistent results and is a known commodity. Hollins brings a measure of toughness to any situation. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Draymond Green and the crew are plenty feisty. And this is as explosive an offensive group as there is in the league. All that’s needed now is some steadiness and leadership that balances the entire equation.

The best fit: Lionel Hollins. People forget that Hollins had the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals last season. He ran into a bit of a philosophical disconnect in Memphis with the front office. He’ll know how to navigate that relationship much better this time around.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

If they’d just listened to Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson might still be coaching the Lakers and they might still be in the contender mix in the Western Conference. But as Lakers fans know all too well, Jim Buss decided a long time ago that his vision for the future of the franchise trumped anyone else’s. The Lakers have paid for that dearly the past two years, hiring and firing guys (the Mikes, Brown and D’Antoni) who had no chance to fill the enormous void left by Jackson. Now the Lakers have a two-year window with Bryant (and whoever and whatever else they can pull together for a roster) to try to regain some semblance of the championship-caliber form they’ve lost. Keep in mind that this remains the most difficult job in the entire league, one that shouldn’t be thrust upon a coaching newbie like Derek Fisher (as has been widely speculated) just because of his ties to the organization. Then again, if he has Kobe’s blessing and endorsement …

The best fit: Stan Van Gundy. Kobe needs someone who will agitate his competitive juices in a different way than either Brown or D’Antoni ever could. He needs someone who will refuse to acquiesce to his every whim, the way Jackson did when he was in his prime. Stan Van is just crazy enough to do all that.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

How much longer can the Timberwolves, with talents like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, go without breaking through to the playoffs? That’s the question Flip Saunders has to answer as he searches for a replacement for Rick Adelman, who despite being one of the best and most respected coaches of his generation, simply never could manage to get the Wolves into the playoffs. Bold leadership is required in this job, someone who will develop Rubio into the complete point guard he has to be in order to take that next step in his career. The superstar-friendly coach isn’t always the best fit, either. There are times when a star needs to be challenged. The Timberwolves appeared to get comfortable under Adelman. The next coach has to raise the bar.

The best fit: George Karl. His style doesn’t work for everybody. And when it does, there’s no long-term guarantee the organization can suffer his demanding ways. But if Karl could work as well as he did, for the most part, with Carmelo Anthony, he should be able to do wonders for Love and Rubio.

NEW YORK KNICKS

The drama surrounding this job revolves around one candidate and only one candidate. Steve Kerr. He is reportedly working out the details on a deal that will reunite him with his one-time coach, the Zen master Phil Jackson, so they can dive in on the long and arduous task of trying to rebuild the Knicks into an Eastern Conference power and championship contender. Kerr will have a host of challenges, financial and otherwise, that are sure to make it a more difficult task than anyone realizes. The salary cap mess and the free agent uncertainty surrounding Carmelo Anthony means the next coach, be it Kerr or someone else, will have little flexibility in terms of roster makeup, until the summer of 2015. As we know now, there is no guarantee a coach makes it through that first year on the job. Kerr’s connection to Jackson and the fact that they have a shared philosophy certainly works in his favor. But that James Dolan factor is always lingering.

The best fit: Steve Kerr. The one no-brainer marriage between the team president/GM and coach in the entire landscape.

UTAH JAZZ

Jerry Sloan is not walking through that door, folks. It’s not happening, no matter how much Jazz fans would love to see him at the helm of a young and precocious group, led by promising young point guard Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. The Jazz have a pair of first-round picks, one a top-five selection, giving them two more quality young pieces to add to a nucleus that, while not necessarily prepared for prime time right now, if cultivated properly should serve as a key part of the foundation for years to come. The tricky part for Kevin O’Connor, Dennis Lindsey and the rest of the Jazz brass is whether to go off the grid for their next coach (four-time Euroleague champ Ettore Messina‘s name has been mentioned often) or follow the recent trend of locating a Steve Clifford-type. Their process couldn’t be more inclusive. They announced they would interview some 20-plus candidates for the job.

The best fit: David Fizdale. The Miami Heat assistant has developed a reputation for being one of the best molders of talent in the business, having worked his way up the ranks the past decade-plus. He’d be a fresh face in a situation where one is desperately needed.


