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David Aldridge

Kobe Bryant's pass-first mentality has been key in the Lakers' recent turnaround.

Mini-surge renews hopes that Lakers can still find their rhythm


Posted Jan 28, 2013 12:47 PM

The Lakers re-invent themselves more than Madonna, and the NBA cognoscenti watch, transfixed. There is no better train wreck than an L.A. train wreck, with all the drama and palace intrigue one can get from Shakespeare, only without the 16th century slang. (Kobe doth protest too much, me thinks.)

In Lakerland, a week lasts a month:

Last Monday, there was another horrible loss, to the Bulls. The Lakers scored 83 points. It was their eighth loss in 10 games. This was the fifth game in the supposed "reset" of the season, by which the Lakers would start playing like the Lakers. After beating Cleveland and Milwaukee, they lost to the Heat, Raptors, Bulls and Grizzlies. Coach Mike D'Antoni was about to compare his team to an All-Star team, in which there is one-on-one play but no defense of any kind.

Wednesday, there was a team meeting in Memphis. D'Antoni plead for no details to come out. By Thursday, there were more details available than in a Beverly Hills salon. Kobe supposedly asked Dwight Howard if he likeed playing with him. Voices were raised. Three days later, Howard was on the record, saying he needs more touches. It was pointed out that Howard is in the top two in the league in post touches. He apologized for bringing it up.

Thursday, there were murmurs. Should the Lakers fire D'Antoni and just let Bernie (4-1!) Bickerstaff coach the team the rest of the season?

Friday, well-respected Lakers beat writer Kevin Ding, in the Orange County Register, wrote that the Lakers had no plans to fire D'Antoni. And I have no doubt that is what Ding was told, and thus what he reported. I would only point out that Jim Buss, on Nov. 7, said he had no intention of firing Mike Brown.

On Nov. 9, Brown was fired.

Sunday, Bryant made like Magic Johnson for the second game in a row, dishing out 14 assists. All of a sudden the pieces fit together. Instead of forcing six to eight contested shots, Bryant was finding a wide-open Steve Nash for a three, or dishing off to Dwight Howard for a dunk. The Lakers weren't playing at a frenzied pace, but at one that takes advantage of old guys that know how to play. Utah Jazz-style, circa 1998.

Who knows if it can keep going? How long before Bryant again feels compelled to unleash his inner Mamba and start jacking up shots from Orange County? But for two games, the Lakers have played like everyone anticipated they would. But it's Bryant doing Steve Nash instead of Nash.

Perhaps everyone looked in the mirror. They like to do that in L.A.

Maybe Bryant realized that while he still has unshakable faith in his greatness, the Lakers' record is a whole lot better when he doesn't score a lot than when he does. Maybe Nash sees that it's time to let a (slightly) younger, bigger man drive the car, while he does what he can still do as well as anyone -- shoot.

Maybe Gasol stopped feeling sorry for himself and realized he can still help out by accepting an unorthodox -- for him -- sixth man role. It gives Howard some piece of mind and space to operate inside, and allows Gasol to be the centerpiece of a second unit that desperately needed stability.

Or, maybe, they finally just played like a team with a $100 million payroll is supposed to play.

But Kobe has won one big battle, at least on the surface. The Lakers haven't played anything resembling D'Antoni's style the last two games. Bryant has been Gasol's biggest supporter, insisting that he has to be a big part of the solution. In the last two games, Gasol has shot 14-for-18, with almost all of those shots coming in the paint.

All of a sudden, D'Antoni is Riles, running Fist Up. Bet he loves that.

It's no secret that Bryant doesn't think much of Howard, at least not at the moment. He wondered if Howard was a pouter, uneasy about letting others have their moments in the sun, and if he'd ever really get serious about trying to win. But Kobe didn't have much in the way of compelling evidence that his way was better, as he shot and shot and shot and the Lakers lost and lost and lost.

There were rumors about the Lakers looking at potential deals for Gasol, which ignores one small fact: the Lakers can't trade Gasol until they know for certain that Howard is returning, and they won't know that until the summer. You can't have, in the space of 11 months, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on your roster, and then wind up with none of them.

Until Howard signs, Gasol is a $37 million insurance policy.

Concurrently, Howard wondered about whether D'Antoni would ever figure out the best way to use him, whether the coach was too stubborn to use a true post player. Amar'e Stoudemire's success with D'Antoni in Phoenix was borne from his incredible screen-roll chemistry with Nash, and the spacing that shooters like Shawn Marion, Raja Bell and Jason Richardson provided. Naturally, with Howard struggling, the rumors started the other way -- now it was the Lakers thinking of dealing Howard, not Gasol.

So, it was inevitable that the usual Dwight Circus countered. Those famous Sources Close to Howard indicated that Howard hadn't yet made up his mind to re-sign with the Lakers when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer -- no matter that he'd be giving up roughly $30 million if he didn't re-sign. Whether true or not, the Lakers can't afford to bluff. They have to take it seriously.

But this much should be clear: Howard is the future. Not Bryant. Not Gasol. Not D'Antoni. If the Lakers are going to be a serious challenger to the Thunder and the West's contenders this decade, they need a healthy and committed Howard. Whatever else you may think of him, you better get that straight and pay him his money, like Teddy KGB had to cough up to Mike McDermott at the end of Rounders.

