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Unhappy with his team's performance, Magic GM Otis Smith made dramatic changes to Orlando's roster.
Sam Greenwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Right or wrong, Otis Smith isn't afraid to shake things up

Posted Dec 20 2010 11:43AM

I was going to lead today's Tip with the argument that it's time for the Rockets to face facts -- Yao Ming is never going to be healthy enough for long enough to continue building a team around him, and that it's time to bravely face the post-Yao era in Houston, build around Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola and Kevin Martin, and hope for the best.

And then came Saturday.

Haven't seen a Saturday like that in a long time.

You shouldn't have any doubt that Magic general manager Otis Smith is willing to push all the chips to the center of the table, should you?


This is a guy who has little interest in being a management lifer, nor does he follow or care about being part of the various GM cliques around the league. (There's a San Antonio clique, and a Jersey clique, for example. There's even a clique of GMs that don't belong to another clique, but do business with each other.) He believes that no one on earth has a better pulse for his team that he does, and he doesn't mind doing things differently -- you may recall he eschews exit interviews at the end of a season, figuring he already knows how his players feel and what they need to do to improve.

So Smith clearly saw something very, very wrong with his team, no matter its 16-9 record entering the weekend. He clearly heard from his franchise player, Dwight Howard, about the need to make changes. While Miami gathered the SuperFriends, and the Celtics added the O'Neals, Orlando pretty much stood pat, letting Matt Barnes go and only adding Quentin Richardson to its regular rotation.

He likely saw that a lot of Magic players didn't have the same spark that they'd had in years past, that Mickael Pietrus had fallen out of favor with Stan Van Gundy, that with Orlando needing to get Brandon Bass more minutes at power forward, Rashard Lewis was having trouble adjusting to playing small forward after playing the stretch four the previous two seasons.

The Magic are desperate to keep Dwight Howard happy and in Orlando.
Sam Greenwood/NBAE/Getty Images

"The thing I'm adjusting to, trying to adjust back to ... is at the defensive end of the floor," Lewis said a couple of weeks ago. "In pick and rolls, I'm used to being the big man, calling the screen out, trying to show and help the guard out and get back to my man. Now I have to listen, because my back is turned to the guy that's trying to screen me. I have to listen and not only that, fight over the screen or fight over the pin-downs. I think that's the think I'm trying to adjust to is on the defensive end, chasing the guy around, running him off the dribble, fighting through pick and rolls."

He saw that a lot of players, for whatever reason, were not responding to Van Gundy, even though Van Gundy has famously been trying to be less demonstrative. The conventional wisdom says when your team tunes out the head coach, you have to fire the head coach.

Smith fired half the team instead, dealing Lewis and Vince Carter and Pietrus and Marcin Gortat, bringing in Gilbert Arenas from Washington and Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu from Phoenix, leaving his flank behind Howard wide open in the process. It's feast or famine, with Howard's future in the middle of the poker table.

"Credit Otis for going for it," a rival GM texted Saturday.

There is no middle ground here. If this doesn't work, if Orlando doesn't catch fire and overtake Miami in the Southeast Division, either now or in the playoffs; if Boston still works its magic over the, uh, Magic in the postseason, the Magic won't have many moves left. Arenas' remaining three seasons after this one, to the tune of $62 million, will all but kill any flexibility Orlando will have going forward. Jason Richardson will be a free agent in June and will certainly be looking to put up numbers. Turkoglu has to recapture the form he showed in Orlando two years ago, when the Magic got to the Finals.

And what seemed like a certainty a couple of years ago -- Howard remaining in Orlando for the rest of his career -- is now up in the air. Howard has an out after the 2011-12 season, and he's now represented by Dan Fegan, an agent that is as good as there is -- and who goes for every last dollar. (Someone told me that the Suns were quite spooked by the idea of having to deal with Fegan, who also represents Jason Richardson, in contract talks next summer.)

Rashard Lewis has struggled this year playing mostly at small forward in Orlando.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

If you thought the LeBron Sweepstakes were crazy, just see what happens if there's a Dwight Drawing.

Smith clearly believes that he knows what Arenas, his longtime close friend, has left in the tank. He clearly believes that the 3/5 screen and rolls that Turkoglu ran with Howard, running out the Cavaliers in the '09 Eastern Finals, can still work.

"For me, personally, I thought it was surprising when Turk wasn't brought back the year after they beat us," James said Saturday night. "I just thought what Turk created for their team, that point forward, he kind of created everything. He always created a mismatch. That was part of the reason why they beat us. There was times when I would switch off onto Turk and then they would go to Rashard, it was times I'd go on Rashard and then (they'd go to) Turk. We was just too small on the perimeter those years. I know they're happy to have him back."

