Posted Mar 11, 2013 12:13 PM
Doug Collins remembers it well.
"When Mo got here [as a rookie in 1978], he didn't talk for four months," Collins said last week.
That was just how Mo Cheeks was, of course; he was that way with everybody, and he's still pretty much that way with most. But Collins figured him out and, in the end, the two became one of the best backcourts of their day, though injuries ended Collins' playing career before the 76ers finally broke through and won a championship in 1983.
Collins-Cheeks had to be good. The Spurs were in the Eastern Conference back then, and they had George Gervin, Louie Dampier and James Silas in their backcourt. Cleveland sported Austin Carr, Foots Walker and Bobby "Bingo" Smith.
In the West, the defending-champion Blazers had a veteran backcourt of Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis. The Nuggets had a fairly good tandem: Mack Calvin and David Thompson. And Seattle had a young, promising guard corps of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson.
Big men have always ruled in the NBA, and they always will. The West's current dominance over the East starts with its collection of dynamic bigs, from small forwards like Kevin Durant who can take you off the dribble or rain in 3-pointers, to 7-foot power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki, the best shooting big man ever, to Tim Duncan, who may be the best power forward ever. Add in your Kevin Loves and Blake Griffins and LaMarcus Aldridges and David Lees, and the West's big man edge is currently prohibitive.
Three-plus decades after Collins and Cheeks got to know each other, though, a similar symbiosis is taking place in the Eastern Conference, where several teams struggling in the standings have young, promising guard tandems.
The Cavaliers have 2012 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and their first-round pick from 2013, Dion Waiters. The Sixers sport Jrue Holiday, who made his first All-Star appearance this season, and Evan Turner, Philly's first-rounder in 2010. Washington sports John Wall, who went just ahead of Turner in 2010 with the first pick overall, and rookie Bradley Beal.
Those younger duos will have to compete for several years with more established backcourts. Brooklyn, of course, is spending big money on Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Boston has Rajon Rondo -- out for this season with an ACL tear -- and Avery Bradley, as good an on-ball defender as Rondo is a roamer. Milwaukee bolstered its tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis by getting veteran J.J. Redick at the trade deadline.
(In the West you have tandems like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, Jeremy Lin and James Harden in Houston and Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews in Portland.)
So, who's the best in the East?
"It's not an arrogant thing or anything like that," Turner said last week. "We're the best. It's not even -- no disrespect to anybody else -- it's not even close. In regards to how big we are, I think we do a lot of different things in that regard. Obviously, John is a next-level-fast point guard. Beal has been great. But I just feel like we match up better. Kyrie's a great player, and also Dion can definitely play. But the stuff that Jrue and I have been through, you can't really speed down that rock."
Turner is talking about the playoff experiences he and Holiday have had the last two years. There was a first-round learning curve against Miami in 2011, followed by a first-round upset of the Bulls last season, plus a seven-game series against Boston in which the younger 76ers had Boston on the ropes in Game 7 -- before Rondo came to the rescue in the fourth quarter, making shot after clutch shot.
"That playoff experience, you can't really undermine it in that situation," Turner said. "Not everybody makes the playoffs. I'm almost positive that Kyrie and Dion will touch the playoffs sooner rather than later, as well as the Wizards. But right now, I think winning is more than anything, as opposed to numbers and stuff."
Irving has been sensational for Cleveland, adding his first All-Star appearance to a second season playing in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. His PER of 22.66 is 14th in the league, and he's seventh in the league in scoring (23.2) -- though he suffered yet another injury Sunday against Toronto with a left shoulder contusion.
Like Holiday and Turner, Irving and Waiters don't play every minute together in the backcourt. But their potential is so intoxicating that the speculation has already begun that LeBron James will return to Cleveland when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2014 to get a chance to play with them.
Waiters' offense isn't in question -- he has been as explosive as advertised on occasion, including a 25-point night in Chicago without Irving to lead Cleveland to a road win over the Bulls. But he's still prone to defensive errors, as when he left the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard open for a game-winning 3-pointer just before the All-Star break.
By contrast, Bradley revels in playing defense.
The Celtics' resurgence without Rondo is almost directly tied, they believe, to the return of Bradley. He missed the first month of the season rehabbing his shoulders after offseason surgery, but since his return, Boston's defense has gotten even better by stopping opponents like Curry (Bradley held him to 6 of 22 shooting last week). He can't wait to see his Eastern peers.
"I love that competition," Bradley said. "They're very good players, and I just come in with a defensive mindset. I get excited about these games, just like Rondo. This is what I play this game for, is for big games like this, against great point guards, great backcourts."
When Bradley watches future opponents on tape, he studies their point guards, two-guards and small forwards, figuring he'll ultimately have to check all of them.
"One thing about me, even if they're scoring, I'm never going to give up," Bradley said. "I've been like that my whole life, and I'm just going to continue to play hard. I'm going to continue to come at you and wear you down. Maybe people just don't have that approach. I've been playing like this my whole life. And I'm never going to stop."
Considering Rondo and Bradley have barely played together because of their various injuries, their full potential remains unknown. Bradley's defense may be fully formed, but his offense is still in its emerging stages.
"Avery is still young," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He hasn't had a lot of experience, and he's been injured a lot. He's still playing catch-up in a lot of ways."
The Wizards have been playing catch-up all season. Washington was 4-28 out of the gate without Wall, who was held out the first two-plus months of the season after suffering what the team feared was the beginning of a fractured patella. Since his return, the Wizards have gone 15-13, with quality wins over the Thunder, Hawks, Bulls, Clippers, Knicks, Nets, Nuggets (sweeping the season series with Denver) and Rockets.
And Beal has come on, shooting 51 percent from 3-point range in January, and averaging 17.5 points per game in February before suffering a sprained ankle against the Sixers a week ago Sunday. He has missed Washington's last three games.
