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Morning Tip: Bryant's extension shapes Lakers' future

POSTED: Dec 2, 2013 4:38 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Kobe Bryant's looming return to the Lakers' lineup doesn't do much to clarify L.A.'s long-term future.

You doubt Kobe Bryant at your peril. But this would be some piece of work, even for the first-ballot future Hall of Famer.

How are the Los Angeles Lakers supposed to build a team around him that's good enough to contend for a title -- the only thing that matters to the 35-year-old -- when the Buss family gave him a $48.5 million extension last week that will make him a Laker for life? It creates a double burden on Bryant, recovering from the torn Achilles' that ended his season last spring. Be great. Be better than great. While you continue to rehab.

Again, Bryant loves proving people wrong. He's using those ridiculous player ratings from ESPN.com as a slap at his standing as one of the elites. He never forgets, or forgives, and like Michael Jordan (to the end!), he's not above creating slights where none exist to provide fuel for his work ethic. He could, perhaps, be back on the court as early as this Friday, after the Lakers get three days of practice. At the latest, he'll surely be back before Christmas.

Although he had "self-doubt conversations" after suffering the Achilles' tear in April -- and when he began the arduous rehab process -- he never gave in to the "Why I am doing this?" option.

"This is the challenge that was just directly in front of me," he said last week at a news conference in Washington. "I can respond to that 10 times out of 10. This has to get done. Come hell or high water, I'm going to figure this out."

Kobe Bryant Press Conference

What the Lakers have to figure out, though, is how to improve their roster next summer, with Bryant now taking up a huge chunk of their salary cap.

Without going into sleep-inducing specifics, here are the basics:

At $23.5 million next season and $25 million in 2015-16, Bryant eats up a lot of the Lakers' salary-cap space the next two seasons. The cap for those seasons, of course, has not been determined yet, but assuming a modest uptick from this year's $58.6 million cap, Bryant's deal takes up just under 40 percent of the room.

How the Lakers fill in the rest of that room is obviously up to them. They currently have only two other players under contract -- Steve Nash, entering the final season of his contract at $9.7 million, and backup center Robert Sacre (a little more than $915,000). Reserve guard Nick Young has a player option for $1.27 million; the assumption is the L.A. native will exercise it and be on the roster next season.

The Lakers could use the stretch provision of the new collective bargaining agreement to waive Nash before the start of next season, and spread the $9.7 million they owe him over three seasons for cap purposes (hence the term "stretch" provision). That would cut Nash's cap expense for 2014-15 and each of the following two seasons to around $3.23 million. If the Lakers do that, and Young is aboard, and they don't trade Sacre, they'd have, including Bryant's salary, about $28.9 million committed -- technically. (That doesn't include the amount the Lakers would pay in first-year salary to their first-round Draft pick, but we won't know what amount that will be until we know where the Lakers are picking.)

Arena Link: Mike Bresnahan

This is where it gets complicated. When a player becomes an unrestricted free agent, there are only two things that can happen to him: 1) He re-signs with his current team at a new salary, or 2) he signs with another team at a new salary. Until he does either, he remains on his current team's cap in the form of what is called a "cap hold," designed to keep a team from being able to use its cap room to sign free agents from other teams, then use its Bird Rights on its existing free agents to sign them.

But to maximize their cap room, the Lakers would have to renounce their rights to those players -- give up their Bird Rights to them -- and let them walk. That would include several free agents the team wants to keep, from guard Steve Blake to center/forward Jordan Hill.

And there is Pau Gasol, who makes $19.2 million this season. He's likely due for a cut next season, no matter where he plays -- even though he's still a productive player. The question is how much, and for whom. Gasol has the backing of superagent Arn Tellem, who enjoys proving people wrong that think his clients won't get what he wants.

Knowing Tellem, there's no way Gasol will sign for $10 million to $12 million to stay in L.A., when he'll have any number of teams as potential suitors: Dallas, Golden State, Washington and perhaps Chicago, depending on what direction the Bulls take.

The Starters: Kobe's Contract Extension

If Gasol were to take $15 million to stay in L.A. next season, that would push the Lakers' commitments up to $43.9 million -- not enough to sign a max player in the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony mold, but enough to get someone who helps.

"If Pau stays, I think they could still have room for another guy," a prominent agent said over the weekend. "Maybe they wait a year for the [Kevin] Love, [LaMarcus] Aldridge, Marc Gasol group" that will be free agents in the summer of 2015.

Bryant bristled last week at any notion that his new deal cost the Lakers future flexibility. He did take a pay cut from the maximum he could have been paid next summer. He could have been paid about $32 million, based on his salary this season of $30 million. But he was more annoyed at what his camp believes is an owner-fueled narrative: Because of the new CBA, with its new repeater tax penalties, all players -- especially the stars -- will have to take a significant financial haircut in order for their teams to be able to field competitive teams. Those who care about winning, according to the narrative, will do so compliantly.

The narrative was especially noxious to his camp in the context of the Lakers, a team that's getting $3 billion over the next 20 years from Time Warner to broadcast its games. The franchise prints money, beginning with the courtside seats and sponsorships that Bryant's presence will keep selling. And sales of franchises, as the union tried to point out during the lockout, not only continue to rise, but continue at prices for multiples of what the previous owners brought the team. Chris Cohan bought the Golden State Warriors in 1995 for around $119 million (about $182 million in current dollars); he sold them to Joe Lacob and Peter Guber in 2010 for $450 million -- and likely could have sold it for even more to Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, who surprisingly lost his bid for the team.

