Posts Tagged ‘Steve Kerr’

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Morning Shootaround — March 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Nash to return tonight | Clips get Redick, Crawford back at practice | Kings’ White may make NBA debut tonight | Kerr: NBA teams like Hoiberg

No. 1: Report: Nash planning to play tonight vs. Wizards — We informed you in this space yesterday that what seemed like a foregone conclusion — Steve Nash‘s season being over — might soon be be completely reversed. That is no less true today as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports that Nash should suit up and play tonight for the Lakers’ home game against the Washington Wizards:

After five weeks on the sidelines, Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash is planning a return to the lineup on Friday night, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Lakers, left with only one healthy point guard, are planning to use Nash as a backup to Kendall Marshall against the Washington Wizards at Staples Center.

Nash, a two-time NBA MVP, participated in a full practice session with the Lakers on Thursday.

After recently ruling out Nash’s return, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni changed course on Wednesday and suggested Nash could return over the final 15 games of the regular season.

D’Antoni informed reporters that guard Nick Young and forward Jordan Hill would return from injuries on Friday, too. The Lakers lost point guard Jordan Farmar to an injury this week.

Nash, 40, has suffered from nerve damage in his back and hamstring injuries this season. Nash, who hasn’t played a game since Feb. 11, has averaged 7.6 points and 4.7 assists in 10 games.


VIDEO: Coach Mike D’Antoni addresses the state of the Lakers’ roster

***

No. 2: Redick, Crawford back at Clippers practice — You’re not that far off in thinking it seems like the Los Angeles Clippers have been dealing with injuries to their backcourt practically all season long. Point guard Chris Paul missed several weeks with a shoulder injury, J.J. Redick has been in and out of the lineup with various maladies and Jamal Crawford (calf) has been the most recent casualty of late. But things are looking up for the Clips, perhaps, at just the right time as Redick and Crawford practiced with the team yesterday, writes Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

Doc Rivers and his coaching staff had a plan for the Clippers’ practices on Thursday and Friday. They were coming off two days of rest, a rare gift from NBA schedule-makers.

Then, for the best possible reasons, Rivers tore up those plans.

J.J. Redick (back) and Jamal Crawford (calf) were cleared to practice, and with the team still trying incorporate new acquisitions Glen Davis and Danny Granger, Rivers thought better of trying to use the time to add new things.

“There are just too many guys coming back now,” Rivers said before Thursday’s practice. “As a staff, we basically scratched all the stuff that we were going to do. There are too many guys coming back, and we’ve just got to get them back playing basketball.”

Redick hasn’t played since Feb. 3 because of a bulging disk in his lower back. He ramped up his individual workouts in recent weeks in hopes of returning this season.

There’s still no date targeted for when he’ll play in a game again.

Crawford first strained his left calf Feb. 26. He tried to return March 8, but he admitted that was too soon.

After working on strengthening the muscle, Crawford went through an individual workout Wednesday and came through it with confidence.

He said the plan is for him to play Saturday against the Pistons.

“Rhythm, wind and stamina will come back at some point. I just want to make sure I don’t hurt the calf and feel confident.” Crawford said. “I can get in shape fast and get my wind back, but the peace of mind that nothing will happen if I do a certain move or change a certain direction, that’s more important.”

Darren Collison, who missed the last two games with a stomach virus, also returned to practice.

Thursday was the first time this season Rivers was able to hold a full practice with the current roster.


VIDEO:
Jamal Crawford talks about his return to Clippers practice

***

No. 3: Kings’ White ready to make his NBA debut Royce White, the 16th pick of the 2012 Draft, has experienced a long and winding road in and out of the NBA since that night. White, who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, never played in an NBA game with the Houston Rockets (the team that drafted him). He was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in the offseason and while he played in the preseason, he was cut before the opener of the 2013-14 season. The Sacramento Kings signed White to a 10-day contract on March 6 and to a second 10-day deal last week. He’s spent time with the Kings’ NBA D-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns, and was called up to the team and could play in an actual NBA game tonight against the San Antonio Spurs, writes Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:

Players signing 10-day contracts usually isn’t big news.

But most players who sign 10-day contracts aren’t fewer than two years removed from being a first-round draft pick and have never played in an NBA regular-season game.

White, 22, was selected by Houston with the 16th pick in the 2012 draft. White, however, never played a game for the Rockets. White and Houston never agreed on the best way to deal with his mental-health concerns. White has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which leaves him susceptible to panic attacks and having a fear of flying.

White said those issues are not a problem with the Kings after his experience with Houston, which eventually traded White to Philadelphia. The 76ers waived him before the the start of this season.

“I think (the issues) kind of resolved themselves over time,” White said Thursday after his first practice with the Kings. “Just me being in the league for a year and a half and having things be on the table with the league and the union and discussing it put this organization in a better position to handle things. It’s been so good we haven’t even had a discussion about anything. That’s exciting.”

The Kings went into the first 10-day contract with a plan of how to bring White along, beginning with a four-game stint in the D-League. He spent last weekend working out in Sacramento before signing his second 10-day deal. White said the process of joining the Kings has gone well, and that it began with a workout in late February.

“It happened really quick, but we still did it in a way that was really thought out,” White said. “We took a number of things into account. (General manager Pete D’Alessandro) has been great and understanding with me, where I’m coming from, where I want to go and how that fits into the Kings’ organization and being real flexible with me, and I really appreciate that.”

After White’s first practice with the Kings, coach Michael Malone said he was impressed with his strength, passing and basketball IQ.

