Posts Tagged ‘Portland Trail Blazers’

Morning Shootaround — March 11


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Knicks, Jackson headed for union | Gortat chimes in on NBA fights | Beverley: Blazers’ Lillard ‘whines’ | Boozer shuns media

No. 1: Knicks, Jackson appear headed for a union — The more time passes, the more it looks like ex-Lakers and Bulls coach Phil Jackson is coming back to the NBA in a front-office role with the team he once played for, the New York Knicks. The latest stories yesterday had it looking like Jackson to N.Y. was pretty much a done deal (and, as usual, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski delivers a solid assessment of the situation). Our own Sekou Smith also chimed in on the pending marriage between the two NBA power players and how the panache Jackson adds to a franchise can do nothing but help New York:

Jackson and the Knicks, according to multiple sources, are working through the sticky points of a deal that would bring him back to the league in a front office capacity, and not as coach of the Knicks (a job, mind you, that is currently occupied by Mike Woodson).

And make no mistake, it’ll take all of the legendary coach’s Zen powers to help fix what ails the Knicks. In short, they are a mess right now. A lame duck coach. A superstar (Carmelo Anthony) basically being forced to consider his free agent options elsewhere this summer. And a roster bogged down with so many bad assets that legendary front office maven Donnie Walsh (the man who tried fixing this mess already) couldn’t fix it all.

Most of us have no idea how Jackson will fare in a job he’s never actually done before. But when you’ve accumulated the sort of championship hardware he has over the years — he played on both of the championship teams the Knicks have fielded and won 11 more titles as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers) — the benefit of the doubt is included in the compensation package.

If anyone alive who has had a hand in the game of basketball can clean up the mess that is the Knicks, it has to be Jackson. Be it good fortune or shrewd calculation, or a healthy dose of both and plenty of blind luck, Jackson always seems to find himself in the middle of championship-level success. Why wouldn’t the Knicks want to find themselves affiliated with the same things?

Now he’ll get the chance to see if his magic works from a different angle, as the man pulling the strings from on high as opposed to doing it with direct contact with the players. I defy anyone to challenge Jackson’s coaching credentials.

For all the grief he gets for having won with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, among so many others, it should be noted that the only member of the Hall of Fame group of players he coached that has won a title without him is Shaq (in Miami, alongside Dwyane Wade and perhaps the only other coach of his generation to come close to being on Jackson’s level, Heat boss and former coach of the Showtime Lakers Pat Riley.

Jackson doesn’t have to sully his reputation by trying to salvage a Knicks team that is clearly beyond repair. But he could send his mythical aura into a new stratosphere if he were somehow able to clear the debris from the wreckage that is the current Knicks operation and bring some sort of championship flair back to Madison Square Garden.

That’s why Knicks owner James Dolan had no choice but to seek out the services of the one man whose name is synonymous with success, the one man whose mere mention sends fans into flights of fancy about championship parades, even when their haven’t been any such plans in the works for decades.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the pending union between Phil Jackson and the Knicks

***

No. 2: Gortat jokes that he’d like NHL-style fights in the NBA — Pound-for-pound, Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (along with the Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic) might be the strongest guy in the NBA. That being said, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to get in a fight with him at any point, anywhere. In a wide-ranging, insightful interview with TrueHoop.com’s Kyle Weidie, Gortat jokingly explains how he’d be a fan of the NBA allowing designated fighting timeframes during each game:

Any rule changes that you think would help the NBA game? For instance, sometimes they talk about instituting FIBA goaltending rules in the NBA. Any thoughts on that or any other changes that would help the game play?

The goaltending? It definitely wouldn’t help. You have too many athletic guys in this league that would tip the ball out of the rim, so pretty much to make a basket you will need to swish it, you know what I’m saying?

I would say I would loosen up a little bit the rules about the fighting fines. That’s what I would loosen up. Because today you go to an ice hockey game, and the one thing they’re waiting for is a fight, you know what I’m saying? So if they could set it up something like that in the NBA. That if there are two guys and they have a problem, if they could just separate everybody. And these two people that have problem, if they could fight …

During the game?

During the game. Quick, 15-20 seconds, throw few punches, then referees jump in and break this thing up. I think the game … these two guys, they resolved their problem. They’re both suspended and they’re leaving. But end of the day, they fix the problem between each other, fans are super excited, and I think that would be a pretty cool idea [chuckles].

You’d need bigger refs. You couldn’t have Dick Bavetta out there.

At some point when the referees jump in, then you’d have to stop. You’d have to stop. So I think that would be a great idea, just like the ice hockey fans waiting for that, that’s would NBA fans would get into, as well.

And, I think we’re definitely going to mention this in the players’ meeting, but we definitely have to mention the situation about the fans. When we say something to the fan, and when we curse him out, or when we definitely throw a punch, or we’re trying to hit the fan, we are suspended for half of the season. But when they yell at us or insult us or are cursing at us using bad words, they don’t get anything. So what I would say is that there’s definitely supposed to be a rule where if one of the fans is disrespecting us, then he got to leave the gym automatically.

This summer you will be an unrestricted free agent. This being your seventh year in the league, you’ve never really been a free agent, as you signed an offer sheet with Dallas in 2009 but Orlando matched, which is something you did not like. So what’s in your mind right now about being able to go through the free-agent process and really be able to be courted for the first time?

All I know is that I’m going to be a free agent. I don’t know how it is to be a player that actually is going to be able to pick the team he wants to play for, you know what I’m saying? I’m hoping that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to pick the team where I will play. I hope there will be a team, let’s put it this way first.

We still have 20 or so games to play. I’ve got to finish strong, and then we’re going to make a run into the playoffs, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen. Then I’m going to call my agent and say, “Hey, you gotta do your job. I did my job, now you gotta do your job. I’m looking forward to holidays now.” So, we’ll see.

There’s a lot of different things I’m going to look at. The team situation. The goal of the team. I’m going to look at the point guard. I’m going to look at the coaching staff. I’m going to look at a lot of different things before I’m going to pick the team, and obviously Washington is going to be really close to me right now. I feel really comfortable here. They have two rising stars in Bradley Beal and John Wall, and this team’s definitely going to get better and better. They have Otto Porter, who’s going to be a good player one day. And there’s going to be a lot of different things I’m going to look at. But quite honestly, right now I just want to make sure that we’re not going to lose five in a row and that we won’t lose a spot in the playoffs, because that would be the worst thing. I’m more pumped up for being in the playoffs again and not watching them in front of the TV. Back in the day I was spoiled by [Stan] Van Gundy playing all the way to the conference finals. With Phoenix, I was in the playoffs, so finally now [I have] an opportunity again.

***

No. 3: Beverley says Blazers’ Lillard ‘whines’ — A couple more wins here for the Blazers, a couple more losses there for the Rockets and we could be looking at a Houston-Portland series in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Given the classic OT game the two teams turned in on Sunday night, it is doubtful few NBA followers would turn down a best-of-7 series between those two teams. And, to add a little spice to what might be a budding rivalry out West, Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley took to a Houston-area sports radio show and had some words for Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.com has more, including some select quotes from that interview:

Lillard lobbed the opening salvo after Houston’s win over Portland on Sunday, basically calling Beverley a dirty player.

Appearing on Houston radio SportsTalk 790 today, Beverly went through eight and a half minutes of interview until this happened:

  • Host: “Hey, Pat, thank you for the time. We’ll talk with you next week.”
  • Beverley: “Are you going to ask me no questions me about Damian Lillard?”

Beverley:

Damian Lillard whines. So, I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t go out there and try to start fights with anybody. I go out there and play my game.

Beverley on Lillard again:

The way I guard him, the way I guard Steph Curry, the way I guard Chris Paul, the way I guard Goran Dragic, the way I guard Kyrie Irving – I all guard the same players the same. I don’t look at film on players. I don’t look at players’ habits. I go out there and impose my will on people, and I do what I do, and I’m aggressive on defense.

I don’t care what he says. You’re a grown man. You’re a professional basketball player – professional first.

