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David Aldridge

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How well the Bulls care for Derrick Rose and his injured back will surely shape Chicago's title hopes.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

As second half starts, keys to the title for seven hopefuls


Posted Feb 28 2012 5:57AM

There are, of course, no sure things. As we leave the All-Star break behind and get ready for a true sprint to the playoffs, less than two months away, there has never been more uncertainty about how a season will turn out.

The lockout took away 16 regular-season games, but it took away much more, didn't it? There is almost no practice time, but more importantly, there is almost no recovery time. A sprained ankle that might keep a player out a week in previous seasons would normally mean just two or three games lost. This season, it could be four to six. And with those 16 fewer games, those four to six games can be the difference between making the playoffs or staying home.

The title aspirants are, as ever, one key injury away from disaster, as the Celtics learned all-too painfully in consecutive seasons after winning it all in 2008, Video watching Kevin Garnett go down and never come back late in the regular season in '09, and watching Kendrick Perkins clutch his leg in the opening moments Video of Game 6 of The Finals the next season, with Boston up 3-2 on its most hated rival. The true contenders will be watching other criteria as well.

Here, then, are seven keys to victory for the highly successful.

• OKLAHOMA CITY
Kevin Durant's handle

For all the top-10 numbers Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have put up in OKC this season, two are less dubious for the Thunder: 4.2 and 3.7. Those are the per-game turnover totals for Westbrook and Durant so far, ranking first and eighth, respectively, in the league. It's not ideal for point guards to have high turnover totals, but it's not uncommon, either: Westbrook's 142 total turnovers are tied for the league lead with Deron Williams. John Wall, Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash are also all in the top 10 in that category, as well. (Nash has often had high turnover totals; like the Suns' points allowed during their Seven Seconds or Less heyday, it was really misleading: the Suns wanted to play fast, figuring the more possessions they had, the more likely their team would score more than enough to win.)

But having a second guy so relatively careless with the ball could, potentially, be fatal to the Thunder's title chances.

"For us, it comes down to turning the ball over," Durant said Friday. "I average almost four turnovers a game, and that's unacceptable for a guy like me that handles the ball a lot. I can't give the ball away to the other team that much."

Durant has already had 10 games this season when he's had five or more turnovers. Against Sacramento, it's not a big deal. Do that against the Heat, and that likely means a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade crowd-pumping (or silencing, depending on the venue) slam, or a Mario Chalmers transition 3-pointer.

"It drives me crazy," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "As a former point guard, I go bonkers on the sideline. I don't act like it, because I don't want to put more stress on them on the sideline. I let them know in practice, and in shootarounds and film, that it's unacceptable. We have to get better at that. The good about it is we're a good team and we're improving along the way, but I have something to really harp on, constantly, and they have to listen."

But Brooks tries to temper his criticisms.

"With all that being said, a lot of our turnovers are not selfish turnovers," Brooks said. "Like, Kevin is trying to find teammates points. His problem is he's telegraphing it. He's telling everybody, 'I'm going to pass it.' He's looking at them and he's trying to find the guy, and he's turning it over. If there is a good turnover, that's a good turnover, because he's trying to find Nick Collison or Perk (Kendrick Perkins) easy dunks or easy rolls to the basket. Kevin is having a great year, an MVP type season. But I think he's doing that because he's a defender now."

• LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Chris Paul's vision

Not his court vision, which remains impeccable. This is about visualizing what kind of team the Clippers will be down the stretch in the regular season and in the playoffs. Paul is smart enough to know that Lob City is just a slogan, not a postseason strategy. How does L.A. win playoff games?

"I don't know, and that's something I think about all day, every day," Paul said.

The Clippers are not a good defensive team. Many of their big men in the regular rotation don't shoot free throws well at all, from Blake Griffin's 53.9 percent to Reggie Evans' 50 percent to DeAndre Jordan's 48 percent. (Newly signed Kenyon Martin is a career .638 from the line.) The Clips do not shoot the ball especially well from the perimeter, which is why they went so hard after J.R. Smith, hoping the lure of their starting shooting guard spot would offset the millions less he would make in Los Angeles than in New York. In the end, the Knicks and their wallet won out.

Paul will almost certainly have to handle the ball even more in the playoffs. Other teams know that, so they will show hard on screen and rolls to make him give the ball up. On defense, he'll be put through the wringer, screen after screen, to try and tire him out. But who helps him? And who can he trust to make that big jumper, that clutch free throw? How can the Clippers do the scut work in practice necessary to become a strong defensive unit?