Malone said White would be treated like every other player on the roster. When asked if there were any concerns, the coach said, “Not at all.” Malone said if White doesn’t play tonight, he would against Milwaukee on Sunday.

“This whole process between Royce and the Sacramento Kings is about him as a basketball player,” Malone said. “He did everything that we asked him to do up in Reno. He’s been tremendous while he’s been in Sacramento. No problems at all. No worries from our standpoint as a coaching staff. We’re going to expect him to do what everybody else is expected to do. Show up on time, work hard, pay attention, be disciplined and buy in to what we’re trying to do. He appears to be ready, willing and able to do that.”

Regarding rumors and stories that have been written about White and the issues that have delayed his pro career, White said: “Read what you want. There’s nothing I can really say in a sentence. There’s a lot of things I want people to know.”


VIDEO: Royce White talks about potentially making his NBA debut tonight

***

No. 4: Kerr: NBA teams interested in Cyclones’ Hoiberg – Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has a pretty extensive NBA resume, boasting 10 seasons as a player in the league plus a season as the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. At ISU, he’s led the Cyclones to three NCAA tournament appearances in his four seasons in Ames, Iowa, and, according to TNT analyst Steve Kerr, Hoiberg has a future as an NBA coach. Randy Peterson of The Des Moines Register has more:

Fred Hoiberg’s future as an NBA coach rests with him — and him only — says a former NBA player and executive.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the NBA. The minute he says he’s interested, he’ll have some offers,” said Steve Kerr, part of the television crew calling this weekend’s NCAA Tournament for TNT.

Hoiberg has acknowledged that he had head coaching inquiries from NBA franchises that he would not identify. He said he hasn’t let it extend beyond the inquiry stage.

“Nothing got to the point where there was an offer,” Hoiberg, 41, said when his contract was re-worked last summer.

If Hoiberg accepts a head coaching or general manager position in the NBA before his contract expires, he owes Iowa State $500,000. His buyout increases to $2 million if he accepts another Division I head coaching position.

In other words, if he’s ever going to leave Ames, it’d make most sense to go to the NBA.

Hoiberg has an 88-46 record in his fourth season as the coach.

Hoiberg has ties to Minnesota, as a player and front-office administrator for the NBA’s Timberwolves. His family, however, is in Ames.

“It’s been great for me to be home,” Hoiberg told reporters at last season’s NCAA Tournament. “I grew up five blocks from Hilton Coliseum, used to walk to games. I was a ball boy as a kid. I was a ball boy for the football team, and I’ve just always had such a great passion for Cyclone athletics.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Sponsor logos on NBA jerseys are looking more and more like an inevitability … It seems a lot of folks are getting upset over Drew Gooden‘s recent in-game shoulder shrug … Surprising Bucks rookie Nate Wolters was injured in last night’s game vs. Golden State … Kings big man Carl Landry had successful arthroscopic surgery on his knee … Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has high praise for backup big man Robert Sacre … Remember Mickael Pietrus? He plans to make an NBA comeback next season

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Houston was without Dwight Howard last night, so fellow big men Omer Asik and Terrence Jones did their best impression of him in terms of guarding the paint …


VIDEO: Omer Asik gets up to deny Luc Mbah a Moute


VIDEO: Terrence Jones swats away Gorgui Dieng not once, but twice

Few Believe Pacers Can Pass 70-Win Mark

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – One team in the history of the NBA can claim 70 wins in a single season. One.

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. A perfect storm of personnel, circumstance, timing and luck produced the league’s greatest season ever: 72 wins and 10 losses followed with a championship. It was Michael Jordan in his full return from baseball out to reconquer basketball. The preposterous Dennis Rodman propped up the big top and Phil Jackson pulled the strings as only the Zen Master can.

Can 70 happen again? Could another perfect storm be brewing 18 years later for another team from the Midwest? The hot-starting Indiana Pacers are young, athletic, talented, confident, well-coached and united. They might not have M.J., but they do play in the egregious Eastern Conference.

One member of the 72-win Bulls says forget about it.

“It’s never going to happen again,” said longtime NBA sharpshooter Steve Kerr, now a TNT analyst.

Kerr quickly made clear that his adamancy is not rooted in some 1972 Miami Dolphins-style pop-the-champagne bravado that annually celebrates the continuance of a legacy upon the present failures of others.

“It’s not that,” Kerr said. “It’s virtually impossible to win 70. I think everything had to come perfectly together for that Bulls team. But mainly it’s Michael Jordan, on a great team already, winning 10 games on his own during that season that he wouldn’t let us lose. It’s a feat that is so difficult because you have to factor in everything: injuries, fatigue, luck — and I just don’t see it ever happening again.”


VIDEO: Top 10 plays from The 1996 Finals

It almost did the very next season. The Bulls were 69-11 with two games to go. They lost 102-92 at Miami, and then 103-101 in the finale at home against New York. Jordan scored 33 points in 39 minutes. Four other Bulls starters scored 37.

A handful of other teams have come close. But near-misses only demonstrate the near-impossibility of winning better than 85 percent of the time during an 82-game schedule spanning five-and-a-half months. The 1971-72 Lakers won 33 games in a row, yet topped out at 69 wins. The 66-67 Sixers and 72-73 Lakers each won 68. Four teams have won 67 (85-86 Celtics, 91-92 Bulls, 99-00 Lakers, 06-07 Mavericks), four have won 66 (70-71 Bucks, 07-08 Celtics, 08-09 Cavaliers, 12-13 Heat) and three more have won 65 (82-83 Sixers, 86-87 Lakers, 08-09 Lakers).