"We're only scratching the surface," Beal said before suffering the injury. "We both know we can improve. We're both very humble, level headed. We know what we can be. It's just going to take time. We're already developing now, but the sky's the limit for us."
A potent young backcourt is a successful alchemy of ego and skill, sacrifice and basketball IQ ... and it doesn't always work. Older, more established stars -- like Walt Frazier and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, former rivals who were put together in the Knicks' backcourt in 1971 -- may be more willing to put their individual goals aside for the good of the team. Case in point: the Pearl subjugated his game in New York and it helped lead to a title for the Knicks in 1973.
A generation later, though, Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse, high Draft picks in consecutive years, couldn't make it work in Philadelphia. Stack was soon sent packing to Detroit. There are no guarantees.
"It's being able to blend their games together, bring out the best in each other," Collins said. "Being able to have a good court sense; when one's going, the other one moves to the side a little bit, and takes his own ego and puts it out of the way a little bit. And to me, the basketball IQ is such a huge part of it. Sometimes, when we evaluate, we don't take into context or consideration sometimes just how important that is on the court."
One of the things Collins thinks his young team needs to improve on is communication.
"Jrue's only 22," Collins said. "And Evan's still very young. But I would like to see those guys talk a little bit more on the court. I think that's huge. I was kidding our guys. We played the Clips and I said I watched the tape, and Chris Paul took out his mouthpiece 1,022 times. Well, obviously I was just making that up, but he was like constantly taking it out to talk, blowing up all of your plays and getting everybody where they need to get."
Holiday knows he has to be more vocal. But he can't change his makeup; he's never going to be a screamer.
"I'm not really the type to get in somebody's face and kind of publicly embarrass them," Holiday said. "I'm more the type to take them off to the side, or when we're walking on the court, and try to ask them, 'What's up?' Like, 'I need you.' Things like that."
Beal is learning his backcourt mate ("John's a lot more vocal than I am") and learning the league at the same time, finding a proclivity for pindowns and moving quicker to attack bigs off switches.
"There's nothing in my game that I really think is magnificent," Beal said. "I still have a long way to go. Definitely want to work on finishing at the basket, more than anything, finishing with contact, watching how D-Wade uses his body, and guys like that. Working on my ballhandling more, being able to read, coming off of screens, making the right read. Those are the two biggest things."
In two games against Boston, Beal is shooting 30 percent. And those two games came early before Bradley was back. Now, he's healthy. He can't wait for Beal to be healthy. It's a matchup that, like so many others in the East, could become must-see-TV for the next decade.
"Even high school basketball, I was picking up people full court," Bradley said. "AAU games. Like I said, I've been doing this my whole life. They hate it. I know people are surprised to see my do it at this level. But I love it. I love this competition, every single night."
What are we to make of the Commish's statements on Friday vis a vis Sacramento and Seattle?
Stern said at the Warriors-Rockets game that the bid to retain the Kings in Sacramento, made by 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, was "not quite there" in comparison to the bid made by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who plan to move the Kings to Sacramento.
"The counter bid has got very strong financial people behind it, but it is not quite there in comparison to the Seattle bid," Stern told reporters. "There is a substantial variance."
The Commish added, "I have an expectation, a hope, that the variance will be eliminated by the time the owners give it consideration" at the Board of Governors meeting in New York on April 18.
Those sentences were interpreted in very different ways, depending on your Twitter feed.
Sacramento supporters read Stern's comments as laying out the road map for Mastrov and his partners, including supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, to get their bid up to the point where owners would approve it: do this, and you can keep the team in town. Seattle supporters interpreted Stern's remarks as the start of their victory lap, with the relocation of the Kings now just a matter of when, not if.
Both of y'all need to slow your rolls.
(Which leads to this aside: I understand that emotions are running high in both cities and that people believe that reporters like me are "picking sides," or being swayed by public relations pushes. Neither is true; neither has been or will be true.
In January, when the Hansen group's agreement with the Maloofs became public, there was no Sacramento counteroffer in place. You can argue that that was because no one knew the Maloofs were finally going through with selling the team, since they'd rebuffed all local entreaties in past years. But the fact remains that until last week, there was no official Sacramento plan to compare with Seattle's. Now, there is.)
What the Commish said is, as Mastrov told reporters at the game, one step in the process. (The full news conference is here). Every indication, according to numerous sources, is that Stern will follow existing precedent and let the owners decide which bid to recommend for approval. There is no wrong call.
"If you're sitting in David Stern's chair, you're saying, 'This isn't a horse race; this is a blue whale race, between Burkle, Mastrov, Ballmer, Hansen,' " said a former NBA team executive who has seen how the league addresses franchise sales and relocation issues up close.
" 'We're going to get a new facility out of it, (either) in a city that's been very loyal to us before they got off track, or return to a city that you only left because we couldn't get a new arena deal.' Net asset appreciation, that's as good as it can get."
Indeed, the floor for the value of the Kings now is the $525 million valuation that the Hansen group established in January by agreeing to pay $341 million for the 65 percent controlling interest of team that the Maloofs and minority owner Bob Hernreich own. This is the price for a team that Forbes Magazine had valued at $300 million just a year ago.
Sources involved in the process indicated over the weekend that the Mastrov bid is short of the Hansen bid by a figure deep into the eight figures, which would be prohibitively and fatally short if it were the Mastrov/Burkle group's final bid -- which it surely won't be. Perhaps they viewed their initial offer as just the first part of negotiations, or are taking into account debt payments, or were hoping to overpay less than what Hansen and Ballmer are overpaying.
Or, maybe they just think the Kings are worth what they bid for them, and don't want to bid any higher.
The process by which owners will decide between the two groups is steeped in precedent, as established in the NBA's Constitution. Two sections in particular, Articles VII and VIII, are salient.