"We're still trying to build our identity," Paul said. "And that's what I keep trying to tell guys on the team. When you look at teams like the Spurs and stuff like that, it's not necessarily about the wins and losses right now throughout the season. You saw they won 11 in a row, and Pop (Gregg Popovich) sat everybody in Portland. I understand the process. With a young team like ours, yeah, we do think about the wins and losses on a nightly basis. But it's also about building something, so that when you get to the playoffs, you basically have a blueprint -- hey, this is what we're going to do. That's what we're trying to find out. We're trying to find it out. And we will find it, I can guarantee you that."

• MIAMI HEAT
LeBron James' tank

The Heat have been the most impressive team the first half of the season, destroying just about everyone in their path. Defensively, offensively, Miami is clicking. But even success makes competitive people wonder. By being so good in the regular season, is there another gear the Heat have when things go wrong -- and they always go wrong -- in the playoffs? How does a team that hasn't faced any real adversity this season react when it has to raise its game even further in the postseason?

"We don't know," James said. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. But we can continue to get better."

Miami has Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller back after each missed most of last season with injuries, and Mario Chalmers is playing his best yet in the NBA. James and Dwyane Wade have moved from the 3-point line to the low post, with devastating results for the opposition. But is there any chance -- any? -- that Miami's leaving it all on the regular-season floor? It's not the regular season won-loss record; it's whether Miami will be able to handle adversity.

That is always in the back of the Heat's collective mind, and until Miami gets a chance to wipe away those bad memories of last June, it will always be in the front of everyone else's mind.

"It's a scary thing, honestly," James said. "One thing is you don't want top stop playing well now. I don't know. I played some pretty decent ball in Cleveland, and then we caught fire and made it to Video The Finals (in 2007). I also had a season where we played extremely well and we only made it to the second round (in '08), and then made it to the Eastern Conference finals. And last year we were kind of up and down here in Miami. We won 22 out of 23, but we were 9-8 at one point, we had lost six in a row. It was kind of like a roller coaster last year, then we caught fire again in the playoffs, and evenutally Video lost in The Finals. I don't know. I don't have the answer for it, but I would rather play good right now and we'll worry about the playoffs when they come."

• LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Kobe Bryant's faith

Bryant has said he believes general manager Mitch Kupchak will make the right decision, as he did when he got Pau Gasol from Memphis. But it's getting late in the season, and now that the talk is about dealing Gasol, Bryant insists he continues to believe management will do the right thing.

But is Kupchak still empowed to make the call now that Jimmy Buss is handling the day-to-day operations in L.A.? And what does Kobe think of that? He said next to nothing this weekend, and when he did, he reiterated to me what he'd told others last week: He spoke up for Gasol because Gasol couldn't say the things that Kobe could say and get away with them. But Kupchak's statement last week in which he said ... well, nothing really, didn't mollify anyone.

It's hard to imagine Kobe will be swayed by the return of Rasheed Wallace to the NBA, either, if that rumor turns out to be true and Wallace signs with the Lakers. 'Sheed is in good shape for a guy that's been out of the league two years, I hear. But is his heart really going to be in it even if he does sign? And while his conditioning may be good, nothing is the same as playing games. It would take even a finely-tuned athlete a few weeks to get in basketball shape, and with all the games this season there will be little time to do any kind of conditioning on the side as you would normally.

So, Bryant has to continue to believe that Kupchak and Buss will turn a trade of Gasol into the kind of franchise-altering piece he himself was when he came from Memphis -- or leave it alone and let the Lakers give it a shot with what they have. It's not like they stink, and it's not like they've forgotten how to win playoff games. They need more production from the point, and it doesn't look like Gilbert Arenas is going to be the answer there. They need Andrew Bynum's knee to hold up. They need Gasol to shake out of his mental funk and for Metta World Peace to find some kind of regular rhythm. They need Mike Brown to lengthen his bench, because it's hard to ask Bryant to keep playing these killer minutes. (Like he's going to ask out of any game.)

They need a lot of things to go right. And that's a lot to ask Bryant to believe in.

CHICAGO BULLS
Derrick Rose's chiropractor

This one's easy. If Rose's back holds up, the Bulls can win the championship. If it doesn't, they won't.

Rose clearly geared down during the All-Star Game; as ever, he tolerates craziness around him, in it but not of it. He didn't dance with the other Eastern Conference starters when they were introduced Sunday, and he didn't play much during the game, logging just 18 minutes as he jogged up and down the court. It's a shock that Tom Thibodeau took him out of mothballs at all. And even though Rose said Monday that his back is pain free and that he received no treatments in Orlando, the Bulls are going to be careful to a fault with their franchise player -- who missed five games with back spasms -- from now through the rest of the regular season. There may be games that Rose is a healthy scratch just for maintenance's sake.

"It's not just him," Thibodeau said. "It's your entire team. And I think the responsibility of pacing your team, really, it falls on the head coach. You have to study your schedule, study where you are, who's hurt, who's not hurt, and then you've got to determine whether it's better to practice or not practice. Everybody has talked about the lack of practice time, but sometimes I think what gets lost in all of that, there's also a lack of rest. And so you have to factor that in as well. If you're in one of those stretches where, like we had a stretch where we played 14 games in 20 days. So obviously, even though we may need practice, you can't practice. You have to take advantage of the rest."

