Posts Tagged ‘Zach Randolph’

Space, Speed And 3s Is The NBA Way


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down why 3-point shooters like Kyle Korver are valuable

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin McHale insists there’s little difference between how he coaches his Houston Rockets today and how his Boston Celtics played 30 years ago.

“We do play the same,” the towering Hall of Fame power forward said. “It was a different game, but we ran up and down, we shot a lot of shots in the first six, seven seconds of the shot clock because we ran it down, threw it in the post and shot it. Look at the early ’80s, we were averaging 115, 116, 117 points. You usually don’t get that by walking it up and down.”

The 1983-84 champion Celtics averaged 112.1 ppg, yet in those glorious run-and-gun, team-oriented days, all that scoring ranked just seventh in a 23-team league. Imagine the offensive explosion then had those teams known what we know now about that strange 3-point arc.

“We all looked at it,” said McHale, a rookie the season after the NBA implemented the arc, “and thought, ‘Why the hell do they have a line way out here?’ “

A low-post machine, McHale attempted 157 3-pointers in his career. Larry Bird took 194 of the 393 taken by the 1985-86 champion Celtics. In the first 49 games this season, the Rockets’ tandem of James Harden and Chandler Parsons have combined for 463. The Rockets have launched 1,279.

Last year they shot it from everywhere and at any time, 2,369 in all, second-most only to the New York Knicks, who set the all-time record with 2,371 attempts. New York also made 891, the most all-time.

Today’s game is different. It has shifted 180 degrees from the plodding, back-it-down offenses spanned in the 1990s and does draw back more to the freewheeling 1980s, only with a new set of philosophies. Today’s offensive style is dictated by a slew of predominant words and phrases: Analytics. Pace. Ball movement. Spacing. Speed. Stretch-4. Small ball. Drive-and-kick. Corner 3.

Do-it-all point guards are at a premium. Floor-spacing, sweet-shooting big men are coveted. Three-point shooting is king.

“I’m not surprised because statistically everybody is going to that kind of metrics,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who introduced the league to this stream of unconventional offensive tactics when he took over the Phoenix Suns more than a decade ago.

“We did it before, but I think you can measure even more now, and I think that shows you if you want to win, that’s the way you should go. And then Miami tops it off by winning two championships by doing it.”

West among best at quick way to play

Many of D’Antoni’s concepts, considered radical at the time, are commonplace now to varying degrees in nearly every NBA coach’s playbook. They are prevalent especially among Western Conference clubs powered by dynamic, often ultra-athletic point guards — from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Damian Lillard to Stephen Curry — who play fast, penetrate, pass and shoot from distance. The Heat, of course, are led by de facto point guard LeBron James.

“Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested 3s, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well. But most of them are uncontested.”

Nine of the league’s top 10 teams in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) and 12 of the top 16 play in the West. The top five teams in 3-point attempts, and nine of the top 12, also play in the West, the far superior conference this season.

When the Memphis Grizzlies meet the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals won by Memphis, it will again be a battle of contrasting styles. OKC, even without their injured three-time All-Star Westbrook, is athletic and fast. The Thunder pushes the pace, currently ranking seventh in the league, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes.

The Grizzlies boast talented point guard Mike Conley, but run their sets through skilled, low-post big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They rely on those interior size mismatches (and gritty defense) to compete in an expanding era of fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting, “small-ball” lineups in which a power forward serves as a center and a traditional small forward plays the “4″ and “stretches” the floor.

Memphis, although moving the ball with more vigor and shooting slightly more 3s during their January hot streak, is the conventional NBA offense that has been made unconventional.

The need for 3s

Memphis’ management team is heavy into analytic data, and first-year coach Dave Joerger was eager to quicken Memphis’ offensive pace, but it hasn’t happened. They rank last in the league in pace, averaging 92.15 possessions. They’re also last in 3-point attempts (14.3 per game) and 3-pointers made (5.1 per game).

Houston has outscored Memphis from beyond the arc by a staggering 618 points; Golden State and Portland, tied for No. 1 with 450 made 3s, by 651. Memphis and last-place Utah, 24th in made 3-pointers, are the only teams in the West that average fewer than 100 points per game.

“It’s almost like if you don’t shoot 3s you can’t win,” Popovich said. “So many players are good at it, shots get off so quickly and are so numerous that it’s a huge part of what almost everybody does. It’s just tough to score and to win without making 3s.”

Desperate for it, Memphis traded slump-ridden Jerryd Bayless to Boston for Courtney Lee, who has provided a jolt, knocking down 44.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He, along with Gasol’s return from injury, helped spark Memphis to 11 wins in its last 13 games and a return to playoff contention.

The Grizzlies recently beat Houston twice in back-to-back games. They limited the Rockets to 87 and 81 points despite taking 40 fewer 3-pointers and being outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc. But can the Grizzlies survive with size over speed and scoring 2-pointers instead of 3s?

“I don’t know whether we can or we can’t,” Joerger said. “The league is being ruled by playmakers, shooting and IQ right now. Teams are playing multiple — forget about shooters — they’re playing multiple playmakers now. A lot of centers are, let’s just say, fairly strictly pick and rim-run, and [you] play four [players] around those guys and stretch it out, and then let guys just play against a [defensive] close-out.”

Time marches on … and pace picks up

D’Antoni says Don Nelson‘s Mavs in the early and mid-2000s, with Steve Nash as point guard, were first to empower the “stretch-4.” Nelson didn’t try to turn 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki into a back-to-the-basket player. He granted him free range to shoot 3s.

Popovich recognized the coming wave earlier than most through those early battles against Dirk and then D’Antoni’s Suns.

“San Antonio has been a top 3-point shooting team for probably seven, eight or nine years now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whose “Flow” offense, led by smart, selfless players and talented passers and shooters, produced the 2011 championship. “They jumped on it early on and other teams have followed suit.”

The Spurs won three championships with stifling defense and methodical halfcourt execution in the mid-2000s. But Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford knew they had to evolve around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker with a roster based on pace and perimeter shooting. On their way to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio ranked sixth in pace, seventh in 3-pointers made and fifth in 3-point percentage.

In his typical gruffness, Popovich said of the style, “I hate it; if you want to win, you got to do it.”

In 2002-03, the Spurs attempted 1,270 3-pointers en route to their first title. Each year after their 3-point attempts increased. They shot 1,561 in 2006-07, the year of their third title. Last season they shot a franchise-record 1,764, which they might surpass this season.

“It was gradual, I remember that,” Ginobili said. “When I got here [in 2002-03], it [the offense] was very slow. Every possession had to feed the post and play from there. But then it slowly started to shift to a faster pace. At the beginning, he [Popovich] wanted it, but we were just not used to it, so that’s why it took a couple years until we really started doing it.”

Back in Houston, the Rockets keep running and spreading the floor even with the addition of traditional-type center Dwight Howard. Their pace (97.94) ranks seventh in the league, down slightly from last season, as is their 3-point attempts (26.1, almost three fewer a game), because of the ability, and necessity, to feed Howard in the post.

Meanwhile, everybody else continues to pick up the pace. The Rockets were No. 1 in the league last season at 98.64 possessions per 48 minutes. Now five teams average at least 99 and Philadelphia is over 102. Twelve teams average at least 97. In 1996-97, the first year advanced statistics were recorded, only two teams finished with more than 93 possessions per game.