The Pacers have never won more than 61. They’re currently 17-2 – the same record as the 72-win Bulls nearly a quarter through the season — and with a plus-10.2 differential, Indiana is picking apart most opponents. Like those Bulls, the Pacers rank No. 1 in defensive rating (although unlike those Bulls’ No. 1 offensive rating, Indiana is smack in the middle, 15th). Paul George is playing phenomenally. Seven-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert takes patrolling the paint as personally as anybody. David West is a leadership rock. They are deep. They are team-oriented. And after taking the Heat to seven games in last season’s East finals, they’ve assumed the steely-eyed glare and fierce facade of a team on a mission.

High level of concentration


VIDEO: Paul George collects Kia Player of the Month honors for November

The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks did, too. That team won 67 games and were 61-11 with 10 games to go. They were furious (if not humiliated) after blowing a 2-0 lead and losing to the Heat in six games in the 2006 Finals. A summer hangover bled into an 0-4 start. Then Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki, in his lone MVP season, roasted the rest of the league with win streaks of 12, 13 and 17 games. With the No. 1 seed in hand, then-coach Avery Johnson eased off the gas and the Mavs finished up those last 10, 6-4.

“We were extremely focused,” said Devin Harris, a reserve point guard on that team. “We had a high level of concentration for long periods of time.”

Harris believes the Mavs win 70 that season had they snapped out of their post-Finals fog before the season started. Nowitzki, who saw these Pacers twice in the preseason, gives them at least a puncher’s chance.

“The Pacers have a great team. They’re tough, they’re long and they’ve got playmakers,” Nowitzki said. “Paul George took the next step to an absolute superstar level. They’ve got shooters, they’ve got inside presence with Hibbert, they’ve got shotmakers, so they’re a very, very good team.

“And,” Nowitzki reminded, “they play in the East. So maybe they can do it.”

Yes, the woebegone East, where only the Pacers and Heat are above .500, is a significant ingredient in a potential perfect storm. Indiana is 12-1 against its intraconference foes. The defeat, the Pacers’ first after a 9-0 start, came at Chicago before the Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the season.

The next five days should deliver strong signals whether 70 can be real or is simply a whimsical story line tossed into the breeze weeks before even Christmas arrives: The Pacers play the last two West champs, at San Antonio (15-3) on Saturday and at Oklahoma City (13-4) on Sunday; then return home Tuesday for the first of four regular-season meetings against the hated Heat (14-4).

After that the Pacers’ next 16 includes 13 against the East — 10 against sub-.500 clubs, two at .500 and a big one at Miami (Dec. 18); plus three against the West with Houston (Dec. 20) being the only one above .500.

“Is it possible?” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle asked rhetorically of winning 70. “You would have to take advantage of a year like this year; the East so far hasn’t been strong. So it would have to be a team coming out of the East.”

As sensationally as the Blazers — who beat Indiana in a tremendous game on Monday — Spurs and Thunder have started, seemingly unanimous agreement suggests no West team could possibly navigate the conference’s mine field to 70. As for the two-time champs from the East, even with the greatest player in the game, LeBron James, Miami is coming off three consecutive seasons playing into June. Dwyane Wade‘s iffy knees likely means he’ll sporadically miss games throughout the season as he did Tuesday against Detroit. On those nights the Heat will become more vulnerable to losses such as the one the Pistons, a team with a sub-.500 record, handed them on their home floor.

Pie in the sky?

Carlisle was a reserve forward on the 67-win Celtics in 1985-86. He coached under Larry Bird at Indiana and later coached the Pacers for four seasons, leading them to the franchise’s lone 60-win campaign in 2003-04. Carlisle remains close to Bird, now the Pacers’ team president and the man responsible for the current roster.

“I would say the CBA now, the way it’s geared toward equality in terms of talent and money spent, based on that premise it would be very unlikely that somebody could win 70 games,” Carlisle said. “But since the East is down this year — I mean I don’t think Indiana will do it, it’s just hard.”

But, Carlisle continued …

“It’s not impossible. A must is you would have to have a great defensive team because you’re going to lose some games just on shot-making being up or down, and it’s going to be down some nights. But they are as consistent defensively the last two years as any team I’ve seen since Chicago back in the 90s when they really had it going.

“So it would have to be a great defensive team. Miami’s the same way. But you’re talking about pie-in-the-sky.”

The Heat won 27 consecutive games last season and finished with 66 wins. Miami’s loss to Detroit provided a shining example why so many things must go right to even have a shot at 70 by the time March, let alone April rolls around. A team with a target on its back every night, and on Tuesday night without Wade, Miami simply couldn’t dial up the energy to get what on paper was a game they “should” win. The Pacers wear a target now, too.

The 72-win Bulls did a remarkable job of this. They lost only four times to teams that finished the season .500 or below. Only once did they trip over a true doormat — a 109-108 late March loss to the 21-61 Toronto Raptors. The Pacers earned win No. 17 by narrowly escaping such a defeat Wednesday night at Utah, the West’s last-place team at 4-16.

The Pacers now must go 53-10 the rest of the way.

“That’s just it,” said Kerr, who predicts the Pacers will finish with around 60 wins. “In the NBA, everybody has talent, even the bad teams have talent. The Knicks have lost nine in a row, and the Pacers really should have lost to the Knicks [on Nov. 20]. If [Iman] Shumpert doesn’t foul George on that 3 (with 5.2 seconds left in regulation), the Knicks win that game.

“Over 82 games, there’s just so many nights like that where a team gets hot, there’s an injury, there’s foul trouble, whatever it is, there’s just too many variables, and why I don’t think it will ever happen again.”


