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David Aldridge

Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe and the Suns, as well as the Blazers, have been early surprises in the new season.

It's early -- very early -- but these teams are making noise


Posted Nov 18, 2013 11:11 AM

"Oh, Daniel-san not everything is as seems."
-- Kesuke Miyagi, "The Karate Kid", 1984

Yes, we have played about 12 percent of the season.

No, you cannot draw any meaningful conclusions from what has happened 12 percent into the season, any more than you could determine how a movie will end by watching the first 12 percent. Players get hot, or cold; coaches make adjustments, there are injuries and ebbs and flows.

But the first 12 percent matters. It matters, because the conventional wisdom entering this season was that you could identify, almost to the team, those who were looking to throw the season in order to enhance their Draft status.

It matters, because there are teams trying to free themselves from the yoke of losing, and need to start seeing results before another generation of players is contaminated. It matters, because of impatient owners who want immediate results, and because of one owner who has OK'd a $187 million payroll. That will always be a story. It matters, because there are players on their last go-round, and teams whose windows are closing.

It matters because homecourt advantage matters, and at the end of the season, when a team misses the playoffs by a game or two, it can be the first 12 percent of the season that decided it.

So let's see how some teams are doing with that first 12 percent -- the good and bad.

BROOKLYN

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ENTERING SEASON: Instant title contender, with quality veterans at every position, great depth and toughness.

CURRENT REALITY: 3-6 record, last place in the Atlantic Division.

The Nets have yet to have their full complement of players. Deron Williams missed almost all of the preseason with a bad ankle, and he injured the other ankle over the weekend. Andrei Kirilenko, expected to be a key piece of the rotation, has been battling back spasms and has barely played.

And while Kevin Garnett's contributions are always much more than can be gleaned by a box score, he does have to do more than he's done so far -- 30 percent from the floor, six points a game. He missed Saturday's game against the Clippers, along with Williams, Brook Lopez (ankle) and Paul Pierce (groin).

Pierce had hoped the Nets' West coast trip would bring them together and get them going. Instead, they got blown out in Sacramento, needed a Joe Johnson buzzer-beater to save them in Phoenix and fell to the Clippers with their depleted roster. Only Lopez and Johnson are playing at their expected levels.

"If you looked at our Phoenix game, we played the way we needed to play," Nets general manager Billy King texted Sunday. "Phoenix has played well against San Antonio, OKC. They are better than people think. The last two games we played much better and we have not had all the pieces, especially Kirilenko."

The Nets may have to rely on some of their less-heralded players, like Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson, more than they thought. Kirilenko was feeling better Sunday and the Nets hope he can return after he gets back up to snuff from a conditioning standpoint. Despite all this, they're exactly one game out of first place in the division.

PORTLAND

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ENTERING SEASON: Not a playoff team; "Cousin" LaMarcus Aldridge wants out.

CURRENT REALITY: Leading the Northwest Division with an 8-2 record.

Terry Stotts was about to do what coaches always do -- dismiss the positives, focus on what their teams could have done better. And then he stopped, and agreed with what you proposed over the phone.

"Yeah, 8-and-2 is 8-and-2," he said Sunday.

The Blazers have been one of the biggest surprises out of the gate, largely on the basis of a dramatic improvement to their offense. Portland, which was 15th in offensive rating last season, is third (110.5 points per 100 possessions) this season. And after having the league's worst bench last season, the Blazers are benefiting from offseason moves that have dramatically strengthened their reserves.

There have been two surprises with which Stotts has been most satisfied.

"I'm really pleased with the way we move the ball," Stotts said on the bus to the airport after Portland's 118-110 overtime win in Toronto Sunday afternoon.

"The unselfishness. Different guys get their shots. We make the next pass. One guy might have a quarter and another guy might get another quarter, but I think we're playing pretty unselfishly. That goes a long way. And defensively, we're getting better. It's a long season, but I think what we've been preaching, it's showing the results. Everybody's buying into what we need to do to be a good team."

The acquisition of Robin Lopez from New Orleans to play center did not get a lot of national attention, but it was huge for the Blazers.

"He's really fit in well," Stotts said. "He's a selfless player who's all about winning, and he defends. Offensively he's been effective when he's had opportunities. More than anything else, when Tyson Chandler came to Dallas, he kind of brought that selfless defensive mentality to the team. I think Robin's done that for us. They really respect and appreciate what he brings. He's all about winning. We've got a lot of guys on this team where winning has to be the most important thing."

Having Lopez in the middle has also done wonders for Aldridge, who made it clear Portland had to get a legit big man this season after trying to get by last season with J.J. Hickson.

Stotts saw a similar impact on the Mavericks' star player while he was an assistant in Dallas.

"In some ways, it's like Dirk [Nowitzki] in Dallas," Stotts said. "Whether it was Erick Dampier, or Chandler, having that guy just takes a burden off of him, offensively and defensively. L.A. once had Marcus Camby and Joel Pryzbilla here. It's comforting to have those guys alongside you."

It's equally reassuring to "Cousin" LaMarcus and everyone else that they don't have to play 40 minutes this season.

Last year, according to hoopstats.com, Portland's bench was last in the league in bench scoring (18.5 per game). This season, the Blazers' bench is 23rd in the league, averaging 25.6 per game as vets like Mo Williams (10 points per game) and Dorell Wright lead the charge.

