Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

Timberwolves honor co-pilot of Lakers’ scary 1960 ‘miracle landing’

Harold Gifford, a co-pilot on the Minneapolis Lakers’ harrowing winter flight that narrowly avoided disaster nearly 55 years ago, was honored Wednesday night by the Minnesota Timberwolves during their home game against Philadelphia.

Gifford, 90, a retired World War II pilot and aviation professional who lives in Woodbury, Minn., wrote about what could have been a league-altering, NBA air disaster in his 2013 book, “The Miracle Landing” (Signalman Publishing).

When the Lakers’ DC-3 plane suffered mechanical breakdowns during a blizzard on Jan. 17, 1960, on a flight back to the Twin Cities – the electrical system shut down, its radio went dark and the instruments and windows in the cockpit began to freeze over – it was Gifford and fellow pilot Vern Ullman who found a cornfield in tiny Carroll, Iowa, that served as an emergency landing strip.

The Wolves were scheduled to honor Gifford and guests during the first half of Wednesday’s game at Target Center as part of their “Heroes of the Pack” program. The tribute caught the eye of Lakers part-owner and president Jeanie Buss, who has become friends with Gifford in recent years.

Buss took to Twitter Wednesday to note Gifford’s tribute in Minneapolis:

Nowitzki walks back ‘dumb’ Hinrich quote


VIDEO: Monte Ellis is fouted by Kirk Hinrich and makes three free throws to force overtime

MILWAUKEE – Dirk Nowitzki felt bad 24 hours later for calling Kirk Hinrich‘s play on Dallas’ Monta Ellis late in regulation Tuesday “one of the dumbest fouls I’ve ever seen.”

It wasn’t as if Nowitzki was revealing any secrets after the Mavericks’ double-overtime victory at United Center – Hinrich owned the mistake and called it “bonehead play” for fouling Ellis at a point when the Mavericks shooting guard was able to go into his shooting motion. The foul – with 1.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls up 108-105, out of a timeout with 4.5 seconds left – sent Ellis to the line for three free throws. He hit all of them to force overtime and, on his way to a game-high 38 points, scored seven of Dallas’ 11 in the second overtime.

Afterward, in a grateful Mavs’ locker room, Nowitzki merely said what thousands in the arena or viewing on TV were thinking. But he felt a little sheepish a day later, given the play his “dumbest” comment got on the Internet.

“I didn’t mean to put my man Kirk on the spot like that,” he said before Dallas’ game at Milwaukee Wednesday. Nowitzki was held out of the Bucks game more for rest than for a sore back that bothered him Tuesday. The veteran 7-footer also sat out Saturday at Philadelphia for rest.

“Kirk’s actually my guy,” Nowitzki said. “We went to dinners before. … It was just an unfortunate play. It was just way too late. They had a chance to foul [Richard Jefferson] when he caught the ball. And they had a chance to foul Monta when he dribbled two or three times up the floor. The situation was just a bad one. It was fortunate for us.

“He’s a good dude. A hard-nosed player. He made two great 3’s right before that to put ‘em in position to win. I have nothing but respect for Kirk Hinrich.”

Blogtable: Charlotte vs. New York

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The best 2s | Charlotte vs. New York | A sweet 16