The Maloof family bought a majority interest in the Kings in 1989 for $156 million ($293 million today); they sold the franchise earlier this year to a group headed by entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive for $534 million -- and, again, had a suitor willing to pay even more. That was, of course, Seattle-based hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, whose group said it would bid up to $406 million for a 65 percent controlling share of the team, valuing the franchise at $625 million.

Kobe Bryant Timeline

(It should come as no surprise to you that Bryant's camp calculated that Jordan's final salary with the Bulls, the $33 million "balloon payment" he received in 1997-98, converts, in 2014 dollars, to ... $48 million.)

Bryant said last week he is convinced the Lakers can re-sign Gasol at a similar reduced price that he took, and still add a premier free agent next summer.

"We have the opportunity to do that, sure," he said. "I don't even know, legally, what I'm allowed to say or not say about pending free agents and stuff like that, so I'll stay away from that. We have the ability to do something special. We'll have to see what happens. The Lakers, they're a standup organization. They stepped up to the plate and took care of me. Some of that was obviously for work previously done and the value that I brought to the organization. Some of it is a leap of faith of what they expect me to do when I return."

Bryant has been ratcheting up his workouts, but the acid test will come only after he practices. He has to see how he recovers after going through a couple of hard practices; after Sunday's loss at home to the Trail Blazers, the Lakers don't play again until Friday.

The Lakers haven't been great, obviously, but they're hanging in there. With a full training camp to put in coach Mike D'Antoni's system, and players like Jordan Farmar, who are better fits, L.A. has had good moments, including wins over Houston and Golden State. But Bryant's return dramatically alters the team's hierarchy.

Arena Link: Howard Beck

"For the most part, we're not thinking about it," Blake said last week. "Once you get between the lines, it's basketball. We're not thinking about Kobe. But there's times, off the court, you might think about it, or when he has practice with us, you know how he's integrating in. Times like that, you have to start thinking about it a little bit off the court. But once you're thinking about this game, that's the farthest thing from your mind. 'Cause I know he's not playing."

Bryant, by all accounts, has looked great since returning to practice in early November. Derrick Rose, by all accounts, looked great in practice for months, and he looked great in the exhibition season. The regular season proved to be a greater challenge, and it will for Bryant as well -- even if the Achilles' is not the impediment many think.

Because Bryant's game is swaddled in fundamentals, playing a more ground-based game is not going to be a big deal for him. With his footwork, deft headfakes (Bryant and Dwyane Wade are still the best in the league at getting defenders off their feet) and upper body strength, he can get his shot off any time against any defense. Bryant mastered playing the "pinch post" of the triangle offense years ago, and he's become very comfortable posting in D'Antoni's offense as well.

"He knows how to play the game," D'Antoni said last week. "You would normally have to [adjust] anyway, as you get older. He's just put different elements in his game that'll be different than what it was. Like I said, I have no doubts that he'll be at a very high level."

The Beat: Kobe Signs Extension

Of course, Bryant is not coming back to move the ball and screen away.

"To think he's just going to blend in ... hmmm, I think that's a bit of a stretch," D'Antoni said.

Left unsaid, though, is the only question that matters: Even if the Lakers have room, will contemporary free agents want to come there? Was Dwight Howard's departure to Houston an outlier, or a portent of things to [not] come?

It's hard to see a scenario where anyone who's used to having an offense run through him (James) or who gets a ton of shots (Anthony) would want to leave that for what would, at best, be a timeshare with Bryant (or Bryant and Gasol). True, the Olympic experience of 2008 and '12, where Bryant teamed with James and Anthony (both times) and Love (in '12) to win gold medals, brought those star players a little closer together. You never say never. But it's hard to see.

Whatever happens, Bryant will never -- ever -- lose his competitive zeal. If you're around him for five minutes, you know how much he still burns to compete and win. It is his greatest attribute. It is his greatest flaw. It is why he has five rings, and thinks, if you'll just get out of his way, he can get one more.

The Lakers gave Bryant almost $50 million at age 35. When you think about it, they didn't have much of a choice. The late patriarch, Jerry Buss, made his choice in 2004, when he traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami and made Bryant the face of the franchise. Through everything that's transpired since -- everything -- the franchise's belief in Bryant has never wavered. They will go down with Bryant, because that's all they've known in Los Angeles since 1997, and they're not going to stop now.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

Pacers vs. Clippers

1) Indiana [2] (4-0): Pacers have held six of first 17 opponents to 80 or fewer points en route to NBA-best 16-1 record.

2) Miami [3] (4-0): Cleaned the Eastern Conference gum off its shoe last week with wins over Cleveland, Toronto and Charlotte, along with a blowout win over Phoenix. Two interesting matchups this week with a bigger, and younger, Pistons squad.

3) San Antonio [1] (2-2): First home loss of the season Saturday, to resurgent Houston.

4) Oklahoma City [5] (3-0): Thunder have yet to lose at home (9-0), the first time the team has won nine straight to start a season since before the franchise moved from Seattle.

