HANG TIME SOUTHWEST –Greivis Vasquez deserves a raise — which he’ll get in due time — or the key to the city or, heck, just make him mayor of New Orleans.
The city, and its beleaguered basketball team, couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than the Venezuelan-born point guard who’s leaving his heart and sweat on the floor every night as he emerges as a top talent in the league.
“The biggest thing is I’m getting an opportunity,” said Vasquez, a recent player of the week recipient. “Still, people don’t know about me as much because I’m playing in a small market, which I love. I love this city, I love this team.”
Pretty refreshing stuff from a third-year player just starting to hit his stride for a franchise that’s endured it’s share of hard knocks in recent years — including a hard-luck 7-25 start to this season.
Because the ridiculously youthful Hornets finally got game-changer and now-healthy shooting guard Eric Gordon in the starting lineup Saturday. It allowed coach Monty Williams to make other changes and roll out the starting five he envisioned.
And this is where Vasquez’s ambassadorial value comes shining through. A 6-foot-6, bearded jolt of energy, smiles, enthusiasm and positivity, his team-first attitude is absolutely contagious. It’s critical to the evolution of this franchise, and no more so than as it relates to Gordon, the 6-foot-3 scoring machine deemed the future of the franchise when New Orleans acquired him in the painful CP3 trade 13 months ago.
“I have a good relationship with Eric and I tell you this, we have been talking a lot,” Vasquez said before Saturday’s comeback victory. “Eric is a pro. I feel him as a player too, because his knee was really bothering him. But now he feels like his teammates got his back, we all got his back. We all know he’s going to make us better and we’re going to make him better. And now, we talked [Friday] night, we’re going to make this situation a great situation. We’re going to start winning games.
“For a guy like that to say that to a guy like me, that means a lot. I’m sure he’s saying that on behalf of the whole team because we’re winners, we want to win and we work. And that has been the main thing of our team, we’re going to work regardless. Whether we lose or win tomorrow we are getting better because our vision is in the future.” (more…)
DALLAS – As far as the New Orleans Hornets are concerned, the season started Saturday night, Jan. 5, with a 99-96 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
“It kind of is,” said Hornets guard Eric Gordon after his first start of the season and after he scored eight of his 14 points — and the Hornets’ final eight points — in the OT. “We’re still a little bit banged up health-wise and we’re still trying to get there, but I would say this is the type of win that kind of does something for us.”
Hey, 1-0 looks a whole lot better than the 8-and-20-whatever that the official standings will have you believe. But forget the standings when it comes to this scrappy, intruiging group of young kids trying to make it work in NOLA. Even before Saturday night’s big road win, as players dressed and stretched in the visiting locker room, a freshness and exuberance could be sensed.
For one, the 6-foot-3 Gordon was returning to the lineup for just his third game and his first start of the season. He was given the previous game off to rest after playing two games in his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury that followed him to New Orleans from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Chris Paul trade.
And whatever happened with Gordon after the trade, his lingering injury and his Phoenix-or-bust ambitions during the offseason mean nothing now to his growing teammates.
Second, Hornets coach Monty Williams, for the first time this season, trotted out the starting five he envisioned from the start: Emerging point guard sensation Greivis Vasquez, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Robin Lopez and No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. That quintet’s average age is 22.8 and allows Williams to utilize the 20-year-old Austin Rivers from his rightful spot off the bench.
Vasquez, remarkably the old man of the group in just his third season at age 25, and the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, could barely control his enthusiasm to finally start — and finish — a game next to Gordon, a man of considerable scoring ability.
“What Eric is going to bring to the table is we have been in games without him and now he can close those games out for us,” Vasquez said prior to the game. “He can be our closer. That’s what he does for us.”
Cue the Gordon highlight reel.
After struggling through a rocky shooting night, Gordon rode the coattails of Vasquez’s monster, 15-point fourth quarter that rallied the Hornets to an 89-89 tie after regulation. The underrated Vasquez, stuffing the stat sheet again with 25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and a lone turnover in 41 minutes, had a chance to win in it regulation, but a screen failed to set him free and he never got a clean look as the clock expired.
“He’s for sure underrated and he’s going to be a big-time playmaker,” Gordon said. “He’s definitely underrated and he’s just getting better and better with every game.”
Gordon, unfazed by a 1-for-9 shooting night in regulation, turned the final 1:49 into a clinic of late-game execution. His driving layup cut Dallas’ lead to 94-93. Then he drained a 3-pointer to put the Hornets up 96-94 with 1:18 to go. Mavs forward Shawn Marion tied it at 96-96.
