Posts Tagged ‘Trey Burke’

Hayward must grow with new salary

Utah Jazz v Golden State Warriors

While much will be given to Gordon Hayward, much will be required, too. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Now that Gordon Hayward has the max offer sheet — four years, $63 million — courtesy of the buzzing Charlotte Hornets, there’s no reason to debate whether he’s worth such big bucks that will top $14 million in Year One.

The 6-foot-8 small forward/shooting guard will be one of just seven players at the wing positions under contract (at the moment) for next season to make at least $14 million: Kobe Bryant, James HardenJoe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Kevin Durant.

But it hardly matters if Hayward is worthy of such a deal or not. It’s what he’s getting. A lot of teams have a lot of cap space to fill and the Hornets, who nabbed free agent Al Jefferson from the Jazz last summer and are eager to add more scorers after finishing 24th in offensive rating (101.2 points per 100 possessions) last season, didn’t see a better option so Michael Jordan green-lighted his front office to go all-in for Utah’s restricted free agent.

Hayward can’t sign the offer sheet until Thursday and then Utah will have 72 hours to match. The club has consistently sent signals that it plans to do just that. Hayward would then return as the face of the Jazz, a club that won 25 games last year and one he apparently would prefer to leave behind for the further-along Hornets, a surprise playoff team last season in the inferior Eastern Conference. (Hayward reportedly was in discussions with other teams including Phoenix, but chose Charlotte.)

If Hayward indeed returns to Utah (and our David Aldridge details why the Jazz are well-positioned to match), any personal disappointment must be kept private and dismissed quickly. A contract of this size must be owned.

Hayward, 24 and entering his fifth season in the league, will have to be motivated to lead a quick team buy-in with new coach Quin Snyder, and establish himself as the voice inside the locker room. Hayward is admittedly the quiet type, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that — it took Dirk Nowitzki time to turn up his volume — but on such a young team that includes second-year point guard Trey Burke and incoming rookie Dante Exum, Hayward is the player to which all eyes will turn.

An encouraging attitude and positive body language on the court will be essential, too. The youthful Jazz are going to struggle this season, there’s no way around it. For $63 million, Hayward will be expected to keep the team moving forward through tough times. He can’t hang his head or appear disengaged when things go wrong, as he did at times last season. He’s got the baby-face look, and there’s not much he can do about that, but he’ll be playing on a man’s contract, and expected to perform as such.

As for his production, hopefully Hayward will be spending the majority of the summer in a gym shooting thousands of jumpers. Each season his scoring average has increased and, in fact, he put up career-best numbers last season in scoring (16.2 ppg), assists (5.1) and rebounding (5.2).

However, his overall shooting percentage (41.3) hit an all-time low and his encouraging 3-point shooting from 2012-13 (41.5) dropped to a career-worst 30.4 percent last season as his attempts increased to a career-high 280.

Alongside Burke and Exum, especially as the rookie gains his footing as the season progresses, and Derrick Favors down low, the 3-point shot should be on high on Hayward’s menu on most nights. Utah last season finished 25th in the league in 3-point percentage (34.4) and 23rd in 3-point attempts per game (6.6). Hayward is capable of giving both categories a significant boost.

With the big pay day, come bigger responsibilities. Hayward must be prepared.

Napier learns there’s a lot to learn


VIDEO: Shabazz Napier gets off to a rough start in the Orlando Summer League

ORLANDO, Fla. — A year ago, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke came to the Orlando Pro Summer League and couldn’t have looked more lost if they were wearing blindfolds.

Indecision. Errant passes. Shots that rattled off the rim again and again. That is, when they came close to the rim at all.

It’s all part of the educational process for rookies, especially for point guards. A different game, faster, tougher game, at a higher level.

But it eventually worked out for both players last summer. Carter-Williams was eventually named Rookie of the Year with the 76ers. Both he and Burke were voted to the All-Rookie first team.

So welcome to the NBA, Shabazz Napier. With a 3-for-15 shooting line and eight turnovers in his first big gulp of pro competition, LeBron James’ favorite point guard in the 2014 draft knows now that he’s got some things to learn before he’s ready to help the Heat.

“I felt this game was going to be a big learning experience for me, which it was,” said Napier, the 24th pick in the draft. “I came out with a little jitters.

“I’m definitely going to look at this game. I felt like it’s the biggest learning experience I can get. I want to learn from it as quick as I can and move on to the next game.”

The 6-foot-1 guard missed his first 11 shots of the game before he pulled things together in the second half with a mini-tear that included a 17-foot jumper, a nifty reverse buck in transition and then a 3-pointer.

It was a far cry from the last time he was on the court in a game situation, leading the UConn Huskies to the NCAA championship in Apri.

“That’s the biggest thing. I haven’t played competitively. I’m on a new team. That’s tough. How to understand my teammates on the fly. I think I did a great job of it in the second half. The first time came out kinda not ready.

“I still kinda had a college game coming in. Like I said, I don’t know my teammates as well. We made a lot of big mistakes today. We had like 25 turnovers. I had eight of those. We’re just learning on the fly. Even though we lost, sometimes losing helps you win.”

Boston’s Phil Pressey got right up in Napier’s face and didn’t give him space to make moves or control the offense at times.

“It’s a different game,” Napier said. “I’m unable to do a lot of things I did in college. Such as passes. I have to learn how to adjust and make those certain passes on an NBA level. That’s the learning curve. Today was a good adjustment for me. I had to learn. It took me a while, but I felt like I got into a good groove.”

In the first half, Napier missed wide open shots from the corners and the top of the key, the kind that were easy buckets when he was earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the tournament three months ago. He looked as out of sync as Burke did a year ago with the Jazz summer league team.