VIDEO: Brent Barry breaks down what is going wrong with the Charlotte Hornets

> Charlotte or New York: Which is better equipped to actually make a run at the playoffs? Do you see that team making it?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Charlotte still is in better shape, in my view. I’m more surprised by their miserable start, which means I considered them a better team going in. Nothing has changed there, though the Lance Stephenson funk is different from what I expected (I thought he’d stats-hunt and neglect teamwork while posting big numbers. Uh, not so much…) Generally, I like the Hornets’ roster better and their ability to defend, and I do think they’ll snag a low seed. The Knicks, not so much – on all fronts.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Hornets have the better 1-2 combination of Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. If they can figure out a way to harness Lance Stephenson and rookie Noah Vonleh gets his legs, they’ve simply got a deeper lineup than the Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. And living in the Eastern Conference, you’re never out of it in December.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Charlotte. I still think the Hornets make it, but the bad start confirms a lot of the preseason worries they would take a step back this season. Losing Josh McRoberts to the Heat in free agency was bigger than most people realize. That’s still a better team than the Knicks, though. Getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back will help the defense. The healthy guards need to heal as well — Kemba Walker and/or Lance Stephenson have to start hitting shots.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Knicks are about tapped out in terms of a ceiling. Most of their core players are either at their peak or on the downside, unlike the Hornets, mostly loaded with young players who still have growth potential. Anything is possible in the East, including both teams reaching the playoffs, but for now I’ll go with the Hornets in a fight for the seventh or eighth spot.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Charlotte has the better chance. Though the Hornets need shooting, they have the tools to be at least somewhat successful on both ends of the floor. With the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and maybe a timely trade, they can definitely be in the mix for one of the last couple of playoff spots. The Knicks have too many bad defenders and their offense has been hindered by the Triangle, or at least their ability to run it smoothly.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Playoffs? Did you really say “playoffs” … I’ll have two slices of that pie in the sky you were nibbling on when you cooked this question up. Neither one of these teams is currently on a playoff track, and barring a Christmas miracle I don’t see either one of them making that push. The Knicks have systemic issues that have been well documented. As to what went wrong in Charlotte, it’s a bit more complicated. The Hornets’ chemistry from a year ago is gone. It went up in smoke sometime between them presenting an offer sheet to Gordon Hayward and them adding Lance Stephenson instead. You don’t come back from this sort of chemistry hiccup without tinkering with the chemistry again (via a trade), which is another gamble for a team flat on its back after the first month of the season.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The Hornets spent last year successfully developing Steve Clifford’s system. They have a better chance of resolving their chemistry problems because they’re committed to making this group work. The Knicks have no such commitment to this team: They have a new system and new leadership and can’t wait to start tearing up their roster.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Charlotte. The Knicks are a project, and they have a distance to travel both on the court and in regard tot heir roster. I know the Hornets are brutal right now on both sides of the ball, but they have a system that works, a coach who got his team to the playoffs a season ago, and most importantly, a deep group of talented players. Maybe there are some chemistry issues and fundamental things to figure out, but the Hornets should be able to shake through their issues and get on the winning track. And in the Eastern Conference, you’re never really out of the puzzle.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: I don’t have much faith in either of these two teams’ postseason hopes. But if I had to, I’d pick the Hornets over the Knicks to make a run at the playoffs. New York is a lost cause right know: learning a new system with a bunch of players who either don’t believe in it or are not fit for it it’s almost impossible. Even if you have two legends like Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher trying to convince you it’s the right thing to do. The Hornets were supposed to fight for a top 4 spot in the East: they have a playoff roster, they just need to find out a way to convince Lance Stephenson to fit into their system. Steve Clifford, with some help from His Airness, Michael Jordan, could make it.

Simon Legg, NBA.com/Australia: Definitely the Hornets. They’ve started terribly but their schedule has been incredibly tough. Steve Clifford built an elite defense last season that revolved around stopping easy transition baskets, they’ve gone away from that this season but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury hasn’t helped. They’ll improve defensively, it’s on the offensive end that I’m concerned. If they can bring in a little more shooting they may be able to turn things around here. I wasn’t one to get excited about this team in the offseason, Lance Stephenson wasn’t going to suddenly remedy their problems and losing Josh McRoberts was big. Right now, neither team will probably make the playoffs, but clearly if you have to choose one, I’m not banking on the Knicks!

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: Make the playoffs? No I don’t think so. Charlotte has a better roster, despite the fact that they lack a star with Melo’s caliber. They have a solid core (Gary Neal, Al Jefferson, Stephenson, Walker), but still are missing important parts to become an playoff team. Perhaps what they are missing is a Lance Stephenson’s Indiana days. He is not shooting well and the team needs him to step up.

Nacho Albarrán, NBA.com/Espana: New York, but the road to the playoffs will be tough, and we not sure if they will make it.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com/India: Because of their balance, depth, familiarity with the system, and defensive strengths, I think Charlotte is more likely to be a playoff team this season than New York. They have had a tough start to the season for sure, but the season is long and the East is weak: the Hornets have enough talent between Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, MKG, and Lance Stephenson to sharpen their rough edges in time for making a successful playoff run.

Juan Carlos Campos Rodriguez, NBA.com/Mexico: New York. They have the talent: Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and one Jose Calderon; Structure: Derek Fisher on the bench running the show and Phil Jackson as director. If they can come together and demonstrate their quality, they will make it to the playoffs over Charlotte. The fundamental points are that the team succeeds in implementing the triangle offense that led Jackson to win 11 titles in the NBA and that ‘Melo doesn’t run out of patience and decide he wants a ‘change of air’ by midseason.

