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David Aldridge

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L.A. has been a Lakers town, but Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the Clippers may be changing that.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Clippers making case for fair share of L.A.'s spotlight


Posted Feb 6 2012 7:33AM

Their locker rooms are about 50 yards from one another on the floor level of Staples Center. Their histories are light years apart, as different as you could be and still be in the same league.

The Lakers' franchise has 16 championships.

The Clippers' first playoff appearance in Los Angeles came 16 years since the franchise's last one -- when it was in Buffalo.

The Lakers had a point guard named Magic.

The Clippers had a head coach who did magic tricks. (Seriously. Bob Weiss. He was very good at it, too.)

The Lakers have seven retired jerseys hanging inside Staples.

Assuming they keep it up this year, the Clippers will have had seven winning seasons. Out of 42.

You know the litany.

But you also know, if you're in Staples these days, that the Clippers have the crowds with the enthusiasm (Rihanna has been courtside more than once already), and they have the young superstar in Blake Griffin, and they have the productive role players like Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups. And they have the game-changer the Lakers coveted, Chris Paul. One decision by one commissioner changed everything in the City of Angels. Owners complained during the lockout about all the power superstar players had to dictate where they wanted to play, but when you have one on your team, nothing is ever the same again. The Clippers now have two -- one of which set the league on its heels last week with an Video otherwordly dunk, the kind of "Holy Bleep" iconic moment that can come to define a franchise, the way Jordan's dunk over Ewing in the '91 playoffs came to symbolize the Bulls' superiority, or Video Bird's follow-the-missed-shot in Game 1 of the '81 Finals against Houston that showed the Celtics were back, or Video Magic's "junior junior" skyhook over McHale and Parish in Game 4 of the '87 Finals.

The Lakers are still the top dog in town today. But there may be, finally, the beginnings of a true rivalry stirring. Could fans finally be switching their allegiances after 30 years?

"I don't feel it," Paul said Friday. "If it is, I don't pay any attention to it. I'm more concentrated on what we're doing over here. That's how I was when I was in New Orleans. When I was in New Orleans I didn't care about anything else, because I knew what I had to do. When I step out on the court, I expect to win."

Paul has brought his basketball skills, of course, and they are considerable, and he has brought his leadership and PR skills in the community, which were formidable in New Orleans and will be just as good in L.A. But the most important thing he brought is that stank eye when his teammates do something wrong, or blow an assignment. I mean this in the best possible way. Chris Paul is an (expletive) when he loses, in the wonderful tradition of Jordan and Bird and Magic and Isiah.

"I love playing on the road, because nobody expects you to win," Paul said. "And everybody's against you. I love that. I love when the expectations are against you. That's why I love playing in the playoffs, playing here against the Lakers. Nobody expects you to win and everybody's against you. I can't stand to lose. And I don't expect to lose. I don't care who's playing. We found out just before the jump ball that Caron wasn't playing (Wednesday, in Utah). All right, let's roll."

For the first time in a generation, the Clippers have stable management throughout their organization. (Of course, in true Donald Sterling fashion, the guy who was central in making all of this happen, general manager Neil Olshey, is working without a contract, free to pick up and leave tomorrow if someone offers him a deal. Given that he's surrounded Griffin with Paul, Butler, Billups, Mo Williams and, now, Kenyon Martin, and kept enough cap room available to easily match an offer sheet on DeAndre Jordan -- all in the last year, and all but Williams in the last six weeks -- what do you suspect Olshey's worth on the open market is these days? Knowing Sterling, he'll make Olshey go out and get an offer, than decide to match it -- and then try not to pay him, like he did Bill Fitch and Mike Dunleavy and others silly enough to believe a contract with Sterling meant something.)

The Clippers don't have the Lakers' mega-TV deal with Time Warner, but all their metrics are pointing north. They have sold out every game for more than a year, including all of this season's, and expect to sell out the rest, drawing on a season ticket base of around 12,500. Through seven road games, their average of 19,436 tops the league. Their corporate sponsorships are up and their ratings, both locally and nationally, are spiking. They are ... sexy.

"The fan support is amazing," Paul said. "Everywhere you go to eat, or anything like that, the fans are very supportive, letting us know how excited they are for us, things like that. You've got to know yourself. I knew the way I play, and the way these guys played hard and stuff already, just the combination, and bringing in Chauncey and stuff like that, I wasn't worried about it one bit..I guarantee you, when we step into any arena, ain't nobody looking at us like we're a joke."

Meanwhile, the Lakers, slowly, try to rebuild themselves on the court. They have not looked good, stylistically or effectively, for long stretches, and the Dwight Howard rumor mill will never die down until he's dealt, whenever that is. But the reports of their demise have been a little premature.

"Well, I don't know too many people that would feel comfortable playing us (in the playoffs), know what I mean?" Kobe Bryant said last week, and yes, you do.

The December trade of Lamar Odom to the Mavericks still resonates throughout the remaining Lakers, like a tuning fork that vibrates long after you've struck it. The hangover was long-lasting. Without the matchup problems Odom created, the Lakers are a lot easier to guard. Moreover, his personality took some of the edge out of L.A.'s locker room. Odom could speak to anybody.

