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David Aldridge

Kobe Bryant's scoring hasn't kept the Lakers from a mostly uninspiring start to the season.

Fits and starts in Lakerland coloring Bryant's stellar start


Posted Dec 17, 2012 10:58 AM - Updated Dec 17, 2012 5:12 PM

The Attorney General of the United States was gushing.

"He's a warrior," Eric H. Holder, Jr. said Friday night in Washington, three feet from Kobe Bean Bryant, who was wearing an ice pack on his back after another night of back spasms rendered his lateral quickness moot. He needed 29 shots to score 30 points against the Wizards, alone in their wretchedness able to give the reeling Lakers a temporary reprieve from yet another awful stretch of basketball.

Bryant smiled, made small talk, posed for pictures with Holder's family and the author Michael Eric Dyson. Holder and his men soon left, leaving the NBA's leading scorer to contemplate the dilemma his team is in.

This wasn't supposed to happen. The Lakers would struggle some getting used to one another, with new players in key roles. But this team was built to win now, this season, with Steve Nash carving up defenses and Dwight Howard dominating inside. Things were going to be fun again in the City of the Angels. See you at Mo-Chica after the game!

But then 1-4 happened, and Nash's broken fibula happened, and Mike Brown was shown the door, and the Courting of Phil went really, really bad. Pau Gasol's knees flared up while his role on the team plummeted. Mike D'Antoni, still taking pain meds after having a full knee replacement a week earlier, was on his way from New York, to try to put in his offense, while using the assistant coaches who'd been brought in to put in Brown's offens. While trying to improve his range of motion more than a few degrees.

And the Lakers didn't just lose. They looked terrible. Of late, they'd scored 77 points at home against Indiana in a loss, then been humiliated by Orlando at Staples Center, with Jameer Nelson looking like Russell Westbrook and Nikola Vucevic killing them in the paint. Howard had been humiliated when teams successfully used Hack-a-Dwight strategies in the fourth quarter. They lost in Utah and Houston, got dominated in Oklahoma City, then lost to Utah again at home.

For good measure, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving -- in his first game back in three weeks -- destroyed them on Tuesday. After New York dominated the Lakers for most of the game Thursday, Magic Johnson had to apologize to Spike Lee on Twitter for even suggesting the Lakers could beat the white-hot Knicks.

That this all happened while the 34-year-old Bryant was off to -- statistically, at least -- the best start of his career put even more urgency to pulling out of the nosedive.

"It's been a crazy year," Bryant had said Thursday morning, before the Knicks game. "Stability has been the thing that's been missing. We haven't had any stability. Mike Brown, with a new system, and then he's gone, and Bernie [Bickerstaff, who coached five games before D'Antoni was hired], with no system, and then it's D'Antoni in, and we don't know if he's bringing in a new coaching staff. It's been crazy."

That evening, the Lakers played the way they've played for most of the first quarter of the season -- lethargic, slow, unable to stop anyone on defense, lost on offense. They couldn't muster much of a charge against the Knicks, who toyed with them for most of the night, even after Carmelo Anthony went out early in the second half with a sprained ankle. Even when L.A. closed within two possessions late in the fourth, Tyson Chandler played keep away for more than a minute, with consecutive offensive rebounds to hold the Lakers at bay.

That the Knicks played, and are playing, the way a D'Antoni team usually plays -- fast, throwing up 3-pointers free and easy, making a bunch and controlling the game from start to finish with a blistering pace -- was an irony that no one could miss, least of all D'Antoni. He coached the Knicks for three-plus seasons before his inability to get Anthony to buy in led to his resignation last spring.

"Our rhythm is off beat right now," D'Antoni said before Friday's sort-of good game against the Wizards. "It's like we've got two left shoes trying to dance. And it's not good. It's hurting our defense; it's hurting our overall spirit."

D'Antoni likes to say "the ball finds energy," and there is precious little of that among his guys right now. In fact, there's no swag. Hang around the Lakers for a couple of days, these days, and it's the first thing you notice. The well-earned arrogance that 16 championships brought to this proud team is gone. You go to any two or three people at random in the organization, these days, and there are multiple variations on the same phrase: We stink.

How many games had the Lakers won before the opening tip over the years, the opposition demoralized by the Forum Blue and Gold uniforms, and the Hall of Fame talent inside those uniforms?

That feeling is gone. Now, they're just a bunch of guys wearing purple, really tall Barneys.

"It's a cocktail of unfortunate circumstances," Nash said last week; the man has a way with words.

Nash has played for D'Antoni and played against Bryant for so long. He knows how fiercely each, in his own way -- the West Virginian of Italian descent who became a star playing in Italy, and the kid who grew up in Italy and became a cold-blooded competitor on the court -- wants to win.

Make no mistake: D'Antoni wants this, bad. He knows that there are people who never wanted him to have the job -- this job, the job that was supposed to be Jackson's, if not by birthright, by virtue of his incredible run in two stints in the Big Chair. (I'm not being dramatic here; Jackson, with his bad back and hips, literally sat on a throne.) The critics who have always maintained D'Antoni's style hasn't won anything other than when a healthy Nash was playing at an MVP level are ready to bury him.

"Some people, like Kobe and Mike, can put it on their sleeve," Nash says. "You see their frustration at times, because they are so emotional and such competitors. I think that's good. That's what a locker room is about, to have those varying personalities, and find the strength and the balance between them. I like the fire and the disappointment and the pain you see sometimes from people when you're losing, because I think that is very important to that polarity in the locker room, how to get people to find a common goal and to express themselves to one another, and that can make the team better."

Nash only played in the season opener against Dallas plus 16 minutes in Portland before he got kneed in the leg by the Blazers' Damian Lillard. But after weeks of rehab, he's finally getting close to returning. He hopes to start practicing this week, with a goal of playing in another week or two afterward.