VIDEO: Golden State GM Bob Myers waxes on the Mark Jackson firing and what’s next

Morning Shootaround — April 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Changes ahead in Minnesota | Dumars leaves conflicting legacy in Detroit | Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland | Pacers back in control of No. 1 | Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one

No. 1: Timberwolves head into offseason with many unanswered questions — It’s no secret. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a ton of work to do when this season ends, namely figuring out how to proceed with All-Star big man Kevin Love, head coach Rick Adelman and point guard Ricky Rubio. The futures of all three men will be in the crosshairs in the coming months, as the Star Tribune lays out … and if you thought things were sticky with Love, they might be even stickier with Rubio:

Three pending contract situations loom large for the Wolves heading into the offseason:

Kevin Love

Why don’t the Wolves just rip up his contract and sign him to a maximum long-term contract extension right now? Well, because they can’t.

Here are their options after they convinced him in January 2012 to sign a four-year contract that gives him an opt-out clause after three seasons and makes him an unrestricted free agent in 2015:
• They can sign him to a two-year extension in January 2015. It would keep him put until 2018, but he has no reason to accept that because he can sign for twice as much if he waits six months.

• When he opts out in July 2015 — a slam dunk, if you will — they can sign him to a five-year extension, one year longer than any other team. They also can give him larger annual raises, so he would be refusing an extra $26.5 million if he signs a four-year deal elsewhere.

Rick Adelman

Either he or the Wolves can choose to opt out of the final season of a four-year contract he signed in September 2011. Both parties say the issue will be addressed after the season ends Wednesday. There’s a two-week window at season’s end for either side to opt out.

If one side doesn’t exercise the opt-out for next season, the other side almost certainly will. Adelman is 67 and his wife, Mary Kay, has had health issues the past two seasons.

There’s a provision for Adelman to continue as a consultant if he doesn’t return to coach next season.

Ricky Rubio

The Wolves can negotiate a contract extension starting July 1 and they will make it a priority during a window that lasts through October. But this one could get complicated.

If former Wolves boss David Kahn insisted Love take a four-year deal so he could save his one five-year maximum “designated player” slot for Rubio, well, the third-year point guard hasn’t played nearly well enough to deserve it, even if he is finishing the season with a flourish.

Look for the Wolves to position themselves offering something less than the four-year, $44 million deal Stephen Curry signed or certainly the four-year, $48 million contract Ty Lawson received.

Both sides want a deal done, but the disparity between what each thinks Rubio is worth could create a situation similar to those involving Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Detroit’s Greg Monroe. All three didn’t sign extensions last fall and this summer will test the restricted free-agent market. Their current teams will have the right to match any offer.

***

No. 2: Dumars leaves behind a conflicting legacy in Detroit — For the better part of his adult life Joe Dumars has given his life to the Detroit Pistons. He’s spent thirty years as a player and executive in the Motor City, living through and helping orchestrate some of the franchise’s highest highs while also being there for some of the lowest lows. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press shines a light on the conflicting legacy the Hall of Famer Dumars will leave when he walks away, but insists that Pistons fans need to focus on the good that he helped facilitate more than anything else:

Dumars, now 50, treated players fairly, honestly and professionally. He kept them informed if they were on the trading block. He had them to his home, mentored the younger ones, shared laughs with the older ones. There’s a reason you’ve almost never heard a traded or cut player bad-mouth Dumars. That should bring applause as well.

True, the man who built the 2004 championship team has had his stumbles. Nobody now thinks Darko Milicic was worth the second pick in the 2003 draft (although plenty did then). And the 2008 trade for Allen Iverson (although partly about money) was a terrible turn. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and other recent moves are questionable, but you are limited when you’re a losing team with an impatient owner (more on that in a moment).

Remember, no GM is infallible. Jerry West is considered possibly the best ever. But he left the Lakers (and their L.A. allure) for Memphis, where his first team lost 54 games and his last, five years later, lost 60. The Grizzlies never won a playoff round in his tenure.

Milwaukee’s John Hammond was the NBA’s executive of the year in 2010; this year his Bucks are the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge, hailed as a Boston genius, traded his biggest stars last year; now the Celtics are behind the Pistons.

The job is a roller coaster. The salary cap is insanely frustrating. Dumars has won and lost. But if you think he suddenly lost his keen ability to evaluate talent, you don’t know him or basketball.

***


VIDEO: Joe Dumars is out in Detroit

No. 3: Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland is a somber one — Pau Gasol knows it wasn’t supposed to end like this. His ride with the Los Angeles Lakers included it’s fair share of drama, but it also included two championship parades alongside Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. It was a glorious time, interrupted lately by drama, injury and losing in ways the Lakers hadn’t seen in … forever. And now comes, Gasol’s walk into free agency this summer, and in the view ESPN‘s J.A. Adande, Gasol’s emotional divorce from a franchise that helped make his career:

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and — just when he was ready to cut things off — a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas. 

