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David Aldridge

Community outreach from the Celtics and other teams is a welcome sight this holiday season.

A trying 2012 makes holiday hoops all the more important


Posted Dec 24, 2012 11:02 AM

I always recoiled, slightly, at the notion that sports is the "toy department" of life, a place of unimportant diversions that allows people who do the "real work" around here to have a few hours of release, where they can look at the highly-paid mercenaries throw or hit or catch a ball for their entertainment.

But there has rarely been a greater need for people to take their minds off of the real world.

Christmas is going to be a somber, awful holiday in so many homes along the East coast. We have, somewhat understandably, been distracted from the reality that there are thousands of people that are still displaced in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York because of Hurricane Sandy. It is understandable because of Newtown, Conn.

Tuesday, there will be presents under trees that will never be opened by the people to whom they are addressed. There will be table settings at homes that will not be disturbed. There will be choirs without falsettos; family portraits missing loved ones. It will be a difficult day. My mother died at the end of October in 1986, and Thanksgiving and Christmas were terrible occasions that year. There is such an emptiness.

And so, yes, let's hope the NBA's slate of five games on ESPN and ABC Tuesday serves as a brief respite for those who have suffered so much. They could use some larger-than-life toys.

And Happy Holidays, as well, to:

LeBron James, who had the kind of transformative year that will give him the upper hand in the history books. No one can take away what he did in 2012 -- a third career MVP, an NBA championship and Finals MVP award and an Olympic Gold Medal. The Decision no longer defines him.

The Borough of Brooklyn, which waited 45 years for a pro sports team to come back, after the last one broke its collective heart. The Nets aren't going to please everyone, most notably those in the community who were displaced in order to build Barclays Center. But they have a chance to try and make that right over the next few decades.

Kevin Durant, for this.

Scott Brooks, for this.

The U.S. men's and women's Olympic basketball teams, who took on all comers in London and successfully defended their respective gold medals.

My buds in Seattle. Hold on. In the meantime, the Seahawks are rolling.

The Commish and Long, Tall Adam.

Billy Hunter, Ron Klempner, Jared Alula and everyone at the National Basketball Players' Association.

Bass, Frank, Coyle, Broussard.

Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum, John Wall, Grant Hill, Iman Shumpert and Danny Granger. Hope you get back on the court soon. Your teams need you.

Carlisle, Rivers, Spoelstra, Adelman, Brooks, Karl, Collins.

James White, Shannon Brown, Gerald Green.

Matt Barnes, Marc Gasol, Luke Babbitt, John Salmons.

C.J. Watson, P.J. Tucker, J.J. Redick, A.J. Price, C.J. Miles, O.J. Mayo, J.J. Hickson and D.J. Augustin.

Amir Johnson, Ivan Johnson, James Johnson, Joe Johnson, Orlando Johnson, Wesley Johnson and Darius Johnson-Odom (he half counts).

Red Panda, Quick Change, Christopher, The Jesse White Tumblers.

Dan Crawford, Joey Crawford, Derrick Stafford, Mike Callahan, Ken Mauer and Bill Spooner.

Dick Bavetta.

Jimmy Butler, Daequan Cook and Dion Waiters.

John Salmons, Paul Millsap and George Hill. (Alas, there is no one named "Ringo" in the NBA of whom I am aware.)

Kobe Bryant, Gerald Henderson, Kevin Love, Luke Walton, Al Horford, Stephen Curry, Nolan Smith, John Lucas III, Ed Davis, Klay Thompson, Damien Wilkins, Austin Daye, Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and Austin Rivers.

Chauncey Billups, Kyrie Irving, Omer Asik, Brandon Rush, Marreese Speights, LeBron James, Ramon Sessions, Randy Foye, MarShon Brooks, DeMar DeRozan, Monta Ellis, Dwight Howard, Tyreke Evans, Shaun Livingston, Matt Bonner, Steve Novak, Lou Amundson, Victor Claver, Gustavo Ayon, Quincy Pondexter, Wilson Chandler, Taj Gibson, Jason Richardson, Paul Millsap, DeAndre Liggins, Shannon Brown, Zaza Pachulia, Ian Mahinmi, Jeff Pendergraph and Brandon Bass.

Marv, Reggie, Steve, Kevin, Czar, C-Webb, 3-D, Bones, Kamla, Winer, Vince, Bone, Rodney, ReLo, Lonnie, Scooter, Tony, MD, Tara, Olivia and everyone behind the cameras and behind the scenes that makes Turner the best -- the best -- place I have ever worked. It doesn't seem like a job when it's with talented people like you.

And blessings to Ken Hudson, Jim Durham, Bob Boozer, Rick Majerus, Kenny (Eggman) Williamson, Dan Roundfield, Pat Cummings, Jack Twyman, Slater Martin, Marv Kessler, Simon Gourdine, Orlando Woolridge, Arnie Risen and Sasha McHale. May God hold you and bless you, and provide comfort to your families.

DRIBBLES

The Wizards are so dreadful that it is now progress when they only lose by nine to a horrible team.