You always push and shove, and that’s basketball. I don’t know how other people were raised, but that’s basketball. That’s how you grew up playing, battling. You get pushed down. You get back up. You battle the next guy. You should enjoy the competition. No one is going out there to hurt someone, and I was kind of offended the way that he was talking. I’m a positive person. I usually don’t say anything about anything, but if I feel that something is not right, I’m definitely going to mention about it. And the things that he was saying yesterday really bothered me.


VIDEO: James Harden and the Rockets top the Blazers in OT

***

No. 4: Boozer shuts out Chicago media — The words “warm fuzzies” and “Carlos Boozer” are rarely used in the same sentence with Chicago Bulls fans. The oft-maligned power forward has been a target of criticism for his performance (particularly on defense) at times and for his hefty contract at other times. As our own Steve Aschburner pointed out a few weeks ago, though, none of this chatter seems to bother Boozer. Well, at least maybe it didn’t anyway. Apparently, the end of the season (and a possible contract amnesty date) drawing near might be getting to Boozer, as he has stopped talking to the media, writes Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Whether it’s a lack of playing time in the fourth quarter or the reality that his contract could be amnestied this summer, there seems to be a disconnect lately between Carlos Boozer and the media.

Case in point: Asked to talk to awaiting reporters after a recent practice, Boozer declined and said loudly, “I don’t give a damn.’’

Tom Thibodeau was asked on Monday if he thought Boozer was less engaged because of his diminished role. The Bulls coach defended his power forward but also made it obvious who is calling the shots on minutes in crunch time.

“We’re at the time of the year where we need everyone at their best,’’ Thibodeau said. “We have to put maximum work into it. Everyone has a job to do. You have to put the team first. … If you play well, you’re going to play.’’


VIDEO: Carlos Boozer talks after the Bulls’ recent win over the Warriors

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Oklahoma City’s defense has all of the sudden become pretty terribleRamon Sessions has settled in as the Bucks’ “closing” point guard … Ex-Jazzmen Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap provided the fuel to give the listless Hawks a win in Salt Lake City … Bulls center Joakim Noah apparently is not a fan of “M-V-P!” chants directed his way by Chicago fans … An in-depth look at how San Antonio’s defense is able to often effectively corral LeBron James

ICYMI of the Night: What’s gotten into Brandon Knight lately? A couple of weeks ago he had this tasty fastbreak slam against the Sixers, and then last night, he delivers another power punch — this time against the Magic …


VIDEO: Brandon Knight finishes strong on the break against the Magic

Big moment of truth for Blazers


VIDEO: Blazers rally but come up short to Mavs

DALLAS –  The Trail Blazers’ locker room was a quiet place Friday night. No solace was taken in running down Dallas’ 30-point lead. Only lament that they could somehow trail by 30 and then allow an avalanche of late-game miscues to bury their own lead.

Maybe the 103-98 defeat wouldn’t have stung so deeply if it were not a virtual repeat of Monday night when the wayward Lakers popped Portland in its own building, racing to an early 15-point lead and then winning it in the final seconds.

These are losses teams don’t get back, not at this stage of the season. They’re losses that ultimately swipe homecourt advantage for what promises to be a rugged first-round series regardless of opponent.

Neither loss, however, triggered a team meeting a la Indiana following the Pacers’ third consecutive loss Friday, a thumping at red-hot Houston. That’s where these Blazers head next for a Sunday showdown. Then their five-game, nine-day, potentially season-defining road trip winds through Memphis and San Antonio before finally ending Friday at still-feisty New Orleans.

Entering Saturday’s game, Portland is in fifth place in the West, one game behind third-place Houston and now one-half game behind the Los Angeles Clippers. The current road trip could make or break the Blazers’ chances of homecourt advantage, but they say playoff seeding is not a conversation they’re having.

“Nah, we just try to take care of business,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who broke out of a post-injury shooting funk with an 18-point third quarter Friday for a game-high 30 points plus 17 rebounds. “We feel like if we go through every game and take care of business then we should be where we want to be. We definitely notice that we are right there with them. We do want homecourt, but we don’t want to get caught up into watching all those things. If we take care of business it should all work out.”

That would suggest falling behind by 30 is not exactly taking care of business. Nor is losing on their home floor to a last-place team. It’s not time to panic. The best teams struggle at times, just as the Pacers and even the Heat are doing now. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be concern over recent patterns.

“We weren’t playing very well at either end of the court,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the start of Friday’s game when Dallas surged to a 40-10 lead. “We weren’t communicating well defensively, we had miscues reading each other, there were a lot of things that weren’t going right. Dallas made no secret, this was a must-win for them, they were approaching it like that and Houston, you go down the line, we’re going to be in a lot of situations like this, and we know what we’re capable of doing, but it’s going to be a dogfight every night.”

Portland plays good enough defense to get by with a high-octane offense. But when the shots aren’t falling as they weren’t early in Dallas, it can spell big trouble. Incorporate sloppy turnovers, six in the first quarter and three during their final, scoreless 4:26 of the game, and eventually that path will lead to a closed-door team meeting.

At 42-20 and 18-12 on the road, the Blazers, a surprising success story throughout the season, have proven themselves as resilient time and again. With 20 games to go, this would be a poor time to allow a couple of clumsy losses to teams beneath them in the standings to linger.

“You always worry about that,” Aldridge said. “But I think guys are just angry about it and I think just want to take it out on Houston.”

Mavs blow it, then win It vs. Blazers

VIDEO: Mavericks win wild one against Blazers

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks described their listless defeat at Denver on Wednesday night as embarrassing. What might have they called losing to the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 30?

Because they did indeed upchuck a 30-point cushion and it wasn’t looking pretty as they trailed 98-92 with 4:26 to go. Ultimately, Dallas avoided the humiliation of a super-sized “L” lassoed around their throats. What would have gone down as the largest lead tossed aside on their home floor in franchise history turned into the strangest of comeback wins, an 11-0 spurt down the stretch securing a 103-98 win the hard way.

“We’ve been blowing leads all year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, leaving the carnage of five blown leads of at least 17 points unspoken. “We’ve blown a lot of big leads, so this is one of the realities that we face with this team, and we’re going to keep working to prevent it from happening next time. That’s all we can do, that’s all we can do. … With 19 games left, we’ve got to work to prevent because tonight, if you talk about doing it the hard way, there’s no harder way to do it than tonight.”

Dallas built a 40-10 lead and then was outscored 79-42 and trailed 89-82 with 8:36 left in the game.

Five times this season Dallas has blown leads of at least 17 points. Just a few nights ago inside the American Airlines Center, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls crushed a 16-point first-half deficit and beat Dallas. Afterward, Dirk Nowitzki said he almost wished they hadn’t of built such a big lead so early.

He’ll also recall the 21-point bulge the Mavs had in the first quarter at Toronto on Jan. 22 and eventually lost. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been overly shocking since Dallas led the Raptors by 19 in Dallas and sill lost.

The worst relinquished lead, though, had to be that January night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The Mavs were burying the Clips in the fourth quarter and cruising toward a huge road victory. They led 123-106 with 4:35 to go and lost in a wild ending, 129-127.

This one was equally crazy in the final minutes. Portland wasn’t amused that Dallas got into the bonus basically three minutes into the fourth quarter, and then a close blocking call on Damian Lillard with 24.6 seconds left in a tie game allowed the driving Devin Harris to complete a three-point play for a 101-98 lead.

“I didn’t agree with the call,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said not surprisingly. Lillard agreed. Harris, also not surprisingly, said he didn’t believe Lillard had squared his shoulders, therefor the proper call was executed.

“A charge or a no-call, yeah,” Stotts said of what should have been where he stood. “It was [a big play]. I’m not going to complain about the officials. I disagree with the call. It was the play of the game because it was a tie game and a three-point play. It changes everything.”

But it wasn’t the only play. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the third quarter, shooting 63.6 percent to win the quarter 36-18. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the period. But in the final 4:26, Portland failed to score on nine consecutive possessions and Aldridge missed his last five shot attempts after his alley-oop dunk gave the Blazers a 98-92 lead. He couldn’t convert late near the hoop in all manner of traffic and Aldridge couldn’t believe he didn’t hear a whistle.

