Posts Tagged ‘Wesley Johnson’

Morning shootaround — Sept. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Terry relishing new chance in Houston | Dragic, not Bledsoe, deserves extension? | Lakers forward Johnson works out with Bryant

No. 1: Terry relishing opportunity to help Rockets — The Houston Rockets lost out this summer on adding a star free-agent like Carmelo Anthony or Pau Gasol and also watched as small forward Chandler Parsons left town to sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Last night, the Rockets helped offset some of their offseason losses by officially completing the trade that has brought Kings sixth man (and longtime Mavs standout) Jason Terry back to Texas. Terry is glad to be a part of a playoff-bound squad and, after years of tormenting the Rockets as a Maverick, is ready to help them soar. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has more:

The Rockets general manager might not have used the term “Rockets killer,” but in one of his first conversations with Terry after reaching agreement on the trade that officially brought Terry to Houston on Wednesday, Daryl Morey told him that many Rockets fans have considered him one of their most bitter rivals.

Being regarded as a particularly vexing nemesis could have been considered a complement, but Terry said some of the same emotions that inspired his play against the Rockets will also allow him to return to that level now that he’ll play for the Rockets.

“It was always special playing in the Houston Rockets’ arena,” Terry said. “I don’t know if it was the fans, or the red seats – probably a little bit of both – the history of the franchise; it’s just a special place.

“There’s about six or seven arenas around the league that when you step foot in that arena, you feel like, ‘Man, I want to have a big game.” So every time I faced Houston … I always wanted to … perform at high level. Now that I’m joining the Rockets, hopefully I can provide that same energy, that same excitement that they faced for years.”

His reputation, however, likely comes from the 2004-05 playoff series against the Rockets when the Mavericks came back after losing the first two games of the series to win in seven games. Terry averaged 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting and 60.6 percent 3-point shooting, reveling in his successes with his “Jet” pantomime around the court.

He played 35 games with the Nets last season, averaging a career-low 4.5 points, before he was traded to Sacramento. The Kings allowed him to return to Dallas to rehab his knee, and Terry said he is now ready to play as he never could last season.

“I’m 100 percent now,” Terry said. “Last season, coming off surgery, I never gave it a chance to heal properly and then strengthen. I tried to rush back. That just set me back even further.

“I worked extremely hard every single day to strengthen the knee and to get back at full strength. In my off-season training, I’ve been able to go extremely hard and I’ve been able to do everything. That was something I was limited in last season.”

“I definitely look at it as a situation when Jason Kidd came to the Dallas Mavericks, what he did for me on and off the court, teaching me how to play the game the right way and how to take care of your body, putting the extra work in,” Terry said. “I’m not saying they don’t know, but there are things I’ve picked up … that I can show them. I’m going to be there to provide that type of leadership.”

Still, Terry said he is coming to Houston to play. He was surprised by the deal, but said he became excited when he spoke with Rockets coach Kevin McHale. Terry had said in July he did not want to be a part of the Kings’ rebuilding. Hoping to play at least to 40-years-old before going into coaching, he said he wanted to chase another championship.

“Hearing his voice assured me I was heading to the right destination and that I was in a winning situation,” Terry said. “That’s all you ask for when you’re at this stage of your career, having an opportunity to win a championship. I think that’s what the Rockets have presented to me.” (more…)

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Mild-Mannered Hornacek Infusing Suns With Just The Right Amount Of Fire


VIDEO: Jeff Hornacek talks about learning the ropes as an NBA coach

It took until the end of the second week of the season, five minutes into the second half of a game against the visiting Pelicans. It took five sloppy turnovers in the space of just three infuriating minutes.

It was, in fact, all  Jeff Hornacek could take. As he signaled for a timeout to apply a tourniquet, he whirled, raised an exasperated fist and slammed it down hard on the court side press table.

“Oh yeah,” said guard Eric Bledsoe as he thought back to the moment. “That got our attention. That was the first time I had ever seen him get that mad. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, he does have that in him.’ “

It was one of the questions that loomed from the time the 50-year-old Hornacek took over as the Suns coach in May following Phoenix’s 25-win season of 2012-13, the fewest wins in franchise history since the expansion season (1968-69). Was Hornacek simply too nice of a guy to do the heavy lifting required by the job?