It's not unprecedented for a team to make a big move during a season, though usually it happens at the trade deadline. Got me to thinking about some of the more notable in-season deals in recent history:

Notable major in-season deals
Team Season (date) Record (division) Acquired Traded Finished
76ers 1964-65 (1/15/65) 21-21 (5th, single division) Wilt Chamberlain Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer, Paul Neumann, cash 5th (Lost semis)
Cavaliers 1987-88 (2/25/88) 28-26 (5th, Central) Larry Nance, Mike Sanders, draft pick Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, draft picks 4th Central (lost first round)
Pistons 1988-89 (2/15/89) 32-13 (2nd, Central) Mark Aguirre, draft pick Adrian Dantley 1st Central (won NBA title)
Rockets 1994-95 (2/14/95) 29-15 (3rd, Midwest) Clyde Drexler, Tracy Murray Otis Thorpe 3rd Midwest (won NBA title)
Heat 1995-96 (2/23/96) 24-29 (3rd, Atlantic) Tim Hardaway, Chris Gatling Kevin Willis, Bimbo Coles 3rd Atlantic (lost first round)
Mavericks 1996-97 (12/26/96) 9-16 (4th, Midwest) Sam Cassell, Michael Finley, A.C. Green Jason Kidd, Tony Dumas, Loren Meyer 4th Midwest (did not make playoffs)
76ers 2000-01 (2/22/01) 41-14 (1st, Atlantic) Dikembe Mutombo, Roshown McLeod Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed, Toni Kukoc, Pepe Sanchez 1st Atlantic (lost NBA Finals)
Pistons 2003-04 (2/19/04) 34-22 (2nd, Central) Rasheed Wallace, Mike Jones Chucky Atkins, Lindsay Hunter, Bob Sura, Zeljko Rebraca, Chris Mills 2nd Central (won NBA title)

But few good teams have made such a dramatic change in not only their roster, but the way they will play in the future. The Magic have been an inside-out team ever since Howard's arrival, and this season, with his improvement as a post player, Orlando was doubling down on that philosophy. But now, Van Gundy will have to figure out how to spread the ball around. He now has four players -- both Richardsons, Arenas and Turkoglu -- who do their best work with the ball in their hands.

With Lewis gone, how does Orlando staff the power forward spot? If it's Bass, does that Turkoglu-Howard screen and roll remain as effective? Does Ryan Anderson get more minutes, either at the four -- or, maybe, as Howard's backup at the five? And how does Van Gundy square his own insistence on team defense with a roster that is now, honestly, quite defensively challenged?

At least one former player of Van Gundy's thinks it can still work.

"Stan is going to demand perfection," Dwyane Wade said. "He's going to demand it to be great. Who knows how it's going to work? (But) with their system, a lot of guys, all they really have to do is come in and shoot the ball, and send everybody else to Dwight Howard. So it's not as hard as coming into the Miami Heat system in the middle of the season. I think those guys are going to be fine."


Meanwhile, in South Florida ...

What's gotten into those guys?

A 9-8 start for a team that was supposed to win 75 games tends to get everyone's attention, one supposes.

"I think we figured, kind of, when we all got together and looked at the talent on this team, we figured, 'We don't have to play as hard as we had before,'" Zydrunas Ilgauskas said Saturday, after Miami won its 12th straight, an absolute Brinks job over the Wizards. "'We can take a few plays off here and there, and eventually, talent will just overwhelm that.' And, you know, a few weeks into the season, we realized that we have to play even harder than we played last year. Because every night, we get everybody's best shot. Everywhere we go it's a sold-out arena. It's everybody's Super Bowl. Everybody wants the notch that they beat the Heat."

There were team meetings, and anonymous shots at Erik Spoelstra, and pools on when Riles would either jump in or be pushed back to the bench. The snickers could be heard leaguewide; the "Two and a Half Men" jokes sent Chris Bosh's way, and the like. And then LeBron had to go back home, to the maelstrom that was the Q on December 2, and the Heat finally could be what everyone wanted it to be: the team of the black hats, the bad guys.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas says this is the most cohesive team he's ever played on.
James Riley/NBAE/Getty Images

It did more than solidify Miami's persona. It gave the Heat a rallying point. James exploded on his former teammates, but his current teammates had his back. Miami became a team.

"The way how we just shielded all the negative and everything that went on with that game, and just came together, it was just us," James said. "It was the coaching staff and it was the players. And that was it. It was just us. And we was in a building, in a city, in a state, that didn't want us to be there. And we overcame that and even though it didn't start the winning streak, it kind of catapulted us to where we are today."

Ilgauskas says that although the locker room is filled with guys he's never played with before, this is the most cohesive team he's ever been on.