It has conveniently been forgotten by some that a surgeon sliced open Howard's back a little more than nine months ago, and people with sliced-open backs usually don't come right back to what they were doing right away. No, Howard isn't in the form that won him three straight Defensive Player of the Year trophies, but he's limping and gimping enough to lead the league in rebounds and currently sits fifth in blocked shots. He's also shooting 58 percent.

A rehabbing, recovering, still-awful-free-throw-shooting Dwight Howard is still, far and away, the NBA's best center. Folks need to remember that. Folks need to remember, too, that for all their dysfunction in the season's first two months, do you really want to see these Lakers in the first round, when they have days off in between games? And Howard is presumably a little spryer? And Kobe may have warmed up even more to this passing thing?

It's been great sport to laugh at the Lakers and break down how hot L.A. has to be just to earn a playoff spot. And two wins in a row are just that, two wins, and nothing more.

But Sunday was a wrestling match, not a track meet. The Lakers conceded Kevin Durant his 30+ points, and still won going away. It wasn't a preview of how a playoff series between the two teams would go, but it was a primer for success for a team that has looked without a blueprint all year. The schedule now turns in their favor: New Orleans, Phoenix (Nash's homecoming on Friday), Minnesota, Detroit, a tough one at Brooklyn, then Boston and Charlotte. The Lakers may yet matter this season, and not just for yuks.

DRIBBLES

All-Stars Deng, Noah embody Bulls' season-long spirit

If you are part of the blue-collar operation that is the Chicago Bulls, how could you pick anyone other than Joakim Noah and Luol Deng to represent you in the All-Star Game?

Under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls do not yield. They do not look like they're having any fun playing, and Thibodeau makes Bill Belichick look like Carrot Top, but they grind and grind every night and still defend maniacally. Derrick Rose remains a few weeks away from his return, Rip Hamilton is still on a minutes limit and Deng is shelved with a hamstring injury. Yet Chicago is still leading the Central Division, still in possession of the East's third-best record and still confident a championship run is possible.

That it was the Eastern Conference's coaches that put Noah and Deng on the team brought special satisfaction.

"In a way, it's just allowed people to see, this guy just plays differently," Deng said Saturday. "You have the Carmelos, the Durants. Those guys are scorers. Yes, I can score, but that's not my main focus."

As Deng noted, he leads the Bulls in scoring this season at 17.4 per game. But Chicago, 26th in the league in scoring, obviously doesn't win games with scoring. The Bulls are third in the league in both points allowed and defensive efficiency, and sixth in the league in rebound rate. Those areas are prime cut Deng and Noah meat.

"I always want to be consistent," Deng said. "I think once you make the All-Star once, you want to come back and show everybody how consistent you are. For me, I think I became an All-Star because I've been put in a system where I'm not focused on one thing. And I keep telling people, I just don't feel any pressure when I lace up my shoes and just play. I don't feel like, I'm gonna score this [amount]. I don't know what I'm gonna do. And it makes it so much easier for me.

"The only way I play is hard, so if I just go out and play hard, I think people start to see it and appreciate it. But it all starts with the system. And also when you're winning, people see it more. I think our record has helped me a lot. When it comes to watching the game, a lot of times, flashiness stands out. But when you have coaches voting, coaches that you play against, I think coaches see the little things, whether it's hustling, playing defense, rebounding."

If Deng has been a metronomic jack of all trades for most of his career in Chicago, Noah has added a lot to his game since being taken ninth overall in 2007, behind his University of Florida teammates Al Horford and Corey Brewer. He's never going to be a great scorer, but he now does enough at that end to make defenses respect him, buttressing his always-stellar work on the boards (11.1 per game, tied for third-best in the league).

"I feel like, especially the way I play the game, I'm not really like a scorer," Noah said. "My game isn't really fancy. It's just like, a will to win. To be voted in by the coaches, it's a real humbling experience to know there's people out there who respect the way you play."

For Noah, who began his career in Chicago in a cold war with his own teammates -- who asked that he be benched for a game after he got in a shouting match with then-assistant coach Ron Adams during Noah's rookie season -- becoming a team leader has meant maturation on an accelerated scale.

There still have been bumps in the road (we now know why Thibs benched Noah in the fourth quarter of the Bulls' game with the Grizzlies earlier this month). But it is a measure of the respect that Thibodeau's players have for him, even as they occasionally grumble about his never-satisfied coaching style, and the maturity that Noah has displayed in recent years, that Noah quickly took responsibility.

Chicago's frontcourt of Noah, Deng and Carlos Boozer (15.9 points, 9.8 rebounds) has sustained the Bulls through most of the season. In January, Boozer -- the Eastern Conference's Player of the Week last week -- has averaged a double-double. Thibodeau has tried to make the case that he should join Deng and Noah in Houston as an All-Star.

The Bulls have overcome injuries not only to Rose, but to Hamilton (plantar fasciitis tear), Kirk Hinrich, Rose's replacement (left knee bruise, right elbow), Deng -- who is expecting to return this week -- and Taj Gibson (ankle).

"I think that coaches and people around the league, the reason we were able to have two people represent the Bulls organization, is that people know we've dealt with a lot of adversity," Noah said, not speaking of his own past issues. "And to come out, and the preparation we put in on a nightly basis to put ourselves in a situation to win games, I think it was recognized."

It can't be stated strongly enough that most around the league thought the Bulls were writing off the season without Rose. Chicago gave away almost all of a bench that had been one of the league's best, trading Kyle Korver to Atlanta and not even trying to re-sign Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik and C.J. Watson. The Bulls' desperation to stay under the luxury-tax threshold made it easy not to match the Rockets' $25 million offer sheet for Asik, who had been a key part of the team's rotation.