Article VII, titled "Relocation," establishes the parameters of how an ownership group applies to move.
For its part, the relocation committee must, as detailed in Article VII, make its decision on specific criteria. This includes:
Article VII also establishes that the league can demand a relocation fee from the owners that are planning to move the team. Clay Bennett's group paid $30 million to be allowed to move the Sonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008; it's likely the league would ask for more than that to let the Kings move to Seattle -- because approving the move would close the Seattle market to anyone else. What is it worth to the NBA to not have Seattle available in the future as a possible expansion destination, as opposed to Sacramento? Yet the relocation fee is not likely to be so onerous as to threaten to scotch the deal; the NBA wouldn't ask for, say, $150 million from the Kings' owners.
Article VIII, titled "Arenas," is key as well. The basic tenet of Article VIII is that the Commissioner must be satisfied that the arena to which a team is moving to play is acceptable on an interim basis, and that the new owners are committed to making whatever temporary upgrades are needed in the building until a new arena is built.
The relocation committee will also use Article VIII to determine which arena plan it believes is more viable, realistic and will be completed sooner.
Hansen's group has proposed moving the Kings to Seattle in time for next season, playing two years in Key Arena, where the Sonics used to play. After that, the team would move into a new arena near the Mariners' Safeco Field, in what is known as the South of Downtown (Sodo) area. Hansen estimates the building will cost $491 million, with the city of Seattle contributing $200 million toward construction, and Hansen's group contributing the rest.
The Mastrov/Burkle group is proposing the Kings remain at Sleep Train Arean for the next couple of years while a new arena goes up in Sacramento, on the site of a mall called Downtown Plaza. The group has not publicly estimated how much it would cost, though the Sacramento Bee reported last month that the new arena would be somewhere in the $400 million range -- a number that a source directly involved in the discussions said last week was "in the ballpark."
Under the plan approved by the Sacramento City Council last year, the city would have contributed approximately $255 million toward construction of a $391 million arena. That contribution would have come from the city selling its parking lots and spaces near the arena to private companies. Johnson is working to resuscitate support for a new plan with the council, but the deal is going to be different this year.
The Downtown Plaza site would have to lose hundreds of underground parking spaces for the arena plan to pass muster, and some sources think it will be more expensive to put a building there than at the proposed Railyards site last year. Also, Kings minority owner John Kehriotis is trying to put together his own plan to buy the team and keep it in Sacramento, but favors putting a new building near the team's current arena, in Natomas.
At least two members of the nine-member Sacramento City Council, according to a local source, are currently dead set again the Burkle arena plan. One, councilman Kevin McCarty, has said in the past that he thinks the percentage of funds coming from taxpayers is much too large. Another source says there are three swing votes on the Council that Johnson and local supporters are working feverishly to obtain. Those on the ground in Sacramento think that ultimately, Johnson will be able to get just enough votes for approving the Burkle plan.
"We've got to work out an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] and the principles of an agreement," Councilmember Steve Cohn said by phone Sunday. "But as long as it's something along the lines of what we did last year, or better yet, if we can get more out of it for the city, which I think we might be able to do, we can get some more development besides just the arena. I'm very optimistic."
Cohn said he would support a Downtown Plaza deal as long as the Mastrov-Burkle group is assuming the cost of constructing the building -- and willing to take on any cost overruns.
"We lose some revenue from [the lost parking spaces]," Cohn said. "That's why I'm not sure the amount will actually be $250 [million] this time. We're still willing to include the parking asset, but it may not be worth as much this time. In return, we'd like to see someone else take on the risk of actually building the arena and address any cost overruns."
The Seattle plan has already been vetted and approved by the Seattle City Council. A lawsuit filed on behalf of local longshoremen who argued a new arena on the Sodo site would choke traffic and cost jobs was tossed out by a local judge late last month, though the union is appealing that decision.
A second lawsuit remains pending, arguing that the proposed deal violates a 2007 initiative passed by voters that any new arena paid for in part by public subsidy must guarantee the city a profit.
The race to be shovel ready will likely be a tipping point between the cities.
"To me, it comes down to, when do you get a new building, when do you get your premium ticketing?," the former team executive said. "What is the long term positive effect of a relocation to another market, because it's pretty clear to me that if Sacramento loses [the Kings], they'll definitely never see another NBA team, and other than a Triple A baseball team, they'll never see another pro team."
But Stern also said something Friday that could be the most important determinant of all.
"If an ownership group has decided to exit our league," he said, "it doesn't retain the ultimate right to tell us where it's going to be located. It is for the Board of Governors to decide."
This decoupling of the sale of the team from a proposed relocation of that team could be telling. Hansen has made it clear that he is only interested in buying the Kings if he can move them to Seattle. As I wrote last week, NBA owners are extremely reluctant to tell their peers to whom they can or can't sell their teams. They know full well that some day down the road, they're going to want to sell, and they don't want to be encumbered when they do.
But Stern is also making it clear that while owners could approve a sale to Hansen if it's a better deal for the Maloofs, it is not tying that sale to a yes vote on relocation. They are separate issues. What Hansen would do in such a scenario, in which he is approved to buy the Kings but not allowed to move them out of Sacramento, is unclear.
That kind of ambiguity is part of why this is an unprecedented fight for a team. For every point, there is a counter-point; for every 'yes,' there is a 'but.'
For example: Yes, the Hansen group has a binding agreement with the Maloofs to buy the team. But any "binding agreement" involving the sale of an NBA team from one party to another is always subject to league approval. If eight or more owners vote against approving the sale to the Seattle group at the Board of Governors, the deal is off. Hansen could try to make a deal with the Maloofs again, but then the Maloofs would be free to make a deal with the Mastrov/Burkle group, too.
Once the combined finance/relocation committee gets its feet wet on the arena plans, it will deep dive into the finances of the prospective ownership groups, including their minority investors.
