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David Aldridge

An afterthought in the Dwight Howard deal, Earl Clark has become a gem for L.A.

Clark bides his time, finds his place in NBA with Lakers


Posted Feb 11, 2013 10:19 AM

Earl Clark is sitting next to the man who can make him happy.

Clark was known through college as "E5," because he wore No. 5 at Louisville. But he couldn't wear the number in Phoenix, which drafted him in 2009; it was retired in honor of Suns great Dick Van Arsdale. In Orlando, where Clark was traded in 2010, that number was worn by veteran guard Quentin Richardson.

Now, famously, Clark is with the Lakers, wearing No. 6. The man who currently wears No. 5, Steve Blake, changes clothes next to him in the locker room.

"I've been trying to get that number for a while," Clark said last week. "It's funny you should mention that."

The way this normally works? A player has to apply to the NBA six months in advance to change jerseys -- unless he's on a new team, in which case he can take a new number right away. In other sports, a small contribution is made to the bank account of the person who wears the number you want, in exchange for the jersey number. Sometimes, jewelry is exchanged. A meal can be bought.

Those things can be expensive. This is where Clark is fortunate, as he is probably going to have a pretty nice payday this summer.

Who had Andre Iguodala, Clark and Nic Vucevic as the best players coming out of the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum deal?

At least Iguodala was an All-Star last season, now playing on a team in Denver that suits his skills perfectly. Vucevic is third in the league in total rebounds while playing for a rebuilding Magic team. But Clark's ascendancy in Los Angeles is the unlikeliest development one could imagine.

He was a throw-in in the four-team deal that sent Howard to the Laker and Bynum to the 76ers. But Clark has suddenly become an important piece in the Lakers' increasingly desperate season. Now that Pau Gasol is out at least six weeks after partially tearing his plantar fascia, and that Howard continues to gimp along with a bad shoulder and still-recovering back, the Lakers need Clark. So far, he has delivered.

"He keeps it real simple," Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He's got a simple game."

Simple is good for the Lakers these days, what with Kobe Bryant and Howard continuing their staredown, and Howard's father jumping in the mix, and Gasol grousing before his injury about being benched, and D'Antoni being roasted locally and nationally, and the losses piling up like kindling in a Vermont fireplace. The Lakers need simple.

An afterthought the first two months of the season, Clark started getting regular minutes in January, with D'Antoni desperate to find someone who could defend. Even though Gasol is a four-time All-Star who helped the Lakers win two championships, D'Antoni was convinced he and Howard didn't work together on the floor, and sent Gasol to the bench for Clark.

Clark has eight double-doubles since his minutes have increased, including a 22-point, 13-rebound performance in a Jan. 9 loss to the Spurs. Two days later, he had 10 and 10 against the Thunder, and he just missed two more (12 and 8; 11 and 9) against Chicago and Memphis, respectively. On Feb. 5, Clark was sensational in the fourth quarter, en route to a 14-point, 12-board showing -- all while doing nothing fancy.

When the Lakers finished their road trip Sunday in Miami, that was Clark guarding LeBron James in the fourth quarter, in a game where Clark finished with 18 points and nine boards. It wasn't for nothing that Bryant said the Lakers would be "in deep crap" without Clark.

"He's been consistent since we put him in the lineup against San Antonio," Bryant said. "He's just been consistently playing well. When that happens, you just have to say the player is good. He's good. He does it on a nightly basis with rebounds and knocking down jumpers and handling the ball and defending."

Earning Bryant's trust is normally a years-long process. Trust is easier to earn in the regular season, but for Bryant to truly bless you as a Made Man, you normally have to go through the playoff gauntlet like Gasol and Metta World Peace have. Clark seems to be short-circuiting the process.

Clark knew that, after failing to make an impact in Phoenix or Orlando over three seasons, he was in danger of becoming stereotyped -- the skilled-but-positionless big, a 'tweener who didn't do enough offensively to stay on the floor.

But in today's NBA, where the Heat eschew traditional positions and simply put their best five players on the court, a player like Clark has value.

"The biggest thing was finding a position," Steve Nash said. "At the four, he has certain assets; at the three, he has certain assets. The thing you have to do with Earl is you have to take advantage of his versatility."

It also helps that small ball has become an NBA constant.

"There's teams playing all over the league that are downsizing," my Turner colleague and analyst Steve Kerr said. "You have to be able to downsize defensively without giving up your interior defense. That's the key. That's what Earl really brings."

In D'Antoni's system, Clark is a reasonable facsimile of a stretch four. He doesn't shoot it as well from deep as Antawn Jamison, but since Jamison is shooting just 32 percent from 3-point range, there are minutes for a young guy who can defend multiple positions.

"That's why we drafted him, really," said Kerr, who took Clark with the 14th pick in 2009 out of Louisville when Kerr ran the Suns.

