Posts Tagged ‘Rodney Stuckey’

George injury shuffles East deck

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Long before the Indiana Pacers were dealt the wicked blow of losing All-Star swingman Paul George to a compound fracture of his right leg he suffered during Friday night’s USA Basketball Showcase in Las Vegas, people were ready to write the Pacers off for the 2014-15 season.

The way the No. 1 seed Pacers finished last season, the wild swings in play throughout their run to the Eastern Conference finals, the upgrades that took place this summer in Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere — all that already made it easy to assume that George and the Pacers would fall back to the pack.

But a Pacers team facing the prospect of playing an entire season without its leading scorer and best player — not to mention Lance Stephenson, who departed for Charlotte via free agency — shuffles the deck dramatically in the Eastern Conference.

A seriously wounded Pacers team makes it easier for LeBron James and the Cavaliers and a rejuvenated Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls to make up ground for that top spot. And if anyone knows what life is like without your superstar catalyst available, it’s the Cavaliers and Bulls.

When James left Cleveland for Miami via free agency in the summer of 2010, it devastated the Cavaliers, who didn’t recover until he decided to come home this summer via free agency. There was no way for the Cavaliers to compensate for the loss of the best player in basketball. No way.

The Bulls were able to remain among the Eastern Conference elite the past two seasons while dealing with Rose’s injury issues. But they’re the exception and not the rule when it comes to the loss of superstar talent, for whatever reason. And while they remained in the playoff mix, they couldn’t scale the mountain in the East without Rose and everyone knew it.

How Frank Vogel holds this Pacers bunch together in the face of this sort of adversity should prove to be one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2014-15 season. The Pacers have to brace themselves for assaults from all directions.

C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey were nice pick ups in free agency this summer. But they are not adequate replacements for either George or Stephenson. They certainly cannot be expected to deliver the 35.5 points, 14 rebounds or 8.1 assists George and Stephenson combined for last season.

Pacers veterans David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill will all have to take on more of the load, both on the court and off the court. The double whammy of losing Stephenson and then George no doubt makes that clear to the Pacers’ brass, who are right to make George’s recovery their No. 1 priority right now.

Pacers boss Larry Bird acknowledged as much in a statement released by the team (which can be seen in its entirety by clicking here):

“Our first thoughts are with Paul and his family. It is way too early to speculate on his return as the No. 1 priority for everyone will be his recovery. Our initial discussions with our doctors and the doctors in Las Vegas have us very optimistic. We are hopeful at some point next week Paul will return to Indianapolis to continue his recovery.

“There is no question about the impact on our team but our goal is to be as strong-willed and determined as Paul will be in coming back. Our franchise has had setbacks in its history but has demonstrated the abilities to recover. Paul will provide the example of that off the court and it is up to the rest of us to provide that example on the court. Any discussion regarding the future of our team would be inappropriate at this time. Our focus is solely on Paul and doing whatever we can to help.”

Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard got more specific with the Indianapolis Star on Saturday, expressing optimism that George will come back better than ever:

“What I’ve learned through this process is that it’s not [career-ending],” Pritchard said, when he spent time with George at the hospital. “It’s actually a good thing. It’s bone and bone only. It doesn’t look like any soft-tissue damage. We’re not trying to project when he’s coming back, just trying to get him through this week and then we’ll know more, but the biggest risk right now is infection. That looks really good right now. They just changed his dressing and it looks really good.

“I have no fear he’ll be back and back in a big way. We’re not going to put a timetable on it but I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll be back.”

The lingering question, of course, is what will the Pacers do in the meantime? What can they do to compensate for such a tremendous loss?

Those are questions that, quite frankly, do not have clear-cut answers right now.

What we do know is that the Pacers will have to fight for their playoff lives next season.

The last time a team that finished atop the conference standings during the regular season lost its top two scorers was when the Orlando Magic lost Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway after the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, per Elias Sports.

After finishing with identical 33-17 records (Miami and Indiana were the other two teams), the Magic finished the 1999-2000 season with a 41-41 record and in the ninth spot, on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

I’m not ready to write the Pacers off before we know what their contingency plan entails. But they are mighty vulnerable now and until further notice.

Pierce cares not about your hand in his face


VIDEO: Pierce’s big three seals Brooklyn’s win vs. Toronto

BROOKLYN – Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t think Paul Pierce was going to play Monday night.

Pierce, dealing with an injured shoulder, played. He played 30 minutes, scored 15 points, and hit the biggest shot of the night, a 3-pointer that gave the Nets a three-point lead with 1:14 left and propelled them to a big win over the visiting Raptors.

It was a tough shot, because Kyle Lowry was in Pierce’s shirt with a hand in his face. But Pierce had to take it because the shot clock was about to expire.

And maybe it didn’t matter that Lowry was there, because, according to SportVU, Pierce has shot better on contested jumpers than uncontested jumpers. Among 92 players who have attempted at least 100 of each, only one — the Pelicans’ Brian Roberts — has a bigger discrepancy.

Players who have shot better on contested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Brian Roberts 82 213 38.5% 63 128 49.2% -10.7%
Paul Pierce 83 236 35.2% 62 151 41.1% -5.9%
Russell Westbrook 73 203 36.0% 57 138 41.3% -5.3%
Dirk Nowitzki 200 439 45.6% 210 431 48.7% -3.2%
LeBron James 140 370 37.8% 47 117 40.2% -2.3%
Marcus Morris 102 252 40.5% 61 143 42.7% -2.2%
Rudy Gay 87 223 39.0% 105 259 40.5% -1.5%
Evan Turner 107 288 37.2% 88 231 38.1% -0.9%
Rodney Stuckey 67 178 37.6% 55 145 37.9% -0.3%
Jamal Crawford 142 355 40.0% 143 356 40.2% -0.2%
James Harden 141 375 37.6% 69 183 37.7% -0.1%

Minimum 100 of each.
Contested = Any jump shot outside of 10 feet with a defender within four feet of the shooter.

Note: We’re looking at standard field goal percentage and not effective field goal percentage to simply see the effect on a player’s success rate.

That LeBron James has shot better on contested jumpers is more incentive for defenses to play off him on the perimeter, as the Spurs did (successfully, until Game 7) in The Finals.