Rip Hamilton is running with the team in practice after missing much of the first half of the season, and should be back soon. But it's a moot point if Rose is limited. The defending MVP played in two games before the break, and has cut way back on candy consumption as the season has unfolded. And he marvels at Thibodeau, who studied tape on the Hornets as the two flew down to Orlando Friday.

"If you want to be a leader, you gotta make sure you're doing all the right things to your team if you want someone following you," Rose said. "I'm making sure I'm getting there early, making sure I'm eating right, kind of leading by example. And that's why my teammates, they follow me. I know I'm pretty young, but we have a great group of guys that want to win, and they're sacrificing for the team."

SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Manu Ginobili's X-Ray technician

At some point, he won't bounce back. And that is the day of reckoning in San Antonio.

No, not Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs can't win without him, period. After he missed most of the first two months with a broken hand, San Antonio still forged a sterling record behind the MVP-level play of Tony Parker, productive work in limited minutes from Tim Duncan and solid contirbutions from a surprisingly long rotation. But Gregg Popovich and everyone else in Spurs Nation knew that Ginobili's health is the only metric worth measuring if you're determining the franchise's chances at a fifth ring.

Ginobili came back from the broken hand Feb. 11. Four games later, he strained an oblique muscle against the Clippers, and was expected to miss two more weeks. That actually was a relief for the Spurs, who initially thought he'd miss more time than that. But long-term injuries are geting to be a habit for a truly irreplaceable player.

In recent years, Ginobili has suffered stress fractures in his ankles that caused him to miss the end of the regular season and all of the 2009 playoffs, played gamely with a broken elbow during the Spurs' first-round loss to Memphis and has only been able to play nine games this season. The Spurs believed enough in Ginobili's game and durability to keep him off the free agent wires with a three-year extension in 2010, and can only watch as the 34-year-old careens around the floor again upon his return.

"I hope it's the last one," Parker said Friday. "If he gets another one, he's definitely cursed or something. You can't have three injuries in a row. It's impossible. I was like, he's got one, OK. Then the second one, I was like, OK, so we're good, we should be good until the end of the year. I'm looking at it positively. I'm like, OK, we're good with Manu. We can't get anything more now."

DALLAS MAVERICKS
Dirk Nowitzki's pact

Chris Webber said something really interesting during our taping of the next installment of "True NBA" with CNN's John King Sunday. The championship teams, C-Webb noted, are the stubborn ones. You can't, the conventional wisdom once said, build a championship team around guards. But Detroit and Chicago believed in Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan, and did just that. The Rockets didn't trade Hakeem Olajuwon when many thought he'd never be able to lead a team to a title.

A winner, former Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey used to say, is a loser who just won't quit.

And so it is in Dallas, where Mark Cuban never stopped believing in Dirk Nowitzki, year after frustrating year. Cuban got rid of Don Nelson, Michael Finley and Steve Nash, but he never let Nowitzki out of his sight. And he finally got enough talent and coaching around him Video to win a championship last season. This season, the Mavs started slow, but Nowitzki is still the center of Dallas' hopes of repeating.

"When I was a free agent (in 2010), it was kind of a weird time for me," Nowitzki said. "I'd never been a free agent before in my career. I'd always extended early. It was kind of like hang me out to dry, and I didn't really like it. So I had a great meeting with Cuban and really, that was all I needed to hear, his reassurance that he was going to go for it, and keep putting his resources out there for us to get a winning franchise and win a championship. Obviously I didn't know then that it would happen the first year; that's why I signed a four-year extension. That was obviously the perfect scenario."

But Cuban kept his powder dry after the lockout, letting Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea go, replacing them with solid -- and cheaper -- veterans, and making just one trade of significance, Video getting Lamar Odom from the Lakers for a Draft pick. Most everyone around the league believes that the Mavs won't do anything by the trade deadline, preferring to wait until the summer, when they can take a run at Dallas native Deron Williams. After a terrible start, the Mavericks are playing better ball, and it's no coincidence that it's happened as the Diggler has gotten back in shape. He plows on, joined at the hip with the owner who eschews formality and is just as stubborn as his soon-to-be Hall of Famer.

"I like certain routines, certain things," Nowitzki said.

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Shortened season won't slow USA hoops' progression

There has been understandable concern about whether the lockout-shortened season has contributed to all the injuries throughout the league this season. Jerry Colangelo is concerned, too. But he can't let that stop him from putting a team together.

USA Basketball's chairman and head honcho will have a small window after The Finals in June to put together a team that will be defending its 2008 gold medal in London for the Summer Games.