"The only explanation I can come up with is that there's so much hatred, and everybody wants us to fail," Ilgauskas said. "Maybe not everybody. But the majority of people in this country wants us to fail. So we can't turn to anybody outside and look for comfort. All we have is these guys. It made us really come together and help each other out ... We will not face more hostile crowds, even if we make it to the Finals (than Cleveland). I played in that place for 14 years, played in the Finals, played in the big playoff games, and I have never seen a crowd like that. What was it, the 20th regular season game? For us to come in and just take the air out of place, and get a win, it helped a lot, our confidence."

That 118-90 rout was actually the third straight win in what has become a dozen. Miami is now second in the league in points allowed (91.2, and also adjusted for pace). Wade has knocked off the rust that may have inhibited him during the first month of the season, when he was working back into shape after missing all but three minutes of the preseason. And the Heat have stormed into first place in the Southeast, with only Boston left to climb in the Eastern Conference.

Spoelstra challenged James and Wade to be more complete players on defense, to get on the glass and finish possessions, despite also having to pick up the other teams' primary perimeter players. (The adjustment to Miami's defense hasn't been that hard; it's basically the same as Cleveland's.) Spoelstra tinkered with whether to play Ilgauskas or Joel Anthony at center, but everyone figured out that Anthony had to be on the court down the stretch of games. He provides the Udonis Haslem-less Heat with all of their interior defense, such as it is. (Haslem is still hopeful to return before the end of the season.)

"Some nights, you get guys that get it going," Wade said. "But at winning time, we make it tough for guys to get shots, to make plays."

Bosh actually shot the ball better during the 9-8 start (.504) than he has during the win streak (.494), and his rebounding numbers have gone down. But he's tried to fit in where he can, like hitting a couple of key 3-pointers in last-second wins.

"For one, we were winning every other game," Bosh said. "Just the role change, it was tough. For me, personally, I was trying to figure out, OK, what am I going to do, how am I going to work myself into the game, what's my role? And then, we lost the game. You know what I'm saying? Just to have those two things going on. And you want to do more. But at a certain time, you have to just let things come to you."

And Spoelstra told his players they had to stop tiptoeing around each other. If somebody messed up a defensive assignment, his teammates had to hold him accountable. One through 15, they've started to do that, and given more respect to each player's individual contributions.

"Coach has a saying on this team, that everybody on this team is a role player," Ilgauskas said.

Said center Jamaal Magliore: "We're just getting more acclimated with each other. We always knew it would take some time. And now we're starting to gel. There's no turning back. and we hold each other accountable. If we make a mistake we let each other know. This is a brotherhood, and we should be able to speak freely."

Finally, Miami is who we thought they were. And maybe the Heat's big move drove Orlando to shake up its roster over the weekend. Cause and effect. Stick and carrot. James and Wade, ripping stuff up.

"For us, I feel better about our team the way we're playing now," James said. "It didn't matter (Friday) night before they made the deal and now that I know they've made this deal ... the way we're playing basketball right now, we could beat any team in the league."

Top O' The World, Ma!

Last week's rankings in brackets; this week's record in parentheses)

1) Boston [3] (3-0): Hasn't lost a game in a month. With remaining December schedule (Philly, retooling Orlando, Indiana, Detroit, New Orleans), may not lose until Republican Congress takes over in January.

2) Miami [4] (4-0): The boys shake off a night of, um, lobbying in D.C. to steal a game from the Wizards Saturday. A bit stauncher test tonight at home against the Mavericks.

3) Dallas [1] (2-1): Finished homestand 5-1, with good Florida Two Step test this week at Miami and Orlando.

Shawn Marion and the Mavs have a huge game in Miami on Monday night.
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

4) San Antonio [2] (3-0): Spurs won three games last week by a grand total of nine points, but nonetheless moved to league-best 23-3 mark.

5) L.A. Lakers [7] (3-0): Quietly, Andrew Bynum returned to the lineup last week. Looked good. Rest of league gets the dry heaves. Sunday, Bynum says he felt a "tweak" in knee. Rest of league exhales, regains hope.

6) Oklahoma City [9] (2-1): Five-game win streak ends Sunday against the Suns, after moving into first place in the Northwest Division.

7) Chicago [5] (2-1): Could Bulls rethink their Carmelo position re: Noah if things start going south without the big man? Just a question.

8) Utah [8] (2-1): Jazz have not lost back-to-back games since dropping two straight to begin the season.

9) New York [6] (0-3): Allowed 49 percent shooting in three losses to Celtics, Heat and Cavaliers.

10) Atlanta [11] (1-3): Did OK (5-4) without Joe Johnson, but now are without Jamal Crawford (back).