The league has shot 5.4 percent better on uncontested jumpers this season. But a contest will affect some players more than others. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Roberts and Pierce is the Suns’ Goran Dragic

Players who have shot at least 10 percent better on uncontested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player Name FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Goran Dragic 145 279 52.0% 52 178 29.2% 22.8%
David West 142 288 49.3% 35 102 34.3% 15.0%
C.J. Miles 86 191 45.0% 36 118 30.5% 14.5%
Khris Middleton 148 302 49.0% 57 161 35.4% 13.6%
Jameer Nelson 118 312 37.8% 35 143 24.5% 13.3%
Kevin Love 201 473 42.5% 45 152 29.6% 12.9%
Bradley Beal 181 431 42.0% 78 263 29.7% 12.3%
Jerryd Bayless 91 217 41.9% 41 137 29.9% 12.0%
Terrence Ross 107 240 44.6% 59 181 32.6% 12.0%
Randy Foye 150 363 41.3% 39 132 29.5% 11.8%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 121 296 40.9% 30 103 29.1% 11.8%
Josh Smith 126 380 33.2% 28 129 21.7% 11.5%

For some of these guys, the difference is about how well they shoot when they’re left open. For some, it’s about how poorly they shoot when there’s a defender nearby. Josh Smith probably shouldn’t shoot jumpers at all.

Pool of talent exists beyond 1-and-dones


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Damian Lillard.


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

Surprise: Dumars Fires Yet Another Coach


VIDEO: Cheeks is out at Detroit after only eight months

Mo Cheeks, the eighth coach to serve during Joe Dumars‘ run as president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, lasted eight months before, as multiple media outlets reported and the team eventually confirmed Sunday, getting the ax.

Dumars is in his 14th season, six years removed from Detroit’s last .500-or-better season. And the Pistons’ lone championship on Dumars’ watch (2004) came so long ago, Yao Ming, Latrell Sprewell and Seattle still were in the league and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and the Charlotte Bobcats weren’t.

That math no longer adds up.

In fact, with the clamor for advanced analytics to measure and dictate every motion and inclination of every player associated with an NBA team’s success or failure, the league is overdue for a concrete rating system for front-office executives. They’re the guys, after all, who are lauded or ripped by a new generation of sportswriter/analyst, depending on how avidly they embrace or eschew such calculations.

Or how ’bout this? A simple ceiling on the number of coaches a GM can hire or fire before it is his head on the chopping block.

Three would seem to be plenty, though four might be a reasonable number as well. If you spot the boss one for clearing the deck after he takes the job – the way Dumars did in 2001, replacing George Irvine with Rick Carlisle – two or three more ought to be enough, after which the scrutiny needs to shift from the sideline to the executive suite.

That would have only gotten Dumars to about the halfway mark in presiding over his personal coaches’ Boot Hill.

After Irvine and Carlisle, Dumars and the Pistons turned to Larry Brown, who did precisely what everyone expected him to do: he got Detroit to The Finals in his first season, steered its ensemble cast to the 2004 championship, then won another 54 games before his AWOL DNA kicked in and he was on the move.

Flip Saunders was brought in and did even better, in terms of victories, going 176-70 in three seasons. But he never had full control of the Pistons’ veteran-laden locker room – thanks, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton – though Saunders’ non-confrontational style was well-established before Dumars ever hired him. The core of that Detroit team was in decline, anyway, so when Saunders was dumped in 2008, so was its trips to the Eastern Conference finals and, for that matter, days sniffing air above .500.

Saunders at least holds the distinction of lasting longest under Dumars. After him, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank — and now Cheeks — have followed in rather rapid succession, each staying two years or less.

The Cheeks firing borders on Kim & Kris eye-blink brief, with the added touch that Pistons players apparently learned the news Sunday through media and fan postings on Twitter. Sure, they’re the ones allegedly responsible, underperforming at a 21-29 pace that most experts felt should have been flipped to 29-21 by now. But class is as class does, and while Dumars – always classy as a Hall of Fame player in Detroit – can’t be held responsible for every leak, it does add to the impression that there’s chaos and scapegoating going on in the Motor City.

The Pistons have been in or near the league’s bottom third both offensively and defensively. As of Sunday morning, they were ninth, out of the playoff picture, despite an East standings that from No. 3 down ought to be a land of opportunity. Detroit has been OK within its conference actually (18-14) but a 3-15 mark vs. the West has been killer, as was the Pistons’ 7-15 mark at home halfway through the schedule.

The inability to meld the work of big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, some reported rancor among the players over the rotation and the confrontation/aftermatch between the coach and guard Will Bynum – that’s all on Cheeks. The question, though, of whether 50 games was enough to decide his fate – after successive two-years-and-out terms of Frank and Kuester – was answered by Dumars and owner Tom Gores.

“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a team statement. “We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress.

“The responsibility does not fall squarely on any one individual, but right now this change is a necessary step toward turning this thing around. I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up. I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach.”

Pinpointing where that approach begins or ends, that’s the challenge. And that’s the area – made up top in jest but maybe a real void in need of filling – to be addressed. There’s got to be a more concrete way of capturing Dumars’ successes and failures.

The talent of which Gores spoke is largely of the individual variety; there’s no one even casually familiar with the NBA who didn’t stack up as many or more “cons” on the right side of Brandon Jennings‘ and Josh Smith‘s ledgers as “pros” on the left. It was, in a sense, a higher risk/reward gamble on “me first” guys than Dumars had perpetrated in 2009 when he splurged on free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to little positive effect.

The Pistons constantly tout their youth – their starting lineup ranks as the NBA’s most tender (23 years and change) – and the fact that their record is best among the league’s four youngest teams. But if that’s something to overcome in the short term, the W-L mark that the kids cobble together seems an odd thing to hold against Cheeks. He didn’t wave a wand and make them young.

More Dumars: Rodney Stuckey was going to be the Pistons’ future until he wasn’t, and only lately has done better in his new zero-expectations world. Then there was the Darko Milicic gaffe, a blown No. 2 pick in 2003 from which the franchise still hasn’t recovered. All while the No. 1 (LeBron James), 3 (Carmelo Anthony), 4 (Chris Bosh) and 5 (Dwyane Wade) picks will be at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

Gores’ arrival as owner apparently was a reset button for Dumars, because new bosses need basketball people they trust the same as chaotic, distracted owners (the previous Pistons regime). But eight coaches in 14 years and, with whoever takes over on the sideline now, six in eight seasons goes beyond fickle toward feeble.

