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David Aldridge

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The Thunder have locked up Kevin Durant (left) and Russell Westbrook with well-timed contract extensions.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

With the team finally built, now comes the hard part for OKC


Posted Jan 23 2012 1:56AM - Updated Jan 23 2012 12:41PM

The Plan culminated in a community center that had once been an incubator for their dreams, when they were 3-29 and nobody thought the Oklahoma City Thunder was anything but an interloper, a franchise whose ownership had stolen the dreams of fans in one of the NBA's most loyal cities.

But Sunday, in what used to be the Thunder's practice facility, on the outskirts of town, Russell Westbrook officially signed his five-year, $80 million extension, cementing the Thunder's status as its own franchise, with its own future.

There is also the matter of being the standard all other rebuilding franchises emulate. Which Sam Presti, the Thunder's GM, hates.

"We're not up here taking bows," he said Sunday, sounding exactly like the former Spurs executive that he is.

In San Antonio, they say it all happened because of Tim Duncan, and that's true -- but only to a point. The OKC Corrolary is Kevin Durant, of course, and his single-mindedness to stay in a small market instead of looking to a big city to validate his sense of self-worth. Now he will spend the bulk of his career playing alongside Westbrook, their supposed fussin' and feudin' apparently not enough to make either demand a separation.

The Thunder now have their franchise bookends, 23 and 24 years old, surrounded by role players who also want to be in Oklahoma City and see things through. Everything that Presti has tried to plan for since he took over in 2007 is in place.

"They really committed themselves to being part of the organization," Presti said of Durant and Westbrook. "Russell was here before there was a logo, before there was a team name. They took a lot of ownership of the situation. Kevin is uncommon. He's not someone who looks past the things that matter to him. I think he thought this was the place he wanted to play and continue his career."

Everybody has a plan. Most never can get it done. There is so much working against teams in the NBA: injuries, bad picks, inflexible agents, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Most teams fail to reach the top. And the Thunder aren't there yet, either. But they're much closer than most, with the league's best record, the league's top young combo and a fan base that sells out what is now called Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Now, though, comes the hard part.

The Thunder are no longer an up-and-coming team. They are here. This is the team. There is no more cap room to save. Presti has put his cards on the table; the Thunder have gone from one of the five lowest payrolls to a team that will now be over the salary cap for years to come. A championship is the only expectation left to fulfill.

"Right now, I think we're good as is," Westbrook said last week. "We do a good job of everybody knowing their role. We can get better, always, but I think we're in a good position now, especially the way we play defensively. Hopefully we can keep that going."

Of course, OKC's rise starts with Durant, taken second in the 2007 Draft. Nobody knew he'd be this good, just like nobody knew Westbrook could make the transition to NBA point guard so seamlessly.

"I had faith," Durant said. "I had faith in everything I did, all the hard work I did. I had faith in Sam, I had faith in Troy Weaver (Oklahoma City's assistant general manager), everybody. I might have some bad games, but I knew that if I come in to work every single day, we was going to get through it. And I knew it was a phase. Talking to guys in this league, you knew it was a phase that you can overcome ... you've got to have faith in the organization and the players around you."

Faith is not often found in someone so young, especially one whose teams go 43-121 in his first two seasons, and whose new general manager was a then 30-year-old with no track record, no background as an NBA player and a statistics guy way before such things became popular. It is even less often found when that new GM gets behind a man with no prior coaching experience, who was not a superstar as a player. But Presti sold Durant that a turnaround was possible. Even while enduring the understandable anger of fans in Seattle who were about to lose the team they had faithfully supported for four decades. Even as the Thunder were in the midst of firing P.J. Carlesimo in their inaugural season in Oklahoma after a 1-12 start to the 2008-09 season, replacing him with Scott Brooks.

"He just looks like a smart guy," Durant said of Presti, with a laugh, as if he was trying to explain why one might like chocolate ice cream. "He just looks like he knows the game of basketball. Since we traded Ray Allen to get Jeff Green, and they brought in myself, I knew that was a bold move. I knew he saw something. And ever since then, I've been a Sam Presti fan. Every person he's brought through here has been a class guy, and basketball-wise, a hard worker. He knows his stuff ...

"One thing I tried to do is try to be a leader and carry everybody with me. If I went to work out every single day, before and after practice, I wanted guys to come work out with me. It's more than just working hard for yourself. You've got to bring guys in. And I think that's what leaders do. And that's something I learned. It took me some time, but I learned that. Keep faith, man, and come to work every single day ... you work every single day, and things are gonna change."

There were no shortcuts those first two years. Brooks had been a finalist for the coaching job in Sacramento before the Kings hired Reggie Theus before the 2007-08 season. When Brooks didn't get that job, he went north to be Carlesimo's top assistant in Seattle. Brooks emphasized defense when he came in, but again, everybody emphasizes defense when they come in.

