Posts Tagged ‘Raptors’

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.

Pop The Rock Rolls Up On Win No. 900

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HANG TIME, Texas – It’s no wonder most NBA coaches are constantly moving on the sidelines. Theirs is a peripatetic lifestyle, usually with one hand gripping a suitcase and one foot out the door.

Among many other things about his worldly background and his puckish personality, it is his stability that makes Gregg Popovich unique.

With a win tonight at home against the Jazz (8:30 ET, League Pass), Popovich will become the 12th coach in NBA history to win 900 career games, but will be the first to claim each and every victory with a single team.

Over the past 17 seasons, the Spurs have been Pop as much as much as they have been David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the other 130 players who have worn the silver and black uniform.

In a league that is teeming with exceptional coaches — Denver’s George Karl, Boston’s Doc Rivers, Minnesota’s Rick Adelman, Memphis’ Lionel Hollins, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra – Popovich stands a step apart and above.

He is always the first and usually the last to tell you that it’s all about the players, but to a man, they will tell you he is the one whom they are all about in the way the prepare, work and attack every game and play.

When he sat at a makeshift table for a news conference last spring when he was named Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, Popovich’s face turned different shades of red. But it wasn’t for the usual reasons of screaming at a referee or boiling at another question from a reporter. He was, in short, embarrassed with the attention.

Pop’s Way. That’s what they call it around the executive offices and on the practice floor and in the locker room.

“It’s about us, not me,” he said, sheepish from the attention.

But year after year, season after season, it has been about him getting the most out of his team by being willing to change the pace of play — from slogging, powerful inside ball to Duncan to a microwave fastbreak that is sparked by Parker — but never his principles or his own personal style.

He just wears suits, doesn’t model them.

“They’re not Italian,” he told an inquiring mind years ago.

He doesn’t do TV commercials or endorsements.

“I refuse,” he said another time. “I’d rather spend time in other ways.”

Pat Riley, the Hall of Fame coach and stylist, once said the Spurs are “the most emotionally stable team in the league.”

That’s because it is a team in Popovich’s image. He picks the players, he builds the team, he molds them and has constructed a franchise that has always eschewed endearing to be enduring. It’s all added up to the best record in the Western Conference again, an NBA record 14 consecutive 50-win seasons, 16th straight trips to the playoffs and puts him on the doorstep of history, all in one place.

After 900 wins, Pop won’t be going anywhere but straight ahead. (more…)

When Is Enough Ever Enough?


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HANG TIME, Texas – What better occasion than Super Bowl Sunday, our annual genuflection to wretched excess, to ask: When is enough enough?

Along about the time when the Knicks were tap-dancing on the chalk outline of all that was left of the Kings on Saturday night, the venerable Kurt Thomas rose up to launch one more 3-point shot.

Does the fact that Thomas, at 40, is the oldest player in the NBA, get him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps his failing eyesight couldn’t see the Madison Square Garden scoreboard that showed his team ahead by the fairly comfortable margin of 110-60?

What of the Knicks piling onto Sacramento with a whopping total of 43 shots from behind the arc on the night, J.R. Smith swinging his arms like a runaway windmill after nailing one, Carmelo Anthony and Steve Novak firing imaginary guns after hitting their targets?

“I’m not trying to rub this in,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “When it’s time to go to the bench, I do that. I’ve been on the other end of it in my career.”

Five nights earlier in Salt Lake City, the Rockets put the finishing touches on the worst home beating in the history of the Jazz, 125-80, by shooting 8-for-13 on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

“They didn’t let up one bit,” Utah forward Paul Millsap told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But believe me when I say we will see them again and, hopefully, it will be the other way around.”

Interestingly enough, on Friday night in Toronto, in the final seconds of a 98-73 thumping, it was the Clippers Caron Butler that raised eyebrows around the league. As the Raptors Jonas Valanciunas was dribbling out the clock, Butler approached and made like he was extending his arm in a handshake. When Valanciunas let down his guard, Butler then reached out to swipe the ball and tried to run off to score before he was fouled.

So what are the unwritten and unspoken rules of etiquette in these situations? Is there anything that says any one of these players did anything unsportsmanlike or unethical?

Remember, this was not teenager Danny Heater of West Virginia pouring it on with 135 points against an overmatched team of high schoolers. The Kings and Jazz and Raptors are all highly-paid pros. And, of course, the Raptors won the game.

“Is the clock still ticking? Are the lights still on? Is the game still being played?” asked Matt Bonner, the Spurs reserve who has had more than his share of experience in late-game situations.