"Our bench has been very good for us," Stotts said. "Mo is kind of hitting his stride and feels a lot better about what he can do for us, feeling his teammates and picking his spots. [Backup center] Joel Freeland is doing all the dirty work that you need from that position. Thomas Robinson had a breakout game the other night [15 points and eight rebounds against Phoenix]. It's difficult for him but he's behind an All-Star. He's realizing and accepting his role. And Dorell Wright is a threat. Just him being on the floor creates problems, whether he creates a shot or not."

And the quick start has finally quelled the nonstop rumors that Aldridge wants out of Portland, something he and general manager Neil Olshey have shot down at every opportunity. The Blazers' start might not last; they have not exactly played a killer schedule yet. But 8-and-2 is 8-and-2, right?

PHOENIX

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ENTERING SEASON: Tank City; selling any veteran players for scrap metal or coupons. Did we mention they were tanking?

CURRENT REALITY: 5-4, third place, Pacific Division, with close losses to the Thunder, Spurs and Nets.

The funny thing is, the Suns could easily be 7-2.

"We blew a defensive assignment against Portland," general manager Ryan McDonough said Sunday, "and they get three shots at the rim and beat us. And Joe Johnson made a great shot [in overtime] the other night."

When people great and small think you're losing on purpose, you might expect a team to be a little melancholy about every win that gets away from you. And there isn't a smart-aleck anywhere in the league that hasn't said the Suns were tanking so obviously that Rommel was like, 'Hey, guys, come on.' (Kids! Ask your grandparents who Rommel was.)

But the Suns have been much more competitive with the motley crew they've assembled than anyone thought. They've been much stingier defensively, allowing just 95.8 points per game, sixth-best in the league, than their personnel would have suggested.

And they've been feisty.

"I guess I am pleasantly surprised that we have been as successful out of the gate as we have been," McDonough said. "A lot of people were too hard on the talent we had on the roster going into the season ... people don't see what they can do; they only see what they've done in the past. But watching us in the summer league and in training camp, we have a fairly athletic team."

The backcourt of ex-Clipper Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic has been just as complementary as first-year Coach Jeff Hornacek said it would be in Vegas in July. Bledsoe's PER of 23.94 is 14th best in the league, ahead of the likes of Steph Curry and Mike Conley. His true shooting percentage of .612 is fourth best in the league among qualified point guards.

But Phoenix's biggest surprises so far, by far, have been its starting center, Miles Plumlee, and third-year forward Markieff Morris.

Plumlee, the Pacers' first-round pick in 2012, was a throw-in to the offseason trade that sent Luis Scola to Indiana in exchange for Gerald Green. The Suns drafted Alex Len with the No. 5 overall pick to be their big man of the future. But Len has been slow recovering from offseason ankle surgery. And after Phoenix traded Marcin Gortat to Washington at the start of the season for the Wizards' 2014 first-round pick, Plumlee became the starter.

Through the first three weeks, Plumlee is averaging almost a double-double (14.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg). And Markieff Morris has been amazing as a reserve for the Suns, averaging 14.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg. His PER of 24.15 is 12th best in the league. His turnovers are way down and his shooting percentage is way up.

Bringing Markieff Morris off the bench was born of circumstance as much as anything. He was suspended for the regular-season opener after elbowing Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka late in the preseason. And Phoenix was not certain how much it would get from Channing Frye, who was returning this season after missing all of last season with an enlarged heart.

"Markieff got suspended for opening night and Channing played with the starters and we played pretty well," McDonough said. "I think that motivated Markieff, showed him he'd have to earn his minutes. He embraced being with the bench guys and kind of likes the fact that he's the go-to guy on that group."

The Suns are the only team in the league to have a lead in the fourth quarter of every game they've played. They're also leading the league in fast-break points (23.4 per game). If they're trying to lose, they have an odd way of showing it.

"It's funny," McDonough said. "I think people's expectations of my plan and what we were trying to do was different from what I wanted. The best-case scenario is we find a bunch of guys we can build around for the next eight, 10 years. That would be great. If Bledsoe and Markieff and [first-rounder] Archie Goodwin and those guys form a nucleus for the next great Phoenix team, with the cap room and the Draft picks we have, we'll have had a good season."

WASHINGTON

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ENTERING SEASON: Up and coming team; likely playoff berth.

CURRENT REALITY: 2-7 record, last place in the Southeast Division

John Wall knows what he has to do.

"I've gotta get back to attacking the basket, and just settling," he said as he sat down following the Wizards' shootaround Saturday morning.

"I think that can happen when you've worked so hard on your shot," Wall said, tacitly acknowledging that he's trying to prove that he is a good perimeter shooter this season. It has been a burden on Wall since he was taken No. 1 overall by Washington in 2010, only briefly ameliorated with a strong showing last season after he returned from a knee injury.

Wall is, clearly, pressing -- not just to show he can shoot, but to live up to the max extension the Wizards gave him a couple of months ago. And his team isn't getting out of its own way as a result.

A major part of the Wizards' slow start, though, is not Wall's fault.

"Last year, when we knew we couldn't score, we were a great defensive team," Wall said. "Now, we're a top 10 team in scoring [actually 14th in points per game, at 100 per game, though the Wizards are just 24th in offensive rating], but we're not getting it done defensively."

Part of the reason for that is the departure of Emeka Okafor, traded to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat. Okafor would not have played much for the Wizards this year anyway, recovering from a herniated disc in his neck. So the Wizards acquired Gortat, who's a better offensive player than Okafor and a solid rebounder, but whose defensive rating is four points higher (103 versus 99) than Okafor's.

