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David Aldridge

LeBron James and Kevin Durant
Who will blink first in the MVP staredown of KD vs. LeBron? David Aldridge makes his pick.

Predictions at the ready as new season knocks at the door


Posted Oct 28, 2013 10:10 AM - Updated Oct 28, 2013 12:54 PM

God, this is probably a big mistake.

One of my favorite phrases, dusted off and used ad nauseum this time of year to curious fans, is "we'll all find out together." It comes honestly. There are so many questions people have about their favorite players or teams, and they really want definitive answers.

Unfortunately, I remain a troglodyte, a captive of 20th- century thinking and reporting. It is just not easy for me to speculate on how good or bad a player or team will be when the season has not yet begun; whether a team will win or lose a big game before it's played. I just can't do it.

But in our Argument Culture, where everything must be debated within an inch of its life, this does not do.

So, why now? Why this bad Carnac impression?

Well, you seem to like these kinds of things.

With the season getting under way Tuesday, the level of anticipation is sky high. No labor issues. No haves and have nots; there are no more excuses for teams that can't make a go of it competitively. No franchises teetering on the edge of relocation; no fan bases needing to feel skittish in the short term.

Teams like Charlotte and Milwaukee were aggressive in free agency, not meek. San Antonio -- and, now, Indiana -- stand as testaments to small-market teams that can build championship-level squads through shrewd hirings, drafts, trades and free-agent signings. Others aren't there yet, which could make for some interesting, um, positioning for next June's NBA Draft. But everybody has something to play for.

And now, the caveat I always use when I make the very bad decision to look into the future: if I'm wrong on any of these, I'll deny I ever made them, even if you show me the link. If I'm right on any of them, I'll eat out in your town for years to come!

MVP -- Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City

This is half belief, half expectation.

The belief: Durant chokes on the notion that James is vastly superior to him. That kind of bile drives a man, but only a man with Durant's work ethic and talent can turn that drive into an even higher level of than what he's already produced in six NBA seasons. At the ripe old age of 25, what's left for Durant to do but lead the Thunder back to the Finals, and to once again challenge LBJ's place at the top of the heap? Durant has already become an even more efficient scorer (his Effective Field Goal percentage last season, .559, was a career best) and has picked it up at the defensive end (he was third in the league in Defensive Win Shares last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and 18th in the league in Defensive Rating). It's also hard not to see injuries and/or fatigue finally begin to take their toll on Miami. It may not be James; it could be Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. But any long-term injury to any of the SuperFriends will have a cascading effect on the remaining ones, including James.

The expectation: There tends to be voter fatigue in picking the same people, year after year, for awards. People often want to be on what's "next," and who's hot. And so I expect around 10 percent or so of voters are just going to be sick of picking James for MVP, and will be looking for an alternative. Durant is likely to be that alternative.

Rookie of the Year -- Victor Oladipo, Orlando

With the Magic hip-deep in rebuilding, the rookie swingman from Indiana will come off the bench behind Arron Afflalo, but no matter how or when he starts playing, he'll finish a lot of games for Jacque Vaughn. Orlando has some promising pieces, like Tobias Harris, who'll be with the Magic all year after coming from Milwaukee at the trade deadline last season. But the Magic were still 25th in the league in scoring (94.1) last season. Someone has to put the ball in the basket on the regular, and Oladipo's physicality and defense will give him a chance to be effective in transition and not have to settle for jumpers.

Coach of the Year -- Doc Rivers, L.A. Clippers

It's easy to see the Clippers cruising to a Pacific Division title, but they did that last season for Vinny Del Negro, and Lord knows there wasn't much support for Del Negro to get the award. But Rivers was brought west to go one better than VDN, to polish an already shiny apple, and with some tweaks, like getting DeAndre Jordan to diversify his game and having the personnel VDN didn't to surround Blake Griffin and Chris Paul with shooters, the Clippers have a pretty good chance of winning close to 60 in the regular season, and getting a top three seed in the West. That should be enough to get Rivers his second COTY award --despite his championship and great works with Boston, his other honor came in 2000, after leading a cast of ragamuffins in Orlando to a .500 record and a near playoff berth.

ALL NBA FIRST TEAM

Guards: Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers & Derrick Rose, Chicago
Forwards: LeBron James, Miami & Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
Center: Dwight Howard, Houston

I tried really hard to pick James Harden over one of the other guards, but both Rose and Paul are likely to be in the MVP discussion by season's end. (No, Kobe Fans, I don't think he's fallen off and is no longer worth mentioning; I just don't know when he's going to start playing this season, so it's hard to give him consideration over others who are on the court.) Despite talents like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and the ageless Tim Duncan at forward, James and Durant have the first-team spots on lock until further notice, and Howard looks healthy, ornery and focused for the Rockets, which means he should be back to dominating the paint.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Roy Hibbert, Indiana

The Pacers' emerging superstar was fifth in the league in defensive win shares last season (teammate Paul George led the league with 6.3), and there's no reason to expect Indy to take a step backward defensively. George is outstanding on the wing, almost always taking the opposition's top perimeter guy every night. But having Hibbert in the back of Indy's defense to clog everything up this side of Kokomo helps George immensely. Hibbert has become a master at going up to challenge shots in the paint without fouling; he's the perfect hub of the Pacers' defensive wheel.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR -- Klay Thompson, Golden State (or, Harrison Barnes, Golden State)

With all of the Warriors' injuries during the preseason it's hard to say for sure that Thompson will come off the bench, but it looks like it's heading that way, and it's the move that is probably easiest for coach Mark Jackson to manage. Barnes is just too doggone promising not to max out his considerable potential, and that would come with Barnes playing next to Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. And Thompson would/will fill an obvious scoring need for the Warriors coming off the bench; Barnes could certainly be used creatively in point forward-type situations, but who would he be creating for? Toney Douglas on spot up jumpers? It makes more sense for Thompson to be the hub of the second unit, something at which he could be very good.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER -- Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto

My voting brethren often conflate a player's "improvement" in a given season with increases in playing time; i.e., the guy isn't actually "better," he's just playing more than he did the year before, and his numbers are increased as a result. Valanciunas is getting better on the court, though, and has a chance to become one of the East's best bigs this season. The 21-year-old started putting up solid numbers last year when he returned from injury, and there's no reason to believe his development won't continue.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Rodney Stuckey, Pistons

Kidding! Just seeing if you were paying attention.