Most around the league believed, and believe, that Chicago was just biding its time until Rose's return. There's belief that the Bulls, who have yet to use their amnesty provision, will use it next summer to nuke Boozer's remaining $31 million from their books. The Bulls can, and almost certainly will, chop another $5 million for their 2013-14 payroll by declining their option on Hamilton.

But the Bulls rebuilt a bench on the fly.

In came Marco Belinelli, Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed and Vlad Radmonovic. All but Hinrich make minimum money, and there are holdovers like second-year swingman Jimmy Butler also getting more burn. With his injuries, Gibson started slow, but has come on of late, shooting 52 percent in January after starting the season shooting 42 percent in November.

Belinelli has been terrific, starting on occasion for Hamilton at shooting guard until recently, hitting big shots like his game-winner in Boston and another clutch hoop against Detroit last week. Yet Chicago doesn't have one player among the top 50 in player efficiency. The Bulls join Atlanta and Boston, among the current 16 playoffs teams, as the only teams without anyone in that category.

"The first week, the first couple of weeks, it was a little bit difficult," Belinelli said. "Like, I try to understand the system, try to understand that was the thing is the top level. So they want to win immediately. So I have to be ready immediately, not tomorrow, next year. It was little difficult for me to understand the defense, offense too. But end of the day, after these couple of weeks, I feel like I play really good here."

Belinelli had played for a defense-first coach in New Orleans in Monty Williams. But there are few coaches as demanding as Thibodeau.

"Especially with this coach, with Thibs, if you play defense, you have a chance to play," Belinelli said. "That's what I want to do, just play defense. I try to be aggressive every time. I think it's normal sometimes to make a mistake, but the important thing is to know where you got your mistake, and just play hard."

Deng acknowledges he was concerned when the Bulls let so many of the guys who'd battled Miami and Boston in the past few postseasons go. Playing for Thibodeau isn't for everyone.

"I think everyone was [concerned]," he said. "You get used to [teammates]. I mean, I've been here the whole time, and I've seen a lot of different teams, and I've seen what it can be like when you lose a lot of guys at the same time. And we had that problem at the start of the year. And I think now guys are kind of, they know what we do. It's like our first year together with those guys, kind of very similar. It took a little while, and then we got going."

Noah was more pragmatic about how the new guys would deal with Thibodeau.

"I wasn't worried, because you don't really have a choice," Noah said. "You don't have a choice. At the end of the day, he's so stubborn. I mean, as a player, I'm probably as ... I can't think of the word. But, like, I fight authority all the time. But I don't know what the word is."

Stubborn?

"Stubborn," Noah says. "I'm stubborn. Just as stubborn as he is. But he usually wins that battle."

It has been that way for the two-plus seasons Thibodeau has been in Chicago. Again and again, the results justify the demands. And the players have taken to their coach's approach more than they probably would be willing to admit.

"I'm pleased with the attitude and approach of the team," Thibodeau said Saturday. "There's certainly a lot of things we can do better, and I want us to continue to improve and stay focused on what's ahead. Our road is gonna get tougher. The challenge becomes greater. We've got to keep grinding. That's our way. That's how we can have success."

But they can't win a title without Rose. Yes, they've been very good in the regular season, and they've played a lot of games the last couple of seasons without him. But they -- and, no one else outside of Oklahoma City -- has a point guard as dynamic, capable of so much, able to put so much fear into defenses. The Bulls are a good team without Rose; they can be a great one, one that people want to see, with their 2011 league MVP.

But the Bulls have beaten the Knicks three times this season, twice in New York, and they've beaten the Heat in Miami. They believe in themselves.

"We hear, 'Oh, you're not good, you're this, you're that,' " Deng said. "That's just the way it is. But we just work so hard in practice, and we build that confidence. Since the start of the year, we've tried to figure out what kind of team we were. And I think now, we've shown everyone that we can beat anyone in this league."

But after tonight's home game at United Center against Charlotte, the Bulls play 10 of their next 12 -- virtually all of February -- on the road, with their only home games in that stretch against the Spurs and Heat. (They also have to avoid sketchy losses like they've had to the likes of New Orleans, Phoenix, Charlotte and Washington.) And then, finally, near the end of February or beginning of March, Rose should return.

"What I really like about this team is, all right, right now, we're playing without Luol Deng," Noah said. "We're playing without Derrick Rose. And we're a team of fighters ... we're gonna keep improving. And if we have that mentality in the locker room, and we have that mentality on a nightly basis, the guys that are hurt see that. That makes them want to come back and give everything they've got. Well, Derrick's like that, anyway."

Rose has been kept under wraps from the media throughout his rehab, giving out dribs and drabs of info through his shoe company. Like Lamar Mundane, his exploits these days are the stuff of rumor and legend.

"Derrick, he's a freak of nature," Hamilton said. "I'm serious, man. I seen him dunk one ball the other day, and I said, 'Man, you've got to be kidding.' He just went up, went up off the vertical, threw it in. And he's all humble, like, 'Ah, ha, ha.' But he's getting better every day."

But will there be enough time before the playoffs to integrate all the parts that have been missing? How to work Rose back in, while getting Hamilton back up to speed? Belinelli has already started struggling a little of late without the regular minutes he'd been logging.

