Posts Tagged ‘Washington Wizards’

Morning Shootaround — March 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Mar. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ariza’s huge game | McHale approves of age limit | Fredette joins Bulls | Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time | Cuban favors D-League over college

No. 1: Ariza’s huge game – Trevor Ariza took over in the first quarter of Saturday’s game between the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 24 points with six three-pointers to help the Wizards open up a 13-point first quarter lead against a sold-out Philadelphia crowd. Ariza finished with a career-high 40 points, with eight three-pointers, and helped teammate John Wall collect his own career-high of 16 assists. J. Michael from CSN-Washington has more on Ariza’s career-night:

Trevor Ariza left the floor early during warmups at Wells Fargo Center because it was too cold. An NHL game had taken place earlier and several players, including Andre Miller and Chris Singleton, could be seen blowing into their hands and rubbing their arms in an attempt to generate heat.

Ariza didn’t take long. He just went to the locker room and waited until the opening tip in Saturday’s 122-103 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers when he scored a career-high 40 points, 24 coming in the first quarter when he made his first six three-point attempts. A free agent after the season, each time Ariza swishes a three it should come with the sound effects of a cash register.

“It was cold early but the fans and the excitement and all the things that was going on here made me feel a little bit warmer,” said Ariza, alluding to the sellout crowd that was primarily there to witness the retirement of Allen Iverson’s No. 3 jersey at halftime. “The flamethrower was out there.”

“You want to see the guy that has put in work, doing the extra sacrifice to help our team, guarding the best players on any given night, to have one of those big nights,” said Wall, who tied a career high with 16 assists. “You try to reward him for that. That’s what I wanted, for him to get a 40-point game.”

Marcin Gortat had another double-double with 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Even he wasn’t impressed by his own performance. He could only talk about Ariza.

“It was a one-man show,” Gortat said. “My rebounds and John’s assists, I don’t think they count.”

***

No. 2: McHale approves of age limit – Houston Rockets coach and Boston Celtics great Kevin McHale agrees with new NBA commissioner Adam Silver that the NBA should enforce an age limit to help avoid college one-and-dones. Sam Amick from the USA Today has more:

The Houston Rockets coach has a unique vantage point on this front. He spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota before beginning his Hall of Fame NBA career and later transitioning to a post-playing career as an executive (Minnesota Timberwolves) and head coach (Timberwolves, Rockets). McHale could see this situation from all sides, it would seem, and so it was that Silver went seeking his counsel leading up to his February ascension into former commissioner David Stern‘s seat.

The advice, which McHale reiterated this week in an interview with USA TODAY Sports, was to push hard for the end of the one-and-done era.

“I’m totally against it,” McHale said. “I understand (the argument) that it’s America and everybody has a right to work. I understand that. But the guys aren’t ready. (When) you’re 16 years old or 15 years old, they don’t put you into doggone smelting or anything. Man, the NBA is a man’s league, and I think a lot of these young guys come in early and their careers would prosper if they stayed (in college).

“I’d like to see us do the three years out of high school or 21 (years old), like football. I just think it would help the colleges. I think it would help the kids. And I know they don’t think so, because they want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get in the market. I’ve got to make all my money and all that stuff.’ But you don’t make money if you have a three-year career, if you come in at 18, 19, and you’re not ready.”

As Silver said at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, the owners’ proposal to raise the league’s minimum age from 19 to 20 was negotiated with the players during the 2011 lockout but ultimately tabled as a B-list item to be resolved at a later time. Silver argued in a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports that owners and players alike would reap the benefits of increased profits as a result of raising the minimum age.

McHale, not surprisingly, agrees. What’s more, he thinks players would approve of the change in a vote.

“Why would a bunch of NBA players vote to say, ‘Yeah, I want guys coming in to take my job?’” McHale continued. “They would say (have a minimum age of) 28 if you’re an NBA player, you know what I mean? So 21? I just think it would make it a better product, and I think it would help the kids. I really do.

“I think they’d learn leadership. I think they’d learn more responsibility. … When you get in the NBA, this is your job and you have to be really professional. But a lot of guys who come in just aren’t ready for that. It’s hard to do a man’s job when you’re 19.”

***

No. 3:  Fredette joins Bulls – Jimmer Fredette has not experienced a smooth transition from college to the NBA. He struggled to find playing time in Sacramento and many have already written off the 10th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft as a bust. But after clearing waivers, he now has a chance to start fresh in a much more developed system in Chicago. Teddy Greenstein of The Chicago Tribune has more:

Fredette officially cleared waivers Saturday and has agreed to sign with the Bulls for a prorated portion of the veteran’s minimum contract, sources said. Fredette is shooting a career-best 49.3 percent from 3-point range and is expected to attend Sunday’s matinee against the Knicks.

The Bulls hope Fredette will provide them with what they desperately need: scoring.

“The more shooting you have, the more it opens up the floor,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We want to open things up to attack off the dribble, with our cuts, things of that nature. We feel that is an area of need.”

Fredette, seeking to revive his career heading into free agency, can point to how the Bulls helped resurrect D.J. Augustin, whom the Raptors dumped. Since joining the Bulls, Augustin is averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds in 30.6 minutes.

“There are a number of guys who are good, and sometimes, as you see with D.J., it’s an opportunity to step in and add to what a team may need,” Thibodeau said. “Whoever we sign, if we do sign someone, we want to play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses.”

The 6-foot-2 Fredette is not a strong defender, but the last time he got extensive minutes, Feb. 12 at Madison Square Garden, he torched the Knicks for 24 points on 6-for-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Guard Kirk Hinrich said adding a top-flight shooter such as Fredette would make defenses “play honest.”

The Bulls entered Friday night 27th in 3-point shooting (34.1 percent), 28th in field-goal shooting (42.7 percent) and last in scoring (92.7 ppg).

***

No. 4:  Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time – The Detroit Pistons (23-36) have struggled this season after an offseason which saw them sign Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to large contracts. Another part of their offseason overhaul was the hiring of Maurice Cheeks to be head coach. This job proved to not be secure as Cheeks was fired after just 50 games, which was not a decision Jennings agreed with, reports Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:

Although there would certainly be some Pistons players who weren’t unhappy to see former coach Maurice Cheeks go, Brandon Jennings isn’t one of them — and Cheeks isn’t out of sight, out of mind for the starting point guard.

“I don’t have a problem with John (Loyer), just with the whole thing of changing coaches was one of the more difficult things for me,” Jennings said at Houston’s Toyota Center, while nursing a sore right big toe that caused him to miss the second half of Wednesday’s game in San Antonio.

“John was our assistant, so I know a lot about him. It was just a personal problem with Mo leaving.”

Jennings and Cheeks would often watch film together, and Jennings had a coach who could teach him the nuances of playing the position, given Cheeks’ stellar career.

Cheeks was fired on the morning of Feb. 9, mere hours after Jennings posted perhaps one of his best games as a pro, certainly atop the list in efficiency — 35 points and 12 assists with only two turnovers against the Denver Nuggets.

He echoed literally the thoughts of most folks who believe 50 games was nowhere near sufficient time to judge a coach, let alone one with Cheeks’ experience. It came as a shock to many around the NBA and Jennings’ head is still spinning.

“You give a coach half a season with new faces and new chemistry, that’s not enough time,” Jennings said. “I felt like he was in a losing situation. We were winning and now we’re playing like the old Pistons, in the beginning.”

Considering the Pistons have lost six of eight since Cheeks’ firing — albeit against better competition — Jennings doesn’t buy into the school of thought of Cheeks being the problem with their season.

“To be honest, I don’t think the team is tripping. It’s still the same,” Jennings said. “Not much has really changed, if you ask me.”

The two have talked a couple times since the firing, and Jennings hasn’t flourished under Loyer, although it doesn’t appear as if his responsibilities have changed too much. Aside from the first game following Cheeks’ firing, Jennings hasn’t shot over 40 percent in a game — and has three games where he hasn’t scored in double figures, including Wednesday, when he played only 13 minutes.

“I think I have been thinking too much,” Jennings said. “That’s with everything. Dealing with the coaching change and everything going on. Now, we keep slipping out the playoff race and you get worried.”

Jennings was open and candid about the high expectations that have given way to the disappointment surrounding the team to date. He thought his arrival in Detroit would mean the mediocrity from his days in Milwaukee was long gone, but clearly, there’s something missing with this team.