"I knew his basketball background and I knew how much he knew about the game," Durant said. "But to be honest, once they got rid of P.J., I didn't know he would be the interim coach. I didn't know they'd bring him in as a coach. But once they did, the concepts and the identity that he tried to bring to this organization was something I believed in, and I knew it was going to be good for our organzation. I always, since Day One, I believed in Sam Presti and the guys in our organization."

Young coaches who play young players usually get fired. Things didn't turn around immediately after the Thunder took Westbrook fourth overall in the '08 Draft. But Brooks wasn't fired, even after OKC started 2008-09 at 3-29 -- including separate losing streaks of 14 (although 11 of those losses occured under Carlesimo), eight and five games -- because Presti had his back, and because Durant trusted Presti. And thus, he trusted Brooks.

"It's funny he says that," Brooks says now. "I think it's ... the other way around. I trusted the guys. Because when we were 3-29, if you came to our practices, you saw how hard they worked. And that always kept me going. Because I know that if you work that hard, and you have a good talent base, it's going to improve. So I trusted Kevin and Russell and Nick (Collison), and the guys we had back then. And they came in every day.

"Some guys weren't in and weren't believing, and we knew who they were, and they're no longer here. It was tough on some guys, because the young guys were playing. But the young guys were better. They weren't given playing time. They were better than the veterans. And that's the difference."

So there was no deviation from the spine of the plan -- keep cap room, at all costs. No big expenditures for free agents; the Thunder's big ticket signings during Presti's tenure have been center Nenad Krstic -- signed to a three-year, $15 million deal in 2008 -- and backup guards Kevin Ollie and Royal Ivey, both of whom were signed because they seemed, according to Presti, like good guys (see below). He hoarded first-round picks, getting two firsts from Phoenix along with Kurt Thomas in 2007, then trading Thomas seven months later to the Spurs for another first. With those extra firsts, Presti was able to get Thabo Sefolosha in a trade from Chicago and take Serge Ibaka in the 2008 Draft, knowing he'd play overseas for a year.

But that cap room was sacred. It was earmarked from the time it became available --save it for the core group, the guys they'd drafted and nurtured and knew best, the guys whose character they trusted. That meant Durant and Westbrook, just as it surely now means James Harden and Ibaka. (At least OKC hopes that's the case; it will be difficult to stagger four big contracts, and the Thunder will have to negotiate parallel deals with Harden and Ibaka in the offseason to keep them from becoming restricted free agents in 2013.) Presti did use some of it to sign Collison and Kendrick Perkins to long-term deals, with a twist -- by giving each signing bonuses with some of the room, he was able to negotiate contracts that actually go down in future years, when the extensions for Durant and Westbrook kick in.

And there was never any doubt that Westbrook would get the deal. Like Durant, the Thunder don't think Westbrook -- with two Final Fours, a gold medal at the World Championships last year with Durant and their joint playoff appearances -- is anywhere close to his full potential. The contract is for future performance, not for his current resume.

The Thunder will never be a luxury-tax payer under primary owner Clay Bennett, but they could be among the recipients of the league's enhanced revenue sharing plan down the road. At the least, corporate dollars are plentiful in Oklahoma City, home of several Fortune 500 companies. The playoffs the last two years have provided incredible experiences -- seeing the Lakers bully them in 2010, seeing the Mavericks dissect them last season. They had to play smart against Denver and they had to slug it out with the Grizzlies. They are young, but seasoned. There are no excuses. The Thunder's time is now.

It was always just a matter of trust.

And Kevin Durant's faith.

"We've always tried to be straight with the players," Presti said. "We've always tried to be clear what we felt was important fo us to establish in our program, one that was capable of winning consistently. I think going through a lot of the ups and downs that you go through as you try to build an organization and sustain it, a big part of it is sticking together and continuing to support people and put them in positions to be successful."

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Future of Celtics' 'Big Three' in flux

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
-- Proverbs, 16:18

Yo, Tommy! I didn't hear no bell!
-- Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia, PA, 1990

The Celtics teeter. The league awaits the direction in which the franchise will go -- back to the playoffs for one more run, a band of brothers, Anything is Possible!, Ubuntu, and all of that. Or into the lottery, in which case team president Danny Ainge will almost certainly back up the metaphorical truck and start over, hoping the lure of tradition and Celtic Pride and the Doc Rivers Brand will entice quality free agents that will accelerate the rebuilding process. No interest in building through the Draft, they say.

And so a season that has started so terribly for Boston can go either way. Is Paul Pierce himself again, after working his way into better shape and getting his heel right, as his season-high 34 against Washington on Sunday would suggest? Is Kevin Garnett "KG" again after film work with the Celtics' assistant coaches? Can Ray Allen still work himself free over 48 minutes to get enough open looks? Can Rajon Rondo, out Sunday with a bad wrist, stay healthy? And can the bench that Ainge had to build on the fly after losing Jeff Green for the season and not getting David West and Reggie Evans as he'd planned come through when it counts?