"That's the challenge for everyone," Thibodeau said. "How you pace your team, what you do in practice. Obviously you're not going an extended amount of time, but you have to maximize the time that you do have, whether it be shootaround, your meetings, your practices. The focus has to be on our improvement and getting ready for the next game. And you've got to go step by step. I think you have to be careful not to skip any steps. Once you do that, that's usually when there's gonna be a fall."

Hamilton is being limited to 20 minutes or so during the regular season, not wanting to ramp it up too quickly before the playoffs.

"Especially when Derrick comes back, it's going to be a situation where we have to get everybody on the same page as quick as possible going into the playoffs," Hamilton said. "We're not gonna have time. It's going to be one of those things where it's gonna be a hit and miss."

They'll be happy to be discombobulated if it means Rose is back.

"If you look at our team, that's a good problem to have -- that's if you call it a problem," Deng said. "... If you look at it, if you tell any coach as you go on, and those guys being healthy and the team is coming together, do you want to have that or do you want to keep having the team that's surprising everyone, of course you would say you want the team back. So we look at it as a positive thing. Derrick is working hard, he's getting back to it. Rip is gonna get his rhythm; he was out for a while, and he's getting it back. But I think it takes some time, as a young team, to understand what we're playing for. And I think all of us in here think we're good enough to win this thing."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) San Antonio (4-0) [2]: I knew Pop was sick when he answered my in-game questions Monday in Philly.

2) Miami (2-1) [4]: Dwyane Wade didn't look so hot against Avery Bradley Sunday, just as he hasn't looked so hot against Avery Bradley many times when the two have hooked up over the last year.

3) Oklahoma City (2-2) [3]: Life with Russell: Westbrook's last seven games: 47 of 127 (37 percent) from the floor, 25 of 75 the last four. And yet, he's been great controlling the game.

4) L.A. Clippers (1-4) [1]: The Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus points out that by being voted in as an All-Star starter for a second straight season by fans, Blake Griffin will earn an additional $15.7 million under the new provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. As the Clippers' "designated player," Griffin got a max extension off of his rookie deal for five years. Under the new rules, such players can earn up to 30 percent of their team's cap instead of the normal 25 that players with that much experience are normally eligible to receive, if they reach certain criteria -- either being voted in twice to start All-Star games (as Griffin now has), being named to two All-NBA teams or being named league MVP (which is why the provision is known as the "Derrick Rose Rule").

5) Chicago (3-1) [6]: Just as it gradually dawned on Marthe Keller that she really needed Crazy Bruce Dern in Black Sunday, the Bulls are discovering that they really need Nate Robinson's scoring during this injury-riddled patch of the season.

6) New York (2-2) [7]: Get Ray Felton back after the starting point guard had missed 12 games with a broken right finger.

7) Indiana (1-2) [5]: Pacers are good, but they're not so good away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with one of the worst road records (10-15 after Saturday's OT loss in Salt Lake City) among contending teams.

8) Denver (2-0) [10]: Congrats to George Karl on his 1,100th regular season victory, achieved Wednesday in a 105-95 win over the Rockets. Only five coaches -- Don Nelson (1,335 wins), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Pat Riley (1,210) and Phil Jackson (1,155) -- have won more regular season games.

9) Memphis (2-2) [8]: Got under the tax threshold by giving away Marreese Speights, Josh Selby, Wayne Ellington and a 2015 first-rounder to Cleveland for Jon Leuer. They still haven't abandoned Rudy Gay trade talks.

10) Brooklyn (2-2) [9]: No, they're not going to make another run at Dwight Howard, no matter what you hear out there.

11) Atlanta (3-1) [13]: Josh Smith tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he thinks he's a max player. And so it begins.

12) Utah (2-1) [11]: Jazz need to make hay when the sun shines (at least some of the time): Salt Lake City. Utah isn't east of Minnesota for the next five weeks, with 11 of its next 15 at Energy Solutions Arena.

13) Golden State (2-2) [12]: David Lee is the Warriors' first selected All-Star player since Latrell Sprewell made it in 1997. Yes, his coach at the time was P.J. Carlesimo.

14) Houston (3-1) [NR]: Rockets reinstate Royce White Saturday night after reaching agreement with the rookie on working conditions. He will report to the team's D-League affiliate in Rio Grande Feb. 11.

15) Milwaukee (2-1) [14]: Choice made: Three weeks after parting ways with former coach Scott Skiles, Bucks extend the contract of GM John Hammond.

Dropped out: Boston (15)

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Washington (3-1): Come on, how many times are we going to have a chance to give the Wiz some love? Washington has won seven of its last 10 and allowed just 93.1 points per game during that streak, including a grind-it-out defensive win over Chicago Saturday. All but one of those games coincides with John Wall's return to the lineup.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Orlando (0-3): A week before Christmas, the Magic were a game below .500. But Glen Davis hurt his shoulder on Dec. 19, and since then, the Magic's record is 2-16, including Sunday's loss to Detroit.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

What do the 76ers do about Andrew Bynum?

It will only shape the course of the franchise for the next decade.

Sunday, Bynum reportedly did as much running on the treadmill at the 76ers' practice facility as he's been able to do since joining the team in that four-team trade last August that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets. And the 76ers were hopeful that the 25-year-old center could finally make his 2012-13 debut in a couple of weeks, perhaps before the All-Star break.

Bynum, no doubt, will be seeking a max contract when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. But how do the Sixers give him one? Two months of what could be playoff-free basketball, with Bynum needing extensive time just to get back in playing shape, isn't going to be a very representative sample size on which to make such a momentous decision.