"I definitely think it lingered for a number of reasons, but I don't know for how long," Fisher said. "Obviously, in terms of his talent and skill and ability, there was for sure an adjustment. But I think culturally, psychologically, emotionally for our team, there also was an adjustment. And not so much a teammate being traded -- those are things that happen in this business. I just think the dynamics of it -- yes, no, yes again -- it was just a weird time, coming off of a lockout season and getting thrust back into it, and 10 days later, and then to have that happen, I think it did take a little bit more energy for us to right our ship and try to focus on just basketball."

The Lakers aren't the machine they were at the beginning of the century, when Kobe was young and Shaq was dominant, nor a couple of years ago, when they had 21 feet of quality bigs. That luxury allowed Bryant to seek and destroy at his discretion, and with their defense and experience in the triangle, they made three straight Finals, winning two titles. But Phil Jackson is gone and the Lakers are Jim Buss' team now, having purged themselves of almost everything that could remind anyone that Jackson was here 11 years. Jeanie Buss, Jim's sister and the Lakers executive vice president and Jackson's longtime paramour, has rarely been seen at games this season. Mike Brown has put his defensive stamp on the team; L.A. leads the league in field-goal percentage allowed (.416), is fifth in points allowed (90.8), 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions (97.8), fourth in rebound margin (2.41) and third in rebounds per game (44.3).

But a team that's made so many changes in one offseason desperately needed lots of off days and practice time, and the Lakers had almost none of it the first month of the season. Bynum missed the first four games due to his suspension for his hit on J.J. Barea in the playoffs last season. But the Lakers got two practice days last week, and they'll get two days off this week, and they'll have four days off next week. It may take all season for them to get things right, but the goal isn't finishing first in the West; it's just making the playoffs.

"It's such a short season, and there's no practice time," Bryant said. "It depends on when you figure things out. If you figure things out going into the postseason, and you get a good rhythm, that's what you want. Especially in a shortened season, that's kind of really what you're looking to do. At least not for us, you just can't (improve immediately), because of the changes, the players, and so forth. You can't just come out of the gate and fight for a one seed, or a two seed. That's just not realistic. But we want to build, and get better, and go into the playoffs with momentum."

Odom said that part of his adjustment in Dallas was unlearning the language and principles of the triangle, which had been hard-wired into the players for most of the last decade. But Gasol, who has looked lost at times in Brown's system, thinks things will turn around -- and most teams would gladly take Gasol's "struggling" double-double average of 16 and 10, shooting 51 percent from the floor.

"You still go back to some of the (triangle) principles, maybe, at times," Gasol said. "Some of your instincts and reactions might lead you towards that. But I play in a different system every summer, with the (Spanish) national team, so I can adjust pretty quick and I'm trying to adjust as quick as I can to this new system and what the coaches want us to do out there. I don't find myself going into the triangle mode, or triangle positions, even though some of the principles are still in place. I think we should get better as the season goes by. We should stay positive throughout. If we do that, I think we can end up in a good place."

The Lakers' problem has been their bench, which has been anemic. Steve Blake has been injured and Metta World Peace has been ineffective; World Peace was put back in the starting lineup late last week. Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy have been up and down, as have Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono. The team's most consistent reserve has probably been rookie guard Andrew Goudelock. The uncertainty has left Brown switching minutes and rotations, looking for a group that can keep them close.

Yet the Lakers are just a game and a half behind the Clippers, who currently have the second seed in the west. They are hardly Lottery bound. Bynum, who will make his first All-Star appearance, has been a force since his return from the suspension. And there sits Kobe, playing as good a good soldier as he can given the turmoil. Waiting.

"We don't feed into that, because the Lakers aren't done," the Clippers' Mo Williams said. "Trust me. They're pretty good. We don't say that. We don't think that, I know that for sure. (Fans) should be excited. We're a good team. We play well together. We continue to get better. We want to do the right things on the floor. But we don't get caught up in the hoopla about Lakers and Clippers. We've got a lot of years to make up for that."

The Clippers have their own issues. This isn't a finished product by any means. Williams is up after this season, and while he's embraced coming off the bench this year, he still thinks he's a starter. Martin is here only as a two-month rental. Billups agreed to come after much recruting after being amnestied by the Knicks, but he's only here the rest of this season as well. That's why second-year guard Eric Bledsoe will be going nowhere for the foreseeable future; the Clippers need some insurance in case they wake up next summer and they have no backup for Paul.

Oh, yeah, Paul. He's committed to L.A. only until the summer of 2013, giving the Clippers two years to prove they've turned things around for good. The only players L.A. has locked up long-term are the newly signed Jordan (four years) and Butler (three years).

Keeping Billups past this season is crucial. He is not the explosive offensive player he was when he won the Finals MVP in 2004, but his smarts, savvy and playoff chops are in short supply in the Clips' locker room. He's playing off the ball for the first time in his career.