There were questions about Clark's consistency before the Draft, as well as his conditioning -- the phrase Clark remembers in his years at Louisville from Rick Pitino more than any other is "get on the treadmill!" -- but he still was a lottery pick.

"It's rare to find a guy with that kind of size and foot speed," Kerr said. "He's 6-10, a legit 6-10, but he's got incredibly quick feet. Knowing these days you have to be able to guard pick-and-roll. That's the toughest thing for bigs, and you have to be able to guard 50 of them if you're playing. That's the modern day defender.

"That's Taj Gibson, that's Kevin Garnett. They played a lot of zone at Louisville, but we weren't sure about his defensive acumen. We knew he had the talent level, but would he be able to adapt to the sophisticated NBA defenses? Calling out pick and rolls, playing on a string defensively?"

With L.A., Clark's defensive versatility has been put on display. His length and quick feet put one in mind of Shawn Marion during D'Antoni's run in Phoenix, or Horace Grant during the Bulls' championship days, though Grant was more capable than Clark of banging with opposing power forwards.

Against the Nets, Clark spent the first part of the fourth quarter guarding Joe Johnson. Down the stretch, he guarded All-Star center Brook Lopez. And he was smart enough to change things up; he crowded Johnson, figuring his quick feet could keep Johnson from driving and that he could contest shots late with his length. But he backed off of Lopez, knowing he gave away about 30 or so pounds, and made him shoot jumpers.

And Clark made all the right decisions in the last four minutes. He knocked down two free throws, then goaded Lopez into shooting an air ball. He then stepped right into a jumper from Nash -- who had no problems giving a kid with 13 career starts to that date a shot that big -- and put the game away.

"He plays hard, he keeps his mouth shut, he accepts his role," Nash said. "When he wasn't playing he didn't sulk. He gets in early, he gets his work done."

That is a recurring trait Clark has displayed at every stop in his career so far.

"After games in Phoenix he would actually go back down to that little practice floor and get another hour in with one of our assistant coaches," Kerr said. "He always puts the work in ... I didn't think he'd be much of a 3-point shooter for the Lakers, but he's making a few now."

Howard says Clark did the same in Orlando after being traded there as part of the deal that sent Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus to Phoenix for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Clark in December, 2010.

"He worked hard on his game, didn't complain," Howard said. "I've always been a big, big fan of Earl, especially on the defensive end. Early in the season, I used to tell Coach (Stan Van Gundy), 'hey, you might want to put Earl on this guy, because he can guard him.' And then when he got the opportunity, he really blossomed."

Clark got some time here and there when Howard was hurt in Orlando, including the Magic's first-round playoff loss to Indiana, after Howard's season-ending back surgery. With the Magic trading Ryan Anderson in the summer, Clark might have gotten a chance at more playing time this season if he'd stayed in Orlando. Of course, it wasn't his call.

The Lakers would love to keep Clark, who'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. But L.A.'s luxury tax issues may make that impossible. Re-signing Howard to a five-year max deal would push the Lakers' team salary above the $100 million mark, with a luxury tax that could hit another $90 million or so on top of that. Keeping Clark may be a luxury the Lakers can't afford.

Clark wants to stay in L.A., but he also thinks he's earned the right to regular minutes. There will certainly be bad teams with cap room that will offer him a lot of loot, but after all the false starts he's had in his career, Clark wants to play for a winning organization. Does that even describe the Lakers any more? It's one of many things up in the air about Clark's future.

"One of the things you really love about Earl is that he works really hard," Kerr said. "He really loves the game. He comes from a good family. His mom and dad were at home, and his sister. They were a pretty close family. Good hard working family, a lot of skill, you hope he can figure everything else out."

DRIBBLES

Deron Williams never understood how guys could lose confidence on a basketball court. That is, until he started losing his confidence on the basketball court. And the idea that his Nets -- a team of veterans, put together to handle the glare of Brooklyn and the rest of New York City -- could be so up and down never seemed possible.

"I'm pretty surprised," he said Friday, after the Nets were beaten by the Wizards, and not by accident. "I thought we had gotten past that, when we had that seven-game win streak. But it's all a process. We're still a new team. This is our first year together. We still make mistakes. We still have some things to figure out at both ends of the floor, if we want to be considered an elite team."

The Nets remain a puzzle, which must make the decision of what to do about their coaching situation after this season still more of mystery. P.J. Carlesimo, who replaced Avery Johnson in December, will almost certainly finish the season. But what owner Mikhail Prokhorov will choose to do afterward remains uncertain.

Phil Jackson looms in the rumor mill, but there is no more concrete evidence today that Jackson would want to run the Nets and/or coach them than there was when Johnson was fired two months ago. For the moment, that leaves Carlesimo, who is 15-8 as interim coach.