“You can see where people might get that impression from the outside,” said small forward P.J. Tucker. “Because for the most part he’s always the same. He doesn’t have those emotional swings that you see from a lot of coaches. I know you hear a lot of coaches say they don’t intend to be that way. Then you watch them and see them losing it.

“From the first day that he got together with this team, all Jeff has been focused on is getting us to play with emotion, play hard, play aggressive. He channels his energy into us.”

“It important that the coach can stay calm, especially on a young team like this one,” said guard Goran Dragic. “When players are going through bad minutes on the floor, you need someone that can keep his confidence. It allows you to move forward. I will say that he is a nice guy as long as you don’t take advantage of him. If you do, he can bring you back to the ground.”

It was hardly the ideal situation to have your coaching baptism. After the misery of last season, the Suns went into an almost total rebuilding mode, purging the roster of most of their veteran players. Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal and Wesley Johnson were moved over the summer. Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown were traded to the Wizards just before the season opener.

So who was left? Veterans Dragic and Channing Frye to mix with Bledsoe, Tucker, Marcus and Markieff Morris and a No. 1 draft choice in Alex Len (who needed ankle surgery and has played just token minutes in four games). It was a roster picked by most experts to finish rock bottom in the rugged Western Conference and Las Vegas oddsmakers posted the over-under on Suns wins for the season at 21.5. The Suns and their coach getting his first crack at being the man in charge could have been offended.

“No,” Hornacek said. “Obviously this team won 25 games last year. We traded away a lot of our veteran guys who helped them win games last year. So we understand how it looks. But we went into this season and training camp tell our players, hey, you’re gonna read all that stuff, hear all that stuff. But if we play hard, we believe you guys are good players and if we play together and play hard we’ll win our fair share of games. I’m not going to put our a number on it or anything like that. But we’ll win our fair share and so far that’s what’s happened.”


VIDEO: Bledsoe fuels Suns’ victory in Houston

So the group went out and made Hornacek the first coach in Suns history to win his first four home games. They kept every game within a five-point margin in the final five minutes for the first three weeks of the season. After a home win against Toronto on Friday night, they stand at 11-9. They are doing it with an offensive style that wants to run when it can and a defensive approach that is always attacking on the perimeter. Hornacek is making the most of the guard tandem of Dragic and Bledsoe that many thought create duplication and conflict.

“Look, I’m only a rookie in this league myself, but I’ve had a lot of coaches at other levels of the game,” said center Miles Plumlee, “and I think what we are is a reflection of Jeff’s personality. What I know of him during his pro career is a guy that used no excuses, took no shortcuts and got the most out of his ability.”

All the while he’s been doing it by keeping a lid on those outward displays of emotions.

“I slip every once in a while,” Hornacek said. “They could drive you crazy. That’s part of it. Not everything’s gonna go perfectly. I think all coaches get frustrated when they see the same errors over and over. If they see something new, OK, maybe haven’t seen that. But the guy makes a mistake and does the same thing and does the same thing that’s when you’re gonna pound your head and say ‘OK, we talked about that.’ That’s the way it is.

“We’re also pretty young except for a couple of guys, Channing and Goran have been around. Everyone else is playing minutes that they’ve never played before. So we hopefully learn, but that’s a big part of it. I think it’s also part as an ex-player to want to be out there. You see things happen and you can give these guys all the preparation and talk about reads, but they actually have to do it out there … Maybe as ex-players, you see, ‘This is gonna develop.’ But they’ve got to figure that out.”

So far, Hornacek is giving his Suns enough room and push to do that.

Lakers May Have Something In Reserve

VIDEO: The Lakers hold off the Hawks in Los Angeles.

j

HANG TIME WEST – Sunday night, it was five Lakers reserves logging at least 16 minutes, three of them starting the fourth quarter and another, Jordan Hill, playing the last 9:42 of a close win over the Hawks.