11) Orlando [10] (0-2): A lot of guys that need and expect the rock in their hands now reside in the Land of the Mouse. That's a lot of pressure on Jameer Nelson to execute the offense, and on Dwight Howard to find the right guy when he's doubled.

12) Denver [12] (2-1): Nuggets may finally get Kenyon Martin (knee) back on the practice court this week, along with more recently injured Chauncey Billups (wrist).

13) New Orleans [13] (2-2): That's a bad loss on Sunday to a bad Pistons team playing without its starting backcourt of Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton.

14) Portland [14] (2-2): The water is still poisoned in the Rose Quarter: Marcus Camby (bruised shoulder) and Nicolas Batum (strained shoulder) missed Saturday's narrow victory over the Warriors.

15) Phoenix [NR] (2-1): Can't say Lon Babby is reluctant to pull the trigger as a team exec after blowing up the Suns in one December morning. It was expensive, but Pietrus and Gortat will help.

Team of the Week

Miami (4-0): My man J Jax was giddy after the Heat went into MSG and wrecked stuff on Friday. Miami hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 100 since just after Thanksgiving -- which just happened to be the last time the Heat lost.

Team of the Weak

Washington (0-3): John Wall said Sunday that he doesn't have tendinitis in his knee, but a bone bruise behind the kneecap. And that he has no idea when he'll be back. Swell.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

What if Andre Miller was a self-promoter?

"If I was, then it wouldn't be me," he said last week. "I'd be faking it. My goal when I came in this league was to be one of the top playmakers, point guards of my time, or just come out and be judged by how I carry myself as a professional, in practice, in games, and just rubbing off on other people and making other people better. That's the great thing about being a point guard -- you get the opportunity to make people better."

Weeks can go by without hearing a peep from Miller, one of the quietest guys -- at least, in public -- that has ever been an NBA floor general. No wonder he emulated John Stockton while he was in college. But he also watched Magic Johnson. An amalgam of those two would be a brutally fundamentally sound point guard ... who loves L.A ... but doesn't have anything to say to the media.


"I had the opportunity to play pickup ball with those guys in college, and (watched) their habits," Miller, the L.A. native, said. "Those guys were always in shape. They played through anything, whether it was a nagging injury, they took pride in being on the court and they set the example, and it rubbed off on the guys that came around their team."

Never the loudest or flashiest player, Andre Miller believes his talent speaks for itself.
Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images

But Miller has been in the news recently, and not for good reasons. First, he was ticked off when the league, and not an injury, ended his consecutive games played streak earlier this month at 632, with a one-game suspension for shoving Clippers rookie Blake Griffin. (The referees working the Blazers-Clips game didn't call Miller for a foul in real time.) Miller acknowledged he got frustrated when he'd been smacked around a couple of times by Griffin at the other end but nothing got called, so he overreacted.

Then, last week, it seemed like teammate Brandon Roy called him out, complaining to the local media that his game has been affected not because of his own knee problems, but because of Miller. "I wasn't all that slow until you put a guy who is kind of slow next to me," Roy said -- a comment for which he apologized later in the week. (GM Rich Cho texted Sunday that everything was good and that Roy did not, as had been reported earlier in the week, demand that either he or Miller be traded.)

Finally, Miller was fined $25,000 by the league on Saturday for throwing a ball into the stands after Portland's loss to the Mavericks last Wednesday.

Before all that, though, Miller was more upset with the league for ending his streak.

"I'm still proud," he said last week. "I've only missed four games in my career. I'm going to continue to be a blue collar worker in this league, one of the guys that takes pride in practicing every day, having good habits, and hopefully those habits carry over to the game and rub off on younger guys that's coming into the league. I take pride in that part ...

"I've never really had a bad injury, actually. I might tweak an ankle every now and then, but that's minor. I haven't had any knee surgeries or broken anything. I've been blessed, knock on wood. I'm not no high flier, so that helps. I play at a good change of speed. It would be nice to get up there and try to high fly every now and then. I try to mix and match what I can bring to the game."

With all of the injuries Portland has, again, suffered through this season, the Blazers now frequently run their offense through the 34-year-old Miller. He is still one of the best post-up guards in the game, still almost never makes the wrong decision with the ball, still can get to the foul line. He's not as quick laterally and he's lost a step or two defensively, but he thinks the game as well as anybody.

When the Blazers signed him to a three-year deal in the summer of 2009, very few people around the league thought he'd see the third year of the deal -- which is only partially guaranteed. As the Blazers decide whether to continue waiting for Greg Oden and Roy to lead them, though, it's Miller that's been the team's most consistent player.

But Miller believes his reticence to promote himself has hurt him when it comes to being considered among the best point guards in the league. He has never been selected to an All-Star team despite leading the league in total and average assists in 2001-02, and being top 10 in the league in assists in all but three of his 11-plus pro seasons.

