Posts Tagged ‘Suns’

McDonough’s Suns just keep on rising


VIDEO: Tyler Ennis was a great get for the Suns just outside of the lottery Thursday night

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — No NBA general manager worth the many lies he’s told and heard in the days and weeks leading up to the Draft will tell you anything other than he got exactly what he wanted on the big night.

When Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough says it, he actually means it. The Suns walked away from the Draft the same way they did the 2013-14 regular season, the surprise winners without any actual hardware to show for it. You don’t need it when you continue to exceed expectations the way McDonough and his crew have.

They finished the regular season with 48 wins, one game out of the playoffs hunt in the rugged Western Conference, and we were rewarded with three first-round picks in a loaded Draft.

With no glaring holes on a roster that didn’t include a superstar anchor, they entered Thursday night without the pressure of filling any significant gaps or the need to wheel and deal to fix their team.

That allowed McDonough and his staff to zero in on talents that fit the Suns’ system and style to perfection. They snagged prolific-scoring ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren of N.C. State with the 14th pick, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis with the 18th pick, Serbian shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic with the 27th pick and topped it off in the second round with 7-footer Alec Brown of Wisconsin Green Bay with the 50th pick overall.

“We think it was a great night for us,” McDonough told Suns.com after the Draft. “I feel like in the draft, with our four picks, we got a blend of a little bit of everything.”

“Sometimes you have to move or give up a lot, give up future picks, give up players to get exactly what you want. We didn’t have to do any of that. We just kind of stayed where we were and the guys fell to us.”

The Suns are in the rare position after a lottery season of controlling their own destiny moving forward. They extended qualifying offers Friday to both point guard Eric Bledsoe and small forward P.J. Tucker, giving them the right to match any offers to two players that played key roles in their resurgent season.

Sometimes teams have to reach and stretch to find security at certain positions, to add the needed depth and to fortify the roster. The Suns didn’t have to reach or stretch for anything. They played the board perfectly, riding the wave of the Draft with the bigger picture in mind and the security of knowing they could compete during an injury-filled season without resorting to any desperate moves.

It helps to have the perfect coach, too, in Jeff Hornacek and an All-NBA (third team) point guard in Goran Dragic anchoring things. Operating from a position of strength insulated the Suns from the craziness most lottery teams deal with this time of year. They didn’t have to surrender any of their cap flexibility to add the needed depth they found in the Draft and they can still be players when free agency kicks off July 1.

The Suns’ playoff drought is four years and counting, but you couldn’t tell by the way they are operating. They handled themselves this past season like a team that hadn’t missed a beat since the Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire era. Much of that was due to Hornacek and his mastering the chemistry of the lab experiment roster McDonough handed him before the start of the season.

Things could have gone horribly wrong if Dragic and Bledsoe hadn’t blended together as well as they did early, and if they weren’t able to weather the storm of injuries that plagued them and if role players like Gerald Green, Markieff and Marcus Morris, Channing Frye, Tucker and Miles Plumlee didn’t step up the way they did.

Whatever comes next comes on the Suns’ terms, at their own pace, which is more than any “lottery team” can ask for at this stage of the process.

One way or another, the Suns just keep on rising.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew weighs in on the Suns’ Draft haul

5 restricted free agents worth chasing

Smaller guards Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe could get some looks this summer. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Despite their stature, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe are big-time guards. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

The unrestricted free agents are the ones that draw the most attention every summer, and for good reason. You pick your team and you go there. It’s all clean and simple.

It’s those restricted free agents that muddy the waters. The would-be new team has to overpay to get their attention and then the current team is put on the spot to match. Think the Pacers wouldn’t like to re-think that $58 million commitment they made to Roy Hibbert two summers ago when the Trail Blazers put them on the spot with an offer to their big man?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top five restricted free agents who’ll be available on July 1:

Eric Bledsoe, Guard, Phoenix Suns — After the Big Three of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, the 24-year-old shooting guard is the top player available in free agency, though he will come at a cost. He missed 39 games with injury, but averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals in the half season played and makes a great slashing backcourt combination with Goran Dragic. The Suns were 28-15 with him in the lineup and GM Ryan McDonough says the team will match any offer out there to keep him. Since Phoenix has plenty of salary cap space, he’ll be able to do it, even if McDonough has to grit his teeth.