Even if, in formulating an analytic to apply to the GMs, some allowance gets made for the length of the exec’s reign, Dumars would seem to have exceeded an acceptable average for pink slips. The next one he hands out, he needs to be standing in front of a mirror.

Or better yet, he needs to take over as coach himself and demonstrate that his GM/president knows what he’s doing.

Damian Lillard: The New King Of Clutch


VIDEO: Damian Lillard was a man on a mission in Portland’s win over Cleveland

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Damian Lillard is an assassin.

Get this: When Steph Curry buried a buzzer-beater to lift Golden State over Dallas last week, it was the first time the surest shooter in the league had collected a game-winner since … high school? At least that was the last one the fifth-year Golden State Warriors point guard who spent the previous three seasons shooting the lights out at Davidson, could recall.

That puts into perspective what Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ dazzling second-year point guard, has done in the last two games: Consecutive buzzer-beating game-winners.

At Detroit on Sunday with the game tied in overtime at 109, Lillard, with about 12 seconds on the clock, went one-on-one with Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey. Lillard dribbled up top, came around a LaMarcus Aldridge screen but it didn’t free him up. He kept dribbling, spun at the free-throw line to get inside the paint and drained a fallaway with 0.1 seconds left. He finished with 23 points, eight in overtime.

At Cleveland on Tuesday, the Cavs made a furious comeback from 10 down in the final 2:15 to tie the game at 116-116 with 7.1 seconds left in regulation. This time Lillard lulled Cavs defender Alonzo Gee several feet beyond the top of the 3-point arc. With Gee allowing space presumably to protect against the dribble-drive, Lillard rose up and splashed the 3-pointer as the horn blew. The official play-by-play called it from 30 feet. He finished with 36 points — 12 in the fourth quarter — 10 assists and eight rebounds.

“You’re watching a superstar being born right in front our eyes,” were the in-the-moment words spoken by Cavs color commentator Austin Carr, who has the nightly privilege of watching another cool clutch performer in Kyrie Irving.

And just like his stoic reaction at Detroit, Lillard acted as though he expected no other outcome. And why not? He’s now pocketed four game-winners on the season and has established himself as the game’s top clutch-time performer:

In clutch situations (defined as the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the team ahead or behind by five or fewer points), no one’s been better than the 6-foot-3 reigning Rookie of the Year out of Weber State.

In 49 clutch minutes, he’s scored 55 points in 49 minutes on 15-for-30 shooting from the floor (8-for-16 on 3s), 17-for-19 from the free-throw line, plus seven assists and seven rebounds. No matter how you slice up the situations — three minutes to go in a three-point game, two minutes left in a two-point game, in the final minute and behind by two or tied — Lillard’s point production stands at the top of the list of clutch performers.

His career overtime stats are mind-boggling (courtesy NBA.com/Stats): 45 minutes, 43 points, 15-for-19 from the floor (10-for-10 inside the arc), 8-for-8 on free throws and a plus-31 rating. Portland is 7-1 in those games.

Some of it is simply due to the number of close games a team plays (Portland is 4-1 in games decided by three points or less and 2-0 in overtime), but coming through in such situations rarely occurs at the success rate Lillard has demonstrated over and over.

In the standard definition of a clutch situation (ahead or behind by five points with five minutes to go), Lillard’s plus-minus rating ranks No. 1 at plus-52. It’s little surprise that his teammates — Nicolas Batum, plus-51; Wesley Matthews, plus-50; and Aldridge plus-49 — rank second through fourth. Robin Lopez is seventh at plus-32.

However, in terms of clutch-time points, Aldridge is Portland’s next-highest scorer with 28 points — 27 fewer than the stone-cold Lillard.

Yoda, Father Time And Billups’ Dual Role

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Marketing whizzes love to throw big, rhetorical “choices” at us. Is it a phone or is it a computer? Is it soup or is it a meal? Is it a salad dressing or is it a floor wax?

Well, here’s another one … NBA-style: Is Chauncey Billups a combo guard for the Detroit Pistons or is he a mentor and coach’s apprentice?

For now, and both the player and the team are sticking to this story, Billups is both. That’s usually the “wink-wink” point of those commercials anyway.

Billups, 37, is in his 17th NBA season, a five-time All-Star who has played for seven different teams, twice finished in the top six in MVP balloting and won the Finals MVP award for being the floor leader of Detroit’s ensemble title in 2004. The No. 3 pick in the 1997 (Tim Duncan) Draft, Billups enjoyed the best six-plus seasons of his career with the Pistons and he re-signed in July with the idea, again, of boosting their point guard play. After all, through two years, young Brandon Knight had handled the position more like a miscast shooting guard.

Two weeks later, though, Detroit president Joe Dumars swapped Knight in a sign-and-trade for Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, no purist’s dream as a playmaker but at least more proven and committed as a point guard. That cast Billups’ return in a different light — he had played shooting guard next to Chris Paul for the stretches they both were healthy in 2011-12 and last season, but then the Pistons also had Rodney Stuckey, Kyle Singler and lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as options there.

So, Billups told Detroit reporters that he didn’t need to start and understood the team’s vision, adding “Here’s my thing: I don’t mind playing the 2 only if I’m able to play like a point guard. Control it, play with the ball in my hands, make plays, have an effect on the game.”

Everyone, most notably Billups, still is waiting to see how that works out. Through the Pistons’ first four preseason games, Billups logged just 19 minutes in one game, missing four field goals, hitting a pair of free throws and dishing a couple assists. With Detroit getting a lovely preseason back-to-back, there was a chance he would play again Thursday in Cleveland. The veteran guard said he’s healthy after two horribly scarred seasons of injuries (left Achilles, foot tendinitis, groin strain and back pain).

Coach Maurice Cheeks still sees a guy in a uniform, working on a $2.5 million salary with a team option next summer for the same amount.

“No. 1, I think he can still play,” Cheeks said Wednesday night in Chicago. “His knowledge and the things he can still do on the court — he can still shoot the ball, he can still run pick-and-roll, he can still do certain things that he did before. Maybe not at the pace he did before, but he can still do ‘em.”