"Definitely, definitely. Big time. as far as the things I've accomplished with all of the teams," Miller said. "Think I've probably been snubbed on the All-Star team probably three, four times. And now you can be on a losing team and be on the All-Star team. Now it's kind of self-promoting the players, individual statistics. I look at my accomplishments, individually and how the team is doing. Actually, that's the first thing I look at, is how the team is playing."

Why has he been snubbed?

"I'm not a popular player," he said. "This is an entertainment business, this, a popularity contest. You've got some point guards with some names out there. You've got the Kidds, you've got the Nashes, you've got the Pauls, you've got the (Deron) Williamses. They're all great point guards. But I do consider myself a consistent, elite point guard. And I know my peers give me that respect. I hear it from a couple of coaches. The good thing is, you know, is I can say the players I played with can all vouch for what I bring to the table, as far as quiet leadership, and work ethic, good habits, and it's rubbed off on them. That's the main thing, to be judged by my peers, my teammates, who say, 'He was a good guy to play with.'"

Miller's remaining goals are to never miss another game -- he's played in at least 80 every year of his career -- and to never do anything that would be embarassing to his son, Duane. The 50-point game he had last season in Dallas was an anomaly; too much attention. Miller would rather cede the spotlight to others.

"I've always considered myself a point guard that can score, but my main goal is to keep everybody involved and get everybody else off, and fall in line," he said. "You might have games like that (against the Mavericks). At least I can say there's not too many 34 year olds that's going to go out there and put up 50 points. So I accomplished that. That's something under my belt. It's good for my son to be able to witness that ... I try to have a quiet leadership, lead by example, practice habits. I've got people watching me. I've got a son watching me, he pick up on my habits. I don't want to do anything as far as rubbing off bad. If anything, I want to establish (myself as) a tough minded point guard, that'll rub off on other players."

And Nobody Asked You, Either

Gumbo and salmon at 20 paces. From Kevin Henry:

I've read your article about the pain of losing the Sonics a couple of times now. I certainly sympathize with Big Lo and the rest of the folks in Seattle who lost their team under circumstances that weren't the best. I also admire Big Lo's commitment to Seattle sports. However, I have to also point out the attendance figures don't jibe with the feelings of a few passionate green and gold wearing fans.

You can check it out at this link...

Conversely, look at what the Thunder is currently doing in OKC...

You'll see that Sonics fans never averaged more than 16,475 fans in its last nine seasons in Seattle. Granted, that's a pretty good clip, but look at those last few years. Less than 14,000 per game in the final year? The Hornets could move out of New Orleans for less than that.

Sonics fans stopped going to games in Seattle once the team started getting rid of players like Ray Allen.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

I am an Oklahoma City Thunder season ticket holder. I love the Thunder and I'm proud they are in our state. My daughter and I make the 90-minute drive to Oklahoma City every time the Thunder take the court. I respect the heritage of the Thunder, knowing the records of Sikma, Kemp, Payton, etc., are part of "our shared history." However, I also know that that was then and this is now. The Sonics are no more. The Thunder are here. These are the days of Durant, Westbrook, and Green. I am a huge Nick Collison fan, and I'm guessing he's the only member of the Thunder who really has an appreciation for what happened at Key Arena night in and night out.

Duly noted, Kevin. But the Seattle guys' point on attendance was this: the team wasn't supported in the final couple of seasons not because of fan apathy, but because, in their view, Clay Bennett systematically destroyed the team to cut payroll and to make it easier to move, and fans knew it. (What really sticks in their craw was that he didn't re-sign Rashard Lewis and traded Ray Allen instead of letting them play with Kevin Durant. It worked out, of course, but it worked out in OKC, not Seattle.) Not a single person I spoke with in Seattle had anything bad to say about the fans in OKC or the people who support the Thunder from elsewhere, by the way.

Boss, the masses want me in Stanley Park, pronto. From Rick Dhanda:

I'm an avid reader of the Morning Tip and I particularly liked this week's article highlighting the history and current state of hoops in Seattle. I was wondering if you were planning on doing a similar story on Vancouver since the Grizzlies departed. I know basketball comes second to hockey here and that they are no Thunder, but there is still a great fan base up here lamenting our loss, especially now that the Grizzlies seem ready to make a playoff run with solid young players like Gay, Gasol, Conley, Z-Bo, and Mayo.

I would love to spend a day or two in Vancouver, Rick. Great idea. If I can swing it schedule-wise, will you introduce me to some of the diehards that are still waving the Grizzle Flag?