Greg Monroe, Forward, Detroit Pistons – He might as well have spent the past four seasons pedaling on a stationary bicycle, getting nowhere fast with the Pistons. He’s a solid big man who gives you the feeling he might turn into an All-Star level performer with the right coaching on the right team. Since he arrived in Detroit, the Pistons added Andre Drummond and Josh Smith on their front line and there simply wasn’t room for all three in the rotation. With Joe Dumars — the GM who drafted him — gone, Drummond a foundation player and Smith perhaps untradeable (or is he?), it would seem the Pistons won’t want to lay out big money to keep him. If the Rockets strike out shooting for the big names, he’d be a good consolation prize. The New Orleans native might also fit nicely with the Pelicans, if they could find the salary space.

Chandler Parsons, Forward, Houston Rockets — Houston rolled the dice on the Parsons, choosing not to pick up his option in an attempt to clear the most salary cap space to pursue James, Anthony or Bosh. The 6-foot-9 leaper and shooter has been a high-energy gem since the Rockets plucked him in the second round in 2011. He can get to the basket, fill it up from behind the 3-point line and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in on defense. He won’t lead a team, but is a solid third option, exactly the role he’s been playing in Houston. If the Rockets get a name-brand star, he’d go to fourth option and that could make a pricey offer from another team too rich to match. There are a lot of teams where he could slide right into the lineup and really blossom.

Gordon Hayward, Forward, Utah Jazz – After four seasons, it’s pretty clear the Jazz aren’t completely convinced, as evidenced by not agreeing on a contract extension prior to last season. It seems Hayward thinks he should be paid as part of a 1-2 punch, but the truth is he’s probably more of a No. 3 type, just like Parsons. When he was put into the primary scorer role last season, his shooting numbers went down. He needs to land in a spot where he can play off his teammates, especially passers, and get back to being a very solid complementary part. Chances are, he wants to be paid a good bit more than the Jazz think he’s worth and therefore could be “gettable.” The trick will be not to overpay him by too much.

Isaiah Thomas, Guard, Sacramento Kings -- The 5-foot-9 dynamo put up 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals last season. He’s a hard worker, but definitely a score-first point guard at a position that requires spreading the ball around. His biggest deficiency is on defense, where his lack of size makes him too easy for opponents to pick and exploit. The Kings go through point guards faster than pairs of basketball shoes and now they seem to be leaning heavily toward the new flavor of the month in Ray McCallum. His lack of stature will limit the size of the stack of big bills placed in front of him in an offer, but still could be enough to land him in a new home.

Diaw finally finds comfort zone


VIDEO: Tony Parker on the words of wisdom he had for his longtime friend Boris Diaw earlier in his career

MIAMI — The first nervous steps of Boris Diaw‘s NBA career were tough to watch.

The talent was obvious: A 6-foot-8 basketball savant with point guard skills and the size, length and ability to play as many as four positions. What was also clear is that Diaw’s understanding of the game was beyond that of a normal rookie. The Atlanta Hawks’ front office knew it, which is one of the main reasons they selected the young French prospect with the 21st pick in the 2003 Draft.

But there was glitch in the system. Diaw’s coaches had no idea how to use him. The Hawks, at the time, hadn’t figured out how to use a player with Diaw’s hybrid skill set. They couldn’t figure out if he was a point guard or a center or whatever was in between. So they tried him everywhere, from point guard to center … and sometimes all in the same half of the same game.

“Well, I did a little bit of everything,” Diaw said with a smile Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, the day after helping his San Antonio Spurs to a 2-1 lead over the Miami Heat with a huge Game 3 win in The Finals. “It was helping me to learn pretty much every position. I remember starting the game at the five and going out to do the [opening] tip and then playing point guard during the same game.”

It was a testament to his polish and professionalism at such a young age that the Hawks leaned on him that way, not to mention their sheer desperation, what with a roster that was being rebuilt from the ground up at the time. Diaw, however, wasn’t necessarily ready for a role like that. He’d played at the highest level professionally in France but needed time to adjust his game to the NBA, time he didn’t get in Atlanta.