"The last few days, I feel like I've turned a bit of a corner," Nash said Thursday. "Or at least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's been six weeks now, and for the vast majority of that, there was no light. It just was difficult. Unfortunately, the fracture's right at the joint. It was just really tricky. But now, I'm able to do more. I've responded to it. Hopefully it won't be too long."

Nash is a proud man, but he's a proud 38-year-old man with a chronically bad back, who is coming off of a broken leg. He's never been mistaken for, say, Rajon Rondo on defense. The chorus of those who insist all will be well when Nash returns has been as off-base as it has been deafening. But Nash says he can handle the heat of great expectations.

"Right now, I feel the pressure I put on myself to get better, to get healthy," Nash said. "I'm pretty single-minded on just getting back to a place where I can play the game and not re-injure myself. So that's taken up all of my focus. Once I get back to playing shape, I don't mind the pressure. The team's in a dark place right now, and if I can take a little pressure off guys, on the court or off, I don't mind that in lieu of my six-week vacation."

Which explains why you've seen an animated Nash on the bench, gesturing time and again to his teammates about the nuances and subtleties of D'Antoni's system. No, it's no longer Seven Seconds or Less ... the personnel isn't there to run that system. (And, it is noted quietly by team sources, the Lakers aren't currently in the physical shape needed to run it even if they could. Gasol has been doing extensive sprint work as he gets closer to his return to get back in condition.)

Among Nash's many tasks when he returns is getting more out of Gasol, who looks utterly lost in D'Antoni's offense, his spirit and pride broken. But Nash believes there is a way to get simultaneous effective play out of both Gasol and Howard.

"I think Pau's a terrific playmaker and shooter," Nash said. "He may not be the stretch four that goes out to three, but with his size, he can shoot from 17, 18, 19 feet extremely well. With the other guys on the floor, he should have the space to shoot the ball, or put the ball on the floor and make a play for the other guys. I don't think there's a better passer as a big man in the league today, too. For me, it's something that I think some people may feel doesn't quite fit together, but I think there's plenty of ways we can make this work and make it fit. And there's plenty of times when Pau will play the five when Dwight is on the bench. So there's different lineups, combinations and sets that we can use to highlight Pau, or that he can fill in the gaps and exploit defenses."

Bryant, too, sees possibilities with Gasol and Howard on the floor, rather than impediments.

"We'll use him in the post," Bryant said. "We'll run [screen and roll] with Pau, and Dwight can duck in, and Pau will make him better. Pau can do everything. There's nothing he can't do."

Slowly, against the Wizards Friday and the 76ers on Sunday, the Lakers started to show signs of an offensive pulse. Devin Ebanks has been active. Friday, Jodie Meeks scored a season-high 24 in Washington. Sunday, Metta World Peace had 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds against the Sixers. For once, the Lakers didn't back up, winning in a walk to close their road trip at 2-2.

World Peace wants to keep a low profile. Earlier in his career, "when I was immature," he says, he talked way too much and got himself in trouble. He doesn't want to say too much, other than how much he likes his team. So, he interviews you.

What's wrong with the team?

Turnovers, you say.

"That's one," he says.

And, pick and roll defense, you say.

"Two."

You're not helping the helper...

"Three."

World Peace points across to Antawn Jamison. "That guy averaged 20 points a game," he said. "And Meeks? You can't tell me he's not one of the best shooters in the league. Jordan Hill? We should be getting him the ball down low. And him?"-- pointing to Howard. "Come on. And I still think I can score a little bit."

He points out that it was Derek Fisher who made a ton of big shots for the Lakers when they won championships and that Manu Ginobili was the closer for the Spurs during many of their championship runs. The inference is clear to all but the densest: The Lakers can't win if Bryant is doing all the scoring.

"I was held accountable last year," World Peace says. "I was out of shape, and I got put on the bench. We gotta hold each other accountable ... I think Mike really has to get on us on offense. He has totally changed his offense. And it was a great offense."

At any rate, the Lakers' main problem isn't on offense; even with all the injuries, and all the turnovers (L.A. is next to last in the league in turnover ratio), and all the adjustments they're making to another system, they're still in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. They're getting to the line plenty -- they lead the league in free throws attempted differential per game and are third in free throws made differential per game. And even though Nash likes to take chances with the ball, his return should -- should -- cut down the turnovers.

The Lakers' issue, against the league's elite, anyway, is their horrible defense.

Look, I'm never going to master the Xs and Os of the game, but even I know what "help the helper" means. It's Basketball 101. When Howard comes over to challenge a shot in the lane, the next man over on the weak side has to come and help cover the man Howard has left to help his teammate (hence, "help the helper"). It's the most basic defensive rotation in the game.

"It's one of those things that we preach, we preach, and for some reason, we wait until we give up [bleeping] 40 points, or 68 points in a half to get it," Jamison said late Thursday. "That's all we talked about at shootaround, was Dwight. We know what Dwight's going to do. That's his job. We've got to help him. And we just don't figure it out until it's too late, or we give up a big quarter or a big half. It's the Achilles' heel of what we're doing. We can't do it for 48 minutes to save our lives."

Jamison has been a culprit on defense as well. He didn't rotate out to Steve Novak -- who is shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range and has 55 made 3s to his name -- and watched as Novak hit another one, leading to a timeout and a roasting from D'Antoni.

Howard was defensive earlier Thursday, when asked what percentage he'd put himself at physically. It was obvious he didn't yet have the "second jump" that is central to his defensive excellence, the ability to get off the ground microseconds after landing from a first leap.

"You guys expect me to go from not playing after six months, having back surgery, to coming out and be high-flying," he said in New York. Actually, I expected nothing of the sort, which is why I'd asked him what he'd put himself at physically.

A day later, though, Howard was more forthcoming.