Nene, whose antipathy for banging in the post was well-known, was especially good with Okafor. The quintet of Nene, Okafor, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal and Wall was one of the league's best defensive fivesomes last year. It's not that Gortat is a horrible defender. He tries. But opponents, according to the league's player tracking stats, are shooting 56.7 percent against him on shots at the rim. (By comparison, opponents are shooting 31.4 and 31.5 percent, respectively, on shots at the rim against New Orleans' Anthony Davis and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez.)

"March has done a good job for us," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Saturday. "No question, 'Mek was solid back there for us, the last line of defense for us, with his basketball knowledge. I think what March brings, though, is that big guy who can challenge at the rim. He's also got a very good IQ. Defense is a matter of getting your knees dirty each and every night. It's not a fun thing, but it's a valuable thing. That's where we have to get back to, understanding how valuable that is for us to be a good team."

But Wall appeared to be the subject of Nene's post-game anger after the Wizards were smoked by the Spurs last week. Nene said that some of his young teammates, "think they're so smart," but that they should watch video of how the veteran Spurs picked Washington apart.

"They have great players, a great team, but the way they execute things, the way they cut, the way they exploit weaknesses, swing the ball," Nene said. "They don't think about stats. We still think about stats. Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way, because I'm getting tired of this."

Nene apologized to his teammates on Friday, but the message was clear.

Wittman said he doesn't mind the air being cleared.

"It was dealt with," he said. "There was no hard feelings, no pointing fingers. It was a frustrating thing that I think he probably said, didn't realize it would come across the way it did. And we talked about it, as a family and as a team."

And, notably, Wall said that while he would have preferred Nene's comments stay in house, he didn't necessarily disagree with the message.

"In a way, I don't think so," he said. "Coach likes us to be aggressive. But in certain situations, when it's a three-point game, you can't take the first shot ... if you can get that shot any time in the 24 seconds, why take that shot then?"

CLEVELAND

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM BEFORE SEASON: Playoff team that could be a destination for high-profile free agents next summer based on its success this season -- including a certain Akron-born superstar currently working in the South.

CURRENT REALITY: 4-7, fourth place, Central Division

Mike Brown didn't want to get thrown out of the Cavs' game Saturday, but if he got thrown out early, at least he'd get to see his young son play for Butler University on TV.

Brown was kidding, of course, but the jokes have been few and far between for the Cavs. The changes have been dramatic in Cleveland, starting with owner Dan Gilbert bringing back Brown -- whom he'd fired just three years ago -- for a second stint.

Cleveland took a flier on oft-injured Andrew Bynum, whose chronic knee problems kept him out all of last season with the 76ers after Philadelphia landed him in the Dwight Howard-to-L.A. mega-deal. The financial outlay for Cleveland is relatively minimal, but bringing in Bynum has totally changed the Cavs' halfcourt approach.

It's meant a major adjustment for Kyrie Irving, the brilliant third-year guard and franchise player. After having driving space his first two seasons, Irving has had to try and incorporate Bynum into the offense while also getting his own. And the fact that Bynum has barely been able to stay on the floor makes the adjustment even harder.

"There's a lot of newness that he's experiencing," Brown said, "not only with what we're trying to do out there and the players around him, but what we're trying to do. I'm on him. He's pushing himself, to [make us] a better defensive team, and to be a better defender as an individual. He's done a great job of it. We've made progress as a team, big progress as a team, in that area of the game. And we have to continue making progress, because we have room to grow. But it takes something out of you. If you're going to play that hard defensively, it's not as easy at the other end of the floor."

Cleveland has improved its horrific D. The Cavs are just outside of the top 10 in defensive rating. But the offense hasn't been as smooth. Guard Dion Waiters, the team's first-round pick in 2012, has struggled and is shooting less than 40 percent. He missed the team's last two games with an undisclosed illness, amid speculation that Waiters was really allergic to being taken out of the starting lineup.

The Cavs brought free agent Jarrett Jack in from Golden State to try to be a big brother for Irving, who has had some rough patches the last year or so.

Irving is averaging 21 points and 7 assists, but he's only shooting 39.5 percent from the floor. But Jack has encouraged him to keep firing away.

"I remember the conversation I had with him in Chicago," Jack said. "I said, 'Hey, man, we'll live with you going 2-for-40.' You know that. I, personally, can't live with you going 2-for-8, though. You might not start the game off shooting the way you want to, but the only way to get out of it is to continue to shoot, continue to shoot good shots. Know that the time you put in, the spare time, at practice, that hard work is going to pay off at some particular point in time. It's going to take a turn for you."

DRIBBLES

You aren't supposed to eat cheesecake. Your doctor tells you you're not supposed to eat cheesecake. Your spouse tells you you're not supposed to eat cheesecake. Your scale tells you you're not supposed to eat cheesecake.

You go out to dinner. You want dessert. They have cheesecake on the menu.

What to do, what to do?

Tuesday's college basketball doubleheader in Chicago that featured Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State was a typical early season showdown between teams that could reach the Final Four. What was atypical was the astounding collection of talent on the court, including freshmen Julius Randle (Kentucky), Jabari Parker (Duke) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas).

"I did my reports yesterday," a veteran personnel man said Thursday. "It took me all day! It usually takes me an hour. I would get done and then I'd remember another guy."

That's a lot of cheesecake and a lot of temptation for teams that aren't seriously in the hunt for a title.