They fell to a league-worst 3-22 Saturday after dropping a second game within 24 hours to the until-they-played-Washington 7-21 Pistons, the night after they lost in Detroit to the Pistons by 32, in a humiliating rout. It was another terrible performance in another lost season (already) for the Wizards, and the following night, most of the few fans remaining at the end at Verizon Center seemed too numb to boo. Or maybe it was too cold outside to boo. Or maybe the caring has been beaten out of them, with a fifth straight season with fewer than 30 wins staring them in the face.

The predictable scurrying for the lifeboats has followed.

"It's like there's a cancer in here," one player said.

"I see division, and no vision," said another.

And this is in a locker room full of, relatively, good guys.

The Wiz thought they'd fumigated their clubhouse over the last season, getting rid of talented-but-often-immature talents like JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche. Surrounding John Wall instead would be veterans like Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, and Washington believed (and believes) it added a gem in the first round with rookie guard Bradley Beal. But a .120 win percentage can crack the sturdiest of foundations.

"The goal is for us to all be on the same page," swingman Martell Webster said, "so that when we're out there, it doesn't matter what group of guys are out there. They're a unit, that has a rhythm and a chemistry together. That's the most important thing is building the chemistry. When you're having fun going out there and battling with the guys on the floor with you, then it makes it a little bit easier to win. And you know guys are going to motivate you, and you that you can motivate guys, without it being 'oh, man, get off my back.'"

There is, team sources say, a lack of accountability among the players, with no one feeling secure enough to challenge anyone else. It's not about yelling or screaming ... it's about not accepting excuses, and demanding better preparation and performance. It should be Wall, but he's currently wearing a suit. It could be Nene, but he's on a minutes limit, in and out of the lineup while trying to play with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

There's no question that Nene is still one of the league's most talented bigs, capable of scoring with both hands. He's a willing and able passer and one of the best big men in the league at drawing charges. But the book on him in Denver was that he couldn't push himself through injuries, that he spent way too much time in the trainer's room to be a leader. And yet, he was the one with tears in his eyes Saturday night, his feet in ice, his knees wrapped up, after playing 26 minutes in his first start of the season.

"When you play with confidence, and you're together, it's different," Nene said. "You feel, you know your teammates know you, and you give your best. But right here, right now, it's the opposite. Total opposite."

And why is that not happening in D.C.?

"Because people have no respect for the game," he continued. "They think this opportunity's nothing right now. That's the problem with the young guys. They don't take advantage of being in the NBA, the best basketball in the world. A lot of young guys want to be in their position. But right here, I don't think they realize that."

Does he feel, he is asked, a responsibility to speak to them about that? It is not mentioned that he is in the second year of a five-year, $67 million extension he originally signed with Denver.

"My job is to play hard, to give my best on the basketball court," he said. "The responsibility is the manager and the coach. But somebody needs to talk to them."

So...how is that accountability piece coming along?

"We're working on that," guard Jordan Crawford said. "We're working on that."

Wall's stress reaction injury to his left knee has had the same deleterious impact on the Wizards that it would on any team whose best player is sidelined all season. The Wizards built their team on the assumption that Wall would be forcing tempo at every turn, collapsing defenses, getting fast-break opportunities for runners like Chris Singleton and second-year forward Jan Vesely, and open threes for Ariza and Webster.

Instead, Washington is last in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging just 95.2 points per 100 possessions, 17.9 points fewer than league leader Oklahoma City.

Wall visited knee specialist David Altchek in New York last week, but there is no timetable for his return. It's the fifth time in the last 10 seasons (see chart below) that the Wizards' likely star has missed significant time with an injury.

And Ariza (strained left calf), forward Trevor Booker (knee injury) and guard A.J. Price (broken hand) -- who was signed to replace Wall during training camp -- have all missed significant time already. On Sunday, the Wizards brought back Shelvin Mack, whom they had released at the end of camp, and waived Shawn Livingston and veteran forward Earl Barron.

Hurting stars in D.C.
Season Name Games Played Wizards' record
2003-04 Gilbert Arenas 55 25-57
2004-05 Arenas 80 45-37
2005-06 Arenas 80 42-20
2006-07 Arenas 74 41-41
2007-08 Gilbert Arenas & Antawn Jamison 13, 79 43-39
2008-09 Arenas 2 19-63
2009-10 Arenas 32 26-56
2010-11 John Wall 69 23-59
2011-12 Wall 66 (full season) 20-46
2012-13 Wall (current) 0 3-22

But the few fans in D.C. who aren't caught up in the hurricane of Robert Griffin III and the Redskins' unlikely run toward the playoffs don't want to hear about injuries; they just see another NBA season going on without them. And they want Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld cashiered as well as anybody else affiliated with the front office, tired of waiting for the rebuild that is always around the next corner.

"It's frustrating," Grunfeld said Saturday night. "I understand the fans' frustration. We're frustrated. Our players are frustrated. Because we're all very competitive. We want to do well. And I understand the fans' frustrations. We have to do better. We have to play better. You don't have excuses with injuries, but the fact of the matter is that we have them."

Do the Wizards have numerous injuries to some of their most important players? Sure.

Has it impacted their record? Of course.

Does anyone care, or feel sorry for them? Hell, no.