“I didn’t watch it at all,” Napier said. “I didn’t have NBA TV, especially at school. If a lot of point guards do this, I guess it’s kind of a remedy. It’s a big learning curve for all of us, especially myself. You can’t do a lot of things you did in college. You have to find ways to do those certain things, but on an NBA level. I will as soon as I continue to play and get this learning curve out of the way.”

NBA coaching carousel in full swing

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss Mike Brown’s latest ouster in Cleveland

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The list stands at seven. As of this moment.

Give it a few hours and that could change.

Such is life in the roller-coaster business that is NBA coaching. Much like the playoffs, things change quickly in a tumultuous environment where everyone is looking for an advantage, for the one perfect fit that can boost a team to the next level.

Mike Brown was gainfully employed in his second stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers coach until Monday morning, when he joined a list that includes Mike Woodson, Mark Jackson, Mike D’Antoni and others who were pink slipped since the end of the regular season.

The best part: Many of the guys on the ousted list are candidates for the other jobs.

We take a quick look at what is available and the coach who fits each vacancy best:

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

This one is fresh. There were rumblings for months that Brown’s latest run in Cleveland was not going to end well. Once it started to become clear that general manager David Griffin would get the interim tag removed from his title,  it was only a matter of time before he’d part ways with Brown, a defensive-minded coach who simply could not corral a young group led by the talented but enigmatic backcourt duo of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. The Cavaliers were expected to make a run at the playoffs and did give chase late in the season — after Andrew Bynum was cast off, Griffin took over for the fired Chris Grant, and Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes were added to the mix via trade. But the Cavs couldn’t manage the eighth seed in a depressed Eastern Conference playoff chase. What they need is a system designed to fit Irving, who has to be the No. 1 priority for Griffin moving forward.

The best fit: Mike D’Antoni. He has history with Griffin from their time together in Phoenix. All Kyrie has to do is ask some of his former point guards what working in D’Antoni’s system has done for their careers.

DETROIT PISTONS

Another team that was expected to contend for a playoff bid, the Pistons posses an interesting assortment of talent — including  Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — that Mo Cheeks couldn’t figure out what to do with during his short stint at the helm. John Loyer had no chance of cleaning up that mess after Cheeks was fired. There were too many things that needed fixing. Without someone in place to take over for long-time team president Joe Dumars (who resigned at season’s end and is now serving as a consultant), it’s hard to know what direction the Pistons are headed in at such a crucial time in the franchise’s history. What’s needed is strong leadership from the bench, someone who can blend the bold personalities in that locker room into a cohesive group.

The best fit: Mark Jackson. Jackson’s issues in Golden State had nothing to do with his roster. The Warriors ran through brick walls for Rev. Jackson. The Pistons would do the same.

UPDATE: According to reports, Stan Van Gundy has agreed to become the Pistons’ coach and president of basketball operations.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

With Steve Kerr reportedly no longer an option for the Warriors, they wisely have turned their attention to candidates with completely different sets of credentials. Both former Magic and Heat coach Stan Van Gundy and former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins have moved to the front of the list. Van Gundy, whatever his faults might have been in his previous stops, is still held in the highest regard among front-office types around the league. He’s gotten consistent results and is a known commodity. Hollins brings a measure of toughness to any situation. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Draymond Green and the crew are plenty feisty. And this is as explosive an offensive group as there is in the league. All that’s needed now is some steadiness and leadership that balances the entire equation.

The best fit: Lionel Hollins. People forget that Hollins had the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals last season. He ran into a bit of a philosophical disconnect in Memphis with the front office. He’ll know how to navigate that relationship much better this time around.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

If they’d just listened to Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson might still be coaching the Lakers and they might still be in the contender mix in the Western Conference. But as Lakers fans know all too well, Jim Buss decided a long time ago that his vision for the future of the franchise trumped anyone else’s. The Lakers have paid for that dearly the past two years, hiring and firing guys (the Mikes, Brown and D’Antoni) who had no chance to fill the enormous void left by Jackson. Now the Lakers have a two-year window with Bryant (and whoever and whatever else they can pull together for a roster) to try to regain some semblance of the championship-caliber form they’ve lost. Keep in mind that this remains the most difficult job in the entire league, one that shouldn’t be thrust upon a coaching newbie like Derek Fisher (as has been widely speculated) just because of his ties to the organization. Then again, if he has Kobe’s blessing and endorsement …

The best fit: Stan Van Gundy. Kobe needs someone who will agitate his competitive juices in a different way than either Brown or D’Antoni ever could. He needs someone who will refuse to acquiesce to his every whim, the way Jackson did when he was in his prime. Stan Van is just crazy enough to do all that.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

How much longer can the Timberwolves, with talents like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, go without breaking through to the playoffs? That’s the question Flip Saunders has to answer as he searches for a replacement for Rick Adelman, who despite being one of the best and most respected coaches of his generation, simply never could manage to get the Wolves into the playoffs. Bold leadership is required in this job, someone who will develop Rubio into the complete point guard he has to be in order to take that next step in his career. The superstar-friendly coach isn’t always the best fit, either. There are times when a star needs to be challenged. The Timberwolves appeared to get comfortable under Adelman. The next coach has to raise the bar.

The best fit: George Karl. His style doesn’t work for everybody. And when it does, there’s no long-term guarantee the organization can suffer his demanding ways. But if Karl could work as well as he did, for the most part, with Carmelo Anthony, he should be able to do wonders for Love and Rubio.