"I don't think it's about age," Allen said Sunday. "If you look at some of the things we have and have not done, it's not an age thing; it's a same page thing. If you watch us in games we've lost, it's bad ball movement. Offensively, we haven't scored. In some games, you could say we've had good looks. But then in some games you'd say we haven't worked well with each other to make simple plays."

Ainge told reporters in Boston last week that he had no sentimentality where Pierce, Garnett or Allen were concerned, and that he wouldn't make the mistake he believed the late Red Auerbach did in the late 1980s by not dealing Larry Bird or Kevin McHale for younger players when he had the chance. Ainge made it clear he would trade any of the Big Three if he could get something good in return, and try to rebuild quickly with Rivers, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal last summer, behind the bench.

But how do you make a final call on a group this proud, which has won a championship and believes in its heart of hearts a second was there but for Video Kendrick Perkins' ACL tear in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals? A group that still does so many things well -- entering play Sunday, Boston was sixth-best in the league in points allowed, 12th in field-goal percentage allowed and eighth in assists per game. They are smart and tough and well-coached.

Pierce, who had a bad heel at the start of the season, has picked it up the last couple of weeks, Video showing Sunday that he could get to the basket without turning the ball over. Garnett, who missed point-blank looks that were automatic earlier in his career, made seven of 10 shots Sunday.

And if it's time to back up the truck, who do you unload?

An informal survey Sunday of 15 league personnel men asked the question: if salaries were not an issue, which of the Big Three still has the most value?

Seven thought Pierce had the most gas left in the tank, five chose Allen, and three went for Garnett -- with two KG supporters citing his length and defensive savvy. But, of course, salaries are an issue, with Garnett and Allen each in the final year of their respective contracts, and Pierce with two years and $32 million left on his extension. Ainge doesn't even have to make a trade; he could just let everyone's deals expire, let Garnett, Allen and Jermaine O'Neal -- along with vets like (newly acquired) Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic, all on one-year deals -- walk next summer, and try to convince prospective free agents to play with Rondo and Pierce.

Pierce puts up a brave public front when asked about the trade talk.

"Well, maybe it's my job to go out there and play like I did (Sunday) and push my value up," he said.

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Is there one last championship run left in Boston's Big Three, or are the best days behind them?
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

(Don't believe him for a second. He'd be crushed if he doesn't finish his career in Boston. With 12 seasons under his belt, Pierce desires to finish among the all-time greats in Boston. If the Celtics' Mount Rushmore currently has Russell, Bird and Havlicek already cast in stone, Pierce surely has his eye on that fourth spot. By the end of this season, he should be top five in franchise history in games and minutes played, points, free throws attempted and made, and assists.)

Allen says he's made his peace with it if he is dealt, after hearing his name in trade talks last season.

"That's sports," he said. "Anybody's tradeable if you find something that you think is going to better your organization. Danny and I talked about it last year. It's always somewhat of an honor to be traded. Sometimes in a situation that you're in, you think about being traded, but that's another team wanting you on the other side of the trade. Danny and I had that conversation last year, and he was like, 'Hey, teams have called. They've inquired about you.' And once I had that conversation, all of a sudden, you're in 'trade talks.' And now people say you might get traded. May or may not be. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to get traded."

Like other veteran teams -- Dallas, white courtesy phone -- the Celtics were among the teams most adversely affected by not having a meaningful training camp. Rivers said he saw it the first day of training camp, when they ran four-on-four drills.

"I anticipated it was going to take a while to get in condition and get right, but I didn't anticipate the record. I thought we could still win games," Rivers said. "And I've learned that you can't. It's tough. When you're older and working on conditioning, and you're playing younger, and more athletic, in shape, those two things don't go together. I never knew that. And now, I do."

"To be honest, I don't really know what team was in shape," O'Neal said. "I think when you look at the way the summer was, just collectively, guys were flying around trying to find a run, trying to find a workout, and it just kind of died out for a while. And when it got to October, guys didn't really think (a season) was going to happen, so you didn't really have a schedule. You didn't say 'at this target date, I need to be at this particular shape,' strength, whatever it is. And I think it caught guys off-guard. Boston's a little bit different, where we rest players a lot. Obviously, we have guys that's been around a while, so it's not like you come in and you get more conditioning. The days off, we almost have to have that day off to be able to play the next game."

Can the Celtics really beat a healthy Bulls or Heat team four times in seven games? They are 6-9 with back-to-back games against Orlando this week, and three of those wins have come over the woeful Wizards. "We haven't beaten a good team," O'Neal acknowledges. They Video scored 71 points against the Suns Friday -- "that was us in our own way," Allen says -- as defenses have stayed on Allen and Pierce and let Garnett and Rondo shoot jumpers. Garnett's Player Efficiency Rating has dropped to 15.98, the lowest of his career, even though he's still an outstanding defender who is the key to Boston's still-strong team D.