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There is a buzz surrounding Staples Center as Lakers and Clippers fans are adding to the budding rivalry.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

"CP, I think we just allow him to be him and do kind of what he does," Billups said. "Me, it's been a tough adjustment for me, playing like that, because I'm playing without the ball, ever, in my hands. A lot of my shots, some of my 3s, are in positions I've never had. It's not an adjustment for CP at all; it's more of an adjustment for me. Which is fine. Which is fine. It's no big deal. But it's tough. It's tough. It's tough to get a rhythm like that. But it is what it is, man. The team is winning. It's good. I'll never rock the boat or say nothing about it."

Both teams are east for the next week on the "Grammy Trip," while Staples gets ready to host the awards show. Good teams find their voice on the road. They bond and hang out together, and they find rotations that make sense, and they get a bit of an edge, a collective chip on the shoulder. The Lakers have been lousy away from home this season; the Clippers don't have a big enough sample size, having played just eight road games.

But there is unfinished business in L.A. Ever since Bob Short moved his franchise west from Minneapolis in 1960, the Lakers have owned the city. The tradition of Baylor and West and Wilt, Kareem and Magic and Worthy, Shaq and Kobe and Pau and Phil, has made the Lakers synonymous with West Coast cool. Randy Newman's iconic I Love L.A. was the franchise's unofficial anthem. Jack and Dyan and Denzel. Tanter. Rings. Championships. Tradition. Five decades' worth. That will not be ceded without a fight, and if that comes in the first round of the playoffs, so much the better.

The Clippers are coming. The two teams have met four times this season -- two preseason, two regular season -- and the Clippers, the previously god-awful, Benoit Benjaminish, Bill-Walton's-Foot-Broke-For-Good-There, Elton Brand left town as soon as he could Clippers have won three. They respect what the Lakers have done. But they have plans of their own.

"It's kind of obvious to see," Billups said. "They see the attention we're getting now. And it's rightfully so. We've played pretty well thus far, and it's not like they can say it's unwarranted. We've earned it. They're used to this being a Laker only town, and that's it. I think it's still a Laker town. But we're making some people notice what's going on here."

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It was probably inevitable, watching players fall left and right once the lockout-shortened season began, watching the lackluster quality of play night in and out from teams that didn't get any meaningful training camp time together, that people would focus their attention on the performance of the NBA's referees. That it came from Mark Cuban was not a surprise. But ever since the "Ed Rush couldn't manage a Dairy Queen" days, Cuban hasn't just yodeled. He's made recommendations that have made sense and that improved the way the league evaluates its officials. When he speaks, the NBA should listen.

"Look, I haven't said a whole lot about the officiating in a long, long time, but I haven't seen it this bad in a long, long time," Cuban said Wednesday night after the Mavericks lost to the Thunder, and Rick Carlisle was ejected after kicking a ball in protest of what he thought was a blown call.

"Guys miss calls; that's part of the game," Cuban said. "You're not always going to have a great crew. Officials have got to learn that's part of the game. But these were officials (Ron Garretson, Michael Smith and Mark Ayotte) that have been part of the league for years, and it was just off-the-charts bad. And, if no one ever says anything, nothing ever happens."

But Cuban wasn't the only one. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis had his own, slightly less-biting critique of the officiating on his blog Thursday, pointing out that the Magic shot 39 free throws (making 30) to Washington's nine (making seven) Wednesday in a game the Wizards lost by six. That came two days after the Bulls shot 31 free throws (making 24) to Washington's 13 and 11 in a game the Wizards lost by 10. Leonsis avoided a fine from the league.

"This is the second game in a row where the disparity of free throw attempts is startling," Leonsis wrote.

"As a young team; we have not yet established a relationship with the officials; they seem to blow the whistle with abandon on our team; I can see how disheartening it is at times on our players -- so I am proud that we never quit last night -- we are seeing progress and contribution from many players...we deserved a better fate (Wednesday) night in Orlando. The last two games -- the disparity in free throw attempts have been too hard to overcome; both Chicago and Orlando have former MVP players on their teams; they command respect; we have a lot of work to do to get some respect back from officials, but I am confident it too will come with time, and performance."

So, are the refs worse this season?

"Yes, it's worse," one head coach texted Sunday afternoon. "I think it's the same in superstar calls. That will never change. No consistency!!!"

But not everyone agrees with that premise, putting the onus elsewhere.

"I don't think (officiating) is worse," another head coach said Sunday. "I think the level of play is so sloppy in general that a difficult game to officiate has become even more so."

Said another head coach: "I actually think it has been pretty consistent with years past. A few bad games. A few guys I still think shouldn't be in the league. But that isn't any different than years past."

Officiating, obviously, is always going to be under a microscope. And given some of the changes that referees won in their new deal last October from the league, there might have been reason for teams to wonder if this year's crews were more susceptible to breaking down -- and, thus, potentially missing calls.

The referees' union asked for a loosening of the standards the league had been using for years. The union's chief negotiating attorney, Lee Seham, said in October that the league asked its referees to maintain the same height and weight requirements throughout their careers, as members of the military do. But Seham argued successfully that referees could continue doing their jobs at the top level even as their metabolisms slowed with age and they gained a few pounds.