NEW YORK KNICKS

The drama surrounding this job revolves around one candidate and only one candidate. Steve Kerr. He is reportedly working out the details on a deal that will reunite him with his one-time coach, the Zen master Phil Jackson, so they can dive in on the long and arduous task of trying to rebuild the Knicks into an Eastern Conference power and championship contender. Kerr will have a host of challenges, financial and otherwise, that are sure to make it a more difficult task than anyone realizes. The salary cap mess and the free agent uncertainty surrounding Carmelo Anthony means the next coach, be it Kerr or someone else, will have little flexibility in terms of roster makeup, until the summer of 2015. As we know now, there is no guarantee a coach makes it through that first year on the job. Kerr’s connection to Jackson and the fact that they have a shared philosophy certainly works in his favor. But that James Dolan factor is always lingering.

The best fit: Steve Kerr. The one no-brainer marriage between the team president/GM and coach in the entire landscape.

UTAH JAZZ

Jerry Sloan is not walking through that door, folks. It’s not happening, no matter how much Jazz fans would love to see him at the helm of a young and precocious group, led by promising young point guard Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. The Jazz have a pair of first-round picks, one a top-five selection, giving them two more quality young pieces to add to a nucleus that, while not necessarily prepared for prime time right now, if cultivated properly should serve as a key part of the foundation for years to come. The tricky part for Kevin O’Connor, Dennis Lindsey and the rest of the Jazz brass is whether to go off the grid for their next coach (four-time Euroleague champ Ettore Messina‘s name has been mentioned often) or follow the recent trend of locating a Steve Clifford-type. Their process couldn’t be more inclusive. They announced they would interview some 20-plus candidates for the job.

The best fit: David Fizdale. The Miami Heat assistant has developed a reputation for being one of the best molders of talent in the business, having worked his way up the ranks the past decade-plus. He’d be a fresh face in a situation where one is desperately needed.


VIDEO: Golden State GM Bob Myers waxes on the Mark Jackson firing and what’s next

Rookie of the Year by the numbers


VIDEO: Michael Carter-Williams named Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Kia Rookie of the Year voting should be pretty simple this season. There are only nine rookies who have averaged at least 20 minutes per game for 50 games or more. And none of those have done it for a team with a winning record.

Winning records don’t matter much in Rookie of the Year voting. None of the last 10 winners played for teams with winning records. So there probably won’t be anything stopping the media from voting for Michael Carter-Williams (of the 16-59 Sixers) or Victor Oladipo (of the 21-54 Magic).

Carter-Williams appears to be the clear favorite. He leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game.

That doesn’t mean that he’s the best player among all rookies. He’s just had the biggest opportunity, playing for a team that stripped its roster bare over the course of the last 10 months.

Carter-Williams has been the only rookie to start every game he’s played in, and his back-up — Tony Wroten — was never a threat to take any of his minutes, especially since developing the rookie has been priority No. 1 in Philadelphia this season. Even if winning games was a priority, Wroten isn’t good enough to take minutes away from MCW.

Not only has Carter-Williams led rookies in minutes per game and usage rate, but the Sixers have played at the *fastest pace in the league. So, when it comes to racking up per-game numbers, he’s had a three-tier advantage over other rookies.

* The fourth fastest pace of the last 20 years, actually.

We can adjust for all that, though. NBA.com’s PIE statistic takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. And only one rookie ranks higher than Carter-Williams in terms of PIE…

All stats are through April 3, 2014.

Rookies who have played 1,000 minutes, sorted by PIE

Player GP MIN eFG% TS% Usg% PIE
Mason Plumlee 62 1,079 63.2% 65.3% 16.9% 10.5%
Michael Carter-Williams 63 2,181 42.2% 46.9% 26.0% 9.8%
Nick Calathes 64 1,069 49.5% 51.0% 17.9% 9.8%
Victor Oladipo 73 2,325 45.3% 51.2% 24.0% 9.6%
Nate Wolters 58 1,310 46.0% 48.6% 16.7% 9.3%
Cody Zeller 75 1,266 41.9% 49.1% 18.2% 8.7%
Trey Burke 63 1,995 44.2% 47.2% 22.1% 8.1%
Kelly Olynyk 63 1,215 48.6% 52.8% 20.0% 8.0%
Ryan Kelly 52 1,103 51.2% 57.3% 15.4% 7.8%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 70 1,705 46.9% 52.5% 15.3% 7.6%
Matthew Dellavedova 66 1,132 50.8% 53.7% 13.3% 7.5%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 75 1,732 52.9% 55.8% 19.1% 7.4%
Hollis Thompson 70 1,559 54.5% 56.7% 11.4% 6.0%
Tony Snell 70 1,178 47.0% 48.9% 15.0% 5.8%
Steven Adams 74 1,102 49.7% 53.6% 11.7% 5.2%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 73 1,446 45.9% 48.3% 13.6% 5.0%
Ben McLemore 75 1,934 44.4% 47.9% 16.7% 3.9%

eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 FTA)))

By the way, this certainly isn’t the best rookie class in recent memory, but it might have the longest names.

So Mason Plumlee has made more of his minutes than Carter-Williams has, and has also done it for a playoff team. But MCW has played twice as many minutes. And if you’re voting for Rookie of the Year, it’s hard to argue against that.

Carter-Williams has also made the Sixers a better team. They’ve been outscored by 15.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, but by only 8.9 with him on the floor. That minus-8.9 NetRtg would still rank 29th in the league (ahead of only the Bucks), but it’s a heck of a lot better than minus-15.2.

Of the 17 rookies who have played at least 1,000 minutes, only three have a positive plus-minus. They are Steven Adams (plus-52), Matthew Dellavedova (plus-46) and Nick Calathes (plus-9). And Adams’ team has been much better with him off the floor.