That came about after Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Hill kept L.A. in the game with prominent roles in the final period of a six-point loss to the Spurs, and after almost every sub got some run in the blowout defeat at the hands of the Warriors.

And that came after the opening-night statement during the victory over the Clippers. All of which came after everything.

Johnson is with his third team in as many seasons. Jordan Farmar played 39 NBA games the previous two seasons and spent 2012-13 in Turkey. Hill had 68 appearances the same two years and is coming off a torn hip muscle that cost him 49 games. Chris Kaman is on his fourth team in four years. Jodie Meeks is the shooting specialist who shot 38.7 percent last season. Xavier Henry was a training-camp invitee, Nick Young a guy trying to show he has more than swag.

This is a second unit inspired to prove a lot of people wrong, and this is a good start. What the Lakers exactly have won’t be known for a while, until Kobe Bryant returns from the torn Achilles’ tendon and the rotation settles, but even that blow to the depth does not change the encouraging impact from the first week. It also adds to the credibility to the preseason claim from coach Mike D’Antoni that the bench would be improved.

D’Antoni wasn’t exactly far out on the shaky branch when he said it — it would be difficult for the Lakers’ reserves to not be better than 2012-13. But point taken. Given the chance to immediately showcase the gains, D’Antoni’s all-reserve lineup — Meeks, Farmar, Henry, Johnson, Hill – played the entire fourth quarter of opening night, delivering a 41-24 scoring advantage those 12 minutes and a 116-103 victory over the Clippers. In all, 76 of the 116 points came from the bench, including each of the final 48.

“Hungry,” Farmar said of the personality of the subs. “I think passionate and together. We really believe in each other and we really lift each other up. We’ve got each others back. Move the ball, let everybody do what they do well. It’s working so far. Hopefully we can keep this energy up and stick to it.”

This group had been discarded and disregarded, overlooked and underappreciated. They had been playing on different continents and just trying to stay on the NBA map.

“We hear things,” said Johnson, the No. 4 pick by the Timberwolves in the 2010 draft who spent two seasons there and one in Phoenix before signing with the Lakers in July. “People are going to talk. They’re going to say whatever they want. But we’re not worried about it too much. We just have to continue to do what we do, be productive and show what we have.

“It fuels us. But we figured it’s going to be like that because the man is injured and the stuff that they went through last year is going to reflect on this year. They’re going to say stuff about us. Other than that, we’re just going to continue to play ball. We’re not really going to worry about it.”

The Lakers have started Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams and Steve Blake in each of the first four games, and Steve Nash in three of the four while holding him out of the other for rest. When Nash sat, Meeks started. Young was in the opening lineup the first three games before being replaced by Henry on Sunday against the Hawks, and Young responded with 13 points in 21 minutes.

McGrady Not Feeling It For Kobe, Lakers

a

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Tracy McGrady had to settle for a shotgun seat on the San Antonio Spurs Express to The NBA Finals last season to end his career with a lone trip out of the first round. Who knows, had McGrady ever had Spurs-like talent around him, things might have turned out differently for him.

At any rate, the borderline Hall of Famer can spot a lacking supporting cast when he sees one. He spotted just that Tuesday night while taking in some Jazz vs. Lakers preseason action. What he witnessed was so disturbing he felt compelled to take it to Twitter:

Jellybean is, of course, Kobe Bean Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers superstar and son of former ball player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.

Kobe is working his way back from an awful Achilles tear in April and his return date remains uncertain. McGrady would apparently tell him to take his time getting back. No need to rush.

The 2013-14 Lakers, with or without Kobe, aren’t exactly high on anyone’s predictions chart. Check any Vegas sports book and this bunch is basically sitting at 75-to-1 odds to get Kobe that elusive sixth championship ring and knot him up with Michael Jordan.

Compared to all those souped-up Lakers squads through the decades, this one’s feeling like a stripped-down Vette with a leaky transmission. The horses under the hood buck instead of gallop and the suspension is all out of whack. You swear every time you turn the key it gives off that rotten egg odor.