But that's the gamble Philadelphia took when it acquired Bynum from the Lakers. The Sixers, who've been looking for a dominant big man for most of the last three decades (here's a brief synopsis of their futility in that endeavor) hoped that Bynum would be comfortable being closer to his New Jersey home than he'd been in L.A., and that he'd matured some after earning a reputation as an extremely talented but flinty player with the Lakers.

But Bynum injured his right knee working out before the start of training camp. Then he injured his left knee in that infamous, unspecified "bowling incident" in November. (Put me down as skeptical on that one. In this everybody-on-earth-has-a-cell-phone culture, where everything winds up on TMZ seconds after it happens, a 7-foot man injures himself bowling, and no one has a screen capture? I'm not saying Bynum didn't hurt his knee; I'm just questioning that it happened there.)

Bynum began running only last week, though he said last Monday that he could go only forward and backward without pain, and still has trouble with lateral movements, explosiveness and jumping. But at least the pain has begun to subside.

"It's a three (on a scale of 1 to 10) when I'm in a sprint, and a zero when I'm walking and shooting," Bynum said last week. "When I first came back, it was unbearable."

The condition of Bynum's knees has baffled the doctors that have worked with him. His cartilage, until recently, has been detaching from his knee -- it "flakes," according to a source -- and that made it impossible for him to do much of anything needed to play basketball.

"It's a situation where his cartilage, for whatever reason, is in a weakened state," general manager Tony DiLeo said Friday afternoon. "He's susceptible to injuries. He made an up-and-under move and he felt something. That was the first bone bruise. And then he hurt the other knee with the bowling incident. The doctors don't really understand what caused it, but the cartilage is in a weakened state."

The Sixers had hoped that Bynum would finally be able to get through a season relatively healthy, as he had last season. He started 60 of 66 games in the lockout-shortened season and was a starter for the West All-Star team. It was the first time in five years that Bynum had come anywhere close to playing a full slate of games; he had missed 92 regular-season games from 2007 through 2011.

And Bynum continued that pattern this fall, with his expected date of return pushed back, month after month, even after going to Germany for platelet treatment to deal with the arthritis he has in both his knees in September.

With no idea if Bynum will ever be healthy again, the 76ers have to decide whether or not to give him $87 million, the max based on this season's cap of just more than $58 million. Bynum can receive up to 30 percent of the cap in the first year of a five-year contract from the 76ers, who could give Bynum annual raises of 7.5 percent. If Bynum were to sign with another team, that team would be limited to giving him a four-year deal, with annual raises of 4.5 percent.

If the 76ers take the leap, and Bynum has the same injury-checkered career he's had so far, the Sixers will be paralyzed, unable to make any significant personnel moves in the new era of increased luxury tax payments. If they don't, and Bynum leaves and can stay healthy the rest of his career -- think Robert Parish, who became a Hall of Famer after going from the Warriors to the Celtics in the early '80s and playing alongside Larry Bird and Kevin McHale -- the 76ers will be excoriated for letting a franchise-level big man get away for nothing. Thus is the dilemma for DiLeo, coach Doug Collins and the Sixers' braintrust.

The Sixers could try to sign Bynum to a shorter deal. But that takes two willing parties. (Not known, either, is whether any team that signs Bynum will be able to get insurance on his balky knees, the problem the Knicks had while signing Amar'e Stoudemire. However, Stoudemire has had two microfracture surgeries; Bynum hasn't had to have that procedure.)

"We don't have enough information," DiLeo said. "We want to re-sign him. We plan on re-signing him. We made the trade having him as part of our future. That's the direction we're going in right now and we don't have enough information to make a decision."

Of course, the decision isn't the Sixers' alone to make. Bynum is the free agent, after all, and with Philly 18-25 after beating the Knicks Saturday, he has to take a long, hard look at them, too. Are they good enough? Or are there other places with better surrounding talent and cap space? (If you were Bynum, wouldn't you at least want to have lunch with, say, Hawks GM Danny Ferry to see what his plans are for Atlanta, for example?)

Collins had anticipated having the league's sixth-best shot blocker (1.93 per game) from last season to provide rim protection for his defense, which is why the Sixers were comfortable putting Iguodala and his outstanding on-ball skills in the deal. So the 76ers sent Iguodala to the Nuggets, and also dealt second-year center Nikola Vucevic and rookie forward Maurice Harkless to the Magic, in exchange for Bynum and Jason Richardson, who came from Orlando.

Instead, the 76ers have lost the one indispensable player on their roster.

"You see, probably, if he had played this year, I think he would have been the best big man in the league," the Sixers' All-Star guard Jrue Holiday said. "You see him trying to prepare and get back, and it just makes you excited."

Everything was built around having Bynum in the middle to be a force at both ends. Instead, the Sixers have had to try and make do with Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen, and have been at a scoring deficit (28th in the league) all season.

That deficit was made worse by losing free-agent guard Lou Williams to the Hawks and with Richardson being sidelined much of the season with injuries. And Dorell Wright, the forward Philly got from the Warriors in a trade, hasn't yet panned out, shooting just 37 percent.

Holiday is looking forward to establishing a connection with Bynum.

"Andrew's really easy to talk to," Holiday said. "Even on screen and rolls, what he does on the screen and roll helps me defensively and offensively. It helps me know what to do, if I'm going to get under or go over the screen. Offensively, if he rolls a certain way, or if he pops back, it helps me with my decision making. He obviously makes me a better player."

