Click here to Skip to main content
LATEST HEADLINES - NBA NEWS

David Aldridge

1227-gregg-popovich-608.jpg
Gregg Popovich isn't letting the Spurs rest on their laurels after a franchise-best start.
Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images

Subtle changes helping Spurs stay among league's elite


Posted Dec 27 2010 1:15PM

Two months into the season, and are you as sure about that Boston-L.A. Finals rematch now as you were a week ago? Are you so sure the Magic are going to fall into oblivion, and that Miami is too small to beat the big boys? Or have the last seven days only served to confuse you as much as it has me?

The Hawks beat the Magic, who beat the Spurs, who beat the Suns, who beat the Thunder, who beat the Nuggets, who lost all three games without Carmelo Anthony. But the Spurs are the team with the NBA's best record, even after their win streak ended Thursday in Orlando. Their 26-4 start is the best in San Antonio's history.

13_Columnist_Banner_MorningTip.jpg

"We've had great runs later in the season, like February, March and April in the past," Manu Ginobili said last week. "But this year we've started like this. It feels great, of course. And we are enjoying the present. We know it's going to be really hard to maintain this kind of rhythm of wins. But it's been fun."

Not that Coach Gregg Popovich takes anything from playing .867 ball at Christmas.

"If our players look at it as a cushion, just mentally, that can become a quagmire," he said Thursday. "You think you're in such good shape, subconsciously your energy level drops or your concentration drops, which leads to problems with execution and that sort of thing. I don't want to look at that at all. I want to more look at it as we haven't accomplished anything, because it's still the regular season, and we're still such an average-at-best defensive team.

"We've got to look at it like we've got a long way to go rather than talk about any kind of cushion with our record. I'd rather think we're lucky to have the record, and if we want to take advantage of the record we better get our ass together at the defensive end. Otherwise we've squandered what the basketball gods have given us so far."

1227-tony-parker-300.jpg
Gregg Popovich (right) has given Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili more freedom on offense.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

So much for the supposedly warmer and cuddlier Pop, who went to a zone defense out of desperation Video last week against Denver because, as he recalled it, no one was guarding anybody, anyway. Might as well mess up the Nuggets, too. And, of course, it worked, like most everything has worked out so far this year for the Spurs:

• Like Gary Neal, the former Summer League star that the Spurs gave a three-year deal this summer, and who has stepped in ably when guard George Hill was injured . Neal, who played the last three years in Europe after college at Towson University, had back-to-back 22-point games last week.

• Like Matt Bonner, who got a four-year deal last summer from the Spurs, and is leading the league in 3-point shooting.

• Like center Tiago Splitter, who got off to a slow, inconsistent start but who has begun to earn minutes in Popovich's rotation behind Duncan -- and who will have to improve even more if the Spurs are to have a realistic chance against the likes of the Lakers and Mavericks in the playoffs.

Popovich actually has changed a lot over the years. He's changed the Spurs' offense, going from an attack heavy on force-feeding Tim Duncan in the low post to one where Tony Parker and Ginobili are off and running. San Antonio has gone from one of the slowest, most plodding attacks to one of the league's top-scoring units. Even adjusted for pace, the Spurs are in the top half of the league.

"When I got here, when Tony got here, we were very structured," Ginobili said. "And every time you made a mistake or did something you think is wrong, you'd immediately look at him and say, 'How was that? Did I really mess up?' Now, for the new guys ... like Gary Neal and Chris Quinn, and (rookie) James Anderson, when he was playing, it's got to feel good. Because it's less pressure on you. You play a little more with instincts, not all structured. It's a lot less pressure on Tim."

Said Duncan: "We've been doing it for the last couple of years. We've been changing it to the point where we've been trying to get the ball up the floor and get things a little early in the clock and move the ball. It's been changing for a couple of years. It's not much different right now. I think we're pushing it a little bit harder. But other than that, we expected it."

Ginobili said the Spurs did try to push things last season, but they "didn't have it in us." That's changed this season, with Parker and Ginobili healthy and fresher after having both skipped the World Championships and training camps for their respective teams, France and Argentina. Ginobili thinks that theory is a bit half-baked; he says he's had good NBA seasons after playing internationally during the summer and tough NBA seasons after taking it easy in the summer. But the change in Popovich's tactics is real; he's told his players to be more like Manu and just go when they have the ball.

"It feels good when you see Pop just trying to push the pace and give us freedom," Ginobili said.

There was no epiphany for Popovich that made him change; it was more a gradual sense. After failing to reach the West finals the past two seasons, it became clearer that it was foolish to keep playing the same way -- pounding the ball inside to an aging Duncan and playing off of him while looking for 3-pointers in the short corner. Opponents had caught up to that. The coaches were "boring ourselves," Popovich said, so he could only imagine how the players felt.

He was right.