Everyone has injuries -- good teams, bad teams, in-between teams. And, on occasion, coaches bench their entire core to rest them, and the rest of the team competes anyway, taking the defending champions to the buzzer on the road.

The Wizards, though, seem paralyzed by their injuries. It is as if the season should be stopped until they get their top players back. Of course, it doesn't work that way.

"It's not an excuse," coach Randy Wittman said. "It does take an effect on your team, the way your team is made up, when you take your main ingredients out. You're left with not maybe what you thought you had going in. But we're better than this."

Wittman has tried different lineups and different matchups with little success. ("I was trying to get thrown out for a while," he said Saturday, after the Wiz fell behind by 22 in the first half.)

His no-nonsense approach was one of the reasons the Wizards didn't even look at the likes of Nate McMillan or Mike D'Antoni, opting instead to keep Wittman, who'd been brought to D.C. by then-coach Flip Saunders, then stayed on as coach after Saunders got fired last January. Wittman was 100-207 in previous stints in Minnesota and Cleveland, but owner Ted Leonsis said last June that the players had recommended he keep Wittman instead of searching elsewhere.

But coaching isn't the pressing issue. Until the Friday debacle against Detroit, the Wizards had at least competed most nights for Wittman. They'd been in four overtime games (losing them all, natch), and they've lost 10 games by six points or fewer. Against the lowly Pistons, though, Washington barely competed in two out of eight total quarters, rallying from a 22-point deficit Saturday before again succumbing.

Out of desperation, Wittman played Vesely, the second-year forward who has shown next to nothing since Washington took him with the sixth pick in 2011. The Wizards took Vesely because they expected the 7-footer would be able to utilize his court-running skills playing alongside Wall. With no Wall, the game has slowed to a walk, and Vesely -- who is, charitably, not a good shooter -- has looked lost. He still has more fouls (45) than points (43), and is shooting 26 percent from the foul line. There's no question Wall would help Vesely get some easy baskets, but surely an athletic 22-year-old can contribute in other ways.

"He has to play better," Grunfeld said.

Leonsis said at the start of the season that finishing with the second- or third-worst record at the end of the season would be "unacceptable" and a "failure," which would start with him. He said he didn't want to again be in the Lottery, where the Wizards and Kings should go in on a time-share for all the years they've been to Secaucus and New York to watch the ping-pong balls.

But Washington is again looking Lottery-bound, with the best shot of getting the top pick. (And the Wizards can't even get that right; this is not projected to be a strong Draft, even at the top.)

"I think once we get everybody together, that's when we're going to have to evaluate," Grunfeld said. "In the meantime, we want to see effort every night. We want to see players playing the game the right way, and being professional, and competing on a nightly basis. And for the most part, we have done that this year. We've had a couple of games where we haven't, and those are the things we have to correct going forward."

It will be some time before everyone is together. Nene is still on a minutes limit. Wall is starting to run a little before games, but he's also dealing with swelling behind the knee, which required three SyncVisc injections over the last few months, as well as the stress reaction to the kneecap. He is on hold, indefinitely. So are the Wizards. Again.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) L.A. Clippers (4-0) [3]: Yes. The Los Angeles Clippers are currently the best team in the NBA. Truly, this was a sentence I never thought I'd write in my lifetime.

2) Oklahoma City (2-1) [1]: Thunder's 12-game win streak ends just in time for Christmas Day matchup with the Heat in Miami.

3) Miami (3-0) [6]: Shane Battier healthy and back in the starting lineup at "power" forward; no coincidence the Heat has throttled four straight opponents.

4) N.Y. Knicks (2-2) [2]: Stoudemire close to returning, and then we'll see what kind of season the Knicks are really going to have.

5) Golden State (2-2) [4]: Jarrett Jack looks like one of the best pickups of the offseason.

6) Memphis (3-1) [9]: Grizzlies had held 23 straight opponents under 100 points before giving up 121 to Houston in a blowout loss Saturday

7) San Antonio (2-2) [5]: Spurs make amazing 20 of 30 3-point attempts in rout of Mavericks Sunday night; Danny Green sets a franchise record with seven.

8) Chicago (2-2) [7]: Very solid performance Friday night in going into MSG and dominating the Knicks, handing New York only its second home loss of the season.

9) Atlanta (2-2) [8]: Injury-strapped Hawks start sixth man Lou Williams in Saturday's win over Philly.

10) L.A. Lakers (2-0) [11]: 400th career 30-point game for Kobe Bryant Saturday night in Oakland. And did you know Steve Nash was back?

11) Utah (2-2) [10]: Even though Mo Williams sprained a thumb against Miami, the Jazz have great depth at point guard with Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson in reserve.

12) Brooklyn (1-2) [12]: Deron Williams expressing doubts about the Nets' offense, says he thrives in a system like the one Jerry Sloan ran in Utah. In other news, Williams's picture now next to the Urban Dictionary definition of "chutzpah."

13) Indiana (3-1) [NR]: Pacers have it on lockdown defensively, allowing just 86.6 per game in their last 11 games (8-3).

14) Boston (1-2) [13]: Doc Rivers says Celtics are basically a .500 team. He's right. Defense has taken a major step backwards, and it's hard to see it getting much better with all the gray on the roster.