After missing a 3-pointer for the lead with 39.9 seconds to go, Gordon got a reprieve when O.J. Mayo, cold all night, missed a pull-up jumper (plus two earlier open corner 3s in overtime). Gordon went to work on undersized Mavs point guard Darren Collison.
Gordon pump-faked at the top of the circle and Collison bit. Gordon leaned forward, drew contact and heaved a shot that hit the backboard square and dropped in with 4.7 seconds to play. He completed the 3-point play to close it out just as Vasquez envisioned.
“Our record really doesn’t identify who we are,” Vasquez said. “We have been in games and because our inexperience really gets to us, teams have been able to beat us the last two minutes of the game. But it is a learning process. I tell you, we have this vision that we are going to be a great team, and that takes some time. In the NBA, it’s too cruel, it’s cold-blooded. You’ve got to understand that you have to have really a strong mindset because it’s not going to be easy. We’re going through that.”
And on this night they persevered when they could have folded multiple times. After leading 25-19, Dallas bridged the first and second quarters with a 13-0 run. The Mavs led by 11 in the third quarter and with Dirk Nowitzki having made his debut in the starting lineup in his seventh game back, they looked to be salting away a game they desperately needed before embarking on a three-game road trip.
But Nowitzki, who finished with 20 points, would be held to three points on 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Instead it was Vasquez and the 24-year-old Gordon taking charge.
Asked before the game what he hoped to get from his first-time starting five, Williams, the Hornets’ impressive 41-year-old coach said, “Wins.”
He got one. More importantly his young, clawing team finally got rewarded for their effort and got a glimpse for once of what a closer looks like on their own squad. For the first time in the 20th game this season that New Orleans trailed after three quarters, they pulled one out.
“Eric is a player that most people on the East Coast and even here don’t get to see because the Clippers didn’t play on TV as much, or at all when he was there,” Williams said. “But he’s a guy that can score the ball. He can shoot 3s, he can attack the basket, he can get to the free-throw line.”
Gordon did all three in the final 1:49 Saturday night, the first night of the rest of the Hornets’ season.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – They couldn’t even get through a full week of training camp in Los Angeles before the dueling big men of the Lakers’ past and present got cranked up again.
This time it’s current Lakers center Dwight Howard firing back at former Lakers center (and current TNT analyst) Shaquille O’Neal for his seemingly never-ending assault on Howard’s game and name.
The latest dust-up stems from words Shaq uttered on “Open Court” (clip above, debut episode airs Tuesday at 11 p.m. ET on NBA TV), when he ranked Brook Lopez and Andrew Bynum over Howard when the conversation turned to the best big men in the game.
“We as players, we always watch people before us,” O’Neal said. “When I came in, it was Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, guys who played like true centers who played inside. What we have now are centers that are going to the European style, which is a lot of pick-and-roll. Dwight Howard, who’s a pick-and-roll player, some people say he’s the best center in the league, but me being an old-school center, I’m going to go with Robin Lopez and Andrew Bynum because they play with their back to the basket.”
Shaq was later corrected by other members on the “Open Court” panel for mistaking Hornets center Robin Lopez for his twin brother on the Nets. But the damage was already done.
By the time the information was relayed to Howard after the Lakers finished practice Thursday, well … as you might expect, it wasn’t pretty.
HANG TIME, Texas – You can never say that Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn lets the grass grow under his feet. If he delivers on the rumor of sending Wesley Johnson to Phoenix as part of a three-team trade that also includes New Orleans, he’ll have dealt away five first-round picks in just two years.
More important, he could bounce back after losing out on the offer sheet to Nicolas Batum by bringing forward Andrei Kirilenko back to the NBA from Russia.
According to the relentless Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, there would be a sign-and-trade deal that sends Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick to the Hornets and also a lottery-protected first-round draft pick to the Suns.
The teams were still finalizing details, but sources said that Lopez, a restricted free agent, was returning soon from a vacation to take a physical for the Hornets. New Orleans had been working diligently for weeks on acquiring a center to play alongside No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, and give Davis some inside support.
Kirilenko has a buyout in his CSKA of Moscow contract that allows him to return to the NBA. He ruled out the Brooklyn Nets and Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov on Tuesday because the Nets simply couldn’t pay him beyond the veteran’s minimum of $1.2 million, sources said. Kirilenko has been searching for a deal that would pay him in the vicinity of $8 million annually, and Minnesota could have the cap space to do so.
