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David Aldridge

kenyon martin
Consistently contending has proven to be a problem for New York ... and the rest of the East this season.

Why is the East so bad now? Ten factors stand out the most


Posted Dec 9, 2013 12:49 PM

The Eastern Conference stinks.

That's the kind of cogent analysis you've come to expect from me. But it doesn't take advanced basketball knowledge to reach that conclusion, given that, this morning, only three of the conference's 15 teams (Indiana, Miami and Atlanta) are above .500. Even after Kobe's debut with the Lakers last night in L.A., which the Raptors won, the West still holds a 60-29 edge over the East in interconference games. The only two East teams with a winning record against the West so far are, to no one's surprise, Miami (4-0) and Indiana (6-2 after Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City).

This didn't happen overnight.

The end of the Michael Jordan-Larry Bird-Isiah Thomas era of Eastern Conference dominance in the late 1990s (with great players like Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley leading their respective franchises to long-term success as well) created a power vacuum -- one ably filled by, first, San Antonio, which got Tim Duncan in the 1997 Draft instead of Boston. Before the Spurs got Duncan, the Lakers, in the 1996 offseason, signed Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic and got Bryant via the Draft. Those two franchises traded championships throughout the last decade, with the East only able to pop up occasionally with a Detroit (2004) or Boston (2008) collection of veteran players.

The one East player who could ultimately end their reign, LeBron James, finally did so in Miami -- only after teaming with Dwyane Wade -- who'd won a ring with the Heat after Pat Riley traded for the aging-but-still-effective O'Neal in 2004 -- and Chris Bosh.

Why can't East teams get out of their own way?

"We all get so wrapped up in our own little world," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was on the bench in San Antonio for each of the Spurs' four championships as Gregg Popovich's top assistant coach.

"You look at the scores," Budenholzer said, "but to know why someone isn't where they probably want to be is not for me to say."

That's OK, coach. That's why I'm here!

This season is the result of several seasons that preceded it, when players, coaches and teams made critical decisions, almost all of which left East teams diminished, in one way or another. What follows are 10 reasons why the Eastern Conference has, in the last decade, fallen by the wayside, while the West has become dominant.

1. Howard's End: Dwight Howard turned 28 on Sunday. He should be well into his second mega-contract with the Magic, halfway through a career where his skills led the Magic to the playoffs year after year and -- if management was on point, surrounding him with quality role players -- making The Finals, as he and the Magic did in 2009. Even though Orlando lost to the Lakers in five games, the Magic were poised to be an NBA power for the next six to eight seasons.

Instead, this morning, Howard is practicing with his new team, the Rockets. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year did not like the direction the Magic was going after its Finals appearance, and opted not to re-sign in Orlando, just as O'Neal had a generation earlier. Unlike Shaq, though, Howard's stay in L.A. lasted just a year, as he took $88 million from the Rockets to relocate. Regardless, Howard's out of the East, and the Magic are in full rebuild mode instead of having the game's best center around which to put a championship team.

Howard's unhappiness not only led to his departure, but to the dismantling of a strong management structure that featured general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy. Both were fired as the Magic desperately tried to keep its franchise player content. Van Gundy's style was taxing, to be sure. But his teams were among the best in the league defensively and he got a lot out of veteran players like Hedo Turkoglu.

Smith overspent on Rashard Lewis, of course, and Lewis' $118 million deal ultimately shackled Orlando. But Lewis helped get the Magic to those Finals, and he was the perfect stretch four to complement Howard's post game. The rapid deterioration of Lewis' and Turkoglu's games grew in direct proportion, seemingly, to the view Howard had of greener pastures. Nothing the Magic promised -- an alliance with Disney, television projects, post-career opportunities -- swayed either Howard or his agent, though there are still many on the ground in Orlando who believe Howard really wanted to remain there.

It's a moot point now. Howard's gone, and the Magic predictably fell to the bottom of the league, though they got a couple of promising young pieces from Philly in a three-team-deal for Howard with the Lakers. Nic Vucevic and Maurice Harkless are solid pieces who came over in the deal from the Sixers, and the Magic look to have another keeper in rookie Victor Oladipo.

Howard isn't the first top pick not to work out for the team that took him. There are all kinds of Michael Olowokandis, Kwame Browns and Greg Odens throughout Draft history. But Portland was able to put three players capable of carrying a franchise together in Oden, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge -- only no one really knew Cousin LaMarcus was going to blow up like this. (The guy who maneuvered to get those three, former GM Kevin Pritchard, was run out of town on a rail by ownership, for reasons that they still have never articulated. Pritchard wound up on his feet, though -- in Indiana, where Larry Bird saw something in him.)

At any rate, Orlando expected to be a title contender for a decade. The Magic were about seven years too optimistic.

2. The Devil in Mr. Rose: The Bulls certainly got a break when they won the lottery in 2008 and drafted Derrick Rose, the local kid who just happened to be a transcendent basketball player. Their star player's luck since then has been fleeting. And while the Bulls have made the playoffs every year Rose has (or hasn't) been in the lineup, their chances at true title contention -- or, at the least, being a dominant team in the East -- have dwindled.

The torn meniscus that ended Rose's current season after just 11 games may well rip apart this collection of Bulls. Chicago has some real tough choices ahead. Can the Bulls continue to count on Rose to regain his 2011 MVP form, which would allow them to surround him with complementary players? Or do they need to go get themselves a star and have Rose take a secondary role, the way Clyde Drexler had to do late in his career when he was traded from Portland to Houston to play alongside Hakeem Olajuwon?

Though the Bulls have consistently said Rose is out for the rest of the season after the surgery to repair the meniscus, Rose said last week that he hasn't ruled out playing in the playoffs.

3. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Pistons were the gold standard in the Eastern Conference for almost a decade, winning The Finals in 2004 and making it back in 2005 (but losing to San Antonio) en route to six straight Eastern Conference finals (2002-08).