15) Minnesota (1-3) [14]: Took a step in class against the big boys this week, and the Wolves more than held their own, beating OKC and losing close to Miami and New York.

Dropped out: Milwaukee [15]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Toronto (3-0): The Raptors have been on fire, basically, since Andrea Bargnani told an Italian newspaper that Toronto was "pretty much, the worst team in the NBA," winning five straight, including wins over Dallas and Houston.

"He was embarrassed by it," GM Bryan Colangelo said of Bargnani's comments. "He was affected by it. He realizes he should not have said anything, especially something that strong. I don't think he meant to say we were the worst team in the league. I think he meant we almost had the worst record in the league."

That's no longer the case.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

New Orleans (0-4): Losing streak is 11 games and counting, longest in eight seasons. But they've been in most of the games, losing only four of them by double digits. Still playing hard for Monty Williams.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Who had the Magic anywhere near .500 at Christmas?

After Sunday's 97-93 home loss to the Jazz, Orlando sits three games under .500, at the edge of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They're light years ahead of where most thought the Magic would be after its franchise-shifting trade of Dwight Howard to the Lakers.

Most national bigfeet -- as well as the locals -- thought the Magic would struggle to get anywhere near .500. The well-respected Basketball Prospectus had Orlando at 26-56; ESPN.com's staff predicted a fourth-place finish in the Southeast and a 14th-place finish in the East (with John Hollinger, now an executive with the Grizzlies, predicting a 16-66 finish).

Instead, Orlando overcame a 5-10 start with first-year coach Jacque Vaughn mixing in his young players and veterans to a series of improbable wins -- including back-to-back road wins over Howard and the Lakers and another in Golden State. Orlando ended that Western road trip 3-2, then completed the season sweep of the Warriors and added a win over Minnesota last week.

But the Magic will have to play the next month without Glen Davis, one of its best players this season, after he sprained his shoulder last week against Washington.

The Magic has gotten production from a motley roster, including Howard-era leftovers Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick, Davis and the young players they got from Philadelphia and Denver in the four-team Howard deal. Nobody averages more than guard Arron Afflalo's 16.5 ppg, but Orlando is in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and rebound differential.

"Tonight, the game we lost, and a lot of the games we lost, other than maybe one or two, we gave ourselves a chance to win," Nelson said late Sunday by telephone. "That comes from us playing hard for 48 minutes."

For the better part of two seasons, Howard's every sniffle was the subject of fevered speculation in the Land of the Mouse. He wanted to stay; he wanted to go; he loved Orlando; he couldn't wait to leave. He agreed to be traded to the Nets; he changed his mind on the Magic's charter and decided to opt for 2012-13 instead of opting out and becoming a free agent last summer.

The Magic is not better without Howard. But it's a lot more stable.

"I've been asked a question about him, pretty much two or three times a week," Nelson said. "I wish the media would let it go. He's in L.A.; I'm in Orlando. There's no hard feelings with me toward him and I hope there's none for him toward me. I told him this: whatever decision he made, he was going to get criticized. At the end of the day, I just wished he'd make a decision and stick with it."

Nelson and Howard were, and remain, close, however.

"I just felt like the guy did what he had to do," Nelson said. "He made a decision. There was a lot of back and forth. It was tough for him to make the decision. It is what it is. This is a business. I guess he thought he was making the best business decision for himself and his family."

Orlando, of course, didn't just trade Howard. They cleaned out the front office, firing GM Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy, whose deteriorating relationship with Howard seemed to be at the heart of Howard's unhappiness with the Magic.

The Magic went the tried and true San Antonio Route in rebuilding the front office, hiring Rob Hennigan -- who'd started with the Spurs as an intern -- from Oklahoma City last June to replace Smith. Hennigan and the front office then hired Vaughn, who'd only been an assistant coach in San Antonio for two years, to replace Van Gundy, passing over more experienced candidates like Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw.

But Orlando was convinced that Vaughn, currently the youngest coach in the league, was ready to take the lessons he learned playing for Roy Williams at Kansas, as well as Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan in the pros, and apply them to a young team with no expectations .

"We had a lot of confidence he was going to be able to develop players, for sure," team president Alex Martins said Sunday afternoon. "From the interview process we knew he had a good strategic approach, but until someone sits in the seat and has to make adjustments under game conditions, you're not really sure, right? We recognized the fact that he was preparing for this opportunity as far back as college. He was preparing for it and took copious notes and looked at all of it, from player development to film study. He prepared himself for that for a long, long time."

And two more opposite types of personalities couldn't be drawn up than Vaughn and Van Gundy, who went 259-135 (.657) in five seasons in Orlando, demanding more and more day in and day out.

"I didn't know what to expect, to be honest with you," Nelson said of Vaughn. "I knew he was a player's coach; he understands what's going on with players, and their bodies. But he had never been a head coach, so I didn't know what to expect. He has a lot of knowledge of the game. He's poised. His demeanor is totally different from what we're used to in Orlando."

If Howard were still in Orlando, Vaughn would play through him. But with no post presence, Vaughn spreads the wealth around out of necessity. He isolates his wings; he runs multiple screen and rolls to get open shots, and he leaves the ball in Nelson's hands most of the time.