"From the outside, with people who don't really understand basketball, they see my man scoring, so they feel like I'm not playing defense," Howard said Friday. "What they fail to realize is that I have to help my guards out, be up, so guards will miss shots and not get around. When that happens, that leaves my man open on the backside. We have to alter our rotations, which is different on this team. I know they're not used to having somebody going to try and change and alter a lot of shots. They have to get used to it. It's kind of two-fold early on, but I don't want to let it frustrate me too much early on, because I know a lot is riding on my defense."

But Howard can tighten things up at that end, too. As Steve Kerr pointed out during our TNT broadcast Thursday, Howard sometimes took the wrong angle when he "showed" -- stepped forward to stop the driving guard -- on the screen and roll, allowing the guard a shooting or driving lane to further compromise the defense. But the first line of defense is L.A.'s point guards, who are getting destroyed.

The breakdowns were so severe Thursday that D'Antoni had to change his pick-and-roll coverage; the Lakers had to switch every time, leaving Howard trying to guard Ray Felton or Jason Kidd in space. It worked for a while, but even after Anthony went down with a sprained ankle, and the Lakers slowed the Knicks down a little, Felton and Kidd were still able to get into the paint at will down the stretch, hitting Chandler for lobs.

"We don't communicate," Jamison said. "... Just talking. It's elementary. It's just so obvious, the little things. And it's really killing us. It's giving teams opportunities, no resistance, downhill."

It's one reason some scouts think the Lakers need to play more zone defense. "They're long, they're big, they're not very mobile," said one last week. But you need practice time to put in even the most rudimentary matchup zone, and there isn't much of that once the season starts.

And D'Antoni isn't a fan of zones.

"If you play a good man to man, the backside is a zone," he said Friday. "And that's what we stress every day. When the ball gets to a certain point, we are in a zone. Coaches tell you, 'A man-for-man is a good zone if you play it right, and a good zone is almost a man-for-man if you play it right.' So there's not really a whole lot of difference. I don't love zones. I never have. There's no [problem] attacking zones. I'm over there going, 'This is easy; just get a shot whenever you want.' That's me ... I just don't want to water down what we're trying to get."

It may not look like it, but D'Antoni is making defense an emphasis.

"One thing I like is that Mike is really getting in our ass about it, that we've gotta get this [bleep] solved, get serious," Jamison said. "We've gotta think about it. Teams we're playing are geared up. They're ready. And if they think that mentally we're [bleeped] up, they really think they've got an opportunity. We've got to find a way to get it stopped real quick."

Bryant maintains his supreme confidence -- most of the time. He is still getting to know his new teammates, and he is still waiting, of course, to see what playing with Nash handling the ball most of the time will be like. He is still waiting, and there isn't a lot of time left in his career to wait. He could play until he's 40 physically; the mental grind may claim him well before then.

It was in that spirit that I'd asked him Thursday if he was especially cognizant this season, where he's been so good offensively, and so much was expected of these Lakers, of the need for his team to pick things up. Was there a sense in him that he didn't want this season, especially, to go to waste?

"I feel like that every year," he said. "Every year we lose a championship, it's always been a waste in my career. It's no different now than it was then. Every year that we lost, I feel it's been a waste."

Five rings, 11 wasted years. And counting.

DRIBBLES

The weekend brought the first milestone in the Trade Rumor Season, as players who were signed by their respective teams last July (with a few exceptions) were eligible as of Saturday to be traded by those teams elsewhere.

Thus, immediately on the rumor mill came the likes of Boston's Courtney Lee and Indiana's D.J. Augustin, who have been underwhelming. They and others were added to the list of the usual suspects -- the Lakers' Gasol, the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao, Toronto's Andrea Bargnani and guard Jose Calderon, Dallas guard Darren Collison and Utah forward Paul Millsap -- as potential veterans who could be moved before the trade deadline.

Will Lakers swap Gasol for Bargnani & Calderon?

Gasol has been thrown out there for weeks, most notably in a potential deal to Toronto for Bargnani and Calderon, each of whom fills definite holes in the L.A. roster -- a stretch four and a legit point who could spell or replace Steve Nash. But despite a lot of smoke, there doesn't appear to be any fire, at least at the moment.

The Lakers, according to league sources, remain adamant that they want to see Gasol and Nash together and healthy before making any final judgments on whether to move Gasol and the $37.2 million left on his contract extension. They believe that Gasol, while not being a classic stretch four, can work in D'Antoni's system. For their part, D'Antoni and his players think the same thing (see above).

According to the invaluable Mark Deeks at Sham Sports, Gasol also has a 15 percent trade kicker on the remainder of his deal. Normally, that would mean a team would have to cough up an extra 15 percent of the remaining amount of the contract to the player in order to do a trade. But, as Deeks pointed out to me Monday afternoon, trade kickers cannot push a player's salary above the maximum salary allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Players with 10 or more years of experience, such as Gasol, have a maximum salary allowed this season of $19,136,250, or 35 percent of this season's $58.044 million salary cap. Gasol's salary this season is already $18.7 million this season. So if he were to be traded, his trade kicker would only be allowed to get him up to the $19.136 million max, but not higher. So he wouldn't get the full 15 percent kicker.

The Raptors, sources say, are leery of taking a flier on yet another international player, despite Gasol's obvious and longstanding talents. GM Bryan Colangelo has gone this route before, remember -- signing Jorge Garbajosa, drafting Bargnani, signing Hedo Turkoglu -- and even though Gasol would fit in with just about any team, including, most assuredly, the 7-19 Raptors, Toronto isn't ready to pull the trigger.

Besides, Bargnani's torn elbow is expected to keep him out another month, making a deal for him unlikely until he returns. The same goes for Calderon; with starter Kyle Lowry (torn triceps) out for a while, the Raptors have to keep Calderon, in the final year of his contract, around. (He also has a trade kicker, 10 percent.)