Among the questions they will ask, according to sources who have been involved in relocation/sale issues before:
* What is the source and/or availability of the money you've proposed to use for the purchase of the team? How much money do you need to be able to close the deal? How readily available is it? As I've written and said many times, the league prefers ownership groups where one person can figuratively pull out a checkbook and write a nine-figure check, without having to go into massive amounts of debt to finance the deal.
* Can you meet what is known as the "assignment/assumption" agreement? All members of an ownership group, including its minority owners, must agree that they will provide whatever financial assistance the team needs at any time during their ownership of the team. When you hear that a team is having a "cash call," this is what that refers to -- helping the team meet immediate financial crises. For example, minority owner Jones puts up $5 million at purchase to help buy the team. He/she isn't done. If, in two years, the team suddenly has $20 million in debts it has to pay off, Jones has to be able to pony up more money to help pay those bills, too.
But that's not written in stone. Sometimes, partners may have it written into their arrangements with the other members of the group that they don't have to give additional money if asked. However, they could then see their share of the team diluted to a lower percentage. In other cases, a minority owner who has no say in the day-to-day operations of a team may have it written into the deal that he or she is excused from having to make future financial contributions.
In any event, "in this case, with Ballmer and Burkle, that should not be an issue," says the former executive. "Plus, in Sacramento you have this local group that has signed on for $20 million [now up to $25 million], and you have Mastrov, who has significant net worth, and Hansen up there. And Ballmer's name has been associated with NBA interests for many years, as has Mastrov, with the Warriors and others. It's not, 'Who is that guy again?'"
Owners will want to know exactly how many suites and corporate sponsorships you will sell, and to whom you will sell them. What are potential naming rights for the building? And for how much? Is the city and/or county and state on board with everything?
"The league has tremendous history on what's real and what's [B.S.]," the former executive said. "Both groups will have to show a fairly specific business plan. And who is going to do it for you? Who's going to be in the office every day? It's not likely to be Ballmer or Burkle."
* How did you make your money? Is your business one that will be viable in the near future? Basically, the league wants to make sure that what you're doing is, you know, legal.
* Are there any red flags? The league will pore into any problems a potential owner has -- any trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, concerning stocks and bonds trading and selling. Is the owner involved in any litigation? Are there any kinds of moral turpitude problems? Does the owner have any problems with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? The league will perform criminal and background checks on the owners so that there are no surprises at sale.
"It's stuff which is easily found out in today's world," the former executive said. "Leagues do tremendous, incisive background checks on everybody. However, there's still screwups. But you're pretty much platinum coated from what you can see here, with both of these groups."
And among the background checks that the owners will make is this question: have you ever owned all or part of another pro sports team before? The Sacramento group is hopeful that Burkle's successful ownership of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins will hold sway with NBA owners.
"Certainly, a strength the Mastrov/Burkle group has is in Ron, you already have someone who owns a pro sports team, which by any measurable standard has done very well, and who because of that already has a relationship with some of the NBA owners," said Chris Lehane, the political strategist who headed the "Think BIG Sacramento" task force that has lobbied for an arena deal for the last several years.
But a source with extensive knowledge of the process said over the weekend that ownership of teams in other sports is relevant more if you ran those teams poorly, than if you ran them well.
There are other "yes, buts."
Seattle is a larger market than Sacramento; the Seattle-Tacoma television market is ranked 12th nationally in Nielsen's Defined Market Area for 2012-13, with 1,818,900 television homes. The Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto market, as Nielsen defines it, is 20th nationally in DMA, with 1,387,710 homes. Advantage, Seattle, right?
Yes. But ...
Because there are no other major pro sports teams in the Sacramento market, the Kings are literally the only game in town most nights. They aren't competing with other pro teams for viewers -- and, more importantly, they aren't competing with other pro teams for ticket sales, suite rentals, corporate sponsorships and the like.
By contrast, a new NBA team in Seattle would have to go hammer and tong with the revitalized Seahawks for corporate dollars, as well as MLB's Mariners, a very strong Major League Soccer team, the Sounders, and the University of Washington.
A business source who's dealt with the NBA before on franchise sales says all those competitors could create doubts among owners that Seattle's market advantage equates to a financial advantage over Sacramento.
On the other hand (see?), while the Kings have a monopoly on the market in Sacramento, until recent years, they'd also had one of the league's poorer local television deals, and the spate of new local cable mega-deals for teams like the Lakers ($2-4 billion over 20 years with Time Warner Cable) has only increased the gap between the league's haves and have-nots.
In 2004, the Kings worked out a deal with what was then Comcast SportsNet West to broadcast its games. That network was rebranded Comcast SportsNet California in 2008, and added the Oakland A's games the following year. CSN California is now part of the NBC Sports Group, after Comcast bought NBC in 2011, and is the sister station to CSN Bay Area, which concentrates on teams in the San Francisco/Oakland markets.
"Certainly, it's not the Knicks and the Lakers. But in that period of time, it was a decent deal," said Ed Desser, who helped negotiate the original 2004 deal between Comcast and the Kings while president of NBA Television and New Media Ventrures. In 2005, Desser began his own sports media negotiation company, Desser Sports Media, Inc.
"Clearly, the marketplace has exploded in recent years," Desser said Friday. "We're seeing the Dodgers deal, the Lakers deal, the Texas Rangers, the Celtics. There are deals that are changing the marketplace. That's the world we're living in today. There's a reason Fox is out launching Fox Sports 1. They recognize the value of sports."
Hansen, I'm told, is hopeful to create an RSN in Seattle with the Kings as a centerpiece. One source briefed on the topic said over the weekend that the potential value of that television package could be $50 million a year, compared with the $14 million a year the Kings make in the CSN California deal.