Derrick Rose, Chicago

First, keep in mind this isn't an actual NBA award ... it hasn't been given out since 1985-86. But we are giving one out because we can.

Amazing how topsy and/or turvy we become in the space of a few months. Last year, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson's amazing return from an ACL tear made him the bellcow for recovery in all sports. It was not enough to return in an insanely short time frame -- in AP's case, nine months -- you had to return and be even better than you were. And, so, players like Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III pushed the envelope, coming back, seemingly, before they were really ready to play again. Rose went the other way, not returning during an achingly public rehab, taking the verbal arrows without retort, while guys like the Knicks' Iman Shumpert were lauded for their quick recovery. There was innuendo, both in Chicago and nationally: what's taking D-Rose so long? Thought he was a tough guy. Well, he is. And he's back.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR -- Billy King, Brooklyn

King was both lucky and good. Lucky because the Commish cited league rules to shut down the budding Kevin Garnett-Doc Rivers combo the Clippers were trying to unearth from Boston during The Finals. This left KG available when King worked out the scenario that netted Brooklyn the trio of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry just before the Draft at the end of June. Either way, the deal (and Mikhail Prokhorov's checking account) changed the calculus in the east. But King really should get the award for maxing out his mini mid-level exception on Andrei Kirilenko, who should have signed for at least twice what he's getting from the Nets this season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS: Miami (top seed), Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn, New York, Atlanta, Cleveland, Washington

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS: Oklahoma City (top seed), San Antonio, L.A. Clippers, Houston, Memphis, Golden State, Denver, Dallas

EAST SEMIFINAL TEAMS: Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn

WEST SEMIFINAL TEAMS: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, L.A. Clippers, Memphis

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Chicago over Miami

The issue here isn't will, it's health. The Heat have had to slog their way to three straight Finals; each succeeding march has been more and more taxing mentally as well as physically. They've played 53 postseason games the last three seasons in reaching those Finals. Those weigh on the body. Dwyane Wade gutted his way through a knee injury during the Finals; though he looks great, his knee wasn't fat. It was worn out. You wonder if he can get through another campaign. You wonder if the Heat's depth can hold up for another run. It's not about their heart or toughness or LeBron James' greatness. It's about time. Time is undefeated. And the Bulls are ready to take advantage.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Oklahoma City over Clippers

Same issue here. The Spurs have the willingness to do the hard work necessary, but they had an inside straight to the Finals last season; OKC fell without Russell Westbrook, the Lakers were a shell of themselves without Kobe Bryant, and San Antonio was as healthy as it could possibly be, given its aging core. It's just hard to see that confluence of events occurring again this season. But the top teams in the west are so even, any one of five or six teams could break through. I'm picking OKC because I think Westbrook will be back soon enough to make a difference, and Kevin Durant (see above) will have a magical season, and someone -- maybe Serge Ibaka, maybe Jeremy Lamb -- will be that third player who lifts the Thunder in the postseason.

THE FINALS: Oklahoma City over Chicago

Seven games of Rose versus Durant would be pretty good, yes? And, remember: the above is for recreational purposes only. Please, please: no wagering.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(No, no one has moved from the first preseason ranking a couple of weeks ago. That will begin with the start of the regular season. If the teams don't take the exhibition games seriously, I can't.)

1) Miami: Miami Herald reports that former Heat player Mike Miller contemplating lawsuit against his former team after a now-former employee introduced Miller to a man that Miller claims defrauded him out of $1.7 million.

2) San Antonio: Spurs signed Josh Howard Friday, and waived him Saturday, but he'll be back to ultimately back up Kawhi Leonard at the three; Howard will sign with the Spurs' NBA Development League team in Austin and play with the Toros on an injury rehab.

3) Indiana: Hoo, boy: Danny Granger (calf) back on the shelf, not expected to be available for start of season.

4) L.A. Clippers: A little surprised that the Clips cut Lou Amundson.

5) Memphis: Grizzlies have to hope preseason shooting woes are just typical preseason rust-shedding. But they need Tayshaun Prince to be himself starting Wednesday in San Antonio.

6) Golden State: Residual benefit of having Steph Curry locked up insanely under value: Warriors could give Andrew Bogut more than $12 million a season for three years on an extension, with incentives, and still not have tax worries down the road.

7) Oklahoma City: Rookie Steven Adams had a strong preseason; will it translate to regular minutes in the regular season?

8) Brooklyn: Can The Prohkorov buy Deron Williams a new ankle, or would that add to the tax bill?

9) New York: The 13-year, $1 billion renovation of Madison Square Garden is finally complete. But are Knicks championship-level material in their championship-level (read: money-sucking) new building?

10) Houston: Harden bumps knees in exhibition finale Friday; says he's fine.

11) Chicago: Bulls go 8-0 in the preseason. It means nothing. Derrick Rose averaging 20 a game? That means something.

12) Denver: Nuggets aren't close to healthy as regular season begins.

13) Atlanta: Jeff Teague? Dennis Schroder? The 404 is probably not big enough for the both of you. At least it won't be by the end of this season, in all likelihood.