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers’ locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar — something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It’s also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market — or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

.***

No. 4: Pacers back in charge of No. 1 in the East — For all of the bellyaching that’s gone on in recent weeks and months about the Indiana Pacers and what they haven’t done, here they stand with one game remaining in charge of their own destiny and in prime position to secure that No. 1 seed they’ve been talking about all season. Did we all make too much of their struggles? Or is this just a product of a depressed Eastern Conference? Mike Wells, formerly of the Indianapolis Star and now working for ESPN.com, weighs in:

Patience. Execution. Discipline.

The Pacers didn’t always do those things Sunday afternoon against the Thunder, but they did just enough to move their magic number to clinching home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs to one game with a 102-97 victory. A Heat loss in either of their final two games or a Pacers victory at Orlando on Wednesday will give Indiana the No. 1 seed.

Hard to imagine that after the way the Pacers have played over the past month, huh? “We’re just trying to put together good basketball at this point and hopefully carry momentum into the playoffs, being positive and upbeat about where we are,” David West said.

The talk of being the No. 1 seed has died down from the Pacers after they spent the majority of the season discussing it with anybody who would listen.

Coach Frank Vogel brought it to his team’s attention days before their March 31 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Pacers had become too distracted reading their own clips, watching themselves on the highlights and believing stepping on the court would be good enough for them. Success went to their heads, and for a team that got to this point playing with a purpose, that was the worst thing that could happen to them.

Center Roy Hibbert looked around, noticing how teams like the Heat, Thunder and Spurs went about their business. It didn’t take long for him to realize the Pacers didn’t have that same professional approach.

“Most of us have never been in that position before,” West said. “Since I’ve gotten here and most of the guys, with the exception of Evan [Turner], everybody is sort of under-drafted, not drafted or simply passed over. Everybody’s attitude has been with the underdog mind-frame.

“Then you get out front, nobody doubts you because you have a five-game lead and everybody is pumping you up. I don’t think we handled that the best. Only way you can deal with it is to go through it and experience it. That’s what we’ve done.”

Indiana is at its best doing the little things, even if that meant staying silent about its goals: defending the pick-and-roll, talking on defense, moving the ball and having fun playing with each other again.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players talk about their big win over OKC on Sunday

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one for the playoffs — Has it really come down to this, just one more win (in two tries) and the Memphis Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season? Indeed. The Grizzlies miraculous turnaround this season could come full circle with their next win. Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal sets the table:

The Griz only need to win one of their two remaining games — either at Phoenix on Monday or against Dallas in FedExForum on Wednesday — and they’ll lock up a fourth straight postseason berth.

“It’s amazing that we’re in this position,” Mike Conley said. “If you would have asked me in November and December, I don’t know. You didn’t know what was going to happen with the year. So we’re happy with where we’re at. We still have a lot of work to do but we’re looking forward to (Monday).”

Memphis moved to a game ahead of Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix needs to beat Memphis to keep alive its postseason hopes. The Griz, though, own the tiebreaker against the Suns in the season series.

“It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you want,” Griz reserve swingman Mike Miller said. “We are real fortunate. I don’t know if the NBA knew it was going to turn out this way. For us to be able to control our own destiny playing two teams we’re chasing is lucky for us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Is there a double standard in the Portland locker room for Damian Lillard? … Concerns and excitement abound in Toronto, where the Raptors are chasing the franchise mark for wins in a season on their way to the playoffs for the first time in six years … The season is already over for Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins … Someone in the Nets’ big man rotation will have to sit and wait his turn in the playoffs, and it won’t be Mason Plumlee (if his recent work is any indication)

ICYMI: Steph Curry didn’t get the win but he got everything else he wanted against the Trail Blazers …


VIDEO: Again, the Steph Curry show travels anywhere

Morning Shootaround — March 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Jackson to decide on Knicks’ offer today | Report: Sixers’ Noel wants to play this season | Bynum ready for action, too | Durant could score more | A J-Smoove/Rondo reunion?

Update, 1:31 p.m. ET: From the looks of things (literally) per a report from ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, Phil Jackson seems headed for a front-office job with the New York Knicks:

All indications are that Phil Jackson will accept the New York Knicks’ offer to join the club’s front office, according to a league source.

“The Knicks have a sense of what’s going to happen,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And as of right now, it looks like Phil’s taking the job.

“There’s always the possibility of something falling apart at the last minute, but the Knicks’ sense is that he’s joining them.”

The two sides are still working out all the details, including what Jackson’s title will be, how much time he will spend in New York, and when in the next few months he will start his job.