But Seattle is one of three markets in which DirecTV, the satellite television giant owned by Rupert Murdoch, owns and operates its own RSN, called Root Sports. Root currently has the Mariners, Sounders and top-ranked college basketball power Gonzaga in its stable of teams. Another Comcast property, CSN Northwest, broadcasts some Seattle-based programming, but concentrates primarily on the Trail Blazers and other teams in Oregon.
Will those extra 431,190 homes in the Seattle market make a difference? They could. But (of course) it depends.
"It ultimately comes down to how many subscribers are there in the market," Desser said. "And how much are they, on the margin, in effect, willing to tax themselves to have the local programming? I would never suggest anyone bet against the value of local sports rights, whether those be regional or national. It's just been a rocketship."
Stern said there will be a pre-Board of Governors meeting in New York on April 3, at which the Sacramento-Seattle issue will be discussed extensively. That way, the regular BOG meeting on the 18th will be more of a decision forum than a discussion forum. So time is running out.
"Clearly, it doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that Seattle's a bigger market," Desser said. "On the flip side, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that there are no other teams residing in Sacramento. Do those things cancel each other out? They certainly go in opposite directions as factors. What are you left with? I'm not involved in the decision making on relocation and ownership approvals, but if you look at the (Seattle) group that's proposing to buy the team, they look like a pretty strong group financially. They've got an agreement. It's hard to imagine there's anything problematic about the purchasing side of the thing. Lots of people buy teams in markets other than where they live. The relocation, that's a different question."
In other words, yes. But. Get used to it.
(This week's record in parenthesis; last week's rankings in brackets)
1) Miami (4-0) : Thought Indiana, number 18 in a row, would provide a real test. But the Heat checked the Pacers off their "Revenge Tour" list. Here are the next 10: Atlanta, at Philadelphia, at Milwaukee, at Toronto, at Boston, at Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, at Orlando. Yes, the Celtics will be tough and the Bucks did smoke the Heat at Bradley Center in December. But that's not an imposing 10-spot. Which means there's a chance -- no, it's not likely, but there's a chance -- that the Heat could be sitting on a 28-game win streak on March 27, five short of the Lakers' record, when they play the Bulls in Chicago.
2) Oklahoma City (4-0) : Thunder can catch San Antonio for top record in the West with a win over the Spurs Monday.
3) Denver (4-0) : Won 13 straight at home, the longest win streak in Denver since the Nuggets played at the old McNichols Arena, when they ripped off 19 in a row in 1989.
4) San Antonio (1-1) : Gave up 136 to the Blazers Friday night. Would love to have been in Pop's film sessions over the weekend. Wait. Cancel that. I would not love to have been in Pop's film sessions over the weekend.
5) Memphis (3-0) : Have allowed back-to-back opponents to score 100 points exactly once this season; during recent rip of 11 wins in 12 games, have allowed an average of 87.5 per game, and one opponent to 100.
6) L.A. Clippers (2-1) : Clips closing in on the franchise's first-ever division championship, dating 42 years to the glory days as the late, lamented Buffalo Braves in the 1970s.
7) Knicks (3-1) : Knee injury to Carmelo Anthony, knee procedure for Amar'e Stoudemire comes at worst possible time: Knicks start huge and tough five-game West trip (Golden State, Denver, Portland, Clippers, Jazz) on Monday.
8) Indiana (1-2) : Danny Granger (sore left knee) out again, and you wonder if he can be much of a contributor at all this season.
9) Brooklyn (3-0) : Deron Williams Week: 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, 59.2 percent from the floor and 58.6 percent from 3-point range, including a franchise record 11 threes Friday (en route to 42 points) in the Nets' rout of Washington.
10) Chicago (1-2) : Question: if the Bulls didn't do anything to improve the team during the offseason, why should Derrick Rose come back before he thinks he's ready -- even if that means he doesn't come back at all this year? Why should he think this season is worth investing in if the front office didn't think it was?
11) Boston (3-1) : Two-plus years after he was traded for Kendrick Perkins, Jeff Green finally returned to Oklahoma City Sunday for the first time since the deal.
12) Golden State (2-2) : Reeling Warriors play 12 of their last 18 at home, where they are 20-9 this season.
13) Houston (1-2) : The Rockets play like the great Argentina teams in international competition: a never-ending series of drives, kicks and dishes until someone who can shoot is inexplicably wide open, shooting.
14) L.A. Lakers (3-1) [NR]: Have battled all the way back into the top eight in the west. A lot of work to do, but they do look like they're finally developing some rhythm and chemistry -- and at the right time of the year.
15) Atlanta (1-3) : Slump (lost five out of last six) has Hawks suddenly fiddling with eighth place in the east, which you do not want.
Dropped out: Utah .
Miami (4-0): This award is retired until further notice.
Charlotte (0-4): As is this one.
Could the NBPA be working on a settlement with Billy Hunter behind the scenes?
Sources indicate such talks could be picking up steam, though neither Hunter's representatives nor the union would comment Sunday. One source with knowledge of the situation said the two sides had been talking throughout the process and didn't believe there was any new momentum toward a potential deal.
But a settlement would be the smart, sensible thing for both sides to do. Neither Hunter nor the union needs to be embarrassed further in public by the continuing airing of their mutual dirty laundry; the report issued by the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison was devastating both to Hunter and to the union, as it detailed a lax and laissez-faire organization that got very little accomplished.
Hunter, fired as executive director by the union during All-Star weekend in Houston last month, is contemplating suing the union after it terminated his contract. Hunter's contract had three years remaining and more than $10 million due and he had had been the union's Executive Director since 1996.
The Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison report cited a "tainted negotiating process" that resulted in Hunter getting the new contract in 2010. It criticized the negotiations between Hunter and the union's counsel, the late Gary Hall -- who had been hired by Hunter and was Hunter's best friend. The new contract, according to the report, was not properly approved by the NBPA's Executive Committee, even though it was signed by NBPA president Derek Fisher.