“What you’re always taught is to keep playing hard and to always protect yourself any time you’re on the court. You can’t suddenly tell guys who are in at the end of the game to stop competing.”

To his credit, Kings coach Keith Smart told Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News that he did not mind the celebrating.

“I don’t feel that way,” the Sacramento coach said. “We’re all big boys. Guys don’t get a chance to play much, they want to shoot and keep playing. You can’t tell them not to shoot. Take your lumps and move on.”

In late-game situations, while the victims just want to hurry and get off the court, there can be other players getting a chance to shine.

“Look, there have been times when I haven’t played much all night and then we’ve got a big lead and Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) might send a bunch of us out there for the last seven or eight minutes,” Bonner said.

“Hey, I want to play. I want to do well. This is my chance. Pop might tell us no fastbreaks or something like that, but he still wants us to run our offense the right way, to play the game and take the shots.”

It is understandable. The reserves only move up in the rotation when they show what they can do. As Smart said, they’re all big boys and if you don’t like it, well, you could go out and defend all those 3s?

So then, how does anyone come up with a reasonable explanation for Butler’s rope-a-dope on Valanciunas?

Bonner shrugged, “Play till you hear the horn.”

When enough is officially enough.

Dwight’s Bail Leads To Lakers Fail


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HANG TIME, Texas – The Lakers open a critical three-game road trip in Toronto and Dwight Howard plays 17 minutes.

That’s one for every year of his maturity.

If it wasn’t finally evident with last season’s antics in Orlando that the 7-footer is more senior prom than senior lead of a real contender, then he offered up the latest proof.

Howard made one field goal, scored five points and grabbed two rebounds before he was ejected with 1:18 left in the second quarter when he and the Raptors’ Alan Anderson were hit with a double technical.

Dwight the Innocent walked away with his palms outstretched, wondering what in the world he had done to deserve this, much like the teenager caught smoking in the boys’ bathroom.

“They didn’t explain,” Howard said when asked why he picked up the second technical foul. “I didn’t do anything to get ejected.”

Howard’s teammates were quick to come to his defense.

“What’s a player supposed to do when a guy, he’s confronted, trying to walk back up the court?” Kobe Bryant said to ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin. “An official told me, ‘Well, he should just walk away.’ I said, ‘Which direction should he (walk)?’ Should he turn around and just walk to the bench? He’s walking down to the other end of the court, to get back on defense. There’s nothing he can do. A guy steps up to him, puts a forearm in his chest, what’s he supposed to do? You say one thing, now it’s a double technical. Now, I just don’t agree with that.”

What is harder and harder for a lot of us to agree with is the notion that at 27 Howard is ever going to change his stripes from being talented big man and a good-time frontrunner. When all is going well, he leads the cheers and cracks the jokes. When there is the slightest hint of difficulty, he simply cracks.

We won’t get into a frame-by-frame analysis of the video replays that just might show Howard delivering a hefty shove in the back to Anderson as they come off the lane following a Metta World Peace elbow. That second technical could be debatable and perhaps the Lakers will even get it wiped off Howard’s record with an appeal to the league.

But Howard earned himself the first technical first quarter when he went too far whining to referee Ken Mauer following a missed layup.

If the Lakers aren’t already deader than disco, then they embarked on this three-game mini-trip as their latest self-proclaimed springboard back from zombie land. Each loss is not just another on the wrong side of the ledger, but knocks another day off a shrinking calendar. Now the Lakers must win at Chicago on the end of a back-to-back Monday or squeeze out a victory in the Memphis Grind House just to avoid another losing road trip.

The Lakers need Howard on the court and he needs to do whatever it takes to stay out there — keeping his composure, knowing when to back off from complaining and not putting himself into a position where a questionable double-technical might send him to the showers.

But that would require Howard to accept the burden that comes from being a franchise foundation and accept reality, hardly his strengths.

Earlier in the week Howard proclaimed, “When we play the way we played the last two games, I don’t see anybody beating us.”

That was following back-to-back home wins over the Cavs and Bucks. Sheesh.

The voting may show that Howard is once again a starter in the NBA All-Star Game next month, but that says more about the cache and star appeal of the Lakers than his own play. He has numbers, yes. But he also has a free throw percentage that would embarrass blindfolded shooters and has rarely looked dominant.

Blame it on coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Blame it on the referees. Blame it on global climate change.

Just don’t dare blame it on Howard. He can’t take the increasing heat.