What does the future hold? The Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are launching 3′s at a stunning — or alarming, depending on your perspective — rate of 48.5 per game. Fourteen of the 17 teams are operating at a pace of 100 possessions or better per game.

Yet leave it to Howard, with four career 3-pointers to his name, to lend some perspective to all these supersonic numbers.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a halfcourt game and you’ve got to be able to execute in the halfcourt on offense,” Howard said. “We have to learn how to do both — be able to play fast, get up and down the court, get some easy shots. But we also got to learn how to slow it down and get a good shot every time.”

Perhaps some things never change.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Grizz continue to find their way | Davis boosts his All-Star hopes | LeBron wants to talk with Silver | Shumpert injures shoulder in Knicks’ win

No. 1: Grizz get back into their grinding groove — If you gave up on Memphis a few weeks or months ago after their slow-out-of-the-gate start to the season, you may want to start tuning in to their games again. As our own Fran Blinebury pointed out yesterday, Memphis is getting back to its “Grindhouse” ways. That was plenty apparent last night as the Grizz marched into Portland and handed the Blazers, who boast the league’s fifth-best home record, a resounding 98-81 defeat. Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal has more on Memphis continued rise:

The Grizzlies didn’t yield a point for the first two minutes, 20 seconds of their game Tuesday night, and the defensive chokehold just got tighter and tighter.

Memphis held the NBA’s highest scoring team well below its average and started a three-game road trip with a 98-81 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Moda Center.

The Trail Blazers (33-13) entered the game putting up 109 points on 45.5 percent shooting per contest. But the Griz (23-20) held the Blazers to a season-low point total on just 34.5 percent shooting.

“Our confidence is back,” Griz point guard Mike Conley said. “We believe we’re a good team. We believe we can beat anybody. We kind of lost that. But everybody feels comfortable again and we’re playing hard.”

About four minutes into the fourth quarter, Portland’s television play-by-play announcer pointed out that the Blazers scored on back-to-back possessions just six times in the game.

The Griz simply kept the Blazers misfiring on the perimeter, and contested every shot in the lane. Portland missed its first 12 three-point attempts and was shooting 36 percent through three quarters while Memphis took an 81-58 lead into the final frame.

“We’re just starting to click,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “The cement hasn’t really dried.”

The Griz are certainly making an imprint. They’ve won three straight games and eight of the last nine. Memphis also ended Portland’s five-game home winning streak.

Since center Marc Gasol returned from a left MCL sprain, the Griz are 6-1 and have allowed 85 points per game.

“We were playing like ‘When is Marc coming back?’ as opposed to just playing basketball to the best of our ability and see what happens,” Griz forward Tayshaun Prince said. “But now that we have Marc back you can see a different comfort zone with our team. A lot of guys are playing at a high level. More importantly, we’re playing together.”

***

No. 2: Pelicans’ Davis boosts his All-Star resumeKevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have the starting gigs nailed down for the Western Conference All-Star squad. Picking the guys who back them up? That’s something that isn’t easy, especially considering the frontcourt/power forward/center depth there is in the West. One such name that’s been bandied about for a bench spot is the New Orleans Pelicans’ uber-forward Anthony Davis. He didn’t do anything to hurt his reserve bid last night, writes John Reid of The Times Picayune, after a dominating performance against the Cavs:

With time running out to impress enough of the league’s coaches to earn a selection as a reserve in the Feb. 16 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Pelicans forward Anthony Davis didn’t miss another opportunity to make his case.Davis dominated with eight blocks and 30 points to help Pelicans rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-89 on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. It was the third 30-point performance of Davis’ career. Davis dislocated his left index finger in the monstrous effort but doesn’t expect to miss playing time….

“I’m just trying to get better each and every day,” Davis said. “My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball and giving me a chance to score. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has totaled 27 blocks and averaged 21.8 points in the past five games. He relied on his arsenal of shots — from quick pull-up jumpers to dunks — and didn’t miss many attempts. He made 12 of 18 of shots and had 24 points after three quarters.

Some of Davis’ dominant play came against rookie Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. He played extended minutes for the first time and scored a season-high 15 points. But Davis overshadowed his effort.

“He’s a very talented individual,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said of Davis. “He kind of messes up your rotations just because he can space (the floor) so well and he plays the game the right way.

“Coach (Williams) did a heck of a job running continuity plays for him and he was catching it in rhythm and knocking down shots. You have to give credit to a good performance by him.”


VIDEO: Anthony Davis runs wild as the Pelicans take down the Cavs

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No. 3: LeBron wants to talk with new commish Silver – The NBA is just a few weeks away from the official retirement of David Stern (which, if you haven’t read our David Aldridge’s oral history of his career, you’re missing out) and from Adam Silver taking over as the NBA’s new boss. Silver will of course become infinitely more busy than he already is and one superstar is already hoping to earmark some time to talk with him once he officially takes office, writes Sam Amick of USA Today:

The Miami Heat star said Tuesday that he’s in the process of making a wish list of sorts that he will eventually share with Silver, the deputy commissioner who began with the league more than 20 years ago and who has held his current position (as well as Chief Operating Officer) since 2006.

“Um, I’m making (a list),” James said. “I don’t know if I want to make it public knowledge right now, but hopefully I can sit down with the Commish – the soon to be Commish – and just throw out some ideas where I feel like the league can be better, and hopefully he has some ideas for me to see on my part.”

James, who said he planned to schedule a formal meeting with Silver, lauded Stern for the job he has done and gave Silver a warm welcome.

“I think (Silver) is great,” James said. “The opportunities I’ve had to be around him as he’s been the assistant commish, he’s been amazing. He’s easy to talk to. He’s someone that understands the business, who understands what the game of basketball means to everyone – the owners, the players, the coaches, everyone. Everyone included, the whole pie. I’m looking forward to him. I’m excited for him, and best of luck to him. Hopefully he can get 30 years in too like David was able to get. Who knows what his 30 years can do for the game.”

As for the changes he envisions and may seek, he hinted that they are minor.

“We don’t need major change,” James said. “This game has grown from just being in America to over almost 300 countries right now…But the game can always be bigger. There’s a lot of people who love the game who are not able to watch the game, so I feel we can broadcast it in more countries as well and continue to inspire people that want to play the game, who love the game. It’s the greatest game in the world to me. Obviously I’m biased, because I’m in it, but you know the things that we’re able to do out on the floor to inspire people is unbelievable.”

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No. 4: Knicks’ Shumpert suffers shoulder injuryNew York got some good news during last night’s win over the Celtics as power forward Kenyon Martin returned to the lineup after missing five games with an ankle injury. But just four minutes into the Boston game, the Knicks saw guard Iman Shumpert suffer a shoulder injury and leave the game. How long Shumpert will be out for remains unknown, writes Ian Bagley of ESPNNewYork.com:

Knicks guard Iman Shumpert suffered a sprained right shoulder in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Boston Celtics and did not return.The severity of the injury was unclear.

Coach Mike Woodson said after the Knicks’ 114-88 win that he wasn’t sure how long Shumpert would be out for.

Shumpert dealt with shoulder soreness in training camp but has remained relatively healthy throughout the season, playing in every game.