VIDEO: NBA Action looks at the Pacers’ hot start to 2013-14

Rose Returns, His Reputation (For Some Bulls Backers) To Follow


VIDEO: Derrick Rose talks with TNT’s David Aldridge about his return

CHICAGO – Derrick Rose smiled the other day — see, it is a new season — while talking about his toddler son, “P.J.,” and the 1-year-old’s budding love of the game. Little man already is working on his handle, Rose said, though he’s prone to double-dribbling.

But the whole time and space continuum still is a challenge for “P.J.,” it sounds like.

“He’s still confused when he sees me on TV,” Rose said. “Or sees a poster of me anywhere, it confuses him. I can’t wait till the day he knows I’m actually playing.”

Ahem. The same could be said for a whole bunch of fans of the Chicago Bulls who have been plenty confused themselves trying to figure out whether and when Rose would be playing.

For at least half of the past 18 months, Rose’s will-he-or-won’t-he endless rehabilitation from left knee surgery has sparked some of the fiercest Chicago barroom debates since Steve Bartman and Moises Alou tried to catch the same foul ball.

Was discretion truly the better part of valor, as in Rose’s decision — cobbled together missed game by missed game, from around the All-Star break last February until the Bulls’ season ran out — not to participate at all in 2012-13? Or had he somehow let his team, fans, city, sport and, ultimately, himself down by not adhering to a more conventional timetable? Should he have returned after about 10 months to face the rust and take some inevitable lumps with the idea that even a sub-par Rose could have helped the overachieving-but-undermanned Bulls?

Rose will be out there Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, TNT), officially ending his layoff (after four preseason United Center appearances) when the Bulls face the New York Knicks in their home opener. Soon, he or someone from the family will get “P.J.” to understand the difference between Daddy at home and Daddy on TV running up and down a basketball court.

It might take a little longer for greater Chicagoland and the nation’s Bulls fans to do so.

“When he comes out Thursday, it’s going to be real inspirational,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said this week. “I know he’s meant a lot to the city of Chicago, being from there. People love him. I felt it even when he didn’t play last year. Because he’s a hometown kid. It’s rare you get a No. 1 overall pick superstar playing for the hometown team.”

Playing being the operative word though.

Windy City’s Mt. Rushmore


VIDEO: Derrick Rose reads fan letters on ‘Inside Stuff’

As the biggest of the “Rust Belt” cities, with a crazy quilt of sports success and heartbreak — Bulls in the 1990s, Blackhawks nowadays vs. Cubs in the 20th and 21st centuries — Chicago has love-hate relationships with many of its athletes. But those on the top tier remain indisputably loved, and Rose already was climbing rungs in the Top 10 when he fell to the floor and grabbed his left knee, his ACL torn by the torque of his own explosive power in Game 1 against Philadelphia on April 28, 2012.

“If Derrick can stay healthy, he’ll end up on the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago sports,” said Chuck Swirsky, the radio play-by-play voice of the Bulls who began his Chicago sportscasting career more than three decades ago. “His skill level is off the charts. But will he stay healthy? No one can answer that.”

The Rushmore metaphor, strictly speaking, goes only four deep. But we’ll work with a slightly longer list. It begins with Michael Jordan, of course, then includes other beloved sports stars such as Walter Payton, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka (more as coach than player).

Of the bunch, though, only Butkus – the ferocious linebacker who went to Chicago Vocational School and the University of Illinois before being picked by the Bears No. 3 in the 1965 NFL draft (along with No. 4, running back Gayle Sayers) – was a native son. Jordan was from North Carolina. Payton, Mississippi. Banks grew up in Dallas and Santo in Seattle. Ditka came out of Pittsburgh football country, and Hull (Point Anne, Ontario) and Mikita (Czechoslovakia) might as well have been from Mars.

Rose grew up nine miles south of Chicago Stadium and later United Center, born a few years before Jordan and Scottie Pippen began winning championships. The Englewood neighborhood where his mother Brenda raised four boys — and those boys raised each subsequent boy, with Derrick (Pooh) Martell Rose as the youngest — is one of the poorest and most dangerous on Chicago’s South Side.

And on this list, that matters.

“Absolutely,” Swirsky said. “The speaking engagements I go to … always, they say, ‘He’s one of us.’ That’s one of the phrases that comes off the tongues of men, women and kids. They’re saying, he’s part of the fabric of Chicagoland. You can take a kid from [suburban] Glen Ellyn who idolizes the same athlete as somebody from Englewood. With all due respect to [Blackhawks Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane and the others, he is the No. 1 guy in this market.”

A hometown success story


VIDEO: Playing for hometown club a thrill for Rose

Asiaha Butler, a founder and president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, isn’t a sports fans but her husband is, and so are their neighbors. Which means they’re Rose fans.

“Englewood is one of those places where you only hear about the worst news,” Butler said. “So any good news is inspiring. We work with some schools in the area and I know there are kids who are elated that he’s back.”

The Bulls knew all about Rose’s roots when they made him the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Draft, taking him in spite of his connections more than because of them. Plenty of sports franchises had witnessed the trouble that can come when hometown hero tries to grow up professionally while his old life tugs at his current one.

“There was always this philosophy that you don’t want to take a guy and have him play in his hometown because of the outside influences,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “But in Derrick’s case, he had such a strong core of family and friends, that was never an issue.

“Chicago is a blue-collar town for the most part, always has been. Derrick, even with his athleticism, he still embraces that mentality of hard work and pride in where he’s from. Every time he talks about playing, he generally references Chicago. He takes pride in it, so it’s very easy for it all to work.”

Ed Pinckney, an assistant on coach Tom Thibodeau‘s staff, shakes his head thinking about himself, had he begun his 12-year NBA career in his native New York.