That doesn't make the choice any easier. And what if Bynum can't play at all this season?

"That's impossible to answer right now," DiLeo said. "That's a medical question; that's a doctor question: will he be able to play [next season]? How many years will he be able to play? What level will he be able to play? How many games would he miss? That's a question that, right now, is impossible to answer."

But the 76ers insist Bynum wasn't damaged goods -- or, at least, not damaged enough to not take the plunge.

"We had four doctors examine him and look at his MRIs," DiLeo said. "We knew there were risks. But he played, basically, every game for the Lakers the year before, plus the playoffs. It was a shortened season, but it was a short season with back-to-back-to-back games. Very stressful. If his condition had been the same as it was when we traded for him, no problem. But he hurt his knee after, and then he hurt the other knee."

The Sixers can comfort themselves with the notion that if Bynum were to walk or they decided not to re-sign him, they could open up significant salary cap room next summer (though less than it could be with Richardson's $6.2 million on the books for 2013-14). Of course, cap room doesn't sell tickets or get rebounds, and without Bynum, the team that would remain in Philly wouldn't make as much sense.

"We have a good young nucleus," DiLeo acknowledged, "but yeah, we'd probably have to go in a different direction and use our cap room and the Draft and trades."

That will not go over well with the always-patient (not) Philly fan base, which has been waiting since 2001 for a team to again make the conference finals or The Finals. It's been a while since Allen Iverson was an MVP-level player, or since the Sixers were a real contender. So they do not regret taking the chance on Bynum, no matter how it turns out.

"The new ownership wants to contend," DiLeo said. "They're willing to take risks, if it gives us a chance at a championship. But we didn't want to stay status quo—have a nice team. We thought last year's team really overachieved and got to the limit where it was going to get to. We decided to go out and get one of the best players in the league. So far it hasn't worked out. He hasn't been on the court. But there's still time."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Records are made to be broken. And, sometimes, transferred. From Daniel Abania:

I just have an inquiry about a minor detail on the impending transfer of the Kings to Seattle and the resurrection of the Sonics...

As far as I know, the Oklahoma City Thunder is the "Seattle Supersonics", with Mr. Clay Bennett owning the Sonics' 1979 championship trophy, other banners and retired player jerseys that used to hang from the rafters in Key Arena.

So, if the current Kings become the Seattle Supersonics next season, does that mean Mr. Bennett is "obliged" to give those treasured memorabilia of the Sonics to the Chris Hansen-led group?

I checked with the Thunder over the weekend, Daniel, and was told by a team spokesman Sunday night that the matter of the Sonics' paraphernalia currently in possession by Oklahoma City was "not anything we can discuss at this time." FWIW, my guess is that the Thunder will be happy to send all that stuff back to Seattle when and if the Kings move there and are re-christened the Sonics. For a price. The right thing to do, of course, would be to just send it all back, gratis, and announce that forthwith, all Thunder records originate with the team's arrival in Oklahoma City. I doubt there are more than a dozen people who would care, one way or the other.

Currying Favorites for Houston. From Johnathan Bauer:

I always enjoy the hearty debate this time of year regarding the reserves for the All-Star team. There are generally 10-12 great players to consider for seven spots and someone incredibly deserving inevitably gets left out every year. However, this year, I was surprised to see that in the West the choices seem much more clear cut. For several obvious reasons (injuries to Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Pau) it seems like one of the easiest years to pick the All-Star reserves in the West.

So my question is: why is there any debate about Steph Curry making the All-Star team? How could YOU leave him off? Compare him to Jamal Crawford for a moment. His numbers are considerably better in every category (points, assists, steals, 3-point percentage). Curry has better FG percentage and FT percentage (although they are very close). You can't penalize Curry for the fact that David Lee is playing well and should also be an All-Star, because Crawford already has two teammates that will be starting in the All-Star game.

Yes, Crawford is having a fantastic season and helping his team to one of the best records in the league. But there's no comparison with Curry. Crawford should one of the most deserving players that doesn't make the All-Star team.

I would not expect those who think Steph should be in the All-Star Game to agree with my thinking, Johnathan. Of course he deserves to be in the game. But, in my view, so does Crawford. With Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and James Harden, in my view, locks, that left room for one more guard. If I had a vote, and of course, I don't, I would have chosen Crawford. No, his numbers aren't as good as Curry's. But it's not just about the numbers; it's about winning and losing as well, and at the time the choices had to be in, the Clippers' record was superior to Golden State's, and Crawford was a big reason why. Doesn't mean I'd be right. It's a choice.

We are the World. We are the Ballers. From Stephane Paret:

I would like to know if you think there would be any chance that the All-Star Game formula would ever be changed, as for the third time in a row I'm not going to watch it. My point is that those All Star games just became a giant nonsense show.

I think changing the game could help boosting the interest of the public. I don't think allowing fans only to vote for the starting five means they will watch the game too. Even Mark Cuban, with all its business abilities, didn't manage to make it a game to watch when Dallas hosted it.

A good solution for me could be changing the All-Star Game to a USA vs. Rest of The World game, just as it is in France, with French vs Foreigner game. That would possibly mean the best basketball game to watch with a lot of envy from both sides to win (as long as you pick Pop or Thibs to coach the foreigner team). Imagine a game with Chris Paul, Durant, Bryant, James and Howard against Parker, Deng, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Noah (or Marc Gasol). Still think the USA team would win, but I think that would be a fun game to watch, and would boost the ratings a lot.