“I definitely felt like there were some calls that they got earlier that I didn’t get late,” Aldridge said. “The one that Dirk pump-faked and the guy went up in the air, I did it in the paint, they didn’t call it. I feel like one of the offensive rebounds I got hit a few times, so I mean, I don’t know, but I have to be better in the stretch.”

With 19 seconds left and the Blazers needing a 3 to tie, there was a cross-up and Aldridge threw the ball out of bounds, effectively ending any chance of coming back in a game they had already come back from down 30.

“I had some big miscues down the stretch,” the Dallas native Aldridge acknowledged. “I missed some shots down the stretch, so you know, fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win — not taking care of business.”

Pool of talent exists beyond 1-and-dones


VIDEO: Damian Lillard has enjoyed the Blazers’ quiet rise to contention this season

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – On the one-and-done issue, second-year All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has no issue with commissioner Adam Silver‘s desire to raise the minimum age to enter the league from 19 to 20.

After all, the Portland Trail Blazers’ No. 6 overall pick in 2012 turned 22 a few weeks after the Draft. He played four seasons at little-known Weber State in Ogden, Utah. Lillard’s rookie teammate, guard C.J. McCollum, turned 22 a few months after the Blazers made him the No. 10 pick in the 2013 Draft. McCollum played four years at tiny Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa.

“I definitely don’t think guys should be able to leave [for the NBA] after high school,” Lillard said during the All-Star break. “Back in the day there were guys like LeBron James coming out, Kevin Garnett. I don’t think you have that anymore, guys that can come in and do what they do. As far as college, it’s different situations. My freshman year in college, I wasn’t ready to be an NBA player. What was best for me was to play four years of college. Some guys, Anthony Davis, 6-foot-10, great defender, it was perfect for him, it was time for him to be an NBA player.”

Every few years there will be a special talent such as Davis, who was the top pick in 2012. He seemed ready to enter the big leagues at age 18 or 19. But would it have benefited Davis’ Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to spend another season with the Wildcats rather than go No. 2 overall (at 19 years old) to the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012?

“A lot of it is mental and having that college experience helps because I was in that situation so many different times when my team depended on me to make a play, to make a shot, bring us back, stuff like that,” said Lillard, who has hit four game-winners this season. “Just having that experience over and over and over those four years helped prepare me for whenever that came up in the NBA.”

Of course that’s the overriding argument for raising the age limit. The NBA wants players entering the league to be more physically and emotionally prepared for life on and off the court. Coaches at major programs crave more continuity for their programs.

But is the one-and-done issue really a problem?

Of the 18 first- and second-year players at last month’s Rising Stars Challenge game during All-Star weekend, 16 of them attended college (two were international players). Twelve played beyond one season. Six played two seasons and three each played three years and four years.

Only four were one-and-done: Davis, Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, Pistons center Andre Drummond and Thunder center Steven Adams.

One-and-done hasn’t exactly opened the floodgates to players declaring for the Draft after one college season. Still, the blue-blood collegiate programs, with such small windows to compete for a championship with top recruits, are on the hunt for high school players physically prepared to play as freshmen. It leaves a large pool of talented players to fall through the cracks and land at smaller, so-called “mid-major” programs.

Once there, they tend to stay for multiple years, allowing for maturation and development in bridging the gap from 18 years old to 21 or 22.

“We have a better understanding of everything because we’ve been through a lot,” said McCollum, whose rookie season was stunted by a broken foot late in training camp. “Going to small schools, not being recruited, you go through a lot, having to earn everything, having to work really hard, and you have to take advantage of moments because at a small school you don’t play a lot of big teams so you have to capitalize on a small window of opportunities.”

Since Blazers general manager Neil Olshey used consecutive top 10 draft picks on two four-year, mid-major players, it wasn’t surprising to find him in the stands at the University of Texas at Arlington on a bitterly cold early February night. He was there getting a first-hand look at a junior point guard in the Sun Belt Conference.

Elfrid Payton,” Lillard said, totally aware of the 6-foot-3 Louisiana-Lafayette prospect, a potential late first-round, early second-round draft pick.

Olshey wasn’t alone as Bucks general manager John Hammond also made the trip. In addition, 20 other NBA teams dispatched scouts to the game as front offices canvas smaller programs more than ever.

“I think there’s always been talent [at smaller schools], I just think guys like Steph Curry, Paul George, myself, Rodney Stuckey, I think that as guys are successful in the NBA, they’re [front offices] starting to pay closer attention to mid-majors,” Lillard said. “I don’t think it’s new. I think there’s probably been a lot of guys that just got overlooked, that didn’t get the opportunity. The good thing is the guys that I just named are opening up doors for guys like Elfrid Payton.”

Curry played three seasons at Davidson. George spent two years at Fresno State and Stuckey played two years at Eastern Washington. Lillard could have also named Kawhi Leonard (two years at San Diego State), Kenneth Faried (four years at Morehead State) and Gordon Hayward (two years at Bulter).

The few sure-fire one-and-done players at the marquee schools get the lion’s share of attention. But players are everywhere, players you’ve never heard of, but maybe should have and perhaps will.

Like Damian Lillard.


VIDEO: After a long wait, Portland’s C.J. McCollum got to make his NBA debut

Is Aldridge’s pick-and-roll defense a problem for Blazers?


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge talks after the Blazers’ win against the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – When we looked at the teammates that had defended the pick-and-roll the best on Wednesday, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez were sixth on the list, but the Portland Trail Blazers were nowhere near the top 10 in team rankings.

According to SportVU, the Blazers ranked 26th in pick-and-roll defense through Monday’s games and are up to 22nd after a game against the reeling Hawks on Wednesday. They’ve allowed 1.06 points per pick-and-roll possession overall, even though they’ve been pretty good when Lopez has been the guy defending the screener, allowing just 1.01. That ranks 55th among 134 players who had been the screener’s defender on at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions through Wednesday. Not great, but above-average.

Note: All stats included here are through Wednesday, March 5.

But near the bottom of the list is Lopez’s frontcourt-mate, LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers have allowed 1.17 points per possession when Aldridge has been the guy defending the screener. Of those 134 players who have defended at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions, only one – Trevor Booker – has a higher mark (1.18).

The discrepancy between Lopez’s and Aldridge’s numbers is rather remarkable, because both bigs basically defend pick-and-rolls the same way (though Portland will mix things up a little with Aldridge). While the Pacers drop back with their centers and show high with their power forwards, both Aldridge (most of the time) and Lopez drop back…

20140307_aldridge_pnr

20140307_lopez_pnr

Who are they guarding?

Is it a power forward vs. center thing? The players Aldridge is guarding (Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, etc.) are generally more potent offensively than those Lopez is guarding. And the biggest difference in Aldridge and Lopez’s numbers is the field goal percentage that the screener has shot when he has got the ball…

Pick-and-rolls vs. Lopez and Aldridge

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss BH FGM BH FGA BH FG% S FGM S FGA S FG%
Lopez 948 908 914 1.01 140 347 40.3% 59 131 45.0%
Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 102 249 41.0% 75 132 56.8%

BH FGM, FGA, FG% = Ball-handler shooting
S FGM, FGA, FG% = Screener shooting

But other defenses in the West don’t have the same discrepancy.

When the starting power forwards from the other top 10 teams in the West have defended the screener on a pick-and-roll, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. And when the starting centers on those same teams have defended the screener, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. No discrepancy at all.

The Suns’ pick-and-roll defense has been slightly better when Miles Plumlee has defended the screener than when Channing Frye has, and the same goes for the Warriors, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. But none of the other nine teams has nearly the difference that we see with the Blazers.

The eye test

Watching film, Aldridge doesn’t come across as a noticeably bad pick-and-roll defender. He’s usually in the right position, he doesn’t get caught standing still, or get turned around and lost on possessions (like a couple of bigs in New York).

The Blazers track every defensive possession themselves and say that Aldridge grades out closer the league average on pick-and-rolls (and that Lopez still grades out as better). And when we look at the 57 percent that the screener has shot on Aldridge-defended pick-and-rolls, we’re only talking about 132 shots, not the greatest sample size.

