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David Aldridge

Dirk Nowitzki's return hasn't done much to make things brighter in Dallas.

Freefall from championship perch wearing on Mavs, Nowitzki


Posted Jan 7, 2013 9:57 AM

A year ago, the Dallas Mavericks came to Washington, D.C., to meet President Barack Obama and to be honored as defending NBA champions.

Last week, they were in D.C. to play the Wizards. Obama, in Hawaii on vacation, was as far away from town as the Mavericks are to again making The Finals.

"We're gonna be a piece of work for a while," Dirk Nowitzki said last week.

It has been only 19 months since Dallas celebrated its first championship, but it feels like forever. The Mavs' decision to let Tyson Chandler walk as a free agent in 2011 ripped the heart out of the franchise, and things have never been the same.

Last summer, Dallas put all of its eggs into wooing Deron Williams from the Nets, and everyone -- including Williams -- thought he would be returning to his hometown. But the Nets' acquisition of Joe Johnson changed everything. Williams stayed in Brooklyn and the Mavericks rolled their flexibility to this coming summer, bringing in veteran players like Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo -- almost all on one-year deals -- to preserve their flexibility for the 2013-14 season.

But the present has proven harsh. After Saturday's overtime loss to lowly New Orleans, the Mavs have lost 11 of their last 13 games and are eight games under .500, much closer to last place in the Southwest Division than first. They're looking like a franchise in decline.

"It's been frustrating," Nowitzki said earlier. "Losing is not something we're used to in this franchise and this organization. The fans are used to a lot more. I heard a couple of boos there when we lost to San Antonio by 25, rightfully so. I feel like we've just got to compete on a high level. If we compete defensively and rebound we give ourselves a chance to be in games. I mention all the time that I don't think that we're not as talented as the top four, the top five in the west. If we compete and play together on both ends of the floor, we can definitely be effective."

The lowlights include a six-game losing streak, the team's longest since dropping seven straight in February, 1999, during Nowitzki's rookie season and a year before Mark Cuban bought the team. And that wasn't the half of it; five of the six losses came by double digits, and four of the six were straight-up routs to contenders -- one apiece to Miami and Oklahoma City, and two to San Antonio. Carlisle threatened suspensions if he didn't get more effort and instituted a dress code on team flights -- though he walked back from the suspension possibilities.

The losses couldn't just be pinned on Nowitzki not yet being in game shape, either.

Coach Rick Carlisle benched Collison, the starting point guard, after the Mavericks signed veteran Derek Fisher. But Fisher's stay was only a couple of weeks. He asked to be released so he could return to California with his family. Collison has played better since getting his old job back, but the Mavericks have rusted defensively.

Two seasons ago, they were one of the league's best halfcourt defenses; this season, they're one of the worst, currently 28th in points allowed (103.2 per game) and 25th in defensive efficiency (104 points allowed per 100 possessions). Turnovers have spiked at the worst moments. Long one of the league's mentally tough teams, Dallas has come unglued in close games and is 0-7 in overtime.

"I think we started kind of smelling our own stuff a little bit, got relaxed," Mayo said. "Obviously with the big fella [Nowtizki] coming back, we got even more relaxed -- like, 'He's here now. We held it down; he's here now.' And he wasn't all the way ready, you know? He was happy to be there, obviously, but he got tired from the workouts and the conditioning. So it was better to get him in some games. But I think we got even more relaxed when he came, thinking he was gonna come and take control of everything."

That hasn't happened. Nowitzki has worked his way back into the starting lineup, but he's a long way away from being himself again.

"We understand that he's back, he's gonna be a huge threat and he's gonna help us a lot," Mayo said. "But we've still got to bring it. I think a lot of the young guys, even myself, look at him like there's Larry Bird, there's Magic [Johnson], those guys, and you look at Dirk Nowitzki growing up. He's back for good, he's gonna counter all of this, pull it together. But he needs a team, just like all the other great ones needed a team."

Carlisle has been unrelenting, demanding, driven at practice and in film sessions as he has tried to figure out a way to get the Mavs out of their dive. But the results have been middling at best.

"I don't mean this in a bad way, because I love it, and this is probably not the best language," Mayo begins. "But to be all the way real? He's a [12-letter word]. He's on it, every little detail, every little thing -- 'You're not cutting hard.' We're five-on-oh [in practice], you're not moving fast enough. Defense, you're not help-side talking. Help, ball.' -- I love it because he hates to lose, and I hate to lose and we're losing games. We carry the attitude at home that maybe we shouldn't."

Said Brand of his new coach: "He's like, on a tear. He's not gonna let this [bleep] fold. He's doing extra, beyond, to make sure guys that are uncomfortable with losing."

That's part of the problem, though. There are so many new guys on the roster that the toughness and tradition that Carlisle and general manager Donnie Nelson had built over the past few years, with Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry supplementing Nowitzki, has dissolved.