14) L.A. Lakers: You hope Steve Nash can get healthy and play the way he's capable this season, but right now, it doesn't look promising.

15) Dallas: Mavericks, who open at home against Atlanta Wednesday, start the season with an NBA-best 473 consecutive home sellouts, dating to Dec. 15, 2001. Dallas has sold out an additional 60 playoff games in a row during the same time period.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT...

What does a star player do when he loses his comfort level?

Al Horford is always willing to adapt. Dominican-born, he picked up English rather easily; now, he and his wife Amelia, the former Miss Universe (it's a tough life Al is leading) are contemplating learning French or Italian. "We've got the Rosetta Stone tapes," he says.

So, he's not resistant to learning new things. But, you wonder on his behalf, how long can he wait in Atlanta?

Horford gets very little national attention, yet has established himself as one of the best centers in the game. The third pick in the celebrated 2007 Draft, after Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, Horford averaged a double-double last season for the Hawks, going up against big men often taller and bigger, yet using his quickness and explosiveness to more than hold his own.

In Atlanta, Horford has helped the Hawks become a perennial playoff team; since an eight-year postseason drought, the Hawks have made the playoffs six years in a row. But they've never gotten past the semifinals, and they've shuffled ownership, management, coaches and personnel the last couple of years.

During this playoff run they've gone from Billy Knight to Rick Sund to, now, Danny Ferry as general manager, and from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew to, now, former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer as coach. They went from a team built around forward Josh Smith and guard Joe Johnson -- whom the Hawks gave a six-year, $124 million deal in 2010 -- to one where Horford is now the focal point. Johnson's contract was shipped to Brooklyn last year; Smith walked as a free agent to Detroit last summer.

And Horford is still in Atlanta. At 27, with seven seasons under his belt, he's in the prime of his career. The prospects for stability with Ferry and Budenholzer in charge are high; Ferry is determined to build something that lasts and that can contend for a title. To do so, Horford will have to adapt his game at both ends of the court.

Adjustments -- that horror of a word -- are nonetheless the essence of the NBA. During seasons, during games, and especially during playoff series, players have to toss what isn't working and change on the fly. It's easier when a team hasn't won or had success, though. Horford and the Hawks have, albeit not at a championship level. So, how patient can he be while Ferry's and Budenholzer's regime takes hold?

"That's a very fair question," Horford said by phone Friday afternoon. "I do realize that, and I do want to win. I do want to be in a really good position to compete. I wonder. I do wonder what's going to be our next move as a team. But for now, all I can focus on is this team, this year. But absolutely -- I want to compete. I want to be part of a winning, successful, championship team. I do trust that Danny's moving in the right direction, but like you said, I have been in seven years already. Some things are going to have to happen the next few years."

Understand: Horford is not making a threat, or a demand, even. It's as if he's pointing out today is Monday. It's an observation. Which is good news for the Hawks, because Ferry has no interest in starting over by dealing the Hawks' key pieces. Horford is a lynchpin.

"We certainly respect Al's value to our program," Ferry texted Sunday. "He is a high level basketball player, teammate and person. I am excited to see his continued growth as one of our leaders under Coach Bud."

So the Hawks re-signed free agent guard Kyle Korver this summer and added the Utah duo of Paul Millsap (two-years, $19 million) and DeMarre Carroll. They also matched Milwaukee's four-year, $32 million offer sheet for starting point guard Jeff Teague in July, despite drafting German point guard Dennis Schroder in the first round in June.

Budenholzer wasn't eager to leave San Antonio for a startup.

"I think that was really important, to have a guy who'd been an established player, who'd been to a couple of All-Star games, and who was a good guy, a character guy," Budenholzer said Saturday, referencing Horford. "You need those kind of people to fulfill something. Instead of taking it down, you've already got a player like him to be a core-type guy. For me, looking at jobs, it was a big part of the attraction."

Budenholzer has simplified things for the Hawks, especially on defense. He's brought the San Antonio concepts: keep point guards out of the paint, force it baseline, everyone keeps a foot in the paint whenever possible, and never -- ever -- give up corner 3-pointers. That requires a trust from one teammate to another that often takes years to establish; if the Hawks are playing, say, the Wizards, and John Wall breaks Teague down off the dribble, the natural inclination for the Hawks' other defenders is to come off of their man and help Teague as Wall penetrates.

But they can't do that. Carroll, the likely starting small forward, can't leave his man -- in this instance, either Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster -- who have likely spotted up in the corner awaiting Wall's pass. Carroll has to trust that Horford or Millsap can contest Wall's drive in the paint and make him finish a tough shot over their length.

"It changes a lot," Horford said. "At times you have a guy like Derrick Rose or LeBron penetrating, and you're the closest guy, so you feel like you want to help. But coach has completely gotten us to understand that we can't give up those corner threes. On ball (defense) is important, but the most important thing is help defense."

Because they'd been together so long, Horford knew when Smith was going to freelance on defense. Smith's defensive chops and instincts were such that he often was right.

"But now it's a new challenge for me individually, and I think as a team now, we definitely have to do it as a unit," Horford said. "The thing that I like with Coach Bud's system, he's not singling players out. Everyone's held accountable, especially at the defensive end. And that's something that's good to see. There's no added pressure on me as far as that."

The Hawks have adjusted to Budenholzer's defense much quicker than they have to his offense. It was Budenholzer who often made the defensive adjustments in San Antonio, and it was he whom Gregg Popovich listened to and trusted implicitly.

"I think to a certain degree that the defense, there's a lot of kind of simplistic, foundational-type things that we're gonna live with, and it's gonna be the same now, it's gonna be the same at the end of the season, it's gonna be the same in a couple of years," Budenholzer said. "The foundation of the defense is really not tricky or somehow complicated. I think we just need to get better at executing it, understanding it, getting more disciplined. But I think it can be picked up more quickly than what we do offensively."