But if a Lakers deal for Bargnani isn't in the cards, league sources are convinced the Raptors will eventually move him somewhere. "Bryan is going to move him, no doubt," a rival GM said Sunday evening.

Colangelo said Sunday that he was not under the gun to win this season from the team's new owners, even though the Raptors got Lowry from Houston this summer -- after an unsuccessful courtship of Steve Nash -- precisely because they wanted to jump-start their team's performance this season, feeling a legit point guard would help the likes of DeMar DeRozan and rookie center Jonas Valanciunas.

"We're not going to bow to pressure," Colangelo said. "That pressure is obviously something that's important to all of us, because we play a game that's based on pressure. Hopefully we respond to the pressure. We're not going to make any quick, rash moves."

(If Calderon is dealt, my guess is it won't be for Gasol, or for any player, but to a team that can send Toronto a pick back and create a huge $15.6 million trade exception for the Raptors.)

Cavs want too much for Varejao

Cleveland's Varejao is showcasing himself brilliantly this season, leading the league in rebounding (14.6 per game). His current PER of 21.99 is in the top 20 among all players, and would be a career best by a significant amount. He has a not at all unreasonable $18.7 million left over two years on his contract (though, per Deeks, Varejao has a 5 percent trade kicker. Oh, here, look at the list yourself.)

But the Cavs are notorious for asking for the moon and the stars in trade talks, and sources indicate they're playing the same game with Varejao.

And, get this: At least one league executive believes the Cavaliers have no intention of trading Varejao this season, because they want to keep him around so that they can make a pitch in two years for ... wait for it ... LeBron, who can opt out of his deal with the Heat after the 2013-14 season. That's just this exec's hypothesis, though; the Cavaliers, it must be stressed, are not saying that's their plan.

OKC's Draft asset = Varejao?

Another interesting wrinkle: Oklahoma City. The Thunder's record, roster and continuity would seem to make its potential involvement in any deal unlikely. But OKC does have an extremely valuable chip: that first-round pick from the Raptors that was rerouted through Houston when the Rockets sent Lowry to Toronto last summer.

The pick is protected No. 1-3 and Nos. 15-30 in 2013, meaning if it became a top-three picks or wasn't a lottery pick in the 2013 Draft, the Raptors would keep the pick. But if it falls between picks 4-14, the Thunder get the pick. (The pick is protected Nos. 1-2 and Nos. 15-30 for Toronto in 2014 and 2015, and protected at only No. 1 and Nos. 15-30 for the Raptors in 2016 and 2017. It becomes unprotected in 2018 if it hasn't yet been given to the Thunder.)

A top-10 pick would be an extremely attractive asset if OKC wanted to package it with some of their young talents who can't get regular burn -- think rookie Perry Jones III or second-year guard Reggie Jackson -- with one of its non-Big Four vets for a frontcourt demon like Varejao. His low-post D and relentless boardwork would give OKC a huge leg up should it see the likes of the Lakers or Spurs in the playoffs, or meet Miami again in the Finals.

Celts may want another big

Lee agreed to four-year, $21 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal that sent him from Houston to Boston in a three-way trade also involving Portland. But he's shooting just 28.6 percent from 3-point range this season, well off his career mark of 38.6 percent (and way off last season's 40.1 percent behind the arc).

And with Jason Terry in tow and Avery Bradley close to making his return from shoulder surgeries in the summer, the Celtics -- looking hard for one more big man -- have one off-guard too many.

Millsap, Collison could be on move

Utah is facing a logjam and luxury tax issues with its surplus of big men, and most around the league think that the Jazz will ultimately move Millsap and his expiring $8.6 million deal rather than Al Jefferson, who also has an expiring deal, at $15 million.

"They can't pay both of them, so I think they'll choose Jefferson, just because of [third-year forward Derrick] Favors," one GM said, thinking Jefferson and Favors are a better match. "I might be wrong, but one of them has to go."

Other teams also are believed to be ready to make a deal.

Dallas kicked the tires of several veteran point guards before bringing in Derek Fisher in late November, a clear vote of no confidence in Collison, who arrived with great fanfare in a deal with the Pacers. But Collison fell fast, though he's been more productive coming off the bench behind Fisher.

Bucks looking to shore up SF spot

The Bucks have a surplus of bigs, and are looking for a more permanent answer at small forward, despite second-year forward Tobias Harris' moments of promise and the return of Luc Mbah a Moute. None of them has been able to take hold of the three spot. Milwaukee may be more likely to move one of its undersized fours or oversized threes than either Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings, who've become a pretty solid backcourt. Jennings is an unrestricted free agent this summer while Ellis has an early-termination option for 2013-14.

Milwaukee also has veteran Drew Gooden in mothballs, but he's not likely to attract much interest, with two years and $13.3 million left on his $32 million contract. Gooden hadn't played a minute this season until Dec. 7, having been passed over in the Bucks' rotation after playing center down the stretch last season following the Andrew Bogut trade.

Pacers, Wizards, Sixers interested in deals

Indiana has played better lately, but the Pacers are still willing to talk about making an adjustment here or there, though they aren't willing to talk about either George Hill or Paul George, according to sources.

The Wizards are in desperate need of a point guard until John Wall comes back and are willing to move one of their bigs for a veteran point, league sources say. But will there be much interest in the likes of Trevor Booker (who hasn't played in three weeks since suffering a knee injury)? With the worst record in the league at the quarter pole, Washington is not at all interested in dealing its 2013, first-round and likely top-three pick.