"You've got eight new guys, free agents, they may not care as much about the Mavs' tradition as some of the people that have been around here," Brand said. "They're like, 'I'm not gonna be here.' I think it's just getting to know what that Mavs' tradition is about. The young guys may not have been in that position to win 50 games a year. It's just different. You get numbers, you get whatever, but it has to translate into wins around here."

Carlisle, who has had to deal with difficult times before as a coach (he had to coach a Pacers team decimated by the fallout of the brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills), said the one-year contracts are an excuse he won't accept. Instead, he's fallen back on reminding the players how much he cares about them -- while demanding even more of them.

"If guys aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing on the court, they've gotta sit, and you've got to get other guys in there," he said. "Look, it's a rough period. There's no finger pointing here with respect to what I'm talking about, other than I've pointed the finger at myself more than anything. And so I'm very motivated to work even harder and get these guys ready."

And Carlisle isn't the only one who's been on a tear in Dallas.

Cuban, you may have heard, is not a shrinking violet. Thirteen years after he bought the team and transformed the culture from a league joke to a championship organization, he still wears his emotions on his sleeve. (After the loss Saturday, Cuban tweeted his displeasure with the officiating, though he didn't respond to an e-mail Sunday asking about his team.)

"He comes around a lot, but not as much anymore," Brand said. "He's not as happy. Before it was all smiles, talk about 'Shark Tank,' hang out, tell his jokes. Now he's like he's got the ice grill, walking around. He's upset. As he should be."

But putting this team together was Cuban's call. With the new CBA, the Mavericks think flexibility trumps all other considerations.

As it becomes harder and harder for teams to make deals -- teams over the luxury tax won't be able to do sign-and-trade deals starting next summer -- the Mavericks think they'll be in position to make major moves. They tried for Williams and a reunion with Steve Nash last summer; they'll try for Dwight Howard this summer if he doesn't sign an extension with the Lakers.

To create room, Dallas amnestied Brendan Haywood and paid off the $21 million he was due the next three years. They brought in veterans Kaman (one year, $8 million), Brand (an amnesty claim from Philly for $2.1 million), Collison ($2.3 million, in the last year of his rookie deal) and Mayo (two years, $8.2 million, with a player option for next season) on very short deals.

Only Nowitzki, Marion, Vince Carter (a team option at $3.1 million) and rookies Jared Cunningham, Bernard James and Jae Crowder are under contract for the 2013-14 season.

All of this was done with Nowitzki's ... well, I don't know if "blessing" is the right word. But he understood the rationale. With only a couple of holes left on his basketball back nine, getting another superstar to pair with him is the only way he'll ever get a third shot at The Finals. (On Sunday, Nowitzki seemed less certain about the efficacy of the plan.)

"You have either two options," Nowitzki said. "We went for Deron Williams, he didn't come. I thought other than that, you either sign a bunch of one-year deals and go again for the next summer, or you break the whole thing up, and then trade me, and start over. So we decided to go for the one option and go for a bunch of one-year deals and keep the cap space for next summer. We'll see what happens. I think once I get in a groove, hopefully we can make a push the second half of the season at the playoffs, and see what happens, and see what's going on in the summer, if we can get somebody, or go after somebody."

That leaves the rest of this season, which is not looking like it's going to be a memorable one for those few remaining players who still have great memories of giving LeBron James his last series loss in the playoffs, with a performance over six games that was a triumph of team basketball.

"Coach does it very well," Marion said. "He says it adamantly and repetitively. We just try to put them into that mode, that mindset. That's what it is. This is a very, very, high standard franchise. They pride themselves on winning, and they've been doing it for a long period of time. And this [bleep] is unacceptable. We've got to get this [bleep] together and get it going."

DRIBBLES

Unless something dramatic happens in Milwaukee -- and a change of circumstances is always possible in the NBA -- it does not appear that Scott Skiles will be back next season as coach.

Multiple league sources say that Skiles, who is in the final year of the five-year contract he signed in 2008, has informed the Bucks that he does not want a contract extension, and is resigned to the fact that he will be elsewhere next season.

The Bucks, sources say, have told Skiles to keep an open mind, and in case he has a change of heart, they would be willing to talk about another deal. Usually, teams that really want someone back -- a player, a coach, whomever -- figure out a way to make it happen. But the Bucks have done nothing substantive toward offering Skiles a new deal. Both sides appear willing to play out the season, and there is no animosity either way, sources said; Skiles is fond of owner Herb Kohl, and vice versa.

The Bucks did not comment Sunday, nor did Skiles.

Skiles has proven at every stop along the way as a head coach -- Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee -- that he knows what he's doing and that he is unrelenting in his standards. After routing Miami on Dec. 29, the Bucks have lost four straight and are 16-16. But they're still seventh in the Eastern Conference and only three games back in the Central Division. Plus, they boast one of the league's more dynamic backcourts in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.