“If we don’t make the playoffs, it’ll be very disappointing and kind of embarrassing,” Jennings said. “The fact that myself coming here, Josh (Smith) coming here, we make these big moves and we don’t get it done — it’ll be real disappointing.”

***

No. 5:  Cuban favors D-League over college – Mark Cuban has rarely been afraid to speak his mind, so it’s no surprise he has a unique view on the age limit discussion. Unlike Kevin McHale, Cuban believes players would be better trained with a year in the NBA Development League over a year in college. Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas has more:

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of elite prospects to play in the NBA Development League instead of spending one season in college.

“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Under the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement, players must be one year out of high school and 19 years old to play in the league. However, the minimum age for the D-League is 18.

Cuban would like to see the NBA take steps to make the D-League a more attractive alternative to players who intend to spend only one season playing college basketball. While Cuban said he hasn’t analyzed the situation enough to make a formal proposal, he envisions the NBA working with nearby universities to provide straight-out-of-high school players an opportunity to pursue a college education while playing in the D-League.

Cuban suggests guaranteeing college tuition for such players, whether or not they pan out as NBA prospects, as an incentive.

“We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” Cuban said. “If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.

“You don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to pretend. A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete, and it’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie. At least at most schools, not all. … But we can put more of an emphasis on their education. We can plan it out, have tutors. We can do all kinds of things that the NCAA doesn’t allow schools to do that would really put the individual first.”

Cuban’s biggest concern about one-and-done prospects is that they’re often not mentally, emotionally and psychologically prepared for the NBA after spending only one season in a college environment.

He believes the D-League could provide a better atmosphere for freshman-age players to develop on and off the court.

Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of top prospects to play in the NBA D-League instead of spending one season in the “hypocritical” NCAA.

“You have to develop some level of maturity, and that has to be part of the process,” Cuban said. “You don’t want to bring kids in and just abandon them. That’d be the worst thing we could do.

“We’d have to make it so where there’d be very strict policies and rules so that, even if you’re not going to go to [college] class, there’s going be life [skills] classes — how do you deal with the world? — and you have to attend those. You have to keep up with those. We’d have very strict [rules] on why you’d be suspended if you didn’t live up to them. Things that should be done to student-athletes in college and are just not. Or not always.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah wasn’t happy with Tony Snell‘s celebration. … Yao Ming believes he would struggle in today’s NBA. … Isiah Thomas is reportedly being considered to replace Joe Dumars in the Pistons’ front office. … Derrick Williams continues to try to find his footing in the NBA.

ICYMI of the Night: It appears some of Chris Paul‘s passing ability may have rubbed off on teammate Blake Griffin. Example? This behind-the-back pass from Griffin to Matt Barnes:


VIDEO: Play of the Day – Blake Griffin

Pick-and-roll Data Likes The Suns

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – On the Washington Wizards’ first possession of their big, triple-overtime win in Toronto on Thursday, John Wall and Marcin Gortat ran a side pick-and-roll. The same primary action produced two big free throws in the final minute of the second overtime and a huge three-point play in the third OT.

SportVU cameras captured every pick-and-roll run in the 63 minutes of basketball at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday. The folks at STATS LLC have been tracking pick-and-rolls via SportVU this season, opening a new door as we look to learn more about the game, and have provided some of the data to NBA.com.

Note: All pick-and-roll stats included are through Wednesday’s games.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Wall and Gortat had run almost 200 more pick-and-rolls than any other combination in the league. They’ve been a pretty solid combination, with the Wizards scoring 1.06 points per possession when the pair ran a pick-and-roll. That mark is a notch better than the league average of 1.03 (on pick-and-roll possessions) and ranks 87th among 209 pairs of teammates who have run pick-and-rolls on at least 100 possessions.

But there’s a big difference between a Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll and a Wall-Nene pick-and-roll, which has produced just 0.85 points per 100 possessions. That’s one reason why Washington ranks 29th in pick-and-roll efficiency (better than only the Milwaukee Bucks).

Wizards’ most-used pick-and-roll combinations

Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Wall Gortat 784 731 772 1.06
Wall Nene 349 324 275 0.85
Beal Gortat 240 226 224 0.99
Wall Booker 147 139 128 0.92
Beal Nene 121 116 110 0.95
Wall Ariza 111 111 119 1.07
Ariza Gortat 113 108 105 0.97
All other combinations 1,295 1,249 1,077 0.86
TOTAL 3,160 3,004 2,810 0.94

Wall has been more likely to pass to Nene than Gortat, but that hasn’t been a good idea, as Nene has shot just 16-for-48 (33 percent) on those plays.

John Wall pick-and-roll partners

Screener Scr. P&R Poss. JW FGM JW FGA JW FG% JW PTS Pass to S S FGM S FGA S FG%
Gortat 784 731 74 183 40.4% 171 188 42 85 49.4%
Nene 349 324 24 71 33.8% 56 129 16 48 33.3%
Booker 147 139 15 49 30.6% 33 34 6 13 46.2%
Ariza 111 111 14 23 60.9% 41 29 5 9 55.6%
Seraphin 85 81 4 11 36.4% 10 27 3 15 20.0%
Others 149 143 6 22 27.3% 17 25 2 10 20.0%
TOTAL 1,476 1,386 131 337 38.9% 311 407 72 170 42.4%

You see that Wall has shot worse when he’s come off a Nene screen, perhaps because Gortat sets a better pick and/or because Nene’s defenders are more mobile and able to defend Wall on a hedge or switch.

The Wizards will miss Nene, who’s out six weeks with an MCL sprain, but mostly on defense. The Wizards have allowed slightly less than a point per possession when he’s been the big defending a pick-and-roll. They’ve been almost seven points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

Offensively, they’ve been a point per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. And their pick-and-roll game might actually get better in these six weeks without him.

Top of the list

The Dallas Mavericks have been the most prolific pick-and-roll team in the league, but the Phoenix Suns have been the best, scoring 1.09 points per pick-and-roll possession, just a hair better than the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, team

Team Screens Scr/100 Rank P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Phoenix 2,640 47.8 24 2,162 2,362 1.093
Houston 2,480 44.2 27 2,091 2,282 1.091
Portland 2,805 49.7 23 2,295 2,499 1.089
Oklahoma City 2,834 50.0 22 2,354 2,554 1.08
New York 2,782 51.9 16 2,292 2,452 1.07
Miami 2,768 54.0 12 2,145 2,294 1.07
Dallas 3,955 69.6 1 3,031 3,226 1.06
San Antonio 2,752 50.7 20 2,224 2,361 1.06
Indiana 2,420 44.6 26 2,015 2,139 1.06
Toronto 3,529 66.2 2 2,696 2,848 1.06

Scr/100 = Screens per 100 possessions

The Suns’ success starts with Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, the aggressive ball-handler and the 6-foot-11 floor spacer. They’ve been the league’s top pick-and-roll combination among those with at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, tandem

Team Ball-handler Screener Scr. P&R Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
PHX Dragic Frye 425 392 510 1.30
MIA Wade Andersen 131 124 160 1.29
OKC Durant Collison 119 114 143 1.25
OKC Westbrook Durant 156 148 185 1.25
NOP Holiday Anderson 130 125 156 1.25
SAC Thomas Gay 168 165 202 1.22
POR Batum Lopez 183 180 220 1.22
POR Williams Lopez 121 111 135 1.22
IND Stephenson Hibbert 147 144 175 1.22
OKC Durant Perkins 209 196 238 1.21

Minimum 100 pick-and-roll possessions

Dragic has run almost the same amount of pick-and-rolls with Miles Plumlee (407 screens on 390 possessions) as he has with Frye (425, 392). But the Suns have  scored only 1.03 points per possession on the Dragic-Plumlee pick-and-rolls. Clearly, Dragic prefers to have a screener who pops out for a jumper, rather than one who rolls to the rim.

On those 390 Dragic-Plumlee possessions, Dragic has passed the ball 232 times, but only 59 times (25 percent) to Plumlee. On the 392 Dragic-Frye possessions, he’s passed the ball 234 times, and 113 of those passes (48 percent) have gone to Frye.