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: I think Charlotte will get it going at some point, the Lance Stephenson experiment is not working right now but he is due to break out of his slump soon. Big Al Jefferson is consistent and a monster on the block while Kemba Walker is a top flight point guard in the league. New York is in a deeper hole, they don’t have the right players for their system and worse, Fisher can’t seem to make them play defense, their better off rebuilding full time than hope for a miracle with this group although it wouldn’t surprise me if Jose Calderon can somehow resuscitate their offense.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: I think the Knicks have the longer way to go. There are too many things they have to adjust. Coach Fisher still needs time to get to know his players. Who fits for the triangle offense and who not? It’s a transition year for them. Anyway they have the quality to claim a playoff-spot, it’s only 3,5 games to the last spot. But at the moment, I think the problems the Hornets have are a bit smaller. They have to figure out, how Stephenson and Walker fit together. Both needs the ball in their hands, without it they’re ineffective. In addition Charlotte has to find their defensive mindset again. Their team-defense is awful at the moment. But they will solve their problems. The quality in the team is high enough to be a good team in the East. I believe the Hornets will make it to the playoffs.

For more debates, go to #AmexNBA or www.nba.com/homecourtadvantage.

Blogtable: Taking the best 16

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The best 2s | Charlotte vs. New York | A sweet 16


> Lately we’ve had some talk on conference imbalance and what can be done about it. One question: Do you like the idea of seeding the top 16 teams in the playoffs, regardless of conference? Any drawbacks?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI like this plan. Some East teams still would have an edge anyway, right, because their records get fattened against the lousiest clubs in their conference? Even so, it would help to squelch the six months of bellyaching we get from some in the media on this topic. I mostly consider this a pendulum problem that will swing the other way in time. But some seem hung up on fixing instantly anything they perceive isn’t “faaaair.” If instituted, their next freak-out would be over the travel demands of a Portland-Atlanta series.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Looking forward to that Miami-Portland first round playoff series. Boston-LA? Memphis-Sacramento? You think the media whining is loud now? Team complaints about travel fatigue? Wait til those happen. So Mark Cuban wants to go to the Eastern Conference because its so hard for his team in the West. For a guy who lives in the “Shark Tank,” he should know life sometimes bites. This is a solution in search of a problem.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The only drawback is that one conference will face a much easier schedule in the regular season and throw off the records that will determine the seedings. Beyond that, rank away. Just make sure to build in enough time. There could be coast-to-coast travel in the first round. If teams are going back and forth in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, and maybe on more than one occasion in that postseason, play will suffer.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The screaming you hear about conference imbalance is based on recent events, or lack thereof, in the East. As you know, these things are cyclical and who’s to say the East won’t be the better conference in another few years? There’s no need to push the red button and force change. Stick with the status quo and keep the conferences balanced in the postseason.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’m not crazy about the idea, but I think it has to be done at this point. This is now 15 of the last 16 years in which the West has been the better conference. Some good teams are missing the playoffs and some bad teams are making them. But if you do it, you have to look at balancing the schedule, which will be tougher to do.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I feel like such a grumpy old man here, but I do not. I don’t think everyone should get a trophy for participation either. Seriously. Enough of this fairness doctrine being spread around the league. I’m reminded of the cyclical nature of sports and the fact that what appears one way now can change dramatically before you know it, rendering a hasty reaction foolish if we’re not careful. The divisional and conference format of the league has to mean something. There has to be some method to this madness. I understand we’re trying to reward teams in the tougher conference and a top-16 would make it “fair” to some. But I don’t believe that solves the problem when, say in a year or two, the Eastern Conference sees the balance of power shift in its direction.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: It would be good if everyone played to a similar schedule. The hard problem to solve here is the scheduling: To fix it without losing a sense of regional rivalry and without adding to travel for the teams.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I do not like the idea. I understand the arguments in favor of the change, specifically that it should ostensibly make for more competitive matchups in the playoffs, which would make the entire league must-see TV and raise ratings (and revenues). But I’m also something of a new-school traditionalist, and I like the conferences and divisions, gerrymandered though they may be. Conferences will have ups and downs and at some point in the future the East will once again have the power while the West will struggle. Until then, that’s just the way it is. (Word to Bruce Hornsby.)