Jackson’s answer is expected to become official within the next day or so. The Knicks have not yet scheduled an announcement.

Jackson will not be a mere consultant for the Knicks, as he was recently for the Detroit Pistons. Whatever his title, he will be an integral part of the club’s basketball operations. Jackson will definitely not coach the team.

And here’s our earlier entry from this morning about the Knicks and Jackson expected to reach a deal sometime today …

Report: Knicks expect decision from Jackson today — New York Knicks fans are nervously awaiting word from Phil Jackson today, wondering and many of them hoping that the legendary coach will join the organization in a front office position that will help lift their team out a season-long (and some would say decade’s old funk). It’s unclear whether or not Phil’s presence alone will change the fortunes of the franchise. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News details the countdown to the latest decision:

According to an NBA source familiar with the negotiations, the Knicks expect to have a decision on Monday, approximately two weeks after Jackson turned down an offer to coach the club. The 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach is considering a lucrative deal to join the Knicks’ front office and be placed in charge of the basketball operations.

The possibility of Jackson returning to the franchise that drafted him would give the Knicks instant credibility since Jackson has won 11 NBA titles as a coach and two as a player.

The downside, of course, is that Jackson has never been an executive and, at this stage of his life and career, on-the-job training could be a risky proposition for both sides. Jackson, though, believes he can make the same transition that Pat Riley made nearly 20 years ago when he left the Knicks to run the Miami Heat.

The Knicks have not commented on Jackson’s potential hiring and have not even acknowledged that an offer has been made. In recent interviews, Jackson has made it clear that he has no interest in coaching and instead prefers a consultant’s role similar to the one Jerry West has with the Golden State Warriors.

Whether Jackson wants to live full-time in New York or would be required to do so remains unclear. Jackson splits his time between his Montana ranch and his beach house in Playa Del Rey, Calif. Jackson is not enamored with traveling, which is crucial if he takes the job. In fact, with all the college basketball tournaments starting, it would be essential for Jackson to be on the road scouting. However, Jackson has no appetite for that aspect of the job and is not a big fan of college basketball. Friends say his true passion is following the NHL.

In that case, perhaps Dolan will give Jackson the same freedom he gives to Rangers president Glen Sather, who lives in both California and Canada. Whether that arrangement works with the Knicks, considering the club’s current state, is debatable.

It is also unclear if Jackson is sincere about joining the Knicks or perhaps leveraging James Dolan’s offer to return to the Los Angeles Lakers in some capacity. Jackson’s girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, is a club executive and the daughter of the onetime Lakers owner, the late Jerry Buss.


VIDEO: Isiah Thomas talks about the challenges of fixing the Knicks

***

No. 2: Report: Noel wants to play on April 4 — Nerlens Noel has every intention of making his rookie debut with the Philadelphia 76ers before this NBA seasons ends. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that  Noel has been preparing himself for a action all season and believe he’ll be ready to make his first appearance in a Sixers uniform in his hometown of Boston:

The sources said this is just a wish that he had not disclosed to the Sixers as of Sunday afternoon.

Noel has been sidelined this season due to the anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered in his left knee in February, 2013 during his lone season at Kentucky.

The 6-foot-11, 228-pounder is slowly increasing his activity on the court and has yet to participate in five-on-five scrimmages. Minor back spasms held him out of Sunday’s open practice for Sixers Camps participants and their families at Haverford College.

There’s a thought that the franchise doesn’t want him on the court and would be content if he missed the entire season. In October, Sixers coach Brett Brown said Noel was not likely to play this season, something the team has stood by ever since.

***

No. 3: Bynum ready for work next week — The Indiana Pacers are mired in a slump right now, losers of four straight even though they are still sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this morning. Could there be a remedy for their woes in the form of Andrew Bynum, the former All-Star center who has yet to suit up in a game with the Pacers? Could be. But he has to get on the court first. And Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star explains the Pacers’ plans regarding Bynum:

On Sunday, Bynum said that he hopes to be “cleared to play next week,” believing that he could be on the floor by Friday, March 14 when the Pacers play in Philadelphia. Pacers coach Frank Vogel said the team planned to re-evaluate Bynum after the road trip.

“We’ll see after (Sunday’s) game goes and then we’ll probably meet about it (Monday),” Vogel said, “and try to come up with a firmer plan.”

Through his career, Bynum, a 7-0 center, has shown flashes of dominance but has also been limited with knee problems. Bynum, 26, began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and started alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol when the team won its second consecutive NBA championship in 2010.