But that team, ultimately, had to be rebuilt. And the Pistons came up snake eyes after rolling sevens year after year. They replaced Larry Brown, who'd coached them to their Finals win in 2004 over Los Angeles -- but who, inexplicably, started talking to the Cavaliers about their vacant head coaching job the next year while Detroit was playing in the Eastern Conference finals -- with Flip Saunders. Saunders was a good coach; the Pistons made their last three conference finals with him. But he didn't have the respect from the team's veterans that Brown held. As it turned out, nobody could replicate that, as GM Joe Dumars found out when he gave the job in subsequent years to Michael Curry, John Kuester and, lastly, Lawrence Frank.

Dumars gambled that Allen Iverson had something left in the tank, acquiring him from Denver for beloved Finals MVP Chauncey Billups. He didn't. Dumars put his rep behind free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009, giving them Detroit's hard-won cap room in deals worth $58 million and $37.7 million, respectively. His rep suffered.

Dumars has finally got the Pistons on the upswing again, hitting in the Draft on big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. He signed impact free agent Josh Smith last summer and traded for point guard Brandon Jennings. The Pistons' new core showed its potential with a solid road win over Miami last Tuesday, but it's got a ways to go to approach the excellence of the Brown-Billups-Ben Wallace-Rip-Hamilton-Rasheed Wallace teams.

4. The Man With Two Brains: If you spoke with Gilbert Arenas most days, he was engaging, funny, observing the craziness around him with a wry sense of humor. He was a showman. And, for three or four seasons in Washington, he was a hell of a basketball player. Arenas was the spine of an entertaining Wizards team which also featured Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. That group battled a young LeBron James in Cleveland two years in a row in the playoffs and won a series against the Bulls. But there was, obviously, another side to Arenas, one who took teammate pranking to a low and dangerous level. If he had stopped at just leaving things in people's shoes he would have been just another eccentric pro athlete -- albeit one who was an All-Star from 2005-07.

But then he hurt his knee, and he decided his approach to rehab was better than the team's. Then, he hurt the knee again, and he missed 199 out of 246 regular-season games in a three-year stretch. And then he brought guns to his place of work as a "joke" to try and one-up a teammate, and a franchise that was still teetering either way -- toward the playoffs, toward the lottery -- crashed to earth.

The NBA suspended Arenas in January, 2010 for the final 50 games of that season, and the Wizards washed their hands of Arenas the next year. Thus began a fire sale of that team. consigning Washington to yet another rebuilding plan -- one that began when the Wizards took John Wall No. 1 overall in the 2010 Draft.

And like Detroit, Washington is showing signs of life again. The Wizards' young backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal look like one of the league's best young tandems. But the Wizards still don't have a signature win yet this season against a really good team (like the Pistons' win in Miami), having beaten OK West squads like Minnesota and the Lakers. The Wizards were blown out in Miami, Indiana and San Antonio, and blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead in Oklahoma City before falling in overtime.

This is how bad it's been since Arenas' fall from grace: Only last week, after Wall had been with the franchise 1,131 days, did the Wizards finally reach the .500 mark in a season, with their win over Orlando.

5. A River(s) Runs Through It: He changed his mind, and he's certainly entitled. But Doc Rivers did pledge, when he got his $35 million contract from the Celtics, that he would be there when the franchise's inevitable rebuild began. Boston's proud core held off Father Time as long as possible, but the Celts couldn't withstand both the loss of Ray Allen to Miami and the shredding of Rajon Rondo's ACL. Suddenly, the Big Four was the Big Two ... Plus Assorted Role Players.

We'll probably never know if Rivers went to GM Danny Ainge and said 'I'm not sure I want to stick around,' or if Ainge went to Rivers and said 'I'm moving KG and/or Paul Pierce; should you think about your future?' Maybe they happened, more or less, simultaneously. The end result, though, is that a Celtics team that was a likely playoff team with a healthy Rondo and Rivers still in charge now has a new, young, learning-on-the-job coach (Brad Stevens), not one who could appeal to and motivate his vets in a way few could.

On the other hand, they're in first place in the morbidly entertaining Atlantic Division.

6. Swimming With Sharks: Rivers, of course, could have gone anywhere to coach. But the Clippers, with their core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, were an attractive destination. And Paul was there because ... well, you know. If Paul were with the Lakers, Rivers may well have been the next coach of the Nets. Don't tell me Ainge would have balked at having Doc within the division; he didn't mind Pierce, one of the all-time great Celtics, within in the division, on what everyone thought was going to be a dynamic team.

7. Speaking of the Devil ...: Nobody had the Knicks and Nets flat-lining at the same time in the same season. Surely the Nets would be a top-three or-four team, with their veteran depth and size. Surely Jason Kidd, whatever his limitations as a first-year coach, would get the most out of Deron Williams. Surely Garnett and Pierce would provide the leadership and toughness everyone said was missing last season.

Brooklyn was the hot team, the chic pick. And the Nets did nothing to slow those expectations. That all has made the team's freefall the season's first five weeks even more galling to Noo Yawkers.

"We beat our chests, and we said how great we were going to be," one member of the organization acknowledged last week. "We did. That's on us."

The Knicks' offseason changes were a gamble -- firing GM Glen Grunwald, trading for Andrea Bargnani. But it turns out nothing mattered as much as scotching their Team Geriatric leaders, from Kidd to Rasheed Wallace to Kurt Thomas. And the one player New York couldn't afford to lose, it lost -- center Tyson Chandler. (Chandler, who broke his leg Nov. 6, is expected to be out several more weeks.)

That led Carmelo Anthony to label his team the "laughingstock" of the league, and start the rumor mill anew that Anthony was miserably unhappy in New York and would bolt next summer in free agency.

