Posts Tagged ‘Raptors’

The Trade Deadline: Let’s Make A Deal?




VIDEO: Thunder guard Reggie Jackson gets it done on both ends

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The clock is ticking.

The trade deadline is near. It’s time for general managers and front office executives around the NBA to earn their money. Fix your team. Make it better. Pave the way for a brighter future by pulling the trigger on the deal, blockbuster or not, that creates the space for your franchise to go to the next level — whatever that level may be.

It’s easier said than done in most cases, mostly because a willing partner is needed to complete the trade dance. And everyone is out to fleece their potential partners in one way or another. Whether we see a blockbuster deal or not, we are guaranteed to see a flurry of activity by Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline.

A team’s wants and needs are two very different things. We’re focusing on what is needed here, which should coincide with what these teams want out of the trade deadline. Planning for the future is fine, but these deals are designed for immediate returns for (almost) all involved …

1. Reggie Jackson to the Bulls — Jimmy Butler to the Thunder 

The skinny: This is a nuts-and-bolts trade for both teams, one that doesn’t rise to the blockbuster ranks by any means. But this deal involving youngsters with extremely manageable salaries allows the Thunder and Bulls to shore up their key weaknesses. Jackson would be Derrick Rose insurance for the Bulls, a young point/combo guard who could be groomed to play alongside a healthy Rose whenever Rose returns. He’s acquitted himself well in Oklahoma City in Russell Westbrook‘s absence but will be reduced to a role player when Westbrook returns and assumes his position alongside Kevin Durant (which is expected to happen Thursday). Butler fits the Bulls rough-and-rugged mode perfectly, but if they are in rebuilding mode, he’s expendable. He offers the Thunder something they simply don’t have on the roster right now, and that’s a player capable of matching up with elite small forwards on defense. Imagine him in a Thunder uniform in The Finals going after LeBron James the way Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard did last year.

2. Rajon Rondo and Kris Humphries to the Pacers — Danny Granger and George Hill to the Celtics

The skinny: This is a risky move for a Pacers’ team that has rock-solid locker room chemistry and has played at a consistently high level without boasting an elite point guard. Hill, an IUPUI star, is a hometown guy and is widely regarded as one of the league’s most respected professionals. He’s a guy Pacers All-Stars Paul George, Roy Hibbert and team leader David West trust to run the show. But Rondo gives the Pacers the chance to add a game-changer at point guard, a guy who, come playoff time, has an edge in either the talent and/or championship-experience department with any other East point guard. The hang up, of course, is going to be Danny Ainge trying to do his usual and shake everything he can out of the Pacers’ pockets in the name of his rebuilding efforts. Granger and Hill are established players who could help facilitate any rebuilding plans for the more immediate future. Of course, Pacers boss Larry Bird doesn’t have to play ball. He doesn’t have to deal. He can go to battle in the playoffs with the roster as is, though there is a consensus among most observers that an upgrade at the point would give them a clear edge in matching up not only against the Miami Heat but any team that they could potentially face in The Finals, were they to reach that summit.

3. Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and Jason Smith to the Cavaliers — Austin Rivers, C.J. Miles and Anthony Morrow to the Warriors — Earl Clark and Dion Waiters to the Pelicans 

The skinny: Believe it or not, the Cavaliers are just three games out of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase as the post-All-Star break portion of the season kicks off. As Kyrie Irving showed us at the All-Star Game, he knows how to shine amongst other elite players on his team. Since he hasn’t had any suit up with him in Cleveland, Thursday’s deadline is acting general manager David Griffin‘s opportunity to upgrade the crew around Irving and see if the playoffs can become a reality. Barnes needs a fresh start somewhere, as a starter, and would be a great running mate for Irving and Luol Deng. Both Speights and Smith would provide much-needed big man depth. The Warriors get role players to help fill out their roster and Waiters, a HT fave whose talents have never shined in Cleveland the way they have when we’ve seen him during All-Star weekend or during his stints with USA Basketball, gets a fresh start of his own in New Orleans. He and Anthony Davis could help elevate the Pelicans to a playoff-level team in the future.