The irony of the last couple of months is unavoidable. Garnett and Pierce both were fierce advocates of the players' union holding firm and strong during the lockout, saying the players shouldn't take the owners' offers that gave them a bigger chunk of Basketball Related Income. Pierce helped conduct meetings of players that were interested in decertifying the union and extending the lockout -- which almost certainly would have led to canceling the season. And holding the line then may be part of what's holding the Celtics back now.

"I don't use (the lockout) as an excuse," Rivers said. "Because it doesn't really matter if you do, you know? Our record is what it is, whether it's lockout (related) or not. We were not ready to start the season, bottom line. I said that in camp. You could see it. and we're trying to get there. It's difficult, and we will get there, but it's no fun losing games while you're trying to get right.

"You shouldn't be trying to get right when the season starts. And we are. You can't use lockout as an excuse, because other teams didn't. They were ready. And it's our fault ... Obviously, Danny's looking, we're looking. I think right now we're just trying to see what our team could be when we're full strength as far as health, as far as conditioning. We haven't had that opportunity yet."

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(Last week's ranking in parentheses; weekly record in brackets)

1) Chicago (2) [3-1]: Lose Rose, lose Noah, lose Gibson, lose Lucas, start C.J. Watson and have Mike James backing him up Saturday -- Video and still win over the Bobcats. This is one mentally tough team.

2) Oklahoma City (1) [2-1]: Can't lose to the Wizards and keep the top spot. Sorry.

3) Orlando (11) [3-1]: Got through a four in five stretch as well as can be expected, with an Video overtime loss to the Spurs the only blemish. Magic spreading the wealth around offensively as well.

4) Denver (10) [4-0]: Al Harrington averaged 20.3 points on 50 percent shooting as Nuggets sweep a four-game eastern swing.

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Al Harrington's hot streak helped Denver go undefeated during a four-game swing East.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

5) Miami (6) [3-1]: It's not that the Heat is better without D-Wade; they're just different. But when you have a force like LeBron to lead you, you can withstand the loss of a superstar. For a while, anyway.

6) Memphis (15) [4-0]: Grizzlies have allowed an average of just 88.5 points per game during six-game win streak.

7) Atlanta (8) [3-1]: Give the Hawks some props; they haven't folded since losing Al Horford. Josh Smith averaging a double-double (15.8 points, 10.8 boards) in last four games.

8) Dallas (4) [2-2]: You know this is a different kind of year when Dirk Nowitzki has to ask out of a week's games in order to improve his conditioning; the Diggler had missed a grand total of 51 games in his 13-plus NBA seasons before this week.

9) L.A. Lakers (5) [1-3]: Sunday's loss to the Pacers was Lakers' first at home since opening day against Chicago.

10) Philadelphia (7) [2-2]: Sixers' CEO Adam Aron tells the Philly Inquirer that the team has sold $2 million worth of tickets in the last 10 days.

11) Utah (14) [2-1]: Per the Salt Lake Tribune, Paul Millsap averages 22 points and 10 boards, shooting 58 percent, in last four games -- against Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love. Pretty impressive.

12) L.A. Clippers (15) [3-2]: With Billups and Mo Williams (three straight games with 20 or more points) around, LAC can afford to be cautious with CP3's hamstring injury.

13) Indiana (10) [2-1]: Pretty Video impressive win Sunday night at Staples Center, and a pretty gutty performance from Roy Hibbert, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half with a broken nose.

14) San Antonio (3) [1-3]: Tale of two teams: Spurs dominant at home (9-1), pathetic on the road (1-6).

15) Portland (4) [2-2]: Blazers have wasted a great start because only Cousin LaMarcus (49 percent) and Gerald Wallace (47 percent) are shooting well among the regular rotation.

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Memphis (4-0): Rudy Gay averages 20.8 points on 56 percent shooting, but he wasn't alone -- Marc Gasol posted a ridiculous +39 in Saturday's win over the Kings -- as the Grizzlies move into first place in the Southeast Division on the strength of a six-game winning streak.

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New York (0-4): The Knicks have some hard questions to ask about their team. It's not that they won't win games, both before and when Baron Davis moves into the starting lineup. But they have become wholly dependent on watching Carmelo Anthony in isolation, just as the Nuggets did before them. I am still of the opinion that you can win with Anthony as the focal point of your offense, but such an approach makes Amar'e Stoudemire a $100 million appendage. And that makes no sense, financially or otherwise.

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How do you do on the Robert Horry Test?

The Horry Test is named after the six-time NBA champion, who made a living out of last-second clutch shots in the playoffs -- hence the nickname "Big Shot Rob." But Horry was not a superstar. So, one day -- at another Finals, of course -- I asked him if he'd rather have his championships and his place on those teams, or if he'd rather have had a career like, say, Charles Barkley, where he was a bona fide superstar, but never won a ring.