It's an idea that has been kicked around by people who, like you, think the All-Star Game has gotten a little dull, Stephane. But I have yet to hear that it is being seriously discussed at Olympic Tower. I think -- I don't know, just think -- that such an idea would be a non-starter for the league, since such a game would mean just 12 spots for U.S. players. The game has certainly benefitted from having international players, but the U.S. stars, generally, are the people who draw ratings in the States, and that's what is most important to the Commish and advertisers.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and a tape of you singing the anthem live in the cold and in front of 800,000 people, Mr./Ms. Big Shot, since you think it should have been so easy for Beyonce, and leave her alone! You're lucky she even performs for you! (h/t crazy Britney Spears fan) 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 (29.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 8.3 apg, .515 FG, .778 FT): How could you not love this? Quite a night for you, Michael!

2) Kevin Durant (31 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.5 apg, .527 FG, .947 FT): Do you think KD ever looks at what Russell Westbrook is wearing as he walks into an arena and says, "C'mon, son"?

3) Chris Paul (DNP-bruised kneecap): He's missed four straight games and seven of his last nine after sitting out Sunday's game with the Trail Blazers. Should we start getting worried about this?

4) Carmelo Anthony (31 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, .407 FG, .913 FT): Career-high nine 3-pointers, some of which were shot from New Jersey, in the Knicks' win over the Hawks Sunday night.

5) Tim Duncan (24 ppg, 17 rpg, 1 bpg, .588 FG, 1,000 FT): Missed all but one game last week with a sore left knee.

BY THE NUMBERS

11 -- Consecutive All-Star appearances for Dirk Nowitzki, whose streak ended last week when he was not selected as a Western Conference reserve by West coaches.

16 -- Consecutive games the Bobcats had lost at home, a streak dating to Nov. 21, before breaking the dubious mark with a come-from-behind victory over the Timberwolves Saturday night.

$1,100,000,000 -- Estimated value of the Knicks, who replaced the Lakers as the NBA's most valuable team according to the annual rankings in Forbes Magazine. The Lakers ($1 billion), Bulls ($800 million), Celtics ($730 million) and Mavericks ($685 million) rounded out Forbes' top five, with the Bucks ($312 million) ranked last.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) I didn't think I would at first, but I kind of like the Pelican thing in New Orleans. It was smart of the Hornets/'Cans to tie the renaming of the franchise to the rebirth of the city after Hurricane Katrina and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Manipulative, but smart.

2) Don't think the Celtics can survive without Rajon Rondo -- if Andrew Bynum's return is, indeed, close, the 76ers could be poised to pass Boston in the stretch drive -- but the Celts showed a lot of heart in a double-OT win Sunday against Miami, especially after blowing a 27-point lead Friday night in Atlanta and losing to the Hawks.

3) An honor well deserved for one of the true giants in our business. We miss you, Phil.

4) Cold, but funny from the Cavs.

5) Could be great theatre at the Academy Awards. But there's only one 007 in this column, and his name is Connery. Sean Connery.

6) Let's take the Ravens, 30-27, over the 49ers next Sunday in the Super Bowl, with no particular conviction.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) Suddenly, Ray Allen's return to Boston on Sunday doesn't matter very much to Celtics fans.

1A) Which brings up what GM Danny Ainge had said last year: he'd rather blow up the Celtics a year too early than a year too late. But even if you want to back up the Brinks truck and start over now, what does Boston have to trade that would bring anything back that's better than what it has now? I mean, what will you get for a Brandon Bass that's better than Bass? But I will be shocked if Ainge doesn't make at least one major deal by the trade deadline.

1B) And this will be anathema for the Celtics' faithful, but if you had a chance to get, say, Pau Gasol for KG or Paul Pierce, wouldn't Ainge have to think about that, seriously? (One other thing: while Pierce is guaranteed only $4 million next season, that number comes into play only if you don't play on keeping him next season and waive him. Otherwise, you'll pay Pierce $15 million next year. Would the Grizz or Clippers give up a key piece for someone they'd just rent a few months?)

2) I know people get really worked up about All-Star selections, and snubs. I just can't. The truth is that for all the parties and events of the weekend, most guys would rather be off and go to an island somewhere for four or five days. They're tired. Hate to bust everyone's balloon, but it's the truth.

3) Sorry. I still do not think it is okay for the brother of the coach that got fired by Orlando because of Dwight Howard's machinations to be able to speak critically about Howard on national television without that relationship with his brother being pointed out, or without him being challenged on whether he can possibly be objective about Howard. (And, let me state this again, for the record: I think both Brothers Van Gundy are certainly allowed to feel any way they wish about Dwight Howard. I have said, and continue to say, that I think Stan and Jeff together in a broadcast booth would be sensational. But the relationship should be made clear to viewers every time Jeff is on the air, and then the viewers could make up their own minds.)

4) "I have a great idea. Let's get "Kazaam" tonight and "Steel" on Redbox for a double-feature tonight,!" said no one, ever.

Q AND A: TIM DUNCAN

The Spurs' future Hall of Famer was named to his 14th All-Star Game last week by the Western Conference's coaches. At 36, Duncan is playing better than ever for San Antonio, which has a comfortable lead in the Southwest Division and currently has the NBA's best record.