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: Why not? I’m a fan of this approach. The best 16 teams should battle for the title. The question is, do we still need the divisions and conferences? Traveling in our time is so comfortable that this isn’t an argument anymore. And it would be unfair if you change the system but keep the conferences. The teams in the East would have an advantage, because of the easier schedule. You have to change the schedule system. Every team would have to play three times against every team in the league. That would mean 87 regular season games. Too much? I don’t know. But changing things isn’t as easy as you’d expect.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: For sure! It’s very similar to the European point of view, where the winning record is the only criteria. We will miss some rivalries, but I think that this way the playoffs will be even better.

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: I am leaning towards the top 16 teams in the playoffs, because a lot of talented and exciting teams from the West will be left off again come post-season. Teams like the Pelicans, Suns and Kings all have great young talent. The Western and Eastern Conference format always builds up rivalries, but a great example is the NCAA tournament, no one bothers from what conference or state the schools belong to, it’s just the top teams in the country, period.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com/India: I do like the seeding of the top 16 teams for the playoffs as the first step towards fixing the playoffs imbalance. Too many good teams and superstar players are standing out the playoff picture in the West every year; and meanwhile out East, teams that start 4-13 are still optimistic of finishing in the top six. The drawback obviously is that it will eliminate some of the historical rivalries a little as teams that face each other regularly in the playoffs will now be playing more inter-conference matchups earlier in the playoffs. To be honest, I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing: with new alignments and rules, there will be new traditions. The top 16 seeding shouldn’t be the final solution either, because teams in the East will still continue to have an easier schedule during the regular season as they play teams in their weaker conference more often. In the ideal NBA world, I will be hoping that all teams play each other equal number of times through the season for a truly fair idea of where they should stand before the postseason begins.

Nacho Albarrán, NBA.com/Espana: Yes, and we don’t see any drawbacks, because that system could improve the overall competition.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: I really like the idea of seeding the top 16 teams in the playoffs regardless of conference. Traveling isn’t an issue anymore, so why don’t have a postseason with the 16 best teams out of the regular season? It would be really interesting, and I’m pretty sure most teams would like it. Especially Western Conference teams …

Simon Legg, NBA.com/Australia: I do! Let’s get the best teams in the playoffs! It was a complete injustice that the 48-win Suns missed the playoffs last season. Not only did they win 48 games, they won them in the West! No offense to Atlanta, but how does a team that won 38 games make the playoffs? The Hornets really struggled to start the season, but given they’re in the East there’s a chance that they get themselves together and win enough games to qualify. Obviously, the entire system would have to change so that’s probably a drawback, but if you get the best teams in the playoffs then it’s worth it.

For more debates, go to #AmexNBA or www.nba.com/homecourtadvantage.

Blogtable: The league’s best 2 guards

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The best 2s | Charlotte vs. New York | A sweet 16



VIDEO: Isiah Thomas has high praise for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler

> Rank the top three shooting guards in the league … under 35. What’s your reasoning?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: 1. Klay Thompson, 2. James Harden, 3. Jimmy Butler. This is pretty straight-forward for me. Thompson has the reputation and the paycheck as the best two-way shooting guard, with Team USA credibility behind him. Harden is the most dangerous offensively, and the position is called “shooting guard” for a reason. And I’ve seen Butler enough to know that, while his offensive game isn’t as developed as Thompson’s, his brand of defense and toughness can win you a bunch of games. Just missing my cut: Bradley Beal. Scoring chops, mature, guy who does little things, but oh those injuries.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: James Harden, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal. Harden is the most unstoppable backcourt scoring force in the league right now, ranks second in league in points per game. He’s the best at getting to the hoop and drawing fouls and can fill it up on 3s. Also gets a half dozen rebounds and assists per game and this season is also making a solid defensive effort. Thompson’s improved post-up game has him closing the gap, but Harden’s free throws make the difference. Beal just needs a long run of good health to stake his claim with the top two.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: There’s a change at the top of the leader board. While I would have gone with James Harden in the past, I give Klay Thompson the edge now because of defense. Thompson has size, the shooting range, the ability to check multiple positions. And he’s only getting better. I’ll go DeMar DeRozan third.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Harden, Thompson, DeRozan. I just realized how watered-down this position actually is, especially compared to the golden age with Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, etc. None of my candidates are perfect, but Harden is extremely good at the skill that the position demands. So he’s my choice despite his defense. Funny thing, just a few years ago folks were wondering if the Raptors jumped the gun by giving DeRozan that extension.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: 1. James Harden. 2. Klay Thompson. 3. Dwyane Wade. Harden’s efficiency at such a high volume (Kyle Korver is the only shooting guard who’s a more efficient scorer) makes up for his defensive issues. Thompson is a pretty complete player, though he hasn’t had to be the lead guy like the other two. And Wade still gets it done when he’s healthy and when he decides to care on defense. This isn’t an easy question to answer because there are a lot of solid guys and nobody that’s not without his faults. I came close to squeezing Korver, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Joe Johnson, or Wesley Matthews on the list. And give 37-year-old Manu Ginobili any time.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Once a position of extreme depth and power, the move to “hyrbid” point guards who could be classified at either backcourt position clouds these rankings a bit for me. That said, James Harden tops my list. He’s an elite scorer who cannot be contained most nights because he can beat you from deep or by attacking and finishing at the rim and free throw line. Klay Thompson is No. 2 on my list. He plays both ends at an elite level and, in my opinion, is just now coming into his own as a true All-Star caliber player. I know he’s older and a bit broken down at this stage of his career, but on his best night Dwyane Wade still makes my top 3 at shooting guard. He can still do things, albeit on a far more infrequent basis, that only a select few at the position can. Wade’s ability to post up on offense and play both ends at the highest level keeps him holding on, so to speak.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: So far Jimmy Butler is having the best year, just in front of James Harden and Klay Thompson. Butler impacts the game at both ends, and his offensive versatility has been tremendous. Harden and Thompson (another strong two-way player) have been crucial to their teams’ hot starts. Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan would be challenging (in addition to Monta Ellis) if not for injuries.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: So, what, anyone but Kobe Bryant? Because Kobe is the only 35+ two guard I can think of to whom this question would apply. So with KB out of the picture — and he would probably be in my picture otherwise — I’m looking for players who do more than just score. I want guys who give a hoot on defense and provide leadership, as well, and also have some room to grow. So I’ll go Klay Thompson first, James Harden second, and DeMar DeRozan third, with Bradley Beal right on their heels. But if you want, you can have any of those guys and I’ll still take Kobe, regardless of age.

Nacho Albarrán, NBA.com/Espana: Dwyane Wade, because is a very versatile player, a good shooter, rebounder and passer, a leader at last. And already he’s won three championship rings in six Finals. James Harden is the future on this position, because his strength, his shooting abilities and in going powerfully to the rim. He only needs to play better in the clutch games. Monta Ellis has grown as a more complete player in Dallas and is just pure show.

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: James Harden, Klay Thompson and Monta Ellis. Harden is my top shooting guard at the moment, he may get some flak because of his defense but the way he controls the game is almost effortless — he can score easily and when he puts his mind into it he can guard positions 1-4. Klay just keeps on improving and he is with the right system, with great teammates that look for him on offense. While on defense he is tasked to defend the best guard in the opposing them on a nightly basis. Monta is the most underrated shooting guard in the league. if you watch the Mavs you will see that he is their primary option on offense and he also has underrated defense.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com/India: Number 1’s gotta be James Harden – knock him for his defensive inability or over-reliance on the free-throw line all you want, but Harden’s ability to create offense for himself and his teammates is currently above far and beyond all other comers at his position. I’d give Klay Thompson second place in the list for scoring nearly 21 points per game and also developing into an elite perimeter defender on the opposite end. Number 3 is a tricky choice – if we were in the playoffs, I would’ve probably chosen Dwyane Wade, but the Heat SG’s inconsistencies knock him down a spot for me. I’d say the third-best shooting guard in the league is DeMar DeRozan. Although he’s currently hurt, DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer and has helped them to early success this season.