5) Portland [4] (2-1): Blazers are now 9-0 in back-to-backs so far this season, but they face a doozy tonight at home against 16-1 Indiana after beating the Lakers at Staples Sunday night.

6) Houston [7] (4-0): I think Chandler Parsons is out of his shooting slump: 30-of-48 (.625) this week, including 13-of-22 on 3-pointers and 25 points in the Rockets' win over the Spurs Saturday.

7) Los Angeles Clippers [6] (2-1): Clips have to do better than middle-of-the-pack in defensive rating, especially against elite teams, if they're going to be a late May-early June outfit.

Nuggets vs. Raptors

8) Denver (4-0) [15]: Nate Robinson has been a catalyst for the Nuggets' surge, shooting 29-of-52 (55.8 percent) the last five games, averaging 16.2 ppg off the bench.

9) Golden State [9] (2-2): The defense is backsliding a little without Andre Iguodala. The Warriors have allowed 100 or more points in six of their last seven games, including 113 Sunday night in a two-point win over Sacramento.

10) Dallas [8] (1-3): Just when I was really starting to believe in the Mavs, they blow a 17-point lead to lose at Atlanta Friday, then give up 112 at home to the weary, reeling Timberwolves on Saturday.

11) Atlanta [10] (1-3): Who says NBA players don't get better? Paul Millsap is walking into 3-pointers this season like he's shot them all his life, which he hasn't; he made 11 threes in November, just two short of his career high for a full season. Full credit to Millsap and to the Hawks' assistant and development coaches.

12) Phoenix [14] (2-2): Suns having Nash flashbacks: Phoenix currently leads the league in fast-break points.

13) Minnesota [11] (1-3): Wolves finally pull the plug on the Derrick Williams experiment. Luc Mbah a Moute could definitely fill the defensive perimeter role vacated when Andrei Kirilenko went to the Nets.

14) Los Angeles Lakers [NR] (2-2): They may be getting the big man back soon! I speak, of course, of Chris Kaman.

15) Memphis [12] (1-2): Grizzlies in the midst of first four-game losing streak at home since March, 2010. Haven't won at FedEx Forum since Nov. 9.

Dropped out: Chicago [13].

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Houston (4-0): Wins over Atlanta and Brooklyn at home; wins over Memphis and San Antonio on the road. That's a pretty impressive week.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

New York (0-4): I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the locals aren't being patient during this rough patch for the home team, or feeling Anthony's suggestion that the Knicks have lost all of their leaders from last year's team.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

What if Mark Cuban is right about HGH?

There was an old Saturday Night Live sketch called the "All-Drug Olympics," the conceit of which was it was pointless to continue trying to police all the illegal substances that athletes used, so in the ADO, everything was allowed -- with unfortunate results. Yet the idea stuck with me over the years: It does seem kind of silly to have competitions where some people are using as-yet undectable drugs, while others are not. My main question is, what does "performance enhancing" mean? If I have a bad headache and take two aspirin, the headache goes away. Isn't that "performance enhancing?"

NBA players have, notoriously, taken painkillers like Advil by the handful for years, desperate to ease the knee and joint pain that is a regular part of life for pro basketball players. And some, including Shaquille O'Neal, have worried about the potential damage to their bodies of that use. But Advil, of course, is legal, whereas HGH is not.

All of the major sports leagues in the United States have come to accept the definition of international governing bodies such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that have banned HGH, steroids and similar substances from international competitions.

Mark Cuban
Mavs owner Mark Cuban wants the NBA to probe deeper into the effects of HGH use in basketball.

FIBA, basketball's international governing body, announced last week that it would have an HGH test in place for next year's World Cup (the successor to basketball's World Championships) in Spain.

Cuban, though, isn't so sure that HGH is harmful. And he'd like to find out for sure.

The Mavericks' owner told USA Today last week he'd be willing to fund university studies to determine whether HGH should remain on the NBA's banned substances list, or be allowed to be used in limited circumstances where players are recovering from injury.

Cuban told the paper critics are making an "emotional" decision about HGH based on public perception of the drug, and wants only to look at the issue dispassionately.

"A lot of people try to play ethicist in sports," he said in an e-mail Friday. "At some point the hope is that facts win. Caffeine is the perfect example. It's been a banned substance. It's not any longer. It's a proven stimulant that without monitoring can have serious side effects. Yet no one is stopping anyone from drinking coffee before a game ... Heck, one of our best sponsors is Red Bull. That tells you all you need to know.

"The thing I like most about the NBA vs other leagues is that we are truly data driven and (open) minded. We follow the science. That's a good thing."

Indeed, WADA removed caffeine from its Prohibited List in '04, though it has kept it in what WADA calls its "Monitoring Program," in which the agency tries to keep an eye on substances that are not illegal but which it feels could be abused. WADA said its 2010 and '11 studies indicated "significant increases in consumption" of caffeine by athletes around the world, but did not detect "global specific patterns of misuse" of caffeine.

The NBA has been trying to come up with an HGH test for the past several months. It was one of the so-called "B-List" issues that were not resolved at the end of the lockout in 2011. The league and the National Basketball Players Association have been discussing a possible agreement on HGH; Commissioner David Stern said earlier this year that he thought a test would be in place in time for the start of next season.