"You got Tony and Manu; why wouldn't you run?," forward Antonio McDyess said.

When the break isn't there, the Spurs run a lot more pick and rolls, and a lot more motion than they did in the past. It's led to Duncan's lowest scoring average (13.9) of his career. He has also played fewer minutes (29 a game) than he ever has, and that was the whole point -- by spreading the ball around, Duncan gets less wear and tear now, and might be fresher for the postseason. In crunch time, he's still going to get the ball, and everyone knows it. But he may have a lot more left in the tank.

"We're moving the ball a lot differently," Duncan said. "That's working, and that's what we're going to stick with."

Normally, the Spurs start slowly, and build their momenum up through the Rodeo Trip in February, when they're away from home for three weeks or so. That trip has always been when the team's camraderie begins to coalesce, with the hope that San Antonio peaks at the start of the playoffs. But the Spurs are already there.

"We're so much more relaxed," McDyess said. "It's hard to explain. It's a feeling we didn't have last year for each other. It was like we was total strangers on the court with each other ... guys were like afraid to say anything. Now it's like if you mess up, anyone can say something. You've got to be able to take it if you ain't done something right."

But Popovich sees red flags. The Spurs have dropped noticeably defensively, falling to the middle of the pack in both points allowed and shooting percentage allowed. Outscoring inferior opponents works in the regular season, but in the playoffs the best defensive teams usually go further.

San Antonio will be bolstered with the return of Hill, Video who came back Sunday against Washington after missing four games with a sprained big toe on his right foot. Hill makes Popovich breathe easier with his D -- "he can guard three positions," usually, Popovich says -- and with his maturity with the ball. Ever since Popovich has been in San Antonio, he's usually had a guard -- Avery Johnson, Jacque Vaughn -- that he trusted implicitly. In this incarnation, that's Hill. But Hill alone isn't enough.

So Popovich has been, gently, reminding his veteran players that they're not playing D worth a damn. He can do it in a biting, joking manner because he and the Spurs' core group have been together for so long, and have such respect for one another. But that will probably change soon. No one says it in San Antonio, but the Spurs are well aware they aren't going to get many more cracks at a title with this group. Duncan's contract is up in less than two years, and while he's likely to finish his career as a Spur, he may not be able to carry a team any more.

Clock's running. This start can't be wasted.

"I'm very worried, because I don't know where our capacity is to get to where I think we need to be," Popovich said. "I'm not sure, to be honest with you. And that will become more and more important as the season winds down and playoffs begin. That's why I want to make it an issue with people now, rather than later."

Dribbles

Arenas aims to live up to expectations

He didn't sleep for four days. Partly because of the joy, and partly because he understands the risk that his friend is taking on him.

Gilbert Arenas knows that Otis Smith is not just gambling on him. He's putting the keys to the franchise in the middle of the table by bringing Arenas to Orlando. If it doesn't work out, and the Magic don't rebound from the doldrums to again become a favorite in the Eastern Conference, the clock on Dwight Howard's departure will get louder, and faster. It's not like a star center hasn't left town before, and everybody in Orlando knows it.

The pressure on Arenas to again become the star he was at one time in Washington is immense.

"For (Smith) to put his neck out on the line, and for the owner to agree, it just felt special to me," Arenas said in a quiet moment last Thursday in Orlando. "Because with the reputation that's out there, they didn't have to do it. And for them to bring me here means they believe in me as a person, too."

Smith is fond of saying 'good people can do bad things' in describing his allegiance to Arenas, who famously is coming off a 50-game suspension last year for bringing guns into the Wizards' locker room. He pled guilty to one felony count of carrying a pistol in the District of Columbia without a license and received a 30-day sentence in a Maryland halfway house. Smith and Arenas have been friends since their days together in Golden State, when Arenas and Jason Richardson would come into Smith's office, where he headed the Warriors' basketball operations office, and wonder why they weren't playing as much as they thought they should be.

Their friendship continued after Arenas became an All-Star in Washington, and then got hurt, and stayed hurt for much of the next few years. And when the Magic started to go stale earlier this season, Smith didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on two deals -- one with Washington and one with Phoenix -- that blew up his team, brought Arenas from Washington and Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark from the Suns.

Arenas' first week since being acquired for Rashard Lewis has shown Orlando both the potential and the peril the Magic will undergo on a nightly basis. In three of Arenas' first four games, he's shot 5-of-26 (.192) from the floor. But in the fourth game, against the Spurs, Arenas was dynamic, with 14 points and nine assists in 29 minutes off the bench, as Orlando ended San Antonio's 12-game win streak. The Magic played as if shot out of a cannon, blistering the Spurs with 33 fast-break points. They rained threes. Arenas, Richardson and Turkoglu looked like they'd been playing together for years.