Skiles is not the only person working without a proverbial net in Milwaukee. General Manager John Hammond is also in the last year of his deal, though it's more likely he will return next season. And the Bucks have all kinds of decisions to make about personnel.

Third-year big man Larry Sanders has had a breakout season, leading the league in blocked shots (3.07), playing at center. However, Milwaukee opted not to give Jennings -- the Bucks' second-leading scorer -- a contract extension last fall, making him a restricted free agent next summer. Other teams in recent years in similar situations and markets took the plunge. Memphis extended its point guard, Mike Conley (five years, $40 million), in 2010. Indiana locked up George Hill (also five and $40 million) last summer.

Ellis, acquired last season from Golden State in a three-team deal that sent Andrew Bogut to the Warriors, could opt out of the last year of the six-year, $66 million deal he originally got from Golden State in 2008 this summer (he would get $11 million next season if he opts in). The market will now determine Jennings' contract. Beno Udrih, the third guard in the rotation, is also an unrestricted free agent.

Hammond said last week that the Bucks have already told Jennings, however, that they will match any offer he gets.

Still, the Bucks seem stuck in a no-man's land -- good enough to contend for the playoffs, but not quite a legit title contender. They have opted over the past several years to make moves that never really took them all the way down to where they could get a top five pick in the Draft -- they didn't trade Michael Redd to Cleveland a few seasons ago, when they could have gotten a first-round pick for him.

Skiles, currently 162-182 in his four-plus seasons in Milwaukee, is in the same contractual boat as was the Nets' Avery Johnson, who didn't get a contract extension last summer and was fired by Brooklyn a few weeks ago. But while the pressures on Skiles aren't nearly as bad as those Johnson faced playing for owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Bucks remain in a precarious position in the East.

When Skiles arrived, Milwaukee was building around Bogut, which it took No. 1 overall in the 2005 Draft. But a series of injuries to Bogut, including a gruesome dislocated elbow suffered near the end of the 2009-10 season, delayed the team's development. The Bucks have made the playoffs once in Skiles' tenure, losing a seven-game first-round series in 2010 to the Hawks.

But the trade of Bogut and the remaining $39 million on his contract to Golden State created some financial wiggle room for the Bucks, who also sent forward Steven Jackson and his $10 million to the Spurs last season. Those deals shaved millions off of the Bucks' books this season (Ellis and center Ekpe Udoh, who also came from Golden State, brought back $14 million combined). As such, Milwaukee will be able to go a little below or above the cap next season depending on what Ellis decides to do -- though the Bucks won't be anywhere near the luxury tax.

"The cap is a non-factor for us," Hammond said. "We have put ourselves in a position now where we can kind of do what we need to do, what's good for our team. We have a lot of flexibility as we move forward. As far as the roster goes, you have all three of those guys are in different positions ... all of the situations are a little bit different. But we love all three of them and we'd love to have all of them back. And with Brandon, we play on bringing him back."

Hammond's research discovered that 74 percent of restricted free agents have returned to their original teams, so the odds are that the Bucks will match any offer, just as the Hornets matched the max offer the Suns gave Eric Gordon last summer. Then again, the Knicks fully expected to match any offer for Jeremy Lin.

Keeping Ellis and Jennings together would be crucial to any long-term hopes of building a contending team. They have combined to average 37.2 points a game this season and held their own defensively despite their size disadvantage, with Ellis willing to stick his nose in defensively.

"They've played well together," Hammond said. "Most importantly, I think they like playing with each other. And that had to be key for it to work. And I think they like each other as people."

But Skiles, according to sources, has wondered about the team's overall plan going forward, and whether it would be willing to either completely rebuild the roster through high Draft picks like Jennings, or make a trade for a dynamic, superstar-caliber player that the existing core could complement.

Instead, in the summer of 2010, the Bucks gave big contract extensions to veterans Drew Gooden (five years, $32 million) and John Salmons (five years, $39 million). Gooden took over at center last season after Bogut was traded, but has barely played this season with Sanders' emergence. The Bucks sent Salmons, along with their first-round Draft pick (10th overall), to Sacramento on Draft Night 2011 in a three-team deal with Charlotte that also sent Corey Maggette to the Bobcats, bringing back Udrih from the Kings and Jackson and Shaun Livingston from Charlotte.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) Oklahoma City (3-1) [2]: Thunder will make up for a light road schedule so far with 10 of their next 12 games on the road, including three trips to Staples Center -- two games against the Lakers, one against the Clippers -- along with games at Portland, Denver and Golden State before the end of January.

2) Miami (3-1) [3]: If the Heat is looking everywhere for another big who can rebound and block shots, why wouldn't Miami figure out a way to get Samuel Dalembert out of dry dock in Milwaukee? If the Bucks insist on a trade, the Heat has James Jones and Joel Anthony available -- though Milwaukee probably doesn't want those extra two years on Anthony's contract and would have to flip him elsewhere.