The league agreed; referees over 50 years old were allowed to be a little heavier than their younger brethren, and referees over 60 were given a few pounds above that level. The league does not have a Body Mass Index standard, but does have a body fat percentage standard. A few of the league's 60 referees exceeded that target weight this season, but all met the body fat percentage standard and thus were allowed to work this season. In addition, veteran officials could, before the start of the season, request that the number of back-to-back games they worked be limited, as they have been able to do in years past; a few officials have asked to work no back-to-back games.

But while the league sees the obvious line of argument -- if the refs, like the players, are working more games in a shorter period of time, in a denser schedule, they must be working more and thus susceptible to making mistakes -- it does not agree with the hypothesis.

"There has been no material change from last year in incorrect calls," NBA President of League and Basketball Operations Joel Litvin said by telephone Sunday. "I think the total number of fouls called per game has gone down slightly. Accuracy wise, we're monitoring that. It has not changed. Compared to prior seasons, season to date, it's the same. I haven't compared it to end of season. They're not complaining about it much, and at a game (more) per month, it's not a big difference. And fortunately we haven't had the uptick in injuries that we've seen on the players' side."

According to Litvin, officials are working, on a four-week average, approximately 10.8 games, up slightly from the average of 9.6 games per four weeks they worked last season. (On average, teams are playing about two games more per month in the 66-games-in-four-months schedule.) As it's been the last two years, five or six Development League officials are working up to 50 regular season NBA games this season. They are not eligible to work NBA postseason games.

And the officiating crews have, for the most part, avoided the rash of injuries that have felled so many players. Veteran Bennett Salvatore has been out since the first week of the season with an injury, and he had a setback last week while rehabbing. And David Guthrie, who became an NBA referee in 2005, hurt his knee earlier this season but is expected back before the end of the year. But that has been all so far. In addition, referees are now allowed to stay on the road if it is easier for them to fly to their next scheduled city a day or two early -- and stay there at league expense -- instead of flying back to their homes and then proceeding to their next assigment.

"This should make them more rested," Litvin said. "It should cut the other way, actually."

And rather than go through the cumbersome process of having teams "send in the tape," as they did in years past when they thought their teams had been wronged by bad calls, the NBA now has a Team Inquiry Website where specific complaints are supposed to be addressed within a couple of days by the league's Referee Operations department.

"There has not been an increase in the number of TI complaints," Litvin said. "And based on the non-scientific number of calls I get from owners complaining about calls, that hasn't gone up much either. We're generally pleased. We're always striving to get better, and that's not any different than in prior seasons. We don't see the change in schedule being any impediment to that, and we don't see it being an impediment to the health of our referees or the correctness of their calls."

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

1) Miami (2) [3-1]: Seven wins in last eight leaves the Heat with the East's second-best record, but their win over Chicago (which has the best record in the conference) last week leaves Miami atop our board.

2) Chicago (3) [3-1]: Deng returns, but will he be able to gut it out without surgery?

3) Philadelphia (5) [3-1]: Yes, Sixers have fattened up on bad teams, but Philly is also 4-2 against East's elite (Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Indiana).

4) Oklahoma City (1) [2-2]: Thunder showed signs of slippage last week in losses to the Clippers and Spurs.

5) Indiana (6) [3-1]: Pacers have played only eight of their first 23 at home.

6) L.A. Clippers (10) [3-1]: Kenyon Martin latest to join Brother Blake's Traveling Leap Show.

7) San Antonio (14) [4-0]: Spurs embark on Rodeo Trip; they're 50-23 lifetime during the annual group bond.

8) L.A. Lakers (9) [2-1]: MWP back in the starting lineup -- for now -- but Lakers' bench really struggling to score.

9) Atlanta (4) [1-2]: Still holding on, but lost Jason Collins for a couple of weeks, and with Al Horford out, Collins was important. Per the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Hawks just 3-8 against teams with winning records this season.

10) Utah (13) [2-2]: Veteran Earl Watson has taken over at the point in crunch time for a still-growing Jazz core.

11) Houston (11) [1-3]: Rockets away from home for almost two weeks on six-game road trip.

12) Dallas (7) [1-3]: Diggler struggles to get back in form after taking time off to rehab his knee.

13) Denver (8) [1-3]: Channeling my inner Hubie: To beat the Nuggets, you MUST get back in transition. And you MUST rebound. If you don't, they will KILL you.

14) Portland (12) [2-2]: Dominating at home is important, but until the Blazers figure out how to compete better away from the Rose Garden, they're not for real in the West.

15) Orlando [NR] (3-1): This is the craziest team: played great for three weeks, played horrible for 10 days, now wins three straight, including a win at Indiana Saturday without Jameer Nelson and the suspended Big Baby.

Dropped out: Memphis (15)

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San Antonio (4-0): Spurs won their 13th out of 14 at home, the best in the league, in their impressive win Saturday over Oklahoma City. All of a sudden, the Spurs aren't below the radar; they're back, center stage, just as they've been for a generation, with rookie Kawhi Leonard starting at shooting guard. Was Tony Parker the last rookie that Pop started?