1227-otis-smith-300.jpg
Magic GM Otis Smith took a big risk by pulling off the trade for Gilbert Arenas.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

But was that an aberration, or a sign of things to come?

"For everyone, the city, everyone to just embrace me, because, you know, Orlando is like college," Arenas said. "It's the only professional team here. So you're recognized, you're known. Everyone knows who you are. So for them to bring me in and basically tell me, 'Forget your past, start new.' And I know how Michael Vick feels going to Philly, getting a fresh start. You're like, somebody actually believes in me. And you can go out and perform at your best."

Arenas says he has no problem backing up Jameer Nelson at point guard for the foreseeable future, which seems to be the way that Stan Van Gundy wants to go, too. But the reality is that Arenas has three years and $63 million on his contract after this season, and it's hard to envision a scenario where he's going to continue to be a reserve.

"We have every element that a championship team, a contender team, needs," Arenas said. "We have everything. You know, you have your starting point guard, you've got your backup point guard coming off the bench doing the same thing as your starter, so you have no lax in the game. It reminds me of the team Dallas had that went to the championship. They just got beat by a better team that had better players doing the same thing ..."

Orlando has been a defensive team under Van Gundy, and transitioning three new faces on the fly is going to be the story of the next six weeks. Practice time will be at a minimum until All-Star Weekend -- "I'd like the NBA to stop like they do with hockey in the Winter Olympics for a couple of weeks and let us get it together, but that's not gonna happen," Van Gundy said.

The rest of the season will be a referendum on whether Orlando had to change its predictable, throw-the-ball-into-Dwight offense. Howard has never been more diverse with his low-post abilities, and he has become much better passing out of double teams. But Smith thought his team needed a change. Howard did, too, even though he won't specify what he's told Smith was wrong. He does say that Arenas is part of what can be right the rest of the way.

"Gilbert's not crazy," Howard said. "He's not crazy. Me and him have talked. He wants a fresh start. He's ready. We told him, be that Hibachi that we know you to be. Just attack."

"Everyone's saying, 'Just go out there and play. Play. The way you play is going to make us better,' " Arenas said. "And that's how all of us are. We're just going out there and performing."

Arenas acknowledged that he was going through the motions the last couple of weeks he was in D.C., waiting for word on where he was going next. He says he liked playing next to rookie John Wall, but believed that Nick Young was the obvious heir apparant at the two guard spot, and that he was always waiting for the Washington crowd -- which supported him almost unanimously upon his return to the Wizards -- to turn on him.

That's not the case in Orlando. At least now. And Arenas believes the future will be as plentiful as the recent past has been painful.

"I can walk with my head held high now," he said. "I don't just have to sit in my home with the door closed. I can actually walk around and feel like I'm a part of something. And that's just the big thing. When you feel like you're that pink elephant, purple elephant in the room, you walk like it, you play like it ... you come into a fresh city, they're going to give you a fresh start."

Top O' the World, Ma!

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

1) Dallas [3] (2-0): Winning at Miami, where they ended the Heat's 12-game win streak, gives the Mavericks the top spot again. It marked the sixth time this season Dallas has ended an opponents' win streak of at least five games.

2) Miami [2] (2-1): That huge Video win for the Heat in Los Angeles on Christmas Day proved that Miami could indeed beat the bigger Lakers straight up. Once.

3) Boston [1] (1-1): Fourteen-game streak Video goes by the boards in Orlando, but got Jermaine O'Neal back and hope to get Rondo (ankle) back in the next week or so.

4) San Antonio [4] (3-1): Pop won't want to hear this, of course, but the Spurs currently have a five-game lead on the Lakers in the west, and that's going to be hard to make up unless SA slips up before the Rodeo Trip.

1227-thunder-jazz-300.jpg
Kevin Durant and the Thunder are still within striking distance of the Northwest-leading Jazz.
Larry W. Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

5) Oklahoma City [6]. (2-1): Despite being rather ordinary on D this season, Thunder have quickly risen to within a half-game of the Jazz in the Northwest Division.

6) Utah [8] (2-0): Jazz finally get Memo Okur back at center after he Video ruptured his achilles' tendon during the playoffs.

7) New York [9] (2-0): Big home wins this week over Thunder, Bulls to right the ship after three-game losing streak. Knicks end December with Florida Two-Step this week at Miami and Orlando.

8) Chicago [7] (3-1): Boozer shooting 57 percent in last seven games, 54 percent since returning from his broken hand at the start of the month. Bulls are 10-4 in December.

9) L.A. Lakers [5] (0-2): We always say once or twice a year that the champs aren't playing like the champs, and they're in trouble. This is one of those times.

10) Orlando [11] (2-2): Video Very important victory Saturday over a Boston team that had gotten in the Magic players' heads after dominating them in the Eastern finals last June.

11) Atlanta [10] (2-1): Along those lines, should the Hawks make too much out of beating the Magic, after getting smacked around by Orlando in the playoffs last season?