Overall, the Suns have been efficient when Dragic has the ball, scoring 1.16 points per possession from his 1,238 pick-and-rolls. That’s the best mark among 46 starting point guards and other high-usage perimeter players who have been the pick-and-roll ball-handler for at least 300 possessions. And who’s next on the list might surprise you.

Most points per pick-and-roll possession, ball-handler

Ball-handler Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss. Top Partner Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss.
Goran Dragic 1,172 1,361 1.16 Channing Frye 392 510 1.30
DeMar DeRozan 690 793 1.15 Amir Johnson 261 303 1.16
Kevin Durant 732 813 1.11 Serge Ibaka 284 286 1.01
Jeremy Lin 528 586 1.11 Dwight Howard 166 181 1.09
LeBron James 659 729 1.11 Chris Bosh 188 225 1.20
Damian Lillard 1,121 1,238 1.10 LaMarcus Aldridge 441 526 1.19
Dwyane Wade 469 516 1.10 Chris Bosh 155 144 0.93
Jrue Holiday 783 859 1.10 Anthony Davis 245 256 1.04
Monta Ellis 1,451 1,583 1.09 Dirk Nowitzki 500 554 1.11
George Hill 619 672 1.09 David West 258 279 1.08

Among 46 starting point guards and other perimeter players in the top 25 in usage rate.
Top partner = Player with whom he’s run the most pick-and-rolls.

DeRozan’s numbers seem a little fluky. He’s shot just 41 percent out of pick-and-rolls, has recorded an assist on just 5.8 percent those 690 possessions (the fourth lowest rate of the group), and averages less than one secondary assist (where his pass directly leads to somebody else’s assist) per game. But he has drawn fouls on 9.4 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, a rate on par with that of LeBron James.

Some more notes from this list…

  • It’s interesting that James has had good success with Chris Bosh, but Dwyane Wade hasn’t. Wade has actually shot better (18-for-32) than James has (14-for-31) coming off Bosh screens, but Bosh has shot better when receiving a pick-and-roll pass from James (15-for-22) than he has when getting one from Wade (9-for-25). The shooting numbers, of course, are some small sample sizes.
  • Of the 46 pick-and-roll ball-handlers I looked at, the most likely to shoot is Tony Wroten, who has taken a shot on 31.0 percent of the screens he’s come off of. Next on the list are Nick Young (30.7 percent), Reggie Jackson (30.0 percent), Jamal Crawford (29.6 percent) and Rudy Gay (29.6) percent.
  • The players least likely to shoot are Kendall Marshall (12.4 percent), Patrick Beverley (12.9 percent), Mario Chalmers (14.5 percent), George Hill (15.9 percent) and Ty Lawson (16.3 percent).
  • James (20.1 percent) is less likely to shoot than Chris Paul (21.3 percent), Dragic (21.7 percent) or Wall (22.1 percent).
  • The guy most likely to pass to the screener is Stephen Curry. Of Curry’s 830 passes out of pick-and-rolls, 56.3 percent have gone to the screener. Next on the list are Russell Westbrook (55.3 percent), Michael Carter-Williams (52.1 percent), Deron Williams (50.7 percent) and Kyrie Irving (48.7 percent).
  • The guy least likely to pass to the screener is James Harden (27.2 percent). So when they come off pick-and-rolls, Curry is twice as likely to pass to the screener than Harden is. After Harden comes Carmelo Anthony (27.4 percent), James (28.0 percent), Jrue Holiday (29.0 percent) and Tyreke Evans (30.3 percent).
  • Six of the 46 have shot better than 50 percent when coming off a pick-and-roll: Chalmers (54.8 percent), Dragic (53.2 percent), James (52.5 percent), Wade (51.3 percent), Kevin Durant (50.2 percent) and Tony Parker (50.2 percent).
  • Get this: Durant has recorded an assist on a higher percentage of his pick-and-roll possessions (13.0 percent) than James (10.3 percent) and more than twice as often as Paul George (6.0 percent).

Location is key

SportVU keeps track of where every pick-and-roll takes place. As you might expect, the closer to the basket the screen is set, the more likely the offense is to score. The most efficient pick-and-roll spot on the floor is at the high post (around the foul line, inside the 3-point arc), which produces 1.05 points per possession.

But high post pick-and-rolls account for only 4 percent of all pick-and-rolls. The most common location is the top of the key, which sees 41 percent of pick-and-roll action. Next is the wing (foul-line extended), which sees 28 percent and the “sideline point” area (out by the coach’s box line) at 25 percent.

Pick-and-rolls by location

Location Most PCT PPP Best PCT PPP Worst PCT PPP Lg. avg. PPP
Center Point NOP 53% 1.05 POR 42% 1.12 MIL 41% 0.90 41% 1.02
Wing CHI 39% 1.05 GSW 16% 1.11 ORL 19% 0.93 28% 1.02
Sideline Point DAL 32% 1.10 OKC 31% 1.17 WAS 25% 0.92 25% 1.03
High Post PHI 7% 1.03 HOU 3% 1.31 GSW 3% 0.80 4% 1.05
Corner MIA 7% 0.97 MIN 2% 1.28 BOS 3% 0.76 3% 0.99

PCT = Percentage of total pick-and-rolls run from that location.
PPP = Points per possession on pick-and-rolls run from that location.

We’re just scratching the surface here. And that’s the issue with SportVU. There’s so much data to digest, it has to be compartmentalized and put into the proper context. But we’re really starting to see how much it has to offer.

Next week, I’ll take a look at pick-and-roll defense. (Hint: Indiana good, Portland bad.)

Blogtable: Big Movers Of Second Half

Golden State's Klay Thompson, David Lee and Steph Curry (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Golden State’s Klay Thompson, David Lee and Steph Curry (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

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


Movers and shakers | Texas throwdown | LeBron’s future


Which team will be the big mover of the second half? Why’s that?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comMinnesota. Want-to doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but I can’t come up with a team that has more urgency to pick up the pace in search of a playoff spot. Convincing Kevin Love that he’ll be able to win with the Timberwolves long-term is what the next 16 months are about in the Twin Cities. That suggests a move of some sort by Thursday’s trade deadline but more so, a desperation to end the Wolves’ decade-long postseason drought. If the current No. 8 (Dallas) continues at its present pace (.582), Minnesota needs to finish 22-7 to catch up.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I don’t think there are going to be any dramatic moves made.  But assuming the Grizzlies hold onto Zach Randolph past the trade deadline, I think they’ll jump up and squeeze into the playoffs in the West.  Of course, if they do that, it could be at the expense of Golden State and then maybe Mark Jackson makes a dramatic move toward the door.

Dwyane Wade (Glenn James/NBAE)

Miami’s Dwyane Wade (Glenn James/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Paging Golden State, Paging Golden State… The Warriors better make a big move up or else… But they’re not my choice. You’d be stunned to see the Heat ratchet up the defense and go on a tear? Me either, but they’re not my choice. People, I’m talking the Washington Wizards — that’s right, the Wiz. I know they slipped before the break, but they seemed to be discovering themselves just prior and even got over .500 for the first time since, like, the moon walk. John Wall and Bradley Beal return from fun All-Star experiences in New Orleans with, I believe, a seriousness, a real sense of the job at hand. And the schedule should be advantageous. Of their next 22 games (through March) only seven are against teams with winning records and that includes Toronto (twice), Memphis and Phoenix.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’ll stick with my preseason prediction: the Warriors are one of the better teams in the West, not a team that should be scraping by at the end to hang on for No. 7 or 8. They have definitely earned that spot so far. But a solid locker room that has the ability to focus when it matters most – or the threat of being embarrassed by a bad finish – will drive Golden State away from the danger zone.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: As long as Andrew Bogut’s shoulder issue doesn’t linger, Golden State should move back up the Western Conference standings into a 3-5 seed. Their point differential is better than their record, they have a top-five defense, and they play one of the easier schedules in the West going forward, including nine games against East teams under .500 and four against the Jazz, Kings and Lakers.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comAs crazy as it sounds, I think it’s going to be the Miami Heat. They’re not going on another 27-game run like they did last year, chasing history and making a mockery of the rest of the league on their way to the best regular-season record and eventually their second straight championship. But I think they’re going to ride the wave of emotion that LeBron James is playing with, and has been since we all started talking about Kevin Durant challenging him for league supremacy. The Heat needed motivation, they needed a cause to inspire them through the 82-game marathon that will mean next to nothing if they don’t win a third straight title. They’ve found it now and it’s defending their honor and the honor of their leader and best player. Indiana’s hold on that No. 1 spot in the East is tenuous at best. It’ll be interesting to see the Heat as the hunter as opposed to the hunted the rest of this season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogMemphis. As of today they’re out of the playoffs, and they may not have placed anyone on the All-Star team, but they’ve finally got everyone healthy (well, except for Tony Allen, and by all accounts he’s just days away). They haven’t made as many headlines as when they were the Hang Time Grizzlies or the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies, but they’ve quietly put together a 15-4 run over the last few weeks. I think they’ve got the experience and health to continue playing the way they have of late and put together a late-season push that launches them into the postseason.