In the six consecutive seasons in which he helped Detroit reach the East, from 2002-03 through 2007-08, Billups on a 36-minute basis averaged 17.7 points, 6.6 assists and 1.1 steals, with a PER rating of 21.0 and shooting percentages of 42.4/40.0/89.2.

Since the start of 2008-09, same 36-minute prorating, he’s been at 18.9 points, 6.0 assists and 1.1 steals, with a PER of 18.8 and a shooting line of 41.6/39.5/91.3.

He’s very well could be capable of similar performances. Just not for as long or as often.

“You’ll see it, you’ll see it,” Billups said, when a familiar face asked him about his DNP against the Bulls. “Absolutely I’m fine [being a veteran voice]. But I’ll be here to play and help. As needed. I mean, I’m not going to play 35 minutes a game. If I want to make it through I’m not. But nah, I’m here, man. I’m healthy to play.”

The openings might be there, given the NBA’s injurious ways. Jennings and Stuckey both are hurt, the former with a hairline jaw fracture and impacted wisdom tooth, the latter with a bum thumb. Caldwell-Pope looked good with 18 points and seven rebounds in 40 reserve minutes Wednesday and another newbie, Peyton Siva, logged 26 minutes backing up Will Bynum. But they’re rookies.

In the meantime, Billups can be Yoda, the vestiges of his serious Jedi game under wraps.

“Off the court, his knowledge can only help our team,” Cheeks said. “He’s been through every situation imaginable. … Things I’m trying to tell ‘em, he can reinforce it to players. Any time a player of Chauncey’s [status] says it, it validates what the coach is saying.

“Jennings, Bynum, Siva, Kentavious. He can help a lot of guys: big guys, small guys. He can help ME.”

Said Bynum: “Chauncey’s been through the wars. He’s been through ups, he’s been through downs. We’re all eager to learn from that. It’s the small attention to details, the critical things. Splitting the screeners, small things Chauncey’s telling us that can be the difference between winning and losing.”

Then Bynum — with Stuckey, the only two Pistons remaining from Billups’ first Detroit stint — stuck in a needle for old time’s sake. “I hope he’s healthy enough to play on an everyday basis,” Bynum said. “Father Time’s undefeated, though.”

Morning Shootaround — Oct. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thompson not worrying about role | Felton ready to lead | Bulls dismiss talk of Forman-Thibs feud | Caldwell-Pope impressing Pistons

No. 1: Warriors’ Thompson not sweating starting gig: The top debate among Warriors faithful might be over who to start this season: second-year forward Harrison Barnes or third-year guard Klay Thompson? The addition of swingman Andre Iguodala in the offseason supplanted Thompson from his starting role of a season ago and in the preseason, the Warriors have used Thompson as a sixth man while Barnes has started both preseason games. Thompson tells Marcus Thompson II of The Oakland Tribune he’s not worrying about starting or coming off the bench, despite the stats seeming to say the Warriors are better with him on the floor more:

After posting a team-high 26 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, Thompson was arguably Golden State’s best player Monday in what was a relatively ugly showing by the home team at Oracle Arena. Thompson twice led the Warriors on deficit-erasing runs in a 94-81 victory. He finished with 17 points on 8-for-17 shooting.

Thompson was so effective that coach Mark Jackson had him back in the starting lineup to open the second half. Thompson’s activity and energy on offense is so evident that his teammates are looking for him consistently. He had a team-high 14 shots through the first 30 minutes Monday, including a left-handed scoop layup for a three-point play followed by a breakaway dunk that put Golden State up 55-52 with just over six minutes left in the third.

“Klay is going to always do what he does best,” Andre Iguodala said. “And that’s shoot the ball pretty well. … I told Klay that when he’s in the game with me, he’s going to get a lot of looks so he’s gotta be ready to shoot the ball. And he is.”

…Through two exhibition games, Barnes has totaled just over 34 minutes. During that span, he was 3 of 18 from the field with five turnovers. He did total eight rebounds and three steals in the same span, but he’s hardly looking like the burgeoning star everyone expects.

Certainly, an ailing foot would slow him, but his early offensive struggles might raise a legitimate question: Can Barnes be effective as the fifth option?

Inconsistency was probably Barnes’ biggest problem last season. He would be great one game and average the next two. Even Barnes acknowledged that he struggled to find his way in the offense as the fourth option.

No. 2: Felton ready to step into leadership role: In a great feature story by the New York Post‘s Marc Berman, Knicks point guard Raymond Felton talks about his struggles in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, his desire to prove that he play well in a traditional backcourt and that he’s ready to assume a captaincy role with New York as well. Felton is expected to be the full-time starter at the point this season, a role he didn’t always have in 2012-13 as coach Mike Woodson often used Felton and another of New York’s point guards — Jason Kidd or Pablo Prigioni — in tandem with Felton:

But as Felton and the Knicks disintegrated in the second round last May, with the Knicks starting point guard failing to a hit a field goal in the nightmare Game 6 in Indiana, Felton said a new chip has grown.

“The chip is still there,’’ said Felton, who got outplayed by Indiana’s George Hill. “It’s a bitter taste in my mouth the way the season ended last year. The chip is still there. If anything, it’s another chip. It’s now on the other shoulder. I’m still coming out with the same attitude, still with a lot to prove.’’

…Felton admits he puts his off-court leadership on the back burner last season in respect to Kidd. Felton told The Post before camp he hoped a captaincy was in the cards.

“That’s my job this year — I have to step up in that leadership role,’’ Felton said. “I took a step back last year out of respect for my team. Guys hadn’t played with me before. I’ll try to step back in that role of being vocal.

“He’s got to be more of a leader,.’’ Woodson said. “Point guards catch a lot of crap on everybody’s team because we expect so much from them. Ray performed great for us last season. He’s got to be more vocal and show more of a leadership role more than ever with Kidd gone now.’’

No. 3: Paxson refutes talk of Thibodeau-Forman feud: Shortly after Derrick Rose made his preseason debut against the Pacers on Saturday night, Yahoo!Sports.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski had a story that essentially said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and GM Gar Forman are in the midst of some franchise-altering dysfunction. Since then, Bulls vice president John Paxson has chimed in on the alleged discord between the two men and tells the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley nothing could be further from the truth:

Forman and Thibodeau haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on personnel moves, which has been well documented, but Paxson takes exception to the idea that it’s a feud heading toward a boiling point.