12) New Orleans [13] (2-1): With the bottom of the West playoff race a little mushy, along with their schedule in the coming weeks, the Hornets should be able to put some wins together and maybe make a move.

13) Portland [14] (1-1): Bad news: Blazers have lost eight of nine to Western Conference playoff teams this season. Good news: actually got through a week without a season-ending injury!

14) Houston [NR] (2-0): Putting the gritty Chuck Hayes in the starting lineup seems to have helped stabilize things.

15) Denver [12] (0-3): Tough week for the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony, who has missed Denver's last three games after the death of his sister. Thoughts and prayers to Melo and his family.

Team of the Week

Houston (2-0): Not much in terms of quality (Golden State and the Clips), but the Rockets continued what has become an excellent December, (a 9-3 month so far, taking advantage of a soft schedule).

Team of the Weak

Sacramento (0-2): Only the woeful Wizards have kept the 5-22 Kings from going 0-for-December, and the buzzards are surrounding both GM Geoff Petrie and coach Paul Westphal. Rookie DeMarcus Cousins was disciplined for throwing a choke sign at the Warriors on Tuesday and failing to acknowledge an attempted Westphal pound in another home loss Thursday to Milwaukee. The Kings drew 12,000 for the Bucks and are 29th in attendance. It's a long, long way from the halcyon days of the Webber-Vlade-Bibby run to the Western finals.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Who's going to be the best of John Calipari's college guards in the NBA -- Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, or ... someone else?

For the past few years, Calipari has produced a line of point guards, led by Rose, the Bulls' third-year star, that is rapidly coming to re-define what a point guard is (along with other young points like Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings).

Their speed with the ball makes each difficult to stay in front of, but each is a readily willing passer. Evans and Wall have both been injured this season, and Bledsoe is languishing in L.A. with the Clippers, making Rose the de facto leader of the band. He's mastered what Evans, Wall and Bledsoe are stil learning.

"They don't just want to be in the NBA," Calipari said recently. "They want to be the best in the NBA."

Rose could always get to the basket. Now he's added a 3-point jumper (he's up to 39 percent behind the 3-point line) and an in-between game that has made him next to unguardable, and his presence helped lure free agents like Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver to Chicago. Averaging 24.3 per game for the Bulls, Rose has become much more assertive than he was in his one season for Calipari at Memphis, when he helped lead the Tigers to the national championship game.

1227-evans-rose-300.jpg
Former John Calipari guards like Tyreke Evans (left) and Derrick Rose are shining in the NBA.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

(An NCAA investigation into that season, however, determined that Memphis had played an ineligible player, who allegedly had someone else take his Scholastic Aptitude Test. Rose has denied that he was the player. No matter who it was, Memphis had to vacate its 38 victories from that season, return the money it made from reaching the Final Four and return its Final Four trophy.)

Video Evans won Rookie of the Year honors last year, averaging 20 a game for the Kings. Wall, like Rose, was the first pick in the Draft, going to the Wizards. He was electric in Summer League play and got off to a great start for Washington before suffering a bone bruise behind his right kneecap that kept him out of action for more than two weeks. (He returned to the court Sunday night in San Antonio against the Spurs.)

But each needed to be pushed in different ways to prepare for the pro game.

"D-Rose, when he first came to Memphis, he was that typical pass-first point guard," recalled former NBA star and Memphis and Kentucky assistant coach Rod Strickland. "And he was happy and comfortable with that. Not only me, but the whole coaching staff, we basically tried to let him know we needed him to score, we needed him to be more aggressive as a scorer, and he got better and better as the year went on. I remember telling him, there was a scout who asked me about a different player, and he tried to compare and ask me who was better. I remember telling (Rose) you're making these guys think this guy is better than you, because you're giving guys nights off ... he was content to just help us win, which was fine. But I just wanted him to be a killer ...

"Tyreke was one of those guys, he wanted to put that ball up. So we had to tone him down a little bit, get him going to the basket a little more, not settle for jumpers as much. J-Wall was probably the one who came in and picked up the offense the quickest. When he came in, even with Tyreke and D-Rose, when they came in, they had older guys around them, guys who had been in the program. So they had to kind of blend in. With J-Wall, he came in and you knew he was the leader right away, from the moment he came through the door."

Bledsoe is probably just as natural a point guard than Wall. But he moved to shooting guard at Kentucky, playing out of position to help the Wildcats and himself. When Baron Davis was injured and/or out of shape earlier this season, Bledsoe started for the Clippers in his fifth NBA game and promptly went for 17 points and eight assists.

Mastering the dribble-drive motion offense that Calipari has imported from college coach Vance Walberg to Memphis and, now, Kentucky, has served as great preparation for the hands-free rules of the NBA. The dribble-drive emphasizes that the ballhandler get to the basket, and if he can't score, pass the ball to another guard, who starts the cycle again.