But the NBPA is skeptical about the efficacy of an HGH test. It's been waiting while the NFL and its players' union, the National Football League Players Association, try to hammer out an agreement for an HGH test. Both the NFLPA and NBPA have resisted incorporating decision limits into HGH testing for their sports. Each makes the argument that its athletes may have, because of the demands of their sport, differing and specific hormone profiles than may be found in other sports, and thus can't fall under the "normal" criteria of other athletes tested by WADA.

The NBA tests its players at random four times during the season and twice during the offseason -- none disclosed in advance. If the league or NBPA suspects a player is using, possesses or is distributing drugs, it can inform the drug program's independent expert. If the independent expert concurs that reasonable cause exists, he or she can test the player without notice up to four times in six weeks.

Under the terms of the 2012 CBA, players who test positive for steroids, performance-enhancing drugs, masking agents or diuretics (the classification is known as SPED) receive a 20-game ban for a first offense, 45 games for a second offense and a minimum two-year ban for a third offense. NBA players' test samples are split into "A" and "B" samples. If the "A" sample tests positive, the player can request the "B" sample be tested at a different facility.

A three-person panel agreed upon by both the league and union was empowered after the lockout to try to determine whether there was an effective HGH blood test and, if so, what the testing procedures would be.

In addition, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a three-member panel, overturned last March a three-year ban imposed by the International Skiing Federation against an Estonian cross-country skier after a positive HGH test in 2011.

The CAS ruled that the HGH test itself used by the skiing federation was reliable and based on "scientifically correct assumptions and methods," but the CAS said that the skiing federation didn't meet the applicable standard of proof -- specifically, the basic standards by which a group of athletes in a given sport are collectively judged, so that there is a baseline past which one would test positive for an illegal substance.

These standards, known in the testing culture as "decision limits," should, in theory, limit the number of false positive tests on athletes, and are reached after a population study of a sport's athletes is taken.

The uncertainty is in the test, and whether there's currently a decision limit cutoff point in existing blood tests for determining when an abnormally -- possibly illegal -- level of HGH is present, as opposed to the naturally occurring levels of HGH we all produce.

The NFLPA agreed to allow its players to give blood samples during training camp to try to create a population study, upon which that league can set thresholds. But NFL.com reported in September that the NFLPA was reluctant to sign off on any agreement if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was, as the league insists, the person designated to hear player appeals after positive tests.

The appellate issue isn't applicable in the NBA. All appeals to drug program decisions are heard by an independent arbitrator, not the Commissioner.

The end result is a holding pattern for the league and the union, and at minimum, it's not likely there would be a test in place any time before the start of next season.

Cuban isn't saying HGH should be legal. He just wants to study the issue of whether HGH is truly performance enhancing or just is beneficial in recovery. He is willing to fund the study himself at the university level, and is willing to do it over a long time period -- up to a decade, if necessary -- to get a definitive answer. He says he has "no idea" what the studies would unearth, but that he isn't looking to overturn the league's existing ban on other performance enhancing drugs like steroids.

"That is why we want to fund (the) studies," he wrote. "I don't think anyone really knows. The guesses come from aggregating data from multiple studies, which incorporate a total of 330 people. That tells us nothing...Steroids has a 30-year history of data. From all I can see it is relatively safe when doctor administered. In fact, all leagues allow it if there is doctor approved deficiency. I'm not taking on that battle at this point."

The league will have a hands-off approach to Cuban's idea until and unless he can convince the federal government that HGH use has some legal benefit. Cuban will have to prove to the feds that HGH is worth the side effects risk, including increased potential for cancer and leukemia.

No matter Cuban's protestations, it's the feds, not the NBA, that currently list HGH as illegal (distribution of HGH was made illegal in 1988 under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act), unless it's prescribed by a physician for specific medical treatments. They are the ones that will have to alter the current status of HGH. And until that point, the league will never allow its team doctors or athletic trainers to give players HGH.

Cuban has a point in one significant regard: there has not been a lot of scientific study about the effects of HGH on elite athletes. The problem is, how do you do it? You'd have to find a number of people willing to be guinea pigs who'd be willing to be pumped full of HGH to see what happened to them. Then you'd probably have to combine that with other substances to see if there are any cross reactions and if the athletes were hurt by using HGH. Is that even ethical?

In addition, what about the players -- and there are a lot of them -- who simply don't want to put anything into their bodies under any circumstances, who just want to train as hard as they can and play to the best of their abilities, naturally? Who speaks up for them? The last 20 years' worth of Major League Baseball rosters seem to cleave pretty neatly into juicers and non-juicers. It's taken almost all of that time, but the non-juicers seem to be gaining a foothold both in the league office and in the court of public opinion, if the reaction to Ryan Braun's suspension is any indication.

But the arbitrariness of what is legal and what isn't still seems like it needs to be resolved. I get it; all sports are a series of arbitrary decisions -- the pitching mound is 60 feet, 6 inches; the NBA court is 94 feet long...because they are. And the pro leagues have agreed en masse that the drugs WADA says are illegal in the Olympics will be illegal in their respective sports.

It would not hurt, though, to know for sure exactly what HGH does to harm the world's best athletes. We know that, in limited doses, it can help them recover quicker. And if that helps a team get its best player back in time for the playoffs, isn't that a good thing for the league?