Recently coach Mike D’Antoni said he was on drugs a year ago when he took over and proclaimed that team could average 110 ppg. And he was medicated on painkillers following knee replacement surgery. The disastrous 2012-13 team, with Bryant playing ungodly minutes night after night, averaged 102.2 ppg, which would have been pretty good if they had played any defense.

Without Bryant this preseason and with Steve Nash approaching 40 years of age by unfortunately grinding through seemingly just as many body ailments, scoring is down to 94.3 ppg. Only the Mavericks and Jazz have averaged less.

Speaking of the Mavs, everybody’s always quick to point to Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion as the only remaining members of the 2011 title team. The remnants from L.A.’s back-to-back title teams in 2009 and 2010? A rehabbing Kobe, a fragile-kneed Pau Gasol and a back-from-Europe Jordan Farmar.

To McGrady’s tweet, this is no Lamborghini waiting to be valet parked at Staples.

Assuming Nash is healthy enough to play (and start) on Oct. 29 when the Lakers open at home, to their misfortune against Doc Rivers‘ new team that shares the building, he’ll be joined by — and please don’t write this in ink — Steve Blake, Nick Young, Gasol and Chris Kaman, assuming the center has recovered from a bout of gastroenteritis.

As for Lakers depth? Among the newcomers are Xavier Henry in the backcourt and Shawne Williams in the frontcourt. The return of power forward Jordan Hill is a positive. Then there’s Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly, Marcus Landry, Elias Harris and fan favorite Robert Sacre. One will have to go to get the roster down to the maximum 15.

Pedal to the metal? McGrady isn’t feeling it, apparently even after Kobe takes the wheel.

D’Antoni Drinking From Kobe’s Full Cup

a

HANG TIME, Texas – It turns out Kobe Bryant isn’t the only one thinking the experts will be eating crow when he and his teammates report for duty in the playoffs next spring.

While he isn’t quite cackling on national TV with Jimmy Kimmel, coach Mike D’Antoni insists that the Lakers can improve on their 45-37 record from last season. At least that’s what he told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “I think we can be better because I don’t think we reached our potential last year. Our lack of defense came mostly from lack of energy from guys that didn’t feel right in their place on the team. Defense is energy, concentration and the desire to do it.

“If something is sapping that energy — distractions, injuries, not feeling good about the team — then you’re not going to put your heart and soul into it and it comes out on the defensive end. They just didn’t feel each other.”

It’s a simple recipe, really. You simply subtract a seven-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time NBA rebounding leader — including last season when he wasn’t fully fit — and the kumbaya spirit of cooperation lifts the entire boat.

Of course, D’Antoni didn’t mention Dwight Howard by name and we think that’s a good thing, since there has been far too much dredging up the pains of the past by everyone in the Laker organization from team president Jim Buss down to the valet parking attendants at the Staples Center. It is time — way past time, in fact — for the Lakers to move on and part of that has to be adopting the old Stuart Smalley from the long ago days of Saturday Night Live: “We’re good enough.”

Can the Lakers be good enough in a Western Conference where they had to go to the final night of the regular season in 2012-13 to finally secure the No. 7 spot in the playoffs and where Houston (with Howard) and Golden State (with Andre Iguodala) would clearly rank ahead of them now in the pecking order. Then there’s the matter of teams such as Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans coming up from behind. The Timberwolves are rebounding from a season fraught with injuries, while the Blazers and Pelicans have made moves to improve their talent.

The Lakers still have the biggest question mark in the league on their side of the ledger, wondering when — and really if — at age 35, Bryant can return to his Black Mamba form. Until that time, they must rely on 39-year-old Steve Nash and 33-year-old Pau Gasol  to carry the load with aging bodies that both broke down last season. D’Antoni’ said he believes that Nash and Gasol will be 100 percent healthy heading into training camp, but this is certainly a time, for their own good and that of the team, that their minutes will have to be monitored closely and likely limited. The defending Western Conference champion Spurs have been able to get away with fewer minutes from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili because young guys such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are rising through the pipeline. That’s not quite the case with the Lakers, whose offseason additions have been Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.