He chose Barkley's career over his own. Without hesistation. Which was shocking.

This brings us to the Pistons' Greg Monroe, who is blossoming among the weeds in Detroit for the last-place Pistons. He's increased his scoring average from his rookie season, going from 9.4 points to its current 15.4, one of the largest jumps in the league, and is grabbbing 9.5 rebounds a game. He's shooting 51 percent from the floor this month, which included a breakout 32-point, 16-rebound performance against Milwaukee, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 23.53 is 12th overall in John Hollinger's ESPN player rankings, second only to Dwight Howard among all centers. While Monroe's scoring has dropped in recent games, he's still coming on, and Detroit can at least hope Monroe follows in the footsteps of another ex-Georgetown big man, Roy Hibbert. He's improving. But Detroit is losing.

"I never worrried about personal stats," Monroe said Sunday night by telephone. "I've always worried about winning. We've been playing better. The outcome hasn't changed much, but we've definitely been playing better. I like my progress. I wouldn't take it back. But I'd definitely like to win more."

Like many of the other young Pistons, Monroe, the seventh pick in the 2010 Draft, was submerged last season as Detroit's veteran players fought with former coach John Kuester. Detroit completed its ignominous tumble from relevance in the east with a 30-52 record. Kuester was fired, the Pistons were sold to venture capitalist Tom Gores and one of the league's best fan bases collapsed. Through nine home games at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit's average of 11,860 is last in the league. It is a long climb back up for the 4-13 Pistons, but the 6-foot-11 Monroe is a good place to start, along with rookie guard Brandon Knight and still-young forwards Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye.

Detroit was looking hard at another center, DeMarcus Cousins, before the '10 Draft. But once he went to Sacramento with the fifth pick, and Golden State went for Ekpe Udoh at six, Monroe was clearly the next best big man available. He was already an excellent passer in college, having played in John Thompson III's system.

"We simply didn't think there was anyway Greg would still be on the board at #7," team president Joe Dumars said via e-mail Sunday. "So it was an easy choice to take him. Greg is an extemely high IQ player and he picks things up very quickly ... Greg is becoming the player that we envisioned him being."

First-year coach Lawrence Frank wanted to increase Monroe's role this season. The Pistons needed scoring once they bought out Rip Hamilton's contract, and Monroe was ready after spending his summer at Georgetown for the usual workouts with ex-Hoyas greats, and a week with the current varsity once the lockout got going. Monroe also went back home to New Orleans to work with his old high school coach, where he went "back to the basics" on his post moves and footwork, continuing the work he'd put in toward the end of last season, when he cracked the starting lineup for good. Now, the game is slowing down, and Monroe's status as the heir apparent to Ben Wallace is again on track.

"He has made great progress," Frank texted Sunday night. "Extremely hard worker who is totally committed to improving. Very bright and team first guy."

Frank "asked me, how good do I want to be?," Monroe said. "It just gave me confidence. He puts us in positions to be successful. I want to try and be that defensive anchor. I've been watching a lot of film this season. I want to get better defensively, add strength. Get more comfortable in the post, making better reads and making better passes to my teammates."

He's also gotten to work on the glass, currently ranking fourth inthe league in offensive rebounds (64) and sixth in total rebounds (162). He's currently shooting 81 percent from the line, and has scored in double figures in all but three of his 17 games. An imrproved jumper was on display in the Bucks' game, in which he made 12 of 16 shots and all eight of his free throws. But the Pistons as a team have a lot of work to do defensively; they're allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent from the floor, third-worst in the league. It's going to be a long road back from the days when Detroit could lock teams up for entire quarters.

For now, Monroe's one of the few bright spots.

"These are the best players in the world," Monroe said. "It's just fun being able to play the game and you know you're playing against the best players in the world. It's truly a blessing. I feel grateful every day ... It's not my job to play GM or to play coach, it's my job to play."

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Back to the Future? From Lee Wynn:

As a hardcore Lakers fan, I'm wondering if they could use a little help from some former players. Not Magic [Johnson] or [Bob] McAdoo, but Jordan Farmar at point guard and Trevor Ariza at small forward. It seems as though they need the PG after being decimated time after time by strong pick-and-roll guards like Chris Paul or Derrick Rose. As far as SF goes, I am a huge fan of Matt Barnes, but the team needs some competition for time at that spot.

Dwight is Dwight, but he is not the silver bullet for good coaching and they need players who can hold their positions. Your thoughts?

Jordan got every opportunity over several seasons to beat out Derek Fisher, and he couldn't. Just not consistent enough to be a starting point in this league. And though I like Ariza, he a) isn't available, and b) wouldn't solve the Lakers' problems by himself. L.A. has to figure out how to utilize Pau Gasol and Kobe together in a non-triangle attack, and that's a heavy lift. (And, BTW, I agree with you -- Howard's arrival would not, in and of itself, vault L.A. to the top of the pack in the West.)