"Tyreke, when we first got him, when he (got) bumped, he faded away, or spun," Calipari said. "After awhile, it was incredible. Second thing was, no one knew how fast he was. All of a sudden, he turned it up. Derrick, we had to get him to want to score more. Now, look at him. He's scoring 30 a game. I watch them play. Tyreke posts up now. When I had him, I threw him into the post, he couldn't score. I said, 'You can post?' He says, 'You didn't teach me. I didn't know what I was doing; you didn't teach me.'

"And then you have John Wall, who, the greatest thing I can tell you with him, in all the time I watched him, he'd never made a game-winning shot. So you always questioned, when it's on the line, when we need a basket, will he make it? His first game out of the gate against Miami of Ohio, he drills a two at the buzzer for us to win. I had never seen him, in high school or AAU, make that shot. And I told him that ... Well, let me tell you, he made about 10 last year, and I'm seeing him make them now. So he had it in him. It was bringing it out of him."

Calipari has another young freshman point guard -- Rose, Evans, Wall and Bledsoe all entered the NBA after one season -- who may join the group next season. Of course, since he's a freshman, I can't mention his name until he declares for the Draft. (Watch Kentucky on TV. You'll figure out who it is.)

So, who's the best?

"They're all different," Calipari says. "Derrick Rose, he was asked the question, who's faster, you or John Wall? And this is what makes Derrick special. He said 'John Wall.' And they're both really fast. Now, Derrick's really quick. I've never seen anybody like him quickness-wise. But he will defer, because that's who he is. It's what makes him unique. They all have their different things that set them apart."

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

LeBron and Alex's dad have an idea. From Alex Mukherjee:

My dad doesn't agree with me when I say that I discount some of Miami's success because of who they have on their team. He isn't a big fan of the NBA but I have dragged him to a few Knicks games. He believes basketball is strictly a business and LeBron and Bosh (and possible Carmelo Anthony) are making money-minded moves. He sees no problem with putting the best talents together and creating five or six "super teams" while the the other 20-or-so teams rot without superstars. Could you offer me your opinion on this?

1227-pacers-fan-300.jpg
The NBA needs a successful team in Indiana just as much as it needs a successful one in L.A.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

I'm sure you read LeBron James' take about contraction, Alex. But I disagree. Any league is only as strong as its weakest links and/or smallest markets. The Spurs have been a successful team for moe than a decade, and it's not just because they got Tim Duncan in the Draft. That was 11 years ago. They've done a lot of things right since. When the Kings got Chris Webber and put a team around him, Sacramento sold out 354 straight games over eight years. For the NBA to survive long-term, it can't just be about New York, L.A., Chicago and a handful of other teams being successful. Markets like Milwaukee, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Indianapolis also have to thrive.

From West to worst? From Shannon Thomas:

This year has been quite exciting for some teams, especially in regards to winning streaks (Boston, Miami, Dallas, San Antonio, etc.) however, how much of these streaks can be attributed to how bad some of the other teams are? I feel that this year there just seems to be some really bad teams. Think about how tough the West has been for the past three or four years, where it took 50 wins to grab an eighth seed, and now you can grab it at .500. Why do you think there are so many bad teams this year?

Parity comes and goes, Shannon. These days, the tide is turning back toward the Eastern Conference, with the top three Draft picks going to Washington, Philly and New Jersey; free agent and trade movement from west to east in recent years (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston, Amar'e Stoudemire to New York, Carlos Boozer to Chicago), injuries that have rendered teams like Portland and Houston mediocre and the decline of former strong teams like Sacramento and Minnesota. There are more elite teams in the west than the east, but the depth in the conference is gone.

Cousin LaMarcus wonders the same thing. From Muhammad Aarij Anwer:

I am avid reader of your article and its one of the things I look forward to on Monday. I was just wondering: why do you refer to Hedo Turkoglu as "Brother Hedo"?

turkoglu300.jpg
A nickname doled out to Hedo Turkoglu by Chris Webber (left) still lives on today.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

That nickname is actually an affectation from Chris Webber, Muhammad. He referred to Hedo by that name when they were in Sacramento together and it's just stayed in my mind all these years. And Hedo is a cool dude, so it seems like a natural fit.

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

MVP Watch

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (27.3 ppg, 9 rpg, 7 apg, .509 FG, .905 FT): Got a lot of grief from Celtics Tweeters Saturday, but still argue that LBJ's two biggest games this season were Dec. 2 in Cleveland and Christmas afternoon in L.A. He passed both of them, big-time, as Dick Cheney would say.

2) Dirk Nowitzki (21.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, .353 FG, 1,000 FT): Sign of the (international) times as Dirk passes Larry Bird this week for 25th on the NBA's all-time scoring list .