D’Antoni says he’s not going into the season looking over his shoulder in terms of his job security, especially after surviving a summer of blood-letting in the NBA coaching ranks.

“I’m sure it’s out there. If you don’t win, it’s there,” he said. “If you’re coaching in Fort Wayne, it’s going to be the same thing. I think the Lakers are a special case because they’re the No. 1 team that’s on ESPN. You just do the best job you can do and go on. If you get caught up in what they’re saying, you can’t do your job.”

Then he mentioned his peers in what was a surprisingly cranky, impatient off-season.

“Look at what happened to coaches this year. Eleven get let go. And three or four of them had the best years the franchise has ever had,” D’Antoni said. “So who am I to say they’re treating me bad? What about all those other guys?”
D’Antoni never feared for his job security despite the first-round playoff flameout.

“No, because Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim Buss were really supportive and great,” he said of the team’s front-office executives. “I couldn’t ask for anything better from the staff and franchise. I don’t want to be flippant, but you also have to have an attitude of, ‘To hell with everything. Concentrate. Go forward.’ You can’t get distracted by the noise.”

Can Dwight-less L.A. Actually Be Better?

a

a

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Don’t go misinterpreting the headline as this somehow trumpeting the Los Angeles Lakers as a serious challenger for the West crown, let alone a threat to unseat the Miami Heat.

The NBA still wants L.A. showcased on Christmas Day, but this isn’t 2012-13 after all. That fantasy ended, a certain center did say, as a nightmare.

Still, there is the 2013-14 season to play before the Lakers can go LeBron and ‘Melo hunting next summer. In a loaded West where San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston, Golden State and Memphis look like playoff locks before the first tip, and Minnesota and Portland could be fast-risers, the mighty Lakers could again be scraping for a playoff berth come mid-April.

But is there a chance that this re-tooled Lakers roster will be better off than last year’s dysfunctional bunch? This entire discussion begins and ends with health, starting with Kobe Bryant‘s unpredictable return from Achilles surgery at 35 (Aug. 23), Pau Gasol‘s feet and knees at 33 and Steve Nash‘s back and body at 40 (Feb. 7). Another injury return, and a significantly underestimated one, is power forward Jordan Hill, 26, coming back from a torn labrum in his hip. He played just 29 games last season.

Any setbacks or new injuries to any of the “Big Three” for an extended stretch will sink the season. The roster is way too thin to cover for the heavy lifters. Deep into the luxury tax for next season, the Lakers had no way to substantially upgrade the roster even after Dwight Howard bolted. They opted for a bit of financial relief and used the amnesty provision to part with a slowed-down Metta World Peace. They let a handful of free agents go and replaced them with Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman. Not exactly a Murderer’s Row.
.

2013-14 ROSTER 2012-13 ROSTER
PG: Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar PG: Nash, Blake, Chris Duhon, Darius Morris
SG: Bryant, Jodie Meeks SG: Bryant, Meeks, Andrew Goudelock
SF: Nick Young, Wesley Johnson SF: Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Devin Ebanks
PF: Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly PF: Pau Gasol, Hill, Earl Clark
C: Gasol, Chris Kaman, Robert Sacre C: Dwight Howard, Sacre

.

“We’re excited to see what we can make of ourselves,” Nash recently told reporters. “We really are going to try for the second consecutive year to find chemistry and identity, but we’re excited for it, so we’ll see.”

Not exactly a title guarantee, but at least it’s a roster full of players, both young and old, with something to prove. That goes for coach Mike D’Antoni, too, who needs to prove he can stretch and grow with a team not stocked with youthful gazelles to carry out his high-octane offense.

So here’s why this Lakers team, as unimpressive as it might look on paper, can be better:

No more Dwight tension: The charade is over. There will be no more microscopic Dwight-Kobe relationship introspection, no more D’Antoni railing against utilizing the strengths of two low-post players, no more Gasol groveling about standing 18 feet from the basket. There should be plenty of fresh air here. Gasol will start at center where he will be more comfortable and presumably more effective, and Kobe won’t get rankled day-in and day-out by Howard’s playful ways.