"Oh, I'm always happy here," he said Thursday night, after the Knicks played their best game of the season in a 113-83 rout of the Nets. Three days later, the Knicks lost by 41 at home to the Celtics.

8. South Beach: There was nothing the Cavaliers could do about LeBron James leaving; he gave them the first seven years of his career, and they couldn't put a team around him that was good enough to help him win it all. Once he left in 2010, starting over was a necessity. They didn't get to trade their star player for Draft picks and young players, the way Utah did with Deron Williams, and Denver did with Carmelo Anthony, and New Orleans did with Chris Paul. (Yes, those are all West teams; good of you to notice. And, yes, Cleveland did -- technically -- trade James to Miami, getting some picks in the process, but they certainly didn't get a good young player or players back, as Utah did with Derrick Favors and Denver did with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.)

The question, though, is whether Cleveland could have been much further along with its repair work than it currently is, with rumors of discord among its players a not-so-open secret around the league.

Cleveland cratered that first year without LeBron, losing 25 straight games during the season. (No matter how steep the rebuild, no one tries to do that.) But the Cavs looked well on their way out of the abyss after Kyrie Irving, the top overall pick in 2011, won Rookie of the Year honors. They surprised many in that same Draft when they took Texas forward Tristan Thompson instead of Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas with the fourth pick of that '12 Draft.

The jury's still out on that one: Thompson averaged nearly a double-double in his second season, and is averaging one so far this season. But Valanciunas also flashed during the second half of what was his rookie NBA season last season in Toronto (he played in Europe in 2011), and he's averaging numbers this season that were similar to Thompson's last season.

The Cavs could have drafted Harrison Barnes with the fourth pick overall in last year's Draft. Instead, they took Syracuse guard Dion Waiters. There were other teams who also thought (and think) highly of Waiters, so it's not like the Cavs were totally outside the box in their thinking. But they're the ones who have him. And Waiters has been up and down. Last Friday he scored 30 against Atlanta; the next night, he scored three against the Clippers.

Waiters has had trouble getting traction in Cleveland this season. New coach Mike Brown benched him early in the season, after which Waiters said he was sick and missed a couple of games, amid a players-only meeting. The Cavs have denied rumors that they're shopping Waiters, and they've forcefully denied that he asked for a trade, as has been reported.

Blessed with another number one overall pick in last year's Draft, Cleveland didn't go the safe route by taking either Ben McLemore or Victor Oladipo. Instead, the Cavs took UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett -- who, to put it charitably, has struggled mightily out of the gate.

The Cavs are committed, though, to acquiring as much talent as possible before making final decisions on whether it all meshes. (They still have a future first from Miami, a first from Sacramento and a first from Memphis, along with their own.) They may have to move some of the pieces if Andrew Bynum can come back from his knee injuries; they're pinning their hopes on the fact that the same medical team that helped Zydrunas Ilgauskas make two All-Star teams after his foot injuries early in his career is working with Bynum.

Can their young guys play off of Bynum? Is Bynum reliable enough to build around? Will owner Dan Gilbert, noted for his patience and understanding -- in Bizarro Cleveland -- give the young guys enough time to develop before he goes off on another Comic Sans screed? All good questions. But all remain secondary to the reality that one Decision set all this in motion.

9. The Other Guys: Nothing happens in a vacuum. Western Conference teams should get some credit for putting their teams together, too.

For the billionth time: Yes, the Thunder had Kevin Durant fall in their laps, just as the Spurs got Tim Duncan without any heavy lifting. But having one great player isn't enough. Oklahoma City augmented Durant through the Draft, with Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. San Antonio surrounded Duncan by going international, taking flyers that paid off in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Tiago Splitter and others.

Memphis was thought an NBA wasteland, until they hired a smart guy in general manager Chris Wallace. He took the one major asset of value the Grizz had, Pau Gasol, and turned it into several. In a 2008 trade with the Lakers, Memphis shipped Pau off for his brother, Marc, first-round picks in '08 and '10 (which became, respectively, forward Darrell Arthur and guard Greivis Vasquez) and considerable salary cap space, which the Grizzlies used to acquire and then retain Zach Randolph in a trade from the Clippers for guard Quentin Richardson.

You may remember that Wallace was excoriated leaguewide for that deal. The excoriators, as far as can be ascertained, have not walked back their excoriations. Meanwhile, the team Wallace put together -- along with former coach Lionel Hollins -- went 56 games above .500 over a three-season stretch and made the Western Conference finals in 2013.

Houston's GM, Daryl Morey, tried to build a contender around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, but that team was cut down by injuries to the two stars. So Morey then made a cottage industry of flipping players year after year, trying to amass enough assets to make a big score. He used the rules to get Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in free agency, although Asik's future there is now in doubt. And he finally got Moby Dick, in two big bites -- Harden last year and Howard this year.

Golden State wanted, and got, Steph Curry in the 2010 Draft. But they followed that up by taking Klay Thompson the following year and Barnes in '12. They gambled that Andrew Bogut would return to health, and kept enough cap space free to be able to land Andre Iguodala last summer. Let's see: drafting the right people, trading for the right people, signing the right free agents for the right amount of money. What's the phrase for that?

Right. Good management.

10. Tank: We would be remiss if we weren't honest about the fact that some teams are, if not trying to lose on purpose, aren't broken up about losing this season. The push for a top-three pick in next June's Draft, with any number of potential franchise players (not to mention gifted seniors like Creighton's Doug McDermott), has overwhelmed the East this season. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: we are bad, therefore we must lose more. Which is, in theory, a plan. The problem is that losing is, indeed, a disease, a parasite that feeds on its host.

It doesn't mean every bad team in the East is tanking. Which is the problem with tanking. When one team does it, every other team is suspect.

DRIBBLES

Jason Kidd thought he could make it work. Which, in itself, was the first sign of trouble.