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New Orleans (0-4): Wow: Bugs have broken 100-point mark just twice in 24 games this season. It's great to have a plan to rebuild, but until the league gets a buyer in place that can start making a true commitment to this franchise, it's terribly unfair to keep asking fans in the Big Easy to pay top-shelf prices to watch this. The NBA --David Stern in particular -- has an obligation to make this right, and soon.

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Isn't it time for Cousin LaMarcus to make his first All-Star team?

The Blazers forward is a shoo-in to be in Orlando in less than three weeks as one of the Western Conference reserves, and it's probably no stretch to include Minnesota's Kevin Love and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook as gimme choices. In the East, the same can be said for Miami's Chris Bosh, Atlanta's Joe Johnson and Indiana's Roy Hibbert (a no-brainer as the Eastern Conference's backup center behind Orlando's Dwight Howard). But what of the other four positions in each conference? Let's take a whack at them, shall we?

EASTERN CONFERENCE

STARTERS: Derrick Rose (Bulls), Dwyane Wade (Heat), LeBron James (Heat), Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Dwight Howard (Magic)

LIKELY RESERVES: Bosh, Johnson, Hibbert

MY OTHER CHOICES: Andre Iguodala (Philadelphia), Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee), Josh Smith (Atlanta), Deron Williams (Nets)

Nobody's going to argue Bosh (20 and 7, shooting 52 percent from the floor), Johnson (18.7 ppg) or Hibbert (averaging a double-double for the vastly improved Pacers), as deserving All-Star reserves, right? Bosh has stepped in quite well as the loyal second when Wade went down; Johnson has helped the Hawks survive the loss of Horford; Hibbert has clearly been the second-best center in the East behind Howard. So we can go ahead with the others.

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Brandon Jennings has had to make up a hefty amount of the scoring load in Milwaukee with the absence of Andrew Bogut.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Proving that winning is the ultimate arbiter of All-Star success, Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia has to be represented at Amway Arena, and Iguodala should be the 76ers' choice, despite posting his lowest scoring average since his second pro season. Making the All-Star team for the first time would validate Iguodala's long-held belief that his all-around game, from his perimeter defense to his skill at the "hockey assist" -- the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket -- and his court savvy are among the best in the game, and have not been valued while the Sixers languished.

"It used to mean a whole lot," Iguodala said of making the All-Star team. "I think I got snubbed once or twice. I have other things that are more important now. Back then, that was the most important. But (now) the Olympics are more important, and us winning are more important right now. But, that would be great."

Jennings has had to carry even more of the Bucks' scoring load with Andrew Bogut again injured. He probably will never shoot a great percentage from the floor because he has to take so many jumpers, but his .433 mark this season is the best of his career by far. Honestly, though, Jennings would not be on this list if Rajon Rondo hadn't gotten injured. Smith has been outstanding again for the Hawks, averaging nearly a a double-double -- and, most importantly to the Hawks, has only taken 18 3s so far this season after inexplicably taking 154 last season, so he gets picked over the likes of Paul Pierce (who would have gotten the nod if he hadn't started so slowly) and Andrea Bargnani (Toronto). Williams is on a bad team to be sure, but his numbers have picked up noticeably in the last couple of weeks, as has the Nets' competitiveness.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

STARTERS: Chris Paul (Clippers), Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Kevin Durant (Thunder), Blake Griffin (Clippers), Andrew Bynum (Lakers)

LIKELY RESERVES: Aldridge, Love, Westbrook

MY OTHER CHOICES: Tony Parker (Spurs), James Harden (Thunder), Paul Millsap (Jazz), Steve Nash (Suns)

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The Spurs' strong start has been a direct result of Tony Parker's efficient play.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

There may be no second acts in American life, but the 29-year-old Parker, always a scoring point, is having un renaissance for the Spurs, averaging a career-best 7.7 assists this season, passing Avery Johnson as the franchise's all-time assist leader Saturday. Considering George Hill is gone, Manu Ginobili and T.J. Ford are hurt and Gary Neal missed the start of the season following an appendectomy, Parker's play has been crucial to San Antonio's strong start, and gets him to Orlando ahead of Houston's Kyle Lowry, who is having another great season for the surprising Rockets.

No, Harden doesn't start for Oklahoma City, but do you really think it's because he's not good enough? He would be starting for 25 other teams, and his scoring average would be even higher than now (a career-best 16.6 per game). He is a much, much better passer -- he may be the Thunder's best passer -- than he gets credit for being.The all-but-official Sixth Man of the Year beats out Houston's Kevin Martin on this ballot. You could replace Millsap with his Jazz teammate Al Jefferson; their numbers are that close. Millsap got the nod here because he's been a little more efficient than Jefferson for the Jazz, with a top 10 PER and strong numbers (16.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

And the Nasty One has never been filthier, leading the league in assists (9.9 per game), shooting better than 54 percent from the floor and 87 from the foul line. The Suns are horrible, admittedly, and you could make an argument for a player from a winning team. It won't be made here. The All-Star Game is the fans' game, and who wouldn't want to see Nash diming people up, maybe for the last time?