He knows it will be a hybrid of the '08 team led by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and the Kevin Durant-led 2010 team that won the World Championships in Turkey. He knows Mike Krzyzewski will be coaching it. And he believes it has to come together in a hurry. So the U.S. team will start camp July 6 in Las Vegas, train there until the 11th and play the Dominican Republic in an exhibition on the 12th. Then they will fly to Washington, D.C., for three days of training and an exhibition against Brazil on July 16. The next day, the team flies to England, where it will train for two days and play again on the 19th, against Great Britain. Then it's off to Barcelona, for games on July 22 against Argentina and July 24 against Spain, before heading to London for the Opening Ceremonies on July 27.

"We have a short period of time," Colangelo said Friday. "We've got to get the games in. We've got to get prepared. And that's just the way it is."

Colangelo will not replace Chauncey Billups, a member of the 2010 World Championshipsteam who will be out the rest of the NBA season with a torn ACL, on the roster, and he's not likely to make any additions before next summer. The U.S. Select Team, comprised of younger NBA players that work out with the senior team, will be vital to this Olympic cycle, Colangelo said, helping the Olympic Team prepare. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala and Derrick Rose were '08 Select Team members who went on to become part of the core of the '10 World Championshp team. Rest for the older players has to be built into the schedule.

"One of the things we're going to be very careful about is our players, coming off of a condensed season," Colangelo said. "We're not going to overwork them. We're not going to overkill them or anything like that. We've got to be careful. We'll back off (practice) a little bit. It's important to have our Select Team be there for all of that, and I may have a few extra. Even though we have a 12-man roster we have to submit in June, before the camp, I may ask a few guys to come anyway. If they wish to. And they should."

But Colangelo does not think an extended summer for any NBA player, including NBA playoffs and the Summer Games, will necessarily lead to more injuries for those players in the 2012-13 NBA season. To the contrary.

"It turned out to be a blessing that none of the Beijing ('08) guys played in Istanbul," he said. "Look at what happened with those new players. Derrick Rose ended up as MVP. Durant led the league in scoring. Westbrook made the All-Star team. Love had an incredible year. Tyson Chandler helps Dallas win a championship and parlays that into a pretty nice contract. All of those guys had great seasons. Nobody got hurt. That's the proof of the pudding."

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(Last week's ranking in parenthesis)

1) San Antonio (1) [2-1]: Spurs' 11-game win streak ends after Popovich scratches a healthy Parker and Duncan for maintenance in Portland. Remaining Spurs lose by 40.

2) Miami (2) [2-0]: Mario Chalmers is shooting 59 percent (30 of 51) from the floor in his last seven games.

3) Oklahoma City (3) [3-0]: KD trash talking with Kobe is an excellent sign of things to come.

4) Dallas (4) [1-1]: Cubes insists the Mavericks' best basketball is still ahead of them. We'll see if he really believes that at the trade deadline.

5) Chicago (5) [2-0]: Hoping to get Rip Hamilton back in the next couple of weeks.

6) L.A. Clippers (6) [1-1]: Clips in first place in the Pacific at the All-Star break for the first time since moving to L.A.

7) L.A. Lakers (7) [2-1]: CSN Boston reported Rasheed Wallace would sign with Lakers, two years after retiring.

8) Orlando (8) [2-1]: Team meeting after uninspiring loss to Hawks Thursday. Team meetings usually have the exact impact you'd expect on performance.

9) Atlanta (9) [1-2]: Depleted Hawks have lost eight of last 12.

10) Philadelphia (10) [0-2]: Bad news on Spencer Hawes: starting center out two more weeks.

11) New York (11) [1-2]: Adjustment period necessary with all the new parts in town, but a few losses now will be beneficial for the Knicks come playoff time if they can develop consistent chemistry.

12) Houston (12) [2-0]: Rockets may be the league's most unlikely turnaround story this season.

13) Memphis (13) [1-1]: Grizzlies have gone 18-12 without Zach Randolph, and are hoping he can be back with the team next month.

14) Indiana (14) [2-0]: Pacers follow five-game losing streak with four-game win streak before the break.

15) Denver (15) [1-2]: Nuggets are still waiting for Wilson Chandler to be cleared by his Chinese team before they can complete new deal with him, and don't care what Toronto does to clear cap room -- they insist they'll match any offer for Chandler.

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Oklahoma City (3-0): Thunder have the look of a big winner this season, but you wonder if they may not be in the market for a veteran point guard to help rookie Reggie Jackson during the playoffs.

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Utah (0-2): Jazz have had a rough February, going just 3-10 into the All-Star break. Scoring average is just 95 per game during that stretch, and the Jazz play nine of their next 11 on the road. On the other hand, pogo stick Jeremy Evans did win the Slam Dunk Contest. So they've got that going for them. Which is nice.