"P.J. has done a good job for us," Nets General Manager Billy King texted Sunday night. "When the time is right we will sit down and evaluate everything."

Does Carlesimo pass the "star" test for Prokhorov? Is he a brand name like Jackson or Larry Brown? Probably not. But he has won the locker room.

"He's always trying to build us up," guard Joe Johnson said. "He's always telling guys to get their heads up. But he shouldn't have to say that. We as players, we should never be in a situation where we're moping around with our heads down. But he can't get out there and play for us."

And if Johnson had a vote?

"I would love to have him back," Johnson said. "I don't have a problem with P.J. I think P.J. does a great job in dealing with us as players."

Carlesimo does not want to look at the big picture right now. What it means for him to come back be the coach in the town where he played at Fordham (and near where his Seton Hall team made -- and lost -- the 1989 NCAA title game), and where his father, Peter, the longtime AD at Fordham who helped save the NIT when it was about to be swallowed whole by the NCAA Touranment in the 1970s, he will keep to himself.

"The Brooklyn experience, if you will, has really been great for the team and for the franchise," Carlesimo said Friday. "Getting a chance to coach a very good roster, especially in the metropolitan area, no question it's just a great opportunity. It was almost like, the fact that when it's thrust upon you the way it did, you almost don't have a chance to think about it or enjoy it. And it's typical NBA right now; the games just keep coming. I'm sure at some point I'll sit back a little more and try to reflect on it and savor it. But it hasn't been easy to do that yet."

Carlesimo is still a no-nonsense, no excuses coach, and he still holds players accountable. But that's off the floor, in practices and film sessions. On the court, he's loosened the reins from when Johnson had the team. The Nets were willing pupils under Johnson, but they were being micromanaged to within an inch of their lives.

"For the most part, guys are more relaxed on the court, more comfortable with their situations, as far as what's expected of them, what they're supposed to do on the court," forward Gerald Wallace said.

Much has been about the X-and-O adjustments that Carlesimo has made, but most of those have been tweaks here and there. He's using more UCLA sets and making sure there's more regular playing time for second-year guard MarShon Brooks. Most of the major changes, though, have been attitudinal.

"Guys aren't playing so uptight now," Wallace said. "And that makes the game a lot easier. When you go out and you're trying to play the game of basketball mistake-free, that's kind of hard to do. You're going to make mistakes; you're going to mess up coverages. If you're so worried about not turning the ball over or messing up a coverage, it kind of limits your ability out on the court. P.J. kind of loosens it up.

"He knows in the game of basketball, there's going to be mistakes. And there's situations that are going to be messed up. But at the end of the day, if you're going to mess up, do it at 100 percent -- do it with effort. If you're going to mess up, mess up going all out. Don't be out there just to be out there, and now you're [bleeping] up the game."

Forward Reggie Evans was in Toronto when Carlesimo was an assistant coach for Jay Triano, and knew what to expect.

"It ain't been nothing bad with P.J.," Evans said. "P.J., he's not your average coach. He ain't no pushover. He ain't just a newcomer in the game. As far as his credentials, he's got great credentials. We've got a lot of veterans that know his history."

Carlesimo's charge to his players is to play the game with clear minds -- "less thinking," Evans says.

"Just real simple, real basic," Evans said. "Instead of doing something on this side of the court, and doing something different on this side of the court, and doing something different in the middle, it's all basic. You don't have to think, 'Oh, I'm on the right side,' or if I'm on the left side, I do this."

But after the Nets won 11 of their first 13 games under Carlesimo, they've come back to earth. They've struggled to find any consistency at the starting power forward spot, where the offensively-challenged Evans has replaced the defensively-challenged Kris Humphries.

And they've gotten almost no production from their bench recently. Andray Blatche, the former Wizard who was Johnson's personal reclamation project, has slumped badly the last three weeks. Rookie forward Mirza Teletovic, signed for three years and $15 million from Bosnia this summer, has yet to make an impact. That's why Brooklyn is thinking about getting veteran guard Ben Gordon in a potential trade with Charlotte for Humprhies.

Sometimes they lose to superior talent -- they don't seem to have an answer for the Heat, which has beaten Brooklyn handily in all three matchups this season -- and sometimes they lose because they seem flat and disinterested, as in Friday night's loss in Washington ("We showed no character," Joe Johnson said).

There still is time for the Nets to make themselves into a factor in the East. Whether there is time to make Carlesimo the permanent coach is only known to a 6-foot-8 billionaire mogul who supposedly doesn't own a computer and flies into the States from time to time.