Several more rookies can say they’ve made a positive impact…

Rookies who have played 1,000 minutes, sorted by on-off-court NetRtg differential

On court Off court Difference
Player MIN NetRtg MIN NetRtg NetRtg Rank
Nate Wolters 1,310 -1.8 2,330 -13.0 11.2 10
Matthew Dellavedova 1,132 +3.1 2,561 -7.3 10.4 16
Giannis Antetokounmpo 1,705 -4.4 1,935 -13.0 8.5 25
Michael Carter-Williams 2,181 -8.9 1,454 -15.2 6.3 47
Ryan Kelly 1,103 -1.9 2,502 -7.6 5.7 53
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 1,446 -0.8 2,174 -6.3 5.5 59
Kelly Olynyk 1,215 -2.2 2,395 -7.4 5.3 61
Trey Burke 1,995 -7.3 1,615 -10.1 2.8 97
Nick Calathes 1,069 +1.1 2,551 +0.8 0.3 135
Hollis Thompson 1,559 -12.0 2,076 -11.0 -1.0 150
Victor Oladipo 2,325 -5.8 1,330 -4.6 -1.2 151
Mason Plumlee 1,079 -1.4 2,513 +0.6 -2.0 169
Cody Zeller 1,266 -2.8 2,364 +0.9 -3.7 192
Ben McLemore 1,934 -5.0 1,696 +0.0 -5.1 204
Steven Adams 1,102 +3.4 2,475 +9.3 -5.9 209
Tim Hardaway Jr. 1,732 -5.3 1,951 +2.0 -7.3 221
Tony Snell 1,178 -4.5 2,467 +4.3 -8.8 229

NetRtg = Team point differential per 100 possessions
Rank = Among 236 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes for one team

It helps to know who those guys are playing their minutes with, but among Sixer rotation regulars, only Evan Turner had a higher on-court NetRtg than Carter-Williams.

So while it’s important to add context to Carter-Williams per-game numbers, the context doesn’t hurt his Rookie of the Year candidacy very much.

Morning Shootaround — March 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat continue to struggle | Burke hits game-winner | Hickson to miss remainder of season | Kidd didn’t panic during slow start

No. 1: Heat continue to struggle — The Miami Heat lost to the New Orleans Pelicans 105-95 last night to fall to 4-7 over their last 11 games. The loss also marks the 12th time the Heat have fallen to an opponent with a losing record. At this point last year the Heat were on game 25 of their eventual 27-game winning streak , but now they struggle to find a resolution to their current woes. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald has reaction after Saturday night’s loss:

The anger finally boiled over late Saturday night, after another uninspired Heat effort that featured entirely too many miscues and entirely too many defensive lapses.

“So I figure I’ll be the first one to say ‘We suck,'” Chris Bosh declared after the latest demoralizing setback, a 105-95 loss to the Pelicans at Smoothie King Arena.

“This is unacceptable,” Bosh added. “If we don’t change this, we will be watching the championship from home.” He said one problem is “we’ve been keeping things in” all season. “There’s no passion.”

LeBron James also made no attempt to conceal his disgust after Miami’s seventh loss in its past 11 games overall, and its 12th defeat against a team with a losing record.

“Too many excuses,” he said. “We’ve got to stop excuses. Guys on the floor need to produce. It’s that simple.”

For the seventh time in the past 11 games, the Heat allowed a team to shoot at least 49.3 percent. The Pelicans, who entered shooting 45.9 percent for the season, closed at 51.2. Ahead by four points after three quarters, New Orleans scored 29 in the fourth on 12 for 20 shooting.

“The floodgates went open in the second half,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Their guards did a great job breaking us down. We couldn’t keep them out of the paint. This is new territory for us. We all know we have to play much more committed defensively.

“Yes, our locker-room is frustrated, as it should be. We’re not accustomed to these types of standards from the defensive end. We did not defend, did not have that tough, gritty personality.”

No team gives up a higher shooting percentage of corner threes than the Heat, and the Pelicans victimized Miami with several in the second half, including daggers from Anthony Morrow and Luke Babbitt. And keep in mind that this was a New Orleans team missing three of their best shooters: Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Andersen.

There were visible signs of disgust during the game, including James yelling and gesticulating after a Morrow three pushed the Pelicans’ lead to 85-76 with nine minutes left. Spoelstra also appeared particularly animated with his team during an ensuing timeout.

But none of that emotion helped, with the Pelicans extending their lead to 16 soon after.

There were inexcusable defensive breakdowns, including a second-quarter sequence when Morrow somehow scored on a layup on an out-of-bounds play with one second left on the shot clock. (Ray Allen appeared to be the primary defender.)

There were too many second-chance points for the Pelicans (13), too many fast-break points (21 to Miami’s 11) and too many uncontested forays to the basket, many the result of Heat guards being beaten off the dribble.

“We can’t relax versus teams we’re supposed to beat,” James said before the game. “Not saying we’re entitled to win, but we don’t focus the whole game.”

James conceded that “this is the toughest season we’ve had since Year One because of everything that comes with trying to repeat. We are the target every single night. We have to find our motivation every single night.”

***


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Trey Burke

No. 2: Burke hits game-winner — Utah Jazz rookie Trey Burke hit the first game-winner of his NBA career last night against the Orlando Magic. The shot pushed the Jazz to a meager 23-47 on the season, but the moment was one Burke always imagined as a child. Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune has the story:

Trey Burke used to rehearse for his moment every day when he was younger.

Utah’s rookie point guard would shoot by himself for hours at the gym, imagining an expiring clock, a narrow deficit, an entire game on his shoulders. He would shoot over brooms and ladders, impersonating long-armed defenders contesting his jumper.