3) Dwight Howard (20 ppg, 17 rpg, 3 bpg, .580 FG, .579 FT): Howard has been inhaling boards of late with Marcin Gortat now in Phoenix, with three straight games of 20 or more rebounds last week.

4) Kobe Bryant (19 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, .469 FG, .875 FT): I may officially be picking nits here, but I've noticed something over the past month: KB's rebounds are down significantly. In the last 11 games, he's averaged 3.7 rebounds per game. In the previous 11 games, he was averaging 5.9 boards per game.

5) Amar'e Stoudemire (21.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.5 bpg, .500 FG, .750 FT): STAT has always been one of the league's most efficient players, and his current rating of 26.4 is third-highest in the league. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Stoudemire is 10th-best among current players in efficiency.

By the Numbers

1 -- Victories for the Seattle/Oklahoma City franchise on Christmas Day after the Thunder's 114-106 win over Denver Saturday. The franchise had lost its previous 11 games it had played on Christmas.

55 -- Number of career "trillions" by former journeyman forward Jud Buechler, the most in league history, acording to a database created by the New York Times' "Off the Dribble" blog. A "trillion," if you don't remember, is when a player enters a game and plays at least one minute but doesn't do anything, creating zeroes in his box score. Reading across the box score, if you have a 1 followed by 12 zeroes, you'd have "1 trillion."(Of course, as the blog notes, many modern box scores have as many as 15 categories, which would make the category a quadrillion, not a trillion.)

1,211 -- Career coaching victories for Jerry Sloan, who passed Pat Riley for third all-time among NBA head coaches on Wednesday. Sloan trails only Lenny Wilkens and all-time leader Don Nelson.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) Is the league "watered down" today, as LeBron put it, compared to 25 years ago? Yes, because there are a handful -- four to six -- teams whose problems seem immune to market, ownership or management. (That does not mean I support contraction; if the league thought those markets could sustain an NBA team, it's up to the NBA to find someone who can make that happen.) Is the quality of play better today than it was 25 years ago? Yes. The rise and influence of international talent makes today's game much better than it was in the 1980s. There are just as many great American players, but having the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, et.al., on this side of the world has improved the talent pool immensely. There are more great players in the league than ever, but they are spread out across more teams. Both statements are true.

2) Can we all now acknowledge that the SuperFriends thing could work out after all? (BTW I: Did you catch Video Kobe and LeBron squawking at each other on Christmas Day? Loved it. Loooooved it.)

3) Video This is not in the holiday spirit. (BTW II: am I the only one who likes the Knicks' alternate, Celtic-like home unis?)

4) Video Fortissimo.

5) Meant to link to this last week and forgot. There are NBA head coaches that don't have Video this kid's guts.

6) Somebody -- and I'm not necessarily saying it's Otis Smith, but somebody -- is going to get Jeff Foster (seven points, 11 rebounds, four blocks against New Orleans Monday) for the stretch drive, and be very happy about it.

7) Kate Fagan, who covers the Sixers for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is one hell of a writer. She's smart and she makes her point -- sometimes, a tough point, as with this story on Andre Iguodala -- without getting nasty or throwing verbal bombs to get herself noticed, as so many people feel obligated to do these days. Philly is lucky to have her.

Not Feelin' ...

1) I would seriously doubt the Bobcats trade for Baron Davis, given that a) Paul Silas couldn't stand him when the two were together in New Orleans, and b) the Clippers have no interest in inhaling the contracts of either DeSagana Diop (one more year at $6.95 million after this season) or Matt Carroll (two years and $7.4 million after this season). Now maybe that changes if the Clips move Chris Kaman, but they haven't done that yet.

1227-baron-davis-300.jpg
Don't worry, Baron. We don't see you heading back to Charlotte anytime soon.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

2) Now, the Lakers probably aren't going to need home-court advantage in the playoffs. But if they find themselves at Dallas or San Antonio in Game 7 of the Western finals next June, they're going to regret this week -- losing at home to Milwaukee and Miami.

3) I was told unequivocally last Sunday night that Rip Hamilton really did have an upset stomach, and that's why he wasn't playing against the Hornets. I asked because it sounded fishy to me, too. Whatever the truth is, the Pistons need to cut ties with Rip, and right now would be fine. Still think he'd be perfect in Utah.

4) This was the same thing that made JaVale punch Andray. Or Andray punch JaVale. Whichever.

5) Teena Marie? Damn.

Tweet of the Week

My Christmas wish......I want more followers...
-- Hawks center Josh Powell (@JP21Reasons), Saturday, 1:33 a.m. Consider it done, JPeezy.