The report says that more than a year later, an attorney from a firm working with the union during the lockout informed Hunter that his contract needed to be ratified properly, by the Executive Committee, but that Hunter never did so.
The report also criticized Hunter for his hiring of family members for jobs both directly in or affiliated with the union, including his daughter, son and daughter-in-law. Hunter fired his daughter and daughter-in-law and severed ties with the firm that employed his son in January.
After his dismissal, Hunter responded to the report in February with an "Executive Summary" of his own, in which he refuted the contention that his contract was not validly approved.
Citing Delaware corporate law, Hunter's attorneys argued that a corporation's actions "will not be declared invalid because the corporation was without the capacity to act. In the instant matter, Mr. Fisher, the President of the NBPA, executed the 2010 contract extension after the approval of the Executive Committee was obtained. Under Delaware law, at the moment that Mr. Hunter's contract extension was executed by the parties, a valid and enforceable contract existed."
Hunter's Executive Summary also noted he had not been accused of any criminal conduct while working for the union, and had helped bring the union from out of debt to having assets worth more than $80 million.
In a separate telephone interview, one of Hunter's attorneys, Corey Worchester, said the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison report centered on a "hypertechnical" argument.
"Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that if the contract had been put to a vote of the players, it wouldn't have been approved?" Worchester asked. "If a company takes an act, that act isn't invalid just because a box hasn't been checked.
That's not how it works under Delaware law."
But the union went ahead with the dismissal, and voted in several new members to the Executive Committee. Fisher was retained as president, though he received sharp questioning both from LeBron James and the Nets' Jerry Stackhouse -- who was subsequently nominated for and elected a vice president.
Everyone in the union expresses a desire to turn the page from the Hunter Era and move forward. The best way to do that is to remember what attorney Gavin D'Amato told a prospective client seeking a divorce at the end of the movie The War of the Roses: "I'm going to encourage you to be generous -- generous to the point of night sweats." Pay Billy Hunter his money -- or most of his money -- and turn the page.
Please say with me, three times: Love! Love! Love! From Bern Smith:
I've been a lifelong Charles Barkley fan (even read his books) but I've never received any answer to questions I've submitted to his columns. Perhaps you can answer one of them: Why did Kevin McHale keep Kevin Love buried on the bench while he was the coach in Minnesota? It seemed that as soon as McHale left, Love not only became a starter - but an All-Star; if not the best '4' in the league.
I don't think "buried" is accurate, Bern. Love played 25 minutes a game for McHale in 2008-09 -- it was the only year McHale coached Love, as he was fired after that season. Love played in all but one game as a rookie. I think it's probably fair to say that the Wolves weren't sure that Love and Al Jefferson -- who was traded to Utah that summer -- could play together, and that impacted Kevin's minutes. But the Jefferson trade opened up more minutes for Love, and he's obviously made the most of it.
Got a trap steamer, my name's called Hal/Forty Miles on the Panama Canal. From Zane Angelo:
... I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on why there have never been any great (or even any) Central American basketball players? Of course, one must consider years of political instability and relatively small populations, but why are there no scouts on new fronts (or are there)? Although far from a majority, players from Africa, South America, Asia and Europe have become somewhat common place on NBA teams. Due to the lack of serious leagues in CA the only scouts who would have the possibility to find these kids and give them an opportunity to play are university scouts, so why do you think none have done so?
I am not going to pretend I'm an expert on Central American basketball, Zane. But my guess is that soccer is still the dominant sport in many of those countries, and that there is not much in the way of infrastructure for basketball in Guatemala, Nicaragua and the other nations in that region, as there is in South American nations like Argentina and Brazil. And college scouts and teams tend to mine talent from the places they know and from where they've had success, which means they'll likely keep plumbing Europe (and, increasingly, Africa) for players. I know there have been a few clinics in Costa Rica in recent years with George Karl and Del Harris coming down to teach. But there just hasn't been the history necessary to build and maintain national programs; maybe Rolando Blackman, born in Panama, is the best from that region. (Swingman Gary Forbes, who played for the Nuggets and Raptors a couple of seasons ago, is from Panama; Belize-born guard Milt Palacio played for several NBA teams last decade.)
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and other suddenly "not dangerous" items the TSA can suddenly allow on planes to email@example.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
(weekly averages in parenthesis)
1) LeBron James (21 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, .544 FG, .783 FT): Tweeted his support to the Blackhawks during their unbeaten in regulation streak of 25 games before they were defeated by Colorado Friday.
2) Kevin Durant (25.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, .429 FG, .927 FT): After a subpar shooting week, barely above the 50 percent mark from the field, which would be the first time in his career he's reached that mark.
3) Chris Paul (16.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 11 apg, .600 FG, .833 FT): Had 14 assists and no turnovers in Clippers' rout of Detroit Sunday, but this was CP3's best dime of the week, by far.
4) Kobe Bryant (33 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 8.8 apg, .513 FG, .833 FT): The last-minute heroics against the Raptors Friday are the stuff of legend, but the most important stat Bryant put up last week was 48 free throws in four games. That tells you he's still able to turn the corner and get to the cup.
5) Carmelo Anthony: Played just 14 minutes Monday against Cleveland before leaving the game with a knee injury that has sidelined him the last three games. Not sure if he's going to be able to play Wednesday, in his first visit back to Denver since being traded to the Knicks in 2011.
Dropped out: Tony Parker
9 -- Years since perennial playoff teams Utah, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Orlando -- all currently out of the top eight in their respective conferences -- each failed to make the playoffs. The last dry spell for this quartet was 2004.
11 -- Overtime games for the Celtics this season, a franchise record, after Boston beat Atlanta Friday. The Cs are 7-4 in their OT games.