He got his chance in real life on Saturday night. Before 19,228 at EnergySolutions Arena, Burke hit the game-winner, a dagger from the corner over Orlando’s Victor Oladipo. The shot gave the Jazz an 89-88 victory over the Magic and broke a six-game losing streak.

“I knew that I had to get a lot of arc on it,” Burke said. “Victor was flying at me and I knew if I shot it the way I regularly did, it was going to either miss or get blocked. I knew we didn’t have a lot of time, so I had to be ready to shoot the ball right away.”

Burke came up huge when it counted. Even before his game-winner, his 3-pointer with 2:55 remaining gave the Jazz a 79-77 lead, just as Oladipo had given Orlando an advantage with two free throws.

In what’s been a difficult season, Utah’s looked for bright spots wherever they can be had. And on Saturday, the Jazz could’ve easily surrendered their seventh consecutive loss in ugly fashion. Instead, Gordon Hayward drove the lane and made a fantastic pass, and Burke proved capable of hitting a big shot.

“The ball went in the hole,” Utah coach Ty Corbin said. “After putting ourselves in a bad position, I thought the guys did a good job to close the game out. They understood the pace, Gordon made a great pass to the corner and Trey made the shot. It’s great to see the young guys show a lot of character. We could’ve fell apart there when we fell behind, but they played it out.”

In a maturity-filled final two minutes, Corbin said his guys had four possessions that needed to go right, and they executed each time. Down 83-81, Richard Jefferson went to the basket, got fouled and made a free throw. Down 85-82, Hayward created contact, drew another foul and hit two more freebies. Down 87-84, Hayward dished to Derrick Favors for a lay-in. And then came Burke’s big play.

Each possession was critical. A misstep anywhere in that sequence, and the game is probably over.

“The poise that they showed down the stretch was really good for this young group,” Corbin said. “We didn’t create the pace that we wanted to, but I liked the way we finished the game.”

***

No. 3: Hickson to miss remainder of season — The season for the Denver Nuggets’ J.J. Hickson is done after an MRI showed a torn ligament in his right knee. This is an unfortunate event for Hickson, who despite losing his starting role, was playing major minutes for the Nuggets. Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post has reaction from Denver and information on who will replace Hickson in the Nuggets’ rotation:

The news came Saturday that the Nuggets have lost their fourth player for the rest of the season because of an injury when J.J. Hickson’s MRI revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

The rest of the season is just 13 games, but he joins Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson, who all underwent season-ending surgeries.

Hickson is the third Nuggets player to go down because of an injured ACL.

Hickson is the Nuggets’ leading rebounder at 9.2 per game, and is the fifth-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game.

“He’s had a good season for us,” Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said. “J.J. has shown that when he was a starter, and lately as he’s come off the bench, regardless of whether he plays a ton of minutes or he plays lesser minutes, he’s still always around that double-double mark. He’s an elite rebounder for the minutes that he plays.”

Hickson’s absence opens the door for former Washington Wizards forward Jan Vesely to get additional playing time. He has played in only 10 games since coming to the Nuggets at the trade deadline and has averaged 10.4 minutes.

That will change as the rotation does.

“I’m sure (Vesely) kind of wants to get out there and go against his old team,” Shaw said.

He sure does.

“I’m really excited about it,” Vesely said. “It will be a tough game. Washington is playing really good the last couple months. We have to get ready for a fast tempo on both sides. We have to play fast, and they will do the same thing.”

Shaw has wanted to get a bigger sample size from which to evaluate Vesely, a former NBA lottery pick.

“He has a high basketball IQ,” Shaw said. “He has a really good feel for the game. Obviously, his athleticism is off the charts. He’s not very polished offensively of just being able to throw the ball to him and say ‘Get us a bucket.’ But he knows that and he plays within his limitations, which I like.

“Unfortunately, he hasn’t had that much of a chance to get on the floor, but with J.J. being out … we should be able to get a good look at him.”

***

No. 4: Kidd didn’t panic during slow start — When the Brooklyn Nets struggled early this season, coach Jason Kidd received much of the blame. But now with the Nets finally hitting a groove and playing well (they’re 10-2 over their last 12 games), Kidd reveals that he made sure to never panic during his team’s slow start. Harvey Araton of The New York Times has the story on how the Nets are reacting to the Phil Jackson hoopla across town with the New York Knicks:

In fact, pretty much everything that Jackson, the Knicks’ new president, and James L. Dolan, their owner, were promising as they exchanged vows last week at Madison Square Garden had been established at Barclays Center, where the Nets won Friday for the 11th straight time, 114-98, against the Boston Celtics.

In the true spirit of the Jacksonian triangle, they distributed the ball as if it were a family heirloom, collecting 30 assists and making 56.4 percent of their shots.

“No one cares who scores,” Kidd said. “It’s all about Brooklyn.”

[Billy] King, who was allowed to construct one of the N.B.A.’s deepest rosters without the owner Mikhail D. Prokhorov’s butting in, had a relaxed (albeit rare) pregame chat with reporters. That’s the kind of interaction unseen around the Garden since Donnie Walsh regularly defied Dolan’s longstanding policy of hiding executives behind a wall of silence.

Although the Knicks narrowly escaped in Philadelphia for their eighth straight victory and crept closer to the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff position, the Nets moved to a game and a half behind first-place Toronto in the Atlantic Division, with the growing possibility of a top-four playoff seeding.

It was all enough for Kidd to almost crack a smile.

“There was never a panic, like, maybe I should have kept playing,” he said when asked if he had had sleepless nights and second thoughts when the Nets were wallowing in the depths of the conference, along with the Knicks, earlier this season.