“In my hometown, my head would be swollen,” said Pinckney, who starred at Villanova in Philadelphia. “I don’t know how they deal with it on a daily basis. How do you manage your time, making people feel good, not slight people and still maintain a level of humbleness about you? I would feel, like, claustrophobic. I just know, the people around me, when they talk about Derrick, they talk in glowing terms.”

Reach the levels of notoriety Rose has in this (or any other) sports-crazed city and everyone wants a piece of you. Grant DePorter, president and manager of the five Harry Caray‘s sports restaurants, considers Rose “the closest thing Chicago’s had to Michael Jordan since Michael Jordan.” He has seen the similarities on nights the Bulls are on TV and the TVs in Harry Caray’s are on.

“When he’s playing, the place is packed. Everybody wants to watch Derrick Rose,” DePorter said. “And once he got injured, you really saw a difference in the fans’ enthusiasm. Enthusiasm equals revenue because people are going to eat and drink and celebrate, and they thought he was the second coming of Jordan. Him being from Chicago only helped.”

The Rose kids grew up playing basketball at Murray Park, a playground that had grown shaggy and rundown before the Bulls point guard pumped in some money a couple years back. They had their sports heroes, same as the young ballers now.

“It’s weird walking down the street,” said Reggie Rose, the most visible of Rose’s brothers and 14 years his senior. “When I was younger, I’d see kids wearing M.J. jerseys running around. Now I see kids running down the street with the No. 1 and ‘Rose’ on the backs of their jerseys. That’s really big to me.”

Reggie Rose spoke about the structure in their household growing up, with those surrogate dads in a single-parent home. “We still treat him as the little brother, even though he’s making a lot of money,” Reggie said. “There’s still structure and respect within the family, and we don’t let anybody try to do any divide-and-conquer, any cracks in it. We kind of just keep it moving. We’re a simple-minded family.”

Little brother Derrick treats his Chicago-ness like a warm embrace wrapped around a responsibility. He has the team’s P.A. announcer introduce him as “From Chicago…” rather than that one-year pit stop at the University of Memphis. He scarcely can imagine playing anywhere else.

“For me it’s a positive,” Rose said. “Every time I take the ball, the crowd is really into it. I take it all in, just knowing that — of course I know that everybody in the crowd is not cheering for me, but that’s the way I think about it when I’m on the court.”

That love of Chicago’s own might explain why some of the feelings of betrayal ran so deep when Rose did not come back for the Bulls last spring, and why they linger for some to this day. The player claims the criticism never has stung him.

“Not at all,” Rose said. “Because I look at it through their eyes, where if I had a favorite player and I was a fan, I would want him on the court too. I could see where they was coming from.”

‘Tiresome process’ for MVP


VIDEO: Rose opens up about his knee rehab

Dan Bernstein has been on the wall for the anger, frustration and gnashing of teeth over Rose’s prolonged rehab and delayed comeback. As a co-host of the afternoon drive show on Chicago’s WSCR AM-670, he has presided over, fueled and sampled it in all its permutations.

“There is no question that Derrick has used up some of his capital throughout this tiresome process,” Bernstein said. “Fans of his are confused and disappointed. There will always be anger on the fringes, but I don’t think that anger represents the larger portion of his real fans, who are more disappointed.

“The good news is, once the games start and even with some difficulties in this final stage of his rehabilitation to be expected, I think he can rebuild that capital very quickly.”

Confusion and downright crankiness crept in sometime in March, by which time Rose had been cleared by Bulls doctors to participate in 5-on-5 practices. He was 10 months along in his recovery process, right in the middle of the range laid out by his surgeon, Dr. Brian Cole. Other NBA players had returned to action on a similar schedule, such as Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and New York’s Iman Shumpert. And then there was Adrian Peterson of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, hurrying back in nine months and rushing for more than 2,000 yards.

When Rose showed up only as a warm-up attraction, shooting countless jumpers in the hour or two before Bulls games, right through the Eastern Conference semifinals between his Bulls and Miami, frustration and grumbling from the fans followed. That sneaker campaign by adidas featuring Rose — “The Return” — wound up feeling like a big tease to ticket buyers and home viewers fighting and losing against impatience. Fans started to question his courage. Others wondered if, hey, maybe he’s more selfish than they thought.

“I think it was some combination of all of that,” Bernstein said. “Sports fans now have information at their disposal to understand, this is not an experimental procedure. Even though it’s serious, it has become routine surgery. Fans can read what the doctors said. They can see what other players have done and are doing.

“So it was his return timetable raising eyebrows because people who do what he does for a living just don’t do that, unless there was something else going on. And we never really found out what that was.”

Even this month, after Rose’s sweltering summer workouts in Los Angeles and his arrival on time to training camp, questions lingered. When the Bulls chose to hold him out of the Oct. 12 game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — a big-deal Global Game exhibition — the reaction of some folks was swift and unforgiving. Among the reader comments in the Chicago Tribune:

  • “If I were D. Rose, I would sit out this year too, just to be sure.”
  • “Good thing he has a long-term contract with a lot of guaranteed money. He will never need to look a fan in the eye again.:
  • “Expect this to happen a lot. Especially for big games and the playoffs.”
  • “I really hate this guy!! Knee seems good enough to make all the stupid commercials he is currently rolling out!! Suck it up!”

So what was going on that took so long? Bernstein guessed that it was a disconnect on the final stage of rehab, where the standard process of playing through some rust and challenging games didn’t mesh with Rose’s sense of how much he trusted his repaired joint and coping with having to play as something less than “Derrick Rose, 2011 MVP” for a spell.