"When you make a change in the middle of the year, it's very difficult to kind of catch your breath," Carlesimo said. "We still have a lot of work to do before the All-Star break...for us, it'll give us a chance to catch our breath. Unfortunately, we come right back to a back-to-back and we get going back at it. We've been trying to sneak things in and make little changes along the way."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) Miami (4-0) [3]: There may be something to this Dwyane-Wade-is-getting-healthy business: 50.7 percent from the floor, 25.3 points per game, 6.3 boards and 6 assists in the Heat's last four games.

2) Oklahoma City (4-0) [2]: Laid the serious smackdown on three hapless opponents this week, beating Dallas and Golden State by 21 points each, then destroying Phoenix in a home-and-home, beating the Suns by 31 in OKC and by 28 in Phoenix Sunday. Average margin of victory: 25.3 points.

3) San Antonio (2-1) [1]: Will be shocked if Tim Duncan (sprained ankle and knee) isn't replaced on the Western Conference All-Star team by Golden State's Steph Curry. TD doesn't want to be there even when he's healthy; Curry is next in line.

4) Indiana (3-1) [6]: Pacers go 3-for-3 on back-to-back-to-back nights, defeating Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia in succession last Monday through Wednesday.

5) Denver (3-1) [7]: Nine-game win streak ends in triple-overtime in Boston Sunday, but Danilo Gallinari has become one of the league's most clutch shooters.

6) Chicago (1-2) [4]: Carlos Boozer hasn't been great the last few postseasons, but he's better than Andrea Bargnani, to me. Don't see how that trade would help the Bulls against the likes of Miami or Indiana in the playoffs.

7) N.Y. Knicks (2-2) [5]: All-Star break might be coming at a good time for the Knicks, who look a little disjointed at the moment.

8) L.A. Clippers (2-2) [8]: Despite slipping and slopping through late January and early February with CP3 on the shelf, L.A. is still comfortably in first place in the Pacific Division, and now Paul and Chauncey Billups (see below) are back.

9) Memphis (2-2) [9]: Austin Daye contributing to his new team as much as Ed Davis, who was supposed to be the significant unpolished gem in the Rudy Gay-Tayshaun Prince deal.

10) Brooklyn (1-3) [10]: Would guess the Nets never expected to see the Celtics in their rear view mirror again this season.

11) Golden State (0-4) [11]: Suddenly, the Warriors have become a sieve: 118.5 points allowed the last four games. Even if you take out the 140 Golden State gave up to Houston on Tuesday, the Warriors allowed an average of 105 a game in their other three losses.

12) Atlanta (1-2) [12]: A Josh Smith trade seems inevitable, whether it comes before the Feb. 21 deadline or this summer, when more teams might be able to get involved.

13) Houston (2-2) [13]: James Harden again white-hot going into the All-Star break.

14) Boston (3-0) [NR]: Suddenly, the Kevin Garnett "rumors" have slowed to a quiet trickle.

15) Utah (2-2) [14]: The Jazz still have Raja Bell in their back pocket if they want to add a sweetener to a potential big-bang deal before the trade deadline.

Dropped out: Milwaukee

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Miami (4-0): Heat look like they're finding last year's form, with Shane Battier starting to warm up behind the 3-point arc, Dwyane Wade busting out of a season-long lull and LeBron being LeBron in solid wins over the Rockets, Clippers and Lakers.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Charlotte (0-4): Four wins since Thanksgiving Weekend in 38 games. During the Bobcats' latest losing streak, seven games, Charlotte is losing by an average of 13.7 per game. Likely losses to Boston tonight and Indiana Wednesday before the All-Star Break, which will be followed by the Something's Gotta Give Bowl a week from Tuesday against Orlando.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Are the Celtics better without Rajon Rondo?

Of course not.

Are the Celtics a better team without Rajon Rondo?

In some ways, yes.

That is a nuanced concept to accept, and in our 24-hour, I must-be-right, you-must-be-wrong, talk radio/debate-format nation, most people don't do nuance. But understanding this is doable if you understand the game and emotion and how a team can raise its collective game to help fill voids.

Without Rondo, out for the season after tearing his ACL against the Hawks Jan. 25, most officially wrote the Celtics off. They were in the midst of a six-game losing streak and looked increasingly irrelevant in the Eastern Conference -- a step slow, a tick off. It's not that they weren't competitive with elite teams; they were. But they didn't have the look of a team that could beat anyone outstanding. Compounding matters, promising rookie Jared Sullinger was lost for the season a week after Rondo went down, to back surgery.

And then ...

The Nuggets came to Boston the hottest team in the league, winners of nine straight. After the Celtics' improbable triple-overtime victory over Denver Sunday night, they left seeing Boston as winners of seven in a row and the new hottest team in the league.

The Celtics were on the deck five or six different times in regulation and the multiple overtimes, but kept finding different heroes -- a Jeff Green three here, a Paul Pierce game-tying three there, Kevin Garnett playing 47 minutes, Jason Terry scoring a season-high 26 points. Out of necessity, Boston can no longer depend on any one player.