Had Kidd not retired from a brilliant playing career, he would be among those kissing Jackson’s 11 coaching rings, eyeing a long-shot first-round series against Indiana or Miami, instead of leading a more versatile group that, as Paul Pierce said, can be one of the better teams in the East.

And yet … and yet ….

For all the Nets have accomplished since the turn of the year and as low as the Knicks sank (19 games under .500 until their current run), Dolan indisputably regained the upper hand last week in the continuing spend-a-thon against Prokhorov with the mere signing of Jackson to a five-year, $60 million contract.

In other words, the Nets, much like the Knicks, could look significantly different in a season a two. Neither team might be a serious championship contender any time soon. But we can count on both to be among the league leaders in dispensing cash and systemically sharing the ball. The players and the purists should be happy about that.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Philadelphia 76ers extended their losing streak to 24 games. … On the other end of the spectrum, the San Antonio Spurs won their 13th straight game. … Anthony Davis dominated the Heat for 30 points and 11 rebounds. … The Washington Wizards’ Drew Gooden was fined $15,000 by the league for his incident with Nick Young.

ICYMI of the NightChris Paul dished out the 6,000 assist of his career last night to become the 30th player in NBA history to accomplish the feat. Paul is third among active players in career assists behind only Steve Nash and Andre Miller.


VIDEO: Paul hits 6,000 assists

All-Star Saturday Gets A Makeover

Portland's Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

Portland’s Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

There will still be the rim-rattling, mind-bending slam dunks, the barrage of breathtaking 3-pointers and the dazzling array of skills on display when the greatest talent in basketball gathers.

But State Farm All-Star Saturday Night will undergo an extreme makeover this year in New Orleans with rule changes for all four of the events and an overall team competition between the Eastern and Western conferences — led by captains Paul George and Stephen Curry – with $500,000 in charitable contributions on the line.

Perhaps the most familiar name by the end of the extravaganza will be guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be busier than a trumpet player in a French Quarter brass band. He’s taking part in three of Saturday’s four events — including stints as a dunker, a long-distance shooter and a playmaker in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. The 2013 Rookie of the Year already has a busy dance card; he’s scheduled to play in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night and in the 63rd NBA All-Star Game on Sunday.

The most dramatic change Saturday is coming in the night’s marquee event, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. The competition will feature six dunkers, three from each conference, in a free-wheeling, two-round showdown to determine the best conference. For the first time in the event’s history, no individual dunker will be crowned. Instead, the title will go to the best conference. Complete rules.

Dunking for the Eastern Conference will be the team captain George of the Pacers, 2013 champion Terrence Ross of the Raptors and John Wall of the Wizards.  The Western Conference dunkers will be Lillard, Harrison Barnes of the Warriors and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings.

The 6-foot-3 Lillard will be battling in the land of the giants as the shortest participant in the slam dunk contest.

Highlights: George | Ross | Wall | Lillard | Barnes | McLemore

Before he puts on his dunking shoes, Lillard will be showing off his marksmanship as part of the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.  The other participants are Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, Joe Johnson of the Nets and Arron Afflalo of the Magic for the East.  Curry of the Warriors, Marco Belinelli of the Spurs and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves will join Lillard shooting for the West.

The major rule change in the contest is that players will have an entire rack of “money balls,” which count double, that can be placed in any of the five shooting positions around the court. Complete rules.

The Taco Bells Skills challenge has been turned into a relay race this year with each conference fielding two teams consisting of two players each.  Each team will run the course, competing in a relay format for a single overall time. Complete rules.

The ubiquitous Lillard will team with Trey Burke of the Jazz and Reggie Jackson of the Thunder will team with Goran Dragic of the Suns to make up the Western Conference lineup.  The East teams will be Michael Carter-Williams of the Sixers with Victor Oladipo of the Magic and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors with rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.

The Sears Shooting Stars will once again team a current NBA player with a WNBA star and an NBA legend in a time competition that will require four shots made from different spots on the court.

Tim Hardaway Jr. of the Knicks and Chris Bosh of the Heat will head up the East teams, while Kevin Durant of the Thunder and Curry will lead the West. Complete rules.

Each conference will be competing for charity. A total of $500,000 will be donated at the end of the night. For each competition, $100,000 will go to the winning conference’s charities, with $25,000 going to the charities of the runner-up.

State Farm All-Star Saturday night will be televised exclusively on TNT on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET).

[UPDATE: TNT will hold a fan vote during the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest to determine the Sprite Dunker of the Night. The winner of that vote will be considered the individual champion for the competition.]


Video: 2014 All-Star Saturday Night Participants

Taking A Crack at Rising Stars Draft

Do they pick Anthony Davis, who will have his chance to shine in front of the hometown crowd in New Orleans? Or jump at the chance to get reigning Rookie of the year Damian Lillard?

BBVA Compass Rising Stars ChallengeDo they go with point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who’s dazzled in his first year in the Eastern Conference, or Trey Burke, who’s lived up to the advance billing in the West?

Those are just a few of the questions confronting Grant Hill and Chris Webber when they act as “general managers” and pick the teams for the 2014 BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge (tonight on TNT at 7  ET). The choices will be part of a special one-hour addition of TNT NBA Tip-Off.

Al the participants in State Farm All-Star Saturday Night (featuring the Sears Shooting Stars, Taco Bell Skills Challenge, Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and Sprite Slam Dunk) will also be revealed, along with a revamped format.

But the heavy lifting will be done by Turner Sports analysts Hill and Webber in assembling their teams. So NBA.com colleague Steve Aschburner and I thought we’d lend a hand by providing a few tips in advance.