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Oaaaahk-la-homa, where the center comes flyin' down the lane! From Joao Antunes:

In your last column, on your Chris Kaman segment, you completely dismissed the Thunder as a possible destination. As I do understand your thoughts, I would like to give you my perspective, the perspective of easily one of the guys that has followed the team more closely outside of Oklahoma or the USA itself for that matter.

As a fan of the team, it saddens me to think they are overrated right now. A lot. To start, it's funny how everyone calls Westbrook a ball hog and says that without him and with a true PG they would be unstoppable. Yeah, right, a team which has three guys averaging by themselves over 55 points per game the last 3 years (first with Green, now with Harden), who has regressed in terms of defense since the 08-09 season (can't explain this, it has been killing me for the past 2 years honestly), who has got no post scoring at all (funny how they try to get some out of Perkins sometimes now. He backs down, and down, and down... and throws the ball at the rim. I always pray it goes in) should be better without Westbrook attacking. They've got no inside presence and they only have one true spot-up shooter, Daequan Cook. But this is getting a little out of subject, and if I'm not mistaken you've said similar in the past about OKC only winning if Westbrook is scoring...

Having this in mind, I think Kaman could be a great fit. Is getting older, that's true. But he would be a perfect fit in the middle. He would give OKC the post scoring they need, as he his more than a proven guy in the block. He was also a big shot-blocker before the injuries and an above average defender. And as you said, in terms of talent, he should come cheap. I dont know exactly who the Thunder can throw at him now, but just for the talent perspective, wouldn't Kaman work? Maybe even better than Perkins? And I give all the credit in the world to Perkins, which is finishing better around the rim and brings great leadership... but still has got no offensive game to work with and could/should be a better rebounder than 5.7 a game.

I get your point about post scoring, but you can't have everything. I'm guessing that OKC would rather live with Durant, Westbrook and Harden taking 50-60 shots a game, many from the perimeter, than splitting those shots four ways with Kaman just to make sure it has some paint touches. Not to mention the fact that the Thunder aren't going to package three or four players from their core for Kaman, who makes $14 million this season, nor would OKC be interested in signing Kaman to the long-term big money deal he'd be looking for after the season.

Rare Air, indeed. From Sam Fichtner:

Kobe has just 24 points to go in order to pass Shaquille O'Neal as the fifth all time scorer, ever. It will certainly be an important event given Shaq & Kobe's history but it will prove as yet another benchmark for the dominance and enormity of Kobe's career. You've recently written about Paul Pierce's potential solidification and the fourth "legendary" Celtic, and I was wondering if you thought this approaching Kobe record (which he will likely break during his game against Philly Monday) will further solidify Kobe into a small group of NBA elite (with the likes of Russell, Magic, Bird, and Jordan).

I remember Jordan saying that the only player you could compare to him was Kobe, and moving into the top five would bolster that argument, certainly. If you're talking about the NBA's all-time Mount Rushmore, though, I don't think he makes the cut. That would be Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan (in a photo over Oscar).

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and better things for Demi Moore to do with her free time to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently interesting, thought-provoking, funny or snarky, we just might publish it!

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1) LeBron James (27.8 ppg, 10 rpg, 5.8 apg, .580 FG, .667 FT): Insane performance stats (his Player Efficiency Rating of 32.99 is the highest of his career) only adds to his frontrunner MVP status.

2) Kevin Durant (29.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, .518 FG, .697 FT): Third All-Star appearance and second straight start for the only Western Conference starter who doesn't toil nightly in Los Angeles.

3) Derrick Rose (27.8 ppg, 3 rpg, 10 apg, .471 FG, .786 FT): Averaging 30 ppg since coming back from the toe injury.

4) Kobe Bryant (23.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .367 FG, .833 FT): Kobe? You listening? I don't think you're old, or washed up and over the hill. I'm just pointing out that you've only hit 36 of your last 89 field-goal attempts. That's all. I know you'll get hot again soon.

5) Chris Paul (19.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 10.3 apg, .586 FG, .286 FT): Elevated himself right into MVP talk with sterling performances against Denver, Utah while Clips were shorthanded.

Dropped out: Dwight Howard

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16 -- Consecutive games the Clippers had lost in Salt Lake City to the Jazz before their breakthrough win Wednesday.

1,690,300 -- Votes for Dwight Howard, the league's top vote-getter, for this month's All-Star Game in his home town of Orlando. It will be Howard's sixth All-Star appearance and his fifth start.

3,300,000 -- Increase in homes for NBA TV since the start of the year, the largest increase of any cable universe. Yeah, it's parochial. Sue me. I'm proud of what our network has done in the last year, from Fan Night to covering the lockout down the middle to all of our TNT folks contributing in the studio, to True NBA and Video The Association and all of the other great programming that has come on line.

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1) I've seen it two dozen times. You've seen it two dozen times. See it again. It's worth it. My God, Blake.