Last week, in a tape session, Budenholzer was about to point out that a player blew a defensive assignment, but before he could speak, one of the player's teammates pointed it out. That's what "accountability" means; players disciplining themselves before the coach has to, and wanting to do better for each other as much as for themselves, the next contract, or something else.

The bigger changes for Horford are at the offensive end. Early in his career, Atlanta was notorious for running clearouts for Johnson (remember "Iso Joe?") that left the other players watching. Later, with Smith handling the ball more, the Hawks became one of the best teams in the league at running pick and rolls with their power forward and center, Smith and Horford. The "4/5," as it's known in basketballese, is rare for most teams. But it was a staple of the Hawks' halfcourt offense. (Budenholzer says he may "mess around with" the idea of Horford and Millsap running some screen-roll together this season.)

Atlanta also used Teague and Horford in the more traditional point guard-center screen and roll, often to good effect; Horford is one of the best bigs in the league at getting off the screen and getting into the paint, quickly, for easy lobs and dunks, and if teams stayed with him as he rolled, Teague had lanes for floaters and drives.

Horford also is one of the best pick-and-pop big men in the game, deadly from the circle. According to Synergy Sports, almost a quarter of Horford's shots last season came off of some kind of screen-and-roll action.

But Budenholzer wants the ball to move among all five players, just as it did with the Spurs. San Antonio's "Hammer" series has become a staple of the team's halfcourt attack, with the ball starting on the strong side, but winding up with a wing on the weakside getting an open corner three. The Spurs, like the Heat (and the Celtics before they broke up the Big Four), love misdirection in their halfcourt offense, where the play starts on one side and winds up getting to the other in a hurry.

The Spurs dismantled one of the league's best defenses, the Grizzlies, in the Western Conference finals, using motion and misdirection, and they rained threes on the Heat in The Finals, their spacing exquisite. But it's a style that requires discipline to execute properly.

"It's just a different style of play," Horford said. "Before, we were running a lot, pretty much running all over the play, pretty free, tempo, running the break. With Bud, we can run, but he wants us to be more organized about it. To me, it's taking time knowing where I can run the floor hard, or when I'm supposed to be back, because I'm the second big. Offensively, it's taking me time to get adjusted to that, making sure I'm running in my lane. He wants the guards to be out wide, and if they're out wide, we can kind of attack that way. So that's something that it's taking time for me to adjust to."

Horford will get the ball in the post, just in different ways, off of different actions.

"There's going to be times where we give him the ball, even in our motion -- he's going to get it," Budenholzer said. "If not, we're going to space off of him, and he's going to make plays. But I think the more the ball moves and the more people move, the more space he's going to have to operate, and he's such a good passer, too, I think with guys constantly moving, he's always been known as a good passer, but I think that's going to be highlighted even more, potentially, with some of the things I hope we're going to be able to execute."

Budenholzer also wants Horford to be harder to guard. Teams began to load up on the pick-and-pop last season, using a weakside defender or a hard show. "That shot isn't as open as it used to be," Horford said. So Budenholzer wants Horford to drive more, use his quickness for short rolls to the basket, or to get to his pet post shot, his jump hook. Horford's quicker than, say, Duncan getting to the rim.

"Al rolling to the basket is going to be a problem," Budenholzer said. "He really is going to put pressure on the defense."

But Budenholzer wants him, and everyone else, to be assertive, make quick moves. The Spurs were a top-seven team in pace the last two years, making a concerted and successful effort to play faster as Tony Parker became the team's dominant player. By contrast, Atlanta has never been higher than 13th in pace in any of their six playoff seasons.

Most of the Hawks' offense is going to be motion, but when Horford is in the post, he can't wait for the defense. And he can't be solely reliant on the hook. Duncan is one of the all-time greats at footwork, and he's got a counter for everything -- a turnaround or fadeaway if defenders try to take away his hook, a drop step, an up and under. Horford is still adapting.

Horford has worked most of the summer on his counters. He's done faceup work with assistant coach Kenny Atkinson and back-to-the-basket moves with assistant coach Darvin Ham, in his first season in Atlanta. But it's hard to break old habits. That jump hook helped Horford get $60 million and make two All-Star teams, and it's not easy to wean him from it.

"Honestly, I still think about it," he says. "Especially when in game situations, I have to stick to my go-tos. But then again, it's like, everybody in the league knows you're going to go to it. You have to re-invent yourself. So it's something that, it is in the back of my mind. And I'm fighting with that now. I know I can do it. It's just a matter of start doing it more often, and getting people to acknowledge that other side, too."

Said Budenholzer: "We've worked on it, talked about it. And it's funny, because sometimes, he's just stubborn, and he still goes left. Just like Avery [Johnson]. Everybody knew Avery was going left, and he still went left. Everybody knows Al's going to that jump hook, and he still goes to it. It gets better, but he's still dominant to that left shoulder."

With all the roster moves, including the signing of free agent Elton Brand, Horford is the only remaining Hawk with any institutional memory of the franchise's last few years. He's become the public face of the franchise. Always a leader by deed, he may have to become one in word as well. That doesn't mean rah-rah speeches and public pronouncements; it can mean simple things like befriending Pero Antic, the Macedonian big man who has been a star in Europe for years (he just led Olympiacos to consecutive EuroLeague titles), but who is an NBA rookie after signing a one-year deal with the Hawks in August.

It means bonding quickly with Gustavo Ayon, the free-agent center who has bounced around in his career -- New Orleans to Orlando to Milwaukee to Atlanta -- who could use a teammate who speaks his language and can translate BudSpeak.

Horford hasn't spent a lot of time taking to Ferry about his vision of building the team.