Simon Legg, NBA AustraliaGolden State. They’re currently seventh in the West but this team is too good to be that low. I can see them overtaking Phoenix and Dallas, then taking aim at Portland. Surprisingly, they’re ranked 12th in offensive efficiency but their dynamic starting lineup has played only 647 minutes of their 2,559 minutes on the floor. Their offensive rating with the starting five is 112.8. Without them, it’s 104.2. Expect their starters to get more minutes as we turn to the playoffs and for the Warriors to move up the standings.

XiBin Yang, NBA ChinaThe Grizzlies have found the rhythm again, and it’s a relief that Marc Gasol’s injury was not serious. He’s still the core of this team. With Conley’s return, they could trace their winning pace last year.

Aldo Aviñante, NBA Philippines: I think the Miami Heat will string off another huge winning streak to try and get the number one spot in the standings. The stakes are getting higher. They had a historical 27-game winning streak last year that started right about the same time this season and they might gun for another one in the home stretch.

Blogtable: How High For Washington?

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


The Suns with Pau | The Wizards? Really? | Blake, Kevin or L.A.?



VIDEO: John Wall leads Washington past Oklahoma City

Could the Wizards end up Top 4 in the East? How’d that happen?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comIn the East, if you’re above .500, you’re a contender for a top-4 seed, and the Wizards’ whole season has been about breaking above .500. It dates to last season, when coach Randy Wittman‘s marching orders were basically to be .500 in games in which point guard John Wall was available. They nearly did it, going 24-25 with Wall and 5-28 without him. The urgency got dialed up coming into this season, with jobs on the line if there wasn’t more progress. Trevor Ariza has been a valuable piece this season, Marcin Gortat has been the upgrade Washington needed, rookie Otto Porter basically is a bonus player after missing so much of the season’s first half and Wittman has done a good job with the defense and in cobbling together a rotation from young, overlapping parts. But the Wizards’ greatest asset is its backcourt, Wall and Bradley Beal – skilled and as promising as any in the league.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: If they keep playing the kind of solid team defense that’s held down the Suns, Warriors, Thunder and Blazers over the past several weeks, it’s not out of the question, which is how the Wizards are over .500 for the first time since 2009. They’ve got the best point guard in the East in John Wall running the show and the rest of the roster seems to finally be coalescing around him. However, while they are within arm’s reach of Atlanta right now, let’s hold off any certain judgment until they can stay above .500 for a couple of weeks.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Let’s consult the standings: Hmm, yes, the Wiz are No. 5 and although just one game over .500 they’re closing in on No. 3 Atlanta. Yes, by golly, the Wiz can get a top-four playoff spot! How did it happen? This is the East we’re talking about here. At the same time it is nice to see the team heading up instead of drowning like Cleveland or Detroit. I’m happy for coach Randy Wittman, who could have already been fired, but wasn’t. They’ve got health now and, look, this is a nice starting five. John Wall has a case to be the East’s starting point guard over Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal is dangerous and the front line with Nene and Marcin Gortat can be pretty formidable. There’s not much depth, but this group, in this conference, is top-four material.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Because they play in the East. That’s how it happened. A two-game winning streak puts anyone in contention for home-court in the playoffs. Beyond that as the obvious, this always had the potential to be a postseason team. Getting John Wall and Bradley Beal together on the court is imperative. And while it doesn’t get a lot of attention, the Marcin Gortat acquisition has paid off.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It happened because teams 3-15 in the East aren’t very good. Really, whether the Wiz get a top-four spot is as much about the rest of the conference as it is about them. Will the Raptors trade Kyle Lowry? Can the Bulls keep Joakim Noah healthy? Will the Hawks keep hanging on? Have the Nets really gotten their act together? Throw in the Wiz and you should have five teams fighting for the 3 and 4 spots, with one of them stuck playing the Heat in the first round. Washington has been a top-five defensive team since Jan. 1, which is a good sign for them going forward. And of that group, they’ve played the second toughest schedule so far (behind only Toronto). At worst, they should finish fifth.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThe Wizards could actually be good enough in the Eastern Conference this season. So could the Toronto Raptors … Brooklyn Nets … Atlanta Hawks … or Chicago Bulls. That’s just the nature of the East this year. The Wizards are in that mix immediately after the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, and they have the talent to challenge for that top-four spot in the playoff chase. They need to find a way to stay above .500, now that they’ve finally gotten there. And they need to stay healthy down the stretch of this season. How they got here starts with a defensive-minded group that has been a constant the past couple of years and ends with the arrival of John Wall the All-Star and a supporting cast that has finally grown comfortable with him as their leader. Sustainability is the name of the game in Washington now.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogWatching the Wizards this season, I keep going back to the long conversation I had over the summer with John WallFor a guy who had mostly been up and down the first few years of his career, Wall sounded completely focused. On that day he convinced me that he was the guy to lead the Wizards into the postseason. Of course, I didn’t know the rest of the Eastern Conference was going to become the Leastern Conference, easing the path for the Wiz to get to the top of the Conference.

Davide Chinellato, NBA ItaliaI think the Wizards will make the playoffs, but they won’t get home-court advantage. Since they don’t play in the Atlantic Division, they’d have to pass the Hawks to get it and I don’t think that will happen. The Wizards depend too much on how John Wall plays, while — at least for now — the Hawks are a better overall team.

Adriano Albuquerque. NBA BrasilThey became the team that they were supposed to be in the beginning of the season. The players-only meeting and Nene’s message about “taking their heads out of their butts” worked, brought them back to Earth, and now they’re ready to soar again. John Wall is playing as the best point guard in the East (besides Kyle Lowry), Bradley Beal keeps on showing improvements in his sophomore year, Trevor Ariza came back in the same beat he was early in the season, Martell Webster is contributing, Nene is playing well on both sides of the court, and even Jan Vesely turned into a decent bench player. Yes, they will definitely compete with Atlanta for the non-division champion home-court advantage.

Akshay Manwani, NBA IndiaI think the more important point is that even if the Wizards don’t get home-court advantage, they could still win the first round in the 2014 postseason. Really, any of the teams between 3 to 6 in the East could end up beating the other. But the Wizards were always primed to do well this season with their mix of young talent and veteran presence on the team. A few reasons for their slow start could have been playing 15 of their first 26 on the road, where they earned a 12-14 record and their inability to close out clutch games. They are only 2-5 in games that have gone into overtime.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Trail Blazers are more than just a two-man team | Shaw relished time with Vogel | Raptors weary of injuries | Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade

No. 1: Blazers more than a two-man team — The Portland Trail Blazers are riding the wave of a MVP candidate (LaMarcus Aldridge), a Most Improved candidate (Damian Lillard) and a Coach of the Year candidate (Terry Stotts) to one of the most surprising and impressive starts we’ve seen from any team in recent years. They have already equaled their win total from a year ago, after taking care of the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday. But they are more than just a two-man team with one of the hottest coaches in the game. The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman explains:

As the Moda Center masses gathered to watch LaMarcus Aldridge go head-to-head against Kevin Love and reignite the debate over which player is the best power forward in the NBA, a funny thing happened:
The Trail Blazers proved yet again they’re more than a one-man team.
With a difference-making outing from the bench, balanced scoring and meaningful contributions up and down the roster, the Blazers used a team effort to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 115-104 Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Oh, sure, Love and Aldridge had some sparkling moments and they provided enough highlights to satisfy a salivating sellout crowd. But their growing rivalry was more fizzle than sizzle as the Blazers (33-11) used a team-oriented approach to avenge a December defeat to the Timberwolves and equal the number of victories they had all of last season.
“One thing about LA — and we talked about it — the media and (the team) put more into it than he did,” Mo Williams said of Aldridge’s matchup with Love. “All he kept saying was, ‘Man, all I care about is the win. All I care about is the win.’ And I believe him. I thought he just came out and played basketball. He didn’t try to overdo it. He didn’t try to do too much. He wasn’t bigger than the game. I thought the game was more important than the matchup with him and Kevin Love.”
In the end, the Blazers won thanks to their bench, which outscored the Timberwolves’ second unit 34-15, and the sum of their parts rather than the talent of their All-Star. As usual, backup point guard Williams was at the heart of the Blazers’ bench, and he finished with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds during a flashy 25 minutes that featured behind-the-back passes, three-pointers and a relentless push-the-pace mentality.