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Putting Trevor Ariza (left) and Jordan Farmar (right) back in Lakers unis would not fix L.A.'s problems.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Does Bad Blake get this call? From Josh Trumm:

A lot of people are saying that Blake Griffin, who was named as one of 20 players competing for 12 Team USA roster spots for the London Olympics, is very likely to make the team, but after seeing him play against Minnesota last night, I'm not entirely convinced. While his stats were perfectly respectable (21 points, 10 rebounds) and his athleticism is incredible, I noticed from Video watching him play last night that there are many positions where he has the ball as close as the mid range and would take several useless dribbles before passing the ball. Opponents would give him room to shoot, and he would either not shoot or shoot and miss. And when he was in the post, he was often bullied defensively by Kevin Love (another Team USA candidate), Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic. Those three players all had solid games, with Love and Darko pacing the team all night, and the Minnesota big men playing some great defense against Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin seemed thrown off by the fact he was being guarded so well and did not really dominate the game as much as he could have.

Now it may be the plays that were being run, and I know that 21 and 10 is pretty good, but one of the things I loved about Griffin in his first year was that he seemed to have the desire to destroy everyone in his path. If he had the ball and space to drive, he would just leap over everyone he couldn't get around. I imagine it would be harder this year for him because people have had time to figure out his tricks, but if that is true then I would like to see him improve on those areas of his game that could turn him into a more complete player (cutting down on turnovers, free throws, midrange shooting). I think Team USA will ultimately pass on Griffin's athleticism (which would likely dominate a great deal of opponents) to add some more skilled big men (Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, even vet Lamar Odom, who provided some great minutes at center last time the team played).

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Which All-Star forward gives Team USA a better shot at the gold: Kevin Love or Blake Griffin?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Griffin will hopefully be a lock in the coming years, but this time I just think there are more well-rounded big men who could help Team USA more at this point

The international game rewards different skill sets, to be sure. Big men often assume that "stretch four" position, something Griffin has not yet added to his game (though he did make his only 3-point attempt this season). Bosh and Love have both added the 3-pointer to their arsenals, and Odom has indeed played very well in international play. But Blake rebounds at a high clip, and there's room for his ability to finish above the rim on any court. My guess -- and it's just a guess right now -- is that Blake will be among the final cuts for London, assuming the Clippers aren't in The Finals -- in which case Griffin or anyone else would have difficulty transitioning to the Olympic team with the early start of the Summer Games this year.

Patience, despite being a known virtue, was dealt for a couple of future second-rounders. From Eric Lieb:

I am a Chicago Bulls fan -- have been since I was 10 (I am now 30). It took the Bulls a bit of time to gel as a team once [Scottie] Pippen and [Horace] Grant joined the team in the late '80s. If the Bulls team of then were around today, it would seem as if the GMs may have been considering trading Pippen or Grant after the 1990 Game 7 loss to the Pistons to get a "better team" -- and Jordan may have left!

It seems as if athletes and GMs do not have as much patience as they once did. GMs do not seem to be as willing to let the coaching staff take the time they need to better "mold" a team. Coaches may also not be as dynamic as they could be. All in all, it appears as if athletes leave teams for other teams to "win a championship," GMs trade away players that they do not see potential in anymore and coaches do not seem to know how to use the different types of talent that they have to make a cohesive team.

Are teams less patient today? Yes. Owners no longer think you have to go slow in order to build a champion. Call it the KG Effect, after the Celtics traded for a title contending team in the summer of 2007 by acquiring Garnett and Ray Allen to surround Paul Pierce. But players are no longer as willing to stick it out on bad teams, or even good teams that may have plateaued -- call it the LeBron Effect (you know what happened there). It makes everyone's job more precarious.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and your "Don't Blame Me; I Voted for Colbert" bumper stickers to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently intelligent, thought-provoking, funny or snarky, we just might publish it!

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(averages from last Monday through Sunday in parenthesis.)

1) LeBron James (30 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7 apg, .530 FG, .788 FT): Sunday's loss notwithstanding, he has been brilliant with Dwyane Wade out of the lineup.

2) Kevin Durant (27 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 apg, .439 FG, .826 FT): Career-high 15 boards in Saturday's win over the Nets.

3) Dwight Howard (19.5 ppg, 18.8 rpg, 3.75 bpg, .547 FG, .455 FT): Howard has already posted five 20-20 games this season, including 21 and 23 Friday night against the guy that the Magic supposedly would acquire from him in a Lakers trade, Andrew Bynum.

4) Kobe Bryant (25.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.5 apg, .421 FG, .895 FT): Still looking for more teammates to carry their share of the offensive load more consistently.