2) Pulling for all of you whose contracts will be guaranteed for the rest of the season this week. Hang in there -- good times and paychecks through April are just days away. Good luck to you.

3) This makes me gleeful in ways that are frightening to me. Please, God, don't let anything bad happen to this man, and if there are any questions about how he made his money, please don't let them arise until a team is safely playing again in the 206. But if there's a way to keep the Kings out of it, I'd appreciate it.

4) Not a great Super Bowl, but it was competitive and went down to the wire, and it was fast. You do wonder what Peyton Manning is really thinking this morning, seeing his little brother capture a second title and Super Bowl MVP award that he, Peyton, has not been able to achieve, despite his incredible individual statistics.

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1) If you are not of a certain age -- and, frankly, if you aren't African-American -- you may not understand why so many black folks were genuinely saddened by the death of Don Cornelius last week. Don Cornelius was the host of Soul Train, which was, basically, black folks' answer to American Bandstand for more than three decades. Not that Dick Clark didn't have black artists on AB; he did. But AB -- as least to a black kid growing up in Washington, D.C., in the early 70s -- a white show, with white teenagers dancing to mostly white music. Soul Train was our show, with people who looked like you and your friends dancing to the music you played on your stereo. (I know a lot of white kids watched it, too, just like you tuned in to AB on occasion; watching AB one day in 1983, I saw a young artist who went on to some success, I understand -- she may have been involved with the halftime festivities at the Super Bowl yesterday. Madonna was her name.) Soul Train was as much a part of your life as going to school and playing football on the block with your buddies -- every Saturday at 4, you were in front of a TV, watching. And everybody you knew was in front of a TV, watching. And Don Cornelius seemed to be the coolest man alive, with his deep voice, great clothes and perfect Afro. He was friends with Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Stevie Wonder, and the Brothers Johnson, and so many, many other artists whose music was the soundtrack of your childhood. The show's theme song, the Soul Train Line, and the Soul Train Scramble Board were all iconic images and sounds for my generation, and the sight of young, happy, well-dressed black kids listening and dancing to the top artists of the day was an empowering vision. Don Cornelius put all that together, and made all of us feel like part of a community. That sort of thing is more important than you could ever know, and his was a life that impacted millions of others, including mine. I wish you love, peace and soul, Mr. Cornelius.

2) The Wolves got to .500 for the first time this late in a season since God knows when on Saturday. But I'm pretty sure KLuv is going away for a while.

3) Call me a cynic, but I don't buy the story that the Hornets have taken Chris Kaman off the trade market. The Kaman Island will be in another uniform within the month; count on it.

4) There was a time when I thought Greg Oden would overcome his bad knees and become a solid, if not spectacular, big man for someone, in the Caldwell Jones/Cliff Ray tradition. But then comes word that Oden underwent yet another knee operation last week, and will have to have another one on his left knee -- his fifth operation on his knees since joining the Blazers, according to the Oregonian's Jason Quick. And I just don't know how many times you can expect any man, even a young one, to keep coming back and starting his rehab over yet again. And I wonder if Greg should just get whatever work that needs to be done on his knees not so that he can return to playing in the NBA, but that he can walk down a beach with his kids when he's 50.

5) Damn, that's cold, Belichick.

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This time of year has not been kind recently to George Karl. Two years ago, just as he was preparing to be the Western Conference coach at All-Star Weekend in Dallas, Karl was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer, his second bout with cancer after beating prostate cancer in 2005. Karl coached a few more games that season before undergoing an arduous program of chemotherapy and radiation. He missed the postseason, and the Nuggets, who thought they had a chance to win the championship that season, lost in the second round to Phoenix. But Karl made a complete recovery from this cancer as well and was back on the bench last season. Unfortunately, he and the Nuggets had to endure months of speculation about the future of Carmelo Anthony, who'd asked to be traded during the offseason. The trade talk reached a fever pitch about this time a year ago -- with the Nuggets pitting the Knicks and Nets against one another to try and get the best possible deal -- before Anthony was shipped to New York with four other players for the heart of New York's team -- guard Ray Felton, forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and center Timofey Mozgov, along with a 2014 first-round pick, two second-round picks and cash. That deal set the Nuggets up to be a player against in the West this season and for years to come, as many around the league think Denver got the better of the trade. This season, the coach who has had just three losing seasons in his 23-plus years as an NBA head coach -- and none since 1988 -- continues his march up the all-time coaching victories list, with 1,051 entering play Monday. Karl is just the seventh coach in NBA history to win more than 1,000 games.

Me: You seem so relaxed this season.

George Karl: I think it fits the role of this season. If I got too serious...the team came in with a great attitude and we've sustained it by winning games. We haven't had the healthiest (team). Nene and Arron (Afflalo), I still don't think they're in top shape. And we've had a couple guys miss games. The guy I want to emphasize is Andre (Miller), and Al Harrington, have been super. Those guys, coming in and being the veteran leaders with a young crew, and giving us a training camp that was pretty top-notch, I'm not sure many teams had a top-notch training camp, because of how quickly it (the lockout) was settled. And we started out, I think we had 11 guys in camp, and we were going two and a half hours every day, pretty hard, and I didn't hear one chirp of 'We've gotta rest.' They kept bringing it. And so much of it was Andre and Ty (Lawson) going nose to nose every day. It was fun.