If Shumpert were out for an extended period, J.R. Smith or Tim Hardaway Jr. would likely replace him in the lineup.

In other injury news, veteran Knicks forward Kenyon Martin returned after missing five games with a left ankle injury and re-sprained the ankle in the first half. Martin had earlier aggravated the injury against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 16.

“Just overuse,” the 36-year-old Martin said. “Been going every day and playing a lot of minutes. Just needed a break. Not one thing happened. Just been fighting through it, fighting through it, fighting through it, and the body lets you know. So at my age, you got to listen.”

Martin limped to the locker room late in the second quarter. The Knicks said he was available to return.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Great teaser/snippet for Rick Fox‘s upcoming interview with Phil Jackson on GameTime (Jan. 30, 6 p.m. ET), where the coaching legend talks about Dwight Howard’s game, the state of the Lakers and much, much moreScott Brooks is coaching the West All-Star team for the second time in his career … Is Pistons owner Tom Gores to blame for Detroit’s roster woes? One columnist sure thinks so … Interesting look at how the Most Improved Player voting/winners have been doled out the last few years … If Rajon Rondo signs an extension with the Celtics, what might it look like long term for the team? … The Kings revealed the first renderings for their new arena that’s being built

ICYMI of The Night: We’re still thawing out here at Shootaround Central (aka Atlanta), but this nice hustle play from John Wall to race back and swat Steph Curry warms our hearts…:


VIDEO: John Wall hustles back to deny Steph Curry’s layup attempt

Gasol, Lee Put Grizzlies Back In Race


VIDEO: Grizzlies sweep back-to-back games over Rockets

In a pair of back-to-back games over the weekend, Dwight Howard got the message. With a couple of pushes, some shoves, an elbow or two in the small of his back, even a try at a wrestling takedown.

Marc Gasol is back. And so, it seems, are the Grizzlies as a factor in the Western Conference playoff race.

While there is still plenty of ground for Gasol to cover to get back to form after missing 1 1/2 months and 23 games with a sprained MCL, things are finally getting into shape in Memphis.

With consecutive wins over Howard and the Rockets, the Grizzlies are now just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the playoff race as they start a quick three-game road trip tonight in Portland (10 ET, League Pass) and continues through Sacramento and Minnesota.

Since the start of 2014, the Grizzlies have won nine of 12 games, are 5-1 since Gasol returned to the lineup on Jan. 14 and 7-2 since they acquired Courtney Lee from Boston.

Gasol, of course, gives the Grizzlies back their physicality and ruggedness on the interior by teaming with Zach Randolph. He and Z-Bo are able to protect the rim as effectively as any tandem of bigs in the league and score in the low post. In addition, Gasol’s role of traffic cop and his passing ability opens things up on the perimeter.

That’s an area where Lee has helped. Though Memphis still ranks at the bottom of the league in 3-pointers taken and made, shooting guard Lee has provided another option on the wing and has been effective.

“I’ve been super comfortable from day one,” he said. “When I came in the coaches told me to play my game and shots have been falling. Everybody that’s playing is on the same page of playing the right way.”

Lee is shooting 55.6 from the field since joining the Grizzlies and sunk his teeth in on defense. In the back-to-back set against the Rockets, he kept James Harden in check.

“Courtney’s been a big addition for us,” said point guard Mike Conley. “He adds some scoring, he adds some defense, athleticism. He has a high basketball IQ and he’s been able to pick up things fairly quickly. I think that’s what’s helped us these last couple of weeks.

“Courtney was a huge, huge piece. People overlook him. But it’s key that he’s able to stretch the court for us. With me, him, Mike Miller out there, it gives Zach and Marc more space. Having a lot of guys that could space the court, we didn’t have that going on before. And he can definitely lock up defensively.”

Even through their struggles this season, the Grizzlies have been able to make the most of road trips. Before Gasol injured his knee, they swept a four-game November swing against the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and Warriors. Then with Gasol out, they began turning things around at the start of the new year by taking two out of three at Phoenix, Denver and Detroit.

That’s when Ed Davis and James Johnson became part of the rotation and significant contributors with Gasol, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter sidelined by injury. Pondexter (broken bone in foot) is lost for the season and Allen (ligament damage hand) is getting closer to returning.

The question for coach Dave Joerger is what he’ll do with the starting lineup when Allen is ready. There is no question that the Grizzlies would like to have his grinding defense back, but Lee has been a big addition. The solution might be to let Allen come off the bench until he’s fully back in game shape, then slide him into the 3-spot to replace Tayshaun Prince, keeping Lee’s offense on the floor.

“Our confidence is high,” Lee said. “We feel good about what’s going on and how we’re playing. It seems like time will only make us better.”

Currently sitting at 22-20, the task that might have looked a bit daunting a month ago now seems within reach. To reach the 45-win level it took to grab the No. 8 seed in the West a year ago, Memphis would have to finish up 23-17 and neither the No. 7 seed Suns or No. 8 Mavericks seem capable of putting up an insurmountable roadblock. So if a healthy bunch of Grizzlies can claw in at the bottom, it could mean somebody in the upper half of the contentious playoff bracket is in for a bruising first-round fight against a team that advanced to the conference finals last season.

“It definitely is there for us to take advantage,” Conley said. “We still have a lot of the season left. We understood once Marc got hurt, if we could just keep this thing afloat, keep us close and somewhat in the picture, then we he got back we would be able to make a run. Now we’re in position. We have a long way to go, but I’d say we’re happy now with where we’re at.”

If Wins Matter, Is Kevin Love Still An All-Star Slam Dunk?


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks about dealing with tough stretches on ‘Inside Stuff’

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – This post might embolden a pitch-forked mob to burn my basketball-writing credentials at the stake, but here goes: Don’t chalk up Kevin Love as an automatic Western Conference All-Star reserve just yet. Not as long as the West coaches who will select those reserves stick to the notion that winning matters.

NBA All-Star 2014Here’s Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle three years ago when asked if Tim Duncan deserved to be selected despite averaging career lows in points and rebounds in the first half of the 2010-11 season: “Those guys are 37-4 or something. You’ve got to take a strong look at that. That’s meaningful, that Duncan is on a team that’s winning every game. That’s a big deal, and it should be.”

Duncan made the squad at the expense of statistically better options that included Love (later picked as an injury replacement for Yao Ming), LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. Coaches will again have to take a strong look at Duncan, 37, when they cast their votes (selections will be announced on Jan. 30).

Duncan’s stats — 14.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 1.97 bpg in 29.0 mpg — again pale next to those of his younger counterparts even though he’s essential to the Spurs sitting atop the West at 31-8.

The West’s frontcourt field is stacked. The starters, as voted by the fans (voting ends Monday), appear set: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin (although Love was only about 17,000 votes behind Griffin for the third starting spot after last week’s third returns; Love being voted in would render this conversation moot). Coaches will select four frontcourt reserves from a deep pool that as of now includes Love, Duncan, Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and David Lee among a few others worthy of consideration (Nicolas BatumAndre Iguodala, Randolph?).

There will be quality snubs.

Love’s statistical credentials are spotless: 25.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 13.0 rpg (second), 4.0 apg (tied for first among power forwards) and 39.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10th overall) in 36.2 mpg. His presence, at least offensively, is essential: Minnesota’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) soars to 109.3 with him on the floor; without him it plummets to 93.0.