***

No. 2: Shaw relished time with Vogel: – Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has nothing but love for his Indiana Pacers’ counterpart Frank Vogel. When you work as closely as they did, when Shaw worked as an assistant under Vogel prior to this season, a mutual admiration society (of two) can develop. And if familiarity with one another gives your current team an edge, as it perhaps did when the Nuggets snapped a three-game skid with a win over the Pacers, so be it. But the bond between these two men remains, regardless of the outcome of games. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more:

As the story goes, Shaw would indeed listen to Frank Vogel and join his staff as an assistant head coach. Shaw became an integral part of the Pacers, influencing their play and developing lasting relationships with players. Saturday, as the head coach for the Denver Nuggets, Shaw faced his former team for the first time and recalled how his time in Indianapolis influenced his current mindset as a leader.

“I was coming from Los Angeles to Indiana,” Shaw said. “I had to learn how to do things a different way under Frank Vogel and being a part of the group that he has now, and I watched some of those players grow.

“Frank Vogel is a great coach. He comes from a video coordinating background so he believes in watching a lot of video and that was different for me. We had to come in every day and get 20 minutes every day of watching videos. Just watching how he organized practices every day and getting prepared for games, I learned from him.”

In the summer of 2011, as Vogel sought Shaw to join the Pacers, he pitched the family-friendly suburbs but mainly the opportunity for a young assistant with high aspirations.

“I told him he was crazy to go to ESPN, he should come work for us,” Vogel said. “We’re doing special things. I knew he wanted to be a head coach, and I really felt like staying in the trenches was his best way to do that and not just staying in the trenches for anyone but for a team that’s really doing some special things.

“And the first phone call, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Listen, we need to talk because we can really help each other.’ I was recruiting him to try and position himself but I really needed him as well.”

***

No. 3: Raptors weary of injuries, especially after big night from Ross – Terrence Ross enjoyed the finest night of his NBA career against the Los Angeles Clippers, albeit in a loss. But his 51-point explosion was directly impacted by an injury to the man who has been perhaps the Raptors’ most important player this season, DeMar DeRozan. Injuries, the great equalizer for any team, are a concern for a Raptors crew, GM Masai Ujiri in particular, that understands the greatest of plans can be derailed by the wrong player going down at the wrong time. Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star delivers the details:

A few weeks ago, GM Masai Ujiri was chatting about his short-term vision for this club. As you might expect, the short-term vision is all over the place. Everything depends on how they perform. He was certain about one thing.

“Injuries,” Ujiri said. “That’s what haunts me.”

Patrick Patterson had his nose broken by a Blake Griffin elbow. In a truly Raptor-y touch, Patterson was called for a foul on the play.

But he’ll be OK; and even if he weren’t, this team would survive.

However, without DeRozan, this is an untenable exercise. There can be no true tank now — it’s too late for that. But it would be a tank without volition. This team would get very bad, very quickly.

Nonetheless, DeRozan played 10 more game minutes. He came out before the end of the first half to get re-taped. He went for two more minutes in the second half before giving up.

“It’s a little painful right now,” DeRozan said, but didn’t seem terribly concerned. An X-ray was negative.

We’ll see in a day or two. If DeRozan plays Monday in Brooklyn, no harm. Even if he sits a game or two, no biggie.

But if this is the beginning of an extended absence, some hard questions will have to be asked about those 10 extra minutes, and putting this team’s leader in real jeopardy.

***

No. 4: Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade – Dwyane Wade isn’t the only NBA superstar whose injury issues have forced his team to adjust its long-term plans for this season. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul have all missed significant time for their respective teams this season. But none of those other stars toil for the two-time defending NBA champs. And the Heat, with today’s Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs on tap, still don’t know what to expect from Wade. He might very well sit out again today. The Heat have no choice but to play the waiting game with Wade. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald sheds some light on the Heat’s plight:

If this were the postseason, then Dwyane Wade would be playing.

Wade has missed four straight games do to pain in his knee, and could miss Sunday’s game against the Spurs as well, but he indicated Saturday that he’s only missing games because, well, these games aren’t really that meaningful when weighed against protecting one of the best players in the NBA.

“The playoffs are different,” said Wade, who spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since scratching himself from the lineup last week. “If this was the playoffs, I wouldn’t have been out.”

Wade went through some of the Heat’s practice drills Saturday and worked on his conditioning in preparation for the Spurs’ first game at AmericanAirlines Arena since Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. A final decision on his playing status likely will not be made until about an hour before tipoff, which is set for 1 p.m.

“I don’t know,” Wade said when asked if he would play. “Today was a good day just being back on the court and [Sunday] we’ll see.”

Wade, who has missed 13 games this season, hasn’t played since scoring eight points in consecutive games against the Wizards and 76ers. Before that, he scored at least 20 points in 10 of 12 games. Despite the sudden drop-off in production and games on the bench, Wade wouldn’t call his latest block of rest a setback.

“At that time it was a setback,” Wade said, referring to a comment he made after playing the Sixers on Jan.17. “Now it’s not … At this point there ain’t no setbacks, it’s just what I’m dealing with.

“It’s what I’ve been dealing with all year. I don’t know how much back I can go, so it’s the same thing.” 


VIDEO: RAnother huge night around the league is captured in the Top 10 plays

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tom Thibodeau could care less about aesthetics. The Bulls coach only cares about winning games … Might Carmelo Anthony be ready for an encore performance against the Los Angeles Lakers today? Could be … Jazz rising star Trey Burke won the battle of young point guards and the game against the Wizards’ John Wall … Lakers forward Pau Gasol delivers some painful truths about his team and their season, to date …

ICYMI of The Night: You didn’t think Kevin Durant was done, did you? He earned a night off Friday and bounced back in the fashion you’d expect from a man who has been destroying the competition all season. The leading candidate for the MVP kept up his torrid pace in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers:


VIDEO: Kevin Durant makes it 10 straight games with 30 or more points while also notching a triple-double

Air Check: The King And Pop

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – For NBA fans like us, there’s nothing better than League Pass. Having the ability to watch every game every night (and then again the next day) is heaven.

Of course, with local broadcasts, you get local broadcasters, which can be good and bad. It can be good, because these guys know their teams better than most national broadcasters. It can be bad, because these guys love their teams more than most national broadcasters. And they’re usually not afraid to show that love.

Air Check is where we highlight the best and worst of NBA broadcasts.

Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder

After a timeout during the Pistons-Wizards match Saturday, the Washington broadcast came back with Steve Buckhantz saying “Two of the most efficient players in the NBA are playing here tonight.”

At that point, your mind races. Andre Drummond and Martell Webster? Both are near the top of the league in effective field goal percentage.

No, Buckhantz was talking about a couple of other guys…


VIDEO: Wizards’ broadcaster Steve Buckhantz has high praise for John Wall and Brandon Jennings

So, Buckhantz called John Wall and Brandon Jennings “two of the most efficient players in the league” because they ranked second and third in games with at least 10 assists and less than four turnovers. That’s an interesting definition of efficiency.

At the time, Wall and Jennings ranked 203rd and 229th in effective field goal percentage among 247 players who had attempted at least 150 shots from the field. Their true shooting percentage ranks among the same group were slightly better: 152nd and 222nd.

Oh, if you want to go back to assists and turnovers, Jennings and Wall ranked 18th and 29th in assist/turnover ratio among qualified players.

So yeah, that stat that the Wizards showed – in which Chris Paul was lapping the field, by the way – could have used some context. And to top it off, Wall threw the ball out of bounds on the first possession after they showed it.