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving stole the show at All-Star Weekend

4. Omer Asik to the Hawks — Elton Brand, Gustavo Ayon, John Jenkins and a Draft pick to the Rockets

The skinny: This is certainly not the way Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is used to doing business. He’s used to fleecing much more from the opposing team’s executives (that mode of operation would explain the bevy of assets the Rockets have piled up the past few years). Brand and Ayon aren’t big names but when healthy, yet they have been surprisingly productive for the Hawks. That said, the Draft pick is the Rockets’ real prize … that and getting Asik out of town. And that’s where the needy Hawks swoop in and rescue their season — they had lost five straight heading into All-Star weekend. Asik helps stabilize the frontcourt rotation and joins All-Star Paul Millsap as the staples up front for a team that still has lofty aspirations for playoff positioning. Fellow All-Star center Al Horford is not walking through that door in Atlanta as his torn pectoral muscle will keep him out of action until well into the summer. Adding a physical presence like Asik at a relatively reasonable price makes a ton of sense for the Hawks right now. And the three of them together in the future is complicated, but certainly something Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer could tinker with and make work.

5. Emeka Okafor, Alex Len and Chris Singleton to the Grizzlies — Zach Randolph to the Wizards — Trevor Ariza, Jan Vesely and Eric Maynor to the Suns

The skinny: Randolph and Marcin Gortat balancing the frontcourt in Washington with All-Star point guard John Wall and sharpshooter Bradley Beal would be an interesting mix for a Wizards team that is definitely on the rise in the Eastern Conference. Just think of Randolph and Gortat as the Eastern Conference version of Randolph and Marc Gasol (Grit and Grind lite?). The Wizards have been an above-average team defensively, and now they’d add some serious toughness in Randolph. The Grizzlies need a building block for the future and would get that in Len, who was always viewed as a long-term project when the Suns selected him with the 5th pick in the 2013 Draft. The Suns are taking the opportunity to seize their surprising playoff moment in the Western conference with the aid of quality veterans in Ariza and Maynor and would also have a developmental prospect to work with in Vesely. There’s always a healthy dose of risk involved when you talk about trade deadline deals. And this one would come with plenty for all involved.


VIDEO: John Wall talks with the Game Time crew after shining on All-Star Saturday night

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 20


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant’s beautiful mind | Heat hunting for inspiration | Magic hit the floor to end skid | Dragic has to sustain his energy for Suns

No. 1: Durant’s got it between the ears, too — Seven straight games with 30 or more points from the greatest scorer in the game should surprise no one. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant can do 30 a night with his eyes closed. And when you are a scoring genius and think through the game the way Durant does, eyes opened or closed … it doesn’t matter. At least that’s the way Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained (sort of) to Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman after Durant and the Thunder dismantled the Sacramento Kings:

Durant hit his scoring average, needing only 15 shots (and 10 makes) to score 30 points for a seventh straight game.

But his nine assists — the most he’s recorded in the last 25 games — was a more encouraging and revealing sign of the Thunder’s impressive night.

“I just love the way he thinks,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said of Durant. “He thinks about the team … He took 15 great shots and made 10 of them. Everybody else got involved and had an opportunity to score.”

The biggest benefactor was Serge Ibaka, who scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting. But he wasn’t the only one.

For the first time this season, OKC had six players in double-figures: Durant, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson (16), Thabo Sefolosha (10), Jeremy Lamb (10) and Nick Collison (10).

“When we move the ball like that,” Durant said of the Thunder’s 23 assists, “everybody touching it, that helps our defense as well.”

And so it did on Sunday night, allowing OKC to stifle every King not named Isaiah Thomas (a career-high 38 points), holding Sacramento under 100 points for only the third time in its last 16 games.

“They, for years, do a great job of turning you over,” Kings coach Mike Malone said, pointing to his team’s 20 giveaways. “But more importantly, (they) convert them.”


VIDEO: Check out Kevin Durant’s seventh straight 30-point outing for the Thunder

***

No. 2: What’s Miami’s motivation at this point of the season? — The two-time defending champion Miami Heat have a problem. They cannot seem to locate the proper motivation at this stage of a regular season that they know means little if they don’t finish it off with another parade. They have the luxury of not being pressed about finding it immediately, courtesy of a weak Eastern Conference playoff field that includes just the Indiana Pacers and Heat at the top. But, as Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald points out, they still have to find something to motivate them, some sort of rallying cry for the second half of the regular season:

Last February, the Heat watched the Super Bowl in Toronto, listened to Shane Battier give a theatrically hilarious, yet poignant speech on the team bus, and then won 27 games in a row. The streak was such an important part of the Heat’s season that the team’s ownership inscribed the accomplishment on the championship rings.

Players have called that day in Toronto one of the most memorable of their careers, and Sunday in Atlanta was a similar experience.