The league gets queasy when you start talking about tanking, teams not doing everything they can to win every game -- and, in fact, doing more to assure losses, and a better chance at a high Draft pick in the lottery. The weighted system that has been in place since 1990 has severely limited the ability of teams to lose on purpose and get a top-three pick.

But that cheesecake is so tempting!

Each of those three freshmen possess over-the-top potential. Each is wildly different from the other. It is not a stretch to say that this could be the best and deepest Draft since 2003, which brought you LeBron James (No. 1 overall), Carmelo Anthony (third), Chris Bosh (fourth) and Dwyane Wade (fifth) in the top five, with the likes of David West, Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, Boris Diaw, Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour throughout the first round.

And each of the three, along with many others, played well Tuesday.

"They're playing as expected to me," a veteran scout said Saturday. "They just happen[ed] to be on the same stage."

Now, we at World Glomulous Toys (the parent company of the Tip) know the rules. We don't think underclassmen are looking to us to see what their potential Draft status is. We don't want to be viewed as encouraging kids who have yet to officially declare to, you know, declare.

But we also don't want to ignore the 68 scouts that were in Chicago -- or, as several pro scouts in attendance believed, the 16 potential first-round picks that played in the two games. That was out of the ordinary. It's foolish not to write about the potential impact on Draft plans that this group would have.

It's one thing to talk in the abstract about how good these players could be. To see so many of them on the court brought the potential depth of the '14 Draft into sharp focus. Other underclassmen with big potential are expected to enter the Draft as well, making the first round potentially deep enough for talented juniors and seniors to be pushed toward the end of the first round. Those players could be scooped up by gleeful, winning teams that don't want teenagers on their rosters, anyway.

"The only thing about Chicago that's interesting is if it changes Atlanta's plans, or someone's, who says 'Ah, screw it, let's just start selling players,' " one team executive said. "I have to imagine one or two teams had to be thinking that."

The first month of the season is wildly unpredictable, so it's unlikely anyone is going to panic this early. You do wonder how long teams' patience will be this season, though.

You ask a dozen people who the first pick would be next year if they all come out -- and Wiggins has already indicated that he'll play only one season at Kansas -- and you're likely to get a dozen different answers.

Wiggins has incredible upside, with a body that's still growing at 6-foot-8, with seemingly limitless potential defensively. He's the best defender right now, capable of playing multiple positions.

"He's so quick at 6-8, it's ridiculous," one scout says. "Randle, he's a little bit animated, which is good and bad. But, how many true low-post guys are there these days? That guy is a bigger, quicker Zach Randolph. And I love Parker, too. Shoot, if we had Parker, I'd be thrilled."

Conspiracy theorists see tanking with every three-game losing streak. The reality is that people in sports know more than anyone else how even the inference of tanking corrodes a team's psyche and mental strength. It is so easy to give into losing, and once a team does, it's so difficult to, as they say, change the culture.

Yet the East is so weak, relatively speaking, this season. It's quite possible a sub-.500 team will again make the playoffs. And if you're already a below-.500 team, it's surely tempting, like eating that cheesecake, to "play the kids" and "see what our young players can do."

The potential cost, though, is always a major risk.

"I never can subscribe to that thinking," an executive from one team expected to struggle said Sunday. "If you try to lose, you will never get your team turned around. The team with the worst record hasn't won the lottery since 2004. Losing guarantees nothing, in my opinion.

"I can't speak for other teams, but it definitely is not our approach. If we end up with a bad record, it won't be from not playing hard and not trying to win. I can't speak for other teams and what they may do. Probably too early to tell."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(last week's ranking in brackets; last week's record in parentheses)

1) San Antonio [2] (3-0): If you take out the 115 points the Spurs allowed in their one loss of the season to Portland, they're giving up 86.4 points per game.

2) Indiana [1] (2-1): Pacers finally come to Earth in loss Saturday to the Bulls, but Indy still looks like a force in the East.

3) Miami [4] (3-0): Michael Beasley made the most of his moment in the rotation last week, averaging 13.3 ppg on 58 percent shooting in three games.

4) Oklahoma City [3] (1-2): I know I've said this before, but I really think Reggie Jackson can be a big-time contributor to the Thunder when it counts in the playoffs.

5) L.A. Clippers [7] (3-0): Pretty impressive four-game win streak for the Clips in the last eight days: Houston, Minnesota, OKC, Brooklyn, with games against Memphis and rematches with the Wolves and Thunder on the docket this week.

6) Minnesota [6] (2-2): Lost in understandable gushing about Kevin Love's start is the fact that the Wolves' defense is light years better so far (defensive rating of 100.8 points per 100 possessions, No. 6 in the league).

7) Houston [8] (3-1): Good to see Jeremy Lin having a solid bounceback start after being dismissed as a flash in the pan by some last season.

8) Golden State [9] (3-0): Unbeaten (5-0) at home, winning by an average margin of 15 points per game. Warriors look really, really good early.

9) Atlanta [12] (3-1): Gustavo Ayon getting more playing time at center, allowing undersized five Al Horford to play more minutes at power forward.

10) Portland [11] (4-0): Blazers' six-game win streak after overtime victory Sunday in Toronto is the team's longest in almost two years.

11) Chicago [NR] (3-0): Huge confidence-restoring win Saturday over Indiana, with Derrick Rose dropping a career-high six 3-pointers.

12) Dallas [13] (2-1): Monta Ellis, both statistically and on the court, has been better than advertised.

13) Phoenix [5] (0-2): They don't always play well, but the Suns don't play scared, either, and let their 3-point flags fly all game long.

