Posted Feb 17 2010 1:14PM
The balance of power in the Western Conference didn't shift in the last few days, with deals giving the Trail Blazers and Mavericks added hope for the last third of the season. But it may have titled some.
Both the Blazers and Mavs have been losing ground in the 10-team race behind the Lakers. Portland has been sabotaged by injuries, with season-enders subtracting 7-footers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla from the rotation. Bruised feelings, not busted knees, were the major issue in Dallas, and that's been taken care of with Josh Howard's trade to Washington.
The Blazers belkieve that the trade for 6-foot-11 center-forward Marcus Camby has put them right back in the mix in what may be the best divisional race in the league. Three teams in the Northwest Division -- Denver, Utah and Oklahoma City -- are in the Western Conference's top five, and Portland is eighth.
Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard felt the need to do something to salvage a season that began with grand expectations.
Camby gives Portland a fighting chance. He's long, athletic and doesn't demand the ball. Some contend he's overrated defensively, pointing to his penchant for sagging off the pick-and-roll and getting out of position going for blocks. But the 14-year veteran hits the glass and protects the rim-- he's second in the league in both rebounding (12.1) and blocked shots (1.94). Though he did an admirable job in relief, 37-year-old Juwan Howard wasn't going to cut it against the conference's top frontlines.
"We needed a center, we lost both of ours," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "To give ourselves a chance to stay in this race, we needed a big and we got what we feel is a pretty good big."
Camby teamed with point guard Andre Miller years ago in Denver, also a plus, and the fact that he doesn't have to score to be effective makes the fit even better. The Blazers already have Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Miller. The latter, plus Jerryd Bayless, made point guard Steve Blake expendable. Martell Webster and Nicolas Batum did the same for Travis Outlaw. Blake and Outlaw went to the Clippers in the trade.
Camby didn't suit up Tuesday, even though he was in Portland for the Clippers-Blazers game. Still, don't expect a long transition as Camby assimilates into McMillan's system. The former defensive player of the year has the same mindset as Oden and Przybilla -- protect the basket first.
For the Mavericks, the debuts of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood on Tuesday in Oklahoma City didn't go well -- the Mavericks were routed -- but most observers see the trade as a big win for Dallas. And Haywood may be in the starting lineup at center soon. Erick Dampier suffered an open dislocation of his right middle finger against the Thunder on Tuesday.
"They were already good," OKC coach Scott Brooks said of the Mavericks, "and now I think they're even better."
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wasn't about to carry on with a club that's gone 10-12, including Tuesday's loss, since New Year's Eve. The trade improves the Mavericks' size and skill level on paper. But many thought the same two years ago after Dallas traded for Jason Kidd, yet that team never clicked and coach Avery Johnson was fired at season's end.
Still, the leader of the team that everybody's chasing said the Mavericks' trade for Butler was huge.
"You're going to love him," said Kobe Bryant, a former teammate of Butler, in an address to Mavericks fans. "I hate to say that, but you guys are going to absolutely love him. You put him on a contender and I'm telling you, you're going to love him. And he's tough as nails, too."
The reasons behind the deteriorating relationship between the Mavericks and Josh Howard are many, and go back several years. Rick Carlisle has dealt with it since arriving in Dallas before last season, and admitted the disconnect was a two-way street.
"We both wish it would have gone better," Carlisle said.
Carlisle, though, didn't pin the team's struggles since the start of January, or any tension in the locker room, strictly on Howard. The Mavericks continue to lead the Southwest Division, but have dropped several spots in the West standings.
"I don't think it's fair to point the finger at one guy," Carlisle said. "I think we're all accountable for it, coaches, players, everybody."
He also acknowledged that Howard probably played hurt over the last two years, which was a source of frustration for the former All-Star swingman. Howard had ankle and wrist surgeries during the offseason and struggled to stay on the court the first few months this season.
"It's very possible that's he's played a lot of more games than he should have," Carlisle said. "I have a great appreciation for the fact that had a difficult year-and-a-half since I got here. Frustration over injuries and being in a situation where he played out of position for a part of the time. His body of work was substantial here.
"I also had an appreciation that he helped us win a lot of games over my year-and-a-half. We wouldn't have won 50 without him last year and we wouldn't have gotten out of the first round. Those are facts. The irony of all this is he's finally getting healthy. He's finally feeling himself."
For the newcomers at All-Star weekend, the chance to hang out with a new set of peers can be more important than the actual game. A player can't help but be influenced being in the same room with Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and others.
"Just being around these guys, seeing how they act," Thunder forward and first-time All-Star Kevin Durant said after Sunday's game. "Everybody was cool. They welcomed me in like I've been here for the last 10 years and I felt right at home and like I belonged, so it was a lot of fun. And I'm glad I was able to come out here and got an opportunity to play."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks spoke of the impact that being part of Team USA had on Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green last summer. Brooks attended some of the practices in Las Vegas and remembered watching Bryant go through a detailed and exhaustive shooting regimen one day. That lesson rubbed off on Oklahoma City's young trio.
"For our guys to see that, that's huge," Brooks said. "You can't put a price tag on the best players in the world working that hard and having our young guys watching that."
All-Star preparation can't be detailed or grueling -- it's only one practice and the weekend is supposed to be a break. But there is still time to watch and learn.
"The chance to now be mentioned with the best players in the league ... I'm just going to take this and continue to work and get better and trying to reach new highs," said Knicks forward David Lee, a late replacement on the Eastern Conference team.
"I felt like I was on Battlestar Galactica or something. It just felt like a huge spaceship."
-- Steve Nash on the All-Star Game scene before more than 108,000 at Cowboys Stadium.
1. Can't wait for All-Star weekend to return to a warm-weather city. I hear Milwaukee is downright tropical in February.
2. Friday should be an NBA holiday. Most players are either relieved, excited or bummed after dealing with the stress of the trade deadline for weeks.
3. Cuban now wants to bring regular-season games to Cowboys Stadium, believing it may help attract free agents. LeBron would make one heck of a linebacker.
4. After experiencing Shakira and Alicia up close -- thank you Lord! -- I can't remember Who played the Super Bowl.
5. The Karls are fighters. George is going to beat this.
AG: What was the Rookie Challenge, as a sophomore, like for you?
BL: It was just a fun experience to be around everyone. It really was a good time.
AG: You must feel good about the NBA with all the young talent on display.
BL: To see how we're out there competing, the league is definitely in good shape for the future.
AG: Isn't every Draft supposed to be the weakest in years?
BL: They say that every year and then you see the guys coming in. When you see the stuff we're doing, it's no question that's not the case.
AG: How do the Nets keep it together the last 30 or so games?
BL: You have to keep playing. That's what they pay you to do. I'm lucky enough to be playing the game I love for a living. I think it's easy to come out each game and compete.
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