Minnesota is signing another Russian, point guard Alexey Shved, to a free-agent contract. The T’wolves signed Portland restricted free agent Nicolas Batum to a $45 million offer sheet, but the Trail Blazers matched the money to retain him.
Kirilenko, 31, is eight years older, but would fill many of the same needs the Timberwolves were chasing when they went after Batum. After playing 10 NBA seasons with the Jazz, Kirilenko spent last season with CSKA Moscow, where he was named Euroleague MVP.
It’s said that a two-year, $18 million offer with a player option for a third season could close the deal for Kirilenko. It’s a far cry from the $17 million he was paid by the Jazz in 2010-11, but would be money well spent for a Wolves roster that could use a defender on the front line.
Other moves that have been unofficially reported over the last 10 days will officially announced in the coming hours and days. We might also find out where Dwight Howard is going to play next season!
Almost all of the top talent is off the board, but there are still some good players available. Here’s a list of the top 10 free agents who have yet to reach an agreement on a new contract…
1. Brook Lopez, C (Signed extension with Nets)
Lopez is at the center of the Howard trade talks. And if the Orlando Magic aren’t buying what the Nets are selling, Lopez is almost certainly heading to Brooklyn with Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace. But according to a Yahoo! report late Tuesday, the details on Lopez’s contract haven’t been finalized, and another team (Charlotte, perhaps?) could step in and give him an offer sheet. So technically, he’s still on the board.
2. Elton Brand, PF (Signed with Mavericks)
Brand is still on the Sixers roster, but reports say that Philly will waive him via the amnesty clause in order to sign Nick Young and trade for Dorell Wright. Even then, he probably won’t be a free agent, because teams with cap space will bid on the final year of his contract. But he’s a better get than everyone below, and he will have a new team in the next week or so.
3. JaVale McGee, C (Re-signed with Nuggets)
McGee still hasn’t harnessed his freakish athleticism to become the elite defender that he really should be. If it ever clicks for McGee, it will probably happen in Denver. SI.com’s Sam Amickreported late Tuesday that the Nuggets and McGee were progressing on a new contract. (more…)
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Has it come to this for Vince Carter?
The one-time heir to Michael Jordan‘s throne (one of many proposed successors) could find himself on the move come Thursday night, when the wheeling and dealing of for the 2011 Draft kicks into high gear.
“We are in constant conversation all day, every day with virtually every team in the league, trying to see if there’s anything we need to get an additional pick or if there are other ways to improve our team,” Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said. “Like most of the conversations in the NBA, they usually don’t come to fruition. We’re trying to take everyone’s temperature.”
Since 2004, the Suns have traded or sold five first-round picks. Of the three first-round picks they kept, Alando Tucker and Earl Clark are gone and Robin Lopez no longer is considered unavailable on the trade market. This 13th pick would be their highest selection they kept since drafting Amar’e Stoudemire ninth in 2002.
“At some point, we have to get younger,” Babby said. “We want to begin with the draft to infuse younger players into our team.”
It would be yet another sad twist in the cruel ending to the career of one of the most exciting players the league has seen and easily one of the most talented players of his era.
Watching past drafts on NBA TV the last few days was a reminder of just how much promise is heaped upon the shoulders of some of these prospects as they enter the league. Carter’s arrival was one of the most anticipated I can remember, not that he was the No. 1 pick or anything (he went fifth overall in 1998 behind Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz and his North Carolina teammate, Antawn Jamison), but because he offered that rare, above-the-rim ability that so few of his contemporaries then or since could match.
To see him tossed aside like he could be in the coming days, after all these years, is just a reminder that Father Time remains the only true undefeated champion in all of sports.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You owe Amar’e Stoudemire an apology and you don’t even realize it.
You were probably one of those people laughing last summer when he held up that No. 1 jersey and proclaimed the “Knicks are back.” It sounded funny at the time, the free agent power forward with the sketchy medical report joining the franchise that had been little more than an afterthought for the past decade.
It didn’t exactly seem like the perfect marriage.
But what you didn’t know, what many of us hadn’t realized, is that we’d miscalculated a few things while Stoudemire was in Phoenix playing alongside Steve Nash and for Mike D’Antoni.
The two-time MVP and the coach of the revolutionary “Seven Seconds or Less” offense were both given the majority of the credit for the Suns’ remarkable, but title-free, run of the past six seasons.