Nash back to being Nash: Assuming he is healthy, Nash should more resemble the player we know, the one who creates for others and doesn’t stand off in the corner. L.A. will still be big with Hill likely starting alongside Gasol, but Young will spread the floor better than MWP and should be a consistent 3-ball threat. Wes Johnson can also run the floor as well as the 6-10 Hill, so this should help Nash push the ball more. And with Kobe coming back from the devastating Achilles injury, perhaps he’ll be more accepting of playing like a traditional shooting guard and be less commanding of the ball, as he said was the plan when the Lakers traded for Nash last summer.

Offense was already pretty good: Despite all the dysfunction and injury issues, the Lakers still averaged 102.2 points, sixth-best in the league. They’ll miss Howard’s 58.7 field-goal percentage, but their middle-of-the-pack 3-point shooting should improve. It’s still up to D’Antoni to coach to his personnel’s strengths and not what he would like their strengths to be. While this group should be able to run sporadically, Kobe isn’t exactly prepared to do that and the high-mileage Gasol isn’t Amare Stoudemire in his prime. Still, the offense should be able to create an identity starting in training camp, run efficiently and score at a high rate.

Rambis’ mission: Defense. The Lakers were horrible last season, playing as if they had never heard of a rotation. So in one of the more interesting hires of the season, D’Antoni reached out to Kurt Rambis, a former Lakers blue-collar forward and assistant under Phil Jackson. As an analyst on Lakers broadcasts and nationally for ESPN, Rambis was a harsh critic of D’Antoni, specifically how he used his personnel. Now Rambis must find a way to make a starting five that includes Nash, Young and a recovering Kobe to D-up. When Howard was on the bench last season, the Lakers were abysmal defensively. Hill’s return will help on the boards and defending the paint. With a training camp to implement a scheme and, Rambis hopes, an identity — something the Lakers never attained last season — it is possible to turn a porous defense lacking great individual defenders into a pretty decent team defense. Still, it is not a job for the faint of heart.

So what does it all mean for the Lakers? Are they destined for the lottery or can they be one of the season’s surprise teams and make it back to the playoffs?

It’s Time For Wolves’ Williams To Howl

HANG TIME, Texas — As the cold nights and the injuries pile up in Minneapolis, so should the opportunities for those still upright and healthy in the Timberwolves lineup.

So what should we make of Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in the 2011? After doing little to distinguish himself as a rookie, Williams has shown few signs of getting better.

Much credit has been given to the always-resourceful coach Rick Adelman for keeping his team moving forward without the infirmed Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Brandon Roy and now Chase Budinger.

However, the Wolves 5-3 record is even more impressive when you consider how little he’s getting out of a gem prospect like Williams who has turned into cubic zirconia in barely a year. Last season, he at least had the post-lockout excuses of no real training camp and a condensed schedule to blame.

None of that applies this time around and, if anything, the opportunities to prove himself have only grown in the face of so many injuries.

But according to our man Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Williams shows no inclination of rising to the occasion and pitching in:

The Wolves’ most gifted healthy player isn’t playing long enough or hard enough to justify the second pick in the 2011 draft, isn’t playing long or hard enough to justify his place on a team that desperately needs him right now, and he doesn’t seem to understand that if he can’t help right now he might not be asked to help much later.

The Wolves have four players on the All-Star ballot. Three are injured. Two haven’t played at all this season. Six of their seven top players were out Wednesday.

Their best healthy player, Kirilenko, is surviving with brains and elbows, surviving by reminding his teammates that 95 percent of the game is played below the rim and between the ears. Thursday, the day after Williams faded, the Wolves signed small forward Josh Howard as a (luke)warm body to help spell Kirilenko.

Williams should be embarrassed. Apparently, he is not.
“I think we all struggled,” he said, referring to all of the Wolves who had shots blocked.

Asked about his progress, he said: “I’m feeling a lot better. I’m not worried about misses and makes like that. If you play the game going off misses and makes it’s going to be a long season.”