14) Memphis [14] (1-2): Grizzlies say they brought in coach Dave Joerger to spice up the team's dormant offense. They're presently 25th in the league in scoring, 22nd in offensive rating and 27th in pace. Maybe they're exactly the same good defensive team they were under Lionel Hollins.

15) Philadelphia [10] (1-3): Without MCW (arch), the 76ers have run aground. I had no idea how important the rookie was going to be so soon in his nascent career.

Dropped out: Boston [15].

TEAM OF THE WEEK

San Antonio (3-0): I guess the Spurs have gotten past their devastating, they-can't-get-over-this Finals loss to Miami.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Boston (0-3): Celtics losing orbit quickly, with bad home losses to Charlotte and Portland in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and a brutal four-spot -- Houston, San Antonio, Indiana, Atlanta -- coming up next week.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

What's going on with Larry Sanders?

The Bucks' fourth-year center has become a cult favorite with the advanced stats crowd for his amazing defensive impact despite being undersized every night in the hole. As such, he finished third in the league in Most Improved Player voting last season. But he's also hurt his standing in Milwaukee recently after being involved in a few incidents, the last of which will cost him up to six weeks of playing time.

Sanders tore ligaments in his right thumb two weeks ago in a fight at a Milwaukee nightclub. TMZ.com reported that Sanders was splashed with champagne from a group that was near the VIP area where he was. After confronting the group, Sanders got into a fight, during which another man was hit in the head with a bottle, causing a cut. Sanders underwent surgery to repair the ligament last Monday, with a prognosis of six weeks to recover.

Police declined to press charges against Sanders, who initially said he injured the thumb in the team's home opener against Toronto earlier that day, before he went to the bar. After the fight and his role in it was detailed and confirmed, he apologized last week to his team and to the Bucks' fans.

"Obviously we're disappointed in what occurred," Bucks General Manager John Hammond said by phone Sunday. "But we're working through the process to address the issues at hand. We're also working the process to avoid something like this ever happening again."

Milwaukee overhauled much of the roster that made the playoffs as an eighth seed last season, and didn't bring interim coach Jim Boylan back (Boylan is now an assistant in Cleveland). Monta Ellis walked to Dallas without much of a fight from the Bucks, and the Bucks dealt Ellis' backcourt mate, Brandon Jennings, to Detroit in a deal that brought guard Brandon Knight from the Pistons.

But they made sure Sanders would be a primary part of their nucleus, signing him to a $44 million extension over the summer.

With free agent guard O.J. Mayo and Knight teaming with Sanders and new coach Larry Drew, Milwaukee was hopeful that it could get off to a quick start. Instead, the Bucks are 2-7 and in last place in the Central Division.

No one believes Sanders is a malicious person. He overcame tough circumstances as a kid and teenager with his family and he made himself into a basketball player, first in Florida in high school and then at Virginia Commonwealth. His shot-blocking skill and energy vaulted him into the first round of the 2010 Draft, where the Bucks took the raw-but-promising big man.

But Sanders has been involved in several on-court and off-court incidents in the last two years. It seems clear that he has some issues with authority and that he might need off-court help.

Again, he is just 24 years old, and is not a bad person. Unlike another Milwaukee athlete who ran aground of the public, Brewers outfielder and former National League MVP Ryan Braun, Sanders hasn't violated the city's trust and faith in him; he's just acted out.

But on the court, Sanders has had issues with officials. His five ejections last season led the NBA, including consecutive ones against Washington and Miami. Plus, he was third in the league in technical fouls with 14. After being ejected from the Heat game, Sanders questioned the refs' integrity and was fined $50,000 by the league, leading Boylan to say at the time that Sanders had to "behave like a professional" toward the refs.

Many good players have gone to war with the refs early in their careers. None has won.

Not incorrectly, Sanders has had words with teammates the last couple of seasons about playing for the team instead of for numbers that would get them another contract, displaying needed leadership in the locker room. He got into it with then-teammate Mike Dunleavy, Jr., last season, though the incident wasn't about selfishness.

And last January, Sanders was cited by Milwaukee police after the city's Area Domestic Animal Control Commission determined that two of Sanders' dogs were left alone at his home without access to proper shelter, food or water. A neighbor had tried to ask Sanders about the dogs earlier and had been rebuffed at the door. Sanders was fined $330. Taken alone, the incident could be explained away as a one-off, and not indicative of a pattern. But there are the other things.

"Larry's got that part of him where he's got a very open heart, kind of a warm heart to people," a member of the Bucks' organization said. "You kind of naturally like him. But there's this other side to him. But, I do think it's fixable."

Sanders earned his extension with outstanding work during the last season at the defensive end, becoming one of the league's premier rim protectors and post defenders. Opponents shot 41.1 percent against the Bucks last season when Sanders was on the floor, according to Synergy Sports data. Milwaukee was just outside of the top 10 in both defensive rating and effective field-goal percentage allowed, as Sanders shut down the middle with his amazing anticipation, recovery skills and length.

But for all of Sanders' activity and production playing center at the defensive end, the Bucks were still just 28th in the league last season in defensive rebound percentage at 71.3 percent, ahead of just Charlotte and Sacramento. (Speaking of which: If the Bucks wanted to get Sanders some help up front, and the Rockets need a stretch four to play next to Dwight Howard, wouldn't an Omer Asik-Ersan Ilyasova deal make a whole lot of sense for both teams? Getting Asik, with that $14.9 million poison-pill third year of his contract, would push Milwaukee's payroll above $50 million for next season, something I'm not sure the Bucks want to do.