With a chance to examine things in a different light now, it’s clear that Stoudemire was and is the linchpin to that success. He’s been at the center of two franchise revivals in his career, first in Phoenix and now in New York. All that time spent nit-picking about Stoudemire not being a better rebounder or shot blocker was a waste. You should have been concentrating on what he does best, which is win.
And if you need metrics to make you feel better about that, just look a the records of those teams with Stoudemire and without him.
The Suns won 54 games and made the Western Conference finals last season with HT fave Alvin Gentry coaching Nash and Stoudemire. Without him, they’ve faded from the elite scene in the West. They’re sitting at 12-12 and lack a low-post anchor (with all apologies to Robin Lopez and Channing Frye) for Nash and a talented cast of shooters to work around.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – A month into most any relationship you should have some ideas about who and what you are dealing with, per our good friend Dr. Phil.
There shouldn’t be any surprises after that first month, no skeletons tumbling out of the closet and basically what you see by then is what you get.
So why are we still struggling to figure out certain teams around the league?
And no, we’re not talking about the usual suspects around here (we’re giving the Heat, Lakers, Celtics and Clippers the day off). There are other teams that astound us (in good ways and bad) that are tough to make sense of on the eve of Thanksgiving.
So welcome to Hang Time’s Mystery Team Theater, where we try to make sense of teams that continue to puzzle us:
Last 10 Games: 7-3
The Skinny: They needed their highest scoring fourth quarter of the season, and yet another sterling performance from Dirk Nowitzki, to slide past the Pistons. We watched them take apart the suddenly hapless Hawks Saturday night. But there’s something about this team that makes us think they’re going to be a major (dark horse) factor in the Western Conference playoff mix. All the work done in the offseason to beef up the bench seems to have worked. That Brendan Hawyood-Tyson Chandler combo at center also presents a very interesting challenge for a team like the Lakers or Spurs, if these teams were to meet up in the postseason. Back to the here and now, though. Rick Carlisle‘s teams are always good on the defensive end and he has a knack for pushing underrated teams to surpass expectations. For reasons we cannot figure out, few people consider this team a contender in the Western Conference. We’d like to go on record now about this team: they are going to spoil someone’s postseason plans (in much the same way their have been spoiled in recent years by Golden State and New Orleans).
NEXT UP: Dallas at Oklahoma City, tonight at 8 p.m. ET
USA Basketballannounced its final roster for the World Championship on Tuesday, with Rajon Rondo removing his name from consideration.
The 13 players on the roster had all shown over the last five weeks that they can contribute, and the final cut was going to be a difficult one, but in the end, it appears that USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and chairman Jerry Colangelo didn’t have to make that decision.
“Rajon came to us and said he was going to withdraw from the team, that he had some family matters to attend to and some things to take care of before the NBA season,” Colangelo said in the team’s press release. “He did an outstanding job during our training, we appreciate the effort and commitment he made to our program and he completely has our support.”
Rondo had started the team’s scrimmage against China last Saturday, as well as its first two exhibition games. But he was replaced in the starting lineup by Russell Westbrook for the second half of Saturday’s game against Lithuania, and by Derrick Rose for Sunday’s game against Spain. In fact, he didn’t play at all in that thrilling 86-85 victory in Madrid.
It had always appeared that guards Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon and Russell Westbrook were the players on the roster bubble, but all three played well enough to earn their spots on the roster.
A pest for opposing ball-handlers, Rondo was ideal for Krzyzewski’s pressure defense, but he was the worst shooter among the six guards left on the roster. And he has been careless with the basketball at times.
Krzyzewski also replaced starter Tyson Chandler with Lamar Odom for the game against Spain. The original starting lineup of Rondo, Chauncey Billups, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Chandler was very strong defensively. But with to non-shooters (Rondo and Chandler) on the floor together, that unit struggled to score. In its first three warm-up games, the U.S. averaged just 14.3 points in the first quarter.
In a closed scrimmage against China, they scored on just three of their first nine possessions.
Against France, they scored on just five of their first 17 possessions.
Against Lithuania, they scored just four times in 21 first-quarter possessions.
But against Spain, with Rose and Odom in the lineup, the early offensive struggles were minimal. They scored just once on their first five possessions, but followed that with a stretch of six scores on seven possessions and finished the quarter with a 23-16 lead.
The U.S. will play its final exhibition game before the World Championship on Wednesday (12 p.m. ET, ESPN), taking on Greece in Athens. Greece, the team that knocked off the U.S. four years ago in Japan, has looked very strong in exhibitions and is clearly one of the favorites to win gold.