Love’s team, however, the thought-to-be playoff-ready Timberwolves, is a disheartening and seemingly unraveling group. At 18-20 they sit 11th in the West, four games out of the final playoff spot behind Nowitzki’s Mavericks. After a recent debacle of a home loss to Phoenix, Love publicly called out a pair of sulking teammates, a move that has been met with both praise and criticism.

Speaking of Nowitzki, how difficult will it be for coaches to pass on the NBA’s 13th leading all-time scorer who is averaging 21.4 ppg, is flirting with a 50-40-90 season and has his team playing mostly above expectations? Nowitzki’s 11-year All-Star run ended last season following preseason knee surgery. Aldridge and Batum have helped make the Blazers the NBA’s surprise team of the first half. An All-Star last year, Lee is averaging 19.2 ppg — shooting 52.8 percent — and 9.9 rpg on a top-five squad.

Like Love’s Wolves, Cousins’ Kings are on the wrong side of the win-loss coin, but the enigmatic center with the bad rep is having a monstrous season (one quite comparable to Love’s) — 23.4 ppg (49.6 FG%), 11.6 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg in 32.4 mpg. Sacramento (14-23) got off to an awful start, but has played better of late, winning six of its last 10, including wins over Miami and Portland, and have just three more losses than the Wolves.

The Kings closed that gap Wednesday with a 111-108 win at Minnesota. Cousins had 20 and 11 with five turnovers. Love had 27 and 11 with five assists. Cousins got the W.

Another intriguing point regarding Cousins’ chances for a first All-Star appearance: Last year the NBA altered the ballot, scrapping the traditional positional breakdown of guard, forward and center to simply backcourt and frontcourt to reflect the lack of true centers in today’s game. Under the old format, would not Cousins be a shoo-in as the backup center?

Love’s statistics scream All-Star. His team has been a dud. In a season in which the player field is so competitive, and if team wins are truly weighted as significant, the West coaches will be faced not with a slam dunk vote for Love, but rather embroiled in a most difficult process of elimination.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Players only meeting works for Kings | Conley at crunch time in Memphis | Teletovic pokes LeBron | Blazers not one of the Bynum 8

No. 1: Kings players-only meeting works wonders – Three straight wins in most places isn’t worth going crazy over, not during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season. In Sacramento, however, it’s definitely going to raise eyebrows. A players-only meeting has worked wonders for the Kings, who routed Cleveland Sunday to polish off their season-best win streak. Is this potentially a turning point for a Kings team that has dealt with adversity and distractions for months now? Time will tell. But as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes, an epic beatdown of the Cavaliers is a good place to start:

The victory margin equaled a 44-point win over Denver on Dec. 12, 1992, and trailed only a 56-point win over Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993 and a 58-point victory over Dallas on Dec. 29, 1992.

The Kings led by 46 points, their biggest advantage of the season, and tallied season highs in points, 3-pointers (15) and blocked shots (eight).

Defensively, the Kings (13-22) held Cleveland to 11 points in the third quarter and 30 points in the second half, both season lows by a Sacramento opponent. The 80 points were also a season low, bettering the 83 the Kings gave up against Orlando on Friday.

In the third quarter, the Cavaliers (13-24) made only four shots and shot 20 percent, both season lows for a Kings opponent.

“This young team is growing and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Rudy Gay said. “We can become a really good team. It takes hard work and we’re working hard, and coach has been great. As long as we keep going on that same path, we should be a good team.”

The defensive numbers are what pleased coach Michael Malone. After allowing 32 points in the first quarter, the Kings began to defend better, leading to the dominant second half.

“Consistency is a word we’ve used a lot,” Malone said. “It’s something we haven’t shown we can (accomplish) most of the season, but in our last three games I think the defense has been consistent, the communication has been consistent, the effort’s been there. We had breakdowns without a doubt, but our breakdowns are happening less often at the moment, and that’s a step in the right direction.”



VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas wins his duel with Kyrie Irving and his Kings get the win

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No. 2: Conley is the man at crunch time for Grizzlies – Whether you realize it or not, Mike Conley has become a stabilizing force for the a Memphis Grizzlies team that sorely needed one. Even with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen on the roster, the young point guard emerged from a humbling start to his career to evolve into the sort of floor leader that pushes the pile the way he did against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.  Conley is on a tear right now that suggests he might be ready for even bigger and better things, writes Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:

Conley continued arguably the most productive week of his NBA career in leading the Griz with 21 points, 13 assists and four steals. He posted 30 or more points in each of the two previous games.

The Griz blew a 13-point lead with Conley on the bench. The Hawks began connecting on 3-pointers and used a 16-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to wrestle away the momentum and take an 80-77 lead.

The game was tied at 77 when Conley returned to replace rookie reserve Nick Calathes with 10:38 left. About 20 seconds later, Conley whipped a pass to James Johnson out of a pick-and-roll and Johnson finished the play with an emphatic slam dunk. The basket was the start of a 16-4 run that allowed the Griz to regain the lead for good.

Conley set up Courtney Lee and Mike Miller for 3-pointers, Zach Randolph for a point-blank shot, and created his own scoring opportunities by zipping past defenders and into the paint.

“Once (the Hawks) started making a little bit of a run, from the bench, I noticed that we weren’t getting to the paint,” said Conley, who had eight points and six and six assists in the final period. “We weren’t getting to the rim, to the free throw line or making plays at the rim. It shows our aggressiveness when we are going in-and-out of the paint. We got just little bit too lax in that stage of the game. I just wanted to come in and act on that.”

Conley is averaging 27.3 points in his last three games, which have resulted in an overtime loss to San Antonio and wins over Phoenix and Atlanta.

“He has really taken responsibility, not for running the team but really as a leader for the team and defining whether we are successful or not,” [Grizzlies coach Dave] Joerger said. “He has taken the steps to say, ‘I’m going to be up front, and not pushing from within. I’m not going to be facilitating. I’m going to be out front and be a leader and those who follow will follow and those who don’t will get left behind.’ He is so much more assertive in his approach and our guys feed off of that.”

***

No. 3: Teletovic pokes the LeBron bearIn the event that the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets meet in the postseason (yes, still months away but work with us here), Mirza Teletovic might want to be careful with his poking of LeBron James. He’s still having a little fun at LeBron’s expense in the aftermath of their dust-up during the Nets win over the Heat last weeek in that TNT showdown. His good hard foul on LeBron, when he went around the neck to prevent an uninterrupted layup attempt, prompted plenty of bickering and back and forth about not only the foul and LeBron’s immediate reaction. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald went so far as to suggest that LeBron’s long-term response will have an impact in the playoffs:

Teletovic went high around James’ neck, yes, but it appeared on replay that Teletovic was only trying to prevent James from completing a three-point play. Teletovic didn’t grab James, but James took exception and lunged at Teletovic following the play. Michael Beasley and others restrained James while Nets players rushed in to hold back Teletovic, who reacted to the sequence by flashing a smile.

“Not a basketball play” was James’ constant complaint during the 2013 playoffs, especially during the series against the Chicago Bulls. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed was ejected during Game 3 for shoving James to the ground during a fast break.

For years, the postseason scouting report on James has called for opponents to rough up the MVP in the hopes of knocking him off his game.