"It's fun," Nelson said. "Guys get to show really what they can do. It gives these young guys and Jacque the opportunity to see what these guys can do. Even Arron's in a different role. All the guys that have been here -- myself, J.J., shoot, I don't even know who's left. It gives everybody a chance to get a feel for each other."

The Magic was excoriated for what it took back in the Howard trade -- Afflalo and Al Harrington from Denver, second-year center Nikola Vucevic and rookie forward Moe Harkless from Philly, forwards Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga from the Lakers. It also got a host of picks -- a first-rounder from either the Nuggets or the New York Knicks in 2014, a protected future first from the Sixers, a protected first from the Lakers in 2017, and second-rounders from the Nuggets (2013) and L.A. (2015).

But Orlando didn't get Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol from the Lakers, and was ripped for it. How could the Magic deal the league's best center and not wind up with its second-best center?

Now, Orlando's management doesn't hear that any more.

Bynum hasn't played a minute for the 76ers, with his knees still leaving him unable to get back on the practice court. And Philly is left with the dilemma of whether or not to give Bynum a big payday when he becomes a free agent this summer.

For the Magic, according to a league source, it was a simpler decision than people thought. They did extensive homework on Bynum, on and off the court, the source said, and came out of that research convinced that he could not get through a full season healthy.

Into the void instead have stepped veterans like Afflalo, who is having a career-best season scoring-wise. (League sources believe one of the reasons for the Nuggets' up-and-down play to start the season is the absence of Afflalo, whom Denver coach George Karl loved.) Gustavo Ayon came from New Orleans in the sign-and-trade deal that sent Ryan Anderson to the Hornets, and has converted from center to power forward in Orlando.

Davis was also on pace for career highs in points (16.0 ppg) and rebounds (7.9 rpg) at the time of his injury.

The Magic challenged the always-emotional Davis, telling him the spotlight would be on him now that Howard was gone. You've always said you wanted to be the main guy, they told him. Now's your chance.

The surprising start has helped keep attendance relatively close to recent years. A top-10 team in attendance the last couple of seasons Howard was in town, the Magic has fallen back to 14th this season, averaging just less than 17,400 at the sparking Amway Center -- about 1,500 fewer patrons than last season. That drop has come primarily from season ticket holders. But attendance hasn't cratered. Weekly online surveys and quarterly focus groups gave the Magic a sense of what its fans wanted.

"Our fan base was ready to move on," Martins said. "They've developed a lot of trust in our organization, especially with the success we've had. And we didn't have a major drop off in our season ticket base. Did we drop off a little? Yes. But did we have a major drop off? Absolutely not."

The Magic made the same pitch to the local business community, pointing out that in the 21 years that the DeVos Family has owned the team, Orlando had one of the top win percentages in the Eastern Conference. They said the Magic has often had to transition quickly -- from the Shaquille O'Neal/Penny Hardaway teams, to the Tracy McGrady/Grant Hill teams, to the Howard era to now.

Business has responded. The Magic expects to work out a local television extension soon. Eight companies, Martins said, have deals with the team in excess of $1 million. And the team is close to announcing a deal with a company that is pledging to become the Magic's third-largest sponsor in terms of dollars. Negotiations on that deal didn't start until last summer, after the Magic had made its decision to seek a trade for Howard public.

"Our corporate partners have believed in us," Martins said. "I think that is a pure indication that the corporate world understands what we're doing here and what we're trying to do in terms of return on their investment."

The DeVos patriarch, Amway Corporation chair Richard DeVos, has been in poor health lately. But the family has given no indication it's looking to sell, with Richard DeVos' son, Dan, now making most of the major decisions. Dan DeVos replaced Bob Vander Weide, who had married Rich DeVos' daughter and been the team's CEO for more than a decade before resigning his job earlier this year.

Orlando went well over the cap and into the luxury tax in putting a team around Howard, from signing Rashard Lewis to a $118 million sign-and-trade deal in 2007 to taking the contracts of vets like Hedo Turkoglu (and then re-acquiring Turkoglu in 2010, with Vince Carter). Ownership, Martins said, will spend again when the time is right; the Magic could be more than $30 million under the cap in the Summer of 2014.

"What they've committed to is that we'll continue to spend up to the tax level," Martins said.

However Hennigan plays it, the Magic will have flexibility, no state income tax, sunny skies and a beautiful building to sell the next potential superstar. It was enough, at least, to convince Nelson, who didn't even explore free agency last summer, re-signing for three years and $25 million.

"My family is comfortable here," Nelson said. "They've made friends. With the fans, they've always shown support. Always. I look at myself as a loyal guy. Obviously, I'm not going to play for free. But t the same time I appreciate what the organization is about. They've shown me nothing but love and given me nothing but opportunity."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

I received so many heart-wrenching e-mails after the column last week on the massacre in Newtown, and what it says about us as an American society, and what we can do in the aftermath of such horror. Thank you all for writing. The following is a sample of the e-mails, almost all supporting me, a few disagreeing -- which was both the point and totally expected and welcomed. The only way we're going to figure out a solution to this is if we all think it through together. I'm publishing a few of them not to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate how many people are genuinely anguished by what happened, and are desperate to try and do something.