The 76ers have also made inquiries about big men around the league, a likely indication that they're not expecting Andrew Bynum on the court any time soon -- or, at least, not expecting him to be very effective when he comes back. Other than Jrue Holiday, I'm told, no one is off limits -- though it would take something immense to get Philly to part with Thaddeus Young or Evan Turner.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parenthesis; last week's rankings in brackets)

1) Oklahoma City (2-0) [1]: Thunder's 10-game winning streak is its longest since moving to OKC, and the longest in franchise history since the Sonics won 11 in a row in Seattle in 1996.

2) N.Y. Knicks. (3-0) [4]: Still unbeaten at home after holding on to beat Cleveland on Saturday, though the defense has slipped a little in the last week or so.

3) L.A. Clippers (3-0) [6]: The current nine-game winning streak is the longest since the franchise was in Buffalo, playing as the Braves, and won 11 straight in November, 1974.

4) Golden State (3-1) [8]: Warriors complete incredibly impressive 6-1 road trip with rout in Atlanta, even getting 14 effective minutes Saturday (seven boards) from Andris Biedrins in relief of injured Festus Ezeli.

5) San Antonio (2-2) [2]: Ginobili's status (quad contusion suffered against Cs Saturday) will be the topic of discussion for the next few days in the 210.

6) Miami (2-1) [7]: Erik Spoelstra looking at different lineups and matchups to try and find some continuity.

7) Chicago (2-1) [9]: Since starting the last six games for the injured Rip Hamilton, Marco Belinelli is shooting 43 percent (15 of 35) from 3-point range, averaging 17 points per game

8) Atlanta (2-2) [5]: Ugly loss Saturday at home to Golden State, but the Hawks still are currently second in the Eastern Conference behind the Heat.

9) Memphis (1-2) [3]: Grizzlies end nine-game losing streak in Utah with Saturday win over Jazz at Energy Solutions Arena.

10) Utah (1-2) [10]: Jazz, who have been less than intimidating away from home, start a four-game East swing Tuesday: at Brooklyn, Indiana, Miami, Orlando.

11) L.A. Lakers (2-2) [11]: They've been as bad as you can be for a month and still be viewed as a contender. But they'll finally get some practice time this week, and maybe get Nash back on the practice court.

12) Brooklyn (2-2) [12]: Nets get Brook Lopez (foot) back to help solidify their springy defense.

13) Boston (1-2) [13]: Avery Bradley coming back, and the Celts need some stability at the two guard; Courtney Lee has scored in double figures just three times so far this season, and they'd like to get Jet Terry back to his regular role off the bench.

14) Minnesota (3-0) [NR]: Rubio returns with eight points, nine assists in 18 minutes Saturday in Wolves' overtime win over Dallas.

15) Milwaukee (2-1) [15]: Ellis/Jennings backcourt averaging better than 35 a game, but shooting a combined less than 40 percent from the floor.

Dropped out: Philadelphia (14)

TEAM OF THE WEEK

L.A. Clippers (3-0): These are the salad days for this franchise, clearly now the better one in Los Angeles. No amount of spin from the other half of Staples Center can change that. And, Caron Butler apparently got through a game in Milwaukee without mangling some important body part!

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Detroit (0-4): Pistons need another point guard who can give Brandon Knight a blow, and give Lawrence Frank an option when Knight struggles to get his team going.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Are we, simply, doomed as a nation?

It took all the energy I could muster Friday to leave home and go see the Lakers and Wizards. Not because the Lakers (and, in their way, the Wizards) aren't an interesting story, but because I didn't want to leave my kids. Not Friday.

What happened in Newtown, Conn., Friday morning revealed a damaged country. Something is fundamentally wrong with us, and to those literalists who say, "There's nothing wrong with me, or my country; I didn't pull the trigger and I don't know anyone who would," please, go click some other link and leave the rest of us alone for a spell. I have to get this out.

When even children -- chosen, apparently, deliberately, not as unfortunate and innocent bystanders, as has been the case for so long in our cities, not that we seem to care much -- are not immune from the horrific carnage of a madman, we are in a place that desperately requires God's love and grace, for we seem incapable of providing it to one another. We are killing one another, in one insane act after another, and we spend the succeeding days arguing about the delivery system of death rather than why our lives have become devalued.

Why are so many mentally disturbed people turning to mass murder as their final act of an incoherent life? Why can't we reach them before they reach for the assault rifles? What began as an act of compassion (or, as some maintain, an act of cynicism to lessen state financial burdens), releasing many of the nation's mentally ill from institutions and asylums throughout the 1960s and '70s, did not work out as intended (this story, three decades old, details the thinking behind the decision).

Recessions, wars and the decline of the middle class' earning power have only increased the numbers of mentally ill people on the streets, while decreasing our ability as communities to provide assistance to the mentally ill and depressed who live with us and among us -- our troubled children, our silent neighbors, our detached and withdrawn friends. (Warning: There's some rough language in here. But this terrifies me and it should terrify you.)

We are not as religious as we used to be. I wonder how that has played a part in all of this. Not because I think belief in God is the answer for every troubled soul (though it no doubt is, or would be, for many), but because spending less time together, period -- whether in church, or in community centers, or at block parties, or just talking over the fence -- contributes, I think, to a collective detachment from one another. I don't know the people on my block very well. We don't spend time in one another's homes; we don't go out to eat or to the movies or to local events with one another. They're busy; I'm busy, my wife is busy. I don't know them, and I don't know what they're doing at night, when the doors are closed. This scares me. We are all scared.

We are way too permissive these days. We let our kids play the goriest, bloodiest video games imaginable, and watch movie after movie in which the plot centers solely on new and creative ways to slaughter as many people as possible. (Again: I know movies glorified gangsters in the 1920s and '30s. But we're refining that unfortunate pattern.) We tell people who want to report crimes to "stop snitchin';' we tell black kids who want to achieve in school that they're "acting white;" we let our sons walk around with their pants halfway down their rear ends and we let our daughters pierce everything, and we let both of them get inked up more than the Seventh Fleet.