Rose has spoken of “feeling safe” this fall, a threshold that he cannot pinpoint but knows he has crossed.

“I can’t remember [when]. But for me, I feel normal right now,” he said. “I’m not worried about anything. I don’t have any aches. I’m not having any nagging injuries or anything. I’m really taking care of my body and preparing myself for this long season.”

Watching Rose swarmed by Miami’s double-teams and traps Tuesday night, certainly, made one wonder how he would have fared against that five months ago. At least by waiting, Rose could level the field a little, his layoff just a little longer than the typical layoff all NBA players have each offseason.

It would have helped, too, if the Bulls and Rose had handled better the whole messaging of his absence. Management never just declared his 2012-13 season over. The coaches kept treating him as a day-to-day option. And Rose’s presence on the court before each game down the stretch was more of a tease than a source of encouragement.

Bill Wennington, Swirsky’s partner and a former Bulls center, contrasted Rose’s layoff with what the L.A. Clippers did when Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick in 2009, suffered a fractured kneecap in the final preseason game that fall. After treatment and rest weren’t enough, Griffin headed to surgery and the Clippers by mid-January declared his rookie season over before it ever began.

“In my opinion, Derrick made the right decision,” Wennington said. “But was it handled properly? Probably not. It left a lot of questions and expectations that didn’t happen. People who say ‘Derrick should have played,’ if they listen to the whole story and understand it’s his career and how others coming back from surgery can get reinjured or it takes a whole year anyway, they start to get it.

“Derrick’s game is so different, both the explosion he has going from 0-to-60 and then the elevation that he powers to the rim, and the landing and the absorbing the body weight. … I think people have seen already that he looks pretty good. He’s showing no ill signs from being out, and as long as that continues, his reputation and legend will grow here in Chicago.”

Throughout the league, it’s taking only brief glimpses of Rose’s restored quickness and aggressiveness to convince players and coaches that waiting was the better choice. Denver coach Brian Shaw had cautioned him about that last season, mentioning Penny Hardaway as one of several ex-NBA stars who might have rushed back too soon.

But, you don’t want to swap a feel-good moment for a career of future highlights. That’s the worst-case scenario the Rose family considered, in convening about their NBA star’s predicament.

“At that time, us as a family and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, we all had to sit down and look at his best interest,” Reggie Rose said. “We were like, ‘Why go in for just one year when he has more than 10 years of basketball left in him?’ For us, it was let him sit one year and play 10 instead of try to play one and don’t play 10.”

Winning, health cure all


VIDEO: Aschburner with Rose during Media Day

As Bulls camp opened, Thibodeau, appreciative and fiercely protective of Rose, flippantly dismissed grumpy fans and media critics as people who “don’t know what they’re talking about.” A month later, he had softened just a bit.

“I think the real fans supported him the entire time,” the Bulls coach said. “The ones who didn’t were misguided. He had to make a tough decision.”

Teammates, for all public consumption and even in private, seem to have had Rose’s back throughout.

“We’re a family,” veteran center Nazr Mohammed said. “We all supported his decision. If he was my brother, I would have told him, ‘Do the wise thing and come back when you’re ready.’ We’re all seeing the benefits of it right now.”

That nightly tease fans saw last season? That actually helped him with the other players. He wasn’t out in L.A. doing his rehab while they were grinding through the season. He was practicing with them at the Berto Center and was sweating hard beside them before each game.

“One of our hardest workers,” Mohammed called him. “He prepared as if he was trying to play the next game, and we all knew it. Every single day. He was trying his best. He just didn’t get there.”

If only the communication had been better, Bulls to media, Rose to fans and so on.

“Derrick always, at every level, has let his game speak for him,” Bernstein said. “He’s not good at speaking. He’s not a politician, he’s not a public relations expert and he hasn’t surrounded himself with people who seem to care about messaging. There hasn’t been that kind of considered outreach or ‘spin.’ Some might find that refreshing, but his game speaks for him and when his game is on hiatus, it allows for all kinds of open spaces to be filled in around him and projected upon him.

“Once his game returns, that’s his way of communicating with his fans. If that looks right and is right, I think it takes care of everything.”

Rose said the other day that he never encountered any face-to-face griping and only hears support around town. “I rarely go places,” he said. “But if there was any criticism or anything like that, I didn’t hear it. Not while I was in a place. Of course you hear about it [from] people writing about it or people reporting about it.”

TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr was vocal that way and had a network forum on which he said Rose needed to at least try to play last spring. But any lingering resentment now, from not having done so? Not a long-term problem, Kerr said.

“Derrick built up a lot of trust with the Chicago fan base before last year,” Kerr said. “He’s always carried himself so well. He’s a modest guy, soft-spoken and plays so hard. Even though there was frustration last year and a lot of people called him out on-air, including me, I think all that goes out the window. I think the fans will be so excited to see him back.”

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-today world, Rose and the Bulls have an opportunity — the stinky performance against the Heat Tuesday not withstanding — to put everything about 2012-13 in the all-gone machine.

“If he stays healthy and they win, the fans won’t even second-guess his decision to miss all of last season,” TNT’s Reggie Miller said. “All players are the CEO of their own companies. Derrick had to do what is right for him. … If he stays relatively healthy and they win, the fans will let it go.”

Most will, probably.

Said Bernstein: “I don’t think anybody has said, ‘I’m done with this guy.’ I think everybody is tired of the story. It hasn’t been fun. Derrick Rose was so much fun for everybody. And then it became such a downer for so long. The good news is there’s every reason to believe that a repaired knee can mean a repaired game and a repaired image and repaired feelings.”