Mr. Fifteen

This week's Mr. Fifteen is Golden State rookie guard Jeremy Lin. The 22-year-old has made a name for himself the past several years, first as a star guard in the Bay Area at nearby Palo Alto High School who didn't land a Division I scholarship, then as a star across the country at Harvard, where he overcame occasional racial taunting from opposing fans to become a two-time first-team All-Ivy League selection. But he still went undrafted last June.

Only after excelling in summer league play with the Mavericks -- where a duel with first overall pick John Wall went viral -- did Lin raise NBA eyebrows. He chose the Warriors over several suitors for training camp and signed a two-year deal with Golden State. But Lin's signing with Golden State also raised expectations that an Asian-American player could excel in a city known for its large and influential Asian population (fellow .com colleague Scott Howard-Cooper documented Lin's first days in the Bay as a pro).

Lin has played in 17 games this season, averaging a little more than eight minutes a game and 1.9 points. Despite playing both guard positions, it's going to be hard for Lin to get much time behind the Warriors' young backcourt of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and newly signed backup point Acie Law.

Me: Where do you find time to improve when you don't play very much?

Jeremy Lin: I worked out with coach Stephen Silas before every practice, but he just left to join his dad [Paul] in Charlotte. That was like a 45-minute to hour workout before every practice. But now I do it with some other coaches. And then practice, that's kind of like, that's my chance to get extended minutes and really compete. And then on game days, sometimes I get in and sometimes I don't, and so I'm trying to stay ready. Just working out before and after practice, and then getting a lot of competition in practice, because the guys I'm going against are so good, especially Steph and Monta.

1227-jeremy-lin-300.jpg
Hard work and faith are guiding Warriors rookie Jeremy Lin through a rough first season.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Me: What are you picking up practicing against them every day?

JL: A lot. Just their decision-making, different moves that work for them. Even their mentality. Just a lot of different things. I'm just trying to absorb as much information as I can, just to learn everything that they have to offer. And they've been very helpful, too. All the vets are.

Me: But they're just kids, too -- in their 20s. Does that make it easier?

JL: I think that definitely helps our team chemistry, because the unique thing about our team is we have three guys who came out of high school -- Andris Biedrins and Dorell [Wright] and Monta -- it's like their sixth year in the league, and they're like only two years older than me, three years older than me. It's helped them to relate to me on and off the court.

Me: What is it like being in the Bay Area with all the attention?

JL: It was real weird at first. I have a lot less privacy kind of when I go out with my friends and family. It's like you have to be polite to everybody who comes by, too. It was real weird at first getting used to that. But now I'm kind of used to it. It's a lot of fun just to be able to receive that kind of support from the fans. The fans here are great.

Me: Do you see any of your guys from Mater Dei?

JL: Mater Dei?

Me: Sorry, Palo Alto (The two schools are big rivals.). Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

JL: Yeah, yeah. All the time. They come out to watch my games. I hang out with them. The guys who are still in the area, my former teammates, I still keep in touch with them. We have kind of a lifelong friendship just because of everything we went through in high school.

Me: What do you use from your time in college that enables you to get through the tough times?

JL: Absolutely. I'm a Christian, so when I go through a lot of tough times, that's kind of where I draw my strength, and my peace, my joy. One of my favorite Bible verses is Romans 5: 3-5, and it talks about going through tough times, rejoicing in your suffering. That started in college. People think that my college career was very easy, but it wasn't. My freshman year was very, very hard on me, because I was so far away from home and I wasn't playing as much, and I was in a losing program. And I just wasn't used to that. And that gave me a fire and a desire to work harder. I think the work ethic from college, and then now, just to be able to go through the season, we've had a lot of ups and downs, and it's had its fair share of downs. For me to stay close to God and to be in His will and to spend my time with Him, that gives me a lot of peace.

Me: Do you share any of that faith with anyone on the team?

JL: Coach Silas was a strong believer. Me and him, when we would work out in the morning, we would talk about some of that stuff. Just being Christian in the NBA and how to live a Godly life, and how to glorify God in the position I'm in. And then Steph, Steph is a believer. Reggie (Williams) and Ep (first-round pick Ekpe Udoh) is. We have a regular group, four or five, that goes to chapel before every game. We've had Christian conversations. It's been a blessing to have brothers in Christ on the team.

Me: How hard is it to live that kind of life in the NBA? You're a young man with money and there's probably a lot of people who are interested in you for all the wrong reasons.

JL: That's a great question. When I first signed, that was a hard thing. Because I felt like everyone that I had met from then on wanted something from me. I just think I have my friends and family, and that's been so hopeful, because they're such a strong network and community for me. That's a lot of accountability, too. My home church is here, and I meet up with my pastor, and I have a small group here. So they help me stay grounded, and make sure when I slip up, they let me know. Another part of it too is I'm pretty focused on basketball, so I'm not doing too much in terms of other stuff, like partying and all that.

Me: What has Keith Smart told you about minutes? Will they be sporadic? Were there no guarantees?