But it would also give them a rebounding machine in the 7-foot-1 Asik and some major size across the front if the 6-foot-11 Sanders moved to the four and 6-foot-9 rookie Giannis Anteokounmpo, the Bucks' rookie with the 7-foot-3 wingspan, plays the three. Can you imagine? Like Atlanta's Al Horford, another undersized overachiever, a move to power forward would be good for Sanders' long-term health. Sanders insists he's improved his offensive game and can do more than score on putbacks, dives and dunks. Considering they're into him for 44 large, maybe it's time for the Bucks to find out.)

It probably hasn't helped Sanders' mindset that his minutes were slashed during his brief time on the court this season. He played only 12 minutes in the season opener against the Knicks and 18 minutes in Milwaukee's second game, against Boston. (To be fair, the Bucks fell behind by 25 in the first half against New York and 22 to the Celtics, and Drew benched the starters in both games -- though the Bucks rallied to beat Boston.) The Bucks insist there was no message being sent.

It's likely that the Bucks will discipline Sanders in some way, whether monetary or via suspension, in the coming weeks. But they remain committed to him and believe he'll put a better foot forward as one of the main faces of their organization.

"Larry's still a guy that, as we move forward, is going to be an integral part of our organization," Hammond said. "We're going to have to work together for him to improve, and for us to support him during the process."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

So I have dozens of mirrors around my house. What of it? From Raphael Awasty:

First off: I like you but I think you are a stuck up.

Secondly: great piece on former Laker Marcus Landry, especially from a German perspective to get an insight on Elias Harris' situation though unfortunately through the first games of the season from an outsider's view it seems that he is in the doghouse with coach Mike D'Antoni and won't stick till the deadline. But remains to be seen how that ends up. The already partly guaranteed salary is not too bad after all.

To the actual topic: it is not my habit to do this. The only reason why I would want to contribute was to something that mattered which this topic does not so much. So what, the team with home-court advantage was probably gonna win most of the time anyway. Counting in the fact that it's not always No. 1 against No. 2 seed the probability of the better team simply just being better (is) not out of the ordinary. What I disagree with on your behalf: you state that everything should be done to raise the teams' motivation for regular-season games should be done and therefore raise the stakes for home-court advantage is totally understandable. But that is not how it should be in my opinion: the team which plays the better ball on that given night deserves to win period. Unfortunately that can't always be the case because exterior factors such as home court advantage matter. To neutralize this effect for example in European Champions League games that matter such as The Finals are played on Neutral turf or there is a rule for away Goals to count double. I understand this is not appropriate for the NBA conditions, but everything possible should be established so that exterior factors won't matter that much. Which in my opinion this is the best move to do so.

Plus as you mention, coaches should be discouraged from putting their best squad not out there in the final games of the season. But once the standings are settled they will do so anyway. Dooh. And on the other hand if it comes to The Finals clash between 1 & 2 seed. Even if they did their best and both of those teams played there best players throughout the very last regular season game let's say one of the two faced by some unintentional mishap in schedule Charlotte, Philly, LAL, Utah and Milwaukee in the final five games, who give a rat's ass about any of so called sportsmanship values and simply want to get the best odds to score on Andrew Wiggins (or what was his name again) and the other one faces Indy, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans & Boston wouldn't you want this disadvantage not to matter as much as it did if they were to keep the 2-3-2 system???????

I am totally looking forward to your answer.

Just curious: what evidence do you have that I'm "a stuck up?"

As to your other points, I think you're suggesting that The Finals should be held at a neutral site instead of in the cities with the two teams? I'd disagree with that. A one-off like the Super Bowl can be held at a neutral site; you only have to sell tickets for one game, and the NFL does a great job of making the whole week leading up to the game into an event that's almost as big as the game itself. But in a seven-game series, I don't think you'd get as much bang for your buck at a neutral site. Plus, I think a team that earns home-court over a six-month season deserves to have that edge in the championship series. It doesn't guarantee victory, but it helps.

Brought to you by the same people who invented Cliff's Notes. From Matija Tkalcec-Maturanec:

Hope you're fine! Here's a quick one without much ado: Can you please explain why Kevin Love has a "limited natural ability"???

'Cause some people are intellectually lazy, Matija. It's easy to look at Kevin Love and think, 'White guy; can't be a good athlete.' Even though it would take about 15 seconds watching Love on the floor to realize how gifted he is. Just like some people thought Mark Price and Larry Bird weren't good athletes. I guarantee you when you read assessments of Creighton senior Doug McDermott's pro prospects in the coming months, he'll be compared to Utah's Gordon Hayward. Guarantee you.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. From Lawrence Bentley:

Excellent points on Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin. I know all races and cultures tease smart kids, but our race is the worst as even grown adults fail to recognize someone who has done everything right. I wonder how many who "hinted" that Trayvon Martin was the "aggressor" are accusing Jonathan Martin of "running away"?

You gave the NBA locker-room more credit than me (see Arenas, Gilbert) and also leads to what certain NFL former players are sweeping under the rug: If someone with Richie Incognito's record of mayhem saying he is going to kill you, why would fighting him be such a great idea and when never know in this gun culture (see Crittenton, Javaris) a person may do next?