Although hard fouls are nothing new for James, Teletovic defended himself after the game and then had a little fun with the incident on Twitter.

“It was just a foul,” Teletovic said. “I just tried to make a foul, and he was coming down the court. He shouldn’t be reacting like that. It’s just basketball.”

Teletovic then did something he might come to regret. The European needled James on Twitter when he posted a screen shot of the scuffle and wrote, “Five in a row…Go @BrooklynNets :) lol ;)” Teletovic then changed the background of his Twitter page to a large picture of the incident.

https://twitter.com/Teletovic33/status/421920903006789632


VIDEO: Mirza Teletovic and LeBron James scuffle

***

No. 4: Count the Trail Blazers out of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes – The Andrew Bynum 8 — the reported eight teams interested in pursuing the big man’s services for the remainder of this season — does not include that surprise outfit in Portland. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Trail Blazers, true contenders this season in a loaded Western Conference playoff chase, have not registered any legitimate interest in Bynum:

The Portland Trail Blazers could use an extra big man on their bench, but if they did decide to make a play for one between now and the trade deadline, it won’t be for center Andrew Bynum.

CSNNW.com was informed by a well-placed league source that Portland is not one of the reported eight teams interested in Bynum. Another source backed it up saying, “Portland has not inquired” about the services of the 7-foot free agent Bynum.

This revelation isn’t much of a surprise.

There are a couple of reasons why Portland opted not to take such a risk: the concern regarding Bynum’s character and how he would fit inside a locker room that has gelled seamlessly, had to have been a huge road block. Bynum has had his share of knee problems, a road Portland is reluctant to travel down.

The other obstacle is Portland is already carrying 15, the maximum amount of players allowed on a roster. If they were thinking of adding a player such as Bynum, someone would have to be released.

And being that every Trail Blazer on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this season, if Portland did decided to waive a player to make room for a free agent, they would have to eat the contract of that released player.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner claims there might be film of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game … Deron Williams will not make the trip to London with the Brooklyn Nets … Lakers on the verge of getting injured shooting guard (Xavier Henry not Kobe Bryant) back this week … Speaking of the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak says “taking” is never discussed in Lakerland.

ICYMI of The Night: Who, you ask, is Jeff Ayres? He would be the former Jeff Pendergraph of the San Antonio Spurs, the same man you here getting his Dunk of the Night on in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:


VIDEO: Ayres throws it down over the Timberwolves

So … Who Wants To Be No. 1 In The West?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – We’ve spent two months knee-slapping and belly laughing over the bumbling, stumbling (L)Eastern Conference while keeping nightly tabs on the Western Conference’s conquests over the feeble JV division. The divide’s grown so disproportionate it’s no longer worth counting.

And then something silly happens like Miami going on the road, and without LeBron James in uniform, drop-kicking West-leading Portland. Just like that, all the ribbing of the other side doesn’t seem all that appropriate — or wise. The West might be deeper, but the cream still rises in the East.

The Heat continue to find ways to remind us that they still rule the NBA. And the East, as exasperating as it is to look at teams No. 3-15, is delivering a stout two-team race: Miami and its lone challenger determined to prevent the Heat’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance — the self-assured Indiana Pacers.

The West is not the East. The West is entangled, wild and woolly; a shootout, a grudge match and pure survival every night. Think about this for perspective: The West’s 12th-best team, Memphis, would be fifth in the East. With so many capable teams, an injury here, a cold snap there, a trade down the road can tip the balance of power.

As we steamroll into 2014 and toward the mid-February All-Star weekend and then the trade deadline, these forces are already at work, making the West far more unpredictable than even what we thought at the beginning of the season.

No one team is pulling away. Several have key injuries. And all are not without a potential fatal flaw.

THE UPPER CRUST

Oklahoma  City Thunder (27-7): Russell Westbrook‘s combination of strength, power and speed makes him indispensable to a Thunder title charge. A third surgery in the span of eight months on his right knee is hardly optimum, but at least the last two were both arthroscopies and therefore far less invasive than the original April surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Judging by his rapid return last time and his explosive play, we’ll lean toward Westbrook again returning as if nothing happened (especially since early reports of his recovery already sound encouraging). OKC is better equipped than last season to survive a potential two-month absence. Reggie Jackson is having an excellent season, Serge Ibaka has All-Star credentials, the bench is deep and OKC is committed to elite-level defense. And then there’s that guy Kevin Durant. The Thunder, an impressive 17-5 against the West, remain my pick to be last team standing — as long as Russ can be Russ.


VIDEO: See why OKC’s Kevin Durant was named the Kia Player of the Month winner for December

San Antonio Spurs (26-8): Coach Gregg Popovich bristled at the notion that the Spurs’ win over the Chris Paul-less Clippers on Saturday night should go on the board as a win over a big-boy team. While the Spurs own the second-best record in the West, they’ve done it by rolling everybody but the teams closest to them in the standings. They’re 1-6 against the four other teams that have mostly made up the top five all season (0-1 vs. Portland; 0-2 vs. Oklahoma City; 0-2 vs. Houston; 1-1 vs. the Clips). They’re also 0-1 against Indiana. It certainly does raise eyebrows, but at the same time, it’s not like the Spurs don’t know how to raise their level of play when it counts. Popovich is thinking down the road, too, manipulating his deep roster and spreading minutes. Tony Parker is the only player averaging more than 30 mpg (30.8). San Antonio plays solid defense, Parker remains phenomenal, Manu Ginobili has raised his game and the Spurs can shoot the 3. It’s not quite time to worry that the Spurs are yet again too old to keep up with all of the West’s young bucks.

Portland Trail Blazers (26-8): No one predicted upper-crust status at this point and I even hesitated putting them here now with their recent slowdown. But with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Houston, the Clippers and two over Oklahoma City (one without Westbrook), it would be unfair to deny this team what they’ve earned. Led by star-in-the-making point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, they own the league’s most efficient offense and absolutely shoot the lights out from downtown, already hitting a franchise-record 21 3-pointers in a game twice. While they don’t possess a great defensive rating, they are certainly capable defenders and can surge at that end from time to time. They added nicely to a thin roster with center Robin Lopez and reserve guard Mo Williams, and rookie C.J. McCollum is on his way back. Yet, you have to wonder if they’re ultimately deep enough behind their starting five, and too reliant on the long ball when push comes to shove in the playoffs.


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Portland’s place among the West’s elite

THE TASTY FILLING

Los Angeles Clippers (24-13): Doc Rivers‘ team has been more inconsistent than many thought, and early on were downright awful defensively. It hasn’t helped that J.J. Redick has been out for five weeks with a fractured hand. Now, of course, comes the ultimate test with Paul sidelined for six weeks with a separated right shoulder. The Clips don’t have an athletic, playmaking wing and will need Jamal Crawford to help take pressure off of Blake Griffin, who will be targeted by every opponent. Bottom line is L.A. will really have to claw to remain in the top five or six in the absence of CP3, the league’s assist leader. L.A.’s defensive rating now ranks eighth and they’ll have to rely on that end of the floor to win games in the interim or else it could mean giving up homecourt advantage in what promises to be a difficult first-round matchup.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses Chris Paul’s injury and its effect on the Clippers

Golden State Warriors (23-13): Early turbulence, namely a hamstring injury to glue guy Andre Iguodala, sent the Warriors into weeks worth of sketchy play. A nine-game win streak has made that slog a distant memory and now the Steph Curry-led Dubs look like the team everybody expected after last season’s playoff breakthrough. As always, this team will go as far as Curry and his fragile ankles (knock on wood) take them, plus the health of center Andrew Bogut, who has managed to play in 35 of 36 games and average double-digit rebounds and 1.74 bpg. The big issue with Golden State is exhaustion. With the reliable Jarrett Jack gone, Toney Douglas has averaged just 11.7 mpg in 21 games. Curry and Klay Thompson are averaging close to 38 mpg, a pace that could take a toll down the road.