Williams’ 8.8 point per game scoring average is identical to last season, while his field goal percentage has dropped from a poor 41.2 to an abysmal 32.4. He has the athleticism and the skills to get to the rim, but can’t finish. He has scored in double figures only three times thus far and shot just 9-for-33 in his last three games.

He watches veterans like Andrei Kirilenko throw his body all over the floor at both ends and does not join him. At a time when Williams’ hustle and attitude should be forcing Adelman to give him more playing time, he still spends more than half of every game on the bench.

Rubio, Love, Roy, Budinger. It’s an injured list that almost hurts just to read.

Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson. It’s a list of washout first-round draft picks by the Timberwolves that is painful in a different way and that Williams keeps inching closer to joining.

Suns Looking Within For Improvement

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the Steve Nash era over and no sign of a Valley of the Sun-themed version of the Big 3 on the horizon, fans of the Phoenix Suns are bracing themselves for a rebuilding project that could be as painstaking a process as they have witnessed in years.

It’s a fact of life for fans of basically every franchise in the NBA (save for the Lakers), and a reality that the Suns organization is tackling in a somewhat unconventional and rather refreshing way.

Instead of scrambling for a quick fix or looking for some superstar to rescue them, the Suns are focusing their attentions within their program and going about the business of trying to build a playoff contender from the inside. They are making player development the staples of their operation, with 17-year NBA veteran Lindsey Hunter leading the charge as the coach in charge of helping develop homegrown talent.

Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic provides some details:

Hunter began working out players this month with more individualized plans to come in September, when voluntary sessions begin.

“We’re trying to put together a system where we’re no longer looking for outside influences to create a better product,” Hunter said. “We want to do it right from the interior. A lot of people say, ‘You got to go get better players,’ which is true. But you have to make what you have better and we’re serious about it now.”

The Suns intend to hire a young former NBA big man and make the staff available to players “24-7,” General Manager Lance Blanks said.

“This is really important to me,” Blanks said. “It’s not something that was needed. What the organization was doing worked. It won at a very high level. Different personnel and situation. This will create a lot of continuity between front office, coaches and training staff.”

(more…)

Kirilenko Could Join Wolves’ Pack

HANG TIME, Texas – You can never say that Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn lets the grass grow under his feet. If he delivers on the rumor of sending Wesley Johnson to Phoenix as part of a three-team trade that also includes New Orleans, he’ll have dealt away five first-round picks in just two years.

More important, he could bounce back after losing out on the offer sheet to Nicolas Batum by bringing forward Andrei Kirilenko back to the NBA from Russia.

According to the relentless Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, there would be a sign-and-trade deal that sends Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick to the Hornets and also a lottery-protected first-round draft pick to the Suns.

The teams were still finalizing details, but sources said that Lopez, a restricted free agent, was returning soon from a vacation to take a physical for the Hornets. New Orleans had been working diligently for weeks on acquiring a center to play alongside No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, and give Davis some inside support.

Kirilenko has a buyout in his CSKA of Moscow contract that allows him to return to the NBA. He ruled out the Brooklyn Nets and Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov on Tuesday because the Nets simply couldn’t pay him beyond the veteran’s minimum of $1.2 million, sources said. Kirilenko has been searching for a deal that would pay him in the vicinity of $8 million annually, and Minnesota could have the cap space to do so.

Minnesota is signing another Russian, point guard Alexey Shved, to a free-agent contract. The T’wolves signed Portland restricted free agent Nicolas Batum to a $45 million offer sheet, but the Trail Blazers matched the money to retain him.

Kirilenko, 31, is eight years older, but would fill many of the same needs the Timberwolves were chasing when they went after Batum. After playing 10 NBA seasons with the Jazz, Kirilenko spent last season with CSKA Moscow, where he was named Euroleague MVP.

It’s said that a two-year, $18 million offer with a player option for a third season could close the deal for Kirilenko. It’s a far cry from the $17 million he was paid by the Jazz in 2010-11, but would be money well spent for a Wolves roster that could use a defender on the front line.