Of course, up until now, little has been memorable about this season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the Heat is 29-11 through the first 40 games of the season. Last season, before the streak, the team was 28-12 at this point, and on the way to 28-13.

On Monday, the Heat plays the grand finale of an unconventional six-game road trip that has dragged on for 11 days. Miami has played five consecutive games against teams with losing records and will end the road trip against the Hawks (20-19), who have the fourth-best record in the East, but are without their best player, forward Al Horford, for the remainder of the season.

The Heat’s overtime victory against the Bobcats on Saturday salvaged the six-game swing, which began with back-to-back losses to the Knicks and Nets, and gave Miami a chance to break even on a road trip that began with three consecutive losses.

“We haven’t lost three in a row in a very long time, so we got to put together a run and head into this All-Star break and this is the way to do it,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who had 10 rebounds against the Bobcats. “You look at the two teams that we’ve beaten, they’re young, they’re energetic, and even though their record doesn’t say so, those are the teams we struggle with, the teams that are .500 and below, so for us to come out here and be professional and get this win says a lot.”

Of the Heat’s 11 losses, nine have been to teams currently with losing records. The Bobcats were in position to become the 10th team on that inglorious list, but a staunch defensive effort by the Heat forced overtime, and the Heat dominated the extra period for a 104-96 victory.

“We were really upset with ourselves and we had to be honest,” Chris Bosh said of the Heat’s first-half effort against the Bobcats. “Charlotte is a good team, but 60 points in a half is too much. I don’t care if you’re playing the best offensive team in the league, that’s too much.

“They just seemed to be scoring at will, and we wanted to change that. We didn’t do a very good job of defending in the first half, but we picked it up in the second and got the win.”


VIDEO: The top five plays from Sunday’s action around the NBA

***

No. 3: Magic hit the floor to end their skid — When you are mired in a complete free-fall, any solution to get out of that mess needs to be considered. For the Orlando Magic, a team that endured a 10-game slide before ending it with a win over Boston Sunday, elbow and knee pads were the solution. Actually, they didn’t sport the elbow and knee pads, but they could have used them with the way they hit the deck repeatedly against the Celtics, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

After their losing streak reached 10 games, Orlando Magic players and coaches realized something fundamental needed to change. Not X’s-and-O’s, but something intangible.

Players and coaches talked together when they gathered for practice Saturday.

Whatever they had been doing during the first half of the season, and especially during their 10 consecutive losses, wasn’t working. They faced a choice: Either they would make a change and modify their collective spirit, or the second half of their season would devolve into a freefall of epic proportions.

They made that adjustment Sunday night. Magic players repeatedly dove to Amway Center’s parquet floor to collect loose basketballs. They covered for each other when they made defensive lapses. And that sustained intensity and improved cohesion, they said, played a direct role as they beat the Boston Celtics 93-91 and ended their losing streak.

“I could feel no personal agendas,” Arron Afflalo said after the win. “I could feel nothing but five guys who were on the court and the two guys who came off the bench really looking for a way to get a victory tonight.”

Afflalo scored 20 points, tied a career high by grabbing 13 rebounds and dished out six assists.

He also provided one of the game’s key baskets, tying the score 89-89 on a driving layup with 1:08 remaining.

After Rajon Rondo missed a jumper on Boston’s ensuing possession, Jameer Nelson drew a foul with 35.3 seconds left and hit a pair of free throws.

Boston’s Jeff Green countered a few seconds later, scoring on a layup as Afflalo fouled him. But Green missed the foul shot, and Victor Oladipo fell to the floor to corral the loose ball.

“When you have a mindset of just playing hard from the jump, you just continue to play hard,” Oladipo said. “When your teammates have your back, when they’re positive throughout the game, it’s hard not to be involved and it’s hard not to be focused and locked-in all night.”

***

No. 4: No slowing down for Dragic without Bledsoe — Goran Dragic doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down at the catalyst for the Phoenix Suns, not without Eric Bledsoe healthy and in the lineup. That means the veteran point guard has to keep his motor cranked constantly for a Suns team trying to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff chase. Dragic’s ability to sustain his high level of energy could very well be the key to the Suns’ season. He has to hold up. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic explains:

It is becoming taxing for Suns point guard Goran Dragic to take on more playmaking and more of the burden to score with more defensive attention on him. All the while, he is guarding the playmaker on the other side, a duty that usually fell to Bledsoe.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Dragic said. “If I’m going to think about how I’m tired, then it’s going to be even worse for me. I just try to battle. I try to be positive. I’m from Slovenia so back home it’s no excuse if you’re tired. Even when I was growing up, my father always said there’s going to be some hard days so you have to go through that. You can sleep after the thing that you do, if it’s work or a basketball game. Now, I’m feeling tired. But when the game is going on, I’m not thinking about it so much.”