Houston Rockets (22-13): We knew it would take some time for this team to come together and they’ve certainly had bouts of inconsistency marked by trouble closing out games. They’re also only 12-11 against the West, meaning they’ve gotten fat off the East. However, they’ve also dealt with injuries to James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley and have managed to hang tough. Dwight Howard (17.8 ppg, 12.9 rpg) has put up good numbers and on some nights he looks like the force he was before these last few years of perplexing indecision. Yet at other times, he still seems to be out of sorts. His presence in the middle hasn’t made the Rockets an elite defensive team, ranking in the middle of the pack.

Phoenix Suns (20-12): The Suns were headed for the next group on our list until some deeper thought got them in at the last second. With two wins against Portland, and wins over Houston, Golden State and a blowout on the Clippers’ home floor, plus a top 10-rated offense and defense, they belong here. The question is can a journeyman like Gerald Green (13.4 ppg, 39.0 3-point FG pct.) and a young, overlooked center like Miles Plumlee (9.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg) continue to produce at their current levels? More than a third of the way through the season, that appears more and more to be yes. Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have been All-Star worthy and with blue-collar workers like P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins, the Jeff Hornacek‘s Suns possess the toughness to compete every night. The hallmark of this club has been one that doesn’t take a play off.


VIDEO: The Starters give Suns coach Jeff Hornacek some props

THE OUTER CRUST 

Dallas Mavericks (19-15): While the Dirk Nowitzki-Monta Ellis combo gained traction early, this team has perhaps irreparable flaws starting with a porous defense. Center Samuel Dalembert is proving unreliable and leaving Dallas severely outmanned in the middle. Point guard Jose Calderon, while being a smart and steady quarterback and an excellent shooter, has seen the West’s athletic point guards exploit his size and lack of foot speed. Even Nowitzki recently questioned his team’s playoff chances after it continues to blow leads.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavs guard Monta Ellis

Minnesota Timberwolves (17-17): Perhaps the biggest mystery team of the bunch. Thought to be a playoff team for two seasons now, this time they can’t use injuries as an excuse. Even with Kevin Love putting up monstrous numbers, the Wolves can’t close out games and have lost a handful of games they seemingly had in their back pocket. That’s no way to do business in this conference. Perhaps most perplexing is point guard Ricky Rubio, who has not emerged as an All-Star candidate this season and seems to have little confidence in his shooting ability.

POTENTIAL FILLER

Denver Nuggets (16-17): It’s been a roller coaster season under first-year coach Brian Shaw. A slow start gave way to an impressive winning streak that crumbled into a rather stunning losing streak. More roster shakeup is on the way with disgruntled Andre Miller on the outs. At some point Danilo Gallinari will return from the ACL injury suffered late last season, providing 3-point pop and needed depth. They aren’t hanging their hat at either end of the floor right now, adding skepticism that they can improve enough to nab the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans (15-17): Anthony Davis is proving why he was the No. 1 pick in 2012, averaging a double-double (19.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg) while leading the league in blocked shots (3.2). Ryan Anderson missed the first part of the season and now is out indefinitely with a herniated disk.  You certainly wonder where this team might be if it had full health (Davis also missed seven games) from the jump. We’ve seen glimpses of how dangerous the backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can be. The question is: can do it with consistency?


VIDEO: Inside Stuff catches up with Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis

Memphis Grizzlies (15-18): Under rookie coach Dave Joerger, the Grizz were wobbly before Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury after 13 games, but as he nears a return, there is optimism that he, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph can pull things together and make a run. That’s why they dealt Jerryd Bayless to Boston for a better 3-point shooter (Courtney Lee). If they don’t get things together, Randolph could be on his way out.

MYSTERY INGREDIENT

Los Angeles Lakers (14-20): Will Pau Gasol remain a Laker? Will Kobe Bryant be back sooner than later? Can Steve Nash return with anything left to offer?Can they steady the ship since their swift downturn after Bryant fractured his knee? If the answer to those questions is yes, then it’s possible — not likely — but possible the Lakers can make a second-half charge similar to last year when it appeared they were cooked, yet grabbed the No. 7 seed.

LEFT OUT

Sacramento Kings (10-22): DeMarcus Cousins is putting up All-Star numbers, but the Kings’ poor start negated all the positive preseason momentum.

Utah Jazz (11-25): Rookie Trey Burke is looking good. But Jazz fans had already come to grips that the name of the game is patience as they wait on the youth movement.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Kings interested in Nuggets’ Miller | Report: Deng balked on extension with Bulls | Report: Clips looking at Turkoglu, Vujacic | Z-Bo, Grizz excited about pending addition of Lee

No. 1: Report: Nuggets discussing trades for Miller — As we reported in this space yesterday, the Nuggets and Andre Miller seem destined for a parting of ways. The Denver Post reported yesterday that the team is actively looking for deal the point guard and Yahoo!Sports.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski has some news on prospective teams, which could include the Sacramento Kings:

Guard Andre Miller has possibly played his final game for the franchise, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

After a two-game suspension turned into an indefinite exile on Monday, the Nuggets are motivated to move Miller within the next 24 to 48 hours, league sources said. It has become clear to rival executives that Denver is moving quickly on engineering trade scenarios and completing a deal.

Sacramento Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro – a longtime Nuggets executive – has been at the forefront of trying to acquire Miller, league sources said. The Kings plan would be to use Miller as a mentor for the franchise’s talented young point guard, Isaiah Thomas.

Denver general manager Tim Connelly has had conversations with multiple teams, including Sacramento. Miller is owed the balance of his $5 million this season and a partial guarantee of $2 million in 2014-15 on his contract.

Connelly and Miller’s agent, Andy Miller, have been in regular communication about the next steps for the franchise and point guard.


Miller, 37, had a 239-consecutive-game streak end in the loss to the Sixers, and endured the first “Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision” of his 15-year career.

The frustration that started on the floor on Wednesday night extended into the postgame locker room, sources told Yahoo Sports. Before the bubbling over on Wednesday, Miller had recently addressed some issues to Shaw in a locker-room meeting forum, league sources said.

Connelly spoke with Miller for approximately an hour late Wednesday at the Pepsi Center, and the team suspended Miller on Thursday for its next two games.