3) L.A. Clippers (2-2) [1]: The win streak had to end sometime. But Clippers get right back on board with wins over the Lakers and Warriors to re-establish control in the Pacific, and did so without the injured Jamal Crawford, their best player off the bench.

4) San Antonio (3-1) [5]: For all of the understandable talk about the Clippers' great bench this season, the Spurs' reserves now lead the league in points per game at more than 41 a night, per HoopsStats.com.

5) Golden State (1-1) [4]: Warning light for Warriors: after Saturday's blowout loss to the Clippers, GSW is only 9-8 against the Western Conference.

6) N.Y. Knicks (2-1) [7]: Knicks' defense has taken a decided step back in recent weeks, but New York is still a bear to deal with at the other end of the floor, even with Ray Felton on the shelf for a month.

7) Memphis (2-2) [8]: What's up with the Grizzlies' offense? They haven't scored 100 points in their last 15 games, averaging just 88.8 per game during that stretch. Only their defense has kept them above .500 (8-7 after Sunday's win over Phoenix).

8) Chicago (2-1) [9]: Can't tell you how impressive it is that the Bulls continue to defend, night after night, with their franchise player still weeks away from getting back on the court. Those are tough-minded players, playing for a no-excuses coach.

9) Brooklyn (3-1) [11]: With a 5-1 record since taking over for Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo is on the short list for Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors for January. Perhaps he should consider dropping a few more games instead, considering how that worked out for the last guy.

10) Indiana (3-1) [12]: Pacers look like they're getting back on their feet, and Roy Hibbert had 20 and 15 Saturday against the Bucks. But we'll see how far Indy has really come with games this week against the Heat Tuesday and the Knicks Thursday.

11) Atlanta (1-3) [6]: With Lou Williams and Kyle Korver now starting because of injuries to Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow, the Hawks have almost no scoring punch coming off the bench.

12) L.A. Lakers (0-3) [10]: Another winless week, with defensive lapses galore. And another week of challenges coming up for L.A. -- at Houston Tuesday, at San Antonio Wednesday, home against OKC on Friday.

13) Houston (3-0) [NR]: James Harden is as good a fourth-quarter scorer as there is in the league. Per the Houston Chronicle, he is one game short of the franchise record for consecutive games (13) with 25 or more points, set by Moses Malone.

14) Utah (2-1) [14]: You wonder if the Jazz have to pull the trigger soon on a deal to get a top-shelf guard on the roster with Mo Williams on the shelf for six weeks following finger surgery.

15) Portland (3-1) [NR]: Looked dead in the water and unable to score two weeks ago, but the Blazers have won 10 of their last 13, allowing just 93.5 points per game during that stretch, and with Nicolas Batum filling up the stat sheet.

Dropped out: Milwaukee [13], Minnesota [15]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Houston (3-0): The Rockets are getting enough stops now to bolster the league's highest-paced, highest-scoring offense. Rookie forward Greg Smith, whom a lot of personnel types thought had no chance of making an NBA roster this season, had a double-double Saturday against Cleveland.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Orlando (0-2): The Magic's flirtation with .500 has come back to earth with an eight-game losing streak, almost directly in correlation with Glen Davis' absence following a shoulder injury. But Orlando has competed almost every night, as exemplified by Nicola Vucevic's 20-point, 29-rebound night in an overtime loss to Miami.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

How tough is life for the basketball journeyman this week?

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James never have to worry about their standing on their respective teams. They are the league's elite, and they are paid like it, as they should be. But for those guys at the other end of the spectrum in the NBA, these next 96 hours are among the most nerve-wracking of their careers.

NBA contracts are guaranteed for the rest of the season as of Jan. 10, so players with non-guaranteed deals, including almost all undrafted free agents who made their teams out of training camp, will be certain they'll be paid for the rest of the season if they're still on their team's rosters come Thursday.

This is, then, the Week that Dreams Die. Teams that don't want to be on the hook for those (mostly) minimum deals get out of them now, which also creates roster spots for potential trades.

Among many such moves over the weekend, Miami waived guard Torrel Harris, who was on its championship roster last season. Cleveland cut young vet Samardo Samuels; Indiana cut forward Sam Young; the 76ers cut guard Maalik Wayns. The Mavericks cut swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, who'd been the NBA Development League's leading scorer when he was called up by Dallas on Dec. 23.

But it's also a time of hope for other players.

On Thursday, NBA teams can start signing players to 10-day contracts.

This is also the week where players in the NBA's Developmental League can make their best impressions on NBA talent scouts, as the D-League puts on its annual four-day Showcase in Reno, Nev., featuring every D-League team. Representatives from all 30 NBA teams, as well as teams from Europe and around the world, are expected be in Reno. The games will be televised both on NBA TV and CBS Sports Network, as well as the D-League Channel on YouTube.

All 16 D-League teams will be in action, playing twice, along with the obligatory 3-point and slam dunk contest, which will take place Thursday.