"By committee!," former Celtic Keyon Dooling texted Sunday night. "Guys have totally given themselves to the team."

The Celtics believed they had put a deep team together in the summer, when they signed Terry from Dallas and traded for Courtney Lee from Houston. They drafted Sullinger and Fab Melo in the first round of the Draft, too. Melo isn't quite ready for prime time yet, and with Sullinger done the Celts have gone small out of necessity -- they got clobbered on the glass 65-51 Sunday by the younger, more athletic Nuggets.

But Boston is finding ways to win.

Yes, they've played a couple of the NBA's stumblebums during the streak, but it's been bookended with wins over Miami and Denver, two of the league's best.

It doesn't mean Boston can beat a good team four times in a seven-game series, because the playoffs, despite their days off and planning and countermoves, still tend to be dominated by the best players. And Rondo -- who was leading the league in assists this season, and who averaged 17.3 points and 11.9 assists last postseason, with an assist percentage of 54 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.com -- is a money player.

Without him, Boston has to find different ways to score, and different people to do it.

Danny Ainge told ESPN.com's Jackie MacMullen last week that the Celtics were "different" without Rondo, but running better because all five players were sprinting in transition now, instead of watching Rondo, who often was a one-man fast break.

A healthy Rondo dominated the ball. Off of every defensive rebound Boston gets, you heard his high-pitched chirp -- "KG, KG!" -- as he ran to the wing for the outlet pass. From that moment, Rondo was the floor general. Rivers gave him autonomy to probe the retreating defense, and more often than not, Rondo produced something good. And with his increased confidence in his jumper, Rondo had the ball even more than normal.

Now, anyone can be a facilitator; Pierce had 14 assists in his triple-double Sunday. Jeff Green had 10 assists over four games, after totaling 10 assists in his previous 10 games. Pierce still brings the ball up in end-game situations when Boston runs high screen-rolls for him or 1-4 isolations, but during the course of a game, lots of people now bring the ball up.

During the first six games of the win streak, Boston's offensive rating jumped to 104.7 points per 100 possessions, a couple of points above their season average. Garnett shot 57.7 percent (45 of 78) from the floor; Terry shot .558 (24 of 43); Green .517 (30 of 58). Everyone's numbers went down Sunday as the overtimes dragged on, but Pierce bailed Boston out, logging 54 minutes and posting his second triple-double in two weeks.

Now, having said all that, Boston is not -- is not -- a better team without Rondo.

First, Rondo is one of the smartest players in the league. Like all great point guards, he has a high turnover rate in part because he sees plays well before they develop, and has the guts to try passes most players wouldn't dare attempt.

Rondo's length and anticipation made him a one-man zone on defense, and he could start and finish a break by himself. He could lock up scorers like the Nuggets' Ty Lawson, who was unstoppable Sunday in making 13 of 22 shots.

Rondo may have trolled for assists on occasion, but no one in the league found teammates from crazier angles and with more pinpoint dimes. And his status as the Celtics' unquestioned leader, serving as a sounding board and cruise director for the younger players, has been well-documented.

"That's my brother," Dooling said recently. "He's very unique. He has the ability to influence the masses, if he does it right. With that comes a lot of responsibility. Where some players before him who had that same demographic of following failed, I think he will succeed ... he's a beautiful mind. He's special, on and off the court. He's learning. The improvement he made from the time he got into this league until now surprises a lot of people. And there's a whole 'nother level he can get to."

How long can Boston stay at this level? A five-game west coast swing after the All-Star break should probably answer the question for good. But there is life where there seemed no possibility just a couple of weeks ago.

For a while longer, Ubuntu lives.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Change should not be feared: Bewitched had two different Darrens, after all. From Jake Madura:

I enjoyed your thoughtful take on the hard-to-fathom Rudy Gay trade. I know the latest thing is high-tech, super detailed stats covering every move an NBA player makes, but I'm an old dinosaur who goes back to the days of Bill Russell & Sam Jones & Havlicek, when the NBA was on TV maybe twice a month. I'm skeptical about putting too much faith in things like PER--but that's not what I'm writing you about. Can you ever remember a contending team, a team that's in the top 5 or 6 in the league with a real chance to go deep in the playoffs, trading their leading scorer mid-season? I cannot.

The one time in recent memory that I can recall, Jake, is when the Pistons dealt Adrian Dantley, who led Detroit in scoring (18.4 per game) in the 1988-89 season, to Dallas at the trade deadline for Mark Aguirre. The Pistons had been unable to break through against the Celtics in the playoffs before that season; they wound up winning the first of back-to-back titles that season. In 1995, the defending champion Rockets traded for another team's top scorer, getting Clyde Drexler from Portland, along with Tracy Murray, for power forwards Otis Thorpe and Marcelo Nicola (Nicola never played in the NBA, staying in Europe for the balance of his career) and a future first round pick. With Drexler happily reunited with former University of Houston teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets successfully defended their title, sweeping the Magic in the 1995 Finals.