5) Derrick Rose (DNP): That left toe is obviously going to be a problem.

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5 -- Years since the Mavericks had won a game in New Orleans Video before Saturday's 83-81 victory. The Hornets had won 11 straight over Dallas in New Orleans Arena dating back to December, 2006.

6 -- Years since Video Kobe Bryant went for 81 points against the Raptors.

7 -- Years since Herb Williams made his debut as the interim head coach of the Knicks, after Lenny Wilkens resigned. Williams finished 16-27 in 2005, after which Knicks GM Isiah Thomas hired Larry Brown, with disastrous results.

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1) There is no doubt in my mind that Dwight Howard still wants to be traded. But if you're Superman, and you wake up this morning, and you see that your team is in first place in the Southeast Division, and Derrick Rose has a bum toe in Chicago, and Dwyane Wade has a bum ankle in Miami, and Al Horford is out for the season in Atlanta, and the Celtics look very, very old, and the Knicks are completely discombobulated, and the only other teams other than Chicago and Miami in the East that have made a mark so far are the 76ers and Pacers, and you have Ryan Anderson playing out of his mind next to you, and Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson haven't yet found their stride, does it not at least enter your mind that in a season as compressed as this one, you might have a great chance to get to The Finals this season right where you are? I mean, how could you not say the Magic are a legit title contender this season, the way they defend and the way Howard is Hoovering boards?

2) How about that Coach McHale down in Houston?

3) Cousin LaMarcus is ballin'.

4) Okay. I love, love, LOVE the Floridians unis Video the Heat wore Saturday. My only question: where was Jackie Moon?

5) Should be a great Super Bowl. If Tom Brady wins a fourth, is he better than Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw?

6) I must admit I see a certain logic in the Bourdain position here.

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1) There are only six teams in the 15-team Eastern Conference with winning records this morning. That is horrible. How horrible? Washington, at 2-14, is still just 4.5 games out of the final playoff spot.

2) Just saw Stephen Jackson a couple of weeks ago at Bradley Center, and he swore everything was cool with him and Scott Skiles, and he was cool being in quiet Milwaukee during the season, so I'm hoping there's nothing brewing there.

3) The league needs to get a buyer for the Hornets, fast. This limbo-type existence is not fair to the fans in New Orleans, the players or the team's management. How can the team negotiate with Eric Gordon's reps on a contract extension when the league has made it clear it doesn't want big salaries added to the team's payroll?

4) Condolences to all who lost their lives in the Costa Concordia accident. At least so far, though, Micky Arison -- the Heat's owner who also owns the parent company of Costa Cruises, Carnival Corp. -- has been transparent in seeking answers to what exactly happened in Italy.

5) Condolences, also, to Joe Paterno's family. A man should not be judged solely by the worst day of his life, and surely, if Paterno had it to do over again, he would have acted differently when told what his longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was allegedly doing. But he didn't, and thus his good works and good reputation have to take a hit. Yet they should not be ignored. His was a meaningful life. (BTW, I know a lot of people, good people, who work for CBSSports.com, and I suspect they are ashamed of their company for its performance Saturday night, prematurely reporting Paterno's death. And it doesn't matter that the original story came from another outlet; someone at CBS should lose his or her job for posting it on that site without having first-hand knowledge that it was true. Disgraceful. One more time: it is better to be second and right than first and wrong.)

6) RIP, Etta James. If "At Last" isn't on your marooned island list, you need to get a new ITunes account.

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This week's Mr. Fifteen is Thunder guard Royal Ivey. The 30-year-old, in his eighth pro season, has appeared in just two games this season for the Thunder, totalling 12 minutes. Oklahoma City is Ivey's fourth NBA team, following stints with the Hawks (where he started 66 games in 2005-06), 76ers and Bucks. He signed with Oklahoma City as a free agent in 2010. But he is already planning for his next move after his playing days are done; he took advantage of the lockout to finish up his course work at the University of Texas, following in the footsteps of his parents; his mother, Jennifer, has a master's in special education.

Me: What did you get your degree in?

Royal Ivey: Applied Learning and Development, with a minor in Social Work.

Me: And you did that during the lockout?

RI: Yeah, I finished, and December 3rd I graduated.

Me: How many classes?

RI: I took a total of six classes -- two in the summer and four in the fall.

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Royal Ivey, a seldom-used reserve guard for the Thunder, recently finished his degree at Texas.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Me: How important was that to you, considering your parents both got college degrees? Any subtle pressures?

RI: Yeah, it was perfect timing. It was a blessing in disguise. I just had to get it done. It was just lingering. I had this extra time due to the lockout, so I had to be in there, and I got it done ... I started it, and that was my goal, to get my degree. Being in the NBA was something extra. I felt like I had unfinished business. I went down there this summer and they told me I only had [those] classes to complete it. So I said I had to lock it down. I got focused, and I did it. It was different being that student-athlete compared to just being a student. It's much easier.