"But I see his vision in a way," Horford said. "He wants us to be a team that plays with more pace, that plays faster, very similar to how San Antonio played. To me, as far as players' vision, I don't really, Danny and I don't really talk about that. To me, I'm just kind of focusing on what we have now. I'm sure when the time comes, he'll talk to me about certain issues, what we should do with the team."

Ferry isn't going for the quick fix. The Hawks made long-shot bids for Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, but they're looking to build an organization in the Spurs' mold. And the Spurs don't deal their key components.

"My first time around Al was last year, and he certainly was a very good leader for us," Ferry said. "It's always great when your best players are hard working, good teammates. They naturally tend to be leaders as well. Last year, with the changes, and this year with some of the changes, certainly we'll continue to lean on him for his leadership with our group."

Horford has two years left on the five-year, $60 million extension he got from Atlanta in 2010. He can see his former University of Florida teammate, Joakim Noah, with a similar deal in Chicago -- and with Derrick Rose. He can see the Heat and the Knicks and the Nets, loaded up with multiple stars, trying to win now -- and the Cavaliers and Wizards of the east getting better.

The Hawks are good, but not great. Horford is patient. For now.

"My bigger challenge is, as you know, half of our team is new," he says. "And a lot of the key pieces that we had in the past are gone. It's been a matter of me, as much as we can, practicing together, and in games, starting to learn that chemistry, learning to play off of one another. For me, it's a transition I'm still working on. But I feel like we're making progress."

...AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

I hope your name is actually "Kray," and that you're not shortening "crazy" (or, "krazy") to "Cray" or "Kray," like the kids are doing these days. It's one lousy letter! How much time are you saving by saying "cray" instead of "crazy"? Man, I'm getting old. Sorry. From Kray Howard:

I know your story on Brett Brown wasn't at all about Andrew Gaze but felt that as a student of the game like yourself, that you should know that Andrew played a season for the Spurs in the late 90s (as one reader pointed out this week) and that his long career back in Australia is the stuff of legend. He is undoubtedly in the top 5 Aussie players of all time, and has accomplished a lot more than Bogut or Mills, even if NBA success eluded him. If you were a fan of basketball in the 90s in Australia then you knew about Gazey. He was somewhat of a Kobe Bryant or in more of a FIBA sense, like the great Brazilian, Oscar. He could get buckets and had a shooting stroke that we were told to mimic. I dare say that one day he'll also be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame just as Oscar was this year, as he went to four Olympics with Australia and was a prolific scorer in the international arena.

Also, Brown coached the North Melbourne Giants, not to be confused with the Melbourne Tigers or South East Melbourne Magic, which also existed at the time. Yes, basketball in Melbourne, for such a small city, was popular.

Wow, more than Bogut? Bogut was the No. 1 pick in the Draft, Kray. But I'll take your word for it; I have no doubt that Gaze had an enormous impact on the game Down Under (or, as this map and variations of the same would conclude, and not unreasonably, from your point of view, Up Over). As for the mistake on the team Brett Brown coached in Melbourne, that's on me, and I apologize.

He finds my xenophobia a bit off-putting. From James Bianconi:

I think it was pretty ridiculous for you to gripe about David Stern mentioning that the league is hypothetically open to considering altering the start times of some NBA games. There was absolutely no indication in the NBA.com article to which you linked that games would be pushed to "a midnight starting time in the states so that fans in China could see the game at a more comfortable hour". In fact, said article even makes a point of saying.

"Any dramatic move would obviously be met with resistance from fans in the United States and Canada, not to mention some of the teams themselves, if times of tipoff are moved much earlier than the current 7 or 7:30 p.m ET. One option that will undoubtedly be discussed is altering only weekend games, when schedules for spectators are more flexible and it is not unusual for early-evening or day starts."

So while I agree that I too would be mad if a player got injured because the NBA decided to force a game in Boston at 4 am so that it would air live in Shanghai at 4pm, that scenario is completely ludicrous and in no way related to what is actually being proposed. I apologize for sending in an annoying email complaining about a single throw-away sentence in a 9,000 word article, but this fell far below your usual standard of thoughtful reflection. I can't let you get away with a knee-jerk "the NBA may decide to consider thinking about changing something... OBVIOUSLY IT MUST BE BAD AND NBA PLAYERS WILL DIE ON THE COURT" reaction. Is it really so terrible that people in China could get to watch a small number of regular season games at a time slightly more convenient than 7am?

Well, James, you were right. It certainly was an annoying e-mail. But I get the point. I do not think it will be the end of the world if games start an hour or two earlier on occasion in the States, but part of the reason that, for example, the NFL is so popular is that people know, for the most part, when it will be on — Sunday morning and afternoon, with the occasional Sunday and Monday night thrown in. (I think that's one of the reasons the Thursday night package is struggling to get traction.) Believe me, though: I get that the future is global and the NBA is determined to have a foothold in China, for a lot of reasons.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and 13-yeer-old nieces and nephews (or, maybe, Nick Burns) who can get the Obamacare website up and running to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!)

BY THE NUMBERS

107 - Miles per hour that Portland police claim that Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson was driving when stopped Saturday morning, according to the Oregonian. That would be 52 miles over the posted highway speed limit.

58 - Minimum number of games played that will now be required by the league to qualify for league leaders in various non-shooting categories. Previously, players had to have played in at least 70 games during the season or reach certain minimum totals in those categories to qualify. The league is also changing its requirements for qualification in 3-point shooting percentage leaders. Players will now have to make at least one three per game, or at least 82 total, to qualify.