The whole business of Kidd becoming the Nets' coach is built on assertions, assumptions, hopes. But it took Kidd exactly a month on the job before he abandoned the Larry Bird CEO model of coaching and threw aside the guy he said he had to have to make the transition work -- former assistant Lawrence Frank.

Frank was "reassigned" to preparing "reports" for Kidd and the remaining members of the coaching staff. What those reports could possibly involve is not currently being shared with the outside world (leading to this hilarious and profane parody), and is merely a cover for the inevitable financial settlement that will end Frank's stay with the team.

"We're a lot closer than the public thinks," Kidd said early Thursday night.

Then the Nets lost on national television to the Knicks by 30 at home.

"We feel we have enough talent to win," Kidd said afterward. "But we're coming up short."

Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has made it clear that, this season of all seasons, spending on the team is not a problem. But $6 million for a guy who prepares "reports?" Even The Billionaire Russian has to look at his spreadsheets and shake his head.

What is remarkable is that anyone in the Nets' organization would be surprised that this is how things would turn out.

This team, of all teams -- that employed Frank as its coach at Jason Kidd's request after firing Byron Scott in 2004 -- knew that whatever type personality is above "Type A," that was Frank. He is obsessed with the game, as anyone who had the stones to go from student manager at Indiana University to NBA coach must assuredly be. At every level, Frank is a tinkerer, a pleader, an irritant, a demander, the same kind of irritant that the Van Gundys are. He made players better, just as they did.

Kidd brought Frank in to run the defense, draw up plays, be the coaches' voice at practice. And then, Frank did that. And Kidd was taken aback.

Frog, meet scorpion.

"The assistant's job is to stand up and call coverages," an NBA coaching source said last week. "Every time the offense comes down and calls a play, my defensive coach stands up and yells 'four down!' or 'get to the side.' Jason didn't like it. He thought Lawrence was coaching the team."

Well, he was. That's why he got a six-year deal. Just like Rick Carlisle was coaching the Pacers, more or less, every day that Bird had the title. And that's not written to demean either man. Bird was the big picture guy; Carlisle (and the late Dick Harter, who ran Indiana's defense) the detail man. There was nothing wrong with that arrangement.

The reason Brooklyn brought Frank in in the first place -- and paid him that $6 million -- was because Kidd acknowledged he needed help as he broke into the coaching game. Brooklyn waited weeks for Frank, who spent much of the summer with his ailing wife, to decide if he could be away from his family for the long stretches that make up the life of an NBA coach.

To say ego was not involved here is to say water is not wet. Frank's way -- "passive-aggressive undermining," as another coaching source put it last week -- is grating. Certainly, the new contract gave him a kind of cache -- diplomatic immunity for the basketball set -- above the other assistants. If he's the coach, you have to accept it -- it's what he's saying, not how he's saying it, and so on. (The other assistants have to accept it, too, by the way, as none of them were getting $1 million a year.)

But Kidd didn't have to accept it. He was no longer a player, and Frank was no longer his coach.

Kidd tried, gradually at first, to start putting his own imprint on the team. He would be, a member of the organization said last week, direct and honest with players in film sessions, going over things one-on-one with players -- "that's a bad shot, and here's why. That's losing basketball, and here's why," the source said. He tried to point out that he did know a couple of things about defense based on his career as a player (whether he specifically mentioned his four first-team all-NBA defensive team selections is unknown), and that he had ideas that were different from Frank's.

But Frank "wouldn't stop talking," the second coaching source countered.

And several outlets have reported Frank was angered that Kidd chose assistant Joe Prunty instead of him to coach the team in his absence while Kidd served his DUI suspension at the start of the regular season.

The denouement came in the now well-reported blowup Kidd had with Frank, where Kidd, according to a source, told Frank: "Sit the (bleep) down! I'm the coach of this (13-letter word) team! When you're on the bench, don't (bleeping) move!"

Frank did as he was told. Other coaches playing the Nets thought he was ill, he was so quiet during recent games.

In the few days since he left, Kidd has tinkered with the Nets' pick-and-roll defense, trying desperately to find coverages that will aid Brooklyn's horrible defense against the 3-pointer. The Nets are the NBA's worst team at guarding 3-pointers, allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent from there.

"We have a lot of guys coming in, and we're asking a lot of them," Garnett said Thursday. "We have a new system. We're changing things on the fly. Jason is putting in a lot of new stuff since Lawrence left. And not only that, guys who usually aren't playing a lot of minutes and not having a lot of responsibility are playing big minutes, and asking a lot of those minutes. We don't have Kirilenko, we don't have Paul, we don't have Deron. We just got Brook back. Chemistry doesn't just snap where you waive the magic wand, and voila. Those things play a big part into this. I'm a firm believer that when we're whole, and we have our team full throttle, that's what I believe in."

The Nets, of course, point immediately to their injuries as a far bigger reason for their dreadful record than the rancor between their coach and his former assistant. Tyshawn Taylor, starting at the point for the injured Deron Williams, was supposed to be playing most of this season for the Nets' Development League team in Springfield.

Shaun Livingston was supposed to be playing around 10 minutes a night, not 24. (The Nets had to put him back on the bench instead of starting, for fear that his surgically-repaired knee wasn't supposed to be taking this kind of pounding this early.) Pierce broke his hand. Andrei Kirilenko, who was going to have a major role this season, hasn't been himself most of the season with a bad back. Brook Lopez, the team's best player, has been in and out of the lineup with a sprained ankle.

But Lopez didn't hide behind the injuries, saying the chemistry the team has should compensate for lost players -- and this season is even more bizarre than the one where the Nets went 12-70 early in his career.

And the Nets remain behind Kidd, believing the rest of their assistants are more than capable enough of giving him a hand. Prunty worked for Gregg Popovich and is the head coach of Great Britain's Olympic team. John Welch was a trusted lieutenant for former Nuggets coach George Karl in Denver.