From Chris Raymond:

I teared up a little, finally, someone out there is thinking on the same wave length. I wish common sense would break through all of the unreasonable soapbox chants. Great message. Thank you for posting it.

From Andreas Bergqvist:

I don't normally write comments but your column from Dec. 17 was really moving. Not the basketball part, although that was good and informational as I've come to expect.

But the part about guns, violence and America was really powerful. As an outsider, coming from a very quiet piece of Europe, USA sometimes is hard to understand or even take in. Reading NBA.com, I wasn't expecting anything remotely like this, but I'm glad I read all of it.

Your piece did more to make me understand then all of our news shows or magazines combined. And like most Europeans, I agree something has to be done regarding gun control but its clearly not the only answer.

Finland & Switzerland both have huge weapons per capita numbers, but few tragedies like the stuff we see from America almost on a regular basis. So reforming the health system is probably equally important, and also something that is possible even if it takes years.

The third part, the lost sense of community is probably the hardest nut to crack ... but spending more time with our neighbors and kids at the least seems like a place to start.

Anyway, its kind of refreshing that a sports writer can really speak his mind about things other than sports.

From Jim Murray:

...We cherish our freedoms, yes, but a representative democracy demands we place certain expectations on ourselves as to our respecting others and the common good. You conveyed this beautifully, even delving into constitutional law to boot. I appreciate it when a man admits there is a real time for tears. I was with you this weekend. I have two grown young men, but I treasure the memories of their beautiful time as children and cannot in any remote way imagine what those parents, siblings, grandparents and local folks are going through. I just wept at their loss, our loss. My heart, my prayers and my resolve to find a way to move to a more sensible approach to "our" rights with regard to defending ourselves is completely with them.

Thanks for using a forum you have for stepping into a mosh pit of controversy with regard to this issue.

I agree wholeheartedly that "we are in a place that desperately requires God's love and grace. Amen to that my friend.

From Jeff Knott:

... As a UK citizen, I don't pretend to have any insight to the deeply held American culture of gun ownership, which is largely (although not completely) lacking in the UK. I don't offer any political comment, having never voted Democrat or Republican. I don't offer any comment on the second amendment, or what the founding fathers may or may not have meant, having never studied the Constitution.

All I offer is an observation on what has happened regarding gun control in the UK.

In 1996, there was a shooting at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. Sixteen children aged 5-6 were killed, along with their teacher. The following year, the UK banned the private ownership of all cartridge ammunition handguns, regardless of caliber. There have been no school shootings since.

What strikes me is I've not heard a single argument for allowing automatic weapons to be owned in such an uncontrolled manner. Yes, there are other ways to kill people, but that doesn't mean we should allow such efficient ways to be so readily available to anyone. Yes, we need as a (global) society to look at how we expose children to violence, but that doesn't mean we should allow them such easy access to the tools to act out this violence. Yes we need to look at how we handle and treat mental health problems, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't also take steps to reduce the chances of them getting the materials to hurt and kill others.

From Bruce Bell:

David, like reading your stuff, RE: gun control, some good points but No. 1, no mass shooter ever shot 1,000 rounds so limiting it to that per month makes no sense. Also, the shooter in the tower, as with these other shooters, had a semi-automatic rifle. One trigger pull for one shot, same as a revolver or Glock 9mil. or the lookalike to the M-16 assault rifle, the AR-15, used to kill these school kids. He just choose to shoot from a tower instead of entering crowded class rooms where he could of done more damage more quickly and thankfully he didn't.

Also, big magazines are somewhat of a problem but the 9mil. Glock with the standard nine-round clip can be reloaded in 2-3 seconds and would not have slowed him down much when he had children crowded in a corner of a room.

Upon reading thousands of comments on all these articles, it seemed like most people focused on the fact that his mother has a so-called arsenal of weapons. I kept thinking that he, like most of the mass shooters, only used one gun. People said why does anyone need 5-10-20 etc. guns? One guy commented with a little depth and insight when he asked "I wonder if any of the teachers or the principal (who charged the shooter empty handed) wished they had a gun to stop or slow down the shooter till help came?" He (the shooter: ed) shot himself rather than engage the police so maybe an armed teacher or guard may have stopped him or bought more time.

I've read recently that some 2-2.5 million attempted crimes or attacks are stopped or thwarted by private gun owners per year who either show their weapon or shoot the criminal, but you don't see this much publicized on major outlets.

I think you hit on it when you said it is a problem with a breakdown of society as a whole. Too many single-parent homes or latch-key kids with both parents working full time as well as violent news, movies and video games. Parents being too permissive and wanting to be their kid's best friend, and every kid wins a trophy or gets their way. Also, a lack or respect for authority and adults in kids in general as well as many problems with mental health, drugs and lack of good and affordable health care for all. Also the loss of a sense of community and knowing and caring for your neighbors that only seems to show up in times like this shooting or in the aftermath of something like Sandy or 9-11. Then it seems to slip away again.

From Scott Berke:

I write this in response to your opinion on guns. I am in favor of access to all guns. That makes me the rare liberal. But, I am for checks and balances and have no problem with universal strictures that make it a challenge to get guns. We already do it with automatic weapons and in some ways with pistols. Let us have guns, but make us prove our viability.