WAR, VORP, PER...letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters. From Colin Johnston:

You mentioned briefly in your most recent Morning Tip that "one can see the utility of some new numbers yet also be skeptical that they explain everything about a basketball player or team." While I remain skeptical that the advanced statistics in the NBA will ever be as good as baseball, I believe that they will get better than they are now and will be utilized much more frequently as they gain utility. I would be interested to hear an expansion on your thoughts concerning advanced statistics and what role they will or should play in basketball.

There are lots of advanced stats that I like, Colin. I think PER is a pretty good measure of player effectiveness. Pace and offensive/defensive ratings do level the playing field when it comes to team effectiveness at scoring and defending. There is something to lineup combinations and plus-minus. They can all point you in a direction. But there is still the how and why of basketball. Why do certain teammates play better together? How can a player improve on his deficiencies? Statistics, coaching and the player's work ethic and intelligence go hand in hand.

The Running and continued Unity of the Bulls. From Andrew Robson:

I was reading your weekly column on NBA.com and like you was intrigued with the question you posed about Tom Thibodeau's benching of Joakim Noah. I think the paragraph below from Sam Smith's Bulls v Lakers game summary is a case in point as to why this Bulls team seems to punch above its weight. When you have a coach who is strong enough to make statements (in game if necessary) to his players no matter their standing in the team, but at the same time publically protect them, and then to have those same players (specifically leaders) show the self-effacement like Noah has shown below, no wonder this team appears to be the most united team I can remember in recent memory. It's such a nice change from the "personal" politics and egos you see in most pro sport teams these days and makes them a team to be proud of.

Winning, Andrew, is the ultimate deodorant. Players that might otherwise complain about Thibs' relentless, joyless pursuit of basketball excellence wouldn't have a leg to stand on in the public's eye: not when Thibodeau has won, as of this morning, 71.7 percent of his regular-season games, and Noah and Luol Deng have made the All-Star team. And, no question, Noah has matured as well and understands what his coach wants from him.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and an incredibly big shovel for New England to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. (Note to self: if you see The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore on your block, be somewhere else.) 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 (31.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, .738 FG, .771 FT): He is so off the charts ridiculously good now you take his numbers for granted. Look at that field-goal percentage again. James made 45 of the 61 shots he took last week, including 12 of 18 Sunday against the Lakers. You risk losing any credibility with anyone who is serious about the game if you try to make a case that there is a better basketball player on earth at this moment.

2) Kevin Durant (20.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, .529 FG, .913 FT): Numbers down this week because of the Thunder's four blowout wins; he sat for three fourth quarters.

3) Carmelo Anthony (34 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .511 FG, .933 FT): Posted his fifth 40-point game of the season with 42 points in Sunday's loss to the Clippers.

4) Chris Paul (14 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, .500 FG, .500 FT): Thought he would slowly work his way back up to speed, until he dropped 25, 6 and 7 on the Knicks Sunday to give the Clippers a much-needed road win.

5) Tony Parker (30.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 9 apg, .550 FG, .960 FT): At the top of his game, ably taking control with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili on the shelf. He took Deron Williams and the Nets apart on Sunday night.

Dropped out: Tim Duncan

BY THE NUMBERS

3 -- Per ESPN's Stats and Info, the number of players who have scored 25,000 or more points in NBA history without going to college. Kevin Garnett joined Kobe Bryant and Moses Malone in that group in Thursday's win over the Lakers.

23 -- Three-pointers made by the Rockets Tuesday against the Warriors, tying an NBA record for the most threes made in one game. Orlando made 23 threes against Sacramento in January of 2009. Houston was 23-of-40 against Golden State, setting a franchise record for threes in a regular season game.

$100,000 -- Opening price for the blueprints to the Michael Jordan statue that stands outside of United Center, which are now available on eBay (and it's down to $30K now ... what a bargain!).

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) That was 63 minutes of compelling basketball Sunday night at TD Garden between the Celtics and Nuggets. And kudos to the city and county crews that plowed the streets of Boston back down to the blacktop within a day of Nemo's arrival.

2) I'd love to think The Commish watched The Beat last week and heard my Final Point on how the Players' Association should be proactive about reaching agreement with the league on a test for Human Growth Hormone, picked up the phone, called the union and got things moving. Yes, that's what I'd love to think.

3) Sacramento's fans continued to make their case Saturday with a sellout against the Jazz, who were serenaded with "Here We Stay" and "Sacramento" chants all night. Love the passion and the commitment the city has shown in its quest to keep its team.