"It's not like these guys are novices, like Lawrence is the only one that can give knowledge to Jason," one source said.

But you wonder how Kidd can grow.

I asked him after Thursday's rout how he evaluates himself.

"Well, I think you get evaluated by being whole," he said. "It starts there. And once that occurs, then you're evaluated. And that's as simple as it gets. When you look at the guys, the guys are doing everything. But we have to protect the 3-point line and we have to rebound. Those are the two areas that's hurt us all season."

I am not sure he answered the question. It is not the only question that remains unanswered along Atlantic Avenue.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) Indiana [1] (2-2): Routed at OKC Sunday, but their minds may be on another game coming Tuesday night.

2) Miami [2] (2-2): If the Heat are truly looking for a veteran guard with championship experience who would buy in to a defensive mindset, is there no one with Stephen Jackson's contact info?

3) Oklahoma City [4] (3-1): Don't know about "statement games" and things like that, but the Thunder looked pretty engaged Sunday against Indiana, handing the Pacers their third loss of the season.

4) Portland [5] (3-1): Set team record for 3-point percentage in a game (17-of-23, .739) in rout of the Jazz Friday night.

5) San Antonio [3] (1-1): Tim Duncan surpasses the 24,000-point career mark in Saturday's home spanking by the Pacers. He became the 21st player in NBA history to do so. At 24,004 points, Duncan is just 203 points behind injured Nets forward Paul Pierce, currently in 20th place all time.

6) Houston [6] (2-2): Dwight Howard goes for 20 points and 22 boards on his birthday on Sunday against the Magic to lead a rout of his old team.

7) Dallas [10] (3-0): Rick Carlisle made it official this week what was obvious to all: DeJuan Blair, who'd thoroughly outplayed the less effective Samuel Dalembert, is now starting at center.

8) Denver [8] (2-2): The Nuggets' bench has come up huge for Brian Shaw: Saturday marked the sixth time this season that the reserves have scored 50 or more points. They're second in the league (averaging more than 44 points a game) to the Lakers in bench scoring.

9) Golden State [9] (2-1): Breaks 11-game losing streak to the Grizzlies Saturday night in 26-point rout.

10) L.A. Clippers [7] (1-2): Injuries to J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, rookie Reggie Bullock making consistency impossible for the depleted Clips.

11) Atlanta [11] (2-1): Kyle Korver finally returns to the lineup and breaks Dana Barros' record for consecutive games with a 3-pointer with his 90th straight Friday against Cleveland.

12) Phoenix [12] (2-1): Suns' usual starting backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe shooting combined .484, second only among NBA backcourts to Memphis's Mike Conley and Tony Allen, which shoots .499. (Allen shoots less than most two guards, obviously, which may skew those numbers a bit.)

13) L.A. Lakers [14] (1-1): The Lakers were aware, when they played that "Imperial March" music from Star Wars in re-introducing Kobe Bryant Sunday, that that was Darth Vader's entrance music, right? It didn't end well for ol' Darth, as I recall.

14) Minnesota [13] (0-2): Kevin Martin shooting better on threes (42 percent) than overall (41 percent).

15) Memphis [15] (1-2): Troubling: Grizzlies have lost seven of last nine home games at FedEx Forum after going 32-9 at home last season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Boston (3-0): Seriously, who had the Celtics atop the Atlantic (I know, it's the Atlantic) a month into the season, coming off a 41-point demolition of the supposedly superior Knicks at Madison Square Garden? And this is without Rondo! A great job so far from Stevens.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Orlando (0-4): Really missing Tobias Harris, who surprised so pleasantly last season after coming from Milwaukee in the Redick trade. Harris has played in only one game this season as he tries to recover from a high ankle sprain suffered during the preseason.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

What should we expect from the Kobester?

Almost eight months after he tore his Achilles against the Warriors, Bryant returned to action for the Lakers Sunday night against Toronto. He looked like a 35-year-old coming back from an Achilles injury, missing seven of nine shots, turning the ball over eight times and scoring just nine points. But no one thinks this is going to be the way Bryant goes out. As he knocks off the rust, the game that has earned him so many accolades will return. (The Lakers, into him now for another $48.5 million after this season, certainly hope so.)

He is joining a Lakers team that has had its share of injuries (Steve Nash, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar), yet is still on the fringe of the West playoff picture, playing a no-stars team game where nine guys average between 8 and 14 points per game. With a full training camp, coach Mike D'Antoni has a team he kind of likes, even as he knows its limitations.

But Kobe is Kobe. He demands attention from the opposing defense -- and, often, fealty from his own teammates on offense. There will be two adjustments occurring concurrently for the Lakers: Kobe getting used to playing again, and everyone else getting used to playing with him.

And so we asked a cross-section of NBA folk the following question:Now that he's back, Kobe will (blank), and the Lakers will (blank).

Here were some of the answers.

WESTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Kobe will be 90 percent of the player he was, and the Lakers slip into the playoffs. Who knows. Never underestimate him.

NBA HEAD COACH: Kobe will try to facilitate, and the Lakers will struggle momentarily while trying to adjust to him.

EASTERN CONFERENCE ASSISTANT COACH: Kobe will ... not sure if he'll share the ball, and I doubt the Lakers can be a playoff team ... the defense is bad, and he won't help it, and my gut says eventually he'll hurt their chemistry, but you never know, maybe they need (him) and will accept him shooting it 30x a game?

FORMER NBA PLAYER: Kobe will adapt, and the Lakers will make the playoffs

EASTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Kobe will be good, and the Lakers will be middle of (the) pack in WC.

NBA HEAD COACH: Kobe will be good, and the Lakers will still be just OK.