Dragic had averaged 41.3 minutes over the previous three games entering Sunday night’s game against Denver. He does not back off his effort and now has a collapsing defense concentrating on him too.

“That’s always a concern, trying to keep an eye on a guy’s minutes and seeing if he’s getting worn out,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We’ve had a pretty tough stretch of games where they haven’t had a lot of rest. When we’ve had days off between games, we’ve limited them from really doing anything trying to get their legs back. As we move forward, it doesn’t get any easier but we’ve got to get through that time.”

Dragic gave the Suns control Sunday night with 15 rebounds and six assists and he got some needed rest in return, logging only 24 minutes.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are there rotation changes coming in Denver? Could be … Jonas Valanciunas gets benched for not producing … The Bucks get yet another lesson, this time from the best in the business … Danny Ainge assess all things for the Celtics at the halfway mark of the season … LaMarcus Aldridge will go left if need be for the Trail Blazers

ICYMI(s) of The Night: DeMar DeRozan has blossomed into a potential All-Star and the scoring leader for the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors. But he’s still one of the league’s elite above-the-rim finishers, as he shows here:


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan is what we call a finisher, especially above the rim

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

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

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Report: Gay Traded To Kings In 7-Player Deal


VIDEO: Raptors deal Rudy Gay as part of a seven-player swap

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Kings made a risky reach for immediate credibility and agreed to acquire Rudy Gay, his bloated contract and his ever-declining shooting from the Raptors in a seven-player deal Sunday that is mostly a salary dump for Toronto.

The Raptors will get Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, with only Hayes ($5.9 million) and Salmons (a $1-million buyout on his $7 million guaranteed) on the books next season. Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy are also headed to Sacramento as the new management team continues to follow through on plans to aggressively pursue deals, so aggressive that the Kings just countered two moves made in the five months since Pete D’Alessandro was hired as general manager.

The Kings got Vasquez from New Orleans as part of the three-team deal that sent Tyreke Evans to the Pelicans in a sign-and-trade, started him at point guard, and now traded him 18 games into the season, returning Isaiah Thomas to the opening lineup. And, the Kings traded for Derrick Williams on Nov. 26, said they were committed to him as the starter at small forward, and now bring in Gay four games later, unless they have another immediate deal in place for Gay.

Gay is a name, has an active run of six consecutive full seasons of averaging at least 18 points a game and, whether with Williams or in place of Williams, addresses what had been the biggest position need for the Kings. But it says something that he has been traded twice in 10 1/2 months, including when the Grizzlies were willing to break up a lineup with a proven history of long playoff runs and now by a Toronto team trying to build something.

Gay will make $17.8 million this season and has a player option worth $19.3 million for 2104-15 that he almost certainly will exercise. After mostly shooting between 45 percent and 47 percent earlier in his career, though, the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder dropped to 41.6 percent last season with the Grizzlies and Raptors and is all the way down to 38.8 the first 18 games of 2013-14.

The deal will not become official until a trade call with the league on Monday, but Gay, Acy and Gray were all out of uniform Sunday night as the Raptors played the Lakers in Los Angeles, indicating the terms of the move that could save Toronto some $12 million next season were set.

BWB Africa: Fulfilling The Dreams

Basketball Without Borders Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Leftovers Make A Free-Agent Dish?

HANG TIME, Texas – OK, let’s say it’s the middle of August, we just won the entire Powerball lottery and, in a grand farewell gesture, outgoing commissioner David Stern says he’ll let us buy a new NBA franchise.

We can play our home games on Maui or Mars. We can have our team wear those tight-fitting jerseys with sleeves, just like the Golden State Warriors or even sprint up and down the court wearing Capri pants, if we choose.

There’s just one catch. The only players available to fill out our roster are those still dangling on the list of unsigned free agents. Now that Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala, Andrei Kirilenko and even Greg Oden are long gone, is it too late to put together a respectable team? Or even one that could outperform the infamous 9-73 record of the 1972-73 Sixers or the 7-59 mark of the 2011-12 Bobcats?