‘‘We’re so far past that,’’ he said. ‘‘To continue to try and keep it going, I don’t know what the agenda is. That’s one thing that we all talked about, really from the beginning of this year: No one has any agenda here.

‘‘If you’re really going to say something like that, then go on the record, be a man, put your name out there. Don’t hide behind that stuff. But from our perspective, from our seat, we’re doing great. The relationship is healthy. We all want the same thing, and that’s to be as good as we possibly can out there on the floor.’’

Chicago saw what a truly unhealthy relationship between a GM and coach/manager looks like when the White Sox’ Ken Williams and Ozzie Guillen captured headlines a few years ago.

Paxson snickered at the idea of the Bulls being anywhere near that.

‘‘I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s been blown way out of proportion,’’ he said. ‘‘I think someone other than anyone in our organization has an agenda that really doesn’t suit what we’re all about. No matter what you do in this business, when you’re making decisions, whether it’s based on personnel or anything like that, you’re going to have ideas, different opinions, and that’s what we do. We sit in a room and talk these things through. The thing is, right now we’re all on the same page, and there are no hidden agendas from Gar, myself and Tom.’’

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No. 4: Pistons narrow shooting guard options: The No. 9 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is making quite and impression in Detroit and may have a solid shot at taking the starting shooting guard job for opening night. According to David Mayo of MLive.com, Pope and veteran Rodney Stuckey have made the race for the starting job a two-man one and the pair is having fun competing against each other for the bid:

“He’s not showing one bit of nervousness when he’s out there playing,” point guard Brandon Jennings said.  “It’s like he’s been here before.  Guys want spots.  Guys want playing time.  This right here is how you earn it.”

Head coach Maurice Cheeks said Caldwell-Pope, “has a poise about him that, when he plays, he doesn’t get stressed out, he doesn’t get nervous.”

Cheeks, one day after saying he would use multiple starters at shooting guard during preseason, said the ultimate decision probably comes down to Caldwell-Pope or seventh-year veteran Rodney Stuckey.

Caldwell-Pope and Stuckey have gone hard at each other in early scrimmages and have had friendly discussions about the competition, the Georgia rookie said.

“It’s fun.  We laugh about it, we joke about it,” Caldwell-Pope said.  “At the same time, we’re also serious about it, because we are playing for the same position.  It’s great to compete against someone who’s been here, who’s older than me.  It’s a great challenge.”

Caldwell-Pope’s disadvantages in youth and experience against Stuckey could be alleviated by his advantage in perimeter shooting touch.  Both are solid defenders but Caldwell-Pope also brings a shot-blocking element.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat’s Norris Cole tuning out trade talks … The Lakers’ Chris Kaman and Robert Sacre bought a cow together (seriously) … Celtics coach Brad Stevens is still an early riser

ICYMI of the night: While the Warriors continue to weigh whether to start Thompson or Barnes this season, sit back and enjoy what we’re sure to see more of this season — alley-oops to Iguodala …

Free-Agent Roundup: July 3

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From NBA.com staff reports

The courting of Dwight Howard is officially over (thank goodness!) … now we’ve just got to wait on his decision. The Dwight/Lakers drama isn’t affecting what the Clippers are doing this offseason as they continue to add solid pieces to their Pacific Division-winning group, with their most recent move coming courtesy of three-team trade. The Clippers picked up free-agent shooter J.J. Redick and Suns marksman Jared Dudley in a deal between themselves, the Suns and Bucks. Although the Clips had to deal prized guard Eric Bledsoe to pick up the shooters, it’s a deal that keeps the Clips humming along. Other teams out West either made themselves better (in the case of the Wolves, who added Kevin Martin and re-signed Chase Budinger) or kept a key piece in place (such as the Grizzlies, who retained defensive ace Tony Allen).:

Smith’s chances of staying with Knicks improving?

As shooting guards like Redick, Martin and others have been snapped up on the free-agent market, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith, waits for an offer. Smith opted out of his contract to test the waters on a big payday, but according to the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola, Smith could decide to go back to New York if the market keeps playing out as it has:

J.R. Smith’s list of potential suitors continues to grow but the contracts signed by two free agent shooting guards on Tuesday increases the likelihood of Smith returning to the Knicks.

The Clippers agreed to acquire J.J. Redick in a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks while Oklahoma City Thunder free agent Kevin Martin verbally agreed to a four-year, $28 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The maximum the Knicks can offer Smith, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, is a four-year contract starting at approximately $5.5 million per season.

Smith has told close friends that if the money is comparable his preference would be to re-sign with the Knicks. Still, some of the teams that contacted Smith’s representatives have the ability to offer a deal approaching $30 million. The Pistons, Mavs, Rockets, Bucks and Bobcats have all expressed interest in Smith, who is coming off his best season.

With Redick and Martin setting the market for shooting guards, there is a sense that Smith’s free agency can reach a conclusion by the end of the week. The Knicks have made it known that they want their second leading scorer back and ideally they’d like to sign Smith to a two-year deal. But Smith, who came to the Knicks midway through the lockout season during a tumultuous stint in China, is looking to be rewarded for his performance and loyalty.

The fact that both Carmelo Anthony and Garden Chairman James Dolan are both in Smith’s corner is a factor to say the least. Dolan, according to a source, was briefed on the club’s free agent negotiations on Tuesday. Dolan has been more involved in the day-to-day operations of the basketball side since 2010 when he was front and center during the Knicks free agent presentation to LeBron James.

Report: Pistons make offer for Raptors’ Gay

When the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay as part of a three-team deal with Memphis, Detroit and Toronto, the Grizz came out of the deal with Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye. The Raptors ended up with Gay, who played 33 games for them and — on a points-per-game basis — finished as their top scorer. But apparently the Pistons originally wanted Gay in the first swap, so they’ve solicited the Raptors to try and get him again, writes Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

The Detroit Pistons were among the bidders for forward Rudy Gay when the Memphis Grizzlies made him available last season and they are once again going after him now that there’s been a management changeover in Toronto.