Here’s the way we stocked the teams, alternating picks, with me going first:

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

1 — Anthony Davis, F/C, Pelicans (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “One brow, one choice. It’s got to be the obvious hometown favorite who was snubbed for the big show.”

2 — Damian Lillard, G, Trail Blazers (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Could dominate if he uses Friday as dress rehearsal for Sunday.”

3 — Michael Carter-Williams, G, Sixers (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Foundation to Philly future, a steal at No. 11, probably should have gone here in 2013 draft.”

4 — Jonas Valanciunas, C, Raptors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “On a roll lately: stats 16.7 ppt, 10.2. rpg, 58 percent last six games.”

5 — Tim Hardaway, G, Knicks (Rookie) — Blinebury: “From the D-League to NBA, baskets the same size and he can fill them.”

6 — Brady Beal, G, Wizards (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Mature beyond years, will be comfortable in second Rising Stars Game.”

7 — Steven Adams, C, Thunder (Rookie) — Blinebury: “You can’t teach height, or sharp elbows.”

8 — Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Bucks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Re-draft the class of ’13 and this guy’s in the top three.”

9 — Andre Drummond, C, Pistons (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Young, tall and knows how to get me the ball.”

10 — Victor Oladipo, G, Magic (Rookie) — Aschburner: “East Rookie of Month in December, guards can thrive in this game.”

11 — Trey Burke, G, Jazz (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Comes off the injured list to be the everything the Jazz hoped.”

12 — Jared Sullinger, F/C, Celtics (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Stepping up as soph starter, he brings toughness.”

13 — Terrence Jones, F, Rockets (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “He’s filled the Rockets’ void at the 4, maybe making a trade unnecessary.”

14 — Harrison Barnes, F, Warriors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Coming off bench has been a challenge, he’s ready for reset button.”

15 — Dion Waiters, G, Cavaliers (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Since he doesn’t have to rely on Kyrie Irving to get him the ball, should get plenty of shots.”

16 — Kelly Olynyk, F/C, Celtics (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Averages half this, but per-36-minute numbers are: 13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.”

17 — Mason Plumlee, F/C, Nets (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Up and down with limited playing time, but has a true shooting percentage of 64.8.”

18 — Pero Antic, C, Hawks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Lock as All-Star Weekend’s Macedonian MVP.”

G.M. Steve Aschburner: Since Team Fran cheated on the coin flip – funny how that can happen over the phone! – I picked second and lost out on host-city favorite Anthony Davis, who probably has the game’s MVP award half in the bag on sentiment alone. But that’s OK, because I managed to round up enough bigs to occupy Davis – Jonas Valanciunas with his size and skills inside 15 feet, Jared Sullinger with his burly game and Kelly Olynyk with pick-and-pop proclivities.

Besides, games of this All-Star ilk tend to be dominated by the guards, who have the ball in their hands and initiate plays. My backcourt of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo is superior, and those three will spend a lot of time on the floor together to run his crew ragged in small ball. I’m counting on Lillard, who will participate Sunday in the big game, to take this one seriously and not save himself. Surely the 2013 Rookie of the Year doesn’t want any half-season wonders like Carter-Williams, Hardaway or Burke getting over on him.

My squad also has the game’s X factor: the Greek Freak. Given Milwaukee’s dreary season, this will serve as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s coming-out party on a national – wait, international – stage. As the youngest rookie, whose coltish skills and breathtaking moments inspire all sorts of enticing, five-years-from-now dreams, Antetokounmpo conceivably could challenge Davis in wowing the crowd and ride that adrenaline high to a special night.

Prediction: Team Asch 138, Team Fran 127.

G.M. Fran Blinebury: Maybe it was the good fortune that came with wearing my Broadway Joe Namath lucky coyote fur coat. Or maybe it was because when Team Asch, acting like wide-eyed rubes on their first trip to Bourbon Street, asked about having a coin flip, I quickly agreed and bounced a quarter off the coffee table. It was legit and I’d give you a link to the video, but we seem to have had some technical problems. Anyway, it was a no-brainer to make the Anthony Davis the No. 1 pick in the draft (again). With the hometown support he’ll have from the crowd, A.D. should pile up enough dunks and rejections to have the MVP award tucked safely inside his Pelican pouch by halftime.

Asch only thinks he’s got the most physical a lineup up front. I’ve got Andre Drummond and Terrence Jones, who like to mix it up on the inside and can get the ball off the backboard. And don’t forget those sharp elbows of Steve Adams that occasionally (oops!) deliver a message.

In a game where point guards control the ball and set the tone, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke will push the pace and take turns setting up A.D. for highlight reel dunks (and they’ll finish some themselves). If you want a dark horse contender to steal the spotlight, Tim Hardaway Jr. could carry the banner for the NBA D-League.

Prediction: Team Fran 152, Team Asch 131


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried was the MVP of the 2013 version of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge in Houston

Don’t Tell Rudy Gobert He’s A Project


VIDEO: Rudy Gobert misses but follows with a slam

 

RENO, Nev. — You can call Rudy Gobert young, inexperienced and maybe even still growing at 7-foot-2.

Just don’t call him a “project.”

“I know that’s the way a lot of people look at me,” said the Jazz rookie center from France with a shake of his head and crinkling of his face. “I don’t really like the word. I think it comes from people who have maybe seen me play maybe one time and they don’t really think that I know how to play.

“There are definitely things that I know I have to work on to improve my game, but I believer that there is much I can contribute if I get a chance to play.”