To be sure, Cuban doesn't think much of the term "performance enhancing," which he called a "marketing slogan" in one of his e-mails. Asked to elaborate, he wrote, "HGH is called performance enhancing yet science hasn't shown it to be.

"I want to know the science. Just the facts jack "

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

This is why talking about advanced stats makes my eyes bleed. From Ben Martell:

You're the second person I've seen talk about contested rebound percentage, and as a Kiwi, the first was because I've been following the exploits of Stephen Adams who is also doing very well in this category. On both occasions, the stat has been explained the same way -- the way you did in your Morning Tip.

However, I've gone and had a closer look at the stats and -- I think the meaning of the stat is being reported wrong.

I do not think the stat is measuring "the percentage of contested rebounds available to a player that they pull down" -- which sounds incredibly impressive. It makes it sound like you are bullying other players in the paint, if you are over 50 percent then you are better than average at beating other players to contested rebounds.

However, looking at the stats more closely, I think it is actually measuring "the percentage of the rebounds that a player pulls down which are contested".

Take Robin Lopez. He gets 8.1 rebounds a game. 4.1 are contested, and 3.9 are not. That means 51.8 percent of his 8.1 rebounds per game were contested. It doesn't mean he has won 51.8 percent of the contested rebounds. This calculation continues to work for all, so it seems to me that it is the correct interpretation.

While taking nothing away from Lopez's performance this season, I don't think the stat is quite as meaningful as it sounds. Lopez is only getting 3.9 uncontested rebounds a game, but in terms of the number of contested rebounds he has the chance to get, he could be getting 4.1 (in which case he would be pulling 100 percent of them down) or he could be getting 20.1 (in which case he would only be pulling 20 percent of them down) and his contested REB percentage would not change.

A much more meaningful stat would appear to be "percentage of rebounds per chance" which DOES take into account the percentage you are pulling down of ALL rebounds you have the change to get.

Take DeAndre Jordan. He is getting 5.5 contested rebounds per. Because he is also getting 7.3 uncontested rebounds, his contested REB percentage is only 42.9 percent -- far and away lower than Lopez. However, in terms of the percentage of rebounds per chance -- i.e., how dominant he actually is being in rebounding -- he is pulling down 72.3 percent -- much more than Lopez's 55.7 percent, which leaves him only 101st among players playing significant minutes.

The best stat of all, and one which seems like it can be calculated but isn't be, WOULD be "the percentage of contested rebounds available to a player that they pull down". However, it does not appear that this stat is actually being kept at all.

I hope this has been clear -- and I hope that I'm right. My goal is just that with so many new advanced stats, it seems inevitable that some will be misinterpreted -- and the sooner they can be cleared up, the less chance that incorrect interpretations stick around for good.

David: stares blankly at screen.

Oscar Roberston Vintage Feature

Sometimes, Grandpa isn't just a doddering old fool that you merely tolerate until he falls asleep watching reruns of Mannix. From Andres Schimelman:

I was reading an interview with Oscar Robertson the other day in the Hang Time Blog and something he said caught my attention. He was saying how, if someone would average a triple-double over a season (like he did) in today´s NBA, the Internet would blow up.

Usually, at least for the last couple of years, the leader in points per game averages around 28 points, and the "rebounding champion" does it at 14, 15 per game. But when you look at the numbers in the days of The Big O, they almost double up (and that was done in a league that didn´t "favor" the offensive player with rules such as hand checking, which is even more surprising to me).

So, my question is: what was different in the game back then that allowed so many amazing stats (like Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points and 30 rebounds)?

With the caveat that I didn't see these guys play live, Andres, I think the major differences are these: 1) Wilt was, simply, a freak. He was one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game. There was, literally, no one who compared with him; he was a man playing against boys, athletically speaking. 2) Fewer teams, fewer players, which means those who did play amassed more stats. 3) Players of that era were, IMHO, more well-rounded. Guards were expected to rebound their position. Big men stayed in the paint; they didn't step out and shoot threes. And, again, Oscar was just that good. The fact that no one has achieved a season-long triple double average since he did speaks to how hard it is.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and dinner reservations so Pop and McHale can hug it out 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 parentheses)

1) LeBron James (29 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.8 apg, .603 FG, .868 FT): On pace to make his first career appearance in the "180 Club," which is supposed to be for players who shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on threes and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Only six players -- Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Price -- have reached the mark. James, though, is threatening to reach the 180 Club by being the first person ever to do so by shooting 60 percent from the floor.

2) Chris Paul (16 ppg, 4 rpg, 8.5 apg, .417 FG, .917 FT): Clips are really shorthanded with backcourt injuries, but it might make long-term sense to sit CP3 (hamstring) for a few games before a bad situation is made worse.

3) Kevin Durant (27 ppg, 12 rpg, 7 apg, .470 FG, .882 FT): Came back from unproductive OT against Golden State with first triple-double of the season Sunday against Minnesota, the fourth of his career.

4) Paul George (22.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, .434 FG, .733 FT): Getting it done, again, at both ends of the court for the league-best Pacers, and deserves to start getting serious MVP consideration.

5) Kevin Love (19 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, .343 FG, .750 FT): Double-doubles in 18 of Minnesota's first 19 games this season.