And, yes, there are the guns.

Analogies at 20 paces.

Yes, guns don't kill people; people kill people. But people with guns kill people a lot faster, and kill a lot more of them, than people with, say, a battleax. Or a spear. Or a club. I'm sure there were mass killings before there were high capacity magazines that can kill 75 people before they can take a step forward. But those people had a much better chance of defending themselves.

Charles Whitman, 25, was a deeply disturbed person who snapped in the evening of July 31,1966. He killed his mother, then his wife, left notes detailing how much he loved them both and didn't really understand why he did what he did. He then took a truck full of guns to the University of Texas at Austin, where he went into the school's 307-foot tower and ascended to the observation deck. He killed the receptionist and several other people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, before walking out onto the deck and opening fire on dozens of people within the radii of his scopes.

He killed more than a dozen and wounded many more before Austin policemen finally broke through the barricades he'd set up and killed him. It took him 96 minutes to kill and wound all those people at UT.

The person who slaughtered 20 children and six adults Friday morning before killing himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School needed only about 15 minutes, according to the initial reports.

The Constitution is rightly revered as a living document, whose declarations of rights and freedoms are still our bedrock as a nation. I would humbly point out here, however, that Article I, Section II of that document counted my forefathers who were in chains at the time as three-fifths of a human being. This was done so that pro-slavery states could use their slave populations for greater representation in the nascent national government, without having to deal with the mess of, you know, actually allowing them to vote. (Women -- well, white women, I guess -- were counted as whole persons. But, yeah, no voting for them either, for about 125 more years.)

This is the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

We have spent more than two centuries arguing what the Founding Fathers meant in that really poorly constructed sentence. (How about "As we believe that a well-regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed"? We'd still argue about it, but it makes a lot more sense.)

I am not part of this country's gun culture. I say that, again, as a matter of fact, not as a pejorative. It is clear that there are millions of people for whom owning, using, collecting and sharing guns is an integral part of their culture. It is part of the connective tissue between fathers, sons and grandsons. They know how guns work, and they are respectful about that, and they teach those they love how to use them in a responsible manner.

Many are hunters, and they bond, whether in a duck blind or a deer stand, and their guns are a part of that bonding, and it is important to them. They don't want someone -- me, for example -- judging them on it, and they certainly don't want any government, federal or otherwise, telling them what guns they can and can't buy and keep in their homes.

And they damn sure don't understand why more laws are needed than are already on the books, laws that would only make it harder for them, the law-abiding, non-crazy people, to have guns. They are in the NRA, but not because they share that lobby's interest in protecting gun manufacturers -- and that's who the NRA serves, the companies that make guns.

Let's just say for the sake of this column that I'm not talking to any of you. I have no problem with any of you. I don't want to take any of your guns.

But is there nothing short of no law that can be done to better regulate the sale of guns in our country?

Connecticut has very tough gun laws on the books, according to everything I've read. The problem is there are loopholes the size of Big Baby Davis to those laws.

For example, and correct me if I'm wrong (and I know you will), if you buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer in Connecticut, you have to provide both a gun license and an eligibility certificate -- a document specifically designed to keep felons, the mentally ill, illegal aliens or anyone acquitted of a crime by reason of mental illness from getting a weapon. This makes sense to everyone, right?

And, there is a two-week waiting period in the state before a licensed dealer can transfer a gun such as the "long rifle" that was one of the reported weapons used in the Newton shootings. Again, we all think that's good.

But, if the purchase/transfer of such a gun is made through a private dealer, there is no waiting period.

This is the part the NRA always leaves out.

To (again) make a basketball analogy: owners spend tens of millions of dollars on lawyers during these NBA lockouts to draw up the most draconian language they can find to supposedly make it as tough as possible for teams to spend money on players. And then, seven seconds after an agreement, they spend millions more on GMs and "capologists" who find loopholes in those laws and allow them to legally circumvent the cap or luxury tax provisions. Or, to bring it closer to home: why do rich folks have tax attorneys? Why does everybody, rich or not, look for every deduction they can find in their taxes before April 15? (Now, I can write off this lunch at Burger King because we talked about my job while I was eating that Whopper, right?)

The Second Amendment, I believe, guarantees people the right to own and keep guns in their homes -- even semiautomatic ones. But it was ratified in 1791. I believe most intelligent people would allow that circumstances have changed somewhat in our nation since then. We have decided as a nation, for example, that black people a) can no longer be slaves, b) can vote, c) can not be discriminated against in the public schools, or in where they can live, or work. The Constitution, being a living document, can be amended or changed.

Such as:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms and ammunition shall not be infringed. Nor shall the right of the people to keep and bear Arms and ammunition to secure a free State through a well-regarded Militia, or National Guard, be infringed. There shall be, however, uniform standards throughout the States for the sale and distribution of all Arms and ammunition, whether public or private.

That begins to close at least some a few of the loopholes that make it impossible to stop a crazy person from buying a weapon of mass destruction. That keeps Joe Jones, gunshop owner, in business, as well as Jane Jones, private collector. It's just that Joe and Jane will be operating under the same laws and rules now. They'll both have to do background checks on anyone that wants to legally buy a gun -- the person (I don't want to give him any more attention; Google him if you want) who shot up the movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., in July bought the weapons he used legally.

Adding "ammunition" to the amended Amendment could allow states some sort of control (sorry, but that's the right word) over the tens of thousands of rounds that people can legally purchase. The person in Colorado bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition in the days before his rampage over the Internet. Legally.

I am out of my depth here and am looking for guidance from gun lovers and users -- what would be the reason for any one individual to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition?

I can't buy Claritin for my allergies more than twice a month because it contains pseudoephedrine, which people also use to make crystal meth. Every time I go to the CVS I have to give my driver's license to the pharmacist, who looks at something called MethCheck to make sure I'm not running a meth lab in my basement. And, you know what? That's OK with me. This MethCheck thing seems to be working, at least in some places, and there is debate about it.