Me: What were the classes you took?

RI: They were educational courses, mostly my core courses -- adolescent development, childhood play, psychology. No math classes, no math or science. So I got those classes knocked out.

Me: Do you remember the last paper you had to write?

RI: Yeah, I did. It was a 10-page paper for my adolescent and psychology class. I thought I would never get it done. It was just lingering. It was a lot of work, a lot of research. When I finally finished that paper, it didn't matter what I got. I just handed it in. I was like, I completed it. And she was like, it was a blessing to have you in our class.

Me: What was the sense of accomplishment, getting your degree?

RI: I put this up there, man. Just getting that diploma and walking across the stage, and my mom and my dad being able to see me for those two seconds when you get your degree, it means a lot. It means the world to me. I set out to do it and I got it done. It was just perfect timing.

Me: You played with LaMarcus (Aldridge) at Texas, and I'm sure when you left school you had an idea of what your career would be. How has the reality of it compared to what you thought would happen?

RI: To be honest, when I got drafted in '04, many people didn't think, you know, they asked, 'Why did they take him?' Nobody thought I would stay this long. I'm going on my eighth year, and [I'm] just a journeyman. I never imagined I'd be in the NBA this long. Just my hard work and my perseverance has paid off. I just tell the youngsters, set a goal, and no matter what nobody tells you, just keep on striving for that goal. That's what I did. I had that in the back of my mind and just kept on working.

Me: People use that word 'journeyman' in a negative way. That means you've played a long time in the NBA. A lot of stars don't play that long. So what goes into the craft of being a professional player day in and day out?

RI: I think you've got to take it day by day, and your professionalism is key. Coming to work early, working hard, doing all the extra things, being a good teammate, being a good person, that goes in. People don't understand that that makes you a good player and a good professional. Doing the little things, the intanglibles. Being a good teammate, cheering your teammates on, picking them up when they're not playing well, communicating with them. Those are the things that people don't really see that makes teams better, those character guys that are there to just make that team better, and to uplift the team. That's what I think I add to the team we have now, with the youngsters. That's what I've been doing my whole career.

Me: Do you get as much out of a good practice now as you would a game?

RI: Oh, yeah, because I'm competitive. I just try to lock in and play it as a game. Practice, I treat it as a game. I'm coming in hard, I'm giving it my all, 110 percent every time I step on the floor, whether it's practice or it's a game. That's my approach.

Me: Kevin (Durant) says you're a mentor to him. What do you try to do?

RI: We spend a lot of time, you know, whether it's going to breakfast, just talking small talk about family, just about life, relationships, everything. That's what I look at it, like (he's) my little brother. He can come to me whenever he has questions, or if he has to vent. That's what I'm here for. And just seeing him grow into the person he is today, besides the basketball player, that's what I'm happy about. Because he's so humble and he's so giving of himself. He's so selfless. And that says a lot for somebody's who's a superstar stature like him.

Me: Do you have different goals now?

RI: Mostly, one day, coaching in this league. Hopefully get to 10 years in my career. I'm at eight.

Me: Does your voice carry in the locker room? Do they listen to you?

RI: I think everybody holds everybody accountable on this team. It's a respect factor. They respect me. Even though I don't play a lot of minutes, it's the fact that my word does mean something. I see the game, I'm watching the game. So I understand if we're giving a lackluster effort, I can acknowledge that. And people respect that. I don't really speak much, but when I say something, it means something.

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Today we play vs. New Orleans Hornets, my former team ... Well at least for two hours they were my team, ha

-- Rockets forward Luis Scola), Thursday, 1:29 p.m., referring to his near-trade to the Hornets in December that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. But, of course, that deal fell through, and Paul wound up going to the Clippers.

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"He's mad about Superman. I didn't know he made it up. I didn't know Superman came from Shaquille O'Neal ... He's still mad about it. I would suggest he just sit down and get on with his life. He don't play no more so what's the point of talking trash? It's not like we're wrestlers and we can battle it out."
-- Dwight Howard, Video responding to Shaquille O'Neal's critique on TNT Thursday that the Lakers' Video Andrew Bynum was the game's only "true" center, and suggesting that Shaq is still irked that Howard adapted the "Superman" nickname that he once used.

"Booing is not going to help somebody play better. I know that. It's showing displeasure, but I don't think all fo a sudden if you're booing, he's going to go out and 20 points and 15 rebounds because we're booing. If that was the case, everyone would do it."
-- Wizards Coach Flip Saunders, defending forward Andray Blatche from boo birds at Verizon Center who have soured on the seventh-year forward.

"I have no desire to coach. You never say never, right? I mean, there's always something that might change my mind -- but I just don't see it."
-- Phil Jackson, to the New York Times, addressing the never-ending speculation that he will return to the bench -- perhaps next season, with the Knicks -- but, at least, somewhere.

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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