Again, thanks to all of you. Speaking for myself, I do not think there is a viable solution that does not include some sort of restriction (whether through background checks, two-week delays, outright bans, etc) on these assault weapons. Scott sent me a link to this 2010 post detailing why having so many people hunt is a good thing. I don't necessarily disagree, but I'd point out that hunters, by and large, don't use automatic weapons to hunt, so an assault weapons ban wouldn't apply to them.

I, too, believe that there has to be some connection between all these violent video games and the spike in mass murder. But this study seems to make clear there is no causal link between violent video game play and gun crime. It would seem we've got a lot more research and a lot more soul-searching to do.

If you want to send a message of condolence or prayer to the people of Newtown for Christmas or the New Year, the address is City of Newtown, P.O. Box 3700, Newtown, CT, 06470.

In the meantime, someone did want to talk about basketball. From Thomas Lang:

In your recent article talking about Bill Russell, you stated, "If your argument involves statistics of any kind besides championships won, I'm not sure there's any point in proceeding further". Bill Russell is an all-time great no question. But I think he's also the most overrated all-time NBA great because of your exact sentence above -- putting too much emphasis on team accomplishments in an argument about player credentials. Using your logic, Robert Horry is better than Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, so why bother looking at stats? Do you really think the Celtics would NOT have won all those titles if it were Wilt Chamberlain playing center instead of Russell? Those Celtics teams were loaded, so you have to take that into account when comparing players.

Hmmm, I'm going to continue to disagree with you, Thomas. Russell wasn't just a part of those Celtics' teams, he was the irreplaceable centerpiece of them. Everything Boston was able to do stemmed from Russell's defensive dominance. There's no fast break without Russell's shot-blocking and intimidation; there isn't the ability for Sam Jones, John Havlicek and all the rest to become such clutch shotmakers if Russell doesn't keep them in so many games. And, by the way, Chamberlain didn't play on "loaded" teams? He played with Hall of Famer Tom Gola in Philadelphia with the Warriors at the beginning of his career, with Al Attles and four-time All-Stars Willie Naulls and Guy Rodgers in San Francisco (and with eventual Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond as his backup), with Hall of Famers Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker and Hal Greer in Philadelphia with the 76ers and The Logo and Elgin Baylor in L.A.! I'd say Wilt had more than enough to work with to win more than he did, though the point of putting him on Mount Rushmore was not his championships -- or lack of them -- but by how outsized his individual dominance was. No one has come close to putting up the numbers he did, before or since.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and high tech, jet-powered sled designs as we all slide over the Fiscal Cliiiiiiiiiiiiff to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (25.3 ppg, 8 rpg, 7.7 apg, .549 FG, .737 FT): Finally sees a worthy opponent on Christmas when his doppleganger, Kevin Durant, comes to South Beach.

2) Kevin Durant (31 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.3 apg, .561 FG, .960 FT): We'll see how confident Durantula truly is in his ballhandling and passing abilities against the Heat; they aren't the defensive juggernaut right now that they were in the playoffs, and KD should have success finding open men. Should.

3) Carmelo Anthony (31 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, .444 FG, .954 FT): Ejected Friday during Bulls game, but league rescinds his second technical foul Saturday.

4) Tim Duncan (18.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg, .492 FG, .867 FT): Fell below 80 percent from the foul line this season by making one of two against Dallas Sunday, but still on pace for his best season from the line in 11 years.

5) Chris Paul (16.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 11.3 apg, .522 FG, .909 FT): Has completely changed the fortunes of the NBA's worst franchise. That heavy lifting alone makes him an MVP candidate.

Dropped out: Kobe Bryant

BY THE NUMBERS

22 -- Three-point attempts without a make for the Nuggets on Thursday against Portland, which set an NBA record for the most three-point misses without a make. Ironically, the Trail Blazers had just broken the previous record 10 days before by going 0 for 20 on threes against the Raptors.

22 -- Wins by the Knicks on Christmas Day, the most wins by any team on that day.

22 -- Age of DeMarcus Cousins, suspended indefinitely by the Kings on Saturday after getting into a shouting match at halftime of Friday's game against the Clippers. It was Cousins's third suspension already this season; he had been suspended by the league on separate occasions for confronting Spurs analyst Sean Elliott after Elliott had made critical comments about Cousins during a game, and for punching the Mavericks' O.J. Mayo in the groin.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Happy. Merry. To all of you. It's been an incredibly difficult couple of weeks for all of us, so squeeze your loved ones extra tight tonight and Tuesday. And thanks for reading.

2) Been around long enough to know that one great performance one night doesn't mean you've turned your season around. But the Lakers should feel mighty encouraged by their comeback win Saturday night against Golden State.

2a) And the Warriors should be mighty encouraged that they can more than hold their own against the Lakers when L.A. is just about at full strength.

3) Major props to the Bulls, who have righted the ship in Derrick Rose's absence, and despite not having a very deep bench.

4) Welcome to NBA TV, Isiah Thomas. Will love watching games with you in the studio.