From Stephen Manton:

I wanted to ask your opinion on Michael Redd. Will he ever come back to form? How long is he due to remain on the sidelines? Is it almost inevitable that Milwaukee won't try to re-sign in the summer or any other team willing to fork out for an injury prone player? I always liked watching him and still think he can do a job for a team next season, injury permitting.

Also I wanted to hear your take on Charles Barkley's belief that Blake Griffin should not be eligible for Rookie of the Year. I tend to agree with Sir Charles, do you? Although he is technically playing his first season I do not think he is as 'green' as the players drafted this year as he has gotten to know his surroundings, teammates and has undoubtedly learned from other pros while being in a Clipper for the past 18 months.

Michael is rehabbing and hopes to be back late this season, Stephen. Someone who can shoot it like him could help any team, but there will obviously be a lot of concern about whether he can stay healthy over the course of a season. And even if he can, the rust factor after missing all of this time with be great. Someone will take a look, though. As for the Chuckster, I disagree with him on Blake if that is his position. You don't learn on the sidelines; you learn on the court, and if this is his first year on the court. He should be eligible for ROTY.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and egg nog to If your e-mail is sufficiently informative, poignant or smart-alecky, we'll publish it!

MVP Watch

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (26.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7 apg, .466 FG, .721 FT): Triple-double at MSG Friday, outstanding week in general at both ends springs LBJ to the top of the pack.

2) Dirk Nowitzki (23 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.7 apg, .480 FG, 1,000 FT): Mark Cuban told Dan Patrick last week that Nowitzki will be a "top 10 player, no doubt" when he retires. Assume he meant top 10 in Mavericks history, 'cause if he means NBA history, I'd like to see who he'd throw out from among the following: Wilt, Kareem, Russell, West, Magic, Bird, Kobe, Oscar, MJ, Duncan. Fire away, Cubes.

LeBron's play this week has him inching back up the MVP rankings.
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

3) Kobe Bryant (21 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, .500 /FG, .815 FT): So far, Lakers are keeping Bryant's playing time down where they'd like: his average of 33 minutes/game this season is the lowest since his second season in the league, 1997-98. Which should help that sprained pinky heal faster.

4) Dwight Howard (23.5 ppg, 17 rpg, 2 bpg, .515 FG, .722 FT): It's a whole new world for Superman, even with Brother Hedo back.

5) Amar'e Stoudemire (28.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3 bpg, .493 FG, .708 FT): STAT's streak of consecutive 30-point games ended at nine.

Dropped out: Rajon Rondo.

By the Numbers

7 -- Years since the Cavaliers last lost 10 games in a row. Cleveland ended this 10-game skid with an overtime win over the Knicks Saturday. The Cavs lost 15 straight in 2002-03, the year before LeBron James came to town.

14 -- Consecutive double-doubles for Kevin Love through Saturday, after he posted 43 and 17 in a two-point loss to Denver.

436 -- Consecutive games played by Derek Fisher, the new mark for the longest consecutive games played streak in the NBA after Andre Miller's one-game suspension.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) Happy holidays...

To the players, coaches and their families, including but not limited to:

LeBron, Kobe, Dirk Diggler, STAT, DWil, CP3, 'Melo, DWade, the Big Fundamental, The Truth, KG, D Rose, Superman, Durantula, Nasty Nash.

Granger, Harris, Iguodala, S Jack, Cousin LaMarcus, Battier, Rip.

LaMarcus looks forward to seeing David at the next Aldridge family reunion.
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

K Love, the Great Wall of D.C., Big Blake, Westbrook, Rudy G, Monta, D Collison, Steph, 'Reke Evans.

Yao, GHill, Oden, Roy, Memo, KMart.

To the fans.

To the vendors, ushers, janitors and other arena employees.

Crawford, Crawford, Delaney, Javie.

The Commish and Big Adam; Mistah Hunter and the Union Crew.

Gelt, Black, James, Taylor, Glass, Donovan, Wilson, Rinehart, Fie, Luis, Preston, Triche, Evans, Hall, Benner, Gregg, Supranowitz, Brown, and everyone that helps us out in team public relations.

Marv, Harlan, Czar, Reggie, Kerr, ReLo, Bone, LD, and all the Turner Remote Folk.

Scooter, TK, HalG, Tony, MD, C Webb, Mac, 3D, Bones, Smitty, Fein, Lang and everyone at the Studio Show.

The Chuckster, Jet and Ernie.

Matt Barnes, Marc Gasol, Luke Ridnour, John Salmons.

Michael Redd, Shannon Brown, DJ White, Brian Cardinal, Jeff Green.

Deron Williams, Elliot Williams, Jason Williams, Jawad Williams, Lou Williams, Marvin Williams, Mo Williams, Reggie Williams, Shawne Williams, Sheldon Williams, Terrence Williams.