Rose, though cooperative, doesn’t really engage in the whole controversy about last season or his inner thoughts during the layoff. He is a basketball player who is, fortunately, playing basketball again.

Of his critics, he said: “That’s the last thing I can think about. I know that I’m back on the court and I know that I’m playing with a bunch of guys that have my back, so my confidence is super high right now. I’ve just got to continue to play the way that I play and be aggressive throughout the whole game.”

And that – this – is a big deal, right?

“I’m pumped,” Rose said. “I’m a guy who don’t show that much emotion. I don’t know if you want me to yell or anything.”


VIDEO: Rose on his on- and off-court changes

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

Jordan’s First Retirement, 20 Years Ago, Hit NBA Hardest

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It was 20 years ago today, Michael Jordan said he wouldn’t play…

Hmm, nothing very lyrical about that. More like Sgt. Peppers Broken Hearts Club Band.

As anniversaries go, this one may have lost some oomph after two decades because, sooner rather than later, it lost its exclusivity. Jordan, the consensus pick as the greatest NBA player of all time, eventually would make that same statement again, and then again. But when he dropped the news on the sports world and the American culture on Oct. 6, 1993, that he was retiring from the Chicago Bulls at age 30, no more pebble-grained worlds to conquer, as far as any of us knew, he meant it.

That was it. One and done.

“I didn’t understand it,” Hakeem Olajuwon said a few days ago, looking back across time. Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets’ Hall of Fame center, and Jordan were born 27 days apart. They famously entered the NBA in the same 1984 draft. When Jordan stepped away, it was Olajuwon’s Rockets that stepped up to win consecutive championships. As the 1993-94 season approached, the two stars were in their primes, nine seasons into their treks to Springfield, Mass.

“It was more of a drastic decision,” Olajuwon said, “where I couldn’t imagine that he was comfortable to walk away for life. So I was surprised.”

Jason Kidd was a 20-year-old sophomore at Cal, one more college basketball season away from being drafted into the suddenly Michael Jordan-less league.

“As a guy you looked up to and wanted to be like, here he retires,” said Kidd, also Hall-bound and now the Brooklyn Nets’ rookie head coach. “Now you’re saying ‘The best has left the game,’ and you’ll never get to guard him or play with him. That was disappointing.”

Jordan’s decision to quit the NBA after capturing three consecutive championships with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993, earning three MVP awards and three Finals MVP trophies and winning seven scoring titles was harder to absorb and believe than it was, upon reflection, to understand. He had lived life, for most of his pro career anyway, at a fever pitch, with nonstop basketball commitments, the pressures and obligations of being the game’s most dominant player, the Olympics and other offseason endeavors, and the time and commercial demands generated by his unprecedented rise as a marketing icon and corporate pitchman.

Added to that, in barely a month after the Bulls’ ’93 title, was the loss of his father James Jordan, murdered in a roadside robbery. Then there was the ongoing speculation about Jordan’s golf and casino-style gambling habits, and his alleged association with unsavory characters who might have dragged down not just the player’s integrity but the league’s.

(more…)

Kerr: Heat Will Come Up Short In ’14




HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – If you were asked to pick one team to win the 2014 NBA championship, it would be nearly impossible to pick anyone other than the Miami Heat. They’re the two-time defending champs, they have the best player in the world and have the best pair of supporting stars in the league.

Most games played,
last 3 seasons
Team GP
Miami 297
Oklahoma City 278
San Antonio 271
Memphis 265
Boston 264
Chicago 264
Indiana 264
L.A. Lakers 256
Dallas 255
Atlanta 254

But TNT’s Steve Kerr believes that the Heat are due for a dropoff because they’ve basically been too good for too long. Making three straight trips to The Finals, the Heat have played 297 games over the last three years, 21 more than any other team in the league and 33 more than any other team in the Eastern Conference.

“I think Miami falls short this year,” Kerr told NBA TV (above). “I just don’t think they’ll have quite enough energy and health and everything you need to win a title — a little bit of luck.” Kerr picks the Chicago Bulls to come out of the East.

In an L.A. Times article by Ben Bolch, Kerr spelled it out further …

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

The last team to reach The Finals four straight times was Larry Bird‘s Boston Celtics, who did it from 1984-87. The Chicago Bulls might have done it had Michael Jordan not retired in ’93 or ’98, but history tells us that getting back to The Finals isn’t easy.

The last Finals rematch (two teams facing each other for a second straight year) was the Bulls and Jazz in ’98. For 15 straight years, at least one of the two teams that played for a championship has failed to make it back. Kerr thinks it’s the Heat’s turn to come up short.

Kerr played with both Jordan and Tim Duncan, and played for coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. So he knows what goes into winning championships and about the grind of an 82-game season and a long playoff run.

The Heat did regress defensively after their second straight trip to The Finals, going from fourth in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to seventh last year. They ranked 11th on that end at the All-Star break, in cruise-control mode (call it a championship hangover if you wish) for most of the year, and more regular-season slippage wouldn’t be a surprise.

The improvement of the other Eastern Conference contenders will also make things tougher . Brooklyn added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko. Chicago is getting Derrick Rose back. And Indiana — who took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals — added quality depth, which they were severely lacking last season.

Still, until we see the Heat actually lose a seven-game series, it’s hard to pick someone else. James is head and shoulders above every other player in the league, he’s still just 28 years old, he’s gotten past whatever was holding him back three years ago, and he’s basically indestructible.

The Spurs came five seconds away from dethroning the Heat in June, but should have an even tougher time making it through the grind for a second straight season. And every other contender has as many reasons to pick against them as the Heat do. Only time will tell if Kerr was right to doubt the champs.