There already have been 10 call-ups this season for D-League players to the NBA, including forward James Anderson. The Spurs' first-round pick from 2010, Anderson has been called up twice -- the second time by the Rockets, who picked him up last month. Of the more than 400 players on NBA rosters, 118 of them have some D-League experience. It is an experience others are still waiting for.

"I don't really know how to describe it," said Canton Charge forward Arinze Onuaku, one of the D-League's top prospects, by telephone Sunday night. "Everybody's anxious at a time like this. If you've been with your team you should be jelling with your teammates. The chemistry should be good. It's all about doing what you do best and doing what's best for the team as well."

The 25-year-old Onuaku is fourth in the D-League in rebounding, a big body who is averaging a double-double for Canton, the Cavaliers-owned franchise. Former Georgetown guard Chris Wright, now playing for the Iowa Energy, is another top prospect.

Onuanku, though, will miss the Showcase due to injury.

There is still that dichotomy at work in the D-League that no amount of coaching can totally diminish: players are trying to leave. If they show they have the skills or temperament to play in the NBA, they're called up. It is hard to think of team when the idea is to leave your team.

"The way I go about it is, I do what I do to help my team win every night," Onuaku said. "I think it works both ways. If you're going out at a high level and helping your team win, you're going to win games and you're going to show people what you can do."

Onuaku has seen many of his former Syracuse University teammates already in the D-League. Fab Melo, one of Boston's first-round picks last June, has been playing for the Maine Red Claws the last couple of weeks. Kris Joseph was also sent down by Boston to Maine over the weekend.

"It's weird, but it's fun at the same time," Onuaku said. "We played with each other for so long ... when we were down in Austin, me and [ex-Syracuse teammate] Rick Jackson, we're checking each other. That's even more weird."

While some NBA teams don't utilize their D-League affiliates very often, others remain bullish. The Thunder have worn a groove in Interstate 44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where it has utilized the 66ers early and often to get some run for first-round pick Perry Jones III, guard Jeremy Lamb (who they acquired from Houston in the James Harden trade) and former Kentucky bigs Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins.

"We view Tulsa as an extension of our operation in Oklahoma City," Thunder GM Sam Presti texted Sunday, "and that synergy is something we work to improve each season. We've tried to drive the development of both our players and staff through our integration, but based on our experience, it takes time and perspective."

Players aren't the only ones who can be called up. The 66ers' coach the past two seasons, Nate Tibbets, was hired by the Cavaliers last summer as an assistant coach. Dale Osbourne, another former 66ers' coach, went to Portland as an assistant this season.

At one point, nobody used the D-League for players more than the Warriors, who were looking for inexpensive players to supplement their roster (and, in many cases, improve it). During the 2009-10 season, Golden State called up five D-Leaguers -- Chris Hunter, Cartier Martin, Anthony Tolliver, Coby Karl and Reggie Williams. Martin (Washington), Tolliver (Atlanta) and Williams (Charlotte) are still in the NBA.

But as the Warriors improved their NBA roster, their D-League activity has waned -- though Golden State has a direct pipeline to the D-League now with its own team in Santa Cruz. It is using that team to get playing time for young big men Jeremy Tyler and Kent Bazemore.

The D-League is still the main pipeline for NBA hopefuls. Douglas-Roberts won't be back down long if he isn't signed outright by another NBA team. Longtime NBA guard Mike James, who spent 11 games with Chicago last season, joined the Texas Legends last week in hopes of showing he can still play at 37.

Guard D.J. Johnson (Erie) and ex-Knick Jerome Jordan (Reno) are two names who could also get a sniff from NBA teams at the Showcase.

But at least James has had several seasons in The Show. Players like Onuaku are still waiting for that one phone call, to tell them that their dreams are finally coming true.

The former Syracuse star overcame three knee injuries over five seasons in college. He missed all of the 2006-07 season rehabbing one injury, missed large stretches of the 2008-09 season after a second knee surgery and missed all of the 2010 postseason after, incredibly, suffering a third knee injury just before the Big East Tournament.

He played for the LKL in Lithuania last season, but was released after -- yes -- another knee injury. But Canton took him in the fourth round of this year's D-League Draft, and he has made the most of this latest opportunity; the D-League's Prospect Watch lists Onuaku as the top current prospect in the league.

"I try not to look at it, to be honest," Onuaku said. "I'm just trying to do what I can do here, so more and more people can see me. You know my story. I've had a lot of speed bumps in the road. I'm trying to just keep performing. You never know who's at the game. You never know who's watching."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

It's not about the plane. From Chris Woodward:

Royce White's situation with the Rockets continues to be a sticky one.

Re: the Rockets' troubled draft pick: I've always wondered, how did he manage to play college ball? Was there no air travel involved? What exactly has changed for him between then and now? Did he lose some supports or something? He's a genuine talent, and Rockets fans deserve to see him running the court with Lin and Harden. I hope he develops some coping mechanisms to manage life in the NBA.

Obviously, Chris, the Rockets' decision to suspend White for a week Sunday makes it even less likely he'll ever play for them, though there is still some hope within the organization that, somehow, the two sides can reach an accommodation -- though that would probably involve White accepting a Developmental League assignment rather than playing for the Rockets this season. Some of the issues are still not clear, but I can tell you that White's issues aren't about travel. The Rockets, weeks ago, agreed to his request to drive via bus to some cities that are reachable overnight. And a source says the team has also agreed to pay for the modified bus.

But there is, apparently, another non-travel issue that the team will not agree to -- one that the team believes would violate the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement. A four-page "side agreement" drawn up between the team and White, with the league's agreement, set forth the team's willingness to get White the bus, along with some of the other issues that came up before the start of training camp. But White is seeking implementation of this other non-travel issue, and he has been unwilling to report to the Rockets' D-League affiliate in Rio Grande until the team agrees to it.

But the main contention -- as far as I can figure from afar -- is that Royce just isn't comfortable with the Rockets' non-medical staff being empowered to make decisions about medical issues. He thinks only doctors should have that capability. The problem is that any issue could, conceivably, be defined as a medical one. I can't believe, though, that GM Daryl Morey and the rest of Houston's basketball people would make any decisions about White that they hadn't cleared with their doctors, or White's. It may be, as White noted last week, that he just isn't cut out for the NBA. Either way, I hope he finds some kind of peace in life. He isn't a bad kid, or spoiled. He has a medical condition.

Is it my imagination or is it getting crowded in here? From Lars Palinkas:

As you've probably seen, Stephen Jackson got injured against the Knicks because he rolled his ankle on a person standing courtside. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a player gets injured because he didn't have the space to manoeuvre properly. How many times have we seen players crash into people underneath the rim or crash into cameras? Everytime I see it happen, I think by myself, "well, that could have been avoided". I think it would not be a bad idea at all to remove a row, or at least move the camera guys and girls a bit back to improve player security. Those type of injuries are plain dumb and avoidable. Payer safety should come first and at this point, I don't think that's the case. What's your take on this?

Yes, this was scary. Unfortunately, Lars, there's no chance that either a row will be removed, or the camera folks, whether electronic or print, are going to move backwards. The seats in those front rows of every arena in the league are the ones that bring in the top, top bucks for teams; TV networks such as the one I work for, understandably, want the closest possible views for the best possible pictures to air on their broadcasts. The miracle, as you note, is that this sort of this doesn't happen more often, which is a further tribute to the incredible athletic skill of NBA players.

He had me at the present subjunctive. From Michael Isenberg:

I wanted to draw your attention to something you said in your column on (Dec 31) on NBA.com. Regarding the NBA on allowing female players to enter the draft, you said that while there is no rule prohibiting it, you followed that by adding another clause from the CBA as follows:

in Section 1, Paragraph B:

(b) A player shall be eligible for selection in the first NBA Draft with respect to which he has satisfied all applicable requirements of Section 1(b)(i) below and one of the requirements of Section 1(b)(ii) below

I could be wrong, and please correct me if I am, but my interpretation of your use of this clause was to show that, while then NBA doesn't explicitly deny females from playing, the wording of the CBA is written in the masculine ("he"). If this was your intention --again, if I am mistaken, please notify me -- than allow me to explain why that has nothing to do with gender specification but instead grammatical correctness.

When writing about an unspecified gender there are always only ever three options: use of "he/his/him," use of "she/her/hers," or use a masculine-feminine combo of "she/he". The latter is about political correctness, in mentioning both genders. The former two, while seemingly gender specific, are in fact only grammatically correct in using the singular pronoun form. Why? Well, since there is no specific mention of if the person is male or female, something has to be used and an understanding of grammar necessarily implies that one is not creating a specification by using "he" in this context, but remaining singular. If, however, there are a clause that explicitly stated "men", then yes, we would be talking about men. However, since this clause talks about a player, meaning a person of undefined gender, the context is merely singular.

The clause also could not have used "their," as "their" is always plural and the clause is talking about a player, meaning a singular entity/subject, thus requiring a singular pronoun.

Again, if I have misunderstood your argument, my apologies. However, I felt it necessary to clarify this point, for, according to my interpretation of your argument, it holds little weight in light of the fact that (this clause, at least), is written from grammatical correctness and not political correctness.

You are correct, Michael. As for the rest of it, I majored in Print Journalism and History, not English. I will take your word(s) for it.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and reasons why Notre Dame or Alabama will emerge victorious tonight—or should I just go watch KD and the Thunder do work in D.C.?—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 (30.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 7.3 apg, .521 FG, .872 FT): Scored 24 Sunday night against the Wizards to run his consecutive games streak with at least 20 points to start this season to 32 straight. Per Elias, that's the longest such streak since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 46-game run for Milwaukee to begin the 1970-71 season. If you add the Heat's postseason run last spring, James has scored 20 or more in 53 straight games.

2) Kevin Durant (26.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .537 FG, .903 FT): Suffers first career ejection late in Wednesday's home loss to the Nets.

3) Carmelo Anthony (36 ppg, 7 rpg, 4.3 apg, .507 FG, .852 FT): Comes back from hyperextended left knee injury with a huge week, as he and Amar'e Stoudemire get to know one another on the court again.

4) Tim Duncan (17.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.8 rpg, .580 FG, .857 FT): With 16 points Saturday, Duncan passes Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley for 24th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. May be hard to pass No. 23, the Celtics' Paul Pierce, for a while.

5) Chris Paul (22.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 8.5 apg, .534 FG, .909 FT): There may not be a team in the league that is so inexorably tied to its superstar as the Clippers are with Paul. He is the GM, the coach, the best player, the chief partisan, the head of marketing, all of it.

BY THE NUMBERS

1,177,456 -- Votes for Kobe Bryant, who leads LeBron James (1,151,304) in total votes after the third wave of balloting for the Feb. 17 All-Star Game in Houston. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are third and fourth, respectively, in total votes. The starters from each conference will be announced on Jan. 17 on TNT's one-hour special.

21 -- Consecutive points scored by Miami Sunday to close out its 99-71 win over Washington. The Wizards didn't score in the final six minutes, 58 seconds of the game after trailing by seven early in the fourth quarter. As Shaggy would say: zoinks!

13 -- Average point margin of defeat for the Bobcats during their 18-game losing streak, a mark of futility that was finally broken with an improbable Charlotte victory on New Year's Even in Chicago over the Bulls.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Props to DeMarcus Cousins, who has followed his return from a third suspension this season on Christmas Eve -- when he faced Kings teammates skeptical about his commitment to them -- with a dominant stretch of basketball: a double-double against the Knicks, a triple-double against the Celtics, 21 and 14 against Detroit, 18 and 16 against Cleveland and 31 and 20 against Toronto last Friday. (And this must be his intro music at the Sleep Train!)

2) Apparently, Bean is now on Twitter. This could be fun.

3) The Wizards are beyond horrible, but Bradley Beal is starting to look like the third pick in the Draft.

4) Presented, without comment. But I wish I was at the dinner that preceded or followed!

5) Game on! Happy for my puck-loving brethren, who were on the verge of losing a second complete season in eight years -- and that could have been the end of hockey as a major sport in the States. Here's hoping this beautiful game can finally grow organically.

6) This guy Ian Rapaport, on NFL Network, is my kind of reporter: no BS, tells you what he knows, not what he thinks, gets off the stage. That's how you're supposed to do it.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) Sincere condolences to Donald and Shelly Sterling and their family at the loss of their son, Scott, who died last week at the age of 32. There is nothing that could possibly prepare a parent for the sudden loss of a child, and I can only hope that the Sterlings can someday find some peace to help them deal with such a tragedy.

1A) Along those lines, as I have always said when writing about Andy Reid, I don't know him at all. And it would thus be wrong of me to try and get in his head and guess what he's thinking. We all deal with being out of work differently. I just hope he's doing the right thing by jumping back into coaching by signing with the Chiefs, just a week after the Eagles fired him and less than a year after the accidental drug overdose death of his son.

2) There are no good breaks this season, it seems, for Kevin Love and the Timberwolves, and their postseason chances took another major hit with Love re-fracturing his right hand. This is a problem, because there's no desire in Minnesota for another young player; the Wolves need to make a move toward the playoffs, not the Lottery.

3) I am still waiting for all the screen-rolls Kobe said the Lakers would be using Pau Gasol in once Steve Nash came back. 'Cause that could work.

4) By the way, Dwight Howard leaving L.A. after this season? You think he and Dan Fegan went through all those machinations the last two years to engineer a trade out of Orlando to the left coast, where Fegan wanted him? (I think Howard genuinely wanted to play with Deron Williams in Brooklyn, but that ship has sailed.) You think they're going to leave $30 million on the table to go somewhere else as a free agent? You think the Lakers are just going to sit idly by and not make some more dramatic moves to either refine the talent around Howard or on the bench? If you believe any of that, you're not thinking. The only team I think Howard would even think about bolting L.A. for is Dallas (see above), and that would only be if the Mavs first brought in a top-shelf point guard to go with him and Dirk Nowitzki. Not many of those around.

5) Sad to see all those empty seats in Phoenix these days. The Valley of the Sun was rocking during the Nash years, but selling rebuilding, no matter how well thought-out, is a tough proposition.

Q AND A: KYRIE IRVING

The Cavaliers' second-year guard has built on his 2011-12 Rookie of the Year season, and continues to give post-LeBron Cleveland hope -- when he's been healthy long enough to be on the court. Unfortunately, he has shown a proclivity for suffering serious injuries. In the last 25 months, dating back to his freshman year at Duke, Irving has suffered six major ones -- torn ligaments in his toe at Duke that caused him to miss most of his lone college season; a concussion in February, 2011, that cost him three games; a sprained right shoulder in late March, 2011, that cost him 10 more games; a broken hand Irving sustained last July during offseason workouts with the Cavaliers' Tyler Zeller; a hairline fracture of his left index finger in November that cost him 11 games early this season and a broken jaw received after a hard fall against Milwaukee last month.