Spike, Goldstein, Jack, Blitzer, JRoll.

To anyone I forgot. You know who you are.

And, finally, the wife, the kids and the family, who let me do this job and still welcome me back with open arms when I get home.

2) This is a pretty cool pic. LBJ looks Photoshopped.

3) That's a pretty quick rehab, Joe Johnson. Supposed to be out six weeks following elbow surgery; back in three. Good on ya' and the Hawks' medical staff.

4) I think the Del Negros of Springfield, Mass., enjoyed watching their son coach his basketball team to an unlikely victory in United Center, with his horrible squad, on Saturday night.

5) Big ups to the University of Connecticut women. Don't care what sport you're playing, at what level, or what gender you happen to be: 88 straight wins is a major accomplishment, and UConn shouldn't apologize to anyone for dominating a sport. It's up to the other schools in women's basketball to rise up to where the Huskies are, not the other way around.

6) Seriously; do the Phillies ever run out of money?

Not Feelin' ...

1) Would love to see the Bulls get through 30 straight days without losing a key player for a month or more with an injury. They can't replace what Joakim Noah gives them, obviously.

2) B Roy, you're a standup guy. I know it's frustrating and the injuries are wearing on everybody. But you can't call out your teammates like that.

Joakim Noah is the latest Bulls' player to get put on the shelf due to injury.
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images

3) Gotta agree with The Truth -- it's not a rivalry if one side keeps winning all the time. Nice try, though, Knicks.

4) The Nasty One wasn't the only person scared when he temporarily lost feeling in his arms and legs in Dallas Friday. The words "he got hit on the spine" never go down gently. Luckily, Nashty recovered full use of his extremities -- and, of course, took a moment Saturday to classily Tweet best wishes to Earl Clark, who was traded to Orlando.

5) I think Dodge will be getting out of Dodge.

6) Been a year since Tiger Woods took his car out for a late, late night drive. It crashed. Bad things happened to him as a result. Lesson to you kids: nothing good usually happens after midnight.

Tweet of the Week

#WoW .. Garret Neal on his way to a poster near you! Courtesy of @JR_Swish .. Oh Baby!!
-- Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson (@1BooByD_Gibson), Thursday, 11:39 p.m., detailing this destruction by the Nuggets' J.R. Smith against the Spurs' Gary Neal on TNT.

Mr. Fifteen

This week's Mr. Fifteen is Washington Wizards rookie center Hamady N'Diaye.

The 23-year-old 7-footer was acquired from MInnesota, which took him in the second round of last year's Draft (56th overall), in a Draft night deal along with fellow rookie Trevor Booker. Viewed as a long-term defensive project, N'Diaye is currently deep on the Wizards' bench behind starting center JaVale McGee and veteran Hilton Armstrong. N'Diaye emigrated from his native Senegal as a teenager to the United States and started developing as a basketball player after primarily playing soccer back home. He is Rutgers' all-time leader in blocked shots and was the Big East's defensive player of the year as a senior. The Wizards frequently use the affable N'Diaye for community service events, where he meets fans with a warm smile and good-naturedly answers the same question ("How tall are you?") over and over.

Me: When you have to do those community service things, as a young player, do you say 'This is just part of my role on this team this season?'

Hamady N'Diaye: No. This is what I wanted to do from the get-go. I'm used to doing this from college. I did it all the time. Me, my fraternity, we used to get involved with a lot of community service. That's just something that I kind of like to do, you know? A lot of these people, not just them, but young kids and everybody around, kind of look as us, even when I was in college, as kind of figures. People want to be like us. People don't have the opportunity to do the things we do. So when they get the time to spend a little thing like this with us, it's like, wow, it's really big. Sometimes it can make their day, it can make their year, whatever. They will be talking about it. Just a little something to bring a little joy to people. Where I'm from, we don't really have opportunities like that. I'm from Senegal where we don't have many people doing that. There's not actually that many people that could help, and do community service like this, and really bring joy to peoples' life. Now that I have the opportunity, no matter what I'm doing, whenever I get the chance to do something like this, I'm always ready for it.

Hamady N'Diaye has appeared in only four games so far in his rookie season in Washington.
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Me: I've heard you say that you don't want to be viewed as a "typical" anything. Does getting out and talking to people help you do that?

HN: Yes, definitely. I refused to be reviewed as a typical basketball player, a typical star, or whatever it is. I like to just be out there and tell people I'm a regular person. If I made it this far, any young man, anyone really, can make it. You've just got to be dedicated like I did. It took a lot of work, but I did it this far. I'm gonna keep going and anybody that kind of looks up to me should know that it is possible, because it's not ... I got here because of one thing. I wasn't this a couple of years ago. I wasn't this man a couple of months ago, actually. So why not show people that to get here, you just need to grind it out, all the way through. And if I did it, then anybody can do it, basically.