So for all those last-minute bargain hunters who don’t start their holiday shopping until Christmas Eve, here are the Leftovers:

Antawn Jamison, Forward – The 37-year-old veteran is coming out of the lost season with the Lakers where he played 21.5 minutes per game and showed that he can still shoot enough from the wings to score in double figures. After 15 years in the league, he’s still a reliable enough producer and ranks higher in efficiency rating than even two regular members of the starting lineup for the two-time champion Heat (Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier). The Leftovers will have to put points on the board somehow.

Lamar Odom, Forward – You’ve got to have faith that Odom hasn’t simply lost the spark and lost interest after his past two dismal years. Following the horrible flameout in Dallas, last season was supposed to be a shot at redemption as a key role player and solid influence in the locker room with the Clippers. Odom was particularly ineffective in the first-round playoff loss to Memphis. The birth certificate says he won’t turn 34 until the start of next season, but the odometer has racked up more miles than an old pickup truck. The Leftovers will keep believing that you don’t simply forget how to pass, rebound and do the little things and give Odom another chance.

Cole Aldrich, Center – After being taken with the 11th pick by New Orleans in 2010 and traded to OKC on draft night, Aldrich has never been able to establish himself as anything more than a space eater at the end of the bench for the Thunder, Rockets and most recently the Kings. Aldrich finally got onto the floor for 15 games in Sacramento at the end of last season and pulled down a respectable four rebounds in 11 minutes of playing time per night. He’s the epitome of the old adage: “You can’t teach height.” That’s why he’ll keep getting chances and the Leftovers are hoping that this is the one that will pay off.

Mikael Pietrus, Guard – We’re going to plug the swingman into our lineup in the backcourt and hope to ride that streaky outside shooting and penchant for playing in-your-face defense for production at both ends of the court. He played just 19 games last season with the Raptors before tendinitis in his knee forced him to the sidelines for good in the middle of March. But he’s too young (31), too athletic, too active, too disruptive on defense and potentially still too good not to have him on our side.

Sebastian Telfair, Guard – In a league where it has become increasingly critical to have an elite level point guard running the offense, you don’t simply find them in the discount bin. There’s a reason why the Clippers have gone from pretender to contender and his name is Chris Paul. From a free agent list that ranges from 35-year-old Jamaal Tinsley to 25-year-old Rodrigue Beaubois, we’ll split the difference and take the 28-year-old Telfair. He’s never lived up to the advance hype because though he’s quick and small, he can’t finish at the rim and has only recently become dependable as a mid-range shooter. His size hurts on defense, but he puts out the effort and when you’re a Leftover that’s good enough.

Summer Dreaming: Most Improved Player

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HANG TIME, Texas — Fire up the grill. Ice down those frosty cold beers. Nothing says summer like a backyard barbecue.

Or sitting out in the hot sun daydreaming.

Sure, the NBA schedule comes out in a few days. Sure, the season openers are less than three months away. But why stop there? Let’s continue to wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my handful of picks for Most Improved Player and you can chime in below.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs Doesn’t everybody already know about the many splendored talents of the guy with Charles Barkley’s favorite name after he played a key role in the Spurs’ run to The Finals last last season? Of course, Leonard drew the toughest defensive assignment though every round of the playoffs, doing a creditable job on LeBron James. There were also nights when he had bust-out games on offense. But the feeling here is that Leonard has only scratched the surfaced of what he can do. It’s no longer a stretch to think he could live up to coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” prediction. As the years keep piling up and the minutes keep getting restricted on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, The Quiet One is going to get every chance to make big noise as he shoulders more of the burden. He could take the leap that last year’s winner Paul George did for the Pacers.

Harrison Barnes, Warriors Before he conked his head on the floor and eventually had to leave Game 6 of the West semifinals, Barnes was doing all that he could to force a Game 7 in the series with the Spurs. A member of the All-Rookie first team, he averaged 9.7 ppg and 4.1 rpg in just 25.4 mpg. When coach Mark Jackson went to him more and more in the playoffs, Barnes showed more and more of the things he can do. He got to the basket. He drained 3-pointers. In other words, as the games got bigger, he showed why Golden State made him the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft. With Andre Iguodala around to run the floor and get plenty of attention from opposing defenses, the opportunity will be there for Barnes to take that big step up.