$38,000,000 - Amount still owed to former Magic guard Gilbert Arenas by the team, after Orlando and Arenas restructured his contract when the team used its amnesty provision on him in 2011. Yahoo! Sports recently ranked Arenas' $111 million contract, which Orlando absorbed from Washington after trading for Arenas in 2010, as the worst NBA contract so far this century; TMZ found Arenas and asked him his reaction, during which he noted that the Magic still owed him the $38 million through 2016.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) The curtain rises. There is a dynasty in Miami and there are suitors to the throne in Indiana, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Memphis, New York and Los Angeles. (Except they're not the Knicks and Lakers.) I'll need to go back to Cleveland this year to watch Kyrie Irving, and to New Orleans to watch three young guards (Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Austin Rivers) work with one great young big (Anthony Davis). I've got Damian Lillard and Cody Zeller on my to-do list. There's the possibility that the Wizards could be good, and the probability that the Warriors will be must-see TV. Houston no longer has a problem, and is well on the way to a long-term solution. God, I love Opening Week in the NBA.

2) It will be a good opening night at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento when the Kings host the Nuggets. The city and its fans stepped up when it looked like the Kings were going to Seattle, and made the NBA keep the team in town. They get all the credit, and they get to celebrate Wednesday.

3) I have said this a million billion times: I don't care who athletes endorse politically, or what issues they support, as long as they support something or someone in which they truly believe. What is detestable is an athlete neutering him or herself out of fear of the public's reaction, either way. So I'm glad to see Shaq making an ad supporting the re-election of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

4) Very cool, Maurice Ager! Congrats and good luck.

5) Consider yourself warned. If you start playing this, you will not stop for hours. You have been warned.

6) I saw "Drumline;" I know how hard people in college bands work. But this is incredible stuff from Ohio State's marching band. If you've never seen a couple hundred people "moonwalk" in unison, take 10 minutes to check this out.

7) I believe there should be a healthy marriage between advanced stats and eyeball tests. This story details how such an approach did wonders for the Pittsburgh Pirates this past season, allowing them to make dramatic improvements in their defense without having to spend crazily on free agents or having to make system-draining trades for star players.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) Bill Sharman was just as respected for being a gentleman as he was for being a Hall of Fame player and coach (and, the man who invented the modern-day shootaround). His reputation as a good man was never besmirched in the few interactions we had over the years, and his death last week only seems to add to the gloom of Lakerdom these days. Sharman was the coach who finally got the Lakers over the hump in 1972 to win the franchise's first title in L.A., after a decade of getting beaten by the Celtics. And it was telling that Phil Jackson Tweeted on Friday that the Lakers' late owner, Jerry Buss, always wanted it known that Sharman was more responsible for the emergence of the Showtime Lakers in the '80s as anyone, by making the trade of Gail Goodrich to New Orleans in 1978 for a pick that the Lakers used a year later to select Magic Johnson. All that aside, he was a genuinely decent person in a sport that produces many others who behave to the contrary. The world was a better place with him in it. RIP.

2) Yes, I'm the only person in captivity who does not like the return to the 2-2-1-1-1 format in The Finals. There was no competitive disadvantage to the team with the better record -- the team that had the "2" in the previous 2-3-2 Finals format -- playing the middle three games of The Finals on the road. In fact, in the 29 years of the 2-3-2 format, the team with homecourt advantage won the title 24 times, an .828 win percentage. This is, also, an admittedly nakedly parochial stance -- at the end of a two-month postseason slog, it is preferable to have just three flights in often iffy weather to do The Finals than a potential five -- or more, if one of the teams isn't from a city with much non-stop commercial service.

3) Because it's obvious Michael Beasley is doing everything he can to stick in Miami, I get that he wants to establish a more "corporate" look by cutting his hair close (here and here). But the history of black folks and their hair is so complicated (watch Chris Rock's documentary, "Good Hair", sometime), that the notion that "fitting in" means shedding your dreads causes me troubled feelings. There are numerous stories of black women contemplating legal action because they believe they've been fired from jobs because of their hairstyles. Beasley certainly can wear his hair any way he wants (and he has over the years). It's just that our hair ... man, it's complicated. And there shouldn't be any more pressure on him because of how he wears his.

4) Buried in the news of the Wizards' acquisition of Marcin Gortat Friday was the decision Washington made not to give a fourth-year tender to Jan Vesely, the number six pick overall in the 2011 Draft, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer. It's an indictment of Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld, who picked Vesely. But at least Grunfeld isn't throwing good money after bad, and will have cap room next summer to go after a high-profile free agent.

5) On the other hand ... plenty of good seats available for Sixers-Suns in Phoenix on Dec. 28! Anybody? Anyone? Bueller?

6) The season is starting, and Stephen Jackson is not on a roster. Boggles the mind.

Q AND A: LEBRON JAMES

If you watched my colleague Rachel Nichols' new show on CNN, "Unguarded," Friday night, you saw LeBron James in China on a promo tour this summer. There were, of course, thousands of kids and teenagers cheering him at every stop, watching his every move. And it made me wonder about this life that LeBron James has, at the ripe old age of 28, having been in the public eye for more than half of his life, never being able to do anything outside of his home that doesn't involve detailed planning, security and extended time.

I'm sure, though, that James wouldn't trade a second of his life, even with the inconveniences and loss of privacy.

He is clearly the dominant player in a league full of Alpha Males, no longer having to answer for not having a championship to validate his status. With two, he is on his way to fulfilling the infamous "not one, not two.." boast he made when he arrived in Miami in 2010. Then, the weight of the world appeared to be on his shoulders -- and, by his own admission, he played angrily instead of with joy, and it showed on the court, as Miami imploded against the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals.

That summer, Erik Spoelstra made the decision that the Heat had to play faster, and James had to get into the post instead of operating so much up top. It made Miami almost unbeatable; the Heat became a blur in transition and much more efficient in its halfcourt offense. Not coincidentally, James has won the last two league MVP awards, giving him four of the last five Podoloff trophies, to go with a second Olympic gold medal.