Me: How do you stay sharp when you're not playing?

HN: It's a mental thing. A lot of guys give up after a certain point. A lot of guys think that it's not fair. It's a lot of things that could be going through your mind. For me, it's not it at all. I'm blessed to be in the NBA. I'm blessed to be on the team with these guys and everything. I think it's a learning process. And no matter what happens, I'm always ready. And when I come to practice every single day, I'm going to give it everything I have. Because you never know what's going to happen. I'm here to push these other guys. When we win a game, when we lose a game, I feel the same way they do in that locker room, even if I don't hit the floor. I feel the same exact way. Because I feel as I probably didn't do my job at practice getting them ready. Things like that is how I stay sharp. It's the only thing that gets me going. I'm blessed to be here. And I know I'm blessed to have people that love me, wherever I"m at. And I'm gonna keep going until the day where coaches, or whoever, feels that I am ready. They probably don't feel that I'm exactly as ready, as sharp, as everybody else. And I understand it. And I'm'a keep working as hard as I can to get to that level with everybody else.

Me: Does your background give you more patience, perhaps, than others?

HN: Yes, yes. I'm a very patient person. In a way, I'm patient, and in another way, I'm really not patient. I know that I kind of want to learn everything so quick, that I want to go so fast. I left my family so young that I kind of grew up so fast, and everything for me is just fast, fast, fast. I've kind of learned to slow down a little bit, and just realize that a lot of these guys have been playing for years. I don't have that many years under my belt. So as much as I can get experience in practice, play against them, go fast, whatever it is, go as hard, that's my mentality. I go hard every day and I get something out of it every day.

Me: How important has Amadou Gallo (the NBA's vice president of development in Africa, who heads the league's new office in Johannesburg and is, like N'Diaye, from Senegal) been in the development of basketball in Senegal?

HN: He's very, very important. I did not get the chance to work with him. I was with Boubacar (Aw, the former Georgetown University player who has played in Europe the past several years and was on the Senegalese National Team). He did the same thing, and for me, he's kind of the figure. And a lot of guys are looking up to those guys, knowing that they're giving people a chance, give a young kid that probably didn't have much of a chance back home, not just with basketball, but with life. The opportunies out there are different. Anybody you give a chance to get out of the country, get an education and learn, and have more opporutnities with life, it's a blessing. And we need more people like that for Africa -- not just for Senegal, but the whole African continent. Those people are figures, that everyone looks up to, and knows that they are at least doing their best to help out the people that they left behind.

Me: What is the future of basketball in Africa?

NH: It's growing. Basketball is growing. It's going to take a little while; we have to take it step by step for a while and be patient with it. Kids are going to be coming out a little bit more, come out and try out out here and go to college and things like that. We've just got to get better institutions to help out and be ready at any time. Because kids are there. There are a lot of people out there that want to do it, and they just need the one good connection, the one good person willing to spend time on them, and it'll be good.

Me: Maybe that's you now.

NH: It could be, you know? As I grow, and I'm learning. I'm learning a whole lot. It could be, yeah.

Me: What do get out of practice with McGee?

NH: He is extremely athletic. I used to think I was extremely athletic. When I came down, I remember my first day coming down here. Somebody called me on the phone and said 'be careful about McGee.' And I was like, 'why?' And he said, 'he's extremely athletic.' I was like, 'more athletic than me?' And he was like, 'yeah.' I was like, yeah, OK, really. Until I really came down and saw it with my own eyes, and since then, I'm like 'really? Really, JaVale? Really? What else do you have?' It's something. I'm working towards that, too. I want to be as athletic. I don't know if it's really possible, that you can work towards that, because it's natural to him. But whatever I get, I get.

Me: Do you anticipate being a starter in this league someday?

NH: Someday. Someday in the future. I'm working toward it. I'm doing my best. That's all you can do, give it your best every day and see what's the result. And that's my mentality. I'm just gonna grind it all the way. If I'm not (starting), I'm gonna play. I'm anticipating playing somewhere and getting minutes or whatever it is. Until then, I'm gonna keep working.

They Said It

"George is the guy we want."
--Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri, reiterating that Denver is in talks with George Karl on a contract extension following this season.

"I'm not the kind of guy that wants to be a spectator night in and night out. That chapter is closed for me."
--Sasha Vujajic, traded by the Lakers to the Nets on Tuesday, about his hopes at getting more playing time than he had so far this year (54 minutes) in Los Angeles.

"I guarantee you that Boston respects us."
--Amar'e Stoudemire, after his ninth straight game with 30 or more points, in a 118-116 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday, ending the Knicks' win streak at nine games.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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