But Synergy Sports grades him as “poor” in regard to defending the roll man. And it’s not hard to find examples (via NBA.com/stats video boxscores) where he fails to close out and lets an opposing big shoot in rhythm…

You can also find examples of him closing out fine, but other West power forwards grade out better via SportVU. The screener takes more shots and shoots them better against Aldridge than any of the other nine guys listed below (from the other West teams at or above .500), even though they’ve all had to defend Aldridge himself, who has attempted almost 200 more mid-range shots than any other player in the league.

Pick-and-roll defense, West power forwards

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss Rk S FGM S FGA S FG% Rk
LaMarcus Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 10 75 132 56.8% 10
Tim Duncan 849 817 854 1.05 8 42 96 43.8% 4
Channing Frye 729 698 755 1.08 9 39 96 40.6% 2
Blake Griffin 925 896 935 1.04 7 46 91 50.5% 7
Serge Ibaka 733 706 687 0.97 2 32 71 45.1% 5
Terrence Jones 584 561 560 1.00 4 30 72 41.7% 3
David Lee 657 629 592 0.94 1 31 77 40.3% 1
Kevin Love 638 609 593 0.97 3 38 71 53.5% 9
Dirk Nowitzki 668 645 659 1.02 5 44 85 51.8% 8
Zach Randolph 794 767 788 1.03 6 48 98 49.0% 6

Right shots, wrong results

Again, we’re only looking at 132 of the 5,350 shots that Portland opponents have attempted this season. And the Blazers do force the right shots.

The intent of their drop-back scheme is to force the least efficient shots on the floor, between the restricted area and the 3-point line. And 45.4 percent of Portland opponents’ shots have come from there. That’s the fifth highest mark in the league, behind only teams that rank in the top five in defensive efficiency. Portland also ranks in the top 10 in percentage of jump shots that they’ve contested.

But their opponents have made 41 percent of those shots between the restricted area and 3-point line, the fourth highest percentage.

Highest percentage of opponents shots from between
the restricted area and the 3-point line

Team FGM FGA FG% Rank %FGA
Indiana 943 2,462 38.3% 7 48.5%
San Antonio 974 2,469 39.4% 15 48.2%
Golden State 964 2,503 38.5% 8 47.9%
Chicago 905 2,377 38.1% 4 47.6%
Portland 994 2,428 40.9% 27 45.4%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts

Whether that’s a case of bad luck or because they don’t really contest that well, that’s still just 0.82 points per attempt, which is fine defensively. The Blazers also rank 11th in 3-point defense and second in defending the restricted area.

So, in terms of defending shots, the Blazers do a pretty good job, despite the Aldridge pick-and-roll issue. They rank seventh in opponent effective field goal percentage. But they rank 19th in defensive efficiency, mostly because they force the fewest turnovers in the league, just 12.3 per 100 possessions. And they force only 11.3 with their starting lineup on the floor.

In part, that goes back to their pick-and-roll defense. Not only do the bigs drop back (which means that ball-handlers don’t have to pick up their dribble and make a pass as often), but the guards (especially Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews) don’t apply much pressure up front and can get caught on those screens. No Blazer ranks in the top 80 in steals per game.

Still, the Blazers are OK when Lopez defends pick-and-rolls. And it may be that his ability to stop the ball-handler and stay in contact with the roll man that allows his teammates to better defend their own guys. If Aldridge is a step slower, that can have a domino effect two or three passes away.

Trending up?

The Blazers actually have the No. 1 defense since the All-Star break. That number has been schedule-aided though, as they’ve played the Jazz, Lakers, Hawks, and two games against the depleted Nuggets. It also may have been aided by Aldridge’s absence in the first five post-break games, as they found some defensive success playing smaller and quicker.

Aldridge is back and we’re going to find out if the Portland defense is really improved over the next 10 days, when five of their six games are against teams that rank in the top 12 offensively (and the other is against the improved Grizzlies).

A five-game trip begins against the fourth-ranked Dallas offense on Friday and we’ll see how well Aldridge contests Nowitzki.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Sixers, Granger mulling options | Ainge, Rondo chat delayed | Turner impresses in Indy debut | Blazers’ Robinson hurts knee in Denver | Report: Butler, Bucks working on buyout

No. 1: Report: Granger, Sixers still talking over future — Another day, another day closer to a buyout for Danny Granger with the Philadelphia 76ers? Team officials and the small forward continue to talk over what the next move will be: a buyout in the coming days or, perhaps, Granger sticking with the Sixers for the rest of the season. ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelbourne and Marc Stein have more on what may come next for Granger:

Newly acquired Danny Granger and the Philadelphia 76ers continue to discuss a possible buyout, according to sources close to the process.

Sources told ESPN.com on Tuesday that a buyout consummated before Saturday’s midnight deadline for Granger to be waived and remain eligible to appear in this season’s playoffs with any team he subsequently signs for remains the most likely outcome.

But sources also said Granger continues to weigh other options, including staying with the 76ers for the rest of the season, as the deadline draws near.

Sources said Tuesday the San Antonio Spurs and Granger share a mutual interest if the former All-Star comes to a buyout agreement with the Sixers by the weekend.

It’s believed the Los Angeles Clippers will be another leading suitor for Granger’s services should he become an unrestricted free agent next week.

***

No. 2: Ainge says Rondo chat likely won’t happen soon — As we reported in this space yesterday, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is expected to be called into team president Danny Ainge‘s office to explain why he didn’t travel with the team to a game in Sacramento. Apparently that conversation is still going to happen … it just won’t happen for a few more days. Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald has more on the issue:

Though Danny Ainge plans to talk to Rajon Rondo about the guard’s decision to celebrate his 28th birthday in Los Angeles last Saturday while the team flew to Sacramento for a game against the Kings, the meeting might not take place for a week.

Ainge departed on a college scouting trip before the team’s return to Boston. Though the president of basketball operations still plans to discuss the issue with Rondo, he won’t return until next week.

A team source stressed that “it’s not that big a deal around here,” though Ainge hasn’t ruled out fining Rondo for not receiving official permission. The guard, who still is not playing on the second night of back-to-back games as he returns from ACL surgery, was not scheduled to play Saturday night in Sacramento. He chose to remain in Los Angeles for a birthday celebration that was attended by his wife, children and mother.

Rondo, who rejoined the team Monday in Utah, told the Herald he had talked with management about staying behind in Los Angeles, and that there was nothing further to discuss. Ainge, however, said he planned to discuss the matter with Rondo once the team returned yesterday.

***

No. 3: Turner fares nicely in Indy debut — Before last night’s Pacers-Los Angeles Lakers game from Indianapolis, coach Frank Vogel said newly acquired swingman Evan Turner would come off the bench and play roughly 20-25 minutes in his Indiana debut. For the record, Turner played 26 minutes and 11 seconds and finished with 13 points and six rebounds in the Pacers’ 118-98 romp over the Lakers. The feeling after the game, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star, was that Turner’s debut went about as well as it could:

Turner had the green light to be himself in the Pacers’ 118-98 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. During an offensive torrent when the Pacers (43-13) created season highs in field goal makes and attempts as well as bench points, Turner finished with 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting.

“He’s just a good basketball player,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He has good savvy, good IQ. He understands his teammates. He picks things up quickly and like I said, he looked comfortable.”

Turner, whom the Pacers received in a last-minute trade deadline deal last week for Danny Granger, took as many shots as starter Lance Stephenson. He played 26 minutes of mostly offensive-oriented basketball while still working through the details of the Pacers’ league-best defense. However, as seven Indiana players finished in double digits – led by Paul George’s 20 points – Turner fit right in with a bench unit that produced 50 points.

Turner was admittedly nervous before the game, and even when he heard the applause from many of the 18,165 fans – in spite of their team’s woeful record, many Lakers (19-38) fans still showed up. And he started out looking like a new kid in class. In his first action, Turner set a solid screen that aided in the Pacers’ score off the inbounds play. Then on his first run through a half-court set, Turner stretched the floor and raced back on defense even before a shot went up from the inside. A West moving screen foiled his first touch, then Turner grew confident.