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Is it a slow news and talk radio day, or should anyone give a tinker's damn if LeBron James passed the ball instead of shooting in the final moments Sunday?

You know, all this hullabaloo says a lot more about you than it does James.

James continues to be the vessel into which we pour our feelings about him, a human Rorshach. And when James has messed up in the past, whether not shaking the hands of the Magic's players right after losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, or ... you know ... The Decision, I have popped him. But this is ridiculous. Because James tried to find Dwyane Wade for what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of Sunday's All-Star Game instead of shooting it himself, he is again pilloried by those who don't like him, have never liked him and never will like him. This isn't, of course, about the All-Star Game; it's about James' poor performances in the postseason, especially last season's flameout in The Finals against Dallas.

You can't point out that for James's 36 points, including several gravity-defying hanging 3-pointers, the East team wouldn't have been in position to have a chance to tie. That's being an apologist.

Oh, please.

People so desperately want James to be Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and he's not going to ever be them. They were killers. He is not a killer. MJ and Kobe (and Magic and Bird and Isiah) didn't just want to beat you; they wanted to destroy you, take your heart, take your money, take your girl. James is not like that. James wants to win, sure, but he also cares what people think about him -- while I know MJ and Bean couldn't care less what you think. But James didn't try to pass to Wade because he has some deep seated psychological need to please -- he did it because he thought it was the right basketball play, just as when he threw the ball to an open Donyell Marshall as a Cavalier in the playoffs all those years ago instead of driving to the basket. It didn't work, and he talked with Craig Sager right after the game about letting his teammates down. But he wasn't unburdening his soul or anything. He was just ticked off that his team lost after coming back from 20 down in the second half. You're really reaching if you think it was more than that.

Understand -- I'm not asking you to feel sorry for James. He's a grown man who put a huge bullseye oin his back Video with his talk of multiple championships in Miami, and his postuing that night when Video he and Wade and Chris Bosh made like WWE characters coming out on stage. He is the best player in the league, and thus, is expected to dominate every game at the end by scoring, because that is how we expect great players to dominate. But Tim Duncan has never dominated a Finals by scoring 35 or 40 points, or demanding the ball in crunch. The Spurs won their titles with other players taking big shots -- Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili and Steve Kerr. Duncan, frankly, gagged in Video Game 7 of the '05 Finals, bailed out by Manu, and had the grace and guts to cop to it afterward.

After the game I was talking to a former multiple-time All-Star who spoke quietly about how James just wouldn't take the shot, and how even Kobe wanted him to take the shot, because that's what people think the great players should do. "He's A-Rod," the All-Star said of James, and it wasn't a compliment, knowing how Rodriguez has struggled in so many postseasons while Derek Jeter has shone. Maybe James is A-Rod. Maybe Larry Bird is right on point when he says James is the best player in the game, but if you absolutely have to win a game, you want to play with Bryant.

I just think all the rending of garments about a play in a meaningless game is a little silly.

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He sees parity. I see ... dead competition! From Dagan Bernstein:

Could you please expand on your theory of the current NBA being watered down by expansion. Obviously anytime a league expands there will be more spots for player that would have usually not "made it." Your examples of the Celtics and Lakers of the 80s is a limited sample base to make such broad conclusions about the state of the NBA as a whole in the 80s relative to today's game. Obviously you know more about 80s basketball than me (I was born in 1979), but I just can't buy your theory. I look at the the starting lineup of the 1984 Bullets (a consistent .500 team), I see Gus Williams, Jeff Ruland, Jeff Malone, Cliff Robinson and Greg Ballard. If we look at a .500 team today, let's say the Rockets, I see Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic. Watered down? I don't get it.

I would rather have Williams, Ruland, et.al, Dagan. But that's just an opinion. The overall point isn't an opinion as much as it is math: when there were 23 teams in the league, as there were in '84, there were fewer roster spots available than now. To keep it simple and not get into active versus inactive players, let's just say every team has 12 roster spots available. That means today, with 30 teams, there are 84 more players in the league than there were then. To me, that means you have a lot more guys playing in the NBA now that wouldn't have been good enough to make the NBA in the '80s. You can make the argument that with expansion and increased salaries, many of those players who were on benches in L.A. and Boston then would have surely left those teams, and you may be right. But that only proves my point that teams can't keep as many quality players around now as they could then. Hence, "watered down" basketball.

Let's just take this to its logical conclusion and make him Pope. From Chris Bentien:

Well how about this - IF Jeremy Lin continues his current level of play through the end of this year and IF the Knicks continue to win as a result, then how is Jeremy Lin not the MVP of the league?