The 21-year-old Gobert has been assigned to the Bakersfield Jam for the NBA D-League Showcase and was impressive making 7-of-9 shots for 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in just 23 minutes of a win over Sioux Falls. It was the fifth game he’s played for the Jam, having gotten just limited minutes in 17 games with the Jazz.

“I try to work defensively on jumping straight up against my man,” he said. “That’s what the coaches want me to do. Work on my rebounding and offensively on my post game when I get touches.

“Everybody is probably not happy when they tell you they want you to do this, come to the D-League. I was not. I thought about it and I thought maybe it is not bad. I try to bring a positive attitude and say that it is good to get a chance to runs and play and see that it makes me better for the future. It’s good for me to get some playing time and just have fun.

“But I don’t want to say that it is better to be here than in Utah. I think anybody who is a professional would rather be in the NBA.”

Gobert set records at the NBA draft combine last year with a wingspan of 7-8 1/2 and a standing reach of 9-7 and was the 27th pick in the first round by the Nuggets before moving to the Jazz in a draft night trade. The physical traits are enough to make you drool even before combining them with a high revving motor that has him going after virtually every shot on defense.

“I think the main thing I have to do is build up by body and make myself stronger and I believe I am making progress,” he said. “I think I’m better at handling the physical parts of the game than when I came to training camp.”

In a season that the Jazz have committed to a youth movement with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Trey Burke, Gobert can’t help champing at the bit to get more of his own opportunity.

“I know that I am not going to play ahead of Enes at the five position, so I understand how it is,” Gobert said. “But it’s hard. I’m not very patient. I tell myself I’ve got to keep working and just stay focused. When I come to these games I have to just have fun and play and everything will be alright.

“Like I said, it’s hard. We have a rebuilding year with many young players and I want to be a part of that. My hope and my goal is in about three years we can be trying for the title and, of course, I expect to be a big part of that.”

L.A.’s Stunning Role Reversal


VIDEO: Lakers at Bucks, Dec. 31, 2013

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Happy New Year, Mike D’Antoni. A”We Want Phil” chant, however silly, percolated through Staples Center in L.A. on Tuesday as the glamorous-turned-anonymous Lakers faded to black again in an ugly loss to the now seven-win Milwaukee Bucks.

Total bummer of a New Year’s Eve party.

Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, of course, wouldn’t touch this sinking M*A*S*H unit with a bionic-kneed Andrew Bynum. At this point, any talk of the league’s worst teams has to include the purple and gold, who are 13-19, have lost six in a row (half of those by an average of 17 points) and show no sign of snapping back any time soon.

How could they snap back? Consider D’Antoni’s starting five in the 94-79 loss to Milwaukee: Jordan Farmar (who tore his left hamstring in the game and will miss a month), Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Pau Gasol. His available bench was limited to: Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre and Chris Kaman (who has fallen so far he couldn’t even get in the game).

Look at it this way: These unidentifiable Lakers are closer to last-place Utah than to eighth-place Dallas in the Western Conference standings. That gap will either shrink or grow Friday night when the Lakers welcome the Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) – who, ahem, just beat L.A. in Salt Lake City a week ago.

When these two teams meet Friday, the most exciting player on the floor just might be Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke, who’s quietly making a major move in the Rookie of the Year race. No offense to the impressive Burke, but that’s how far the mighty Lakers have plummeted: A rookie on the opposing team — a team with 10 wins — is the most exciting player on the floor.

With Dwight Howard in Houston after turning his back on the Lakers in free agency, Kobe Bryant on the sidelines again with a fractured knee, Steve Nash still plotting some way to get back on the floor and Pau Gasol sniffling through recurring physical and emotional trauma, the Lakers’ star power is flickering like a faulty neon sign.

The Clippers, once known as the “other” L.A. team, are another story altogether.

We may never truly understand all the reasons that prompted outgoing commissioner David Stern, acting as the de facto head of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets two years ago, to veto the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade.

(Stern said in a statement shortly after the December 2011 trade that he nixed it “in the best interests of the Hornets” and that he decided, without influence from other owners, that “the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.”)

But by now, we certainly grasp how drastically that decision altered both franchises’ outlooks. Remember, the Lakers thought they had Kobe’s future sewn up: CP3 in a deal that shipped out Gasol and Lamar Odom, followed by getting Dwight in a deal for Bynum. It’s hard to imagine a Kobe-CP3-D12 trio going up in flames like last season’s Howard-Kobe-Nash gathering did. Or like this season’s team has. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe to start this season and have gone 3-10 since his brief return and subsequent exit.

The Clippers (22-12) haven’t been nearly as consistent as coach Doc Rivers would like. But they are fourth in the West playing without injured sharpshooter J.J. Redick. They have won seven of their last 10. They’ll try to move 11 games over .500 Friday night at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

Off the court, the Clippers have been even better. Every second commercial on TV has Paul selling insurance with his equally assisting faux-twin brother Cliff, or a white-caped Blake Griffin saving us all from buying a lame automobile.

Meanwhile, the best news about the Lakers, off the court, is what they’re trying to do to fix their on-court woes. They are paying about $6 million more in payroll this season than their co-tenants, with close to $50 million wrapped up in Kobe and Gasol. The rest of the roster accounts for nearly $30 million. It’s why a rumored Gasol-for-Bynum swap with the Cleveland Cavaliers — followed by waiving Bynum — would be so attractive to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. It would wipe out millions in salary and costly luxury tax from the Lakers’ 2013-14 slate.

Whether that happens or not won’t change the Lakers’s fortunes any time soon. They’ll still be the talk of L.A. They are, after all, still the Lakers.

But until further notice, the star-studded Clips carry the bigger stick.


VIDEO: Bobcats at Clippers, Jan. 1, 2014

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)