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From battling cancer to getting through the Carmelo Anthony trade drama, Denver coach George Karl feels he and the Nuggets are at peace.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Me: Andre is coming off the bench, really for the first time in his career. If he complained about that role, how damaging would that be for your team?

GK: You know, I'll be honest with you, the guy who wrote that article loves to blow things up. That's the history. He's from Denver, so we know that. It just got blown up way out of proportion...Andre is Andre. I want him to want to be a starter. And I want him to be proud. Could he start with an NBA team? Yes. But I think there's a part of Andre -- because he's such a smart player -- that knows that maybe this will be the best place for him, if he wants to play two or three more years. Maybe this is the best place for him. Now, was he gonna say that the first week of the season? No, he's not gonna say that the first week of the season. Would he say it the last week of the season? He might. And he plays every night. And he is, you want to put the smartest NBA players together, he's on that list, whoever you want to put on that. Andre Miller plays and wins basketball games because is the smartest SOB out there. And he's a great competitor.

Me: Has Danilo Gallinari been even better than you'd hoped, when you held out to include him in the deal for Carmelo?

GK: We got him more with a scouting report that he was a shooter. And we think he's a good shooter, but we don't think he's a great shooter. We think he's a player, and a playmaker. His ballhandling, his defensive size, his ability to make plays. We actually are somewhat on him about improving his shooting, because he's not shooting at a high percentage. If we're going to give more isolation, individually, one-on-one stuff, I think he has to make the shot at a higher percentage than he makes it right now.

Me: For everything you've gone through personally the last two years, what it is like to again be able to do what you do -- coach -- and not worry about your mortality, or about a trade over which you have no control?

GK: Well, I actually think all those things had their tough moments. All those things had their moments of bad days, tough days, what the hell is going on days. I think I'm at the stage of my life that life is pretty precious. And I'm also at the stage of, maybe I'm more humble than I've ever been, from the standpoint of being an NBA coach. I get to coach this game tonight, and, oh, we've got the Lakers tomorrow night? And then I go get to see my grandchildren and play Portland on Saturday. I'm not happy about that. I'm like, oh, I'm going to be tired, and I'm going to have to sleep a little bit in the afternoon. But I told the team, let's celebrate the opportunity. If we win all three, it doesn't make us any much better than we are right now, and if we lose all three, it's not gonna be the end of the world. So let's go find out. This whole month is going to tell us what we need to do and who we're going to be. As long as we learn from the experience, and stay focused on getting better and winning. But I think getting better is probably more important right now on our team as much as winning games. And I know fans don't want to hear that, but that's kind of where I'm at.

Me: I have to ask you about a certain rivarly that you have some familiarity with.

GK: Duke-Carolina?

Me: Correct!

GK: It's time for that game. I've been waiting for that game a little bit. I was actually hoping to go to that game if the lockout continued. I think it's great. I don't even know; is it in Chapel Hill first? That'll be good. I have a lot of fun with the Duke guys, and I think everybody knows I'm not a big Duke fan and never am gonna be. But I do respect who they are what they are, and who Coach K is, and it's an exciting game for me. It's one of the few games that I TiVo or watch. And I think Carolina is gonna be really good this year. I know the injuries have hurt them a little bit, but their bigs are NBA bigs, and their point guard is a tremendous college point guard. He's pretty impressive.

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Hey Karl- you're lying. You have my number. Next time you need a seat to a Jazz game, call me. You can have mine.
-- Jazz principal owner Greg Miller (@greginutah), Friday, 8:33 p.m., responding to comments by Hall of Famer and Jazz great Karl Malone in the Salt Lake Tribune last week. Malone claimed that he had to buy a ticket from a scalper last season for a Jazz game, and criticized the team for how it handled the resignation of former coach Jerry Sloan. Miller went further in a blog post Friday, claiming Malone was unreliable and unstable off the court -- and thus would not be offered a job in the Jazz organization.

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"I don't know, I'll be on the fence every year about it. It's always a fence year for me. I know they're getting tired of me, though, so I'm not even going to start up nothing."
-- LeBron James, again wavering about whether he'll participate in the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend in Orlando later this month.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding! LeBron jumped over -- I've known Luke since he was, like, 10. But he's 5-11! Blake's dunk was, was unreal. Video game (bleep)."
-- Kobe Bryant, asked which dunk last week was better -- Blake Griffin's over Kendrick Perkins, or Video LeBron James' over John Lucas III.

"Early on in the season, I was letting (the losing) affect me too much, getting me too down. So I'm just trying to be positive. I know it's a tough situation we're in, with all these guys going down and getting hurt. I've got to take it upon myself as the leader on this team to step up and make plays on both ends of the court."
-- Deron Williams, to the Newark Star Ledger, on how he has picked up his attiude of late despite the Nets' poor season.

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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