Back then his teammates whispered about how long he’d last, whether or not he was truly cut out for the NBA and if and when he’d scurry back to Europe.

It wasn’t until much later in his career, after he left Atlanta via the controversial Joe Johnson sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix in the summer of 2005, that Diaw’s best was revealed. He earned the league’s Most Improved Player Award in 2006 the with the Suns, thriving in Mike D’Antoni‘s free-flowing system.

He opened some eyes around the league as the NBA game was evolving into its current form, with floor spacers and a global style that has been the trademark of the top international leagues for years.

San Antonio has proved to be the ideal fit, complete with playing alongside his friend since childhood Tony Parker and in a system that prizes ball-sharing and versatility like no other system in the league. That would explain Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserting Diaw into the starting lineup before Game 3. His presence forces the Heat into some uncomfortable matchups, specifically for Chris Bosh, who cannot take advantage of Diaw on the perimeter the way he can Tiago Splitter or even Tim Duncan.

In fact, Diaw ends up with the advantage because he can play inside and out while also serving as an extra ballhandler and facilitator and rebounding like a power forward and guarding both in the paint and on the perimeter. He’s one of the best and most creative passers in the league, big man or not. And he’s unselfish to a fault, making him the ideal teammate in today’s NBA.

Again, the Spurs’ system (impact over stats and detail over flash) and Pop’s methods, are the perfect fit.

“Every coach is different, everybody has a different philosophy,” Diaw said. “I’ve had a lot of teams and a lot of coaches in my career. So it’s definitely gratifying when you get a coach like Pop recognizing a little bit of the background and the way we play in Europe, the way we share the ball and not so much the one-on-one basketball. It’s just a lot of fun to play on this team.”

The best part, for both Diaw and Parker, is the chance to realize their hoop dreams together. They won gold at EuroBasket last year as leaders  of the French national team and are two games away from winning a Larry O’Brien trophy together with the Spurs.

“For me it’s a little bit different,” Parker said of Diaw’s career renaissance with the Spurs. “Everything that you see him do today I’ve seen him do it the last four or five years doing that. He was playing great basketball in Phoenix and had some rough years with the Bobcats. When the Spurs asked me about Boris and should we take him, I was like ‘he’ll be a great fit for our team.’ I’m so happy for him, to see him blossom at the big stage. And everybody can see what he’s doing and what he’s capable of.

Diaw’s work with the French national team should not be overlooked. Parker said it was a career-changing time for Diaw, who has made adjustments to his game and lifestyle in the wake of that huge summer.

“It was a big thing for us and I think it made Boris keep improving and keep getting better,” Parker said. “Since he’s been with us we have high expectations every game. We want to win a championship. So it made him be even more focused and take care of his body. He’s got a chef and he’s being very healthy and is playing his best basketball right now. As his friend since I’m 14 years old, it’s like a dream to win a gold medal with the national team and  this year have another opportunity to win a championship. You have to put it in perspective … when we grew up there were not a lot of European guys in the NBA. I never thought I’d be with him on the same team and being two wins away from winning a championship.”

If Parker didn’t, no one did.

Next few steps critical for Grizzlies

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies fell in Game 7 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The picture of instability.

The living and breathing definition of disarray.

That’s what that smoke cloud in Memphis looks like from afar.

The Grizzlies, a year removed from a trip to the 2013 Western Conference finals and weeks after a first round exit from the 2014 playoffs, dismissed team CEO Jason Levien and assistant general manager Stu Lash on Monday, ensuring a major shake-up would dominate their summer for the second straight year. They parted ways with HT fave and well-respected head coach Lionel Hollins after last season’s trip to the conference finals.

Further complicating matters this time around is the Grizzlies giving Dave Joerger — who succeeded Hollins and led the Grizzlies to a 50-win season — permission to speak with the Minnesota Timberwolves about their coaching vacancy.

On the surface it’s yet another head-scratching decision from a franchise that’s making that a habit:

“The Timberwolves are the only NBA team of the 30 in the league that are in his home state and after having a long and honest conversation with Dave, he felt he owed it to his family, which resides entirely in Minnesota … and we felt we owed it to Dave to at least have a discussion in this regard,” Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace told ESPN 92.9 FM in Memphis.