Juan Carlos Campos Rodriguez, NBA.com/Mexico: 1. Stephen Curry is averaging 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, plus an impressive 41.3 percent on three-pointers, so in my opinion, he’s the best in the league. Let’s not forget that he’s also a great defender and he’s undoubtedly the Warriors’ leader.  It’s a delight to watch him play – spectacular passes, dribbles and stunning high-level layups. 2. Russell Westbrook with 24 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6 assists per game plus a percentage of 57.1 in three-pointers is an awesome weapon for the Thunder. What leaves me with doubts, even though his return was “wild,” was his aggressiveness when attacking the rim and defensively, the questions that we’d asked about him during his first seasons in the league. 3. James Harden‘s simply an offensive show, just look at his stats: 25.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game – a confirmation of a great offensive talent that has the most famous “Beard” in the NBA.  However, his lack of commitment to become a better defender and his occasional lapses in the clutch forces me to put him in third place.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: How old is Kobe, after he fell into the fountain of youth? 28? I’m joking, but I’m really impressed by his performance so far at his age. I’ve expected a good comeback from him, but so good? Okay, let’s talk about the young fellas. I’m not a big fan of James Harden because of his defense, but his season is offensively so dominant, that you can’t choose someone else as the best shooting guard in the league so far. Behind Harden I have to pick Jimmy Butler. His improvement in the offense this season is so huge. Maybe he’s the upcoming franchise player of the Bulls. For third, I choose Klay Thompson. His game is not as variable as the ones of Butler and Harden, but if he catches fire no one can stop him.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: James Harden, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade. From No. 1 to No. 3. I think that there is no need to argue about Harden. His 25.2 points per game speak for themselves. Thompson is one the best pure shooters in the NBA and the best under 30 years-old. Wade,  on the other hand, still has got game. He scores 20.5 per game, dishes 5.6 assist and makes a trick or two to finish at the rim despite the nickname “Flash” starts to fade out as he slowly creeps toward 35 years old.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: Right now it’s James Harden, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler for me. Harden is an MVP-caliber player, a guy who can win games by himself. Devastating from distance, his Euro-steps are a trademark; he’s also trying to play more with his teammates. Thompson is more than just Steph Curry’s sidekick: he’s a star in the making, great on defense, awesome on offense. Butler is the new face of this season, an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. He’s one of the best 2-way players in the league after he transformed himself into a reliable offensive weapon during the offseason.

Simon Legg, NBA.com/Australia: Klay Thompson, Wesley Matthews and James Harden. My reasoning for Thompson and Matthews is pretty simple: they’re two of the best two-way guards we have in the league. Both guys can lock down opponents and influence things on defense and have become so important to their team’s overall success. From an offensive standpoint, these guys can hurt you in a number of different ways, but mainly due to their elite 3-point shooting which has become so important in today’s NBA. As for Harden, I’m probably contradicting myself due to his defensive limitations but he is the most explosive scorer at the position so it’s hard to keep a guy out like that. He sets up teammates, gets to the line at an abnormal rate and can hurt you in a number of different ways. If it was two years ago, Dwyane Wade finds himself in this list.

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For more debates, go to #AmexNBA or www.nba.com/homecourtadvantage.

Time enough for Thunder to rise in West? For Durant to repeat as MVP?


VIDEO: Does KD have an honest shot at the 2014-15 MVP?

With Christmas Eve and Christmas morning coming for the Oklahoma City Thunder both early and separated by 96 hours this year – getting Russell Westbrook back last Friday vs. New York and Kevin Durant in time to play at New Orleans Tuesday night – the best way to assess the Thunder’s situation is:

A) No worries.

B) In the nick of time.

C) Too late to matter.

The same set of answers can apply to two questions spinning off the Thunder stars’ comebacks: Is 65 games enough time for the OKC to position itself as a championship contender in the rugged Western Conference? And does Durant have a legitimate chance to repeat as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player?

Here at Hang Time HQ, the first question seems easier to answer than the first. The 5-12 Thunder woke up Tuesday in 12th place in the West standings. They were 4.5 games behind No. 8 Phoenix (10-8). For a team as playoff-savvy as Oklahoma City, just qualifying for the postseason would put them in position to push toward The Finals – they’d just have to do it without either homecourt advantage or a relatively easy first-round matchup (since this is the West, we stress relatively).

OKC also was eight games out of a Top 4 berth, where it would enjoy home court for at least one round. Realistic to think the Thunder could climb over that many rivals? Durant, Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks and the rest have won 72.1 percent of their games the past three seasons. If they were to win at that clip over their final 65 this season, they’d finish about 52-30.

Only once in the last eight years would that record be good enough to finish fourth or higher. And that worked out for Utah in 2006-07 because its 51-31 finish was good enough to win the Northwest Division, earning it a Top 4 berth even though No. 5 Houston went 52-30. The same sort of thing occurred in 2005-06 (Denver’s 44-38 earned homecourt over Memphis’ 49-33).

Also, the Lakers and the Grizzlies secured the Nos. 3 and 4 slots in the post-lockout 2011-12 season by finishing 41-25 (.621), the equivalent of 51-31 in an 82-game season.

So it’s not too late for the Thunder. How ’bout Durant?

If OKC does push toward a playoff spot or a top seed, odds are good that the NBA’s 2014 MVP will have something significant to do with it. He’ll already have on his side the unofficial criterion of how his team did/does without him: the Thunder are a 5-12 team in his absence. If they were to turn that around and go 45-20 or 47-18 with Durant after his return from foot surgery, that would be compelling apart from his individual stats.

The MVP field has no early runaway favorite: Marc Gasol has gotten attention for Memphis’ start, Stephen Curry is a possibility from Golden State and LeBron James always is a factor. Durant would face a particular hurdle in an injury-shortened season: Would MVP voters consider a player who missed so many games?

Only three previous Most Valuable Players, out of 59 in NBA history, appeared in fewer than 70 games in a full season. Boston’s Bob Cousy played 64 of a possible 72 in 1956-57, his teammate Bill Russell played 69 of 72 the next year and Portland’s Bill Walton played in just 58 of 82 in 1977-78 – with most of his absences coming at the end, missing the Blazers’ final 22 games. Portland went 48-10 with Walton, 10-14 without him.

As for other individual stats, Durant shouldn’t have much trouble grabbing voters’ attention. Since his rookie season, he has averaged 28.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 38.9 minutes, while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent on 3-pointers.

And actually, if someone were to begrudge Durant his raw numbers, consider this: A scoring average of 28.6 played out over 65 games would get him to 1,859 points – the equivalent of a 22.6 average over 82 games. Fourteen NBA MVPs averaged less than 22.6 in their hardware-winning seasons.

None of this, of course, addresses the likelihood of Westbrook splitting votes with his freshly healed Thunder teammate. Fresh off his hand surgery, Westbrook grabbed a 1-0 lead in OKC impact by scoring 32 points and sparking the Thunder past the Knicks last weekend.

Brooks: Durant to face Pelicans tonight

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (right) will play together tonight for the first time this season.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (right) will play together tonight for the first time this season.

Kevin Durant will make his 2014-15 NBA debut in New Orleans Tuesday night, according to Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks in comments to media at the Thunder’s shootaround. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman, who first reported the news, has more:

Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks announced this morning that Kevin Durant will play against the New Orleans Pelicans tonight – Durant’s first game action since fracturing his right foot in the preseason.

Durant participated in a full week of practices leading up to Tuesday’s announcement from Brooks. Durant’s last five practice sessions all involved contact with no setbacks, per The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry.

Durant makes his debut against a Pelicans team that is currently 7-8 – fifth in the loaded Southwest Division. The Thunder is third in the Northwest Division, eight games behind first-place Portland (13-4).

As expected, Twitter was also abuzz about OKC’s turn in fortune:

For the 5-12 Thunder and their fans, this has to feel a little like opening gifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. They got Russell Westbrook back on Friday, and the irrepressible point guard, who had surgery on a broken bone in his right hand just two games into the season, scored 32 points with eight assists and seven rebounds in just 24 minutes in a blowout victory over the Knicks.

Now it’s Durant, the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player, who has been out since undergoing surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot in mid-October. The 6-foot-10 forward won his fourth NBA scoring title last season, averaging 32.0 points with 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists to help OKC go 59-23 and reach the Western Conference finals.

Wolves have served as historic skid-busters before

The 1996 Minnesota Timberwolves prevented the then-Vancouver Grizzlies from a 24th straight loss.

The 1996 Minnesota Timberwolves prevented the then-Vancouver Grizzlies from a 24th straight loss.

In case any of you gets caught up in some trivial aspect of life and momentarily loses track of the Philadelphia 76ers’ plight in trying to win a game in 2014-15, there is a handy Twitter account that can keep you informed. It’s @DidTheSixersWin and it features a creative variation of the Sixers’ logo, depicting (what else?) a tank in team colors.

Here is a sampling of the account’s content over the past week:

You get the idea. But the pure and simple consistency of that account’s Tweets will get broken at some point, and it could happen as soon as Wednesday. That’s when the 0-17 Sixers play at Minnesota, facing a banged-up Timberwolves squad that is 4-12 and plugging holes for injured starters Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. Nothing’s assured, of course, and the Wolves are 2-5 at home (where they give up 8.2 fewer points per game) and 3-4 against the East.

Then again, some in Minnesota are flinching because they and their favorite team have been in a situation like this before. On April 3, 1996, the Vancouver Grizzlies had lost 23 games in a row when they faced Minnesota at GM Place. The NBA’s futility record for consecutive defeats at the time was 24, held by the Cleveland Cavaliers (the Cavs had lost their final 19 games in 1981-82, then opened the next season 0-5).