4) The Wizards may be closer to being decent than I thought. If they were winning "fools' gold" games in April, when the contenders are thinking about staying healthy for the playoffs, and the also-rans are thinking about the Lottery, that would be one thing. But they've won a bunch of games at home the last six weeks against top-shelf opponents who had something to play for: Oklahoma City, Miami, Chicago, the Clippers, New York and Brooklyn. Some of those teams had injuries, but Washington's dealt with its own injuries all season, with John Wall missing the first two months coming off his knee injury, and first-round pick Bradley Beal missing five games with a sore wrist. The Wizards' defense has been solid all season, even at 4-28; Washington is sixth in the league in defensive rating, at 102 points allowed per 100 possessions.

5) Here's hoping Royce White, who is scheduled to begin his D-League stint Tuesday night in Rio Grande, and the Rockets can come up with a formula and a work environment that works for the young man and the team. Neither is out of line in holding their relative positions.

6a) Last Super Bowl mention: This was a great, great show open for CBS. If you're not in television, you don't know how long and how good the editing had to be to make something this terrific.

6b) OK, this is the last Super Bowl mention: you don't have to agree with anything the writer says here. But this is a terrific piece of writing.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) A reminder that there will be no Morning Tip on Feb. 18. I am working all weekend for TNT's broadcast of the All-Star Game Sunday and other assorted activities throughout the week. Plus, it's the week before the trade deadline and the phones will be burning up. The Tip shall return Feb. 25.

2) Kobe Bryant is a grown man and knows exactly what he means when he says what he says, and so his notion that his criticism of Dwight Howard last week was somehow misconstrued is folly. But the reaction to what Kobe said is equally silly. What difference does it make if Kobe and Dwight don't like each other? Or ever will? Didn't Bryant win three championships with Shaq, who hated his guts, and vice versa? Hate to burst your bubble, but this happens a lot more (Michael Jordan/Horace Grant; Larry Bird/Kevin McHale; Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes) than you think.

3) Read George Karl's comments through this story, and you'll see why I do not traffic in trade rumors. If people are lying for their own cynical reasons, how does spreading those lies help you know what's really happening?

4) Tough break for rookie Andre Drummond and the Pistons. I will say it again: he has been much, much better and more consistent than I thought he would be. Joe Dumars and Co. gambled, and look like they won big.

5) As we are approaching All-Star weekend, time for my annual public service announcement: I don't have any tickets. I don't have any tickets. I don't have any tickets. For anything. So if you see me in Houston, don't ask me for any tickets. Don't DM me on Twitter for any tickets. Don't message me on Facebook for any tickets. If you ask me for tickets for anything, I will have to assume that you read this and chose to ignore it. It will not help you get tickets.

6) As the son of a former mailman, the continued cutbacks to the Post Office always make me a little sad.

7) Watched part of the Grammys Sunday night. I knew almost no one who was nominated for just about anything. Musically, I'm stuck in 1988; does Terence Trent D'Arby have an album coming out soon? (See what I did there; I know his name is Sananda Maitreya now and that they don't put out albums any more. It was a joke about how I'm old!)

Q AND A: CHAUNCEY BILLUPS

Mr. Big Shot hasn't gotten too many chances at game winners lately.

He had only played in three games this season, suffering from tendinitis in his ankle, before finally returning to the lineup Friday night against the Heat. Keeping Billups healthy for the next few months is crucial; the Clippers need Billups and Chris Paul, the backcourt they anticipated playing together the past 14 months, on the floor as much as possible. The Clips looked a title contender when they went through December undefeated, but when Paul went down with a sore knee in January, the wheels came off.

The injuries left Vinny Del Negro little choice but to play Eric Bledsoe big minutes in Paul's absence, and Bledsoe struggled to find consistency; Del Negro tried to steal spot minutes with Lamar Odom and even 40-year-old Grant Hill at the point when Bledsoe sat, with not-great results. Billups would have been the obvious replacement while Paul was out, but Billups has been star-crossed since coming to Los Angeles after being waived via the amnesty provision by the Knicks at the end of the lockout in 2011.

He played in just 20 games last season for the Clippers before after tearing his achilles' tendon a year last February 8. But the 36-year-old thinks he still has a lot to offer Los Angeles in the postseason, and he has some standing in this area, as his 2004 Finals MVP award attests.

Me: What can't you do right now?

Chauncey Billups: It's really nothing right now. It's feeling really good, actually. I think when I had the little setback -- when I came back, I had a little setback -- like, I had to really get off of it, no cardio, no nothing. So now I'm at a point where I'm back, picking my workload back up, and I've got to get myself back in top condition again. That won't take long. But as far as physically and everything, I feel great.