The King of Air Check returns

If you’ve been reading Air Check for the last couple of years, you’re familiar with the shots Scott Hastings takes at the officials. If you haven’t, see some examples here, here and here.

Let’s add this one to the list…


VIDEO: Scott Hastings demonstrates why he is the best

“I’m telling you,” Hastings says after Evan Fournier gets a bucket, “in a year or two, if he doesn’t get that call as an and-one, then officiating is as bad as I thought.”

That’s why he’s the King.

The fear of Pop

You’ve certainly seen Jeff Van Gundy‘s between-quarters “interview” with Gregg Popovich from a couple of weeks ago, probably the best broadcasting moment of the season…


VIDEO: Jeff Van Gundy and Gregg Popovich share a special moment

A week later, the Spurs were on ESPN again. And again, there was no sideline reporter. So play-by-play man Dave Pasch and analyst Jon Barry flipped a coin to see who had to do the interview. Pasch lost and got the standard Popovich treatment…


VIDEO: Dave Pasch loses coin toss and interviews Popovich

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Defensive woes plague Heat | Kobe vows to return as good as ever | ‘Melo: Knicks show no ‘fight’ vs. Nets | Cuban on his desire to be fined | Report: Wizards interested in Monroe

No. 1: Defensive woes plague stumbling Heat in defeat — Just yesterday, our own David Aldridge offered up three solid points in his Morning Tip column why Miami Heat fans shouldn’t fret over the team’s recent swoon. Still, the Heat’s falterings of late cannot be denied and after last night’s 121-114 loss on the road to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami has lost four of its last six games and is 5-5 in 2014. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald and Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com explain how defensive issues and a lack of overall energy may be at the root of Miami’s slide:

The midway point of the Heat’s season is here, and if one trend has emerged in recent games, it’s that the defending back-to-back champions aren’t interested in playing defense in the first halves of games.

Opponents are averaging 64.5 points in the first halves of the past four games against the Heat and, in Monday’s 121-114 loss to the Hawks, the Heat allowed a whopping 71 points before the break. The Hawks hadn’t beaten the Heat since Jan 2, 2012, a streak of nine games.

The runaway scoring led to some statistical oddities. For example, the Heat made 15 three-pointers and shot 45 percent from beyond the arc and somehow managed to lose to a team that is now just two games above .500.

“All across the board, ‘A’ through ‘Z’, there just was not a lot of pride [on defense],” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We tried to win on a shootout and then when our offense came up dry on the road toward the end … we weren’t able to secure a win.”

The Heat is now 2-1 against the Hawks (21-19) on the season and 9-2 against teams in the Southeast Division.

And here’s Arnovitz’s report on the Heat’s overall lethargic effort and poor defense against the Hawks:

It’s Day 13 of a six-game East Coast swing, and the Miami Heat are weary.

They’ve spent only five of the past 27 days at home, and the fatigue was apparent in the locker room pregame, as guys shuffled to and from the training room and on the floor against the Atlanta Hawks, where contests at the rim were late and half-hearted.

The Heat won’t say it publicly, of course, but they’re dog tired. LeBron James looks gassed. Dwyane Wade less so, but that’s only because he was on the bench in street clothes conserving his fuel. Chris Bosh’s eyelids were heavy as he offered explanations for the daze that surrounds the team. Even head coach Erik Spoelstra seems like he needs a double shot of espresso.

Whether it was exhaustion, a lack of focus, poor execution, iffy schemes or the lunar cycle, the result was defensive carnage at Philips Arena, where Miami fell 121-114 to Atlanta. The loss completes a lackluster 2-4 road trip.

“I can’t pinpoint what it is,” James said. “It was a little bit of everything. At some point we have to figure it out.”

That was the sentiment on Monday night as the team packed up to return home to face Boston on Tuesday. There was no specific diagnosis, no reference to pick-and-roll coverage or defending the point of attack or rim protection or defensive rotations. The Heat insist that the issues reside in the more general realms of focus, effort and accountability.

“We’re just not taking away much,” Shane Battier said. “Usually when our defense is clicking, we’re taking away a few things out of a team’s offense and living with other parts of the team’s offense. Right now, the other team has a full menu of what they want to get — paint shots, 3s, transition.”

When things are clicking, in Battier’s words, it’s not unusual to go 15 or 20 possessions without seeing a fundamental defensive mistake by Miami. Lately, the Heat are having trouble putting together consecutive stops. The Heat are failing NBA Defense 101. Simple angle pick-and-rolls — like the one the Hawks ran in the third quarter that yielded a wide-open 3-pointer for Williams — produce mass confusion with Heat defenders helping off the strong side perimeter (a major no-no).


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about Miami’s loss on the road to Atlanta

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No. 2: Bryant sees ‘no chance’ of slowing down, sounds off on NBA today — Before the L.A. Lakers played the Chicago Bulls at the United Center last night, injured Lakers star Kobe Bryant gave a state-of-the-Mamba address of sorts. In a wide-ranging interview conducted before a throng of media (including our own Steve Aschburner), Bryant talked about his recovery from his left knee fracture, Derrick Rose‘s comeback attempt and more:

Kobe Bryant didn’t delve into negative numbers Monday night in a hallway at United Center, but that’s the level of doubt he felt about his next return from injury. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar, out since Dec. 17 with a fracture in his left knee, didn’t hedge or blink when asked about the likelihood that he’ll come back as the player he was before.

Not just before this latest setback but before the left Achilles-tendon blowout he suffered in April, cutting short his 2012-13 season.

“Zero. Zero,” Bryant said, repeating for emphasis his doubt about his playing future and the quality of his game when he gets there. “There was [doubt] before I came back the first time, because I didn’t know how my Achilles was going to respond to playing, to changing directions. The game in Memphis, I felt I had a pretty good feel for it. I felt like I was getting back to doing what I normally could do.

“So I feel pretty confident about it.”

This media opportunity, coming in Derrick Rose‘s gym, meant he was asked about the Bulls’ MVP, who also is sidelined by his second serious injury in two years (and isn’t expected back till October). While Bryant’s response dealt with Rose, it surely applied to him as well, a nod to the drive and will he long has been known for and the younger Rose still is developing.

“Really there’s not too much you can do about it,” Bryant said. “It’s unfortunate, but you have two options. One is to lay down. The second is get up and get to work. I think the second one is more appealing [to Rose] for sure.”

He made it abundantly clear that he won’t be joining Team USA in the 2016 Olympics, but teased that he’d be an eager spectator to watch Lakers teammate Pau Gasol play for Spain again.

The most noticeable change in NBA basketball since his arrival in 1996? “It’s more of a finesse game. It’s more small ball. Which, personally, I don’t really care much for,” Bryant said. Like so many from the old-school – even at 35, Bryant qualifies – he is befuddled at the soft stuff now that passes for physical play. “Makes me nauseous,” he said. “You can’t touch a guy.”

The rule against hand-checking has made it easier for players to shine offensively, Bryant said. “Nowadays, anybody can get out there and get to the basket – you can’t touch ‘em,” he said. “Back then, if you have guys putting their hands on you, you have to have the skills to be able to go both ways, change directions, post up and have that mid-range game, because you didn’t want to go all the way to the basket because you’d get knocked [down].”

He’s no fan of the NBA’s one-and-done arrangement with NCAA basketball, which no longer permits players such as Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James to turn pro immediately after high school. “I think it worked out pretty well for all three of us,” Bryant said. “The system really isn’t teaching players anything when you go to college. … I’m always a firm believer in us being able to make our own decision.”

***

No. 3:Melo says Knicks didn’t ‘fight’ against Nets — A 23-point loss at home is nothing any NBA team wants to stomach. But when a team like the up-and-down New York Knicks takes that in (before a national TV audience, no less), it becomes even harder to digest. Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was none-too-pleased after the game, telling ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Bagley that what upset him most about the defeat at the hands of the crosstown Brooklyn Nets was the lack of desire New York showed in trying to keep the game close:

A frustrated Carmelo Anthony said the New York Knicks failed to show fight in their 23-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.

“That’s the only thing that kind of bothers me: Today we didn’t even fight. I felt like we didn’t fight as a team,” Anthony said after the Knicks’ 103-80 loss. “Them guys from the jump ball just came in and it felt like they owned us.”

“We couldn’t get into defensive sets and [were] just scrambling and double-teaming and switching, basically just scrambling the whole game,” Anthony said.