5) Do yourself a favor. Take 10 minutes, grab a cup of coffee and read this great piece by Justice Hill on former Harlem Globetrotter Ernest Wagner.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) If you're the Kings, you can't trade DeMarcus Cousins. At least not yet. But they can't feel good hearing the news that Cousins has fired his previous agent John Greig and hired Dan Fegan, a master of getting his way, or getting his clients moved out of town. But how can you have any faith that Cousins is ever going to change, and how many coaches can you go through until you find one that reaches him?

2) Despite all the drama surrounding the Lakers' struggles so far this season, for my money the Mavericks have been the much more disappointing team. Even Dirk Nowitzki's return Sunday couldn't keep them from another throttling, this time by the Spurs. Obviously you're not the same without your franchise player, but the Mavs have more than enough to play better than they have.

3) During their now month-long, 15-game losing streak, the Bobcats have lost games by 45, 15, 30, 23, 17, 15 and 22 points. Wow.

4) Thinking of you, Josh Howard. That is a rough blow after all the work you put in coming back.

5) No, I can't say I saw this coming.

6) Forty years after this happened, and watching an hour-long special about it on the NFL Network, I still can't tell you with any certainty what actually happened -- either way. But it sure was memorable.

Q AND A: CHRIS COPELAND

Twenty-eight-year-old rookies usually don't have much of a shelf life in the NBA, but the Knicks' Chris Copeland is hoping to change that. He already was living out an improbable story -- playing six years after college in the NBA D-League, Spain, Germany and Belgium before being invited to the Knicks' Summer League team (and turning down a guaranteed offer overseas), impressing enough to get an invite to training camp, then making the team. But that fairy tale was made more improbable earlier this month when injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace, and Amar'e Stoudemire still rehabbing after having a cyst removed from behind his knee, put Copeland in the starting lineup. And Copeland more than held his own, scoring 11 against Cleveland Dec. 15 and a career-high 29 last Monday in a loss to the Rockets.

Me: What has this experience been like for you so far?

Chris Copeland: I can't even put it into words. It's a lifetime in the making. A lot of people like to say 'it took you six years to make it.' I say 'no, it took a good 24.' Since kindergarten, I've wanted to be in the NBA. It's been a blessing. I can't even put it into words, really.

Me: Were there times when you didn't think you'd make it?

CC: Yeah, absolutely. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. There were a lot of dark days, a lot of frustrations, a lot of times when it seemed like the door was never going to open. Thank God I have a great family, a great group of people behind me, friends, and I just wouldn't quit. I wouldn't give up. Even though I'd have my days when I thought, I can't do this. But I thank God I have a lot of people who kept pushing me, kept getting me over a lot of humps.

Me: Who pushed you?

CC: My mom has always been number one. She wasn't necessarily pushing, but she's always been confident in me. She's always believed in me. She's been my biggest fan. I have to give that to my mom. And the rest of it was on me, just not quitting. A lot of people saying you have ability; just keep trying, keep trying. A long list of people, but my mom was the special one.

Me: When you got to the Knicks' camp in the fall, what did you think your realistic chances were?

CC: Realistic? Things weren't in my favor, from what I've been told, to be honest (laughs). But you have to stay hungry and not quit. You have to keep pushing. I wasn't going to go out and not give 100 percent just because things didn't look like I was going to make it. Thank God Coach (Mike Woodson) gave me certain opportunities, and things worked out. Despite the odds, I had to do something.

Me: Was there one game when you thought you really showed them what you could do?

CC: Truth be told, I had a couple of games where I had good numbers, but I don't think anybody's seen what I can really do yet. I think I have a lot more growing to do for sure. I have some things in my game that haven't been shown to the world yet. My goal is to keep growing, learn a lot. I feel like all these guys in the locker room are legends. I'm going to continue to grow and hopefully in time, I'll be able to show something.

Me: What have we not seen?

CC: I don't want to put everything out there, because then you put yourself in more scrutiny. But I think in time you'll see. I'll leave it at that.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Anybody else mama want a refrigerator for Christmas?

--Cavs guard Boobie Gibson (@BooBysWorld1), Thursday, 12:26 p.m. Our guess is, yes, sure, somewhere. But we don't have any proof, per se.

THEY SAID IT

"A lot of people said the world was going to end tomorrow. Well, it's not the end of the world."

-- Kevin Durant, after the Thunder's 12-game win streak was ended Thursday by the Timberwolves. Even though the Mayans didn't actually predict the end of the world, it was more fun to pretend they did, right?

"I have made decisions in the past, leaving money and opportunity on the table, and I will need to do that again. My family is my priority and that is where I choose to be. I won't close the possibility that I will play again, however for now my family and being close to them remains the priority."

-- Derek Fisher, in a statement Saturday detailing his request to be released by the Mavericks in order to return home to Los Angeles. Fisher had suffered a knee injury last week that would have kept him out of the lineup for 2-4 weeks, and opted instead to be asked to be released. The Mavericks picked up guard Chris Douglas-Roberts out of the NBA D-League to replace Fisher.

"I thought at one point we were going to start fighting, but nobody wants to give up that money."

-- Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, after he and Celtics guard Rajon Rondo started jawing at one another during Milwaukee's overtime win over Boston.

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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