The Pistons have offered the Raptors the expiring contracts of Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva in an attempt to acquire Gay, league sources told ESPN.com.

Stuckey and Villanueva are both scheduled to make $8.5 million this season and Gay has two years and $37 million left on his contract. Gay averaged 19.5 points on 43 percent shooting in 33 games after a midseason trade sent him to Toronto.

Rockets trying to land J-Smoove and Dwight?

Our man David Aldridge touched on this overnight, but it seems that what Howard does in free agency may have a direct effect on what Hawks free agent Josh Smith does as well. USA Today’s Sam Amick reports on Smith, who has long been on the Houston Rockets’ radar. Houston is also actively pursuing Howard and is thought to have a good shot to land the All-Star center. And while some have reported Smith is a backup plan for Houston should it lose out on Howard, that may not be the case:

According to two people with knowledge of the situation, the Rockets’ Monday meeting with free agent forward Josh Smith in Los Angeles included a discussion about a possible partnership with him and his childhood friend from Atlanta in Howard.

Smith has long been known to be on the Rockets’ radar, but he is not viewed solely as a backup plan to Howard should he decide to sign elsewhere and the possibility remains of another superteam being created with Howard and Smith joining franchise centerpiece James Harden. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the talks.

There would be serious hurdles to this sort of deal, but the Rockets may be able to get it done if they could convince Smith’s former team, the Atlanta Hawks, to take part in a sign-and-trade that would clear the necessary salary cap space to sign both players.

To that end, a CBSSports.com report on Sunday indicated that the Rockets have been discussing possible trades involving center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin with other teams. Both players are scheduled to earn $8.3 million in each of the next two seasons, meaning they could possibly be moved as a way to free up the funds to bring Howard and Smith together.

Howard completed his free agency meetings on Tuesday by meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers. He met with the Rockets first on Sunday night, followed by Golden State and Atlanta on Monday and the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday before the Lakers. Smith is also being targeted by the Detroit Pistons and is believed to have at least five suitors.

Suns-Clips trade spells trouble for Marshall

Kendall Marshall was the 13th overall pick of the 2012 Draft and the third point guard (behind Rookie of the Year winner Damian Lillard and the Pelicans’ Austin Rivers) off the board that night. However, he struggled to find minutes with the Suns and even had a nine-game stint in the NBA D-League. The Suns’ acquisition of Bledsoe from the Clippers in last night’s trade may only spell more bad news for the second-year guard, writes Bob Young of The Arizona Republic:

The Suns won’t say it, but we will.

The Kendall Marshall draft pick last season was a mistake.

Then again, maybe the Suns did say it by taking part in a three-team deal first reported by Yahoo! Sports to obtain a quick, athletic point guard in Eric Bledsoe and veteran small forward Caron Butler from the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Suns sent Jared Dudley to the Clippers, who once played in his hometown. The Milwaukee Bucks, the third-team in the deal, ship guard JJ Redick to the Clippers and get second-round draft picks in exchange.

This isn’t to say that Marshall, who was selected when Lance Blanks served as general manager, doesn’t have a place in the Suns future. It’s just that it’s probably as the team’s third point guard.

Twitter quick hits: On Korver, Gay, Hamilton, Copeland, Cavaliers and more

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 30

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: If you missed Mavs-Blazers last night … well … go get that League Pass fired up and watch it again! Aside from LaMarcus Aldridge‘s heroics at the buzzer, there were some great clutch shots down the stretch by Darren Collison, Dirk Nowitzki and, heck, even Sasha Pavlovic. It’s a must-see highlight if nothing else.

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News of the morning

Rondo wants second opinion | Pau not happy after win | Aldridge loves seeing the Mavs | Will Oden end up with Cavs? | Frank, Stuckey patch things up | Jazz corner market on youth? | Walton a mentor to Cavs

Rondo seeking second opinion on ACLA. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com reports that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who was found to have a torn ACL on Sunday, will meet with several other doctors — including the famed Dr. James Andrews — as well as players from other sports to get a second opinion on the severity and recovery process from his injury:

“He (Dr. Andrews) is one that we’re definitely considering,” Rondo’s agent Bill Duffy, told CSNNE.com. “If he’s No. 1, there’s a couple 1As and 1Bs we’re looking at as well.”

Duffy said the second opinion on Rondo’s knee will not be made for at least another four or five days in order to allow the swelling to go down.

In addition, Duffy said they are in the process of setting up meetings with other athletes who have had similar injuries.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is among those that Rondo’s camp hopes to speak with very soon.

Peterson suffered a torn left ACL and MCL injury on Christmas Eve in 2011, and was back on the field for the season opener in September – less than nine months after the injury.

Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose suffered a torn left ACL injury during the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia on April 28th last year, with  his return likely to be shortly after the all-star break next month.

Duffy said Rondo’s trying to be as positive as he can about his injury.

“He’s distraught but he understands what he has to do,” Duffy said. “We have to have him channel all that energy into getting stronger and healthy as soon as possible.”

Pau Gasol unhappy about role?A day after telling CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger that he’d accept — but not be pleased with — a bench role this season, Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin that he wasn’t pleased to sit out the entire fourth quarter of last night’s victory against the Hornets:

“I’m a competitor, I’m a guy that thinks I bring a lot to the table, and not being on the floor is something that I don’t like, I don’t appreciate,” Gasol said.

Gasol had seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 21 minutes as the Lakers built an 83-73 lead through the first three quarters.

“It’s a challenge,” Gasol said when asked about toeing the line and accepting D’Antoni’s decision so that he doesn’t take away from the team while still defending his personal ability. “We’re challenged every day, and I’m challenged every day to keep my calm and keep my peace and not let my emotions take over my words.”

Speaking out after a win against the Hornets might seem like poor timing from Gasol, but even while begrudgingly accepting a bench role, he stated his desire to continue to play in crunch time.

“I think the finishing is more important (than starting),” Gasol said recently. “I think the best players should finish off games. That’s just the way it’s got to be. When the game is on the line, you want to be on the floor. That’s more important.”

It was the same sentiment that led Gasol to be upset Tuesday.

“It’s fun to win but when a team comes back on you the way the Hornets did tonight and you are not there as a high-quality player and as a competitor, it’s frustrating,” Gasol said.