Dropped out: Dwight Howard

BY THE NUMBERS

88 -- Consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer by the Hawks' Kyle Korver, one shy of tying the NBA record set by Dana Barros set over two seasons, the first with Philadelphia and the second with Boston. Korver will have a chance to break the mark when he returns from a rib injury that has kept him out of the last three games (missed games do not count against the streak). He started the streak on Nov. 4, 2012.

24 -- Days between wins for the Bucks, who broke their 11-game losing streak Saturday with a win over the Celtics. Two of Milwaukee's three victories this season have come over Boston.

7 -- Philadelphia 76ers jerseys that have been retired: Julius Erving (6), Maurice Cheeks (10), Wilt Chamberlain (13), Hal Greer (15), Bobby Jones (24), Billy Cunningham (32) and Charles Barkley (34). The club announced last week that it would officially retire Allen Iverson's number 3 jersey on March 1.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) The Thrill of Victory, Part I

1A) The Thrill of Victory, Part II

1B) Speaking of which, I'm not a big college football fan, but Saturday was one of the greatest days of BCS watchin' I've ever witnessed. What is there to say about the last play of Alabama-Auburn? "Unbelievable" doesn't do it justice. (By the way, I love Michigan going for the win. It's Ohio State! You don't play for overtime against your blood rival.)

2) I like the new KG commercials for the headphones, but the supposed crowd hatred for him is a bit over the top. That seems more like an NFL thing. Most people I see want his autograph, not a piece of him.

3) Good on ya, Will Bynum.

4) Is anyone in the East playing better point guard right now than John Wall? He's not the best point in the league, as he claims, but he's playing at a top-five level right now for a Wizards team trying to hold down the fort until Bradley Beal comes back.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) I occasionally get some things wrong in my line of work, especially when asked to make predictions about anything: a playoff game, the Draft, and so on. But on Draft Night 2012, I couldn't believe the Cavs didn't take Harrison Barnes with the fourth overall pick instead of Dion Waiters, and said so on TV, and wrote so here. And I think I was right on that one.

2) Terrible break for the Hornets and Anthony Davis, and the Clippers and J.J. Redick. No puns intended. Chris Paul loved the grit that Redick brought to the starting lineup, and Davis was playing out of his mind to start the season in New Orleans.

3) When you have League Pass, you see all these NBA-centric commercials. And it's tough to see the ones featuring injured players like Derrick Rose and, to a much lesser extent, Andre Iguodala and Bradley Beal (a "much lesser extent" because they'll certainly be back on the court this season, unlike Rose), and how their respective franchises built much of their marketing campaigns around those players.

4) I couldn't get through this account of the post-mortem on Ted Williams, in a new biography of the Splendid Splinter, as excerpted by the Boston Globe. Perhaps you can.

5) I don't like Black Friday. I don't like people who think Black Friday is so important that they get into fights and shove people to get the latest electronic gadget or article of clothing. I'm pretty sure "50 percent off everything in the store" appears nowhere in Scripture about the birth of Jesus.

Q AND A: LOU WILLIAMS

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Ep. 7

He had never been injured. Never got hurt at South Gwinnett (Ga.) High, where he was one of the greatest scorers in state history -- and from where he became one of the last players to go straight from high school to the NBA, in the 2005 Draft. Never was hurt in seven NBA seasons, all with the 76ers, who'd taken him in the second round in '05, and who had watched him become one of the league's top sixth men -- a guy who could get white hot quicker than almost anyone in the game. When Williams made his first jumper, look out.

After finishing second to James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year in 2012, Williams left Philly for Atlanta, which gave him a three-year, $15.7 million deal. But his inaugural season with the Hawks ended in January in Brooklyn, when he drove on a seemingly innocent fast break. But as Williams planted his right knee to cross over, it gave way, and he tore his ACL.

It was the start of a grueling eight-month rehab for Williams, who had the ligament repaired by famed knee doctor James Andrews. All summer, as the Hawks remade their team, with a new coach and a new style and new teammates, Williams was tooling between Atlanta and Gulf Breeze, Fla., where Andrews's rehab clinic and therapists put Williams' knee back through its paces. After some stops and starts, his knee started coming around, and Williams finally got back on the court on Nov. 18, against his old team, the 76ers -- not a coincidence, as you'll see. He's not allowed to play back to backs and he has a minutes limit, but he's back on the court, a player who had to endure the toughest of basketball injuries

Me: I always wonder, for guys who've never really been hurt before -- what was the biggest shock to you while you were injured?

Lou Williams: Basketball gives my life rhythm. I can pretty much set my schedule, my clock, how I deal with people, rest, travel. You basically can factor all of those things in. It was a difference for me. It was my eighth year when I got hurt. It was different being away from the guys, not being in that habit, not being in that environment of grinding, getting ready for a game, that competitive spirit. Just sitting at home, rehabbing every day, was just a completely different vibe for me, entirely, for my whole life. It was weird for me.

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Ep. 6

Me: Because you didn't have that rhythm, were you shorter with people than normal?

LW: Oh, yeah, definitely. I wasn't the friendliest person to deal with during this process, looking back. I realize that I was a little on edge. I was a little edgy. Because, again, when you're used to a rhythm and it's taken away from you, you don't know what the next step is. You're kind of snappy with people. But I'm grateful to have a great support system, people who stood by me, who were on my side, who helped me through this whole process.

Me: Who drove you around?