If we are really giving the award to the most "valuable" player and the above scenarios play out (which they may not but I don't think it's a stretch to think they may) then Lin is clearly "most valuable". Is Lebron the MVP if the Heat are probably a playoff team without him? He may be the best player in the NBA but hardly the most valuable. If the Knicks can make it to the 4th or 5th seed and Lin continues to perform then he is obviously the most valuable player. We have seen what the Knicks are without Lin -- they are a 8-15 team. If they end up the 4th seed in the East with Lin? Well then I don't see how you not only would have to consider Lin but declare him the 2012 MVP.

Um, no.

Channeling his Inner Murrow. From Lawrence Bentley:

It is interesting how people assumed Allen Iverson is broke based on a report of non-payment on one bill. This may be true, but I doubt David Falk in conjunction with John Thompson would not have encouraged Iverson to set-up a retirement plan that would, after 59 and a half years old pay Iverson for life. I believe at this point he is still only 35 year old and a gap exists as to when he can get the money without a very significant 10% tax penalty, in addition to normal taxes. I understand how Twitter, Facebook and other blogs work, but they are becoming an excuse for a lack of investigation. From sitting at my job site, everybody is buying in Iverson being broke, and in listening, it appears Iverson being broke fits the storyline they want for him. I know this is a lot of money for jewelry being reported and I know Iverson may have burned his bridges in the NBA. But if I had a job as a reporter, I would have called Iverson, his financial people, his agent and David Falk to figured out what is going on.

Lawrence, you may have a future in journalism, if such a thing exists in 10 years. But I doubt people will support you, with your insistence on "facts" in their proper "context" and all. It's just more fun to wildly speculate with no information whatsoever! Which is why we're all doomed.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and Oscar winning speeches from Pauly Shore 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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(Weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (19 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 8 apg, .519 FG, 1,000 FT): Seemed to put it on cruise control going into the break, helping Heat shut down Jeremy Lin and the Knicks last Thursday.

2) Kevin Durant (30.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 5.3 apg, .492 FG, .920 FT): Captured first All-Star Game MVP award with 36 points and seven boards Sunday. As always, I thought he scored 17. Simply effortless and anonymous and deadly.

3) Kobe Bryant (19 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, .369 FG, .722 FT): Broken nose suffered after Dwyane Wade's hard foul Sunday. When Portland athletic trainer Jay Jensen, working for the West team, tried to stick a cotton plug into Bryant's nose to try and stop the bleeding once Bryant started playing again, Bryant simply said, 'Hell, naw,' and walked back on the court..Dude loves to hoop.

4) Tony Parker (19.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 11.5 apg, .444 FG, .929 FT): The fun and festivities are over: Derrick Rose is waiting Wednesday night, as the Spurs finally return home after going 8-1 on the Rodeo Trip.

5) Chris Paul (30 ppg, 3 rpg, 7.5 apg, .563 FG, .900 FT): Said Sunday that the Clippers had accomplished absolutely nothing by finishing the first half of the season in first place in the Pacific. And he's right.

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$30,000 -- Minimum donation required for invitation to a fundraiser for President Obama last Thursday in Orlando at Mavericks swingman Vince Carter's house. The Commish was also in attendance, and we're glad to hear he's doing so well.

32 -- Years since the last Clippers' player started an All-Star game. That player was ... World B. Free, who started for the then-San Diego Clippers in the 1980 game.

3 -- Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant passed Sunday en route to becoming the all-time scoring leader in All-Star Games. With 27 points, Bryant surpassed Jordan's 244 career points in All-Star play, while also passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson along the way.

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1) Very solid weekend from the folks in Orlando. Things were spread out but everyone was pleasant and helpful in guiding strangers around town, and the festivities seemed to go off without many hitches. And very classy to give Dwight Howard a warm round of applause when he was introduced Sunday. Congrats all around.

2) I have a sense that there was something behindVideo that nose-breaking foul of yours, D-Wade. And, as you know, the Kobester never forgets. Would you like to be a fly on the wall at USA Basketball practice next summer before the London Games?

3) Didn't think much of the dunk contest Saturday, Video but I did like the glow in the dark effort, Paul George.

4) Nice tux, KLuv.

5) Got to meet JB Smoove, who Video did Video some Video interviews for NBA TV during the weekend. Hilarious dude. Had to ask him about Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of my favorite shows. I couldn't believe what Larry David has always said about the show -- that it is almost all improvised. JB said that is true. The actors get a seven-page outline from David before they begin shooting every episode. That's it. Like, "Larry and JB talk about lunch." When you watch that show, realize how incredibly talented those comedians are -- and how disciplined they have to be, because they're trying to top one another every second. Fascinating conversation.

6) My beloved American University Eagles begin their march to the national championship Wednesday night in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Nine wins to glory.

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1) That dunk contest voting did not work. Change it.