Whether the Heat can win a third straight title will certainly depend on health as much as talent. But newly married, ensconced on South Beach, it doesn't appear that LeBron, who can opt out of his deal next summer, is looking around -- or looking over his shoulder. In many ways, as he begins his 11th (!) NBA season, he is a man in full.

Me: What does this feel like, when you and the team have established yourselves, and there's no longer having to prove yourself at the highest level?

LeBron James: Well, it's still a challenge. Everybody wants what we've been able to accomplish the last two years. So every time we go out we have to be mentally focused, every single night, no matter who we're going against, whether they're at the top of the conference or the bottom of the conference. So it's very challenging. But I think that's what keeps the competitive spirits going. It's great to know that every game you go into, you've got to work for it.

Me: You've played so much basketball the last three years, with the consecutive Finals appearances and the Olympic obligations. Do you have to pace yourself this year?

LBJ: It's hard for me to say, because once I step out on the floor, I get at it. And also, during practice, I'm one of the leaders of this team, and I feel the example that you set in practice sets it up for everything. So it's kind of up to Spo. Spo will have to tell me to sit down, unless I'm injured or hurt, and I feel like I need a day or so. But if I think I can go, I'm going to be on the floor, during practice, during shootarounds, and also during the games.

Me: Are you officially in for '16? The Olympics?

LBJ: No, I'm not officially in, just yet. But hopefully, I can be healthy enough and on top of my game at that point where I'll be taken.

Me: I don't think you have to worry about that.

LBJ: Hopefully.

Me: How has "the noise," as Spoelstra calls it -- the unceasing interest in you and the Heat and everything you all do -- toughened you mentally?

LBJ: Well, there's nothing that can come upon us that can surprise us, or shock us -- or something like, we didn't see that coming. We've experienced everything. And "the noise," as we call it, we've done a great job of keeping it away from the locker room or keeping it away from what we're trying to do. The ultimate goal is to play basketball, and to win games every single night, and to compete at a high level. We've done a great job, every individual, and then as a collective group, just trying to make sure the noise doesn't get to us.

Me: Jordan and Bird were always aware that, no matter how they were feeling on a given night, when they got to the arena, there was someone there who had never seen them play in person, and wasn't likely to ever see them again after that night. Do you feel that responsibility when you play every night?

LBJ: Absolutely. I feel like being one of the, I don't know, one of the best players in the world, one of the leaders, one of the biggest role models in our sport, I feel like I have a responsibility, if I'm healthy, to go out there and showcase what I'm capable of doing. It's like you said what Bird said, or MJ said. There may be a kid that got a birthday gift. And it was their only gift, to see a Heat game. Hopefully, that night, I can put on a performance for them.

Me: You made a point that while the guys who were traded from Boston to Brooklyn haven't gotten any heat -- no pun -- Ray Allen did for leaving the Celtics last year for Miami. The two situations are obviously different, but what did you mean?

LBJ: I think at the end of the day, no matter who are, if you come to the Heat, you're going to get heat. No pun intended, it's just how it is. You can go play for any other team, any other organization in the world, but if you come to the Heat, you're going to hear it. But at the end of the day, I think what people have to understand is, players have to do what's best for their career, and have to do what's best for their families. Definitely, it's a tough situation at times, especially when you look at Paul (Pierce), who spent his whole career in Boston. And KG, he was able to come there in '08 and kind of change the tradition again, bringing it back to a championship level. But at the end of the day, you have to do what's best for you, and your career. And those guys made that choice, and Doc (Rivers) made that choice, and other guys in our league, and other leagues. Nobody didn't ever think Peyton Manning wouldn't wear a Colts jersey, and he's in Denver. And both sides are excited about the future. So you can't put too much into it. I know there's emotions that go with guys leaving or staying. But for me, I know. I'm the No. 1 guy when it comes to talking about leaving. So I know exactly what comes with it as far as on the court and off the court, and how people are going to view you, and how you're going to be comfortable being in a new place. I think Ray did a good job of doing what was best for him. I don't know the situation with Doc, KG, Paul, and the rest of those guys, but I believe they did the same thing, what was best for them. And I think that's what it comes down to.

Me: Since Pierce, certainly, and KG certainly thought of as Celtics, does that rivalry your team had with Boston transfer to Brooklyn?

LBJ: No. Because with the Boston rivalry, not only were you playing against those guys, you were playing against their fans, too. And there are not too many fans that can compete with Boston. Probably the Palace of Auburn Hills when it was rocking, as far as animosity or hatred. Brooklyn doesn't have that. Obviously, they have great fans, but Boston has that hatred. You kind of inherit not only going against those guys, but you inherit going against those fans as well.

Me: You loved that, didn't you?

LBJ: Absolutely. It's great when you can silence them. It's hard to silence the Garden, I'll tell you that.

Me: What did you do differently this summer in preparation for the season? Time off?

LBJ: It was kind of the same. I usually take a month off right after the season, and then I get right back into it. September was very busy for me, because of the wedding, and a lot of travel, and a lot of things I had to knock out. I did most of my training in late July and August, and I was able to get in everything I wanted to get in. So I feel good. Right now it's the second week of preseason, or what we call training camp, still. So everyone is still getting their legs into it. I'm still getting my legs back into it. It doesn't matter how much working out you do; when you get back on the court, you still have some rust to kick off.

Me: What does being married feel like?

LBJ: You just feel like you're in your bed every day, throughout the whole day. Comfortable. There's no place like home. To have that stability back home, with my wife and my kids, it's a great feeling. No matter what goes on, me playing the game of basketball, win, lose or draw, it makes you kind of ... you're going to be mad about certain games you play. But I feel great when I get home.

Me: Does the second ring feel any different from the first?