Last season, Bynum was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers then signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Cavaliers over the summer. In 24 games this season with the Cavaliers, Bynum averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. Through Bynum said that he was “probably at 90 (percent)” at the end of his time in Cleveland, the team traded him to the Chicago Bulls.

After being waived by the Bulls on Jan. 7, Bynum took several weeks off before deciding to sign with the Pacers as a backup to Roy Hibbert.

Bynum has worked with the team’s training and medical staff to build up his knee strength. Over the past weeks, Bynum has slowly picked up more work on the basketball court and on Saturday he participated in a full practice that included 5-on-5 action.

“He looked good,” Vogel said about the Saturday practice, “and he looked like he can give us some short bursts.

***

No. 4: Durant could score more if needed — The Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent woes don’t include any individual struggles from Kevin Durant, who continues to light it up, win or lose. He could score more, according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, if he wasn’t so focused on the team. Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the details:

“Let’s face it: If he wanted to score a bunch of points or more than he’s scoring now, he really could do that,” Brooks said before the Thunder played the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. “His assist level has gone up, he impacts the game. Defensively, he impacts the game. He can guard 1 through 5. So a lot of things that he does (are) all about the team.”

Durant entered Sunday’s game averaging a career-high 31.8 points per game, but his 5.5 assists per game are also a career-best mark for the seven-year veteran.

On Sunday he had a triple-double through three quarters and finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the Thunder’s 114-110 loss to the Lakers.

While Durant leads the league with 10 games of 40 or more points this season, Brooks said the rangy forward really stood out with his all-around game while Russell Westbrook was sidelined with a knee injury for two months.

“When he was out, (Durant) definitely had to continue to lead us,” Brooks said. “Not only on the court, but off the court. Just from the emotional standpoint of losing Russell, he had to wrap that type of stress around his game and continue to work our way as a team through that. It’s not easy losing players, (especially) a dynamic player like Russell is. But Kevin came in and led us.

“He improved his defense and his playmaking, the ball was in his hands and the decisions were more so in his hands and he did a good job with that. With adding Russell now, it gives us two dynamic players, and that’s better. That’s better for us because you can’t load up on one. The thing about KD, he knows that he has the ability to impact the game on both ends and he does it every night. The consistency level that he has, it’s remarkable that he’s so consistent every night.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant records a triple-double in OKC’s loss to the L.A. Lakers

***

No. 5: J-Smoove is dreaming of a reunion with Rondo — As seniors at Oak Hill Academy, Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo formed one of the most dynamic duos in the history of the boarding school/basketball factory. A reunion at the NBA level is not in the offing, but it’s also not impossible. Smith admitted to fantasizing about it, never mind that he plays for the Detroit Pistons and Rondo is under contract for at least one more season after this one in Boston. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.com connects the dots for you:

They watched film together. They walked to the gym together for extra workouts together. They played games together.

Could they team up again in the NBA?

“The conversation comes up,” Smith said. “We always tell each other how surreal a moment that would be, for us to be able to reconnect again in that realm. With the different free agencies that we both have, it could be far-fetched, but it could be possible, too.

“I’m always optimistic. I’m always thinking different scenarios. It could happen, but who knows?”

Smith said he and Rondo talk frequently and vacation together, but he adds, he’s happy with the Pistons and Rondo is still making his mark with the Celtics.

But if it were to happen, what would work?

The Pistons have previously shown interest in Rondoand there also has been Smith-to-Boston buzz. So, either player could swap teams.

If they were to join forces in Boston, how about Smith for Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace this summer? Then, the Pistons should have the cap room to make that deal, accepting Wallace’s toxic contract as a tax for upgrading – in age, fit and contract status – from Smith to Green.


VIDEO: Rajon Rondo and the Celtics dispatch Josh Smith and the Pistons

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony has not been consulted on the Phil Jackson business and has been kept in the dark about the Knicks’ future plans … Eric Bledsoe is ready to come back to the Suns … The Nets are down to just two (of their six) All-Stars and somehow, someway they keep winning … Are the Rockets the best team in the league right now? Our Fran Blinebury tackles that one

ICYMI of the Night: Move over Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Make room for in the annals of the Los Angeles Lakers for Jodie Meeks …. that’s right, Jodie Meeks, who showed up and showed out with 42 points in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder …


VIDEO: Jodie Meeks shreds the Thunder for 42 points

Don’t Forget About ‘Dre (Drummond)!

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — While the entire basketball world and the Twitter-sphere were busy going off the rails about LeBron James and his monster, 61-point night, another Eastern Conference human behemoth was busy turning Monday night into his own personal showcase.