***

No. 2: Report: Deng turned down extension with Bulls days ago — As you probably heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls pulled off a trade last night that sent disgruntled Cavs center Andrew Bynum and three future Draft picks to Chicago for All-Star forward Luol Deng. The Bulls moved Deng in part because he was an unrestricted free agent this summer and also, as our David Aldridge points out in his excellent breakdown of the deal, to lessen their immediate salary-cap burden. Over the summer, Deng and his representatives couldn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension and, according to Yahoo!Sports.com.’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bulls and Deng tried to hammer out an extension again before the Cleveland trade took place, but Deng didn’t want to sign:

Within days of the Chicago Bulls unloading Luol Deng for salary-cap relief and a first-round draft pick, the All-Star forward rejected a three-year, $30 million contact extension, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

Deng, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, turned down the deal on Friday, clearing the way for Bulls management to complete a deal with Cleveland for broken-down center Andrew Bynum and a package of draft picks on Monday night.

The Bulls and Deng’s representatives had informal talks about an extension over the summer, but Chicago never made a formal offer.

The Bulls were unwilling to pay Deng, 28, market value in the $12 million-to-$13 million-a-year range over four or five seasons. Deng spent nine-plus seasons in Chicago, where he often played hurt. Chicago is committed to re-signing shooting guard Jimmy Butler to a lucrative contract extension this summer, and after the loss of Derrick Rose for the season, the Bulls made a move for the long-term.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bynum-for-Deng swap

***

No. 3: Report: Clippers mulling veterans Vujacic, Turkoglu — The shoulder injury that star point guard Chris Paul suffered last weekend could potentially keep him out of the L.A. Clippers’ lineup for as long as six weeks. That means the Clips’ depth is going to be tested and as L.A. prepares to weather a bit of a storm without him, the team is thinking about adding free agents to the roster. The Clips, according to Marc Stein and Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, have an eye on Hedo Tukoglu (who was recently waived by the Orlando Magic) and ex-Lakers and Nets guard Sasha Vujacic. Adding either of those players, though, would possibly force the team to part ways with Stephen Jackson:

The Los Angeles Clippers are looking hard at well-known veteran free agents Sasha Vujacic and Hedo Turkoglu as they try to fill the playmaking void created by Chris Paul’s shoulder injury, according to sources close to the process.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Clippers could make a new 10-day signing as early as Tuesday, with Vujacic and Turkoglu currently at the forefront of L.A.’s thinking.

Paul is expected to miss up to six weeks after suffering a separated shoulder Friday night in Dallas. The Clippers are still without starting shooting guard J.J. Redick, who is making progress in his recovery from hand and wrist injuries but is believed to be out for at least another week.

The Clippers, though, would have to open up a roster spot before making any further signings and face an immediate decision on Stephen Jackson, whose minimum-salary contract will be guaranteed for the rest of the season if he’s still on the Clippers roster beyond Tuesday at 5 p.m.

Vujacic, 29, has been working out in Los Angeles for months in hopes of getting back into the NBA after the former Lakers guard from Slovenia spent the previous two seasons playing in Turkey.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers, confirming his interest in Turkoglu, said before Monday night’s game against the Magic, “I just like him. He’s out there and we should look at him. I’ve always liked him. He can shoot and play [small forward and power forward].”


VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers talks about the state of the team before Monday’s game vs. Orlando

***

No. 4: Grizz, Z-Bo happy about addition of Lee — While the trade between the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder has yet to be finalized, the folks in Tennessee are getting excited about the pending move. The deal — which will send Courtney Lee to the Grizz, Jerryd Bayless to the Celtics and Ryan Gomes to the Celtics (where he’s expected to be waived) — is thought to give some new life to the Grizzlies’ renewed playoff hopes. Michael Cohen of The Commercial-Appeal has more on the trade and how Zach Randolph and others are reacting to it:

It was late Sunday afternoon when the Grizzlies found out Jerryd Bayless was leaving, the players beginning to bubble with confidence after a convincing and reassuring win over Detroit. The 112-84 victory marked the end of a successful three-game road trip, protecting the flickering flame that is Memphis’ playoff hopes for at least a while longer.

Strengthening that postseason belief was the impending trade involving Bayless, one that sends the reserve guard to Boston in exchange for sharpshooter Courtney Lee. The players learned of the deal on their flight home after beating the Pistons, the atmosphere onboard equal parts sad and salutary.

“It’s very encouraging when you see the front office try to get better and see what we need to improve at,” Zach Randolph said Monday, before the team’s practice at FedExForum. “That’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what we’ve got to do. We want to be a top-echelon team.

“This season is far from over. For us to say that we’re out of the playoff hunt and we won’t make the playoffs is ludicrous because we still have a chance.”

The trade between the Grizzlies and Celtics is still not official, and coach David Joerger was unable to speak about the imminent deal Monday morning. But point guard Mike Conley said the players “knew something was going on” during the flight back from Detroit, prompting them to enjoy Bayless’ company for what they understood was likely the final time. The trade was a business transaction to make the team better, even if its members lost a friend in the process.

“We talked to him then and took that plane ride back and hung out as much as we could,” Conley said.

For the better part of a month the Grizzlies have toiled in inferiority, dropping five consecutive games in mid December before finally putting together a pair of wins against the Knicks and Jazz — two of the NBA’s worst teams. Since then, victories and defeats have alternated in agonizing fashion, with each step forward giving way to a disillusioning step back.

But the 28-point throttling of Detroit and a disposing of the Suns three days before has breathed life into a franchise one season removed from an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. The offense is more fluid, the bench more productive and now, thanks to the likely addition of Lee, a major hole filled: shooting.

Lee, who is shooting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc this season, joins a team ranked last in the league in 3-pointers made per game (4.9) and 18th in 3-point percentage (34.9). When asked if he would welcome more potency from beyond the arc, Randolph could barely contain himself. He grinned, then laughed, then stammered away with excitement. “Oh man, gosh, come on,” he said complete with a beckoning gesture.

Adding to Monday’s festive mood was a positive update from Joerger on Marc Gasol. The all-star center has been cleared for “light, light on-court action,” following an MRI to evaluate the sprained MCL in his knee that has sidelined him since Nov. 22.

Gasol was at practice Monday sporting a black brace on his left knee and he appeared to be in good spirits in the training room. There is no timetable for his return, but that he is on the court at all is a welcomed sign of progress for a team in need of a lasting spark.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After the Bulls release Andrew Bynum, they will have 12 players and be below the tax line. They’ll have to add at least one more player for about $520K … The Salinas Bros. may soon see their long-standing annual TV rights payout from the NBA end soon … The Magic have suffered 86 losses since the start of the 2012-13 season, but last night’s to the Clippers might have been an all-time lowRonny Turiaf was more than happy to be back on the court at last for the Timberwolves

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: Blake Griffin with an in-game, alley-oop windmill dunk. There’s nothing more to be said here …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin’s in-game, alley-oop windmill jam vs. the Magic

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Grizz may re-sign Randolph | Gasol (illness) misses Lakers’ trip to Salt Lake City  | Bucks’ Sanders expected to play tonight | Cuban no fan of Christmas Day unis

No. 1: Report: Grizz may be open to re-signing Randolph — Just two weeks ago, Grizzlies All-Star forward Zach Randolph told our Fran Blinebury he was well aware of his name being bandied about in trade rumors. Said Randolph then: “The truth is there ain’t no loyalty or love, except in certain organizations where they keep players around, value them. Only a very few organizations seem like they want to keep players around to retire there.” As such, there’s a common thought around the league that Randolph, who has a player option on his contract this summer, will opt out and test the free-agent waters. But as Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reports in a lengthy look at the Grizzlies’ up-and-down season, Z-Bo might be willing to stick around in Memphis:

With coaching change, modest roster turnover and a recent bout with injuries, the Grizzlies are 12-15 and 3 1-2 games out of a playoff spot. Is it time to panic?”When I got here, we were deep,” Randolph said. “We had O.J. [Mayo] and Rudy [Gay]. It’s different. But it gives guys a chance to play and have an opportunity to get better.”

Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince have been in and out of the lineup, and Gasol is likely out until mid-to-late January with a knee injury. Quincy Pondexter has a stress fracture in his foot that could keep him out for the rest of the season. But despite the potential riches that could be acquired in the 2014 draft, the Grizzlies aren’t looking to tear down in the short term. League sources say they’re active in trade discussions that would inject some wing athleticism into the mix and improve the team.

If Randolph exercises his player option for next season, the Grizzlies’ $62 million in committed salary will leave them comfortably under the tax but will afford no room to shop for free agents. League sources expect Randolph, 32, to opt out and try to score one more multi-year deal. But two people familiar with the situation say Memphis is not out of the mix to retain Randolph in such a scenario. The team is determined not to lose Randolph for nothing, so unless Randolph expresses a strong desire to leave — which he hasn’t — there’s no immediate pressure to trade him.

“It’s a business and we’ve got new ownership, but I’ve still got a job,” Randolph said. “That’s why I go out and play hard no matter what.”

***

No. 2: Lakers’ Gasol (respiratory infection) won’t play vs. Jazz — The Lakers got some good news on Christmas Day when point guard Jordan Farmar returned to the lineup, helping to offset L.A.’s recent loss of guard Steve Blake. But L.A.’s frontcourt will be thin for tonight’s game in Utah against the Jazz as power forward Pau Gasol stayed behind to deal with a lingering respiratory infection. Trevor Wong of Lakers.com has more:

The Lakers received good news when Jordan Farmar returned to the lineup on Christmas Day, but now they will be without Pau Gasol at Utah on Friday evening. Gasol has been dealing with an upper respiratory illness and is being listed as day-to-day, according to Lakers PR.

Gasol did not practice on Thursday in advance of the team’s flight and will not accompany the team to Salt Lake City.

“I think it’s lingering a little bit,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I think it does affect him.”

The 7-foot Spaniard missed the team’s game at Golden State on Saturday, Dec. 21, because of the same issue. Prior to the Warriors contest, he was the lone player to appear in the starting lineup through the first 26 games.

“Like anything else, you’re not 100 percent physically and you’re going to have shorter times of energy and stuff like that,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll get over it. He’ll be fine.”

***

No. 3: Sanders expected to return to Bucks’ lineup Friday — The last time Larry Sanders played a game for the Milwaukee Bucks, he scored four points and pulled down four rebounds in 21 minutes in a loss to the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 2. Since then, Sanders has been out as he recovers from a torn ligament in his right thumb that was suffered during an incident at a downtown Milwaukee bar after the loss to Toronto. He was expected to miss six weeks of action — which he roughly has — and should play tonight against as Milwaukee travels to Brooklyn. As Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel points out, though, Sanders is returning to a markedly different Bucks team and his role may be different as well.:

Milwaukee Bucks coach Larry Drew received a late Christmas present when he arrived for work Thursday at the team’s Cousins Center practice facility.

Center Larry Sanders, considered a key part of the team’s rebuilding plans, was back on the practice court.

“It’s good to have him back,” Drew said after the practice session. “He was really good today. The energy, he was real bouncy. Defensively, he was very active and energized.”

Power forward Ersan Ilyasova, who did not play in the last three games while resting his sore right ankle, also returned to practice and should be available against the Nets.

Drew said he did not know what role Sanders would play against the Nets, only that he would play.

“We’ll think about it a little bit,” Drew said. “I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but I like having the options.”

Milwaukee (6-22) has the league’s worst record but has played more competitively lately, winning once and losing three games in overtime.

Now, Sanders will join a young lineup featuring Brandon Knight, 19-year-old rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and John Henson.

“We’ll definitely have more bodies, so that will be good to give some guys some rest,” Sanders said. “Maybe we’ll be able to have that extra boost at the end of the game that we’ve been lacking. There’s a small margin of winning and losing. Hopefully, we can make that margin up a little bit.”

Sanders was asked if he learned anything from this experience, being injured off the court and being absent while his teammates struggled on the court.

“Definitely a lot of learning,” Sanders said. “I feel like I’ve recommitted myself to the game and other areas of my life. Things have been ironed out a little bit more. I’m looking forward to being out there with a clear mind and helping my team win.

“This team has a lot of fight in them. They’ve been fighting. It’s not like we’ve been getting blown out terribly in all of our games. I feel it and it makes me more excited to get back.”

Sanders will wear a tight glove with a hard plastic piece protecting his thumb, and a wrap will cover that.

.***

No. 4: Cuban no fan of NBA’s Christmas Day jerseys – You can always count on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to have an opinion on just about any topic. So it’s not surprise that when asked about the short-sleeved jerseys the Bulls, Nets, Heat, Lakers, Thunder, Knicks, Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers wore on Christmas Day, Cuban piped in with his view that is sure to please NBA brass. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com has more on Cuban’s view of the NBA’s new fashion venture:

As far as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is concerned, the NBA committed a major fashion faux pas by having all 10 teams that played Christmas Day suited up in short-sleeved jerseys.

“Hated them,” Cuban said before the Mavs hosted the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night. “I just thought it made our guys look more like a high school wrestling team or a college wrestling team.”

Cuban, whose Mavs had Christmas off, understands the NBA is attempting to market the short-sleeved jerseys to fans who might not want to wear tank tops. He just doesn’t believe it’s necessary for superstars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant to wear the T-shirt-style jerseys in games to get them to sell.

“I could have thought of better ways to sell [the short-sleeved jerseys] and a lot of different ways by having them in a casual-wear situation,” Cuban said. “We would have been better off, if we want people to wear them casually, to get the trainers and everybody else to wear them to show them in a realistic setting. So I would have done it a little differently, but we’ll see what happens.”

“I think the people that will buy them are more the jersey heads and the people who are trying to be hip and cool as opposed to the mainstream fan who just wants something to wear to work or something to wear to school,” Cuban said. “I don’t think schools are going to be happy if 16-year-old boys come in wearing skin-tight gym wrestling gear. My opinion, they’ll sell, but we could have sold more.

“You live and you learn. That’s just my opinion. Maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe they’ll sell like gangbusters in China.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: If you ever wanted to look like Chris “Birdman” Andersen, but didn’t want to have all those painful tattoos, there’s a new way to get his look without getting some ink … A statistical look at how those short-sleeved Christmas Day jerseys affected shooting … While we’re at it, here’s a cool infographic of the history of NBA uniforms … A great breakdown of how and why the Blazers’ starting five has worked so well together … The Mavs’ Devin Harris is shooting for a return in January

ICYMI Of The Night: Journeyman James Johnson has played all of five games for the Grizz this season, but his field goal percentage is a career-best 53.8 percent. Shots like this might be why he’s scoring so well …


VIDEO: James Johnson soars in for the one-handed power slam

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.