165 -- Points Kobe Bryant needs, after scoring 19 on Sunday against the Bulls, to pass Wilt Chamberlain (31,419 points) and move into fourth place on the league's all-time scoring list. That is some rarified air you're breathing, Vino.
1) Statement games are a cliche. Having said that, Miami's smackdown of Indiana on NBA TV Sunday surely sent shudders through everyone in the East who's even thinking his team is good enough to challenge a fully operational Heat Death Star.
2) Pretty good tilt tonight in San Antonio (8:30 ET), with the top record in the West at stake between the Spurs and Thunder. Um, also on NBA TV.
3) I went to a small D-I school. That's why I'm way more excited watching the "one-bid" leagues whose championships began being decided over the weekend, and will continue this week, than seeing which sixth or seventh team from a Power 6 conference sneaks in. The NCAA tournament means a lot to every school, but I think they mean more to schools that have one shot a year at them.
5) Cubes: you couldn't wear a tie to J.R.'s memorial service?
1) I don't think Serge Ibaka is a dirty player. But he should have been suspended a game for hitting Blake Griffin in the groin. Doesn't matter if it was intentional or not; people are disciplined every day for things they do, whether they meant to do them or not.
2) Here are Utah's next seven games: Detroit, at OKC, Memphis, New York, at Houston, at San Antonio, at Dallas. The Jazz have got to survive the next two weeks just to have a shot at staying in the West playoff chase.
3) There may have been a more PC way of saying this, but Dwight Howard's assessment of his former Orlando teammates wasn't that far off the mark. Basically, then-GM Otis Smith surrounded Howard with really, really good role players, whose strengths (passing, shooting) complemented Howard's weaknesses. But none of them were among the elite at their various positions. Has any one of them, for example, gotten anywhere near an All-Star team since?
4) God speed to a true NBA pioneer.
6) I will say this again: you have to be a drooling moron not to make a mint if you own an NFL team. And the NFL crying poor mouth, ever, with financials like this for one of its worst teams the last few years, is why players never believe management is being honest during work stoppages.
Larry Hughes was a good basketball player. At times, he was a really good basketball player. He was so promising at one point in his career that the Cavaliers gave him $65 million to play next to LeBron James. And so it wasn't altogether crazy that, in 1998, Hughes was the eighth pick in the NBA Draft, to the 76ers. Except that the ninth pick that year was Dirk Nowitzki, and the 10th pick was Paul Pierce. Eight players -- Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, the late Robert (Tractor) Traylor, Jason Williams and Hughes -- went ahead of them, but of that top 10, only the Diggler and the Truth are certain future Hall of Famers. And this season, only Pierce's Celtics are a certain playoff team, even after the loss of Rajon Rondo to a season ending ACL tear.
Players have come and gone in Boston, but Pierce is as constant a presence in the lineup on his side of town as Big Papi, aka David Ortiz, has been on his side. Pierce has put together a remarkably consistent career -- he has averaged between 18 and 26 points a game in 14 straight seasons, and has suffered only one significant injury, a stress reaction in his left foot that limited him to 47 games in 2006-07. This season may be the biggest challenge yet, with the Celtics rebuilding on the fly, losing Ray Allen to the Heat, and now playing the rest of the way without Rondo and promising rookie Jared Sullinger -- all as general manager Danny Ainge seriously explored trade talks with Pierce and Kevin Garnett right up to the trade deadline.
Yet with Pierce and KG leading the way, and Avery Bradley coming into his own, Boston remains dangerous, even as Pierce continues playing with a pinched nerve.
Me: It doesn't seem like this pinched nerve is going away.
Paul Pierce: It's something that I tweaked a couple of months ago. I remember the game, but I thought it was just a spasm. But it continued to be there. It's in the middle part of my spine, up toward my neck area. So now every time I put a shoulder kind of too hard into somebody, it gives me a pretty easy stinger down the right side of my arm. I've been trying to get treatment on it, trying to just loosen up my neck each and every day, massages, mobility, them type of things with the trainer. And it'll go away eventually.
Me: That's your game -- getting your body into people.
PP: Yeah, definitely. So I've had quite a few stingers this year, just from falling to the ground, going into people. It's pretty frustrating at times, and there's times when you wake up that you can't turn all the way to the right. So it's been tough. But I've been dealing with it.
Me: Any chance you could take a few games off to see if this thing can calm down?
PP: Well, it hasn't been to the point where it's very excruciating. It's just like annoying at times. I loosen it up every day. It's sort of like when you're eating and that little fly comes around that and bothers you. You really can't focus on what you're trying to do. But it hasn't gotten to the point where it's really excruciating.
Me: I know you're not better without Rondo. But you seem to still be an effective team without Rondo. Why is that happening?
PP: I think it has to go with the guys we have in there stepping up. Everybody has pretty much elevated their game. I think that the true character really comes out in a team when their backs are against the wall, and all the negative press and adversity is amongst you. Guys see that. And have something to prove. And I think that comes from growing up and making it to the NBA. People always said you're not going to make it, you're not going to be a very good player. So I think NBA players have always dealt with some kind of adversity, and this is just another one of those type of adversities, when you lose your best player, you lose another asset in Jared Sullinger, people really doubted you. And that's the time when you come together. Everybody elevates their game just to prove people wrong. That's something a lot of these guys have been doing their whole lives.
Me: What has the adjustment been for you on the floor? Not only did Rondo know exactly when and where you wanted the ball on the court, but you knew that he knew, and could play accordingly.
PP: I think my game is made to pretty much to play with anybody. I can do so many things off the ball, on the ball. I'm able to make that adjustment. The offense is totally different now, where there's a lot of passing, driving, kicking, screen-aways. And I think the ball literally is in one person's hand no more than two or three seconds, and the ball is moving. And so I'm able to make that adjustment. The other guys are making that adjustment. And I think it fits a lot of them quite well.
Me: I would think it's enjoyable to watch the ball move like that.