JL: He just pretty much said, look, what you're doing is helping you, and you're improving every week. You just have to keep staying on that path, and when your time comes, and your opportunity comes, you have to take advantage of it. He's not guaranteeing me X amount of time or this or that. And I think he's made me work for every single minute, and I've had to earn all my minutes. That's how it should be. Because a lot of people, when I signed, they were just like, oh, because of my story, they were like ready to act like I had proven myself in the NBA. For him, everything I do I have to earn it, and then some. Because when it comes down to it, I'm still an undrafted rookie. That's kind of the thing I'm fighting. He doesn't guarantee me anything. I have to keep going out and earning it and taking advantage of those opportunities.

Me: You've said it's harder for you sometimes playing at home than on the road because of the great expectations on you, in part, because of your heritage. How have you dealt with that?

JL: When I said that, that was true. But now I love playing at home. I think the biggest thing for me was a mental adjustment more than anything. I think before, the reason why it kind of got to me was because I felt like I was playing, almost for the wrong reasons. I felt like everytime I go out there, I had to do something to make the crowd go wild, or I felt like all eyes were on me. But what I've been focusing on is just to play for God's glory and to play for Him, and just to be myself and just to use the talents that He's blessed with me to try to use that to glorify Him. And when I concentrate on that, it just makes me play more like myself. It's been more of a mental adjustment than anything else.

Me: Was that something you'd forgotten, or did it just dawn on you?

JL: It was just something that was hard to do. Every time I got in, everyone was yelling, you know? It's like one of those principles that you always remember, but sometimes you forget to apply it, or sometimes you forget about it. A buddy of mine brought that up, and I said, 'That's absoutely right.' So it's made me, it's helped me become a lot more calm on the court ... that's my goal, is to glorify God through basketball. Whatever he taught me to do, and right now, it's basketball. My purpose in terms of that shouldn't change, whether I'm playing in rec league or a pro league or in college.

Me: Who will you work with now that Stephen is leaving?

JL: I'm still working with these coaches -- Calbert Cheaney, Mark Grabow and Jerry Sichting. I worked out with all three of them today, actually, at different times. I'm still getting my extra work in, and the coaches are more than helpful. They want to help me a lot. And I appreciate it.

Me: What are your ultimate career goals?

JL: Well, I'm a big dreamer. My goal for myself is to get into a rotation and become a starting point guard and then to win a championship. That's my goal. That's the path I set for myself early. A lot of people may hear that and laugh. But I think if I told people I'd be in the NBA, a lot of people would have laughed a long time ago, too.

Me: You doing any rookie chores?

JL: I'm doing plenty of rookie things. We've got our Tinkerbell backpacks on on the road trips. We bring food to the plane. Any errands, XBox controllers, bringing those. All sorts of things.

Me: Anything you've said no to?

JL: There are many things that they've asked me to do that I've said no to, and I quickly realized it was the wrong decision, so I said yes.

They Said It

"LeBron had a shot with Cleveland when he made it to the finals. U don't need 3 or 4 superstars..U just need really 1 maybe 2 and a lot of great role players. The game has change let's look forward not back."
-- Suns forward Jared Dudley, refuting comments by LeBron James that the NBA might be better off if a couple of teams contracted, allowing the surviving teams to increase their number of quality players.

"I think the NBA is so important to Christmas that what we really need to do is increase from five teams to 10. And we need to start them at midnight at Christmas Eve and play 'em all through the day so there's not a minute of Christmas Day where there's not a game on TV. The NBA is Christmas."
-- Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, tongue evisceratingly planted in cheek, on the "evolution" of his previous position that he'd rather not be playing games on Christmas Day.

"Paul has been out of it for a while. It's a situation for both sides where we can evaluate each other, so to speak."
-- Charlotte general manager Rod Higgins, Video explaining on Wednesday afternoon why the Bobcats gave Paul Silas an interim coach tag upon replacing the resigned/fired Larry Brown. Not having to pay Silas next season in case of a lockout may have entered the equation as well. Higgins wouldn't comment.

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.

SEARCH NEWS
LATEST VIDEOS
photoVarejao Injury
Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
photoSounds Of The Game
Get the all-access look into the NBA in this week's edition of Sounds Of The Game.
photoDecember 23rd: The Daily Zap
Rundown all the action from an 11-game night in the NBA.
photoLillard and Westbrook Battle
Check out the highlights from Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook as they battle in OKC.
photoDecember 23rd: Top Ten
Count down the top 10 plays from Tuesday night.

Copyright © NBA Media Ventures, LLC. All rights reserved. No portion of NBA.com may be duplicated, redistributed or manipulated in any form. By accessing any information beyond this page, you agree to abide by the Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights and Terms of Use. | Ad Choices Ad Choices

NBA.com is part of Turner Sports Digital, part of the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network.