Jonas Valanciunas, RaptorsAfter being named MVP in the Las Vegas Summer League, there are lot of folks on both sides of the border who are expecting the young Raptors’ big man to take off this season, especially now that he doesn’t give up minutes to Andrea Bargnani. He’s done work building up the upper half of his slim body without seeming to have surrendered quickness. His rookie numbers of 8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 mpg showed that there’s room for growth with increased playing time, particularly on offense for a player who makes smart decisions and doesn’t force shots. But the Raptors will have to make an effort to get him to the ball. He gets to the foul line, trailing only Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Barnes among last year’s rookies in free throw attempts. As long as he keeps building up his bulk and strength, he can be a solid rim protector on defense. There is every reason to believe he can be the guy that Toronto spent the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft on and then waited for year to get him to join the NBA. If not this season, then the next.

Eric Bledsoe, Suns There were a lot of places where Bledsoe could have wound up that would seem to make more sense than Phoenix. The Suns already have Goran Dragic at the point. But rookie coach Jeff Hornacek will likely play them in tandem and Bledsoe’s got the chops to play at the ‘2’ and use his defensive prowess to get steal and create transition chances and easy buckets for the offense. He’s been champing at the bit to get out from under Chris Paul’s shadow with the Clippers and if he can rein in a tendency to get a bit wild with his shot selection, Bledsoe could put up some nice numbers for a Suns team that will be thirsting for offense.

Jeremy Lamb, Thunder He moves around the court and makes every thing look so slow and easy that half the time you want to check to make sure that those sleepy-looking eyes are really open. He didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, doing a constant shuttle between OKC and Tulsa in the NBA D-League to get game experience. He scored big and played well at the Orlando Summer League and now with the departure of Kevin Martin, the door is wide open for the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft to come in and knock down all those wide open shots that are created by playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If those eyes are wide awake, Lamb could see his way to some very big things on the championship contender.

PREVIOUSLY: Sixth Man of Year | Defensive Player of YearRookie Of Year

Thunder Are Still Playing The Lottery

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In their strangest of times, the response begins in the strangest of places.

The Thunder, absent from the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2010 while contemplating what could have been if not for the Russell Westbrook knee injury, are in the lottery again — a land they appeared to have left behind.

James Harden got traded, Westbrook got hurt, Oklahoma City got beat in five games in the semifinals and, now, the Thunder will be picking 12th on June 27. Of all the developments that would have been difficult to imagine nine months ago, this is the one they welcome.

2013 NBA DraftOr sort of welcome. The ideal OKC outcome would have been for the Raptors to land in the top three on lottery night. Toronto would have kept this pick and had the choice set to be conveyed to the Thunder carried over to 2014 in what is shaping up as a much better Draft. But Toronto held at 12, the protection became irrelevant, and the Thunder would have to be satisfied by having one of the best teams in the league and still being able to add a late lottery pick.

No. 12, part of OKC’s three picks in the first 32, is still a good spot to address needs (or at least uncertainties) with Westbrook coming off a knee injury and Kevin Martin heading into free agency. OKC is in the right range for Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk if it wants an offensive-oriented big man to offset Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, or inexperienced German point guard Dennis Schroeder to develop behind Westbrook. They could also nab scoring guards C.J. McCollum from Lehigh or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Georgia in case Martin prices himself out of a return. (The NBA.com mock draft has Olynyk going to Loud City.)

The Thunder liked the fit with Martin accepting a reserve role, making his spot next season more a financial issue more than anything. They’re encouraged by what 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb did in the NBA D-League, so going shooting guard when they will have at least one backup returning seems unlikely. Bad Draft or not, OKC has options with picks, prospects and veterans, along with a history of an aggressive approach. GM Sam Presti with options and in win-now mode is potential trouble for the rest of the league.

The pick started in Toronto, went to Houston in the Kyle Lowry trade of July 2012 and then from the Rockets to the Thunder in the October 2012 Harden blockbuster. When the Raptors did not beat long odds in the lottery to finish in the top three, the choice was handed over to Oklahoma City.

“I think it’s somewhat hypothetical because the draft is so much more art than science,” Presti said of the bad break of getting the pick a year before it likely increases in value. “But our organization, we’ve always looked at the draft as another opportunity to find a way to improve, whether it’s marginal or on a bigger scale, and we’ll try to look at every opportunity available to us at that time.”

Especially in their organization. Presti made a hard call on Westbrook, with a limited body of work at point guard, at No. 4 in 2008 and got a huge payout. The same night, he gambled again at 24 with Ibaka and it paid off. A year later, he nailed the Draft again by taking Harden third.

This year, the Thunder also have their own pick, No. 29, and also No. 32, a choice that started in Charlotte.