WESTERN CONFERENCE ASSISTANT COACH: Kobe will be a guy I wouldn't bet against, and the Lakers will continue to improve and definitely make the playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE GM: Kobe will play well and the Lakers will make a strong push for playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Kobe will play well, and the Lakers will be the 8th seed.

WESTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Kobe will play well, and the Lakers will adjust to having him back.

CURRENT NBA PLAYER: Kobe will hoop, and the Lakers will win.

EASTERN CONFERENCE ASSISTANT COACH: Kobe will return in good form, and the Lakers will be a tougher team to beat. .

EASTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Kobe will score points, and the Lakers will keep hope alive -- in my best Jesse Jackson voice!

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

We're clearing out our shelves! Everything must go! From Howard Bealick:

Where do you see Asik ending up and where do you see Shumpert ending up?

My guess -- and it's a guess, at this point -- is that Asik goes East. I've speculated that I think a deal for Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova would make a lot of sense, given that the Bucks could certainly use another big to go with Larry Sanders and John Henson. Plus, Ilyasova got that big deal from the Bucks a couple of years ago, in part, because of his 45 and 44 percent shooting on 3-pointers from 2011-13 as much as his rebounding. Shooting that would fit right in playing alongside Howard as a stretch four. But Morey also has a familiar face in Philly to work with as well in 76ers GM Sam Hinkie. Morey has already done a deal with Hinkie and Hinkie has a solid big man in Spencer Hawes, who is on an expiring contract who also can shoot from the outside. (ESPN.com has theorized Thaddeus Young would bit a good fit in Houston alongside Howard as well.)

The Wizards also have long coveted Asik, and he'd give them some strong insurance against having to count on the health of Nene holding up long-term. But I don't see Houston biting on a package involving, say, Martell Webster (who can't be dealt until Dec. 15, anyway) or Howard's old caddy in Orlando, Marcin Gortat.

Shumpert? The Suns really wanted him before the 2011 Draft. Given that they've now got a pretty productive backcourt in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, I don't think they'd be willing to move any of their considerable group of assets anymore.

Boston always has to be considered given the expiring contract of Kris Humphries that the Celtics can package in any potential deal.

The Kings remain ready to shake things up and, let's put it this way -- a team in their current won-loss position doesn't have any sacred cows, excepting, probably, DeMarcus Cousins.

Why, God? Why? From Paul Langois:

Hope I'm not the 217th person to let you know, but ... the Contested Rebound Percentage stat is not quite what you're thinking. It's just a simple calculation showing the percentage of a player's total rebounds that are contested. Lopez gets 8 rebounds a game. 4.1 are contested. 4.1 / 8 = 51% (values rounded).

I have no idea what use this stat has; I suspect none. A much more useful column would be what you're looking for: Percentage of Contested Rebounds per Chance. They have Percentage of Rebounds per Chance, but that is polluted (to some extent, depending how valuable/difficult you think uncontested rebounds are) by its inclusion of uncontested rebounds (of which D12 is the master, btw).

You are not the 217th person, Paul. It only feels that way.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and a running suit that's deer-proof 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) LeBron James (22.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.3 apg, .576 FG, .692 FT): Announces he and Kevin Hart will star in a movie in which they play ... brothers. Imagine Entertainment is producing and it will supposedly be shot next summer, which would officially end any thoughts of LBJ playing for the U.S. team in the World Cup in Spain -- which no one thought would happen, anyway. The Olympics, in Rio in 2016, is still a possibility.

2) Kevin Durant (31.3 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 apg, .524 FG, .939 FT): Shooting percentages down a bit compared to last season, but still near the top of the league in almost all advanced numbers.

3) Paul George (30.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, .506 FG, .960 FT): The Pacers' All-Star makes his MVPW debut, playing incredible two-way basketball for Indiana as it prepares for Tuesday's showdown with Miami at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse.

4) LaMarcus Aldridge (26.3 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, .545 FG, .840 FT): Cousin L.A. also makes his MVPW debut, the bellwether for the surprising Blazers' hot start. Has become unstoppable on the block.

5) Chris Paul (15.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 11.3 apg, .386 FG, .714 FT): Puts it on himself to not do so much -- which, counter-intuitively, might allow him to do more. Has to do something, because he's not shooting the ball well at all right now.

Dropped out: Kevin Love.

BY THE NUMBERS

11 -- Years since the Pacers last won in San Antonio, a streak broken when Indiana smoked the Spurs Saturday night at the A T & T Center. The Pacers hadn't won in San Antonio since 2002, when the Spurs still played in the Alamodome.

29.3 -- Field-goal percentage for the Timberwolves in Saturday's 104-82 loss to the Heat, setting a franchise record for worst single-game shooting. Minnesota, playing without Kevin Love, whose grandmother passed away earlier in the week, made just 24 field goals (out of 82 shots) in 48 minutes.

6 -- Days until players signed to contracts over the summer can be traded. After Dec. 15, the likelihood of additional trades increases, as those Dec. 15 players can be included in deals to make cap numbers work.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) Always good to see Kobe Bean Bryant playing basketball. He seems to go over well with the locals in Los Angeles, too.

2) Vivek Ranadive was the driving force behind the Kings' acquisition of Rudy Gay. He wanted Gay for a few months, "analytics be damned," one league source indicated. The Kings think Gay will put up much better shooting numbers playing with DeMarcus Cousins, as he did in Memphis playing off of Marc Gasol, compared to what he did in Toronto. We'll see. I don't know if the starting five Sacramento will put out there in the short term -- Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore, Gay, Derrick Williams and Cousins -- makes any sense from a basketball standpoint. But, some nights, they'll be very entertaining.

3) Can't wait to see the Blazers Thursday in Portland. It's always been one of the great venues, even when the Blazers were struggling. Now that they're back on top in the Northwest Division, it should be rocking with the Rockets in town.