2) I still think the 3-point contest should be the final event of All-Star Saturday. Again, unlike the dunk contest, the 3-point contest has built-in drama: someone will either make the shot, or they won't. No voting or scoring. And someone almost always gets on a great roll. The fans in the arena also get jazzed about it as it goes on, so the energy stays in the building throughout the event.

3) Dwight Howard did not look happy this weekend. Maybe because he was asked about his future plans 3,429,385 times. I was only responsible for one of those.

4) Jeremy Lin, who did not participate in the Rookie-Soph game (sorry, Rising Stars Game), or the Skills Challenge, or the 3-point shooting contest, or the dunk contest, or Sunday's All-Star Game, had two media availabilities within 24 hours on Friday night and Saturday morning. The second was just for the dozens of Chinese media outlets who came to Orlando. I hope the league, the Knicks and Lin's agent are comparing notes, because the young man is going to need some help getting through the next few months.

5) I will have Nicky Minaj explained to me at a later date.

6) Too bad the Daytona 500 was delayed by rain until Monday night, and then marred by that bizarre, Hollywood-wouldn't-write-it crash where Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a truck carrying jet fuel so that it didn't end until well past midnight on the east coast. But one suspects this isn't the last time we'll see the Great American Race in prime time.

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NBA Commissioner David J. Stern

The Commish invited us up to his home office in NYC last Tuesday to talk about all things NBA, from the state of the league after the lockout to the future of the Hornets in New Orleans, to the his is an abridged version of the transcript. The full interview is Video available on NBA.com.

Me: There are coaches who, understandably, want to rest players on that third game in three nights, or fifth game in six nights, and that gets into the whole notion of are fans getting full value for what they're paying for. I don't know that you can do anything about it, but does that cause you any angst at all?

DS: For this compressed season, no. I think you have to give the coaches some leeway in terms of marshalling their resources, and they're doing it. It's just interesting. I haven't done my own look back to see, but different coaches are doing different things. Some are playing their superstars and stars less; some seem to be playing them the same old way. We'll see how that plays out in the playoffs.

Me: There are injuries to key guys this year -- [Manu] Ginobili, [Paul] Pierce, Carmelo [Anthony], [Chauncey] Billups. Is there any evidence that the compressed schedule is contributing to the spate of injuries?

DS: As far as we can tell, there's no tell with the long-term injury ratio at all. It's the same as it's always been. What is happening, which plays upon something you mentioned earlier in terms of marshalling your resources, is if in the past, if a player was injured, and there was an off day, then he'd have the off day and he'd be ready to play the next game. Now, that off day is off to the game day. But to be prudent, he's kept out of the game. So there have been more games missed because of that, but no more serious injuries.

Me: What are the available metrics telling you about how the season's going?

DS: Well, I think our available metrics are column inches, attendance, merchandise sales and television ratings. And social media, I guess. All off the charts. Well, you know, off the charts may be too strong. Ratings (are) going great. I mean, up double digits across all networks -- NBA TV, ESPN, ABC, TNT. Social media, hundreds of millions of followers and likes, hundreds and hundreds of millions of YouTube views. Attendance, very strong. It's up slightly over last year, which was a strong year, and that's good. And merchandise sales are going great. And although international took a huge decline, because when we don't play games we don't have anything to talk about, that's back, strong now. And we're selling sponsorships and doing things, and our sponsors are all activating at All-Star Weekend. And so, we're doing very well, and we're really very pleased with it. We didn't necessarily not project it. We didn't project it either. We just (said) let's see what happens. So we're very pleased with the metrics. And who's to account for Jeremy Lin?

Me: The new revenue sharing plans doesn't kick in for a couple of years, but some of the owners had and have concerns about whether it will really address the stated goal of making the playing field between teams more level.

DS: I don't know who they are. I'm serious.

Me: Mark Cuban, for one.

DS: He must not be getting any revenue sharing. But Memphis, which is projecting to receive $22 million, and the five teams that are projected to receive $16 million apiece, or maybe six teams, they, I think, will conclude that it's plenty.

Me: How will you measure whether it's working and doing what you wanted it to do?

DS: Well, you know, we have a system now where teams are going to be able to compete financially if they're well-managed. And we'll see. We'll make judgments. After two and a half years, we'll take a look at it. We'll see how they're doing on the court, we'll see how they're doing at the gate, and we're going to see how their (local) TV negotiations are going. There are teams that are going to be very happy, and at the same time, they're going to be held accountable. And that was the deal. And they'll be doing it in an environment which levels the playing field. Their player costs, potential player costs, have been reduced by 12 percent. Their contract lengths, the amount that they can pay a free agent from another team, is limited to what they can pay for four years--think Albert Pujols, over a 10 year deal. We're not going to go there. And the tax, the enhanced tax that clicks in in year three, is going to cause teams to alter their behavior, which they've already begun to do.

Me: So any team should be able to increase its local TV deal, be able to sell more tickets and field a more competitive team?