Of all people, Turner understands Indiana’s offensive principle – the man with ball creates the score and when help comes, he shares it – because with the 76ers, his role was to be that man with the ball.

“In Philly,” Turner said. “I could (pass) the ball at the rim.”

So, yes, Turner knows how to shoot. He took those opportunities whenever he caught smaller defenders like Jodie Meeks or MarShon Brooks and backed them down for turnaround midrange shots on the baseline.

“He’s still got to adjust,” David West said. “He’s got to figure out how to play with us. He’s going to have to figure out on the fly here. He’s smart, heady, composed.

“He’s got to get used to the level of talent we have. Guys he can defer to as opposed to feeling he has to do too much.”


VIDEO: Evan Turner discusses his first game as a member of the Pacers

***

No. 4: Blazers’ Robinson suffers minor knee injury — Portland’s frontcourt depth has already been thinned by a recent minor injury to All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and ones to Joel Freeland (MCL, out several more weeks) and Meyers Leonard (ankle, out 2 more weeks). It wasn’t a great sign last night, then, when one of the last few healthy big men, Thomas Robinson, suffered a knee injury in Denver. Luckily for the Blazers, reports Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com, Robinson merely has a left patella strain:

Thomas Robinson suffered a knee injury in the first half of Tuesday’s game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.The team is listing it as a left patella strain and says he is day-to-day.

Robinson, 22, sustained the injury when he went up for a dunk attempt. Something occurred on his way down. He was only able to play three second half minutes due to severity of the pain.

“I tried to go back in there but I couldn’t,” he told CSNNW.com. “It was something I’ve never experienced before on this knee.”

His diagnosis is good news, considering how defeated Robinson looked in his locker room stall after the Trail Blazers won 100-95.

Robinson scored 2 points and pulled down 5 rebounds in 14 minutes of action against the Nuggets.

“I’m worried, he said before finding out the results. “I’m just going to rest and put some ice on it and get some rest and hopefully I’ll be able to go tomorrow.”


VIDEO: The Blazers hold off the Nuggets in Denver

***

No. 5: Report: Bucks on verge of buying out Butler — Wisconsin native Caron Butler was plenty excited in the offseason to return to his home state and play for Milwaukee’s squad (as this great video documents), but things haven’t worked out how Butler or the Bucks have hoped. With the team in the midst of a clear rebuilding season, Butler is expected to be bought out of his deal so that he can sign with a contender before the March 1 deadline. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein has more: 

Milwaukee Bucks swingman Caron Butler is scheduled to complete a contract buyout Wednesday that sets him up to become an unrestricted free agent by the end of the week, according to sources close to the talks.

Sources told ESPN.com that Wisconsin native Butler, who is earning $8 million this season on an expiring contract with his home-state Bucks, is on course to be released by Milwaukee on Wednesday and thus clear waivers Friday, well in advance of the Saturday midnight deadline by which time he must be set free to be eligible to play in the playoffs with another team.

The two-time defending champion Miami Heat, sources said, will be at the front of the line to sign Butler, who spent his first two seasons in the league with the Heat and is expected to verbally commit to a team before clearing waivers.

Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times also confirms that the Bucks and Butler are working on a buyout:

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jason Collins’ No. 98 jersey was reportedly a top seller at both the NBA Store and its website … The Knicks are set to sign ex-Cavs forward Earl Clark and ex-Lakers and Suns guard Shannon Brown to 10-day deals … According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, ex-Bucks star Junior Bridgeman has shown interest in investing in a part of the team … Speaking of Mr. Bridgeman, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups explains how Bridgeman’s off-the-court business savy has influenced him

ICYMI(s) of The Night: The Raptors’ Tyler Hansbrough looked like one of the poor guys trying to stick with “Uncle Drew” (aka Cavs All-Star guard Kyrie Irving) during one of his forays to the court for a game of pickup hoops …


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving crosses up Tyler Hansbrough en route to a layup

What The Contenders Could Use

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, the race for the 2014 NBA championship is relatively wide open, and there are plenty of players available for the right price.

So, the league is seemingly ripe for a ton of action at the deadline. But the whole “the right price” thing could limit the number of deals that are made. Buyers may be hesitant to give up first-round picks for players that they’re only “renting” for a few months, and sellers may prefer to keep their guy if they’re not getting the assets they want in return.

But maybe a deal could be made that turns a contender into a favorite or a tier-two team into a contender.

Here’s a look at what those teams could use — from a numbers perspective – to put themselves over the top (in the case of the contenders) or in the mix (in the case of the next group).

OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City (43-12)

OffRtg: 107.6 (6), DefRtg: 99.3 (3), NetRtg: +8.3 (2)
The Thunder are the most complete team in the league, the only one that ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And their bench has been terrific, even with Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery forcing Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup over the last seven weeks.

The only lineup numbers that look bad are those of their original starting group, which has been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions and which will be back together when Westbrook returns on Thursday. In 280 minutes, the lineup has scored just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 29th in the league.

In general, the Thunder have been much better playing small. In fact, they’re a plus-203 in 1,954 minutes with two bigs on the floor and a plus-204 in 694 minutes with less than two. Some added depth on the wings could make them even more potent.

Indiana (41-12)

OffRtg: 102.4 (18), DefRtg: 93.8 (1), NetRtg: +8.6 (1)
The Pacers are, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And that may be enough to win a championship.

But they’re a below-average offensive team and only seven of those have made The Finals in the last 30 years. The Pacers turn the ball over too much, don’t get to the rim enough, and aren’t a great 3-point shooting team.

George Hill is a key cog in that No. 1 defense and the starting lineup scores at a top-10 rate, but Indy could certainly use a more potent point guard, or at least a third guard that can create off the dribble. Their bench is better than it was last season, but it still struggles to score.

Danny Granger has a large expiring contract, but acquiring a player on a deal that goes beyond this season could compromise the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer.

Miami (38-14)

OffRtg: 109.8 (1), DefRtg: 103.4 (16), NetRtg: +6.4 (5)
Is the Heat’s defensive drop-off a serious problem of just a case of them being in cruise control most of the season? Their ability to flip the switch on that end of the floor will depend on Dwyane Wade‘s health and Shane Battier‘s ability to play more minutes than he has been of late. As much as rebounding is an issue, so is defending the perimeter. And if there was a way they could add another shooter/defender on the wing, it would help.

Rebounding is an issue. The Heat have rebounded better (on both ends) with Greg Oden on the floor, but he’s played just 78 minutes all season and compromises their offense to some degree. So he’s probably not going to neutralize Roy Hibbert in a matchup with the Pacers.

San Antonio (39-15)

OffRtg: 107.5 (7), DefRtg: 100.4 (5), NetRtg: +7.1 (3)
The numbers look good on the surface. Only the Thunder rank higher than the Spurs in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But their defense has failed them, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, as they’ve gone 2-8 in games against the other teams over .600 (every team on this list, except Golden State). Last season, they allowed just 101.8 in 22 games against other teams over .600.

Injuries have played a role in their defensive decline and if the Spurs are healthy, they’re still a great team. But there’s no getting around that, going back to Game 3 of the 2012 conference finals, they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games against Oklahoma City and could certainly use more athleticism up front with that matchup in mind.

Houston (36-17)

OffRtg: 107.7 (5), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: +5.6 (6)
If there’s a fifth contender, it’s the Rockets or the Clippers, two more West teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Houston is actually the only team that ranks in the top five in both effective field goal percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense hasn’t been very consistent though, and it’s allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 games against the other eight West teams over .500. And that’s why they might want to hold onto Omer Asik. One of their biggest problems defensively is rebounding, especially when Dwight Howard steps off the floor. Only the Lakers (15.8) have allowed more second-chance points per game than Houston (15.1).

Portland (36-17)

OffRtg: 108.7 (2), DefRtg: 105.7 (23), NetRtg: +3.1 (10)
Diagnosing the Blazers’ issues is pretty easy. You’re simply not a contender if you rank in the bottom 10 defensively. The worst defensive team to make The Finals in the last 30 years was the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 19th and who, as defending champs, knew how to flip the switch. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Not only are the Blazers bad defensively, but the their bench is (still) relatively weak. Lineups other than their starting group have outscored their opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the teams on this list (even Golden State). So they’re going to be tested with LaMarcus Aldridge out with a groin strain. They’ve been outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge off the floor.