4) Congrats to Basketball Passport founder Peter Robert Casey, who completed his quest to see all 30 teams in 30 days last Friday. He detailed his trip, itinerary, media requests and everything else on his website. It's a great read from a genuine fan of the orange leather.

5) I read a lot of people on social media saying they couldn't understand how Robinson Cano left the Yankees for the Mariners. Let me try to help: $240,000,000. Seattle has wonderful restaurants, it's near water, the mountains are an hour away. Trust me. People like living in Seattle. And they especially like it if they're making $240,000,000.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) May God bless you and keep you, Nelson Mandela, for the example of humanity triumphing over evil that you showed the world.

2) This is twice, now, that a fan has gotten onto the court in Cleveland and gotten close to a player -- this time, Kyrie Irving. I am assuming the security procedures there aren't all that different from any other arena, but it's troubling, and something needs to change.

3) The NBA, like every other pro sports league, continues to deal with the problem of infection in the locker room. Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams will be out a few games with a skin infection. Washington's Al Harrington also is trying to calm down a staph infection in his knee; three SyncVisc shots have not yet done the trick. MRSA, a particularly virulent form of staph, is a constant threat in pro sports locker rooms and clubhouses, as has been detailed here recently.

4) Great Moments in Amazingly Bad Corporate Judgment, Vol. MMDXVIII: (The comments section is decidedly not for the kiddies.)

5) I'm not the only person who thinks this may need to be thought through a little more before its implementation, am I?

Q AND A: ANDRE DRUMMOND

The dunk, longtime NBA assistant coach and executive Brendan Suhr told me a long, long time ago, is a very high percentage shot.

Andre Drummond dunks. More accurately, he finishes. He finishes at the rim like few people do in the NBA, which is not as easy as it sounds. There are men -- tall men -- who will do just about anything to keep you from dunking or finishing. They jump and they bump and their shorter allies swat at the ball just when you think you're in the clear. Little of this seems to affect Drummond, the Pistons' 20-year-old second-year center. He's tall, too, and big -- 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds. And he's already smart enough to know where his bread is buttered. He doesn't launch threes, or many jumpers at all; he cuts to the basket, and catches the ball, and dunks it or lays it in, or if he or someone else misses, he grabs the offensive board and scores. More than two-thirds of his shots, according to Synergy Sports, come from one of those two kinds of attempts. And that combination makes Joe Dumars, who drafted Drummond ninth overall in the 2012 Draft, and the Pistons deliriously happy.

Drummond showed in his rookie season how effective he could be in limited minutes. Playing just under 21 minutes a night, he averaged 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds, with a Player Efficiency Rating that was through the roof. He missed much of the second half of the season with a stress fracture in his back, but he's picked up right where he left off this season, with a PER (23.27) which, as play began Sunday, was 12th in the league, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, James Harden and Dwight Howard. Drummond is shooting 63.5 percent from the floor, averaging 13.5 points and 13 rebounds -- the latter good for third-best in the league, behind Kevin Love and Howard.

And the Pistons, who brought in Mo Cheeks to coach and gave free agent Josh Smith $56 million, have been one of the Eastern Conference's few bright spots. The Pistons are just a game under .500 after losing to Miami Sunday, but considering they have a starting lineup averaging just 23 years of age -- tied with Cleveland's for the youngest in the league -- and have NBA's fourth-youngest active roster (25.4 years, tied with Phoenix and ahead of only Philly, Houston and Portland), Detroit finally looks to have turned the corner on its rebuilding efforts. Drummond, with Smith and Greg Monroe, form one of the league's longest frontcourts, and the Pistons have made a major leap defensively, rising from 24th in the league last season in defensive rating to their current 13th.

Drummond is still, in all ways, a work in progress. He was a one-and-done, having played an uneven season at Connecticut, where he displayed the skills he's showing nightly -- but not all the time. Scouts and personnel types were divided on why that was -- Drummond's supporters, and there were many, thought it unfair to put a teenage freshman in the midst of the dysfunction that roiled UConn's program in 2011 and expect him to lead the way. Others thought Drummond just disappeared. Well, he's reappeared, though he's still got a big, big hole in his offensive game -- free throw shooting. He's shooting just 38 percent from the line, and "Hack-a-Drummond" is already in vogue.

And Drummond has shown a facility not only for playing the game, but enjoying himself in the process. After some goading from a friend, he reached out and Tweeted that he had a crush on the actress Jeannette McCurdy. She reciprocated, and the two began a relationship over the summer that looks like it's now fizzled. But that's what 20-year-olds do, right? For now, Drummond is concentrating on hoops, under the watchful eyes of Cheeks and the Pistons' new assistant coach, Rasheed Wallace. (No, we can't believe that, either.)

Me: You're still so young. Do you already feel dominant in the post?

Andre Drummond: It's just having guys that I have on the team that are making me comfortable. And the decisions they're making on the floor, I just feel more comfortable. I've got a lot of veterans who are keeping me positive about what I should and shouldn't do.

Me: All of us who know Rasheed can't believe he's coaching!

AD: Man, he's been the best one. He's been on me since day one, and I'm just real thankful to have him.

Me: How does he kick it with you off the court?

AD: We both have similar interests. He likes to bowl, so we'll go bowling.

Me: What's your high score against him?

AD: Ah, 180.

Me: You roll like that?

AD: Yeah, I play often.

Me: Are you seeing teams defend you differently now than last year?

AD: Some teams have double teamed me, put more of a focus on me. With Greg there, and Josh, we can be more efficient in the paint. Josh, Greg and I, with the three of us there, they don't really know who they can double team. If they double team me, I'm going to pass it to Greg, and if they double-team Greg, he's going to pass it to Josh, and vice versa.

Me: Who helped you develop your left hand?