Asked if that was best for the Grizzlies, Wallace said he didn’t see anything wrong with granting Joerger the chance to talk.

“He’s just been granted permission to talk and will do so soon,” said Wallace, who has assumed interim watch over the basketball operations while [Grizzlies owner Robert] Pera restructures the front office.

All signs point to Pera being the one instigating these changes after a reported clash with his management team, changes that elicited this simple but appropriate response from Grizzlies guard Tony Allen:

All this is yet another disconnect between ownership, management and the coaching staff that leads to dysfunction and entropy. The Grizzlies aren’t true championship contenders. But they’re certainly closer to the Western Conference power elite than they are to the consistent lottery crowd.

Pera has every right to do as he pleases with his franchise. He’s paying a handsome price for that right. But he should be careful. There have been others in his shoes who have chosen to do it their way, a “new” way, despite being advised to hire smart people and then step back and allow them to do their jobs.

The richest or smartest man or woman in the room isn’t always right when it comes to basketball decisions. It makes me think back to the way things unraveled in Phoenix when the Robert Sarver-led group took over a contender and slowly but surely reduced the team to a lottery-dweller that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010.

(Granted, the 2013-14 Suns won 48 games and became just the second team in the past 40 years to win that many games and miss the postseason.)

In a copycat league in which teams structure their franchises based on the most successful outfits, down to the way the socks are organized in the equipment room, it boggles the mind that anyone would want to retrace the steps the Suns took when they broke from the sturdy leadership of Jerry Colangelo and Bryan Colangelo.

Yes, the Suns survived for a couple of seasons without the Colangelo-Mike D’Antoni power structure in place. But that talented roster they initially had — Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson —  eroded over the years leaving nothing from the glory days but an aging Nash,who was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers..

The Grizzlies would be wise to tread cautiously as they go down what appears to be a similar path. Wallace has been in the front-office game long enough to know just how hard it is to get back to where the Grizzlies are now if they do dip below the playoff line.

Memphis battled back this year from early stumbles and an injury to Marc Gasol to secure that seventh spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Who knows what would have happened in Game 7 of the opening round against the Thunder if they had been able to play Zach Randolph, who had been suspended for clocking Thunder big man Steven Adams in the jaw in Game 6?

The point being, overreacting after a season like this could be detrimental to the long-term health of what’s been built in Memphis. Randolph, Gasol, Allen, Mike Conley, Mike Miller and the rest of the the Grizzlies are ready to compete for the foreseeable future.

Someone needs to wake up, quickly, to refrain from any more of the foolishness that has marked the Grizzlies’ offseason for a second straight spring.

Suspensions for Pacers’ Butler, George?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mike Scott and George Hill scuffle in the second quarter of Game 6 between the Pacers and Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The Indiana Pacers will host Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday. But it remains to be seen if their biggest star, All-Star swingman Paul George, will be a part of the action.

Both George and reserve forward Rasual Butler stepped off of the bench and onto the court during a second quarter scuffle between George Hill and Atlanta Hawks reserve forward Mike Scott in the Pacers’ Game 6 win Thursday night at Philips Arena.

At least one expert on the topic, former NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, believes a suspension is forthcoming for someone …

Hill and Scott drew technical fouls for their shoving match. George and Butler took small steps but remained in the bench area. But the league has historically held players to the letter of the law in these cases.

The rule states that “during an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.”

Jackson was the man who handed out one-game suspensions in the 2007 playoffs when then Phoenix Suns big men Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the “immediate vicinity of their bench” after Robert Horry body blocked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table in Game 4 of a series between the Suns and San Antonio Spurs.

“The rule with respect to leaving the bench area during an altercation is very clear,” Jackson said then. “Historically, if you break it, you will get suspended, regardless of what the circumstances are.”

Pacers coach Frank Vogel said he wasn’t worried about it after Game 6.

“I haven’t seen (the video), but somebody told me about it,” he said. “I’m not concerned with any suspensions until we hear something.”

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Comeback Player of the Year: Channing Frye

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com


VIDEO: Channing Fry is back after missing last season with a heart issue

There is a slump into the end of the season, and it doesn’t matter.