The Knicks have lost four straight and enter play Tuesday tied with Cleveland for 10th place in the Eastern Conference. They are on pace to win just 30 games.

“I didn’t think we would be in this situation,” said Anthony, who is expected to test free agency this summer. “I don’t really know how to deal with situations like this. I’m learning. This is the first time for me.”

Tyson Chandler didn’t knock New York’s effort after the loss. Instead, he said the Knicks were “outschemed” by Brooklyn.

“I think we came to play. They outschemed us,” Chandler said. “They played to our defense as far their offensive scheme, knowing our rotations and knowing what we wanted to accomplish. Kind of putting us in vulnerable situations.”

Chandler’s words could be interpreted as a thinly-veiled shot at Mike Woodson and the coaching staff. The Knicks were caught switching frequently on pick and rolls and late on rotations, which allowed the Nets to find open shooters all over the floor.

“I don’t want to switch. I personally don’t like it. You come with a defensive plan and then every guy kind of mans up and takes his responsibility,” Chandler said. “I think switching should always be your last resort.”

Anthony believes the Knicks’ four-game losing streak has impacted the team’s confidence, which was at an all-time high after New York won five in a row earlier this month.

“It seemed like everything was just going for us [during the winning streak], offensively, defensively, guys felt good about themselves,” Anthony said. “There was a lot of confidence within the team, with individuals. Right now it seems we don’t have that.”


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ blowout loss at home to the Nets

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No. 4: Cuban ready for Silver to ‘feel my wrath’Mavs owner Mark Cuban did little to hide the fact he wanted one last fine from soon-to-be-retired commissioner David Stern before he leaves office next month. Cuban got his wish earlier this week when the league levied a $100,000 fine against him for confronting officials after the Mavs’ loss to the Clippers last week. The owner doesn’t hold any ill feelings for getting the fine, of course, and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Dwain Price he’s looking forward, in a sense, to getting to know new commissioner Adam Silver in his own unique way:

In his first interview since the NBA fined him $100,000 Saturday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he just wanted to have some fun before commissioner David Stern retired.“I love it,” Cuban said about the fine, before Monday’s 102-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It’s a business expense and it’s part of doing business.

“These franchises are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and I literally feel that if I could impact it to have some improvement, they could be worth a lot more.”

Since Stern will retire on Feb. 1, Cuban said he wanted to get in one last fine as a lasting memory to the commissioner.

“I was just a little nostalgic for the commissioner,” Cuban said. “So I was trying to fund the donut fund.”

Asked if he thought Stern was happy to fine him one last time, Cuban said: “I think he was. They call you and make sure what you said is what you said.

“When I said yes, and then they say OK, here’s the fine. That’s the way it works.”

Adam Silver will take over for Stern on Feb. 2. Will Cuban have a present waiting for the new commissioner?

“We’ll see,” he said. “It depends on how things are handled.

“But there’s plenty to come. Now it’s time to let Adam feel my wrath.”

***

No. 5: Report: Wizards interested in Pistons’ MonroeFollowing their 107-99 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last night, the Washington Wizards got to .500 for the fourth time this season. One player who had a big impact on the win was center Marcin Gortat, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds and helped set the tone for Washington’s interior play. But as the Wizards look to build on this newfound .500 mark and, surely, try to climb well over it, they could be looking to further upgrade their interior play. According to Alex Kennedy of BasketballInsiders.com, the Wizards are interested in acquiring Pistons big man Greg Monroe, either via free agency or trade:

The Detroit Pistons find themselves in a difficult position at the halfway point of the 2013-14 season.

After a big offseason that brought Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups (as well as playoff expectations) to Detroit, the team is currently 17-24 and barely holding onto the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference. Detroit has dropped 10 of their last 14 games and, according to multiple league sources, the organization isn’t sure what to do as the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaches.

One player who has been mentioned in trade rumors throughout this season is Greg Monroe, the young power forward who will be a restricted free agent this offseason since he couldn’t agree on an extension with the Pistons. It’s no secret that Josh Smith is better at the four, and it’s possible that Detroit moves the valuable Monroe to upgrade another position and slide Smith over to power forward.

One team that is interested in Monroe is the Washington Wizards, according to multiple league sources. It’s becoming clear that Washington is planning to pursue Monroe, either through trade or free agency.

Prior to joining the Pistons, Monroe starred at Georgetown for two seasons so he’s no stranger to Washington. The Wizards have $41,458,760 in guaranteed commitments for next season, since Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza among others are in the final year of their contracts.

The Pistons are certainly a team to keep an eye on over the next month. Rival executives have said that there is “turmoil” within the organization and that they haven’t decided what to do as the deadline approaches.

How the team performs in the coming weeks could determine what the front office does next, similar to what’s occurring with the Toronto Raptors right now. If the team plays well, the team will likely remain intact and the Pistons will try to make a postseason run. If the team continues to struggle, it’s very possible that Detroit makes a trade between now and the deadline.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks reserve guard Beno Udrih has reportedly requested a trade … A little news nugget from Sam Smiththe Celtics might want to trade Jeff Green … Bucks guard Gary Neal might be having some second thoughts about signing with Milwaukee in the offseason … The Hawks are building something worth watching in Atlanta

ICYMI(s) of The Night: The Clippers and Pistons, two of the dunking-est teams in the league, put on quite a show above the rim yesterday. And since (around here, anyway) there’s no such thing as too many dunks, here’s a great one from Jan Vesely, too, for good measure:


VIDEO: The Pistons and Clippers get dunk-happy in Monday’s matinee


VIDEO: Jan Vesely gets way up to finish off the alley-oop vs. the Sixers

Baby Steps For Heat’s Oden




VIDEO: The Game Time crew discuss Greg Oden’s long awaited return to the court

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Baby steps.

Big, giant baby steps.

That’s all the Miami Heat can and should expect from Greg Oden now that he’s made his long-awaited return to NBA action as a reserve for the two-time defending champions.

Oden’s dream became a reality Wednesday night in Washington, when the former No. 1 overall pick played his first minutes since 2009. As they say, you cannot coach size. And Oden leaves a huge footprint on the court, even in limited minutes. Oden recorded an offensive rebound, a dunk and personal foul in his first 30 seconds of action. He played 8 minutes and 24 seconds altogether, finishing with six points on 2-for-3 shooting from the floor, 2-for-2 from the free throw line, and grabbed two rebounds in the Heat’s 114-97 blowout loss.

It’s been a long time coming for Oden, who missed what should have been his rookie season with a knee injury and then endured three more microfracture surgeries on his knees.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game that Oden’s appearance was in the master plan and based on months of hard work by the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 Draft. Plus, the Heat need a bruiser now that former starting center Joel Anthony has been traded away.

“He’s been working very diligently,” Spoelstra said of Oden. “It’s been all part of the plan. He’s made great progress. He’s getting stronger. He’s getting healthier. He’s getting his core right. Everything without skipping steps. We’re very patient with him.”

Like I said, baby steps … big, giant baby steps!


VIDEO: Greg Oden talks about his regular-season debut with the Heat

Wizards Tired Of Being Home-Weary


VIDEO: Wizards grab wire-to-wire road win over Bulls

Book the lot of them into the Willard International NFL-style, sequestered on the night before home games. Maybe assign the team’s PR staff to deliver “room service” to the players at their residences. Figure out some way to incentivize the fans at Verizon Center to cheer for visiting teams and snub the homies.

Oh, you mean like booking the Miami Heat Wednesday night?

OK, that’s a start for the Washington Wizards. The well-established pattern of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the others eliciting more cheers than boos at NBA sites not named AmericanAirlines Arena, often more so than the hosts, might simulate the conditions the Wizards need. Because right now, they’re a better and different team when they’re working outside the District.

With their 102-88 victory at Chicago Monday, the Wizards pulled even at 10-10 in road games, compared to 7-9 on their own floor. They’re one of nine teams that are .500 or better away from home, with only Indiana (12-6), Miami (11-7) and Toronto (10-9) ahead of them in the East.

“Maybe we need more energy from the ‘sixth player,’ ” Wizards big man Nene said Monday. “Yeah, we need more energy. When we have a loud home, they make trouble to the visitor. The last two years, I saw a lot of the crowd cheer for Miami. So let’s see.”