There are people in Minnesota to this day who believe the league powers weren’t eager to have a new pet franchise in Canada smeared with such an ignoble distinction. So what happened that night? The Timberwolves led 84-72 through three quarters, shot 56.5 percent to Vancouver’s 45.9 from the field, sank nine of their 18 3-pointers while the Grizzlies went 3-of-11, and won the boards 36-31.

And yet, Vancouver won 105-103 when Blue Edwards hit a running jumper from out front just before the final buzzer. Yes, Minnesota turned over the ball 24 times, but the real difference came from the foul line. The Grizzlies shot 43 free throws that night to the visitors’ 21 and outscored the Wolves 34-16.

“I think we’d forgotten what it feels like to win,” Edwards said that night.

Losing streak snapped. The 2010-11 Cavaliers and the Sixers last season, perhaps fittingly, would go on to establish and tie a longer mark for consecutive losses (26).

Toronto’s DeRozan out indefinitely


VIDEO: DeRozan goes down during Friday’s game

DeMar DeRozan had been a remarkably durable player for the Toronto Raptors in his first six seasons, missing just 10 games out of a possible 394 due to injury. He is the only Raptors player to start all 82 games twice, and he has missed only two since the end of the 2012-13 season.

That changes now, per the team’s Twitter report Saturday afternoon:

DeRozan, Toronto’s leading scorer (19.4 points) and minutes-man (33.6 per game), left the Raptors’ game Friday at Dallas at 8:23 of the third quarter with what was called a strained left groin. He wound up going scoreless in the 106-102 loss, only the fourth time in his career and the first since April 11, 2010.

The injury comes as Toronto starts a three-games-in-four-nights trip to face the L.A. Lakers Sunday, Sacramento Tuesday and Utah Wednesday. The 6-foot-7 wing player, who ranked third in the NBA in free throws and free-throw attempts and ninth in field-goal attempts, was averaging 25.2 points in five road games this season.

Toronto is 8-3 in the games DeRozan has missed in his career, including one last April for rest before the playoffs.

Stars align for Wolves’ rookie LaVine


VIDEO: Rookie LaVine carries Wolves over Lakers

There were times Friday night, Zach LaVine admitted, when he caught himself gawking upon Kobe Bryant the way he had in his, well, younger youth, when the 19-year-old was growing up in Washington state and idolized the Lakers scoring star. Fortunately for LaVine, rookie guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant never fully made him and his team pay for such star gazing.

In fact, the raw newcomer who spent one undeveloped year at UCLA outscored his hero 28-26 in Minnesota’s 120-119 victory at Staples Center.

When it was over, the teenager who scored 18 points in reserve in the second quarter, had joined Bryant in a bit of NBA statistical history:

LaVine’s 28 points were the third-most by any bench player in the league this season. He joined Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and LaVine’s teammate Andrew Wiggins as the only four Wolves to score 25 or more before turning 20.

This one meant a little extra to LaVine because of where he did it and whom he was facing (Wiggins actually was the Wolves defender assigned to Bryant for much of the game). “I always want to come back and put a show on,” he told reporters after doing just that for about 10 family members and friends. “I know a lot of UCLA fans were here and a lot of UCLA fans are mad that I came out. I’m confident person. I like proving people wrong.”

LaVine still routinely proves some critics and even his coaches right with his unpolished game and mental mistakes. He is averaging 8.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 21.3 minutes, while shooting 42.9 percent, including an ill-advised 27.8 percent from 3-point range.

For all his athletic ability, vertical leap and YouTube wonderfulness, the rookie has only three dunks in 234 minutes, compared to team leader Shabazz Muhammad‘s 13 in 207. And LaVine’s per game plus/minus of minus-8.1 is Minnesota’s worst.

But then, Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders knew LaVine would serve a healthy apprenticeship learning his craft at this level when he drafted him 13th overall last June – and handed him over to head coach Flip Saunders to begin the heavy repetitions of development. Saunders saw point-guard potential in LaVine during the Las Vegas Summer League and told anyone who would listen about the slender, 6-foot-5 player’s skills and charisma. When Ricky Rubio badly sprained his left ankle earlier this month, the coach gave LaVine some trial by fire as a starter before flipping him back to the bench behind Mo Williams.

For a night, in 26 minutes – Russell Westbrook wasn’t the only guy scoring at greater than a point-per-minute pace Friday – it came together for LaVine. Right place, right time, right audience.

Said Saunders: “I think he showed a little bit of what he’s going to be able to do in this league.”