Aldridge always happy to see DallasNot surprisingly, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s phone was blowing up after his game-winning turnaround shot to sink the Mavs last night. What’s interesting, as The Columbian’s Candace Buckner points out, is that the former prep and college standout from Texas seems to particularly enjoy tormenting his hometown team:

LaMarcus Aldridge, a Dallas native, saved his best to down his hometown team, hitting the game-winning jump shot as time expired for the Trail Blazers’ 106-104 victory.

With a well-executed inbounds play, a flick of the wrist and a perfect jump shot, the Blazers (23-22) shook off a large second-half deficit after the Mavericks pulled ahead by 21 points. So by the time Aldridge returned to the Blazers locker room, his phone had over 20 messages on it. Just a glance and he could tell that his mother, Georgia, was about to make his cell phone battery die.

“She’s watching (the game),” said Aldridge, who finished with a game-high 29 points and also contributed 13 rebounds. “She texted me like five or six times.”

The family celebrated, the 18,888 in the Rose Garden rejoiced and even Aldridge – who so often just describes this whole NBA thing as a “job” – beamed broadly as teammates bum rushed him near the Dallas bench.

“He was smiling like a rookie after his first NBA game,” Nicolas Batum said, describing Aldridge.

He seems to be happiest devastating the hometown team.

Last April at the American Airlines Arena, Aldridge carried the Blazers to the 99-97 victory over the Mavericks with a step-back jumper at the buzzer. Then, Terry Stotts watched from the other sideline as a Dallas assistant coach. Surely, from Stotts’ perspective, this Aldridge game-winner felt a bit better.

“People can think what they want to think, but LaMarcus, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an All-Star,” Stotts said. “He didn’t have to make that shot to prove he’s an All-Star. He proves it every night.”

He also happens to prove it whenever he plays against Dallas.

Aldridge scores 21.2 points per game against the Mavericks, according to basketball-reference.com and the figure ranks as second highest in his career against any NBA team. Through the last four games versus Dallas, Aldridge has averaged 26.7 points and 11 rebounds.

Oden wants back in NBA; Cavs next?Former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is readying himself for an NBA return and the Heat and Cavs are reportedly on the top of his destination list. How likely is it he’ll be a Cav? Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer digs in:

Former Ohio State star Greg Oden is confident he will return to the NBA after his many knee injuries, but he would not venture a guess about whether he’ll wind up in Cleveland.

“I’m worried about the knee,” he told The Plain Dealer when asked if the Cavs could be a destination for him. “That’s it.”

Oden was in Columbus to take in the Buckeyes’ 58-49 victory over Wisconsin. He has been living in Columbus and taking classes, but he said now that he’s working out in his hometown of Indianapolis and splitting time between the cities.

Asked if he was playing at all, Oden said, “I’m just getting my knee ready so when things do happen I’ll be ready to play next year.

“I’m still in the rehab process, but I’m it taking slow. I could possibly be playing at this point, but I’ve done that before and I got injured before, so I’d rather take everything I am doing slow. Right now I’m just doing strength stuff with my knees.”

He said he was confident he would return to the NBA.

“I like how my knee is going, the way it’s going,” he said. “I still like the time I’m taking, just to make sure nothing happens. You can’t predict the future. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m happy.”

Stuckey, Frank mend fencesPistons guard Rodney Stuckey and coach Lawrence Frank have had a touch-and-go relationship the last few days. But Terry Foster of the Detroit News reports that’s all behind both men now:

There’s peace again at The Palace. That’s if you believe Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and reserve guard Rodney Stuckey.

Frank ended the one-game benching of Stuckey in time for Tuesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Palace. But Stuckey was a non-factor during the Pistons’ 117-90 blowout loss to the Bucks at The Palace. He played 27 minutes and finished with just seven points.

Stuckey admitted the men clashed before the Pistons’ game Sunday in Orlando. Frank punished Stuckey by benching him for that game and refused to tell the media why. Frank was mostly close-mouthed again but he equated to a family squabble.

“Things happen every single day,” Frank said. “You deal with it and you move on. There are no grudges. Made a decision and we move on today. During the course of the season you are going to have a bunch of disagreements.”

Neither man would say what happened but it is believed they had a disagreement during practice.

Jazz corner market on youth? The West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder often get a lot of credit for the way their youthful, lottery-picked duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has helped them develop into a contender. But you’d likely be surprised to learn that the Thunder don’t have the most under-25 ex-lottery picks on their roster. According to Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News, that honor belongs to Utah:

Remember the NBA list of the 50 greatest players ever that came out about 15 years ago? Of those 50 players, all but a handful were top-10 selections and 32 of them were top-5 picks. Of the players who have played since that list came out, those that would be considered among the all-time greats — James, Duncan, Kevin Durant — most have been high draft picks.

That brings us to the Utah Jazz.

While five teams have more total lottery picks on their rosters (New York has the most with nine, but four are 38 years or older), no team has more under the age of 25. And the Jazz has the most under the age of 22 with Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (21), Alec Burks (21) and Enes Kanter (20).

One of the teams closest to the Jazz in terms of young, high lottery picks is Wednesday night’s opponent, New Orleans, which has three under the age of 22 in 19-year-old Anthony Davis, 20-year-old Austin Rivers and 22-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu.

Other teams with three lottery picks under age 22 include Washington (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely), Charlotte (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Bismarck Biyombo) and Cleveland (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson).

Walton takes on mentoring roleEx-Laker Luke Walton wasn’t sure what his role would be when he was traded to the Cavs at last season’s trade deadline. But it’s become clear that the one-time starter in L.A. is embracing his role as a coach of sorts for Cleveland’s young big men Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, writes Stephen Brotherson of HoopsWorld.com:

“At the beginning of the year, the coaches [told] me, you got to [help Thompson and Zeller],” Walton said. “So I knew that was going to be part of my role this year whether it was while I was playing or while I was not playing. I had a lot of good vets that had taught me a lot about this game, so when I am out there playing with these young talented big guys, if I see something that they are doing or I see something that would be more effective for them during a timeout, I will let them know or if we are in the game together, I will try to point it out so we can do it because if we do it in a game, it will reinforce it. They are both such great kids. They want to learn. They want to get better. It has been a lot of fun doing that.”