Me: When you rely so much on your body and your body can't respond, what does that do to a player's head?

CB: I mean, I don't know, man. The one thing that I haven't much of [is] I haven't had very many mental struggles through this process. Through my achilles', I was locked and loaded [mentally] every day. Because I knew it was going to be an animal and a beast to beat. So I just locked; I was like, 'All right, bring it on; what's next?' After the little setback, I got a little frustrated, because it was like, 'Damn, I worked my behind to get back from an achilles', and I got this little tendinitis in my ankle that's holding me back? I beat the achilles'; now I've got this? 'That was frustrating. But I don't know, I don't know what it is, but it was never really a mental component to it, even when I first got back on the court. I never thought about the foot. I put so much work in, it was like, I don't know, if I go down, it's going to be something else. Because I know that [bleep] is strong. I've always been pretty mentally strong. But those are two different things. Mentally and physically strong are two different things.

Me: What was that month, month and a half like with CP3 last year before the achilles' injury?

CB: The thing I enjoyed is, it's like having twins out there, as far as mentally. We think the game so much alike, the way we think. We try to be two, three steps ahead of our opponent. So there's things that he does out there that I was already thinking, but I know that nobody else was even thinking like that. Everybody else is thinking, what is he doing, and I'm saying, good move. And vice versa. So I'm looking forward to that again. I've never been in a backcourt with a guy -- Rip (Hamilton) was very smart as well -- but Rip couldn't make plays with the ball the way Chris can. So I'm looking forward to that again.

Me: What knowledge do you and Grant want to give this team this season?

CB: For me, my message this year is, I just try not to let guys take for granted the opportunity that we have. I try to let 'em know that there's guys who've been in this league 12, 13, 15, 16 years that don't get this opportunity to be good, to go deep, to have a chance to win. It just doesn't come around very often. As a young guy, you might think this is just one of my years; it's going to be like this for a long time. And you've got to be real lucky. You've got to be real lucky. Injuries can happen, things can happen that you might not get this chance again. So I'm just trying to pound that message through.

Me: You're here, Rip's in Chicago, Tayshaun Prince is in Memphis now, Rasheed Wallace is in New York. What does it say about that Pistons team that made six straight Eastern Conference finals through 2007 that so many of you are still wanted around the league?

CB: We're holding on, man. We're holding on. It's crazy that all the brothers is everywhere but home. We're holding on. I'm happy for Tayshaun; he's going to get a chance to be on a really good team again. He was kind of wasting away [in Detroit]. He's still got some good years left. They're in a rebuilding phase in Detroit. I'm happy for him. Honestly, I just think the group we had won't be duplicated. The individuals, the cohesion we had, the personalities, it just won't be duplicated. It speaks a lot. It speaks loud that we're all still around and we can all still be effective.

Me: What do CP3 and Blake need to know about the process of getting to the Finals that they don't yet know?

CB: A lot of little things. A lot of little detail things. We're not there yet. We haven't taken that step yet. And I think we need to. We need to. We need to take that step. And that's not an easy step to take. I think you learn that through a lot of disappointment sometimes. I hope that the disappointment of getting swept last year by San Antonio, and knowing that we were just outclassed, that that's enough. But we'll see.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Someone comes and hands you a book. U start reading it, only to realize it's about ur entire life. Would u read through the end? #DengTheory
-- Bulls forward Luol Deng (@LuolDeng9), Tuesday, 11:22 p.m., posing a question that is way too deep for me most mornings. But this a.m., I will pose an answer: yes. As long as it's the first in a series.

THEY SAID IT

"On a last note, I just want to say that I love my situation here. I don't know what y'all sources or whoever's making up these (expletive) articles about me getting traded to Denver and all these other places. But I bleed green and I continue to do that. And if it's up to me, then I'm going to retire a Celtic. So I just want everybody to know that, all right?"
-- Kevin Garnett, Thursday, making his case for remaining in Boston after the trade deadline clear.

"I'm hopeful that all you Pacers fans sitting at home watching on TV start coming out and seeing us because this is a special team that we're putting together here."
-- Pacers coach Frank Vogel, in the Indianapolis Star, after a home win over the Hawks Tuesday drew only 12,578 to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, continuing a season-long pattern of less-than-stellar attendance. Through Friday's home loss to Toronto, Indiana was 26th in the NBA in attendance, averaging 14,662 per game, a little more than 80 percent of the arena's capacity.

"I've been hated on my whole life. Why should it be any different now? I don't care. But if people aren't hating on you that means you're not making an impact. Prominent people in our country were hated on because they made an impact."
-- Suns coach Lindsey Hunter, to Yahoo! Sports, addressing rumors that he worked behind the scenes to get the head coach job from Alvin Gentry, and over assistants Elston Turner and Dan Majerle.

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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