Agreed, Lawrence, and thank you for your kind words. You also make a good point about Arenas, Crittenton and the Clown Culture that permeated the Wizards for so long. I should have included that caveat when I discussed the fact that I know NBA players also have their skeletons and bad behaviors -- though I would argue that guns in the workplace are a problem that everyone is dealing with, unfortunately, in our society these days.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and places for Tina Turner to drop off her papers to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) Kevin Love (26.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .493 FG, .875 FT): You know how, when you eat popcorn, sometimes a piece of the kernel flakes off, and it gets stuck between your teeth in the back of your mouth, and you can't quite get at it or dislodge, and it drives you crazy for days? The summer of 2015, when Love will be a free agent instead of under contract, is that kernel in the mouths of Minnesotans.

2) LeBron James (34 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .702 FG, .810 FT): Coach Erik Spoelstra notes that LeBron is playing with more "energy" at both ends of the floor. Oh, brother. He's getting warmed up.

3) Chris Paul (15.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 13.3 apg, .366 FG, .938 FT): Posted his 10th straight double-double to start the season Saturday night after starting 1 of 10 from the floor against the depleted Nets.

4) Kevin Durant (25.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 6.7 apg, .435 FG, .909 FT): Turnovers, always an issue, are popping up again at a rapid rate for Durant, who's averaging 4.2 turnovers a game this season, a full turnover more than his career average of 3.2 per game.

5) Dwight Howard (18.3 ppg, 15.3 rpg, 4 bpg, .488 FG, .585 FT): If he makes 17 of 24 from the line, as he did against Denver Saturday, the blight of Hack-a-Dwight will never sully our shores again.

BY THE NUMBERS

$97,000,000 -- Estimated cost to renovate Minnesota's Target Center, after the Minneapolis City Council approved a joint plan last week that would improve the club level and other revenue-generating areas of the building. The Wolves and the WNBA champion Lynx will contribute approximately $43.5 million toward the renovation, with the city and building manager AEG providing the remainder. Only five NBA arenas -- Golden State's Oracle Arena (which opened in 1966), Madison Square Garden (1968), Milwaukee's BMO Harris Bradley Center, Detroit's Palace of Auburn Hills and Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena (each opened in 1998) -- are older than the Target Center, which opened in 1990.

320 -- Consecutive sellouts for the Lakers at Staples Center, a streak that ended Monday when L.A. was 571 persons short of capacity when playing the Pelicans. The Lakers hadn't played in front of less than a full house since December of 2006.

1 -- Players who have posted a triple-double in their first career start (at least since the stat was first recorded by Elias in 1970), after Philly's Tony Wroten (18 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) pulled off the feat Wednesday against the Rockets.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Glad Kobe's back at practice. Hope he and everyone else involved take their time getting him back on the court. There's no rush and there's no point in rushing things.

2) The Diggler is getting into some serious company now on the all-time scoring list, passing The Logo for 16th place on Tuesday and setting aim at Reggie Miller, currently 15th. Nowitzki needs 37 points to pass Miller, which could happen as early as tonight against Philadelphia.

3) Well played, Yahoo! Sports. Well played.

4) Mike Lee from the Washington Post hipped me to this GP-Mike Hill interview on Fox Sports, which may be one of the best things I've seen in a while. Not for the squeamish, pre-teens or Vernon Maxwell.

5) Batkid. That is all.

6) Seriously. Ohio State may have the best, most original marching band ever.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) Philadelphia, the Atlantic Division leader this morning, sports a 5-6 record. That's not the 76ers' fault; they're performing well above expectations. But the two New York teams are a combined 6-12.

2) A series of unfortunate decisions. You know, "new" does not always equal "better."

3) This is not, ah, Big Baby's finest hour.

4) I like Matt Barnes and I think anyone who played with him would love to have him as a teammate. But his use of a derivative of the n-word in an ill-advised Tweet last week isn't any better than Richie Incognito's. The word only has power as long as people keep using it.

5) I'm sure we'll hear from the same folks that decry high school basketball players wanting to turn pro, while working toward their degree, right? Right?

6) I was just in Turner Field, where baseball's Atlanta Braves play, last year. I did not see any concrete falling from the rafters, or toxic lead paint peeling from the I-beams. I didn't see troughs in the bathrooms or hordes of angry mice scurrying through the concession stands. I saw a perfectly nice, fairly modern ballpark with all manner of specialty foods, decent access in and out and a really good team for which to cheer. So the idea that 17-year-old Turner Field just won't do anymore for the Braves, and that they just have to move north to find Valhalla, is an absurd argument that should be summarily rejected by the taxpayers of all of the affected counties.

Q AND A: KYRIE IRVING

"(Bleeping) Matthew Dellavedova!," Kyrie Irving screamed in backroads of the Verizon Center Saturday night, as he and the rookie guard came up the hallway. "My Aussie brother (Irving was born in Australia and holds dual Australian-U.S. citizenship)!" Irving wasn't just shouting for effect.

Dellavedova, the Aussie-born, highly regarded but undrafted guard out of St. Mary's, played down the stretch for the Cavaliers in their overtime win over Washington, helping out in ways big and small -- from a floater he made to keep Cleveland close in the fourth quarter to a sweet back pick he set in overtime that freed Irving up for three of his game-high 41 points, in a game where Irving finally resembled the dominant guard that walked to Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and made the All-Star Game last season.

It was a sight for sore eyes; in the Cavs' previous three games, Irving had been just 18 of 52 from the floor, and 38 percent for the season. And Cleveland was teetering at 3-7, having already had a reportedly contentious, players-only meeting after Wednesday's 29-point loss to the Timberwolves -- which followed verbal fireworks between Irving and new/old Cavs Coach Mike Brown Monday. Words happen over the course of a season, but Irving, like, um, others who were first overall Draft picks, is under a microscope in Cleveland, where he didn't endear himself to some of the locals last season by missing Fan Appreciation Night.