Why couldn't every gun dealer, licensed or private, be required to have something called GunCheck, which would require a gun buyer to provide a valid license? The seller could then make the normal checks (is the buyer a felon? Mentally ill? Etc.), and also see if that individual has already bought, say, two guns in a given month. If so, they couldn't buy another one until the following month. Would that end our republic? Would our way of life cease to exist if you were limited to buying 1,000 rounds of ammo a month?

Most importantly, would it be an insult to the Founding Fathers if we could just have a reasoned conversation about all this, and get beyond the politics? Politicians will never address this in a meaningful way, having reservoirs of moral courage with a shelf life that won't last through the first night of Kwanzaa. We have to do this.

I know every position I have on this isn't right. I want to hear from people who disagree with me. But what I don't want is polemics and name-calling. I don't hate America and I don't want a nanny state. I also don't want someone who is severely disturbed to be able to buy guns and 6,000 rounds of ammo, and walk into a movie theatre and start shooting people. I don't want 6 and 7 year olds who haven't learned to multiply and divide yet to be massacred, and for their principal to have to end her life by throwing herself in front of a boy younger than she is who has this in his hands, shooting children in her school.

I am honored to mention her by name. Her name is Dawn Hochsprung. She and the other adults who stepped in front of bullets are heroes. Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who kept the killer out of her room with nothing more than her body, is a hero. May God bless her as well, and her family, and all the families of all the children and staffers who were killed or wounded.

We cannot do this a la carte. We cannot act on guns without acting on mental illness, we cannot act on our deteriorating sense of community without acting on the violent culture that we live in. We have to do all of it, the uncomfortable, heavy, all of it, for there to be any impact. There is no quiet, calm community in which you can hide. The insane and the guns and the culture find you, wherever you live, on the west side of Chicago, or in Newtown, or Aurora, or Clackamas, Oregon or Brookfield, Wisc., or Blacksburg, Va., or Fort Worth, Texas, or Washington, D.C., or Nickel Mines, Penn., and a dozen other cities that have had to bury their dead and hope that their deaths meant something.

"We cannot accept events like this as routine," President Barack Obama said Sunday night. No, we cannot.

I have cried all weekend. And I am afraid to take my children to school Monday. But I will take them. They deserve a chance to live. Not to learn. To live.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

From Nico Lang:

Read your article about Kobe vs. the Mt. Rushmore of basketball greats. Without getting into details, or resorting to the petty jabs that sports discussions often dissolve to, I must say I am surprised by your adamant insistence of Wilt over Kobe. Or even Magic, or Bird for that matter.

It is well documented that Wilt didn't have that fire, that will to win that we long hold as the gold standard of greatness. He was not a leader, and was primarily known for being a great player on mediocre teams until late in his career he picked up a few titles. And you have him above Magic/Bird/Kobe!

Was he an offensive force? Yes. Did he put up numbers that would make James Naismith blush? Yes. But his gaudy stats were sullied by meaningless seasons and early playoff flame outs. He is top 10 easy, simply because you can't overlook those kind of numbers when coupled with a few rings.... But to put him above some of the most competitive, revolutionary, and skilled players to ever hit the hardwood (Magic, Bird, Kobe) is a SSSSTTRRREEEETCCCH!

One thing I never understand is how people can unanimously agree on Jordan being the best ever, and Kobe being the closest thing to him- only to then say Kobe's place amongst the all-time greats is up for debate. No it's not! If you've identified the model for who the best is (Jordan) and you then identify who is the next closest thing to that model (Kobe) then shouldn't it be pretty clear that Kobe is #2?

Respectfully, no, Nico. "Close" is not the same as "the same." As far as Wilt, I'm not sure how you can overlook the numbers. Babe Ruth's stats dwarfed everyone else's that played in his era; even if the Yankees hadn't won as many championships as they did, Ruth would have made the Hall and rightly been viewed as the most dominant player of his generation (and, as it turned out, several generations to come). Wilt is in that same category to me, but he doesn't have the rings along with the numbers that made Ruth's Hall of Fame selection a no-brainer.

From Joao Ribiero:

I'm an avid reader of your column and I would like to know your opinion on a certain subject. I'm aware of the "Tim Duncan rule" implemented in this year's All Star voting. It makes sense to me. But I don´t think it makes sense not having Duncan as this year´s starter, for an all different reason. Shouldn't the weight of fan voting be reduced? What is the All-Star all about?

It's about having the very best players of each conference battling in one spectacular game or is a showcase of the League´s flashiest dunkers mixed with a popularity contest? I know for a fact that Duncan himself doesn't care if he's not a starter (not much of a surprise there). But it's hard for me to see both Blake Griffin, who isn't playing nearly as good as someone 13 years older than him, and Dwight Howard, playing in the most underachieving team in the League right now, getting starter spots ahead of him. It´s not by any means fair and it's not faithful to the true concept of an All-Star Game.

I have had arguments with fans for years on this, Joao, and I am not relenting: The All-Star Game is an exhibition for fans. Period. So if the fans want to see Blake Griffin dunk instead of watching Duncan's drop step, more power to them. It just has never been a very important thing to me, because it is a popularity contest, nothing more. (Players are much more interested in making the first, second or third all-NBA teams at the end of the season.) There is no "true" concept of an All-Star Game, because we're never going to all agree on what a true All-Star is. I'm sure there are people in Memphis who think Marc Gasol is more deserving of a spot than either Duncan or Griffin, and nothing you or I say is going to change their minds.

From Chris Dellecese:

Re: Bonds: if you're playing golf with a guy and he suddenly starts cheating on hole 12, is he not still a cheater?