Blogtable: Role Players In The Hall




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


Role Player Hall of Fame | I Wish I Would’ve Seen … | How to Avoid a Decision


Robert Horry’s name is being bandied about for Springfield. So, what are some of the names that make your Role Player Hall of Fame?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comDowntown Freddie Brown. And here’s why: Most specialty players earn their keep as starters, their egos sufficiently stroked. But a great sixth man is best left as a substitute forever. So guys like J.R. Smith and Monta Ellis (he’d be terrific in the role but refuses to consider it) need to see it honored, even revered. Yes, the Celtics built a tradition of great sixth men but it took Brown and the Seattle SuperSonics to update the role in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They went to two straight Finals and won in ’79 with Brown in reserve of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson. Then over his five final seasons, from age 31 to 35, the laconic gunslinger averaged just 20.5 minutes but scored at a 36-minute pace of 20.2 ppg. Brown lived up to his nickname, leading the league in 3-point percentage the first year the shot was instituted. And he spawned not only the instant-offense future of Vinnie Johnson, a young Sonics teammate, but the Sixth Man Award idea itself.

Maurice Lucas (NBA Photos)

Maurice Lucas (NBA Photos)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comMaurice Lucas. The 1976-77 Trail Blazers were a championship puzzle where all of the different pieces fit together perfectly — Bill Walton, Johnny Davis, Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik, Larry Steele, Herm Gilliam, Lloyd Neal, Robin Jones, Wally Walker, Corky Calhoun. But in addition to being their leading scorer, Lucas was the Enforcer, who gave the Blazers their sneer, swagger and hard-edged toughness and carried that role on through his entire career.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: To narrow the field, I’ll stick with players I grew up watching to the present: On my big-shot, big-game performer list is Steve Kerr, Michael Cooper, Cedric Maxwell, Vinnie Johnson, Ray Allen, Jason Terry and Robert Horry. Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green, Charles Oakley and Joakim Noah are on the all-blue-collar team. Bruce Bowen and Bill Laimbeer (he’s not in the Hall of Fame, so he qualifies here, right?) co-captain the all-agitator team, and Rick Mahorn and Maurice Lucas lead the all-enforcer squad with Ben Wallace taking the lead as an all-time intimidator.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comI have to start with Robert Horry for big-shot specialist. Too many fans in opposing cities are nodding their head in agreement right now to have to ask why Horry is the ultimate role player at making shots. Mark Eaton is the shot blocker. What a difference-maker for someone who was considered a complementary player. Enforcer? Larry Smith. “Mr. Mean” was a description of Smith on the court, not just a nickname. Kenneth Faried is the hustle guy. His second and third efforts make a difference on both ends of the court -– offensive rebounds, screens -– and his first effort isn’t so bad either.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ll give one retired player and one current player. Retired: Bruce Bowen, who basically created the “3 and D” role as the defensive stopper and corner 3-point shooter for a perennial contender. Current: Shane Battier, for basically taking that role to another level with several different playoff teams. Neither guy would have been as good without their star teammates, but nobody played their roles better. And those roles were critical parts of five championships.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com Greece: An easy one. Robert Horry! One of the greatest clutch players of all time and one of the few that needs two hands to wear his championship rings. It is no coincidence that he had played in championship-caliber teams in all of his career in Houston, Los Angeles and San Antonio. A great player, an even better teammate and a notorious winner. Is If you could pick five players to finish a Game 7, would you dare not have Horry on the floor?

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA.com Brasil: If there was such a Hall of Fame, there would be plenty of inductees: Vinnie Johnson, Bobby Jackson, Manu Ginóbili, Bill Laimbeer, Dan Majerle, Dikembe Mutombo – heck, even Brian Scalabrine! If I had to nominate a current player, out of all the possible answers, I’d go with Manu Ginóbili, because he transcends the sixth man role and is also a hustle guy. Maybe he shouldn’t qualify because he’s a star and his sixth man status is merely a decoy. If not, I’d go with Ben Wallace, who was a leader via shot-blocking, hustling and defense, but wasn’t a true star, even though his appearance was imposing and unique and made him famous.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 117) Featuring Steve Kerr

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Kerr understands the importance of every shot, every possession and every games this time of year. You don’t win five championships in your 15-year career and not comprehend the significance of each and every step you take in the middle of May.

That’s why the sweet-shooting TNT analyst was a must-get for Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast. With the conference semifinals winding down and the conference finals looming, a sobering dose of perspective was needed here at headquarters. We needed someone to provide a little context and perspective to what LeBron James and the Miami Heat are going through right now, what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are dealing with right now and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.

Things are fluid for so many of the teams still alive in the playoffs, not to mention the teams whose seasons have finished and are searching for coaches and eventually players to help them get to the point where they are still play in mid-May. Kerr breaks it all down, and more, including his assessment that Heat star Dwyane Wade is no longer an “everyday superstar” but an “every other day superstar.”

We thought Kerr’s presence might defuse the normal mid-week volcano that is Rick Fox, whose “Get Off My Lawn” rant of the week includes his debunking of the NBA’s great point guard myth (as he describes it only the way he can).

In Rick’s estimation, we might have seen the last of the point guards to win MVP in the The Finals when Spurs point guard Tony Parker did in 2007. He’ll could very well be the last of his kind, according to Rick, to find his way into the company of elite players at his position like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups, the only PGs other than Parker since 1980 to claim that hardware.

(Sorry Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and the rest of you, Rick says don’t bother.)

You get all of that and a whole lot more on Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.