L.A. Clippers (37-19)

OffRtg: 108.7 (3), DefRtg: 102.2 (10), NetRtg: +6.5 (10)
The Clippers are very similar to the Rockets. They rank in top 10 defensively, but have struggled on that end of the floor against good teams. Furthermore, though Howard and DeAndre Jordan rank in the top four in rebounds per game, their teams rank in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage.

Blake Griffin and Jordan rank 2nd and 3rd in total minutes played, and the Clippers basically have no other bigs that Doc Rivers can trust for extended stretches in the postseason. Though the Clippers’ injuries have been in the backcourt, they’re more in need of depth up front.

Golden State (31-22)

OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 99.5 (4), NetRtg: +4.7 (7)
The Warriors and not the Suns (31-21) are the last team on this list because they have a much better defense and a higher ceiling. They also have a much easier schedule, which could allow them to get into the 3-5 range in the West, going forward.

Golden State’s issues are pretty simple. Their starting lineup has been terrific on both ends of the floor, but their bench … not so much. Things have been a little better with Jordan Crawford in the mix; They’ve scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry off the floor since the Crawford trade, compared to the putrid 86.7 they were scoring without Curry before the deal. But one of their most important defensive players – Andrew Bogut – is banged up and their D falls apart when Andre Iguodala steps off the floor.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for All-Star Sunday

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Westbrook to return Feb. 20 | Aldridge: Players interested in Blazers | Howard on his path to Houston | Gilbert opens up on ‘Letter’, Cavs

No. 1: Report: Westbrook may return Feb. 20 — At last night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant put on quite a show en route to a 38-point night and nearly won the MVP award, too. Afterward, he spoke with our David Aldridge and said he was mostly trying to enjoy the weekend and All-Star Game, but maybe he’ll be a bit happier once he gets back to OKC with the latest news about his All-Star teammate, Russell Westbrook. According to Yahoo!Sports’ Marc J. Spears, Westbrook is closing in on a return and could play as soon as this Thurday when the Thunder host the Heat (8 p.m. ET, TNT):

The Oklahoma City Thunder are hopeful that injured guard Russell Westbrook will return for Thursday’s game against the Miami Heat, a source to Yahoo Sports.

The Thunder announced on Dec. 27 that Westbrook had surgery on his right knee for the second time since late October. He was projected to be out until after the NBA All-Star break without a specific return game. The source said Westbrook will be re-evaluated on Tuesday in Oklahoma City, which could open the door for a return against the visiting Heat.

Westbrook averaged 21.3 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in 25 games. The Thunder are 22-8 without Westbrook, mainly due to Kevin Durant playing on an MVP level.

“This whole group, they are resilient,” Durant said. “We persevered through everything and just stayed together. We had faith no matter what. We are looking forward to having Russell back and make it seem less of a transition for him.”

***

No. 2: Aldridge says some stars want to join BlazersLaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard became the first pair of Trail Blazers players to participate in the All-Star Game since 1994, when Clyde Drexler and Cliff Robinson represented the Rose City. Apparently, though, the Blazers’ sudden success this season has caught the eye of more than just All-Star voters and coaches. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that Aldridge and Lillard both said that fellow All-Stars have expressed interest to them, albeit anonymously, about playing in Portland:

When you’re winning, players want to follow. And according to Aldridge, a couple of All-Star players that shall remain anonymous have approached him, telling him that they would like to play with himself and Damian Lillard in Portland.

“Definitely a few guys have told me that this weekend,” Aldridge informed CSNNW.com.

Aldridge and Lillard say they haven’t actively recruited players over the course of the weekend, which is revealing, meaning those anonymous players went out of their way to express their interest in playing for the Trail Blazers.

“I think winning and the type of people that we are will attract people,” Lillard said. “In that way, I guess we are recruiting but I haven’t actively done so.”

The long perception of the Trail Blazers being an unattractive team in the far left coast with their closest opponent approximately 630 miles away, Portland is slowly starting to transform into a place that players have to consider if serious about their basketball careers.

“If you’re serious about basketball, Portland is the place,” Lillard told CSNNW.com. “I love it there. It’s not a big city so it allows you to concentrate on your craft. Some people need the distractions of the nightlife but for me personally, it’s the perfect place for me. I just work on my game. That’s what I get paid to do.”

All-Star Weekend is where friendships are started and developed. Having the opportunity to play with the best players in the world does something to players. They start to envision playing together. Then they talk about it amongst themselves.The Big 3 in Miami had a few All-Star Weekends together before they joined forces in the summer of 2010. All-Star power forward Chris Bosh admits guys do think those thoughts, but claims that most of the time, talk is all it amounts to.

“Yeah, you always do that like, ‘Man, it would be great to play with this dude. He’s very talented. He’s the best of the best in the league.’ But most of the time, it’s unrealistic,” Bosh said.

Probably so, but it’s still great when players say they want to come play with you in your city. That’s a start. Whether it happens or not is another story.


VIDEO: All-Star highlights from Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge

***

No. 3: Howard explains why he ended up in Houston – In a great, overarching story from All-Star weekend by the venerable J.A. Adande of ESPN.com, he takes a look at how the NBA has changed so much since the Michael Jordan era. One key point of his story is how in today’s era, the only way for players to maximum maintain control of their careers is by playing for less the the maximum amount of money. To his point, former Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard explains how that thinking may have shaped his decision to force a trade to the L.A. Lakers and his ultimate signing with the Houston Rockets last summer:

What’s undeniable is that LeBron’s move to Miami and Dwight Howard’s departure to Houston were the right move for both to make, even if they were handled clumsily and awkwardly. Want to talk fast? Doesn’t it already seem like a long time ago that Howard’s wobbly walk out of Orlando and his uncomfortable season in L.A. were as big a story as the NBA had? Now he’s on the hottest team in the league at the All-Star break, winners of seven straight, sitting in third place in the Western Conference and reporters were more interested in the upcoming free agencies of LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love (in 2015).

Howard couldn’t have come off worse when he left Orlando. But now that he’s finally settled in Houston he’s said nothing but the right things. On the other side of his free agency he offered an eloquent perspective on a player’s right to determine his playing place.

“That’s the only time you really want to be selfish, when you’re making the decision about where you want to play basketball,” Howard said. “A lot of people might look at you and say, ‘Hey that’s not right, you’re not looking out for my team or my city.’ But at the end of the day, you only get one time around the track, you only get one time to play this game of basketball. Our windows are so short. We have to do whatever we can to be successful. A lot of people are not going to like it … because we’re not doing what they want us to do. And people hate that. All of us have to learn, in our own way, we have to make ourselves happy first. We want to do whatever we can for the fans, sign autographs, take pictures. That’s who we are off the court. But when it comes to the business of basketball, we have to be selfish and take care of our self first.”

***

No. 4: Cavs owner Gilbert opens up in Q&AWe’ve mentioned several times in Hang Time land this season how much of a disappointment the Cleveland Cavaliers have been, especially given their offseason roster makeover and the expectations of a playoff run (or more) in 2013-14. Team owner Dan Gilbert, never one to shy away from commenting about his team, recently chatted with Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal and opened up on the rough season, his infamous ‘Letter’ to LeBron James after he left the Cavs in 2010 and more:

Q: Why has this season been such a disappointment?

A: Well up until the last week and maybe the road trip before that, you’re absolutely right the season overall has not hit our expectations. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason. We needed to figure out who we are: Who we are as a team and as a franchise and make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. I think it has taken a little bit longer to gel from a chemistry standpoint. Some of that is non-tangible, but to me not just basketball but all organizations there has to be a chemistry where people trust each other, believe in each other from the front office to the coaching staff to the players. There was a lot of static this year. A lot of that is expected as normal growing pains from a young team, but I think there was more than people expected. Hopefully now we see here within the last week, that’s beginning to change in a significant way.