Andre Drummond, the Detroit Pistons’ young giant, went to work on the glass in a win over the New York Knicks. He grabbed 26 rebounds, to go with his 17 points, to tie Dwight Howard for the league high this season and the most by a Piston since Ben Wallace grabbed 28 on March 24, 2002.

Drummond, 20, joins Howard as the only players to grab 26 or more rebounds in the game at the age of 20 or younger. The Pistons haven’t had much to get excited about this season, as they have struggled with consistency. But Drummond’s future is bright if he keeps at his overall game and continues to polish his rough edges.

Check out his work against the Knicks …



VIDEO: Andre Drummond goes to work on the New York Knicks

Drummond Continues Payoff For Pistons

VIDEO: Andre Drummond earns a Block of the night nod

The latest statement about the progress of Andre Drummond came Thursday when he was named as one of the 28 players under initial consideration for the World Cup of Basketball this summer. It’s an additional credibility boost as he averages 12.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.83 blocks while shooting 60.4 percent for the Pistons. Another could soon follow, with the All-Star reserves being announced next week and Drummond a strong candidate for the Eastern Conference.

This is the guy who lasted until No. 9 in the 2012 draft, the center with a supposed lack of focus that caused him to be labeled a risk pick who may never play hard enough to realize his potential, a prospect with an imposing body (6-10, 270) and athleticism compared to the once-upon-a-time Amar’e Stoudemire. That same Drummond needed less than two seasons for the major endorsement from USA Basketball and the possibility of another from East coaches in voting for All-Star reserves.

A lot of teams gambled and lost. They were worried about Drummond’s wandering play in one season at Connecticut and, understandably so, went in another direction on June 28, 2012, and have watched the Pistons benefit by simply holding their arms out to catch a top talent who practically landed right on top of them. There was obviously a risk for Detroit as well, coming off 25-41 season and in desperate need of dependable, but also the reality at that point that the upside and talent far outweighed the wager.

This is no surprise success story, in other words. Drummond was arguably the second-best prospect on the board, behind Anthony Davis as the clear No. 1. The judgment for front offices was partly whether Drummond would develop enough on offense to not force his side to play four-on-five with the ball, but mostly about the intangibles of gauging his desire to be great. In January of 2014, only two of the eight teams that picked before the Pistons are off the hook, another probably is, and a fourth could still get cleared.

The top of the 2012 draft:

  • 1. Davis, Hornets/Pelicans.

The right choice then, the right choice now. As long as he shakes the early problem of annoying, but relatively minor, injuries, Davis is going to be a superstar.

Updated perspective: Good call.

  • 2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bobcats

Charlotte’s thinking was understandable: They were one season into a major investment in Bismack Biyombo, an over-investment as it is turning out, like the Pistons needed real traction, and went with the small forward whose motor was never doubted. Kidd-Gilchrist would never let anyone down with a lack of focus and he would deliver on defense.

Updated perspective: Bad call.

  • 3. Bradley Beal, Wizards.

Some of the continued shooting struggles (43 percent on 3s, yet 41 percent overall in a match of his rookie season) are a surprise given the scouting report coming into the league, but Beal, also under consideration by USA Basketball, still has the look of a star. He plays fearless, can handle and partners well with John Wall in the backcourt.

Updated perspective: Good call.

  • 4. Dion Waiters, Cavaliers.

Cleveland got undependable without picking Drummond. Deep into a second season, Waiters hasn’t been able to so much as hold down a starting job, can’t hit a shot, and there are serious doubts about his ability to team with franchise cornerstone Kyrie Irving. The Cavs passed on Jonas Valanciunas in 2011 (for Tristan Thompson) and Drummond in 2011, and so welcome to the season when Andrew Bynum started 19 games at center.

Updated perspective: Bad call.

  • 5. Thomas Robinson, Kings.

No explanation needed.

Updated perspective: Bad call.

  • 6. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers.

Rookie of the Year. Foundation of the resurgence. Clutch player on the 2013-14 club headed to the playoffs. On the same USA Basketball list of candidates. Portland, needing a center and willing to wait, would have looked at Drummond with No. 11, then took Meyers Leonard with Drummond off the board. Leonard has not developed and the Blazers upgraded this season with Robin Lopez. Drummond would have been a great fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge as the desired defensive presence who would not get in the way on offense. Just not at the expense of Lillard.

Updated perspective: Good call.

  • 7. Harrison Barnes, Warriors.