The final roster for the World Championship, which begins Saturday, looks like this:
Guards: Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook
Forwards: Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala
Centers: Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Lamar Odom
Though there’s no more worries about being sent home, Curry, Gordon and Westbrook are still likely competing for the back-up guard spots in the rotation.
How about we get to some mail?
From Kipp (Parts Unknown):
Dropping a note to say we need to check out the assists… 11 assists [against Lithuania]? Won’t work in int’l hoops. Won’t win many games ANYWHERE with 11 in 40.
Keep up your great work
The lack of assists is definitely something I noticed. Through their four games, the U.S. has just 66 assists on their 129 field goals, which is a pretty low ratio (51.2 percent). In fact, 29 of the 30 NBA teams had a higher ratio last season.
You can blame Rudy Gay (since the Grizzlies were the only team with a lower ratio), or wonder if the scorekeeper in Spain was more frugal than Zach Randolph when it comes to handing out dimes. After all, assists are the most subjective stats in the boxscore. And against the U.S., Lithuania had just 10 assists on 25 field goals and Spain had just 15 on 28.
From Jose in Madrid:
Why do you think Coach K hasn’t selected more centers? Why not select young players like Paul Millsap? I think the American Team is a very good one, but very undersized in my opinion. I don’t know if it’s because the coach likes running game, or may be big good players weren’t avaliable and he chose getting very good players, although they were a little small.
It’s all about availability. Krzyzewski and Colangelo did select more centers. David Lee, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Amar’e Stoudemire were all in the original pool of players when the team first got together in Las Vegas, but three of them were gone by the first day of camp, and Brook Lopez (recovering from mono) wasn’t able to make it past the first phase of training.
If they had lost just two guys and were down to only one center, then you can say they made a mistake. But you can’t really plan for four departures at one position.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Phoenix Suns we’ve come to know over the past few years will be somewhat unrecognizable to the group Alvin Gentry puts on the floor this season.
Sure, Steve Nash will still be at the controls. And Grant Hill and Jason Richardson will be there.
But Amar’e Stoudemire is gone, as is the dynamic 1-2 offensive punch he and Nash provided the last six seasons.
Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick will join a deep and talented Suns crew, including a monster bench mob, that is long on ability but short on chemistry, since so few of them have played together heading into training camp.
Still, there has to be plenty of excitement in Phoenix about a team with so many interchangeable parts — especially when Nash is running the show and Gentry’s bench-friendly approach to the game.
The Suns had the best bench in basketball last season and probably will have it again this season, though it remains unclear how all of this will work — once the Suns complete all of their business.
Can last season’s hailed Suns chemistry survive losing three rotation players and others getting fewer minutes because of more overlap on the wings? Can a poor rebounding team get by with Turkoglu as the starting power forward? Will the Suns’ go-to play of Steve Nash running the pick-and-roll be anywhere close to as effective with Robin Lopez and Warrick as his top pick-and-roll partners? Can Earl Clark get that promised rotation time if there are six people ahead of him who can play one or both of his forward spots?
Turkoglu was struggling and unhappy in Toronto, but he is two years removed from arguably playing like an All-Star. Even at 6 feet 10, Turkoglu at power forward harkens back to when the Suns reached the conference finals four years ago with [Boris] Diaw as a makeshift center and Shawn Marion as an undersized power forward. Turkoglu’s ability to guard power forwards is questionable, but the 31-year-old’s ability to stay in front of wings could be a concern, too. Defense and rebounding from the Suns power-forward spot already was questionable when Stoudemire was there.
Turkoglu has a court savvy that helps him at both ends. However, Turkoglu often ran the Orlando offense in his best years, but the Suns have Nash to dominate the ball.
Turkoglu was disgruntled in Toronto but wants to be here, especially if his agent, Lon Babby, aided it and is set to head the Suns’ basketball operations. Turkoglu will yield about $5 million of his trade kicker and make his $12 million salary for 2013-14, when he is 35, only half-guaranteed.
The Suns will pay Childress an average of $6.6 million over the next five years to back up Jason Richardson and Grant Hill on the wings, where Phoenix also has Jared Dudley and potentially Turkoglu, Clark or Goran Dragic at times. Dudley is up for a contract extension by October, but how does Childress’ contract affect that?
Phoenix was set up for salary-cap space next summer before the moves but still is not a luxury-tax team and does not have a regrettable contract.
The Suns are in a much better position than we imagined they would be without Stoudemire, who was far more important to that team than many give him credit for being.
The Suns have an intriguing brew working with their roster now. It should make for a very interesting training camp in Phoenix.