LW: My cousin was driving me around, my cousin Victor. He was all-time driver. And he's my chef at the same time. Out of everybody around me, he did the most work. He's a selfless type of guy, someone I can really trust. So he was there for the whole thing, driving me down to Florida for my [rehab] visits --

Me: You drove there from Atlanta?

LW: Oh, yeah. I'm not a great flyer, so when we found it was only three and a half, four hours...and I have a van, and this was like the perfect opportunity to get some use out of it. 'Cause I wasn't even using it in Atlanta. So we took advantage of that. He was driving me around, cooking for me, filling up my game ready when I needed ice. Then, also, my girl, Ashley, and my mom. So, I was blessed with that.

Me: What was Victor's comfort food for you?

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Ep. 5

LW: Always some type of pasta. I'm a big Italian guy. So whether we were doing some kind of Bolognese sauce, Marinara or just pizza, it was always something in that realm.

Me: How many times did you go down to Florida to the Andrews Clinic?

LW: Not very many. Well, when I went the first time, I stayed there for three months. I got a house down there. Basically, that was my adopted home for a while. And after that, we went for four or five quick trips when we were there for two or three days at a time.

Me: What was the first thing they tried to have you do?

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Episode 4

LW: Just bend my leg. Just normal, lay on your back and try to bend your leg. It literally wouldn't move. That was the point that I realized this was going to be a long process. Just small things. I couldn't shower for myself. I couldn't stand up. The weirdest thing for me was when I found a comfortable spot on my couch, I literally wouldn't move for hours. Just because I was comfortable. I wasn't in pain. Anytime I had to go to the bathroom, I had to grab crutches. Somebody had to walk with me. It was this whole process. We had to unwrap the bandages on my leg, just to go to the bathroom. So it was just, it was difficult. And it was very different.

Me: Were dealing with those little inconveniences worse than the rehab?

LW: Definitely. 'Cause it's all mental. At that point it's like, if I can't use the bathroom, will I ever be able to play again? The mental aspect of it is worse than the physical. The great part about it was once I got back on my feet, I was so driven. I was so driven to work. I was so driven and ready that I might have been moving too fast too early. So I was able to get over a lot of the mental hurdles that come with the physicality of playing basketball again. I was able to get over that very early in my process once I got back on my feet.

Me: You researched other guys coming back from ACL injuries, like Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert. Anyone else that you looked at?

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Episode 3

LW: No, it was just those two guys, and then, the guys I was actually rehabbing with. I was there with RGIII. [Rajon] Rondo and I, we were literally one table away from each other every day for a few months. We were just basically feeding off of each other when we was down there. It was like, 'How did you feel when you were doing this?' And just bouncing information off of each other, just to see where we were in the process. I think just being in that environment, with guys that were going through the same thing that I was, I think that was very helpful for me, just to push forward.

Me: How soon did they get you into the pool?

LW: I think that was probably five, six months in, when we started doing the pool stuff. And just trying to push it a little bit. I had a lot of scar tissue. We were very aggressive with my rehab at first. Then my body didn't respond well to that. I was just dealing with a lot of swelling. One day, Andrews just said, 'How about if we just leave him alone for a week and see what happens?' And so we didn't do any rehab, anything. My scar tissue came down. My knee started healing. He was like, 'I figured it out. Less is best for this particular situation.' Once we figured that out, we weren't as aggressive with my rehab. And we stuck with that for the next three or four months, and it worked out.

Me: So you'd get two, three days off a week after that?

LW: Yeah, we would take breaks. So instead of just pounding on the knee, pounding on it, trying to make it stronger, we would just let it rebuild. We would come in, do a lot of ice, do a lot of stim. We would try to exercise it on the bike as much as we could, but we weren't doing any of the aggressive stuff that a lot of the other guys down there were doing.

Me: How did you maintain the confidence that this was the right approach?

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery Ep.2

LW: It was working. It was working. I was feeling the difference. I was feeling the different way my body was responding to it. Slowly, surely, I was able to ride the bike. I was able to jog. I was able to stretch. I was able to start doing more weightlifting. So once we realized that, we would kick it up a little bit, go aggressive for a couple of days, take two days off, go aggressive for a couple of days, take a couple days off, instead of just going steady through that whole week. So once you started seeing the results, we just stuck with that game plan.

Me: I hear breaking up the scar tissue is the most painful part of rehab. True?

LW: Well, I don't know. Every time he did it for me, I was asleep. I was under, I guess is what they call it. Because, again, it was to the point where I couldn't bend my leg. They had to be aggressive with it. And it wasn't going to be something I was going to be able to deal with being awake. So they had to put me under every time if we wanted to break it down.

Me: What was the time frame for getting cleared: one on one, two on two, halfcourt, fullcourt?

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Episode 1

LW: We started from the bottom. Just working out by myself, getting jump shots up by myself, standing still, then maybe one dribble, then maybe two dribbles. Then maybe a little screen and roll, and then it was like some halfcourt, backpedal half court, run in and shoot. Then it was like fullcourt. Then it was like, now that we're going fullcourt, we have a time restriction. So we couldn't be on the floor longer than 30 minutes. Then it was 45 minutes. Then it was an hour. Then it was, let's try some one on one with the interns. Then it was, OK, one on one with some of your teammates. Then it was one on one, two on two, three on three, four on four and five on five.