There is an All-Star at the same position as a threat, and it changes nothing.

Channing Frye should win Comeback Player of the Year — if such an accomplishment still existed — because he gave the imaginary award a real-world bottom line. He didn’t just lose last season, after all. He nearly lost a career. And there were moments, the Suns’ starting power forward would later concede while well on his way to the happy ending, when losing a career was the least of his concerns.

It’s Frye over Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the award — scuttled by the league after 1986-87 for too often celebrating players whose comebacks were drug related — because while Love is the better player and power forward, Frye is the better recovery to NBA levels.

Love missed 62 games last season after breaking two bones in his right hand, returning to the lineup, re-fracturing one of the bones and subsequently undergoing surgery. Frye missed all 82 with an enlarged heart, caused by a virus and detected during what he assumed would be a routine preseason physical.


VIDEO: Channing Frye talks with Suns.com about his comeback road to the NBA

Love returned to play 75 of the first 80 games of 2013-14, averaging 26 ppg, fourth in the league, and 12.5 rpg, third in the league, over that time. Bold numbers, sure, but the accomplishment for the Timberwolves is to finish .500.

Frye returned to play each of the first 80, averaging 11.1 ppg, fifth-best on the Suns, and 5.1 rpg, fourth-best. He played an important role on the team that, against all expectations, was in playoff going into the final week of the season — against all expectations.

A year ago, Love was facing speculation on whether he would one day leave Minnesota for free-agent riches. Frye was hearing the phrase “heart trouble” a lot and considering the possibility of retirement.

“Pretty close,” he said earlier in the season. “You had to think about it. But at the same time, I was like, ‘No, it’s not your time yet.’ I just didn’t feel it.’ “

He couldn’t exercise for a while. He felt about 80 percent when 2013-14 started, needing to get stronger and improve his timing, understandable obstacles but obstacles nonetheless. Frye himself wasn’t confident he would make it back to where he would play an entire season.

“There were times,” he said. “There were times when I wasn’t. But my wife and friends stuck with me. It was like, ‘Channing, you’re doing too many good things for it not to be getting better.’ It was me overall taking a different approach. Instead of getting heart-healthy, you’re getting everything-healthy. That really helped me out. It’s helped me during this year.”

Frye’s shooting percentages — both from the field and 3-point range — were in the mid 40s in November (46.5 pct, 41.1 pct 3-point FG), December (45.0, 42.9) and January (45.4, 42.1) before things dipped. In February, his field-goal and 3-point percentages fell to 40.3 and 32.9 percent, respectively, and in March, hit season lows of 39.3 and 28.6 percent. Still, even that slump cannot take away from what Frye accomplished: rediscovering his role as the Suns’ stretch-four, playing every game for the team that has become one of the upbeat stories of the league, and just plain playing again.

Five contenders

Kevin Love, Timberwolves — From 18 appearances last season to a healthy 2013-14. There’s also a possible top-five finish in two prominent categories that would ordinarily be enough to claim victory in this made-up award. But the Suns putting preseason predictions in the blender — with Frye as a starter in that success — plus Minnesota in the lottery changes the ordinary result.

Jared Sullinger, Celtics — Those concerns that the back injury that limited him to 45 games as a rookie were the pre-Draft red flags coming true? Sullinger responded by playing in 74 of the first 80 games and averaging 8.1 rebounds in 27.6 minutes. Red flag lowered.

Greg Oden, Heat — It’s just 22 games, and at nine minutes per, but look at where he came from. Oden wouldn’t win the award. Playing again should be noted, though.

Eric Gordon, Pelicans — Making 64 appearances hardly qualifies as iron-man territory. But that is 13 more than the previous two seasons combined and more than any time since Gordon’s rookie campaign of 2008-09. Gordon will finish third on the team in scoring, behind Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson.

Shaun Livingston, Nets — This is more Comeback Player of the Generation, a Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Grant Hill kind of recognition, but if CPOY is a made-up award, the parameters can be as well. Livingston played 66 games last season with the Wizards and Cavaliers. But he fought back from years of major knee problems and now gets a big role in Brooklyn’s recovery from early implosion. That’s a career moment to appreciate.

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues — The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum — His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

***

No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA — Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs