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David Aldridge

The Grizzlies have become synonymous with the NBA's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day games.

Befitting of MLK Day spirit, racial progress apparent in NBA


Posted Jan 21, 2013 10:34 AM

The confluence of the NBA and politics meets on this day every year, the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. For years, the league has played games on the holiday, and in Memphis, where King was slain in 1968, the day takes on a special resonance, with tours of the National Civil Rights Museum and a symposium featuring retired NBA greats on the docket.

This year provides even greater resonance, as the King holiday and the NBA schedule also coincide with the ceremonial inauguration of President Barack Obama to begin his second term, on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol. Like many -- not all -- NBA players, Obama grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances, in a broken home. And like those ballers, with whom he still occasionally plays pickup basketball, Obama overcame those obstacles to spring himself into the upper echelon of American society.

But so many, of course, are not there yet, not able to realize Dr. King's Dream or President Obama's Audacity of Hope. More than 38 percent of black children grow up in poverty, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. More than 39 percent of prisoners in U.S. jails are black.

There is always reluctance on my part to put too much into either side of the divide. Numbers can often be outliers, in any direction. The progress of a people should not be measured in readings as meaningless as the financial success of a few basketball players. If you think about it, it's rather insulting. But neither should it be defined solely by those who, through fault of others and their own, have not reached their potential.

The best such things can provide are snapshots of subsets. But because so much light and attention is paid to those subsets, they do have some outsized value. And so it is that we can say today's holiday, and the inauguration, and basketball, provide a small, small window through which to view the unmeasurable: progress.

Just two months into the season and three black coaches have been fired -- Mike Brown, Avery Johnson and, last Friday, Alvin Gentry. (A 13-28 team has every right to fire its coach, but Suns owner Robert Sarver had said just a month ago that Gentry was going to remain coach the rest of the season. Because the Suns began the season in admitted rebuilding mode, Gentry's dismissal seems odd both in the timing and execution. Did the Suns' brass just discover how maddeningly inconsistent Michael Beasley is? One would then ask why they signed him in the first place.)

In other sports, this would be cause for alarm, given those sports' difficulties in both hiring and retaining black coaches and/or managers. (See?)The NBA has any number of problems for which it can legitimately be criticized, but thank the heavens -- and Wayne Embry, Lenny Wilkens and hundreds of other capable men of color -- that the idea or execution of hiring a black man in a position of authority means, these days, precisely nothing.

There is no uproar in the black community about Brown and Johnson losing their jobs in two of the league's biggest media markets -- and, in the case of the Lakers, its marquee team. And there won't be any, because the NBA began this season with 16 coaches of color, more than half of the league's teams, for the first time in history.

Gentry has now been hired and fired four times in his NBA coaching career -- in Miami, Detroit, the Clippers and Phoenix. He's 335-370 in his career and it would be a surprise if he's ever given a chance to run an NBA team again. But he will, if he wants, be on Mike D'Antoni's bench next season with the Lakers' as lead assistant, I'm certain -- that is, if D'Antoni is back as coach. Like anyone else, Gentry can try, and fail, and succeed, and fail, and be hired again and again. His career is not defined by one job.

Last week also saw the denouement of a bitter battle between two African-American men, following the release of a report that sharply criticized Billy Hunter, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, for numerous questionable, though not illegal, business practices over the past few years. The investigation by the law firm that produced the report came about as Hunter's relationship with the union's president, Derek Fisher, cratered.

Is that "progress?" Of a sort, I guess.

Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens was honored during last seasons MLK Day game in Memphis.

Hunter and Fisher got through the last collective bargaining negotiations with the NBA, but not before word leaked that Hunter didn't trust Fisher's motives and believed he was looking to cut a deal with the league. Each denied his supposed role, but the die was cast.

When Fisher sought an audit of the union's business practices last spring, Hunter sought Fisher's ouster as president, with the union's Board of Directors -- most strong supporters of Hunter -- seeking Fisher's resignation.

But the 469-page report by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP detailed numerous instances where Hunter engaged in questionable behavior, including not having his new contract, which pays him $3 million annually through at least 2015, properly negotiated and vetted, hiring family members for union and union-affilliated jobs, and getting paid for unused vacation time to which he may not have been entitled.

"Our inquiry disclosed certain instances in which, in our judgment, Mr. Hunter acted in a manner inconsistent with his fiduciary obligations to the NBPA," read part of the executive summary in the report. "As a result, at times he entangled the Union in actual or potential conflicts of interest, failed adequately to disclose those conflicts and took inappropriate advantage of his position as Executive Director."

Hunter released a statement Thursday in which he said he "strongly" disagreed with some of the report's findings, but reiterated that he was not implicated in illegal activities or misappropriation of union funds.

"During my tenure, the salaries of NBA players have more than doubled and they are the highest paid athletes in the world," Hunter said in his statement. "When I arrived at the NBPA in 1996 the challenges were significant. The Union's financial liabilities exceeded its assets. Today the Union is solvent and its financial future is secure. The Union and players endured two lengthy and costly lockouts. Our greatest accomplishment is the unity and solidarity that the players maintained throughout those very difficult rounds of bargaining."

No one who's ever known or worked with or against Hunter believes he would quit. For one, the money is, obviously, pretty good. For two, Hunter doesn't scare easily, even though there is a separate and ongoing investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York.

But the goings on between Hunter and Fisher exemplify what blacks often refer to as "black-on-black" crime, when otherwise successful blacks go after one another, the same way that blacks who resort to crime most often prey upon other blacks. And it will be up to the NBA's players -- the vast majority of whom are black -- to decide Hunter's fate at All-Star weekend in Houston next month. That's when Hunter is expected to give his side of the story.

The union is already implementing a revised conflict of interest policy, which has been distributed to players. It developed an anti-nepotism policy, which was given to the NBPA Executive Committee. There is acknowledgment that the union's constitution, drafted in the 1990s, has to be updated. And it's likely that the union will have to sever its ties with Prim Capital, the union's financial adviser, which was excoriated in the Paul, Weiss and company report for its failure to cooperate with the investigation.

If Hunter survives, it won't be because he's "Houdini," as one observer said last week. It will because he has the support of black players who believe he's done far more good than harm.

"Considering where the union was when he came in, I never questioned his integrity," said Hornets guard Roger Mason, a strong Hunter supporter and member of the NBPA Executive Committee.

"This report doesn't change that for me," Mason said. "It's not like he was going and stealing our funds."

Various trial balloons have been floated in media outlets as potential successors to Hunter, including Steve Mills. The former NBA and Madison Square Garden executive started Athletes and Entertainment Wealth Management, which tries to marry athletes and entertainers with responsible money managers who can grow their incomes safely over time. If the status quo holds, though, Hunter could be around a long time.

The bigger issue, though, on this day, is not whether Hunter is good at his job. It's whether the NBA's stars -- most of whom, again, are black -- feel that sense of responsibility to the greater good of all players that led to the formation of the union in the first place, in 1964.

The NBA union started when the superstars of that era, from Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, to Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy, banded together and threatened to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game unless owners agreed to benefits and pensions as well as trainers for every team and better working conditions. Other than a few cameo appearances at collective bargaining sessions, though, most star players have steered clear of union activities since Patrick Ewing was the union's president in the late 1990s.

It's time for one of this decade's brightest lights to take on that leadership role. You can't tell me things wouldn't be different at the bargaining table and among the rank and file if LeBron James or Kevin Durant aspired to the presidency.

There continues to be a lot of support for Clippers guard Chris Paul, who is already on the Executive Committee, to succeed Fisher. "Roger is the most responsive and responsible, but Chris has the most sway," one observer said last week.

It is not fun to be a leader in the union and wear suits and go through often tedious meetings. It is not glamorous to study about pensions and deferred compensation and basketball-related income. But on this day, of all days, black athletes in general and NBA players in particular should take to heart the words of someone who predates Dr. King and President Obama, and whose speeches have been more widely disseminated:

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

DRIBBLES

Saturday was just another day of change for the Atlanta Hawks.

The club found out that guard Lou Williams would be lost for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in Friday night's loss to the Nets. That means another new face will be coming through, which is standard operating procedure these days.

For a while, the Hawks looked like one of the league's biggest surprises. After major changes to a roster that made the playoffs five straight seasons, Atlanta got 10 games over .500 on New Year's Day, winning primarily with defense. Larry Drew was December's Coach of the Month.

But the new year brought struggles ... even before Williams' injury and before Josh Smith was suspended for a game last week for "conduct detrimental to the team," there were signs of slippage.

There has been, a source said, selfish play lately when the Hawks faced adversity. They were resorting to bad habits of past seasons, when Atlanta relied to isolation plays for Joe Johnson. And, having lost eight of the last 10, the questions come up again about the efficacy of having so many free agents -- including Drew -- on the roster.

"It is a better situation when you have good professionals," Hawks president of basketball operations and general manager Danny Ferry said Sunday afternoon. "I believe you have that. There's challenges, all different types of challenges teams have. Expiring contracts are opportunities for the teams and the players. If you have a good team and players are professionals, it's something you can do well with."

Ferry isn't walking back his decision to dramatically change the roster in early July, starting with dealing Johnson, the team's six-time All-Star, to the Nets in exchange for five players on expiring contracts and two future Draft picks. Within days of that deal, Ferry sent Atlanta's 2005 first-rounder, Marvin Williams, to Utah for point guard Devin Harris -- who also has an expiring deal.

Days after that, Ferry acquired Kyle Korver -- and his expiring contract -- from Chicago. Around the same time, he was finalizing a three-year, $15.7 million deal with Williams, one of the few players on this season's roster that's assured of being on next season's roster.

Ferry was determined upon taking over last summer to give the Hawks some flexibility going forward.

If he'd kept the previous roster together, the Hawks would have more than $45 million committed next season to just five players -- Johnson, Marvin Williams (player option at $7.5 million), Al Horford, guard Jeff Teague (qualifying offer) and first-rounder John Jenkins. Now, that number is just above $16 million, and the Hawks can be players in free agency or trades.

"I had no preconceived notions," Ferry said. "We were in a situation where we had six guys back and we were going to have to fill the roster with six guys to stay under the tax. Ownership gave me permission to go over the tax, but I didn't think there was anything we were going to be able to do to be a contender even over the tax."

But that leaves the players -- and, in this case, Drew -- uncertain. It's very hard to find an instance in which having so many pending free agents on a team works out well.

And the most talented of those free agents, Smith, has been the subject of trade rumors. Atlanta insists it won't move him and doesn't want the players -- like Lakers big man Pau Gasol -- who have been mentioned in those trade rumors.

"This is the first time I've gone through this type of situation, with so many changes," Drew said recently, before the Smith suspension and Williams' injury. "From front office, to personnel, dealing with a lot of the situations with players, dealing with my situation. This is the first time I've experienced it, and I find it to be a challenge. I'm the type of person, I don't shy away from challenges. It falls where it falls."

But Ferry didn't think the Hawks as previously constituted could get out of the East, and he was right. He said he didn't want to make a decision about Drew's future before working with him. But that hasn't stopped speculation around the league that Ferry's just waiting for the season to end before bringing in Mike Brown, whom Ferry hired when he was Cleveland's GM to coach the LeBron James-led Cavs in 2005.

"I've enjoyed working with Larry, first of all," Ferry said. "We talked at the beginning of the year. Let's dig into this season, get to know each other, work together. We can sit and talk after the season as it relates to where we're headed as a team. I've really enjoyed working with him. He does his preparation. He works really hard at what he does. When we've played well we've really been well-prepared as a basketball team."

Drew visited every player in the offseason, trying to pick his brains about dealing with the challenge that lay ahead. And he spoke with coaches who'd been in similar situations. "Certainly, they didn't paint a pretty picture," he said.

Injuries to Harris, Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson have cut deeply into Atlanta's dwindling depth.

"It's definitely a different look, a lot of new faces," Smith said before the suspension. "For so long, we was labeled as only one team, as far as a predominately isolation team. We had a lot of the same people around for a long period of time. Now it's a different look, a new atmosphere. People can't really put their finger on what's going to happen offensively each and every night ... that's why I feel like we have to do more communicating than the normal team would do."

Drew has had to mesh players from completely different systems into his defense. Korver came from Chicago, where Tom Thibodeau stresses pushing everything to the baseline and defending without fouling. Harris came from Utah, where Ty Corbin utilizes Jerry Sloan's philosophy: push everything to the middle. And if you don't have a couple of fouls by the end of the first quarter, you're not trying.

"We do have some holes on defense, where as individuals, we'll get exposed," Smith said. "But if we do it together, collectively, we might be able to cover up those holes that might be glaring to our opponents. We have to play together."

For the first two months, the Hawks did, notching wins over the Thunder, Pacers, Clippers, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Bulls. They held 11 of their first 13 opponents under 100 points. They've basically repeated the string of late, holding 10 of their last 11 opponents under 100. But the difference is that in that first streak, the Hawks scored an average of 93.9 points per game. In this recent stretch, Atlanta has scored just 87.8 per game. That included a franchise-record low 58 points against the Bulls last Monday, which served as the backdrop for Smith's suspension, which came after an incident in Tuesday's practice.

"It was an isolated incident," Ferry said Sunday, "and it was addressed."

The suspension came at an unfortunate time for Smith, who continues to amaze and infuriate with his skill set and decision-making in his eighth season. His agent insisted last week that he has not asked to be traded.

"The core is definitely good," Smith said -- again, before last week's incident. "We had some guys that we kept on that want to win basketball games, that are pretty good players. We might be a couple of pieces away. Danny Ferry is a hell of a GM and he's already made some changes around here for the betterment of the organization. I just have to rest my hat on him and see what's possible this offseason."

Those changes include Ferry being "very proactive" in enhancing the Hawks' player development side, as well as getting the franchise up to speed when it comes to analytics. The trades were a part of that restructuring.

But Ferry's biggest task will be to bring in a star player next summer, whether it's Chris Paul (who, famously, wanted to play for the Hawks before the '05 Draft), Atlanta native Dwight Howard or someone completely off the radar.

"We're in a unique situation with so many free agents," Ferry acknowledged. "Despite that, we can be a good team and play at a competitive level with what we have now. There's a possibility of free agency. We have our draft pick plus others going forward. As this year continues, we'll explore all of those paths. Eventually we'll have to start narrowing those paths ... I think a lot of people are focusing on free agency, but all of our paths aren't limited to that."

That leaves the rest of this season. Even with the recent tailspin, the Hawks are still sitting sixth in the conference, just two games away from fourth place and home-court advantage in a potential first-round playoff series. They do play in the East, after all.

"Guys have sort of accepted the reality, being together for a short period of time, and making the most of it," Harris said. "We've started a lot of different lineups, started a lot of different guys, but I think guys have been ready to play and been very professional about it. It normally doesn't happen on teams, but we've got a good locker room and a good bunch of guys."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) L.A. Clippers (4-0) [2]: Clips more than held it down without CP3 for three games this week, winning all three by an average of 15.7 per game.

2) San Antonio (3-0) [3]: Pop sits Tim Duncan Saturday night against the Hawks. The league has no reaction. This will only encourage him.

3) Oklahoma City (3-1) [1]: Condolences to Thunder Coach Scott Brooks, whose mother, Lee, passed away Saturday night.

4) Miami (2-1) [5]: The Heat haven't looked engaged for most of the month, but they sure were locked in Thursday night at Los Angeles, when they beat back the Lakers' charge.

5) Indiana (2-1) [6]: Danny Granger back at practice in non-contact drills late last week. But the way Paul George is going, Granger can take his time.

6) Chicago (3-1) [7]: Another signature road win on Friday in Boston for the Rose-less Bulls, as Marco Belinelli continues to be one of the most underrated free agent pickups of the offseason.

7) New York (1-0) [8]: After returning from London trip, Knicks face Brooklyn Monday, beginning a week of Atlantic Division tilts. They play Boston on Wednesday, Philadelphia on Friday.

8) Memphis (2-2) [4]: You have to wonder if all the incessant trade talk about Rudy Gay -- and, now, Zach Randolph -- didn't play a role in the Grizzlies' unusual three-game swoon that ended last week, with losses by 21, 26 and 21 points.

9) Brooklyn (2-1) [9]: Shaq said at the start of the season that Brook Lopez was a better center than Dwight Howard. People said he was crazy, that he was jealous and bitter. Maybe. But right now, this morning, today? He's right.

10) Denver (2-2) [13]: Corey Brewer, who I thought was going to have the best pro career of all of his two-time NCAA University of Florida teammates -- including Joakim Noah and Al Horford -- hasn't. But he's become a very good role player this season for the Nuggets.

11) Utah (2-0) [NR]: Just when it looked like Mo Williams' injury would be the end for the Jazz, Randy Foye and Jamaal Tinsley come to the rescue.

12) Golden State (1-2) [10]: Giants win the World Series. 49ers in the Super Bowl. Warriors nine games over .500! Hey, it's a start.

13) Atlanta (1-3) [11]: Hawks down to fumes on the bench after losing Lou Williams, who was already starting because of injuries.

14) Milwaukee (2-1) [NR]: Bucks win two out of three on the west coast trip, including their first win in Phoenix in almost 26 years. When the Bucks won that game on Feb. 21, 1987, current players Brandon Jennings, Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders, Doron Lamb, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson and Tobias Harris had not yet been born.

15) Boston (1-3) [15]: Doc Rivers gets smoked at home by his son, Austin, whose Hornets beat the Celtics on Wednesday and have started to play better lately , winning six of their last eight.

Dropped out: Houston (0-4) [12], Portland (0-3) [14]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

L.A. Clippers (4-0): The Clippers are 32-9 at the technical, if not calendar-based, midpoint of the season. In 27 of their previous 40 non-lockout shortened seasons as a franchise, the Clippers have won 32 or fewer games for the entire season.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Houston (0-4): Will be interested to watch the Royce White piece that is debuting on Tuesday on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." In it, White discloses he is asking for an independent doctor to have authority to determine whether White is capable of playing on a game-by-game basis, much like if he had, say, a sprained ankle. Will be interested to see what Rockets GM Daryl Morey's response was.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Is Nicolas Batum the second-best small forward in the Western Conference?

I didn't come up with the question this week. It was posed to me recently by one Nicolas Batum, of Portland, Ore. It's a fair question.

Kevin Durant is obviously the premier three in the West -- and in the league, on those nights LeBron James plays power forward in Miami. But is the 24-year-old Batum next in line, at least in the West?

"I don't know," Batum says with a smile. He doesn't state it outright, but he doesn't have to.

Well, let's see. After Durant, in no particular order, out West there are veteran starting threes like Rudy Gay (Memphis), Andrei Kirilenko (Minnesota), John Salmons (Sacramento), Shawn Marion (Dallas) and Metta World Peace (Lakers) and Caron Butler (Clippers). There are emerging threes like Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio), Chandler Parsons (Houston) and Harrison Barnes (Golden State). There are younger vets like Danilo Gallinari (Denver), Jared Dudley (Phoenix), Al-Faroqu Aminu (New Orleans) and Marvin Williams and Gordon Hayward (Utah).

Would you take Batum over all the non-Durant threes in the West?

Among those players, Gay is first in scoring, Batum second, Gallinari third. Kirilenko leads those players in rebounding and blocks, with Parsons second in rebounding and World Peace third. And Batum leads all those non-LeBron/Durant small forwards in assists, followed by Parsons and Salmons.

"I guess it's a legitimate question," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "You start going through the names. If you were drafting your small forward, he might get more votes than anybody. Kirilenko has a longer resume and Gay has a bigger name. But it's not a clear-cut decision, let's put it that way. He's 24 and he has aspirations about how good he can be."

Batum's potential is something that general managers in Portland have been banking on since the Blazers got him in a Draft night trade in 2008 from Houston. And the Blazers' new GM, Neil Olshey, quickly determined that Batum was going to be a big part of the rebuild Portland's brass thought would start this season, along with forward LaMarcus Aldridge, guard Wesley Matthews and rookie guard Damian Lillard.

Olshey said repeatedly that the Blazers would match any offer sheet for Batum, who was a restricted free agent last summer. The Timberwolves came after Batum hard, signing him to a four-year, $45 million offer sheet. But the Blazers never blinked, refusing to do a sign-and-trade deal with Minnesota for Batum, even after he told me in an interview in July that he preferred playing for the Timberwolves.

But instead of putting more pressure on him, Batum insists the deal liberated him.

"That [contract] gave me more freedom," Batum said. "I mean, they pay me. They trust me. They show me they love me. So now I can go out there and play. Like I say, why should I get pressure? I play in the NBA. I'm not hurt right now. I've got a good contract and I can put my family in a good situation for the next 50 years. I play basketball. So why should I get pressure?"

Batum's goals for the season were to average 15 points, five rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal. "I started low," he said. But he's come on stronger the last month. He had at least eight assists six times in an eight-game stretch around Christmas, and in January, he's already had six games of 21 or more points.

"It's easier," he said. "Now, I have a free hand; I can do what I want to do. Terry is like, 'Hey, man, you can do so many things on the court. Don't just stand in the corner and shoot. You can create, you can score, you can pass, you can rebound. You can play defense.' That's what I try to do. I have freedom this year. I have a lot of fun. I've got it this year."

The inference is clear: Batum's unhappiness with how he was utilized last season by former coach Nate McMillan was the impetus for Batum signing the offer sheet with Minnesota in July. Batum believed Wolves coach Rick Adelman would allow him to expand his game, and Stotts wasn't hired by Portland until early August.

"When I came here that was one of his frustrations," Stotts said. "That was part of our plan, put him in situations that he wasn't doing before, putting him in ball screens and posting him up. It's a process. He's not where he needs to be, but in half a season, he's grown as a facilitator. He's broken his career high in assists a couple of times this season. It wouldn't surprise me if has a triple double sometime this season."

Batum's defense has been spottier. Stotts has put him ones through threes, including Kobe Bryant, and Batum has often met the challenge.

"He'll make some great defensive plays, tracking down some transition blocks," Stotts said. "With his length, he'll get steals, passes to the post. He'll make those plays. At the same time, there's been problems with consistency."

Stotts said there's been no hangover from Batum from the summer -- which also included an unfortunate incident at the Summer Olympics in London when Batum, playing for his native France, punched Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro in the groin in the quarterfinals. Batum apologized on Twitter afterward, and when he returned to the States he was quickly welcomed back by Portland's fans.

"I was in Atlanta, and Jet [Jason Terry] signed an offer sheet with Utah [in 2003]," Stotts said. "He didn't want Atlanta to [match] it. Whether there was disappointment or not, everybody moves on. I never talked to [Batum] about the Minnesota situation. I read articles about it. He realized it was business. I think he was happy here, but not knowing who the coach would be, there probably was some uncertainty. Personally, I came into it with an open mind."

Batum also got advice from fellow countryman Tony Parker, the Spurs guard.

"I was with him when I signed," Batum said. "He said, 'Don't put pressure on yourself. You can play. You play. The trust you. You don't have pressure now.' And he's right. He did it. It works. When I see him play, he doesn't have pressure. And he's been a three, four-time All-Star. So, who's the second-best small forward in the West?"

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Whenever I Want You, All I Have to do is Dream. From Lee Cheatham:

I've heard rumors circulating around the NBA that Cleveland may be clearing salary cap for the summer of 2014 when LeBron James becomes a free agent. Do you think Cleveland would seriously consider James after he spurned them in 2010? Would James really consider returning after the diatribes directed at him from majority owner Dan Gilbert? What's your take?

Yes, Lee. And, maybe. I don't have any doubts that if LeBron explores free agency in '14 that the Cavs would happily welcome him back. There would no doubt be some fans that will never forgive him, but I think there would be many more that would happily take their place. Outrage has a short shelf life in America these days. I think any decision (oops, sorry) LeBron makes about free agency in '14 will be based on whether he thinks that team can win a title. I think Miami's window will still be open in '14, but if the Heat are no longer contenders then for some reason (age, injuries, etc.), I could see him leaving. I don't know that it would be Cleveland; even with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters the Cavs are probably more than two years away from again being a contender. But if the Cavs made significant personnel moves by then -- a big-time big man, for example -- maybe he'd think differently.

I'm goin' back to Indiana. And, soon, with any luck, to Houston. From Franek Smith:

Like many people, I've been watching Paul George's progression this year and needless to say I've been impressed. Since (Danny) Granger is down for the count and Hibbert (freshly injured with back spasms) is having a regressed season, George has really brought his A-game (The A for All-Star.)

My questions to you are this; Why is George not being voted for by fans? Will the coaches vote him into Houston 2013?

It would be a shock if George wasn't named a reserve by the East coaches, Franek. Coaches tend to know a little bit more about who's really playing well in a given year than fans, who occasionally are voting off of memory and past reputation than contemporary knowledge. Plus, fans tend to vote for well-known stars, and Paul isn't quite a household word yet.

They lost him at goodbye. From Jason Gardner:

I am from Seattle and live in Wichita, Kan. -- which is a 90 minute drive to OKC -- and I cannot stand the NBA business model... It sucks and it is the fans who suffer and pay when teams are stolen and relocated. It is sickening.

I love south-central Kansas and the Midwestern people, but I do miss my childhood in Seattle, watching GP throw lobs to Shawn Kemp. My high school is famed Rainier Beach and I went to Seattle University, so my roots are there and my team is in OKC, not Sacramento.

The liar and cheat that is Clay Bennett schmoozed so much with Stern that he blinded the NBA's leaders with promises of growth, further riches and a more stable franchise in OKC ... What a crock because they just claimed poverty when they traded 'the beard' to Houston ... really?

Who is paying now? OKC fans will get to watch the best scorer of this generation, but watch him lose in the playoffs because OKC cannot afford to keep its players. That would not have happened in Seattle. And that is sad because the Seattle SuperSonics, as constructed last year, had the make of several title runs. Whereas now, the OKC Blunder have the make of an elite team that won't win a title due to the Miami LeBrons.

My rant and soapbox are done, but you see my point. I am a special education teacher who avoids the NBA and will continue to do so because it sucks that such a business rakes in cash, yet our education system is in shambles. The NBA represents a lot that is wrong and backwards about American society ... Sad.

Sorry you've given up on the NBA, Jason; it's still a great game. While I don't think the NBA's success has any correlation to the education system's failures, I understand your anger. No one likes franchise roulette. Because your team could be next, no matter how well you support it. Fans in Seattle and Sacramento should not have had to go through what they have the last few years. It's not right. But it's not going to stop, because there's always another city willing to pay for the product. But, there's this, too: James Harden could have taken $55 million to stay in OKC. I am in no way saying he was wrong to take $80 million instead from Houston; I would have, too. But the players do have some say in this. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, to name two, took less than they could have on the open market to keep the thing going in San Antonio a few more years.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and those big oversized boxing gloves for Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey to slug it out once and for all 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 (32 ppg, 6 rpg, 8 apg, .641 FG, .909 FT): Incredible last week, and he's pretty doggone good just about every week. But he was especially devastating in Los Angeles Thursday against the Lakers, setting the tone and then finishing things off.

2) Kevin Durant (37.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, .452 FG, .970 FT): Set career high in scoring Friday with 52 points in OKC's overtime win in Dallas.

3) Chris Paul (22 ppg, 4 rpg, 11 apg, .375 FG, .889 FT): Returned to action Saturday night against the Wizards after missing three games with a sore knee.

4) Carmelo Anthony (26 ppg, 3 rpg, 4 apg, .421 FG, .778 FT): Also played in just one game last week, in London, in a victory over the Pistons Thursday. But 'Melo's shooting has tailed off; in January, he's shooting just 42 percent (74 of 174) from the floor, after shooting 47 percent in December.

5) Tim Duncan (21.5 ppg, 9 rpg, 4 bpg, .545 FG, 1,000 FT): Needs 67 points to pass Robert Parish for 28th place on the league's all-time scoring list.

BY THE NUMBERS

9 -- Years since the Timberwolves have won a game in San Antonio. Minnesota's latest road loss to the Spurs last week was its 16th straight defeat in San Antonio, a streak that dates back to January, 2004.

1,591,437 -- Total for the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who beat LeBron James as the leading vote-getter for the Feb. 17 All-Star Game in Houston. It will be Bryant's 15th straight starting appearance in the All-Star Game, a league record.

20,046 -- Career points through Sunday for James, who became the youngest player ever to reach the 20,000-point plateau on Wednesday. James cracked the 20K mark at the age of 28 years, 17 days, breaking Bryant's mark of 29 years, 122 days.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) For two decades, my position on the All-Star Game has been clear: the game is for the fans. So if they want to see Kevin Garnett start for the Eastern Conference instead of the Knicks' Tyson Chandler, who's been outstanding for New York the first half of the season, I can't start complaining now. But the East coaches should make sure Chandler is a reserve.

1A) Along with Chandler, the East reserves should include Indiana's Paul George, Philly's Jrue Holiday, Boston's Paul Pierce, Chicago's Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez.

2) As for the Western Conference: Tim Duncan will certainly lead the reserves, along with teammate Tony Parker, "Cousin" LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland, OKC's Russell Westbrook, Houston's James Harden, the Clippers' Jamal Crawford and the Warriors' David Lee in a photo finish, over his Golden State teammate Steph Curry.

3) Congrats to Atlanta's play-by-play man, Steve Holman, who broadcast his 2,000th consecutive Hawks game last week, a streak dating back to March, 1989. Yes, that's a lot of 'Nique and Joe Johnson over the years, but it's also a lot of Duane Ferrell and Cal Bowdler.

4) Rich Paul continues to build his agency, Klutch Sports, methodically and well. Paul, who left CAA last year and took several of his high-profile clients -- including his friend LeBron James -- recently added Wizards center Kevin Seraphin to his client list. And last week, Paul reached an agreement with Mark Termini, the Cleveland-based agent who's been in the game since 1986 and who is universally respected by NBA front offices and media for his honest, straightforward approach.

5) You suspect you'll be seeing an awful lot of Harbaugh home movies for the next two weeks. But it should still be a fun game. Congrats to San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore's John Harbaugh for advancing their teams to Super Bowl XLVII with road wins in the conference championship games Sunday.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) There will be little joy here if the sale of the Kings to Chris Hansen is ultimately approved by the league. Not because I don't like Seattle -- it's one of my favorite cities, and that city revered the Sonics for the better part of four decades. But because I know the heartache and the pain a departure of the Kings from Sacramento would cause those good people there, who have supported that team through some thick and a whole lot of thin for 27 years. They deserve a team as good as they have been for the league, and the game.

2) That isn't much of a technical foul call to throw a guy out of a game, Eli Roe.

3) I'm going to say this once and it has nothing to do with Lindsey Hunter, whom I've known for a long time and is a good guy, and who's got natural coaching chops. But Elston Turner deserves to be a coach in this league. He's deserved to be a coach in this league for a long time. Trying to get a young Phoenix team to learn how to play the right way would have been a great challenge -- and it would have been the right call.

4) I'm sure Tom Thibodeau had his reasons for benching Joakim Noah for the fourth quarter and overtime of Saturday's loss to the Grizzlies. It must have been a good reason, right? Right? Bueller?

5) Is there anything that one can intelligently say now about what will be known in the history books as The Curious Case of Manti Te'o and the Imaginary Girlfriend? At best, he comes off as an amazingly naïve person. How to put this? Most 21-year-old males seek to consummate their relationships with their girlfriends. Quickly. But let's say for the sake of argument that Te'o was willing to wait to do that, for whatever reason. You go all the way to Hawaii to finally meet your girlfriend, and she stiffs you -- doesn't show up -- and that doesn't raise a major red flag, make you think, 'Hmmm, maybe I need to slow my roll here?' And you never successfully Skype with the girlfriend? (I use Skype to talk to the family when I'm on the road, and I'm a fossil!) And even after all that, after the woman you purport to love is in a serious auto accident, and lays near death, and then contracts leukemia, and then dies -- and you never go to the hospital to see her, or go to the funeral? That doesn't make any sense. I don't think he was in on it; there's been no credible explanation for why that would be beneficial to him (I don't buy the "he did it for the good publicity/Heisman campaign" theory). Here's what is more likely: Te'o is, mostly, telling the truth. He met someone online, and got to know her, and started developing feelings for her, but found out at some point that he was being conned, and didn't confess that he'd been duped until well later for fear of looking like a complete idiot. He's likely fudged some of the details in the retelling, but the basic premise holds up. But if you're sitting in an NFL front office, knowing what we know now -- and we'll know more soon enough, which could change things -- how can you feel comfortable taking this guy in the draft? Forget the ruthless abuse he'll get from opposing teams and fans; I'm just talking about his judgment and common sense. Or, lack of it.

5A) You can go away now, Lance Armstrong. We've heard enough from you for a while. Anyone who had any knowledge of his vindictive and horrific behavior toward people who committed the crime of telling the truth about his PED use and still thinks this guy is virtuous is a bigger enabler than Mary Tyrone in Long Days' Journey Into Night.

6) Very tough Saturday for baseball fans, with the passing of Stan Musial and Earl Weaver. Musial was one of a kind, from everything I've read and heard about the man -- a superstar who was as approachable and kind a person as you will ever find. He played in one city, St. Louis, his whole career, and he was married to one woman for 71 years. In between, he got 3,630 hits, hit 475 home runs, won seven batting titles and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. On the other hand, Weaver was almost a caricature of the profane, dirt-kicking, bantamweight manager -- but he was also, not coincidentally, brilliant, knowing exactly how to push the buttons of his players to get maximum performance out of them, driving the Orioles to four American League pennants and one World Series title in 17 seasons. He, too, was a Hall of Fame member.

7) Meant to mention this last week but forgot. I am a political junkie, and the best book I have ever read about politics is What It Takes, a history of the 1988 presidential campaign. The author was Richard Ben Cramer, who died Jan. 7. I have never read a book like it before or since, because I've never seen a book written in that style before or since. It is more than just assuming the voice of the people you've interviewed; the reader is immersed in the whole life of the candidates, from George Bush (41) to Bob Dole; Joe Biden to Dick Gephardt. It is an incredible psychological attempt to explain how a person can arrive at the conclusion -- preposterous, if you think about it -- that he or she is uniquely qualified to address all of the problems our country has at a given point in time. It is an amazing piece of journalism, and Cramer was an amazing talent.

Q AND A: JRUE HOLIDAY

The Sixers made it clear when they traded Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets in the three-team deal in August with Denver and the Lakers that brought Andrew Bynum to town -- the ball was now in Jrue Holiday's hands. The third-year guard shared the rock his first two years in the league with Iguodala, Evan Turner and sixth man Lou Williams. But with Iguodala gone and Williams signing with Atlanta as a free agent, the 76ers cleared the decks for the 22-year-old Holiday, their first-round pick in 2010, to take over. And he has responded with a first half of the season that will almost certainly end with his first All-Star selection.

Holiday is on pace to post career highs in scoring (currently at 19.4 points per game, 12th in the league) and assists (9.0 per game, fourth in the league). No other point guard averages that many points and assists; only Holiday, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo have 10 or more double doubles and at least one triple double this season. Holiday's Efficiency Rating of 19.68 is seventh in the league among point guards, 34th-best overall. His emergence this season has helped Philly stay afloat while the 76ers continue to wait for Bynum (knee treatment) to finally get on the floor.

Me: What would you say you're better at now than you were last season?

Jrue Holiday: I think getting into the paint, kind of penetrating the defense and finding my teammates. I think last year Andre did that a lot. Andre is obviously a facilitator; he sees the floor with that 360 view. I would say that's something I really learned from him. He always got into the paint. We're always like, all right, you're at that 2.9 in the middle of the key. Why don't you shoot it? Everybody has their eyes on him once he got into the paint, and that left everybody else open. I feel like that's a big thing. That's a very good way to get your teammates involved, to get them open shots, and penetrating to the basket.

Me: How do you balance the need to get your teammates going with the need to get yourself going?

JH: I honestly just try to attack that guy, and read it from there. I think attacking him, Lou used to tell me all the time, once you attack, you're looking to score first. Whether it's off the screen, or one on one, if it's just swing-swing, dribble penetration, you're kind of looking for -- not selfishly, just helping out the team -- you're looking for your shot first. That's just what it is. And I think from there, that really sucks everybody in. Somebody's going to have to rotate because they have to pick up the ball, and that leaves your teammate wide open.

Me: You knew when they moved Andre to Denver that you would be on the ball more. How did you prepare for that?

JH: Really, just a lot of screen and roll. Obviously a lot of ballhandling drills, because you can always improve your ballhandling. I think screen and roll. In high school, everybody used to tell me I pass too much. So I really wasn't worried about passing the ball and getting my teammates open. I really think coming off the screen and roll, when you have guys there like Dwight Howard, obviously he can disrupt the ball. Somebody who's active like that, getting down, hedging, those guys, they have quick hands. So just working on your handles, reading the big, reading situations on the screen and roll.

Me: Was there a drill that really helped?

JH: It was really just things that I do. Honestly, studying tape of myself and watching the plays that I make or I've made. Trying to get out of my comfort zone, but not trying to overdo it, when you have all these different types of dribbles. I think my rookie year, or my second year, Lou would always tell me that I'm trying to do too much with the ball, dribbling. It's really just one move, it's the simple move that beats the guy. I think I've just tried to stick with that.

Me: How much confidence did you gain from the playoffs last year and holding your own against Rondo?

JH: A tremendous boost. I was in high school, I think I was a senior when they won, playing the Lakers [in 2008]. Seriously. I'm 17, 18 years old, watching Rondo play, just doing what he does. Knowing that going up against him in the playoffs, and playing well, I mean even against the Boston Celtics, since obviously I don't like the Boston Celtics, because I was a Lakers fan. It was just tremendous going against Rondo, because he's a really good defensive player and he's a really good offensive player. I don't think I outperformed him; I just think that I played well against him. It's like, from there, I think I can do anything. We made it to the second round, Coach is giving me confidence, Lou is giving me confidence. My teammates are giving me confidence. It was just kind of a good push.

Me: When you go to bed, and your head is hitting the pillow, and you hear Coach's voice in your head, what is he saying?

JH: What day? [Laughs]. It's usually something like ... what did I get last night? It was something like, 'Love you, Drew. You're my QB. I hope you're an All-Star. It's well deserved if you are. Love you, Doug.'

Me: Are you an All-Star?

JH: Know what, man? We're going to find out real soon. I mean, honestly, I just think I'm trying to go out there and play and win, and I'm trying to do everything to help my team win. If that's being an All-Star, or if that's recognized as being All-Star ability, so be it.

Me: Who still gives you trouble at your position?

JH: This year, I don't know. I think I've played pretty solid against everybody. I know Tony Parker, he's very crafty getting to the basket. Everything he does is at the paint. Obviously, Russ [Westbrook]. Russ, I feel he attacks everybody. Just knowing Russ, he's coming at you all the time. There are some point guards that try to get their teammates more involved, but Russ, he's coming straight at you every time. So you can't take a break. It used to be the older guys, like Chauncey Billups; he'd just kick my ass every time. Sorry, kick my butt every time. Not [with] athleticism. He obviously has it, but he'd use his strength and obviously, his IQ. Like, honestly, that's who I'd try to study, because he was one of the smartest players I ever played against. He didn't beat me trying to go by me or making a move or anything; it was just him outsmarting me, and that frustrated me so much.

Me: How did he use angles?

JH: It's crazy how angles are, cutting at somebody's knee or waist, instead of cutting to the sideline, cutting directly to the basket where he gets in your body. And then using your body, it's crazy. It's definitely something you learn. Once it was done to me, it was like, all right, I know I can use that now.

Me: Do you ever train with Lauren [Cheney, the midfielder on the 2011 U.S. women's World Cup and 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning teams, and Holiday's fiancée]?

JH: We work out, I guess, like physical stuff. Not so much sport-related. But agility, quickness, athleticism, during the summer.

Me: What does she kick your butt at?

JH: She's a lot quicker than me. Honestly. She's so much quicker than me. She's faster than I am, I think. She doesn't think so. We've never run a race, either, because I'm a sore loser. I think she's faster than I am. She's definitely a lot quicker than me. But I can jump higher.

Me: At what length is she faster than you? A 40-yard dash, or a mile?

JH: The mile, she'll kick my ass. I think like shorter distances, too, I think she'll beat me, too. I don't think I'm that fast, to be honest. I think I'm pretty deceptive; like I have spurts of quickness that might beat somebody at first. Like I might try to freeze somebody so I can go by them. But she's a lot quicker than me. She uses her feet very well, obviously.

Me: When she's playing in the World Cup or Olympics -- the highest level she can play at -- what is it as an athlete that you appreciate about her?

JH: What I say is that she throws dimes -- or she kicks dimes -- and she gets buckets. During the World Cup in 2011, she was getting buckets. I mean, pure, from like 20 yards out. Just had it, boot. And then you see in the Olympics, she was just throwing dimes. Obviously, as a point guard, you think you see the whole floor. I'm like, she's basically the point guard. She's playing midfield, so she's got to see everything. And she would just make the perfect pass, every time. I'm like, man. She played basketball, too, but she wasn't like the point guard, she was the shooting guard. I guess having that vision of being able to score when she wants to, and being able to pass. Honestly, with my feet, when I kick the ball, I feel like I'm going to overdo it or underdo it. But she has so much control.

Me: They say with (Lionel) Messi, it seems like he's out there by himself. Does it look like that with her?

JH: For sure. Obviously she does different things, where she can go, like head up, she can play with her back to the goal, which is crazy. To me, that's kind of like posting up. I've never seen that in soccer before, where somebody can go and play with their back, with their feet, to the goal. She looks to me like she's in her own zone, where she can do what she wants.

Me: You don't know when Drew will be back. How hard is that? Would it not be easier in some ways if you knew he was just out for the season?

JH: I think it's more so, I guess, media and outside influences making that a big thing. Obviously we love Andrew and want Andrew to come back. I guess from my standpoint -- and I would probably say from my other teammates, too -- we wouldn't want him to come back unless he was fully healthy. He comes in here and he works every day, and we appreciate him for that. But I guess it's just like when I got hurt, when I hurt my foot. I didn't know when I was coming back. Nobody knew. I guess it's kind of different, because in training camp, we did everything like Andrew wasn't going to be here. 'Cause we knew he wasn't going to be here for a while. Without Andrew, it's not an excuse for how our season went. We can't put that kind of pressure on him.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

SVG is out there...
-- Suns center Marcin Gortat (@MGortat), Friday, 3:52 p.m., making his preference clear for his former Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy to succeed Alvin Gentry, who Phoenix fired with a 13-28 record, last in the Western Conference. But the Suns hired assistant Lindsey Hunter as their interim coach.

THEY SAID IT

"We're letting everybody know that the Bank of Cuban is open."
-- Dallas owner Mark Cuban, last Monday, announcing the Mavericks are now ready to make trades to bolster their roster after a disappointing first two months of the season.

"We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that's a bad trait all over the league that's taken place. And the media has done it because it's easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. Just the analyzing, I see it every time listening to talk show radio. You've got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat. The bottom line is going out and contributing to your team for winning."
-- Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, defending forward Rudy Gay's contributions to the team in an interview with Memphis radio station WHBQ earlier this month. The Grizzlies have been taking offers for Gay in recent weeks but have not yet decided to trade him, which would be done to help keep the team from exceeding the luxury tax threshold in upcoming seasons.

"If anything, there are going to be more mikes around the game rather than fewer."
-- NBA Commissioner David Stern, expressing no displeasure with last week's report in the Newark Star Ledger that the Knicks had employees at courtside recording the on-court conversations of Carmelo Anthony. The team said it did so to give Anthony the ability to corroborate future incidents such as the verbal sparring he says took place with Kevin Garnett in a game earlier this month. Anthony says Garnett made disparaging comments about his wife, LaLa.

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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