Q: Do you regret saying at the lottery, ‘We’re not coming back here,’ because it seemed to really speed up the clock?

A: I think that was in response to questions. Obviously when a reporter asks you a question when you’ve been at the lottery three years in a row, I don’t think it shows much confidence to your fan base or anything that you’re not going to fee pretty good about not being there for the fourth year in a row. When people say that about the Yahoo article, is it really an unrealistic, arrogant position to say that you’re going to be in the top 55 percentile of teams to be in the East after four years? We didn’t go pump our hands and say, ‘We’re winning the NBA championship this year!’ I think it’s a good goal to say we’re going to make the playoffs. No one said make the playoffs, do or die. I think it’s a reasonable goal, so no, I don’t regret it.

Q: How about The Letter? As a whole, do you regret sending it?

A: I would’ve reworded the language in The Letter, but I don’t regret sending a letter out to our fan base. People forget the letter was not to LeBron, it was to our fan base. If I had to do it again, for sure, I would’ve reworded several parts of it. But I think it definitely needed a strong statement from me at that time. I keep a couple binders on my desk and I have a binder of the responses to The Letter from the people of Cleveland. There’s thousands, maybe 2,000 from every facet of life, from CEOs of big companies to hand-written letters from 94-year-old ladies, from street sweepers to policemen and firemen. The response went way beyond. For some reason, it appealed to this generational Cleveland thing. If you want to talk about books, someone should publish all the responses to The Letter. It was like, ‘We’re from Cleveland and we’ve been rejected.’

Q: Were you surprised by the reaction? Did you know it would cause that type of firestorm?

A: No, not to the extent that it did. I didn’t think it would. Going back now and looking, yeah probably. But at the time? I didn’t think it would become sort of the thing that it did.

Q: Has it had any negative impact on your organization over the last four years?

A: You never know for sure, but I haven’t felt it or been aware of it. People said nobody would come here, that’s not true. Do I think any players are going to not come here because Dan wrote a letter three or four years ago? I don’t think so.

Q: How important is it to re-sign Luol Deng?

A: We love Luol Deng for a lot of reasons, which everybody knows. Besides the kind of player he is, the kind of person he is and the kind of leader he is by example. But you can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. You have to look at all the pieces and see where you’re going to be.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about Kyrie and Dion and if they can coexist? Do you think they can start together, play together and succeed?

A: Yeah, I do. In fact I can make a case that as they both mature, and we’ve seen that even more recently, that kind of threat at the perimeter and driving and shooting ability of both of them, it’s going to be a hell of a load for any defense to handle. I think they can and I think there’s other examples of that in NBA history. We’ll see what happens, but I think they’re both extremely talented players and they genuinely like each other. People think they don’t like each other, they genuinely like each other. That’s sort of made up. Look, they’re both 21, 22 years old. There was a little bit of feeling out of who’s going to do what, but I do believe like I said in the news conference, I think the talent on this team is so good, but they’re so young. We’ll see what happens.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: For the record, Kevin Durant is getting awfully tired of the LeBron James comparisons … Celtics forward Gerald Wallace — a one-time star for the Charlotte Bobcats — still isn’t over being traded by the Bobcats back in 2011 … Knicks star Carmelo Anthony enjoyed meeting Celtics legend Bill Russell at All-Star weekend … The term “daily vitamins” has a whole different meaning to the Atlanta Hawks

ICYMI of The Night: If you somehow missed all of All-Star weekend, don’t worry … we’ve got the best plays and moments from all the events right here: 


VIDEO: Relive the top 10 plays from All-Star weekend

Blazers’ Aldridge, Lillard Bring Out Best In Pacers’ West, Hill


VIDEO: George Hill, David West lead Pacers over Trail Blazers

INDIANAPOLIS – Two All-Stars, a point guard and a power forward, get it going. Two proud veterans, a point guard and a power forward, fire back.

David West and George Hill have been around too long, and have too much going on this season, to get caught up in the snubbery of All-Star roster limitations. But sometimes matchups and challenges do get personal, and when they sync up with the team’s agenda, special things can happen.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be representing the Portland Trail Blazers next weekend in New Orleans as members of the West All-Stars. Hill and West won’t – the Indiana Pacers instead will send Paul George and Roy Hibbert to the showcase event with the East All-Stars.

Still, Hill and West were determined Friday not to let the Blazers’ best get an early start, showing off for a national TV audience a week early on the Pacers’ court. And with shooting guard Lance Stephenson on the side in street clothes, his back still sore from the spectacularly scary tumble he took in Atlanta a few days earlier, and both Paul George and Hibbert misfiring at a disturbing rate, well, the chores fell to Hill and West.

“Just the next-man-up mentality,” Hill said after scoring a career-high 37 points in Indiana’s 118-113 overtime victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “All season long, we’ve kind of sat in the shadow because of the success we had. When things are not broke, you don’t fix it. All year long we’ve been riding on Paul and Lance and Roy, but tonight it was a struggle for them, so we knew the next man had to step up.”

Hill edged close to a triple-double with nine rebounds and eight assists. His 12 field goals were his most ever and he matched career-highs with 12 free throws and 11 makes.

West’s 30 points were his most this season and he grabbed 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double. It was the first game this season in which two Indiana players scored 30 points or more and, what d’ya know, neither of them was named Paul George.

“When I first walked in here I was yelling at everybody that I have a lot of energy today,” Hill said. “From 5 o’clock when we came here to start shooting – I don’t know what it was. I just felt different.”

Neither he nor West could have felt great at halftime. Aldridge (five years younger than West) scored 11 points in the first quarter and Lillard (four years younger than Hill) had 14 in the second. Portland was leading, 50-45, and the two Blazers were beating their counterparts 35-19. With the other three Indiana starters managing just 13 (Paul George was 2-for-8 and Hibbert had missed three of his four shots). Danny Granger, subbing for Stephenson, was making just his second start in what would become his longest (40:10) stint this season and didn’t have the legs to help much.

As Pacers coach Frank Vogel said: “We needed another attacker off the bounce.”

West made sure that Hill understood: It was going to be him.

“I wanted George to be aggressive, that was the key,” West said. “Sometimes he can kind of defer to get other guys going but, particularly with the way Lillard was playing in the first half, I just was fussing at him a little bit to get him to go. ‘Just be aggressive.’ When he plays like that, we’re pretty hard to beat.”

The game was billed as a classic clash between one of the league’s most potent offenses and its stingiest defense. That wasn’t going so well for Indiana, giving up 50 points and 49 field-goal attempts in that first half. It was time for the Pacers’ offense to lighten the load a little.

Said West: “One thing I learned playing with CP [Chris Paul] for [six] years was, great scoring point guards don’t like to play defense. When you put pressure on them to guard, it takes a little something out of them on the offensive end.

“We found a crack in their armor where we attacked Lillard up top. George was doing a good job of putting pressure on them to guard him. When we got switches, he made plays.”

As first Aldridge, then Lillard got into foul trouble, Hill forced the issue. He went early in the clock, pushing before Portland’s defense could get set. And he went straight at Aldridge again and again, with the Blazers’ star having to balance his own aggressiveness in order to stay on the floor.

West had his own fires burning. “You could see the look in David West’s eyes all night,” Vogel said. “He put the whole team on his back.”

Both Pacers had signature plays late in the thriller: Hill’s came near the end of regulation, Indiana down 103-100, when he made himself available after Paul George’s 3-point attempt to tie bounced off. Hibbert chased down an offensive rebound and shoveled it to Hill, who coolly drained his 3-pointer from the left wing.

West found himself near the lane in overtime, in Portland’s backcourt, when Aldridge started to lose his balance. “I was just trying to hang around to see where he was going to throw it,” West said. Aldridge’s off-balance pass hit West right in the hands and he immediately dunked it for a 111-107 lead with 1:37 left.

Lillard wasn’t done – he hit a pair of cold-blooded shots from the arc – but his 38 points weren’t enough. Nor was Aldridge’s 11 over his final 28 minutes, compared to his 11 in 12 to start. Over the second half plus overtime, Hill and West outscored the two Portland All-Stars 48-25.