To be sure, though, most are still feeling Uncle Drew and hoping he can lead the Cavs somewhere -- like when he kept the giddy but geographically uncertain Dellavedova from turning into a bank of elevators instead of into the Cavs' locker room.

Me: This season hasn't started the way you'd hoped. Among the adjustments -- a new coach, a new system, trying to bring Andrew Bynum in while he continues rehabbing -- what is the biggest one with which you're dealing?

Kyrie Irving: Just leading guys for 48 minutes. Last year, I could take plays off here and there, at the offensive end and the defensive end, take plays off. Now, I have to lead by example, and also vocally, and the only way to do that is to compete for 48 minutes. So that's probably been the biggest adjustment, is being that guy for 48 minutes.

Me: What is Mike Brown emphasizing to you about what he wants from you?

KI: Just to be myself. But also, keep everybody relaxed throughout the game, and always have everyone believe in the system. It starts with me. I believe in Coach Brown. I've believed in him from day one, since I first met him. It's a new system, new adjustments, but we've all got to be in it together. We're all in the foxhole together. We're going through our ups and downs together, and at the end of the day we've got to fight together.

Me: Can you afford to wait on Bynum?

KI: We're going to utilize him as best we can. You know, get as much practice time as possible on the court with him on our practice days and off days, get him acclimated to our offense. But he's a big body, smart player. No matter what, you can't go wrong with Andrew being out there. We're going to keep on utilizing him and playing off of him.

Me: Jarrett Jack said before (Saturday's) game that he can live with you going 2 for 40, but he can't live with you going 2 for 8.

KI: Yeah, he's told me that plenty of times. He just wants me to be aggressive, and I expect that from him. But he has my back just like I have his, among all the rest of my teammates. But me and Jack, we kind of lead the charge in the first and second unit.

Me: So what was up with the meeting the other night?

KI: What meeting?

Me: The players' only meeting after the (Timberwolves) game.

KI: Well, it was just a team meeting that we had. Obviously, the media, you guys try to report all that stuff. But it was just a team meeting. Guys were talking. That was about it.

Me: Did everything that needed to be said get said?

KI: Yeah. Everything that needed to be addressed was addressed. Like I said, normal team meeting for us that stayed in the locker room.

Me: If you get yourselves straight defensively, what will that get you at the other end?

KI: Our defense, we're relying a lot on our defensive pressure to get stops throughout the game. Our offense doesn't really have a flow to it yet, so we have to rely on our defensive pressure and get the necessary stops that we need, and our offense will take care of itself. We have good enough players to get shots and make shots, and we have to buckle down on the other end.

Me: Is it hard for you, when you're struggling offensively, to say 'I'm gonna keep shooting until I get straight?'

KI: Well, you know, it's easy. It's hard because you don't want to be detrimental to the team. But to be a leader on the team you've got to stay aggressive no matter what. If you're not going to take those open shots, the defense is just gonna play everybody honestly. So I have to take those shots, not only for myself, but for my teammates.

Me: Did (Saturday) feel more like you?

KI: I'm getting there. It's still trying to find my rhythm. Teams are playing me differently every single night.

Me: Are they hard showing, falling back to the foul line?

KI: They're playing in between. They're putting me in a position to make me feel uncomfortable, and to make other guys make plays. And they want to get the ball out of my hands. (Saturday), I was just being aggressive on every single pick and roll, where they had to play me honest. When we have Jack and Dellavedova, I was on that second side, and we got that action on the second side, and they weren't able to load on me every single time.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

I hope the guy that stole my bag here is 7 ft so he can at least rock my sweet clothes .
-- Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41), Friday, 2:55 p.m., after his bag did not make it to the team's hotel in Miami before Dallas played the Heat Friday night.

THEY SAID IT

"Bill Walton was my hero years ago. Then one night we got to play against him in L.A. when he was playing with the mighty Clippers. The game was about two minutes old when Bill turned to the referee, and said [in a high pitched, whiny voice], 'Tell Bird to stop pushing me, he won't stop pushing me!' Sometimes, it's better not to meet your heroes."
-- Larry Bird, at the dedication ceremony Nov. 9 in Terre Haute, Indiana, of the statue of him at his alma mater, Indiana State. Bird, of course, was joking about Walton, his former Celtics teammate with whom he kids often.

"One criticism arises from stereotypes of athletes: that we need to be aggressive; that all athletes should have great strength and toughness, and, for the most part, no brains. I don't really feel like I fit that stereotype. I am myself. I'm extremely proud of my qualities and my gifts. I'm very competitive and I can be aggressive when I need to be. I can be very physical, but that's not my first instinct. It won't come out naturally when I'm at peace and calm. It emerges when I'm competing, when I'm challenged and when I feel like it's a win-or-lose situation."
-- Pau Gasol, in an excerpt from his new book "Lifeā€¢Vida," in the Los Angeles Times. The book, released last month, details Gasol's life in, mostly, pictures since 2010, on and off the court, and including Gasol's stint on the Spanish National Team that almost beat the U.S. team for the gold medal last summer in London at the 2012 Olympics.

"You know, I hate losing, I don't stomach it well, I don't deal with it well."
-- Celtics coach Brad Stevens, after Boston lost its sixth game of the season against Portland Friday -- though Boston's four wins this early in the season are a surprise to many around the league.

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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