Thompson and Zeller have enjoyed playing with Walton this season. The veteran has been showing them how to be a facilitator and setting them up when they get open.

“[Walton is] fun,” Zeller said. “You know he is going to find you if you are open and he can make a lot of great plays. We have a lot of confidence in him that he can score, pass and defend. He is really a great all-around player.”

“He is a great passer,” Thompson said. “He keeps the offense flowing. He sees the court. He might not be the most athletic big guy or the tallest guy, but he is so smart that he knows where the ball needs to go, what works and what doesn’t work. We are blessed to have him on our team.”

“It’s awesome,” Walton said. “Obviously losing is very hard, but just being back out there on the court and being able to help some younger players, now having the opportunity to play again and play the way basketball is meant to be played with sharing the ball and passing, I am having a blast right now.”

ICYMI of the night: Before we all get a little too excited over the Lakers’ three-game win streak, let’s not forget there are still more kinks to work out … as this play below illustrates:

Pistons Working To Save Their Season, Refill Once-Packed Palace

DALLAS – The Detroit Pistons have crashed as hard as the Michigan economy over the last few years and the combination has resulted in a lot of eerily quiet nights inside The Palace at Auburn Hills.

“It is strange for sure,” Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva said before the Pistons dropped a 10th road game in 11 tries Saturday against the Mavericks. “The fact that my first five years in the league, seeing that place sold out every game; every time we went into Detroit it was sold out. It just shows how hard the economy hit, but I think it will bounce back. It’s just a matter of time.”

For now, there are more empty seats than filled ones at Pistons games. But to pin Detroit’s turnstile problem mostly on a rotten economy is to discredit die-hard Pistons fans that have grown weary of throwing good money at bad basketball.

Entering tonight’s eighth home game of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit’s average attendance is 12,392 and ranks last in the league — behind Sacramento, New Orleans and last season’s worst team, Charlotte. Take away the home-opener crowd of 16,646 and the average dips to 11,683. On most nights the actual attendance is much less.

FROM FIRST TO WORST
The Pistons rank last in the league in attendance this season. A look at the club’s average attendance over the last 13 seasons
Season Avg. Attendance Rank
2012-13 12,392 30th
2011-12 14,413 28th
2010-11 16,660 18th
2009-10 18,751 8th
2008-09 21,877 1st
2007-08 22,076 1st
2006-07 22,076 2nd
2005-06 22,076 1st
2004-05 22,076 1st
2003-04 22,076 1st
2002-03 20,470 1st
2001-02 18,556 11th
2000-01 14,812 22nd

“It’s not weird because it’s not a situation where it’s been drastic, where this season it was packed and the very next season it was nothing,” said Tayshaun Prince, a career Piston and last remaining member of the 2004 title team. “It didn’t just hit rock bottom at one point. When things are going so well for a long period of time and then all of a sudden when things hit, then they started to veer down, veer down, veer down.”

From 2002 through 2009, not coincidentally the last time Detroit made the playoffs, the Pistons ranked No. 1 in attendance in six of those seven seasons, routinely boasting sellout crowds of 20,000-plus. The one season they weren’t No. 1, they were No. 2. The run included the ’04 championship and a repeat Finals appearance under Larry Brown, and four other East finals appearances, one prior to Brown under Rick Carlisle, and three more after Brown under Flip Saunders.

Since Saunders won 59 games in 2007-08, but lost in the East finals for a third consecutive time, Detroit has rolled through coaches Michael Curry (39-43) and John Kuester (57-107), with Lawrence Frank now in his second season and trying to rescue a 5-13 start that opened with eight consecutive losses.

Detroit hasn’t won more than 39 games in any of the last four seasons and average attendance has steadily declined from the top spot in ’08-’09 to eighth to 18th to 28th and now to rock bottom.

“It’s not on the fans to come out. It’s on us to put together a product every night that fans can be proud of,” Frank said. “Detroit has always shown great support, not just for basketball, for all their sports teams when they’re competing at the highest level. You’re used to seeing a lot of fans out there, but we’re appreciative for the fans that do go. Obviously, we understand the economic crisis and what hit, and Detroit obviously was hit harder than most. But from the beginning, it’s going to be on us to put together something that the fans can be proud of and want to support.”

To Frank’s point, and further proof that tough economic times alone doesn’t kill attendance, the Detroit Tigers have averaged more than 30,000 fans in each of the last six seasons. Even the Lions, amid another last-place season, are averaging more than 63,000 through six home games, better than 98 percent capacity. Both clubs play in relatively new downtown venues and some debate if the Pistons would be better served leaving their suburban digs some 30 miles north of the city.

But that ignores the club’s attendance track record over much of the last decade and before that when the Pistons shared the Pontiac Silverdome with the Lions.

So how close are the Pistons to rising up again?

“I think it’s real close,” impressive third-year center and leading scorer Greg Monroe said. “We have to find a way to come out every night and just play hard and outwork teams. I think we’re very close to doing that, but it’s going to take games to get the actual body of work to say we are doing it consistently.”

It’s hopeless to still lament the Darko Milicic draft and the free-agent millions thrown at Villanueva and Ben Gordon. Monroe is surrounded by a roster that might not contend for a title, but is at least intriguing for its youth. Second-year guard Brandon Knight and rookies Kyle Singler and Andre Drummond join Monroe as possible long-term core pieces. Veterans Jason Maxiell, Corey Maggette, Rodney Stuckey, Prince and, yes, Villanueva, should help to at least make a push toward playoff contention in a mediocre Eastern Conference.

No progress was made on that front during the recent two-game road swing through Memphis and Dallas with two more double-digit losses (nine in 11 road games). It was a disappointing development coming after the season’s first flirtation with momentum, a modest two-game home win streak that gave Detroit four wins in six games.

They put on an offensive show for the few souls that came out, beating Portland, 108-101, and then drilled Phoenix 117-77. That beat down drew an announced crowd of 10,517, about 300 more than the previous night.

Even the league’s top draws haven’t delivered bigger crowds. The Celtics drew 12,214 and 12,784 came to see three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“It’s been tough,” Maxiell admitted. “The last couple years the crowd’s been trimming down. We’re trying to bring the crowds back with some big entertainment. The guys that were here a couple years ago know how it was when we were winning, and we’re trying to bring them back.”