Washington has won seven of its last nine on the road and even though those seven teams currently are a combined 106-156, those games could have been lost, with way less guilt and lots more rationalizing than what the Wizards can muster at home.

A simple breakdown of their play reveals negligible differences, on average, home vs. road. Washington shoots 44.4 percent at home compared to 44.5 percent on the road. Its point differential is minus-0.5 at Verizon, minus-2.0 everywhere else. It has a plus-0.8 edge on the boards at home vs. minus-0.8 on the road.

The most noticeable statistical difference favoring the Wizards’ road work comes from the arc. At home, they average 6.9 3-pointers on 20.4 attempts, a 33.8 percent rate. In hostile environments, those numbers are 8.7, 21.1 and 41.2 percent.

Then again, those environments are always so hostile, which might be part of it. Washington brings in a pretty nondescript roster, despite the talents of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Nene and the rest. Nobody in the stands has circled them on the calendar as “marquee opponent night.” There is opportunity in that underestimation.

“Ah, I would just say that a lot of teams, when we play on the road, we are not the team that is supposed to win,” Gortat said. “We are the underdog, so to say.”

Gortat also said: “We are capable of beating a very good team and we are capable of losing to very weak teams. At home. We’ve just got to stay smart. I guess it’s just going to be a process for us to become more mature.”

Moments later, the 6-foot-11 center from Poland went into that “mature” stuff.

“We just play more freely. We can focus in the hotel. In the locker room, you’re just sitting in one little room and trying to get ready for the game. I don’t know – at home, there’s just too many rooms, too many places where you can go. Too many places where you can dance and sing and do all [that] crap.”

Time’s up now. Ten of Washington’s next 14 games will be at home, in two five-game sets, the first of which begins against the Heat. Minutes restrictions for healthy-again Beal and Nene are off, so injuries can’t explain away any lack of consistency or focus for now. Nene’s presence in the starting lineup finally Monday had a big impact, his 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks helping at both ends.

“Being with Nene, man, it brings a lot of attention,” Gortat said. “They always have to make a decision to stay with me on the roll or pick up Nene on pop. And he’s a big dude – he brings a lot of attention in the post. He’s a very good passer so I know I can seal and I can expect that pass. … It’s a totally different story. I’m open on the roll a bit more now and I was able to have a few put-backs, stuff like that. So it helps a lot.”

Time for the Wizards to start writing a different story at home. After Miami, they’ve got Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston, back in their wheelhouse of sub-.500s.

Said Wall: “We’ve got to come out with a sense of urgency. We get down early. I mean, the last four or five games, we’ve been done 26, 27. That’s no way to treat your fans the way they’ve come out supporting us this year.”

Heat Rising On Coaching Hot Seats

This is the time of year when the holidays are past, decorations packed away and the chill of winter sets in.

Unless you’re the coach of a struggling NBA team. It’s the time of the season when the heat starts to build and then roar like the inside of a fireplace and somebody gets burned.

By Jan. 18 last year, when the struggling Suns cut loose Alvin Gentry, four NBA coaches had been fired. Gentry followed Mike Brown, Avery Johnson and Scott Skiles out the door and that was just a warm-up to the off-season purge that eventually brought 13 new coaches into the 2013-14 season.

Now as the midway point in the schedule approaches, the temperature is getting hot at the bottom of the standings and there are more than a few coaches feeling the heat:

Jason Kidd, Brooklyn Nets

Record: 11-21

Thermometer reading: Boiling.

Team owner Mikhail Prokorov and general manager Billy King thought it was a simple task to throw out gobs of money to fill up a roster with old men and then get a future Hall of Fame point guard to trade in his jersey for a jacket and clipboard. But Kidd has seemed less interested in doing the necessary on-the-job training dating back to his first game ever in charge on the sidelines when he was taking in-game phone calls during his Orlando Summer League debut. He dumped Lawrence Frank as his right hand man and is becoming more withdrawn, except when ripping his team for the media. Just when it seems that his team has tuned him out, they win at OKC. It only makes the entire flop of a start more disappointing.


VIDEO: Go inside the Nets’ huddle with Jason Kidd

Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

Record: 10-21

Thermometer reading: Sizzling.

Despite the fact that owner James Dolan has told the team that no major changes are forthcoming and Woodson’s job is safe, check back in another month just before the trade deadline. Carmelo Anthony is healed and says he’s back in the lineup for the whole run through the Texas triangle that began with a shocking win in San Antonio. But ‘Melo has already called the Knicks the laughingstock of the league and there is no indication that the bad jokes will stop anytime soon. Hard to believe Woodson could survive another gaffe like the uncalled timeout against the Wizards. Because it’s New York — and that’s supposed to be synonymous with championships (even though there hasn’t actually been one since 1973) — Woodson will have to take the fall if it becomes apparent that the Knicks won’t even make the playoffs in the no good, horrible, very bad Eastern Conference.


VIDEO: Woodson still thinks the Knicks can win the Atlantic Division

Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz

Record: 11-24

Thermometer reading: Slow boil.

The Jazz franchise and the owning Miller family are not prone to making quick, emotional decisions. That’s probably a big reason that Corbin even made it through the bloody 2013 offseason when change was the norm. With his long time ties to the organization, he was moved into the job when Jerry Sloan quit in 2011 and was expected to be a smooth hand on the tiller as the Utah jockeyed for a low playoff berth. That job has changed dramatically with Utah’s full-on youth movement and it’s up to Corbin to show that he’s the man who can lead the turnabout. So far, it’s not working. He keeps playing veterans Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams and doesn’t have the young nucleus of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks carving out any kind of identity. Without a contract extension, the hand-writing has been on the wall since the beginning of the season. But if the Jazz keep in free fall, GM Dennis Lindsey may have to pull the switch sooner.


VIDEO: Tyrone Corbin talks about Utah’s victory over the Milwaukee Bucks

Mike D’Antoni, Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 13-19

Temperature reading: Slow boil.

There’s not a hotter seat in the league than coach of the Lakers … unless your name is Phil Jackson. It’s all about the legacy and all those past Lakers championship banners that Doc Rivers had covered up when he took the job with the Clippers. Unless you’re on the verge of hanging up another banner, nobody is going to be happy. And it’s never a good thing when your coach admits after a listless loss at home to the lowly Sixers that he doesn’t really know why his team often plays with a lack of energy or interest. Yes, he’s been without Kobe Bryant for all but six games and the Lakers have enough other injuries (Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar) to fill an ER. But if the Lakers are hopelessly buried — and who says that hasn’t already happened? — by the time Kobe is ready for his second comeback, a head could to roll.


VIDEO: How will Kobe Bryant’s injury affect the Lakers long-term outlook?

Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

Record: 14-15

Temperature reading: Warm.

It’s about the end of the line for second and third chances and any more excuses for Wittman. Even though he’s had to go for a stretch without Bradley Beal, Wittman has had a healthy and productive John Wall doing all that he can from the season opener. The front office helped him out in the middle by unloading the infirmed Emeka Okafor for Marcin Gortat. The response has been a steady coming together of a team making a run at the .500 mark. It’s really quite simple: the Wizards have to make the playoffs and any dramatic swoon in the coming weeks could make Wittman an in-season casualty.


VIDEO: NBA Action takes a closer look at the Wizards’ season

Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 11-21

Temperature reading: Simmering

The Cavs’ old boss was brought back to return a sense of familiarity and stability to a franchise hoping for progress with its young talent to even make a certain native Ohioan (aka LeBron James) look at Cleveland again when he becomes a free agent this summer. Instead, Brown has not found a way to prevent Kyrie Irving from becoming a ball-hog in the eyes of some of his teammates. The Cavs were supposed to be making a run as a real playoff team rather than bickering like the Real Housewives of Cleveland. That’s no way to recruit LeBron or keep your job.


VIDEO: The Starters crew discusses the Cavs’ fallout with Andrew Bynum

Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 14-17

Temperature reading: Cool.

The Grizzlies have lost their teeth, their identity and the intimidating factor of playing at the Grind House. They’re 7-11 at home and even the absence of the injured Marc Gasol should not excuse that. But let’s face it. Team owner Robert Pera and his crew forced Lionel Hollins out the door and hand-picked Joerger as their man. If they gave him the boot so quickly, they’d really be admitting they blew it. So he’s safe for now.


VIDEO: Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger discusses the team’s loss to Chicago