DS: And, it's going to get a check to help it do all of the above, to the extent that they can, or there's a transition, not a problem.

Me: I asked you this same question during the lockout -- so, now, there's no more excuses?

DS: No. No. This is about, here's extra money, here's one through 30, and by the way, it's not about small markets versus large markets. San Antonio, Utah, Portland, Oklahoma City, all ranging between probably 90 percent and 100 percent sold out. Of course, they're limited to their TV deals because of market size and households, and that's where the revenue sharing should help. But if you are in a market, and over years, you consistently underperform in the market, then you're going to have to look in the mirror.

Me: What do you make of the Lin phenomenon?

DS: I don't have to make anything of him. I'm enjoying watching the media go tripping along -- and then, sometimes, tripping on themselves. It's a phenomenon that's fascinating to watch.

Me: Do you worry that it may all be too much?

DS: You mean, for Jeremy?

Me: Yes.

DS: Oh, I think it puts him under enormous pressure. Welcome to the NBA. He seems to be capable of handling it. It's been a very healthy discussion, as the journalists are going crazy. Because it's very much about stereotypes. And it's good to get sports out there in a discussion about stereotypes.

Me: But this one has gone in different directions than the normal discussions about stereotypes. There's an undercurrent I haven't seen in the previous discussions. But maybe I'm too young to remember the talk in the 70s. Does it compare to then?

DS: Oh, sure. A stereotype is a stereotype. Some of this stuff is worthy of Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show". You should catch up on it. You step back, and Jeremy Lin's ascent is about what the surprise is, and what the expectations were, and how those expectations are being exceeded. And then we start getting into discussions about stereotypes. Would the same thing be done if he were Hispanic, or were he African-American. And I'm laughing to myself, because it's actually quite healthy to be having these discussions. I said hurray for us. The world is now engaging in a conversation in the medium of sports, where it always does.

Me: Why'd you change your mind about including Lin the Shooting Stars competition?

DS: I just wanted to have some fun. That Commissioner, Kenny Smith, twisted my arm, and he wanted those extra two players. I said okay, commissioner, you win.

Me: You've said consistently that as long as players play through their contracts, they can go wherever they want when those contracts end.

DS: That's the rule we negotiated with the players' union. We agreed to it. We have this rule that says, we'll tell you where you have to go. It's called a draft. That's between the union, and the NBA agrees to that. And then we'll provide a huge advantage to your team to sign you to the next contract. And then in seven years -- and, in some cases, eight -- you'll have an opportunity, if you so choose, to go to another place, where you can only get a four-year contract instead of a five-year contract, and you can only get four and a half percent increases instead of seven and a half. And if, despite all of those, you decided that you want to move, that's the deal your union negotiated for you.

Me: But is there a difference, quantitatively, between that and a player like Dwight Howard saying -- publicly -- that I want to be traded, and here are the teams I want to be traded to?

DS: I haven't, you know, I haven't heard that as much as people think --

Me: Well, he did say, during training camp, that he wanted to be traded. He didn't publicly list the teams that he wanted to be traded to, but it got out.

DS: You know, I remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted to get out of Milwaukee, and Wilt Chamberlain wanted to go wherever he wanted to go. This is not a new syndrome in professional sports. It is what it is.

Me: But you know that people have been upset about this in recent years. They think the star players are trying to corral themselves together.

DS: Or not. I think Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant corralled themselves together in Oklahoma City. David Robinson and Tim Duncan corralled themselves together in San Antonio. I think much ado is made about our teams. We have a Draft, so if you lose LeBron, maybe you get a Kyrie Irving. Maybe you don't, but it's there. We put it in to help the teams that were less fortunate. The system will work its way out in a positive way, I have no doubt about it.

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Great times in orlando. Went to universal studios yesterday. Anybody been to krustyland?

-- Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41), Sunday, 11:49 a.m., in the midst of his grueling pre-game preparation for the All-Star Game.

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"When we first started off, we wasn't playing hard, we wasn't playing with each other. Everybody worried about stats. With a team like us, you can't do that. We don't have nobody that can take over a game for the whole set of the game. We've got somebody who can take over for quarters, or a minute or stretch."
-- Wizards guard John Wall, Video during my interview with him Thursday on NBA TV, on how bad things were in Washington at the start of the season. They have only gotten slightly better since Randy Wittman took over as interim coach.

"It's really not about money for me. It's about rest ... last year wasn't necessarily my last time, but this year I felt like I needed a break."
-- Blake Griffin, shooting down my idea of entering the dunk contest if there were a $10 million winner-take-all prize.

"I'm locked in right now. I know how it feels to go the other way, when you can't make anything."
-- Dwyane Wade, on how Video shooting fewer 3-pointers this season and getting into the paint more has helped him have one of the best shooting rolls in his career this 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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