LBJ: It just adds more pressure, man. That's all it does. The championship is great, but it goes like this (snaps fingers). And then it's preparing for the next one, or trying to win the next one. I had an opportunity to win it in front of my home fans, and they're yelling and screaming, confetti coming down, and you do the interviews, champagne in the locker room, and you have the celebration in front the fans, as far as outside, in front of the arena, and all the fans come outside. It's great. And then it's like, okay, how do we prepare for next season? It's a great, but it's only like a split-second feeling. But the only thing about it, you're like, I want that feeling again. And that's what motivates me, to get back to having that short burst of excitement, and the greatest feeling you could have.

Me: What did you work on this summer?

LBJ: A little bit of everything. Just honing all of my skills -- shooting, ballhandling, post, everything. Also, you know, leadership. That's the No. 1 thing for me, being there for my teammates, even if I'm not on top of my game. Being able to know that they can count on me, no matter what. And that's what it's all about. It's not about your actions on the floor; it's about off the floor. And it's not about your actions during great times; it's about your actions during bad times, too. 'Cause every team and every player faces adversity, troubled times, during the season. And being able to handle that, being a leader, is how you come back from that.

Me: Did you buy them anything?

LBJ: Did I buy my guys anything? I give them something every day. I give them something all the time. You can ask them what I give them. I give them stuff all the time. I love my teammates.

Me: What do you still get out of playing?

LBJ: The competition. The competition, and the fact that you know that there's so many kids -- for me -- that there's so many kids that look up to you, that think of you as a hero, a superhero, as a role model. Maybe even as a parent. To know that, that keeps me going, makes me go, wow. There may be kids out there that may not have a dad, or may not have a brother that they always wanted. And they look at me as like, he's an extended part of our family. I can't wait to tonight, to see him. It's like, that's my brother, that's my dad playing. To see that you have a role in, I guess, leadership, and people look(ing) up to me. That's fun, man. And also to see my two boys being able to grow and watch their dad play a professional sport, and play at a high level, that's what keeps me going.

Me: Iverson is going to retire at the end of the month, and I know you said that, for you, it was him and MJ growing up that inspired you.

LBJ: Yeah. It was those two guys that I watched, mostly. I started playing basketball, and MJ was at the tip, the highest, at his peak, '95, '96, '97, '98ish, when he came back in '95. When I finally started to feel good about playing basketball, and tried to do it your way, you looked at AI. To see that he's retiring, man, it's like wow. You still feel like he still should be in this league. He's sixth all time in career points per game. Those last few years, you can almost throw them out the window. One thing that we can all say about AI, he gave it everything. He played hurt, he played injured, and he probably was, what, 5-11, a buck sixty at the most? And he gave it his whole heart, man. And I think everybody in Philly, and in the NBA knows what kind of impact he had -- not only on the floor, but off the floor as well. A lot of guys wear arm sleeves and headbands because of Allen Iverson.

Me: Have you watched Game 6 of The Finals?

LBJ: I've seen it a few times.

Me: At 3 a.m., do you ever go, 'How the hell did we win that game?'

LBJ: All the time. I have no idea how we won that game. I think you, as a kid, your Little League coaches would always tell you, finish the game. Finish the game. It's not over until it's triple zero. Or, it's not over until the (fat) lady sings. And when you preach that, and you practice that, you just continue to hone that. You just keep going. And we was able to do that.

Me: Do you allow yourself to go down that road of, what if we had lost that game, and that series, and what that may have meant for you?

LBJ: It definitely came into my mind. I watch that game today, and it's almost like I don't know who won. I'm like, I have butterflies in my stomach, like I don't know who won this game. To sit here, today, with a 2-2 record in The Finals is much better than 1-3, I'll tell you that.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

It's the "White Guy" Award!!
-- Kevin Love (@kevinlove), Tuesday, 1:35 p.m., responding to being named in our NBA.com survey of general managers as the player who gets the most out of his 'limited natural ability.' Love is, of course, exactly right; I would happily ruin someone else's life to have the 'limited natural ability' Kevin Love has. And, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal noted, nine of the past 10 players who have been cited in the GM survey as getting the most out of their 'limited natural ability' have been white guys, including Love the last three years -- and, equally absurdly, Steve Nash, who was "honored" twice! Like Love, Steve Nash is a great athlete, who could easily have played soccer for a living if he chose. The phrase 'limited natural ability' is fraught with peril, but if you want to go there, at least apply to someone for whom it actually applies. You know who has 'limited natural ability?' Roy Hibbert.

THEY SAID IT

"If I really gave it my all, and stopped focusing on basketball, and gave everything I had on football, I'd probably be one of the best corners the NFL has ever seen."
-- Nate Robinson, on the Believe the Hype podcast. Robinson was a standout cornerback who played at the University of Washington as a freshman before quitting football to concentrate on basketball full-time.

"We kept making eye contact out there and we saw the players were having issues with traction. Then when we had a few guys go down, we figured we should have a conference. And both teams wanted not to continue the game."
-- Referee Dan Crawford, to a pool reporter last Friday, explaining why he and his fellow officials called off the Bucks-Raptors exhibition game in Milwaukee in the first quarter, after players complained they were slipping on the court at BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks said Friday they would immediately investigate why that happened and what solutions were possible before their regular season home opener Saturday against Toronto.

"He was a great player, tore his knee up, came back too early and never was the same player ever again. I did have that conversation with Derrick Rose one time when we played Chicago. I told him about the story with Penny."
-- Brian Shaw, to the Denver Post, about a cautionary tale he had with Derrick Rose last season about returning from a torn ACL too soon. Shaw referenced Penny Hardaway, his former Orlando Magic teammate, who suffered devastating knee injuries in the late 1990s and never returned to his first-team all-NBA form.

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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