Fair point, Chris. And you can keep Bonds out if you think any cheating is cheating. But is scuffing the baseball cheating? Because there are a few Hall of Fame pitchers who were known for nicking the ball up. Is playing on amphetamines cheating? Because there are a few Hall of Fame players who ate greenies like they were candy. But you are correct; by all the available evidence, Bonds cheated. My only point is that his stats up to the point he began cheating are worthy of consideration.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and different outfits for Kanye to wear to his next concert instead of this (perhaps they were going jousting afterward) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week's averages in parentheses)

1) LeBron James (27 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, .556 FG, .783 FT): Per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, James has scored 20 points or more in 26 straight regular season games, and 42 overall, including playoffs.

2) Kevin Durant (33 ppg, 7 rpg, 3 apg, .647 FG, .913 FT): Very classy move, KD.

3) Carmelo Anthony (37.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.5 apg, .641 FG, .895 FT): He is superior to LBJ in one regard: 'Melo is the hardest end-to-end check in the league right now. He can hit the three, drive, pull up, post up -- everything.

4) Tim Duncan (13.3 ppg, 13 rpg, 3.3 bpg, .327 FG, .826 FT): His shot has wavered the last few games, but The Big Fundamental still crushing on the glass; he was a +18 Saturday night even though he shot just 2 of 13 from the floor against the Celtics.

5) Kobe Bryant (34.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.3 apg, .461 FG, .842 FT): Teams are staying down on the head fakes better, but he's still lethal on the catch, one-dribble pullup, and he's still getting to the foul line.

BY THE NUMBERS

641,348 -- Votes for leading vote-getter LeBron James after the first round of tallies for the All-Star Game in Houston were released this week. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant is currently second with 639,419 votes.

2,563 -- Consecutive games officiated by Dick Bavetta, as of Saturday night, the longest streak by a referee. The 73-year-old Bavetta long passed the previous mark of 2,134 games, set by Jake O'Donnell, in 2006.

1,108 -- Streak of consecutive games in which the Mavericks had at least on 3-pointer, a mark that ended Friday when Dallas lost at Toronto. The Mavs, as our Jeff Caplan pointed out, had made at least one three in every game since Feb. 26, 1985, in a loss to the Jazz.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) A pitch-perfect decision, Lorne Michaels, to open "Saturday Night Live" like this. Thank you.

2) Happy for the fans in Oakland, who have supported the Warriors through thick and thin (mostly thin) for years and years, and seemingly, finally, have a winning, exciting team to support. Hope the Dubs can keep it up, because there is no better atmosphere for a big game.

3) Thought C-Webb was gonna need oxygen after Thursday's "Shaqtin a Fool" on Inside the NBA. It was funny, my goodness. Watching George Karl drop his head after JaVale almost took out Ty Lawson was priceless.

4) This is the best thing I've read all week. Congrats, Stanley Roberts.

4A) And you too, D-Walker!

5) Let's face it; everyone working my side of the street as a reporter has wondered, at one time or another, if he or she could do the jobs of the people we're covering. Not the players; even the most delusional of my ink-stained brethren realizes we don't have that kind of game. I mean the front office, the GM and player personnel side. And so I'm happy for ESPN.com's John Hollinger, who was hired last week by the Grizzlies to a senior management role.

... NOT FEELIN'

1) There will come a time, and soon, when John Wall examines his options, and remembers all the things that could have or should have been done, but weren't, or were done, and shouldn't have been. And then he will make up his mind whether or not he wants to stay in D.C. Your only saving grace is that the Bobcats, the team closest to his family in Raleigh, have been even worse than you've been the last couple of years. But that's a thin stock of soup on which to base a franchise's future.

2) The Cavs need to design a Kevlar uniform for Kyrie Irving, to lessen the chances that anything else important breaks on him this season.

3) I'm sure all the tabloids in New York will give sober, reasoned coverage to Jeremy Lin's return to Madison Square Garden tonight with the Houston Rockets, said no one on earth.

4) Something's gotta give soon in Sacramento, I think. There's just nothing happening that would indicate there's going to be a turnaround any time soon, nor is there an obvious nucleus that will contend in the near future.

5) Rob Parker is a friend of mine, but he could not have been more wrong with his insinuation that Robert Griffin III is, somehow, not black enough because of his off-the-field choices. This is a despicable canard, that there is some standard for "blackness" that can, somehow, be judged by others. RGIII has done nothing but excel on the football field, and done nothing to call attention to himself off the field, and why he should be criticized for that is beyond my comprehension. Muhammad Ali said, famously, in 1964, "I don't have to be what you want me to be." That statement doesn't just cut one way.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

How does a man who can't excersise at all stay in shape?
-- Suns forward Channing Frye (@Channing_Frye), Friday, 11:09 a.m. Frye is out for the season after preseason tests determined he had an enlarged heart.

THEY SAID IT

"I thought about it all summer; I just couldn't wait to come back here. When I went down last year [with an ankle injury in the playoffs], people cheering and stuff, I felt like that was real disrespectful, and it was definitely motivation for me to work even harder this summer."
-- Bulls center Joakim Noah, after Chicago beat the 76ers in Philadelphia on Wednesday, on his taunting Philly fans during the game. The 76ers upset the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs last spring after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the opening game of the series.

"They believed it was me. They wanted to know when I was gonna be back."
-- Amar'e Stoudemire, after taking a turn as a guest phone banker and donation taker during the "12-12-12" concert Wednesday at Madison Square Garden to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Ray Felton were among other Knicks who attended and took donation calls, along with former Knicks guard Baron Davis.

"It means Charles Barkley needs to shut up."
-- LeBron James, defending teammate Dwyane Wade from recent comments the Chuckster made on TNT, saying Wade's game has diminished in recent years because of injuries and that he needed to remake his game if he wanted to continue being considered an elite player.

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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