The toughest read of all. Golden State had traded for Andrew Bogut some 3 ½ months earlier and believed Bogut was working his way back from an ankle injury, but also knew the value of a talented center as a safety net who could become a backup and trade chip once Bogut proved healthy. And the Warriors liked Drummond enough to make a late visit to an East Coast workout just before the draft, indicating their level of interest. Bogut’s eventual good health made it a moot point, not to mention Barnes’ contributions, so it’s a win. But it is hard not to wonder. Bogut and Barnes or Bogut and Drummond/nice trade return? Take the certainty of what actually happened.

Updated perspective: Good call.

  • 8. Terrence Ross, Raptors.

Toronto’s logic was understandable. Valanciunas was NBA bound after a season in Europe and nothing should get in the way of his development. But. But there is no such thing as too many talented centers and either Valanciunas (the better bet at the time) or Drummond could have been moved at some point. But Ross is a part-time starter struggling to score.

Updated perspective: Bad call.

  • 9. Drummond, Pistons.

Updated perspective: Good call. Very, very good call.

20 Teams Dream Big On MLK Day


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews all of the MLK Day action

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — More than Christmas or even All-Star weekend, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides the NBA a platform to showcase some of the best players and teams the league has to offer. Stars young and old, championship teams and those aspiring to join those ranks … they’ll all be on display Monday.

A total of 10 games from across the country will highlight a day of celebration of both the game and the Dream Big mantra of not only Dr. King but also the league. What to watch for during the MLK Day hoops smorgasbord, the official halfway mark of the regular season:

Dallas vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Cavaliers are feeling good after a 3-2 road trip and look to take advantage of a Mavericks team still smarting from getting blown out by Portland Saturday night. Luol Deng has infused the Cavaliers with a new energy, much like what Monta Ellis has done all season for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. That loss to Portland was a wake-up call for Rick Carlisle’s team, a group riding high after winning four-of-five prior to that humiliating defeat. “We regressed. The first three quarters are beyond embarrassing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told the team’s official website. “We weren’t playing together. We weren’t helping each other. Do that against a quality team … and they’re going to make you pay a heavy price.”

L.A. Clippers vs. Detroit, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: Losses to the league’s elite have left a cloud over the Clippers’ season to this point. They look like a championship team on paper and when everything is clicking (and when everyone, Chris Paul specifically, is healthy). The Clippers are 0-5 on the road this season against the league’s top five teams, and while this game against the Pistons doesn’t provide a similar test, Clippers coach and Senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers is constantly evaluating his crew. “I like our team,” Rivers told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes. We’re not looking to make changes, but we’re always looking just like every other team. I like our team right now. If the season ended and we had the group we have right now, I like how we look. Obviously, I’d add Chris Paul to that group — but other than that I like our team a lot.”

Toronto vs. Charlotte, 2 p.m. ET, (League Pass)

The skinny: Playoff dreams in Charlotte this season have a lot to do with Kemba Walker and how well the point guard plays at what is the league’s deepest and most difficult position. If you don’t believe it just look at what Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors during their post-Rudy Gay-trade renaissance. So with the news that Walker will miss the next 10-14 days with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats need Ramon Sessions to step up in a major way to keep the playoff vibes alive. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and can continue their momentum with another big road win.

Philadelphia vs. Washington, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Wizards are trying desperately to reach the .500 mark, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. The break even mark gives them a chance to climb above .500 as they continue their playoff chase. And getting above that mark allows them to think about themselves in a different light, as they continue to work through the inconsistencies that have plagued their season. They haven’t had a winning record since starting the 2009-10 season 2-1. “Somebody just needs to not tell us our record and we’ll just go out and play,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “Every time they tell us ‘.500,’ we just pressure ourselves too much and end up not showing up.” Wizards point guard John Wall and his Sixers counterpart Michael Carter-Williams better show up for their showdown.

Brooklyn vs. New York, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

The skinny: There’s no shortage of subplots in this Battle of the Boroughs. Both Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Nets coach Jason Kidd have survived all of the turmoil of the early season and, courtesy of a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field, remain in the thick of the hunt for postseason positions. The Knicks are still dealing with myriad injury issues, not to mention the ongoing J.R. Smith drama. The Nets just want a little payback after the Knicks beat the starch out of them in their last meeting (a 113-83 rout on Dec. 5). “We definitely do,” Nets point guard Shaun Livingston told ESPNNewYork.com. “They came in and beat us pretty well at our place. We have to take that upon ourselves and take it personally. We’ve got to come and compete.”