PP: It's fun. There's no pressure on me or KG to try and lead this team in scoring every night. You have a lot of guys who can step up. We've got a lot of guys that can play. It's fun to watch them get the ball and doing good things with it, because you know they're capable of it. [When] you have that great, great superstar who can put the ball in, score 30, 40 points every single night, the ball tends to stay in that person's hands. But [here] you've got about five, six guys who are capable of scoring between 15 and 20 points. So to make that extra pass, you really feel good about it, because you know these guys are capable of stepping up.
Me: How do you keep Rondo connected to the team this year?
PP: He's come around to a lot of games, pre-surgery. [Rondo had his right ACL surgically repaired Feb. 12.] He's had his surgery now, so I'm pretty sure he's been resting at home. I think he kind of stays in tune with what's going on. I'm sure he's watching a lot of games. I'm sure we'll see him in the locker room throughout the rest of the season. Maybe through phone calls and texts, guys are just keeping him involved, letting him know what we're doing on the road or where we're eating at, some of his favorite spots. So I'm sure he's going to stay connected. Once he starts rehabbing we'll see him in the weight room, doing things of that nature.
Me: I know Rondo was really involved with helping the young guys navigate being on the road and did things with them. Do you and KG take that role up with them?
PP: I mean, I think we all take that role, between me, KG, Doc [Rivers], Jet [Jason Terry], the team has come together since the injury. We know we have to if we're going to make a run. We're a little more connected through the adversity, and it's been fun. It's been a fun run so far.
Me: But even with a veteran player like Jet, you haven't been through the playoffs with him. So how do you short-circuit needing to spend years with him to build up that trust so that you can trust him this season, in the playoffs?
PP: Well, you know, Jet comes from a regimen that's been built for success. You know he's a champion. You know he was a general where he came from. It's like bringing another Army general into another platoon, and you know his resume. So you know he's been through the big wars. And there's a certain level of respect. You know what he's capable of doing. It's been an easy adjustment for Jet, just personally, off the court, on the court. If you didn't know it, you'd think that Jet has been on this team for like the last four or five years. It's crazy. His personality and the things he brings really fits into what we do around here. Like I said, if you didn't know, you'd think he'd been around here a while.
Me: When you won in '08 KG famously said 'anything is possible!' Are you carrying that to this year, especially with all the injuries?
PP: We know we're going to be a tough out, regardless. I think we're going to be that team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs. Right now we're so unpredictable. You don't know what we're capable (of). You look up and we play teams, sometimes we lose to bad teams, and then we beat the better teams. We don't know which Boston team is going to show up, and at any given moment we can get hot and beat the best of the best in the NBA. We've shown that we can beat Miami; we've shown that we can beat Oklahoma City; we've shown we can beat New York. You're talking about some of the best teams in the NBA. We're just going to continue to fly under the radar and see what happens.
Me: You want Miami again, don't you?
PP: I always thrive on wanting to play against the best. Right now, Miami's the best. It would be nice to see them in the playoffs. Winning's not easy. In order to win, you've got to see the best. And I think it would be fun for the NBA.
Me: Is there part of you that knows the clock is ticking and that you may not get too many more shots at this?
PP: Oh, definitely. I think about it every day. Who knows? This could be my last year, [or] next year. I'm just taking it day by day now. I don't know what the future holds for me, and I'm just going to enjoy the moments while I'm in them.
Me: Does part of that 'I'll show you' mentality extend to your own management?
PP: Not really. I'm 'a go out and do what I do. I'm gonna try and be the best player each and every night. Management's gonna do what they do. I have no control over that. But I feel like even at the age of 35, I'm one of the best players at my position in the game.
Me: Do you ever go to Danny and say, 'Look, we still have a shot at this. Don't break this up yet'?
PP: Not once. I think my career is gonna play out, regardless of what I say. It's been that way since the beginning. You know, I had no say in getting drafted 10th to the Celtics. I had no control in bringing the KG trade over. I feel my book is written, for some reason. I think it's going to play out for the better. And I'm just gonna put my faith in that.
Me: But you desperately want to retire a Celtic.Me: to retire a Celtic.
PP: I mean, of course. I've been here my whole life as far as basketball wise, of course. It doesn't really doesn't happen in today's NBA. You really don't see it, although you could see a few guys -- Kobe, Timmy D, Dirk Nowtizki. Those guys, there's probably a 100 percent chance they'll retire with their franchises. But, who knows? I've been in trade rumors the last two years. So you never know what can happen.
Blake Griffin (@BlakeGriffin32), Tuesday, 7:58 p.m., after learning the NBA had fined Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka $25,000—but issued no suspension—after Ibaka's shot to Griffin's groin in the fourth quarter of the Thunder-Clippers game March 3. The league's decision prompted retorts from several players (some NSFW).
"Dennis Rodman was a great basketball player. And as a diplomat, he is a great basketball player. And that's where we'll leave it."
-- Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, on Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea, where the former basketball star hung out with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rodman was grilled on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanapolous" by the host, who wondered how Rodman squared his contention that his good buddy Kim heads a government that routinely jails thousands of citizens with no cause and represses its citizens on a daily basis.
"I'm tired of hearing about 19 starting lineups being a lot. I had 31 one year, so you guys can all go (bleep) yourselves. And I mean that in the most endearing way."
-- Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, jokingly chiding reporters who have pointed out Dallas' numerous injuries this season and the effect that's had on continuity and chemistry. Carlisle was referring to his 2005-06 Pacers team, which indeed used 31 different starting lineups en route to a 41-41 regular season and a first-round loss to the Nets.
"I feel like I got dumped. That's how I feel. Bad breakup. So I'm gonna make my ex hate me the next time they see me."
-- New Rocket Thomas Robinson, in SLAM Magazine, describing how he processed being traded from Sacramento less than four months into his rookie season to Houston.
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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