“Sometimes,” Vogel said, “the best defense is to go back at the guy.”

Going back at All-Stars brought out the best in Hill and West.


VIDEO: Hill erupts for 37 points against Portland

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Paul expected to return Sunday | Lillard looking forward to busy All-Star weekend | Pistons’ Cheeks, Bynum not talking to each other | Sixers’ Noel continues to progress

No. 1: Paul expected to return to lineup Sunday – The L.A. Clippers have held up pretty well since All-Star point guard Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury on Jan. 3, going 11-6 during that stretch. They’ll likely be happy come Sunday, though, as Paul is expected to be back in the starting lineup, writes Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

Point guard Chris Paul, who has been sidelined since Jan. 3 with a separated right shoulder, likely will return to the starting lineup Sunday when the Los Angeles Clippers play the Philadelphia 76ers.

Paul has been participating in contact drills and shootarounds, but the Clippers have not had a full practice in almost two weeks, preventing him from practicing with the team.

The Clippers canceled practice Thursday and are expected to sit Paul for Friday’s game against the Toronto Raptors. If Paul practices Saturday without any problems, he will play Sunday.

“He did some one-on-ones today at shootaround and looked pretty good, so I think he’s very close,” coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday. “I don’t think he’ll play Friday but he could play after that. He took contact today in one-on-ones, but it’s still not a 5-on-5.”


VIDEO:Doc Rivers talks about how Chris Paul is healing up and more

***

No. 2: Lillard embracing his busy All-Star weekend As of a week ago, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard locked up his first All-Star berth when he was named as a Western Conference reserve. Apparently, just playing in the NBA’s showcase event wasn’t enough for him as Lillard yesterday was announced as a participant in All-Star Saturday’s BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest and the Foot Locker 3-Point Shootout. In short, Lillard is going to be a busy guy in a week or so, but tells USA Today‘s Sam Amick he’s more than looking forward to a jam-packed couple of days in New Orleans.

“A lot of people don’t get the opportunity,” Lillard told USA TODAY Sports by phone.”So I just felt like it was something that had never been done, and I’m capable of doing all the things that need to be done in all the competitions, so I figured why not go out and be the first one to do everything and get that experience?”

As Lillard knows, though, there will be some who question his decision to take on so many tasks during this time that serves as a much-needed breather for most of his colleagues. And as is typically the case when it comes to Lillard, he’s not concerned with the critics.

“The skills competition takes two minutes on the court, the dunk contest maybe will be three or four minutes on the court, and three-point shooting is about two minutes,” said Lillard, whose Blazers (35-14) are the surprise team in the NBA this season. “And it’s not like the rookie-sophomore game is a real regular season game, so I mean I’m looking at maybe an hour total of actual activity with all five things. People think there’s more energy being exerted than there actually is. It’s really not that much when you think about the time that you actually spend doing it.”

Lillard said he’s looking forward to the three-point contest more than the rest.

“That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.

As for the dunk contest, he’s in the beginning stages of coming up with a creative way to compete with the likes of defending champion Terrence Ross (Toronto), Paul George (Indiana), John Wall (Washington), Ben McLemore (Sacramento) and Harrison Barnes (Golden State).

His personal favorites from years past were Dwight Howard’s 13-foot dunk in 2007 and James “Flight” White‘s flight crew jam from the most recent All-Star weekend.

“I like stuff like that,” Lillard said. “When there’s a story attached to it, I like all that…The dunk (contest) will be fun. I think there will be a lot of surprises. People don’t really know that I can dunk.”


VIDEO: Damian Lillard has had plenty of memorable dunks this season

***

No. 3: Tension rising between Pistons’ Cheeks, Bynum A near-complete overhaul of the on-court product in Detroit hasn’t gone how the Pistons’ brass has hoped it would this season. New coach Maurice Cheeks has had his struggles with frontcourt stars Josh Smith and Andre Drummond this season and now, he and veteran Detroit guard Will Bynum aren’t getting along. In Detroit’s blowout loss to Orlando on Wednesday, Bynum was pulled from an ugly loss to the Magic about midway through the second quarter. Bynum got into a heated argument with Cheeks and had to be pulled away from him by Chauncey Billups and Smith. Brendan Savage of MLive.com has more on the spat between player and coach:

After practice Thursday, Cheeks said he hadn’t spoken with Bynum about the incident – Cheeks also became testy when pressed about it – while Bynum said he wouldn’t initiate a conversation with Cheeks and didn’t think they’d speak.

“It was in the heat of the moment,” said Bynum, who was the last player off the practice floor. “I care. It’s hard for me to sit back and act like I don’t care because I do. All I’m really concerned with is winning. If I see something that’s not right, sometimes in the heat of the moment you kind of say something.

“I don’t regret it. I regret the fact that maybe I was a bit too passionate about it. But other than that, I don’t.”

Will Bynum approach Cheeks?

“Nope.”

Does he think they’ll speak?

“Nah.”

“We’re going to have disagreements,” Cheeks said. “You’re not always going to agree. That’s part of it. At times you’re going to have disagreements. That’s OK. They don’t agree with everything I say and I don’t agree with everything they say.

“That’s part of it.”

Bynum, in his sixth year with the Pistons, has come off the bench in 28 of the 31 games he’s played this season. Bynum started the first three games of the season when Brandon Jennings was sidelined with a fractured jaw and impacted wisdom tooth.

Cheeks admitted that – like many coaches – he’ll give his starters a little more leeway when they make mistakes.

“That’s been around a long time, been around for years,” Cheeks said. “Starters sometimes get a little bit more leeway than guys come off the bench. That’s the way it is.  I’m probably a little bit harder on guards and point guards than normal because I think they have a huge impact on the game.”

When the line of questioning went back to the incident with Bynum, Cheeks appeared a bit irritated and asked a reporter if he was defending Bynum.

“If I’m going to have a conversation with Will, if I have a problem with Will, he and I will probably have a conversation at some point,” Cheeks said. “I will say this again: Through my years – coaching, playing – starters usually have a bit more stretch. They do.

“That’s probably not going to change. That’s it. I don’t know any other way to say it.”

***

No. 4: Noel looks solid in drills for Sixers — The last we heard about Philadelphia 76ers rookie Nerlens Noel in mid-January, he was cleared by the team for some on-court work and could play in an actual NBA game in a few weeks from now. That timeline appears to be in tact as Noel was seen working out yesterday with Philadelphia’s assistant coaches and put on an impressive display of low-post moves, writes Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:

For nearly 30 minutes after the team’s practice yesterday, Nerlens Noel put on an impressive display of moves close to the basket under the guidance of assistant coaches Greg Foster and Billy Lange. The workout mostly consisted of baby hooks from each hand after quick moves across the lane. Noel also caught passes on the wing and made quick, one-dribble moves to the basket, mostly finishing with dunks where his head was close to the rim. His surgically repaired left knee seemed very sound for the workout and his excitement couldn’t be denied.

“You can see, even though it’s just sort of shadow boxing, you can’t help to see how quick he jumps, his athleticism, his length,” said coach Brett Brown. “It is exciting to just look out there and see what you project to be. He doesn’t appear to favor [the knee] at all. Things are going well. All those things that we have to get through in order to at some point get him on a court, are going well.”

Brown said that the next steps are to get Noel to play with others and, of course, against others. That’s when he will have to make unscripted cuts that will be the true test of how strong his knee is.


VIDEO: Sixers coach Brett Brown talks after the team’s Thursday practice

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carlos Boozer sat out the Bulls’ game against the Warriors because he hurt his calf muscle while warming up in the locker roomKemba Walker thinks the Bobcats deserve (and need) to be in the playoffs more than they need to be in the Draft lottery again … Former Knicks, Nets and Timberwolves star Stephon Marbury was ejected from his first game back in the Chinese Basketball Association for throwing a punch

ICYMI of the Night: Two blowout-ish games last night but that doesn’t mean we’ll deny Draymond Green his props for this nice dunk on Joakim Noah


VIDEO: Draymond Green finishes strong over the Bulls’ Joakim Noah