Yet Irving returned a few days later against the Knicks, wearing a protective mask, and dropped 41 on New York. He continues to be electric with the basketball and has paired with rookie Dion Waiters to give the Cavaliers the most promising young backcourt in the game. Irving had 33 points, including the game-winner, against the Bobcats on Friday. The 8-27 Cavs play in Chicago tonight.

Me: How would you assess year two?

Kyrie Irving: It's been definitely a learning experience, regardless of my finger injury, and my face. It's been going pretty well, just learning on the fly, becoming a leader on this team. It's a process.

Me: What happens as you become a leader?

KI: You've got to become more vocal. You think you're working hard, but you have to work that much harder. You just have to lead by example, all facets of being a leader. It's a lonely road, and I don't think people realize that. You just have to make your teammates better.

Me: How difficult is it to be vocal when you're trying to lead guys that may be eight or nine years older than you?

KI: It's difficult. But I feel like I've earned their respect. This is year two for me on this team, and I feel like I'm one of the guys that's been here, that's been under Coach [Byron] Scott's system. I know the ropes a little bit.

Me: How much two-guard front are you running this year?

KI: A lot. Me and Dion are still developing a special relationship out there, just getting comfortable and trusting each other out there. That's going to be a process as well.

Me: What have you picked up playing with him every night?

KI: Just being able to play off the ball a lot more, picking my spots. Especially going into the fourth quarter. Last year, I had the ball practically the whole entire fourth quarter. This year, there's been games when we've just run pick and roll for him. That's the luxury that we have. And that relationship and the trust factor, from the coaching staff and myself and everybody, just trusting Dion with the ball. It continues to grow every single day.

Me: Is it hard to stay alert and prepared if the ball goes and stays on the weak side for two or three possessions?

KI: A little bit. But I've gotten used to it. I just try to compete at both ends of the floor. I feel like, personally, I feel like I've made great strides the last five or six games, just being alert at both ends of the floor. Just trying to be the head of the snake out there. That comes with the leadership role. It feels good...just being active. Being active on the weak side and just communicating with my guys. I feel like I was, my mouth shut a little too much on the defensive end. And that can't happen.

Me: You've had these ... are you at all worried about the freakish nature of these injuries you've been suffering?

KI: You know, I've been asked that a few times. But for me, personally, no. The injuries that have occurred have just been really, really, really bad luck. It's just, they happen throughout the game. Thank God it's not an injury that keeps me out three or four months. It's been a luxury over the past that I've only had to miss, you know, probably 10 or 15 games. So I'm just blessed for that.

Me: As you see this team growing and adding pieces, how does your role evolve?

KI: Just being the point guard, the complete point guard for our team. Whatever my team needs me to do in order to get wins. That's about it.

Me: Do you hear from the elite points in the league during games -- keep your head up, your time is coming?

KI: I hear it every time I play against the great point guards in our league. It's always a pleasure playing against them. They always bring out the best in me and I bring out the best in them. After the game, it's a mutual respect. I grew up watching, basically, all of them.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

No losses in 2013!
-- Nets forward Kris Humphries (@KrisHumphries), Friday, 11:34 p.m. Not sure if he was just pointing out the Nets had won their first two games of 2013 over Oklahoma City and Washington, or if he was predicting Brooklyn would win all 133 regular season games it is scheduled to play in calendar year 2013. (Also not sure if he was saying Brooklyn would go fo'-fo'-fo'-fo' in the playoffs for another 16 Ws.) Anyway, after Brooklyn's rout of the Kings Saturday, the Nets are two percent of the way to perfection!

THEY SAID IT

"You just saw an old damn team. I don't know how else to put it to you. We're just slow. You saw a team over there that was just younger and just had fresher legs and just played with more energy, and we were just stuck in the mud."
-- Kobe Bryant, expressing as only he can the Lakers' inability to keep up with the younger 76ers' legs in another difficult home loss last Tuesday.

"I told Mikhail in no uncertain terms I don't want him talking to anybody. Especially Jeff. That's a personal thing. It's not a comment on his coaching abilities, it's a personal dislike."
-- Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, joking with local reporters that he banned owner Mikhail Prokhorov from discussing the Nets' coaching job with Jeff Van Gundy -- who has told everyone who's asked that he would not discuss the job with Brooklyn while it was filled by Carlesimo.

"Almost shed a tear walking about on the court. It was a phenomenal feeling. I haven't quite felt like that before in my career."
-- Amar'e Stoudemire, on his return to the Knicks last week after missing the first 30 games of the season recovering from knee surgery just before the start of training camp.

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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