AD: Just growing up, my uncle (Phil Santavenere) just put in my head that anything I can do with my right hand, I should be able to do with my left. I just would do jump hooks with my right hand, and then do them with my left hand, just do everything with it.

Me: What does Joe (Dumars) tell you about trying to deal with the kind of success you're having right now?

AD: As a rookie, I would go to him every day, after every practice. Even to this day, I do the same thing. I just check in with him and ask him if there's anything I can do to get better. And just continue to be a professional. Because everybody looks at him as a great professional, for what he did in the league. I definitely want to emulate what I do after what he did.

Me: Has anything really surprised you about the league?

AD: For me, I just think about how anybody can be beat on any given night. Just how good teams really are, how good guys really are. Being around for two years now, it's been a whirlwind. But I'm excited that I'm here, and I'm glad that the process I'm going in is exciting.

Me: It seems like just before you got hurt last year is when things really started clicking. What was happening then?

AD: I think it was kind of beneficial for me, to step back and see the guys playing the games, see what they liked to do. That's what Joe told me to do when I said what should I do when I'm out these six to 10 weeks. It helped me to prepare. I really didn't know how to prepare when I first came into the league. I didn't have a routine.

Me: So what's your routine like now?

AD: I start the day before. I'll go home (after practice), I'll eat, I'll sleep. I'll shut my night down around 9 o'clock. I do film in the morning with Rasheed.

Me: How ticked off are you at the intentional fouling?

AD: It's fun for me. It's exciting for me. It gives me an opportunity to work on it and rhythm. I'm only going to miss so many, and then they're going to start to fall.

Me: I know if you could fix the free-throw shooting, you would. But what's happening in your head when you're at the line?

AD: Just take a deep breath, bend my knees and shoot the ball. It's a mechanical thing. If you got a 7-5 wingspan, you've got a long way to get the ball up. I think I'm getting a lot better this year. I'm taking a lot of practice. It's a work in progress.

Me: What's the next step as you see it in expanding your offensive game?

AD: Definitely working on my back to the basket. I've just got to be in the flow of the offense. Right now I'm not in the flow of my offense. At the beginning of the season, Mo said. 'Do you need plays run for you,?' and I said no. I'm a self- motivator. I just need to block a shot or two to get myself going. When I told him that, he looked shocked. If you want to run an alley-oop play for me, be my guest. But I'm never going to ask you to do it.

Me: How hard is it to start losing your privacy?

AD: Even just getting milk, people are saying good game and stuff like that. But I'm never satisfied. We're looking pretty good right now, but we've got a long way to go this season.

Me: You have this relationship with Jeanette McCurdy. What have you learned from it?

AD: She's just a real person. You hear how people rag on people, that they're fake. But she's a real person. She's a real friend ... It was actually good meeting somebody who's going through some of the same things as me. She's a little more famous than me. She's only a year older than me, but she's been doing it a little longer. I always wanted to be in movies, be in a TV show. That's further down in my career. Right now, I'm focusing on basketball, but that's one of my Plan Bs.

Me: Your buddy got you to reach out to Jeanette on Twitter, while he reached out to Miranda Cosgrove. He heard from her yet?

AD: He's patiently waiting right now.

Me: What was the feeling like beating Miami in their place last week -- especially when they came at you late?

AD: We got in the huddle before the fourth quarter and said, 'Look, guys, this is the defending champions. You know they're going to go on a run. They're going to come after us. We have to do our best to run our stuff and try to hold them off. When they went on their runs, they got it down to three, down to two, we said, 'They made their run. Let's put a stop to them and do what we do to get that lead.' And we were able to hold them off.

Me: What has Josh provided that wasn't there last year?

AD: Him as a leader has been great. Once we first started we really didn't know where we needed to be on the floor, along with Brandon (Jennings), too. The more time that went on, with the practice time we had on the floor, it's started to show, the camaraderie we have.

Me: How good can the team be this year?

AD: We can be great. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be great. Nobody says you want to suck. But the ones that are great are the ones that can actually do it, and that's what we're trying to do.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend.

@trailblazers We asked you to keep that on the down low. That eager to get rid of us already?

Hey @trailblazers: Pass this on to your "friend" http://www.nba.com/tvc/index.html?gamecode=20131204/LACATL&brand=ATL ...

--The Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers), Wednesday, 3:10 p.m., Phoenix Suns (@Suns), Wednesday, 3:25 p.m and Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks), Wednesday, 7:15 p.m. I hope no one is reprimanded when the eventual "this is insulting to somebody" reaction occurs. It's funny and more teams should take note of how they can reach fans with non-mean spirited use of social media like this.

THEY SAID IT

"The money, the fame, the fact that I was on TV. People think money will make your life better. Money didn't dissolve my problems. It increased them."
-- Former NBA player Keon Clark, to the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette, before he was sentenced last week to eight years in prison. Clark, who played for the Nuggets, Raptors, Kings and Jazz between 1998 and 2004, pled guilty to one count of unlawful possession/use of a firearm by a felon/parolee, and one count of aggravated DUI/license suspended or revoked. He received four years apiece on each count; prosecutors said Clark will have to serve at least 50 percent of the sentence on the two charges, which have to be served consecutively.

"The people in this city, there's something about when Miami comes to town, you know you wake up in the morning and you feel it. People in this city don't like the Miami Heat, we don't like the Miami Heat, and it always feels good to beat them.''
-- Joakim Noah, after his Rose-less Bulls routed Miami by 20 on Thursday.

"Well, I don't have to look over my shoulder. That's one thing. I think they believe in me here. I don't have to worry about anybody saying this or saying that. That's a little more comfortable."
-- Celtics guard Jordan Crawford, to the Boston Globe, on the differences between his current team and his previous one in Washington. Long thought a no-conscience gunner, Crawford has surprisingly taken to being Boston's emergency point guard, averaging a career-best 5.3 assists for the equally surprising and first-place Celtics.

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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