VIDEO: Pacers big man Roy Hibbert encourages the children at an Indianapolis elementary to Dream Big

New Orleans vs. Memphis, 5 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

The skinny: The Grizzlies five-game win streak is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the best current run in the league. The surge couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that has been bolstered by the return of All-Star center Marc Gasol. He will do his best to help take advantage of an injury-plagued Pelicans team that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Even with Anthony Davis playing out of his mind, the Pelicans cannot find a groove. Davis is averaging 22.4 points and 11.1 rebounds during the Pelicans’ eight-game skid, both above his season averages. But he needs help if the Pelicans are going to avoid sliding all the way down the ladder in the Western Conference. “It’s adversity,” Davis said. “We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Miami vs. Atlanta, 5:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The best way for the Heat to shake out of their recent funk is to continue to find inspiration wherever they can. For LeBron James, it’s watching his biggest rival and good friend, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has been on a tear of late.  The unfortunate recipient of LeBron’s wrath could end up being the Hawks. Because Durant has raised the bar, even for a LeBron. “I do a lot of checking and seeing what guys have done overnight,” James told ESPN.com’s Heat Index of keeping up with the performances of other players. “After every game, I always go … and see what guys did. I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’ So, there it is.”

L.A. Lakers vs. Chicago, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: It’s tough to get excited about these two teams squaring off when their best players are wearing designer suits instead of uniforms. It’s a good thing the Lakers and Bulls have learned how to operate without Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, respectively. To their credit, the Lakers enter the game riding the wave, however slight it might be, of a two-game win streak. That’s a good way to hit the halfway mark of the season for team that has to feel like it’s endured 82-games worth of tumult already. “We just have a lot of injuries and a lot of stuff,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after Sunday’s win over the Raptors. “We got some guys who are improving and we’re not as good as we’d like to be, obviously this last stretch really knocked us for a loop, but our whole goal is to get back and win one at a time and play well, just get better, keep our energy up and our spirits up and see if we can have a good second half.”

Portland vs. Houston, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: It’s funny the way things work out sometimes in the NBA. The Trail Blazers are every bit of the elite, title-contending team most of the pundits predicted the Rockets would be last summer when they landed Dwight Howard in free agency. The Blazers have done it all season with a steady mix of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and arguably the most underrated supporting cast in the league. It won’t be that way for long if it’s up to Nic Batum, who told our very own Jeff Caplan that he believe he’s an All-Star. “You know, KD, is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

Indiana vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: Paul George‘s 360 dunk has been the talk of the basketball world the past 24 hours and rightfully so. But that one dunk shouldn’t overshadow what is a most appropriate nightcap of a monster day of hoops. We get the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league against arguably the most exciting team, though not the most consistent, in the league. George, Steph Curry, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson will provide the offensive fireworks. But the fellas up front on both sides love to mix it up (David West‘s pockets are $15,000 lighter after he was fined for that elbow to the jaw of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin). Keep an eye on West, Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and HT fave Draymond Green of the Warriors. They’ll wage their own battle during the game.


VIDEO: Pacers star Paul George leads the top 10 dunks of the week

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Howard Had No Idea Shoestrings Incident With J.R. Smith Would Lead To This!




VIDEO: Knicks guard J.R. Smith has some issues with shoelaces, as Shawn Marion finds out

ATLANTA — What started as fun and games between old friends has morphed into a full-blown mess for New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith. A mess Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard never saw coming.

Long before his $50,000 fine and benching and all of the trade rumors cranked up, Smith was just messing around with Howard during a Jan. 3 game in Houston and playfully untied Howard’s shoe at the free-throw line. He would later get Shawn Marion‘s shoelace in a game against the Mavericks  and attempted to get Josh Smith‘s (he ended up settling for Greg Monroe‘s) in a game against the Pistons on Tuesday before Knicks coach Mike Woodson and the fun/foolishness police at NBA headquarters caught up with him.

Woodson unloaded on Smith Wednesday, saying he needed to “grow up” and stop the silliness and the league followed up with that hefty fine for “recurring instance of unsportsmanlike conduct.”  Woodson benched Smith for Thursday’s win over the Miami Heat and now the fallout and trade chatter is cranked all the way up heading into this weekend.

“It was just a guy trying to have fun,” Howard said Friday morning at Philips Arena before the Rockets faced the Atlanta Hawks. “I didn’t think it would turn into a big fine. It’s crazy.”

Howard, always a prankster, had plans for retaliation.

“I tried to get him back,” he said. “But I’m glad I didn’t … could have lost some money.”

It could wind up costing Smith a whole lot more than just cash.


VIDEO: The Inside crew discusses J.R. Smith and his future with the Knicks