Me: Did the interns try to bust you and make a name for themselves?

LW: Every time. 'Cause I talk a lot. That was my, I was talking to try and get myself through it, just keep my confidence up. We created an atmosphere where it was very competitive with my one on one, two on two stuff. We were looking forward to it. 'Cause I was telling those guys, 'Listen. These are my games. So I'm gonna treat it like this is live, live action, and you should treat it the same. 'Cause I'm gonna come at you.' So John Jenkins, Shelvin Mack, Jared Cunningham, Royal Ivey was with us in training camp. We had a lot of guys that we were just throwing in the mix. And I was creating an atmosphere where it was very competitive, and a little physical. So I think that's what helped me early on, just to get ready for five on five action.

Me: You mentioned when you returned that there were little details to your game that were the last things to come back. What were they?

LW: My first step. Having the confidence to go left. Because when you go left, you're planting on that right leg, the one that I tore. Those are the things that I had relied on in my game. And being able to split [double teams] quick. Always just getting past guys, and creating contact. Those were the small details that I was trying to work through early on, and I feel like that's coming back now.

Me: Where were you when they finally cleared you?

LW: I was in Atlanta. We knew it was coming. Just because of how aggressive we started to be in the fall, with the four on four, five on five. I was like, I'm getting there. I don't feel like I'm far off. So we sat down in Atlanta and kind of came up with a game plan. We came up with kind of a two or three week game plan, where if we reached certain milestones, we'd continue to build on it and build on it. And then, so we ended up coming up with a two-week plan. We were going to try to play on the 18th, I think it was, against Detroit, back home, for maybe five to 10 minutes, just to see how I responded to it. Once I looked at the school, being how I felt, I was like, 'Well, how about we play the night before, 'cause we're playing Philadelphia at home? 'Cause that would be kind of fun for me.' Coach was a little apprehensive about that, and I was like, 'Coach, 24 hours is not going to make that much of a difference. I've been working my tail off. Throw me a bone here.' And Bud was gracious enough to do that for me, and we've been working on a gradual plan since then.

Me: Any way you can describe what it felt like being back on the court?

LW: Amazing. For me, it was the whole day. It was exciting to have my pregame nap, to have my pregame meal, to go through my workouts --

Me: What is your pregame meal?

LW: Salmon and green beans. That's it. A piece of salmon and green beans, you know, something light. And just the whole day, getting there, going through those habits, was just exciting for me. I was extremely happy that day, excited. I woke up about an hour and a half early from my nap. I usually take like a three-hour nap. I woke up early. I couldn't sleep. Just butterflies in my stomach. That whole day was just one to remember for me.

Me: This is such a different team now from the one you left. But scoring is scoring, right?

LW: Scoring is scoring. I have a product. And it works. It's international, man. It works. We're definitely a different group than we were last year, but still very competitive. And at the same time, still trying to find our way, still trying to find our identity. We're trying to find that one thing that we're going to hang our hats on, and that's the one thing we're going to do every night.

Me: Do you notice scars on people now?

LW: You know, I don't. Actually, I don't think about it. That's the best way for me to kind of get over it and just to continue on, is to not think about it. I don't play with a brace. I don't play with anything special. I just try to get over it. I even came up with the idea. I was joking with these guys. I said I was going to tattoo over my scar, so it would make me feel like it's not there anymore. Like put like a zipper over it, make it a little funny, make it a little humorous, just to get over that whole process. It's definitely something that's shaped the last couple of years of my life, and something that I'm going to leave in the past.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

If I ever become a coach, I'm using that drink spill trick ...
-- Andre Iguodala (@andre), Wednesday, 11:56 p.m., referencing Jason Kidd's slick move with his Nets down in the final seconds to the Lakers and without any timeouts to set up a final play -- though it cost him a $50,000 fine from the league office. It was reminiscent of Kidd's deliberately running into then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson to draw a technical foul while Kidd played with the Mavericks.

THEY SAID IT

"I just tell people, just get me on the court, I'm going to do good things. Playing behind Kevin Love, it's tough. Not many people can out play him and he's one of the best players in the world."
-- Derrick Williams, the former No. 2 overall pick, upon his arrival in Sacramento after being traded to the Kings by the Timberwolves for forward Luc Mbah a Moute.

"There are days I wish [the phone] would ring and there are days I don't want it to ring. I mean, I watch the Knicks play and I wouldn't want to be in that hell for a million dollars. It's just New York City and the Garden and the immensity of the pressure. I think Mike Woodson is standing up to it with tremendous integrity."
-- Former Nuggets coach George Karl, in an interview with former Denver sports columnist Dave Krieger, on whether he'd like to coach this season.

"I'm going to look back and say I can't believe what we went through in 2013. All of a sudden, we're back to two years ago. Channing is calling with things that seem minimal, like 'My shot's off today.' I'm thinking, 'I don't care. You're on the court.'"
-- Lauren Frye, wife of Suns forward Channing Frye, who has returned to the court after missing all of the 2012-13 season after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart, to the Arizona Republic. In addition, the Fryes had to endure five separate operations last season to partially restore the vision of their daughter, Margaux, who was born blind with cataracts. Margaux can now see about 20 feet in front of her, according to the paper, though she will need to wear lenses and special glasses throughout her life.

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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