But Duncan still has found time to start a new business that reflects his passion for cars -- an auto restoration shop in San Antonio that opened late last year, Black Jack Speed Shop. Many current and former NBA players invest in car businesses, from dealerships to detailing shops; Charles Oakley, famously, has several car washes in his native Cleveland. But until he disclosed his intentions in Rides Magazine last month, almost no one knew about Duncan's love for cars and his plan to turn his hobby into a business. Black Jack has 10 working bays and is designed, Duncan says, to be a place where people can hang out while their cars are being serviced.

Me: You gonna be pulling spark plugs in this new gig?

Tim Duncan: (Laughs) Well, at some point, hopefully. That is my dream, to be able to do that, to be able to learn how to do that. I'm definitely not there yet.

Me: How did you develop this as an interest?

TD: I've always been kind of a horsepower, car, whatever kind of guy. I've always had that as an interest, and it's kind of grown over the years. As I've said, I kind of got the old school car itch, and it kind of grew from modern stuff to the older stuff, back to the modern. So it kind of encompasses every genre. I just have fun doing it. I just want to learn as much as I can and hopefully, one day, be able to build something of my own, by myself.

Me: When did you decide to make this a business?

TD: During the lockout. I've been talking about it for a couple of years with a buddy of mine that I want to open up a shop at some point, and it was somewhere I liked to go all the time. I used to hang out there, had a bunch of friends there. Whether I was having a car worked on, or something changed on my car or not, I would go over there and hang out with these guys. I always said one day, I'm going to open up a shop of my own, so I'm not sitting in somebody else's shop hanging out with guys. During the lockout, it was like, I've got the time to do it now, so I started the process.

Me: It's right by the Spurs' practice facility?

TD: Yeah. It's like a mile from there.

Me: So your place can do what, if I bring my car in?

TD: Whatever you want. Whatever you want.

Me: I could get a new engine?

TD: We could probably do that stuff. We're trying to start a lot more simple and just do more aesthetics and performance upgrades on the more modern cars. Our goal is to, at some point, do full builds. We're doing some engine mods on some older cars as of now. So we're kind of all across the board. But we're trying to keep it simple at the start and get ourselves established, and don't get ourselves buried in doing, like, one-off jobs or we're building entire cars. We do stuff that can move in and out and try to get our name out there.

Me: So what is your dream car?

TD: My dream car is a 1949 Mercury Lead Sled.

Me: Why?

TD: Again, just, I don't know. It's a car I've seen that I've admired for a long time. You ever see the movie "Cobra?"

That's a '49 Mercury. (Stallone's car in the movie is, according to press accounts, a 1950 Mercury. Anyway, here it is.)

Me: How many of those are still available -- like, three?

TD: I have no idea. You know, in this day and age, with everybody bringing cars back and restoring the cars, they're all over the place. You've just got to find one and find the right body, and make sure it's not all rusted out and not all bonded out and all that stuff. That would be the car that I would want to help build, or build myself. So I haven't even looked to go find it yet. I'm waiting until I'm adept enough to do it myself, and have enough time to put my own efforts into it.

Me: Of the cars you have, which one is your baby?

TD: I'm all across the board. I have a '68 Camaro that I love, that's been a project for a long, long, long, long time. I have a '55 Bel Air convertible that's really pretty and fun to drive. And my favorite modern is a GTR, a Nissan GTR that's pretty souped up and fun to drive.

Me: So, what you're saying is, when you're done playing, you'll be hot rodding throughout the Southwest, in some quasi-illegal car.

TD: Yeah. Stick with quasi.

Me: Ever thought about racing?

TD: I'm gonna stick with no. I'm not allowed to race.

Me: What about when you're done?

TD: I have an itch ... when I'm done, yeah.

TWEET(S) OF THE WEEK

So the Kings getting sold for 525M!! And the owners ain't making no money huh? What the hell we have a lookout for. Get the hell out of here

#lockout‬‬! My bad. U know what I meant

And from what I hear the 525M isn't even the whole % of the team! Smh. One thing is I can't hate on their hustle though. Crazy

I do know Mayor Johnson and the city/fans of Sacramento will do whatever it takes to keep the team put. We'll see what happens #NBAFiles

-- LeBron James (@KingJames), Sunday, Jan. 20, 11:53, 11:55, 11:58 p.m., after reports broke that the Maloof Family had completed a proposed sale of controlling interest in the Sacramento Kings to hedge fund manager Chris Hansen's group. Hansen's group tentatively purchased 65 percent of the team from the Maloofs for approximately $340 million, with a total franchise valuation of $525 million.

THEY SAID IT

"You can write the obituary; I'm not."
-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers, after the team found out Sunday that guard Rajon Rondo had torn his ACL Friday night in Atlanta and would be lost for the rest of the season.

"We've been here before. Our backs have been against the wall. They told us it wasn't going to happen. But each and every step along the way, as long as there is time on the clock, our community always finds a way to stand up for itself."
-- Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, at a rally last week where he introduced 19 local citizens (a 20th was added later in the week) who have each pledged at least $1 million toward keeping the Kings in the city. Johnson said he is also well on the way toward recruiting two or three individuals who would provide the major financing for the group, which will attempt to convince the NBA not to approve the proposed sale of the Kings to a Seattle-based group that is planning to move the Kings to Seattle next season. Numerous reports late last week indicated that billionaire Ron Burkle and 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov would team up to try and keep the Kings in Sacramento.

"He's got to understand that lazy and crazy isn't going to make it work."
-- George Karl, to the Denver Post, on the, um, inconsistent game of his center, JaVale McGee, who still comes off the bench for the Nuggets despite signing a big-money extension last year.

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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